“We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people,” said Barack Obama in his victory speech after winning his second term as US president.
The truth is that the US has never been more divided. Unemployment rose sharply in the first couple of years of Obama’s presidency and has remained high. The gap between rich and poor continues to get wider.
And this has been accompanied by a widening split in popular politics. “As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarised along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” the Pew Research Centre notes.
This trend has been building ever since the 2007 global financial crisis, and it shows no sign of stopping. Many of those who leaned left as the banks were bailed out have moved further left, while those who leaned right and blamed blacks and migrants for the crisis have moved further right.
Obama and his supporters skilfully set out to channel opposition to the wealthy few into votes for the Democrats. And, while seeking to capitalise on the popular anger, the president also sought to dampen down resistance in the streets and on picket lines—fearing that the new wave of cuts he is planning will be met by a wave of popular anger.
Class pattern to the Obama vote
Obama was elected in 2008 on a tide of popular optimism and euphoria. That certainly wasn’t present this time round. He has failed to deliver on his supporters’ hopes. But fear of the rabid Republican right meant that disillusion didn’t translate into major electoral losses.
The coalition Obama pulled together four years ago—ethnic minorities, the young, working class voters and middle class liberals—by and large held together.
Turnout only fell slightly, from 62 percent to around 60 percent. Only two marginal states changed hands, with Indiana and North Carolina going back to the Republicans. Slice up the figures by class, race, or gender and you typically see the same picture of a small drift away from Obama 2008, but no major changes.
There is a clear class pattern to Obama’s vote. He won a clear majority of “lower income voters” (those earning less than $30,000, or £19,000, a year)—63 percent. This majority drops as you climb the income scale. Americans earning more than $50,000 a year preferred Mitt Romney.
And there’s a similar geographical pattern. Among voters in big cities, Obama won 69 percent. Romney was ahead in smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas. So Obama’s base is urban and working class. And these factors cut across racial divides.
Romney’s attempt to play the race card
This doesn’t mean race had no effect on the election. Black voters still turned out overwhelmingly for Obama. His share among Hispanics rose from 67 percent in 2008 to 71 percent this time round. And it jumped sharply for Asian Americans, from 62 percent to 73 percent.
Meanwhile racism was never far from the surface in the Romney campaign. An audience member snapped at an early rally wore a T-shirt calling for the white to be put back in the White House.
This was reflected in the results. Obama’s vote was 56 percent white, 24 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic. Romney’s was 89 percent white, 2 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic.
This picture has led many to declare that white working class Americans flocked to the Romney camp. And it’s undoubtedly true that there was a swing towards the Republicans among these voters. But the full figures show a much more nuanced picture.
Obama was still ahead among lower income white voters. According to Pew, some 45 percent of them lean towards him, compared to 43 percent for Romney. This is a smaller lead than in 2008, but it is still a lead.
Moreover the white working class Romney vote is concentrated geographically. Romney enjoyed a huge lead in the states of the Deep South—and challenging racist traditions of the South has not been a priority for the Democratic Party.
But in the rest of the country Romney’s lead among working class whites was at best marginal—and in the Midwest, the core agricultural and manufacturing states, the polls put Obama ahead among working class white voters.
So the picture is complex. A section of white workers have fallen for the idea that their interests are opposed to those of black workers and foreigners, both at home and abroad. And they fell for Romney’s racist pitch to them—the idea that he would look after the whites while Obama would look after the blacks.
But the Romney voters do not represent white workers in general. And Romney’s hold over them should not be overstated. Many of these workers can be broken from racist ideas if they are seriously challenged and if the unions mount the kind of action necessary to save jobs and improve wages.
Election is only a pale reflection of popular mood
The BBC’s election day coverage included an idiotic piece from Andrew Marr that talked up the Tea Party while completely ignoring Occupy and the big strike movements that have taken place during Obama’s time in office. This is a typical theme of the bourgeois media. It likes to present crazed racists and rabid anti-abortionists as somehow representative of ordinary Americans.
But there is also a growing left wing mood in the US. Slogans of the Occupy movement that label the rich as “the 1%” and the rest as “the 99%” have passed into everyday vocabulary. Large militant strikes, such as those in Wisconsin last year and most recently the Chicago teachers’ strike have won massive support.
An echo of this mood showed up in some of the referendums that took place on polling day. Four states voted to back gay marriage: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Two states, Colorado and Washington, voted to legalise cannabis. The Republican candidates that made the vilest misogynist comments during the campaign all went down to ignominious defeat.
This popular mood gets stronger when you factor in the 84 million Americans who could vote but didn’t. A recent poll of non voters by Pew found they leaned to the left by around two to one. They are typically young, lower income and include a high proportion of Hispanics.
One effect of the election campaign and the fear of the right is to channel working class anger into the altogether safer arena of electoral politics. That process saw union leaders aligned to the Democrats using their influence to curtail struggles and limit demands.
The battles of the future
Obama used his victory speech to talk dreamily about a truly “united” America, in which the growing divisions are healed by a revived national spirit.
His speech also contained warnings for the future, including Obama looking forward to “sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward”. And by “move this country forward” he means implement swingeing cuts.
The Democrats know that cuts to healthcare, education and welfare will hit many of its own supporters hard, but the party is committed to putting the interests of capital first.
Fuelling all of this is the global economic crisis, which neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can solve. One minute they bicker, the next they kiss and make up. But they will have to keep attacking workers, and that will only “divide the nation” further.
The disarray of the Republican Tea Party right will give confidence to all those that want to fight back. Our hope must be that in doing so, workers discover the power to unite and go well beyond the Democratic Party that has taken their votes for granted and delivered so little.