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When Doom is the New Political Norm

After Democrats overperformed in the 2022 midterm elections, it’s time to confront the rampant pessimism that led many to believe that massive defeat was inevitable.


 


On the evening of November 8th, a coterie of American Agora staffers settled into Wechsler Theatre to watch the swan song of American democracy on the big screen. In September, one of our articles declared that momentum was behind Democrats heading into the home stretch. That optimism was all but gone, replaced with a sense of impending doom. A flurry of more recent articles covered a close race in supposedly blue Colorado, how John Fetterman was flailing in Pennsylvania, and how Democrats overall seemed to be falling short. Early returns confirmed these fears: the January 6th Committee’s Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA02) lost her re-election. Down in Florida, culture war crusader Gov. Ron DeSantis was cruising to a historic re-election. Republican cheers were silenced when Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA07) hung on, in a race that was supposed to be an early indicator of a red wave. The mood shifted. Later returns showed Democrats winning in other competitive races. In most of the country, they wouldn’t look back.


Even as we watched the returns live, many of us struggled to acknowledge what seemed to be unfolding. One staffer spent much of the night insisting that Rep. Spanberger would lose, even as others showed reports from national media saying she was poised for victory. Why was there such a disconnect between our analysis and the eventual reality? The answer lies in doomerism, a mentality that took hold on political analysts from your collegiate opinion writers up to the hosts of national news programs.


Jane Coaston, a New York Times columnist and podcast host, took aim at doomerism in an essay published this July. She defined being a doomer as “believing that the end is nigh [and] everything is going to go to hell.” Coaston cites viral examples from across the internet, from tweets proclaiming that COVID would close every pharmacy in the country to predictions of society’s imminent collapse from climate change or another calamity.


In 2022, dooming jumped from niche internet communities to the mainstream media. In the run-up to the election, voters were bombarded with stories of a supposedly impending red wave, how President Biden’s low approval ratings spelled disaster as inflation and other national issues dragged Democrats down. This narrative was reinforced by a deluge of polls showing Republicans leading in major swing states. Headlines reflected the dour mood: “Democrats’ feared Red October has arrived”, “Midterm elections outlook darkens for Biden's White House”, “Democrats worry they peaked too soon ahead of midterms” proclaimed a variety of major news outlets.


Democrats were dooming about the 2022 elections, and yet still achieved one of the best midterm results in recent history. Despite all of the pundit noise, the evidence that the party was headed to an electoral disaster was flimsy. The doomerism in this case was manufactured. Manufactured doomerism is a distinct form of the mentality discussed in Coaston’s essay. The examples she discusses follow a simple pattern. A crisis emerges, and people over-extrapolate or misread the situation to the unrealistic worst-case scenario, creating viral misinformation in the process. “The problems of every town and city are evidence of impending catastrophe, which is coming for you and your family, and no, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Conversely, manufactured doomerism invents a crisis for people to lose their minds over. This is often accomplished through disinformation, which is intentionally misleading information.


At the center of the 2022 Red Wave narrative were the variety of polls that showed Republicans leading in swing states and on issues most important to voters. According to professional pollster (and American University adjunct professor) Natalie Jackson, there were two sets of midterm polls: one showed a competitive election, and one showed Republicans with a convincing lead. The correct polls “were generally those with longer track records—media and longtime university polling operations” while GOP-friendly pollsters “were mostly newer, partisan-affiliated, and opaque about their methodologies.” Unsurprisingly, the polls showing decisive victories dominated the news cycle. This wasn’t a post-election revelation. Analysts had been observing this divergence for months before the midterms, with one polling analysis group even creating a poll aggregation that excluded those junk partisan polls altogether.


Those polls were indeed junk. One of the biggest GOP-aligned polling firms was Trafalgar, which became a Fox News darling for its consistent findings of a red wave. However, as their polls were released, researchers noted that they seemed to not follow basic industry standards, used improbable demographic shares, and found basically impossible results for races and other demographics at large. One of their Georgia polls found Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) losing the youth vote 62-37%. Among their most egregious polls was for the Michigan gubernatorial race. Trafalgar found Gov. Gretchen Whitmer losing to her Republican challenger by 0.3%. The same day that poll was released, Whitmer won by 11%.


The evidence for an impending wave election was virtually nonexistent. Any data in support was countered in real time by more credible sources and by analysts examining the low-quality reports. The doomerism that these polls fed was not caused by an impending crisis, because there was no crisis. All of the high-quality evidence pointed to a competitive election.


Democrats already tend to be pessimistic people. This was true when a 1990s Simpsons episode featured a Democratic convention with banners reading “we hate life and ourselves!” and it continues to be confirmed by survey data to this day. Manufactured doomerism is even more dangerous than simple pessimism or doomerism, because it can be created from nothing and still dominate the national milieu. It only took a few weeks of garbage polls for Democrats to believe the end was nigh. This attitude has consequences. Coaston found that constant dooming has “the same effect as depression, bringing about a loss of interest in taking action.” Beyond needless mental health deterioration, the political costs were immense. Strategists and donors refused to believe their own polls and braced for a GOP romp. As a result, funds were diverted to safe candidates who thought they were in imminent danger, and competitive races went underrecognized. “There was a feeling we were about to get absolutely smoked,” the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaigns Committee told the Times. There was a feeling. Not a prediction backed by substantive evidence, just vibes. Despite efforts to force liberals into a doomerism spiral, Democrats still turned out to vote, albeit in lower numbers than in 2018.


Disinformation campaigns are here to stay, but the underlying pessimism that they feed can be remedied. The red wave narrative stuck because Democrats, liberals, and left-wingers in general are consistently primed to believe only the worst outcome is possible. At its core, doomerism revolves around inevitability, that an outcome is certain to happen no matter what you or other people do about it. Skepticism of this inevitability will start by adopting a more optimistic mindset, one grounded in both substantive evidence and unrelenting positivity. Stay educated on the realistic effects of news, both positive and negative. Avoid politicians and public figures who consistently fearmonger or distract from accomplishments with personal grandstanding. Most importantly, remember that you have the ability to effect change.


Alex Moskovitz is a sophomore CLEG major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Managing Editor for the American Agora.


Image courtesy Guillaume Paumier