Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Sunday Before

On the Sunday before the election, nobody really knows who will win. One thing seems likely, though. If the outcome is very close, people on the losing side will blame the winning side’s malevolent machine.

In Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Robert Jervis writes: “Domestic groups in conflict see the other side as more unified than it is. In local labor-management disputes each side is apt to believe incorrectly that the other is controlled from above. Both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives see the other party as the one that is more organized and disciplined.” Jervis’s insight applies to the 2004 campaign. From their partisan trenches, activists peer across no-man’s land and see vast conspiracies behind enemy lines. Red-hot Republicans think Dan Rather and George Soros are plotting to rig the election with vote fraud and media disinformation. Blue-hot Democrats think Karl Rove can conjure up terror threats and make millions of Democratic votes disappear.

Yes, each side has some reason to worry. Close elections bring out the id in every political organization. But images of evil centralized schemes are more the product of partisan fever than dispassionate analysis. To know a political party from the inside is to know a story of feuds and screwups. Since political scientists are heavily Democratic, they understand their own side’s weaknesses yet sometimes see the GOP through the Rove-as-Satan theory. They should consider studies showing that Republicans are a good deal more complex than their cartoon image. A good place to start is Phil Klinkner’s The Losing Parties.

Similarly, Republicans should entertain the possibility that the votes for Kerry come from living human beings, not the ghosts that Mayor Daley summoned in 1960.

The result may not be clear on election night. But sooner or later, a lot of partisans will have to deal with disappointment. They should ponder two literary passages. Though they have religious origins, these lines can offer comfort to people of all persuasions.

From Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ: "A prophet is the one who, when everyone else despairs hopes. And when everyone else hopes, he despairs. You'll ask me why. It's because he has mastered the Great Secret: that the Wheel turns.”

From Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”


Anonymous said...

This is all true. But I'm also looking at a growing list of indictments for electoral shenanigans and they are all Republican employees as far as I can tell. Mistakes happen, both sides have bad actors; but one party uses voter suppresion far more broadly than the other. Saturday's New York Times editorial page discussed a related issue (Kit Bond's efforts to ban voter registration in housing projects).

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. And good quotes. But as someone wiser than I (sorry, don't have the source) also said "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong....but it's pretty good money to bet that way."

MWS said...

It's an excellent post. One reason you have election shenanigans is that each side thinks the other side is going to do something. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The way people look at opposing parties reminds me of how people look at terrorism. People think of Al Quaida as this all-powerful, omnipotent group that can do anything they want and have no disagreements or problems they can't resolve. And, of course, we know the terrorists look at America as this evil, omnipotent power. This was true of the Cold War as well, when Americans thought they were confronting this unified spectre of world communism, when in fact, it was not so unified and not so powerful.

salas said...


The Soviet Union was powerful - or at least a powerful threat, what with their nukes and limitless soldiers. When Kennedy looked at the Red Threat, he didn't have the luxury of thinking, 'Their economic foundation is utterly unstable - they will collapse of their own weight eventually', he had to deal with the threat as it was.

The same thing when you're dealing with any enemy that is seeking to destroy your way of life, in this case Al Qaeda - we can't be preoccupied with the fact that their fear tactics, including suicide bombing, should ultimately be self-defeating; we have to deal with the imminent threat as it exists today.