Monday, November 12, 2012

The Idiot Stick

The absolute best thing about the election results this last week was the complete and total humiliation of so many of the worst people in the world. It isn't just that they were defeated - people lose elections all the time and somehow manage to retain their dignity, or at least some semblance of their composure. They were caught completely unprepared. The Republicans were stunned by the events of last Tuesday. You would imagine that most people in the position of potentially losing a close race would make some sort of allowance for the possibility - regardless of their confidence - that they might not win. Because when you lose and it's obvious to everyone else that you weren't expecting to lose, or even ever entertained the possibility that there was a chance in hell that you might lose, you risk looking like an unmitigated jackass.

So it was one of life's rare pleasures to see the "Golden Boy" himself, Karl Rove, humiliated on national television, in the friendliest forum possible. An unsympathetic playwright could not have concocted a more satisfying denouement to Rove's career if they had tried. Not simply to be forced to confront the inescapable evidence of your own colossal personal failure on live TV - and not just any live TV but the house organ of your own political party - but to have the precise moment when you realized that you lost a bet placed with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other peoples' money recorded for the endless joy of your enemies - that, Conan, is what is best in life.

I knew Obama was going to be reelected. I'm not a wizard or some kind of savant, I just watch the news, listen to NPR, and read. Most of the country knew that Obama would probably be elected - opinion polls throughout 2012 were all fairly consistent in showing that a large majority of voters believed Obama would win reelection, even if they personally did not plan on voting for him. There's been a lot of talk about Nate Silver's impressive prognosticative abilities. Certainly, his record is admirable. But if you leave aside the complex math behind his models, his methodology doesn't seem particularly opaque: compare current national and local polls against their own historical accuracy as predictors in order to identify and eliminate bias and diminish the roll of sample error in skewing results. I'm certain it's a lot more complicated in practice, but in essence what Silver - and a handful of other impressively accurate (if less heralded) pollsters - have done is no different than what any reasonably educated citizen should be be able to do: exercise their critical-thinking skills in order to to judge the accuracy of new data through a comparison with old. This is very little different from what I'm teaching college students right now in my introductory composition class: pay attention, think clearly, and don't get hung up on bias.

I knew that there were strong odds favoring Obama's win based simply on the fact that I paid attention to the news and read a fair bit. I'm not unbiased. I voted for Obama and rooted for his victory, despite the fact that I am deeply unimpressed by many aspects of his presidency, and disenchanted with American electoral politics in general. There was no secret. You just had to pay attention. I didn't think John Kerry was going to win back in 2004 despite the fact that I actually quite liked Kerry as a candidate - the indicators were pretty strong back then, too, even if I despaired of the probability of Bush winning reelection.

If you actually succeed in sequestering yourself so far from the mainstream of American political thought that you believe you've cracked the code of the universe with such confidence that it is impossible to imagine for one second that you might actually be wrong - well, that takes a special kind of hubris. In doing so everyone involved with the Republican campaign confirmed in a single night of awestruck failure the objective truth of many of the worst critiques leveled against Mitt Romney during the campaign: out of touch with reality; raised to believe that high political office is a birthright and that elections are a mere formality; brittle, unwilling or simply unable to deal with the vicissitudes of electoral politics when things don't go precisely his way. Romney didn't just lose, he was humiliated, and it is impossible not to see that he humiliated himself. I despise John McCain for many reasons but when he lost in 2008 he didn't make a fool of himself. He faced his defeat with the integrity and dignity that had eluded him throughout his entire Quixotic campaign. Mitt Romney and his Republican allies faced their defeat with a petulance that bordered on absurdity.

Relief and joy at Romney's defeat does not necessarily also entail enthusiasm for the President's reelection. We must look forward to four more years of prevarication, compromise on core values, drone strikes against civilian targets, and ceaseless capitulation. I know there are many on the left who argue vociferously against the principle that it is necessary to vote for the lesser of two evils. Vote for the candidate who actually represents your beliefs, they say, and do not waste a vote for an inferior candidate simply out of a desire to prevent the worse outcome. I sympathize with this perspective inasmuch as I truly dislike the fact that my vote against Mitt Romney is, perforce, a vote for the mediocre politics of Barack Obama. But my sympathy with the unpleasantness of voting the Democratic ticket only goes so far. I vote Democratic because I truly believe, based on a lifetime's worth of experience as a citizen of the United States, that voting for President is essentially an act of triage.

Would it feel good to cast a ballot for Jill Stein? Sure. But the way our country is structured, there really is no alternative to the two-party system. If you are on the left, you have to vote strategically to insure that the people whose ideas about government and civic virtue are diametrically opposed to your own are not empowered to make your own life and the lives of your loved ones measurably worse. The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans are driven largely by the impulses of their most radical and ideologically driven core constituencies, whereas the Democrats assume the support of the left as a given and act with the assumption that they can moderate policies with impunity, because for the majority of those on the left the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate. For the most part they are correct in their assumption, because the palpable fear among the left of the reactionary right is simply too strong - and too based in fact - to be easily gainsaid. So the left votes out of fear and Democratic politicians dilute their policies with impunity. That's not likely to change any time soon.

