Historical eras rarely correspond exactly with the calendar. Nor is it often possible to identify the shift from one period to another as it happens. There is frequently too much to take in at the time and too many factors involved to identify any one thing as a pivot.
With the election of 2012, however, it is clear the United States has entered a new era. It is a time markedly different from the one in which Mitt Romney or even Barack Obama grew up.
President Obama was, of course, elected four years ago. But in some eyes that was thought to be a fluke, a misguided attempt at atonement for past sins and a mistake to be corrected at the first opportunity. The mid-term election of 2010, with its tea party surge, gave legs to that argument. Tuesday night, however, proved it wrong on several levels.
In what may have been the most insightful commentary leading up to the vote, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson described this election as being in part about policy, but said it was also a fight about meaning and identity. Citing Mitt Romneys often repeated vow to take back America, Robinson said that did not reflect racism, but that Obamas racial identity is a constant reminder of how much the nation has changed in a relatively short period of time. Romney wanted to take America back, not from the black guy, but from the future.
Robinson pointed to a number of profound changes that have occurred in his lifetime, from the civil-rights movement and the countercultural explosion of the 1960s to the huge influx of immigrants in more recent years. In truth, though, some of the down-ballot questions on ballots Tuesday are even better examples.
Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize marijuana. Maryland and Maine voted to allow gay marriage. Wisconsin elected the first openly lesbian U.S. senator. And Los Angeles County voters approved a measure to require porn stars to use condoms.
It was not that long ago that none of those would have been publicly discussed, let alone voted on and passed.
Obama is not responsible for any of those votes. But not only has he made change his mantra, his appearance and his name are daily reminders of the direction and speed of that change. The vehemence with which some critics have opposed the president reflects that more than any legitimate difference over policy.
Obamas re-election, however, ensures there is no going back. By 2016, his health-care reform will be fully enacted. It can be modified, of course, but its main components provisions such as covering pre-existing conditions will have become part of American life.
Then, too, the demographic shifts that helped Obama get elected will only be more pronounced. The New York Times columnist David Brooks has written that when Ronald Reagan won the presidency the electorate was 90 percent white. It is now about 72 percent white, he says, and has itself changed to become more centered in college towns, more socially diverse, more likely to live in single-person households.
Brooks wonders if the GOP has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return. And the electoral map from Tuesday night supports that.
The post-war America of 1950s nostalgia, the America that Dwight Eisenhower embodied and Reagan tried to revive the America evoked by Mitt Romney is gone.
Welcome to the 21st century.