Category Archives: Random Blogging

Politics As Identity

When the pandemic really started to hit home, Trump’s poll numbers improved–causing several commenters to this blog and friends on Facebook to express both mystification and fear.

I tend to agree with Paul Ogden’s March 28th response, analyzing this “panic bump.”  Agreement has also come from Nate Silver and from Rachel Bitecofer, writing at the Niskanen Center.  They have also  noted that Trump’s “bump” is considerably smaller than those that followed previous shocks to the political system, and that all previous examples had dissipated in fairly short order.

I worry far more about a different asset Trump enjoys–one that differs from previous situations and reflects a troubling phenomenon in American politics. As Rachel Bitecofer wrote, that “formidable asset” is today’s political polarization and hyper-partisanship, which provide Trump with a reliable (arguably unmovable) base of support, and–at least so far– has prevented a truly substantial erosion in approval ratings.

Now, the parties are largely ideologically homogenous and partisanship has evolved to become a social identity, an individual’s “ride or die,” which makes the prospect of red states breaking in favor of Biden seem unlikely, especially given the salience of white racial identity in contemporary Republican politics. In an America in which partisans are willing to inflict bodily harm on each other over politics, it seems unlikely that a mere recession, even an intense one, could move them off of their preferred presidential candidate in the ways it did prior to the polarized era, when the economic-fundamentals models, like the dinosaurs once did, ruled the Earth.

A similar analysis has made by Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, in an essay comparing Trump’s “rhetorical strategy” to that described  by Eric Hoffer in 1951, in his classic book, “The True Believer.”  Hoffer argued that demagogues need “a disaffected population” composed of  people who feel they’ve lost power and status that they previously held– “that they had been displaced either religiously, economically, culturally, or politically.”

The disaffected will follow even obviously unfit leaders who promise them a return to their former privileged status.

But to cement their loyalty, the leader had to give them someone to hate. Who that was didn’t really matter: the group simply had to be blamed for all the troubles the leader’s supporters were suffering.

What is particularly chilling is the degree of devotion this strategy inspires. In an article for Salon, Chauncey DeVega interviewed a psychiatrist about Trump and his base.

Q: As in other cults, the members are in love with the leader. Trump’s followers are very damaged people. As such, whatever Trump commands them to do they will do, even if it means getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.

A: That is correct. Such a level of mass fanaticism is very disturbing, and is something that we have not seen in the United States on such a large scale. We have seen it with Jim Jones and other cults. People follow the cult leader to their doom. Of course, there was a similar type of fanaticism in Germany with Adolf Hitler. Trump’s followers really need a strong leader to make them feel safe. It could be a strong father figure, a god, anyone who is powerful enough to make them feel loved and safe.

Trump’s followers, like other cult members, also want someone who will accept their aggression and destructiveness as being good and normal. These people are devoted to Trump. That devotion is more important than anything else.

These descriptions are certainly consistent with what I have observed over the past three years. Trump’s supporters are disproportionately people who simply couldn’t abide having an African-American President, and who are terrified of being “displaced” by uppity women and detested minorities.

They will not desert him.

That means that the only way to defeat Trump and his Republican sycophants in November is to get out the vote. We cannot waste time trying to peel off damaged people from what has been accurately described as a cult. We must fight every effort at vote suppression and electoral rigging, and work like we’ve never worked before to get the majority of Americans– people who haven’t made fear and/or hatred part of their identities– to the polls.

 

The Danger Of Fundamentalism

Ah…religious belief in its infinite varieties…

Media outlets have reported the death from Coronavirus of a pastor who pooh-poohed the pandemic as “mass hysteria. The Reverend Spradlin was visiting New Orleans with his wife and family to ‘wash it from its sin and debauchery.”

Better he should have washed his hands.

Then, of course, we have corporate religiosity from the ridiculous and dependably theocratic major shareholders of Hobby Lobby. (I’ve noticed that their religious convictions always seem to be those that save them money…). According to a report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars,

It’s bad enough that Hobby Lobby is refusing to follow the CDC’s recommendations and remaining open because the wife of the owner had a vision from God; they’re now making it worse by denying paid sick leave to employees who are ill, which dramatically increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus to both employees and customers.

