IT stands to reason that in Nigeria as in many other states in Africa and the world, Obama’s reelection as the 44th President of the United States is astonishing because of its racial overtones: a black man is reelected as the ruler of the most powerful white-dominated country in which black people are less than 20 per cent of the population. His election in 2008 was remarkable enough in that it defied the massive weight of American history from slavery to post-slavery segregation, and from post-civil rights economic and social inequalities to the current lingering realities of overt and covert racism. If Obama had lost his bid for reelection, most people in America itself and in other parts of the world would almost certainly have concluded that his election in 2008 was too good to be true and too fragile to last; this conclusion would have ended with the conviction that “race” had once again reasserted its enduring negative grip on America.
Undoubtedly, race did play a role in Obama’s re-election as we shall presently demonstrate. But many other factors beside race were responsible for his victory in the just concluded 2012 American presidential elections. Beside race, other indices of social identity like class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality and regionalism played big roles in the elections. Indeed, if race had been the sole factor, if it had even been the dominant factor, Obama would have lost the election and he would have lost it big time. Thus, there is a vital need for us to understand the combination of factors and forces that won Obama this historic reelection.
We in Nigeria in particular have many important lessons to learn from this issue, especially since the 1999 Constitution under which are currently governed is so closely patterned on the American presidential system. In this article, I wish to highlight four lessons that we could profitably learn from the electoral plurality that won Obama his reelection this past week.
One: winning a genuine and commanding plurality outside and beyond your own racial group.
In simple, absolute terms, most white people voted for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney and a whopping majority of black people voted for Obama. Here are the exact figures: 59 per cent of whites for Romney and 39 per cent for Obama. Among black people 93 per cent voted for Obama while a paltry 7 per cent voted for Romney. Indeed, Romney increased by 3 per cent the share of white voters that went for McCain in the 2008 presidential elections. Thus, if this set of stark figures is seen in isolation, the logical conclusion is that race played a very big role in the 2012 elections. But this is only one part of the equation and a very minor part at that.
For a fuller understanding of the plurality that won Obama his reelection, consider the following set of figures. Among young people of all races, all ethnic groups and all demographic communities, Obama won 60 per cent of the votes; among Hispanics or Latinos, he won 71 per cent of the votes; and among female voters of all demographic groups, he won 53 per cent. To this set of figures, consider the fact that the Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in America and female voters always consistently out-vote men and also tend more towards the Democratic Party than the Republicans. And as if these additional factors were not enough, consider also the fact that other groups like gays and lesbians, college educated people and the vast majority of poor people across the country’s diverse communities went for Obama over Romney in huge numbers.
Yes, Romney won big among his “own people” and Obama also won big among his “own people”, but that is only one part of the story, one aspect of a bigger picture. In a multiracial, multiethnic and diverse nation, you must reach out well beyond your racial or ethnic community if your want to achieve a winning national plurality. Romney and the Republicans seem to have been entirely unaware of, or indifferent to this necessary condition for attaining a winning plurality in American society of the present.
Two: winning a plurality by fighting for the interest of the people in a vastly unequal society.
One of the most interesting and unprecedented aspects of the elections was the sheer scale and the structure of monies spent in the electioneering campaigns. Under normal age-old conditions, the American presidential elections are the most expensive in the world by a very long shot. One reason for this is the length of the electioneering cycle which is roughly about two years, from the so-called primaries to the real elections. Additionally, special interests also typically pump millions of dollars into American elections in the hope that candidates that they sponsor and who win would carry out legislative programs advantageous to their interests.
This year, something else pushed the plutocratic element in American elections into new, mindboggling proportions. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years ago known as “Citizens United” lifted all limits to how much corporations, wealthy individuals and unions could spend in American elections on behalf of candidates and political parties – as long as they did not coordinate their activities with candidates and political parties. The consequence of this ruling, as every pundit predicted, was that billionaires and corporations spent unprecedented amounts to defeat progressive candidates with electoral platforms advancing the cause of workers, poor people and middle class Americans dependent on entitlements programs of the government that require more taxes from the super rich and the averagely rich. What effect did this have on the just concluded elections?
More than any other presidential elections in recent memory, the 2012 elections centered squarely on the role of government with regard to tax burdens on the rich, working people and the poor, and how large or small the government should be in creating the kind of environment that could both create jobs and meet needs that private and public employers cannot meet. By and large, Obama and the Democrats took the side of working people and the poor; Romney and the Republicans took the side of big business and billionaires. Since there are more working people and poor people than corporations and billionaires, and since these groups and classes of people are to be found in every demographic group, the more than a billion dollars spent to defeat Obama proved largely ineffective in preventing his reelection. As a matter of fact, apart from Obama’s reelection, one of the most salutary aspects of the elections was the fact that virtually none of the senatorial and congressional candidates targeted by billionaires and corporations lost to the favored candidates of the plutocrats!
Three: Without forgetting the past, pay the utmost attention to changing times and conditions.
One of the most regionally notable aspects of these recent American elections was the fact that while Romney’s biggest and most concentrated victories were in the South and among racially and ethnically monolithic white groups, Obama and the Democrats scored victories in all the other regions of the country and in particular among diverse racial and ethnic communities. Almost every neutral or objective pundit and commentator has traced this marked contrast to the fact that while Obama and the Democrats are keenly aware of changing demographic profiles in the different regions of the country, Romney and the Republicans seem permanently fixated on the past when all the regions of the country were without exception predominantly white. Moreover, they seem unaware that whites who live in mixed or diverse communities tend to think and behave differently from whites who live in whites-only or predominantly white communities. In other words, with a gaze fixed resolutely on the past, they are missing out on fundamental changes taking place in American society and culture.
For at least several decades ahead of us, whites will still be the biggest dominant racial group in the country. But that dominance is declining. More importantly, whites and “whiteness” are being redefined and constructed by changing demographic currents in ways that the Republicans cannot yet comprehend.
Four: give real hope to people in very tough economic conditions and uncertain future(s):
For at least a decade now, as in Nigeria, the gap between the very rich and the rest of the society has been widening exponentially in the United States. Moreover, this trend has worsened greatly in the wake of the economic meltdown of 2008 and its aftermath. And as in Nigeria, the super rich in America seem completely indifferent to this development. As a matter of fact, one of the most egregious aspects of Romney’s presidential electoral platform was a plan to cut taxes for the super rich! The ideological justification for this was that the super rich would invest the tax breaks on production and business and the increase in jobs that this would create would make wealth trickle down to the middle class and the poor. That there is no guarantee that this would actually come to pass did not bother Romney. Even less bothered was he by the fact that right now, before the prosperity to come from tax breaks for the rich, the great majority of Americans, like the vast majority of Nigerians, are facing very tough, very severe economic conditions. Obama took up the cause of these groups of Americans that actually constitute the human and demographic majority of the citizenry. Above almost any other factor, his reelection derived from this particular emphasis on social and economic justice in tough times.
Towards the end of the campaigns, Romney also began to speak of looking out for those who were suffering the current harsh conditions. But just like most of Nigerian politicians are not credible when they talk of the economic plight of the majority of their countrymen and women while looting the national coffers empty, Romney did not inspire the slightest belief that he really cared for the people. The result: the people spoke eloquently and unambiguously with their votes.
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