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Progressive Paradigm Shift: The Real 'Gift' of the 2012 Election

11/17/2012 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2013

Depending who you ask, the outcome of this year's election was either decided by women, people of color, or the LGBT community. But regardless of which group can truly claim credit, the conclusion is clear: for the first time in all of American history, national elections can no longer be won by pandering to straight white men. And demographic trends suggest that this paradigm shift will only loom larger in the years to come. The implications of this change should not be underestimated; this is an incredible moment for progressive politics, and 2012 simply marks the beginning.

While the demographic breakdown of votes in this election was staggering, it was not at all surprising. The Republican Party has long been the last vestige of many older white men, clinging to the basest aspects of American history while claiming a monopoly on patriotism. But both parties must recognize that none of these groups are monoliths; all of these labels encompass incredible diversity that often goes unacknowledged. The category of "women," particularly, is grossly over-generalized -- extending across all other categories with tremendous intersectionality therein. However, the key to last week's Democratic victory is the one characteristic that does unite all of these groups: a common history -- and persistent reality -- of subordination in American society.

Although experiences of subordination vary greatly, dealing with oppressive treatment tends to foster two important values: community and compassion. Of course, these are the very characteristics a group must develop to resist and survive subordination. Community is necessary because the ideal of each individual pulling herself up by her bootstraps does not work as well when your entire group is denied boots in the first place. Compassion naturally follows from this, as subordinated communities are reminded every day that personal struggles rarely exist in a vacuum.

While compassion and communitarian ideals are central foundations of the progressive platform, many Republican values are clearly opposed to both. It is no wonder that the GOP has alienated the demographic groups who were systematically oppressed throughout the very same "good old days" they wish to return to -- especially since many conservative policies enforce this same subordination today. What progressives view as necessary remedial efforts, Republicans see as "gifts." But given our new electoral majority, the conclusion is simple: either the Republican Party needs to make massive changes to both their policies and messaging strategies, or they will keep losing national elections. As a progressive myself, I am perfectly content with either of those options.

Yet while there are clear reasons that women, people of color, and the LGBT community tend to skew liberal, there are no guarantees in American politics. If Republicans step back from their oppressive policies, then we will likely see a more equal party split among these very diverse groups. This is especially true since the Democratic Party is often a default choice rather than a true home for subordinated communities, unable to fully take over the mantle left behind after Republicans abandoned their abolitionist roots.

To truly become the party that represents the interests of our new electoral majority, Democrats must stop perpetuating the narrative that subordination is strictly a relic of the past. After all, what better way to distinguish themselves from Republicans, who seem to think that after hundreds and hundreds of years of unabashed subordination of women, people of color, and LGBT folks, we now have a perfectly level playing field; it's just a convenient coincidence that straight white men are still winning. To maintain both their electoral advantage and their integrity, Democrats must acknowledge that we cannot simply will ourselves to overcome America's long history of subordination; this troubled legacy is something we must actively fight against every day. In short, Democrats must simply become the party of progress -- not an instant fix, but a constant march toward a better America.

Yet, even if Democrats' electoral dominance is short-lived, the 2012 election is still an incredible moment for progressive politics. Appealing to women, people of color, and the LGBT community is now the starting point of any national election; these groups are now the norm, around which both parties will need to reconstruct their policies and messaging. Even if Democrats have to work harder for these votes in years to come, it is a major progressive victory just to have these groups playing a more active and welcome role in the process. Again -- for the first time in history -- our electoral landscape will not be structured around straight white men. The impact of that alone is going to drastically change the way we view issues, the way we craft policy, and the direction America takes in the foreseeable future.

I, for one, can't wait.