Category Archives: Random Blogging

Abandoning Equivalence

A few days ago, over at Talking Points Memo Josh Marshall shared an important observation.  He was reporting on yet another asinine demand by yet another asinine Republican operative–in this case, the Chairman of the Republican party of Virginia, who wanted the University of Virginia to open an investigation into Professor Larry Sabato. Sabato is a noted and widely cited political observer; however, according to the Chairman of the “anti-cancel” party, Sabato’s “bitter partisanship.” violated  UVA’s ethical code and justified “cancelling” him. (Of course, he didn’t put it quite that way…)

The University responded, according to Marshall, “by telling the Virginia GOP, in so many words, to STFU.”

Another day, another example of hypocrisy and stupidity. It wouldn’t be worth a post, except for Marshall’s further insightful observation, which I am taking the liberty of quoting at some length.

Years ago – and in some case until quite recently – there was a group of commentators who the prestige news shows relied on for non-partisan, “both sides” commentary on the politics of the day. Two of the most visible – especially on shows like The NewsHour were Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two think tank political scientists from AEI and Brookings respectively. Another was presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Another was Larry Sabato. Ornstein and Mann tended to focus on the function of Congress; Beschloss, the presidency; Sabato, federal elections. But they each covered the full terrain of contemporary politics. If you go back through 20-plus years of my writing the Editors’ Blog you’ll probably find some criticism of each of them, almost certainly precisely because of this studious effort to see the country’s two political parties in equal terms and treat them as such, even as the evidence for that perspective steadily dwindled….

In the spring of 2012 Mann and Ornstein published an OpEd in The Washington Post: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem“. The title speaks for itself but if you wanted more you could read the book that it was adapted from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Ornstein’s twitter feed is now so blistering in its criticism of contemporary conservatism and the GOP that it makes me blush. Beschloss now has a priceless Twitter feed made up largely of historical artifacts, photos, commemorations almost all of which function as subtweets of Trump, Trumpism or some related manifestation of the contemporary GOP.

Sabato was in many ways the final holdout. In an interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch for an article about the state GOP investigation demand, Sabato chalked the shift up to Trump and the January 6th insurrection. “People had better pay attention because if they don’t, it’s going to happen again.”

These political pundits originally earned reputations as fair-minded, non-partisan political scientists translating research data for the edification of the public. Their whole “schtick” was even-handedness; they were political Joe Fridays confining themselves to “just the facts, ma’am.” They had–and still have– significant professional incentives to be “both-siders” to the greatest extent consistent with scholarly integrity.

So what has changed?

I suggest that what’s changed is political reality. We are at a point in America’s political life when people who actually know what they are talking about can no longer treat today’s GOP as a normal political party. Norman Ornstein was a Republican and to the best of my knowledge, he is still working for a conservative think-tank. Michael Beschloss always struck me as a bit right of center, although careful to maintain objectivity. Ditto Sabato, who never came across as anything but a studied fence-straddler. (Granted, these were my impressions, and may well have differed from the reactions of others.)

There comes a time when knowledgable people who were trained to be dispassionate (and incentivized to bend over backwards to be “balanced”) can no longer ignore the evidence.

We’re at that point.

 

 

Rural Red, Urban Blue

Talk about living in bubbles….

It isn’t just the Internet, or our very human tendency to consult information sources compatible with our biases and beliefs. I’ve written before about The Big Sort, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop which tracked the “sorting” of Americans into residential tribes–especially urban and rural–a phenomenon Bishop warned was “tearing us apart.”

Since the publication of that book, the divisions between city and rural dwellers have only deepened–with suburbs appearing to move toward the urban side of the scale. Given the other long-term trends that I’ve been noting (and about which I’ve been posting) the ability of Republicans–at least, in their current iteration– to retain control of the national government over the long term looks decidedly grim.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the urban/rural divide, noting that the GOP is simply out of touch with diverse urban areas.

