Anticipating Unanticipated Consequences

These are horrific political times. It’s hard not to be depressed–every day, it seems, we wake up to a new assault on what we thought were American values, new evidence of deplorable behaviors and attitudes we thought we’d left behind, new efforts to roll back hard-won progress.

But.

We need to remind ourselves that the turbulence and upheaval we see around us is not a new phenomenon. Times of social transition are typically unsettled and contentious. (Think of the Sixties, not to mention the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War…). The question is: what comes next? What are we transitioning to? 

My own prediction–based on history and a lot of hope–is that the election of Trump will prove to be a turning point, that the resistance and increased activism we are already seeing will grow more pronounced, and the political pendulum will swing back toward sanity and concern for the common good. The problem is, in the meantime, Trump and the Congressional GOP are doing incalculable damage to the environment, to the rule of law, to the economy and to America’s place in the world.

Yesterday, McConnell finally unveiled the Senate’s Trumpcare bill, and it is even worse than the House version; it proposes to take health care from millions of struggling Americans in order to give a huge tax break to the rich.

Despicable as it is, I’m not the only person who sees potential for eventual progress lurking in short-term disaster. Take Ezra Klein’s recent article for Vox, “Republicans are about to make Medicare-for-All Much More Likely.”

On Friday, McConnell reportedly “delivered a private warning to his Senate Republicans: If they failed to pass legislation unwinding the Affordable Care Act, Democrats could regain power and establish a single-payer health-care system.”

History may record a certain irony if this is the argument McConnell uses to successfully destroy Obamacare. In recent conversations with Democrats and industry observers, I’ve become convinced that just the opposite is true: If Republicans unwind Obamacare and pass their bill, then Democrats are much likelier to establish a single-payer health care system — or at least the beginnings of one — when they regain power.

And if the GOP successfully unwinds Obamacare, the Democrats are far more likely to regain power in 2018. As Klein says,

The political fallout from passing the American Health Care Act — which even Donald Trump is reportedly calling “mean” — will also be immense. In passing a bill that polls at 20 percent even before taking insurance away from anyone, Republicans will give Democrats a driving issue in 2018 and beyond — and next time Democrats have power, they’ll have to deliver on their promises to voters. Much as repeal and replace powered the GOP since 2010 and dominated their agenda as soon as they won back the White House, if the American Health Care Act passes, “Medicare for all” will power the Democratic Party after 2017.

The bubble that Congressional Republicans occupy has become so divorced from the reality of American life and opinion–so in thrall to a (shrinking) base that is itself divorced from reality–that they no longer connect with most Americans. And presumably, the Democrats will have learned some important lessons from their experience with the ACA.

If Republicans wipe out the Affordable Care Act and de-insure tens of millions of people, they will prove a few things to Democrats. First, including private insurers and conservative ideas in a health reform plan doesn’t offer a scintilla of political protection, much less Republican support. Second, sweeping health reform can be passed quickly, with only 51 votes in the Senate, and with no support from major industry actors. Third, it’s easier to defend popular government programs that people already understand and appreciate, like Medicaid and Medicare, than to defend complex public-private partnerships, like Obamacare’s exchanges….

Obamacare was the test of the incrementalist theory, and, politically, at least, it’s failed. Democrats built a law to appeal to moderate Republicans that incorporated key ideas from Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reforms, and it nevertheless became the single most polarizing initiative of Obama’s presidency. All the work Democrats did to build support from the health care industry has proven to be worth precious little as Republicans push their repeal plan forward. And the complex public-private design of the Affordable Care Act left the system dependent on the business decisions of private insurers and left Democrats trying to explain away premium increases they don’t control. The result is a Democratic Party moving left, and fast, on health care.

“I have been in contact with a lot of Democrats in Congress,” says Yale’s Jacob Hacker, who is influential in liberal health policy circles, “and I am confident that the modal policy approach has shifted pretty strongly toward a more direct, public-option strategy, if not ‘Medicare for all.’”

As bleak as our current political environment is, Klein and others see Ryan, McConnell and our clueless President unwittingly sowing the seeds of fairer and more cost-effective policies.

