Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

Why Arbagast Lost

A voter sits outside a polling center. (Reuters: Tommy Martino)

It’s difficult to write an election piece for a fortnightly journal. Much better to predict from a distance, lest events prove you wrong and erode your credibility. If I had any, I’d worry.

The week before the election, you get stories like this:

“Democrats are fired up because the Kavanaugh hearings reminded them how Merrick Garland had been drawn and quartered on the Senate floor, his head placed on a pike outside the White House as a lesson to all. The Democrats hold an advantage in the generic ballot, and while the GOP holds an advantage in the prescription ballot, observers say the midterms will come down to several key elections in certain states.”

Uh-huh. Don’t get vertigo out there on that limb, friend. You also get the Full Steam Ahead types on the radio:

“I don’t believe the polls! The polls were wrong in 1896 when they said Ezekial Arbagast would trounce Byron Munnybagg, but when the smoke cleared he’d won! Mostly because Munnybagg burned Arbagast’s ballots, hence the smoke, but you know, in those days we didn’t mind a little smoke — now you’d have the EPA on you as well as the FEC, just like you got Google and Facebook squashing conservatives, but when Gallup has the GOP down across the board, the Washington Post is all over that and never mentions how its owner Jeff Bezos not only hates Trump but hired the Muslim Brotherhood guy we’re supposed to mourn because he disappeared in Turkey. And, say, you know what goes great with turkey? Yams. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that extract of yams can make you feel great. Here’s a letter from Marcia of New Rochelle, who’s been spreading UltraYam paste on her joints for a week.”

Then there are the academics on NPR:

“Yes, well, to be sure, the 1896 congressional election in Nebraska was something of a surprise at the time, but now we have the benefit of seeing deep undercurrents that would reshape American politics around the issues of race, class, and gender. Arbagast was the last gasp of the Know-Next-to-Nothing party, a political movement that had split from the Know-Nothings, and would soon be eclipsed by the confident swagger of the Know-Quite-a-Lot-Thank-You-Very-Much party. Then there was Munnybagg’s position on the Tin Standard, and the famous speech in which he said he would not be crucified on a cross of tin, because it would probably bend and fall over and he’d be stuck face down, which didn’t make him any friends among the Masonic elements that dominated small-town politics.”

Host: “And of course there were the burned ballots.”

Academic: “Yes, that was a factor.”

Host: “Let’s go to a call. Bob, from Throggs Neck — sorry, that’s Throgg from Bob’s Neck, am I right?”

Throgg: “Your guest makes an interesting point about the Know-Next-to-Nothing party, but wasn’t the real issue in Arbagast’s defeat the prejudice against his religion? I believe his opponent made accusations of ‘rank popery.’”

Guest: “Actually, he said ‘rank potpourri,’ referring to Arbagast’s well-known love of strong cologne, and yes, that was a factor, and I think we see that today with the president personally attacking people, which is why the polls, I think, reflect a general surge to the Democrats, who most people say smell better than Donald Trump.”

If the election is a squeaker, great amounts of hay will be made either way.

The Democrats: “A nationwide repudiation has given us the right — nay, the solemn obligation — to impeach the usurper, reverse every judicial appointment he has made, impose the Paris climate agreement, ban cars, extend Medicaid to everyone, raise taxes, and invest the money in a funicular railway that transports people from Central America to Texas to become instant citizens eligible for the new Unearned-Income Tax Credit! The president is a dangerous authoritarian, and the only rational solution is to rip the nation several dozen new apertures, that the tentacles of the state might find purchase therein!”

If the GOP holds the Senate, commentators will say it’s a sign that this unrepresentative institution is unfit for the 21st century. If the GOP holds the House, the Left will blame voter suppression and point to a flier someone nailed to a phone pole in Biloxi that said illegal aliens can’t vote. It created a climate of fear, unlike the liberal worries over the environment, which created a fear of climate.

The most sensible reaction: a shrug. Eh. It’s a big country. You got a lotta people who vote for all sorts of reasons. You had some people who didn’t like Trump but think the Ds are crazier than an outhouse mongoose these days. You had some people who were agnostic on Trump, voted for him anyway, but voted for a D candidate this time because she said “Schools are important” and the R guy was caught on a security camera groping a department-store mannequin.

It’s a snapshot, like a picture of a kid on a swing set. But it was also the most important election of your lifetime! Until the next one, of course. You might look forward to the day when everyone agrees that an election is the most inconsequential in recent history, but that will just mean that everyone in power has agreed on the same things and it’s merely a matter of degree.

When that happens, the issue won’t concern whether a Christian baker has to make the cake. It’ll be about how much he can charge. Some will say he can set his own price, unless the profit exceeds 12 percent.

They’ll be called the “moderates.”

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