The Times interviewed Jerry Sanders, a Republican who had served two terms as mayor of San Diego. The story noted that in 2012, Sanders was the most prominent Republican city executive in the country. A former police chief who was close to the business community, in a rational world, Sanders would seem to be a a political role model for other urban  Republican mayors–he was a political moderate who worked with the Obama administration on urban policy and endorsed gay marriage.

Sanders left the GOP on January 7th.

The report noted that Sanders’ sour evaluation of the GOP’s urban appeal was borne out in off-year elections.

From Mr. Sanders’s California to New York City and New Jersey and the increasingly blue state of Virginia with its crucial suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Republican Party’s feeble appeal to the country’s big cities and dense suburbs is on vivid display.

Where the G.O.P. once consistently mounted robust campaigns in many of these areas, the party is now all but locked out of all the major contests of 2021.

The realignment of national politics around urban-versus-rural divisions has seemingly doomed Republicans in these areas as surely as it has all but eradicated the Democratic Party as a force across the Plains and the Upper Mountain West. At the national level, Republicans have largely accepted that trade-off as advantageous, since the structure of the federal government gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated rural states.

Indeed, as the article makes clear,  the only metro areas where the G.O.P. maintains influence are in red states (like Indiana) where Republican governors and state legislators can impose their policy preferences on local leaders.

The consequences of this urban/rural “big sort” are mostly negative. From a governance perspective, the ability of  significantly fewer rural voters to thwart the electoral choices and policy preferences of popular majorities is dangerously anti-democratic . If the structural influences that give undue power to those “sparsely populated” rural areas aren’t countered, that situation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government. (It has already facilitated a gridlock that has gone a long way toward destroying its stability.)

But it isn’t just political structures that are damaged by the dominance of liberals in cities and conservatives in rural areas. The divide damages our ability as citizens to participate in reasoned debates with neighbors who have different perspectives. Conservatives living in urban areas feel politically powerless, as do liberals who reside in rural precincts of the country. The media’s tendency to lump voters into categories of “red” or “blue” also blurs the very real differences within those categories. 

Most concerning of all is the ability of “sorted” populations to inhabit wildly different realities. As a long-ago student from a small town in Indiana reminded me during a class discussion of the Filter Bubble, bubbles can be geographic as well as informational. 

If we fixed the structural glitches that allow today’s Republicans to ignore urban constituencies, perhaps the GOP would once again embrace contemporary versions of Jerry Sanders, Bill Hudnut and  Richard Lugar, in order to become competitive in the nation’s cities. And perhaps Democrats would come out of their rural closets.

Yeah, I know. Perhaps pigs will fly…..

 

 

 

The Animosity Coalition

I almost always learn something from reading Thomas Edsall’s “Guest Essays” (formerly known as “Op Eds”) in the New York Times. He usually surveys and cites several academic researchers with expertise in whatever subject he’s investigating, and–as a recent essay demonstrated–he sometimes comes up with a nice turn of phrase.

Edsall’s topic was the “animosity coalition.”

In 2016, Donald Trump recruited voters with the highest levels of animosity toward African Americans, assembling a “schadenfreude” electorate — voters who take pleasure in making the opposition suffer — that continues to dominate the Republican Party, even in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Schadenfreude electorate.” Perfect!!

Edsall doesn’t mince words about the composition of that electorate, pointing out that Trump played to the dark side of American politics, constructing an “animosity coalition” composed of “the alienated, the distrustful, voters willing to sacrifice democracy for a return to white hegemony.” As he says, segregationists have long been a permanent fixture of American politics, although shifting between the two major parties.

And that brings us to an essential insight that answers what has been a vexing question, at least for me. 

Edsall quotes Liliana Mason for the insight–which is that their solidification of control over the Republican Party has mades White supremacy seem to be  a partisan issue. Mason points out, however, that members of what she calls the segregation faction have been around much longer than our current partisan divide. In fact, she says, “they are not loyal to a party — they are loyal to white Christian domination.” (emphasis mine)

There is a faction in American politics that has moved from party to party, can be recruited from either party, and responds especially well to hatred of marginalized groups. They’re not just Republicans or Democrats, they’re a third faction that targets parties.

