As myriad analysts have trumpeted without letup over the last 10 days, with the resounding defeat of politicized moral fundamentalism and supply-side economics in the Democratic election victory, America has entered a new electoral era, one in which social inclusion is the watchword. Voters had no difficulty distinguishing between economic and social issues, and President Obama and a variety of Senate and House members who advocated equal legitimacy for minority and young voters won a stunning victory that will change America's political landscape.
As was the winning majority in this election, the future electorate will be characterized by increasing percentages of black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, young and women voters. It is estimated that minorities will make up an additional 2 percent of the electorate in each of the next several presidential elections. Almost a quarter of the American electorate is now composed of single women -- separated, divorced, widowed and never married, as noted by historian Gary Gerstle of Vanderbilt University; they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. The president lost the white vote by 18 percent and still won the election.
It is estimated that by 2042, white people will be a minority in the United States. The data from this election demonstrates that the dramatic outcome is a reflection of the larger demographic and social shift occurring in the United States. White male dominance is a thing of the past.
The new generation coming of age in America sees no reason to be alarmed about this. Raised in a context of multicultural and increasing gender equality, young people take mixed-heritage social integration for granted. It is only when various groups -- women, gays, immigrants, the poor -- are singled out by political ideologues that identity becomes an issue, and in this election, those groups spoke back, very loudly and very clearly: It's over. When the bloodletting is over in the Republican Party, the challenge will be to find a message that offers something besides constraint, dismissal and ridicule to those callously rejected by the old conservative construction of America.
In some ways, Alaska is the forefront of this new America. Since the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska Natives have become largely integrated into Alaska's social, economic and political fabric. Or perhaps it might be better to say that the immigrant population has stopped treating Alaska Native people as aliens in their own land. At the same time, the number of languages spoken by Anchorage school students in their homes hovers around 100. To walk the halls in West High School is to experience a multi-ethnic wonderland where difference can no longer make a difference because everyone is different. Multiculturalism is simply taken for granted and respected.
Responding to too many ugly, racist-inspired incidents over recent years, Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom in the 1990s led in founding Bridge Builders, an organization dedicated to establishing a "community of friends" among racial and ethnic groups in Anchorage. Headed by Malcolm Roberts, Bridge Builders created a new sense of dignity and legitimacy for many, many people. By the same token, Healing Racism, inspired by the Alaska Humanities Forum, works to help individuals learn how to cross racial and ethnic divides.
But as former legislative aide and 2004 Lisa Murkowski supporter Moira Sullivan wrote recently in these pages, many in the Alaska Republican Party are behind this curve. Young people are nearly universally opposed to restrictions on gay marriage, on legal abortion and other forms of religious moralizing, she wrote. While distinct from manifestations of racial prejudice, such restrictions nonetheless signal a fundamental lack of respect for difference; they make no sense to the new generation.
Over the last several decades, economic issues have been dominant in Alaska elections. That's because our narrow, isolated and highly dependent economy makes us unusually vulnerable to fear-mongering by oil industry publicists and lobbyists, a vulnerability the industry takes full advantage of. Thus, estimates of long-term stability in Alaska oil production, albeit far less than at the peak of production, get lost in the roar of catastrophic predictions.
But social issues are important to Alaskans and attempts to impose behavioral mandates are likely to fail, as Govs. Hickel, Murkowski and Palin discovered to their chagrin. In the new America, such attempts can only be labeled reactionary.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.