Hobby Lobby’s sick workers will be required to use personal paid time off and vacation pay or take an “unpaid leave of absence until further notice.”

So if an employee doesn’t have any vacation time left and gets sick, they have to choose between going to work while sick or not being paid. Inevitably, some will choose to go to work because they need the money and that means more transmission of their illness, whether it’s the coronavirus or some other condition, to other employees and to customers. I guess that vision from God included a command to put lives in danger. But of course, they’re “pro-life.” Whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

As reprehensible as Hobby Lobby’s insistence on imposing the owners’ religious beliefs on their employees, it obviously isn’t going to do the extensive damage being facilitated by the theocratic throwbacks who support Trump. The New York Times ran an article recently about Trump’s dependence on the Religious Right as a voting bloc and the policy consequences of their extreme hostility to science.

Donald Trump rose to power with the determined assistance of a movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise. In the current crisis, we are all reaping what that movement has sown.

As the article notes, hostility to science has characterized religious nationalism in the United States. Today’s “hard core” climate denial comes almost exclusively from religiously conservative Republicans.

And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This anti-science “thinking” hobbles America’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Maybe Reverend Maldonado should read up on what happened to Reverend Spradlin. So should the Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne. Howard-Brown occupies the pulpit of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. This “pious” man mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” (do I detect a smidge of homophobia??) and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.”

As the Times noted

Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good. When you’re engaged in a struggle between the “party of life” and the “party of death,” as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.

There have always been people who desperately cling to “bright lines”– who see every issue as  black versus white, even as modernity ushers in ever-expanding areas of grey.

Whether adherents of fundamentalist religions, or political “true believers,” they pose  a clear and present danger to reality, and to the rest of us.

 

Speaking Of Paradigm Shift…

I’ve posted before about my theory that we (i.e. all humans) are in a period of paradigm shift–defined as a time when cultures’ previous world-views are undergoing profound change. The result of that shift is that people who see the world through previous lenses and those who have adopted new ways of understanding reality cannot communicate.

Just one example: People who see the world as it is and as it is emerging understand that humans are globally interdependent; folks wedded to an older paradigm cling tightly to nationalism, exclusion and slogans like “America First.”

Remarks made by the pastor who conducts Trump’s weekly bible study (and boy, would I like to be a fly on the wall in one of those!) are an excellent illustration of the wide gap–the abyss, really–between old and new realities.

According to the Intercept

The minister who hosts a weekly bible study session for President Trump’s Cabinet has an opinion about the origins of the coronavirus. According to Ralph Drollinger, it’s just another form of God’s wrath in response to an increasingly progressive nation.

“Relative to the coronavirus pandemic crisis, this is not God’s abandonment wrath nor His cataclysmic wrath, rather it is sowing and reaping wrath,” Drollinger wrote in a series of posts. “A biblically astute evaluation of the situation strongly suggests that America and other countries of the world are reaping what China has sown due to their leaders’ recklessness and lack of candor and transparency.”

Drollinger didn’t leave it at that; he also blamed the “religion of environmentalism” and people who express a “proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality,” and claimed that such persons have  infiltrated “high positions in our government, our educational system, our media and our entertainment industry” and “are largely responsible for God’s consequential wrath on our nation.”

Granted, Drollinger’s worldview–like that of Mike Pence–is hardly representative of today’s  American society. (Trump, as best I can tell, doesn’t have a worldview;  he has only a Trumpview.) Drollinger, Pence, DeVos and most others in the administration–along with the cult that supports them– are extreme examples of the eras when humans explained everything they didn’t understand or couldn’t control as “God’s will.”

America’s mainstream has been inching toward a very different approach, one that respects science, empirical evidence and human agency. It recognizes that there is still much that we don’t know, much that we cannot answer or control (see: pandemics), but has confidence that with additional study and information, humans will eventually be able to answer the unanswered questions and control more of our common destiny.

The current Coronavirus pandemic may speed up the shift from reflexive attribution of everything we fail to understand to this or that deity, and toward adoption of a very different cultural and intellectual framework.

I thought about that possibility when I read a New Yorker article about Estonia, of all places. Estonia is evidently coping with the pandemic admirably.

