An Opportunity Century? Election 2012, Social Justice, and America

What lessons do the 2012 election results hold for those of us who are committed to expanding opportunity and protecting human rights? 

Photo credit: MassVote

As the election results sink in, partisans are busy debating what 2012 voting patterns mean for Republican and Democratic prospects in the next election cycle. But what lessons do this year’s results hold for those of us who are committed to expanding opportunity and protecting human rights in ways that transcend party and outlast individual elections or candidates?  The lessons are plenty, including some that defy the conventional wisdom.

An American Values Majority

Political observers are arguing that Mitt Romney and conservative Senate candidates were done in by “demographics,” meaning that the traditional base of white male voters is no longer sufficient to attain electoral victory, both nationally and in an increasing number of states. The ascendancy of people of color, young people, and single women as voters, the story goes, overpowered that base in ways that will only strengthen over time.

That story is only half right.  

The demographics of the U.S. electorate have indeed changed substantially over the last eight years, and the fastest growing segments went heavily for President Obama and other Democrats this year.  But Mitt Romney and friends were defeated not so much by changing American demographics as by a coalescing of American values in an increasingly multicultural nation.  The diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives that today’s voters bring to the franchise inform those values, but do not define them.

The demographic changes are undeniably significant.  The Latino share of the electorate rose in 2012 to 10 percent from 8 percent in 2004, and the Asian-American proportion to 3 percent from 2 percent. Today’s U.S. electorate is 28 percent nonwhite, which is more than twice the proportion from the early nineties.  Younger voters and African Americans defied predictions by increasing their turnout over 2008. And nearly a quarter of 2012 voters were unmarried women.

These fast-growing groups voted heavily for President Obama.  Sixty-seven percent of unmarried women, 60 percent of voters under 30, more than 70 percent of both Latinos and Asian Americans, and 93 percent of African Americans voted for the president. Their votes made a particular difference in swing states like Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio, and in Senate upsets in Missouri and Indiana.

It would be a big mistake, though, to view demographic change as political destiny.  History predicts that nothing about these increasingly diverse Americans destines them to be Democratic voters in perpetuity.  The African-American vote was very much up for grabs until the 1960s—it was John F. Kennedy’s support for Martin Luther King, Jr. that began the black shift to the Democrats, and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that solidified it.  In a modern parallel, President Obama appears to have won half of the historically conservative Republican Cuban-American vote this year.  Romney’s 27 percent of the overall Latino vote was down from George Bush’s 44 percent as recently as 2004.  Party classifications, in other words, are a poor guide to understanding the changes we’re seeing.

More accurately, the diverse voting bloc that determined the outcome of the 2012 elections is part of an emerging American Values Majority.  The ideals of opportunity—economic security and mobility, equal treatment and voice, human rights and community, the notion that we are all in it together—defined their voting patterns and priorities.  They embraced a positive role for government to uphold those values by enforcing fair rules and solving big problems.  And they saw America’s diversity as a strength rather than as a liability or threat.  This year, they decided in large numbers that President Obama and the Democrats most closely embodied those values.

Opportunity values were dominant in the positions that these voters brought to the ballot box.  In exit polls reported by The New York Times, “two-thirds of voters said undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. Only about one in three said they should be deported…. Six in 10 voters said abortion should be legal. More than 50 percent said they believed the economy favors the wealthy, and most of them supported raising taxes on people making more than $250,000.”

Groundbreaking ballot initiative results also help to define this American values constituency.  In Maryland, voters overwhelmingly approved in-state college tuition rates for young undocumented immigrants.  In California, they scaled back the vindictive Three Strikes law and supported education through fairer taxation.  Voters in Washington and Maine instituted marriage equality.

Several important Senate contests turned on those values as well.  In Wisconsin, voters elected the first openly gay U.S. Senator.  And while Missouri and Indiana remain relatively conservative states, unmarried women were critical in defeating Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock, respectively, after each candidate’s deeply ignorant comments about rape.

These outcomes were not just progress; most were reversals of conservative momentum from just a few years ago.  And they represent not just individual issues or candidates, but also a coherent and inclusive worldview that is on the rise.  The diverse electorate that returned Mr. Obama to the White House, expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate, and broke new ground in upholding human rights and dignity through ballot initiatives was responding to values, not to demographic or partisan allegiance. 

Their values, moreover, flow not from ethnic or genetic make-up, but from experience.  Today’s younger voters are far more likely than previous generations to personally know and have friendships with people of diverse races, nationalities, and sexual identities.  That familiarity has moved many of them beyond “tolerance” to an embrace of diversity as part of America’s strength.  And it has inoculated many of them against the scare tactics that served conservatives well in past elections.

Younger Americans, people of color, and single women are also more likely to understand personally that the public structures, investments, and political will that helped their parents and grandparents achieve greater opportunity and human rights are threatened by conservatives’ intolerant, you’re-on-your own ideology.  And they are more likely to understand what it means to be treated like an outsider in one’s own community, workplace, and country.  That conservatives continue, post-election, to talk about their “Hispanic problem” is just one example of their profound disconnect with these voters’ values.

A Compelling Story

The nascent American values majority clearly had the potential to transform the electoral landscape this year.  But another critical ingredient was that the president and his party tied their appeal to a compelling narrative rooted in the same values and priorities.

