THE ELECTION YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

Around the middle of October, I began waking up in the small hours, heart pounding, gripped by panic at the thought of America sliding into the abyss if Mitt Romney got the car keys. I’d lie awake for hours with my gut churning, feeling as if my head were in a vise, sick with guilt for doing nothing to prevent this from happening.

I thought I’d sworn off politics when my first husband and I parted ways. He held public office at the state level for many years and, as a good supportive wife, I dutifully allowed myself to be dragged into weeks of knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and the other grunt work of getting somebody elected in a rural state where such “retail politics,” rather than mass-media advertising, wins elections. Repressing my inherent introversion for at least one Presidential campaign in the 1970s, I developed a phobia about calling up strangers, even though most of them were polite and friendly about the intrusion. Which is more than I can say for my own behavior with telemarketers, whom I usually hang up on.

My second husband is also a former public officeholder; the repetition compulsion, as Freud taught us, is a powerful force. In his case, though, I made it clear before we married that I Wasn’t Gonna Do That Stuff Any More. His current status, though there isn’t a Facebook category for it, is “recovering politician.” He is, however, subject to intermittent lapses, especially in Presidential years. Though he hasn’t yet followed through on his threat to run for the State Legislature, his political reflexes are more easily triggered than mine, and he just can’t bring himself to sit idle when there’s a big fight going on.

We both came close to it this year. But by Halloween, we could stand it no longer. The polls had Obama and Romney neck and neck. I was haunted by memories of the 2000 electoral debacle and the eight grim and ruinous years of the Bush hegemony that followed, during which I almost lost faith in my fellow Americans forever. I kept remembering that, if Al Gore had only won our neighboring New Hampshire, history would have been rewritten. Those four electoral votes, and three thousand votes the other way, would have rendered Florida irrelevant and made all the difference.

With that perennial swing state and Ohio again hanging in the balance, and with dark rumblings of voter suppression and tampering with voting machines threatening to turn narrow wins for Obama into fraudulent wins for Romney, the potential for New Hampshire, another “battleground,” to decide the election (its paltry four electoral votes notwithstanding) began to loom large in my consciousness.

As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, I would rather eat live snakes than call total strangers on the phone, no matter how lofty the cause. I feel only slightly less averse to knocking on strangers’ doors, even if they’ve been identified as on Our Side. But I was becoming convinced that if I, Personally, Did Not Get Over There and Do Something, Obama would lose New Hampshire, and hence the election, and the ruin of the country under Romney would be All My Fault. In the small hours of the night, when the rational faculties are dormant and things creak and go bump, I was utterly convinced of this.

Ludicrous it might be, but it was far from the most egregious example of magical thinking to haunt this campaign cycle. As I understand that term, it refers to an irrational belief in a non-existent causal connection between one event and another. The childhood classic, “Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” is often our first exposure to the phenomenon. In the realm of electoral punditry, such cause-and-effect items of received wisdom as “No one can win the Presidency without winning Ohio” are probably not much more valid than a prediction in 1804 would have been that “No one south of Maryland can be elected President without owning slaves.”

Some forms of magical thinking cling stubbornly to life despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the entire Romney plan to “revive the economy” was premised on the long since discredited (and fortuitously named) Laffer Curve, a curiously convenient economic theory cooked up in the Reagan era, which predicted—incorrectly—that the more you cut tax rates, the more economic growth would result, and—presto!—the more tax revenues you’d collect. Cut taxes and you’ll end the Federal deficit.  Well, that didn’t work real well under George W. Bush who, by cutting taxes for the wealthiest and putting two wars on the credit card, managed to take the Federal deficit to unprecedented heights.

The remarkable thing isn’t so much that politicians continue to preach this rubbish as that a large proportion of the American electorate continues to believe in it. And there’s a corollary: if you give rich people tax cuts, the money they keep will “trickle down” into the larger economy and benefit everyone. With the widest income gap in modern history for countering evidence, you’d think this one would have gone away with the flat-earth hypothesis. Then again, over 40% of Americans believe that God created the earth about 6,000 years ago. Somebody planted all those “fossils.”

It’s not as if the Obama camp is exempt from magical thinking. It’s all too evident in the promises of any Presidential candidate to “create jobs.” Presidents don’t create jobs, nor do their policies. They can create climates in which productive economic activity is more rather than less likely to occur, but a complex combination of factors, probably chief among which is consumer demand along with an assessment of whether a capital investment can “perform” a job more cost-effectively than a live human being, determines how many “jobs” there will be. At least, that’s my Economics for Dummies understanding of it.

And neither of the candidates seriously addressed the implications of the huge structural change in our economy brought about by digital technology over the last thirty-five years ago and only accelerating. The notion of a “job” as we’ve known it may some day be as meaningless as it would have been in Europe before the Industrial Revolution. The big question for the future is how to ensure that we all have means of livelihood we can count on. I don’t think anyone in the political realm has a clue about that. I sure don’t.

