The Triumph of Reason? by Guy Rundle

Coming out of the DC subway at Federal Triangle on election night, I checked the news headlines on my phone and cursed. Half-past nine and it might be all over. Having been en route to a media centre to file a first report, I’d stopped off at a couple of bars to get some local colour, roaring supporters and the like—Capitol Square, a Republican one where the boys all wear the blue suit-red tie-white shirt uniform, and the twenty-year old girls are in pearls and satin cocktail dresses, like they were posing for 50s cookbook illustrations. They were pumped there, at first drinks, ready for a win. At the Democratic hang called, inevitably, Busboys and Poets, it’s all Zooey Deschanel big glasses, kooky beads and black bangs. And the women are even worse. Everyone’s too tense to touch their microbrew pilsner, the chai is going cold. Everywhere, everyone thinks it’ll be a long night, and maybe go into the morning, there might be vote stealing, lawyers, the Bush vs Gore nightmare redux. I go into the subway thinking I’ve got hours, and when I come out again the first returns show Obama taking a fast lead in all the swing states. Barring a real statistical fluke, it’s on the way to being all over. In the night, DC swims around you, buildings bright white, city of stone and broad avenues, an early monument to enlightenment. The dome of Congress is in front of you, the sharpened, spike/ obelisk/ Masonic fetish of the Washington monument behind, towering suddenly as you turn. Would you ever get used to that, living here, living in a monument to reason and revolution, these grand gestures set in marble and alabaster? Knowing all one knows it can’t help but stir the most extraordinary contradictory emotions. In the streets around, students, kids, in twos and threes are coming out, turning into and up Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s quarter to ten and people are already heading to the White House, and there’s no blue suits or pearls to be seen.

As it would turn out, it wasn’t even close. By eight-thirty it was clear that the vote was trending towards Obama in every swing state save North Carolina. Those that occasionally wandered into Romney territory as a chunk of rural or white suburban votes came in, soon went back again. The crowds heading towards the White House, were re-enacting 2008, sort of. Then, it had been an eviction party, with Dubya in the House, the light on in the porch, and a whole era being drummed out on dustbins. Now, the place was empty, with Obama in Chicago gearing up to give a speech to a packed stadium, and this was just, well, it could not not be done, not not be marked thusly. The crowd gathering would all have some mixed feelings about Barack Obama’s record, about whether he could have pushed through a better recovery with a bigger and fairer stimulus package, could have got a genuinely public health system—and no one here would really want to think about drone warfare, the lethal payloads, piloted from New Jersey, coming over the hills in a half-dozen countries. Desperate compromises must be made in progressive American politics, everyone knows that. The ‘imperial’ parts of Obama’s first term are simply paying the piper. It’s the domestic achievements that are core.


And somehow, to many, this seems the greater victory. There is no second victory without the first, but the second changes the meaning of the first, gives it retrospective solidity. Yet perhaps what was most amazing of all about November 6, 2012, was not victory against the odds, but the fact that it had gone exactly as forecast.


Obama may have been the victor, but everyone feels it as a victory for a huge progressive movement, for a whole sensibility, for reason itself. It’s an election that has seen not only a more-or-less medieval view of women and wider society emerge, but one in which the Right had become increasingly hostile to the very process of reasoning itself, especially as the polls turned bad for them. At that point, they began to talk about ‘skewed’ polls, ‘gut’ feelings, and secret knowledge—giving everyone the fear that, against all odds, they knew something we didn’t, or that, in the case of a close election, the fix would be in.


The Right had particular scorn for Nate Silver, the ubergeek, a statistician whose ‘538’ column/blog in the New York Times had used mathematical modelling to determine that Obama had a 91.3 per cent chance of winning, the states he would get, and by how much—to the guffaws of the right everywhere, until midnight of the day, when it became clear that Silver had picked the table. The day after, as FOX News and the rest of the Conservosphere licked their wounds, Silver became a sort of quasi-deified culture hero. In the face of right-wing hacks such as Karl Rove and Dick Morris promising a Romney landslide that would deliver hitherto safe Democrat states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan to the Republican fold, nervous progressives checked Silver’s 538 blog daily, then hourly, for reassurance. This was science after all, meta-analysis, the sort of thing most people used as a matter of course in their work. Surely it couldn’t be wrong? Republicans talked of their ‘gut’ feeling, of systemic ‘skewing’ of the polls to favour Democrats, and the bluff tone characteristic of the Right spooked the gentler, more diffident progressives. Surely they, the roaring beasts, couldn’t be right again?


