London? Oh, that's Eurasia

Richard Sennett explains that, with US voters looking for an "in-touch" president, knowledge of abro

At university, I endured a windbag lecturer - he must have left the heady port fumes of Oxford for the snows of Chicago because of some sex crime - who frequently trotted out a favourite cliche: Britons should play wise Greeks to the rude American-Romans ruling the world. Today it may seem that America rules the world as never before; global capitalism is equated with American imperialism.

But that's not how most of us Americans see it. Ordinary Americans in the middle ranks don't bear much resemblance to that mass of soldiers and petty bureaucrats who prospered whenever and wherever the Roman Empire triumphed. The booming economy, though it has allowed the top quarter to grow rich, has left the middle half with stagnant incomes. If you are 35 and making $35,000 a year (about £20,500), you survive on short-term consumer debt and second jobs. And unlike a Briton, an American in this position cannot easily get a mortgage; his or her assets, such as they are, lie in pension funds tied to the stock market.

If you are to understand the American elections - which begin with the New Hampshire primary on 1 February - and what they mean for the British and other Europeans, you need to understand all this. Americans do not debate generalities about capitalism, but there is nevertheless a sense of personal unease about "McWorld". Polls show that voters worry about four social consequences of the economy: adequate healthcare, good education, a dignified old age, and conflicts between work and family. The problem faced by politicians is how to translate such quality-of-life issues into votes.

Older American, or current European, definitions of left, centre and right are useless as a guide to how politicians will do this. A Euro-friendly Tory such as Kenneth Clarke would count as on the far left of the Democratic Party in America; Tony Blair would count as a rank socialist. But Americans no longer think in these terms. The real political spectrum ranges from near to far, from in-touch to out-of-touch. Voters, cynical about policies and programmes and about the wonks in the Washington Beltway, will judge a candidate on how much he understands about the struggles of everyday life, on how he connects to the human realities hidden beneath the crust of political convention. And this psychic space of politics connects to physical geography. An in-touch candidate is likely to be strong on local issues, an out-of-touch one on foreign matters.

Consider the fortunes of one fringe candidate, Patrick Buchanan. He is as neofascist as Jorg Haider in Austria on immigration. But Buchanan's drawing power extends beyond the loony right. He has an uncanny capacity to make personal the invasive dislocation of the new international political economy: the loss of manual jobs to Mexicans and other foreigners who sneak across our borders; the scheming power of international bankers and parasite European investors; the perfidy of all things dot-com. Buchanan's hatred of foreign incursion into America has struck a far more resonant chord than will ever be reflected in his poll numbers. He speaks for the American losers in global capitalism.

The Republican establishment certainly hears that chord resonate, and needs these voters. In the past, the Republican strategy for dealing with economic strain has been to deflect attention away from how national wealth is generated and to focus on how much of it individuals get to keep. The mantra of lower taxes has an in-touch, rather than abstract, bite in this election, because even minute changes in taxes matter to people living on bank overdrafts and credit cards.

But proposals to demonise immigrants or cut taxes are perceived as too noxious, or as insufficient weapons in the struggle for survival. George W Bush, the Republican candidate who will most likely become the next president, has himself understood the poverty of these solutions. This is why he has broken with the Reagan era's dry, hard conservatism, and has instead advocated what he calls "compassionate conservatism".

Compassionate conservatism isn't the same as the "compassion with a hard edge" that Blair announced at the Labour Party conference in 1997. Bush's version of compassion involves voluntary local organisations, particularly churches, in the administration of the welfare state. Blair's version focuses on tightening up the welfare state itself, making it more business-like; he has no plans for Church of England parishes to supplant the NHS in providing post-hospital care. As a policy, compassionate conservatism responds to economic strain and the need for general welfare by advocating voluntary communal, local effort rather than national planning.

The problem in the US is whether this will do any good. The problem in Britain is how this way of being locally in-touch will translate into dealing with abroad. Bush, the governor of Texas, has the temperament for connecting with local life. The nation state has been like a foreign country to him; actual foreign countries are even more foreign. On the surface, Bush makes obeisance to his father's internationalism; occasionally in his campaign speeches, as in his printed policy bumf, he declares "no American withdrawal from the world". But he is the quintessential provincial; his heart is not in it. Nor, unfortunately, is his head. The campaign literature refers to "Eurasia", a concept equivalent to the old-fashioned English colonel's image of "abroad". Eurasia stretches from St Ives to Vladivostok but, though Bush is worried about Russia and China, the rest seems just one big blur of Niketowns and hotels.

If, then, Buchanan stands for a local reality hostile to the outside world, Bush represents a kinder version, not knowing much or caring much about the outside. Al Gore, by contrast, is a man who thinks big - globally rather than locally - and he has got himself into a real mess by doing so.

Gore, like Bush, has suffered dynasty-anxiety throughout his life. Gore's father was a distinguished senator who behaved with great political courage during the Vietnam war. When I taught Gore at Harvard 30 years ago, he was worrying about being valued for himself; his recent career has only compounded those worries. The initial brotherly relations between Clinton and Gore could not long survive the brute fact that Clinton is the boss.

Gore has sought to carve out a place of his own by simultaneously championing ecology, high technology and free global markets. It's obviously hard to be both green and free-market, but Gore has found it equally hard to square his environmental beliefs with his stands on technology. He once foolishly claimed credit for fathering the Internet. Young people who might be well disposed to Gore on trees certainly do not identify him with the youthful hacker culture; rather, with the bankers financing the Internet. Of the three issues on which Gore has staked his claim to recognition, the public most associates him with the market: Nafta (a free-trade agreement in North America), the World Trade Organisation, big deals brokered in Washington - all distant and disturbing.

Gore has trouble translating his concerns into local, lived realities because he is so poor an orator. He follows a president who has a genius for establishing instant intimacy with strangers, who could talk to voters as neighbours. Clinton escaped being held responsible for the wave of downsizings and redundancies that marked his years in office precisely because of his almost uncanny capacity to sympathise with the limitations ordinary people encounter, with the failure of their dreams. Gore has to work at public intimacy as though learning a foreign language.

Of all the candidates in this election, Gore knows the most about Europe; he is well versed and well connected in Britain. But his very competence abroad is a potential liability. He can't risk seeming even farther away from ordinary life.

To protect himself, he has wrapped himself around the military in the conduct of foreign affairs, hoping to kindle the patriotic flame - a chilling fact too little noticed in the British press. "All my career, I have stood for a strong national defence," he recently declared, adding immediately, "America must remain the world's strongest force for peace, freedom, free markets and an ever-widening circle of humanity dignity." If I were in the British Foreign Office, an American president seeking popularity through linking free markets to guns would cause me sleepless nights.

There's nothing new about countries turning inward during times of strain. But ordinary Americans today are struggling with a paradox: how to get by in the midst of a boom. Our leaders offer no grand debate on how prosperity relates to equality, security and quality of life. Without that debate, there is indeed nowhere else to turn than to the local and the personal. We'll probably have four years of George Bush; for the same reasons that make him electable, Britain will be consigned for the next four years to Eurasia.

The writer, now professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, was formerly at New York University