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This year, a fractured nation yearns for unity

Sen. John McCain gives a thumbs up at Verrazano Pizza in New York.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Sen. John McCain gives a thumbs up at Verrazano Pizza in New York.

Perhaps the greatest change of the past 50 years came when somebody dropped mass culture on the floor and it shattered into a million pieces.

In the mid-1950s, Americans of every age and station could sing along to “Davy, Davy Crocket, king of the wild frontier.” They could identify Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Doris Day, Willie Mays, Ed Sullivan, Nat King Cole, Yellowstone Park and a Chevrolet Bel Air. There was even general agreement about the “facts” delivered in the morning papers or on the evening news.

Today each person gets to have his or her own version of reality. Our country has been sliced and diced into market segments unimaginable a few decades past. Fame is a narrower concept. There are many famous people I’ve never heard of. Many of those whose names I recognize would be strangers to me on the street. I couldn’t pick Lil Wayne out of a lineup, or Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Brad Paisley or Sidney Crosby. They are not in my niche.

Politics, too, has its rigid segments, stoked by a vastly expanded array of lobbies. Hundreds of blogs and dozens of talking heads push their own slants. And voters have sorted themselves into like-minded geographical enclaves where the red and blue tribes rarely mix.

A national longing

It’s hard to run for president in such a segmented world. Yet the underlying theme to the John McCain-Barack Obama contest now unfolding is a national longing for some kind of unity, some kind of glue that can break down the market segments, bind us together and move us forward through difficult times.

That is the unspoken longing that propelled Obama to his surprising capture of the Democratic nomination. And McCain, too, realizes that he cannot win with only the tiny segment that believes George W. Bush has been a good president.

Broadening the base is an essential part of every presidential campaign, but the broadening began early this year, in the primaries. McCain emerged not because of his appeal to one or two of the Republican Party’s narrow constituencies but because of his maverick reputation. Obama’s appeal is that of a charismatic post-racial figure who transcends his party’s long list of special interests.

Once the Democratic nominee was obliged at nearly every stop to recite the checklist of party components (teachers, environmentalists, union guys, blacks, women, Latinos, gays, college kids, etc.). Obama’s underlying message is that the components are irrelevant; the whole is all that matters and “change” is the only item on the agenda.

Looking to post-boomer Americans
Rarely has he deviated from his elevated assumption of a post-racial, post-ethnic, post-generational world that, according to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, plays directly to the “casual, what’s-the-big-deal manner of post-boomer Americans already swimming in our country’s rapidly expanding demographic pool.” Some of Obama’s appeal is even post-partisan; he has had the audacity to credit Republicans for some good ideas.

Whether the campaign proceeds on a higher plane or gets dragged down again is an open question. The conventional Republican tactic against Obama would be to emphasize his blackness as often as possible. (Fox News still clings to the Jeremiah Wright episode as if to remind viewers that Obama is black and hates America.)

Obama the elitist is another possible theme. How can we trust a terrible bowler who doesn’t like NASCAR and, considering the sound of his last name, might be a Muslim?

Obama, himself, invited some of that criticism. But Democrats so far seem shyer about retaliating with attacks on McCain’s age, or his checkered marital history, or the darker possibilities stemming from his prisoner of war experiences. It’s not well known, for example, that upon returning from prison in Vietnam McCain dumped his first wife after she was badly disfigured in a car wreck.

Tactics employed cultural divisions
Those kinds of tactics were perfected by GOP operatives Pat Buchanan in 1968 and 1972, Lee Atwater in the 1988, and Karl Rove in 2000 and 2004. The aim was to employ the cultural divisions of the 1960s — issues like race, patriotism, traditional values, guns and abortion — to divide Democratic voters. Brilliantly pursued, the tactic has helped Republicans win seven of the last 10 presidential elections.

The question is: Can the tactic win again? Or has it run its course, given the deep longing for national unity and strong concern over the economy, the war, the price of energy and health care and the damage of global warming? Whether these issues replace the cultural agenda in 2008 may depend on the candidates themselves.

Two notable pieces of writing help explore this ground: George Packer’s essay “The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans Run Out of Ideas?” published in the May 26 New Yorker magazine; and “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart,” a book by Bill Bishop with Robert Cushing.

