although politicians won’t admit it, politics is played between the 40 yard lines

National candidates typically depict their differences as epic battles about the very essence of our society. For example, Mitt Romney’s victory speech on the night of the New Hampshire Primary:

President Obama wants to “fundamentally transform” America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.

He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.

This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.

This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.

This is pretty much nonsense. The election will make a difference–it matters who wins–but it is not a battle between European socialism and a return to the Republic as it stood in 1788. Neither option is on the table. Ezra Klein has, I think, a pretty accurate summary:

It matters that Obama’s proposed tax cuts amount to $3 trillion and benefit taxpayers making less than $250,000 while Romney’s would cost more than $6 trillion and are tilted toward the top 1 percent. It matters that Obama would implement the Affordable Care Act and Romney would try to repeal it. It matters that Obama is inclined to strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Republicans want to weaken it.

But the 2012 election is not an epochal clash of irreconcilable worldviews. Judging from their respective records, Obama and Romney would have little trouble coming to agreement if locked in a room together. That’s a very different conclusion than you would draw from listening to their rhetoric, which implies a Thunderdomish battle to the death.

I would not claim that both sides exaggerate their differences to the same degree. “Movement” conservatives are especially likely to regard their debate with Democrats as fundamental and existential. This is not all pretense or rhetoric; I suspect they are genuinely disappointed when they discover that winning the House means a shift in the federal budget of just a couple of percent. Running for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney has every reason to depict himself as a scourge of anti-American socialists. Democrats, meanwhile, are more aware that liberalism is a minority position and are therefore more likely to try to position themselves as consensus candidates.

That said, you get no points on either side for depicting the partisan debate realistically. No candidate says, “We’re all for a mixed economy with a regulated capitalist market, federal provision of pensions and health care for the elderly, a vast military that projects power globally in our economic interests, huge prisons, sharply limited federal aid to poor people, and tax cuts whenever we think we can afford them. We just disagree about how much to spend on all that.”

A new study finds that “Strongly identified Republicans or Democrats perceive and exaggerate polarization more than weakly identified Republicans or Democrats or political independents.” They also vote at higher rates, presumably motivated by the sense that we face an epic battle between good and evil. Although Independents have grown in number, their turnout has fallen. Maybe some of them are turned off because they can’t believe the prevailing claim that elections are existential choices. That just doesn’t ring true.

I think we’d be better off if Americans saw through the exaggerations and recognized that politics is played within the 40 yard lines. Then they could tell when someone (such as Ron Paul) really proposes to move outside that range and could decide whether he has a realistic chance of doing so. They would also be more aware of genuinely radical ideas, from authentic socialism to authentic libertarianism–not to mention real environmentalism and real pacifism–which are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, they could make a more judicious choice among the available options. If you’re looking for Kenyan socialists or the Founding Fathers, the 2012 general election will not offer what you want (or what you fear). But we are going to spend the next few years implementing and improving Obamacare or gutting it; closing the budget gap with new taxes or not; and strengthening environmental and labor laws or trimming them. We may end up at the Republicans’ 40 or the Democrats’ 40, and it will make a difference.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.