They weren’t of course. They weren’t even close. Indeed their hubris had been so genuine that when Ohio fell to the Democrats, giving Obama the election, chaos ensued on FOX News as some of the panellists—Karl Rove chief among them—refused to accept the result. As Rove trotted out figures from obscure Ohio precincts that would turn the result, even blond-valkyrie host Megyn Kelly lost her patience, asking: ‘is this real, or is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?’ On the left, everyone breathed easier, and the election was called. As the comedian Bill Maher noted, among other things it was a victory for arithmetic. In the days ensuing, exultant progressives would fuse together the Obama triumph, the Nate Silver vindication and a host of ‘special measures’ laws—marijuana legalisation, same-sex marriage, a reversal of the ‘three-strikes’ law—and it was then that the ‘triumph of reason’ claim was taken up seriously. They spoke truer than they knew – and it is not merely reason, but the type of reason that triumphed that gives us a clue to the character of the current era.


In the simplest possible terms, such an analysis cannot be seriously doubted. Two thousand and twelve was the year that the US version of social conservatism completely fell apart. It occurred three years after the rise of the hard right ‘Tea Party’, a part grassroots, part engineered populist group, who had put immense pressure on Republican congresspeople and Senators—who must face primary selection at each re-election attempt—to maintain a free-market stance in economics, and a social and religious policy of Puritan censoriousness, and a commitment above all, to ‘life’. Where Republicans would not toe the line—such as the moderate Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana—they were forced out, and replaced by Tea Party candidates. Mitt Romney, who had been a pro-choice centre-right moderate as governor of Massachusetts, shifted right to accommodate them in the primaries, and stayed there.


Such an internal party coup looked spectacular, but it was in reality the result of a decades-long process in which the religious Right—spurning the decadent secularism of post-60s America—had created a parallel social structure. Kids were home-schooled, in large networks that came to include up to 10 per cent of school-age children in some parts of the South, and went on to study at private ‘universities’—really, former Bible colleges permitted to upgrade through educational deregulation. Their worship was at megachurches, their entertainment Christian cable TV and awful ‘christrock’ music, their news channel FOX. Their home-schools shunned not only Darwin, but Copernicus, teaching ‘geocentrism’ as a model of the universe. The totality of such belief made squaring away other inconvenient evidence, such as that for global warming, a piece of pie. The earth was the Lord’s and all that therein is, so how could there be any contradiction between its separate parts? For decades such people had been constrained by establishment Republicans into minor positions, or the assemblies of southern states. After 2010, they could no longer do so.


So even though it surprised many, it was inevitable that there would eventually emerge someone, such as Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, to say that there was no need to have a ‘rape or incest’ exception to a ban on abortion because, in cases of ‘legitimate (sic) rape’, ‘a woman’s body has ways of shutting that whole thing [conception, presumably] down’. Nor was it any surprise that it was followed by remarks from the candidate who replaced Richard Lugar, Richard Mourdock, who noted that the child of rape was a ‘gift from God’ no matter how terrible the circumstances of its conception. That was added to by Joe Walsh, who noted that, given the advances in medical science, ‘the life of the mother’ rule no longer applied, as no lives were at risk.


This trio of responses may have been sufficient to lose Mitt Romney the election, but what is important is not their extreme sanction against abortion, but the recourse to pseudo-science. Such fantastical ideas about physiology had been circulated by the religious right for years—it was only now that people were hearing them. They were identical to the self-serving pseudo-science of climate change denialism, but whereas lay people could not judge competing versions of the abstract science of climatology, they knew medieval ideas about the body when they saw them. When Akin’s remarks first hit the news, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. He was running in a tight race against Claire McAskill, a Democrat who had moved to the centre-Right, to accommodate an increasingly conservative state. Such remarks, and his abandonment by the Republican party, should have been sufficient to sink him. Instead, he sailed on, raising money, and polling neck-and-neck with McAskill. Suddenly it dawned on many progressives—this sort of fantasy was insufficient of itself to disqualify a candidate from consideration. He, and Mitt Romney, could both prevail on such terms.


