July 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Pause the Trump-is-losing narrative
The point of this column is being wrong.
You have probably heard speculation that Joe Biden has a chance of winning Texas. The president won the Lone Star State by just nine points last time around. It’s highly suburban, giving the advantage to the Democrat. Moreover, the new coronavirus is rampaging through the state after its governor reopened recklessly to give Donald Trump a boost. One recent poll has Biden up by a point. Another has him up by five.
This has some Democratic partisans salivating. Texas has 36 electorate votes. If Biden wins them as well as those Hillary Clinton won, he wins the whole shebang by four electoral votes. Of course, if Biden wins Texas, he probably won’t lose Florida or Arizona. He probably won’t lose Michigan or Wisconsin for the same reason. Texas, in other words, doesn’t matter in terms of exceeding 270 electoral votes. Winning it does matter, though, because it would snap a losing streak for the Democrats going back to 1976, and because winning Texas would signal huge transformative political change.
We still live in a 40-year-old conservative political regime that defines people as consumers, not citizens.
That’s why I don’t like speculation about Texas. What we are speculating isn’t winning or losing the 2020 presidential election. It’s whether we have truly moved on from a conservative political regime rooted in the 1980s, and which we are all still living in, when the federal government flipped sides. From the 1930s until then, it took the side, with a major qualification, of normal people. After Ronald Reagan, though, it took the side of the elites. In that decade, we stopped talking about people as citizens and started talking about them as consumers. I yearn for that regime’s end as much as the next guy, but if we must speculate about Texas, let’s be clear what we are speculating.
I prefer participation to speculation, frankly. As a consequence, I think, of our ongoing occupation of a conservative political regime that defines people as consumers, not citizens, we just can’t get enough of it. We appear to love speculating, as well as spectating, more than participating! And there’s so much data to do it with! A new niche industry has emerged to meet, and manufacture, demand. All the elite news organizations have teams of data editors and journalists churning fascinating stories, truly fascinating stories, about this and that election, about this and that person’s chances of winning, all properly qualified, all nevertheless confident in the story that the data is telling. And the latest media narrative is that Joe Biden is going to win.
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I want to believe that, but I can’t bring myself to, and I can’t bring myself to, because I also believe a media narrative in which Biden wins has the power to undo him and all of us. When enough people in the right places in a electoral college system believe something is going to happen with or without their participation, they could end up believing they don’t have to honor their civic obligations, due also to thinking of themselves as consumers, not citizens, and instead spectate. But rather than watching what they thought was going to happen, they instead watch the world going to hell.
Some say apathy won’t be an issue. The collective trauma of 2016 will prevent it. I hope so, but even if people think of themselves as citizens rather than consumers, their participation must presume the election will be fair. Do not presume fairness. Georgia and Florida have demonstrated the lengths Republican-controlled governments are willing to go to block people, especially people of color, from voting. Moreover, GOP resistance to mail-in balloting could prove decisive as the Covid-19 pandemic might keep people from showing up. In 2016, less than 60 percent of Americans who could vote did vote. The only antidote to voter suppression is overwhelming numbers. But overwhelming numbers might not come from an electorate still living in a political regime defining people as consumers, not citizens. Democracy should be the incentive to participate. But the incentives to speculate, and spectate, might be greater still.
I like the horse race. (I wouldn’t be much of a polemicist if I didn’t!) I’m a fan of the data journalists tracking the polling and informing readers like me of the state of play. Furthermore, every one of them, without qualification, responsibly qualifies their arguments, leaving room for being wrong. But these are still human beings making judgments about what to pay attention to, and given the rapid pace of the emerging narrative of Joe Biden beating Donald Trump, there’s news incentive to pay attention to data suggesting that Joe Biden is going to beat Donald Trump, all of which can create a self-reinforcing media narrative, leading to a possible repeat of last time.
I could be wrong. Indeed, being wrong is the point of this column. If I’m wrong, perhaps we are indeed moving out of the old regime and into something unknowable and full of renewed hope. Perhaps a majority of voters really has decided that the government should be on the side of normal people, not the elites. What I do know is that if I’m wrong, you’re going to have to be prove me wrong. That takes participation, not speculation. That takes the American people defining themselves as citizens.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.