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Calm down Indian media, the sky is not falling on America

by Sandip Roy  Nov 12, 2012 10:04 IST

#Barack Obama   #ToTheContrary   #US2012  

First the elections in America were too close to call especially after Barack Obama turned in a lacklustre performance in that initial debate.

Then on election day as it became clear Obama would take the electoral college, the storyline became about how hobbled he would be if he lost the popular vote.

Now that it’s clear he has taken the popular vote as well, the refrain has changed. America under Obama is reportedly perilously stuck between the gloom of a divided country and the doom of a “financial cliff”.

“Battle won, war is on” is the headline in The Week. It goes on to hammer the point home in the subhead – “A divided nation and a shattered economy await victorious Obama.”

Barack Obama. Reuters.

India Today follows suit. Under a picture of a cheerily waving Obama, it warns Disunited States of America.

The situation is apparently so bleak that Anand Mahindra quips in The Week: Obama… will rule a nation so divided that we may need two visas to visit it.

Even Noam Chomsky wades right into that same red-blue splitsville in the same issue of the magazine.

The election voting map that appeared in the media soon after the results shows the US is in a civil war. The voting was clearly on racist lines, with the whites voting for Mitt Romney and the non-whites voting for Obama.

In fact, says Chomsky:

The red-and-blue map of the voting pattern is exactly the same as it was in the 1860s, when the civil war had broken out.

Chomsky’s alarm bells are sounding loud and clear. The first black president runs for re-election, and the United States is Gone With the Wind.

But, in fact, it’s the winner-take-all model of the electoral college that’s skewing America into looking like this country that's irreconcilably split - breakaway blue at the edges as if straining to sever its ties with the angry red blotch in the middle. The real America is much more nuanced. On that electoral college map California appears as a great blue blob but if one looks at that same map, county by county, wide streaks of red show up that are never seen otherwise. In that map, one sees a coastline that’s blue while the farmlands of inland California are solidly red. Texas is a state Mitt Romney won decisively. But even here, there is a cluster of blue in the counties near the Mexican border where Romney’s harsh stance on immigration cost him dearly.

The electoral college vote picture is always misleading because it shows the states by area and not by population. So the great plains of the Midwest appear as huge swatches of red while the north east hovers nervously in a little corner of blue. Check out this fascinating look at the US elections first by the standard statewide electoral college vote, then by population, then by county, and finally down to individual voters in every county. The stark split of red and blue quickly becomes a much hazier purple.

The problem with all this panic about two Americas is that it creates this illusion of a one America that has suddenly polarized under Barack Obama.“All the confetti that coloured the night sky of Chicago could not have covered the fault lines of a polarised America,” writes S. Prasannarajan in India Today as if America was a Humpty Dumpty that just fell off the wall. “President Obama was not the Great Reconciler he promised he would be.”

But in a country where two parties dominate politics, is this kind of a split that unusual? Shaili Chopra writes in Tehelka “despite the victory, Obama cannot afford to ignore the fact that half of America really did not want him as President, which was proven by Romney's popular vote.” But this narrow margin in the popular vote is not an Obama phenomenon. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with a margin of 2.46 percent, lower than Obama’s 2.7%.  (He lost the popular vote in his first election but that didn’t stop him for invading Iraq.) Ronald Reagan might have notched up an impressive 18.21% but his predecessor Jimmy Carter only managed 2.06 percent.

What is changing now is the demographics of who is voting.

Prasannarajan goes on to lament “Today there is a red America and there is a blue America; there is an America of the Latinos and an American of the blacks; there is an America of the rich and an America of the poor.”

As a matter of fact all of those Americas have been there for awhile. They might not have shown up at the voting booth before. The symbolic presence of Obama propelled some of those Americans to take part in democracy. That should be actually taken as a sign of encouragement rather than an occasion for so much hand-wringing.

In 2008 as Obama won his first historic victory, same-sex marriage went down to defeat in California, that reliably blue state. In 2012 in a year when Obama’s liberal supporters were supposed to be suffering from an “enthusiasm gap” same-sex marriage notched up clear wins in four states. One could read that as signs of a country that’s actually moving towards some kind of consensus rather than one that’s splitting apart at the seams.

It doesn’t mean there are no splits in America. Two parties exist because they hopefully have two visions of the country. And different sets of people will be drawn to different visions. But to turn that into a panicked hysteria about how the sky is falling on America is simply an overreaction, as simplistic as the electoral college map on which it is based.

Relax, the United States will be OK. And Anand Mahindra, you will just need one visa after all.

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