I never watch the party conventions. I don’t pay attention to political speeches even when they’re of potential historical significance (my high school American history teacher frowned at us when no one in the class had watched Bush’s speech announcing the Iraq War, but I was and am unrepentant), so I’m certainly not going to watch a convention. Journalists provide breathless coverage of the conventions because they’re one of the key rituals of the election calendar, but like most rituals they have no evident impact on real-world events. Pundits spend a lot of time debating whether this or that will “move the needle,” even though they know any shifts in polling will be fleeting. That’s especially true of Biden vs. Trump, where the polling has been remarkably stable for months. This is deeply frustrating to horse race journalists, for whom the story of an election year is not who wins and what the consequences of that victory will be in the following four years, but the ebb and flow of the campaign itself. They’re like food service workers chatting about how bad the lunch rush was that day, because it’s there to talk about, not because it’s going to have any effect on annual profits.
Given a Republican convention renominating Donald Trump, the effects of this approach are disconcerting, to say the least. That pundits can with watch a performance that alternates between obvious violations of federal law and chants of “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood” and respond with “Interesting strategy, let’s see how it plays in the Midwestern battlegrounds” is a major part of why we’re in this mess in the first place. In 2016 the press abrogated their duty to treat Trump’s conduct as dangerous because they were so certain the voters would reject him that they scrutinized Hillary Clinton as if she were the president-elect; now that Trump is the incumbent they’re so desperately afraid of getting it wrong again that they actively look for opportunities to treat as a serious contender an incumbent who’s badly behind in the polls and is currently bungling multiple national crises. This is an outgrowth of the ingrained belief that being allied with neither political party is the same as being neutral. But of course it isn’t that simple. Speculating endlessly about the existence of shy Trump voters gives intellectual cover to people who might otherwise have decided that he deserves to be despised. Repeating “Trump could still turn it around” often enough can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The latest flurry of panic is about a single post-convention poll in which Trump is up by two points, and about the possibility that the ongoing violence and unrest in Wisconsin might benefit him. There are arguments against this panic (it’s one poll that still shows him down by six at what should be his high-water mark, the previous round of protests and looting in May hurt rather than helped him), but here’s the reality: nobody really knows what effect anything will have. The single most important lesson of 2016 is not about racism or economic anxiety or sexism or the Midwest or the Electoral College or Russia. It’s about how little is predictable in a hyper-polarized environment where people are constantly bombarded with information from dozens of different low-quality sources. Pundits have learned to give the impression that they’re savvy, but all they really know how to do is make facile comparisons to previous election cycles. The favorites right now, for obvious reasons, are 1968, when a Republican won during a time of unrest by making law and order one of his slogans, and 1988, when the Republicans kept the White House after a Democratic challenger who was painted as soft on crime collapsed in the polls following the Republican convention.
Someone remarked on Twitter recently that the Trump era has given the left an insight into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety. (I won’t even get into what it’s done to those of us who were already chronically anxious.) Perhaps the most important thing about coping with anxiety is learning not to let it paralyze you, because then your paralysis is just one more thing to be anxious about. When you allow a piece of news that might be good for Donald Trump to stop you from working to defeat him, you’re guaranteeing that it’s good news for him. And the upside of “nobody knows anything” is that most good news in a competitive election is equivocal. Take those historical comparisons. What if the best comparisons are not 1968 and 1988, but 1992, when a summer of unrest was followed by the ouster of a Republican incumbent, and 1980, when an incumbent who squeaked into office against an unpopular opponent lost resoundingly? And what if the parallel to 1968 is not “the Republican wins” but “the challenger who was vice-president to an extremely popular president wins because the incumbent couldn’t maintain order”?
I have no idea what’s going to happen in November. Nor does anyone else. The left should be preparing itself both psychologically and practically for the possibility of a loss, because that’s what everyone should do before every presidential election. But it should also be preparing itself for, and working to ensure, a victory. It’s hard to stay positive these days; the fact that this election is within ten points is depressing for anyone with a progressive sense of what this country should stand for. But you have to fight the war where the front lines are today, not where you’d like them to be tomorrow. One way or another, this moment will pass; to give in to a sense of defeat is to surrender your chance to influence the moment that will follow.