There is something very strange about the 2012 presidential race so far. The election comes at a time of extraordinary public unease, which clearly demands some response from the political system, and especially from the men running for the highest office in the land. But the two presidential candidates are both running campaigns oddly detached from what is rightly worrying voters.
If you were to judge the state of the country by listening only to the Obama campaign, you would conclude that we are on the verge of the long-awaited triumph of the liberal welfare state, and that all that stands in the way is a gang of retrograde Social Darwinists who somehow manage to be simultaneously nihilistic and theocratic. That band of reactionaries ran the economy into the ground for the sake of their wealthy patrons, and now they’re coming for our social programs and for women’s freedoms. Only if they are held off can the forward march of history proceed.
If you were to judge the state of the country by listening only to the Romney campaign, you would conclude that all was well in America until we took a wrong turn four years ago and elected a president hostile to freedom and prosperity. If we just correct that error and undo what he has done, our economy will be ready to bloom again.
But neither of these stories speaks to what actually seems to have voters uneasy. The persistently weak economy is at the core of that uneasiness: Thirty-five months after the recession technically ended, economic growth remains anemic, and unemployment remains very high. But Americans are nervous not only because the economy has yet to bounce back, but also because we have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all—that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared.