Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Election 2012: The postwar world

A WEEK after the bright dividing line of a transformative presidential election, the country is hunkering down behind shorter days, longer nights, the first hints of winter weather to come, and the wait to implement the dueling political interpretations of America that made the election what it was.

Effective as of yesterday's start of the lame-duck session of Congress, we’re now in a transition period; the officers of the 113th Congress have been decided since Nov. 6, but they can’t take office before the end of the 112th Congress. This year it’s also an interregnum between iterations of the Obama administration, and a relative lull after the storm of the most consequential national vote in decades. Call it another kind of postwar period, if you like (a lull before the next combat, about the Bush tax cuts).

But there are signs that, on matters from taxes to immigration reform to the way the Republican Party generally relates to the half of the nation that doesn’t look like its base, the GOP intends to devote some time to giving itself a serious talking-to, rethinking its identity and its relationship with the millions of voters who will determine its destiny. You know... voters that don’t look like its base.

There’s also proof that some Americans are having a hard time processing what just happened a week ago, and are expressing their confusion and outrage in predictable and sadly surprising ways.

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You knew something was up when William Kristol, columnist and regent of modern conservatism, went on Fox News Sunday and said, “You know what? It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won’t, I don’t think.”

The idea that a conservative icon could kick one of the GOP’s eternal pieties to the curb would have been unthinkable a year or two ago. So would the ideas of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who may have fired the biggest broadside on the pre-election GOP in a Monday interview with Politico. Message to Republicans: “Stop being the stupid party.”

“We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything,” Jindal said. “We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.”

Jindal, who’s been mentioned as a presidential prospect for 2016, laid into his party’s bad behavior in the previous campaign, and did so with a refreshing candor and conviction.

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“It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

“Simply being the anti-Obama party didn’t work. You can’t beat something with nothing. The reality is we have to be a party of solutions and not just bumper-sticker slogans but real detailed policy solutions.”

(It'll be interesting to see how the Ivy League-educated Jindal reconciles this call to reason, this petition for an end to “dumbed-down conservatism,” with his own status as a champion of creationism in the classroom. Expect an evolution over the next four years.)

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WHILE IT’S been underway in the United States for decades, this seismic transition in American politics — a shift of age, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation to a wider, more tolerant social agenda, and the Democratic candidates that embraced that agenda — was formally announced with the demographic breakdown of voters in the election. It was an eye-opening series of revelations:

Barack Obama won re-election as president with only 39 percent of white voters; he swept to victory over Mitt Romney with 93 percent of African American support, 71 percent of Latino voters, 73 percent of Asian American voters, 60 percent of the voters under 30, and 55 percent of women.

This combination — and a subset of Catholics, LGBT Americans, young veterans, union workers and independent voters — is the basis of a new power demographic equation in the United States, one that holds immense leverage over the national future ... and one that, for the second time in as many election cycles, won the White House without a majority of the white vote.

For true believers in the historical centers of America’s political, cultural and social gravity, that’s not a wake-up call. That’s a wake-up bomb.

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As a voting bloc with authority to sway elections, evangelicals found their political power similarly under siege this election, their impact diluted not by any flood tide of atheistic values seeping into the American soul, but by the same tectonic shift in American demographics that blindsided the Republican Party with whom evangelicals find common cause.

Author Jonathan Merritt, writing in The Atlantic, offers two sound reasons for the decline in evangelicals’ punch at the ballot box:

“First, evangelicals’ size is a limitation. While white evangelicals comprised a quarter of the electorate, other religious groups that lean Democratic have grown substantially. Hispanic-American Catholics, African-American Protestants, and Jewish-Americans voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers. Additionally, the ‘nones’ -- those who claim no religious affiliation -- are now the fastest growing ‘religious’ group, comprising one-fifth of the population and a third of adults under 30. Seven out of 10 ‘nones’ voted for Obama.

“Second, evangelicals’ influence is waning. Conservative Christian ideas are failing to shape the broader culture. More than 3,500 churches close their doors every year, and while Americans are still overwhelmingly spiritual, the institutional church no longer holds the sway over their lives it once did. The sweeping impact of globalization and the digital age has marginalized the church and its leaders.”

