There is a kind of war under way in the United States nowadays between fact and fantasy. President Barack Obama’s re-election marked a victory, limited but unmistakable, for the cause of fact.
Events in the days leading up to America’s presidential election provided a stark illustration of the struggle. Among senior aides to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a belief developed that he was on the cusp of victory. They even began to address him as “Mr President.”
Then, on election night, when the television networks projected Romney’s defeat in Ohio and therefore Barack Obama’s re-election, the Romney campaign, in a further denial of fact, refused to accept the result. A very awkward hour passed before he accepted reality and made a gracious concession speech.
The same disregard for reality has been the hallmark, not only of the Republican campaign, but of the entire Republican Party in recent times.
When the Bureau of Labour Statistics issued a report in October showing that the national unemployment rate remained “essentially unchanged at 7.9 per cent,” Republican operatives sought to discredit the highly respected BLS.
When polls showed that Romney was falling behind President Obama, they sought to discredit the polls. When the non-partisan Congressional Research Service reported that a Republican tax plan would do nothing to foster economic growth, Republican senators muscled the CRS into withdrawing its report.
These refusals to accept matters of plain fact reflect a still wider pattern. Increasingly, the Republican Party, once a fairly normal political party, has granted itself a licence to live in an alternate reality – a world in which George W.
Bush did find the weapons of mass destruction that he had thought were in Iraq; tax cuts eliminate budget deficits; Obama is not only a Muslim but was born in Kenya and thus should be disqualified from the presidency; and global warming is a hoax concocted by a cabal of socialist scientists.
Of all of the Republicans’ unreal beliefs, their full-throated denial of human-induced climate change was surely the most consequential. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had expressed belief in the reality of global warming.
As a presidential candidate, however, he joined the deniers – a switch made clear when he accepted the party’s nomination in Tampa, Florida, in August.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” Romney told the Republican convention, and then paused, with the expectant smile of a comedian waiting for the audience to catch on to the joke.
It did. Laughter broke and built. Romney let it grow, then delivered the punch line: “And to heal the planet.” The crowd cracked up. It was perhaps the most memorable and lamentable moment in a lamentable campaign – a moment that, in the history now to be written of humanity’s effort to preserve a liveable planet, is destined for immortal notoriety.
There was an astonishing sequel. Eight weeks later, Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey shore and New York City. Its 14-foot surge of seawater was backed by the sea-level rise already caused by a century of global warming.
Mr Schell is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a visiting fellow at Yale University. (c): Project Syndicate, 2012.www.project-syndicate.org.