Why we need more democratic politics and less national myth to win the midterms
Nancy Pelosi (Image via Gage Skidmore.)

CNN ran a story Monday with this headline: “Political mood tilts in Republicans’ favor with economy and inflation top of mind three weeks from midterms.” I can’t say for sure, but that headline seems to have been the source of yesterday’s social media freakout.

The freakout was so intense that US Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii felt he had to talk the freaks off the ledge. The Democrat said: “Look, I get on this website and check the latest polls and worry like the rest of you. But the thing is, these races are all close and will be decided by how hard we work over the next three weeks. So get off this website, pick and campaign and volunteer or call or give. Thanks.”

A couple of things about the story and, more important, the liberal reaction to it. Republicans will bend reality to comport with their myths. (That’s classical fascism.) Liberals cherish myths too, but we do the opposite. We bend myths to comport with reality. But reality is contingent, fickle and ever-changing. When liberal myths don’t keep up with the times, the result, I think, is a wholesale freakout.

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Eventually, however, liberals adjust.

Republicans never will.

OK, so CNN’s headline is, um, imprecise. Far from showing a public mood favoring the Republicans, each poll cited showed a competitive race for control of the US Congress. By competitive, I mean each result of each poll was within the margin of error, which is to say, within the three- or four-point spectrum of shady grayishness.

The report also cited CNN’s aggregated poll of polls. That showed “an even divide in generic ballot polling, with both Democratic and Republican nominees holding 46 percent support among voters.”

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This dead heat was apparently the basis for a headline saying that the “political mood tilts in Republicans’ favor.” In September, CNN’s poll of polls showed “a narrow, three-point tilt toward the Democrats.” Those three points are gone. Hence, claims of the mood tilting.

It’s reports like these that put the lie (or that should put the lie) to the ballyhooed practice of objectivity in American journalism. Why? Because there’s no way to write about polls, or polls of polls, without an act of interpretation, and interpretation is inherently subjective.

How do you describe the Democrats losing three points when those three points were themselves in the gray zone? Well, CNN chose to say the numbers favor the GOP. That’s not objective. It can’t be.

Some of my liberal brethren will accuse CNN of bias. (Given its new leadership, there’s more to that claim than mere speculation.) But charges of bias reinforce the fantasy. Reporters are not god-like chroniclers of human events. They are humans operating in a human context within human constraints amid conflicting human interests.

That’s why fairness and accuracy are more important criteria. Under those, CNN’s headline isn’t quite accurate, but it is nevertheless fair.

Now that we have set aside bias as a phony reason for Monday’s social media freakout, what else explains it? Well, hard as it may be for liberals to accept, America isn’t one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Believing that is the root of the problem.

I blame Barack Obama.

To justify his presidency, the first Black president often told a story about a country that began with the evils of slavery but in time found redemption by electing him. Those are my words, but that’s the spirit of his rhetoric, which was, make no mistake, for the benefit of white liberals who were burdened by white guilt. His story “freed” them.

Obama’s story also seemed to reflect the political reality on the ground – a country that was fast evolving into a truly multiracial democracy the likes of which the nation’s founders would scarcely recognize. The GOP war against “demographic change” was not seen as a war against liberal democracy but instead as a validation of progressive myth.

But as a consequence of unburdening white liberals of their white guilt, I think Obama’s redemption song gave the impression that history moved on its own in one direction and that progress was the inevitable means by which a righteous nation achieves true justice.

So there was an empirical foundation – Obama’s election – from which white liberals could stop thinking of themselves as humans operating in a human context within human constraints amid conflicting human interests. Freed from responsibility, they were now merely along for the ride. What would be was supposed to be.

I suspect last month’s polling – or at least the headlines to stories about last month’s polling – gave the false impression to many white liberals that the course of human events was finally going in the direction it’s supposed to be going and away from authoritarianism. Instead of rethinking Obama’s redemption song, many saw in polling what they wanted to see – that is to say, Obama’s redemption song.

Then came Monday’s headline about the public mood turning to favor the Republicans. That wasn’t supposed to happen. This is America! Here, democracy lives! Here, the law rules! Here, right matters! The Republicans don’t care about any of that. They’d rather bring the whole thing down. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Unlike the Republicans, who never doubt their myths, liberals do, and in that doubting is a great deal of pain. That, I think, was the impetus for Monday’s freak-out. To the Republicans, myth is right. Reality is wrong. So they “fix” reality. For liberals, reality is never wrong. But fixing myth, getting it to comport with reality will take some time.

But liberals should consider dropping their myths altogether.

The myth of the United States being one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all prevents Americans from seeing that lots of other Americans already don’t believe it, because their myths, about America’s “destiny” in the world, tell them that that’s impossible.

Ironically, by insisting on one nation’s universal liberty and justice – by longing for a repeat performance of Barack Obama’s redemption song – liberals inadvertently create political conditions in which achieving liberty and justice for all is difficult verging on impossible.

We need more democratic politics, less national myth, to win the midterms. Monday’s polling, however erroneously reported it may be, should only remind us of unfinished work. We know what needs to be done. We also know it might fail. But either way, we know we must keep on keeping on. There’s no other country for us. This is it.

There’s no reason to freak out.

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