09/10/2012 12:02 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2012

Who Gets To Decide The American Future?

From the remove of television, the most enlightening way to soak up the now-completed political conventions was to simply mute the sound, absorb the pictures and merely look at who was there.

This is not to slight the speeches, which were by turns stirring and clarifying. There was Paul Ryan articulating the modern-day Republican philosophy: Dismantle government and hand the spoils to people who own tennis courts! There was Bill Clinton offering a full-throated defense of collective action to address shared problems while laying out a crucial question: "What kind of country do you want to live in?"

But on your screen, in image alone, the two party gatherings delivered their own sharply contrasting answers to that question.

In Tampa, the Republicans looked like what they have become: a men's group for angry middle-aged white guys enraged by demographic change and inclined toward the politics of blame. Here was a besieged slice of America desperately seeking to maintain the privileges of a bygone era.

In Charlotte, the Democrats looked like what America has become: an often-disorganized, internally contradictory and above all racially diverse collection of people grappling with common troubles, like not enough paychecks, too many worries about bills to pay, and no reliable hold on middle-class basics like housing, health care, education and retirement. We saw military veterans in uniforms and professionals in suits; white, black, Hispanic and Asian Americans; gays and straights; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus.

This contrast in optics was stark and meaningful, because this election confronts us with more than the question of what sort of country we want. At stake is no less than who gets the right to decide.

The circumstances of these times make this an election fraught with importance. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has been followed by a wholly unsatisfying "recovery" that has beggared the meaning of that academic jargon -- a reality only enhanced by Friday's crummy employment report. People without jobs have lost homes and are living in their cars. People with jobs often earn so little that they need food stamps and donated groceries to feed their families. Talk of middle-class decline may have become a cliché, yet the truth of this conversation seems to deepen by the day.

And yet, at a time when we should be debating how to reverse this decline and restore the traditional middle class bargain -- decent living standards in exchange for hard work -- we are instead having what feels like a referendum on the essential nature of American democracy and what sort of people should be entitled to participate.

The Republicans continue to deploy thinly veiled racial code to denigrate the nation's first African-American president as "not one of us," with "us" being the sort of people in abundance in Tampa: white, male and inclined to view those who require help from the government as morally degenerate parasites. This is the essential message of both the relentless questioning of Obama's American citizenship and the factually baseless claims that he wants to undo welfare reform.

All of which makes the mere spectacle of the conventions rich with pertinent information: To whom are these two competing parties speaking? What does their encapsulation of America look like?

Who was there matters, because the Republicans are trying to keep so many people away from the polls. They have a candidate who is widely and legitimately viewed as an aloof creature of privilege, a man who got rich by dismantling other people's creations, trading businesses and jobs like chips at a Monte Carlo casino table. His strategists understand keenly that if too many voices are heard on Election Day, if the balloting reflects the sentiments of a genuinely representative cross-section of the nation, their guy loses. He doesn't speak for a broad enough range of communities -- unless your version of diversity means owning both beach houses and ski chalets.

With this limitation in mind, the Republicans are doing everything in their power to limit turnout, and particularly among people who are not white and not relatively affluent. They are carpet-bombing battleground states with negative, racially divisive political advertisements that seem engineered to disgust large numbers of would-be voters, making people so beleaguered and turned off that they stay home.

In case mass-disseminated cynicism does not get the job done, the Republicans are also employing actual barriers to access, such as voter identification laws, crafted to bar minority and low-income people from voting. They are narrowing the window of early voting to limit turnout among students and people who work multiple jobs -- both core components of Obama's base.

The Republicans fear heavy minority and youth turnout because the party grasps that it is the real minority. It appeals to a narrow and aging slice of the electorate that seeks to preserve a bankrupt idea: the notion that government is for nanny state-loving losers, while free enterprise addresses all of life's problems.

It is a notion that serves two masters: wealthy people, for whom tax cuts amount to serious gobs of money, and corporations, which have exploited weak regulations to profit while harming the public.

The Democrats are hardly paragons of virtue. They are rife with corporate conflicts of interest themselves. Their rhetoric of concern for vulnerable people has often exceeded their action. (It was especially unpalatable to hear Clinton deliver such a cogent rebuke of the Republican plan to gut Medicaid by turning it into a program of limited block grants to the states: This is precisely what he did to welfare, and with predictably disastrous results.)

The Obama administration has failed to limit the foreclosure crisis by catering to the interests of giant banks, an area conspicuously absent from the president's speech at the convention.

But the president is at least speaking to the right people: virtually anyone who lives in America.
He is describing a nation governed by a spirit of inclusion. The people who gathered in Charlotte looked like that nation. In an election in which claims on American identity are themselves at issue, this is no small thing.