The other infamous example of magical thinking in this campaign cycle was Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s astonishing assertion that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” because a woman’s body has ways of shutting down that sort of thing. This was no doubt news to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; thankfully, it was also a wake-up call to millions of Missouri voters who unceremoniously Threw the Bum Out on Election Day. (As for Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s opinion that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended,” it may be dubious theology—I’m sure not interested in worshipping a deity who aids and abets violent criminals—but it’s not magical thinking).

Anyway, by Halloween, with spectres of this sort looming, we decided we had to do something. A fortuitous e-mail from a friend in Nashua, New Hampshire started an exchange that let to our crashing on her living room floor and showing up at Obama HQ to be put to work, self all the while stubborn in refusal to go near a telephone. I managed to spend a good part of our first morning there cleaning up the campaign office, replacing soured, tarry pots with fresh coffee and hot water for tea, sanitizing the telephones for those who were willing to dial for votes, and changing spilled-over trash bags, thereby earning the gratitude of a harried office manager trying to cope with an influx of volunteers.

Eventually, I’d cleaned and tidied everything I could. It came down to phones or door-to-door canvassing. So, joined by Mary, our gracious and generous-hearted hostess, who professed actually to be grateful for being dragged into the madness, spouse and I spent much of the next two days going door to door in the working-class sections of Nashua, trying to make sure Obama supporters would actually get their collective butt out to the polls. Mary and I teamed up for moral support and left my beloved, who as an extrovert turns into a canvassin’ fool in these circumstances, to knock on doors by himself. He says he’s doing people a favor by reminding them to act in their own best interests.

Most people weren’t home, which was fine with Mary and me. And with the exception of one Willie-Nelson-gone-to-seed lookalike who closed the door on us with something between a mumble and a snarl, those who did answer were polite and in many cases friendly. Several mentioned that we were the third or fourth set of Obama people who’d come by in the last couple of days. This was by design, said the campaign higher-ups to whom we reported making a nuisance of ourselves. Don’t worry about annoying people so much they’ll stay home or vote Republican; they understand we’re just telling them how much their vote matters to us. Sure…!

Back at HQ, the senior citizens making the phone calls were running into what I’d feared: people on the other end who were sick and tired of the non-stop harassment. “Well, I’m so sorry to have disturbed you,” I heard more than once. “Since you’ve already voted, we’ll try to make sure you don’t get called again.” Still…could it make a difference at the margins? Maybe, but I wasn’t going there.

Once our canvassing shifts were done, my still-energized spouse had the bright idea of doing “visibility”—standing at a busy intersection with Obama-Biden signs and waving to people. This is a bit like being put in the pillory except that you aren’t actually confined, but thankfully we did get more friendly honks and thumbs-up than jeers and middle-finger salutes. (Someone should do a study of car brand ownership and voting preferences. Priuses, of course, were Dem; Lexuses, GOP).

Visibility!

This magical thinking stuff gets hold of you like a mental illness. Though I argued that we’d Done Our Bit, as the Brits said of serving in the trenches of Verdun, my spouse insisted on Election Day activity, so we drove to nearby Littleton for more canvassing and for sign-waving in the freezing cold at the elementary school, where people went to vote. And came back home to stand at our local polling place with signs for our friend who ran for Auditor of Accounts (and, happily, got elected).

So when New Hampshire came in solidly blue, and our newly re-elected President looked into the TV camera at his victory rally and said, “This is all about you. It wouldn’t have happened without you,” I smiled and said, “You know what, Mr. President? You’re absolutely right.”

 

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3 Responses to “THE ELECTION YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING”

  1. Maggie

    Wonderful stories! And i’m so glad you did your part. He should appoint you to something glamorous and important!! 🙂

    Zach and I did some door-knocking in NH for BO in 2008, a first for both of us. And we’ve done several honk-and-waves over the years. I enjoy those, altho’ at the moment i just can’t stand that long.

    I hear ya about the nighttime fears…I was right there with you!

  2. Beth

    I enjoyed the article — and as an NH resident (who got pretty frantically busy right before the election and couldn’t help out as much as I wanted to) I’m very grateful for your help!

    I had a bad moment, on Election Day, when I approached my polling station (in tiny Orford, NH) and saw nary a single Obama/Biden sign-carrier. I’m sure you and Wayne gave Littleton Dems a needed boost!

  3. Mindy Leek

    Out here in Oregon we felt there wasn’t much we could do for Obama (but were a bit distressed when the polls closed and both California and Obama were called for O but not our state). I was so happy to wake up after the election and validate that the previous several months of insanity I had been suffering were really election induced and not a permanent state.
    Good for you and Wayne for doing your civic duty, I just kept hitting that button every time Joe, Michelle, Barack and everyone else on the planet asked for just another $8.00.


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