As the U.S. mid-term elections approach, it is easy to despair about the quality of this country’s political debate. Christine O’Donnell, the surprise Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for the Senate seat in Delaware, has captured the nation’s attention with her opposition to masturbation and a campaign ad in which she assures voters that she is neither a witch nor a graduate of Yale University. Here in New York, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, running for the governor’s office, has made his contribution to the carnival atmosphere by discussing his rival’s “prowess” and urging reporters to investigate whether he was a faithful husband.

Part of my job at the moment is appearing as a commentator on other people’s TV shows. Viewed from the green room or the studio, America’s political discourse can look particularly grim. I sometimes find myself in the role of finger-wagging, middle-aged scold calling for a discussion of global financial imbalances, rather than the latest juicy scandal or mockable example of political foot-in-mouth disease. TV producers, I’m afraid, find this schoolmarmish persona as unappealing as my kids do — and given the juicy alternatives available it is hard for me to blame them.

But the campaign trail has always been as much about providing a circus as it is about bread and butter issues. And, dipping just below the froth of the cable sound bites and the blogosphere, I’ve realized this campaign is actually revealing a country that is struggling seriously and passionately to come to grips with the very big issues it faces.

The first is America’s role in the world economy. After a century on top, this is the year when ordinary Americans have realized their country needs to re-establish a place for itself in the global economic order (unemployment at nearly 10 per cent is a powerful instructor). This epiphany doesn’t tend to express itself in measured debates about global financial imbalances or special drawing rights and the role they could play in creating a new reserve currency. Instead, the big focus has become China, with politicians in both parties arguing that the undervalued renminbi is a significant source of America’s woes and calling for a tough reaction, possibly including import tariffs.

Three economic mandarins I interviewed this week — Laura Tyson, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, Glenn Hubbard, a former advisor to President George W. Bush, and James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank — all told me that this China bashing was not entirely merited, and that it could have a counter-productive impact in Beijing. They are probably right. But it is always a mistake to confuse campaign advertisements with actual policies—most voters certainly don’t. And the fact that mainstreet Americans are grappling with their country’s changing role in the world — outsourcing is the theme of one of this season’s sitcoms — is significant and important.