Welcome To The New America
On the face of it, not much changed last night. After a campaign in which an estimated $2 billion was spent, the White House, Senate and House of Representatives are all in the same hands as they were when polls opened. But in a greater sense, last night signalled a significant shift in the United States; an important election, possibly even on par with Barack Obama’s monumental victory in 2008.
2008 shall forever be remembered as the year that the United States, merely 150 years after the abolition of slavery, 50 years after the outlawing of legalised segregation, did the unthinkable and elected a black president. It was a historic election; one that produced lasting memories of previously apathetic youths caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, and older black Americans who had grown up legally disenfranchised and had now not only been able to vote, but vote for someone of their colour. The overwhelming feeling was elation and disbelief that such a thing had happened in their lifetime.
Four years on, and much had changed. Barack Obama’s first term had passed, and with it much of the symbolic magnitude of voting for a black president. Obama had become an incumbent; and indeed a Democratic incumbent. While 2008 marked a break with two centuries of white presidents, it also signalled the end of eight years of the Republican George W. Bush. Much has been written about the persuasive power of Obama’s 2008 election slogans, ‘hope’ and ‘change’, but in our cynical analysis of their effectiveness, it is easy to miss just how low on hope and desperate for a change large sections of the nation were approaching the 2008 election. Obama certainly ran an impressive campaign, but it cannot be denied that he had fertile ground to work with.
This year, President Obama had none of this on his side. An incumbent cannot run on a platform of ‘change’; a president cannot rely on abstract notions of ‘hope’. Instead he had a record to defend and a simple appeal to the nation to let him finish what he had started; especially in the case of his ‘flagship policy’ of healthcare reform, which will not come into effect until 2014, or at all had Mitt Romney won the election. And this challenge of course came in the midst of the worst financial crisis in decades, with unemployment at 8% – a level that no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has managed to overcome to win reelection.
This was an election, therefore, free from the ‘weight of history’ and without favourable economic conditions to aid his campaign. It became, in short, about as clear a choice between competing visions for America as we have seen in living memory; and the President’s vision won.
This choice was not confined to the race for the White House either, but played out across the nation in Congressional races and other votes. It could be seen in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren beat incumbent Republican Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy’s old seat on a platform of Wall Street reform and progressive taxation. It could be seen in Wisconsin, where Tammy Baldwin became the nation’s first openly gay senator. It could be seen in Missouri and Indiana, where Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock respectively fell to defeats after making controversial and offensive statements about rape and abortion. It could be seen in Maine, Maryland and Washington, which approved gay marriage, and Colorado, which, with Washington, legalised marijuana.
Last night saw a comprehensive endorsement of a new American consensus. One to the left of what had come before; in which women, non-whites and young people were to have a greater say in the direction of their nation. A consensus forged not in favourable economic conditions, or the intoxicating historical enthusiasm of 2008; but in isolation, simply because it was time. In his victory speech last night, the President said:
We are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.
The evidence of last night would suggest he was right. All that remains, with this consensus behind him and a greater mandate than the one that George W. Bush famously claimed in 2004, is for the reinstalled President not to miss this opportunity to truly bring about a new America.