Obama's Diverse Coalition: The New America Flexes its Muscles
The election in 2008 provided but a fleeting glimpse of America's vast new diversity. This year, it was impossible to ignore, with unprecedented numbers of Hispanics joining blacks and women to push President Barack Obama back into the White House. The Republicans are facing a bleak future if they don't reinvent themselves.
The confetti has long been thrown out, the TV crews have departed, the buffets have been cleared, the election night "ballrooms" stripped back down to the cold convention halls they were. What remains are images -- contrasting, silent, strong images which say it all.
In Chicago, a thousand miles away, it was an utterly different scene. There, hugging each other in glee, were 15,000 Democrats of literally all shades: white, black, Latino, young, old, male, female, straight, gay. They wore jeans or gowns, baseball caps or church hats, scarves, hijabs, yarmulkes and, again and again, T-shirts with Obama's stylized countenance.
That's what the new America looks like, and that's what it looked like four years ago in Chicago's Grant Park, where Obama celebrated his first presidential victory. But back then it seemed fleeting, just a vision soon to be smothered by politics.
Obama's re-election has shown that it's more than a vision. "When you do it once, it's just a victory," writes Ross Douthat of the New York Times. "When you do it twice, it's a realignment."
And it could be here to stay. The era of monochrome majorities is ending. The political America looks more and more like a street corner in Manhattan.
"The White Establishment Is Now the Minority"
This new America manifests itself in Obama's multicultural winning coalition: Latinos, blacks, singles, women and young voters.
It manifests itself in the 20 women who will be inaugurated in the Senate come January -- among them Tammy Baldwin, the first openly homosexual senator in US history. It manifests itself in the successful referendums decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing same-sex marriage. This is not Ronald Reagan's Hollywood America anymore. It's not Mitt Romney's black-and-white America, either.
It wasn't enough that the Republican won 59 percent of the white vote. With 79 percent of the non-white vote (93 percent of African-Americans, 73 percent of Asians, 71 percent of Latinos), Obama forged a powerful majority from the demographic upheaval in the US.
"The white establishment is now the minority," lamented Bill O'Reilly, one of Romney's loudest cheerleaders at the (predominantly white) cable channel Fox News, during election night.
This fear also permeated Romney's "victory" party, which morphed into a last hurrah of said establishment. "I can't find my way around this world anymore," sighed one older lady, as the night's trend, projected on giant screens, was no longer deniable. "We were all convinced we'd win."
These new realities are more than images. They are facts, numbers and demographic data. For the first time in US history, Caucasian births are less than half of all births in the country. To turn Bill O'Reilly's grievance on its head, the minorities will soon be the majority. This is already the case in four US states and cities like New York and Las Vegas.
Latinos, Blacks, Women, Gays and Lesbians
These facts mark the tentative end of a long fight over America's soul. It was a fight between status quo and momentum; conformity and diversity; backward and forward. It's no wonder "Forward" was Obama's campaign slogan, punctuated by an exclamation mark in the last weeks. He ended up winning the popular vote with a margin of almost three million votes.
Entire generations have turned over. The demographic foundations of the US have shifted, while the Republican machinery has shrunk. The results are in: "Our diversity won," writes Peter Staley, a prominent AIDS activist.
This diversity includes Hispanics, the fastest growing population group. Almost three in four Hispanics voted for Obama, not least thanks to the Republicans' harsh immigration policies. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that comprehensive immigration reform, at which so many previous presidents failed, is once again a "very high" priority. The Republicans would do well not to stand in the way this time around.
This diversity includes blacks. In the swing state of Ohio alone, the Obama ground team's get-out-the-vote efforts managed to increase the black share of the electorate to 15 percent from 11 percent in 2008. Obama won Ohio, previously known as a blue-collar stronghold, with a margin of 1.9 percentage points -- and thus won the presidency.
This diversity includes women. Never before did so many women capture Senate seats. One of them is Elizabeth Warren, now the first woman ever to represent Massachusetts in the Senate, and Mazie Hirono, the first ever for Hawaii and the first Asian-American female senator in US history. New Hampshire's entire congressional delegation plus the new governor: all women.
This diversity includes gays and lesbians. Obama mentioned them in his Chicago speech, and for a reason: Under him they've seen their biggest progress fighting for equal rights, after much initial grumbling. And on Tuesday, voters in several states signed off on it. They voted yes on same-sex marriage in Maine and Maryland -- for the first time by popular vote, not through the courts or legislatures. Early results in Washington suggest voters there also approved of same-sex marriage, and an amendment to the Minnesota constitution banning same-sex marriage failed.
"I think it's important to note that the American people have rejected the idea that our neighbors are our enemies," writes Sue Fulton, an ex-Army captain who co-founded OutServe, a network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) active-duty military personnel. "This is an expression of the belief that we're all in this together -- black, white, Anglo, Latino, gay, straight."
Defeat Leads to Republican Introspection
Meanwhile, the Republicans are missing the boat. Long ignorant to that, they've now been shell-shocked into the harsh realization that they may end up on the wrong side of history.
"A Mad Men party in a Modern Family America" -- that's how George W. Bush's former top strategist Matthew Dowd calls his party now. The TV show Mad Men, of course, takes place in the 1960's; Modern Family focuses on an unconventional patchwork family, including a gay couple with an adopted daughter.
Panic has seized them. "In our party, intolerance can no longer be tolerated," tweeted the political consultant John Weaver on the next morning's hangover. "If we're going to win in the future, Republicans need to do better among Latinos," said Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's electoral victories.
In 2004, Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush's younger brother Jeb, whose wife was born in Mexico, is now considered one of the new -- yet aging -- hopefuls of the party. Another one is Florida's young senator Marco Rubio, whose parents are from Cuba.
Hardline Conservatives Will Not Disappear
This will be an acid test for the Republicans. The old guard won't give up so easily. You only have to watch Fox News, a virtual land of denial where many commentators refused to acknowledge the results late into the night. Above all Rove, who kept resisting even after his network had called the race for Obama.
This is because he knows that this new America is brittle. Much works remains. The percentage of black inmates, for instance, is still disproportionately high, and the percentage of women in Washington disproportionately low. Hispanics are still being discriminated against, so are gays and lesbians.
"That era will not last forever," warns Douthat, "It may not even last more than another four years." In that case, only images would remain.
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