Nobody claimed it was the best of times. Either it was the worst of times, as the Republicans insisted in Tampa, or it could have been even worse, as the Democrats replied in Charlotte. Each nominating convention competed to present the more convincing demonology. The Republicans, for whom history began in 2009 and Congress does not exist, have blamed President Barack Obama for everything from the deficit spawned by his predecessor’s wars and tax cuts to the lingering consequences of the Great Recession. Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, vying to set a new record for most falsehoods in a single televised convention address, not only mangled the historical record on the economy, health care, welfare, and Medicare, he contended that the Obama administration had done exactly what it set out to do. Republican speakers wagered that Americans would ignore their party’s deliberate and almost entirely successful effort to block every measure that might have addressed the related problems of unemployment and flagging consumer demand. The president could then be held responsible for Americans’ economic woes, continuing unrest in the Middle East, and every other nightmare alarming potential Republican voters: rampant abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, and the hurricane bearing down on Florida. In response to that litany of charges, Democratic officials, scarcely looking beyond their “things could have been worse” mantra, repeatedly invoked the resurrection of General Motors and the death of Osama bin Laden. Conveniently forgetting their own complicity in the economic deregulation of the 1990s, they have blamed Republican intransigence for everything else.

An insatiable craving for the newest news drives commentary on American politics. Dozens of angles have come and gone in recent months, as writers and talking heads have proposed new story lines only to drop them after just a few days. The economy dwarfed every other issue—until it didn’t. Foreign policy didn’t matter—until it did. CEO Romney and policy-wonk Ryan were riding a wave of antigovernment sentiment—until they weren’t. Romney’s wealth and disdain for all but the wealthy would sink him—until it didn’t. Obama the reclusive, bloodless deliberator had to grow a backbone and start giving fiery speeches to inspire Democrats and independents—until he let Bill Clinton handle that chore at the convention.

In the weeks after Obama’s acceptance speech, the media’s interest in the election as horse race has nearly blotted out the substance of the president’s address and its relation to the broader themes of the Republican and Democratic campaigns. As attention ricochets almost hourly with momentum shifts, and as millions of dollars are raised and spent in swing states from New Hampshire and Florida to Colorado and Nevada, trivial scoops crowd out the substantive issues. If pundits are inevitably drawn to the latest gaffe or poll, historians should take a longer view. That’s my goal here. Only by refusing to play the soothsayer can one escape the danger of inaccurate predictions.

The juxtapositions between the two conventions were jarring and emblematic. In the space of just a couple of weeks, Americans watched as the jagged fragments of their nation seemed to drift further apart. Republicans reveled in the glories of private enterprise, marveled at the promise of unregulated capitalism, and denigrated those who look to government rather than the free market for solutions. By contrast, Democrats celebrated togetherness and ridiculed the selfishness of those who trumpet American individualism and neglect the importance of community. In Charlotte, one of the “nuns on the bus,” the effervescent Sr. Simone Campbell, flatly denied that the Romney-Ryan plan to slash domestic spending jibes with the convictions of American Christians who care about the plight of the poor. She invoked the criticism of Ryan’s budget leveled by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ignoring the bishops’ myopic focus on abortion (see Cathleen Kaveny’s “The Single-Issue Trap”), Campbell cheerfully exhorted her listeners to be their sisters’ and brothers’ keepers rather than acolytes of self-reliance. Massachusetts’s Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, not known for quoting Scripture on the stump, recited Matthew 25:40 and elicited boisterous assent from Democrats eager to remember “the least of these my brethren.” Michelle Obama endorsed her husband, and Joe Biden his running mate, by defiantly restating the creed of the 2012 Democratic Party: We all built this nation together. Exonerated in the court of public opinion and reconciled with the Obama presidency, Bill Clinton skillfully exposed Ryan’s whoppers, punctured the Republicans’ supply-side fantasies, and offered convincing evidence of sustained economic growth during Democratic presidencies. Clinton’s barnburner reminded any Americans who might have forgotten just how tragic it was that he squandered the enormous promise of his presidency. When he proclaimed that we are not individuals but a community, not alone but together, and not independent but responsible for each other, he was sounding chords already struck by speakers who preceded him, but for twenty years nobody in American politics has played the communitarian tune better than he does.

Obama’s acceptance speech, according to critics and commentators, failed to eclipse Clinton’s address. It was less feisty, less partisan, more subdued—in short, just another in the string of disappointments that began with his inauguration. But in the flurry of Monday-morning quarterbacking and savvier-than-thou assessments, few journalists paid much attention to the striking continuity between Obama’s most prominent speech of this summer and the one that first brought him to national prominence eight years ago. Offering a resounding tribute to America, including its record of social mobility and expanding inclusiveness, its boundless promise because of its vibrant economic system, its democratic political institutions, and above all its balancing of individualism and community, Obama in 2004 made clear that his hope for the nation rested on his conviction that America cannot be “sliced and diced” into blue and red, conservative and liberal, because “we are all one people.” Reprinted in the best-selling 2004 edition of Dreams from My Father, Obama’s speech at the Boston convention highlighted the signature commitments of his political career, including affordable health care, accessible higher education, renewable energy, rebuilding families and stable neighborhoods through individual responsibility, restoring jobs in manufacturing, and ensuring a strong military because, as he put it, America does have “real enemies in the world.”

