As the 2012 election recedes into the background, it's still time to play the post-election game called "What did it really mean?" or, in the case of this election, "What did we get for $2.6 billion?"
Pundits on the yak-yak circuit got the jump on the game when the election was quickly called for President Obama and the slew of Democratic senators elected from Red states. But it took conservatives such as Karl Rove quite a while to fully accept how the electorate voted, and some pundits predicted Florida would eventually go for Mitt Romney. It did not.
Let's just say the Republicans got voted off the island, or as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show put it this way in a tweet: "FLASH: Romney wins (most of) the Confederacy." And Whoopi Goldberg tweeted: "Make no mistake, values won this election."
Republican billionaires ponied up $400 million to super PACs with names like American Crossroads to knock Obama out of the ring, yet they lost every battle they fought. It could be that the Republicans made a fatal error early in the campaign: They thought Mitt Romney was running against a failed Obama when actually he was running against a failed George Bush. Exit polls found that 62 percent of the electorate still blames our economic meltdown on the Bush administration.
Amazingly, the voters of America were not fooled by all that money. The half-truths and shape shifting failed to work no matter how many poisonous television ads were aired. No post-mortem critic was more brutal than Jason Stanford, author of Cognitive Dissonance and Republican Logic: "Republicans are people who make fortunes sucking 'dinosaur juice' out of the ground, and on Sunday mornings worship in churches that tell them the world is 6,000 years old."
I finished canvassing at 7 o'clock on election night. After dropping a few last ballots for people in the box at the courthouse, I rode off to campaign headquarters humming with anxiety. Would all of us have to weather another emotional pounding like the one we endured in 2000?
I thought back to my first campaign as a volunteer for Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, in 1968, when I was still too young to vote. Life glowed with idealism back then, and it carried some of us four years later into the presidential and anti-war campaign of George McGovern, the "prairie populist."
When McGovern died a few weeks before this election, the conservative writer David Brooks described the late senator as "the most decent politician in America." McGovern's vision of a diverse, environmentally sound and equitable America forged the political identity of millions of young people who now take their grandchildren out for ice cream on Sunday afternoons.
Some of my generation believed - more fervently than we have believed in anything since - that we could leave the world a better place than we found it. We believed we could make a better world for blacks, gays, Latinos, Asians, women and children; for the animals and trees, for rivers and oceans and whales and sparrows and the air we breathe.
McGovern's defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon, in 1972, was a cruel awakening. A generation of idealists has worn that defeat as a badge of honor for 40 years.
As the returns rolled in on Tuesday night, and we cheered as each battleground state fell into the Democratic column, a few of us old-timers in election headquarters felt a certain tiny flame flicker back to life.
But this election was not like 1992, or 1996, or even 2008. No, the presidential election of 2012 felt like something special, a redemption. The young campaign workers cheered with enthusiasm, but for us grandparents, this was different. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it: In 2008, Obama lifted us up; in 2012, we lifted him up.
And as Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University commented the following morning on CNN, "The '60s culture wars won, and that's a legacy we're now seeing. Doing away with taboos about race, sexuality, drugs and gender roles, especially marijuana and gay marriage ... most of America, even the red states, moved in a more liberal direction last night."
America finally caught up to George McGovern. His vision of a pluralistic and diverse America is our path forward. It's the only sane path out of the political morass of the past four decades, and peril will befall any politician who ignores it. And that's what I'll remember.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Corvallis, Ore., and is the author of "Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory."