Relief We Can Believe In

Many years ago, legendary psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used experiments to demonstrate the power of "loss aversion," the fact that losing something you have is more emotionally powerful than gaining something you don't. In other words, the misery of losing $100 is far larger than the pleasure of gaining $100. Which means that Democrats ought to feel even better today than they did in 2008.

They probably don't, though. The election of 2008 was certainly the most extraordinary of my lifetime, and probably of yours as well. There were a few prescient voices at the time saying, "Don't get too excited, or you'll just be disappointed" (Paul Krugman was the most notable), but it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the moment, particularly because it came after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The emotion most Democrats are experiencing right now is not so much hope, or inspiration, but relief. It doesn't seem quite as likely to produce tears of joy.

But don't sell relief short. There's a lot to be relieved about. You can be relieved that if the 79-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the 74-year-old Stephen Breyer (or both) decide to retire in the next four years, they will be replaced by justices more like themselves than like Samuel Alito or Clarence Thomas. You can be relieved that the war on collective bargaining that conservatives have prosecuted so effectively in the last few years will not, at least for the moment, have the power of the federal government behind it. You can be relieved that for all the weaknesses of Obama's record on civil liberties, if nothing else America won't resume torturing prisoners as Romney had promised. You can be relieved about all the Republican appointees who will have to wait a while before trooping back into positions of power and authority in government, the neocons with dreams of empire, the religious fundamentalists hoping to restrict reproductive rights, the Randians and Tea Partiers and plutocrats and all the others who were so eager to resume their work.

Think of how relieved so many of your fellow citizens are—or ought to be. Consider the relief of a cancer survivor, who knows that a year from now no insurance company will be allowed to turn her away. Or the relief of a poor person who will be able to qualify for Medicaid. Or the relief of the student who knows that his Pell grant isn't in danger. Or the relief of people who live near power plants, knowing that the Environmental Protection Agency will for the next four years concern itself with protecting the environment.

It's still worthwhile for progressives to remind themselves that just as he did in his first term, at times in his second Barack Obama will disappoint them. But it's a good time to feel relieved.

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