Regardless of who wins the presidential election tomorrow, many, many voters on the losing side will almost immediately start shrieking about how their lives and their country will be annihilated in the coming four years. The two parties—and their fanatical bases—are so sharply polarized and wildly antagonistic that both sides have a bizarre death wish effect: If we have to lose, let us lose to a historic dictator, not another mediocre politician who will rule a drifting, struggling country the best he can according to his beliefs.
Or, put another way, nobody wants to be insignificant enough to be made only moderately unhappy by a presidency. If your side can only be defeated by the human embodiment of an inexorable epochal monstrosity, there’s a built-in coping mechanism when defeat befalls you. The prize for losing is the knowledge that you’re the sacred keeper of everything good and decent in our cruelly benighted world.
So we’re told there’s this thing called “Romney World,” a Stephen King-like American hell where one Mormon businessman at the head of a deeply divided government can turn the clock back to 1917. Or we’re reminded fearfully that the sitting president wants to “fundamentally transform America,” even though his closing argument reminds Americans fearfully that his opponent's policies “would lead to a fundamentally different America.”
There’s a suffocating arrogance in the way each team of partisans portrays Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. By casting each enemy candidate as a person who puts everything they live for in peril, they cleverly aggrandize not only the candidate, but themselves.
In so doing, however, they also inflate the importance of the presidency and of politics in general far out of human proportion. Every election is the most important election of all time, every battle is the final battle, the United States of America is always coming to an end. Remember the guy who told CNN that America ended when Scott Walker wasn’t recalled?
Yeah. That’s you, tomorrow night. Maybe. But before we descend into hysterics as a nation and break Twitter, let’s all take a deep breath, OK?
If Obama Is Elected
Let’s start with Republicans, who should actually be delirious with joy right now. For a few election cycles, analysts have warned Republicans that America’s demographics would so disfavor the GOP that they had to stop trying to eke out a victory on the strength of the white vote. This year, that’s still not actually true. If Romney loses, it’ll be close despite his reliance on white men. Republicans have already won four more years to figure out how to compete for the favor of nonwhite voters. (Or, as some seem to be doing, making it harder for them to vote.)
But, honestly, many Republicans are thinking a lot shorter-term than that—after all, Obama will have destroyed America within the next four years, rendering all political strategy a pointless exercise.
In reality, Obama is more likely to keep the country limping along in much the same way that George W. Bush did. In his final pre-election column for the New York Times, Catholic conservative Ross Douthat’s strongest condemnation of Obama is that he’ll make big government—Bush government—the new normal. “A vote for President Obama is a vote for a future where spending stabilizes well above its 40-year average, and where tax revenue gradually rises,” Douthat warns. Horrors!
In fairness, Douthat worries these policies are bad because too many Americans are living very long lives without adding very many children. But if the upshot of that population problem is marginally increased taxing and spending, Obama becomes just another Democrat in the White House, doing what Democrats in the White House do.
Where Obama has departed from party orthodoxy, he’s largely rewarded Republicans. Think of his routine deportations of Hispanics who have broken American immigration laws. Think of his staunch prosecution of the drug war. Or think of his love of drones—this president is great at trimming costs while quietly keeping robust America’s ability to suddenly kill people around the globe. Surely Republicans can get behind that.
If you think that all these factors are outweighed by Obama’s preference for an inefficient, corporatist health care system and lots and lots of birth control, I’ve got news for you: Obama will come and Obama will go, but America’s taste for socializing medical costs is forever.
If Romney Is Elected
Likewise, if you think Mitt Romney is capable of nudging the country back into the dark ages, you should take a step back and consider what he is actually capable of doing. The worst it will likely get for Obamacare under a Romney administration is a few symbolic tweaks and twists. Even though Mitt has occasionally vowed to repeal and replace the thing, team Romney has never disavowed Romneycare, which everyone knows is the state-level model for what Obama took national. (And let’s not forget that president Romney can’t just wave a wand and repeal laws. There’s also this thing called Congress.)
Romney is the least conservative GOP nominee since George H.W. Bush. You can tell, because he’s had to speak gibberish since the day he decided to run again. The fire-and-brimstone-and-socialism rhetoric that comes naturally to folks like Michelle Bachmann is a foreign tongue to him. The “crazy” Jesus theocrats that liberals fear are actually their least influential in a generation: Ron Paul people have colonized swaths of state and local structures; the RINO-led GOP on the coasts is small enough to fit in a country club; and the biggest news coming out of the religious right is that Pat Robertson has embraced pot legalization and prison reform.
Yes, the right opposes abortion, but guess what? Roe v. Wade hasn’t been the law of the land since it was partially overturned by Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a case from the early 90s that scrapped the trimester system for the “undue burden” standard. In any case, the battles over the legality of abortion are being fought at the state level.
And if you fear that Romney will install reactionaries in the Supreme Court, ponder Republicans’ track records on that score. GOP presidents have given us Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and John Roberts—the Justices who shot down legal challenges to abortion and Obamacare.
Romney won’t abolish the TSA or the Department of Homeland Security. He won’t be harder on drugs than Obama has been, or harsher on the immigrants big business wants and needs. He won’t be cozier with lobbyists and corporate chieftains than Obama, even if he will be just as snuggly.
No matter who’s elected, politics will grind on. That might mean politicians will continue to hold more sway over your life than you’d like. But the least empowering way to deal with that is by giving into the madness and freaking out when the election results are in.