A motley crew of media workers and political hangers-on was gathered up on the 25th floor of the city’s ugliest building, otherwise known as City-County. We were just getting used to the unflattering overhead lighting when Mayor Greg Ballard, accompanied by Congressman André Carson, called us to order for a presentation regarding a $29 million federal grant the city would be using to help deal with abandoned housing.

The mayor is a Republican who was elected a year ago on a wave of taxpayer fury. The congressman is a Democrat who just enjoyed a landslide victory, garnering 65 percent of the vote in his district. After they were finished expressing their mutual appreciation for the benefits they thought the federal funding might bring, there was time for questions.

At one point, the mayor was asked if his cooperative relationship with the congressman signaled some sort of political “realignment.” The questioner was somewhat apologetic as he asked this, saying it was “his job” to do so. The mayor smiled and replied that he and the congressman both had the best interests of the city in mind.

Old habits die hard. This will be particularly true when it comes to how the media covers politics now that the election’s over and we can turn our full attention to the recession that’s upon us.

For a long time, the media and, by extension, the rest of us have treated American political life as another form of entertainment, driven by emotional venting, scandal-mongering and over-heated speculation. All of this huffing and puffing boils legitimate questions about the values we bring to collective problem solving down to watching who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Too often, our politicians have taken this bait. They’ve been willing to substitute tactics for a genuine examination of competing visions. Voters have ended up choosing whatever management style flatters them the most. This amounts to a political sugar buzz.

A society can get away with this when there’s gas in the tank and money in the bank. During good times, government can seem like an afterthought or, worse, a killjoy.

But something else is happening today. The outlines became visible last winter, when the investment bank, Bear Stearns, needed a bailout. Here we are in November, hundreds of billions of dollars later, with the auto industry knocking at our door.

Characterizing Barack Obama’s election victory as a shift to the left has been irresistible for many pundits, habituated as they are to cutting experience into conflicting slices of conservative and liberal pie. These lazy distinctions might have seemed handy once, when a certain amount of prosperity allowed us the luxury to think government was a spectator sport.

But as our financial institutions have, like dominoes, found themselves on the edge of collapse — and as this contagion spills over into individual retirement accounts, student loans and housing values — it becomes obvious that describing the world in terms of us and them is like lighting up one corner of a room and leaving the rest in darkness.

There’s nothing like a real crisis to make people understand the importance of government. When things were flush it was easy to say that markets take care of themselves. They didn’t. What we’re learning is that society relies on several interlocking elements. Just as a natural environment depends on a web of relationships to help maintain a nourishing equilibrium, society relies on a variety of working parts. If Barack Obama succeeds at getting the country’s economy back on track, it will be because he finds solutions that enable the system to function as a whole.

In all likelihood, Obama will irritate people who still define themselves as being on the left. That’s because if his policies work, they will doubtless call not only for institutional reform, but a renewed sense of individual responsibility. Dealing with institutionalized unfairness will be essential; institutionalizing victimhood will be unaffordable.

It is widely believed that Obama’s campaign really took off in mid-September when the economic crisis became too obvious to ignore. If this is true, it’s not because America suddenly wanted a socialist president, or even a leftist. People voted for Obama because he seems like a problem-solver. This is the essence of politics. If that’s called a realignment, so be it.

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