A lot has been made during this Presidential election about the "real" America, as if the adjective could somehow be applied to an artificial construct. For that's what any country is -- a collection of points on the surface of the Earth which encompass an artificially determined area. Countries have been created to be de facto containers of "our people," divided along whatever lines people have seen fit to draw, both topologically and socially.
While you find a great deal of homogeneity in many countries, there are pockets of every nation where ethnic and cultural variations abound. Italy and Germany are crazy-quilts of ethnic types, borne of hundreds of years of conquest and commerce. The Basque people in Spain maintain a fierce independence from the Spanish. The African continent is littered with countries built up of tribes which share only lines on the map, but not language or custom.
On the surface anyway, the United States tries to portray itself as the great "melting pot," where all of the rest of humanity comes to better itself. We pride ourselves on the great diversity of ethnicity that permeates each and every nook and cranny of our land.
The flip side of this American diversity, however, is fractionation, as various groups form collectives within the grand scheme of the "United" States of America. Given the diversity of race, it is interesting to note that not all of this fractionation is racial; much of it is social or religious. Clusters of the like-minded spring up in all sorts of places and exert what influence they have locally. It is only in an election year, and especially true in a Presidential one, that these groups, normally separated by geography, merge to form blocks that candidates are forced to pander to. Fiscal conservatives, Evangelicals, gun owners, immigrants, abortion rights advocates, pro-Life advocates, businessmen -- suddenly the individual voter is subservient to the block, a cog in a large political machine that expects the candidates to pay them some respect and listen to their points of view.
It is sometimes interesting to note that this phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it unknown. Social psychology tells us that people will tend to cluster with others who share their primary social attributes. It also tells us that in groups, peer forces will often overwhelm normal individual judgment, creating that phenomenon known as "the mob mentality." And in groups, when there is a decision to be made, only the strongest can break the spell of inaction and indecision.
So if you look out at America, the "real" America, you see 300 million individuals, clustering together for mutual comfort and trying to go about lives that give them the most gain and the most satisfaction. An within that giant pool, there are the eddies and currents of social, economic, and racial conformity which occasionally cause powerful waves to form. Sometimes those waves disperse their energy to good effect, such as the outpouring of support for New York after 9/11 and for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Often though, these waves stir up the surface, and come into contact with other waves, and there becomes a titanic struggle as each tries to swamp the other.
The current election is a lot like that. On the one hand, you have John McCain, candidate of the establishment, the "old guard," trying to take his rightful place at the head of a country that needs strong leadership and a firm hand. On the other, Barack Obama, candidate of change, looking to brush past the establishment, seize the reins of power, and chart a new course. And feeding them are the various groups attuned to their individual messages, rank swelling rank, building up their candidate and propelling him though the swells.
The roiling, churning sea that is this election is being driven by a "perfect storm" of economic collapse, social upheaval, war, and jingoism. It is a clash of culture more than an election, for each side seems to represent a different aspect of the American landscape: McCain, the representative of the tail end of the generations that fought the great world wars, Obama representing the slow birth of a pluralistic planetary culture which rides technology into the future.
And so, the heart and soul of the "real" America is on the line. When one side wins, there will be a collective groan from the other, for it will mark disappointment and perhaps desperation and depression. A McCain victory would mean that all the promise of the future, the chance to set right the Ship of State, will have been squandered and will lead inevitably to anxiety as the policies of the last 8 years find new life. An Obama victory will frighten the older, conservative crowd, as suddenly they will see their caricature of "real America" slowly dissolve away in the rain, to be replaced by a freer and fairer world, a world without limits and without boundaries. A world filled with ideas that will shock them and test their faith.
And in the end, no matter who wins, life will go on. For neither man winning will cause the sudden and inexorable collapse of American society, only begin a new cycle of political bargaining and punditry. The true test will be down the road, when we look back and ask ourselves if we did the right thing.