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America in transition

November 10, 2012

MY favourite quote from President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech was this one:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight,” President Obama told his crowd of supporters gathered in Chicago. “You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

Boy, how they tried — and succeeded. Obama, the first African American to become president of the United States, made history again. A record number — 20 — of female US senators were elected.

America’s first Hindu congresswoman, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, was elected to the US House of Representatives and will be sworn in with her book of faith, the Bhagavad Gita. For the first time ever, gay marriage was approved by popular vote in the states of Maine, Maryland and Washington.

At face value, the result of Tuesday’s polls reflects the diversity the US is best known for. Some could also attribute it to the “Obama effect” — the president’s ability to inspire minorities to political participation simply by virtue of his own background.

More than any other reason, Tuesday’s election results indicate the US is a nation in transition. Conservative television commentator Bill O’Reilly said: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.” I don’t typically agree with O’Reilly but this time he is right.

The demographics of the US are in flux, as are the voting behaviours, identity politics and political participation of minorities.

Many political analysts, myself included, predicted that conservative Tea Party Republicans and their sympathisers would show up last Tuesday to vote against President Obama. But in fact, the opposite happened. Exit polls showed that all kinds of minorities — women, gays, Mus- lims, African Americans — turned up to vote for President Obama.

More importantly, they voted against Republicans whose party espouses increasingly isolationist rhetoric and policies with negative implications for their communities.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of this: Congressman Todd Aiken’s comments about “legitimate rape”; Congresswoman Michelle Bachman’s wildly inappropriate campaign against Muslim American political figures whom she claimed had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood; former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s statement that he did not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money. The list goes on.

The huge minority turnout sends a strong message that this type of politics is no longer acceptable and that it will be politically costly. This does not mean that politics will be any less polarised. However, it can no longer continue at the expense of civil rights nor can it challenge the ideals the United States was formed upon.

I am confident this sentiment is here to stay and it will impact future political activity. It has ushered in a more open and accessible atmosphere for minority participation in politics. It also serves as an excellent recruitment tool for minority youth who are often discouraged from certain professions simply because their communities have not traditionally participated in them.

Finally, it will allow minority communities to better represent and address their concerns by influencing policies, laws and decision-makers more directly.

O’Reilly fell short in his discussion of traditional America. I believe the introduction of more minorities into politics will eventually trigger a necessary dialogue between the traditional and ‘non-traditional’ Americas — a must if the two Americas want to achieve their own special interests.

I am reminded of another time in the history of the United States where two Americas were in conflict with one another. The country witnessed the emergence of new social movements in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted from tensions over race, religion and gender.

That era produced the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the prominent Muslim American leader and activist Malcolm X, the nation’s first Catholic president John F. Kennedy, and women’s rights movement figure Gloria Steinem.

Society at the time was engaged in an intense debate over civil liberties at home while the United States implemented controversial policies overseas, namely the Vietnam War. The struggles of the 1960s and 1970s offer undeniable comparisons to today’s struggles of gays, Muslims, African Americans, illegal immigrants and other communities seeking to remedy official disenfranchisement.

At the same time, the US, under President Obama’s leadership, seeks to rebalance the American footprint abroad not only as it relates to wars in South Asia and the Middle East, but more broadly in terms of American partnerships with other countries to solve global problems.

In all aspects domestic and foreign, America is indeed a nation in transition. President Obama must successfully lead America through that transition — a job responsibility he understands and has boldly accepted.

He stated during his victory speech that we should want an America “that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being”.

This will be President Obama’s biggest challenge — moving beyond war and a slew of other difficult tasks before him such as the fiscal cliff, unemployment, terrorist threats to the homeland, US interests overseas, the defence budget and climate change to name a few.

It will be no easy task to take on these challenges as he also tries to reconcile the differences between the interests of the new America and those of the ‘traditional’ one. But, as his campaign theme indicates, we must move forward.

The writer served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the White House National Security Council from 2010 to 2011.