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Brendan O'Leary

The United States presidential, Senate and House Elections of 2012
Part Two: After The Elections

The world now knows the results: Barack Obama remains president of the United States and starts a second term in January; the Democrats have retained and improved by two their majority in the Senate, while the Republicans have kept control of the House of Representatives. A super-majority of adults from Dublin to Moscow is breathing sighs of relief, and the denizens of Euroland are refocusing on the euro crisis and its ramifications.

The US election outcomes may seem anticlimactic, both because they were very close to predictions from the scientific polls of polls run by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight and by his rivals at RealClearPolitics, and because they seem to have preserved the status quo across the executive and two legislative branches. But that is not how they have been felt in many parts of the US. Historians may evaluate these elections differently, yet currently they appear as decisive events in the domestic and foreign politics and policies of the US for the next two decades. The Republicans, many of whom were visibly shocked at their failure to win the presidency, may regroup and rethink. Minimally, the Supreme Court will not move any further to the right; maximally, a period of Democratic hegemony across federal institutions may open. Universal healthcare will be entrenched, bringing to the US one of the best features of European welfare states; and, at the higher end of social democratic expectations, there may be a return to redistributive politics driven by justice, and an end to the Reagan era of party auctioning of unfunded tax cuts. The US will withdraw its army from Afghanistan, in Obama’s words, “to do some nation-building at home”, and at least the growth of the Pentagon’s budget will be trimmed. Former chief of staff of the armed services Admiral Mike Mullen’s definition of the national debt as the country’s number one enemy now becomes policy. Obama’s more cautious, tempered and multilateral foreign policy will continue.

On Election Day, the numbers up and queuing in quiet order at 7am on a cold day in Philadelphia were astonishingly high (I watched my wife vote at the polling station in the building beside our apartment block). Americans do not get the day off to vote, and many are pressed to find time to vote early, or late, given their employers’ demands. The high local turnout demonstrates that very close contests encourage voters to believe that their ballots matter. Pennsylvania had just been called as a late battleground opportunity for Romney. He ended his campaign in our state accompanied by a barrage of ads. Nine out of ten Philadelphian voters, however, went out to crush the Republicans’ hopes, carrying Pennsylvania for Obama and Biden by 52 per cent compared to 46.8 per cent for Romney and Ryan. Elsewhere in the evening many remained patiently in line long after the polls had formally closed, vivid proof that US election administrators are not ready for high turnouts, even in battleground states ‑ and are keen to discourage them in some cases. The overall US national turnout remains to be definitively calculated ‑ that is a complex calculus requiring coders to agree on eligible voters in each state ‑ but it looks as if there will be a significant fall compared with the turnout in 2008. Obama’s campaign certainly proved its organisational capabilities, turning out higher than expected numbers of young people, Latinos and African Americans to keep the incumbent in power, and to win no less than nine of the eleven battleground states. Romney and Ryan in the end won only two more states than had McCain and Palin in 2008 ((Indiana and North Carolina). That said, they came within two and a half million votes of Obama and Biden, whereas McCain and Palin had lost by the huge margin of ten million.

The win for the president in Florida was very close. Yet the outcome in the sunshine state, which specialises in the maladministration of the right to vote, was not pivotal this time, unlike in 2000. Obama has a clear electoral college margin of victory of 126 (332-206). His popular vote majority of nearly two and a half per cent enhances the legitimacy of his victory. Many Republicans, all the way from the base, through right-wing pundits, and up to and including Romney’s advisers, were simply stunned by the outcome, especially when Ohio was called for the president well before midnight on the east coast.

When we heard the overtly liberal MSNBC call the entire election for Obama we switched immediately to see how the conservative Fox News channel was reporting. To the credit of its number-crunchers Rupert Murdoch’s outfit had also just called it for Obama. Democratic viewers then enjoyed the spectacle of Karl Rove, President Bush’s election manager supremo, insisting that the call was premature. He then engaged in sustained on-screen wishful thinking until he must have hoped that his arithmetic fantasies could be consigned to oblivion. Some watched Rove in fear rather than pleasure because they recalled that he had conducted himself in that way in Florida in 2000. This time, however, history was treating the viewer to a farce.

Why did the Republicans believe they could win? And why they were right to do so?

The first part of this letter, written before the election, sketched the history, sociology, demography and geography behind the large-scale electoral allegiances that fortify the Democratic and Republican parties. These factors account, roughly speaking, for over ninety per cent of the votes cast on November 6th or before. Yet, as all elections in democracies everywhere should remind us, party leaders and their strategies matter in shaping and keeping such allegiances, in generating enthusiasm, in mobilising the base, and in seeking “wedge issues”. And campaigns really matter. They are critical in the search to win “undecided voters”, an important species, mostly heavily populated with apolitical and frequently uninformed citizens rather than the calm centrist moderate capable of looking at both her right and left hands beloved of certain imaginations. In the US, two-thirds of the undecided are estimated to be women without college degrees on low incomes. These undecideds, in net flows, went mostly to the incumbent.

As a regular transatlantic flyer it was clear to me that most Irish and Europeans were astonished at the apparent success of Romney’s campaign until the final showdown. How could he possibly come so close to victory? Many US liberals felt the same way. To many of them the historical tides forecast in The Emerging Democratic Majority (Judis and Teixeira (2002)) had belatedly reached shore in 2008, surfed by a visibly appealing, eloquent, mature, and reassuringly cultured and biracial president with a winning smile. How could a stiff, somewhat wooden Mormon businessman, “a suit” who made money as an intermediary between venture and vulture capitalists, helped enterprises ship jobs abroad, aided legal tax avoidance, and refused fully to declare his own tax returns, still manage to come within an ace of defeating Barack Obama? The question demands an answer.