The accuracy of that prediction, of course, depends upon the strength, savvy and persistence of the Resistance.

It’s All About Turnout

Many Americans are convinced that gerrymandering–while admittedly a bipartisan offense–  has operated since 2011 to given Republicans power vastly disproportionate to their vote margins. (If you don’t believe that, read Ratf***ked).

I for one am thrilled that the Supreme Court will take up the issue during its coming term, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the new statistical and analytical tools that can distinguish between purposeful game-playing and “luck of the draw” redistricting will persuade the court to abandon its prior reluctance to weigh in–a reluctance based largely upon the absence of such tools.

That said–and fingers crossed–David Leonhardt made a critically-important point in a recent New York Times column.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president. Even with Donald Trump’s working-class appeal, Clinton could have swept Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Democrats would control the Senate. Clinton or Barack Obama could then have filled the recent Supreme Court vacancy, and that justice would hold the tiebreaking vote on campaign finance, labor unions and other issues.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, the country would be doing more to address the two defining issues of our time — climate change and stagnant middle-class living standards.

Leonhardt’s point is important, and too often overlooked.

Even the most sophisticated gerrymandering is based upon prior voter turnout in the areas involved. If polling and survey research are correct, a majority of Americans hold progressive policy preferences–but large numbers of them don’t express those preferences at the polls. They don’t vote. To repeat the obvious, gerrymandering is based upon prior voting patterns.

I vividly remember conversations with John Sweezy, then the Marion County Republican Party Chair, back when I was a Republican. At the time (late 1970’s) Indianapolis/Marion County was safely Republican; it remained that way for thirty-two years. Even then, however, with the GOP in firm control of every local office, Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 3-2.  Had the same percentage of registered Democrats voted as Republicans, they’d have won those offices. As John said more than once, “Thank God, Democrats don’t vote.”

It’s all about turnout. Even supposedly “safe” legislative districts can be won by the “loser” party if that party can generate a sufficient increase in turnout.

There are all kinds of theories about why Democratic turnout lags that of the Republicans, and several of those theories have explanatory power. Right now, the more important question is: how do we motivate these voters? How do we convince them that their votes really can make a difference, that the game hasn’t been so rigged by gerrymandering and crazy Voter ID requirements and inconvenient polling places and the like that it just isn’t worth the effort?

As Leonhardt says,

What can be done? First, don’t make the mistake of blaming everything on nefarious Republicans. Yes, Republicans have gerrymandered districts and shamefully suppressed votes (and Democrats should keep pushing for laws that make voting easier). But the turnout gap is bigger than any Republican scheme.

Second, keep in mind that turnout is a human-behavior problem. It involves persuading people to change long-established habits. And there is a powerful force uprooting all kinds of habits today: digital technology.

More specifically, smartphones are changing how people interact with information. I’d encourage progressives in Silicon Valley to think of voting as a giant realm ripe for disruption. Academic research by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and others has shown that peer pressure can lift turnout. Smartphones are the most efficient peer-pressure device ever invented, but no one has figured out how social media or texting can get a lot more people to the polls — yet.

Even a really good gerrymandering decision from the Supreme Court will be followed by years of state-level game-playing and obstruction–in both red and blue states. But we can work on turnout right now.

Democrats don’t have to “peel off” Republican voters, a tactic that failed to deliver Tuesday in Georgia. We just have to get the people who already agree with us to the polls.

Truth Or Power

One of the very few (inadvertently) positive outcomes of Trump’s election has been an eruption of public soul-searching by thoughtful Republicans. Pundits like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum and Michael Gerson have cut through the dissembling and hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans, and haven’t hesitated to point out the consequences of electing a spectacularly naked “emperor.”

A recent column by Gerson contained a scathing and utterly accurate summary of the man demanding (and receiving) Republican loyalty.

President Trump is remarkably unpopular, particularly with the young (among whom his approval is underwater by a remarkable 48 percentage points in one poll). And the reasons have little to do with elitism or media bias.

Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.

