If Demographics Are Destiny…..

The most encouraging headline I’ve come across lately was on a Brookings Institution study titled “Trump Owns a Shrinking Republican Party.”

It’s worth remembering the central point of the study when we read that a majority of Republicans remain adamant in their support of Trump–that’s a majority of a smaller and smaller number of voters.

The opening paragraphs of the report confront the puzzle of Trump’s disinterest in what has typically been the first goal of political candidates and parties alike: expanding one’s base.

Most American presidents come into office seeking to expand their support beyond their most loyal voters. But among the many peculiarities of the Trump presidency is his lack of interest in expanding his base, a fact that is even more surprising for someone who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and carried his key electoral college states by less than 100,000 votes. The story of Trump and his base has two sides.

The first “side” is what is most often reported: the devotion of Trump’s base. These are the people who would vote for him even if he shot someone in broad daylight on 5th Avenue, as he famously boasted.

Loyalty to Trump among the Republican base is looking so strong that it led Republican Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a Trump critic who is not running again, to tell reporters “It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is.  (As regular readers of this blog know–I have some fairly strong and not at all complimentary opinions about why people join that cult.)

The other “side” of the equation is the continuing erosion of party identification, especially Republican identification.

As the following graph of Gallup polls indicates, both political parties find themselves less popular now than they did in 2004 with a substantial rise in those who identify as independents. For the Democrats, party identification peaked in Obama’s first term and then dropped in his second term. For Republicans, party identification took a sharp drop at the end of George W. Bush’s second term and never really recovered. The trend seems to have taken another drop after Trump’s election.

How can we explain what looks to be a long-term decline for the Republican brand? Age, for one thing. From the beginning of the Trump administration the oldest Americans, those aged 50 and over, have consistently given Trump his highest approval ratings while young people aged 18–29 have consistently given him his lowest approval ratings.

The study concludes–not unreasonably–that a political party unable to attract young people, especially when a generation is as big as the Millennial generation, is not a party with a very bright future.

But it isn’t only young people. We don’t have data–at least, I’m unaware of any–that gives us a handle on the numbers of disaffected “old guard” Republicans, the good-government, civic-minded folks I used to work with, who are horrified by what their party has become. The Steve Schmidts and other high-profile “never Trumpers” are only the tip of that iceberg.

Of course, the GOP establishment is aware of these demographics; those dwindling numbers are the impetus for the party’s constant efforts to rig the system–to gerrymander, impose draconian voter ID requirements, purge registration rolls and generally do whatever they can to suppress turnout.

They know that members of the cult will vote, no matter what. If the rest of us–however numerous– don’t, the current (profoundly unAmerican) iteration of what used to be a Grand Old Party will retain power.

You don’t have to love the Democrats to find that prospect a chilling one.

Poverty and Social Capital

One of the least-recognized consequences of the gap between rich and poor and the growth and perpetuation of the ALICE phenomenon is the effect of poverty on social capital. Social capital is a shorthand term for networks of relationships among people in a society; the ubiquity and strength of those relationships has been shown to be essential to the successful functioning of that society.

In the wake of Trump’s disastrous behavior at the G7 meetings, The New Yorker had a fascinating article about Justin Trudeau and the extent to which Canadian social capital allowed him to (politely but firmly) stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. Trudeau made it clear that he and his country would not be intimidated.

Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.

So what is it about Canadian national character that allows the country to stand up to bullies?

Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? …

Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

Social capital is generated through civic involvement. Adam Gopnik, who authored this essay, refers to a seminal study by Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame), analyzing differences in governance between north and south Italy.

Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

As most of us learned in U.S. History, the first person to notice the importance of civic engagement to the probity of governing institutions was de Tocqueville, who attributed what he deemed to be laudable American characteristics to widespread participation in the new country’s numerous civic and voluntary organizations.

Civic engagement, however, requires resources–namely time and energy. ALICE families–struggling to put food on the table, balancing the cost of diapers against the due date for the rent, stressed when the ten-year-old car or the twenty-year-old furnace gives up the ghost, or a doctor’s bill must be paid–have neither.

It’s no wonder the voices of the poor are so seldom heard in the halls of our legislatures, or via the ballot box. When simply surviving is the order of the day–when it consumes all of your time and energy–there isn’t anything left over from which to construct social capital.

“Racial Anxiety” And The Social Safety Net

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what aspect of current American political life is most depressing.

Children are taken from their parents at the border. Regulations meant to protect clean air and water are eviscerated. The President’s delusional mental state becomes more obvious–and frightening– each day. Congress does nothing about anything. (Case in point: despite polls showing 90% of Americans want them to protect Net Neutrality, the House refuses even to vote on the issue.) Trump attacks our allies and embraces our enemies….it goes on and on.

Perhaps worst of all, this Administration consistently panders to toxic attitudes that have always been there, but had mostly been banished from polite society. His rhetoric has encouraged the growth of overt racial and religious animus.

