Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday
|On Interstate 71, south of Columbus; Ohio’s most famous sign|
So it’s election time, which means CNN, etc. will be filled with pundits with only the vaguest credentials – never any PhDs – telling you why the outcome inevitably had to be such-and-such. (Retrodiction is so insufferably smug.) And they’ll explain it as if these tired clichés are real insights and not the same flim-flam they pedal every November.
So let me predict the future: here are the five worst clichés you’ll hear Tuesday – the lamest, most recycled, simplistic, and least analytically useful (because they’re so flexible they can explain almost any outcome).
Save yourself hours of Donna Brazile and David Gergen right now; just roll these out at Thanksgiving dinner to impress the relatives:
1. Ohio, or the white, blue-collar voter theory of everything
Every four years the media runs the same easy, generic storyline about my state (Economist 2004, 2008, 2012; FT) that goes something like this: ‘these grizzled veterans of America’s economic dislocation cleave to their guns and religion but increasingly live in suburbs and see their kids work in tech plants outside Columbus or Dayton. The large urban populations of Cleveland and Cincinnati are balanced by the church-going rural voters in the god’s country of southeastern Appalachia…’ Yawn. And it goes on like that for pages. Most of these articles make sure to cite the above picture. And yes, that sign is for real; I’ve seen it. It’s on the same road that leads to the Creation Museum (no joke either – I’ve been there), but thankfully that’s over the river in Kentucky. I guess they go to the dentist even less often than we do.
The thing is, we get all this attention for 3-4 months before every election – but then nothing afterwards. So how much can they can take us seriously as a swing state? In 2004, Rove drove up GOP turnout with the Defense of Marriage Act ballot issue and terrorism. In 2008, Clinton and Obama told us they were going to amend NAFTA and reduce illegal immigration to save our jobs. This year, Romney and Obama promise to defend us against China. If you’re keeping score, that means there should be no homosexual Mexican terrorists driving NAFTA-certified trucks on Chinese tires around Ohio. Ah yes, Ohio, that clichéd, right-wing blue-collar paradise!
The thing is none of this ever happens. Columbus has one of the largest gay populations in the country despite DOMA. NAFTA never got rolled back. There were never any Mexicans or terrorists in Ohio to begin with. And I am pretty sure neither Obama or Romney are going to provoke the trade war with China they are promising on our behalf. I’ll keep checking the stats on shady lesbian Sino-Mexican terrorists lurking around Cuyahoga County, but I can’t find anything yet. It’s conspiracy, I tells ya’!
So if Ohio-like blue-collar white voters are your all-purpose explanation of elections, how come policy never seems to follow the pandering?
2. Rolling Realignment
Every election gets pitched as a realignment. By journalists, because they’re desperate to add historical-metaphysical weight to their coverage, to justify why interviewing hacks like Ann Coulter or some Texas creationist preacher wasn’t a horrible waste of their time and education. And by politicians and strategists, because they really do want to create the sense of inevitability that comes from ‘realignment.’ If it’s not just one more election that might have gone either way, but a ‘realignment,’ it suggests the forces of history are with your party and the other party shouldn’t stand in the way.
Remember that Rove said we had a rolling realignment in 2002 and 2004; then we had a realignment with the 2006 ‘thumpin’’ of the GOP. This went to Obama’s head in 2008, so we got another backlash in 2010.
Instead we should tell the truth based on the polls – that the country is very even divided, very badly polarized, and has been for awhile. The last president to win anything like a ‘mandate’ was Reagan in 1984. Election after election in the last two decades has been closely fought and bitter, with each loser in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 very competitive right up to the end. That’s not a realignment.
3. Latino vote
Here’s another identity politics cliché that gets rolled out every time; Hispanics are supposedly this huge swing bloc. This one seems to be the particular pet theory of the New Republic. The thing is most Hispanics live Texas and California which haven’t been swing states in who knows how long. Worse, 50% of immigrants call themselves white, and Latino voter turn-out has traditionally been comparatively low. So the idea that America is being flooded with Hispanic voters swinging elections all over the place isn’t really true outside of the southwest perhaps. When’s the last time you read about an election swung by Hispanic voters on some kind of clearly defined ‘Hispanic issue’ even though this has been predicted for two decades? Besides, I sure wish the left would stop flogging this idea, because all it does is freak-out white tea-party voters into thinking their country is disappearing before their eyes. Enough with the left-wing race explanation of everything in American life.
4. Values voters
Here’s another annoying, all-purpose pet-theory to explain whatever voting shifts you can’t figure out. This one seems to be a favorite of CNN. I find this so ‘2000s.’ It makes me want to watch Jesus Camp again. These voters have been integrated into the GOP by now and polling shows Americans increasingly tolerate homosexuality which is supposedly the big issue that drives these voters. If Obama, ever cautious and strategic, could finally come out and say he supported gay marriage, then that tells you the ‘value voters’ bloc theory is fading. I suppose you could re-inflate this if wild righty paranoias like the use of sharia in American courts were to go mainstream. But until then, this strikes me as another cliché I hear all the time in excuse for thinking about what conservative voters really want.
5. Romney was not conservative enough
I saved the best, most-hackneyed, over-used, mercilessly flogged, empirically unproven, political dangerous cliché for last. If there is one thing we know about the contemporary American right, it’s that it will interpret any defeat as evidence that its candidate did not run as a real conservative. The way to win the GOP primary these days is to outflank everyone on the right as a ‘severe conservative.’ Again and again the right’s response to defeat has been to spin further and further out into paranoia. Unlike most political parties who look for ways to moderate while in the wilderness (consider Labor and Tories in Britain, New Democrats in the US), the GOP binges on theological purification when in its out of power, in which RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) like Andrew Sullivan or David Frum get pushed out, so that anti-witchcraft reactionaries can run the next primary season.
Is this true? Of course not. There’s lots of evidence – most obviously the election of a ‘black Muslim socialist’ to the presidency – to demonstrate the most Americans get frightened when the radical right takes over the GOP. But the GOP never seems to learn this lesson, which is why Andrew Sullivan regularly argues that the GOP should be allowed run a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue like Bachmann or Santorum (not moderates pretending to be conservatives like McCain or Romney) for the presidency. Only when a genuine tea-party radical gets crushed might the GOP start to extract the poison.
So here’s a quick and very easy prediction: if Romney loses, the dominant theme of the right-wing media network (Weekly Standard, Rush, Fox, etc.) will be that he lost because he squished out in the last month. Ironically, it is only after Romney ran to the middle in the first debate and bailed on the right-wing rhetoric that he closed the gap with Obama. But that is too dissonant for the conservative movement network. That race-narrowing moderation will be conveniently forgotten, and the GOP will stay harsh and unreformed.
And no, this isn’t ‘”the most important election of your lifetime” as Romney keeps saying. That would be 2004 which verified the hard right turn of the GOP through its victory on social issues at home and neoconservatism abroad even though Iraq was flying off the rails. Because that combination worked even when the Iraq catastrophe should have led to an easy Kerry victory, it has been repeated as a winning formula ever since.
Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.