Trump has made consistent appeals to prejudice based on religion and ethnicity, and associated the Republican Party with bias. He has stoked tribal hostilities. He has carelessly fractured our national unity. He has attempted to undermine respect for any institution that opposes or limits him — be it the responsible press, the courts or the intelligence community. He has invited criminal investigation through his secrecy and carelessness. He has publicly attempted to intimidate law enforcement. He has systematically alarmed our allies and given comfort to authoritarians. He promised to emancipate the world from American moral leadership — and has kept that pledge.

The Republican lawmakers who continue to support, excuse and enable this deeply disturbed man demonstrate where their values truly lie, and what their priorities truly are. For Ryan, McConnell and their obedient GOP minions in the House and Senate, clinging to power is far more important than serving the nation. Most of them know how dangerous Trump is, and how much harm he is doing, but they won’t desert his sinking ship until it costs them at the ballot box.

The irony is, the GOP is reaping what it very deliberately sowed.

From Nixon’s “Southern strategy” on, the Grand Old Party has been encouraging racial and religious resentments, rewarding “base” voters (in both senses of that word) with red meat rhetoric and divisive policies. It has colluded with rightwing media, supplying “talking points” to the talk radio ranters and Fox News, and defending racist and misogynist messaging.

As the party has become ever more cult-like, it has lost the so-called “country club” Republicans and the fiscally conservative, socially-liberal voters who used to make up a considerable portion of its membership. (When we see reports that majorities of Republicans still support Trump, we need to recognize that the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans is far smaller than it used to be. Those supporters are the majority of a shrinking minority.) More recently, the party has lost the conservative pundits who genuinely care about policies and principles.

The question now is: how long will it be until the inevitable backlash–and how much harm to America will have been done in the meantime?

Speaking of Two Americas…

As I noted yesterday, sociologists and historians tell us that economic insecurity and inequality provide fertile soil for racial and cultural resentments. Economic stresses don’t create those resentments, however.

Like everything else, economic conditions are experienced through a cultural lens–that is, how we interpret economic circumstances and react to them depends upon the value structures and worldviews of the people doing the interpreting. When an observer says “those people are voting against their own self-interest,” for example, that observer is applying her own definition of “self-interest”–a definition that may not be shared by the voter.

In other words, although economic conditions often trigger socially undesirable behaviors, efforts to draw a straight line between cause and effect can lead us astray.

Two recent Washington Post articles focus on some stark differences in values between urban and rural America. The first, titled “Rural Divide,” reports on a study of rural voters.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with about 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”

Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.

The rural/urban divide was dispositive in the 2016 election, given the way in which the Electoral College favors rural states.  Hillary Clinton won urban counties by 32 points, while rural and small-town voters backed Trump by 26 points. But the percentages of rural and urban voters who were economically distressed was the same.

Although rural voters expressed concern about jobs and economic growth, researchers determined that the “largest fissures” between Americans living in cities and those in less-dense areas were based in “discomfort about the country’s changing demographics.” Rural residents were far more likely than urban dwellers to believe that immigrants are a burden to taxpayers, and that African-Americans receive undeserved government benefits.

That sense of division is closely connected to the belief among rural Americans that Christian values are under siege. Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.

Commenting on that survey and its conclusions, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin was blunt: She began by dismissing the widespread belief that rural inhabitants voted for Trump because he paid attention to their economic plight.

We’ve never really bought that explanation, in part because Trump voters on average were richer than Hillary Clinton voters. Now there is powerful evidence of a disagreeable truth: Trump’s base was far more motivated by cultural provincialism and xenophobia than by economic need…

Trump magnificently exploited the resentments of white Christians and their anxiety about cities, which he falsely portrayed as experiencing a crime wave…

As we reenter a national conversation about anger, polarization and rhetorical excess we should expect more diligent, reasoned behavior from both politicians and voters. It is a gross exaggeration to tell rural voters that Christianity is under assault because they cannot dominate societal rules (e.g., businesses cannot discriminate against LGBT customers, official organized school prayer violates the First Amendment). It’s flat-out false to say we are being swamped by illegal immigrants. This sort of propaganda lacks a grounding in reality and amps up the already dangerous political environment, which in turn paralyzes our democracy.

No kidding.

Which America Do You Live In?

My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.

The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.

Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.

There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.

A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.

 Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.

In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.

Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.

Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.

Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.