11/08/2012 04:43 EST | Updated 01/08/2013 05:12 EST

Liberals rejoice, conservatives scoff at notion of the dawning of a new America

WASHINGTON - The United States has long been considered among the most conservative countries in the Western world, particularly when it comes to the importance of religion to its citizens and the distaste for the type of social safety net Canadians and Europeans so cherish.

But with the re-election of President Barack Obama this week on the overwhelming support of women, minorities, gays and young Americans, progressives are declaring the dawning of a liberal America.

"Our is a Liberal Nation," declared one headline on a progressive website, typical of many appearing this week on left-leaning websites, blogs and publications.

There's obvious reason for optimism.

Same-sex marriage is now the law in several states. A movement towards the decriminalization of marijuana is on the horizon. Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, the first openly gay member of the chamber.

Groups that voted in droves for Obama are swelling in numbers — Hispanics and Asian-Americans, in particular.

In 2011, minority births surpassed white births for the first time in the United States, and white men — the core Republican constituency — are now a dwindling minority. Indeed, by 2042, the majority of Americans won't be white.

Exit polls on Tuesday night even suggested a historic high in the number of Americans who describe themselves as liberal, a word sneeringly viewed as a slur by many on the right. Twenty-five per cent of voters self-identified as liberals compared to 22 per cent in 2008.

"One election is a one-off; two is a trend," Gary Langer, a pollster who conducted public opinion surveys for ABC News throughout the campaign, said this week.

"The rising influence of minority voters, the lopsided preferences of young voters, the dramatic changes we continue to see on social issues mark more than a second term for Barack Obama. They mark, decisively, the turning of a political page."

Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University in Houston, agrees that the future appears bright for liberals.

"The demographics for the Democratic party certainly look tremendous in the coming decades," he said in an interview Thursday.

"This election was very clearly a demand not to turn the clock back, not to undo health-care reform, not to revisit Roe vs Wade, not to deregulate Wall Street — the conservative movement wants to roll back the clock to the pre-Great Society era, and voters want nothing to do with any step backwards."

Brinkley also warns, however, that Obama is a long way from shepherding in another Great Society, Lyndon B. Johnson's sweeping package of social reforms in the prosperous mid-1960s aimed primarily at ending poverty and racial discrimination.

"It's not a progressive era like it was for LBJ or Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal — not yet, anyway," he said. "I mean, look at Obama's first job — he has to find ways to shrink the budget. That's not exactly progressivism."

And for now, anyway, the electorate is still split almost right down the middle, with Obama winning only slightly more of the popular vote on Tuesday than Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger for the White House.

"It's very precarious right now," Brinkley said.

"You could very well find a draconian, Paul Ryan-esque budget-slashing period hitting the country during Obama's second term. Everything is going to hinge on what the economy does in the next few years."

In the meantime, however, Republicans have opportunities to improve their lot — particularly among Hispanics, who are not the monolithic voting bloc many assume them to be.

Puerto Ricans identify more as Democrats than Mexican-Americans do, for example. And Cuban-Americans — many of them affluent and well-educated — have traditionally preferred the Republican party.

That changed this year, with Obama winning a record number of them — 47 per cent to Romney's 50 per cent. That's a full 10 points above the Democratic party's previous high water mark — reached by Obama in 2008 — and means Cuban-Americans can no longer be considered a reliably Republican constituency.

"Republicans have to reposition themselves drastically on immigration, but they have inroads in the Hispanic community," Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a political scientist at the University of North Texas in Denton, said in an interview Thursday.

"There is a portion of the Republican base that are anti-immigration zealots, and the party has to neutralize those people. But just like everyone else, Hispanics vote with their pocketbooks; their primary concern is jobs and the economy. No. 2 is immigration reform, so there is real hope for Republicans if they retool their message on immigration and focus on the economy."

Two rising Republican stars, Martinez-Ebers points out, are Cuban-Americans: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Calgary-born Ted Cruz, the newly elected Texas senator.

"Both of those guys are going to have a major role in the future of the party, and they may even be able to stop Cuban-Americans from drifting left," she said. "They have real footholds in the Cuban populations."

Republicans, meantime, deny American conservatism is in its death throes, privately arguing that the primary problem in the 2012 election was a weak, flip-flopping candidate running against a charming incumbent with a high likeability factor.

A more likeable candidate — one not burdened with a private equity background and a self-penned editorial that argued against the auto bailout — could very well have beaten Obama, they say.

Romney also doomed himself among Latinos for insisting during primary season that illegal immigrants should "self-deport" and that a high-tech fence should be built along the U.S.-Mexican border. Even typically conservative Cuban-Americans could not stomach Romney's anti-immigration stances.

Brinkley said he agrees that Romney was as much a problem as conservatism in 2012.

"First and foremost, the Republicans didn't have a very attractive candidate when you compared him to Obama," he said.

"That was their biggest problem. Obama also had a lot working in his favour — if it weren't for the auto bailout, for example, he would have almost certainly lost Ohio, and the entire election could have gone a different way. So can we really be in the midst of a liberal revolution? I don't think so."

Danger spots loom ahead for Democrats too, even after Obama's second win.

If the president fails again to push through immigration reform, the party may lose the support of Hispanics in 2016. Same too if the economy continues to sputter and Democrats are unable to take credit for a renewed economic prosperity.

Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative pundit, scoffed at any notion of a new liberal world order in the United States.

"Demography is not destiny," he wrote on his Red State blog on Thursday. "Conservatism is not done. The message of freedom and opportunity is not done.... These are exciting times for the conservative movement. But the conservative movement must get up and lead now."