The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
Thus wrote George Orwell in a famous essay, “In Front of Your Nose,” and his words apply to the Nov. 6 election – a political battle for the ages in which many a false belief, most held by Republicans, bumped up against reality.
As an ostensibly nonpartisan pundit — who’s nevertheless willing to admit my susceptibility to denial, wishful thinking and all the other confirmation biases that mortal flesh is heir to — now’s the time to concede my mistaken beliefs, in no particular order:
●President Obama and Mitt Romney would battle over the Electoral College majority well into Wednesday morning, with the latter carrying both Virginia and Florida, partly because the electorate would include somewhat fewer African Americans and no more Latinos than it did in 2008.
●Republicans would capture Senate seats in Montana, North Dakota and Virginia, possibly after extended recounts, and run stronger than they did in Indiana and Massachusetts.
●Gay marriage would go down to defeat in Maryland and Minnesota. Actually, it won both places, and in Washington and Maine, too.
●A tax-increase referendum would fail in California.
●Nate Silver would get a comeuppance, and the eternal verities of qualitative, historically-based political analysis would emerge vindicated.
I’ll stop there: As Orwell wrote, “it is no use multiplying examples.”
At least my foot faults are nothing compared to the Republicans’ grand strategic errors. Anyone who doubts the discombobulation at the top of the GOP should watch a rerun of Karl Rove’s live freak-out on Fox News Tuesday night, as he desperately tried to get the network to reverse its call of Ohio for Obama. Having predicted a Romney win, Rove insisted, erroneously, that the network had overlooked uncounted scads of GOP votes — an epic bout of cognitive dissonance that had to be calmed by Michael Barone and other more level-headed members of the Fox News team.
Rove and his minions believed the stagnant economy would fatally cripple President Obama. They believed voters would reward their policy of confrontation in the Senate for the last four years and in the House for the last two years with control of Congress and the White House. And, above all, they believed that they could build a national majority out of a nearly all-white, non-Hispanic voter base.
This last strategic failure will attract the most attention from political analysts in the coming days, and that is appropriate. (It is also ironic, given that Rove once – twice, actually – helped to get George W. Bush elected president by reaching out to Hispanics.) But the GOP did not only misjudge the electorate demographically. The party failed to foresee that key voting groups’ would reject its “traditional” moral paradigm, in favor of one that was simultaneously more libertarian and more communitarian.
Turns out the 2012 electorate had a less disapproving attitude toward gays and lesbians than voters had expressed in previous contests, right up to last May’s approval of a ban on gay marriage in North Carolina. Washington and Colorado also voted for legal recreational marijuana use; Marylanders chose to profit from more casino gambling. Obama’s promise to preserve abortion rights and insurance coverage for contraception resonated among young women. Sympathy and openness toward immigrants, legal or not, played well with many whites as well as the Latinos who were the Democrats’s primary audience.
Meanwhile, Americans in battleground states, and elsewhere, appeared not to buy the Republican critique of the welfare state, and the dependency it can breed – Paul Ryan’s signature contribution to the GOP ticket, but also a theme of such Senate candidates as Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Instead, California approved a measure that would pay for more state education spending by increased sales taxes and higher taxes for the well-to-do. The majority did not mind that much of the additional revenue would go to educating immigrant children.
I don’t mean to over-interpret. Obviously, voters in some states went in a more GOP-friendly direction: Michigan, for example, turned down a union-backed measure to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution; that state went for Obama by a much smaller margin than it did in 2008, as did several other arguably reddening blue states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
But on the whole I was struck by the fact that Obama won re-election on a promise to maximize everyone’s lifestyle choice, while not really asking anyone except the rich to pay more for the benefits – student loans, medical care, pensions – to which the middle class has come to feel entitled.
Whether this promise is actually plausible, or admirable, is not really the issue. The point is that it found a receptive audience in the upscale suburbs, university towns and newly-formed Mountain West communities at which it was aimed.
That the GOP can still command the allegiance of nearly half the national electorate, or that it the party bolstered its majority in flyover country, does not change the fact that its message seems geared toward an America that is whiter, older, more religious and more ruggedly individualistic (in theory, at least) than the America that has been incubating since roughly the first Reagan term and is now coming into its own, politically, under Barack Obama.
Republicans have an opportunity to mount a comeback, even in what seems to be one of the party’s darker hours. As the party of free markets, decentralized government and individualism, the GOP could turn the electorate’s libertarian drift, plus the fiscal plight of the welfare state, to to its advantage. That might require the party to sacrifice or modify long-held positions on gay rights, immigration and abortion, though, and to preach market-based reform of government instead of hostility to it.
It won’t be easy: Every time Republicans try to gain a new bloc of voters, they risk alienating an old one. But the only thing more dangerous for them, and for the health of our two-party system, would be refusing to see what is in front of their noses.