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Weep and move on

Every defeated party has to travel from denial to acceptance. At least in Mitt Romney’s case the loss was unequivocal, writes Jonathan Freedland.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2012 22:06 IST

My election night was spent among the grieving. Most didn’t know they were going to a wake when they headed to the grand ballroom of the Boston Convention Centre on Tuesday. On the contrary, they were dressed for a victory party. Before the first results trickled in, some even managed to smile. But within an hour or two, once the electoral map had turned Democratic blue where it was meant to go Republican red, the atmosphere turned funereal.

What began that night for the Republican Party is a process familiar to all who have observed an electoral defeat. Think of it as the political equivalent of the five stages of grief. The ones that trigger the deepest anguish are the serial defeats and the beatings you didn’t expect.

Whether personal or political, the first stage is denial. That emotion will forever be embodied by the electrifying sight of Karl Rove scolding Fox’s own number-crunchers for calling the election for Barack Obama, desperately pretending two plus two did not, in fact, equal four. Who knows, perhaps that slice of TV gold will be remembered as the moment when the American right finally gave up its war against maths, science and the reality-based community and realised that even the most zealous ideology must defer eventually to the facts. Perhaps not.

Next comes anger, often manifested in lashing out and blaming others. There was plenty of that in the ballroom, turned initially against what both the right and hostile left call “the mainstream media”. When Candy Crowley — the CNN anchor who had moderated the second TV debate, arbitrating at one crucial point in Obama’s favour — appeared on the TV screens, the Republicans in their suits and evening dresses began booing loudly. “It’s your fault!” they howled.

Since then, Republican fingers have pointed in a dozen other directions. At Obama for practising what Charles Krauthammer calls “the darker arts of public persuasion”; at the Mitt Romney campaign team, for promising a wave of “organic enthusiasm” among voters that failed to materialise; and at the candidate himself, for being too stiff, too north-eastern, too moderate under that fake conservative veneer. This is the familiar lament of just-defeated parties: that they did not suffer because they were too extreme, but because they were not extreme enough.

The third stage of grief is said to be bargaining, accepting that something has to change but seeking to delay or dilute what needs to be done. In politics, it’s the half-hearted attempt at reform, often preceded by a party embarking on a “listening tour” of the country that has rejected them. But it rarely goes the whole way. In the current Republican case, you can hear it in the time-honoured admission that “we didn’t get our message across” or “there is a perception problem”. The party agrees to tweak appearances, but remains unwilling to undertake deep reform.

After depression — common after a string of losses, such as the five defeats in the popular vote the Republicans have suffered in the last six presidential elections — comes acceptance. In politics, that usually means a recognition that the country you seek to lead has changed and that, therefore, you have to change with it, no matter how painful that process will be.

These shifts usually fall into two broad categories, though there is much overlap between them. The first is a change in attitudes: the party realises it has grown out of touch with what people think. Successive defeats in the 1980s demanded such a move on the centre-left in both Britain and the US, as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton moved to reassure mainstream voters their parties could, for example, be tough on crime.

Sometimes, however, the required shift is demographic, as a party has to catch up with a changing population: it has grown out of touch with who people are. Most often, this is the burden on conservatives. It fell on the Tories after three defeats at the hands of Tony Blair, — realising that, for example, younger Britons did not share their hostility to gay rights — and is the urgent task for today’s Republicans. Reliant on a shrinking base of older white voters, Romney was trounced among black, Latino and Asian Americans just as all those groups form an ever-expanding share of the US electorate. As former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd puts it, the Republicans are “a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America”.

Some think the remedy is cosmetic, that the problem will be solved by a mere change of personnel: David Cameron’s A-list after 2005 is matched by today’s Republican drumbeat for the Florida senator Marco Rubio to lead the party to salvation in 2016. But this goes deeper than a more diverse public face, though that certainly helps. (The only African American I spotted at the Romney victory party — and I looked hard — was the singer in the band.) It is also about speaking to those new, rising groups with respect — understanding, for example, that Hispanic or Asian Americans don’t share the visceral loathing of government that grips many white Republicans.

The curious problem for Britain’s political parties is that the 2010 election left no clear winner and, therefore, no crushed loser. Labour lost, but it did not absorb into its marrow the pain of defeat. That left Ed Miliband uncertain whether he needed to make wholesale change or simply rely on one more heave — and denied him the emotional mandate for the former option even if he chose it. Paradoxically, given that they lead the government, the last election left the Tories in a similar limbo.

Perhaps this will be small consolation to the Republicans in their grief, but at least they lost clearly and undeniably. Now they need to weep and move on.

The Guardian