/ 9 November 2012

US elections: Vote reveals nation’s deep divisions

An elderly Ohio resident casts his ballot in an election in which age was a decider.
An elderly Ohio resident casts his ballot in an election in which age was a decider.

The small town of Lima in the battleground state of Ohio reminds one of a small dorp during the heyday of apartheid. In this part of the United States, conversation with locals, mainly white working-class and born-again Christians, normally ends up with racial politics of the worst kind.

You have to conclude that race and class played as large a role in securing the re-election of Barack Obama as it contributed to the defeat of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

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Locals here hate Obama’s position on abortion, gay marriage and immigration. The area’s voters are also concerned about the decline in their economic prospects and fed up with Obama’s big deficits and healthcare reforms. They are also split along partisan lines over whether it was Obama or his predecessor, former president George Bush, who bears the most responsibility for the country’s continued economic problems.

As thousands of Republicans slowly packed the local hall earlier this week to listen to the party’s firebrand and House of Representative speaker John Boehner, a zealous man dressed in brown Connemara clothing circulated a pamphlet calling Obama unfit to rule.

“We need look no further than Arizona’s law to protect its citizens by being proactive on its border protection and illegal immigration issue. What was Obama’s response? He sued the state of Arizona and withheld from it goods and services that its inhabitants have paid for with their tax dollars,” said the pamphlet.

Obama’s comeback
This was typical, in many ways, of the largely white, working-class towns across the Midwest and exposed the deep feelings about Obama’s comeback.

Obama, re-elected United States  president after a gruelling presidential campaign against former business executive Mitt Romney, who has an estimated fortune of more than $250-million, faces governing a deeply divided country for the next four years.

Although many people had hoped that the election of the first African American president would signal the end of a long and troubled history of race relations in America, it has not.

Judging from the voting patterns of the electorate, it is clear that people voted along the lines of race and ethnicity, gender, religion, education and age. Whereas African Americans, Hispanics and the young generation of whites supported Obama’s re-election, white senior citizens overwhelmingly voted for Romney. More Latinos – about 67% of them – voted for Obama, whereas Romney’s share of the Hispanic vote was far lower than that of any Republican presidential candidate since 1996.

African Americans increased their share of the electorate to a record 13%. They continued to support Obama; more than nine out of 10 voted for Obama’s re-election.

Racial demons
Generally speaking, the US was divided between those under 40 who supported Obama and those over 40 (mostly white, born-again Christians and evangelists) who supported Romney.

Watching the president-elect deliver his victory speech on Tuesday night in front of thousands of jubilant supporters in Chicago, it was impossible not to be moved by his genuine desire to unite the deeply divided American nation.

Obama won the presidency in 2008 by presenting himself as someone who was serious about uniting a society battling to deal with its racial demons. He won some battles during the past four years in office and lost some, but always fought hard to put the interests of the American nation first. If he had lost the election, many believe that the Republicans would have reversed the gains he made and it would have been a devastating blow to his legacy and dream of creating a post-racial US society.

“America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class,” he told his supporters. “I believe we can keep the promise of our founders – the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, or what you look like or where you love [sic]. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

It now remains to be seen whether Republicans are going to do some introspection or keep losing the votes of African Americans, Hispanics and college-educated women as a result of the party’s hardliners, who refuse to relinquish their right-wing views.

Charles Molele was invited by the US Embassy of South Africa to cover the elections