America: Are we two or one?

Democrats celebrated some of the new census data for 2015, just released. Median incomes were up 5.2 percent overall and for the poorest Americans, incomes rose 7.9 percent. Poverty dropped 1.2 percent. This is not enough, to be sure, and the vast majority of all new wealth still goes to those who are already obscenely wealthy, but at least the numbers are moving in the right direction for the country as a whole.

Problem is, the country isn't whole. Two hundred and forty years into the E pluribus unum thing, and we still haven't nailed the unum. This analysis of the census data by Politico's Danny Vinik shows that rural America lags far behind urban America in terms of income, health, social mobility and education. He cites an earlier study that shows many of Trump's supporters are doing fine themselves but that they live in areas that are struggling. It is shocking to see Trump flourishing in areas that chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, but in certain parts of the country like the counties in and around Youngstown, Ohio, and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he is far outperforming previous GOP candidates.

There have only been two consequential keynote addresses to political conventions in my lifetime; both were spoken to Democratic audiences that went on to lose that year, and both anointed the speakers as potential presidents, one of whom seized the opportunity. But the organizing themes of the two speeches were exactly the opposite. In 1984, in San Francisco, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered his "Two Americas" speech that really formed the ideological response of the Democratic Party to Reagan's anti-government philosophy. In 2004, a young state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama electrified the Democratic Convention in Boston with his "not red states and blue states, but the United States" speech. The two speeches can be found at the end of this post. I encourage readers to take the time to listen to them. 

The different speeches reflected different times and generations and lineages. Cuomo held the office once held by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had denounced the money changers on Wall Street. If your name is Barack Hussein Obama, and you want to be the first black president, you had better hope there is one America, or your chances of gaining the White House are terribly slim. Still, the question persists: Which is it, one or Two?

The divisions are variable as well. There are economic divisions, with the super wealthy making more and more money in this new Gilded Age, and the middle class shrinking as more and more people are pushed into the ranks of the working poor. There are cultural divisions, between those who embrace diversity and those who fear it. Race can be used as a mask at times for class divisions: Remember Ronald Reagan complaining about "welfare queens?" And there are divisions within the divisions. There are limousine liberals who claim they care for the poor but don't want to be too close to them, and there is the shotgun marriage of conservative Christians, including some Catholics, with libertarian economic ideas we associate with Hayek and von Mises. There are liberals who celebrate diversity but then seek to regulate or shut down speech they dislike.

The ugliest dividing line is between "winners and losers" when the terms are used as if they had moral content. There is a long history of Americans believing that those who lose out economically do so because they deserve to, that they lack the moral fiber to excel. (Next week, I will review Nancy Isenberg's White Trash which focuses precisely on this history.) My favorite example of this was a New Yorker cartoon from 1964 that showed Barry Goldwater striding past a hobo and saying, "If he had any gumption, he would inherit a department store chain like the rest of us." Donald Trump employs the word "loser" with a kind of venom that is shocking, although he usually applies it to powerful people. Hillary Clinton got caught out with her "deplorables" remark, not least because it ran counter to her campaign theme "Stronger Together." For a Democrat to be blaming poor folk for their prejudices instead of attacking those, like Trump, who stoke the prejudices and manipulate them, is all wrong.

Normally, the candidate with the most aspirational message has the best chance at winning, and the "one America" theme is always the more aspirational, even if it has the sometimes unintended, and other times very much intended, consequence of masking some of the nation's problems. But, more and more, I believe our recent history needs to be reexamined and new culprits assigned. Ronald Reagan may have won the aspirational contest, but his presidency laid the foundations for almost everything that is most objectionable about our politics today. More than anything, the celebration of rapacious capitalism was the hallmark of the Reagan years, made possible by policies like deregulation and lowering taxes on the filthy rich, but made acceptable and even presentable by the Reagans' embrace of nouveau riche styles. They told us it was glamour, but it was really the vulgarity of those with more money than they know what to do with. Everything that related to the common good was demeaned and debased and defunded in the Reagan years. Those years witnessed the real birth of what Pope Francis denounces as "the liquid economy," the highly financialized system that makes an idol of capital and which has made it impossible for Americans to rebuild our infrastructure, or retool our manufacturing sector or invest properly in our schools.

I crave a candidate who has the capacity to both diagnose the divisions within our society and to help heal them, but that candidate can only emerge if we, the American people, are inclined to seek, even demand, such a candidate, one who does not demean the other side but listens and seeks common ground. Good luck with that in our current system, driven by special interests on both the left and the right. Until NARAL and the NRA do not control the purse strings, we will not see Americans or their politicians come together, and the polarization of this year's election will be the norm. It is the norm. It is happening. And it will remain the norm until we educate ourselves to recognize that the answer to the question of whether we are two Americas or one is that we are both.   

Here is Gov, Cuomo's speech:


And, here is then-state senator Obama's:

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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