There Are Two Americas

John Edwards is right. There are two Americas. But the Two Americas that stand so starkly divided within our great nation are not a Rich America and a Poor America. Relative wealth, although politically expedient as a reliable way to rally voters, is not the source of our division. Kerry and Edwards themselves prove the point, both being privileged Brahmans who nonetheless relate to a more populist sensibility.

Money is not what divides us, culture is. The real Two Americas consists of two fiercely opposed camps: Those who want the government to leave us alone, and those who want the government to take care of us

Every four years we get to watch the parties dance back towards the middle of the road, electorally speaking, in a well choreographed shuffle designed to give us just what we want to hear. As critics of the dominant two parties have noted, the major party candidates end up sounding very similar. On one side we hear concern for healthcare, jobs, and security, on the other side we hear concern for security, jobs, and healthcare. The messages are so bland that they become indistinguishable to politicos yearning for details. But of course, politicos aren’t the demographic that Presidential candidates seek to capture. The prime targets are the less-informed, the busy citizens who have not made up their minds, and who therefore are handled with kid-gloves, given only inoffensive platitudes to digest.

Just like every four years, the difference between the party messages is largely one of finesse, but as always, the clear undercurrent can be deciphered. Democrats, generally, favor a government that has its hand on the steering wheel, ready to intervene if a citizen makes the wrong turn, and Republicans, generally, just want the government to stay in the back-seat and perhaps, on occasion, offer a direction or two. Well, sort of.

If only it were that easy.

The frustrating issue for the Two Americas is that neither major party really fully represents the logical extreme of the “leave us alone” or the “take care of us” crowd. The Democratic Party platform at first glance seems fairly friendly to social liberty, casting a patient shadow over issues like abortion, unusual religious practices, free speech etc. Unfortunately, the Dems don’t have the same tolerance for economic freedom. The free market is a frightening netherworld populated by the risk of failure, the prospect of possible unemployment, and the occasional drop in income. The Leave Us Alone crowd only gets part of its pie in this party. Same goes for the Take Care of Us crew.

The GOP, on the other hand, looks far more friendly to the free market mindset. The risks of the free market are understood, and its benefits are considered a positive trade. But, creeping it at the edges, the GOP does have its hand out to restrain some social issues, mostly on religious or moral grounds. All very fine, but again, the Leave Us Alone crowd doesn’t get its whole pie here either. Once again, the Take Care of Us crew gets the same treatment.

The real difference between the two parties comes with the decision of at one point, exactly, the government should start restricting our lives. Does Big Brother have a place in markets, or in minds, or in both?

Up until this point in our recent political memory, the Leave Us Alone crowd has traditionally found a home in the GOP. The Take Care of Us crew, naturally, has found its home in the Democratic Party. But these are strange political times, and both Americas are feeling the growing pains of a two party system that doesn’t seem to quite fit anymore. Conservatives who remember the promise of the Republican Revolution in the mid-nineties scarcely recognize the new brand of conservatism foisted on them, having somewhere lost the hope of balancing budgets and shrinking government. Liberals have been stuck with a much more hawkish slant from their leaders, and an economic direction that is less left-friendly than some would hope for.

The Two Americas are having growing pains as both parties struggle for fewer and fewer undecided voters. In the process, the big tents are starting to sway uncomfortably, while trying to stretch over too many people with too many viewpoints. Some political analysts are predicting an upcoming realignment, a fundamental change in how the two parties define themselves. It remains to be seen if the Two Americas will stay put, or if voters will start to jump ship in search of alternatives.

Posted by Damon Dimmick at July 30, 2004 9:00 PM