The New America: What the election teaches us about ourselves

Updated 2:54 PM EST, Sat November 10, 2012

Story highlights

Election shows country less conservative than popular belief suggests, some analysts say

Others say it means the country is even more "racially polarized" than people believed

Results marked a series of cultural firsts on race, same-sex marriage, marijuana, gender

"The '60s culture wars won, and that's a legacy we're seeing," Julian Zelizer said.

(CNN) —  

America woke up Wednesday, looked into a giant mirror made up of millions of votes and saw how it has been changing for decades.

It wasn’t just President Obama’s re-election and the diverse coalition of minorities, women and youth that kept him in power.

For the first time, voters approved same-sex marriage in three states. Margaret Hoover, a Republican analyst and CNN contributor, called it “a watershed moment.” Meanwhile, Wisconsin elected the country’s first openly gay U.S. senator.

Two states legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

A record 20 women will be serving in the U.S. Senate.

And a record number of new Asian-American and Latino representatives were elected to Congress.

All this would have been unthinkable a generation ago, as would the idea the country would elect, let alone re-elect, its first black president.

Tuesday’s election showed that the United States is redefining what it means to be an American, some political and social observers say: The country is less conservative than popular belief suggests. It’s no longer the same America. The nation has arrived at a “new normal.”

Others say the election showed that America is “fractured” and even more “racially polarized” than many people believed, while some analysts caution against reading too much into any one election.

Americans may have awakened Wednesday to the same balance of power in Washington – same president, same divided Congress – but in many ways they also woke up to the sense that things outside the Beltway might never be quite the same.

James Carville: GOP routed by reality

The America that gave the president a second term and ushered in a string of cultural firsts was formed at a time of dramatic changes that were starting to take root just around the time Obama was born in 1961.

“The ‘60s culture wars won, and that’s a legacy that we’re now seeing,” said Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University and CNN contributor.

“Doing away with taboos” – about race, sexuality, drugs and gender roles – accompanied a rejection of government control over sex and drugs, particularly marijuana, he said.

“Most of America, even in the red states, moved in a more liberal direction, even in areas where they’re conservative on taxes and government spending.”

Now, more and more children of the ‘60s have kids of their own who are not only old enough to vote but who are politically active, reaching out to other new voters and reshaping the political spectrum, he said.

So the same growing population that wants government to stay out of same-sex relationships, marijuana use and contraception also wants a racially inclusive government, analysts said.

That’s where Democrats have succeeded and Republicans lag far behind.

It’s a reality Republican analyst Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, described as he was absorbing the “beating” the GOP took Tuesday.

There is “kind of a 1950s America that we lost,” Castellanos said. “It’s an old way of looking at the world.”

With their big political win, the new American electorate has arrived

Inclusiveness vs. polarization

The blaring political lesson of Election 2012 wasn’t lost on either side. Winning among white men was once the key to victory. Now, relying on them is the key to failure.

But what it tells the country about itself is more complicated.

“Increasing numbers of Americans are moving toward a much more inclusive sense of what an American is,” said Clara Rodriguez, professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York.

“The earlier definition of an American, which was so prevalent in our media of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and to a certain extent the ‘70s, has given way to a definition that reflects the great diversity of America today.

“The president, and his fabulous family and relationship with his wife and children – those are also examples of inclusiveness.”

It’s a way of thinking that’s permeating society, she says. After 20 years as a professor, Rodriguez is now seeing college students more interested in each other’s ethnic backgrounds than ever.

“Students feel that they have something to learn from each other,” she said.

Democrats have succeeded at demonstrating that inclusiveness, analysts said.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria says the election highlighted the “embrace of diversity – in every sense,” which “is America’s great gift to the world.”

In a column for the Washington Post, he wrote, “What the world saw this week was a picture of America at its best: edgy, experimental, open-minded – and brilliantly diverse.”

Writer David Simon, a former journalist and well-known TV producer, didn’t mince words.

“The country is changing,” he wrote on his blog.

“America will soon belong to the men and women … who can comfortably walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that … there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions.

“Those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance.”

Opinion: How GOP can attract Latino voters

The 2010 Census confirmed what many had predicted: that the country has reached a turning point in its makeup. Fewer than half the babies being born in the United States are now identified as white, while more than one in three Americans identified as minorities, a figure that grew from 87 million to 112 million over 10 years.

Much of the change accompanied Hispanic immigration, which “has profoundly changed the way the country votes, the way it sounds, the way it looks,” Zelizer said.

And that brings all sorts of political changes. A key one, according to exit polls: By far, the majority of Tuesday’s voters support offering illegal immigrants legal status, a belief in line with the Democratic Party.

But not everyone sees all this inclusiveness as proof that the pot is melting.

“This election shows me that America is even more racially polarized than we thought previously,” said Kris Marsh, professor of race and ethnicity at the University of Maryland.

