The weekend’s ‘dead tree media’ the length of the States is replete with analysis on the unexpectedly complete victory for Obama and his party. The totality offers cold comfort to either Mitt Romney or the Republicans he led for an interlocking variety of reasons. But, rather than list them, more interesting is to gawp at the scale of denial that has settled over most right-wing centres from RedState website to unwavering media like Fox News and all shades of support in between.
For, in the run-up and on the night, Republican sources were loud, adamant and consistent that the election was theirs. The announcements, ads and tones of their commentators had evangelical fire and undoubted sense that this was America’s last chance at salvation. Now, claiming you’re in the running is no bad tactic to tip any election on a knife edge. But this one drifted into a kind of dual reality that did neither democracy, nor its local exponents, much good.
Most people accept that both Obama and his campaign lacked the fire they showed 2008, the sense of mission to bring about change in the way American is run. They lost the first debate and were not getting across why a second term would not be stymied in action by the same malicious forces marshalled against him the first time. But it soldiered on targeting swing states, amassing funds through millions of small donations and rightly getting brickbats for not raising the game in either policy or presentation.
The Republicans appeared to be making much of the running. Not only did they outspend their opponents but they had several high-profile advocates like the ‘shock-jock’ Rush Limbaugh and the ever-accommodating Fox Network who would provide a platform for whichever spokesperson the Romney camp wanted in front of the public. Notable this time was the fact that MSNBC established itself as a credible channel, despite heavy ‘liberal’ taunts from Republicans, CNN managed a balanced coverage (even if staccato and glitzy by UK standards) and that, in the end, the professionalism of even Fox’s news team outweighed the loyalties of station owners (Fox anchor Megyn Kelly boosted their credibility by directly asking REP heavyweight Carl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?”)
And, while both parties are prone to ‘going off the reservation’—i.e. having candidates say idiosyncratic things because the idea of a manifesto here is flexible at best—both Romney and his Republican troops were as unified as any US campaign has seen. The hit list of acceptable policies: pro-church, pro-life, pro-guns, pro-rights, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, etc was long agreed. Their common song sheet was one they knew well and had sung from in harmony before:
- America is the greatest nation of the planet and its citizens the most blessed
- The Constitution is sacrosanct and basically unimprovable
- Its Christian ethics of hard work, independence and self-reliance show how to live
- Traditional white patriarchal societies are prosperity’s backbone and future
- Government interference in medical and social programmes undercut motivation
- Taxing for redistribution is socialism and objectionable—people must keep earnings
- Abroad has nothing to teach—Europe invented communism and is sick with socialism
For European ears, it is all rather simplistic and verging on the naive. But the power with which messages were sent and the enthusiasm across sections of the public with which they were received was more pronounced than any previous election. The result was an unprecedented polarisation of the vote. The manifested itself in three emphatic ways:
- Policy: Several questions comparing 4 years ago posed (by the NY Times) to those who voted DEM or REP came back with huge differences. “Do you think things in the country are better today?” DEM” 94% Yes/REP 84% No; “Who’s to blame for the current situation?” DEM 85% Bush/REP 94% Obama; “Should we expand or repeal the 2010 Health Care Law (a.k.a. ‘Obamacare’)? DEM 92% Expand/REP 93% Repeal.
- Race: While everyone was careful to avoid playing the race card, the REP appeal to traditional white middle-class was monotonic and, many feel counterproductive. Despite winning a 20% lead in the white vote, they lost. This was because the non-white vote went solidly DEM—93% of black, 69% of latino and 74% of Asians went for Obama. And, given that the latino segment had grown from 8 to 10% and the Asian from 2 to 3% of all voters, this is an electoral flood the Republicans ignored at their peril.
- Women. While Republicans make passionate claims to be the champions of family values, they lost traction among women voters—or, as some feisty activists were calling themselves, “The Maginity”. There were more women than men voters and Obama won easily among them with 53% of the vote. Many Republicans admitted that remarks made about rape by their candidates damaged their chances, Tina Fey commenting “If I have to listen to one more grey-faced man with a $2 haircut explain to me what rape is I’m going to lose my mind!”
There is currently little sign that the Republicans have yet gathered rather basic lessons from all this—that they need to be less extreme and paternalistic, more inclusive, socially less conservative and more flexible on policy. Unfortunately, responses from the more extreme wing, such as the Tea Party have proclaimed no new taxes, no more Obamacare and tough immigration as the basis for even starting talks. Jenny Beth Martin, National Co-ordinator of the Tea Party Patriots has already declared:
“What we got was a weak, moderate candidate hand-picked by the beltway elite/country-club establishment. The presidential loss is unequivocally theirs; the Tea Party is the last best hope America has to restore her founding principles.”
It is difficult to see a joint way forward to deal with the fiscal cliff that looms over the US budget at the end of the year when one party is so intransigent. But the stand-off is as real and urgent as the need to knuckle down and negotiate a solution.
On top of all this, it was amusing to read UK analyses from various Tory bloggers and mouthpieces, dismissing any possible lesson to be learned from either the US campaign or from its fairly decisive result. While it may be true that some right-wing extremism displayed is quintessentially American and much else has been diverted into either UKIP or the BNP, a fundamental mistrust of foreign experience, a cavalier clinging to past glories well beyond their “bury-by” date and a Pavlovian circling of mental wagons when local natives are actually making friendly overtures rather than seeking scalps, all seem to fall into the what-could-be-learned box.
Europe is blessed looking forward to four years with an outward-looking, pragmatic and determined regime across the pond. In that time, a resurgent US economy could pull us all out of a fiscal hole, a realistic attitude to terror could wind up Afghanistan and put the West on a better footing to be the engine to spread prosperity not just to the BRICs but to the long-suffering Middle East and Africa.
But somewhere between Salt Lake City and the Mississippi heartlands of the Bible Belt, they need to really re-examine the basis on which their country was built, to recognise: that separation of church & state is a good idea; that all people benefit when everyone in the country feels they have a stake in its success; that a country enabling anyone to make good is the one likely to do well for everyone. It’s what their Founding Fathers believed. Get all 300m to believe it and there will be no stopping them.