Election 2012: America’s Tipping Point?

Fox News team looking sad
Why the long faces?

America has two broad histories: what happened, and what Americans think happened. America’s brutal history is hard to square with its talk of liberty and equality, but the schizophrenic nation somehow manages to blend reality with fiction almost seamlessly. The fairy tales start from the nation’s very beginning. The Enlightenment in Europe was proposing radical new ideas: that science and reason should triumph over religion and superstition; that tolerance and fairness should triumph over persecution. Americans are sold a story in which the early settlers were chased out of a barbaric Europe that refused to tolerate their religious beliefs; in reality, the Enlightenment was challenging the most intolerant religious factions. Those Christian zealots who fled to America weren’t running from intolerance, but fleeing because their right to be intolerant was under threat.

These origins created a contradictory, fractured nation: a constitution based on the Enlightenment, but a population that was strongly opposed to Enlightenment values. As a result, America has always been an outlier when measured against other continents. More religious, more violent, less tolerant than other countries of similar levels of wealth; clinging on to slavery long after the Atlantic slave trade had been outlawed by the British; creating racial segregation laws unlike anything seen in post-medieval Europe (with the exception of Nazi-era antisemitic laws).

For most of its history, the US white majority has been strongly racist and deeply religious. The civil-rights era laid the groundwork for true equality in some future time, but it frightened and enraged the white majority. The Republican Party, once the party of abolition, embraced its infamous Southern Strategy to mop up the white racist vote that had once belonged to the Democrats.

For decades, this strategy worked. From 1972 until 2008, there were six Republican presidential terms and only three Democratic ones. But predictable changes were happening. America’s social values were inevitably becoming more progressive, for several reasons: in post-civil rights America, young people of different races were – slowly at first – beginning to mix with each other; immigrants from around the world were bringing new ideas; the population was urbanising; and, thanks to the Internet, Americans were becoming exposed to a global market of ideas from which most had been previously excluded. Republicans were dominant, but their dominance was reliant on a shrinking base.

The tipping point arrived quietly at some point in the past decade. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it seemed America had passed a point of no return. The symbol of a black President gave an unmistakable message of change. The Republicans needed to accept and embrace the changes in society, and many attempted to. But they were tangled in their own past. A huge segment of Republican support was right-wing, racist and religious. With some help from Fox News and cash from corporate backers, the so-called Tea Party movement emerged; an enraged backlash against inevitable change. They successfully seized the Republican agenda, removing moderates from office and shifting the party to the extreme right. Their calls to “take back our country” failed to mask the unmistakable screams of a lynch mob.

The Republicans became perfect moron-watching material. Every week would produce a new story so outrageous, I would have to check multiple sources before tweeting or blogging about it; attacks on women’s reproductive rights, rejections of mainstream science, attempts to include religious orthodoxy in mainstream education, witch-hunts against Muslims.

The life of a Republican presidential candidate was made impossible – how to present yourself as far-right to the angry, white, religious Republican base while simultaneously as centrist to the wider electorate?

I believe Obama’s 2012 victory is more significant even than his 2008 win. This time, he was an incumbent with a varying record in office. This time, the novelty factor of a black candidate was no longer in play. The US economy is not in great shape. He has faced relentless campaigns trying to prove that he was born outside the US or labelling him a Muslim. Yet he won. The screams of rage from the right this time are louder than before. Because this time, his victory can’t be blamed on some kind of black sympathy vote, or on John McCain’s suitability as a candidate. The 2012 victory demonstrates the existence – for the first time ever – of a narrow progressive (or at least centrist) majority in America.

Obama’s win wasn’t the only sign of this. Two states voted to legalise recreational use of marijuana, and four voted in favour of gay marriage. The screams of rage are in mourning, not just for an election defeat, but for an America where white, Christian, racist males dominated. This was best summed up by the right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly on election night when he glumly stated: “the white establishment is now in the minority“.

The Republicans need to embrace the new reality, but that’s easier said than done. A constituency of white, Christian racists still exists, and it numbers in the tens of millions. In a multi-party democracy, the Tea Party could form its own political party, but in America’s enforced duopoly, they have nowhere else to go, and so the chance that the Republicans can move towards the centre is remote.

Unfortunately, the Republican swing to the right has taken the most important issues off the US agenda. Climate change, inequality and the corporate threat to democracy were barely mentioned in the election campaign. Big oil and corporate power were the winners.