Mason’s conclusions are echoed by other researchers, who have found Trump supporters exhibiting attitudes about racial groups, immigrants and political correctness that rival partisanship and are “negatively related to support for mainstream Republican candidates.”

That insight explains something that so many of us have found baffling: why would elected Republican officials and Republican candidates for public office–many of whom clearly know better– dutifully echo Trump’s bigotries and support his Big Lie? 

The usual theory is that this represents a combination of fecklessness and ambition. Among those who do know better are individuals who lack a moral center–who see which way the GOP winds are blowing for GOP primary voters–and who are prioritizing their personal electoral prospects above their moral and patriotic duties. They are “playing to the base.”

What the cited scholarship adds to that explanation is an important insight: the “base” to which these candidates are pandering isn’t even a Republican base–at least, not as political scientists define a party’s base. It’s the voters who were unhappy with Trump, or with their particular House or Senate candidates, but who nevertheless loyally voted Republican, who are members of the base.

In other words, voters for whom an R or D next to a name on the ballot is dispositive constitute a political party’s true base.

That is not a description of the “animosity coalition” that effectively controls today’s GOP. Those voters have shifted parties before and they would do so again, because their allegiance is to White Christian dominance. As a result, Republicans who need their votes can’t rely on the old political calculation (“where would they go? to the Democrats? Not likely!”) because significant numbers of these voters really would desert candidates who they perceive as insufficiently reactionary/racist.

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi — a co-author, with Mason and John Kane of N.Y.U., of a just published paper, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support” — put it this way in reply to my emailed query:

The Trump coalition is motivated by animosity toward Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and L.G.B.T. This animosity has no bearing on support for any of the other G.O.P. elites or the party itself. Warmth toward whites and Christians equally predict support for Trump, other G.O.P. elites, and the party itself. The only area where Trump support is different than other G.O.P. support is in regards to harnessing this out-group animus.

For as long as Trump remains the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, Wronski continued, “this animosity coalition will define the party.”

The animosity coalition is composed of folks whose only real goals are to protect White Christian privilege and “own the libs.” 

In Edsall’s felicitous phrase, they are the “schadenfreude” electorate.

 

 

Hopeful Signs

During some twenty years on a university faculty, I learned to appreciate the vast differences in the reliability of research, especially survey research. It isn’t simply the “garbage” studies that are promoted by partisans of one sort or another–even serious efforts at determining attitudes and beliefs of particular populations run into problems with the way in which questions are posed and the selection of representative respondents, among other minefields.

Carefully crafted, reliable surveys require skilled researchers (they’re also very expensive), so we need to look carefully at the source of data coming from survey researchers. One of the most skilled, reliable and reputable of such sources is Pew Research–which is why I was so heartened by a recent study Pew published, showing that the electorate is shifting — and not in the Republican Party’s favor.

As The Week reported:

A new deep dive into the 2020 electorate by Pew Research contains mostly bad news for Republicans, whose approaching demographic doom is less racial than it is generational. While it shouldn’t be news to anyone at this point that young voters are a solidly blue voting bloc, the more worrisome developments for the GOP are the unexpectedly elderly nature of the party’s coalition and the unyielding Democratic lean of younger voters as they age. If Pew’s numbers are to be believed, the only solidly Republican age demographic last year was 75 and over, meaning that every time the sun comes up, the GOP’s struggle to win a majority of American voters gets harder.

Pew’s in-depth study uses validated voter files – matching panelists to a registration database confirming whether or not they turned out – to offer a different, and possibly more accurate, view of the electorate than the exit polls taken on Election Day. Often this new data can challenge narratives that set in stubbornly and immediately after the votes are counted – in 2016, for example, Pew’s research found that Donald Trump won white women by a considerably smaller margin than Election Day surveys indicated, upending one prevailing story about who was most responsible for Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss.

