The America in the Next Seat

(Flickr/Jake Mates)

I’ve told this story before in one venue or another, but I think that—72 hours after the election—it’s good for one last recounting before I retire it. Two and a half years ago I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York when the woman in the next seat picked a fight with me about the Affordable Care Act, which was on the verge of passing the Senate. She and I had gotten along well enough until then, though our interaction mostly entailed me helping her find the outlet to plug in her laptop; peering over my shoulder, however, she surmised (not incorrectly, it should be acknowledged) what my position was based on the website I was looking at, and she wanted to set me straight. “You know what the difference is between us?” she finally concluded about 15 futile minutes later. “I’m a responsible person and you’re not.” I confess I didn’t know what to say to this other than what I didn’t ask, which was whether she had children, who rather exponentially up the responsibility quotient of one’s life; I didn’t ask because I knew the answer, and I also knew that, as a woman, she was of an age when this could be a profoundly painful matter. I couldn’t bring myself to win an argument at that cost. It may also be that it was as unfair of me to assume this was someone for whom responsibility was something she took only for herself as it was of her to assume it was something I didn’t take at all.  

I thought about this woman during the past campaign, and I think of her now, along with the other person I’m thinking about at the moment: Dean Chambers. Dean Chambers never sat next to me on a plane as far as I know; as far as I’m aware I have never met him at all and was unfamiliar with him until only the last couple of weeks. Chambers stepped in to fill a distinct need for that other America in the adjoining seat on this national flight: He became the anti-Silver, Silver being Nate, The New York Times analyst who was the flotation device many of us clung to when it felt like our half of the plane was going down. As even many non-pols know by now, Silver correctly chose the eventual winner in the presidential race in 50 out of 50 states, improving on his miserable 49-out-of-50 performance in the 2008 contest, also accurately predicting the popular vote and missing the precise electoral count only because he does some weird averaging thing among the states’ numbers, the only part of his methodology that willfully conforms to statistical laws over reality. By the eve of the election, when Silver said the president’s odds of winning were nine to one, even many who hoped he was right had to wonder. It became routine for the right to lambaste Silver, Chambers doing so personally on an ongoing basis while conducting his own “analysis” of the polls, by which he projected Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s victory. 

It would be unfair to mock the way in which conservative commentators desperately embraced Chambers, since progressive commentators did the same with Silver. If there’s anything different it’s that Silver’s numbers were based on objective models and that his congregation on the left nonetheless continued to entertain and express doubt while those in Next Seat America exuded not only greater and greater certainty but the now-customary contempt for that opiate of the elite: information. Besides presumptions regarding responsibility as they pertain to strangers you just met five miles over the Grand Canyon, such differences between certainty and doubt, between absolutism and ambiguity distinguish the opposing psychological types of the political divide as much as anything. More than disappointment or even dismay, on Election Night the prevailing sentiment among those who translated Chambers’ computations into pronouncements as to who would win the election was palpable shock. Even the less hyper-oxygenated like George F. Will and Peggy Noonan were unable to resist the seduction that led Chambers, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Michael Barone to promise that Romney would win—and by a lot.

This will sound more mocking than I mean it to. It’s not a matter of gloating over who was right and who was so wrong; it’s a matter of confirming what’s become increasingly apparent to anyone dispassionate enough to fathom it, whatever his or her political philosophy. The American right has an increasingly troubled relationship, replete with bouts of domestic violence, with the truth as the rest of the world perceives it: The world’s weather patterns are changing, and people have something to do with it. Women sometimes get pregnant when they’re raped. The Constitution, in which God is never mentioned or alluded to either explicitly or euphemistically, is not a Christian document. The president never has “apologized” for the country at home or anywhere else. In the last four years the president has never raised taxes. More private-sector jobs have been created in three years under this president than were in eight years under his predecessor. Under the current administration, the size of government in terms of people who work for it has shrunk, not grown. Government is not taking over the nation’s health-care system. No government tribunals are consigning senior citizens to death. Out of roughly 300 million votes cast in recent American elections, fraud cases have numbered 86. The policies of this administration are not socialistic by any practical or abstract definition that has existed in the 160-some years between Karl Marx’s early writings and Inauguration Day 2008. The now and future president wasn’t secretly born in Kenya. Barack Obama is an American.

All of this is important because it explains in no small part how those on the right lost. In no small part they lost because they created a Barack Obama who bore no resemblance to one whom anybody else recognized; by choosing to run against this illusory Obama, they lost credibility. For 40 years I’ve believed, as recently as a lunch conversation a week ago with my friend and American Prospect colleague John Powers, that conservatives are correct when they argue this is a center-right country. I still believe that for much of these four decades that’s been the case, that the underlying sensibility of the country is moderately conservative. The enormity of what happened 72 hours ago—in macro terms and micro, from Obama’s re-election to a more Democratic Senate to passage of marriage-equality and marijuana-legalization propositions to, most significantly, the shattering defeat of big money—is that this no longer is necessarily the case. This isn’t to say that the public voted for big government or even “progressivism,” whatever that is; but it did vote for a world in which numbers add up, even as Fox News’ apparatchiks frantically search for a new math by which less is more and more is less. The Obama Years have represented for the right a strategic assault on the Daniel Patrick Moynihan maxim about opinions not being facts and about not being entitled to confuse the two: Oh yeah? said the America in the Next Seat. Watch us. While “facts” perjure themselves sometimes, however, math testifies under oath. The center-right country hasn’t become a left country or even center-left; it may not even be center-center. Rather in the face of fantasists of various toxicity from Akin to Murdoch, from Joe Walsh to Allen West, the country voted for a different kind of apex: the real-real, in all its American pluralism; and for the rest of the trip, those who can’t or won’t grasp that calculus may find themselves on a different flight altogether, finally stranded in a different place.

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