Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Election 2012: What’s the Real Story Here?

Jul 9, 2012

Election 2012: What’s the Real Story Here?


Changes in the Electoral College from 2008 to 2012. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

Come Election Day, we’ll learn two very important things: Who will be president for the next four years? What story will be told about the presidential election of 2012? I’m not sure which of those two is ultimately more important. Some presidential elections create stories that last longer than the presidents who get elected. Sometimes the stories may have even more impact than the presidents themselves.

Richard Nixon, for example, went down in disgrace. But the popular story told about his two winning campaigns -- “The people want law and order, not abortion, acid, and amnesty” -- still strongly affects our political life. So does the story that was used to sum up Ronald Reagan’s two victories: “The people want big government off their backs.”

So far, it seems like the story of 2012 will be a pretty predictable repeat of Bill Clinton's 1992 win: It’s the economy, stupid. If Obama wins, we’ll be told that most voters are optimistic; they believe the economy is generally on the upswing. If Romney wins, we’ll hear that most voters feel hopelessly mired in a seemingly endless recession.

In either of those versions, the candidates are passive victims of economic forces beyond their control. What they say or do doesn’t matter much at all.  That’s what most of the pundits are saying. And there is a whole body of research in political science to support that view.

Now, though, there are hints that another story might emerge on Election Day, the one the candidates themselves seem to favor: the voters are choosing between two profoundly different visions of what it means to be an American. On the Sunday after the Fourth of July, two top political journalists in the nation’s two most influential newspapers told readers that this election really is about choosing between those visions.

In the Washington Post, Dan Balz wrote:

On both sides, it is a choice between black and white with little in between. On one side, it is seen as the threat of big government, shackles on the economy and an end to freedom. On the other side, it is seen as shredding the middle class in order to reward the rich. Swing voters in the middle are being asked to pick one side or the other.

In the New York Times, Richard Stevenson wrote:

Presidential campaigns are never just about policies or even personalities. They tend to turn as much as anything on values, and the values in this case go to central questions about the psyche of the American electorate in 2012. ... Will the long-held assumption that the United States is an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success hold true? ... Do political leaders have less incentive to put the needs of the poor and the middle class ahead of the agendas of their benefactors?

Will the commentariat turn to this view of the election as a profound choice between competing worldviews? Or will it stick with the prevailing view that only the economic statistics really matter? That’s an important question I’ll be tracking here between now and Election Day.

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