US Presidential Election 2012

Reality sweeps away Republican fantasies

Jonathan Schell considers how climate change made its presence felt at the US election and gave the lie to the Republicans' fantasy world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 3:14am

There is a kind of war under way in the US 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 the 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. Their conviction had no basis in poll results. Nevertheless, the feeling grew so strong that aides began to address Romney as "Mr President".

On election night, when the networks projected Obama's re-election, the Romney campaign refused to accept the result. A very awkward hour passed before he accepted reality.

The same disregard for reality has been the hallmark of the Republican Party in recent times. When the Bureau of Labour Statistics issued a report last month showing that the national unemployment rate remained "essentially unchanged at 7.9 per cent", Republican operatives sought to discredit the respected bureau. When polls showed Romney was falling behind, they sought to discredit the polls. When the non-partisan Congressional Research Service said a Republican tax plan would do nothing to foster economic growth, Republican senators muscled the service into withdrawing its report.

These refusals to accept matters of plain fact reflect a still wider pattern. Increasingly, the Republican 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 he thought were in Iraq; tax cuts eliminate budget deficits; Obama is not only a Muslim but was born in Kenya; and global warming is a hoax.

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 August. "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans," Romney said, and then paused. Laughter broke and built. Romney 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.

There was an astonishing sequel. Eight weeks later, Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey shore and New York City. Its four-metre surge of seawater was backed by the sea-level rise already caused by a century of global warming, and the storm's sweep and intensity was fuelled by a warming planet's warmer ocean waters. That tide of reality burst the bubble of Romney's campaign.

In the contest between fact and fantasy, fact suddenly had a powerful ally. The political map was subtly but consequentially redrawn.

The American political world - not only Republicans, but also Democrats - had fenced out huge, ominous realities. But those realities, as if responding, entered the fray. They voted early, and they may very well have swayed the outcome. Earth spoke, and Americans, for once, listened.

Jonathan Schell is a fellow at The Nation Institute and a visiting fellow at Yale University. Copyright: Project Syndicate