As the presidential election showed, the Republican Party is at odds with the permissive mainstream of America.
Americans will stand in line for hours in order to vote for president. That’s the good news. Americans often have to stand in line for hours in order to vote for president. That’s the bad news.
Every four years now, we lament the gross inadequacies of our untrustworthy, burdensome voting system. I expect we’ll be lamenting them again four years hence, although barriers to voting challenged by one party may be celebrated by another. Lines were particularly long in Democratic voting districts, especially in Florida, where a Republican governor limited early voting days, which tend to draw Democratic voters. Some voters had to wait in line for seven hours.
Pundits complained that the Republican and Democrat campaigns focused on ‘small things’, but voters stood in line anyway. Maybe they realised that much was at stake, notably tax, entitlement and immigration reform, the power of appointment to the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court (which may well see at least one vacancy in the next four years), and the constitutional limits of Congressional power as defined by the federal courts. Sad to say, Democratic and Republican administrations have not differed much in their support for the post-9/11 surveillance state and disregard for civil liberty, but they’ve differed greatly otherwise. This was not a small-stakes election.
What difference will it make? When the billion-dollar campaigns were over, the day after the election looked a bit like the day before. Barack Obama was still president. The Senate was still controlled by Democrats while the House remained Republican. But Democrats are rejoicing while Republicans brood. Obama was re-elected by comfortable popular and electoral-vote margins, having held important swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Virginia. His victory was a qualified endorsement of the Democratic approach to taxes and entitlements or, at least, a rejection of the Romney/Ryan plan, which will not now become law. Immigration reform is much more likely, as Republicans try to win a share of the Latino vote. The balance of power has shifted more than the numbers of Democrats and Republicans in Congress suggests. This election was less a victory for the status quo than a confirmation of political and cultural change.
Three states - Maryland, Maine and Washington - passed popular referenda legalising gay marriage, marking the first time that gay-marriage advocates prevailed in a plebiscite at the ballot box. In Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and in Iowa, voters re-elected a Democratic state senate opposed to a constitutional ban on gay marriage and re-elected a judge attacked by the right for his ruling legalising gay marriage in a 2009 case. Wisconsin elected an openly gay female senator, Tammy Baldwin, a left-wing Democrat, after electing a right-wing Republican to the Senate two years ago. Her sexual orientation was a non-issue in the campaign. Two states, Colorado and Washington, passed referenda legalising recreational marijuana use. In Massachusetts, my home state, voters legalised medical use of marijuana.
Four, true red Republican states, which Romney won easily (Montana, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota) elected Democratic senators, partly in reaction to controversies over abortion and rape. Defeated Missouri Senate candidate and Tea Party favourite, Todd Aiken, famously asserted that women’s reproductive systems shut down when they’re raped. Defeated Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (another Tea Party favourite) described pregnancies resulting from rape as God’s will. These comments, combined with Republican efforts at the federal level to de-fund Planned Parenthood and limit access to contraception, in addition to a series of punitive, anti-abortion laws championed by Republican state legislators, reified the party’s bad reputation for backwardness among moderate as well as liberal women. ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit’, one popular protest sign declared.
Thanks to the extremism (and sheer idiocies) of several Republican candidates, Democrats not only retained but slightly increased their control of the Senate, against all odds. Many more Democrats than Republicans were up for re-election to the Senate this year, and the Republican Congressional victories of 2010 led many in both parties to expect another rout. But the Tea Party is a mixed blessing for Republicans: in several states (in 2010 and 2012) insurgent Tea Party candidates defeated more moderate and marketable candidates in Republican primaries, facilitating Democratic victories in the general elections for the Senate.
Still, leading Republicans seemed surprised by defeat this year, especially defeat in the presidential election. Right-wing pundits had attacked polls showing Obama in the lead and predicted Romney would win easily. Maybe they’d inhabited their alternate realities for too long and begun believing their own press. Maybe in an extremely polarised time, when politically opinionated people only talk to the like-minded, they naturally come to universalise their own biases and beliefs. ‘[E]veryone they knew hated Obama’, one House Republican, quoted anonymously in the New York Times, said of his colleagues. ‘Everyone they knew agreed exactly with them. And then we lost.’
Republicans needed to get out more. In some circles everyone hated, disliked or mistrusted Mitt Romney (who lost his home states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire). But maybe they assumed that the failure of Democratic constituencies to vote in 2010, when the Tea Party dominated and took over the House, presaged a failure to vote in 2012. Maybe they suffered a backlash against their state-level voter-suppression efforts – voter ID laws and limitations on voting days and hours that most affected Democratic-leaning voters. But in key states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democrats successfully challenged these efforts in court and energised diverse constituencies on election day.
We’re evolving demographically toward diversity, and ‘demography is destiny’ quickly became the dominant post-electoral meme. Diversity is proving an advantage for Democrats, which some have long predicted. The ubiquitous number-crunching is revealing: Mitt Romney won a sizeable majority (60 per cent) of white voters, but their relative share of the population is declining (from about 90 per cent in the 1980s to 77 per cent in 2004 to 72 per cent in 2012). Obama won an even stronger majority (71 per cent) of Latino voters, whose population share is steadily increasing. He benefited from a sizeable gender gap, winning 55 per cent of the female vote to Romney’s 44 per cent. Obama won 60 per cent of the youth vote and over 90 per cent of African-Americans.
You can bemoan all this demographic accounting, but it reflects emerging electoral realities: Republicans are in danger of becoming a niche party of older, conservative white people. Democrats have, for now, forged a coalition that more closely resembles the electorate. In other words, their agenda has united people across demographic lines. The relatively homogenous Republican base looks more like an exercise in identity politics.
It also looks like a group of people caught in a time warp, resisting the social liberalism or ‘permissiveness’ that initiated the Culture Wars some 50 years ago. It’s not just gay marriage, and gay rights generally, that agitate religious conservatives who exert undue influence on their party. It’s reproductive choice – abortion rights and access to contraception. It’s the threat that science poses to religious beliefs like creationism. It’s respect for religious pluralism, exemplified by constitutional prohibitions on a Christian or Judaeo-Christian government. It is increased diversity and demands for liberalised immigration laws that open paths to legalisation or citizenship for millions of undocumented people. It’s modernity.
Yes, many Republican or Republican-leaning voters are forward-looking and relatively socially liberal; many are content with separating church and state and open to immigration reform. But they don’t write the party platform or shape the party’s image, which these days reflect the disproportionate influence of right-wing religious extremists and insular, socially conservative Tea Partiers. Many elite, pro-business Republicans (like Mitt Romney) are focused on low taxes and low regulations and couldn’t care less about social issues. But they tolerate or pander to reactionaries who vote in primaries and constitute an important segment of the party’s base.
Now, nursing their post-election hangovers, some Republicans are recognising that they pander at their peril. Sane, practical types are talking about the need to re-evaluate and moderate their policies and tactics, especially regarding immigration, while the party’s right wing threatens to continue purging candidates who stand for moderation. I’d wish the sanity caucus luck, but what they need much more is political courage. You can’t lead if you’re afraid to lose.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her most recent book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)