I truly believe that the Founding Fathers of the United States were among the most intelligent, best educated, and literate men of any period in history, and the proof of their abilities is found in the endurance of the United State Constitution. What was the Constitution intended to do? Not necessarily the establishment of a perfectly egalitarian representative democracy. The purpose of the Constitution was to create a stable nation, one that would neither be helpless in the face of exterior invasion or vulnerable to internal fracturing of the kind that demolished the previous Articles of Confederacy. And so the country was established on the principles of checks and balances and separation of powers, a system specifically designed to prevent drastic systemic change, limit the ability of any one individual or branch of government to dictate policy, and maintain continuity of government through any conceivable crisis. They were smart - too smart for our own good. They built a binding contract that has managed to survive over 220 years despite its many, myriad flaws.

The Framers' one great oversight - not slavery, since most of them knew very well the significance of slavery to the nation's future - was the establishment of political parties. The Constitution makes no allowances for parties, even though parties sprang into being at the moment the Constitution was ratified. The government doesn't work properly when our political parties operate with the top-down efficiency of a European-style parliament. But even this type of legislative and deliberative gridlock can't really threaten the stability of the government, because the continuity and legitimacy of government is maintained regardless of how little or how much is actually accomplished by the government. Just examine the semantics of how many Parliamentary systems discuss the change of administration: they say that the government has been dissolved, that the country awaits the formation of a new government. For the United States, the current government is the same government that has existed since 1789, and that fact carries a kind of totemic authority.

In the long term, the United States is in a great deal of trouble. In the short and medium term, however, we are and will remain a stable country, no matter how bad things might get. The Founders knew what they were doing, for better or for worse. The idea of amending the Constitution is only slightly less crazy than simply wishing for the South to secede peacefully of their own free will, but if we were serious about fixing at least some of the problems with our electoral system we might think about abolishing the direct election of members of the House. Since the lower house of our Congress insists on running itself like a less-functional version of a European Parliament, why not simply call their bluff and institute some kind of proportional party balloting system, similar perhaps to the German Bundestag. Keep the upper house of Congress to maintain the Founders' (possibly deluded) dream of providing a venue for aggrandizing oratory in the self-styled mold of the Roman Republic, if you absolutely insist, but spare the ignominy of every congressman needing to run a separate reelection campaign every two years.

But that's just pie-in-the-sky. In the here and now, we should remain content that the country is relatively stable. As much as the admission may tarnish my reputation as a committed leftist, I'm not quite ready for the social upheaval of a Proletarian revolt quite yet. (To say nothing of the fact that a social revolution, if it does come, may very well come at the hands of our constantly-expanding lumpenproletariat, a group that Marx himself dismissed. He couldn't imagine a future where industrialized capitalism survived as long as it has, even if he did a pretty good job of predicting how that future would eventually look.) Soon, perhaps, the matter may very force itself. Neither political party is willing to question the primacy of capitalism as the driving principle of our economic, social, and ethical ideologies. When it comes to the function of business in relation to the responsibilities of the state, there is very little daylight between Obama and Romney. Occupy dissipated because the group made a conscious decision not to become a standard political interest party, to remain localized and rigorously egalitarian in every aspect of its organization. This is all well and good, but with a year's hindsight it's hard not to judge the movement as less a beginning and more a bubble. The United States of America isn't going anywhere anytime soon - even if the country is falling apart, the structure is too stable to topple. Maybe the disorganized left needs to exert itself more forcefully on the level of electoral politics if we want to ever have any chance of influencing the course of national policy.


hcduvall said...

I've been pretty ambivalent about Occupy, but I think bubble is a bit too dismissive. Perhaps I wasn't imagining it growing into something that shook up the whole system. But I do see them helping in the Sandy recovery, and getting praise for it, and I imagine them working with something like the Working Families Party in the New York region, and seeing where that could go. The WFP's influence in New York is at least as much it's political operation as getting people to identify with it's politics (if not mostly), but that's where these things start, no?

Anyhow, I'd be happy with the National Popular Vote in my lifetime.

Elizabeth said...

Tim, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this tome, and I think you're right on pretty much everything. My initial elation at Mitt Romney not winning (which was a surprise to me, despite reading and listening to all the same information that you did - I guess I'm just an inherently fearful pessimist) has since tempered to a series of "buts" relating to some of the same things you bring up. Anyway, thanks for this.

rrr said...

Totally agree here except that I am not as disappointed with Obama as I might be. Sure, he didn't do a lot of things that I had hoped he would... such as single payer, which he completely gave away. But he did accomplish quite a bit that was seemingly forgotten by his own campaign. Rachel Maddow had some words about this: that made me rethink my disappointment. I know you have always thought of him as a moderate but I think he wants to go down as one of the greats... and the only way he can do that is to no longer play it safe.

Eric M. said...

This was really well-put.