(Reality) Check, please: Why can’t conservatives accept that Romney lost a debate?

Tom Bissell

For those with an apocalyptic worldview—which is to say, those who believe that the apocalypse is a) real and b) likely to happen—events like presidential debates must feel uniquely terrifying, as though the very fate of the world were at stake. A lot of the anxiety coming from the right about what will happen to the United States if President Barack Obama is reelected does, in fact, feel duly apocalyptic. A quick glance at the conservative news media makes it clear that a large percentage of conservatives believe that a second term for Obama could very well destroy our great and hitherto resilient nation.

Of course, we’ve heard this, or versions of this, before. Back in 2008, some of our more unhinged conservative citizens were claiming that an Obama election would mean mandatory gay weddings, Sharia law, 75 percent taxes, a welcome-to-America parade for the world’s most talented terrorists, and a Department of Black Panthers in the Cabinet. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. I often ask my conservative friends why, if Obama really is a socialist, aren’t more American socialists dancing in the streets and singing “The Internationale” at the prospect of another Obama term? I’m a liberal—and proud of it, thank you—and even I’m ambivalent about Obama’s performance as president. I suspect I have this in common with 99.94 percent of other American liberals. Ask yourselves this, conservatives: If our guy’s so bad from your perspective, why doesn’t our side like him more?

I’d be greatly bummed by a Romney presidency, largely because I fear his administration’s policies would make life even harder for Americans clinging to the bottom links of our economic food chain. Income disparity in America is probably the single most worrying social trend we’ve got to contend with as a nation, and, incredibly, it’s worse now than it was in 1774. Some other countries with income disparity as severe as that of the United States: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Nepal. Think, for a moment, about the implications of that. Can American income disparity this severe and unprecedented really be due to the general wondrousness of rich people and the shiftlessness of the poor?

I don’t think it’s Romney’s goal to make American income disparity worse. I don’t think his goal is for us to fall behind Serbia in the global income-disparity contest. I believe that Romney thinks his policies would benefit everyone. But I also don’t want to find out what happens if he’s wrong. That, to me, is what’s at stake in this election: a future in which the rich get much, much richer while programs designed to aid the poor get slashed. My general life philosophy is that welfare cheats are a lot less socially calamitous and morally objectionable than immensely wealthy tax cheats. I base that philosophy on the fact that when poor people game the system, they buy themselves a weekend’s worth of steak and lobster. When rich people game the system, the world’s financial apparatus explodes.

Why, then, is the conservative case against a second Obama term so frequently and ludicrously overstated? I have to believe this has something to do with the deep religiosity, generally speaking, of American conservatives. If you imagine yourself at the vanguard of good against evil—if your sense of the world is determined by faith in your ability to detect and recognize good and evil—then it’s awfully hard to accept unpleasant electoral outcomes as anything other than the Worst Thing That’s Ever Happened to Anyone in Human History.

If Obama is not your man, he’s obviously the enemy; and if he’s obviously the enemy, he’s ... well, you know what he is. Anti-American. A subversive. A racist. A radical. Possibly if not probably evil. Not all conservatives believe this garbage, obviously, but a smooth-jazz version of these insinuations has infiltrated mainstream conservative consciousness. Obama inherited from his father “an anticolonialist rage against Western dominance” according to Dinesh D’Sousa, while one of Mitt Romney’s talking points is that Obama somehow doesn’t “understand America.”

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I grew up in the Reagan era, and was always rather jealous of the seemingly effortless Republican ability to seem so together and with it and responsible. Being a conservative, back then, seemed to me analogous with being an adult, especially given how gormless, self-destructive, and hideously resigned to losing that era’s Democrats tended to be.

Democrats are not nearly as self-destructive today, and they’re far less fascinated by their inability to win elections. But Democrats remain frustratingly vulnerable to defeatism. When Obama lost the first debate, most Democrats looked up at the falling sky and saw not the careful designs of Satan but the punishment of God the Father: Why? Why have You forsaken us? And this is, I believe, a real temperamental difference in how liberals and conservatives construct and filter reality. When Obama fell behind in the polls, most Democrats didn’t claim the polls were falsified; they judged it as an accurate reflection of disastrous reality.

Mitt Romney lost the second presidential debate, and already I am reading the conservative tweets, Facebook posts, and blog fulminations. Democrats and Republicans spin and spin alike, but Republican spin seems weirdly and constitutionally incapable of accepting the obvious: Romney had an acceptable night, but the President had a very good one. Republican spin, in other words, actually believes itself.

The Republican Party, in its current incarnation, delights in its studied rejection of expert thinking on any number of topics: evolution (no thank you), global warming (a hoax concocted by scientists), the causes of the global financial meltdown (the result of stupid poor people buying homes they couldn’t afford). This is what most troubles me about a potential Romney administration and about modern-day conservatism in general: Too convinced by its rightness to cede ground on any issue, too devoted to ideological purity to accept deviation, too committed to its vision to contemplate the very real possibility that not everything it believes is self-evidently true. (Liberals not only constantly worry that their beliefs might not be self-evidently true; many of us live in terror of self-describing as liberals.)

I don’t doubt that a second Obama administration would result in many things conservatives dislike. I don’t doubt that their opposition to those things is grounded in a sincere wish for a better America. But there’s a point at which certainty becomes pathology, and a party unable to cede one debate to its opponent is unlikely to accept that its policies have not worked and are not working, even if, all around them, the nation they obviously and clearly love grows more and more unlovable.