There is a kind of war underway in the US nowadays between fact and fantasy. US President Barack Obama’s re-election marked a victory, limited but unmistakable, for the cause of fact.
Events in the days leading up to the US presidential election provided a stark illustration of the struggle. Among senior aides to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a belief developed that he was on the cusp of victory. Their conviction had no basis in poll results. Nevertheless, the feeling grew so strong that aides began to address Romney as “Mr President.”
However, wanting that to be true was not enough for them to make it true. It would be as close to becoming president as Romney would get and he apparently wanted to enjoy it while he could, however prematurely. Then, on election night, when the television networks projected Romney’s defeat in Ohio and therefore Obama’s re-election, the Romney campaign, in a further denial of fact, refused to accept the result. A very awkward hour passed before he accepted reality and made a gracious concession speech.
The same disregard for reality has been the hallmark not only of the Republican campaign, but of the entire Republican Party in recent times. When the US Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report last month showing that the national unemployment rate remained “essentially unchanged at 7.9 percent,” Republican operatives sought to discredit the highly respected bureau. When polls showed that Romney was falling behind Obama, they sought to discredit the polls. When the non-partisan Congressional Research Service reported that a Republican tax plan would do nothing to foster economic growth, Republican senators muscled the service into withdrawing its report.
These refusals to accept matters of plain fact reflect a still wider pattern. Increasingly, the Republican Party, once a fairly normal political party, has granted itself a license to live in an alternate reality — a world in which former US president George W. Bush did find the weapons of mass destruction that he had thought were in Iraq; tax cuts eliminate budget deficits; Obama is not only a Muslim, but was born in Kenya and thus should be disqualified from the presidency; and global warming is a hoax concocted by a cabal of socialist scientists. (The Democrats, for their part, have had one foot in the camp of unreality as well.)
Of all of the Republicans’ unreal beliefs, their full-throated denial of human-induced climate change was surely the most consequential. After all, if left unchecked, global warming has the potential to degrade and destroy the climactic conditions that underlay and made possible the rise of human civilization over the last 10 millennia.
Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had expressed belief in the reality of global warming. However, as a presidential candidate he joined the deniers — a switch made clear when he accepted the party’s nomination in Tampa, Florida, in August.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” Romney told the Republican convention and then paused, with the expectant smile of a comedian waiting for the audience to catch on to the joke.
It did. Laughter broke and built. Romney let it grow, then delivered the punch line: “And to heal the planet.”
The crowd cracked up. It was perhaps the most memorable and lamentable moment in a lamentable campaign — a moment that in the history now to be written of humanity’s efforts to preserve a livable planet is destined for immortal notoriety.
There was an astonishing sequel. Eight weeks later, Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey shore and New York City. Its 4.26m surge of seawater was backed by the sea-level rise already caused by a century of global warming, and the storm’s sweep and intensity was fueled by a warming planet’s warmer ocean waters. That tide of reality — what Alexander Solzhenitsyn once called “the pitiless crowbar of events” — burst the closed bubble of Romney’s campaign, its walls breached as decisively as those of lower Manhattan and Far Rockaway.
In the contest between fact and fantasy, fact suddenly had a powerful ally. The political map was subtly, but consequentially, redrawn. Obama swung into action, now not just a suspect candidate, but a trusted president whose services were sorely needed by the battered population of the US east coast. Eight out of 10 voters, as polls showed, viewed his performance favorably and many declared that the impression influenced their vote.
In a surprising, politically potent twist, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had been the keynote speaker at the Republican convention at which Romney had mocked the dangers of global warming, turned out to be one of those impressed with Obama’s performance and said so publicly.
The US’ political world — not only Republicans, but also Democrats (albeit to a lesser extent) — had fenced out huge, ominous realities. However, those realities, as if listening and responding, entered the fray. They voted early and they may very well have swayed the outcome.
Earth spoke, and the US, for once, listened.
Jonathan Schell is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a visiting fellow at Yale University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate