Biden, Ryan, and the State of American Politics

It’s easy when watching presidential and vice-presidential debates simply to treat the affair like one would treat a sports event. Root for your candidate’s victory and ride the ups and downs, the give and take. It’s also interesting to step back and consider what the debates say about American politics.

At Via Meadia Walter Russell Mead suggests that although the vice-presidential debate last night might not matter much in the long run, it does tell us something about the state of American politics.

Yet for all that, something got done and the debate effectively conveyed the current unsatisfactory state of American politics. The Democrats have a system that they like but don’t know how to preserve; the Republicans think change is needed but aren’t very clear about exactly what they want to put in place of the Democratic system now crumbling around us. The Democrats think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and would like to cut the defense budget; the Republicans think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and think we need a stronger defense.

This is typical Mead fare but I think there’s a strong element of truth to it. David Brooks puts his own spin on a similar point, suggesting that the debate can be interpreted as reflective of a generational divide:

[Biden] entered the Senate in 1973, back when the old Democratic giants from the New Deal era still roamed the earth. Every sentimental tone of voice, every ebullient and condescending grin brought you back to the kitchen tables in working-class Catholic neighborhoods of places like Scranton, Pa., Chicago, San Francisco, Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia.

That was a time, much more so than now, when there were still regional manners, regional accents and greater distance from the homogenizing influence of mass culture. That was a culture in which emotion was put out there on display — screaming matches between family members who could erupt in chest-poking fury one second and then loyalty until death affection the next.

In contrast Paul Ryan:

Ryan hails from a different era, not the era of the 1950s diner, but the era of the workout gym. By Ryan’s time, the national media culture was pervasive. The tone was cool, not hot. The meritocracy had kicked in and ambitious young people had learned to adopt a low friction manner. Ryan emerges from this culture in the same way Barack Obama does.

This is a generation armed with self-awareness. In this generation, you roll your eyes at anyone who is quite so flamboyantly demonstrative as the vice president.

What do Americans want? Obviously the younger generation has a leg-up when it comes to the future. Brooks argues that it also has an advantage when it comes to independents.

What do independents want most? They want people who will practice a more respectful brand of politics, who will behave the way most Americans try to behave in their dealings: respectfully, maybe even pausing to listen for a second. To them, Biden will seem like an off-putting caricature of the worst of old-style politics.

This is not just an issue of manners. It is: How are we going to practice the kind of politics that will help us avert the so-called fiscal cliff? How are we going to balance the crosscutting challenges, like increasing growth while reducing long-term debt?

After the debate many people pointed out that Mitt Romney was just as aggressive with Obama as Biden was with Ryan, and that on the other hand Obama was polite and professional in the same way as Ryan. But while it is true that Romney was aggressive, he was not aggressive in a way that came across as condescending or disrespectful. Indeed, many viewers found that Obama’s dispassion communicated the same sort of arrogance and loathing as did Biden’s passion. And if there is an element of truth to what Mead and Brooks are saying it may be that leading Democrats seriously underestimate the degree to which the country is unsatisfied with the same liberal rhetoric and commitment to the status quo that has been coming from the Democratic Party for decades, without any evidence that it can help the country solve its most serious problems.

Both Obama and Biden, like the media and academic establishments at large, still seem to think conservative political theory, with its commitment to low taxes and small government, is largely the property of Tea party wackos and fundamentalist Christians. And so they don’t really take it that seriously. The electorate is not convinced either, in part because the Republicans don’t always clearly communicate their alternative to the Democratic approach and in part because they are still trying to figure out what that alternative would look like. But the electorate is much more open-minded than are the Democratic standard bearers on this point. Independents recognize smugness when they see it. They can also see when that smugness lacks the record of success that might otherwise make it understandable.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 12, 2012, in 2012 election, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Welfare State and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Biden, Ryan, and the State of American Politics.

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