It is a cliche that the kinetic and kaleidoscopic United States of America is like a movie. The more interesting question is the kind of movie that the America of 2008, a country deeply divided between Republicans and Democrats, resembles.
Bringing to mind the format of classic Hollywood pictures like Woodstock, Airport and the Thomas Crowne Affair, America is a split screen movie -- a place where two connected but independent films are simultaneously playing on the same screen. Media was once the message, but now it has become the messages. The America of Obama versus McCain is a country of two political realities -- it is the small town versus big city America, "blue state" Democrats against "red state" Republicans, religious absolutists against moral relativists. Most of all, split screen America juxtaposes the "lean forward" America of new interactive media with the "lean back" America of traditional media.
The lean forward technology of new media, particularly of the Internet, requires users who are engaged, interactive and participatory. The Internet's empowering technology is being used to question authority, challenge the status-quo and pursue structural economic and political change. Thus, the progressive Barack Obama campaign has fully embraced the collaborative and conversational technological potential of new media. Obama raised significant amounts of money from hundreds of thousands of small donors on the Internet. His Internet savvy candidature has been driven by the left-liberal blogosphere. The BlackBerry wearing Obama announced his decision to make Joe Biden his running mate via text-message. It is not surprising, therefore, that many technology insiders view the charismatic Illinois Senator as the founding father of the new digital political age in America.
If the 47 year-old Obama is the first politician of the new media age, then the 72 year-old technophobe, John McCain, is the final politician of an old media epoch in which all information is delivered from above via a one-way broadcast medium like television. He will certainly be the very last Presidental candidate in American history who doesn't regularly use the Internet, who is uncomfortable with e-mail and who doesn't know how to text-message. And for all her insurrectionary rhetoric, McCain's controversial vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, is an old rather a new media star. The Alaskan governor, whose whole political appeal rests on her meticulously manufactured ordinariness, is actually an all-too-familiar version of the know-nothing housewives who star in America's reality television show and afternoon soap operas.
Between now and election day, lean forward and lean back America will wrestle over the world's ultimate political prize -- control of the White House. It's Silicon Valley versus unwired America, young digital natives versus old couch potatoes, empowered Internet users versus a more muted (albeit enraged) television audience. Thus, it's the centers of dislocating technological innovation -- on the Pacific and the north=eastern seaboard -- which represent the heartland of Obamaland; while it's the technologically backward south and mid-west -- where broadcast television remains the overwhelmingly dominant medium -- which is most loyal to the unwired McCain.
Hollywood specializes in happy endings. So, on November 4th, will the simultaneous realities of old and new medium merge into a single screen America? No. Real life -- especially political life -- isn't a movie and the unfortunate truth is that the gulf between old and new media America is growing larger rather than smaller. I'm not confident that either a McCain or an Obama victory will unite leaning forward and lean backwards Americans. So Split Screen Nation may end up being a tragically long-running saga in which old and new media America never learn to communicate with each other.