Democrats and Republicans alike are failing to convince the American people that they have the answer to their country's problems. Underneath, however, lies a deeper intellectual confusion. The two most plausible visions developed by the US centre-left and centre-right – the "knowledge economy" and the "ownership society" – lie in tatters, leaving a void in America's discussion of its economic future.
On the right, the ownership society has been disowned. The idea began with Chicago School libertarian economists who in the 1960s and '70s devised elaborate private alternatives to the social insurance programme created by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. These ideas lay behind the April budget plan by Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House of Representatives budget committee.
Yet Mr Ryan's fellow Republicans rushed to distance themselves from his idea of replacing Medicare with insurance vouchers set to dwindle in value. This followed a speedy public repudiation of President George W. Bush's plan for partial privatisation of Social Security, the US public pension system, a few years back. Both events made clear that Americans do not share the right's vision of replacing public social insurance with private provision.
The fundamental blow to the ownership society, however, was the collapse of the bubble economy. Individual savings accounts, of the kind ownership society advocated, were devastated by the crash. The expansion of home ownership, pushed by Republicans and Democrats alike, also left millions of Americans "underwater."
Ironically, the closest thing to a victory for the concept was the 2009 healthcare reform passed by President Barack Obama, which was modelled on proposals made in the 1990s by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Republicans repudiated this approach for partisan reasons, at the price of intellectual consistency.
The collapse of this conservative vision should give the Democrats little comfort, however. Their idea of the knowledge economy is no more credible. According to 1990s "third way" progressives on both sides of the Atlantic, success in winner-take-all global markets would depend on human capital. Education was now to be what financial and real estate assets were to the ownership society.
Yet the story that President Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair told of college-educated individuals thriving in global labour markets was wrong. To begin with, America's professionals owe their relative affluence largely to their protection from offshoring or competition with immigrants.
Licensing laws limit entry to the guilds of lawyers, doctors and professors. These remain old-fashioned crafts, largely untouched by productivity-enhancing technology. Meanwhile, in the financial sector, bonuses have gone to old-fashioned speculators who bet with leveraged money, knowing the state will socialise their losses.
Most US job growth since the 1990s has been in three sectors: health, education and government. Nine of the 10 largest occupations earn less than the mean hourly wage. Those with the fastest growth are nurses, home health aides and customer service clerks. Middle-skill jobs with decent wages have disappeared, while downward mobility and unskilled immigration has swollen the low-wage domestic service sector.
America's struggling workforce faces mass unemployment, low pay, inadequate benefits and highly regressive taxation. The centre-right's ownership society and the centre-left's knowledge economy are irrelevant to these problems. It is an insult to tell struggling health aides and store clerks to supplement their income by investing in stocks. It is a cruel joke to tell most of them that they should go to college, become entrepreneurs and found start-ups.
But alternative strategies have their limits. Fostering American manufacturing can be justified on other grounds, but productivity growth ensures it will provide only a shrinking minority of jobs in the long run. America's anti-statist culture and regional and ethnic rivalries limit the kinds of redistribution, in the form of social programmes, public services or wage subsidies, that have been employed in many other developed countries.
Supporters of the ownership society and the knowledge economy alike have emphasised economic aspiration above economic security. That might have seemed plausible during the bubble years, but it does not fit the conditions of distressed workers in today's post-crash, slow-growth economy. Whatever forms the next conservatism and the next liberalism take in the US, they may be based as much on a politics of security as the politics of aspiration.