To many Europeans and liberal Americans it seems shocking that some Americans need wars to teach them geography and equally remarkable that no memory banks store such knowledge as might be acquired while watching TV or surfing the web. For this worldview it was especially stunning that Republicans had a three in ten chance of being electorally successful on November 6th given the very recent disastrous finale to the Bush administration. The latter had sent two grossly underfunded but massively expensive military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq without rigorous goals and without obvious net benefits or success: it had not even managed to hunt down, capture or execute Osama bin Laden. It had cut taxes, especially for the rich, with a ten-year mandate that expires this December. It had deregulated extensively, adding fuel to the bubble already inflating by 2003 because of the monetary policy favoured by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Yet after the crushing defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket in November 2008 Republicans spent almost no time doing public penance. They looked forward, and soon went on the offensive against Obama’s healthcare plans and stimulus package. They ruthlessly obstructed the president ‑ in the Senate from 2009, and from both houses of Congress from 2011 after they had recaptured the House in the November 2010 elections. This success, albeit on a much lower turnout than in 2008, was telling. Obama, and his advisers, had made a truly major political error when they had arrived in office. They had almost stopped campaigning.

An instructive contrast is with the Labour government elected in Great Britain in 1997. Whatever may be said about its subsequent mixed record in office Alastair Campbell and his fellow spin doctors knew how to campaign. Tony Blair and his press corps spent most of their first two years in office pinning as much blame as possible for all manner of adverse facts of life on their Conservative predecessors. They kicked them when they were down to ensure that they stayed down, which they did ‑ until the great global financial crisis of ten years later, and even then the Tory recovery was limited. It helped that much of Labour’s rhetoric at the time was accurate: the truth mightily helps a partisan message go down. Obama and his team, by contrast, seemed to overdose on their own rhetoric in 2008. They continued to talk and seek a novel spirit of bipartisanship. They extended hands of friendship, only to have them firmly bitten. For his entire first term, shock jock radio hosts and real estate speculators with expensive hair that was not obviously theirs questioned the legitimacy of the man and his tenure of the office. Nothing was off limits: the president’s place of birth, his religious convictions, and his patriotism were all scurrilously questioned. The references to his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, attempted to delegitimise him. If one was intent on defending the president it almost became satirically obligatory to describe oneself as a Muslim Socialist.

Yet the unacknowledged truth is that the new administration emphatically failed to campaign or counter-campaign for most of its first two years in office. Contrary to today’s legend in the aftermath of its second presidential win, this is not the dream vote management team. They did not finish off Hillary Clinton with any ease or ruthlessness in 2008. Subsequently Obama and his appointees failed to pin on Republicans, in a sustained way, the blame for the dreadful condition of the US economy in 2009. Instead the new administration found itself belatedly defending its own policies for tackling the major crises. Precisely because Obama faced a more daunting array of economic difficulties than had any president since Roosevelt he desperately needed to continue campaigning in office.

No one denies that Obama faced formidable problems, which took much time to diagnose and address. No one should deny that he was scarcely fully prepared for office: few could have been. Obama had never been elected a governor (unlike Bill Clinton or George Bush). He had never served in any executive office: the student-run Harvard Law Review hardly counts. Obama had never held a seat in the House. He was the first senator to be elected to the White House since Jack Kennedy, and the first elected during his first term as a senator since Warren Harding (1921–3). The latter died in office; Obama the campaigner went into deep-freeze.

Any governor who wants to be re-elected in a battleground state must campaign in office. Executive learning must be accompanied by constant monitoring and shaping of public opinion, which is both shallow and volatile. Obama lacked this astringent and unpleasant conditioning. He and his team thought that they were the special ones, and his distaste for selling his policies to Congress, let alone the public, demonstrated that this was an unworkable bipartisanship from on high. He and his team were downright careless of the possibility that they could lose control of Congress within two years. In November 2010, in Obama’s words, the Democrats took a “shellacking” ‑ US sports language for taking a hammering. They lost control of the House of Representatives, which is elected every two years. Team Obama had underestimated the Tea Party phenomenon and underwhelmed its own supporters, including its own elected lawmakers. The president had not fought well for his House colleagues, whom he would soon miss.

Later, amid the protracted depression, Republican control of the House, which must approve budgetary decisions, would trigger a funding crisis for the federal government that infamously led to the downgrading of US bonds. Again many thought, how could the Republicans possibly expect to win the presidency with this record of brinkmanship, or expect to succeed while being against universal healthcare, and in favour of further enormous tax cuts for the rich, now rebranded as “job-creators” or “small businesses”? And yet they came very close, and they have retained the House of Representatives.

Obama himself expressed such puzzlement rather well in the third and final debate between the two contenders, which the president undoubtedly won. He observed that Romney was running on a foreign policy from the 1980s (having branded Russia as the number one security threat to the nation), a social policy from the 1950s (expressed in his condescending outlook on women and minorities) and an economic policy from the 1920s (celebrating a finance capitalism as careless as that of the Great Gatsby). It was a good line, for a college professor ‑ like me today and Obama in the past ‑ but it was not a knockout political punch. We can now confirm that just over 48 per cent of Americans who vote are not particularly offended by policies from these mostly forgotten decades. On the contrary, most of them are known as Republicans. Differently put, many voters seemed to prefer such policies to the incumbent’s. We should, however, question whether Romney’s proposed policies shaped the voting decisions of many, both because they were vaguely articulated and because the party alignment of the voters may be stronger than their policy alignment with their preferred candidate.

