If you’re like me, at this point you’ve pretty much fully surrendered to the syndrome known as Election Psychosis. And if you’re also a lefty like me, some of your less politically inclined friends are ready to put you on suicide watch.
It’s happening all over the country, as Mitt Romney — having successfully rebranded himself as a sympathetic human being in Denver — continues his unlikely surge toward the presidency.
But it begs a basic question that comes up, in some form, every time we hold an election: Why, as a general rule, does the left react to losing with despair, while the right reacts with rage?
I’m going to offer a few theories that hopefully will unite both sides in thinking I’m an idiot.
To begin, let’s look at the right: my own sense is that modern conservatives have constructed what amounts to a shame culture. They react to losing not as an invitation to reexamine their beliefs, but as an assault upon them. I believe the millennial philosopher Sarah Palin put this most piquantly in her brief philosophical tract: Don’t retreat—reload.
In 2008, as Barack Obama pulled away in the final weeks, the conservative base became increasingly agitated, by which I mean hysterical and self-victimizing. They did not wring their hands. They burned Obama in effigy.
And when he assumed the presidency, they did not accept him as the essentially moderate technocrat he so obviously is. Instead, they viewed him through the lens of unremitting rage and paranoia: he was a foreign-born socialist determined to kill granny, and (if not for our eternal vigilance) enslave white people.
This is not how all conservatives feel. But it represents the basic dynamic. If they lose, it must be because somebody cheated or lied. To them, politics is a zero-sum game. To give the opponent credit for anything — whether it’s killing Osama bin Laden or getting the unemployment rate down — is to admit you were wrong.
Conservatives believe they don’t need any help from the government, because needing help constitutes an admission of dependence, or weakness.
I’m reminded here of a conversation I had recently with a conservative homosexual who explained to me, quite indignantly, that hate crime legislation actually imperiled gay people by giving them the false sense that the government can protect them from harm. The only thing that really does that, he argued, is a gun.
A gun, I thought. Eeek!
Which brings us to the left. We, too, spend a lot of time blaming the other side. We see conservatives as greedy and childish and deluded. To put it more bluntly: we’re monstrously condescending.
But we’re also incredibly conflicted and guilt-ridden. I want to say this is because we’re more tolerant and self-aware. But really, most of it has to do with just being frightened of our own aggression.
This is why we’re so hard on Obama for not being a fighter. We see him as the embodiment of our fundamental wimpiness.
And thus, when we’re upset we comfort ourselves with nightly doses of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We feed upon the latest Rush Limbaugh rant like a sour short rib, then sit around earnestly lamenting the fallen state of our nation.
It’s easier for us to feel sad, because feeling sad makes us feel noble without actually having done anything noble, such as taking political action.
This is why we’re so quick to dismiss the Tea Party as a bunch of corporate-funded dupes: because they’ve converted their civic distress into actual civic power.
My own sense — and I say this with no joy — is that the era of hyper-partisanship in this country will only diminish when (and if) the ragers on the right start to become more self-critical, and the mopers on the left more outwardly courageous.
In this sense, the real question isn’t who wins on Nov. 6, but whether we can emerge from the campaign with a deeper sense of our own flaws, and potential, as citizens.