This blog is about issues of intelligence and security, broadly speaking, not politics per se, and certainly not domestic politics, which is a topic of marginal interest for me. That said, it’s hard to ignore yesterday’s verdict altogether, as its potential consequences, well beyond America, loom large. So, a few observations.
Since, unlike most journalists today, I believe in getting my biases out there, here they are. I’m not a particularly partisan person, in the literal sense: I have no great affection for either the Democrats or Republicans, which over their long duopoly have both shifted dramatically in ideological terms (just take a look at how different the electoral map was as recently as 1976). I mustered little enthusiasm for either Obama or Romney, finding serious flaws in both candidates, so I was not particularly moved in the election either way. As a historian by background, I take the long view and strive to see the Big Picture.
First off, the GOP is broken, probably irretrievably; the Republicans, if they don’t get their act together fast, may go the way of the Whigs. Rather soon. It is easy and just to place a lot of this as the feet of George W. Bush, whose two terms were a train-wreck almost across the board, at home and abroad. Yet “W” cannot be blamed altogether, since it’s not his fault that the GOP continues to live in a strange fantasy world where it’s 1980 forever, and all that’s required is sufficient incantation of tax cuts, less government, and a strong military. Republicans love to invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan, but I cannot believe that the Gipper would find his own party these days at all intellectually coherent; not to mention that Ronnie, a quite winning politico lest we forget, would be aghast at how Republicans have turned into a hyper-aggressive bunch of interventionists (one of the most misremembered aspects of the 1980s among right-wingers is how minimally interventionist Reagan actually was in practice).
It speaks volumes about the institutionalized escapism of the GOP in 2012, at a time of profound and enduring economic crisis for working people, that it felt that nominating someone whose real claim to fame is expertise as a top-level bankster, and then adding an Ayn Rand fantasist as the veep, would get the white working class out to vote Republican. We saw how that worked out in the upper Midwest yesterday.
Romney ran as good a campaign as could be expected, given his less than likable nature, his hard-to-sell record, and the fact that the mainstream media was as shockingly in the bag for Obama as it was. The conduct of the MSM was a disgrace, for anyone who cares a whit about having decent journalism in a free society, but that was only the culmination of a long-developing story. Moreover, the collapse of legacy media means this will matter less and less in coming years, as voters find their own sources of information, some decidedly not mainstream.
But the real bumper-sticker here is how much the country has changed, relatively quickly. In demographic terms the United States is simply not the country I was born in a little over forty years ago. Some liberals are heralding this New America in glowing terms:
President Barack Obama did not just win reelection tonight. His victory signaled the irreversible triumph of a new, 21st-century America: multiracial, multi-ethnic, global in outlook and moving beyond centuries of racial, sexual, marital and religious tradition.
Howard Fineman’s assessment is basically correct, but his near-gloating tone will be off-putting to those who are less enthused about it all. Voters – and I mean here especially white voters – were never asked if they wanted a new country, yet they have one, whether they like it or not. This is big, and will get bigger. It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Romney done anything to run against this New America, since in fact he did nothing of the sort, and seemed to go out of his way to alienate poorer whites on economic issues.
While many will focus on the ethno-racial aspect to this, not least because Obama does so frequently, the gender-social angle is just as significant. Chucking aside centuries of social and religious tradition is a fine progressive talking point, I understand this gets the MSNBC crowd fired up, but we easily ignore how big a change this is for mere human animals. Single white women – the fastest-growing part of the electorate – went for Obama at about the same percentage as Hispanics did, i.e. about two-thirds. We are engaged in a vast social experiment where marriage is receding and ever-larger groups of society are ever-more dependent on government-derived largesse. Here Romney had a valid point about the vaunted 47 percent, however ham-handedly he made it.
Many things can only be guessed at about the trajectory before this Brave New America where marriage is allowed for gays but decreasingly found among straights. One thing that can be said for certain, however, is that it will produce fewer children – the USA is already at the lowest birth rates the country has ever recorded – and expectations that America (where birth rates among the native population are hardly better than in the decidedly non-fecund EU) can avoid a European-style birth dearth were unfounded. Another certainty is that the United States, with fewer births, will soon confront serious economic and fiscal problems based solely on a lack of future taxpayers, i.e. children (see: Japan).
I have said some harsh things about the GOP here, but it needs to be stated that both parties are fully complicit in the parlous finances we face. Obama’s worst sin in his first term was casting aside any efforts, even by his own specially-selected panel, to confront (or even really admit) the looming fiscal disaster. Saying the Republicans have been unhelpful is true but meaningless. Action must be taken, and soon. The essence of the problem is simple: the American people consume more federal largesse, far more, than they pay for in taxes. Most want the services but not the paying for them. This game has continued so long due to the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, but it cannot go on much longer, given that by many standards the country is as deeply in the hole, relatively speaking, as much of Southern Europe. Unless the USA wants to become a bigger Argentina with nuclear weapons, Obama’s second term will need to see decisive actions to remedy this looming catastrophe not just talked about but taken. I am not, at this juncture, optimistic.
The election basically decided nothing. The American people are divided pretty much in half, Congress will remain where it was. One party is the home of the declining white majority (however much they decline to say so), the other is the home of a collection of minorities (ethno-racial, social, and sexual). We can expect gridlock to continue for years to come. And that is the problem.
As someone who has spent a lot of time studying multinational and multiethnic societies, I am skeptical that the New America built around “diversity” is going to have an easy time dealing with its huge fiscal problems. As social-civic cohesion frays – as even eminent liberal scholars admit is the outcome as a society becomes more diverse – to say nothing of subpar economic performance for years to come, I find it difficult to see how the country can overcome its rising challenges. When knotty issues of state finance representing truly hard choices are seen through a lens of ethno-racial identity and interest, they become even more difficult to address seriously in a democracy.
There will be much gnashing of teeth among Republicans, followed by the inevitable incantations that the GOP must appeal more to blacks and especially Hispanics. Which is true but assumes that there are lots of Hispanics who are just waiting to be seduced by the GOP’s free market fantasy ideology, if only the right salesman can be found. Juan Galt does not exist.
The upside to yesterday’s election for Republicans is that it offers the party a needed opportunity to divest itself of its more annoying and vote-losing tendencies (free-market fanatics and hucksters, evangelicals obsessed with rape and abortion, neocon warmongers), and in that we can expect to see fewer appeals to universal American empire masquerading as “defense.” Although Obama made a serious misstep in Libya back in early 2011 by listening to advisors who seem to think the entire world ought to be subjected to U.S. military intervention until the planet is made new, it’s clear that the president’s heart just isn’t in aggressive Wilsonianism for its own sake. It’s also clear that paeans to new wars of choice (AKA Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM) were not a vote-getter for Romney, which is probably why he sounded more realist towards the end of the campaign: too little, too late.
But we can at least comfort ourselves that America may soon conduct a long-overdue self-examination of its role in the world, and how much that role should be an overt military one. Going abroad in search of monsters to destroy has diminishing returns and gets damn expensive too. And no matter what, the drone war against Al-Qa’ida and Friends will continue.
[N.B. Per always, the opinions expressed here are mine alone and assuredly not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]