The Romney Phenomenon

The puzzle of the strength of the Republicans may be briefly postponed because I first wish to deepen it. It was conventional in the early summer of 2012 to express the view that Romney was a poor candidate who would be cruelly exposed by the Chicago machine behind Obama. This view did not seem to be without merit. Romney had been defeated for the Republican nomination by McCain in 2008. To win the nomination the second time around he appeared to stoop as electorally low as he could to appease the Republican base. He repudiated and publicly ate as much of his record as a relatively liberal Republican governor of Massachusetts as he could conceivably digest. He repudiated Obama’s federal healthcare reforms, even though they were modelled on what he himself had worthily accomplished in Massachusetts.

Starting as the favourite, especially after Palin had proved herself totally over-promoted and close to cognitively challenged, Romney would defeat, in turn, each more right wing candidate who was rallied against him. The wholly embarrassing Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry were soon out of contention. The first could not win votes. The second had, or at least had had, difficulties keeping his flies buttoned, which undid his beguilingly simple 9-9-9 plan of a 9 per cent federal, state and local tax respectively (or some such notion). The third, the current governor of Texas, could not recall the name of the third federal department he intended to eliminate, and self-eliminated.

The US ambassador to China and former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman Jr, a fellow son of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, and also from a fabulously wealthy family, was Romney’s only credible competitor from his left. Yet he proved much more wooden than Romney. Perhaps he is better at public speaking in Mandarin than English. Having accepted an appointment under Obama certainly fatally handicapped him.

The ethically handicapped former Speaker of the House “Newt” Gingrich ran against Romney from the right, and from any other spatially convenient location. He briefly surged in the South, partly because of the support of a billionaire who seems to own more casinos in Macao and Las Vegas than there are lawfully held weapons in Texas. Newt’s charms had never been strong. Exposed to some sunshine they evaporated, leaving a small but unpalatable residue.

Romney’s last surviving feasible opponent proved to be Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, who ran on a family values platform that was far more credible and consonant with the Republican base than Gingrich’s, though the same platform was truly incredible and frightening for educated liberal women and gay people. Google “Santorum” if you have a strong constitution and wish to see how his name was rebranded by Dan Savage, America’s most famous gay personal advice columnist. Santorum had blue collar appeal, which Romney never quite mastered, yet his lobbyist-turned-back-to-altar-boy campaign, never well resourced, soon ran out of steam once the Republican primaries headed out of the geographical and sociological South.

To complete the saga, we should not forget that Romney faced one dogged and determined opponent all the way to the Republican convention, namely, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. A kindly and grandfatherly figure in appearance, he is the champion of the party’s libertarians, or, if you prefer, the figurehead of a children crusade. Paul promised freedom from everything, including the Federal Reserve Bank, and foreign wars. This unusual combination lives a sectarian life amid American anarcho-capitalists, and barely fits within the Republican party, though it echoes older American traditions of market liberties at home and isolationism abroad. Paul is a prophet, but not of the Mormonic, Judaic or Christian sort. He is the leading public apostle of the Austrian economists: Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich von Hayek, since you ask. Paul speaks of their works in enthusiastic and not wholly bibulous paragraphs, always without the restraints of appropriate punctuation. He denies having named his son Rand Paul, now also a Congressman, after the novelist Ayn Rand, memorably described by the late Gore Vidal as an odd little woman, greatly attractive to simple people. Paul is the leader of such simple people among the Republic faithful.

There are perhaps two ways of summarising this story. The first is that the Republicans chose the best available candidate from a very weak field. Alternatively, one could argue that Romney was such a strong candidate he inhibited other capable candidates from taking the field. I believe both views. Romney exhibits almost to perfection the model of the vote-maximising politician developed in the political science literature of the last fifty years (starting with Downs 1957). Romney coldly calculated what he needed to do to win the Republican primaries and managed, most of the time, to hide his distaste for the task. He then calculated, again correctly, that if he turned toward the political centre, with an economic platform that suggested minimal pain, he would have a decent chance of defeating Obama. He took for granted that he could talk over, or talk past, whatever commitments he appeared to have made in the primaries. A skilled businessman, he also seemed a ruthless salesman, willing to pitch as the customers seemed to require. He judged that if he made some necessary concessions to the Republican base then they would be loyal to him as he performed the numerous U-turns his strategy demanded. Though never entirely comfortable or wholly transparent, he communicated a certain kind of competence, the competence of America’s corporate elite.

In public he always seemed a little stiff. It was in a much more relaxed mode, not knowing he was being recorded on camera, that he had told prospective millionaire or billionaire donors that 47 per cent of Americans pay no taxes. He may ‑ one must try hard to be fair ‑ have meant federal income taxes, but he did not say that. Romney argued that for this reason a large number of people could be expected not to vote for him. One might argue that he genuinely saw his task of winning a victory as very difficult. He was starting with 47 per cent against him, and with only most of the 1 per cent for him. He may, however, have simply been pandering to the ultra-rich in the way he had successfully pandered to others to win the primaries. The truth that was not spoken was that large numbers of Romney’s potential base do not pay federal income taxes, veterans, foot soldiers, and poor whites, for example. The other truth rarely spoken is that it is mostly Republican states, red states, which enjoy fiscal transfers from the blue states. Yet the exposure of Romney’s mixture of class contempt ‑one thinks of his attempt to goad Rick Perry into a $10,000 bet ‑ or his very frequent minor factual errors did not stop him from coming close to winning.