In retrospect, it would come to be seen that such remarks were part of a whole, a decline or disinclination among sections of the Right in their ability to use the most basic reality-testing procedures of science to guide effective action—rather than a more traditional religious/reactionary horror at the feminine (though there was plenty of that too). Such an approach would come to dominate their rhetoric on budgeting and economics, some of it the familiar optimistic counting of politics, but an increasing amount of it utterly delusional, in a way that could not be explained by political self-interest alone. From their projections of a renewed US fossil fuel self-sufficiency in eight years, to savings of $5 trillion through ‘closing tax loopholes’ while cutting taxes, balancing the budget and increasing military spending, the contradictory nature of Republican promises acquired a giddy air, beyond all plausibility. They combined a fierce free-market approach, with a crude anti-China rhetoric, touching on nativism, hidden behind the idea of making China ‘play fair’. In the last week, they ran an ad in Ohio arguing that Chrysler—that the Obama administration had bailed out and revived—had been ‘sold to Italians who are now building jeeps in China’. In fact, Chrysler had merely expanded its domestic market production in China; its huge Toledo plant was staying put. Reasonable gamesmanship one might say—except that the swing-vote areas it was trying to influence were centred around Toledo. The personal on-the-ground knowledge that Jeep production had not been moved was disregarded.


By this point in the campaign, the majority of polls and meta-polls were pointing to a narrow 1-2 per cent lead for Obama, which would translate to a solid victory, given the electoral college system. In such circumstances it is usual for a party to switch from claiming underdog status, to talking up a narrow victory, so as to mobilise voters. In this instance, right-wing pundits overshot the mark, to tell tales of a staggering, liberalism-repudiating landslide. They were not merely certain of it, they were giddy about it, slightly manic on TV. Nate Silver’s ‘538’ model, a standard statistical process for minimising error in fields as wide as geology and marketing, was then attacked, not merely for its methodology, but for its very systematicity. It was wonkish and alien to the real process. Having rejected applied abstract science, then observable medical science, the Right had reached their omega point, the rejection of mathematical reasoning. It was they who defined the election as one of reason versus being, in a revived right-wing irrationalist tradition. The talk was of ‘gut’; it was not a long way from talk of ‘blood’. Science was the possession not merely of the nerds, but of the multiculturally diverse world from which they sprung; it was their language, possession and habitus. The Right would use the polls all right but they would apply to them aged conservative wisdom about human nature and seeing what’s in front of your nose. Mitt Romney was drawing huge crowds, especially when he appeared with his exoskeletal fitness-fanatic Ayn-Rand worshipping veep candidate Paul Ryan; Obama’s crowds were a fraction of 2008. You didn’t want to get bamboozled by abstract numbers.


Nor did you want to be a Republican political consultant on Wednesday 7 November. As not merely the political results became clear—a Democratic gain of two in a Senate they thought they might lose control of, only one of eight swing states lost—so too did the psephelogical result. Nate Silver’s ‘538’ had come out trumps—but so too had a range of meta-polls, and even sufficiently well-designed first-order polling. Gaps between the forecast and the result that had once been characteristic of polling—the Right loved harking back to the Reagan victory of 1980, when a potential cliffhanger had turned into a landslide—had disappeared as both the technology, i.e. readily available computing power, and the theory, successive reflexive reshaping of data gathering and analysis, had improved. The relationship between social life and social knowledge had qualitatively changed. That was bad news for a party that harboured many members who believed the earth was six thousand years old.


The rejoicing at a simple victory for reason and a liberal public sphere was understandable, driven as it was by relief. The prospect of a world where maths failed but Todd Akin triumphed, was a disturbing one. Yet in their rejoicing at the victory of reason, many would not have reflected upon the character of the process they were marshalling. For Nate Silver’s magical hammer of numbers was part of a much larger arsenal of social data technologies that the progressive side of politics had been developing in earnest since 2004. The Democratic effort to get out the vote in swing states had been shaped by a combination of depth polling on a massive scale, and large scale quantitative polling.


In Ohio, a base group of more than 30,000 people were tracked over time for their attitudes, responses, opinions, changing life circumstances, thus generating a model of the state’s voter base with an extremely small error ratio. Around that, a much larger database assessed the basic political orientation, voting frequency (and willingness to donate) in the whole state. Put together, the two processes spat out microscaled responses to television and other advertising, to dominant issues, and lists of voters for volunteers to contact in person. The lists themselves were often-counterintuitive. On the road with one team in Ohio, we logged dozens of miles finding clusters of houses among the exurbs of Columbus, the program having given us only those who could be got out to vote Democrat, or (much more rarely) a swing voter open to persuasion, and only in clusters that made it worthwhile. The system was accurate enough—a wrong house here, someone long since moved on there—one housing estate was bypassed, not the condo block next to it, six house here, four flats there.


