11 (Second Take) From Montaigne to Zizek: On Prognostications

The problem with political pundits is that they speak far too clearly.  If their aim is to be respected as wise sages capable of predicting the future, they need to learn the fine art of obfuscation.  Maybe they should start writing in obscure quatrains like Nostradamus or in riddles like the Oracle of Delphi.

Instead, we get Peggy Noonan reading the lawn signs in Florida (through the tony neighborhoods Ms. Noonan frequents) and judging the mood of President Obama (no doubt gleamed from Fox News, in the least buoyant moment the video editor could find) as evidence that Romney would win handily. Noonan, George Will, the ever-wrong Dick Morris and others looked ridiculous in the wake of the 2012 election, but it didn’t seem to bother them one bit.  They were back on the Sunday news programs making conservative-friendly predictions days later.

Montaigne had no respect for prognosticators of any variety and accurately described something similar to the conservative crack up of November 2012 in this essay:

When men are stunned by their fate in our civil disturbances, they have resorted to almost any superstition, including seeking in the heavens for ancient portents and causes for their ills. In this they have been so strangely successful in my days that they have convinced me that (since this way of passing time is for acute yet idle minds) those who have been inducted into the subtle art of unwrapping portents and unknotting them would be able to find anything they wish in any piece of writing whatsoever: but their game is particularly favored by the obscure, ambiguous, fantastical jargon of these prophecies, the authors of which never supply any clear meaning themselves so that posterity can give them any meaning it chooses.

Today, the stunned normally grasp onto conspiracy theories, such as election fraud, or the convoluted logic of tactical campaign errors.  Yet the reality is that the results of the 2012 election were probably baked in months ago.

To explain why, I’m going to bring in a writer who I consider to be the 21st century successor to Montaigne: the mad Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.  At first glance, Žižek has very little in common with Montaigne.  He’s not introspective. He’s stubbornly radical and lacks not only Montaigne’s charm, but the charm of even a below-average human being.

I consider Žižek to be a successor in contrast, one built for our age and our unique needs.  Montaigne wrote in the dawn of the renaissance and attempted to build a bridge between classical stoic philosophy and the new found belief in reason. Žižek shares with Montaigne a maddening inconsistency of thought, but with a different purpose.  He wants readers not to employ skepticism in Montaigne’s style (which would be superfluous, given how distrusted all leaders and institutions are today) but rather to challenge our ideological presumptions and even to find truth within the rhetoric and dogma of our political opponents.

So in this spirit, I’m going to try to tease out some insight into the 2012 election by way of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent quote.  The most obvious reactions to this quote from someone on the left are, first, outrage that a Presidential aspirant would insult a huge portion of the American public while trying to win their support. But also, the quote produces titters on the left because of its clear stupidity.

These titters come from people who clearly aren’t in Mitt’s directly-insulted class.  They are relatively well educated and affluent liberals, who Mitt conveniently ignores.  Most public opinion polls show that roughly 22 percent of the American public self-identifies as liberal.  So if you add that 47 percent to 22 percent, Mitt was lucky to win any state this month.

But the truth is, of course, more subtle here and speaking before wealthy donors, Mitt would rather stroke the egos of the wealthy by demonstrating how hard working and virtuous they are rather than breaking down the electorate into accurate chunks.  Reality is closer to this: many of the 47 percent who do not pay federal income taxes are evangelical whites who vote for Republicans routinely. Mitt wasn’t really talking about them.  He was talking about, you know, the black and brown ones … and the kids with the torn Obama ’08 posters on the wall who haven’t left home yet.

So let’s assume that’s what Romney really had in mind.  Why does this one quote that Mitt himself disowned (well, kind of, until he brought up the whole “gifts” claim) have any lasting meaning when assessing the 2012 race and where the Republican Party goes from here?  Žižek likes to look for the not-obvious truth within statements, and I’d like to propose one here.

If you look at the popular vote over the last 10 Presidential elections — 1976 through 2012 — you get some interesting numbers.  The Republican candidates have received 47.91 percent of the vote in these elections, Democratic candidates have received 46.92 percent.  Or, in other words, Mitt was right on the mark.  The Democratic coalition is roughly 47 percent over the past 36 years. He’s not terrible at math after all.

And what does this 36 year period signify?  It’s no coincidence that 1976 was the year that Ronald Reagan entered the national political stage by challenging President Ford for the Republican nomination and coming up just short. In the Republican way of thinking, 1976 is Year Zero, the American political equivalent of Bolshevik Revolution or the birth of Christ.

So to the Republican way of thinking, Reagan reshuffled the deck of American politics starting in 1976 and ever since then, the Republicans have been the working majority.  Notice how often Republicans use the phrase “the American people believe …” when discussing public policy. They deeply believe that, since Reagan, any conservative idea is  a popularly shared idea.

So, if you want to forecast how an election will turn out — as Romney was asked to do by his rich benefactors — you figure that your side has a 48-47 advantage going in and if you can fight the Democrats to a draw (with a lot of their money), you win. And conservatives genuinely felt they’d done that in 2012. They certainly raised a ton of dough and put up a lot of negative ads in swing states. And they toyed around with (or just flat out manipulated) polls to make it seem like such a result was in the cards.  When you assume that you’re the majority, it’s easy to forecast that you’ll come out on top.

There’s just one problem with this formula.  If you don’t assume that 1976 was Year Zero in American politics, things don’t look so good for the Republicans.  Instead, look at just the last four elections, with outcomes split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.  Since 2000, Democratic candidates have won 50.05 percent of the vote to 47.8 percent for the Republicans.  That Republican 48 percent has stayed remarkably steady … but the Democratic share of the vote has taken a dramatic leap of better than three points.

And that analysis doesn’t even figure in the Clinton elections, which further widens the popular vote gap between the parties. Republicans still believe that they are in an electoral universe of the Reagan era, while the majority of voters in America never were eligible to vote for or against Reagan.

But that’s just to restate obvious demography that Nate Silver could describe better. I’m more interested in the mythology behind this belief. In my opinion, the Republican Party is held together by nothing more than Ronald Reagan idolatry. It’s obsessed with finding the “natural heir” to Reagan and to carrying out supposedly Reagan-held beliefs that he made little or no effort to carry out himself (a ban on abortions included.) Unable to have the actual Reagan in the White House again, the party dreams of enacting the rhetorical world of Reagan instead.

And so, every four years, the Republican nominee claims this mantle and once again charges that his opponent is the new Jimmy Carter.  And millions of voters are baffled why their side keeps talking about this smiling guy who builds free houses for poor people or why they are so in love with someone who has been dead for nearly 20 years.

The Democratic Party had a similar problem for 15 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death.  John F. Kennedy finally ended the FDR obsession — but the Republican’s obsession with Reagan is coming up on 40 years by the 2016 election, with no end in sight.

If only Republicans could learn from Reagan’s more pragmatic moments — like the tax increases he enacted to bolster Social Security or the immigration amnesty he signed late in his tenure — they might find a road back to relevance.  Instead, they seem more interested in Reagan the idea and the ideal. I just wonder why they believe that politicians without Reagan’s skill or charm will be capable of winning approval for ideas he could never bring to life himself.

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