Halleluiah! The elections of 2012 are over and the next election cycle does not begin until yesterday.
The elections of 2012 were not just about who won and who lost, but about what won and what lost. Viewed from this perspective, the election can teach us a lot about the modern workings and the health of our democracy.
The retrospective on the election is now focused on the re-election victory of President Obama, but there was an even more important victory and that was the reaffirmation and defense of democracy in America. The campaigns for President, Senate and House of Representatives were more like the stage pieces that are used by magicians to divert the attention of the audience while they perform sleight-of-hand tricks. The real story of the 2012 elections, were the sleight-of-hand tricks employed by an elite few who wanted to shape – even restrict – democracy into the image of what they believe it should be.
A Double-Barreled Victory for Democracy
This battle for democracy was fought on two fronts: The impact of a tsunami of money from wealthy individuals and corporations washing over the campaigns and an attack on the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process itself – the right to vote. The good news is that the moneyed interests and those who sought to limit democracy by suppressing voting rights both lost – at least for now.
The 2012 elections were the first to be conducted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The crux of that judgment was to give corporations and other entities carte blanche to contribute unlimited amounts of cash and effort to political activity. The basis for the decision was the application of the First Amendment right of free speech, by declaring that “corporations are people, too.” (This ruling included companies incorporated in America, but with foreign ownership; allowing these foreign companies to contribute unlimited amounts of money into American political activity.)
The loathsome result? Individual and corporate contributions directly to candidates remain limited. On the other hand, the floodgates were opened allowing a storm-surge of unrestrained contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations. Billions gushed into entities like Super PACs that were created specifically to “independently” support individual candidates and issues. (Some will point out that unions were also freed to make unlimited contributions. While true, that is like saying the CEO and mail room worker both have the same right to contribute to a campaign; but there is a slight differences in resources here.)
The fear of many was that when the Supreme Court granted the rights of “peoplehood” to corporations, that democracy itself would be plundered by the plutocratic mentality of wealthy individuals and corporations; but it was not. (Although, not for lack of effort by the moneyed interests.) Despite the estimates that up to $6 billion dollars were expended on the election – most contributed by wealthy individuals and corporations – for the most part their efforts failed.
By his own humble estimate, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson showered as much as $100 million dollars in support of eight candidates – all of them lost. Karl Rove (Do you think he might be Don Trump’s bastard child?) who controlled the Super PAC American Crossroads, spent upwards of $400 million dollars contributed by wealthy donors and corporations. The American Crossroads funders had to stand by and watch as virtually every candidate and social issue they supported lost. All Mr. Rove could offer as salve for the wounds of his disappointed and disenchanted contributors was: without us, the race would not have been as close as it was. (That should tell you something right there!)
Those who contributed to and ran these Super PACs will now be engaged in a rancorous battle of recrimination and retribution, trying to determine: What happened? The answer is quite simple and encouraging: The American electorate, as diverse, sometimes seemingly disinterested and ill-informed as we may be, are not nearly as stupid, disconnected and gullible as these moneyed interests wanted to believe. The majority of American voters have once again demonstrated the ability to filter out all the noise – no matter how loud it may be – and more often than not, make the right decision for their future. This silent stream of consciousness has flowed through the entire history of our democracy and may be the fundamental reason for its continued existence.
It may be natural from a perch-on-high to think one is better and smarter than those below and that, by the force of this wealth and power, you can impose your will upon them. But that is a fatal error in judgment and reality. Time after time in the history of our democracy the elite and the “smart money” have determined they know what is best for the rest of the people, and time and again the people have demonstrated they know what is best. The people may not get it right the first time or even the second time, but eventually they do. This is the secret beauty of American democracy.
The more insidious attack on our democracy in the elections of 2012 came in the form of a frontal attack on the most elemental principle of democracy – the right to vote. This assault on the right of all citizens to participate in democracy was motivated more by a political and pragmatic problem, than a philosophical one.
The Republican Party establishment understood two pertinent points:
- The demographic makeup of Americans is changing rapidly.
- The demographic makeup of the Republican Party is stagnant.
The simple fact is that the electorate in America is becoming less white and less Christian. The percentage of whites voting in the presidential election declined for the third straight cycle. At the same time the number of those identified as minority, ethnic and young continued a steady increase. It is anticipated that by the middle of this century, white voters will make up less than 50 percent of the total. In addition, the country is becoming more secular. The New York Times reported that 20 percent of voting Americans identified themselves as having no religious affiliation; and that percentage increases to one-third among voters aged 18 – 24. It has been estimated that less than 4 in 10 white Christians voted for President Obama; yet he still won.
This sends an ominous message to the Republican Party that it may no longer be possible to win a national election based on a coalition of white Christians. However, rather than embrace and respond to these changes, it has doubled-down on its dependency on white Christian voters for its relevancy. This implication of potential irrelevancy was not lost on the establishment of the Republican Party and was the reason it favored the more centrist, moderate Romney over the other candidates for the Republican nomination.
The Republican hope for victory was based on two strategies:
1. Nominate Romney who in “normal” times – especially considering the economic and financial situation in the country – would have been a shoo-in to win. Even with a changing electorate the hope was that he could win by holding the base of the Party and, as a moderate, cobble enough votes from those in the center who were disenchanted with Obama.
2. Recognizing there was little hope of attracting support from the rising tide of non-white ethnic and secular voters, the Republican Party made a concerted effort to suppress the voting rights of this block.
Both strategies failed.
To secure the nomination, Romney was forced to become a “severe conservative” and move further to the right of the other fringe candidates. Romney was clearly uncomfortable doing this and that led the traditional Republican base to question his sincerity. His late attempt to “Etch a Sketch” his way back to the middle only muddied his credibility as a leader – for both the center and the right.
The strategy of the Republican Party to restrict voting rights was an even greater disaster. In essence, the Republicans were in a race for the emerging non-white, ethnic voter that they knew they could not win; so their strategy was to hobble the other runners. It was a simple strategy: If you can’t win the votes – suppress them.
Under the cloak of a false boogeyman called “voter fraud,” using new “voter ID” laws and restricted voting periods, Republicans made strategic, concerted efforts – mostly in swing-states – to make it more difficult for the emerging new electorate to vote. The strength and beauty of America democracy cut this scheme off at the knees.
In every instance when called upon, the courts ruled the Republican efforts of voter suppression to be unconstitutional and anti-democratic. The threat to the fundamental right to vote orchestrated by the Republicans alienated, angered and motivated the mass of those targeted voters, even to the point of bringing out many who might not have otherwise voted.
The good news is that democracy prevailed and was the real winner in the election. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), from Grapes of Wrath would be proud:
“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t anybody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.”
And the Moral of the Story …
The irony is that Mitt Romney would have probably been an excellent president. Romney would have – maybe should have – won the election if the Republican Party had been more attuned to the emerging democracy in America. But his burden – one that proved too heavy to carry – was to be been shackled with the yoke of a political party out of step with time, demographics and democracy.
We may not all be satisfied with the election results, but all of us should be encouraged by evidence that in the end, there is more to winning elections than money and that democracy is protected and prevails when people are willing to stand up and fight for their right to participate.
Maybe by the next election the Republicans will have learned their lesson about democracy. It’s the domain of the people. And we’re the people.