While the global – and in some cases still American – image of the United States remains ossified as a normative white, male, Christian power structure, a quiet but under-analyzed explosion of diversity has been steadily gaining ground. Alea iacta est. And contrary to warnings from doomsayers both on the right, like Pat Buchanan, and left, like Arthur Schlesinger, diversification is not undermining American social unity but strengthening it.
No one doubts there remains a long way to go. But few have indexed the extraordinary progress reached by the beginning of this year. The second inauguration of President Barack Obama is the most obvious and dramatic example. The first Obama term was a vital breakthrough, but could have been understood as a novelty or experiment. His reelection, based entirely on policies and merit, signifies the normalization of African-Americans at the highest level of governance.
Had Obama lost last November, there would have been another extraordinary breakthrough: the first non-Christian American president. Mitt Romney and many other Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but with their own distinct prophet, holy book, cosmology, eschatology and theology, no neutral observer could agree. Mormons are not, in fact, Christians. This was hardly raised at all during the general election. And religious differences didn’t prevent many diehard Christian fundamentalists from voting for Romney during the GOP primary.
Four years ago, Americans came extremely close to having a woman president (and they may yet): Hilary Rodham Clinton. Obama beat Clinton by the narrowest possible margin in the primaries, and either would surely have been elected president in 2008. Women have also come to dominate one of the most important cabinet-level positions, Secretary of State. The recent confirmation of John Kerry prompted jokes about whether a man is really capable of such a delicate job (Colin Powell having been the lone man in the post since the era of Bill Clinton).
Another major blow against formalized sexism has recently been struck by the elimination of restrictions against servicewomen from operating in combat positions. This is merely an official recognition, of course, of a reality that in fact has existed for some time.
Obama has already made gay rights a major theme of his second term. His second inaugural will be remembered for its unprecedented emphasis on gay rights as an indispensable factor in social equality. The absurd military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been eliminated, and opposition to gay marriage is crumbling around the country. The Senate now has its first openly gay member, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
In the House of Representatives too, diversity is ever-increasing. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is the first Hindu and, along with Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, among the first female combat veterans, in the House. Two Muslims, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana – and one lonely atheist, Pete Stark of California – round out the religious diversity in Congress. Indeed, open atheists and agnostics may still face the greatest hurdles to being elected out of any religious group.
Jews have long been well represented in Congress, but Joe Lieberman’s candidacy for vice president in 2000, and near-repetition of the effort with John McCain in 2008, represented further breakthroughs for Jewish Americans.
For Latinos, the reelection of Obama has changed the landscape dramatically. Republican leaders now realize that in creating the chauvinist, paranoid and intolerant Tea Party movement in 2008 in an effort to win back the House in local elections, it created an unmanageable Frankenstein’s monster in national ones.
The immediate and inescapable priority in GOP housecleaning is repairing relations with the Latino community. This was expressed in a post-election about-face by mainstream Republicans on immigration reform, and the astonishing spectacle of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida delivering the Republican rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address in Spanish as well as English. The once-potent “English-only” movement now has all the vitality of a stuffed dodo.
Democrats managed to position themselves as the party of diversity. Hence, Republicans have only won a popular majority in one of the past six presidential elections, a calamitous record. It will take years for the GOP to sort itself out, but it must, both for its own good and that of the country. However, it will have to face the reality that a diverse, patriotic and well-united American public has rendered dysfunctional the intolerant and obscurantist rhetoric that appeals to much of its hardcore base.
The rest of the globe, and not least Arab societies, need to take note. The quiet tsunami of diversification in American society and power structure might mean that what many think they know about the United States and how it works is, in fact, completely wrong. If so, not only is reconsideration necessary to avoid miscalculation, it’s also required in order to follow a damn good example.