Finally, sometimes an election serves not just as a choosing mechanism, but as a measurement—a way of assessing how our country has changed.
In 1948, for example, the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights sent Southern segregationists out of the convention—and began the alignment that has made the once-solidly Democratic south overwhelmingly Republican.
Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 was the most convincing evidence that Democrats had lost the permanent allegiance of the white working class.
And what about 2012? Well, most observers are pointing to its demographic message: that white voters are and will be less and less dominant; that African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians form a larger share of the electorate; one that the republican party must find ways to talk to, or risk permanent irrelevance. But there’s another message from 2012—one that speaks volumes about the cultural shifts that have been roiling America for nearly half a century.
For instance: twenty women will be members of the new senate; an all-time high. It is no longer even newsworthy that both senators from a state are women: it’s true in New Hampshire, Washington State, and California; and New Hampshire added a woman governor this past Tuesday.
Or look at the national tickets of the two major parties; a Mormon and a catholic faced off against an African-American and a Catholic. For the first time ever, there was not a single white protestant on either ticket. (for the Republicans, Paul Ryan represented only the second Catholic ever on a GOP ticket).
And what about the Supreme Court? It’s the same story: only Catholics and Jews serve on the court, once considered the near-exclusive province of the protestant elite.
Now look at the gay marriage issue. Eight years ago, gay marriage bans were on the ballots of 11 states. Every state adopted those bans, including Ohio—where, it was said, the issue helped turn out evangelicals who gave George w. Bush his margin of victory there.
This past Tuesday, at least two states approved of gay marriage—not through the courts or legislatures, but via the ballot box. And another state refused to ban gay marriage. Remember—only a year ago, president Obama was on the other side of this issue.
On that same night, the first openly gay member of the US Senate was elected—not from New York or California, but from…Wisconsin.
And in Colorado and Washington, voters approved the use of marijuana not for medical purposes, but for recreational use. This sets up a conflict with federal law, but it’s the first time a state’s voters have said “yes” to the use of marijuana for purely personal reasons.
Some years ago, the famed conservative William F. Buckley told me in a public conversations that the culture war is over—and my side lost.” Had Mr. Buckley been alive, he would have looked at last Tuesday’s outcomes and said, “as I was saying…”