Elections are framed as a clash of personalities, but whilst this adversarial dialogue is engaging, the US election is not a stage of Mortal Kombat. The US election is a complex discourse between different ideas. Sometimes the ideas aren't that different, sometimes they are. The most interesting difference between the policy platforms of the two major parties is the different origins they have.
In this election the two ideas presented to us are plans for the future of America, or visions for more spectrally inclined political pundits. One is of a plan for an America that must change and adapt to a world it no longer controls. The other is of an America that can use its power and moral fibre to tame the world into functioning how it perceives it should. They are based on distinctly different versions of American history.
Mitt Romney's plan for America is the latter in my previous description, if you hadn't guessed. It's based upon an America that was founded by farmers motivated by rugged individualism, by the drive to succeed and to strike it out on their own. The United States were built by the farmers who conquered the American wilderness, who paved the road for great American intellectuals and entrepreneurs to build railways, factories and the great institutions of the United States.
America was made great by great men (given who I'm talking about here and the time period I'm talking about them thinking about that's not inaccurate.) Great men devised a system of government to keep it great. It needs great men to let those great men continue to make America great, free from interference from the least American of all institutions, the government. This is a farcical creation myth. It ignores how the world works, and chiefly it ignores how the world did work.
Barack Obama's plan is based upon a different America. This was an America which has been built up over four centuries of settlement. This America has changed a great deal since its creation by a slave-owning class of aristocrats. It has grown in size and complexity. It has become the most powerful country in the world through a mix of diplomacy, conquest and purchase. Not through moral fortitude, nor through a relentless commitment to neo-classical free market economics.
America grew strong in the nineteenth century through a mix of heavy tariffs, government involvement in railway construction and crucially, government giveaways and subsidised sales of farmlands to migrants. The US government has far more influence in the US story than certain deluded people would admit. When the United States economy was in the grips of death in the 1930s, it was not any private initiative that restored it to normal levels of growth, but the planned economy of the Second World War.
Similarly the United States became the premier power in the world, not through some peaceful, isolationist, Washingtonian foreign policy. It was through twice assisting a Franco-British alliance in Europe and committing to a system of global stability with its military might. This is the context in which American corporations now represent the highest echelons of the business world.
Internally the United States' has changed too. It did not remain steadfast in its commitment to keeping slavery legal, nor letting individual states segregate black people from white, ban abortion or let their own people starve in times of hardship.
The United States is still unfinished, still imperfect. It has faced many challenges, and will face many more. In President Obama's administration it has cleared many hurdles; it has escaped a dangerous recession, repealed homosexual legislation, and destroyed one of its most deadly enemies. This is the vision that Barack Obama is required to present to the electorate. It has less zeal or triumphalism than the alternative. It's more complicated. But critically, it actually corresponds to reality. It comes from someone who has lived in the same way most other Americans have. That's not a point in itself, but it explains where this grounded viewpoint comes from. Mitt Romney on the other hand has presented a version of America that is pure fantasy. Subsequently, his policy plans are in the same vein. Fantasy.
Follow Daniel M. Swain on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theswainviour