The Democratic National Convention, from which Mr. Obama received a pivotal five point bump in the polls, featured opportunity values, powerfully delivered and woven throughout the choice of speakers and imagery, as well as the words spoken.  Diversity as America’s strength and government’s important role were also front and center.  From Julian Castro to Elizabeth Warren, from Lily Ledbetter to the president himself, the moral and practical stakes were laid out with unprecedented breadth and clarity.

The Republican convention, by contrast, was a flop not so much because of Clint Eastwood and the empty chair as because the convention lacked a core story that fit with the new values majority.  The conservative tenets that government has no role beyond military defense, that prosperity depends solely on personal responsibility, and that uniformity and tradition trump diversity and progress, were out of step with a majority of the electorate, as well as with the times.

But Before We Get Carried Away…

The emerging values majority is one of the most exciting developments in generations.  But things could go south fast.  Breaking events, different candidates, and updated messaging by conservatives could still shift today’s majority toward their agenda, just as they did in previous eras.

Many aspects of the conservative worldview—personal responsibility, fiscal restraint, competition and individualism—resonate with a majority of Americans across demographics, even for people who simultaneously embrace opportunity values.  In the shadow of the Obama victory, 49 percent of voters still chose Mitt Romney’s uneven but starkly conservative message.  And while Republicans maintained their House majority more through creative gerrymandering than through electoral support (Democratic House candidates won 1 million more votes than Republicans), large swaths of the country favored very conservative candidates.  The GOP grabbed 30 governor seats, the highest for either party in over a decade.

On issues, a majority of Americans supports Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070, even as they support the DREAM Act and a pathway to citizenship.  And alongside historic victories this year, there were also significant ballot initiative defeats, from preserving the death penalty in California, to ending affirmative action in Oklahoma, to abortion restrictions and the denial of state services to undocumented immigrants in Montana.

Events also matter.  The biggest challenges facing the country this year fit especially well with opportunity values.  The economic and financial crises and the painful road to recovery highlighted the importance of community, economic security, and fairness, and exposed the dangers of the you’re-on-your-own mindset.  As Mitt Romney found out, they made it harder to demonize people who need public programs to get by and showed the danger of hyper-inequality.  Wall Street abuses, hurricanes, and the BP oil spill each brought home why a proactive, positive role for government is in everyone’s interest.

But new events could cut in the other direction.  A jump in violent crime rates or a terrorist attack, for example, could summon up the fear and insularity that erode opportunity values.  And as the economy recovers, many Americans will find it harder to see themselves in the same boat as those who are still struggling.

Nor can we count on Democrats, on their own, to prioritize opportunity and human rights in their communications or their lawmaking in the coming years.  President Obama, by all accounts, did a terrible job of telling a values story during most of his first term—and he is among the Democrats’ most gifted communicators.  As Americans struggled with the competing visions of the Occupy and Tea Party movements, for example, he and most Democrats remained mute on the subject.  And they actively avoided discussion of equal opportunity for people of all races.

On policy, the president and his colleagues waited until election time to take basic executive action on LGBT equality and a reprieve for DREAM Act students, failed to push positive immigration legislation, neglected the housing and homeownership crisis, failed to close Guantanamo or institutionalize human rights protections here at home, and abandoned truly universal healthcare in their opening bid to Republicans.  They took late or half measures on many of the issues of greatest importance to the American values constituency.

In many ways, then, the Democrats looked so good in part because the Republicans looked so bad.  That trend may or may not continue, but it falls far short of achieving the opportunity society to which so many of us aspire.

The Bottom Line

So what does it all mean for those of us whose priorities lie with realizing opportunity and human rights for all? We have a tremendous opportunity, but also a momentous challenge.  We must tell our own values story in a rapidly changing media and communications environment, and in ways that are not dependent on any candidate or party.  We must demand policies, corporate practices, and civic behavior that uphold those values.  We must work together, listen, and bridge our own differences in ways that we often haven’t in the past.  And we must adapt to unprecedented levels of rapid change—in our global economy, in the media landscape, in the integration of our cultures and experiences.

So far, the prospects are good.  Twenty-first century movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamers, and workers’ rights in Wisconsin are increasingly rooted in values, networked, diverse, globalized, and communications-savvy.  More and more, opportunity values and storytelling traverse traditional media—think Maureen Dowd, Melissa Harris Perry, or John Stewart—as well as alternative, ethnic, and social media that are on the rise.

But there are some important gaps that we must fill.  Low-income Americans, immigrants, and many others still have inadequate opportunities to be part of the public discourse.  Progressive faith communities are just beginning to raise their voices, and progressive business leaders are still all but silent.  The toxic mix of big money and politics unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision continues to pollute our democracy.  And the community organizers and public interest groups that proved crucial to protecting and re-invigorating the franchise this year remain under-funded and under-recognized.

What happens in the Republican party is also important.  Opportunity values were among that party’s founding principles, and motivated many of its candidates long into the 20th Century.  An ideologically diverse Republican party that competes for new voters based on a genuine commitment to opportunity and human rights is in everyone’s interest.  Voices inside the party are finally empowered to make that argument and, as with Democrats, should be encouraged and rewarded for doing so.

Addressing these issues is part of a 21st-Century infrastructure that’s needed for the new American values majority to realize its full potential.  It won’t happen on its own. 

But if we’re smart as well as lucky, 2012 could be the beginning of an Opportunity Century.


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