Those themes of moderation and balance, especially his refusal to embrace standard Democratic nostrums and his emphasis on individual initiative and the productive power of a market economy, have run through all of Obama’s speeches and both of his books. They surface in Dreams and emerge even more sharply in the accounts of American history and the economic and political analysis offered in The Audacity of Hope. Although Republicans excoriate Obama as a socialist bent on destroying capitalism at home and apologizing for American power abroad, their demonology was as empty as the chair to which Clint Eastwood delivered his bewildering soliloquy in Tampa. Obama’s record, from his days as a community organizer through his years at the Harvard Law School and his service in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate, shows that he has been committed to incremental progress through persuasion rather than arm twisting, painstaking consensus-building rather than power politics. He has consistently refused to denigrate the integrity or deny the intelligence of those who disagree with him. His steadfast commitment to respecting his foes, of course, has infuriated his most enthusiastic liberal supporters, who projected onto him their own dogmatic certainties and their own disrespect of their opponents. Even in Charlotte, where he gently mocked the Republicans’ reliance on tax cutting and deregulation as their only ideas, he embraced Franklin Roosevelt’s “spirit of experimentation” and again proclaimed his unflagging eagerness for bipartisan solutions because “no party has a monopoly” on good ideas. Obama’s detailed treatment of American history in Audacity shows that his commitment to deliberative decision-making is not merely strategic. Instead it springs from his sober understanding that democracy requires a willingness to cooperate. Intransigence, as Americans have long understood and as we have seen demonstrated since the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, brings democracy to a halt.

In his Charlotte speech Clinton had described, in surprising detail, just how hard Obama tried to conjure up some consensus on health care in the early months of his presidency. Obama’s passion for working across the aisle is not naïve. Nor is it a sign of his inexperience. It is grounded instead in his conviction that, as he put it, “no democracy works without compromise.” The intractable and unprecedented opposition of Republican legislators derailed almost everything Obama tried to accomplish in his first term, which is why his explicit endorsement of bipartisanship in Charlotte deserves attention. In a detailed profile of the president in the September 6 edition of the New York Times, Peter Baker showed just how much Obama’s commitment to conciliation had cost him and insisted that the president had learned his lesson. Now, Baker concluded, Obama would play hardball. Although members of the White House staff, many elected Democratic officials, and almost all Americans on the left seem to share Baker’s impatience with Obama’s conciliatory approach, the president’s own words, quoted at the end of the article, tell a different story: “My expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.” Without such cooperation, as the president appears to understand better than those urging him to get tough, his second term might be less successful than his first.

Despite unwavering Republican opposition, the Obama administration can take credit for more than saving GM and killing bin Laden. The consequences will not be pretty, but the president did end America’s folly in Iraq and has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Notwithstanding their serious limitations, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank’s re-regulation of the financial sector rank as historic achievements. The $800 billion stimulus enacted at the beginning of his presidency, although much maligned by critics on the left who insist it should have been even bigger, was the most the president could persuade reluctant and grumbling members of his own party to accept. Although the American Recovery Act did not end the recession, the stimulus clearly did make a difference, as Michael Grunwald details in The New New Deal. It kept the poverty rate, admittedly awful, from rising even faster. It included funds not only to extend eligibility for Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment compensation, the child tax credit, and the earned-income tax credit, but also for early childhood education, student loans, new forms of renewable energy, rent subsidies, and emergency housing. The stimulus package also included tax breaks for most low-income workers, savings that were deliberately kept invisible to maximize the likelihood that the money would be spent rather than saved.

Will the results of these admirable initiatives, now finally coming to light, be sufficient to win the support of independent voters at a time when Republicans insist more than ever on the folly of economic intervention? Will invocations of togetherness, community, and responsibility be enough to give Democratic Party candidates an edge in November? The answers are hardly clear. Yet by committing themselves fully and unambiguously to those ideals, and to the political and economic policies consistent with them, the Democratic Party’s leaders aligned themselves squarely with their president’s convictions and with their party’s own traditions, from Woodrow Wilson and FDR through Lyndon Johnson. The Democrats also signaled to the American people their opposition to the Republicans’ chorus of free-market triumphalism.

