Obama Unbound

By William Dowell,
November 2012
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

An impressive win and nother four years, thanks in part to demographic changes in the electorate. The trick now is to get opponents, who don't like change, to go along

Barack Obama's stunning victory in the US presidential elections is as much a tribute to the evolving demographic makeup of America as it is to personal qualities of the president.  Given the changes in America's ethnic make-up, this election could well be the Republican Party's "Last Hurrah" unless the party radically reforms itself and enlarges its constituency. If nothing else, the election confirms America's generational transition to a truly multi-ethnic and genuinely diverse society.

The Republican Party's dizzying shift to the right in recent years appears to be nothing less than a direct reaction to that ongoing  transition.  Republican strategists seemed to be defining themselves as the last line of defense of those predominantly white Americans who find themselves threatened in today's rapidly shifting global economy. 

In many cases, the wealthier ranks of this group--the ones who do not belong to Mr. Romney's famous 47% that he clearly considers to be an underclass-- are the people whose answer to change is to wall themselves off in gated communities and hoard their resources offshore rather than confront the foreigners moving next door.  Their days are waning though.  Last year marked the first time that non-white births in the US outnumbered those of parents who trace their ancestry back to northern Europe.

Mitt Romney, who seemed for all intents and purposes to be a nice enough fellow, made the fatal mistake of attaching his fortunes to a politically endangered species that is internally divided in just about everything except its own self interest.  From the Tea Party enthusiasts to the lunatic fringe that adored novelist Ayn Rand's romantic notions about the glories of hyper egocentric capitalism, to the fanatics ready to kill other human beings in the defense of an unborn foetus, the American conservative movement has been  ricocheting in every bizarre direction imaginable, and Romney, anxious to portray himself as their leader, found himself flip-flopping like an electrified rag doll.  When it finally came down to debating the president, Romney realized that most of the movement's crazier ideas would never fly and so he made a supreme effort to portray himself as a reasonable person.  Unfortunately, the rhetorical acrobatics that he had been forced to go through in order to win the nomination were there on videotape to haunt him.

He might have survived even that, but in the end his greatest drawback was an inability to connect with what many Americans were going through as a result of the economic disaster brought on by the policies of the previous Republican administration.  In short, to many thinking people stuck in the real world, Romney often seemed to be clueless.  Realizing the importance of education, he enthusiastically advised American youth to borrow money from their parents so that they could pay the $200,000 or more that it takes to pay for four years of  college tuition today.  Concerned about a disaster like hurricane Sandy? Let the individual states take care of it. Anything, Romney argued, is better than the federal government that he hoped to head. Of course it didn't make sense. As one political satirist put it: when everything around you is being washed out to sea and your powerless to do anything about it, that is the precise moment when you don't want any outside help? Sure!  In the end, New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christy, who had given the key note speech supporting Romney at the Republican convention,  switched sides and threw his support behind Obama.  New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, briefly a Republican before he ditched the party to run as an independent,  looked at the destruction wrought on Manhattan by the storm and announced loudly that it is time to look at climate change seriously.  Romney, courting the vote of coal miners in West Virginia and Appalachia, had a few weeks earlier mocked Obama for supporting research into alternate forms of energy. Romney wanted to unleash even more coal and fossil fuels on the atmosphere; climate change be damned.

In the end, all that was left for Romney to do was to hammer away at the terrible state of the economy and the threat of joblessness, ignoring the fact that the country is going through a radical structural change, and that while the US economy is booming and strong, American workers aren't, largelybecause their former employers no longer really need them.

Romney promised to change that, but failed to explain how. What Romney did promise was that under no circumstances would he add to the tax burden of the millionaires who were financing his election campaign.  Of course he was not alone in that.  Most Republican members of the US Congress are multimillionaires.   When political strategist Grover Norquist asked these Republican legislators, including Romney, to sign a pledge not to raise taxes on the wealthy, they understood exactly what he was talking about.  America preaches equal opportunity, but at least since the Reagan years, equality has been fast slipping away.

Today, the top 1% of American households controls 35% of the net worth of the US, and 42% of its financial worth(see an analysis from the University of Southern California at Santa Barbara:http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html). In contrast, the bottom 80% of the economic scale controls only 11% of the US net worth and just 5% of tis financial worth.  America, in short, has entered into an era of what amounts to economic feudalism.  Norquist was effectively calling on his fellow Republicans to acknowledge that power and to pledge allegiance.  His message was that it is OK to tax the middle classes all you want, but leave the rich alone because they are the ones that own everything, and you'll need their backing if you want to survive.  It is not an unusual strategy. It is basically the one that brought Greece to where it is today.

The question in this election was really whether well-healed political lobbyists and highly paid dirty tricksters could browbeat the masses into going along with what has grown into an increasingly unjust system.  Democracy by itself has never been a guarantee of good government. Instead, it is an exercise in the political wisdom of crowds. The underlying idea, as Lincoln put it, is that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.  With the disintegration of the American press though, largely a result of having been bought up by conglomerates with their own commercial interests, it had begun to look as though fooling all the people all the time might just work. All you had to do was watch Fox News, or tune in to Bill O'Reilly and his colleagues to get cold sweats at night.

Even without Fox News, it takes a lot of courage to believe in the "Wisdom of Crowds" idea, especially when you listen to the crazy ideas that Americans often have as individuals.    As a result, more than a few people held their breath Tuesday night, wondering which way America would go. As it turned out, they needn't have worried.  In spite of snow and inclement weather, thousands stood for hours in front of polling stations, waiting for a chance to cast their vote. Despite attempts to sway their better judgment with thousands of TV attack ads funded by mysterious millionaires following their own agendas, the American public made up its own mind, and the final choice seemed to reflect the judgment of a diversified public that includes just about everyone regardless of who they are. The public, it turns out, is not quite as simple as some believe.

Where do we go from here?  Mr. Obama says himself that the brutal campaign that has just ended has been educational.  The first debate showed that the public expects and demands a leader with fire in his belly and it made the price of anything less than a full engagement extremely clear.  The president acknowledged that he had focused too much on the finding the correct policy without paying attention to the passionate interaction with the public that is needed to turn policy into a reality.  The fierceness, which Mr. Obama showed after the first debate, made it clear that the message has been delivered. Mr. Obama may have been a neophyte when he first assumed office. He isn't one any more, and he has shown that when the chips are down he can be a steel-edged street fighter.  That alone should make the next year interesting to watch.  What is even more encouraging is that the US through this election has shown that it can enlarge its definition of who really counts as an American.  The country has made its choice, and it is one that is inclusive, regardless of race, religion culture or sexual preference.  In making their choice, Mr. Obama and America itself have retrieved the motto favored by the founding fathers and inscribed on the coin of the realm: E Pluribus Unum—from many, we are one.