From the north side of the border, it can be difficult for a Canadian to parse exactly what Americans mean when they talk about left and right in politics, especially in this hyper-partisan presidential season. Whatever core ideologies U.S citizens attach to the different halves of the dichotomy, it’s a pretty good guess that they’re not the Canadian ones. We, after all, have a conservative government, but we also have universal health care and gay marriage. If we had to characterize the American notions of left and right, we’d probably refer to reflections of what each side traditionally says about the other, what Republicans say about Democrats and vice versa. What Republicans traditionally say is that Democrats are airy-fairy types, more concerned with idealism than reality, as in Barack Obama’s now worn-out words, “hope and change.” What the left says about the right is that they are concrete, unfeeling, and far too concerned with what was, not what should be. The left, you could say, are the stereotypical fantasists, the right, stereotypical realists. Except that the 2012 presidential election campaign has effectively turned that conception on its head. On the campaign trail and at the respective party conventions, the Republicans have been remarkably out of touch with reality. Democrats, by default, have become the true American realists.
Consider one of the main crises the Republicans have been citing throughout this campaign: voter fraud. They imply that fraud at the polling booth—ineligible voters casting ballots—is epidemic in the U.S., and that it consistently threatens to distort election results. Their solution has been to propose and pass a series of laws in Republican-controlled states stipulating that to vote you have to have a driver’s license or a passport. But in fact there is no crisis—nor has there ever been a crisis—around voter fraud in the United States. A widespread study by the U.S. Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 found that of the 300 million people who cast votes in that time period, only 86 were convicted of voter fraud; and the majority of those people weren’t even aware of their ineligibility to vote in the first place. So why the sudden urgency for voter ID laws? Because, as Rolling Stone magazine has pointed out, “the estimated 10 per cent of Americans whom the laws would render ineligible to vote belong to constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic—including 18 per cent of young voters and 25 per cent of African-Americans.”
That this manufactured crisis is incidentally racist and inherently fantastical is obvious. You can’t slice it any other way. Eighty-six fraudulent votes, and a quarter of U.S. African-Americans are facts, not opinions. Anyone who points this out—Democrats or, say, the popular press—is simply reflecting reality. How do Republicans respond to this exercise in fact-checking? They claim the media is making their platforms look discriminatory because the media has a liberal bias. The truth? The media doesn’t have a liberal bias. It has a reality bias. Journalists are naturally disinclined to believe people who believe in fantasies.
Enter the unlikely realists, the Democrats and liberals. The reason mainstream media is perceived as liberal is because America’s liberal party has come to speak for the mainstream—or what Daily Beast writer, Michelle Goldberg, has dubbed America’s “reality-based community.” The majority of Americans believe gay marriage should be legal. The majority of Americans believe in evolution, and the majority of Americans do not oppose, with certain restrictions, a woman’s right to have an abortion. The liberals aren’t leading the charge, they’re just acknowledging it.
Once, Republicans did this too. There was a time when leading members of the party acknowledged the reality that discrimination was not only immoral but bad for their country; that a woman recently pregnant and raped might not want to have her baby. The keynote speakers at the last three Republican Conventions before this one were pro-choice. (Mitt Romney overlooked Condoleezza Rice for the vice-presidential ticket this year because of her liberal view on abortion.) Gerald Ford was pro-choice. Richard Nixon was pro-choice. Mitt Romney’s Republican father, George, was a civil rights activist (Mitt maintains that marriage for gays is not a civil right). George Romney was a fervent supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. He deplored discrimination of any kind. More importantly, Republicans, like Canadian conservatives, weren’t only capable of harbouring two apparently contradictory ideas at the same time (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate mind), they were also willing to acknowledge that the moral reality of their times had shifted to include options they might not be entirely comfortable with. They were willing to acknowledge the inconvenient truth outside their wish-fulfillment never-never land, and to deal with it.
This was no accident. “Conservative” and “liberal” were always meant to denote different approaches to an accepted reality. They weren’t meant to distinguish people who fabricate bogeymen from people who don’t. Or worse, to advance the interests of people who uphold wrong, and call it right.