Estonia may be the nation best prepared for the consequences of the pandemic, both economically and socially. As my colleague Nathan Heller has written, its economy is bound to tech, its government is digital, and most services in the country either are or can be provided electronically—in fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the extent of Estonian digitization. People vote online and use digital prescriptions; a single piece of I.D. securely stores each Estonian’s personal information, including health, tax, and police records; one can even establish residency and begin paying taxes in the country digitally—effectively immigrating online. Estonians say that only three kinds of interaction with the state require a person’s physical presence: marriage, the transfer of property, and divorce. In some cases, births had to be registered in person, but this requirement has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ninety-nine per cent of households have broadband Internet connections, and the education system is a world leader in developing and using electronic technologies. In other words, the prospect of having to work, study, and shop online may not require the sort of readjustment in Estonia as many people face elsewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that digitizing society is a “new worldview.” it isn’t. But it is evidence of a society that accepts change and educates for it. And acceptance of and adaptation to change definitely is a very different approach to life than that adopted by people like the Reverend and other Trump supporters, characterized by resentment of change, blaming bad fortune on the  “other,” and insisting that bigotry is “God’s will.”

Transitions are always bumpy, but the sooner Americans abandon the Trumper’s paradigm, the better.

 

Paradigm Shift

Back in 2010, in a post about changes in urban life, I quoted Neil Pierce, who had written that “for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful…the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood is like a plant being jerked from its native soil.”

For “neighborhood,” substitute “reality.”

The world is in a state of flux, what scientists might call a “paradigm shift,” and the pain and discomfort that undeniable fact is causing is manifest in our communications, our economy, and especially our politics. (How else do we understand the angry and frightened voices insisting that they want “their country” back and the belligerent demands to “Make America Great Again”?)

In 2015,  a site called “The Big Blue Gumball” discussed paradigms and paradigm shift:

Among the biggest paradigm shifts of the last 10 years have been the transitions from analog to digital, and from wired to wireless. These revolutionary technological changes have led to major sociological and behavioral modifications that impact our everyday lives – from the way we live and work, to the ways we entertain ourselves and engage with others.

True enough–but only a small part of the changes we’re experiencing.

All of us develop worldviews– paradigms–as we are “socialized,” into seeing and accepting the “way things are” as understood by the cultures into which we are born.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows”–Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. The dangerous haters had twisted psyches, but most people weren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes–they didn’t really think about them, any more than they thought about the fact that we call the color of the sky “blue”– and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode with greater familiarity and more contact.

We’re still working on that. Social change is painful and very slow. (Granted, a global pandemic may speed things up…)

I’ve been particularly interested in a change that has been less noted, although several of its consequences have been subject to expressions of concern. I think we are beginning to see the demise of consumerism. Not consumption, necessarily, but consumerism.

Most pundits attribute the recent struggles of retailing to the Internet, the assumption being that we are simply taking our consumerism online. I think there is more to it.

When I was young, people viewed a trip to the mall or shopping district as entertainment; there was intense interest in what one’s friends were wearing, what “this year’s look” was, what upscale car the neighbors had purchased…and all these things were markers of status. There is obviously still an enormous market for personal purchases, especially for electronic gadgetry, but we are also undergoing a very real change in public attitudes about stuff. 

What that shift means for our economy, which is driven by consumption, remains to be seen, butthere are signs that those attitudinal changes are accelerating,

For example, I found this article from the Guardian significant.It was a report about a new downtown development in the Dutch city of Groningen–an example of the movement to reinvent urban hubs for the post-consumer age.

The €101m, trapezoid Forum building is part library, part meeting space, part science museum and part recreational hangout – a 10-storey “multi-space” designed to resonate with citizens who know that shopping is not necessarily the answer. It’s a new-look department store that doesn’t actually sell very much.

But with high streets feeling the pinch across the developed world, with shops shuttered and town centres wondering what they are for any more, the Groningen experiment is being closely watched.

The lengthy article is fascinating; it describes the Forum as an effort to build community, not commerce.

The Forum seeks to orient all its cultural activities around a common thread. Whether it’s the current exhibition on artificial intelligence (recently on show at the Barbican in London) or Spike Jonze’s futuristic film Her at the cinema, everyone is collectively inching towards the same page (“optimism about the future”, in the Forum’s case).

