As Mitt Romney approached the podium to concede the race to President Barack Obama, an air of disappointment hung in the room. His words were carefully chosen, his voice steady, but his expression said it all: the country had moved on, leaving him and his party in the dust to wonder at what happened. A new age was beginning, one in which traditional power structures, gender roles, and values were seen as antiquated if not prejudicial or insensitive. It became apparent very quickly that the trend had missed both the candidate and his party, as he gave a graceful bow out to what had been the most heated presidential race in recent memory.
By contrast, when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech, the room was alive with an intense atmosphere of renewed hope and stern expectations. Supporters rejoiced while expressing the sentiment that "we elected you to represent us." Still, as the first black president in history, let alone the first black president to win a second term, spoke, it seemed to many, a promise had been fulfilled. Could this be the post-racial America many had hoped for in 2008? Something about this victory felt different. The president won, not based on the fact the previous leader had been in office when the worst economic crash since the Great Depression struck, but rather on the merit of his message. The stark individualism the Republican Party had been successfully pushing for the past 40 years had been rejected in spite of both the Southern and Divide and Conquer Strategies. It became clear that the Reagan Realignment was over; now was the Obama Realignment.
In the 50 years following the Great Depression the Republican Party had been the minority in Congress because the crash hit during the presidency of Hoover. Due to the lack of government oversight of Wall Street, corrupt dealings, and out of control credit—a scenario not unlike what we saw in 2008--the collapse proved too much for Republican president, Herbert Hoover. Much to Hoover's chagrin, the economy did not pick up though it was not for a lack of trying. However, his reluctance to use the government to pass sweeping reforms cost him the presidency, and his party the frame. All Franklin D. Roosevelt had to do was act swiftly, which he did. The New Deal was exceedingly popular especially in the south. However, something else was popular in the south: racism, religiosity, and resentment of the north due to the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The defeat had left the region bitter; so bitter in fact that it became known as the “Solid South” because Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas overwhelmingly voted Democrat out of a strong sense of defiance towards the party of Lincoln. These states had long traditions of racism which meant that the Democratic Party had a strong element of racism in its base.
When Truman issued his special message to Congress that fateful day in February, 1948, and desegregated the armed forces, it marked a rebirth of the Democrats as well as the whole of American politics. The president's order alienated many southern voters; over time many Republicans realized it, namely Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, and began using coded language to pick up conservative voters in southern states. Their rhetoric appealed to the white fears, racism, and old Civil War era resentment,and tied desegregation and civil rights to the idea that the north was trying to dictate its way of life. This "Southern Strategy" resulted in a realignment that culminated with Reagan, and became a part of a larger "divide and conquer" tactic that captured the south for the GOP. Due to both his charisma and the fact that during his presidency the US became the world's only superpower, Reagan, the "Teflon President," was able to retake the frame for the Republicans. He popularized the same, if not more extreme versions of policies that had led to and failed to end the Great Depression through the use of divisive social issues. The FDR Legacy had been defeated.
After years of political success and economic turmoil, the GOP's "fiscal conservative" policies, or Reaganomics, finally caught up with them in 2008, to the tune of a deregulation-induced recession that hit during the presidency of George W. Bush. Voters began to see the result of what they had voted for, as more and more Americans found themselves unemployed and/or homeless. Even before the crash people had begun to reject the Southern Strategy, becoming more wary of racial issues. Seeking change, they elected the first black president, Democrat, Barack Obama. Political scientists predicted that this was the start of a realignment, but they failed to take into account the ambition and cunning of a few powerful men with billions of dollars and an interest in maintaining the status quo.
