Which Way Do You Cut It?

We heard a lot of talk at the Democratic convention about two Americas. But which two?

John Edwards talked about two Americas divided by class—the haves and the have-nots. "The truth is, we still live in two different Americas," the vice presidential nominee declared, "one for people who have lived the American dream and don't have to worry, and another for most Americans, who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet."

Class division is a familiar subject for Democrats. As Edwards said, most Americans fall into the have-not category. Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York said in his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic convention that the policies of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party "divide the nation into the lucky and the left out, into the royalty and the rabble." Republicans accuse Democrats of stirring up class warfare and dividing the country.

The division that dominates American politics right now isn't class, however. It's culture. "Red" versus "blue" doesn't mean haves versus have-nots. It means conservatives versus liberals. Opinion polls show that more people call themselves conservatives rather than liberals. So this is a division that Democrats are quick to denounce.

"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America," Senate nominee Barack Obama of Illinois told the Democratic convention. "There's the United States of America." John Kerry echoed the sentiment in his acceptance speech: "Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states. But I see us as one America—red, white, and blue."

Republicans demonize Democrats by calling their party liberal. Democrats demonize Republicans by calling the GOP the party of the rich. The two divisions cut across each other. There are limousine liberals and country-club conservatives—both rich. There are lunch-bucket liberals and conservative churchgoers—both less affluent.

Bill Clinton acknowledges that today's politics has much more to do with values than with class. And at the core of the values split is the 1960s. Clinton remarked in June: "If you look back on the '60s and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm in it, you're probably a Democrat. And if you think there's more harm than good, you're probably a Republican." It's a split between two figures who came of age in the '60s -- Clinton, who sees more good than harm, and George W. Bush, who sees more harm than good.

Where does Kerry fit in? He told the convention, "When I was a junior in high school, John Kennedy called my generation to service. It was the beginning of a great journey—a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights, for the environment, for women, and for peace. We believed we could change the world. And you know what? We did."

Kerry defines the values of the '60s as shared values. "We believe that what matters most is not narrow appeals masquerading as values," he said, "but the shared values that show the true face of America. Not narrow appeals that divide us, but the shared values that unite us—family and faith, hard work and responsibility, opportunity for all."

Faith, hard work, opportunity, responsibility. Those don't sound like the '60s of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." But the '60s were also about idealism. Kerry is talking about the Democratic Party of 1960 and 1964, not the Democratic Party of 1968 and 1972.

There are two more Americas in this campaign, cutting across the divisions of class and culture. On August 4, Bush and Kerry were campaigning a few blocks from each other in Davenport, Iowa, apparently by coincidence. A week later, both were in Portland, Ore.

The candidates are chasing the same voters in the hotly contested battleground states, two of which are Iowa and Oregon. Call those states "favored America," as opposed to "forgotten America" Ê-- the states where politicians think they know the likely outcome—like New York for Kerry and Texas for Bush.

A lot of the favored states are in the Midwestern heartland, the part of America that snotty types from New York and California call "flyover country." Nobody's flying over it this year. The campaigns are stopping over in a lot of places that usually don't get much attention—places like Mankato and Le Sueur, Minn., and Sedalia and Smithville, Mo., which have received visits from one or both presidential nominees this month. If Kerry can hold down Bush's margin in rural areas, he stands a good chance of winning Ohio, West Virginia, and Missouri, swing states that went for Bush in 2000.

Hence Kerry's statement on August 4: "I think of Joe Jackson coming out of that corn and saying, 'Is this heaven?' and Ray Kinsella says, 'No, it's Iowa.' But it's one and the same to me." And Bush's statement the next day: "I envision a day where, some time, somebody walks in and says, 'Well, Mister President, you'll be happy to hear the corn crop is up, and we're growing more soybeans in America.' "

Voters in favored America get front-row center seats in this campaign. Pity the poor voters in New York City and Atlanta and Houston and Los Angeles. They live in forgotten America, a place where they won't see wall-to-wall campaign ads on TV, or get a mailboxful of fliers every day, or get endless telephone calls from campaigns and poll takers. How sad for them.