Once again, Barack Obama provided a most excellent Election Day experience. Now what?
At the risk of being a party pooper, aren’t we back at square one, with an obstructionist Republican House, 45 Republican filibusterers in the Senate, and, in the White House, a pro-nuke fracker whose Romney-care health plan was written by the Heritage Foundation?
At the risk of sounding hopeful, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that while things might look the same, there’s been a seismic shift of the American political landscape. Bear with me.
While on the face of things, nothing appears to have changed, this has actually been the most historic presidential election of our lifetimes. It’s one of the only times in modern politics that money lost. When Obama ran in 2008, he was Wall Street’s golden boy, tasked with saving capitalism as the big banks braced for collapse. Showered with cash, he was able to outspend his Republican opponent. Couple this financial advantage with the fact that the Republicans had just crashed the economy and apparently wanted step away from their own mess, throwing the election by nominating a crotchety old man and a dingbat. Obama’s 2008 victory was a cakewalk, despite his having to overcome centuries of racism. Wall Street threw its money behind Obama so as not to take any chances, either of Obama losing or Obama losing his corporate-friendly ways.
This time, with Obama having completed his task, the Wall Street money went back home to the Republican Party. For the voters, Obama was no longer new and novel. We got to know him, transforming him from a fantasy president whom everyone could imagine as supporting their pet issues, to just another faulted politician. Progressives realized that he wasn’t one of them, though I have no idea where they ever got the idea that he was. And angry white men never let go of the fact that he’s black, with their Fox News heroes once again pulling their tired racist tropes out of the closet.
As the Bush recession dragged on through the Obama presidency, an amnesiac population disassociated the problem from its source, with the media transferring the mantle of economic crisis from the Republicans, who were using their newfound power in the House to obstruct recovery, to Obama. And the Supreme Court’s historic 2010 decision to throw out a century of campaign finance reform opened the floodgates for dark money to back a Republican play to control all three branches of government.
The apparent Republican electoral plan was simple. Give the Democrats the White House in the middle of an unfolding economic crisis, let them do the unpopular dirty work of stabilizing the economy while making sure Republicans in Congress could block any real reform, watch the ensuing economic crisis undermine Democratic support, then flood the airwaves with dark money-funded lies and roar back into control in 2012.
But somehow in the end the grand scheme failed and Republicans lost, 332-206 in the Electoral College, while dropping two seats in the Senate. Money lost, and this, not Obama, gives us hope.
There’s also hope in the demographics. Let’s make no pretenses about this. Poor and working class voters, the two largest growing economic groups in the United States, won this election for Obama. They came out in poll-defying numbers to wait in multi-hour lines while their employers docked their pay, but in the end they re-wrote the political rules for the nation. To wait on five-hour lines to vote is the modern civil rights movement equivalent of the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. Republican voter repression tactics didn’t catch anyone by surprise this year, with voters ready for whatever obstructive tactics were thrown their way. So they waited, and they voted.
In Florida, voters watched police tow their cars. In Virginia, Republican poll-watchers tried to stop volunteers from distributing water to those stuck on line, In the end, people endured the abuse and voted. The voting line was this year’s ground zero for protest, as people demanded the most basic right to vote. Seeing these lines disgusted me, but seeing the determination of the people trapped on these lines gives me hope and makes me proud. I’m both ashamed to be part of a nation that allows these voter suppression tactics and proud to be part of a nation where people stand up by the millions to resist them. In the end, it was the very people these lines were designed to disenfranchise, poor and working-class voters, who beat back a Republican trifecta.
The middle class, on the other hand, did not win this election for Obama. That demographic cut both ways, based mostly on region and ethnicity, splitting their vote, with blacks, Jews, Asians, and Latinos voting for Obama, and whites favoring Romney by double digits, particularly in red states. And the middle class also stayed home (or at work) in large numbers, adding to their electoral irrelevance. And they’re disappearing at an alarming rate, mostly dropping into the working class or sometimes straight into poverty.
In the end we have a disunited, disinterested, disempowered, disappearing middle class demographic. Yet, to listen to Obama and Romney’s rhetoric, this is the only group they claimed to be speaking to, and looking out for, which in Obama’s case was somewhat true, and in Romney’s case, one big lie. No matter, the middle class didn’t win or lose the presidency for either party.
Poor and working-class voters were the big winners this year, gaining political clout and capital. No doubt the two major parties, for whom rhetorically pandering to the middle class has become like muscle memory, will be slow on the uptake in learning this reality, but that will be at their own peril. And no doubt the pundits will do their best to ignore the poll power of the poor, as Republicans continue their battle to suppress their numbers at the polls. But poor and working-class Americans, who historically have been marginalized in American politics, won this election and a place at the political table. The Democrats, if they want to continue winning elections, damn well better wise up to this fact. Poor people’s votes trumped the one percent’s money.