These men saw an opportunity with the election to use the racial sentiment reawkened by Obama's candidacy, to push a radically anti-government agenda. Thus, the Astro-turf movement known as the Tea Party was born. Claiming to be fiscal conservatives, these Patriots, as they called themselves, espoused vitriol and wholehearted opposition to Obama. They formed an echo chamber for conservative talking points on the economy, the structure and size of government, but also social issues. For a time they were successful, their small government rhetoric and racial undertones appealing to low information white conservative voters. The movement managed to build up the steam for the GOP that had been lost by the Bush presidency, and while it failed to win the 2008 election for John McCain, in 2010 87 Patriots were elected to Congress, giving the Republicans the majority. These freshmen subsequently forced the establishment to bend to their demands; moderates like John McCain were forced to move to the right to appease their more radical colleagues. The Tea Party also had a strong showing in state gubernatorial elections--but then something happened: Their policies began taking effect. Teachers and workers found their ability to organize under attack. People realized who these Republicans were, and the realignment that was overdue began to resurface.
It began with a teacher protest in Wisconsin and a recall effort against Tea Party governor Scott Walker. This energy turned into the Occupy Movement, perhaps the biggest indicator that a change was coming. The right tried to downplay the significance of the protesters, calling them uninformed, envious, and disorganized, but the writing was on the wall. Issues like income inequality, healthcare, and the role deregulation of the banks and Wall Street had played in the recession came to the forefront of national political discourse. People were outraged over the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed for unprecedented amounts of money to be spent on elections; they were mad that there had been no prosecutions of lenders, and many felt sold out by the bailout.
Then it finally happened: the 2012 election--the choice between 2 fundamentally different visions for America's future--the most divisive presidential election since the days of Lincoln, and perhaps the most unique. The amount of money in politics reached levels never before imagined, the internet began playing a pronounced role, making facts readily available and more important than they had been in previous cycles, photo-ID laws were passed by Republicans in key swing states and many polling stations were closed, actions seen by many Democrats as attempts at voter suppression. Republicans, calling for privatization of social programs, tax cuts for all, and laissez-faire capitalism, hurled attacks at Democrats calling for more active government, higher taxes for the top earners, and a significant investment in America's middle class, and Democrats fired right back. The reelection of President Obama, the Democratic gains in the House, and the holding of the Senate showed the Republicans lost control of the frame; that the rhetoric of "job creators" and "moochers" did not resonate with Americans, 96 percent of whom have either received or are currently receiving governmental assistance. The change people had voted for in 2008 was now a mandate. What's more, the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy solidified in the minds of many the idea that perhaps austerity was too ideological. The realignment was in full force and many, myself included, think Obama is only the beginning.
So, what happens now? The Republican response to their defeat has been an outcry for more conservative candidates. Tea Party Patriots National Coordinator Jenny Beth Martin criticized Romney saying, “What we got was a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party.” There is a very large problem with blaming the candidate: the election was not about candidates; it was about ideas; visions of which direction America should go in. Any candidate the Republicans might have chosen would have needed the support of the Tea Party, which had proved too radical for the vast majority of Americans. This rejection is illustrated not only in the defeat this year, also by the fact that in 2010, while the House was being flooded by Patriots, just 3 Senators were elected who identified with the movement. The reason for this success gap lies in districting: Senators represent all the people in a state rather than just a gerrymandered majority-minority district. What is more likely than another Reagan selling the message, is the GOP will become the minority party once again due to the lack of new ideas.
In light of the defeat of the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, there's a very large chance that the Tea Party will split from the moderates and form a third party, which would fade quickly into the fringe. The alternative is Patriots will drag the Republicans even farther right to the same end. In place of the GOP will arise a new conservative party; one that recognizes the need for an active federal government, that understands that regulations are an important part of the free market, and does not resort to race baiting or voter suppression tactics that hurt our democracy more than they help win elections. It is unlikely that what takes the place of the GOP will be the Libertarian Party because socially it will not differentiate enough from the Democrats and laissez-faire is a single issue rather than a broad platform, which is necessary for longevity and adaptation. Also, as previously mentioned, this kind of extreme economic ideology is unpopular when put into practice, as the election results have shown us. The shift in power will be beneficial to both parties as well as the country as whole because it will lead to an actual discussion of nuanced issues as opposed to one party dealing in extremes from being entrenched for too long. It is the start of a new age in American politics.