"Look where the people are," said CNN correspondent John King, as he massaged his blue and red electronic map of the United States on election night last week. It was still early. Mitt Romney had a slight lead. But, as King surfed from state to state, zooming in on particular counties, he explained how the contest would play out. Although it was too soon for him to come right out and say it, King was showing where President Barack Obama would get the votes to win re-election.
"Look where the people are."
America, the pundits like to say, is a divided country. This is true on its face, but last week's election proved those divisions aren't set in stone and that, in fact, a shift is taking place. That shift was reflected in an array of political outcomes last Tuesday night. But politics is just a manifestation of larger demographic, social and cultural tides. America may be divided, but that division has less to do with opposing ideas about how to solve the country's problems than it does with one side's trying to resist the momentum of history.
People complained throughout the campaign about Romney's lack of substance. Romney's pitch seemed based entirely on the idea that the president had failed to preside over a robust enough economic recovery and that he, Romney, could do better. Romney claimed that the president had engaged in an "apology tour" that debased the nation in the eyes of the world.
Romney, it turned out, was speaking in code. What he was actually trying to say was that the very idea of President Barack Obama was un-American. This notion was at the root of Republican resistance to Obama throughout his first term. Time and again, most notably in his adoption of a health care program originally devised in conservative think tanks and implemented by Romney himself in Massachusetts, Obama attempted to gain bipartisan support by proffering Republican ideas, only to be rebuffed. For Republicans, saving the country meant destroying its president.
But Romney couldn't come out and say this. Instead, he ran a campaign designed to visually accentuate the characteristic that made him most unlike Obama — his whiteness. The Republican convention, where his candidacy was officially launched, played like an updated version of the old Lawrence Welk Show.
As the campaign wore on, it became increasingly clear that what Republicans at all levels had to offer were not ideas about "getting the country back on track," but an array of retrograde measures — from limiting women's access to contraception to building higher walls around our borders — intended to stop the future in its tracks. What they offered was not a vision, but a fantasy meant to evoke America's past.
Look at an electoral map of the United States and you can see where this fantasy still has traction — those parts of the country where the people tend to be predominantly white, exurban or rural, and evangelical.
But look, as King said, at where most people are today and the future begins to come into focus. America, for all its amber waves of grain, is an urban, multi-racial nation, where more than half the people are women. Whether these people can be described in the tired clichŽs — liberal and conservative — dominating our shopworn political vocabulary seems unlikely. What is clear is that, for them, Obama looked just fine. Better still: he didn't make them feel like second-class citizens.
Democrats won big last week not because there is general agreement with all they may or may not stand for. They won because they have figured out how to be inclusive at this moment when a shift is happening — and people, like all those voters who waited in line for hours, refuse to be left out. This makes the Democratic Party messy, bumptious and infuriating. But it's also, for the time being, describes the nation.
This puts Indiana in an awkward spot. This is a state at odds with itself. Like the rest of the country, Indiana's urban and industrial sections voted Democratic. Obama won Marion County with 60 percent of the vote. We also turned a longtime Republican seat in the U.S. Senate blue and repudiated a conservative, corporatist effort at school reform that was highly touted by mainstream media and the business community.
But our governor and state legislature are virtually all Republicans, reflecting a state that doesn't know what to make of its cities, is suspicious of newcomers, and has yet to come to grips with how to reconcile a low level of per capita income with the increasing cost of basic services. The state's previous administration won plaudits for its balanced budget. But this fiscal juggling act did nothing to improve the condition of our air and water, the sophistication of our workforce or the health and welfare of our people.
It seems the Republican fantasy of an America where everyone knows their place and is grateful still counts in Indiana. We'll see how long this lasts. Anyone who has visited a medium-sized or small Hoosier town in the past few years knows how hollowed-out many of these places feel. They are where the people aren't.