After Obama’s re-election, pundits of all persuasions are attributing his victory to Latino-American, African-American, women, and young voters responding to his differences from Romney on specific issues like immigration, reproductive rights, and health care. Conservative Bill O’Reilly claimed: “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority. People want things.” Political blogger Josh Marshall described it as a powerful victory for “the country’s first broad and real multiracial political party.”
It’s true that important demographic and social changes were reflected in the Democrats’ electoral victories in swing states and in the senate elections. However, this is only part of the story. In choosing Barack Obama, the majority of Americans asserted government’s role in re-establishing a system of taxation to fund the social contract that is the basis of the American dream: shared opportunity through education, a safety net for those who need a leg up when disaster strikes, and a recognition that our strength as a country comes from embracing its plurality.
E.J. Dionne outlines a similar perspective in the Washington Post: “By emphasizing Obama’s victory as a demographic and organizational triumph, conservatives have been laying the groundwork for renewing their sotto voce campaign suggesting that Obama is somehow ‘illegitimate’ or not ‘one of us.’ Yet the exit poll found that those who rallied to Obama represent a broad coalition of all of us.”
As Joel Benenson argues in a New York Times op-ed, the demographic changes were less important than voters’ perception of Obama as embodying the values that most Americans share. Obama, he writes, projected a vision of a stronger and more secure future “for average working-class and middle-class Americans who have believed for nearly a decade that the economic system in America had fallen out of balance for people like them, the president’s personal story and policies engendered trust because they connected with voters’ lives, aspirations, and beliefs about what it would take to create the future they wanted.”
What Benenson is describing is the imaginary that channeled people’s recognition of class divisions. UMass politics professor Thomas Ferguson noted that “the partisan split along income lines is huge. Obama’s vote percentage declines in straight line fashion as income rises. He got 63 percent of the votes of Americans making less than $30,000 and 57 percent of those making between $30,000 and $50,000. Above $50,000, the Other America kicks in. Romney won 53 percent of the votes of Americans making between $50 and a $100 thousand and 54 percent of the votes of Americans making above $100,000.”
These partisan class differences were not nearly so marked in 2008, but the change is testimony to the success of the Occupy movement in framing the political discourse of 2012. Juan Cole sums it up like this: “What has changed is not that minorities are now half the electorate or that minorities plan to loot the government. What has changed is that the rest of the country is asserting itself against a small, patriarchal and oligarchic class that had unfairly dominated politics and business and received the lion’s share of government largesse. What has happened is that America is democratizing …”
Those who waited as long as seven hours to cast their vote expressed a purposeful determination to overcome machinations by Republican state officials to disenfranchise them and suppress their voices. This is not a cowed or apathetic electorate. The Miami Herald reported that some Florida voters remained in line at polling places until 1 a.m., hours after the polls were scheduled to close, defying the intervention of Republican governor Rick Scott to reduce the number of early voting days and early voting hours.
The Republican spin on this is that it was a close election, a return to the status quo, which doesn’t give Obama a mandate. This is simply a device to minimize the fact that the country as a whole wants a state that will support the elderly and the sick. Many Republican voters believed the propaganda that it was actually Obama who would undermine state support programs. However, Obamacare is now an established fact and a first step towards universal health care.
Commentator John Nichols said on Democracy Now: “When all the votes are counted, President Obama will have won a popular vote margin of more than three million, probably quite a bit more than three million. And when Florida is finished—it’s a mess down there, but when it’s finally counted, probably to his column he will have roughly 332 electoral—it looks like 332 electoral votes. Those victories—more than three million popular vote, 332 electoral votes—are bigger than what John Kennedy came in with, bigger than what Richard Nixon came in with, bigger than what Jimmy Carter came in with, and bigger than what George Bush had in 2000 or what George Bush had in 2004. …
“What I want to emphasize here is, this president went before the American people, and the election was framed very much as a referendum on austerity, as a referendum on cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, to a real radical reshaping of the country, as pressured by, as emphasis by, as outlined by Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. The important thing to understand is, American people understood that choice, and they voted for Barack Obama.”
It’s premature to assume (as Glenn Greenwald does) that Obama will be able to pursue a “Grand Bargain” with the GOP and with them target entitlements without energizing mass resistance. While politicians may believe the rhetoric surrounding budget deficits, hitherto marginalized groups such as low-waged workers are showing an unprecedented determination to assert their rights to live a better life. As Democracy Corps found in their post-poll surveys, “While elites assume the fiscal cliff is about deficit reduction and avoiding a contraction in the economy, voters want progress to create jobs over the next five years. Voters want growth, not austerity, and above all, do not see ‘entitlements’ as on the table.”
There remains a huge gulf between the demands of the banking elite for austerity and Americans’ commitment to defending the social contract. The coming together of new constituencies in the course of rejecting the plutocrats’ election agenda evokes the pluralism of the Occupy movement. The resistance to predatory debt, the Black Friday strike against Walmart – this is the real American spring.