Election night was a happier occasion than we dared hope a few weeks ago.
Aside from winning the White House and the Senate, Democrats unexpectedly won Senate seats in North Dakota and Montana (subject to recounts) and progressives celebrated four victories in gay marriage ballot measures. African-American, Latino and young voters turned out in numbers close to 2008, proving that election represented a genuine political realignment more than a one-time burst of enthusiasm.
Obama capped the exciting evening with a rousing victory speech that evoked the commons when he proclaimed, “This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”
Republicans, who went down to defeat even with 7.9 percent unemployment and a larger war chest of Super PAC cash, now plunge into a period of confusion and recalculation. Their overwhelming dependence on white, male and older voters spells problems for future elections. They were also knocked off-balance tactically. Four of their most effective campaign trail tools over the past three decades—spreading fears of blacks, immigrants and gays along with promises to outlaw abortion—look likely to backfire with an electorate that is growing noticeably more young, female and non-white.
The centerpiece of their right wing agenda—adamant opposition to taxes and government programs outside the Pentagon—also seems to be losing favor. Exit polls showed that six in ten voters supported some form of tax increases while Tropical Storm Sandy reminded everyone that government is necessary to keep us safe. This not only signals the end of the Tea Party as an influential ideological force, it offers an opening for dismantling the dominance of free market, anti-government fundamentalism in American elections.
The political mindset of America could look substantially different from this point forward. Republicans may wish to blame their loss on Mitt Romney being a mushy moderate or an inept campaigner, but do they really imagine that any of the other presidential contenders (Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich) could have done any better?
Like the Democrats in 1980—who also lost the White House and Senate at the hands of new political constituencies: libertarians and evangelicals—Republicans this year should do some soul searching. Now’s the time for Republicans to abandon their fervent belief that more individualism is all that’s necessary to solve our common problems. To remain viable they need to recover some appreciation for the common good—a theme Obama articulated powerfully in his victory speech when talking about, “what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating work of self-government.”
It’s possible that many in the Republican party will lunge in the other direction—wading deeper into the swamps of right-wing purity on economics and social issues. Of course, that’s what happened with the Tea Party after their 2008 defeat, but a slumping economy and the shock of a black president won’t provide such a potent flashpoint this time around. We might also see GOP civil war as the corporate-backed wing of the party distances itself from the moralism of the religious right while less-wealthy Republicans shed their free market fervor to focus on social issues.
The shifting political ground gives us an opportunity to push the principles and practices of the commons into wider political discussions on climate change, health care, the economy, sustainability and social equity. Igniting public concern and commitment to protect those precious assets belonging to all of us will help launch a new era for America.