Nowhere has that animus been more poisonous than in debates around social welfare programs. The odious “makers versus takers” construct permeates the country’s already punitive approach to social programs, as the Guardian recently reported.

Endless paperwork. Dirty looks on the checkout line whether you are buying Skittles or pricey organic kale. Hours spent in tedious training for non-existent jobs. Urine tests, supervised by creeps. Unclear requirements, mandatory appointments without regard for lack of transportation or childcare, arbitrary deadlines that are undisclosed until you run afoul of them.

And, after all that, the skimpy benefits obtained don’t begin to cover expenses.

These are just a few of the ways the American social safety net aims to deter aid seekers, ensuring that unworthy “takers” don’t get unearned crumbs from the mighty “makers”.

And, as the article goes on to detail, it is about to get worse. Far from moderating efforts by the Administration to cut back most programs for the poor, Republicans in Congress are positively eager to cut the heart out of social programs. Their justifications smack of moral judgment and “deservingness,” and betray a deeply-held conviction that being poor is itself a sign of immorality–or at least prima facie evidence that bad choices must have been made.

In Trump’s America, one of those bad “choices” is having been born black or brown.

A recent study, highlighted by the Washington Post, confirms the racial “anxiety” at the root of efforts to cut social welfare programs.

White Americans are increasingly critical of the country’s social safety net, a new study suggests, thanks in part to a rising tide of racial resentment.

The study, conducted by researchers at two California universities and published Wednesday in the journal Social Forces, finds that opposition to welfare programs has grown among white Americans since 2008, even when controlling for political views and socioeconomic status.

White Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs, the study says.

(The irony is that these cuts actually hurt more white Americans, who–despite racist memes about welfare– comprise the majority of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.)

In the reported study, researchers analyzed 10 years of data on attitudes toward race and welfare. Between 2008 and 2012 in particular, they found a rise in opposition to welfare. That opposition rose among all Americans — but it rose far more sharply among whites. White Americans also began scoring higher on racial resentment scales during that period. (I’m sure the fact that we had a black President was coincidental….not.)

In order to confirm the link between racial attitudes and positions on welfare, the researchers investigated further.

White Americans called for deeper cuts to welfare programs after viewing charts that showed they would become a racial minority within 50 years. They also opposed welfare programs more when they were told that people of color benefit most from them.

I keep telling myself that the re-emergence of these attitudes–attitudes of fear and resentment that largely explain support for this morally reprehensible President–are a temporary reaction. Loss of white privilege is threatening to people who grew up believing it was their due–especially if they don’t have much else going for them, but I keep telling myself this ugly time will pass.

I hope I’m right.

 

 

Did They Really Have Souls To Sell?

A few days ago, I was on the treadmill watching “Morning Joe,” and heard Presidential historian Jon Meacham, from all indications a deeply religious man, respond to questions about the Trump Administration’s “biblical” defense of separating parents and children in order to deter asylum seekers. Meacham predicted a “day of reckoning” for Evangelical Trump supporters, and put it in stark terms: They sold their souls for a Supreme Court seat, and they’ll have to decide whether it was worth it.

Of course, in order to sell a soul, you first need to have one.

Later that same day, The Washington Post reported that Mike Pence (aka “Mr. Piety”)has turned the Vice-President’s office into “a gateway for lobbyists.”

About twice as many companies and other interests hired lobbyists to contact the vice president’s office in Pence’s first year than in any single year during the tenures of Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Richard B. Cheney, filings show.

Speaking of selling one’s soul….(Since this is Pence, one assumes the sale price reflects an appropriate and substantial discount…)

A couple of observations: first, Sessons’ use of a biblical reference to justify a governmental policy is profoundly anti-American. As several commentators have pointed out, America isn’t a theocracy.  Public policies must be attacked or defended with secular reasoning and argumentation, not appeals to theology.

More generally, however, what Sessions and Pence both exemplify is the cynical use of religion to advance personal and political ends–to justify bigotry, to claim privilege, and to reassure a frightened and angry “base” that its hostility to the “other” is God’s will.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not religious. But I have friends who are genuinely religious people, and there is a huge difference between the devout people I know, who tend to be both humble and kind, and the “faux religious” and “holier than thou” hypocrites who are supporting and excusing the behaviors of this administration.

Meacham may be right when he predicts a day of reckoning. If I had to hazard a guess, however, I’d predict that reckoning will consist only of recognizing the strategic failure of efforts to find religious justifications for Trump’s unholy behaviors.

Somehow, I don’t see the Mike Pences and Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions of this world looking deep inside themselves and reckoning with the truly important questions: have I been a good person? Have I been honest? Kind? Have I read my holy book in its entirety, or have I cherry-picked and “interpreted” it in order to convince myself that God dislikes the same people I do? What is the nature of my obligation to my fellow-man and woman? What is justice? What is mercy?

Do I have a soul? Have I sold it for a mess of pottage?

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..

_____________-

There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.

___________________-

I’m still hoping…..