Packer asserts that even if McCain wins in November the 1968-2008 conservative era has run out of gas. While scholars often trace its roots to William F. Buckley’s lending of respectability to conservative politics in the 1950s and Barry Goldwater’s run for the White House in 1964, Packer starts with Richard Nixon.

Creating the ‘silent majority’

It was Nixon (fed by Buchanan and Kevin Phillips) who employed his own biting class resentments against “limousine liberals” (he detested the Kennedys) to successfully move southern whites and northern ethnics into the Republican column. Anger over civil rights, war protestors, media elitists, welfare queens and the peace-love-pot counterculture was palpable, and Nixon produced a north-south “silent majority” with a lock on the electoral map that has made it impossible for a northern Democrat to become president. (The last was John Kennedy in 1960.)

This “positive polarization,” as Phillips called it, guaranteed that American politics would be an ugly business in the years ahead, fitting perfectly into the cultural and economic sorting and dividing that had begun to accelerate in the 1970s. By the turn of the 21st century, the country “was separating in every conceivable way,” Bishop writes in “The Big Sort.”

The two major parties turned more extreme and rarely found common ground. Broad-based civic groups and churches gave way to smaller and more narrowly focused sub-groups. Consensus journalism disintegrated into a chaotic array of media choices making it easy for people to inhabit their own political, musical, religious and geographic worlds.

The sorting was geographic in a literal sense. When people moved, as Americans often do, they moved into like-minded communities for reasons of lifestyle and identity as much as economics.

“We have built a country where everyone can choose the neighbors most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation,” Bishop writes in his book, noting that the number of U.S. counties recording landslide presidential votes for one party or the other doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent from 1976 to 2004.

“Pockets of like-minded citizens … have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

The New York Times review of “The Big Sort” cites a comment by playwright Arthur Miller during the 2004 campaign: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”

Southern sensibilities dominate
But Miller doesn’t hang out at Wal-Mart and probably hasn’t a clue about the extent to which the Sun Belt’s populist sensibilities have come to dominate America. In some sense, the South did win the Civil War, or so it has seemed for the last 40 years. Any presidential candidate who shows the slightest hint of northern elitism (Michael Dukakis’ ridiculous tank ride, John Kerry’s wind-surfing escapade, etc.) has no chance.

A key boost for Republicans has been their talent, in the midst of a segmented society, to frame the American story. Patriotism, low taxes, family values, and fear of immigrants, terrorists and big government — those kinds of emotional, hot-button issues are easier to sell in a splintered marketplace where people lack the time or inclination to seek out detailed information on the wonky Democratic plans to fix heath care, Social Security, the environment and so on.

But Packer, in his New Yorker essay, says that’s changing. Using the angers, anxieties and resentments of the 1960s no longer works. Current ads portraying Obama as a limousine liberal are, says Packer, “spasms of nerve endings in an organism that’s brain-dead. Among Republicans, there is no energy, no fresh thinking, no ability to capture the concerns and feelings of millions of people.” As evidence he points to recent Democratic victories in special elections in three heretofore solidly Republican congressional districts — in Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Gingrich’s warning
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has warned his fellow Republicans that “culture war” politics won’t work this time. “The conservative idea factory is not producing as it did,” he said. “You hear it from everybody, but nobody agrees what to do about it.”

One problem, Packer says, is that while the GOP has been great at winning presidential elections it hasn’t been great at governing. Now, the mess in the economy, the war, energy and health care, have mounted to such a size that usual Republican remedies — lower taxes and family values — seem inadequate and implausible.

The finish line is months away, however. Listening lately to McCain you can hear the party working at a new version. Whoever wins in November, there will be change, McCain tells his audiences. The question is what kind of change. Obama brings old solutions from the ’60s and ’70s, McCain says, adding that he’s the candidate who will keep the country safe.

When you analyze it, it’s the same old message, dredging up the anxieties of the ’60s and the fear of outsiders. Maybe it will work again. Or maybe a new kind of candidate will find a new way to assemble the disparate American segments. Mass culture has fallen on the floor and broken into a million pieces. Putting it all together to win an election is a formidable challenge.

Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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