11/21/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Sober Lessons of the 2012 Election

Most of the progressive community realizes that winning the presidential election of 2012 was an essential step, but only a single step, toward policies we need if the people of the United States are to prosper. Few are wasting a lot of time on celebration. Nevertheless, a dispassionate look at what occurred in the election is useful in understanding the nature and difficulties of the path ahead, including problems that transcend mere policies. It provides no triumphalist vision, but a sobering message.

Consider the incredible deficiencies of the opposition progressives have overcome. Before the election, Mitt Romney:
  • Was the virtual embodiment of the most reviled sector of our society -- the finance sector that produced the excesses that plunged the United States, then most of the world, into severe recession. It then took no responsibility for what it had done and leaped back into self-indulgent privilege as soon as the rest of us saved it from self-destruction.
  • In the company of his fellow scions of privilege, voiced his scorn and contempt for almost half the citizens of his country, asserting it was his job not to worry about them, and then was dismayed to have his words replayed for the entire country to hear, so no one could mistake his sentiments.
  • Implemented a health insurance program in Massachusetts whose essential elements were copied in the program adopted by the entire country, then declared he would in his "first day in office" repeal the nation's plan, giving as justification only a bit of weak-minded sophistry that would not have passed muster in a sixth grade class.
  • Endorsed a budget plan which would have turned Medicare into a highly unpopular voucher system, contained large tax breaks for the wealthiest members of society while severely reducing benefits for middle and lower-income people, and did less to reduce the deficit than the policies it was meant to challenge.
  • Selected as his running mate the author of that budget plan, a man who was also a strong supporter of the privatization of Social Security and supported denial of abortions even to women whose lives were threatened by their pregnancy, as well as those whose pregnancies were caused by rape or incest, a man whose views were so toxic that he had to be relegated to campaigning largely in safe Republican states.
  • Publicly refused to endorse a law upholding equal pay for equal work of women.
  • Had, as a prep school student, recruited friends to chase down a fellow student suspected to be gay, held him down, and cut off his hair as he vainly screamed for help. The incident haunted the consciences of all who participated in it, except Mitt Romney who denied any memory of it, indicating he was either a liar or person for whom such cruelties were so common he couldn't even remember them.
  • Visited, while she was in the hospital, a Mormon woman whose pregnancy threatened her life, so that an abortion had been approved by the church, and attempted to bully her into forgoing the abortion in a manner so harsh and insensitive that the woman later left the church.
  • Positioned himself to the right of every aspirant to the Republican nomination during the primaries on the issue of immigration, advocating policies so harsh that, he hoped, people would "self-deport."
  • Had pursued tax avoidance practices so damning that he was willing to risk first losing the Republican nomination then losing the presidency rather than reveal his income tax returns.
  • Proposed $5 trillion dollars in tax cuts accruing primarily to the wealthy, claimed the cuts would not increase the deficit or national debt, but refused to reveal the program cuts that would supposedly offset the tax cuts, even as a credible nonpartisan analysts pointed out that program cuts of sufficient size would be catastrophic or unattainable.
  • Had the Republican National Committee Chairman claim that transition from the primaries to the presidential campaign presented an "Etch-a-Sketch" opportunity that would allow Romney to adopt a whole different set of positions than he had adopted during the primaries.
  • Used the presidential debates to confirm the RNC Chariman's contention and claim a whole different set of positions than he had adopted during the primaries, without ever acknowledging the change.
  • Famously recommended to "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," in a process that would have resulted in the liquidation of the U.S. auto industry and its suppliers and dealt a severe blow to the entire U.S. economy, while opposing and later criticizing the steps that were taken to save the industry.
  • Advanced and heavily advertised several blatant and obvious lies that were exposed and debunked, including the claim that Jeep manufacturing jobs were being exported to China, a claim so damaging and egregiously wrong that Jeep's manufacturers felt compelled to enter the political fray and point out the claim's absurdity.
  • Backing off his earlier apparent position, denied understanding that global warming, the most serious existential threat to our civilization, was a serious and largely man-made problem that required a serious policy response.

A few days after the election, Romney, speaking to financial supporters again, reconfirmed the judgments and values he exhibited in the infamous "47 percent" video clip.

The United States almost elected this incredibly inept, opportunistic, callous and untruthful man to the presidency. (I know such harsh adjectives are not polite or gracious, but at some point manners must yield to the necessity of accurately representing reality.) Mitt Romney received the votes of 48 percent of the electorate. Yes, he was the most "electable" candidate who ran for and had any chance for the nomination of the incredibly dysfunctional Republican Party. He was undoubtedly the only candidate simultaneously sly enough, opportunistic enough and so devoid of principles that he could slip the bonds of the Republican policies on which he had campaigned in the primaries. But Mitt Romney will quickly pass out of public attention and concern, while the dysfunctionality of the party that produced him is of fundamental importance. For Democrats to feel proud of pulling out a squeaker against such opponents should be roughly equivalent to the NFL's Baltimore Ravens exulting over a three-point victory over a high school football team.

We can all list reasons why the victory was more difficult than everything listed above would lead a person to expect, but those almost all come back to the painful truth that what we saw in the Republican Party and its candidates is only a symptom of a deeper sickness in American society and institutions. It is not the mendacity of Mitt Romney or the dysfunctionality and disarray of the Republican Party that is the primary concern here, although they are aspects of the problem. It is the decay of the political and governmental institutions of the United States. It is a populace so demoralized and confused about how to meet the challenges we face that a large portion of it is willing to turn to a man clearly exposed and widely understood to be a charlatan and a mountebank, and a cruel and callous one at that. No, not everyone had that understanding or even received the information necessary to it, despite modern communications and our pervasive media (or perhaps partly because of the nature of some of that media), but that is part of the problem. What should have been obvious to all was either invisible or of little concern to almost half the electorate. And here is the really scary part: While progressives can easily see huge deficiencies in the Republican Party, in so disrupted a society, deficiencies in our own ranks surely exist and may be almost as severe, even if less obvious to us. We, after all, are tolerating a disregard of privacy, due process, habeas corpus, and the rule of law that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. And neither candidate even addressed global warming during the general election campaign.

Democratic Party partisans must understand that the Republican Party may not stay in its current dysfunctional state. In fact, any citizen must hope it will evolve into a responsible contributing institution in our society, and soon. That would provide the responsible competition over realistic policies that will force the Democratic Party to be as responsible an institution as the country needs. That, though, can only be a weak hope. Such a development is unlikely before we solve the larger and more intractable problem of how the citizenry of our country is to evolve into one capable of courageously confronting reality, supporting institutions under our constitutional system, rebuilding those institutions as necessary, and meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The Republican Party and its candidates are only vivid, screaming indications of larger problems in which the Democratic Party, the people of the United States, and our entire governmental and economic systems also participate. It will take an extended mass and massive effort to fully address these problems, but discussion of some of the steps with which we can start must await later essays.