Romney’s Decision to Run with Ryan

Romney’s decision to select Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate opened many eyes wide. At the superficial ethnic level he chose an Irishman to match Obama’s Irishman, Joe Biden, albeit a more humourless and puritanical variant of our breed. In so doing, Romney created the first election in which no Protestant ran on the Republican ticket, unless, of course, a Mormon is a Protestant, or unless an American Catholic is really a Protestant. There are good theological and sociological arguments to support such views, but, as Americans say, let’s not go there.

The Republicans had diversified religiously: they ran a Mormon with a Catholic. They did not, however, diversify racially. I suspect that was also a ruthless and poll-driven decision. The Republican base is so white that it is difficult for the party to run a non-white for fear of losing some of its supporters. Exit polls suggest that in 2012 over 90 per cent of the Republican vote came from whites. Ryan appeared to have been chosen for his political or, more correctly, economic beliefs, not because he was of Irish extraction, and not because of his possible loyalties to the Vatican. Those traits were merely a bonus. Ryan’s niche was his advertised ideological leadership of the House Republicans, his reputation for promoting austerity. He had published “a plan” in which he had promised to square the circle: to keep (or increase) “defence” spending, cut “entitlements” and to protect social security (which in the US mostly means pensions, contribution-defined pensions, including widowers’ and widows’ pensions), and medical programmes for the elderly, and deliver tax cuts. This miraculous “budgeting”, which fooled some people who should not have been fooled, earned Ryan the status of a serious policy intellectual, a reputation that regularly drives Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, into paroxysms of rage.

Ryan is a professed Catholic. Yet the Nazarene’s injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount are a poor guide to the man. Think Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor recast as a fitness fanatic. We know that before he became famous he was an open admirer of Ayn Rand, the infamous advocate of egoism. Advocating selfishness, of course, has never exactly been the most difficult aesthetic pitch to make in the individualist culture of the United States. Atlas Shrugged used to be carried around by the students who attended the Wharton Business School at my university. One of the few downsides of the iPad is that the popularity of books cannot be evaluated through direct observation of readers.

My Philadelphia friends assured me that the choice of Ryan, certainly Romney’s own choice, would make him unelectable. While Romney lost, in my view it is difficult to argue that it was because he chose Ryan. True Ryan did not win the debate against Biden, partly because he knows little about foreign policy, though that is rarely a barrier to a successful career in politics in any country. He did not win, but he was not crushed. Crucially, the choice of Ryan gave Romney a remarkably unified party with which to campaign. The choice immediately quietened the large numbers of Republican activists unhappy with the former governor of “liberal Massachusetts” Romney also rejected the advice of electoral strategists who thought he should pick someone like Mario Rubio, a strikingly handsome and smooth-talking Cuban-American from Florida, who might have delivered electoral college votes in his home state, and among other Latinos. He was the choice the Democrats feared. Again, however, I believe that Romney calculated that such a choice would have lost him as many whites as he would gain in Latinos: Cuban-Americans, concentrated in Florida, are already securely Republican, and Latinos are diverse. Romney thought he could win in Florida and that Ryan would help him in the mid-west.

Why then have the Republicans been so strong?

The answers should now be obvious. They are, firstly, a rich people’s free enterprise party. Rich donors matter; they provide the resources needed to fight and win modern election campaigns (Drew 1983). The power of wealth has been enhanced by a Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that redefines campaign expenditures as protected by “free speech” and effectively removes all limits on campaign expenditures. Each billionaire is now free to spend as he likes in the primary campaigns and in the general election. Money does not buy everything, notably love, but it is very useful when you wish to target hate. Money mightily helps in defining the other party and its candidates; it is incredibly helpful when going negative, as both parties did especially, but not only, in the last month of the campaign.

Money also pays for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, and a range of other media in which right-wing voters can and do live within an echo chamber (as is true now for liberals too). Of course, the Republicans could not be powerful contenders for electoral victory if they were just the rich people’s party (and yes the Democrats have their rich supporters as well). Republicans use the wealth of their supporters and allied donors to fund lawyers and campaigns to make it more difficult for poor non-white people to vote, for example through passing voter ID laws, and pursuing a range of vote suppression stratagems that fill the newspapers eighteen months before every presidential election campaign I have witnessed in the last decade. Lawsuits abound to weaken (or to protect) basic rights to vote. Those to weaken are invariably Republican in inspiration. These expenditures matter at the margin; if they did not, they would not be undertaken. Perhaps they have reached the point of diminishing returns; it would be nice to think so.

Republicans are, as emphasised, now more than ever the white people’s party, and whites are still a demographic majority in the US, albeit diminished, hovering at just over 70 per cent of the electorate. Many Republicans are honourable people and are not white racists. But some are, though not usually overtly. Rather they are skilled at the art of “dog whistling”. It takes some time for an immigrant like me to realise the codes, but in the US talk of a dependency culture, or of wasted welfare public expenditures, or of monies being spent on food stamps or on Medicaid is usually code for allegedly unnecessary public spending on blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos). It also becomes clear to the immigrant that the death penalty is for blacks. It is, after all, far more likely that blacks will be on death row; and that a white who has committed the same offence as a black will have a different sentence (Gottschalk 2006). Most Europeans know that roughly one African American male in four is undergoing or has had a jail sentence. Mass incarceration, argue African-American intellectuals, with significant data on their side, has been Jim Crow Mark II.

