The Self-Medication of My Political Soul

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 2, 2012

George Will once found that conservatives are happier than liberals, and sought to explain why:

Begin with a paradox: Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. Conservatives think the Book of Job got it right (“Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward”), as did Adam Smith (“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”). Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder mobile — touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.

Conservatives’ pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised — they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong, they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes — government — they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity – it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.

I don’t think that Will applied Smith’s quote correctly; in noting that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Smith wasn’t being pessimistic. He was being sanguine. And it is worth noting that Smith’s sanguinity applies across ideological lines–recall Antonio Gramsci’s line about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. But the rest of the comment from Will is exceedingly well-taken.

I myself have maintained a pessimism of the intellect when it comes to the presidential election; the latest manifestation of said pessimism can be found here. But as always, I seek to combat pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will, hoping that my concerns regarding the outcome of the election are unfounded. As George Will points out, being something of a pessimist–I actually prefer “realist”–has its advantages; if one is wrong, one is happy for it. And throughout this election season, I have looked for reasons to potentially expect happiness.

A number of such reasons are provided to me by the great and good Jay Cost, whom all y’all ought to be reading. He believes that Mitt Romney’s advantages on the economy and with independents should help push him over the top. The economy has been the dominant issue throughout this election campaign, and as Cost notes, poll after poll shows that Romney is viewed as the best candidate to take on the economic challenges of our time. Cost states that he does not know “of an election where the electorate was so singularly focused on one set of issues, and the person trusted less on them nevertheless won.” Neither do I. If anyone can think of one, they should pipe up and let me know, but if there isn’t one, then that is comforting.

As for independents, Cost points out that Barack Obama lost them in the pursuit of his health care bill, and hasn’t gotten them back yet. And it is very likely that it is far, far, far too late at this point for independents to return to the Obama camp. Cost’s conclusion:

Is it possible to win a presidential election while losing the independent vote? Sure. The independents basically split down the middle in 2000 and 2004, which left the outcome up to the relative strengths of the two party bases. But that is not what I see right now. Instead, I see a Romney margin among independents that ranges between 5 and 10 points. Prior to the 1980s, I could see the Democrats overcoming that, but not in 2012.

Plenty on the other side think 2008 is the exception to this trend, a sign of the emerging liberal majority, which the left has been waiting for ever since Adlai Stevenson’s candidacy in 1952. But they misinterpret 2008: the Democratic share of the vote that year was right within its historical track of the high-30s. What differed was a drop in Republican identification from the mid-30s to the low-30s.

Does anybody really expect that to persist this year? Of course not.

This means we will probably be back to a slender divide between the two parties, narrowed even more by greater Republican loyalty. In all likelihood, white Democrats from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico will defect from their own party’s ticket in droves. These children and grand children of FDR’s core backers will support Mitt Romney overwhelmingly, so a nominal 3 to 4 point Democratic identification edge over the GOP will shrink to 1 or 2 points, meaning that independents will determine the outcome, just as they have basically for the last 32 years.

Again, this is a different approach than the poll mavens will offer. They are taking data at face value, running simulations off it, and generating probability estimates. That is not what this is, and it should not be interpreted as such. I am not willing to take polls at face value anymore. I am more interested in connecting the polls to history and the long-run structure of American politics, and when I do that I see a Romney victory.

Music to my ears, and if Romney wins, Cost is going to be the next big thing in the world of punditry (he should be in any case).

If all of this isn’t enough, consider Molly Ball’s piece on the early voting contest. She concludes that Republicans have brought their A-game to the fight; a considerable contrast from 2008. As Ball notes, Republicans aren’t winning the early vote outright, but they are highly competitive. And given that actual Election Day turnout is higher for Republicans than it is for Democrats, that ought to bode well for the GOP’s prospects.

So, while I am preparing myself for disappointment if Mitt Romney doesn’t win, optimism of the will has nonetheless been given something of a shot in the arm thanks to Cost’s and Ball’s findings. What this election will come down to in the end is muscle, turnout, and dedication. So once more: Do what you can to make Barack Obama a one term president. Whether expected or unexpected, the sense of relief and accomplishment that would follow from a successful Election Day would be welcomed by us all.

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