11/07/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

An Election to Get Sentimental Over

There were disappointments -- the defeat of a renewable energy mandate in Michigan showed the big spending and big lies can sometimes still buy an election -- but overall, last night's results were a ringing affirmation of democracy and the American people after a campaign that mostly seemed a disgrace to the former and an insult to the latter.

Billions of dollars were spent on the premise that young people, and ethnic minorities, were too discouraged by the economy to do something about it at the polling booth.Thousands of lawyers and lobbyists were deployed to make sure their votes wouldn't be counted if they tried. But in the end the percent of the electorate under 25 was larger than in 2008, and after courts threw out efforts in states like Pennsylvania to disenfranchise five million voters, African-American turnout in Pennsylvania was higher than four years ago.

Gay marriage, and the first openly gay Senator -- Tammy Baldwin -- proved more popular than the doctrine that rape is just one of those things in the divine scheme of things. When the Republican primaries went off the rails and replaced solid conservatives like Indiana's Richard Lugar, the Republicans managed to throw away two Senate seats on which they should have had a lock. The voters made it clear that in spite of hundreds of millions spent by the fossil fuel industry to turn them against climate action and clean energy, they understood that Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, and even if they had already made up their minds who to vote for, told pollsters that Sandy had made a big impression on them in the polling booth. One in six voters said it was the biggest factor in their vote -- implausible as a literal statement, but highly significant as a signal that of underlying public unease with climate inaction. In fact, the biggest factor in the president's re-election was probably his most courageous act -- holding firm on rescuing the American auto industry in the face of unrelenting Republican opposition and 80 percent public disdain for the idea. The linchpin of that rescue, of course, was putting the auto industry on course to innovation, fuel efficiency, and low-carbon vehicles. And the counterpart to the conservative assault on the auto rescue -- a vicious multi-state attack on organized labor -- came up shorthanded in California, although labor counter-offensive in Michigan also failed.

And the Supreme Court majority's efforts to tilt the election results with corporate spending, rather than that messy business of counting the votes themselves (think Bush v. Gore) did a great deal to enrich the owners of television stations and Republican campaign operatives, but Karl Rove will no doubt have to answer some tough questions about just what did all that Super PAC spending accomplish anyway? A weakened majority in the House, a doubled Democratic margin in the Senate, a president reelected with more than 300 electoral votes, and a stand-off in the state legislative contests seem a fairly puny return on a billion bucks!

Democracy served us well last night. But we put it to a fairly extreme test. Now it's our job to reform the system so the voters don't need to be quite as heroic next time. And it would be nice of the airwaves were selling us new American cars rather than retreaded political lies.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."