It’s not the eco-nomy, stupid! That is the biggest takeaway from the recent presidential election in America.
If anything, it was really about identity. As Barack Obama was not of the right colour, his opponents felt that his elevation in 2008 was because they had not stressed identity enough. They would have dearly liked to peel his skin off, failing which they went on a tirade against his supposed “un-American” birth and breeding.
The Tea Party was the first to go live on this campaign. Officially, it had only guests and no host, but there were enough Republicans and corporates that supported and financed it. In just 30 days after Obama became president in 2008, the Tea Party was already headline news. That these activists took so little time to get their act together and out of the door shows that it was injured identity and not a failed economy that fired them.
Well before the new president could unpack his bags in the White House and his budget before the nation, the Republicans had begun their attacks on his economic programme. How did they know? More, how did they dare? When Obama became president, America was losing 8,00,000 jobs a month and its annual real corporate profit growth had slumped to -17.4%. If it had gone any lower America would have had to ask India for a bailout.
Four years on, the country added enough jobs to bring its unemployment rate to below 8%: a psychologically comforting number. By the time Obama was ready for his second term, unemployment had come down to 7.8%. This is much lower than the figures in 1983 and 1984 when Ronald Reagan, the Republican hero, was the president. In fact, in 1983, unemployment had touched 10.4%, but no Tea Party/Republican activist ever recalls this statistic.
Mitt Romney promised millions of jobs but fluffed on how exactly he would pull it off. On identity issues, however, the roadmap was clear. The many posters that the Tea Party strung up were openly racist and religious, and not just for wallpaper effect. There was no slip intended when they called the president, Obama Osama bin Laden. Nor were they masking their racism when their placards screamed for an end to “White Slavery”. “Baby Killers” and “Sodomy” were the other attributes they accused the government of. There was not a trace of the economy in any of these charges.
Donald Trump was in their corner too. Hoping to wipe out Obama as easily as he brushed back his hair he claimed the president was not American-born. Rupert Murdoch, another fat cat, even urged people to see his documentary where Obama’s Muslim-Kenyan background was the central theme.
Racism and religious bigotry come as part of a package that calls out to other identities as well. In this deal, women are undermined and, you guessed it, so are the migrants. The Republicans argued that it was Christian faith that made them oppose pro-lifers, or those who support abortion. Romney repeatedly said that he was a “pro-life candidate”, as did his wife on a much-publicised Barbara Walters programme.
Romney also promised he would to do the right patriotic thing and end the two-year reprieve Obama had given illegal migrants. If the Republicans had succeeded in this mission it would have affected nearly 1.2 million people, mainly Latinos. Naturally, this angered the entire American-Hispanic voting popu-lation and a few others besides. It made them more pro-Obama than they would have other-wise been.
As the Republicans had repeatedly ticked the race, religion and gender boxes, they were confident that they had all the identity markers they needed to win. That is why when they talked economy it was primarily to occupy air space and waves. But the solid rock on which they stood was identity, even econo-mics was identity. If Obama had failed to make more jobs it was because the man had a dodgy middle name and a non-American heritage.
The truth is that the Republicans were hopeful that solid, white, Americans would turn out in large numbers and vote Romney to power. They were partly right in their calculations. Exit polls suggest that six out of 10 whites voted Republican, but wait, the other four went with Obama. Further, the majority of the young, as many as 60% under 30, also supported the Democrats. All of this goes to show that the Republicans were rousing not just white people, but older, white men. As it turned out, they woke up the wrong passenger.
Obama won easily in terms of electoral colleges but for some time it was not quite clear if he had the majority of the general electorate on his side. Fortunately, by the time the last results came in he had about 52% of the popular votes as well. It was a wafer-thin margin, but it was still very important. It prevented Republicans from complaining that they were swindled out of the presidency.
But that is the least of Obama’s victory. The narrow lead notwithstanding, he has done something more remarkable. It is now official: 52% of Americans are neither sexist nor racist.
America now deserves to be called a superpower!
The writer is a social scientist.