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.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.