Beware the Progressive-Wishful Complex!

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It’s Election Day 2018, and I’m seeing it again: social media posts by ultra progressive friends celebrating Democratic victories as evidence of the imminent Revolution and decrying Republican victories as the result of voter suppression or voting machine shenanigans. Underlying these responses is the idea that the vast majority of Americans are really progressive at heart, and the only thing that’s stopping their Voice from being heard is a corrupt Establishment whose overthrow would result in all the people celebrating their newfound freedom. (Basically, the V For Vendetta model.)

My fellow progressives, we have to stop doing this!

I absolutely agree that there are mechanisms in the political system that were put there specifically to slow change. And I definitely think that we should replace hackable voting machines and flaky butterfly ballots with simple paper ballots that can be read by optical scanners for speed while preserving the original ballots for later checking. And if I didn’t believe that voter suppression was one of the biggest problems we face, I wouldn’t be a monthly donor to Let America Vote. (Nor would I be recommending that others support them as well.)

HOWEVER.

What we need to realize is that, even if voter suppression, voting machine hacking, and establishment machinations were having the maximum possible effect being claimed by the most extreme conspiracy theorists, it would still be a small effect compared to the hundreds of millions of actual conservative voters that are out there. These things can absolutely swing elections, but only when the election was going to be close, anyway. And that’s the much bigger elephant in the room.

Suppose that voter suppression and vote hacking could swing an election by 4% (itself an impossibly big effect) so that the left leaning candidate losses by 2%. This would be a crime and a tragedy, and a remedy should definitely be pursued, but think about it! With no interference, our candidate would still only have won by 2%. 49% of the electorate would still hold completely regressive beliefs.

The problem, I believe, is the many progressive blogs and news sites that, whether out of simple optimism and hopefulness, or through a more cynical desire to capture our clicks and contributions, feed us an exaggerated view of our own numbers and prospects.

For example, I remember seeing a news item on a progressive site once about how a midwestern state was paving roads with solar panels. The article didn’t cite or link to its source, but this didn’t sound plausible to me and so I googled for it, and found the actual original story: a city in that state was experimenting with using solar panels to pave a single short pedestrian walkway. Which made much more sense, because I frankly doubt that solar road surfaces will ever be practical from an engineering and financial standpoint.

But what effect does a fake story like this have on progressives? It makes us think that solar power technology is so advanced that the only possible reason it’s not more widespread must be some kind of establishment conspiracy to suppress it.

Or take the Facebook comment that I just now saw, to the effect that Beto O’Rourke must be losing due to voter suppression, because he was “clearly favored” in Texas.

By who exactly???

Certainly by no respectable (and yes, “mainstream”) prognosticator. Not by FiveThirtyEight. Not by the Princeton Election Consortium. Not by DailyKos.

Then by who?

I’m guessing that there were plenty of progressive sites that managed to cherry pick enough outlying polls and indicators to paint a picture of O’Rourke as the favorite. All they had to do was ignore all the other data. (And by the way, this process of cherry picking just the data that confirms your bias is the same technique used by creation scientists, and climate change deniers, and supply side economists, and tobacco industry flacks — AND by anti-vaxxers, and anti-GMO activists, and homeopaths.) And the harm they did is that many progressives bought their narrative and perhaps didn’t donate as much as they might have to the campaign, or didn’t make as many phone calls, or didn’t knock on as many doors. And in the aftermath of Beto’s coming defeat, they’ll focus all their energy on possibly legitimate issues of voter suppression (which is great) why ignoring the much bigger issue that millions of Texans — likely the majority of them or close to it — favored the deplorable policies of Ted Cruz.

What I’m trying to tell you, dear fellow progressives, is that the fault lies not in our overlords, but in ourselves. The biggest fight — not the only fight, but the most important one — is not over the nuts and bolts of election machinery and protocol, but over the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. It’s a fight that can’t be conducted via vitriol or violence, but only through love and understanding and education and enlightenment. And through the eternal, incremental, unglamorous, unmagical, absolutely essential tug-of-war that is electoral politics.

Today was not a bad day. We retook the House, as predicted by the best prognosticators, and secured many good individual victories. Unfortunately, we’re not going to retake the Senate. (As also predicted.) But we’ll try again in 2020, when the GOP will be defending many more seats.