Yesterday was historic for a number of reasons: Obama secured a solid win that gives him a second term that many had written off; his ‘coat tails’ and Republican intransigence combined to sweep a number of senate seats into the Democrat camp, thwarting Republican hopes of control and; other than minor advances, the Republicans failed at just about anything they tried.
While theoretical equivalences exist between Labour/Democrat and Tory/Republican, they don’t carry too far. The Democrats do get support from organised labour and the bulk of America’s many minorities. But over the last couple of decades, the Republicans have moved into what strikes outsiders as a kind of fervent religious jihad for the soul of America. Looked at from their hallowed perspective of individual liberties, small government, inalienble rights and irrepressible business initiative, their posture does make some kind of sense…
…until you look at the people who are promoting this. There are poor and there are non-white Republicans; but you see few. When their Founding Fathers set up their hallowed Constitution, the country was a blank slate scattered with farms and plantations. It took a people of guts and determination to build this 21st century superpower of 300m people; they needed the moral and legal encouragement to do that. But once you’ve paved over a good chunk of it with tract homes and shopping malls and strung them all together with eight-lane highways that never sleep, maybe its time to rethink your basic philosophy.
Many Americans are prepared to do that. And while not all of them are Democrats. there are precious few Republicans who seem to inhabit the changed world of 21st century America and staunchly justify an apparent extremism purely through copious quotes from the Constitution and the Bible in equal measures. While church and state are legally separate in the US, religion plays a big role in many people’s lives—and especially in Republicans. No church plays a bigger role than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons.
A short blog cannot do justice to their complex extension of the Protestant faith. They have grown in strength in the almost-two-centuries since they were led to found a new promised land that is now the state of Utah. And, while it would be a gross error to claim all Republicans to be Mormon, the reverse is broadly true and a strong thread of Christian belief runs through many other party members. It was strongly religious Republicans who forced teaching creationism alongside Darwinian evolution in schools across the South—also commonly known in much of the US as “the Bible Belt”.
For the last few decades, religion has grown in popularity among the wealthy and middle class from Orange County to New Hampshire. Separation or no, it has become common for the wealthy to tithe their church, send their children to private school & university and for a self-sustaining upper class to become more embedded in US society than the nobility can claim in Britain any more.
This, in turn, is leaving indelible marks on US society. Whereas fifty years ago in the simpler times of Eisenhower’s ‘Mad Men’ era America—an era Republicans look back on as a paradise lost—businessmen made bundles, farmers fed the world and Joe Sixpack still pulled a good wage down at the car plant, poverty was banished to an aberration—only small minorities, new immigrants and hillbillies suffered it. A sense of ever-growing wealth and comfort prevailed. The Republicans—especially their Mormon shock troops—hanker for those days. “We want our country back” is their common cry.
This is no place to argue the pros and cons of social programmes but it boils down to the Republicans wanting virtually none and the Democrats proposing ones that even Tories would find shame at their inadequacy. Add in deep Republican hostility to abortion, gay marriage and other matters considered elsewhere to issues of personal choice and you have what should a lively debate. Except this entire election was swamped with viciously personal TV ‘attack ads’ on a scale dwarfing any previous contest, leaving a bitter taste and a level of disinterest in the public directly blamed on the ads’ ferocity.
As money goes these days, $6bn may not seem like much but it’s $20 per head and 650 times the UK’s legal limit on election expenses. It’s also more than the GDP of a third of the world’s 200 countries. And what people got for it was an unedifying series of reasons why their opponent was pond scum.
When the dust settled yesterday, the surprise was that the Republican money machine had not made more inroads than it had. As expected, the South and MidWest went for Romney; the coasts and industrial North went for Obama. But, what was surprising is that, of the nine ‘swing states’—the marginal ones everybody agreed were ‘in play’ and would decide the election—the Republicans failed in all of them:
- Colorado (9 votes) 1,199,142 for Obama; 1,100,186 for Romney
- Florida (29 votes) 4,129,502 for Obama; 4,083,441 for Romney
- Iowa (6 votes) 816,174 for Obama; 462,422 for Romney
- Nevada (6 votes) 528,801 for Obama; 462,422 for Romney
- New Hampshire (4 votes) 335,004 for Obama; 300,241 for Romney
- Ohio (18 votes) 2,672,302 for Obama; 2,571,539 for Romney
- Pennsylvania (20 votes) 2,894,079 for Obama; 2,610,385 for Romney
- Virginia (9 votes) 1,852,123 for Obama; 1,745,397 for Romney
- Wisconsin (10 votes) 1,597,201 for Obama; 1,395,499 for Romney
None of the nine was a walkover for Obama and the most cliffhanger of all was the one with most votes at stake: Florida. But Romney HAD to win most of these to win the presidency. He threw everything he had at them—and failed. The Americans have their own cruel way of saying this: “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”.
Looking beyond the presidential contest, half the Senate were up for election and a couple of hundred House members. Given the leap forward they made in the mid-terms in 2010 when Republicans took control of the House, much was expected here too, with a Senate majority clearly in their sights. But it was not to be. Of the half-dozen pivotal campaigns two self-destructed on egregious (some say stupid) comments about abortion by the Republican candidate (Akin & Murdoch), Tommy Thompson’s well financed mud-slinging failed to prevent first openly lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren, blindingly best-qualified to become Massachusetts’ first woman Senator, stormed home.
Although not a massive defeat, it was such a comprehensively poor showing for the wide open intensity of right-wing politics backed by effectively limitless money that the more moderate voter can sleep a little more soundly. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling at the Supreme Court (who got into anthropology by claiming “corporations are people”), many moderates worried that the election would be “bought” by billionaire donors. But the savvy micro-targeting (and sheer gusto) of Obama’s money-raising machine proved them wrong.
Though not a massive defeat, it was decisive. In 2008, the Republicans stormed off to try a new tack, which meant a shift to the right, a home for no-compromise types in the Tea Party extreme and a thrawn determination to frustrate everything the Democrats and especially Obama tried to do. They succeeded in all three.
But, given the clarity of defeat at all levels, the more thoughtful Republicans (of whom many still exist) who have been holed up in fallout shelters across the country waiting for Sarah Palin and her fans to go away, just might now have a chance to reclaim their party and provide the thoughtful opposition America has lacked for the last four years. They do have such people—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who led a brilliant bipartisan recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is one.
The alternative—and this is where understanding American politics requires more than its usual leap of faith/understanding, the Democrats elected will know the Republicans are still loaded for bear and will use that lever to attach their own narrow requests to legislation or threaten to vote with the opposition. Such is the logic in this, the self-styled greatest democracy in the world.