The election of 2012 is behind us. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have completed their last campaigns and given their final victory and concession speeches.
It is time to reflect on the persistent themes that characterized the campaign and locate the election in relation to the parties’ trajectories in recent years. Identifying those themes might explain, better than pundits’ fascination with demography or with politics as a game of imagery and maneuver, the reasons why the president was reelected by a larger margin than many analysts predicted.
It is not the atmospherics of their campaigns, but the substance of Obama’s and Romney’s stated goals and programs, the ideals they championed and the directions in which they wanted to take the nation, that reveal why the president’s message resonated with a majority of American voters. The candidates and their parties presented two competing and ultimately incompatible visions of America that have deep roots in our nation’s history. Most Republicans distrust government, particularly the federal government, and put their faith in free enterprise. Most Democrats, as they have done for a century, consider government regulation of the economy necessary to protect the most vulnerable Americans.
Although campaign observers warned repeatedly during the months preceding the election that they did not sense the energy or the commitment of Democratic voters that they found so striking in 2008, members of many groups – including ethnic and racial minorities, unmarried women, poor people, and Catholics, Jews, and liberal Protestants – ended up turning out in large numbers and voting for Obama by equally large or even larger majorities this time.(a) Why?
In his victory speech on election night, the president struck the same chords he has been sounding since he addressed the throng in Grant Park four years earlier – the same chords, in fact, that he struck when he burst into prominence with his address to the 2004 Democratic Party nominating convention in Boston: unity in diversity, conciliation and compromise, and policy making conceived as experimentation rather than the veneration of supposedly timeless truths. Obama conceives of governance as an endless process of trial and error in which programs are understood as hypotheses to be tested, not as dogmas to be followed regardless of the consequences.
Obama opened his victory speech by declaring that “the task of perfecting our union moves forward,” and this focus on the future rather than the past has distinguished him not only from Republicans but also from many Democrats trapped in an equally unhelpful nostalgia for an America that never was. From the beginning of his career in public life, Obama has shown a willingness to question the inherited assumptions of his own party and to incorporate ideas from his opponents. But since 2008 that willingness, rather than making him a more attractive president, has made him a target for partisans located at both ends of the political spectrum.1
Deep divisions have marked the United States since its birth. With the exception of the Civil War, tragically necessary to end the disastrous blight of slavery, those divisions have not prevented the nation from moving forward, usually in fits and starts, to address new problems with imagination and innovation. Early challenges included forging unified commercial and transportation networks, and public-private partnerships of the sort Obama extols were essential to achieving those goals.2 When expanding cities eclipsed small towns and new industries transformed the nation’s economy, waves of government regulation, inaugurated by progressives and then extended by New Dealers, proved necessary to rein in the excesses that accompanied those changes.3
The regulated capitalist regime of the post-World-War-II era, marked by unionized labor and steeply progressive income taxes that diminished overall economic inequality, brought middle-class prosperity to unprecedented numbers of Americans even as it continued to exclude millions of others, particularly African Americans and Hispanic Americans. De-industrialization and a flattening of tax payments have destroyed that world over the last three decades, and low-paying work in the service sector has proved a poor substitute for jobs either shipped overseas or assigned to robots who require no benefits and never go on strike.4 Democrats and Republicans’ fundamental disagreement about the best way to address these developments and the role of government in doing so was a key theme of the election.
At the parties’ summer nominating conventions, their leaders made clear just how stark their differences have become. The Republican Party platform extolled the individualism of self-reliant entrepreneurs, almost to the exclusion of everybody else. In his speech accepting his party’s nomination, Mitt Romney proclaimed that “the real world of business,” the world he knew from experience, “is what the president doesn’t seem to understand. Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving.”(b)
Government, Romney implied, only gets in the way of “the genius of the American free enterprise system,” which is “to harness the extraordinary creativity and industry of the American people with a system that is dedicated to creating tomorrow’s prosperity rather than trying to redistribute today’s.” High among his priorities was his desire “to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish,” and he promised to “champion small business, America’s engine of growth.” Government regulations – and especially the specter of Obamacare – threatened the precious freedom of entrepreneurs.
Mitt Romney Speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa
Democrats, by contrast, insisted on the importance of community, not only in their convention speeches but in the two campaigns that attracted the most attention (and generated the largest contributions): Obama’s bid for reelection and Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the United States Senate in Massachusetts.5 In Obama’s words on election night, “while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.” Whereas Republican candidates had pledged to “take back our country” from the shadowy, unnamed aliens who had seized it and from the president whose citizenship and religious identity many persisted in denying, Democrats celebrated the growing diversity of Americans’ ethno-racial identities and sexual orientations. President Obama declared that “for the United States of America the best is yet to come,” precisely because the nation has become an ever-changing kaleidoscope of peoples and cultures.
Another striking difference between the two parties in 2012 was the stridency of the Republicans’ rhetoric. In his concession speech, Governor Romney celebrated a world in which strong men act and women applaud, and he made little effort even to gesture toward any values that all Americans share. Although magnanimity obviously comes more easily in victory speeches, the president on election night thanked every American who voted for either party, acknowledged Republicans’ love of country, and pledged to talk with Governor Romney “about where we can work together to move this country forward.” The president challenged the persistent claims that the presidential campaign was “small, even silly,” and noted, correctly, that the stakes were big and the differences between the two parties real and important.
