It may have seemed for most of 2012 that time had stopped, that the year would go on forever, a political Ground Hog Day dominated by a Republican primary race that seemed like it would never end.
Then toward the end of the year, as the actual election approached, time seemed to speed up, and everyone became acutely aware of how much was at stake.
Our history unfolds at many levels. On one level humankind is watching a unique, unprecedented new story unfold in the natural world around us. The year 2012 was a year of historic drought in the South and Midwest that has caused water to run so low it is choking commerce on the Mississippi.
In Vermont a warm winter and hot summer presented us with the reality that life here is changing. The excitement surrounding the first snowstorm of the year was case in point — major preparations for what in years past would have been a run-of-the-mill 12 to 14 inches. The climate remains a riddle that is revealing its own answer year by year. The answer is not comforting. Hurricane Sandy spared Vermont, but it didn’t miss us by much.
At another level the story of the year involved a political drama in which a surprise character made an appearance late in the last act: the American people.
During the first half of the year a motley cast of Republican candidates paraded through the primary states, saying one outrageous thing after another. The roll call of candidates included Michele Bachmann, a religious zealot from Minnesota; Herman Cain, a business man with no political experience or apparent knowledge; Rick Santorum, a former senator peddling sanctimony; Rick Perry, a Texas governor of laughably little experience; Newt Gingrich, the disgraced House speaker; and Mitt Romney, the only one who was able to maintain a pose resembling that of a statesman.
His fellow Republicans were not kind to Romney. They labeled him a vulture capitalist because of his predatory business practices at Bain Capital. Romney vied with his fellow Republicans to demonstrate conservative credentials, asserting that, in fact, he was “severely” conservative. It was a locution at once awkward and hypocritical. When his aide explained that Romney’s campaign would operate like an Etch A Sketch, erasing previous positions after the primary was over, he had spoken all too truthfully.
Democrats, meanwhile, grew more and more appalled at the Republicans’ ever more mean-spirited language — about women, about immigrants, among others. Republican charge and counter-charge dominated the news. Could this sort of language really reflect what Americans were thinking, Democrats worried.
By the time of the general election much of the electorate was ready to hear from Obama, and at the convention the Democrats’ stage-managed a gratifying answer to the months-long Republican campaign. The cast of characters included stars such as Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. It turned out that America did not consist entirely of angry old white guys. Thank goodness.
The drama of the election became more unnerving than many people would have wished after Obama’s lame performance at his first debate with Romney, but he came back strong. His campaign had established the idea that Romney was a heartless capitalist, and it was hard for Romney to counter that idea. In fact, his own comments seemed to confirm it. Why he wanted to be president of a people whom he seemed to view with condescension and scorn was an enigma.
When the election actually occurred, it was a gratifying instance of democracy in action. The American people rose up to seize the narrative from the politicians and the talking heads. In answer to efforts by Republicans to place obstacles in their path, voters stood in line for hours to make sure they were able to cast their ballots. Republican money, rhetoric and voter suppression efforts could not avert and maybe even enlivened the electorate’s determination to assert itself.
In the post-election period, the wheel of history is turning. Obama has seemed to gain new appreciation for his power and authority. The murders in Newtown gave him a chance to address the human concerns of the American people beyond politics. A new chapter is ready to begin.
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