Thursday November 15 2012

US elections: Mugged by reality

The US presidential election of 2012 is less interesting for the victory of Barack Obama than for the debacle of the Republican Party, writes Jim Creegan

Barak Obama and Mitt Romney: minorities make a majority

By controlling the purse strings of the two major parties, the American ruling class nearly always manages to make sure that electoral politics remains inside the narrow bounds of bourgeois opinion. But the ruling class itself is a numerically insignificant slice of the electorate.

Within the prescribed bounds, therefore, each of the two major parties must rely for votes upon different blocs within an ethnically, regionally and economically heterogeneous population. Whilst the Democrats tend to lean for support upon minorities, women, union members, students and urban professionals, the Republican core consists of older white males, particularly in the southern and less industrialised midwestern states. On November 6, the Republican coalition ran headlong against the country’s changing social and demographic realities.

The election on the whole was by no means a Democratic landslide. Barack Obama won the popular vote by only 50.4% to Mitt Romney’s 48.1% (the other votes having gone to small parties), with the overall turnout estimated at around 60% of eligible voters - lower than the last presidential election in 2008. The pattern, however, is unmistakable. Romney captured nearly 60% of the white vote, while Obama lost 3% of white support compared to 2008. Yet in every other major voter category, Obama prevailed by wide margins: among blacks (93%); Hispanics (71%); Asians (73%); youth 18-29 (60%); women (55%).

The overwhelming minority preference for Obama would not have been decisive in decades past. In 1988, for instance, George Bush I obtained a crushing majority in the electoral college with 60% of the white vote. Since then, however, Hispanics have increased by more than 43%, making up over 16% of the total population, and the country’s largest minority group. It was the Hispanic vote that tipped the scales in the Democrats’ favour in two battleground states that could formerly be counted upon to deliver solid Republican majorities: Nevada and, crucially, Colorado. The non-Cuban Latino vote (mostly Puerto Rican) was also critical in putting Florida in the Obama column. In all the important swing states but one (North Carolina), Obama ran the table.

Blacks turned out in even greater numbers than in 2008, despite, or maybe because of, widespread Republican attempts to disenfranchise them.1 The constant barrage of insults and attacks directed at minorities and women seems to have backfired. Despite her exaggeration of black-brown-female solidarity, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd captures an important aspect of this election:

 

Romney and the Tea Party loonies dismissed half the country as chattel and moochers who did not belong in their ‘traditional’ America. But, the more they insulted the president with birther cracks, the more they tried to force chastity belts on women, and the more they made Hispanics, blacks and gays feel like the help, the more these groups burned to prove that, knitted together, they could give the dead-enders of white male domination the boot.2

Despite the fact that they voted for a candidate who will not, in our opinion, serve their interests, the refusal of minority voters to lie down for assaults on their most fundamental democratic right, attested to by their willingness to stand for five or six hours in many queues deliberately made longer to discourage their participation, can only be applauded. Applauded also should be the workers who defied the threats of many employers who, making use of the freedom of political advocacy granted by the supreme court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision, sent letters to their employees lauding Romney and threatening redundancies if Obama won.

While Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives (though they lost four seats to Democrats), the Democrats increased their Senate majority by one. Among the winning Democratic Senate candidates were Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, a bank regulation champion and left-liberal favourite, as well as Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, also a prominent figure on the party’s left, as well as the first openly declared lesbian to serve in Congress. Both prevailed in visible and hotly contested races.

The results of various state ballot initiatives were more mixed. Proposals to end capital punishment and require companies to label genetically modified foods went down to defeat in California, as did a Michigan proposition to make union bargaining rights for public employees part of the state constitution. On the other side of the ledger, three states voted to legalise gay marriage, one to approve the use of medical marijuana, and two to legalise marijuana tout court (putting them in conflict with Obama’s attorney general, who continues to enforce federal anti-drug laws in all states, despite what may be decided locally).

Post-election trauma

The inevitable post-defeat upheaval in the Republican ‘Grand Old Party’ has already begun. The shock with which top GOP operatives, and reportedly the Romneys themselves, reacted to growing evidence of their election-night discomfiture - Karl Rove, a top party strategist, threw a minor tantrum on Fox television when the network called Ohio in favour of Obama - indicates that their loudly proclaimed predictions of Republican victory were more than the usual campaign bluster.

Just as the rich live walled off from everyone else in their gated communities, their political minions also seemed so insulated within their alternate universe that they had actually convinced themselves that Romney had the momentum, and that a Republican landslide was at hand. They were unable to absorb the solid, statistically based predictions of their failure that abounded in the weeks and months preceding the final verdict of the polls. The results were a rude intrusion from the “reality-based community” that one advisor to George W Bush famously scorned - an intrusion that the party as a whole will not digest without much inner turmoil.

