There is a shadowy, parallel election tomorrow — no platforms, no poll-counting and no definitive victory or defeat. It’s the little-acknowledged culture war playing out, a fierce contest hardly talked about publicly, with two presidential candidates in clearly opposing camps.
Using the labels of another day, the presidential contestants epitomize opposite contemporary American behavioral patterns. One, Gov. Mitt Romney, is “square.” President Obama is “hep.”
Mr. Romney, to a considerable extent, represents traditions inherited largely from at least one generation past. Mr. Obama epitomizes the supposed contemporary sophistication, a lifestyle cultivated by the elite and carrying the imprimatur of the media and the rest of the popular culture.
In fact, Mr. Romney is the quintessential representative of older values, although belonging to what some once would have considered an exotic religion (even though perhaps more “American” than any other). In a country where almost half of all first marriages fail, Mr. Romney and wife Ann, childhood sweethearts, celebrate almost half a century together. The average family household now has less than one child, but the Romneys have five sons. Mrs. Romney, for all her political flowering in this campaign, was a stay-at-home mom, a status that less than a quarter of mothers with children younger than 15 claim today.
Then there are private conceits: As Mr. Romney quipped, he prepared for the campaign’s rigors by being a teetotaler all his 65 years and smoked only briefly in his youth. His speaking style, with its frequent hesitancies, is typical of an older generation, long before hip-hop, even when grade-school children were taught elocution. In any case, his language is generally restrained; it’s news when he uses slang or jokes. He is square.
The president comes from a mixed ethnic background and a troubled childhood all too reflective of too many current dysfunctional families. Although in a seemingly close marriage, he has cataloged extended early sexual affairs. He has almost bragged about his youthful encounters with drugs and his poor scholastic record when young. Like too many Americans, his smoking addiction apparently still has not been broken.
Mr. Obama is the model of the metrosexual male, an accomplished speaker with a quick-witted comeback in any situation. He exults in his appearances on the late-night talk shows, where his opinions on any and every subject are those acceptable to a younger public. His base following would see it as no “big deal” in his having used profanity to describe his opponent.
Unlike Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama’s career bounced along an uneven track. His choice to become a “neighborhood organizer” after he rejected a start in corporate law contrasts sharply with Mr. Romney’s almost straight-line ride up the business escalator. The president’s grueling search for identity, recorded in his two autobiographical works, suggests a real and continuing emotional crisis throughout his youth. Unlike Mr. Romney — who has served obligatory missionary service for his church, tithes heavily to its coffers and has been a leading member of its hierarchy in Massachusetts — Mr. Obama wears his religion lightly even if he did attend a radical black nationalist church for two decades.
Most voters will go to the polls, thinking sincerely that they are voting only on issues. Many, of course, will be voting from their old loyalties to a major political party. But it seems certain they also will be choosing, if subliminally, between two lifestyles, two very different polarities of the American social scene.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be contradictions. A young female college graduate unable to find a job fitting her professional training might cross the line owing to Mr. Obama’s more fashionable attitudes toward contraception and abortion (although polls have shown a general movement toward more conservative positions on abortion). Equally possible, a small-business woman favorable to Mr. Romney’s economic remedies might go to Mr. Obama just because of these same feminist attitudes.
The culture wars won’t be decided, of course, in this election. The battle lines are too crisscrossed with contradictions and hypocrisy to be identified clearly. But the president of the United States does have an important and consequential role as a symbol of the nation, especially in time of crisis. And with the strong possibility of continuing economic disarray and an exploding international scene, his demeanor and persona will be important in that role.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.