The outcome of the 2012 presidential election did not leave me overjoyed; it left me relieved. After an exhausting election season, November 6th was a day filled with anxiety—and I’m not even an American citizen. Much of this anxiety was due to the fact that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represented two different Americas, one of which I did not belong in. And I am not the only one who shares this sentiment.
As students at St Andrews, we are a privileged few in an intellectually stimulating environment. The international student population enables exposure to a multiplicity of worldviews and opinions. In the weeks prior to the election, I had the chance to speak to many of my peers regarding their thoughts on both candidates. The results were varied and nuanced, but most students agreed that they could not conceptualize a reality where Mitt Romney would win the White House. That said, the race was much closer than expected.
It is easy for those on the left to dismiss the Republican Party in its current form due to many of its bombastic or inflammatory members. While I don’t believe it is fair to write off all Republicans as “crazy” or “dumb”, the increasing polarization between Democrats and Republicans can be attributed to a largely uninformed electorate in the United States. In the past few years, the Republican Party has radicalised and been influenced by far right conservative ideology on social and economic issues. Suddenly, the original (and moderate) values of the party have been overshadowed by an ideology that instigates resentment for the American federal government—much of this fueled by the Tea Party movement. The problem is not that there is a far right; the problem is that it is the most vocal wing of Republican populism. Today, it is hard to mention the Republican Party without invoking the Tea Party. What’s worse is that Americans are electing members of this fringe to Congress, and welcomed one of them as a vice-presidential candidate.
I take issue with these movements because the emergence of a vocal far right has enabled the production of the racial undertones, which were present during this year’s Republican primary and general election campaign. Accusations that the President is not an American citizen have been rife since his election in 2008, but Mitt Romney and other Republican figures decided to perpetuate this falsehood during the campaign. Both Mr. Romney and surrogate John Sununu made speeches calling for Obama to be more “American”. According to Democratic strategist Zerlina Maxwell, this sort of rhetoric was used to engage with and appease the far right, “when you are ‘other-ising’ the first black president and saying he’s not one of us, you’re talking to a very specific segment of your base.” This is clearly the same base that Romney appealed to in choosing Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of their latest poll in July that said that 17 percent of registered voters believed that Obama is Muslim. This is a decrease from the percentage in 2008, but an increase from the percentage in 2010. The poll showed a striking increase of Republicans and self-described Conservative Republicans who thought the President is Muslim. Furthermore, out of the respondents who said President Obama is Muslim, over 50 percent indicated that they were uncomfortable with this. Simply put, there had to be a correlation with the increase of people who think the President is Muslim and the Republican Party’s campaign rhetoric subtle perpetuation of these falsehoods.
According to Marc Fisher, senior editor of The Washington Post, the Republican Party has “morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.” This is a party who stood behind some of the greatest American presidents, but a party who now is almost unrecognizable from its origins. The GOP is now a party actively encouraging a racist narrative in demanding that the President reveal his whole birth certificate, and in asking for his college transcripts in fear that there is a foreign Muslim running the country.
This shift in the Republican Party would not have occurred with a shift within the electorate. Numerous journalists and political strategists have cited that the GOP has changed its positions over time in order to create a coalition that is capable of winning national elections. What, then, does this say about the electorate?
Thomas Jefferson once said that the cornerstone of democracy is a well-informed electorate, and that a well-informed electorate can be trusted with their own government. While to a certain extent it can be argued that there is a population of uninformed Americans, I do not think this is exclusive to the United States. However, it is not commendable that a country with a recent past of racial discrimination would encourage these narratives in a presidential campaign. Republican rhetoric of wanting “our country back” indicates an implicit message that the country was taken away by someone other than an American, and every time this is said, it undermines American values of freedom and equality for all.
On November 6, Mark Mardell, the North America editor for the BBC published an article titled “A Battle for America’s soul”. I believe that this is what this past election came down to. President Obama has not been flawless, and the liberal media correctly argued that choosing between him and Romney would be choosing the lesser of two evils. The people chose to reject false and hate-filled political discourse in America. But I do think that when the numbers were in, the right America had prevailed.