Being the party of the rich, and of the largest racial group, gives the Republicans significant advantages. It helps the party that whites can be directly or indirectly appealed to as one group, partly because whites have been privileged in the US. That makes Republicans’ collective action problems easier to solve. By contrast, the Democratic party’s task of building a sustained coalition among whites, yellows, browns and blacks is more difficult, partly because each constituency has had different priorities and may not wish to be defined in such ways (Smith 1997). For the record: Obama’s winning coalition this week comprised less than 40 per cent of all whites. His winning half of the electorate was 56 per cent white, 24 per cent black, 14 per cent Latino, 4 per cent Asian American and 2 per cent everything else.

The Republicans have had a third major advantage since the 1970s. They have a larger electoral stronghold in the South than the Democrats recently have had in any other big region: though the West Coast and the Northeast are increasingly comparable Democratic bases. Since Nixon, Southern dominance has given the Republicans a potential leash over the whole political system, which they have been willing to exploit. They have been more entrenched with safe seats in the Senate and the House in consequence of their Southern dominance, and that in turn has given them considerable agenda-setting and veto power. In a normal presidential year, and even with a poor candidate like McCain, Republicans have done very well in the South. Florida, North Carolina and Virginia are the places where the Republicans can and do lose: these states are ceasing to be part of the sociological South. The places where Republicans can lose in the South are the places that appear to have the most money spent on them, and the most voter-suppression attempted, and the most lawsuits commenced. The South is, however, still controlled by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires former Jim Crow Land to submit to federal supervision of its voting procedures. It does not, however, stop the South from being the sole region where both prisoners and former convicts are not entitled to vote. In the states of the old Confederacy it is no coincidence that convicted felons, disproportionally black, are often disenfranchised ‑ though such exclusions are not confined to the South. Whereas in states that belong to the Council of Europe the right complains about liberal judges insisting that prisoners should keep their voting rights, in the US the right complains if those who have served their sentences have those rights restored.

Republicans became the dominant party in the South because consistently and successfully they conveyed the message that they are an American (read “normal” white Protestant) party that supports free enterprise and independent individualism. They have also successfully branded themselves as the party of traditional, Christian and heterosexual values, and the party of free enterprise. Identifying with the traditionally dominant values of the country is never poor electoral strategy: atheists, non-Christians and homosexuals may be my friends, but they are not an emergent majority. Republicans have successfully branded educated intellectuals as elitist snobs in a splendid reinvention of the alliance between big money and white racist populism. The Democratic party’s supporters often fail to disguise their contempt for uneducated white Southerners in their jokes and public appearances, which reinforces the old alliance. The simple table below, constructed from the last Pew Research Center survey conducted before the election, confirms that Romney still benefited from the Republicans’ Southern base last week, though it also shows how the Northeast and the West have become Democratic strongholds.


 US REGION  Romney % Obama %   Romney-Obama
 South  48  44  +4
 Mid-West  42  49  -7
 West  40  50  -10
 Northeast  32  58  -26

Table 1. Preference for president in a survey held on November 3rd, 2012. Adapted from Pew Research Center (2012)

In explaining the Republicans’ durable strength the least understood fact abroad is that they are now the most highly disciplined party in Congress, especially in the House, and especially since the 1990s. Party discipline is here defined as it is understood in Europe: the likelihood that the elected official will follow the recommendations of the party whips in any significant vote. The Republicans are the Leninists of the US parliamentary scene. Why have they become so disciplined? Partly because they have become more ideologically homogeneous, partly because some fear the prognoses of The Emergent Democratic Majority, but also partly because they have been ruthlessly efficient in exploiting all the rational opportunities for party gain in the United States.

Part of the Republicans’ organisational strategy is negative, for example blocking uniform electoral administration and procedures or arrangements to make it easier to register and to vote. Part of it is positive, for their side, e.g. supporting the idea that spending money on campaigns is the same as exercising free speech. Another component, however, is ruthlessly collusive with their Democratic opponents, which preserves their joint duopoly. They do whatever it takes to inhibit the emergence of third parties. (The performance of the Libertarian party in this election should, however, give the Republicans’ pause ‑ their stance on social questions may have cost them crucial votes).

In too many states, but especially Republican states, systematic gerrymandering takes place. Not on overt racial, religious or ethnic grounds: that after all might trigger effective lawsuits, and might even be deemed wrong. What are gerrymandered are districts for the federal House of Representatives and for State legislatures. It takes the form of creating safe seats and reasonably safe seats, that is reducing the number of truly competitive seats. This is one of the deepest pathologies of winner takes all systems, especially if politicians themselves are allowed to draw their own districts. Such redrawing is obligatory every ten years. Most US states refuse to hand over the task to independent or professional commissioners; most courts have refused to examine such gerrymanders unless they look racist or ethnic; and all this has consequences. The Supreme Court has deemed the matter beyond its jurisdiction.

In November 6th’s elections the presidency and the Senate were competitive, that is, we did not know the outcomes with certainty. By contrast, the Republicans, barring big surprises, were expected to retain their majority in the House, even if they ran behind the Democrats in the popular vote. That is because they had just had the opportunity to control redistricting after their mid-term successes in 2010. Even though most surveys in the last few weeks had shown a narrow Democratic lead over the Republicans in the House, no serious analyst predicted a Democratic majority there. The reason was simple: there were not enough competitive seats that could change hands if there was only a small national margin between the parties. Do not be surprised, however, to hear House Republicans now proclaiming that they have the majority of the people behind them to oppose tax increases, even though they lost the competitive elections for the presidency and the Senate and even though they suffered a net loss of eight seats in the House. It is, of course, difficult for House Republicans to budge even if they want to do so: chosen by activists in safe seats they face deposition in a primary if they prove too accommodating to their political opponents.