One thing is certain – the US religious right is still huge, is angrier than ever, and still controls the House of Representatives. Now cornered, expect its last stand to be spectacular.

18 thoughts on “Election 2012: America’s Tipping Point?”

  1. For the most part, i’d agree with your analysis (although it’s quite clear that racism post civil rights is not confined to Republicans – see for example the notorious Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace).

    However the current Republican party, including some of its more moronic “celebrities” (eg Donald Trump), are still trying to play the racist card. “Muslim” is used in a clearly racist way in parts of the Republican party.

    I’d also suggest that the lack of discussion of climate change, inequality and the corporate threat to democracy (an issue still barely recognised in the UK too) is nothing to do with the Republican shift to the Right. It’s a consequence of the way US democracy works. By allowing unlimited corporate donations (which are generally made with a view to influencing the agenda), you serve to remove “contentious” items from the agenda. The obfuscation of religion and climate change (instigated by the likes of the Koch brothers) admittedly doesn’t help here.

    I don’t think the Tea Party will secede from the Republican party (it’s an infiltrationist movement in the same way as some of the 1980’s socialist movements were into the Labour party: a sort of right wing equivalent of Militant, if you like), but it will take a lot of guts for mainstream Republicans to kick it out, and its presence tends to make the Republicans less electable (see again the 1980’s Labour Party). US politics doesn’t work in the same way as UK politics (in particular, you don’t have party leaders), so it’s difficult to see how the Republicans could have a “Neil Kinnock/John Smith” figure with sufficient authority, and for sufficient time, to take on the Tea Party. The only one I can think of who might have the guts is Chris Christie, who is an impressive politician (whether you agree with him or not).

    The better informed the electorate, the better democracy works. No wonder political parties try to avoid discussing major issues!

    Hopefully these thoughts will kick start a debate, at least.

  2. Just found a belter from @GodsAssociate. Surely worth a RT if you’re not blocked.

    Doug Thomas‏@GodsAssociate

    After last night I’m never watching @FoxNews again – Their liberal bias was totally evident. Should never have trusted them.

  3. While I would agree that the USA, like all nations, has fabricated a past that posits them as being the noble oppressed, it is untrue that White Americans have been uniformly racist or fundamentalist Christians. Many of the early America immigrants went there for religious and political freedom of pre-civil war England. These were the brothers & sisters of the Levellers and Diggers, who sought reform after the civil war. People who modern day radicals like to claim descent from.

    The fundamentalism that the USA experienced in the 19th C was paralleled here with the rise of Non-Conformism, the Baptists, Quakers, Methodists. Groups like the Shakers fled this country for tolerance in the 19th C. Let us not forget that it wasn’t until the mid 19th C that Jews were emancipated politically in UK, whereas in the USA Jews had achieved emancipation.

    Furthermore, slave ownership in the ante-bellum USA was not limited to whites, nor was enslavement limited to non-whites. Free blacks could own slaves, and did so. The fervour of the Kansas raiders was driven by the fact that slavers were kidnapping whites and enslaving them in perpetual bond. (Let’s not forget that the British were not above selling their relatives into slavery in the 18th C – read R.L. Stevenson’s book Kidnapped)

    From the 1830’s onward the import of slaves into the USA was illegal, and the consequence was that the value of slaves rocketed as the supply became scarce. It was one of the things that the Confederacy sought to repeal, and there were attempts to run the gauntlet of the British Navy to get fresh slaves.

    The USA is divided between the Urban communities and the traditional agricultural communities, and is in this country there are tensions between town & country. But we should be careful not to assume that these apparently right wing Christian primarily agricultural communities are devoid of a sense of social responsibility. While they may oppose a Federal health programme, they will happily fund local health care for their communities from local taxes and their social institutions often provide care & support that is absent in the cities.

    Before we draw comparisons between ourselves as “sophisticated & enlightened Europeans” let’s not forget that we butchered millions in the battlefields of WW1 & 2. The industrial genocide of the Holocaust is ours. The USA has no parallel to this in its entire history, despite its industrial might. We of the Old World cannot lift up our hands to the USA and claim that they are free of guilt & blood.

    Yes they may seem slightly weird and often naive to us cynical Europeans. But so what? They are no greater monsters than we are.