Obama countered the relentless divisiveness of the Republican strategy by reaffirming his own commitment to the profound significance of elections, a dimension masked by most journalists’ blow-by-blow accounts: “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions,” and in any political campaign the noisy collision of “deeply held beliefs” inevitably “stirs passions, stirs up controversy.”
But rather than blaming his opponents for that antagonism, as many commentators on the left and resentful Democrats have done, the president instead contended that these “arguments we have are a mark of our liberty” and reminded Americans that people elsewhere struggle “for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots.” Moreover, he declared, as he has repeatedly in the last eight years, that all Americans share many of the same aspirations for the nation: fine schools, technological innovation, a robust economy, and a strong military that ensures peace rather than waging endless war.
President Obama’s Victory Speech on Election Night
The president did not shy away, however, from identifying the fundamental differences between the two parties that the campaign brought into relief. He stressed the dangers of inequality and global warming that Republicans denied. He invoked the virtues of generosity, compassion, and tolerance that Republicans – especially but not only in their Tampa nominating convention – cast aside in their litany of praise for independent entrepreneurs. Yet the most notable feature of Obama’s victory speech was also the most familiar. Despite the chorus of Democrats urging him to get tough and despite acknowledging that disagreements will persist, he implored members of both parties to face “the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.”
How did Obama expect to proceed? By building on the “common bond” that links Americans, the shared commitments to liberty and justice not only for “job creators” – the “makers” rather than the “takers” in the Republicans’ preferred formulation – but for all of us. Obama directly repudiated Romney’s denigration of the “47%”(c) by underscoring the point he made at the end of his acceptance speech in Charlotte this summer, a claim that recurs in his rhetoric as often as its mirror appears in Republican discourse: “America’s not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.”
President Obama Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte
The most distinctive feature of America, Obama insisted on election night, is not its wealth or its military, its universities or culture, but “the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”
The contrast between the Democrats’ drumbeat of unity and togetherness and the Republicans’ equally insistent stress on individualism can be blurred in accounts by tough-minded analysts who focus on the maneuvers of the campaigns’ “ground games” and the different demographic characteristics of the parties’ voters. Of course those factors mattered. Focusing on them to the exclusion of the substantive differences between the parties, however, only reinforces and deepens the sense that American politics is nothing but a shallow shadow game between marketers and strategists rather than also a battle between competing visions of the United States.
The current Republican vision isolates heroic entrepreneurs as the sole embodiments of the American dream. The Democratic view incorporates the struggles and failures as well as the successes of everyone striving to make it in an increasingly ruthless environment, a world in which competition has replaced compassion and every job is tenuous. In that world, many of those with power can see themselves as entitled to their privileges rather than lucky to benefit from the accumulated capital amassed by earlier generations and sustained by the efforts – often invisible to the wealthy – of those of their contemporaries on whom their comfort depends.(d)
The closing remarks of the two election-night speeches confirmed the gulf between the parties. Governor Romney concluded by saying he would “earnestly pray” for President Obama, implying to many of his listeners that only God’s mercy could redeem such wrongheaded and straying sinners as the voters who rejected him. Obama, by contrast, reiterated the idea that has been at the heart of his writings ever since he was a young community organizer converted to Christianity by the powerful example of religious believers and the inspiring words of a Protestant preacher: hope. Despite all the “frustrations of Washington” and all the “roadblocks” ahead, Obama declared that he has never been more hopeful about the future of America. He was not urging “blind optimism” or “wishful idealism” but the deeper resolution of Christian realism, “that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
What sustains that hope? For Obama it is the continuing struggle of Americans for equality and inclusion regardless of creed, color, or – now – sexual orientation, the stubborn belief that “you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try” because, as he put it in his ringing conclusion, “we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states,” precisely the formulation he offered way back in 2004.(e)
President Obama’s Victory Speech on Election Night
A wide gulf separates Obama’s message of inclusiveness from Romney’s last-ditch effort to rally the shrinking tribe of white men (and the wives who love them) by demonizing everyone else.(f) Yet we must remember that Romney appealed to just under half of American voters. The split in the electorate reflects more than just changing demographics or the principles of behavioral economics shrewdly deployed by the Obama team to get voters to the polls, important as those are. It points also toward the deep and persistent conflict between the bare majority of the electorate that views politics as problem solving and celebrates the growing diversity of America, on the one hand, and the still large minority that sees politics as the site of a continuing war between an older, increasingly brittle world view centering on received truths and the continuing exclusion of ideas and people considered alien to their constricted idea of the American way.
