Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Four More Years

When it comes to US politics I must confess to being an Americaholic; on any given day I’d much rather have a State of the Union over a Sambuca, or a presidential primary instead of a Pinot Grigio. Perhaps understandably then Tuesday’s election result has left me feeling positively intoxicated.

What an incredible night it was for progressive politics! Not only was President Barack Obama re-elected for another 4-year term with a majority in the Electoral College, a majority of the popular vote and a majority of US States under his belt; but it was also a stunning victory for the centre-left and for equality, for fairness and for secular values.

Although as expected the Democrats did not take control of the House, they did make some gains, and they did retain control of the Senate. In addition there were also a number of spectacular progressive fireworks that went off with a bang on election night: gay marriage legalised in Washington, Maine and Maryland; marijuana use legalised in Colorado and Washington; and the first ever openly gay person elected as a Senator.

At the same time, an attempt to define marriage as being between a man and a woman was rejected in Minnesota, and two rather vile Republican Senate candidates failed to win their respective elections: Todd Akin, who said that the female body had a way of shutting down pregnancies in cases of ‘legitimate rape’, quite rightly lost in Missouri; and Richard Mourdock, who said that a pregnancy which resulted from rape would be ‘something that God intended to happen’, failed to win the Senate seat in Indiana.

I’ve been following the 2012 presidential election for around 18 months: the Republican primaries; both party conventions; and high profile events such as the Al Smith dinner. I correctly predicted on my website way back in January that Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee and that Barack Obama would be re-elected by a comfortable margin. Thankfully the President did better than I anticipated in the Electoral College.

For me the excitement of election day began at midnight on the US east coast (5am GMT on Tuesday 6 November) when I tuned in to CNN to watch the tiny hamlet of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire go to the polls. All 10 registered voters cast their ballots just after 12am and these were then totalled up. For the first time in the history of this wonderful American election quirk the result was a tie; 5 votes for Barack Obama and 5 votes for Mitt Romney!

On election night itself I was suitably stocked up with American food, and I watched the drama unfold live on CNN from 10pm until around 7am GMT, when President Obama finished delivering his victory speech. At 7.30am I did a live radio interview with Jonathan Lampon on BBC Leicester. I thought Jonathan did an excellent job on his breakfast show that morning discussing the US election; David Dimbleby and friends over on BBC 1 could certainly learn a thing or two from him.

Best of all I thoroughly enjoyed being able to share the thrill of election night with friends on Twitter and Facebook. Of course all political parties are now acutely aware of the significant role that social media has in modern political campaigning. In-fact President Obama’s re-election campaign went far beyond plain old social media and was by far the most sophisticated and technologically advanced political campaign in the history of the world.

For one thing the campaign employed micro-targeting ‘data-mining’ techniques to better understand who individual voters were and how they’d respond to various campaign messages. By extrapolating publicly available information and purchasing commercially-obtained data on everything from magazine subscriptions, spending habits, preferred holiday destinations etc., the campaign was able to hone and effectively deliver personalised messages to people in swing states, inspiring them to get out and vote.

Another strategy was to incorporate Facebook and other social media into their mobile phone app, which was made freely available to millions of people. By doing this the Obama-Biden campaign was able to send personal vote recommendations to people in swing states from their friends right across the nation, i.e. a voter living in the swing state of Ohio was reminded on polling day that her friends in the safe Democratic state of New York were voting for Obama, and they were encouraging her to do the same. This wasn’t just an improved presidential election campaign: this was a generational shift; an evolution in political campaigning and something from which the British Labour Party could learn a great deal.

‘But was it worth it?’ a cynic may ask. With nearly six billion dollars (that’s $6,000,000,000) spent over 18 months by Democrats, Republicans and their supportive Super PACs – the White House and Senate stayed Democratic blue – and the House of Representatives remained Republican red. Was it worth it? Well yes and no.

Of course the American political system is broken; not just in the absurd amounts of money required to stand for public office, but quite literally broken – people were having to queue for several hours to vote in states like Florida, Virginia and New York. One cannot help but ask how a country that purports to be the modern cradle of western democracy can be so bad at holding elections?