  4. Great analysis. Not keen on your use of the term ‘schizophrenic’ as a metaphor, it’s outdated, inaccurate and perpetuates the myth that schizophrenia is to do with ‘split personaity’.

  5. Thanks for letting me know about @GodsAssociate. It works as a “spoof” (since I hadn’t spotted it!).

    Another good one is Landover Baptist Church. Very funny (if deeply disturbing!). Done by a former “inmate” in Jerry Falwell’s church.

  6. I have posted this article from MoronWatch as a weekly debate topic on my Facebook wall or timeline. I just hope I get some well thought out responses as printed here (which I have taken the liberty of posting).

  7. You nailed that segment of the population bent to the right. The so called independents are the stupid who listen and vote because of Republican lies. The Democrats past are the racists,We who were in bed uncomfortably with the South,Johnson ended it. and the main band of racism is broken in America for ever.{Ihope] What frightens me is the 48% voting for a known liar belonging to a racist cult.It’s difficult to read the truth by someone from another country.

  8. For all that we accuse the USA of being racist, and focus upon the extremists of the right wing, the UK has yet to have a black prime minister or indeed any of the major cabinet posts.
    So far there have been 123 Afro-American congress men & women, and 1 Afro-American president. It’s not great but it’s not an indicator that the USA is devoid of the egalitarian spirit.
    Now just how many non-white MPs, Lords, Ministers & Prime Ministers has the divinely superior UK managed?

    1. In defense of Moron Watch.He wasn’t pointing out any thing superior in Britain,just very critical of our failings,It was very hard to read but he nailed us. Go ahead and nail the Brits. they have a lot of catching up to stand abreast of the Yanks.

    2. Comparing the racial situation in UK and US is almost impossible. Slavery was never legal or practised in Britain (though of course it was in the colonies, and British merchants profited heavily from the slave trade). Britain never had the segregation in law that America has, and has very little segregation in practise. Black people in Britain are far more likely to marry whites than black Americans are. Most significant, the black British population was almost non-existent prior to 1948, and only constituted about 4% of the population as of the 2001 census, compared to around 12.5% in the US. Relative to the size of the black British population it has achieved better representation in Parliament than African Americans have in Congress, though is still under-represented.

      1. Small typo – America HAD segregation laws, not HAS. The states have been slowly stripping away segregation laws but these were rendered powerless by civil rights anyway.

      2. It is incorrect to claim that slavery was never legal in UK. Slavery was de-legitimised in 1772 with the Somerset Case, and thus the enslavement of another in England & Wales ceased to be sustainable. However, prior to this it was possible and sustainably legal to enslave people in England in a variety of forms. African slaves were brought to UK in small numbers. They however did not offer an economic proposition as they were expensive to acquire and maintain when compared with local labour, and from the late Tudor period there was generally a surfeit of labour.

        As cited in RL Stephenson’s book “Kidnapped”, Uncle Ebenezer sells his nephew into bond (a term of enslavement set against an alleged debt) to be taken to the Americas. Many “Redneck” Americans in the southern states are descendants of such people.

        Historically slavery or serfdom as it was called was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, and it was only with the Black Death and the subsequent labour shortage that it began to break down. Following the English Civil War and Cromwell’s incursions into Ireland many Irish were sent as slaves to the Caribbean and elsewhere the English had an interest. The English sought to end their “Gypsy” problem in the 17th C by the same route. Many Scots following the 18th C Rebellion were enslaved and shipped to the southern states to work on the plantations, and to die in large numbers. (These White Slaves proved to be less productive than Black Slaves and highly susceptible to diseases like pellagra. They became the poor white communities that scraped a living alongside the feudal plantations, often in abject poverty and profound insecurity. Like many other communities in similar situations while they may not have appeared to benefit from the status quo, they lived with profound fear of the loss of the little they had.)

        Jews in the Middle Ages were effectively slaves as they were the exclusive property of the monarch to dispose of as he willed, even though they were permitted to operate businesses independently.

        Not only were the British slavers, but they were also slaves in large numbers. The British isles were raided for slaves well into the 17th C, and British seafarers were also susceptible to capture & enslavement, to be sold in the slave markets of North Africa. Thomas Pellow, who escaped decades of slavery in Algeria, wrote down his experiences in a widely published account in 1740.

        The reality is that the majority of people in UK today are descendants of slaves regardless of ethnicity. Among us are people from almost every ethnic origin who are descendants of slave owners.

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