Social change is inevitable. Unfortunately, thanks to the current pandemic and the economic disaster likely to come in its wake, our paradigms are likely to change far more rapidly–and challenge us far more dramatically–than many of us can handle. What will come next is a question for social scientists–or perhaps science fiction writers.

At a minimum, it will be interesting….

 

It Wasn’t “The Establishment”

In the wake of Joe Biden’s victories on Super Tuesday, there has been a concerted effort by Sanders’ most rabid supporters (undoubtedly abetted by some Russian ‘bots’) to accuse a nefarious (and conveniently un-defined) “Establishment” of dirty tricks.

The folks crying foul look a lot like the Trump supporters who dismiss any and all facts that contradict their fervently-held beliefs as “fake news.”

The data says otherwise.

An analysis of actual data by Thomas Edsell in the New York Times is instructive. Here’s his lede:

Four years ago, in Grant County, Oklahoma, Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton, 57.1 percent to 31.9 percent.

This year, Sanders didn’t just lose Grant County — 87.5 percent white, 76.9 percent without college degrees — to Joe Biden, his percentage of the vote fell by 41 points, to 16.1 percent.

Grant County reflects what has become a nationwide pattern in the Democratic primaries, including those held Tuesday night: Sanders’s support among white working class voters has begun to evaporate.

What happened?

Edsell mines the data. It shows that large numbers of voters in 2016 were extremely hostile to Clinton; they voted for Sanders because they detested her–not because they were part of Bernie’s “revolution.” Once she captured the nomination, a surprising number voted for Trump.

Edsell suggests that the aversion of these (mostly) male voters to Hillary was also a factor in Elizabeth Warren’s inability to do better in the primary. He cites a recent study,

“Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism,” by Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, and Matthew MacWilliams and Tatishe Nteta, political scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was published in 2018 in the Political Science Quarterly.

Trump, according to the authors, deliberately put racism and sexism at the center of the campaign in order to make these issues salient and advantageous to his candidacy:

Trump’s rhetoric went far beyond targeting racial and ethnic groups; he also invoked language that was explicitly hostile toward women. These remarks were often focused directly at opponents, such as Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton, or news reporters, such as Megyn Kelly.

Edsell goes into some detail about the study, and it’s worth clicking through and reading, but his larger point was that considerable research demonstrates that a very significant percentage of non‐college‐educated whites hold sexist views.  So we shouldn’t be surprised by post-primary analyses that show non-college educated whites –many of whom voted for Sanders in 2016–breaking for Biden in significant numbers now that Sanders no longer faces Hillary.

Overall Sanders is running well below his 2016 vote share everywhere. A lot of people underestimated just how much of his support in 2016 was an anti-Clinton vote, and now that he’s not running against Clinton, those voters aren’t backing him anymore.

Other interesting data points: between 10 and 12 percent of Sanders’s 2016 primary voters voted for Trump in the general election, with an additional 12 percent either voting for a third-party candidate or not voting at all. And many weren’t Democrats; interviews with Sanders-Trump voters over the years suggest that only 35 percent of them had voted for Obama in either 2008 or 2012.

What separated Sanders-Trump voters from Sanders-Clinton voters was simple racism.

When asked how they felt about whites and blacks on a 0-100 scale, Sanders-Trump voters rated blacks 9 points less favorably than Sanders-Clinton voters. But Sanders-Trump voters rated whites 8 points more favorably.

Nate Silver has also crunched the numbers, pointing out that in 2016, Sanders won 43 percent of the primary vote against Clinton; however, if “24 percent of that 43 percent were #NeverHillary voters, that means Sanders’s real base was more like 33 percent of the overall Democratic electorate.”

If Edsell and the scholars he quotes are right about the extent and effect of latent sexism (and not-so-latent racism), it explains why Sanders’ support diminished this time around–although it doesn’t explain the significant reduction in turnout by young voters, especially in a year when Democratic primary turnout overall has skyrocketed. (One tongue-in-cheek explanation: Young people tweet. Old people vote.)

One thing, however, is clear. No matter how distasteful the evidence is to Bernie’s most passionate supporters, neither the pathetically inept DNC nor some shadowy “establishment” are responsible for his likely failure to win the nomination.

It may seem inconceivable to them that a majority of Democratic voters prefer Biden. But the data says they do.