However speaking as a Democrat and following a convincing win by President Obama I would of course say that it was worth it. The US economy is now recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression; 30 consecutive months of growth is an achievement in itself. The Obama administration has also overseen the creation of more than 5 million new jobs, ended the war in Iraq, saved the American car industry, and championed social equality; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell being two examples.

Most importantly of all however and the highlight of this entire election: Obamacare is here to stay for all Americans. Make no mistake; achieving universal health care will be the crowning glory of President Obama’s legacy in years to come – it is for Obama what the New Deal was for FDR. For this alone the Democrats deserve to be re-elected to the White House in 2016; although that will only happen if the economy continues to improve in the intervening years.

President Obama’s re-election is also good news for the rest of the world. The administration will continue to help end or prevent conflicts (both philosophically and practically) in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel / Palestine and in a post-Arab Spring world generally. Furthermore an improving US economy is particularly good for us here in Britain.

Just as the US banking system crumpled under the rot of complex derivatives built on sub-prime lending – pulling down European economies along the way – so a strong improving US economy will have a tangible positive impact on our economy. For one thing the United States is our largest export partner; if they’re not buying, we’re not selling!

Without meaning to state the bleeding obvious, the result of the election was not just a win for President Obama; it was also a loss for Mitt Romney. So why did Romney lose? Well there are a number of peripheral reasons and then there’s the big kahuna, which I shall come to in a moment.

Firstly Romney had – as the Obama campaign so expertly managed to portray – a track record for putting profits before people and stripping companies of workers in order to benefit shareholders. It is simply extraordinary that the Romney campaign was forced to play defence so often during the campaign for what was in fairness a rather successful business career at Bain Capital.

Secondly he flip-flopped on abortion and other social issues such as gay rights, running away from his moderate past as a Governor in liberal Massachusetts, and becoming a ‘severe conservative’ (his words) in order to win the Republican primary. Thirdly, he had introduced a universal healthcare mandate in Massachusetts – which was meant to be the crowning glory of his own legacy – and then ran against President Obama for introducing a similar thing nationwide! That in itself was completely absurd.

Fourthly, and perhaps the single most damaging thing that Romney said over the course of the election campaign; he was caught on a secret video recording at an expensive fundraiser writing off 47% of the electorate. If only one of his aides had told him what he needed to know: when trying to win an election it is best to avoid labelling half of the voting public as victims and admitting that you don’t care about them.

Romney also faced a great deal of hostility for being religious; something almost unheard of in previous US presidential elections. The Christian evangelical right viewed him with suspicion for being a Mormon. (I recall an episode of Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN where Franklin Graham – a well-known American Christian evangelist and missionary – refused to say that Mormonism is a form of Christianity and thus, refused to confirm that Mitt Romney was indeed a Christian.)

At the other end of the spectrum Romney was routinely and repeatedly criticised for being overtly religious and for supposedly allowing his Mormonism to adversely affect his worldview. (I lost count of the number of times that Richard Dawkins kept referring to him as ‘Bishop Romney’ on Twitter).

Now for the big kahuna: Romney lost for the simple reason that he was running as a Republican. The so-called Grand Old Party still has a toxic brand and when it comes to the presidency the Republicans remain completely unelectable.

This is primarily – but not exclusively – for the following three reasons: a) tangible and reputational damage done by the George W Bush administration particularly on the economy; b) for being hijacked and transformed from a political ideology into a religious theology by Tea Party nutters and Christian evangelicals; and c) focusing too narrowly on shrinking demographics and essentially becoming the party of older white Christian male heterosexuals.

In 2008 18-to-29 year olds made up 18% of those who turned out to vote. This year that figure increased to 19%, and of those who voted, more than 60% voted for President Obama. When it comes to minorities, President Obama won them over convincingly; 93% of African Americans (13% of the total turnout), 71% of Latinos (10% of the total turnout), and 73% of Asians (3% of the total turnout). Roughly 39% of whites backed Obama compared to 59% for Romney (72% of the total turnout). In addition 76% of the LGBT electorate voted for Obama (5% of the total turnout).

