The Human Condition:

Once Again Contrary – January 24, 2021

Stampeding horses

Once again, I find myself taking the contrarian position.1 When everyone is going in a certain direction, when the “popular wisdom” is pointing most definitely toward a certain conclusion, when the public choir has reached its perfect pitch, I tend to step out of line and sit down. My first question is usually, “Well, what about … [fill in the blank]?”

I feel this most strongly right now on the political scene. We are seeing an avalanche of opinion in the popular press and punditry that the conservative viewpoint is the voice of the fascist, undemocratic mob, of howling devils incarnate (including the one wearing a painted face and fur hat with buffalo horns), who would bring down the country in favor of an angry right-wing coup. And, as someone who has always skated toward the middle of a very broad political spectrum—although about three points out of a hundred to the right of center in any of those once ubiquitous online tests—I say it is not so.

If you look at the votes, this country is fairly evenly divided between the Left and the Right. That’s three million votes, give or take, either way, in a voting population of 161 million eligible Americans. This is within the margin of error for any reasonable projection—which is why polling is so difficult and unreliable these days. Neither of the two main political parties has achieved a landslide victory in any national race in the last couple of decades—not in my memory since the Reagan years, and that was after a decade of political turmoil and economic stagnation. Since then, the votes have been a lot closer.

Yes, in 2020 there were sudden changes in the voting laws, largely due to the pandemic, that offered incentives for fraud over in-person voting. And yes, there were many instances of suspicious behavior in the battleground states. Whether these were part of a larger conspiracy or just the usual isolated attempts at manipulation that have also been common for the last couple of decades, who can say? Also, whether the irregularities were enough to swing the election away from the conservative candidate and his party, again who can say? I think there have been claims and lies, coverups and failures to investigate, to an extent equal or greater than the original infractions. I don’t trust any of the media anymore, from the Left or the Right.

And that’s where my contrarian instinct comes alive, like a warning. When the stridency, the certainty, and the outright noise level rises so high, when emotions are driving the resolutions, I get suspicious. Reasonable discussion and evaluation has gone out the window. When the mainstream media is buttressing its rejection of any claims about electoral fraud, decorating its reporting with adverbial phrases like “totally no evidence” and “absolutely none,” then I think they’re tapdancing too hard.2 And when the alternative, right-wing media starts focusing on statistical anomalies and mathematical probabilities in the vote counts, rather than the red-handed capture of felons followed by admission wrongdoing, then I think they’re reaching too far.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump is an unlovely character. He was a real-estate promoter who focused on trophy properties and the appearance of grand excess, a television personality who claimed to represent the height of business acumen but who relished humiliating people and yelling, “You’re fired!” Still, his brash style and plain talk—maybe not always sensible or factually provable, but always clear about the intent of his feelings—appealed to a great many people who had grown tired of the mellifluous preachments and posturings of Barack Obama.

The trouble was, Donald Trump had been the chief executive of a one-man corporation. Sure, he had hundreds of people building and running his hotels and casinos. But he never had to deal with a board of directors or an employee base who stood in opposition to his plans and programs, never had to compromise from a position of weakness to achieve his goals. That failed to prepare him for American politics, especially in this age of bitter contest, where every move ahead is won by compromise with the dedicated opposition. In addition, like a neophyte, he turned every challenge into a personal attack, instead of deflecting it back onto the underlying values and facts that would support his positions. He made himself a target, which no practiced politician would ever do. Sad, really. And his actions at the end, challenging the vote without ever getting into court, so that he looked like a sore loser and got deeper and deeper in the hole at every turn, let the media play him for a petulant fool. Even if there was election fraud, he now looks like the loser who tried to stage a coup d’état.

I’m not here to defend Donald Trump. But my “truth sense” is violated by the sweeping allegations now being made in the press—even by some on the right—that the last five weeks have somehow invalidated the conservative position. That the people who were saying “Now wait a minute!” about the progressive march to the left—toward higher taxes, increased national debt, more invasive government regulation, and contempt for traditional values3—have been proven wrong because of the Republican losses in closely contested elections across the nation, and then by the President’s challenges and the thousand or so protestors—out of a rally attended by tens of thousands—who walked into the Capitol Building. Half the population, those in the middle and on the right, have not been made into fools and buffoons by these relatively isolated and easily disparaged actions.

Indeed, the fact that I have drifted to the right in my personal views over the years is a contrarian sign. The mainstream media—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the news departments of the alphabet networks ABC, CBS, and NBC—have all drifted leftward in my political lifetime. They now openly question the legitimacy of any kind of “objectivity” in journalism while simultaneously claiming to present “the truth.” You can’t have it both ways. So my contrary nature moves correspondingly to the right.

Not, however, to the fantasy “alt-right” of Nazi sympathizers, Klan activists, Confederate flag wavers, and supposed Christian theocrats. Such people might exist, somewhere, in closets and cornfields across America, but their numbers are vanishingly small—in inverse proportion to their penchant for coming out in marches and getting themselves photographed. Most of the “right wing” people I know are householders and family members who are basically trying to survive, teach their children honest values, and be good citizens. And, oh yes, they pay taxes and believe in and defend the Constitution. They want the vote to be honest, even if a candidate of the Left wins.

The part of all this that has me worried is that I believe the middle in this country, the moderate view, is very strong. As I believe that the people on the Right of Center despise the clowns with their face paints and buffalo hats, Confederate flags, and Nazi salutes, so I hope that the people on the Left of Center despise the people who would harvest and backdate ballots, manipulate the vote, and walk off grinning. I hope that the Left wants the vote to be honest, even if a candidate of the Right wins. I hope that most of us in this country just want to survive, teach our children, be good citizens, pay taxes, and defend the Constitution. I listen for the reasonable voices of the middle saying, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, “a plague on both your houses.”

And I’m not hearing it. So, like the Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land, I want to turn myself “ninety degrees from everything else” and disappear. I’m that upset.

1. See, for example, On Being Contrarian from January 13, 2013, and On the Virtues of Being a Contrarian from January 11, 2015. I’ve taken this position most of my life, as a reading of these previous essays will show. And, from their dates, the impulse seems to come out most strongly in January.

2. In reporting on the claims of election fraud, I note the absence of the word “alleged.” These are all claims of alleged fraud, aren’t they? Use of the word would suggest the claims are still to be proven in court. But in popular parlance and in most journalism these days, alleged has become a verbal fig leaf, a wink and a nod toward something taken as generally understood—as in, “we all know the defendant is guilty as charged, but we’ll talk about his alleged crimes up until the point we convict him.” In the case of the election, however, the media has closed ranks and won’t extend the word alleged, because there never will be any testing of these claims in court. So claims of fraud have to be characterized as baseless, unfounded, a total fairytale—and there the story sits for all eternity.

3. It’s not that conservatives want no taxes, social services, or government regulations. It’s just that we believe a reasonable line can be drawn beyond which the burdens of government intervention in daily life stifle personal initiative and stagnate the economy.