Silence on Divisive Transformations

Alice O'Connor, October 2012

Alice O'ConnorAs a historian trying to make quick sense of last night’s presidential debate, I was most struck by how little acknowledgement there was of the big historical developments that have transformed American politics and political economy since the 1970s: the rise of right-wing movement conservatism as the dominant force in the Republican Party; the dramatic growth of wealth and income inequality and attendant decline of the American working class; and the polarized visions of political economy that have paralyzed economic policy making in the Great Recession and brought us to the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” 

In ordinary times the silence on such divisive transformations might not seem so anomalous. Average voters, according to the conventional wisdom, are resistant to the idea that they are deeply divided by party, ideology, or class. But this year more than ever, these and other great transformations have been consistently front and center in electoral politics, from the struggles over union collective bargaining rights in Ohio and Wisconsin, to the question of whether to raise taxes—or not—on the top 1%, to the choice of a self-professed Ayn Randian free market conservative—and anti-abortion Catholic—as the Republican Party vice presidential nominee, to the enduring impasse between public investment and fiscal austerity in economic recovery debates. Last night’s debate, in contrast, took on a markedly more muted tone, with both candidates leavening their still-pronounced differences with areas of agreement (deficit reduction, reform of the tax code, investments in education) and conspicuous silence on the tangle of ideological and bread and butter issues surrounding the “47 percent.” To political strategists, this may be par for the course- part of the shift to the center that is calculated to woo independent voters during the last stages of the presidential campaign. Historians, however, can’t help but notice other dynamics at work that contributed to the curious disconnect between last night’s debate and the actual historical circumstances that have given shape to these candidacies, and to what’s at stake in the election of 2012.

One is the process of instant and ongoing historical revisionism that has become a permanent feature of contemporary political campaigns. This was on display in Mitt Romney’s sudden affinity for measures to protect middle class families from further economic loss, regulations that would prevent banks from growing “too big to fail,” and his own record as governor of Massachusetts. All these positions involved a distancing from the more aggressively individualistic stance of his running mate, and from others within the mainstream of the modern Republican party. Another is the unspoken but similarly ongoing historical lesson-learning that, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, has informed President Obama's generally cautious and ideologically centrist reelection campaign-and that in his case involves a distancing from the explicitly redistributive elements within New Deal liberalism. But more than anything I think both candidates are displaying—and preparing their constituents for—a diminished sense of historical expectation for what policy and politics can accomplish at the very moment when, as President Obama acknowledged by invoking Abraham Lincoln, purposeful, collective public action is what we need most.

Alice O'Connor is professor of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara.