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Home > Opinion
 
A majority-minority nation

M.J.Akbar (Byline) / 16 November 2012

Any politician who gets elected thanks to the worst financial crisis since Americaís Great Depression in 1929, and needs the most violent hurricane in a century to get re-elected, obviously has the vote of the Almighty.

Many Americans remain convinced that the divine benevolence Barack Hussein Obama enjoyed was because of Allah. Barack is not an English word, let alone an American one; it derives from the Arabic baraka, meaning blessing. Others —Donald Trump comes to mind — accept that Obama was born, but wish he hadn’t been, and certainly not in Hawai.

Obama faced three potentially fatal obstacles, two of them snake-pits: race and religion. Certainty about his colour, and uncertainty about his faith, cemented the outraged determination of conservatives to limit America’s first black President to one term. The third hurdle, the economy, was colour neutral in theory, but whites reacted more negatively than other voters. 

Obama lost the white vote in every category: 45 to 51 among those between 18-29; 38 to 59 among the 39-44 group; 38 to 61 among the middle-aged, 45-64; and 44 to 65 in the old. But you can also see a new America emerging from this barren chrysalis. Obama’s vote increases as the voter gets younger. The future is with him. Overall, Obama got 60 per cent of young support as compared to only 37 per cent for Mitt Romney.

Romney was straight from Republican central casting: well-brushed hair, a moderate public voice, a mean private discourse, all things to all people, and a business CV straight from a tax consultant’s manual. What he did not have was sufficient population. The white electorate in America has dropped from 84 per cent in 1984 to 72 per cent, and will dip to 69 per cent by 2016 as the demographic easel continues to mix colours.  Romney invested in geography, as a look at any results graphic will confirm.

Obama placed his bet on demography, and sliced Romney along the jugular. Leadership is the art of extracting diamonds out of a coalmine. In a remarkable display of reverse engineering, with advice from that professor emeritus of American politics Bill Clinton, Obama mobilised the margins through positive discrimination, from rights for  children of illegal immigrants to support for same-sex marriage and unprecedented health care for the impoverished, mainly Blacks.  Every vote he got was obtained by commitment and craftwork through his term in office.

Obama could depend on the insular and insensitive Republican right to rescue him when he needed help most, as when the argument seemed to be fading from his grasp. One American satirist, Andy Borowitz, described the Republican message with less exaggeration than humour normally demands: ‘We’re strongly opposed to FEMA and health care but basically OK with rape...When God wants to create a hurricane or make a woman pregnant, big government should get out of the way.’

The Republican challenge to abortion helped Obama cleave enough of the white women’s vote to ensure that two per cent margin which made his election safe. Any disappointment with Obama was not enough to dissolve their fear of the ruthless anti-abortion lobby. Obama rearranged his base into a sparkling coalition of minorities, till the sum became greater than its parts. It is entirely consistent that white liberals, women and men, who voted for Obama were also a minority within their demographic.

But no engineering has ever been reversed as adeptly as Obama’s repositioning of a still convalescent economy. He tried to display some  green shoots:  IMF has projected that the American economy will grow at three per cent next year;  900,000 jobs a month were being lost in 2004, today  170,000 are being added. But they were lost in the incandescent rage of election advertising. Obama deftly turned the argument into a contest between the possessed and the dispossessed. Obama remains in the White House because of support from who suffered most in a faltering economy — the poor, the deprived and those struggling to enter the middle class.

Obama united the differences of America and inspired the collective to rise above  snake-pits to claim a new centre. He has reset politics on a fulcrum that just might send Republicans into oblivion.  In 2016, the Democrats will have a white candidate sailing in the breeze of economic recovery, and anchored in the grateful commitment of diverse minorities. Republicans were once the party of Abraham Lincoln, guardians of national unity and uplift. Obama is Lincoln’s child now, and Democrats, the Lincoln vehicle. If Republicans do not change they will be forgotten like the Whigs of Lincoln’s time.

A sigh of relief was audible across the world when Obama won. There was sullen anger in only three places: Republican America; Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office; and drone-peppered Pakistan. But that is a thought for another day.

MJ Akbar is a veteran Indian journalist

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