Early in his acceptance speech last night, President Obama laid out the voters' task in these words:
"On every issue, the choice you face won't be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice ... between two fundamentally different visions for the future."
It's a thought that emerges often in the Obama campaign, the idea of 2012 as a watershed election — "a hinge of history," as Vice President Biden called it at the convention in Charlotte, N.C. Some might see this as a device to drive Democratic turnout in the midst of a tepid economic recovery. But a similar idea was a theme of the Republican convention the previous week in Tampa, Fla.
"So here we stand," said GOP nominee Mitt Romney. "Americans have a choice. A decision. Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, 'I'm an American. I make my destiny.' "
To some degree, all president elections might claim such historical significance. Yet the choice in 2012 is unusually stark. While some candidates in the past have tried to find middle ground between the parties so as to appeal to swing voters, this year's contest features an emphasis on philosophical differences — a chasm promoted by the candidates in both parties.
The incumbent speaks of vision, his challenger of destiny. But both are invoking the same phenomenon: the competing myths of the American consciousness. It is anything but new, and it is unlikely to be resolved in this election year or any other.
On offer in Tampa was a depiction of America as an entrepreneurial paradise, a place where hard work, innovation and prudence are all that matters. In this imagined America, there is nothing to discourage a motivated man or woman from building a business or expanding an inherited investment. Respect for private enterprise is the coin of the realm.
This week in Charlotte, we have seen a dream of America as a communitarian paradise, a place where racial, national and religious differences are subsumed in a surge of generalized opportunity and shared success.
There is validity in both of these depictions, to be sure, and each glows with that roseate certainty that signals a lack of realism. The truth in each is not a courtroom document truth, but a mythic one.
We're not using the term myth here in the way that fact-checkers do, but rather in the sense popularized by the late scholar Joseph Campbell a generation ago. Myths are not lies or conceits. They are shared narratives from our cultural past that matter more than we know, narratives that become touchstones and guidelines for our lives and thoughts.
The choice before us as voters this year might be called a choice between the core truths that are expressed within these seemingly contradictory myths.
We are at once a nation that reveres "rugged individualism" and one that fancies itself an extended family, a community. It was the latter image Hillary Clinton had in mind when she cited the proverb "it takes a village to raise a child."
As Americans, we congenitally insist on standing on our own two feet, but we also want to draw on the strength of our neighbors and peers. If we are the land of e pluribus unum, we want both The Many and The One.
It's obvious that our two major parties long ago chose sides in this duality. It would be better to say the competition between these myths spawned our parties in their current form.
Republicans lionize the individual and the concept of liberty, defining the latter largely in economic terms. Here's Romney in Tampa a week ago: "Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind. Freedom to build a life. And, yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands. This is the essence of the American experience."
Of course, Republicans do offer a nod to community, as well, especially as honored by tradition, from Pilgrim colonies to wagon trains and bucket brigades. But it is the innovating, organizing, building individual that animates their world and the unleashing of that individual that dominates their rhetoric.
Democrats tilt the angle the other way, saluting the individual achiever but stressing the importance of larger social frameworks — the interaction and cooperation of people and institutions, including governments.
"Democrats say: 'We're all in this together,' " former President Bill Clinton told the convention this week. "With the Republicans, you're on your own."
All formulations of this contest during an election season tend to be overdrawn and misleading. Candidates tend to speak with reverence for their own myth (the individual or the community) and its contributions to our lives. Unfortunately, such reverence is too often accompanied by contempt for the mirror-image myth of the other side. We embrace our own preferred myth on faith (and call that a virtue) while assessing another's myth with skepticism and derision.
This fall, it would be good for us all to examine our political myths, whichever ones we prefer, and assess the sources of our facts and attitudes. That would be a useful process, especially for that shrinking slice of the electorate described as "undecided" or "reachable" in this election.
One way to decide our votes might be to decide what we most believe and why.