The re-election of President Obama was not unexpected. In fact, having followed the polls and Nate Silver’s modeling of the election it played out almost as if scripted, with no surprises. In my predictions I got only two races wrong, and I knew each was a long shot (NC for Obama, Carmona for AZ Senate). Usually elections hold surprises, this one did not.
At least, not for those of us who believed that the pollsters knew their business and someone with Nate Silver’s track record should be taken seriously. On the far right there was shock, indignation and collective anger and dismay. How could this happen? (Note: I use the term “far right” to differentiate them from average, reasonable Republicans and Romney supporters.)
Many bemoaned the fact that the country “is no longer center-right,” and talked openly about the inevitable decline of the United States. A few on the fringes hoped for a quick decline, with talk about “going Galt” and stocking up on ammo and supplies. Glenn Beck urged people to buy farm land, get as far from the East coast as they could so they can be around “like minded” people and keep the kids away from public schools! The country cannot survive an Obama victory, Beck prophesied. After the heady high of 2010 many found the results of the 2012 election simply impossible to accept.
Two things are happening. Some on the far right are stuck in their own parallel universe. They read each other’s blogs, watch FOX news and listen to talk radio, creating a sense that their own view is far more widespread than it is. Groupthink of this sort isn’t rational, it’s more like a feeling, something “in the air.”
Moreover part of groupthink is to see your opponents as less intelligent, moral or rational than yourself. That the left is “falling for Nate Silver’s statistical mumbo jumbo” or “believing obviously skewed state polls” becomes viewed as self-evidently true. They reinforced each other’s certainty that the left was deluded. Some even fantasized that the left would riot and burn cities if Obama wasn’t re-elected!
That brings me to their second error : a caricatured and completely over the top misguided view of the left. To them the left loves big government and has a victim mentality that rationalizes taking from the rich. The right, in this odd perspective, represents hard working Americans who take responsibility for their success and want personal initiative rewarded. The right is steadfast, rational, ethical, and responsible. The left is wobbly, emotional, greedy and jealous of success.
That explains the level of intense emotion and anger on the right. They have constructed a straw man adversary who represents the worst character traits humans have: greedy, lazy, wanting to steal from others, irrational, unethical, and jealous of success. To them the left is a group of slack jawed moochers relying government to rob from the job creators to give them their flat screen TVs, dependent on a sinister government who trades this ‘free stuff’ for votes. If they truly believe all that it’s understandable how righteous rage, indignation and even resignation come from this election.
The reality is that virtually no one on the left believes people should see themselves as victims. Indeed the key to success in life is personal initiative, a willingness to work hard, and an acceptance that each individual is responsible for their own success in life. The only sense of entitlement is that military service entitles veterans to basic support when they come back, and that after a life of work the elderly are entitled to a basic standard of living and health care.
Moreover, the views of the left are rooted in a sense of liberty that can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill in Great Britain. Mill noted in mid-19th Century Great Britain leaving the market to its own devices had led to horrific results. The economy was growing, but the workers lived in squalor, working class children weren’t educated, health care depended on wealth, and that social status at birth determined life success, not hard work and personal initiative.
Capitalism and markets are good, but we can use the state to assure that all people have true opportunity. In trying to make sure that people aren’t condemned by status at birth to a life of grueling labor and poverty, the goal is to expand liberty. Create real opportunities for everyone to succeed. Make sure that hard work and initiative determine success, not simply status at birth or how much you inherit.
The left in the US embraces the notion of wealth as a reward for success. Why are so many millionaires Democrats? They don’t hate success or think being wealthy is bad. Rather, the goal is to make sure that if you’re poor you still have the opportunity to become wealthy – that the deck isn’t stacked against you. Again, that’s an expanse of liberty, in line with American values.
The debate should be about how to work towards real opportunity without stifling economic growth and development. What role should government programs play, and are they effective? How do we prioritize dealing with the debt and deficit, how do we restructure our economy to fit the changes of the 21st Century?
So with all due respect to those on the far right freaking out: chill. It’s OK. Democrats don’t want to overturn capitalism, create a country of dependent moochers, or punish success. Indeed no Democratic plan would even raise tax rates close to the levels they were under Reagan. Democrats are open to making reforms of what isn’t working, they want government programs to create opportunity for people to help themselves, not build a dependent class.
It’s emotionally satisfying to imagine the other side as more menacing and less rational than they are — the left does that to the right as well. But ultimately Americans come together and solve problems. Americans recognize that disagreement is an essential aspect of our system — we learn by debating differences and exploring compromise.
Ideology can be comforting – many use it as a way to try to find certainty in an uncertain world – but it’s based on delusion. No simplified model of reality can really capture the complexity of the economic and political realities we face; rather, we have to work to solve problems and be practical and patient. As the President noted, what unites us is far stronger than what divides us. As Governor Romney noted in his gracious acceptance speech, it’s time to put the partisan bitterness and division behind us. Time to get to work!