Local lessons from the US: social issues really count
Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane|
Nov 08, 2012 11:17AM |EMAIL|PRINT
The US elections reflect how important social issues can be in the hands of deft politicians. Barack Obama successfully tapped into minority issues and progressive values.
There are parallels for Australia in the results of the US elections this week, not so much in the race for the White House but in some of the smaller races in the Senate and state polls where gay rights and women succeeded and influenced the votes in unprecedented numbers.
At the same time, right-wing billionaires couldn’t spend their way to a Republican victory. Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News attack dogs failed to have an impact; all the billions raised and wasted by America’s mega rich — from the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers (who have financed much of the anti-Obama and pro-Tea Party campaigning in recent years) to Mitt Romney’s biggest individual backer in ancient gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson — went for nought. Old white conservative billionaires lost, and lost badly.
One of the common messages is that Obama succeeded despite a weak economy and high unemployment. And yet, as The Guardian reported, exit polls say otherwise:
“Early exit polls showed the economy was the dominant issue for voters, with four out of 10 saying the economy was getting better — more than in 2008. Forty-six per cent said the country was headed in the right direction, while 52% said it was on the wrong track. More than half of those surveyed blamed the economic mess on George W Bush.”
Those same polls recorded eight out of 10 voters as having made up their minds by September, meaning neither the presidential debates nor Sandy played a key role.
Drill down into the other elections in the US and there was, as the conservative UK Telegraph admitted, a massive turn towards a liberal America on Tuesday on issues like gay marriage, cannabis and healthcare, plus the election of Tammy Baldwin, America’s first openly gay senator, Wisconsin.
Then there were gender issues. The outrageous r-pe comments by GOP candidates in Missouri and Indiana, and the increasingly hardline anti-choice views held right up to the top of the Republican Party (Paul Ryan), plus the deliberate targeting of female voters by the Obama campaign, mean women were a major force. Obama recorded a 10 percentage point margin among female voters, a huge gender gap. Elizabeth Warren, the new Democratic Senator in Massachusetts, who beat Tea Party favourite Scott Brown, had an 18 percentage point margin among women.
But no one would have expected the clean sweep by female candidates in New Hampshire, where the state’s two seats in the House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate are now all occupied by women — the first time a US state has sent an all-female delegation to Washington. And the state governor will be a women from 2013. New Hampshire used to be a right-wing bastion with the state’s main paper, the Union Leader and its owner, William Loeb, considered kingmakers among conservative Republicans.
Before this election there were 17 female senators in Congress. If all the late counts go the way they were going on Tuesday night, they will be joined by six more, taking their number to the highest ever, 23. The newcomers will be Democrats and seemingly more in tune with what America really thinks than what the media says it is.
And then there were the votes from Latinos. Latinos are the fastest growing-segment of the US population. Their share of the vote expanded from 9% in 2008 to 10% in this election. The president won 67% of the vote four years ago — that increased to 71% this year. As CNN reported:
“Latinos were crucial in helping Obama win the battleground states of Colorado and Nevada, and in putting the president in the lead for Florida’s 29 electoral votes. And they were just as important in turning the former swing state of New Mexico into what appears to be an increasingly safe state for the Democrats.”
Indeed, some polling may have been wrong because of the failure to poll in Spanish as well. For Latinos, the issue of immigration looms large, meaning Republicans — who, with some exceptions like Jeb Bush (and his brother George) aside, want punitive hardline measures against illegal immigration — will increasingly struggle.
There are some lessons for Australia in all this. Even if social issues like gay marriage and gender issues like reproductive choice don’t rank as high, they have a disproportionate symbolic value and are potent weapons when it comes to characterising political opponents. Democrats successfully charged Republicans with waging “a war on women”, no matter how often Romney castigated GOP candidates who made light of r-pe. Here, too, Tony Abbott has been the target of a highly-successful campaign by Labor to typecast him as a s-xist, and Julia Gillard appeared to catch lightning in a bottle with that speech on misogyny that cut through like nothing has for most of this parliamentary term.
The power of conservative media figures is overrated and in decline. Rupert Murdoch has remained silent since Obama won, although perhaps Donald Trump was channeling him when he tweeted a demand for revolution in outrage at the result. Murdoch’s news arms, at least in Anglophone countries, are aimed at older white conservatives, particularly men — while this might work as a business model for electronic media, as a model for political influence its limitations are becoming clearer.
The old, white, wealthy male, shrilly outraged that his traditionally unchallenged right to dictate to the rest of society is under attack, looks an increasingly isolated figure.
There is much for local conservatives to contemplate in the wake of the US elections. Little of it is good.