The president’s reelection signals the majority’s endorsement not just of him but of his values; the narrowness of his victory serves as a sobering reminder that nearly half of the American people do not share his vision of an America open to experimentation and inclusiveness. Voters last November ensured that divided government will continue. Although the Senate remained Democratic, Republicans parlayed a decade of gerrymandering by state legislatures into a substantial majority in the House of Representatives. Opinion polls repeatedly demonstrate that significant majorities of voters stand with the Democratic party on issues ranging from taxing the rich and sustaining government spending to abortion and gun control. However, the dynamics of Republican party fundraising and primary campaigns continue to dictate that the most intransigent and ideologically attuned candidates will be returned to Congress from the safely Republican districts of the South and the Rocky Mountain states.
Since the election we have witnessed more rounds in the increasingly dissonant battle between these competing ways of thinking. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, many conservatives have reiterated their conviction that the nation’s problems can be addressed only by individual citizens taking the initiative, which in this case means defending themselves by carrying concealed weapons. President Obama captured the stark difference between that individualist perspective and his own at the memorial service to honor the dead. His remarks echoed the principal themes sounded throughout his campaign: care, concern, and a shared commitment to the common good.
Implicitly rejecting the gospel of individualism and explicitly invoking the Christian ideal of love from the first sentence of his Newtown speech to the last, the president pointed out that “all the world’s religions begin with the same question: Why are we here? What gives our lives meaning? What gives our lives purpose?” His answer underscored the values that animated his campaign: what matters is not the defiant self-reliance that makes us wary of all obligations but “the love that takes us out of ourselves,” the “acts of kindness” that bind people to each other.
In his most recent speeches, including his Second Inaugural and his State of the Union, the president has reaffirmed longstanding commitments. He has called for increased funding for education from preschool to community college, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, immigration reform, and gun control. In his second term Obama faces many serious problems, including persistent unemployment, economic stagnation, ever-growing inequality, and accelerating climate change. However, as demonstrated by the recent failure to halt the blanket cuts in government spending mandated by sequestration, his most daunting challenge will be more amorphous. If he is to make progress toward any of his goals, he must convince the almost fifty percent of the electorate that voted for Governor Romney and those who returned a majority of Republicans to the House of Representatives that they should reconsider their political ideas.
He must persuade those Americans convinced that the federal government is their enemy, and that nothing matters more than their own personal freedom, that they should renounce those beliefs and adopt instead a different way of thinking. As he made clear in his remarks on March 1, the day the budget cuts took effect, the president continues to believe that Congress “will come to its senses” when the “common sense and practical approach” of the American people finally convinces Republicans in the House that simply cutting spending will not solve the nation’s problems and restore economic growth.
Commentators have noted for decades the incoherence of the public’s unchanging preferences for continuing with expensive government programs – none of which a majority of voters want to see cut – and their equally persistent unwillingness to pay for those programs.(g) The president’s confidence that Americans will at last resolve that contradiction and apply sufficient pressure on Congress to break the current stalemate seems unshaken by the endless rebuffs he has suffered at the hands of his opponents in Congress. Like the belief he expressed in Newtown concerning Americans’ deep commitment to the values of love and kindness, his confidence in the electorate testifies to the unswerving hope he maintains in the face of banal selfishness as well as unspeakable evil. Several months into President Obama’s second term, that hope remains an act of audacity.
- For a detailed analysis of the factors that shaped Obama’s worldview, see James T. Kloppenberg (2011) Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Daniel Walker Howe (2007) What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Trygve Throntveit (forthcoming) Power Without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ira Katznelson (2013) Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, New York: Liveright.
- Julian Zelizer and Bruce Schulman, eds. (2007) Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Joseph Stiglitz (2012) The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, New York: Norton.
- For an analysis of the Democrats’ emphasis on the ideas of community and responsibility in the campaigns of 2012, see James T. Kloppenberg (2012) “Restoring the Language of Obligation,” Democracy (24): 12-19.
- (a) Racial and ethnic minorities voted for Obama by significant margins: 93% of African Americans, 71% of Latinos, and 73% of Asians cast their votes for him in 2012. He also received the votes of 67% of unmarried women and 60% of people with annual incomes below $50,000, as well as 50% of Catholics and 69% of Jews.
- (b) Several Republican leaders echoed these themes during the convention. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan stated, “Behind every small business, there’s a story worth knowing…. After all that work, and in a bad economy, it sure doesn’t help to hear from their president that government gets the credit. What they deserve to hear is the truth: Yes, you did build that.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio expressed similar sentiments: “Mitt Romney knows Americas prosperity didnt happen because our government simply spent more. It happened because our people used their own money to open a business.”
- (c) Divisive remarks made by Romney at a private Florida fundraiser came to light in September 2012 and immediately stirred up controversy. Secretly recorded video showed him telling donors, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
- (d) In a 2012 article in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber explored the Romney “family myth” of self-made success. He outlined Tagg Romney’s career trajectory and examined the role his father Mitt’s connections played in his successful creation of a private equity firm.
- (e) The mention of red and blue states echoes one of the most memorable moments from Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention: “[T]he pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states&. But Ive got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we dont like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, weve got some gay friends in the red states.”
- (f) White men now make up 34% of the American electorate.
- (g) A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that significant majorities of Americans support either increasing spending or maintaining it at current levels in 18 out of 19 government spending areas, including unemployment aid, education, healthcare, environmental protection, and aid to the poor in the U.S.