Saturday, December 17, 2011

Predicting the Unique

Political pundits sometimes sound like sports reporters, only with worse grammar.  (Sports reporters, at least on ESPN, may be the last group in America to understand the difference between "fewer" and "less.") Polmouths handicap the current though actually upcoming presidential election based on statistics, the more arcane the better.  It's often like predicting the outcome of a single football game based on quarterback ratings or a baseball game by comparing the respective teams won/loss ratio in that ballpark over the past century: it gives you intelligent-sounding talk to fill the air between commercials.  But the meaning of those stats, particularly applied to any given game, are questionable.

The predictive value of historical statistics is dubious, but that doesn't stop the polmouths from saying that "the American people" will or won't do something, based on what some other "American people" did or didn't do in the past.   There are always some factors that are different from the past.  In this election, there are at least two very significant differences.

The Republican Party has never been so dominated by angry fanatics.  They are so angry and so fanatical and self-righteous that they seem to be slipping away from the control of the big monied interests that have successfully manipulated them.  Many, maybe most, are fanatical Evangelicals, who simply don't care about governance or the actual responsibilities of elected officials, including members of Congress and most particularly of the President.  Their belief system doesn't include believing in the premises of economics, science in general, government and foreign policy that have always been held in common by most voters and almost all national public officials.   That stuff is irrelevant at best, and evidence of evil most of the time.

Evangelicals or not, the so-called conservative GOPer is characterized by anger and hatred: anger and hatred when in power, and when out of power but still numerous enough to poison government and the political process. 

The Republican party has not always been a near total toxic waste dump, but it seems to be now.  It is taking the pundits by surprise, and it is so far making a big difference in this 2012 campaign.  If it continues, either Mitt Gingrich will be nominated, risking alienating the majority of voters, or if the establishment takes back some control, Newt Romney will be nominated, and the Rabid Right will angrily walk away, perhaps to back their own non-GOPer candidate.  This is different--at a much higher temperature and of a much different character than the Goldwater rebellion of 1964.   The major question that the election will answer on this score is how much this anger is shared among the so-called Independents, who are mostly yesterday's GOPers.
The second factor is so obvious that everyone ignores it.  It's President Obama.  In case you haven't noticed, he's black.  He's the first black President of the United States.  He's unique, and I don't think that's appreciated enough, or at least admitted by the pundits. 

On the plus side for Obama, he was elected by a multiracial coalition that in population terms is still growing.  On the minus side, there is still a lot of conscious and unconscious racism at work.  Even in Obama's landslide victory in 2008, a recent Harvard study concluded that he lost three to five percentage points in the popular vote because of racial animus.

Part of the hate, and part of the fuel behind the hate and anger of the Rabid Right is racist.  The Rabid Right led then by Newt Gingrich hated Bill Clinton with irrational intensity.  But hatred for President Obama is made more powerful by racial animus.  The racist buffoonery that occasionally gets exposed is the tip of the iceberg.  There are all kinds of racist dog whistles in the language even of the candidates: Obama as the "food stamp President" (Gingrich), or as privileged by affirmative action who won't release his college grades because he wasn't and isn't very smart (Trump to Limbaugh.) 

Not to mention the Kenyan dogwhistles which say "black" as loud as they say "foreign."  To these folks,  black is foreign.  The country they "want back" is the one run exclusively by whites (even if they are darker brothers by another mother of white kingpins like the Kochs.)  Reporters are starting to recognize a violently negative mood among GOPer primary/caucus voters, and the violent anger is directed at President Obama.  To say it's all from racism would be simplistic.  To think that racism isn't a big part of it is willed blindness.

 The pundits' favorite stat is the correlation between the unemployment rate and the Presidents who get reelected.  But there were exceptions, and this election is even more exceptional.  The turgid, angry, hateful, fanatical and violent mood of the GOPers has so far produced a field of candidates that by conventional standards is exceptionally weak--and exceptionally absurd. Meanwhile, the first black President is for the first time seeking reelection.  Do these factors outweigh the apparently persuasive stats from the past?  We'll see.  But it's not a done deal.  Even apart from the likelihood that the majority of voters understand they have a year to decide how to vote.  And the big stages of the party conventions and the presidential debates are still to come.    

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