Surely by now you’ve figured out that you shouldn’t be listening to any of us, haven’t you? One of the more nitwitted arguments of Marxist-Leninists—back when there were such people—was that history is a science and human behavior is as predictable as chemical interaction, rendering sociological results inevitable,; and if few of us in what passes for the commentariat these days would put matters in such a way, we still tend to view politics as a series of patterns determined by previous patterns, which are defined by ideology and demographics. Intangibles, X factors, monkey wrenches in the machinery—or, in other words, human beings acting like human beings—get lost in the accounting, and sometimes the result is a conventional wisdom that not only proves wrong but also didn’t make sense in the first place.
To argue that this election is about demographics suggests major blocs congenitally programmed to support one candidate or another: Naturally, for instance, young people are going to vote for Barack Obama. Can anyone believe they would vote for the likes of Mitt Romney, at once so square and strange? But this is a stylistic estimation—one that, to be sure, was borne out in the last election—and, particularly among the young, style is a passing phase. The report a couple of weeks ago by The New York Times of a generation of 20-somethings growing up with the Obama economy and feeling increasingly hopeless reminds those of us willing to date ourselves that, 30 years ago, the prospect of a post-Woodstock generation supporting a wacky right-wing California governor going on 70 was equally unlikely. The result was the so-called Reagan Revolution and a new wave of young conservatives, and by the same token, if the Mormon dude with the underwear and airborne dog can come up with jobs for kids still sitting around their parents’ house three years after college, then cars won’t be the only thing riding the elevator of Romney’s political fortunes.
To argue that this election is about ideology suggests that philosophically held views by a moderately conservative electorate will always trump the visceral. A month or so back, a consensus among the punditry amassed with startling velocity: Questions raised by the Obama campaign regarding Romney’s experience at the private-equity firm Bain Capital weren’t “working” politically and, moreover, weren’t “fair game,” though this is exactly the part of his biography on which the Massachusetts governor runs. Advanced most prominently by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and former President Bill Clinton, this argument was accepted not just as smart analysis but practically hard news, until more data-based evidence proved what any gut check suggested, which is that in an era when people’s dreams of getting rich have been displaced by desperate hopes of making the house payment, an Ohio factory worker might be less sanguine about a nominee who eviscerates local industries, fires the employees, and stashes the profit in overseas bank accounts while refusing to release his tax returns.
The most spectacular personification of political expertise upended by the vagaries of human caprice is John Glover Roberts of Indiana, whose capacity for mindfuckery will never be sold short again after the recent Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. I would love to tell you that, alone among my fellow sheep baaing our insights in unison, I predicted Roberts’s support for the law’s constitutionality—and in fact I did; reasons to foresee such an outcome lay in both Supreme Court precedent and Roberts’s own judicial philosophy and testimony during his confirmation hearings seven years ago. What I never anticipated, however, was that Roberts would be the deciding vote. Rather, I expected him to requisition the role of majority opinionator in a 6-3 decision once the so-called “decider” of newsweekly lore, Anthony Kennedy, made the judgment a fait accompli. When I woke to the news a week and a half ago and scoured the reports for details, I couldn’t wrap my head around the 5-4 tally: Wait … what? Five to four in favor, with Roberts the deciding opinion? As in, the same five and four that add up to nine?
The right-wing notion that Roberts’s arm was twisted is as ludicrous as the leftish fantasy that he’s now turned into Earl Warren. What analysis didn’t take into account about Roberts—didn’t know how to take into account—was the Historical Ego. This is the same Historical Ego possessed by the same president that three years ago the chief justice swore into office, the Historical Ego that, in Obama’s case, overruled the denizens of the Situation Room to green-light the pursuit of Osama bin Laden or insisted on pursuing health-care reform when there was little political percentage in it. The conservative Roberts had just enough vision—however else he might feel about the Affordable Care Act or however problematic or just plain unpalatable he might find it—to glimpse the forces of 21st-century inexorability gathering around the eventual reform of a health-care system that used to consume 10 percent of the national economy, now consumes 17 percent, and is on its way to consuming 25 percent, beyond which is a financial ruin even capriciousness can’t contest. Historical Ego chose to hop the train bound for a flawed, maybe failed, glory rather than derail it, and anybody who wasn’t busy watching everything else that didn’t matter would have seen that coming.
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