Contemplating the results of the last presidential election has become something of a pastime, I suppose, and there are lots of theories floating about as to why things turned out the way they did last November 6th.
For my part I think that the election revealed a deep fault line running through our culture. There appears to be a fundamental difference in how we understand the basic principles of freedom, justice, and compassion.
Americans, perhaps guided by their individual temperaments and personalities, have found themselves on opposing sides of an epistemological divide. This is why political liberals and political conservatives so often feel like they're talking past each other. It's because they are. It's not that some people think these principles should inform our votes and others don't. It's that many conservative and liberal Americans agree that our politics should be oriented toward maximizing freedom, justice and compassion, but they interpret these principles in very different ways.
Consider the principle of freedom, for instance.
Conservatives often frame their understanding of freedom in terms of economics - the free market, minimal government regulation, private property, the freedom to invest, hire, fire, and so on in whatever way the individual thinks best.
Liberals might also think of freedom in economic terms but for them it's freedom from the tyranny of financial want and worry.
Conservatives tend to see big government as a threat to their freedom and want government kept small and unobtrusive. Liberals tend to see government as the defender of their freedom, a source of security, and tend to want more of it.
Conservatives place freedom from government above personal security whereas liberals tend to place personal security above all. Thus conservatives lament the welfare state while liberals promote universal health care and social programs. Given these differences it's easy to see why conservatives, for instance, want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and liberals see it as a great advance.
Or consider justice.
Liberals see justice as a striving for economic equality. Large gaps between rich and poor are, in the liberal view, fundamentally, unjust and need to be narrowed through tax policy and entitlements. Conservatives tend to see justice as a matter of ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
For conservatives inequality is not, by itself, an indicator of injustice, but confiscatory taxation - the seizure by government of one's property - is. For liberals, on the other hand, the disparity between the rich and the poor is a clear measure of systemic injustice in a society and those who possess the nation's wealth should be compelled to share it with those who don't.
Compassion, too, is seen differently by conservatives and liberals.
For conservatives government should provide a safety net for the poor, but compassionate outreach to the poor beyond the safety net should be extended through the mediating institutions of the society - neighborhood societies, private charities, churches, etc.
Liberals tend to be skeptical that such institutions are adequate to the task of caring for the poor or that people, if allowed to keep their wealth, will use it for the common good. It therefore falls upon government, they believe, to insure that the poor are provided not only an adequate portion of life's necessities, but also given enough that they can be reasonably comfortable.
Neither side along the divide understands the other because they don't share a common view of freedom, justice and compassion. And neither side particularly appreciates the other because both sides think the other is ignoring very important aspects of these principles.
Parenthetically, it's an irony, in my view, that our secular friends often bandy terms like freedom, justice, and compassion about, but they fail to see that unless there's a transcendent personal moral authority who obligates us to pursue these there really is no moral reason why anyone should care about the well-being of anyone but himself. Those secularists who admonish us about our "moral duty" to do justice and have compassion for the less fortunate are simply indulging an arbitrary personal preference similar in kind to their preference for Pepsi rather than Coke.
This is one of the themes I try to develop in my book In the Absence of God (about which you can read more by clicking on the link at the upper right of this page)
In any case, when a wealthy businessman - like Mr. Romney - who wants to maintain low taxes on other very wealthy people competes against someone - like Mr. Obama - who boasts a strong identification with the poor and who guarantees them that his primary concern is distributing wealth to more of them, liberals will find the redistributionist's message much more attractive than that of the guy who wants to help people hold on to what they've earned.
I don't know if we've ever not been a divided nation. We were divided over the Revolution when many colonists took the side of the British or were at best uninterested in supporting the quest for Independence. We were certainly divided during the antebellum years, the Civil War, and during Reconstruction, and we were divided during the turbulent 1960s, but through all of that we more or less shared a common understanding of what it meant to be free, to do justice, and to be compassionate, even if many people failed to hold to those ideals.
We no longer have that shared understanding, though, and I suspect that the election of 2012 stamped an exclamation point to that fact.