“Life in These United States” is a longtime Reader's Digest collection of “heartwarming, humorous anecdotes” that are said to capture the down-home wisdom, idiosyncrasies and ideals of ordinary people.
Unfortunately, after a divisive, often toxic election campaign, it feels as though we live not in “These United States” but in “Disunited States.”
President Barack Obama, though, proclaimed in victory early Wednesday that we are not as divided as our politics suggest nor as cynical as pundits believe.
In an echo of his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, when he was a little-known state legislator from Illinois, the president's voice rose again: “We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America. ... God bless these United States.”
“United” is a word favored by many and used a lot. United Airlines. United Way. United Nations. Citizens United. Not to mention numerous other Uniteds — van lines, artists, rentals, farmworkers, steelworkers, autoworkers, Methodists, and on and on.
Among the word's definitions are “being in harmony” and “in association or alliance.” That describes the United States today?
Our politics suggest divisiveness, not harmony. And that is discouraging, as are the words of re-elected U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who lamented “an extremely polarized, excessively partisan, ideologically rigid political environment.”
People are tired of all that, he said, and want unity.
Then again, maybe unity is just one of those heartwarming ideals of ordinary people that the political leaders in These United States cannot easily grasp.
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Wednesday that most Americans believe they are in the political center rather than on the left or the right. But the extremes of the political parties, he said, make it difficult for candidates to be moderates.
“Anybody who sniffs of moderation or centrism,” he said, “is run out on a rail.”
Tea Party activists, proudly not centrist, said on the day after the election that the Republican Party needs to move to the right and quit nominating presidential candidates like Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
“The lesson that the GOP and Americans need to learn,” wrote the editor of the Tea Party News Network, “is that weak-kneed Republicans do not get elected. Conservatives do.”
Benjamin-Alvarado, a Democrat, said the election instead should be seen as a wake-up call for Republican Party leaders.
“They can no longer rely on a stalwart, Protestant, Puritan, backward-looking white-male establishment as the basis for winning and losing elections,” he said. “The party needs to diversify its portfolio.”
As a Latino, he took pride in the Hispanic population's increasing sway, 10 percent of the electorate — which voted overwhelmingly (an estimated 71 percent) for Obama.
Said the professor: “The Latino sleeping giant has finally awakened.”
That demographic trend, he said, has drawn the attention of GOP strategists, who might favor Latino-friendly presidential candidates in 2016 — such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Benjamin-Alvarado said elements of conservatism, especially on social values, resonate with many Latinos. “This is a population,” he said, “that aspires to fulfill the American dream like every other group before it.”
The “Reader's Digest version” of the 2012 election is that the incumbent won. But perhaps what politicians of both parties need now are a form of Cliff Notes, a handy guide to avoiding the looming “fiscal cliff.”
A combination of automatic tax increases and steep spending cuts are set to take effect in January if a budget deal isn't reached. Analysts have warned that without an agreement, the economy could tip back into recession.
In other words, if partisans don't compromise, they can ironically unite — in leading the nation over a cliff.
Benjamin-Alvarado is optimistic that won't happen.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we don't have any choice but to find ways to live with one another.”
Contact the writer: