Voters and the fanciful stories they tell themselves

It’s only June, 17 months out from Election Day, and the 2016 primary contest is in full swing. The field is swelling with potential candidates, both serious and long shot. And surprisingly enough, the media is doing its job of asking the presidential hopefuls tough questions (everyone except Queen Hillary, that is). The number one inquiry this election cycle is a highly uncomfortable topic for Republicans: was invading Iraq was really worth it, given that the intelligence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program was heavily flawed?

Our intrepid journalist class wants nothing more than to entice GOP nominees into violating the Eleventh Commandment, and trashing George W. Bush’s ill-fated Iraq invasion. Thankfully, most Republicans are finding their marbles and recognizing reality: the invasion wasn’t worth over $1 trillion and thousands of American lives. As Iraq descends into chaos, each candidate, both declared and undeclared, has said it was wrong to topple Saddam’s regime. That’s a safe answer, seeing as how most American believe the Iraq War was poorly conceived and too costly, and President Obama was elected largely based on voters’ misgivings about the invasion.

Even though there is a bipartisan consensus on the folly of President Bush’s crusade for democracy in the Middle East, Republicans still find it necessary to hammer Obama over the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. The news of ISIS taking the Iraqi city of Ramadi sent the GOP into an absolute tizzy, as they put blame for the mess solely on the president. Their understanding is as follows: Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal of troops in 2011 led to power vacuum that ISIS filled. If he had only kept more boots on the ground, then none of this trouble would have arisen. purvery Erick Erickson, a bellweather for mainstream GOP thinking, summed it up by declaring, “in 2009 as George W. Bush left the White House, the surge had worked, Iraq was stabilizing, Iran was on the sidelines, and ISIS did not exist.”

That’s a really cute story, but it ignores the disastrous invasion in 2003 that set the stage for the rise of Islamic terrorists. Hussein may have been a dictator, but he was a key source for stability in a region that can’t go a day without blowing something up. His removal, and the subsequent departure of U.S. troops – which, to remind you again, the American people demanded by putting Barack Obama in the Oval Office – certainly made it possible for ISIS to take over large swaths of Iraq. But the invasion came first, creating the environment for radical Islam to thrive.

So why is it so hard for Republicans to admit this simple truth? Kentucky senator Rand Paul is the only one who acknowledges that Iraq isn’t solely President Obama’s fault. But he is an anomaly when considering how most GOP voters feel about the war. A majority still say it was the right thing to do. Even if you think politics is tribalism, this blindness is pretty stunning. How can so many people be so clueless? Is there something more to why Americans swear fealty to a specific political party?

A pair of political scientists from Emory University think they found the answer behind the bitter partisanship of the average American voter. Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster looked into factors that play into party loyalty over the past 30 years. Here’s what they found: “the more voters dislike the opposing party, the greater the probability that they will vote consistently for their own party’s candidates.” Basically, fear of the other party drives people to cast a ballot in favor of their own tribe.

No doubt, animosity plays a heavy role in deciding elections. But I have my own theory: average voters have convinced themselves that their party is good, and that any notion of wrongdoing is false. They believe this narrative because it makes being civically responsible much easier. It also dumbs down politics since it treats complex issues like simple problems that can be fixed by voting for one party or another.

Storytelling is a great art that goes back many millennia. By constructing tales of struggle and victory, we help make sense of the world. And what your typical GOP voter tells themselves about Iraq is a real humdinger of a tale. The rise of ISIS is not just the fault of Barack Obama. George Bush is also culpable. But clearly, holding both men responsible for the destruction in Iraq is too far a leap in logic for most Republicans.

Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina describes the structured, non-varying way in which people understand stories as childish. When listening to stories, children, he writes in the Hudson Review, “get their kicks quite often out of sheer repetition rather than novelty or surprise.” This behavior doesn’t go away easily with old age. Molina says that “even though we assume ourselves to have become far more sophisticated, we stick to the same gut reaction when it comes to our most cherished narrative highs, so to speak.”

Nothing says “gut reaction” like vehemently denying Republicans share any blame for turning Iraq into an embattled shithole of a country. And this ideology doesn’t even apply to the bumbling former president. Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of fiscal conservatism, did nothing to actually curb the size and scope of government. No Republican since Harding has downsized the American state. If the GOP is the party of tightening purse straps, then Oscar Wilde is an exemplar of Victorian sexual modesty.

Democrats are worse about the party narrative they cling to. Listen to any Hillary-supporter for five minutes and they’ll tell you that F.D.R. saved capitalism, Lyndon Johnson defeated poverty, Barack Obama fixed our health care system, and Social Security is totally fine. None of that is true. But why interrupt the narrative? Dems also ignore the fact that their party is responsible for getting American embroiled in nearly every war of the 20th century. Party of peace, my ass.

Reagan and Roosevelt adoration are two sides of the same coin when it comes to American political mythology. Both sides of the aisle tell themselves romantic fantasies about their history. Neither wants to see the truth: Republicans and Democrats both stink like rotting garbage left out in the sun. And yet self-identifying party members vote straight ticket time and time again, with little introspection given as to why. They outright deny any wrongdoing by their party and blame the other side for all the country’s troubles. It provides a sense of identity, which is pretty damn pathetic given how grotesquely dumb government and politics are.

This shouldn’t be read as a jeremiad against the two-party duopoly of American politics. For several reasons, the American political system will always have two parties running the show. That shouldn’t stop voters from recognizing the flaws in their party of choice. The Iraq War was wrong, the welfare state is broke, and both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for the deterioration of the country. End of story. Instead of believing a fairy tale, the truth, no matter how disquieting, makes for a better read.

(Image source)

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