Women were the overall key to President Obama’s victory however. Not only did women make up 53% of the total turnout, but 55% of them voted for President Obama. It’s well known fact that without women voters, the Democratic Party in America and the Labour Party here in Britain would never win elections; so let’s please take a minute to thank God for all the women of the world!

Were there any other factors at play in this election? Yes absolutely there were. In the blue corner we had the comeback kid himself, former President Bill Clinton; the talented David Axelrod, Jim Messina, Joel Benenson, David Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett and all of President Obama’s top team; the genius pollster Nate Silver and his Five Thirty Eight blog; the left leaning magazine Mother Jones which broke Romney’s 47% gaffe; the wonderful Michelle Obama who gave an extraordinary Convention speech; New Jersey Governor Chris Christi who by praising Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy reminded the nation of why they fell in love with the President in the first place; Osama Bin Laden, whose capture and termination undoubtedly helped President Obama win more votes; and then of course, there was Big Bird.

In the red corner we had the increasingly unfashionable ‘Tea Party’ backing the likes of Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and other right wing extremists; Clint Eastwood, who upstaged Romney before his Convention acceptance speech by ‘arguing’ with an empty chair; angry megalomaniac Donald Trump, who had a bizarre meltdown on Twitter on election night; Karl Rove, arguably the modern face of the GOP, who also had quite a tantrum on election night on Fox News; multi-millionaire casino owner Sheldon Anderson who spent $100 million dollars on Romney’s campaign and stood to save $2 billion in tax cuts; Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who publicly accused the White House of manipulating unemployment figures; and then of course there was that first debate which in all fairness did help Romney a great deal.

Ultimately the Democrats succeeded in turning an election that should have been predominantly about the economy into an election that was also about social issues. According to fascinating exit polls from CNN, 59% of all people who turned out to vote on election day believed that abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances; quite a statistical nightmare for dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.

To be perfectly honest I have no sympathy for the Republicans. After all, this is the party that wants the Government off your back, but firmly inside your womb and / or bedroom – it is both ridiculous and indefensible. If the Republicans are serious about winning the White House in 2016 they need to modernise big time, particularly on immigration; an issue which continues to diminish their support amongst Hispanics at every election. Moreover they need to revert back to being a party of political ideas and problem solving, instead of a Christian crusade in all but name and a relic of the Deep South.

A lot of people – myself included – went into hyperbole overdrive following the outcome of this election; but the truth is, it really was historic. Not only have the American people now elected an African-American, northern, liberal, intellectual as their President – twice. But this election was also the first time in US political history where a President stood up and explicitly championed women’s rights, gay rights, fairer taxes and social justice during a presidential campaign.

This in itself was extraordinary, and as former Governor Howard Dean put it on BBC Newsnight recently, the American people “rejected racism, rejected homophobia and rejected misogyny”. They did this by vehemently rejecting the Republican Party and everything that it currently stands for. And I for one am very glad that they did.

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My pilgrimage around Leicester

A very good friend of mine recently gave me a lovely book entitled ‘The Wisdom of the Hindu Gurus’. As I flicked through the first few pages a quote by Sri Aurobindo caught my eye: “That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion because it embraces all others.” I really like this quote because it perfectly sums up the way I feel about God and religion, and the way in which I feel my spirituality has been enhanced in recent months.

On my 30th birthday last week I chose to spend the first half of the day by myself visiting 8 different places of worship around Leicester. My journey began at around 11am and over the course of 8 hours I visited the Progressive Jewish Synagogue, the Holy Cross Priory Catholic Church, the Jain Centre, the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, the Central Mosque, the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre, the Cathedral and the Shree Sanatan Mandir.

