It has become a commonplace in the past decade or so to talk about a polarized US. What is most commonly meant by this is the divide between conservatives and liberals on everything from issues such as abortion, faith teaching and single-sex marriage to foreign policy and the size of the state.
Going into a presidential election year — and with the first Republican primary in Iowa today — there is another less remarked divide that is equally profound: a generational one.
While much has been written about US President Barack Obama’s approval ratings dipping as low as 38 percent in Gallup’s long-running survey (only 2 percent worse than former US president Bill Clinton’s worst ratings in his third year in office before he convincingly won re-election in 1996 against former senator Bob Dole), a breakdown by age group tells a different story. Among voters under 30, the group most sympathetic to left-wing causes such as Occupy Wall Street, Obama is favored over the leading Republican contender, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, by a staggering 24 points. At the other end of the generational spectrum, Obama trails Romney among voters in the “Silent Generation” — the group just older than the baby-boomers which is heavily represented among Tea Party supporters — by 13 percent
It is not simply a generational divide. Surveys of those who have chosen to donate to Romney’s and Obama’s campaigns thus far suggest strong differences in terms of gender as well, with 70 percent of those giving to Romney being male in comparison to 56 percent giving to Obama.
The reality is that this election is unlikely to be much like the one that we have been told to expect by media and party activists and pundits over the last three years. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has faded into irrelevance, while others of the Palinesque tendency have either been forgotten — remember Christine O’Donnell? — or have imploded, such as Representative Michele Bachmann. While the Republican Party has moved sharply to the right, what is still open to question is how much the vaunted Tea Party insurgency overlaps with a wider electorate.
While the road to the Republican primaries has sometimes seemed like a grisly beauty pageant for social conservative values — indeed 45 percent of the “likely” Iowa caucus voters, who number only 120,000, define themselves as “very conservative” on social issues — their two top concerns are a visceral desire to reduce government and government spending, and the economy and employment. Social issues are cited as a top issue by only 12 percent.
In other words, the key areas of political contention are likely to be far more conventional than otherwise billed. Obama chose to lay out what was effectively his manifesto for re-election in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where, just over a century before, then president Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, laid out his own vision for a “New Nationalism” in which he argued for a strong federal state to regulate the economy and guarantee social and economic justice to those most in need, including, ironically, a public health system and a minimum wage for women.
While some saw Obama’s criticism of a Wall Street responsible for the present financial crisis as a nod to the language of Occupy he was, however, explicit in rejecting the language of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, instead making an appeal to the aspirations of the middle classes, who, he said, “the cards” had been stacked against in the US’ redistribution of wealth to the super-rich.