Young people, who for a generation more or less sat out electoral politics, also emerged as an electoral force that appears to be here to stay. Pundits wrote off their 2008 electoral participation as a fluke that wouldn’t be repeated, something about the hope meme and that nice Shepard Fairey poster. But they’re back and flexing their muscle despite a bummer of an electoral year and not much hope. Their surprise pilgrimage to the polls made a difference. I credit Romney more than Obama, however, for their participation. Young voters were clearly more repulsed by Romney than they were enchanted by Obama. Most pundits credit the student debt crisis and the Republican war on education for their participation. To understand the youth vote, however, you also have to look at how downright repugnant Republicans have become. This year we saw Republicans run misogynist cretins vomiting out rape-friendly bile, with viral social media guaranteeing that their femicidal remarks would not be allowed to slip by unnoticed.
Democrats can’t count on such blunders in the future, so they’d better do something substantive for young people between now and the next mid-term congressional elections. Here’s a hint: Before Ronald Reagan was elected, the top federal tax rate for the rich was 70 percent, and a public college education was either free or nearly free. Young voters just saved the White House and Senate for the Democrats; now they expect the Democrats to undo some nasty anti-youth history.
I also credit Occupy Wall Street with the zeitgeist shift at the polls. Their one percent meme dominated the election season. Prior to last year, wealth disparity and issues of social class have been taboo subjects in the mainstream media for over a generation. OWS changed that, bringing debates over social inequality to the forefront of the American conversation just as the Republicans nominated an uber-rich hedge fund manager for president. Just when the media wanted us to believe OWS was dead, Romney dominated TV screens, with his freakish wedge-headed presence embodying the one percent and bringing the Occupy movement’s issues back to the forefront of the national conversation, this time with a tangible one-percenter we could all vote against. Democrats need to remember again who their friends are, and stop launching police riots against their allies.
The four marriage rights victories should also give us hope. Prior to this year, voters never approved a ballot referendum to grant, maintain, or protect marriage rights for gay Americans. In fact, such marriage rights referenda lost more than 100 times in 32 states over the past 14 years. This year voters in Washington, Maine, and Maryland voted to legalize same-sex marriage, while voters in Minnesota voted down a measure to prohibit marriage rights.
Hate-mongers have long used gay people as scapegoats to rile their reactionary bases and turn them out to the polls. This year’s election represented a turning tide not just for homophobia, but for the politics of hate. The hate meme backfired. This doesn’t bode well for Tea Party Republicans and corporate lobbies like the American Legislative Exchange Council who have wed themselves to homophobia and previously milked the politics of hate to turn out their base and mask their economic agenda.
This all brings us to where we are now, one week after the historic re-election of President Barack Obama. I really don’t believe that the festive mood we’ve seen among Obama supporters since the election is really about celebrating the status quo—a status quo under which social disparity has continued to grow while traditionally marginalized groups have seen their suffering increase, while the world has continued to warm and drone wars drone on. Obama’s victory is our victory, however, because we defeated the most radical plutocratic anti-humanist presidential ticket in modern history. That is indeed a victory of sorts, and we have a right to feel like we achieved something, because things could have gotten a hell of a lot worse, quickly.
But if the 2008 Obama win taught us anything, it’s that the struggle doesn’t end on Election Day, as many revelers thought it did last time around. We can’t once again proclaim victory, imbibe the elixir of hope, and then go home and leave the governing to the politicians. No. Our struggle has just begun. What we won with this election was the right to be heard, the right to keep on fighting. What we really won is momentum. We have the ball and we need to move forward, quickly and loudly, without letting up. This is never easy, but too much is at stake right now.
We should never forget that Obama is a compromiser with a track record of selling us out. So his reelection is just the beginning of our struggle. Voting is a good first step toward political involvement. But that’s all it is. I’d like to believe that Obama is a closet progressive waiting for the political moment to act, but even if that fantasy is true, it’s up to us to create that moment. And if he’s the corporatist he appears to be, that’s even more incentive to create a progressive movement that’ll be too politically dangerous for him to buck. It doesn’t matter who Obama is. Either way we have to organize, protect our right to vote, and get out in the streets. We have to push Obama, no matter his intentions, demanding that he be the president of the 99 percent. We’ll be outspent, so we need to outwork the moneyed interests.
Our struggle goes beyond Obama, as we need to elect a new Congress in two years. Finally, with some real victories under our belts, we’ll be ready for some real environmental and social justice progress, and not just misplaced hope. This is a much better place to be than spending four years fighting to maintain rights that we won a hundred years ago, which would have been our reality under a Romney/Ryan administration and a Republican Senate.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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