Remember just after the 2000 election when the famous red-and-blue map first appeared? It shocked us at the time, and for more reasons than one. Geographically, red counties overwhelmed the blue. Although they amounted to half the country’s population, Democrats were clearly concentrated in just a few populous urban centers and university towns, especially on the coasts. It wasn’t just the geographic predominance of red that surprised, though. It was the contrast between the map and the election that preceded it. The Bush/Gore contest hadn’t been filled with passionate arguments or open ideological divisions. The map emerged as a kind of revelation, a glimpse into the rough, polarizing currents silently flowing beneath a more placid electoral landscape.
The 2012 election reverses all that. The combination of a slashing, class-warfare-based campaign by President Obama and now Mitt Romney’s selection of the boldly conservative Paul Ryan means that we face an epic presidential contest that will openly turn on fundamental philosophical differences between red and blue America. How did we get here, and what does it mean for our future? Above all, now that our internal battle is well-and-truly out in the electoral open, will 2012 decide whether red America or blue America wins for good?
First we need to understand that our political divisions are real and growing. They are rooted not in top-down political rhetoric but in profound and lasting social and cultural differences. For a while, analysts tended to make light of our polarization, fruitlessly predicting year after year that our culture war (still raging) was just about to end. If anything, the culture wars have expanded now to include the whole of politics. It used to be that only arguments over gay marriage or abortion were stigmatized as moral abominations. Now even differences over health care reform and the deficit are super-charged with moral accusation.
Whichever way this election goes, these divisions will only deepen. Fundamentally, this is because what President Obama and the increasingly left-leaning coalition he leads actually want is impossibly far from what red America is willing to accept. Until very recently, this gulf has been hidden by Obama’s refusal to level with the American people about his goals. What the public still doesn’t understand, despite the president’s somewhat more open left-turn of late, is just how far left his second-term agenda aims to go. I’ve laid out some of it here, and Americans are simply not prepared for what is about to hit us should Obama win. So while an Obama victory would indeed allow the president to entrench some of his most controversial policies, his restless tendency to push things ever further to the left will almost certainly generate dynamic new movements of opposition.
A Romney victory won’t quiet our national conflicts either. Although a Romney victory would be taken by conservatives as proof that we are still a center-right nation, the fact is that the mainstream media and our key cultural institutions are now in the hands of an increasingly ambitious Left. The media barely hides its bias now, and they will come at a President Romney with everything they’ve got. The Obama presidency has given the Left a taste of the transformations it might achieve, and defeat will be dismissed as a merely temporary setback. Now that both sides are out in the open and fully aware of the danger to their preferred ways of life posed by the other camp, we are entering an era of struggle and division that, if anything, exceeds what we’ve lived through for the past twelve years. This isn’t the beginning of the end of our divisions. It’s only the end of the beginning.