For me, as a political scientist, and as a potential US citizen married to a citizen, the gerrymandering of the House (in which both parties collude, though one is more ruthless) is the worst scandal in American electoral administration. The institution originally designed to be most responsive to public opinion ‑ it is elected very two years ‑ is much less competitive than the Senate, which bears no relationship to public opinion as a whole but at least its competitions cannot be gerrymandered. No one should therefore be surprised that the Republicans are strong. On the contrary, they should never have been underestimated. What then of Romney?

Some commentators for some reason are reluctant to admit that the Republicans chose the best candidate of those available to defeat Barack Obama. Some even refuse to admit the obvious fact that Romney is highly intelligent: he has a Harvard MBA and a Harvard law degree, intellectual credentials not worse than the president’s. He has made an enormous amount of money, largely by using his own brain. He has no known illicit sexual or illegal financial dealings against him. He appears to practice the traditional family values espoused by his party. He managed to win the election for governor of Massachusetts, not a Republican state, showing he could appeal beyond his base. He came to prominence by successfully managing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and extricating them from major problems. And these are the reasons he won the Republican primary. Since the presidential campaign proper began he steadily but ruthlessly conveyed one message to the base (the Ryan appointment showed he was not a Republican in name only), and another to the public, by jettisoning as many of the pledges that he made in the primaries as he possibly could. The remarkable feature of the first debate was not just that Obama was bored and boring, but that he was not prepared for the Mitt Romney he faced, namely, the one searching for the floating, undecided, median voter. If Romney had won, it would not just have been luck. His was the best set of performances by a Republican in presidential debates since Reagan, and he is one of the few recent losing challengers to have led in the national polls shortly before closure.

That brings us to the question of Obama’s leadership. Why was he not capable of putting Romney’s campaign down earlier, and more effectively? The damaged US economy negatively affected Obama’s re-election chances, but he did have the advantage of being the incumbent. Even when an incumbent’s performance is not superb, the incumbent is known, while the challenger is usually not so well known. Since Roosevelt, the incumbent president who has run for re-election has won seven elections (1948, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2004). Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, and George HW Bush in 1992 are the three exceptions. When the two challengers have been non-incumbents the opposition party has won most of the time (1952, 1960, 1968, 1980, 2000, 2008). So let us be clear, the institutional advantage lay with Obama, not with Romney. His team did use it sometimes. The most effective stratagem they pursued this summer was to spend a fortune defining Romney as a ruthless, uncaring businessman, who would have allowed the auto industry to be liquidated. They did this especially in key mid-west battleground states (Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin) and built such an advantage there that Romney could not recover in time.

The Requirement of Audacity

The postal perspective of this letter has one last justification. Philadelphia has often generated intelligent reflection on race and politics. It was here that WEB DuBois, the Fabian socialist, researched and published The Philadelphia Negro in 1899 (Reed 1997). It was also here that Barack Obama delivered a key speech, “A More Perfect Union”, over a century later, a subtle, eloquent, emotional, moving and cunning, speech on race and associated matters. It allows us to assess the man’s appeal, strengths and weaknesses. The task Obama set himself might be fairly described as an attempt to demonstrate that he was both a black (by ethnicity and history) and not just a black (by politics and culture). The convictions of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, were the nominal issue. Arguably the speech stabilised and made Obama’s candidacy. It enabled him to complete his defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democratic Party and go on to a decisive victory against John McCain. (The full text may be found online in the Los Angeles Times, March 19th, 2008). This speech is chosen to suggest that in the US electoral politics is mostly about race, ethnicity, and religion, and that all else is embellishment and detail. The latter, of course, matter: taxes, jobs, and healthcare also connect with race, ethnicity and religion. Differently put, the foundations of electoral allegiances and coalitions are built around race, ethnicity and religion; the rhythms of class politics are merely occasionally decisive.

Obama began by referring to the US constitution:

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations. Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

So he both criticised and paid homage to the founders’ constitution. Marred by slavery and racism (and one might add, sexism), it was somehow the basis of its own future democratic transformation. Unlike both Roosevelts, the Republican (and later Bull Moose) Theodore and the Democratic Franklin, no one nowadays runs for president suggesting that the constitution is fundamentally flawed. Graduates of Harvard Law may not bite the text that feeds its alumni, and after all, original sins can be forgiven, now or in a putative hereafter. It as if the US, otherwise a proud technological pioneer, is serviced by software specialists who insist on using MacWrite 1.0 or WordPerfect 1.0, without patches, when the rest of the democratic planet has moved on to the latest version of Pages or Word. Only within isolated zones of the academy is it possible to obtain an off-stage hearing for a vigorously negative reading of the US constitution as undemocratic and dysfunctional (see Dahl 2001, Lazare 1996 and Levenson 2006; for a somewhat more pious treatment see Amar 2005). Obama, however, was a law professor before he ran for the Senate, and he understands the power of the Supreme Court. He has made two successful nominations to that body, Sonia Sotomayor, the first female Latino and Catholic, and Elena Kagan, the second Jewish female, both of whom have acquitted themselves well.

And yet, [Obama continued, developing a less reverential attitude toward the founders], words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations ... willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk ‑ to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time …
I chose to run for the presidency ... because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together ‑ unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction ‑ towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren. This belief … comes from my own American story.

Then came his special claim of inclusionary inclusion.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Ft. Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners ‑ an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Obama is of the new America, like the world, of “every race and hue”. There are apparently countries off-Earth, presumably in heaven, but we may forgive this Christian rhetoric. The claim is that the world, of whatever colour or hue, as instanced in him, is proof of American exceptionalism. It is an immodest claim, audacious. He then made reference to his atypicality (that is his not typically American origins):

It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts ‑ that out of many, we are truly one. Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.
This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign, [he went on. Whereas any competent scholar would have been tempted to add “because it always is in America”, a masterclass in political rhetoric followed.] At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough”. ... We’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views … that rightly offend white and black alike.