The days of doing it street-by-street, even in the most sympathetic of neighbourhoods, were long gone. The canvassers were even instructed not to use too much initiative—by trying to persuade a passer-by, for example. For after all, what if they’re a Romney supporter, turned from a potential voter into a certain one? Canvassing has always involved such calculations, but this model removed all but the most vestigial initiative from it. The closer the Republicans got to the real—the gut feeling that comes from a rally, a walkabout, enthusiastic passers-by—the further they were from what was happening. The more abstract the Democrats’ model became, the closer they got to being able to shape concrete processes. The Republicans had no exact counterpart to this—only a late get out the vote system/network called Orca, which many volunteers found unusable, and which crashed for ninety minutes on election day.


C’est magnifique, the Democrats operation, but it is clearly not politics—if by that word we mean activity in the polis, involving multiple modes of direct engagement, from dialogue to lethal violence—between citizens who comport to each other as subjects, or ensembles of such. Rather, the Democrats have shaped and reshaped a process by which the the analogue flow of human subjectivity is digitised and spat back out to guide campaigning. It not only conforms political activity to the processes of the knowledge economy—reshaped from the industrial economy where intellectual and material reshaping commingled—but also provides a form of interaction with the social whole that is ‘natural’ to the rising class that forms the bulk of its activists, cultural and knowledge producers, and activist leaders from other classes that are trained in its methods. It would be foolish to say that this is the only process that returned the Democrats to power—it exists within a vast enterprise of more traditional community activism by hundreds of groups—but it’s a process that delivered a victory that many in the inner core of the party regarded (somewhat smugly) as virtually certain. That is not surprising if you think of the digitised voting operation and meta-polling as in some sense, two ends of the same process. It was no surprise then, that several old political hands, above and beyond the result itself, expressed disquiet at what politics would become, if such accuracy held. If it does, then such sentiments would be more than mere nostalgia for the days of public meetings and barrels of salted pork.


But there is yet a more sinister dimension to the ruthless application of digitised reason, and that is to suggest that some of the policies that Barack Obama’s most fervent supporters find abhorrent may not be anomolous, but to some degree dictated by the processes of such digital politics. Take that most potent of images of this moment, the lethal drone. For future generations, the Obama Presidency may be remembered as much for that as for healthcare, the inauguration of genuine ‘post war’, in that deterritorialised military action can be conducted to an expansive degree. Within a moral utilitarian perspective, one that brooks no cultural or existential absolutes, it can be justified; in its disregard for borders, and its absence of ethnocentric obsessions about nation-building, exceptionalism and ‘last best hope of humanity’, it is admirably globalised, fluid, rhizomatic and multitudinous; in its blind indifference to the character of those on the other end, it is multiculturally diverse. But above all it is data-driven, a pin-point response to clusters, targeted not for canvassing but for kaos; the kill-list is spat out the same way as the voting list, a confluence based on data of activities and affinities, with accuracy that is ‘good enough’—for those at one end of the process anyway.


The drone campaign is not Barack Obama’s continuation of a Bush-era extension of power save in the most general sense—what American president, William Henry Harrison aside, did not deliver lethal force to outsiders?—it is a reconstruction of American power projection, subsuming some of the things that Donald Rumsfeld wanted to achieve (a smaller, expert army, a meshing of tech and power) but found beyond his abilities. There has been little domestic outrage or manifestation against the campaign, not merely because of the free pass that some left-of-centre leaders get on such questions, but because its manner of constructing and executing reality fits so seamlessly into the framework of the knowledge / cultural / progressivist / activist groups, that it loses all power to outrage. Most likely, it will garner American protest, only when its ‘no borders’ approach has provoked enough visible global opposition to render it counter-productive—by which time it may have largely succeeded in its aims. No matter how much the Obama team stumble along the way, they always deliver. In the last half dozen years they have refounded the Democratic Party as a political unit, and shattered the Republicans, the political expression of a material-civilisational shift.


Prior to any moral assessment, one has to simply assess the dimension of the achievement. Indeed, but for Mitt Romney’s stalling on concession, it would have been over by midnight. Even so, when I left the office, the metro was still running. It’s a strange place, the DC metro. Whoever designed it is some sort of contrarian genius, for, from the shining white stone streets and even boulevards of the City, the monumental circles and triangles, domes and cylinders, worshipful arithmetic of enlightenment, one descends into a grey concrete hell, a dim Piranesian underground, huge long vaults patterned with enormous diveted blocks, all brushed concrete and cones of darkness between the few lights. Escalators seem to hang in mid-air. Trains arrive without a sound, splashes of orange and then are gone, and then the shadows grow back again, until you get where you’re going, and re-emerge into the white city.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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