In Tampa Mitt Romney declared that Republicans oppose redistribution, a theme that has now become the drumbeat of his campaign. A growing number of voters are aware, however, that since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 Americans have experienced the most dramatic redistribution of wealth in our history. That redistribution, made possible not only by unprecedented tax cuts for the wealthy but also by the deliberate loosening of restrictions on the financial sector, showered fortunes on canny investors who, after profiting handsomely, walked away from the chaos left by their deal-making. Although much higher tax rates on the wealthy failed to blunt economic expansion in the three decades after World War II, lower tax rates since 1980 have enriched a lucky few and hurt millions who have watched the buying power of their incomes shrink. Dollars that could have gone elsewhere—to increasing the minimum wage, retraining workers in manufacturing after their jobs were outsourced, investing in new sources of energy, or renewing America’s once stable and now sagging infrastructure—were siphoned off to line the pockets of new billionaires.

But the Republicans’ morality tale of righteous capitalists and perfidious moochers denies the clear evidence of what happened in those two eras. The first carried millions of working Americans into the middle class; the second, stretching from the late 1970s to the present, squeezed millions downward toward poverty. Even Paul Ryan, whose 2009 campaign video shows him enthusiastically endorsing the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand for doing “a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism,” conceded that government assistance enabled his mother to start a new life after his father’s death. Yet such examples of government programs that help “worthy” Americans, including military spending, agricultural price supports, Social Security, and (for the moment at least) Medicare, seem not to make a dent in Republicans’ increasingly shrill opposition to all assistance for those deemed unworthy “takers,” particularly those whose skin color or national origin make their status as Americans, like President Obama’s, suspect.

For decades, as E. J. Dionne first showed in Why Americans Hate Politics, opinion polls have demonstrated consistently that American voters cluster toward the middle on most issues. In recent weeks, as Obama’s prospects for reelection have brightened, Gallup surveys have confirmed that the strident antigovernment rhetoric applauded in Tampa is dramatically inconsistent with the views of large majorities of American voters. When asked, between two thirds and three quarters of voters reject a larger defense budget, a shrunken Social Security system, a privatized Medicare program, and bigger tax breaks for the wealthy. In short, they express little sympathy with the Republican Party platform. The tightness of the presidential race—and the apparent lead of so many Republican candidates for Congress—seems all the more puzzling for that reason. Of course the explanation, as countless studies have shown, lies with cross-cutting cultural issues such as gun control, gay marriage, and, above all, abortion, which Republicans (and sometimes Democrats) have successfully exploited in recent decades. What is to be done?

It’s worth remembering that FDR could count on another Ryan, “Right Reverend New Dealer” John Ryan, and other like-minded clergy and lay Catholics to make clear to working-class Americans the congruence between progressive social and economic policies and Catholic social thought. These days, however, perhaps because of the chill emanating from an increasingly conservative hierarchy, progressive Catholic clergy are less visible. For that reason in particular, progressive Catholic laypeople must make clear that our commitment to a consistent ethic of life is not confined to the time between conception and birth, or to the final days before death, or to questions of sexuality. Progressive Democrats need to internalize the consistent message of Obama’s own writings: people on the other side are not fools or knaves. They simply understand the shared American values of liberty, equality, and moral obligation in a different way, and they cherish a different balance among those principles. Democrats should reach out to those with whom they can make alliances, and that includes women and men who disagree with them on many issues. If demonizing their opponents as the dependent 47 percent makes no sense for Republicans, neither does demonizing prolifers and gun owners help Democrats advance the larger goals of effective freedom and greater equality for all Americans. Joe Biden’s eloquent speech at the convention made clear how much he shares with Sr. Simone, but whereas she made explicit the religious foundation of her politics, the vice president did not even mention his Catholicism. Catholics should follow her lead, not his.

If Obama does win a second term, it will be less frustrating than his first only if the American electorate returns a Congress willing to cooperate with him despite the inevitable differences between more individualist Republicans and more communitarian Democrats. Such disagreements are perennial. The rhetoric is sharper these days, but the criticism of an activist federal government is as old as the Anti-Federalists’ objections to ratifying the Constitution. American history shows that no matter who is elected president, those disagreements will be debilitating only if Congress is dominated by people more committed to partisan dogma than to bringing into focus a shared vision of that most elusive American ideal, the common good. That can happen only through compromise.

In Charlotte, Obama stated his party’s principles in words that echo the balanced formulations of his earlier speeches and his books. On the one hand, he called “our free enterprise system the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known,” and he insisted that “we don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves.” On the other, he invoked the “word at the very heart of our founders and of our democracy,” citizenship, with all the obligations that concept carries.

We understand that this democracy is ours. We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights, that our destinies are bound together, that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism is unworthy of our founding ideals and those who died in their defense. As citizens we understand that America is not about what can be done for us, it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

In its stark contrast to contemporary Republicans’ and many Democrats’ exaggerated emphasis on individual freedom, Obama offered a vision of democratic citizenship much closer to that animating eighteenth-century Americans and, until recently, espoused by most leaders in both parties. It is an ideal progressive Catholics can and should embrace.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 

James T. Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, is author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton) and Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford).

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