11/07/2012 04:11 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

Is America Becoming More Liberal?

Jaylen Williams, left, and Sean Tyus walk past a home made Obama sign on their way to school, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati. President Barack Obama captured a second White House term on Tuesday over the challenge by Republican Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

The 2012 U.S. election, like just about every presidential campaign in recent memory, was couched as a culture-wars battle for the country's soul.

But the result not only confirmed that the majority of U.S. voters feel comfortable with Barack Obama's stewardship, it also suggested that Americans in general have embraced a more progressive outlook.

"America's changing. I'm calling it 'Obamerica,'" says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

"It's a different place. It's much more multicultural, much more diverse, a much more open, tolerant place. It's also a place that doesn't quite know where its soul is at."

Despite a gaffe-prone campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney had a very strong showing, improving in almost every way on John McCain's performance in 2008. Romney took 48 per cent of the popular vote, compared to McCain's 46 per cent, and carried 24 states — two more than McCain.

But a number of outcomes from Tuesday night also seem to point to the United States' increasingly liberal psyche.

In addition to choosing their next president, citizens in several states were asked to weigh in on a variety of ballot initiatives, several of which were traditionally progressive causes.

Both Maine and Maryland sanctioned gay marriage, the first time in the U.S. that the issue has been approved by a popular vote. As a result, they became the seventh and eighth states to allow same-sex couples to wed.

These decisions seem to reflect the president's own, admittedly belated, assessment of the issue.

In May 2012, Obama told an ABC News interviewer that his attitude had "evolved," and that he now believed that "same-sex couples should be able to get married."

In another hot-button social issue, Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use.

"When the law changes on issues like gay marriage, for example, and people find that society hasn't fallen apart, you do see a shift of public opinion that moves in supporting those policies," says Chris Cochrane, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.

It's always possible that something like gay marriage legislation can be reversed after it has been implemented, Cochrane adds. "But it's a lot easier to prevent something from happening than reversing it after it's occurred."

Tea Party's take

Cultural critics such as McGill's Troy feel that the U.S. is gradually becoming a much more liberal society, which, ironically, is the view shared by members of the Tea Party, the grassroots conservative movement that emerged in the wake of Obama's historic election in 2008.

The Tea Party capitalized on a feeling among many conservatives that the Obama presidency was leading the country into an era of social and fiscal licentiousness, as well as bigger government.

Scottie Hughes, the news director for the Tea Party News Network, contends that Romney's narrow defeat was the result of his dilution of conservative ideals on issues like abortion.

"Moderates don't win elections," she says.

"Whether it be Bob Dole or John McCain or Mitt Romney, the establishment of the Republican Party keeps trying to tell us that this is the kind of candidate that we need to have representing us. And time and time again, the American people say, 'No, we don't.'"

Troy rejects this reading, and the rejection by voters on Tuesday of two controversial Republican Senate candidates, who became mired in abortion politics, would appear to back up his view.

"The Tea Party is going to claim that the reason Romney lost is because they were unheard," says Troy. "I think it's because they were too loud and too shrill."

Indeed, many commentators have suggested that two of the most damaging episodes for the Republicans were the comments made by a pair of Tea Party-supported candidates on the issue of abortion.

During an October debate, Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate for one of Indiana's two Senate seats, said life is a "gift from God" and that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen."

Mourdock lost his bid, notably in a state that flipped from Obama's camp to Romney's.

His remarks followed a similarly controversial comment by the Republican candidate in the Missouri Senate race, Todd Akin, in August.

Answering a TV interviewer's question about abortion, Akin referred to something called "legitimate rape" and suggested "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

After the Republicans failed to reclaim control of the Senate on election night, Republican Party chairman Jason Whitman tweeted: "I just want to say a quick thank you to @ToddAkin for helping us lose the senate."

Still polarized

The outrage that followed those comments demonstrated the limits of U.S. conservatism, suggests Robert Asselin, assistant director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

"I do think that going forward, the Tea Party will be more and more marginalized," he says. "I think they've had their hour of glory."

As Asselin sees it, the Romney campaign only started to gain momentum when he started to adopt more moderate stances than he had taken during the primaries in the presidential debates.

"What made his success after the first debate was that he centred himself," says Asselin. "He presented a more centrist position, which is where you win elections."

While the 2012 election seemed to vindicate many of the issues that Democrats have championed, the Tea Party's Hughes suggests that it's misguided to suggest that the U.S. on the whole is tilting leftward.

"Try to put a pro-gay initiative in Alabama, or legalizing drugs in Alabama. Good luck with that one," she says.

Asselin agrees. Despite some liberal wins on election night, the U.S. remains "a very polarized electorate," he says.

"At least half of the people think 'liberal' is a bad word and that means big government, and big government in the States, even by many Democrats, is seen as a bad thing."

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