The predictions that Obama would get minority and youth votes and Romney would get white and elderly votes bore out, she notes – showing the fissure, loud and clear.

Now, Marsh fears that voices on the Republican side will “blame blacks, Latinos and the young” for any ills that may befall America over the next four years.

And on the flip side, Marsh says, many on the left harbor unfair views of the right, painting it as a caricature of racists who “hate blacks, Latinos, immigrants, the poor and gays.”

The two sides, she argues, are as entrenched as ever.

Ken Walsh, writer for U.S. News & World Report, also says the election highlighted the nation’s differences.

“It revealed in vivid detail how Balkanized the United States has become, and how difficult it will be to achieve compromise in Washington,” he wrote.

“The upshot of all this is that we are living in a fractured nation. It will be up to Obama as president to unite us to achieve common goals. But it’s unclear whether he can do so since he has the support of only half the country.”

Van Jones, a Democratic consultant and CNN contributor, says the election itself proves that the president is already bringing disparate constituencies together.

“Nobody believed four years ago … you could have black folks and lesbians and gays and Latinos and young folks standing together and trying to move the country forward,” he said.

Opinion: GOP voter suppression fueled black turnout

Questioning a conservative America

The success of what some are calling the new Democratic “coalition” slammed the brakes on an oft-repeated adage of the political right: that far more Americans identify as “conservative” than “liberal.”

It’s an assertion that was backed up by a Gallup poll in January. But now, some prominent voices on the right are questioning it.

“We have always said it’s a center-right country. And I’ve always believed it,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity said after the election results came in. “Tonight, I will be honest, I am not so sure.”

Analysts say that taking on the question of whether America leans right or left means wading into murky waters.

“I think Americans are schizophrenic when it comes to conservatism and liberalism,” Zelizer said. “They often say, ‘I like less government.’ But when you ask about any specifics, they start to say, ‘We like the government doing that.’ “

Being more inclusive does not automatically mean being more liberal, said Rodriguez, of Fordham.

“When Dick Cheney announced his daughter was gay and affirmed his acceptance of her, that was a pivotal turning point because it affirmed other people to do the same,” she said.

But taking that stance certainly didn’t make Cheney “more liberal in the traditional sense of the word,” Rodriguez said.

Traditional meanings of those words may no longer apply, says Joel Kotkin, professor at Chapman University in Orange, California.

“In some sense, meanings are now flipped,” he said.

Many liberals want to preserve the status quo, including large institutions such as universities, governments and nonprofits, he said, while some conservatives favor radical changes, such as how schools are run.

The election did show “there is no longer one America – maybe there never was – but at least two,” he said: a dominant, “progressive” one “that supports government spending, higher taxes, green politics and social liberalism” and a “slightly smaller one” favoring “lower taxes, less regulation, resource development and a somewhat more traditional view of ‘family.’ “

The smaller, traditional group is growing, but mainly by having more children, he said. But it will take them a generation “to catch up with the swelling numbers of singles and the growth of minorities.”

“What has not found consciousness or expression,” he said, “is a third way of looking at America” in which the different constituencies may find common ground and coalesce.

Seven way religious diversity played in the election

Reading too much into one election?

The adage of President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” may not be getting enough focus in all the talk about what this election meant, some analysts say.

Yes, Obama succeeded amid an economy that would generally give an incumbent a tough ride.

But Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire who grew up in a wealthy, powerful family, may not have been the right man to take advantage of that opportunity, especially with the memory of the Great Recession still haunting the country.

“A sizable portion of the population that is poor may be conservative, but they are unlikely to support political candidates who appear out of touch with the working class,” said Stephanie Ann Bohon, sociology professor at the University of Tennessee.

“Many, many Americans are resentful of the wealthy right now, and they are unlikely to fully embrace a candidate who seems dedicated to keeping the wealthy happy.”

Bohon said Tuesday’s election didn’t signal a major shift in political views or public opinion as much as simply a change in demographics.

“The proportion of the voting eligible population grew for Latinos, blacks and Asians, and it did not grow nearly as much for whites.”

After 2008, some conservative pundits had expected minority voting to drop back to “normal,” she said. “But there is a new normal.”

Bohon is not alone in warning not to read too much into the tea leaves of this one election.

The right did have a few successes. Conservatives limited “Obamacare” in several states and shut down some marijuana initiatives. The GOP also expanded its majority in governors’ mansions, including taking back North Carolina for the first time in two decades.

Marsh, of the University of Maryland, fears the consequences of suggesting that the country has become “colorblind” or “post-racial.”

“That is dangerous territory,” she said. Racial and gender inequalities persist and must be dealt with. The traditional white male establishment in America is in no danger “of losing its power,” she argued.

Still, analysts say Election 2012 signaled a sea change.

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.”

Join the discussion on this story at Facebook or Twitter.

CNN’s In America Editor Alicia Stewart contributed to this report.