Obama re-condemned Wright as wrong, declaring that his views “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country ‑ a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

This letter has suggested that white racism has been an endemic part of US history; it has not, I hope, conveyed the suggestion that all whites are endemic racists. Yet no non-white candidate can successfully run for president and write as plainly as I have tried to do here. They can acknowledge wrong, but cannot say that racism has been endemic in US institutions. Note further Obama’s claim that the American people were hungry for a unifier, a claim for which there was, and is scant evidence. Presidential aspirants must make such claims, however, and often represent themselves as such. What voters, however, are usually looking for, in most places, and times, including within the US, is a champion of their causes or interests, and, as a bonus, a very competent administrator. In his first term Obama tried to be a unifier, at which he failed; he has been a very competent administrator, though he has not been a strong champion of his voters’ causes and interests.

Obama’s diverse followers were often disappointed by him as a champion, for example by his apparent unwillingness to fight vigorously for the merits of his signature accomplishment, universal healthcare coverage, a genuine benefit for poor people, middle income people, and the taxpayer, the most important change since Johnson’s Great Society. They were disappointed by his decision not to advocate a larger and longer stimulus package when the devastation caused by the financial crisis was evident. They were disappointed by his failure adequately to name and shame Republican obstructionism and abrasive conduct in Congress. He did not fully exploit the definition of his office, the “bully-pulpit”, because it is not in his nature. Uplifting speech-making is, but not debating. His failures to fulfil pledges on Guantánamo Bay, and on due process for suspected terrorists, were not surprising. His calm tenor as America’s executioner has been more surprising. He has a tough side: the exploiter of drones for state-sponsored assassinations, and the killing of Osama bin-Laden, in which Pakistan’s sovereignty was coldly ‑ and correctly ‑ ignored.

In 2008 and after, many hungered for calm competence in an unfolding financial crisis of unprecedented dimensions. Above all Obama has displayed competence in foreign policy, where a president has greatest room for manoeuvre. Though it is what interests me most, Obama’s competence in this field basically excluded its potential importance as an election issue. In the relevant debate Romney agreed with Obama on all foreign policy matters of substance, while making errors on Syrian geography and competing earnestly with him over which among them loves Israel the most. A key indicator of Romney’s success as a candidate is that he ‑ albeit barely ‑ managed to persuade a majority of the electorate that he would be a better manager of the economy, though it was not enough to ensure his victory.

Obama was too influenced by his own promise to be a unifier. The promise shaped his subsequent conduct, not always to his advantage, or to the advantage of his party or those who voted for him. In 2012, as in 2008 and 2004, voters were in fact much more aligned with the two-party duopoly than they had been in previous decades. In my profession it is said that there has been “partisan realignment”, that is voters now identify more with the parties and the positions taken by their leaders than they once did. The electorate is more “sorted”, to use the words of Matthew Levendusky (2009), who has demonstrated and quantified the facts. Though there is a normal, bell-shaped, unipolar distribution of public opinion on most divisive questions, with more “moderates” in the middle than “extremists” at the tails of the distribution, nevertheless more American voters now align more with their preferred parties’ positions in responses to public opinion polls and surveys. One reason that they do so is because of the break-up of the old Democratic party and the Southern realignment. Another is the consequence of media fractionalisation and the loss of dominance by professional mainstream media. Others relate in complex ways to widening inequalities: the most politically sophisticated discussion of polarisation and inequality in the US may be found in the work of Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (2008).

Let us return now to the stylistic statements and gestures on race and religion in Obama’s speech. Obama simultaneously claimed, accurately, to be of both black and white origin, suggesting that he was from, between and above both colours. Yet he carefully navigated to cultivate both the Jewish and the African American vote, putting back together, in a phrase, the Jewish and Black civil rights coalition of 1960s. Lest he be suspected of being soft, however, all Americans were rallied against an alien religion, namely, “radical Islam”. The candidate was, he told America, religious and religiously inclusive, but, he drew the line at radical Muslims (signalling also that patriarchal extremism among all pastors, priests and rabbis needed to be screened out). He made appropriately generous references to the women in his life, and is usually very clear that (religious) men should not shape decisions about women’s bodies. The first act of his presidency was the signing into law of an equal pay act for women.

Obama continued: “Wright’s comments were … divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems ‑ two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic healthcare crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.” Here is the transcendent, cross-racial, inter-ethnic, and beyond sectarian problem-solving appeal of Barack Obama, genuinely felt and usually successfully communicated. It is why he would comfortably outpoll Mitt Romney in most surveys in any European country ‑ with the possible exceptions of Hungary and Belarus. Note, however, that a deeply unequal economy and a deeply dysfunctional financial system were not defined as part of the key problems confronting us all. Only problems whose resolution will help us all were defined as urgent. Such problems need a unifier, not a partisan champion.

Then he made his key segue to affirm that he was not white on the inside. He switched idioms and rhetorical style. He emphasised that culturally he is an African American, on its Enlightenment wing. Married into African America, through Michelle, he vied to be its champion, but not its champion alone; he would be the champion of all the suffering. The vehicle was evangelical Protestantism, which enabled him to forgive Wright as the “man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor”. Then came an emotional, excruciatingly personal, and very religious mode of witnessing and suasion. No presidential or prime-ministerial aspirant anywhere in contemporary Europe could, or would, try to carry it off.

