James T. Kloppenberg: The 2012 Election And The Future of The Parties

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Republican Party, Democratic Party, James T. Kloppenberg, Harvard University, Footnotes, 2012 election

James T. Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University. He has a Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford and has held fellowships from the Danforth, Whiting, and Guggenheim foundations, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His 2010 book Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition explores Obama’s political philosophy and commitment to democratic deliberation.

The election of 2012 is behind us. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have completed their last campaigns and given their final victory and concession speeches.

It is time to reflect on the persistent themes that characterized the campaign and locate the election in relation to the parties’ trajectories in recent years. Identifying those themes might explain, better than pundits’ fascination with demography or with politics as a game of imagery and maneuver, the reasons why the president was reelected by a larger margin than many analysts predicted.

It is not the atmospherics of their campaigns, but the substance of Obama’s and Romney’s stated goals and programs, the ideals they championed and the directions in which they wanted to take the nation, that reveal why the president’s message resonated with a majority of American voters. The candidates and their parties presented two competing and ultimately incompatible visions of America that have deep roots in our nation’s history. Most Republicans distrust government, particularly the federal government, and put their faith in free enterprise. Most Democrats, as they have done for a century, consider government regulation of the economy necessary to protect the most vulnerable Americans.

Although campaign observers warned repeatedly during the months preceding the election that they did not sense the energy or the commitment of Democratic voters that they found so striking in 2008, members of many groups – including ethnic and racial minorities, unmarried women, poor people, and Catholics, Jews, and liberal Protestants – ended up turning out in large numbers and voting for Obama by equally large or even larger majorities this time.(a) Why?...

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