There was nothing particularly noteworthy in the size of Barack Obama's defeat of Mitt Romney. The election was, as smart people predicted, generally tight, with Obama winning by a decisive, if unspectacular, margin. Immediately in the wake of that win the airwaves were filled with talk of whether Obama had earned a mandate. The vote totals (Obama won by about 3.5 million in 2012, and by about 10 million in 2008) don't look like a blowout for liberalism. But it would be wrong to analyze what happened this election year strictly through lens of what happened on the presidential level.
If you are a liberal, like myself, the year included such triumphs as the following:
-- The election of an openly lesbian senator, another historical first.
-- A concerted effort to erect a poll tax under the color of "voter ID laws" met not simply with the same level of African-American turnout as in 2008, but in several key states an even larger turnout.
-- The continued maturation of the Hispanic vote in a country of immigrants. The share of the Hispanic vote continues to grow, and is now a force.
-- A country whose prison system is a mockery of justice began the first efforts to stop jailing people for marijuana possession.
-- The United States of America, a country with the vending of black people barely out of living memory, and with systemic white supremacy very much in its living memory, re-elected a black president.
-- The consecration of the notion that running on rape -- Ã la Richard Mourdock or Todd Akin -- is a very bad idea.
The response to this liberal sweep has been a fresh round of hang-wringing and self-assessment among Republicans. There is a great deal of talk about "appealing to Hispanics" and "appealing to women." Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in an interview with Politico last week, urged his comrades to "stop being the stupid party."
After Romney sought to explain his party's defeat by claiming that Obama had essentially bribed everyone who wasn't an old white dude with "gifts," Jindal told the Washington Examiner: "That is absolutely wrong. Two points on that. One, we have got to stop dividing American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent -- we need to go after every single vote. And second, we need to continue to show that our policies help every voter out there achieve the American dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children the opportunity to get a great education, which is for their children to have even better-paying jobs than their parents."
But in the American system of democracy, parties are more than the politicians that front them, and their policies do not fall upon us like manna from heaven. Keen-eyed observers noted that in his interview, Jindal was very thin on what specific policies he'd change, preferring to talk about branding and tone. But at the end of the day, the Republican Party's problem extends far beyond packaging.
Romney didn't lose the Latino vote because of packaging. He lost it because he thought "self-deportation" should be elevated to policy and endorsed Arizona's draconian anti-immigration policies. Mourdock and Aiken's position on abortion -- that it should be outlawed even in cases of rape -- is not a crazed distortion of the pro-life position, but its logical and intellectually honest outgrowth.
If you believe that abortion is murder, and believe in a rape exception, then you necessarily believe in murdering children if their mother conceived through rape. My point here is that the problem is the belief itself. The notion that "abortion is murder" is, in itself, problematic. There's no way to gild what Arizona is doing. These are the actual policies and beliefs of the conservative base in America. They cannot be escaped by a parade of black and brown faces with the same character of beliefs. The Republican Party doesn't have a "tone problem." It has a "problem problem."
The Democratic Party's modern coalition dates back to 1948. In that year, the party decided to take as actual policy the opposition of segregation. For nearly 60 years following, liberals blundered their way through the maze of diversity, grappling with gender, race, ethnicity, class -- fighting, yelling and hurling accusations. The result of that struggle bloomed in November of 2012. But the victories were not achieved by Hubert Humphrey deciding in 1948 that the party had to find a nice way to talk about segregation. It was achieved by actual changes in policy.
(Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at http://www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.)