Shaun Casey, professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, made it plain for Merritt: “The understanding that the evangelical vote is a kingmaking vote, I think, is now dead.”

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THAT’S NOT the only assumption that’s being disproved. Until recently, some conservative analysts have satisfied themselves with the idea that the change in American politics begun in 2008 was a one-off phenomenon, something specific to the frisson of Obama-as-first-black-president. The expiration date would kick in, they reasoned; the bloom would be off the rose eventually. The surge would fade.

That ended on Election Night. With Obama’s second convincing presidential victory, and the deeper inroads his campaign made into a host of American cohorts, there was evidence that it’s not just about Obama. Down-ticket victories by African American, women and gay candidates; and voter approval of marriage equality in three states (and marijuana decriminalization in two) prove that this demand for a new and more populist politics is transferable beyond the Obama White House.

The change underway in America is bigger than Barack Obama, and it always was. The election, in its impact in various state races, proved that without a doubt.

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Big-ass civic earthquakes like this are a lot to get the head around all at once, and some people aren't taking it well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Americans in at least 20 states have filed petitions to let their states secede from the United States.

“While most of the petitions come from states that supported Mitt Romney in last week’s election, a few swing states and even the deep blue Northeast are represented,” The Post reported.

“Petitions have been filed for Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.”

That’s one way to express displeasure with what went down on Election Night. Another one lets pictures tell the story of that displeasure.

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A new tumblr site, White People Mourning Romney, which surfaced within a day or two of the election, is a collection of downbeat photographic and screenshot reactions to Mitt Romney’s defeat.

The site, which hit 2 million viewers on Sunday (with 16 percent of them returning viewers), shows Romney supporters on Election Night despondent, aghast, resigned, some in tears at the sign that Romney had lost the election. As they watch the results on television, many of them clutching smartphones, they generally adopt a look of sad astonishment and resignation to events more in line with what you’d see at the funeral of a friend.

“[T]he people featured here aren't crying about a lost election. They truly appear to be mourning the death of a country, or at least the idea of the country they've long held to be true,” writes Mychal Denzel Smith in The Root.

“Obama's re-election is not the death of America -- it's a signal that a new America is emerging,” Smith writes. “For the mourning white people in those photos, however, the two are one and the same. This new America, in which a majority-white vote doesn't rule the day, is foreign and unappealing to those whose privilege comes under greater scrutiny with each passing moment.”

“White People Mourning Romney shows that there are still people who would rather deny those voices. They want their country back, the one that was promised to them by virtue of their being born white. They're not interested in sharing. And while the impulse is to dismiss them as relics, they still hold sway in the modern Republican Party.”

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AND MAYBE this gets at the real issue, what was really overthrown on Election Night: the sense of entitlement that Romney’s campaign cultivated. For the first time, white Americans realize what the election only confirmed: the American social equation is rapidly changing. White America is no longer automatically considered the source of the “average American,” the nation’s presumptive existential baseline.

The notion of certain American groups being cast in the role of outsider, outlier, trespasser — The Other — is one whose currency in the social contract is running out fast. The results of the Nov. 6 election were no accident, not an anomaly or the product of some extraconstitutional convulsion, and sure as hell not “the death of America.” This orderly expansion of citizen participation, this example of democracy as praxis is exactly what the Framers envisioned (if not exactly what they expected).

In the partisan din of the last eighteen months, it’s been easy to overlook how the national mosaic reinforces the American charter, rather than diminishing it. Contrary to the noise that says otherwise, the emerging dynamics of this country are a collective unifying factor; the seemingly disparate components of the American identity are ironically what bind us together — they’re what keep the United States from becoming the Untied States.

The evolving American experiment is an opportunity for white America, and everyone else in this country, to celebrate and accept two immutable facts: No one race, creed or color defines the American experience. And no one race, creed or color ever did.

Image credits: Bobby Jindal: Gage Skidmore, via Wikipedia. Romney reaction images from White People Mourning Romney. Evangelicals: via

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