On the whole, my feeling coming out of the election was less a sense of triumph than of disaster averted. At various points in the process, the Republican electorate appeared ready to unite behind a charming dunce (Rick Perry), a lunatic (Michele Bachmann), a huckster (Herman Cain), a race-baiter and Islamophobe (Newt Gingrich), or a Christian supremacist (Rick Santorum) before actually nominating a guy no one actually believed in. Mitt Romney united the party around a pure drive to take power away from the Socialist Black Guy, a drive unsullied by any genuine principles or plans beyond repealing everything the SBG has done.
Again and again, my reaction was not so much “I hope we win this argument” as “I can’t believe we’re talking about this”. We argued about contraception, about whether anti-abortion laws should have a rape exception, and about how best to cut rich people’s taxes in the face of trillion-dollar deficits. The Republican candidates did not debate global warming, because they all agreed that it either isn’t happening or (if it maybe-sorta is) the government shouldn’t do anything to slow it down. Americans who have begun drawing money out of the programs they’ve been contributing to for decades were denounced as “takers” and Romney despaired that “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Republicans tried to build their convention around an Obama “gaffe”: his recognition of the obvious fact that private enterprise is only possible in the context of a healthy public sector. (Imagine if they’d been running against Ben Franklin, who “gaffed” like this in 1789: “Private Property therefore is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Publick, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or the Payment of a just Debt.”)
So: rape-minimizing senate candidates lost, a vast quantity of dark money failed in its mission, and an unprecedented level of cynicism and brazen lying did not sway the public. As a result, we won’t go back to Bush economic policies. We might manage to keep our actual Constitution rather than let an ultra-conservative Supreme Court replace it with a charter of corporate rights. The safety net might be saved. Abortion might continue to be legal. And we might avoid the next unnecessary war. Maybe.
So how did the Sift do covering the election? Looking back, I’m pleased. (OK, I’m embarrassed by my early 2011 predictions that “Mitt Romney will not be nominated” and “At some point it’s going to come down to Bachmann against one or two other Republican candidates,” but we’re just talking about 2012, right?) April’s The Narratives of November was a reasonable preview of the fall campaign, and the Sift was an early and consistent proponent of the view that somebody eventually summed up as “keep calm and trust Nate Silver”. As in 2008, my hour-by-hour projection of election night was imperfect but pretty good — concluding (correctly) with “Obama wins by midnight.”
Ryan. The Sift’s most noteworthy election coverage was my Paul Ryan trilogy: In the avalanche of coverage that followed Ryan’s selection of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate, I sifted out the ten points that seemed most important in I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To. I didn’t want Ryan to get away with the trick the Tea Party pulled in 2010 — focusing everybody’s attention on budget deficits and hiding an extreme culture-war agenda until after the election — so I followed the next week with Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women. And finally, I used my own history as an Ayn Rand follower to illuminate Ryan’s worldview in Ayn, Paul, and Me.
Truthiness. Political scientist Norman Ornstein says that “the great unreported big story of American politics” this year was the Romney campaign’s unprecedented level of cynicism and contempt for truth — the culmination of a trend David Roberts labeled “post-truth politics” and summed up like this:
Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach.
What’s creepy about the Romney crew is that they don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all.
But instead of covering this story, the mainstream media’s worship of “balance” led them to devalue accuracy; writing both-sides-do-it articles was much easier and safer than pointing out what was really happening. That’s why Jay Rosen called this “a story too big to tell”.
I was already on that story last year: The Sift’s Theme of 2011 was Escape from Bizarro World, and I spelled out the nuts-and-bolts of how it works in Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation. A regular subject of my campaign coverage this year was the media meta-discussion about how to cover lies.
In addition, I did my usual periodic debunking: Four Fantasy Issues of the Right; Barack X, the fictional president; The Return of Death Panels; Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide; followed by the post-election Repainting the Bubble.
And while it didn’t take a great genius to see in April that the fall campaign would be about negative ads and bogus gaffes rather than the real challenges that face this country, I’m still proud of the agenda I laid out for the candidates in Seven Issues the Election Should Be About. Politics should still be focused on those seven issues, and rarely is. After the conventions, I laid out Obama’s Positive Case, which wasn’t too far off the case he eventually made.
On the other hand, I totally didn’t foresee that Obama would screw up the first debate and give Romney a chance to catch up.
Post-election, I’ve been resisting the spin that the Republican House has a mandate to resist Obama’s agenda by pointing out that they got fewer votes than Democratic House candidates and owe their majority to gerrymandering.
2013? So what will politics bring us in 2013? In spite of the post-election optimism that Republicans will stop obstructing everything Obama tries to do (since he’s already been re-elected and can’t run again), I’m not seeing it.
The “alternative knowledge system” (i.e., fantasy world) that David Frum pointed to is still in the driver’s seat in the GOP. 2012 was not a big enough disaster to kill it. One of my primary predictive principles is: Trends that can only end one way will end that way. The GOP won’t stand up to its extreme right wing until it is facing total destruction. So it will face total destruction. Just yesterday:
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said that holding the line against raising taxes on high-income households while fighting for cuts to Social Security was “not a winning hand.”
Ya think? What kind of party needs an elder statesman to point that out?
So I predict this will be the story of politics in 2013: How destructive will the Tea Party faction in Congress have to get before mainstream Republicans realize their party faces extinction?