Obama won reelection last night, sure. But that was the least of the pretty seismic shifts in the American societal landscape. Four states voted in favor of marriage equality—voters in Maine, Washington, and Maryland all approved ballot measures to legalize gay marriage. Minnesotans defeated a push to make it unconstitutional. Wisconsin voters deigned to elect the first openly gay senator in the history of the nation. And that happened in Wisconsin, a blue but blue-collar state; not Massachusetts, not New York, not California.
Three states legalized marijuana — Colorado and Washington became the first to allow for its legal, recreational use. It will be taxed and regulated, and the Mexican drug cartels will lose billions. Massachusetts now condones medical marijuana use.
And then, yes, there was Obama. Despite the fact that it would break with historical trends if a sitting president were reelected with the economy in such tatters, despite the unpopularity of Obamacare, his signature legislation, despite the lingering racism still latent in the darker corners of the electorate, Obama won. Decisively. The party that caters its platform to rich white men, that promotes an institutional disrespect of women, that is oblivious to modern science—that party lost.
While we were watching the results pour in at a bar last night—there was cheering as each major state went blue, when Elizabeth Warren won, when gay marriage looked sure to pass—my girlfriend turned to me, paused, and said, “This is happening across the country. We’re winning.”
I knew what she meant; not “we” the Democrats. Not “we” the Obama voters. Naw; we the generation that is collectively accepting social change. Ten years ago, when I graduated high school, few were even talking about legalized gay marriage. Now, pick your state. Ten years. Legalizing marijuana was an abstract concept; despite the huge failure of the War on Drugs, none of my pot-smoking buddies ever thought they’d live to see the day when they could legally purchase the stuff and consume it as they would booze. Also: near-universal health care. A lofty dream for decades, now secured.
Colorado legalizes pot.
These are some serious alterations in the social fabric of the nation, and because they are happening so quickly, we have the rare pleasure of feeling the future arrive. Of course gay men and women should enjoy the same rights as everyone else; many of us just failed to grasp that our society would so capable of readily accepting the prospect (not to diminish the tireless and amazing work of the gay rights movement; I doubt the shift feels so sudden there). But it has. Overwhelmingly. The rapid institutional destigmatization of marijuana use is less inspirational, but only slightly less radical. Both bring the overwhelming sense that an unjust world has become less so.
We are watching a new generation rise up and impart its more modern, 21st-century-ready politics onto the world. We are seeing some of the prejudices of the past replaced with normalized tolerance, with new mores and standards.
The old-world politics made a loud, raucous stand two years ago, when the Tea Party blustered into power. But even that; a last-ditch effort by rich old white men to stave off the reality of America’s shifting demographics and social patterns, has failed dramatically. In hindsight, the truth of that movement now looks even plainer: it was a death spasm for the conservative values of old, affluent, white Americans. Their xenophobia-tinged vision of a fundamentalist Christian nation where trickle-down economics rules the day is now hopelessly incompatible with the modern world. If that movement cannot unseat a president who is presiding over the worst economy in modern memory, a man they have convinced huge swaths of the population is socialist, radical, and even foreign-born, then it is officially dead.
But despite all the progress, the future arrives in painstaking piecemeal. While the social landscape may have shifted with unexpected rapidity, the capital landscape has not. While progressive victories for gay rights and legalization have everyone jazzed, some staggering defeats sailed under the radar—namely, Michigan’s initiative to power 25% of the state with renewable energy. It failed by a 4-1 margin. Why? Primarily because the fossil fuel industry dumped unholy cash into the campaign to defeat it. It was the same story with the GMO-labeling proposition in California; its defeat was enabled by $46 million from food companies.
Anti-renewable energy ad in Michigan.
This means that the same obstacles as ever remain in place for other imperative goals, like addressing climate change and improving income equality. Because the future is socially tolerant, yes, but it’s also economically and environmentally tolerant. And these may be more difficult changes to affect; they directly challenge vast stores of concentrated capital—the fortunes of fossil fuels executives and of the wealthy class in general.
Yet the ascendant generation, these increasingly less-jobless college grads and children of immigrants and determined progressive activists and so on and so forth, is acquiring its due influence. And it also believes we must fight climate change. It also believes the wealthy should pay higher tax rates than the working class—hey, almost everyone does; Obama ran a platform of taxing the rich twice, and won twice. Anyone else smell a referendum? And with the major shifts forward we saw last night, we can almost imagine a future replete with other realized priorities of this younger America: there is marriage equality, there is greater income equality. There is clean energy and less fracking and oil and coal. There is reformed immigration policy, and more respect for the migrants who form the backbone of the country. There is regulation on Wall Street.
There are ugly fights ahead, and corrections that still must be made to the myriad gross abuses of power (civilian detainment, drone strikes come to mind). But a quick survey of the progress made last night, the least of which that was Obama’s reelection, reveals a nation staggering onwards along a fairly promising trajectory. William Gibson says the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. That about sums it up.