No sooner had Obama been declared the victor than the spin doctors of the Fox network began to offer their rationales and remedies. News show host Bill O’Reilly opined that the rout was due to growing numbers of poor Hispanics, who want all manner of free “stuff” from the government (unlike banks and corporations, renowned for their selfless civic virtue). His colleague, Sean Hannity, declared that his position on immigration had “evolved” over the last 24 hours, and that the GOP needed a new, more accommodating policy toward illegal aliens.

While they did grasp the fact that the election results were partly due to the changing ethnic make-up of the US, it never seemed to occur to these media demagogues that there is one thing that blacks, Hispanics and many Asians have in common: they are mostly working class people who may just have been a trifle put off by Republican aspersions on their moral character and plans to reduce their benefits. What ails the party is far too deep to be cured with a single, superficial policy fix.

Obama prevailed in the face of strong headwinds - not only those of enduring white discomfort with a black man at the helm. The still-depressed economy, combined with the billions of political action committee super-dollars poured into the effort to defeat him, would, under more typical circumstances, have added up to a one-term presidency. The atypical element in this equation was the rightwing yahooism of the Republican Party, with its reliance on white resentment and bourgeois individualism on steroids.

This extreme posture did not appear overnight, but is the result of a steady rightward motion over the course of decades. It began when the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson responded to civil rights agitation by promulgating two key pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing most forms of racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act, giving the franchise to millions of southern blacks hitherto excluded from elections under the reign of Jim Crow. These initiatives drove millions of southern whites - the so-called Dixiecrats, up to then a bulwark of the Democratic Party - into the arms of a GOP fully willing to take advantage of the opportunity. Their Democratic votes were replaced by those of newly enfranchised southern blacks.

The second event was the decision of the Democrats under Bill Clinton to adopt the openly pro-business attitudes previously associated with the Republicans, compelling the latter to rely more heavily on the fear and anger of those who were losing status in an evolving society. The country club Republican of the 50s and 60s gave way to the beleaguered redneck as the representative party figure.

As it had in the past, a majority of the ruling class put its money on Romney to ride white resentment and middle class anxiety into the White House, from which he planned greatly to accelerate the demolition of the ‘new deal’ and the capitalist empowerment long under way. Now Romney’s backers cannot avoid the conclusion that they bet on the wrong horse. No amount of anonymous campaign contributions, attack adverts, or robo-calls could convince the fast-growing non-white population that they were inferior, or the majority of wage-earners that they were parasites. The politics of resentment and Randian selfishness have proven themselves, perhaps irrevocably, to be a losing proposition.

Yet what for corporate executives and bankers is simply a matter of withdrawing from a bad investment and reconfiguring their portfolios is, for the millions they have helped stir into frenzies of hatred, a question of abandoning their most cherished beliefs - something they will not be easily persuaded to do. The Tea Party Republicans will not go away, and will not be inclined to follow the more corporate-loyal party elements along the path to greater moderation that the latter will no doubt attempt to steer. The scene is therefore set for some stormy times in what has till now been the preferred party of big business.

Austerity of inclusion

Finally, it is a testament to the genius of the two-party system - from the bourgeois standpoint, anyway - that when the politics of frontal class attack are rejected by large masses of people, their suffrages are channelled not to the support of candidates who genuinely oppose such an agenda, but to those who, sometimes under the cover of opposition, aim to pursue it by subtler and more devious means. Such a politician is Barack Obama.

He has been accused by the Republicans of wanting to reorganise American politics along European, ‘socialist’ lines. There is, Republican claims notwithstanding, no socialism in Europe, and Obama would have no interest in importing it if there were. The accusation nevertheless contains a particle of truth. No major European bourgeois faction is now pushing the drastic austerity being imposed on several countries on the basis of ethnic hatred or the open assertion of class privilege. As Mark Fisher pointed out in a recent article, the prevailing capitalist realism is not the same as it was before 2008:

 

Then it had a bullish quality that declared: ‘Either you get on board with us or you’re a sad loser who will die drinking meths in a gutter - if you’re lucky.’ Since 2008, it has had a more desperate quality, which is what lies behind the ostensibly inclusive rhetoric of ‘We’re all in it together’. In other words, if we do not all pull together, we will all go down - rather different from the previous implication that anyone who does not come on board will just be crushed beneath the juggernaut of capital.3

 

Among other failings, the Republicans attempted to deploy a pre-2008 rhetoric in a post-2008 country - one in which greater numbers are realising that their prospects of joining an ever narrower winners’ circle are steadily fading.

We can now look forward to a greater normalisation of American politics. Left-liberals are crowing that the election results give Obama an opportunity to fight for the changes he was reluctant to champion during his first term for fear of being denied a second one. But the president will no doubt interpret the results differently. He will see in them his main chance to convince the ruling class that the European mantra of common sacrifice can be far more effective in achieving its aims than the winner’s shout and the loser’s curse.

Notes

1. See ‘The more effective evilWeekly Worker November 1.

2. The New York Times November 11.

3. ‘Not failing better, but fighting to winWeekly Worker November 1.

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