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity: “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters … And in that single note ‑ hope! ‑ I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories ‑ of survival, and freedom, and hope ‑ became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about … memories that all people might study and cherish ‑ and with which we could start to rebuild.

Obama then switched, as if to his whole audience, to explain the point: “That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety ‑ the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear [read: non-black and non-Protestant]. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America …”

He promised, however, to transcend the rages and vexations of African America, to be a president for all. Of Wright, he declared, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother ‑ a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Having lived among and known the bigotries of white and black, among his family and his church, Obama declared himself well placed to be a unifying healer. “As William Faulkner once wrote: ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow”, namely, segregated schools, direct and indirect discrimination in employment, housing and voting, and their joint impact upon family structures. “For the men and women of Rev. Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.”

Right-wing commentators suggested that that was what Obama himself was doing. We should not be so cynical. When he appealed across racial, ethnic and religious lines he meant it, the claim was more convincing because he had affirmed his membership of African America. The anger, he went on, occasionally “finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews [and] reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive … But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Obama now switched the theme, as if to reassure working class whites, not whites with graduate degrees. He talked, however, in a therapeutic language, one it seems to me that is increasingly in use among politicians throughout the English-speaking world when hard policy choices, with redistributive consequences, are being avoided. In this case, however, Obama did conclude with a social democratic world-view.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience ‑ as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time ... these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends … Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze ‑ a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many … This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy ‑particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

No one intelligent could disagree with that. Where Obama went is another matter.

For the African American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances ‑ for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs ‑ to the larger aspirations of all Americans ‑ the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives ‑ by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is ... that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country ‑ a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old ‑ is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know ‑ what we have seen ‑ is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope ‑ the audacity to hope ‑ for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people ... It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand ‑ that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

Obama’s religious beliefs and successful campaign styles are here transparent: a Christian universalism, with a hint of socialism, coalition-building across racial and religious barriers, but with no trace of revolutionary ambitions, an eloquent and educated graduate of Harvard Law school promising social justice to all. Hope helps, of course, but it is not enough. African Americans are correct to believe, according to my colleague Daniel Gillion (2012), that Obama spoke publicly less about race in the first two years of his presidency than any incumbent since Jack Kennedy. Actions may speak louder than words, but the words of a US president are the most powerful political currency on the planet.

The themes of Obama’s speech would not fit in most European political places. Most European serfs and slaves were not racially distinct from their lords and masters. Europeans exercised racism abroad, and against each other, and they often still do exercise it against their more recent immigrants, but Europeans did not forcibly import into Europe significant numbers of enslaved Africans. Almost all European states now identify as homeland states, and generally define immigration as a problem and debate whether they should have delegated powers to the European Union in this domain. Nicolas Sarkozy, the offspring of immigrants (like Mitt Romney), sought a second presidential term on an anti-immigrant and anti-Turkish platform. America, by contrast, identifies as an immigrant state. No credible and ambitious politician calls for the total termination of immigration, if only because neither of the major parties could win on a platform of excluding particular groups because some existing racial, ethnic or religious group with voting rights would thereby be offended. It is acceptable to castigate illegal immigration, but that leads candidates into trouble. Romney’s suggestion of “self-deportation” was one of the more cringe-making suggestions from an intelligent man. He knows the appeal of immigration, and occasionally reminded voters that his father was born in Mexico—though he does not refer to what has been unkindly called a “polygamy compound”. Arguably immigration cost Romney the presidency: to win the primaries he appeased his white base and could not be convincing with Latinos in the presidential campaign, who, together with Asian Americans shifted significantly further toward Obama in 2012.

Above all, however, the religious language of Obama’s speech, Protestant evangelical rather than Papist, would embarrass Europeans, perhaps even European evangelicals. The US is distinctive because its most social democratic party must make its pitch in pan-racial, pan-ethnic but above all pan-religious imagery. It must speak its “liberalism” in partly secularised Protestant tones. Even though its elected officials, cadres and voters are less religious than their rivals, Democrats must talk in a pan-Protestant discourse of liberty of belief and equality before a deity.

Obama has acted in office largely as a universalist regarding race and ethnicity, and very rarely as a champion of African Americans. Had he been a more vigorous champion, however, he might have lost more white votes. He has spoken as a universalist on the economy, but has hardly been a vigorous advocate of substantial income redistribution ‑ asking the rich to pay a little bit more is not the discourse of a radical. The bankers were temporarily chastened, bailed out, and then went on, mostly, to fund Romney. The second greatest crisis of capitalism in a hundred years has found most centre-left parties bereft of appropriate ideas and redistributive fight. America’s social mobility is now less than it is in many European countries, partly because of lowered growth but also because of an educational funding system that locks in class and racial advantages. There were very good reasons to return Barack Obama to office. My list would include universal health care, female equality in pay and in the Supreme Court, gay rights, ensuring that the children of illegal immigrants will not be deported, the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the complete withdrawal of the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the start of necessary financial and economic reform. Now we must wonder whether he has learned self-critical lessons from his first term, whether he will be freer to be a more vigorous champion of the suffering than he has been to date, and whether he can build a durable coalition that will outlast him.


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Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and visiting Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. He recently served as the United Nations Senior Advisor on Power-Sharing for the Standby Team of the Mediation Support Unit of the United Nations. Courts and Consociation: Power-sharing versus Human Rights, with Christopher McCrudden, will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2013. In the spring the University of Pennsylvania Press will also publish Power-sharing in Deeply Divided Places, coedited with Joanne McEvoy, and Divided Nations and European Integration, coedited with Tristan Mabry, John McGarry and Margaret Moore.