Although Obama won the 2012 election by a large Electoral College margin, the popular vote was close, 50% to 48%, and the makeup of Congress has changed very little. Numerically, there has been little real change. It has been a status-quo election.
That said, some of the worst Tea Party fanatics have been voted out, including Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, and Joe Walsh. Allan West appears to have lost, and Bachmann held on by only 1%, whereas she won by 13% in 2010. And some strong progressive Democrats have won, including Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth, and Elizabeth Warren. At least we now have a somewhat better Congress, and we no longer have to fear that the Supreme Court will become even more stacked with right-wing judicial activists. Yesterday was a good day for progressive hopes.
And we learned something important: Money couldn't buy this election at the highest levels. Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers essentially flushed their money down the toilet. Linda McMahon spent $47 million of wrestling money trying to buy herself a Senate seat and failed. (That makes her $97 million down, since she spent $50 million in 2010 and lost then too.) It's obscene to see rich people trying to buy this election, but very gratifying to see them lose, particularly because it leaves them with that much less dough for trying to screw us 99% in other ways.
Here’s how I see it: Obama’s job is to continue nursing the economy back to health and guarding progressive gains in areas like health care reform. If the economy in 2016 is good, the Democrats will have a strong record to show voters and the GOP will have nothing to offer except the usual fear and bigotry, which is going to fly even less than it did in 2012. This will set the stage for voting in a truly progressive, reform-minded President and Congress.
And in 2016, we’re really going to need it. America is still too divided to solve the biggest issues: climate change, transition to new energy sources, election reform, income inequality, a bloated military, and an unregulated Wall Street. I pray Obama will at least put these on the national agenda, but an obstructionist Republican House is going to block fundamental progress in anything.
In the short term, Obama has to push very hard to reform a whole slew of procedural and political rules. If a majority party can’t govern, there’s almost no point in even having elections. Secret holds have to be banned. The filibuster rule has to be changed so that if a party wants to filibuster, it actually has to stand up and talk 24/7, not just threaten to. Gerrymandering has to be replaced by a nonpartisan, federal-level districting panel that makes districts geographically and demographically representative. Citizens United has to be overturned and replaced with laws for federal financing of elections so that each candidate gets equal funding and equal airtime, period. The Electoral College needs to be replaced by simple majority vote, because it grotesquely distorts US politics: why should my vote in DC count so much less than a vote in Ohio? Finally, elections need to be taken out of the hands of local politicians and run by the federal government, with the same voting machines and the same rules applying everywhere, and transparency at every step. This is not pulse-pounding stuff, but it’s the essential machinery of democracy. If it’s broken, we can’t solve any of the big problems.
I can think of almost nothing that boded well for the GOP in this election. They held on to their core in the white, rural South, as expected, but the demographics are not on their side. Hispanics, a growing segment of the electorate, are turned off by their xenophobia. Younger voters are turned off by their homophobia. Women are turned off by their misogyny. I fully expect them to double down on the fear and hate in the next four years, instead of moderating. They pushed out all their moderates in the last election, so they have no one left to offer that kind of intraparty leadership. In 2012, that just wounded them. In 2016, it'll destroy them.
That gives me much hope for the long term. George W. Bush and his fellow reactionaries left so much wreckage that for now we still can’t think about where we want to go as a country. We’re still just trying to clean up the mess. But I hope that soon we can start asking, as a matter of election debate, "How do we create a cleaner, fairer, and more peaceful planet? How can we ensure that everyone gets a shot at a healthy life and a good education that lets them realize their potential? How can we make the best use of science to learn about the universe around us and create new technologies that expand freedom, opportunity, and delight?"
More than any other country, America has been about ideas and hope. I hope that historians will someday say that 2012 set the stage for 2016, the year in which the 21st century really started.
Liked this blog posting? Read my other recent posting on politics, Why I Am A Scientific Progressive -- And An Optimist.