President Barack Obama waves at his election night party Wednesday night in Chicago.
Election Day 2008 crackled with possibility—with the electric buzz of history being made, of a country being transformed. A race-haunted nation was poised to elect its first black president. The economic and military catastrophes of the Bush years—and the religious haters, the Wall Street hustlers, and the chicken-hawk neocons who caused them—were about to be rejected. Change was coming: symbolic, palpable, and thrillingly uncertain.
The 2012 election never appeared to carry the same historical weight. For progressives, especially, this campaign seemed all along to be more about averting disaster—the atrocities the radical right had in store if Republicans won the White House and controlled both the House and the Senate—than about forging a new liberal path for the country. The moment for that had passed. The consensus, on both left and right, was expressed by The New York Times’s David Brooks: “If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis.” Not exactly the stuff of heart-pounding drama.
But Tuesday’s surprisingly emphatic victory could prove more consequential than most had dared to dream. Indeed, what was won this year could be far more important than what was won four years ago. As the president said in his soaring victory oration early Wednesday morning, “This isn’t small; this is big, this is important.” It is.
We should have known it all along. The great question of 2012 was one that had not been debated in earnest, in a national forum, for 40 years: Is America a democracy for all or a state ruled by the elite? Long before the general-election campaign began, the president framed the contest in precisely those terms. Last December in Kansas, Obama laid it out in terms he had never used in 2008:
What’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement. Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that's happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
I am here to say they are wrong. I'm here … to reaffirm my deep conviction that we're greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They're American values. And we have to reclaim them.
This populist message became—despite the distractions and the gaffes and the polls and the media static—the unwavering message of the Obama campaign. His opponent ran, by contrast, on what may have been the most radical right-wing agenda a major political party has ever offered. Mitt Romney, constitutionally incapable of challenging the anti-government and anti-democratic ideas that have taken hold of his party, embraced them—even to the point of nominating Paul Ryan, their foremost champion, as his running mate.
This was not a small-potatoes election. This was a “choice” election, as both Obama and Romney repeatedly insisted, and the Republicans’ attempt to tilt the playing field in their direction raised the stakes even further. Their attempts at voter suppression—through voter-ID laws, through partisan manipulations by GOP election officials, and through organizing “citizen groups” to harass low-income and minority voters at the polls—backfired spectacularly. African Americans would not be denied the franchise they had fought for; they matched their record turnout of 2008. Latinos raised theirs; they were 10 percent of the electorate. Democracy was challenged in a way that it hadn’t been since Jim Crow, and democracy prevailed.
Americans made foundational choices in this election. We decided that we do not support the wholesale demolition of government. We rejected the wealth-first economics that Romney represented—and embodied. We affirmed our belief in a social contract and our wariness of the “fend for yourself” philosophy of Ayn Rand Republicanism. We loudly insisted that women’s economic and reproductive rights are essential. We dismissed the idea that immigrants are a drag on the country’s future.
These were mighty choices. They were made even mightier by the fact that this election was, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote, “the white right’s last gasp.” Until Tuesday night, it remained possible that a Republican Party supported almost exclusively by conservative white people could win one last time and could then proceed to dismantle the social-welfare system so thoroughly over the next four or eight years that it would take decades to rebuild it again.
But Americans didn’t let it happen. The president ran, and won, on the most resonant pro-government message Democrats have offered in four decades. He did it by assembling the most diverse political coalition in the nation’s history—huge majorities of young people, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, and highly educated whites.
That is a coalition of the future. It is also a coalition that is far and away more liberal, in terms of both economic and social views, than the supporters cobbled together by any Democratic president in history. Franklin Roosevelt depended on conservative whites from the South for his victories; so did Truman, Kennedy, and, to a lesser extent, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. Obama did not. Going forward, future Democratic presidents will not either. This opens up a politics of progressive possibility that, just two days ago, few were envisioning.
Think about it. The white right can no longer carry national elections. Democrats no longer need to appeal to that reactionary demographic to win. That is perhaps the biggest, most revelatory, news that came out of last night. Romney made his appeal exclusively to the white right; he ignored and, quite often, insulted everyone else. But “everyone else” defeated him.
Will the president govern accordingly? Will he translate a campaign that he built around an affirmation of good government and the social contract into a second term far different from the cautious centrism of his first? Liberal skeptics will believe it when they see it. But consider this: The president now knows, as he did not in 2008, that a majority of Americans believe in a government that works to make the country more equitable and less cruel. The winds of history that favored his candidacy in 2008 now favor his governance in 2012 and beyond.
It also won’t hurt that Democrats will now get to take credit for the strong growth that most economists believe will occur over the next four years. The Bush years did much to discredit trickle-down economics—and the worst thing for our political future would have been a trickle-down president presiding over a boom. It wouldn’t have mattered if a President Romney had little to do with creating the boom. Voters associated upticks and downturns with the party that holds the White House. Now they will associate it with Obama and the liberal idea that smart government is also smart economics.
The right will not wither or relent in response to the message this election has delivered. But progressives can now take heart. The conservative consensus that took hold of America with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is over. The idea that government is the enemy no longer prevails. Obama may not have created a new liberal movement—and he may not do so in the next four years. But the emerging liberal majority can.