More than any other presidential election since Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964, this election was a victory of the people by the people and for the people (let's ignore for the moment how that one turned out). President Obama won because for the first time Democratic voters felt the same driving passion that has been motivating the Republican right since Reagan's first win in 1980: pure fear and disgust at where the country would be headed if (in this case) Romney and Ryan won. Obama did not win because of an upsurge in belief in, or affection for, his administration. Nor was it simply a matter, as so many pundits are saying, of the "new demographics" driving our country, although of course that played a critical role.
The president and liberal Senatorial candidates won because for once the center and liberal wings of American political life felt the same panic the right-wing has been feeling since the 1960s. Much of the decades-long rightwards shift was due to white middle America's anger and confusion over racial integration, opposition to the Vietnam war, and the sense that their assumptions about their most sacred "supremacies" were becoming obsolete. These included American supremacy, male supremacy, white supremacy, and the supremacy of whatever privilege they'd been granted in the world. Just as we attribute Islamic fundamentalism to unease over modernization and secularization and its impact on traditional family and social bonds, so too did such factors engender a peculiarly American version of that same panic.
In response, the American "left", as it is mislabeled (for actually it's the American liberal/centrist tradition while the left has been lately written out of mainstream discourse) has put together half-hearted campaigns to maintain New Deal alignments in the face of the right's attempt to undo the 30s and the 60s. It is much easier to mobilize on the basis of desperate self-defense than it is for an ideal whose tenets come to be taken for granted.
Both the New Deal and the movements growing out of the 60s were reactions against assaults on fundamental moral principles. The New Deal reacted to the Great Depression which plunged so many people into poverty and helplessness. Its basic tenet was that government should--and had better -- come to the aid of the vast numbers of people ravaged by the excesses of our economic system. The 60s and early 70s were inspired by the idealism of the Civil Rights movement and repulsion against racism; opposition to a war that more and more Americans recognized as immoral and hypocritical; women's rejection of inferior status; and short-lived empowerment of the poor. At some point, these movements became an accepted part of mainstream life, at least in terms of the lip-service of public discourse. It was left to the right to feel passionate about where such changes were leading us -- passionately opposed to be sure, but passionate nonetheless.
The fault was also in American liberalism, with its cold-warrior ideology and its political dominance by a privileged class that was uncomfortable with many of the developments occurring on its watch. That very ambivalence also contributed to an inability to mobilize the population for all but the most general shifts slightly to the left of the Republican agenda. Bill Clinton was acknowledged as one of the more conservative Democratic candidates for the 1992 nomination, as was Obama in 2008, and Ross Perot was as instrumental to Clinton's victory as Clinton was. Obama's win in 2008 was fueled by loathing of George Bush as well as by the unrealistic sense that Obama represented something truly refreshing in politics. Members of the traditional Democratic coalition read into Obama's victory whatever they wanted.
This time, the rise of the Tea Party and the mean spiritedness of the Romney/Ryan platform ignited true fear and loathing in the center and left of American politics, a kindred feeling to the right's hatred of Franklin Roosevelt in the 30s or its reaction to school integration and hippies and abortion rights several decades later. Personally, I believe it is one thing to fear and oppose civil rights, a peace movement aimed at ending a war against a small third world country, and women's desire to control their own bodies. It is quite another to fear and oppose the poor's descent into irremediable poverty, the middle class losing any modicum of financial security, the government engaging in endless war, immigrants subjected to constant fear and harassment, and the wealthiest of the wealthy treating our economic system as a shell game fixed forever in their favor. There is a moral difference between the two visions. But we are human and we are animals and the fear we feel when pushed to the edge, whatever our perspective or moral stance, is something we all share.
So Elizabeth Warren, in her victory speech in Massachusetts, had it more right than Obama's reiteration that together we can build an America in which we can all get what we want. Warren spoke of her win over Scott Brown as a victory for the working class and small business owners, for women and seniors, for "every family that has been chipped at, squeezed, and hammered".
But the driving force behind that rallying of energies was not so much a vision of a truly just society or a significant shift in who holds the power in our system. It was the fear and outrage of immigrants at seeing their human rights threatened by police and politicos alike. It was the last stand of union members in the industrial heartland who realized they'd better do something if those jobs were ever coming back. It was the last stand, too, of public service unions in the beleaguered frameworks of state and local governments who feared dismantling of the jobs and services that provide all of us with a viable infrastructure. It was the centrists and liberals who feared that we don't have time for four more years of environmental indifference and financial manipulators fattening themselves at the financial trough. It was African Americans who feared that for many right-wing voters, the main goal was to get that black man out of the White House and to roll back voting rights (through gerrymandering, voter intimidation, unclear voting regulations) and the gains of the past 40 years. It was women fearing that with the Tea Party's influence over the next four years, access to abortion would once again be consigned to the back alley. It was fear, pure and simple, that things had just gone too far and that we could not afford to have a president who serves a small percent of the population and whose Vice President is a religious fanatic representing a wacky, know-nothing segment of the American population known as the tea party.
So that was enough to secure the presidency for Barack Obama and to elect some truly interesting, progressive voices to Congress. And to a large degree, the pundits are correct: America is changing. But that is not enough to guarantee that we'll tackle problems at the fundamental level they require. We can't just sit around waiting for corporations to start hiring again. We can't turn our backs on the threats to our basic civil liberties represented by the ongoing Patriot Act, the myth of a perpetual war on terror, or the increasing militarization of our local police. We can't survive economically at current rates of military spending. We can't survive morally if we view continual war as a natural outgrowth of American power. We can't continue to underfund schools, hospitals, and housing, or focus only on the problems of the middle class while accepting the fact that 20 percent of Americans live in poverty.
So perhaps the fear that played such a role in this election can be transformed into passion for truly addressing the problems that are still here, a day later, after the euphoria of dodging the runaway Republican train has subsided. The president can play a powerful role in seeing that this does happen, but the real responsibility is with ourselves as engaged citizens, as it always is, as it always has been.