Monday, November 10, 2008

Seven Days Later

It was quiet in Cambridge on Election Day last week. There were no Obama volunteers in Harvard Square or holding signs at the polling places. All were dispatched to New Hampshire and other battleground states. Free coffee was dispensed to voters at Starbucks and free ice cream was dispensed at Ben and Jerry’s. Around 6:45pm, a lone woman was manning a Green Party table in front of Out of Town News, and not doing much business.

The votes are pretty much counted from last week’s election (take your time Oregon and Washington State). Just a week ago Obama supporters around the country were sitting on their seats convinced that they would get tricked or cheated out of what now looks like a historically inevitable victory. And McCain supporters were convinced their world was coming to an end.

Any which way you can. Barack Obama could win by winning Florida. He could win by winning Ohio. He could win by winning Virginia and North Carolina. He could win by winning Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. He could win by winning Indiana and Iowa so long as his party also won a majority of Congressional delegations for the tiebreaker. He won all five of those ways.

Broken records, flat turnout. Barack Obama racked up 66 million votes, 4 million more than George Bush in 2004, and 7 million more than John Kerry. The total number of votes cast jumped 17 million (16%) from 2000 to 2004 but only 3 million (2.5%) from 2004 to 2008. Overall turnout didn’t keep up with population growth as high turnout in some states was offset by lower turnout in others.

The Republican Party is dying out. From the conservative perspective, it’s really been 24 years since we’ve had a successful Republican presidential candidate who could be considered both competent and inspiring. That would be Ronald Reagan running for reelection in 1984, before he was tarnished by the Iran-Contra scandal. Children who were 6 years old in 1984 and old enough to remember Reagan are 30 years old now. Anyone who was voting age in 1984 is over 40 years old now. If you don’t count Reagan, you would have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Children who were 6 in 1956 are 58 years old now, and adults who were voting age in 1956 are 73 years old now.

John McCain got 5 million fewer votes than George Bush got in 2004. Around 53% of the over-65 group voted for John McCain, but around 10 million elderly have died in the U.S. since 2004. For voters under age 30, 66% voted for Barack Obama. If this trend continues, the Republican Party may simply die out.

40 years in the wilderness. One of the most moving moments on election night was seeing Jesse Jackson crying in the crowd at the Obama victory celebration in Chicago. Jackson finished third for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and second in 1988, but his candidacy was never taken seriously except as a potential spoiler. In April 1968, 40 years ago, he was in the parking lot below the balcony of the Memphis motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech the night before he was killed:

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight.”

The race riots that followed King’s assassination left deep scars on the urban landscape and the suburban psyche in the United States. That, together with the late 1960s student unrest in opposition to the Vietnam War, pretty much destroyed the Democratic Party as a Presidential Party. So the Democrats have held the Presidency for only 12 of the last 40 years. For the hundred years from the Civil War to the 1960s, it had been a coalition of Northern urban and Southern rural voters. After the 1960s the Democrats became at core the party of urban America, but has had to settle for non-urban outsiders like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. There have been few real blue states, just blue cities.

Are we seeing a Midwestern realignment? The Republican Party reelected to Congress its rhetorical bomb throwers like Jean Schmidt (“cowards cut and run”) from Ohio, Michele Bachmann (“are they pro-America or anti-America?”) from Minnesota, and Steve King (“they will be dancing in the streets because of his middle name.”) from Iowa. But the Congressional delegations in the upper Midwest states all went Democratic.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won back rural Southern voters, but the party was not able to hold onto them, even when it ran Southerner Al Gore in 2000. In 2000 and 2004, Democrats won in the big cities but lost in the large rural areas across the Midwest as well as the South and West. Now it looks like the rural vote may again be in play.

Looking at the county by county map for 2008, Barack Obama won a lot of rural counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Barack Obama also carried the city of Omaha, Nebraska (birthplace of Malcolm X), which has long voted Republican and considers itself the gateway to the West. If Western Plains states like Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana follow the Midwest out of the Republican Party, there will not be much left for the party but the South. Since the Republican Party was formed to oppose the South on slavery, that would be the ultimate irony.

Call me a socialist. I think that Barack Obama’s poll numbers might have actually gone up a notch in the final days of the campaign when the McCain campaign questioned whether he was a socialist. Have the rural Iowans and other rural Midwesterners figured out that their federal farm price supports, their local banks and cooperative lending institutions, their municipally-owned hospitals run by elected boards of directors, their volunteer fire departments, their community-organized music festivals and band days, their 4-H clubs and state university extension programs, their county homes and care facilities for residents who can’t support themselves, their town-supported semi-pro baseball teams, their communal practice of helping sick neighbors harvest their crops, their deep mistrust of corporations and Wall Street, that all of these are socialist institutions and proclivities?

I’ve come to understand that all the blue state socialists really want is the same kind of community that small town America works hard at and, when it comes to others, sometimes takes for granted. It makes me kind of sad to live in the cold, hard, capitalist city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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