Barack Obama won re-election, his party managed to hold the Senate, and the House of Representatives is still – exactly as before the elections – dominated by the Republicans. Licking their wounds, they remain hostile to presidential administration.
Has anything shifted? More than it seems. Certainly there is scope for a number of changes on the horizon – the most important ones concerning the American right.
The Republicans, who for the last few years have been leaning heavily to the right, lost the second presidential election in a row, and for their own interests they should rethink this strategy. In a rapidly changing American society the GOP is becoming, as the political scientist Benjamin Barber told “Kultura Liberalna” magazine, “the face of an already disappearing America – white, protestant, poor and rural.” And indeed, exit polls indicate that Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, 73 of the Asian Americans and 93 percent of African Americans. Given that the vote-share of the first two minorities is increasing dramatically, the GOP should start thinking about how to appeal to them.
The Republicans did little better to captivate another important demographic group – the young. Only 36 percent of American voters between the ages of 18 and 29 marked Romney’s name on their ballots. Obviously this does not mean that in a few years, when these young people replace older generations, the Republicans will cease to matter entirely; let’s not forget that voters get more conservative with age. Yet, in a society as relatively young as America’s – in 2010 the median age was 37.2 – winning the presidential election without the support of this age group looks long odds.
Even worse news for the Republicans is their decisive loss in urban areas. In cities with over 500,000 inhabitants, the Democratic Party won 69 percent of the popular vote and in those from 50 to 500,000 inhabitants, 58 percent. Given that American society is one of the most urbanized in the world – 82 percent of Americans live in cities or in the suburbs (a number on the rise) – the slump in urban population support should be a wake-up call for the GOP to immediately change direction. In short, the Republicans can either come to terms with the new demographic reality, reduce the influence of Tea Party radicals and move towards the political centre, or they can retreat to the right corner of the political scene as bystanders to the central stage where that actual play will take place. Which option the GOP takes will have a crucial impact on American politics, at least in the forthcoming two years until the next congressional election.
What will they do? We will see the first indications when the negotiations on how to avoid the so-called “Fiscal cliff” begin. In August 2011, unable to come to an agreement on whether the best way to combat the deficit was to repeal tax-breaks for the rich – introduced by George W. Bush and supported by the Republicans – or to reduce public spending defended by the Democrats – the two parties made an unpalatable deal. It was decided that if by the end of this year no compromise is reached, a number of drastic cuts to defence spending and entitlements will happen automatically. That would reduce the deficit by about 550 billion dollars over a year. But at the same time it would probably send the U.S. economy back into recession. To avoid this, American authorities must agree upon which cuts to delay and which tax breaks to maintain. Until now, any compromise was impossible due to the upcoming elections. The Republicans, counting on Romney’s victory and on regaining the majority in the Senate, were reluctant to make any concessions. This institutional paralysis which began months before November 6th resulted in the lowest approval ratings for the Congress in years. Only 13 percent of surveyed Americans believed their representatives were doing their job well. Business as usual on the Hill should hit the Republicans hardest.
The election win has significantly strengthened Barack Obama’s negotiating position. We all remember his gaffe when he assured the then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, that after the election he will be “more flexible” in his dealings with the Kremlin. Regardless of what we think about these words, Obama actually told the truth – with a renewed public mandate, he no longer needs to worry about re-election and thus can be more assertive in defending his position. The president will now, it seems, be less willing to give way – and as far as the budget is concerned, he already made some significant concessions. The ball is on the Republican side of the court.
But what does it all mean for an average European? Surprisingly, quite a lot. If the parties fail to reach an agreement, and the U.S. economy starts to shrink after three years of growth, the consequences will soon be exported across the Atlantic. As (some) economists like to say: “When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” And this is extremely bad news for the Old Continent, which – as is the case with most oldies – already suffers from a number of other ailments.
Regardless of what we think of them, we should keep our fingers crossed for the American right, which needs once again to learn the meaning of political compromise.
Lukasz Pawlowski is contributing editor to Kultura Liberalna (Liberal Culture) magazine. He is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw and currently an academic visitor at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.
You can read Kultura Liberalna’s special issue on the US presidential election here [in English].