You know who won the election (or whether we face another Florida 2000), and as I write I don’t.
But whether Barack Obama is re-elected to a second term or Mitt Romney is elected the 45th president, the contours of their support during this fiercely fought campaign show that we live in Two Americas.
The culturally cohesive America of the 1950s that some of us remember, usually glossing over racial segregation and the civil rights movement, is no longer with us and hasn’t been for some time.
That was an America of universal media, in which everyone watched one of three similar TV channels and newscasts every night. Radio, 1930s and 1940s movies, and 1950s and early 1960s television painted a reasonably true picture of what was typically American.
That’s not the America we live in now. Niche media has replaced universal media.
One America listens to Rush Limbaugh; the other to NPR. Each America has its favorite cable news channel. As for entertainment, Americans have 100-plus cable channels to choose from, and the Internet provides many more options.
Bill Bishop highlighted the political consequences of this in his 2008 book, “The Big Sort.” He noted that in 1976 only 27 percent of voters lived in counties carried by one presidential candidate by 20 percent or more. In 2004, nearly twice as many, 48 percent, lived in these landslide counties. That percentage may be even higher this year
We’re more affluent than we were in the 1950s (if you don’t think so, try doing without your air conditioning, microwaves, smartphones and Internet connections). And we have used this affluence to seal ourselves off in the America of our choosing while trying to ignore the other America.
We tend to choose the America that is culturally congenial. Most people in the San Francisco Bay area wouldn’t consider living in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, even for much better money. Most Metroplexers would never relocate to the Bay Area.
There are plenty of smart and creative and successful people in both Americas. But they don’t like to mix with each other these days.
They especially don’t like to talk about politics and the cultural issues that, despite the prominence of economic concerns today, have largely determined our political allegiances over the last two decades.
One America tends to be traditionally religious, personally charitable, appreciative of entrepreneurs and suspicious of government. The other tends to be secular or only mildly religious, less charitable on average, skeptical of business and supportive of government as an instrument to advance liberal causes.