Aging white guys at some important newspapers have hit upon a bizarre interpretation of the election returns: nothing much changed. Peter Baker of The New York Times: “When all the shouting is done, the American people have more or less ratified the status quo.” Say what? Baker seems like a smart enough reporter but this analysis is so stupid, he must be in post-partum shock.
George Will, always cynical and condescending, has ratified Peter Baker. In a Washington Post column headlined “The Status Quo Prevails,” Will observed: “A nation vocally disgusted with the status quo has reinforced it by ratifying existing control of the executive branch and both halves of the legislative branch.”
Lest anyone miss the point, the editors of the Post instructed their readers: “A status quo election result should spur both parties to compromise.” Compromise—that’s the ticket. By which they mean our re-elected president should punish the very people who re-elected him. The Post’s editorial bizarrely explained its reasoning. The 2012 presidential election was nearly a tie! “Just about half of voters—50.4 percent —supported President Obama. Just about half didn’t.”
Well, no, not exactly. Obama won in a landslide in the only contest that counts—the competition for the 270 electors needed to win the presidency. Obama has won 303 electoral votes so far and will get beyond 330 if his lead in Florida is sustained by the final count. The Electoral College is of course heavily biased to favor smaller states with far less population, so the president actually triumphed despite the odds against him.
Why are white guys so reluctant to give him credit? Because the 2012 election was a profound watershed in the life of the nation. Whatever else President Obama accomplishes or fails to accomplish in his second term, his re-election is in some ways even more significant than his initial triumph in 2008. He will be forever remembered as the president who opened America to a different future—more promising and fulfilling, more just and democratic than anything achieved in the American past.
It may be easier to see this if you ask: Who lost? Forget Romney and the Republicans. The real loser was the bitter legacy of “white supremacy.” That poisonous prejudice has endured in political reality and the national culture for two centuries. It still does, though it is now cultivated most zealously only by white Southerners who took over the party of Abraham Lincoln (who surely weeps for his Grand Old Party).
In 2012, white supremacy not only lost the election. It was a crucial factor in explaining how Obama won. Good for Obama and really good for the American people. Whose “status quo” are these pundits clinging to forlornly? Maybe their own. They have typically belittled the struggles by excluded minorities as “identity politics.” Well, yes, these people intend to be identified as citizens, fully endowed with the rights any other American enjoy. This election confirmed their goal.
The re-election of a black president is the most precious fact of 2012, perhaps even more significant than his original election in 2008. If Obama had lost, a wise history professor pointed out to me, it would have taken many years, probably many decades, before either major party would ever again dare to nominate a person of color for president. Black Americans understood this, probably better than most of us white folks. So did Latinos, Asians and a whole bunch of other “minority” voters. African-Americans might have had quarrels or disappointments with Obama, but they understood their historic stakes in winning a second term for him.
Obama has instead cleared a path for a very different American future. Generations from now, people of all sorts will be able to look back and say this is where it began, a new drama of self-realization now available to many once-excluded Americans and the new politics that they can generate.
Think about how children will interpret this event. For many millions, their dreams and personal ambitions are enlarged by this election. If Obama had lost, wise guys would have dismissed his presidency as a fluke, even a disaster. The kids know better, don’t they?
There are many other losers to acknowledge. Male supremacy is one of them. We cannot yet say the patriarchy is defeated, but its ancient dominance is disintegrating, both at home and in the workplace and in politics. Did the media bean-counters who think nothing important has changed notice the changing complexion and gender of elected representatives and senators? Or the fact that clear-thinking voters are now able to disregard the hoary taboos against gay men and lesbian women? The question is not about whom they can marry. It is whether they will become our trustworthy governors.
We should also celebrate another deep shift underway in politics—the arrival of the new Americans—that is actually a very old story in American history. This chapter involves some of the same injustices and abuses that earlier generations of immigrants encountered. They have always had to dig in and fend for themselves, do the gritty hard work to insure their children’s brighter future (one more thing about Americans Mitt Romney did not understand).
It always takes a generation or longer for the new Americans to gain the self-confidence and courage to step up and demand their rightful political power as citizens. But, look around, they are doing so right now. Reactionary Republicans saw their privileged “status quo” changing big-time in the 2012 election returns.Two or three generations ago, it was the Irish or Russian Jews or Italians and Polish struggling for their rightful place. In the election of 1928, they voted for Al Smith, the first Irish Catholic nominated for president. He lost that election but his politics defined the future of the Democratic party.
A friend of mine joked that Mexican immigrants are becoming the new Irish of our times and the Chinese immigrants the new Jews. Of course, every story is different, yet in some ways we are all alike.
The other big losers of course are the money guys—the billionaires who thought they could buy our election. No doubt they will try again, but now we know we can defeat them with old-fashioned door-to-door people-first politics. Organized money loses to organized people—that is the formula for our future politics. One hopes Supreme Court justices are reading the election returns. Those justices who regularly vote with the billionaires may ask themselves whether their ‘status quo” is in trouble too.
For more on the demographic shift and Obama's re-election, read the lead editorial in the latest issue of The Nation.