Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of change. His personal charisma, obvious intelligence and flawless organisational ability made winning easier. But was that enough for a black American to win the US presidency? Especially one who secured more white votes than any Democrat presidential candidate in living memory and took two ex-slave states?
The answer is no. The spadework for Obama’s victory was done by broader changes in American society, changes that have evolved over decades. The US had to change for the Change to happen. Here are four social revolutions that allowed Obama Nation to be created.
Whiter shade of Black, blacker shade of White
The rise of the African-American middle class
An older generation of African Americans, marked by memories of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and lynch mobs, assured everyone that white Americans would be unable to vote for someone black. The Bradley effect, the statisticians’ claim that white hide their voting intentions when faced with a minority candidate, would rear its head.
They would have been right 30 years ago. Race relations in the US have evolved since then. A Pew Foundation survey of US values showed the number of Americans who believe “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date” has risen 13 percentage points to 83 per cent last year. Even support for job and education quotas for minorities has jumped to 70 per cent plus.
Obama represents another phenomenon: the rise of an African-American middle class. Obama’s most fervent white supporters were middle class professionals. They identified with this Harvard-educated academic in a way that they couldn’t with a populist firebrand like Jesse Jackson. About a third of black Americans are now bourgeoisie. This class link allowed Obama to move beyond the race issue.
Last of the Redskins
‘Joe the Plumber’ is no longer the most important voter
Contrary to what many believe, the US is becoming more secular and more ethnically diverse. This has meant that two of the pillars of the red vote, the base of conservative political strength: the white worker and the evangelical Christian wield less and less clout in the US ballot box. In 1960, Joe the Plumber represented a massive 40 per cent of US voters. Today, he is about 19 per cent of the electorate. Says pollster Craig Charney, “White workers are no longer the electorate — just one more interest group, and not the most important for the Democrats.”
And for all the fire and brimstone they spew, evangelical Christians are a gently declining force in US politics and US demography. Between 1987 and 2007 the number of secular Americans increased by half to about 12 per cent. All surveys and books like Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation show that religious sentiments have been retreating across the US for decades.
Evangelical Christians were disgusted with Republican candidates John McCain’s past moderation and stayed home in droves when election day arrived. It also contributed to a simple partisan advantage for Obama. When the race began, only a third of Americans identified themselves as Republicans while about the rest said that they were Democratic leaning. The Republicans are standing on a shrinking voting base.
Muddle class politics
Economical imbalance? It’s time to spread the wealth around
If there is one thing most Americans agree with is that prosperity is passing them by. This is not a consequence of the subprime crisis. The economic stagnation that was once the mark of the poorest has been slowly infecting everyone except the richest. Writes economist Jacob Hacker, “Over the last generation, problems once confined…have crept up the income ladder to become an increasingly normal part of middle class life.” According to the Pew Foundation, in only five years the number of American households who claimed they didn’t “have enough money to make ends meet” rose by nine percentage points to 44 per cent.
Inequality is back as a social issue in the US. Middle class Americans, those with household incomes of at least $ 75000 a year, increasingly say “the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.” Between 2003 and 2007, those who believed this liberal dictum rose from 51 to 65 per cent. Not quite the dawn of socialism, but it meant that when Obama spoke of “spreading the wealth around” he had a receptive audience.
Subprime just brought this economic stagnation home to Americans who had borrowed to hide their sagging wealth. “For all practical purposes, some 60 million US households are bankrupt after their prime source of wealth, their homes, lost value,” says Tim Adams, managing director of the economic advisory, The Lindsey Group.
Negotiate first, then think of war, say citizensThe Republican trump card for years has been national security. When the going gets tough, the elephant gets going — to the White House, that is. After 9/11, this trump card could not be beaten. Sadly for a war hero like John McCain, the truth is the opposite. Blame Osama Bin Laden for being unable to arrange a sequel, blame the messy war in Iraq, but the truth is Americans have been trending away from armour and more towards amour. Surveys show that in 2002, 62 per cent of Americans believed “the best way to ensure peace is through military”. By last year this had dropped to 49 per cent, the lowest support for General Patton-style security in a decade.
The US may be waging two wars, but the message it increasingly wants to hear is Obama-like promises to talk and negotiate first. One of the surprises in the US election was to find so many Americans concerned about the damage that had been done to their country’s overseas image. This hardly means the US is becoming postmodern and fuzzy on the edges. Some 40 million Americans still voted against Obama. Given a recession, two wars, an unpopular president and Obama’s charisma one might wonder what they had against him. They didn’t. There is a fair amount of evidence to show a large number of voters wanted to take revenge against the Republicans. Obama has four years to make the case, especially to Republicans and independent voters who moved away from red, that they should consider permanently blueing themselves.