We like to think that social progress is something that heads in a steady straight line and is always moving forward. Sadly that's not the case, it moves in fits and starts. Goethe adeptly noted that "Progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution." But if we are willing to fight for it, and strive to be better people and a better country, progress is made.
In 2006, we made progress when Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House. In 2008, more barriers were broken through as Hillary Clinton was the first female candidate for President to be a serious contender, and Barack Obama, of course, became the first non-white major party nominee, and then the first non-white President. 2010 was the first time women in Congress declined since 1979, although in the states, South Carolina, New Mexico and Oklahoma each elected their first female governors.
In the 2012 federal election, social progress eclipsed the previous three elections, and I think it's important to take note of just how truly remarkable the results of this election were. Among the many accomplishments of candidates and initiatives:
The first female senators were elected in: Massachusetts, North Dakota, Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Nebraska (first elected to a full term). Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin is also the first openly gay member of the US Senate. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii becomes the first asian female senator, the first Buddhist senator, and also becomes the first asian senator to be born outside of the US. They join 15 other female senators, for a new high water mark of 20 female senators.
Also for women in elections, the two female Democratic candidates, Anne McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter both won against their male Republican opponents, and join senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte in an all-female congressional delegation, the first for any state. Also joining Kuster and Shea-Porter in victory was Maggie Hassan, who won the governorship, meaning that women occupy every major state wide position, for at least 2 years.
Anti-abortion candidates, even in cases of rape and incest, lost many races, including ones they were otherwise predicted to win, most famously with Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Murdock in Indiana. Getting less notice were Republican candidates for senate, such as in Vermont and New York, who were never considered to have a chance. Nebraska Senator-Elect Deb Fischer, however, is a notable exception and did win a former Democratic seat.
In terms of ballot initiatives in the states, many progressive initiatives passed, including the legalization of marijuana (on the state level) in Washington and Colorado. Massachusetts also legalized medical marijuana. On the states where civil rights for same sex couples were on the ballots, equality won each time. Maine, Washington and Maryland all affirmatively passed marriage equality, while in Minnesota, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage failed, the first anti-marriage equality initiative to fail. In California, the three-strikes law was over turned, while propositions 30 and 39 both raised taxes to help fund education, clean energy development and efficiency, while Proposition 32 that sought to cripple the ability of Unions to contribute to political campaigns failed.
In the House of Representatives, while Republicans maintained a comfortable margin of seats, Democrats actually won more votes than Republicans did overall, but due to redistricting, only gained about 7 seats, depending on the final results of a few races. Democrats were, however, able to defeat such divisive and radical individuals such as Allen West in Florida (who had run for re-election in a different district rather than face is constituents for a second time) and Joe Walsh in Illinois. In defeating Joe Walsh, Tammy Duckworth also became the first Asian-American elected to Congress from the state of Illinois. In Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard who won Mize Hirono's House seat, becomes the first practicing Hindu elected. Duckworth and Gabbard are part of a much larger trend for the Democratic House caucus, which for the first time ever, will be composed of less than 50% white men.
Finally, and most impressively, President Barack Obama won decisively. In 2008, the political headwinds were blowing fully in the Democrats favor, and it is hard to imagine almost any moderately capable Democrat losing to any Republican in that environment. Barack Obama also had a massive financial advantage through his fundraising success, and was able to win states that Democrats had not won since Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson. In 2012 the political headwinds were blowing in the opposite direction. Republicans had taken the House in 2010, employment was at almost 8%, and the economic recovery had been very slow. And yet despite this, Barack Obama won decisively. He won the popular vote, he had a huge win in the Electoral College, and he retained all the states he won in 2008 except for North Carolina and Indiana (along with the 2nd congressional district of Nebraska). The youth vote that was supposedly indifferent not only showed up, but actually increased their share of the voting electorate, and hispanic and asian voters overwhelmingly voted for Democrats at margins of about 3-1.
By retaining the Senate and the Presidency, this also ensures that the progress towards universal healthcare in the United States will take a giant step forward as the Affordable Care Act will be able to be fully implemented by 2014, where it would have been gutted or fully repealed if Republicans had won all three branches of government. Being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions is going to become a thing of the past, and individuals who are not provided healthcare by their work will, for the first time, have the opportunity to buy an individual plan that is not exorbitantly priced.
There is always room for more progress, but it's important to realize just how truly amazing this election was, and how tangibly it has advanced social justice in this country.