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The social and economic divide deepens in America

The world, particularly the world economy, is pretty vulnerable at the moment. The recent French and Greek elections, and Germany's unpredictable response to their results, have again raised the spectre of a crisis in the euro zone that Robert Rubin, a former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, told me this week could be far worse than the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Nor is everything fine in the United States, where disappointing job numbers for April have set off fears that the recovery may be weakening.

Yet, at a time when the global economy is so fragile, and in a year when it had been billed as the only election issue that matters, the United States has spent the week focused on same-sex marriage, which President Barack Obama explicitly endorsed on Wednesday.

The interplay between social policies and economic ones is the underlying dynamic that drives U.S. politics. The party that juggles the two agendas most adeptly will be the one that wins the White House in November.

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Since the 1960s, two big political shifts have reshaped U.S. society, politics and economy. The first is the vast expansion of individual rights and liberties. Women, ethnic minorities and, although not completely, gay men and lesbians, fought their way into the public arena. This tremendous social transformation was championed by the left, and it has largely succeeded.

Beginning in the 1980s, a second big shift was taking place. This was the Reagan revolution in economic policy, which brought cuts in taxes and regulation, and a weakening of unions and the social welfare safety net. This transformation was championed by the right, and it, too, has largely won the day.

These two different victories are the back story to the big political dramas of today. They are the reason that the left and the right both feel cheated and aggrieved, and both want to win back a country that they feel has been stolen from them. The right wants to win back the country from the left's social revolution; the left wants to win it back from the right's economic revolution.

They are also why the fault lines within the two main political parties have deepened. For many Americans, supporting a party that advocates both their vested economic interests and their social preferences has become difficult to do.

Thomas Frank dubbed this the "What's the Matter with Kansas?" problem in his 2004 book of the same title. His point was that the Republican Party had won support for its economic policies from the lower middle class by backing that group's conservative social preferences. These people were so strongly opposed to the liberal social agenda put forth by the coastal elites that they were willing to back the party that fought it, even if that meant voting against their economic self-interest.

Meanwhile, for the sake of the social values they hold dear, many members of the affluent coastal elite were willing to back a party whose policies went against their vested economic interests: the Democrats. That tradeoff was particularly evident in 2008, when some of the leading lights on Wall Street, a traditionally Republican community, defected to Mr. Obama.

These awkward marriages of social and economic issues are again dominating the 2012 race. Witness Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential contender, who portrayed himself as the candidate of the working man and also espoused an extremely conservative social agenda.

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Winning over their own economically conflicted constituents has been harder for the Democrats: The financial crisis and its aftermath have weakened the fragile alliance between the left and the elite 1 per cent. It is one thing to support a highly educated leader who embodies the socially liberal convictions of your class at a time when the economy is booming. It is quite another to back that leader when he is pledging to target beloved tax loopholes.

Here is where same-sex marriage comes in. This is a cause strongly advocated by young voters and committed progressives, two important groups for Mr. Obama. It is also a big issue for the highly educated, individual rights-based 1 per cent. As NBC journalist Chuck Todd noted this week, "gay money in this election has replaced Wall Street money," and is key to Mr. Obama's fundraising.

The good news for Mr. Obama is that "gay money" and "Wall Street money" can be one and the same. Even billionaires with conservative economic views, such as hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, are willing to back Democrats on what they see as an issue of fundamental human rights.

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