Obama's disunited states

It would be a mistake to regard the result as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency.

So what was all that fuss about? Voters and pundits wanting a good night's sleep should have double-checked the final opinion polls and the exits and gone to bed safe in the knowledge that Barack Obama would be re-elected by a surprisingly convincing margin.

That was one of the stories of a great night for the pollsters as well as for Democrats and liberal America. By extension, the President's decisive defeat of Mitt Romney was a stunning reverse to Republicans who had insisted that the polls underplayed their score. The GOP had confidently expected to at least take Florida and Virginia and to run Obama to the wire in Ohio. It didn't happen. The President swept the board of the key swing states. In the event, of the states that made up his total of 365 electoral college votes in 2008, Obama ceded only two - Indiana and North Carolina to Romney - romping home with narrow but clear victories in, amongst others, Virginia, Colorado and the ultimate bellwether states, Ohio. While Florida will be recounted after a mere 46,000 votes separated the two main candidates, Obama still holds the load and will probably claim the state.

It is also a personal triumph for Obama and for liberal America. The Obama-care health reforms are a political revolution that few thought a Democratic President could get through Congress against well-funded opposition determined. The rights of women, gay Americans and minorities have also been protected. The two Republican Senatorial candidates who became embroiled in scandal after making incendiary remarks opposing the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape were heavily defeated.

At the weekend, Victoria Yeroian, President of the Young Democrats at Virginia Commonwealth university, passionately described the importance of the Affordable Care Act and legislation on gender pay discrimination. By contrast, one Republican canvasser in St Petersburg told me on Monday that "Obama care forcing everybody to be equal is just wrong", arguing instead that she had been forced to sell her house to pay for her husband's healthcare and that others should do the same. It is huge breakthrough that healthcare in America will no longer be based on the ability to pay and in time opponents, as well as supporters of Obama-care, will recognise its value and justness

But it would be a mistake to regard this as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency. It is not just that the two candidates were separated by a fraction over one per cent in the popular vote but the fact that the results reflect an America that is deeply divided politically, socially and economically. Obama's winning coalition was based on reaching out to latino voters. The President picked up 70 per cent of Latino voters, over 90 per cent of African-Americans, as well as a majority of women and university educated voters. However, most white Americans voted for Romney with a large majority of male voters backing the Republican.

In fact, after an election process in which the two camps have spent a combined $6bn including $700m on television adverts in the swing states alone, the reality is that little has changed. Indiana and North Carolina were the only two states to change hands compared to 2008. Meanwhile, the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate by picking up two seats but failed to make any inroads into the Republicans' 25 seat majority in the House of Representatives.

With the Republican hard-right indicating that they will continue to oppose anything and everything that the President touches the political deadlock that has paralysed Capitol Hill for over two years will not be broken if Obama does not reach out to the remaining moderate Republicans. If he can do this, the Democrats will reap the rewards. For all the animosity between Democrats and Republicans, most voters want a bipartisan approach that can break the legislative log-jam in Washington.

Without a radical change of mindset and culture, it is difficult to see how a Republican candidate will be able to secure the presidency. The Hispanic community, in particular, is increasing rapidly, now accounting for over 10 per cent of the population. On the basis of the current demographic trends, America will cease to be a majority white country between 2040 and 2050.

The division between white and black and brown America also created an unedifying spectacle in a number of counties in the likes of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, with a string of accusations and lawsuits against state Republicans over allegations that voters in predominantly African-American and hispanic communities were being blocked or delayed at polling stations. At precinct 135 on the outskirts of St Petersburg, Sharon Hodgson, Vice-Chair of Pinellas Democrats, was in no doubt that the tactics were a cynical attempt by state Republicans to stop black and hispanic people from voting. The undoubted attempts by Republicans to suppress voting were and are a shameful stain on American democracy.

After the polls closed, I spent about an hour at the post-election party of the St Petersburg Republican party. The several hundred campaigners and local candidates were polite, committed, and almost exclusively white and middle aged. Aside from two waiters there was only one black man in the room, while a handful of unhappy looking children behaving themselves in their Sunday best brought down the average age into the 50s. In a country of minorities, the GOP can simply no longer afford to be a white-person's party. The Republicans remind me of the Tory blue rinse brigade - their base support is simply too old and too white to win.

But, for the moment, who cares about the GOP's doomsday scenario and the tightness of the popular vote? Wednesday is a great day to be a liberal in America.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer

Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Mali and Shasa arrive to board Marine One in Chicago. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage