What the election says about what’s next

November 15, 2012

Tithi Bhattacharya draws some lessons from the results of Election 2012.

MOST OF us will have breathed a sigh of relief at the trouncing of the Republicans last Tuesday night. I do not always find myself in agreement with the New York Times, but Maureen Dowd read the electoral mood absolutely right when she said:

Romney and Tea Party loonies dismissed half the country as chattel and moochers who did not belong in their "traditional" America. But the more they insulted the president with birther cracks, the more they tried to force chastity belts on women, and the more they made Hispanics, Blacks and gays feel like the help, the more these groups burned to prove that, knitted together, they could give the dead-enders of white male domination the boot.

It was a particularly good night for those of us in possession of female reproductive organs and those fighting for LGBT rights. On the whole, more women voted than men. Five women were newly elected to the Senate. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress from Wisconsin, while Maryland, Washington and Maine legalized same-sex marriage by referendum.

Indiana's Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock concedes defeat on Election Night
Indiana's Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock concedes defeat on Election Night

One of the best aspects of this election, however, was the defeat of the Republicans' Team Rape.

Let's for the moment leave aside the astounding fact that in one of the most advanced industrial nations of the world, the public debate on women's rights has been pushed so far to the right that our side now has to defend a woman's right not to be raped. Nevertheless, I along with many others rejoiced when Todd Akin lost in Missouri after his public statements about "legitimate rape"; and when, in my home state of Indiana, Richard Mourdock lost his safe Senate seat due to his theological musings about rape-pregnancies being a gift from god.

But now what?

As social justice activists on the ground, that is the question we face now that the elections are over. As we move forward to rebuild our movements, there are three things I think we ought to keep in mind.

First, a vote against the Republicans does not directly translate as an unqualified support for the Democrats. Let us not misinterpret the mandate that people delivered in this election. Most people who voted Democratic cast their ballot defensively--i.e., to stop a lunatic Republican agenda rather than to endorse a Democratic one.

The defeat of Richard Mourdock, again, can serve as an instructive example. The Democratic candidate who defeated Mourdock was Joe Donnelly, currently a member of the U.S. House from a district in the northwest part of the state.

Despite the mandate against Mourdock, the only thing we can safely say about Joe Donnelly is that he is a nightmare on women's rights. He is a staunch pro-lifer, who proudly claims:

In keeping with my personal faith and family values, I have consistently opposed abortion and will continue to do so in Congress. I believe that being pro-life means promoting life at every stage, from conception until natural death. I will always vote according to my faith and my conscience on life issues.

Donnelly voted twice to block Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funding, and he helped pass a law (HR 3) that penalizes businesses and individuals who purchase private health plans that include abortion coverage. As a cheerleader for austerity, he has favored cutting taxes for businesses. As a warmonger, he has gone over to the Republican side of the aisle to vote against the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Does a vote against Mourdock then mean a vote for Donnelly's brand of politics? Not necessarily.

Let's take the issue of reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 48 percent of pregnancies in Indiana in 2006 were unintended. But thanks to bipartisan attacks on reproductive rights, 95 percent of Indiana counties have no abortion providers. Where available, women, an overwhelming number of them poor, line up for Planned Parenthood services--more than 9,000 women in Indiana depend on these services each year.

What is perhaps most significant about the election in Indiana is that when possible, people voted overwhelmingly for an openly progressive candidate, who campaigned on issues that were relevant to people.

Glenda Ritz, a public school teacher and union activist, ran for state schools superintendent against the education deform Republican incumbent, Tony Bennett. Voters elected Ritz by a gigantic margin--she received roughly 1.3 million votes, about 100,000 more votes than the Republican governor-elect, Mike Pence. In other words, more people voted for union rights and public funding in education than voted for budget cuts.

Second, a large number of Americans are to the left of their leaders.

If we look beyond the straitjacketed choices for the U.S. presidential election, we will find that a vast proportion of ordinary people are smarter than the leaders of the two main parties.

For instance, despite the warblings of 1 Percenter Romney and the Wall Street bailout policies of Obama, 55 percent of Americans say that rich people are more likely than the average person to be greedy. Similarly, according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans want U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. The most dramatic statistic--and the one that most indicates the Democrats' betrayals--is the fact that 60 percent of Americans favor keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are, rather than reducing them to lower the budget deficit.

Finally, crises can reveal the actual hollowness and irrelevance of elections.

This month, people on the East Coast woke to the frightening inadequacy of government services when it came to relief efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. However, we all saw the amazing unfolding of humanity in the days that followed the storm. Ordinary people came out in record numbers to help rebuild lives and communities. So overwhelming was the public response to relief efforts that one commentator deduced that Occupy Wall Street was outperforming the Red Cross in hurricane relief.

How much did these people care about the outcome of the elections? According to British journalist and feminist Laurie Penny, not at all:

In the 48 hours since I landed in the United States, flying into storm-torn Brooklyn just days after a bunch of cars floated down Wall Street, nobody has mentioned the election to me once. You know, the presidential election, the one that's happening in--what is it, three days? Right now, New Yorkers have more important things on their minds.

Access to food, fuel and electricity, for a start. People who do have these things are opening up their homes to friends and strangers who don't. Across the city, volunteers are packing cars and heading to the disaster zones of Red Hook and the Rockaways, as well as to Staten Island, the borough worst-hit when Hurricane Sandy battered through to flatten homes and devastate lives.

Like I said, nobody's talking about the election. The island I always privately think of as Starship Manhattan spent days cut off from the rest of the city, all of the lights out for days beneath 34th Street, basements choked with brackish water, old people stranded in their homes. There's an actual crisis taking place: houses have been destroyed, lives lost. The 18-month media circus that passes for representative politics in this country seems worlds away from the women in Staten Island weeping in front of the remains of their family homes on the nightly news.

THIS PARTICULAR election was the most expensive in U.S. history, with a whopping cost of $6 billion. This in a country where 81 percent of Americans agree that "corporate political spending 'drowns out' the voices of average Americans, and corporate CEOs have too much political influence." What kind of "hope" and "change" are we likely to get for such a high price tag?

It seems clear from all accounts that Obama's talk about a fiscal cliff and entitlements is really a declaration of open war to cut social services. The Democrats are now set to use their victory to cut trillions of dollars in social spending from programs that benefit the most vulnerable in our society. Political analysts Ryan Grim and Sarah Bufkin rightly conclude, "This process of transferring wealth up the economic ladder is known in Washington as a 'grand bargain.'"

So, in conclusion, let me go back to the original question: What now?

The stark choicelessness of our election "choices" has never been clearer. People did not vote for four more years of the same. Ordinary Americans voted to keep out lunatic misogynists and in favor of gender parity, and they hoped their votes would help bring a better retirement and a more affordable health care system.

So should we look to Washington for change? Or should we look to the hundreds and thousands of ordinary Americans who hit the streets after Sandy to help their fellow humans? Are we going to look to Obama to change the conditions of Black America, or should we look to movements like the Chicago teachers' strike, which forcefully brought back the question of educational and racial justice into the public debate?

If we are going to see elections as an index of the political pulse of the nation, then I suggest that we do it not from a defensive perspective of what it tried to stop, but from the perspective of what it was supposed to signify.

There, the balance sheet is more than clear: voters delivered an unqualified rejection of rape supporters, an endorsement for LGBT rights, and a pummeling of Tea Partiers in Indiana and Massachusetts. Obama delivered: nothing. No promise to stop the cuts in government spending, no promise not to kill people with drones, no promise to defend civil rights.

For the next four years, among those two, I know which I'm going to put my faith in.

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