After a general election with campaigns that lasted more than a year, cost more than $6 billion and included thousands of hours of cleverly edited TV ads featuring scary-voice narration, one soundbite ascends above all the rest as the most succinct description of U.S. politics in 2012 and beyond.
The one-minute monologue summed up the will and drive of a changing nation. Its orator sang a eulogy for the “white establishment” and made an early guess that Barack Obama would be reelected. The “Stuff and Things” speech by Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly should be recognized as historic for its clarity among the din of modern politics, but first, it requires a bit of context.
Every U.S. general election is historic, but 2012’s provided significant proof that three expansive national issues have undergone a popular shift: same-sex marriage, women in power and the U.S. criminal justice system.
The election results proved that the nation supports expanding the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, a dramatic shift that has been a long time coming but never so forcefully mandated as it was on Tuesday. Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage. Washington and Maryland rejected challenges to marriage equality, and Minnesota’s electorate defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have banned gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
Voters also elected five women to the Senate, bringing the total number of female representatives in America’s stuffiest house to 20. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin is the state’s first female senator and the first openly gay senator in the nation.
Colorado and Washington voters did what California voters were unwilling to do in 2010 – they legalized adult recreational use of marijuana. The issue is not as trivial as it may seem, and if Colorado and Washington can fend off anticipated federal attacks on the new pot laws, these new laws will signify an important shift in U.S. criminal justice policy and the war on drugs, which was launched from California and was the most significant contributing factor to today’s embarrassingly large U.S. prison population.
FBI Uniform Crime Report data shows that one person is arrested every 21 seconds on drug charges in the U.S., every 42 seconds for marijuana-related charges, Denver’s Huffington Post reported a month ago. At 43.3 percent, marijuana possession arrests make up the largest share of drug related arrests in U.S. by a huge margin, according to the UCR.
More than half of federal prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges, according to the national Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the U.S. prison population has increased from less than 2 million at around the start of the war on drugs in 1980 to more than 7 million today.
The war on drugs has not been waged evenly, with African Americans incarcerated at 10 times the rate of whites for drug offenses.
Marijuana legalization in a couple of states won’t reverse deep seeded inequality in our criminal justice system, but the votes still represent a significant change in the electorate’s perception of crime, as does California’s passage of Proposition 36 which reforms the prison assembly line known as “Three Strikes.”
It was against this backdrop that Bill O’Reilly answered a question about his sense of the evening on election night, and how exactly it had come to look like U.S. voters would resoundingly re-endorse Obama.
“It’s a changing country,” O’Reilly said. “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things.”
After continuing in the same cryptic fashion, and proclaiming that Obama was the candidate that had promised these 50 percent of people stuff and things, “Papa Bear” really hit his stride.
“The white establishment is now the minority,” he said. “And the voters, many of them, feel the economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff.”
Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman said, “It sounds like the spokesman for empire as he watches its demise.”
Many political commentators have dismissed O’Reilly’s remarks as referring to material goods, and everybody wants some stuff, right? But there is a larger message hidden in the “Stuff and Things” speech.
The stuff voters proved they wanted, not through the presidential election but through statewide referendums, is called liberty. It is made up of the freedom to marry someone they love. It is visible in a government that more accurately represents our diverse population. It is the weak spot in the armor of a prison industrial complex that criminalizes and locks away minorities as an arm of an outdated political method called the Southern Strategy that has served “white establishment” for several decades.
That is the stuff of liberty, and the thing is, it should be equally available to all.