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American Politics Are All Shook Up

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November 6, 2012 was a historic night for the United States. In many ways it was more important than the night four years earlier when the U.S. elected its first African-American President. It was historic because the tone of American politics changed. Americans shifted on the issues and the tactics which previously worked for the Republicans stopped working.

The last time this happened was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected and the United States shifted to the right. Since that time we've seen the rise of Fox News and talk radio, the Republican "revolution" in congress in 1994, the Presidency of George W. Bush and the war on terror. Tuesday's election marked the end of that era.

Republicans, desperate to regain power, threw everything they had at President Obama. There was subtle, and more overt, racism. There were scare tactics and appeals to jingoism. Attempts were made to label Obama as a communist, a muslim and even an illegal immigrant. Conservative candidates and pundits warned of economic collapse, mass un-employment, Sharia law in the United States and muslim nations with nuclear weapons. Wealthy individuals and corporations threw billions of dollars into Romney's coffers and none of it worked.

Americans voted for the African-American President they had elected four years earlier. They voted for the President who had implemented national health care, the President who had allowed gays to openly serve in the military and endorsed gay marriage. They voted for the President who ran on increasing taxes, for those who could afford the increase. All of this would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago.

To reinforce the point voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to allow same sex marriage. Voters in Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana outright and Massachusetts voted to allow medical marijuana. Voters in Florida rejected a ban on public funding for abortions and voters in California appear to have voted to increase their own taxes to improve education in that state.

Voters in Wisconsin, the home state of Paul Ryan, elected Tammy Baldwin. She becomes the first openly gay Senator in U.S. history. In Puerto Rico voters passed a referendum asking to become the 51st U.S. state and Obama and the Democrats could win new friends and, possibly, additional seats in the House and Senate by granting that request.

The ground has definitely shifted and liberals and Democrats will have ample opportunity to build on these gains. Republicans have to reinvent themselves. The tactics and issues that have worked for them for more than three decades have failed. Republicans, at present, must take positions and make statements in order to win primaries that prevent them from winning in general elections. The only obvious way around this is to run more moderate candidates and risk losing the support of social conservatives, evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters. When combined those three groups make up a substantial part of current Republican voters.

The day after the election, despite clear signals that America is not socially conservative, those factions are threatening to drag the party even further to the right. To make matters worse, after pumping billions of dollars into Republican coffers with no significant gains, potential donors may not be as generous until the party can find a winning formula again.

Unless they waste their momentum or do a horrible job of governing in the near term, the Democrats should be able to make significant gains in Congress in 2014. In 2016 the next Democratic nominee will take to the campaign trail flanked by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two popular and influential former presidents with a gift for fundraising. The Republican nominee will have little to counter with unless it's George W. Bush, same sex marriage supporter Clint Eastwood and his talking chair.

Democrats and progressives have a rare opportunity to permanently shift the debate on several key issues. It is not a free pass though. Democrats have to be bold in their thinking and propose real solutions, not simply pander to key constituencies. They have to be decisive and persuasive without going too far too fast. Republicans and conservatives, particularly those in the House of Representatives will attempt to obstruct them every step of the way. Conservative pundits and activists will do their best, as always, to frighten and intimidate the electorate.

It will not be easy, but it is a rare opportunity. America is at a crossroads, more divided than ever and trying to decide what kind of nation it wants to be now that it is no longer the world's lone superpower. The hands of historians around the world are poised over their keyboards waiting to see if Obama and his party can find a way forward.