Overview:

Republicans like to think they are better at taking on what is most in voters' faces. Critical thinkers know we must go farther and deeper to understand society's problems and devise enduring solutions.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, I saved the most cocksure red-wave predictions flooding my inbox with the intention of re-reading them after polls and speculation had given way to actual voting.

Lots of experts and pundits have been busy eating crow and wiping egg off their faces. But one piece of writing has stood out for me, not only for how wrong it turned out to be (not entirely the writer’s fault given polling data), but for how much it surfaces about the conceits and fantasies of today’s Republican party and, if you want to go deeper, the current epistemological crisis.

Two weeks before the election, USA Today columnist Ingrid Jacques focused her newsletter on her native Oregon. The state’s beauty, she observed, had become increasingly tarnished by “the homeless,” who “turn city sidewalks or natural areas into garbage-filled dumps, where drug use and crime are rampant.”

“It’s a huge problem, and it’s the No. 1 issue on Oregonians’ minds as they head into the midterm elections,” she asserted. “It’s also the first time in 40 years that it looks like a Republican may have a strong shot at becoming governor.”

As we now know, the Democrat, Tina Kotek, was heading to victory in that race. But there’s more.

“Voters are leaning increasingly red,” Jacques wrote. “In states around the country, whether Arizona, Michigan or Oregon, voters are looking for candidates who embrace the issues they care most about. For most people, that’s inflation and the economy.” 

“Democrats want you to view the midterms as a referendum on ‘democracy’ and abortion because they don’t want to talk about the problems they’ve helped create. People care most about the issues right in front of them, and Republicans are doing a better job at addressing these concerns head-on.” (Italics mine.)

Let’s start with the air quotes around “democracy.” Apparently, Dems have been imagining the menacing attempt by Trump and many members of his party to overturn a presidential election on the basis of fabricated fraud.

Is abortion not “in front of” people? For those directly affected, who are having to go through with dangerous pregnancies or travel great distances for abortions, the issue is not merely in front of them. It’s literally in their bodies!

But what cries out loudest for unpacking is the columnist’s assertion that voters care most about “the issues in front of them” and Republicans do a better job at addressing them.

As if that were true.

As if it were a good thing to engage public life with a focus on what’s “in front” of us.

Much of what today’s GOP says and does is based not on hard facts and observable reality but on exaggerations, distortions, and faux crises born in anxious imaginations and conservative politicians’ need to whip up fear and anxiety for electoral gain.

Real: A climate crisis that’s manifesting ever more tangibly in storms, wildfires, and scorching temperatures? Yet the GOPers have scarcely word to say about it.

Not real: Rampant voter fraud and rigged elections. Yet claims of such evil deeds fuel Trumpism and the party the defeated ex-president has held in thrall.

Whether it’s fear-mongering about “wokeism” that supposedly teaches people to hate their country, about a push by the “radical left” to turn boys into girls, or about COVID vaccines that are purportedly more dangerous than the disease they protect against, Republicans constantly pump their constituents full of anger-inducing falsity and distortions.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Jacques’ assertion is true and the Republicans are the party with a better grip on what’s in front of us. Is that even a good thing?

Take those people without homes whose presence sullies Oregon’s beauty in the eyes of the USA Today columnist. Yes, as I can attest from having lived in Portland, there are lots of unhoused people in plain sight, as there are in many other cities around the country. If we’re going to look at what’s in front of us, the problem is simple and the solution clear: “The homeless” are an eyesore. Get rid of them.

Too many immigrants coming into the country? Build a wall.

Inflation running too hot? Punish the president and his party.

We need to go beyond surface manifestations and the simplistic solutions to which they lead. We need to engage sources and causes, not symptoms.

If citizens are alarmed by the presence of homeless people in their community, what are they going to do to address the lack of affordable housing? If a country feels “invaded” by migrants and refugees, what is it doing to understand why people are fleeing their own lands and how they themselves are contributing to the root causes? With climate change promising to create more and more refugees, it’s hard to imagine a more pressing question than that.

There’s an epistemic arrogance in believing only what we can see. Take New York Times columnist Bret Stephens—a climate crisis “agnostic” until he made a trip to Greenland to see for himself how much the glaciers had melted.

If it’s going to take helicopter rides to the Jakobshavn Glacier and the like to get self-professed “scoffers” like Stephens to accept the enormity and urgency of the climate crisis, action to confront it is going to proceed at a truly “glacial” pace.

Carbon in the atmosphere? Who sees any carbon?

Seriously, if we’re going on the basis of what we see in front of us, why not go all the way and embrace flat-Earth theories? After all, I can see that the ground I tread is flat. And my common sense tells me that if the Earth were a ball in co-called space like the elites contend, I’d obviously have fallen off.

In defense of Ingrid Jacques, it must be said that she is far from alone in predicting a strong GOP showing and buying into the conceit that the GOP is the hard-headed party that’s willing to take on concrete problems. There’s not enough space in this column to list the many others whose pre-election assessments now look embarrassing for their surfeit of confidence and deficit of accuracy. Truth be told, I myself have written many a thing that does not hold up well in the light of 20-20 hindsight. The notion of the Republicans being the party of practicality and realism is something I’ve been hearing my whole political life. (Never has it been less true.)

As for what’s “in front” of us, it’s true that citizens should not ignore or over-complicate problems and threats that are plain to see. Endless analysis breeds paralysis.

But humanists and seculars know there is usually more than meets the eye. We know we must go farther and deeper—we must grapple with problems and solutions in their full complexity—if we’re going to get anywhere in creating the fair, humane world we long for.

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...