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The emerging America

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Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, I always thought of America as the future. It was the place where the newest technology, the best gadgets and the latest fads seemed to originate. Seemingly exotic political causes — women’s liberation, gay rights, the fight against ageism — always seemed to get their start on the streets or in the legislatures and courts of the United States. Indians couldn’t imagine embracing all American trends — in fact, some were rejected outright — because they were too edgy for a country like India. But we had a sneaking suspicion that today’s weird California fad would become tomorrow’s conventional practice.

For me, Tuesday’s elections brought back that sense of America as the land of the future. The presidential race is being discussed as one that was “about nothing,” with no message or mandate. But that’s simply not true. Put aside the reelection of Barack Obama and consider what else happened this week:

Three states voted to legalize same-sex marriage, which is the civil rights cause of our times. One day we will look back and wonder how people could have been so willing to deny equal treatment under the law to a small minority — and Tuesday will stand as one of the most important moments marking the end of that cruelty.

Two other states voted to legalize some recreational use of marijuana, which will surely mark the beginning of the end of the war on drugs. This may be the most costly, distorting and futile war the United States has ever waged. Over the past four decades, we have spent $1 trillion to fight this “war” without reducing the price and availability of drugs in cities while also destroying our penal system. The United States has more than three times as many prisoners per capita as we had in 1980 — and about 10 times as many prisoners as other rich countries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2010, about 1.6 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, most for using marijuana, a drug that is no more dangerous than alcohol.

This week’s votes indicate that Americans have begun rethinking those policies, perhaps moving toward ones that would deprive drug cartels of their huge profits and allow our police to focus on serious crimes. Ethan Nadelmann, an expert and advocate of such policies, notes that “even as the federal government persists with its failed drug war strategy, the United States has now emerged as the global leader in promoting more sensible policies with respect to marijuana.”

Perhaps the most stunning shift this week came not in the passage of a ballot measure or law but in an exit-poll finding — one that might move us toward major legislation. When asked what should be done with the millions of illegal immigrants working in the United States, almost two-thirds of respondents wanted to grant them legal status. Four years ago, anti-immigrant voices were so loud that John McCain, the sponsor of a comprehensive and intelligent immigration reform bill, had to run away from his own handiwork when he campaigned for the White House.

There was no mandate for big government. On the contrary, voters — by a slim majority — told pollsters that government was doing too much. And they reelected slews of Republican governors, many of whom have been competent and reform-minded in tackling the problems of their states. But in two rock-ribbed Republican states, Indiana and Missouri, voters rejected Senate candidates whose attitudes toward women were demeaning.

I hesitate to build a grand narrative out of all this, but the trend seems to be toward individual freedom, self-expression and dignity for all. This embrace of diversity — in every sense — is America’s great gift to the world, one at which, since the days of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville, foreigners have marveled.

In 1990, the neoconservative writer Ben Wattenberg wrote a book titled “The First Universal Nation,” arguing that the United States was creating something unique in history, a nation composed of all colors, races, religions and creeds, all thriving in their individualism. That diversity, he wrote, was going to be America’s greatest strength in the years ahead.

While Wattenberg’s party, the GOP, has taken to looking at this new America with anxiety and fear, he was right. What the world saw this week was a picture of America at its best: edgy, experimental, open-minded — and brilliantly diverse.

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