At the Synagogue I met a number of people and a gentleman named Alex gave me a tour. We had an interesting discussion about the history of the Abrahamic faiths as he showed me the Torah Scrolls. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Alex was born almost exactly 50 years before I was and that he was planning to celebrate his 80th birthday in March. The stained glass window with the tree of life and the Ten Commandments looked really beautiful, particularly as it was such a sunny day.

After visiting the Synagogue I drove back into the city centre and attended Mass at the Holy Cross Priory Catholic church. I always enjoy visiting this church and I have been here several times before. The building itself is large and imposing and there is a stunning huge crucifix hanging from the ceiling. I walked around, lit a candle and quietly enjoyed the ambience, before taking a seat and observing Holy Mass which began at 12.30pm.

A short walk from the church is the Jain Centre, which like every one of the places I visited on my journey, is fascinating, welcoming and has a very distinct feel about it. The intricate wooden architecture surrounding the temple itself is simply breathtaking and the stained glass windows are a real sight to see. Apart from a lady who was attending to the deities I was the sole visitor in the temple that afternoon and I spent a very peaceful hour without uttering a single word.

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara is about a 5 minute walk from the Jain Centre. The thing I really love about visiting Gurdwaras is the contrast between the wonderful bustling atmosphere in the kitchen and the calm and peace inside the main temple. Again the sun was shining through the windows and again there were friendly people around eager to welcome a stranger in their midst. I wandered upstairs and spent a good while examining the many historical portraits that hang in the lobby of the Sikh museum. The museum is one of the features of this particular Gurdwara and well worth a visit.

A short drive from the Gurdwara is Leicester’s Central Mosque located behind the train station on Conduit Street. This was only my second ever visit to a mosque and unlike the first time where I was given a guided tour this time I was by myself.  The entire mosque was completely empty as it wasn’t a designated prayer time and so I sat alone in the enormous prayer hall as the sun shone through the many large windows. It was silent and tranquil and extremely beautiful and I also really enjoyed examining the Arabic calligraphy on the walls.

The wonderfully named World Peace Café at the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre was a hive of activity on the day I visited. It was really great to see so many people enjoying this delightful retreat on an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon. The meditation room looked magnificent with a collection of deities and a large statue of Buddha as the central focal point. As I looked out of the windows of the meditation room I noticed a wall topped with rather vicious looking barbed wire; a very interesting juxtaposition between the serenity of this Holy room and the outside world.

After a quick chai tea and a visit to the gift shop I walked around the corner to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is one of my favourite places in the city and I’ve been here many times. The building itself is huge and there’s certainly a great deal to see, yet it also feels intimate and welcoming, and it’s hard not to feel at peace when spending time here. I had a long and pleasant conversation with a man named John who works here as a verger. We discussed everything from faith and family to prayer and politics. I hadn’t realised until my visit that the Cathedral is actually open every single day of the year, which I think is absolutely brilliant.

The final stop on my pilgrimage around Leicester was the Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir in Belgrave. I have been to this temple numerous times and it is one of my favourite mandirs in the city. There was certainly a lot going on when I visited with people praying, talking, laughing and singing. It felt really vibrant and colourful. I always find that Hindu temples are particularly lively and exciting places to visit in the evening, which is when special aarti prayers take place.

I had a most uplifting and enjoyable experience visiting these 8 different places of worship around Leicester. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went by people I had never met before, and not a single person asked me who I was, why I was there, or what faith I belonged to if any.

The thing that really struck me however wasn’t man-made at all. It was the brightness and the warmth of the sunlight which followed me around the city everywhere I went that day. Just as the sunlight lit up the tree of life at the Synagogue and the images of Lord Mahavira in the Jain Temple; so it also lit up the stained glass windows in the churches and the calligraphy on the walls of the Central Mosque.

The visual symbolism alone really blew my mind and it served to remind me that the life-giving, heart-warming and unconditional love of sunlight doesn’t differentiate between the many paths to God. I may have been wandering around Leicester by myself for 8 hours on that day, but with the sun on my face and with sunlight cascading through the windows everywhere I went, I certainly didn’t feel alone.