A presidential debate watch party put on by the South Orange County Tea Party in Dana Point, Calif. Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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 was done, the American people on Tuesday more or less ratified the status quo.” Say what? Baker seems like a smart enough reporter, but his analysis is so stupid, he must be in postpartum shock. George Will, always cynical and condescending, echoes Baker. In a Washington Post column, 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 president should punish the very people who re-elected him.
Why are white guys so reluctant to give Barack Obama credit? Because the 2012 election was a crucial watershed in the life of the nation. Obama’s re-election is in some ways even more significant than his initial triumph in 2008. If he had lost, historian Lawrence Goodwyn pointed out to me, it would have taken many years—probably many decades—before either major party dared to nominate a person of color for president again. 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 the historic stakes in winning a second term for him. Otherwise, he would have been dismissed as a fluke. Whatever else he accomplishes or fails to accomplish in his second term, Obama will be forever remembered as the president who opened America to a different future—more promising and fulfilling, more just and democratic, than ever before.
Who lost? Forget Romney and the Republicans: the real loser was white supremacy. That poisonous prejudice has endured in our national culture for two centuries. It still does, though it is now mostly cultivated by white Southerners who have taken over the party of Lincoln.
So whose “status quo” are these pundits clinging to? Maybe their own. They have typically belittled struggles by excluded minorities as “identity politics.” Well, yes, these people do intend to be identified as citizens, fully endowed with the rights other Americans enjoy. This election confirmed their goal.
Another big loser was male supremacy. The patriarchy isn’t defeated, of course, but its ancient dominance is disintegrating—at home, in the workplace and in politics. And clear-thinking voters now firmly reject discrimination against gays and lesbians. The question is not just about whom they can marry; it is whether they will become our trusted governing officials. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin became the nation’s first openly gay senator—and the man elected to succeed her in the House is also gay.
The complexion of who governs us is changing in remarkable ways. We have just elected our first woman senator from Hawaii, who is also our first Buddhist, Mazie Hirono. And the woman who won the House seat she vacated, Tulsi Gabbard, will be the first Hindu member of Congress; according to The Hill, she plans to take the oath of office on the Bhagavad-Gita. For the first time ever, women and minorities will be the majority of House Democrats.
We should celebrate another deep shift in politics—the arrival of new Americans—that is actually a very old story in our history. This chapter involves some of the same injustices that earlier generations of immigrants encountered. They have always had to dig in and fend for themselves, do the hard work to ensure that their children’s future is brighter than theirs (one more thing Romney did not understand). It always takes a generation or longer for new Americans to gain the self-confidence and courage to demand their rightful power as citizens. In an earlier era it was the Irish, Jews, Italians and others from Europe. 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 joked that Mexicans are the new Irish, Chinese are the new Jews. Or is it the Palestinians? Each American story is different, yet also seems alike.
The other big losers, of course, are the money guys—the billionaires who thought they could buy the election. No doubt they will try again, but now we know we can beat them with old-fashioned door-to-door politics. Organized people defeat organized money: that’s the formula for our future politics. One hopes our Supreme Court justices are reading the election returns. Those justices who vote with the billionaires may ask themselves whether their status quo is in trouble, too.
In last week’s issue, William Greider asked, “Can the Federal Reserve Help Prevent a Second Recession?”… and provided Nation readers with board members’ e-mail addresses.