The effects of Obama’s and the Democrats’ big win on November 6 are already apparent. Health-care reform is now secure and will move rapidly toward implementation. Some version of the Dream Act will become law early in Obama’s second term, marking a step in the direction of overall immigration reform. The conservatives on the Supreme Court will maintain their narrow majority, but won’t be reinforced anytime soon. The gay rights movement has gained momentum after the success of same-sex marriage in Maryland, Maine, and Washington. The neocons who would have determined Romney’s approach to foreign policy now have no chance of returning to power, which will be a good thing for America and the world when the question of war with Iran comes to a head again, as it will sometime in the next six months.
Obama, meanwhile, can now never be subjected to the ridicule that Americans reserve for those whom they regard as the biggest political losers: not those who never won the presidency, but those booted after only one term. Imagine the scorn Herbert Hoover faced, but laced with racism. And imagine what would have been lost: with Obama’s win, a generation of American youth will know only an African American as their commander in chief. The ways in which this experience will alter the dreams of the young, non-white and white alike, and thus of America itself, are less tangible than the effects of any legislative gains on the horizon, but likely more profound.
For the Republicans, the defeat is devastating, far worse than 2008. The party’s loss in 2008 could be explained away. After 2008, the GOP could tell itself that it was bound to lose in the wake of the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, a president who was both incompetent and untrue to conservative principles, and McCain’s disastrous choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. But this year a well-functioning opposition party would have won. No sitting president, other than FDR, had ever been returned to office with unemployment hovering around 8 percent. Obama could not bring himself to defend his primary legislative achievement, health-care reform, once it became a lightning rod for discontent. Moreover, the magic that Obama had embodied in 2008 was nowhere to be seen for most of the campaign. Liberals panicked after his lackluster performance in the first debate because it seemed to them to reveal an uncomfortable truth—that their president was washed up and washed out.
Here are the truths that the GOP must now face: they have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. They have become the party of an ever-shrinking (and soon to disappear) white majority. In this election, they received only about 10 percent of the black vote and about 30 percent of the Hispanic and Asian votes. Political experts estimate that minorities will make up an additional 2 percent of the electorate in each of the next several presidential elections, until the electorate itself becomes majority minority. In other words, the Republican electoral predicament will get worse before it gets better. And that’s not all. Almost a quarter of the American electorate is now comprised of single women—separated, divorced, widowed, and never married—and they, too, voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers. Republicans have staked their success not only on a demographic group that is losing majority status but on an institution—heterosexual marriage—that encompasses a smaller group of Americans than it has at any time in the past two hundred years.
It would be wrong to conclude from these statistics, however, that the GOP is doomed as an electoral force. There are many ways in which America, in the words of Peggy Noonan, remains “center-right,” especially on economic issues. Much of the hegemonic ideology of the Reagan years, especially the part that celebrates markets and impugns government, is still intact. It should never be forgotten that Obama’s health-care reform, a bill that almost killed his political career, began life in the early 1990s as a market-based alternative to Bill Clinton’s “socialist” plan, and that the first politician to implement it was a certain Republican governor of Massachusetts. Indeed, that certain governor would now be the president-elect if he had been free to espouse what he truly believes: a conservative but pragmatic market-oriented approach to economic and fiscal issues and a liberal approach to immigration, abortion (despite his personal opposition to it), and other social issues.
That Romney was not free to be himself is due to the fact that the radical right has been the most powerful force in the Republican Party since George W. Bush lost legitimacy and control of his party in the middle of his second term. The radical right, represented by the Tea Party, has forced the Republican Party to adopt such hard lines on abortion, contraception, immigration, deficits, and strangling government through tax cuts. The obliteration of moderate Republicanism has been nothing short of astonishing. Even after its defeat last week, the Republican right remains a powerful presence in the House of Representatives, many of its members residing in districts that have been engineered to ensure that they will face no serious opposition for the foreseeable future. In a wholly unexpected development, the money unleashed into American politics by the 2010 Citizens United decision did not buoy the GOP as a whole, but only its radical wing: it gave rogue billionaires opportunities to extend the candidacies of marginal GOP candidates—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and others—beyond their natural lives. Romney, as a result, had to tack far harder to the right, for far longer and at a far greater cost, than he had intended. It was Newt Gingrich who first defined Romney as a predatory capitalist during his time at Bain, an attack line, as the Democrats would soon demonstrate, that never stopped giving. Romney’s “friends” on the right, Gingrich super-fan Sheldon Adelson among them, knocked him off his game. He never regained his footing.
The war for the future of the Republican Party has begun, and will bear close watching. The left has its work cut out in the meantime. The best hope for a transformational politics during Obama’s second term lies not in the man himself, who has revealed himself to be a political mortal, and a rather centrist one at that, but in the pressure that an organized left will be able to exert on him and on American politics more generally. In the last six months, both gay rights and immigrant rights activism compelled Obama to take progressive stands on issues that, previously, he had unwilling to embrace. The battlefront should now expand to include economic issues as well. The key challenges seem clear: whether taxation will become more progressive; whether the banks will be made to bear more of a burden for the crash they visited upon the nation, and whether debtors, especially home owners and university students, will find their burden lightened; and whether the balance of power in the economy will shift more toward labor and away from capital, a restructuring that would offer the country its best shot at reducing the economic inequality that continues to disfigure American society.
In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, protest movements originating outside conventional party politics—the labor movement in the first instance, the civil rights movement in the second—pulled politics to the left, compelling two Democratic presidents to embrace legislative programs that they otherwise would have deemed too radical. In the process, these insurgencies made FDR and LBJ into the transformational presidents we now credit them for being. For BHO to have a chance of amassing legislative achievements to rival those of the New Deal and the Great Society, he will need a durable protest movement to pull him and his party out of their centrist comfort zone—they will need a foil, in other words, against which a new, center-left consensus can seem not only reasonable, but necessary.
The case of Occupy Wall Street demonstrates both the power of social protest and its evanescence in our age of global capital and manic media. A year ago OWS streaked across our political landscape, delivering the most powerful (and entertaining) indictment of economic inequality in seventy-five years. And then it was gone, barely visible a year later, either unable or unwilling to mount a significant action during the campaign season. But, in its brief moment, it illuminated patterns of life in the twenty-first century that had not been visible to many Americans before. Its intervention made a difference, emboldening Obama to ratchet up his critique of economic inequality and influencing the decision of Newt Gingrich—always looking to make the latest, coolest, idea his own—to attack a fellow Republican for his predatory capitalism. In its own indirect, hard to measure, but nevertheless significant way, OWS contributed to the outcome of the 2012 election. What if the left built a movement whose staying power was longer than six months?
Gary Gerstle teaches American history at Vanderbilt University. This year he is the Harmsworth Professor at Oxford.