The first election I remember was the Barry Goldwater/Lyndon Johnson presidential contest of 1964. I was a clueless young sprite who went to school proudly wearing a Goldwater pin given to me by my father and an "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" sticker on my notebook. I remember many discussions in the cafeteria, where I exchanged deep political wisdom with other clueless young sprites. There was no heated passion in these conversations, no anger, no hard feelings. I do remember being shocked when Barry got, well, buried by Johnson.
The first election I voted in was 1972. I was in college and believed George McGovern would get us out of Vietnam and usher in a new era of enlightened politics. I remember being saddened and disillusioned when Tricky Dick Nixon cleaned his clock. Then I smoked a joint and put on a Grateful Dead record.
Goldwater and McGovern were probably the last two major party candidates who actually veered significantly from the political center. I supported them both, and both got beaten like a rented mule. And neither would recognize what passes for "conservative" and "liberal" in 2012.
The Tea Party/religious right coalition that passes for the conservative movement these days would have repelled Goldwater. He was all about free enterprise, but he had no interest in inserting religious dogma into the political discourse, and I believe he would be appalled by self-promoting bloviators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
And President Obama's brand of liberalism is leagues away from the radical brand practiced and preached by 1960s activists. Yes, he favors gay marriage and managed to get a variety of universal health care passed, but it was crafted to keep the insurance companies and hospitals happy. The stock market loves him. The Middle East Muslims who are dodging drone strikes certainly don't perceive him as a peace-loving hippie.
Americans don't elect presidents from the far left or the far right. They like centrists. Which is why Mitt Romney shape-shifted from a self-described "severe conservative" to a man who basically held a joint press conference with the president in the last debate. And it's why this sharply divided country is only sharply divided at its margins. Most Americans just want someone who won't rock the boat or screw things up too badly, maybe a guy they can have a beer with. It's both disheartening and reassuring at some level.
As is the fact that, more than four decades later, I'm still supporting a guy named Barry.