Some of the ways in which Pew’s findings differed from the arguably less-precise findings of exit polls included the extent of Trump’s inroads with Latino and Black voters (he did somewhat better with Latinos and worse with Blacks than previously reported) and the fact that he did not win married men by 11 points–in fact, Pew found that married men went for Biden by 5.

But it was the age numbers that I found most hopeful. Exit polls had shown Biden winning 18- to 29-year-olds by 24 points, 60-36; Pew found it at a similar, albeit slightly smaller 58-38. Exit polls also showed Trump with just a 52-47 edge among voters over 65, and Pew’s numbers were almost identical – 52-48 for Trump over Biden.

Pew also broke the survey down into not just age groups but generational cohorts. And it’s here where you’ll find the most terrifying information for the GOP. According to Pew, Trump won a decisive majority only with members of the “Silent Generation,” those born between 1928 and 1945 (and the extremely tiny number of living people older than that). Trump dominated that cohort by 16 points, 58-42. That means that the only reliably Republican voter bloc will shrink considerably between now and 2024, and that 65- to 74-year-olds must have been a much more blue-leaning group in 2020 to produce Trump’s comparatively narrow 4-point margin with all over-65s.

As the article notes, you don’t need a degree in actuarial science to know that 65- to 74-year-olds will be around considerably longer than 75- to 102-year-olds.

Perhaps even worse for former President Trump and his acolytes, the Pew data showed little erosion in the millennial preference for Democrats over Republicans. Fifty-six percent of millennials voted for Clinton in 2016, and 58 percent voted for Biden in 2020. Remember, the first millennials voted in 2002, and as a group they simply have not budged. “Elder millennials” are turning 40 this year and they don’t love the Republican Party any more than they did when George W. Bush was lighting several trillion dollars on fire prosecuting a pointless war in Iraq. And that’s terrible news for the GOP’s hopes of ever becoming a majority party again, because if they keep losing the youngest voters by double digits election after election, they need a significant number of them to get more conservative as they age just to hold current margins in place.

This is all good news–in the long run. Even in the medium run.

The task for those of us who are terrified by the GOP’s current efforts to win elections by cheating–gerrymandering, vote suppression, placing unethical partisans in positions to oversee elections, etc.–is to work our fannies off to keep them from destroying democracy in the short run.

 

 

Common Ground? With Whom?

Periodically, I get messages from readers of this blog, or encounter essays and columns in mainstream publications with the same, urgent theme: Americans need to work on understanding each other. Those of us to the left of the reactionary right need to be more generous in our appraisals of those with whom we disagree. We need to find a common ground from which we can build productive dialogue.

For the greater part of my professional life, that message strongly resonated with me. During the thirty-plus years I was an active Republican, most of my friends and family were Democrats, and I was keenly aware of the unfairness of dismissing all Republicans as rightwing racists and anti-Semites. (Yes, the roots of Trumpism have always been visible in the GOP, but those attitudes were once relegated to the fringes, just as “fellow-travelers” were sidelined by the Democrats.)

When I became the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I launched a publication called Common Ground, dedicated to the proposition that good people could have different, principled approaches to public policy, and that organizations dedicated to support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights needed to demonstrate that America’s legal framework respects those differences.

More generally, both as a woman and a Jew, I have seen firsthand how damaging and unfair it can be to “other” those who are different, to judge and dismiss people based on their identities.

All of which brings me to my unprecedented discomfort with the contemporary, well-intentioned pleas to “understand” the people on the “other side” of the political divide.

At risk of running afoul of Godwin’s Law, I want to pose a question: How do we now evaluate the behavior of the “good Germans” who failed to condemn the behavior of the Nazis?

An old book review from Forbes —by none other than “conservative” Steve Forbes–detailed the various reasons why Germans who weren’t Nazis nevertheless “went along” with Hitler. Forbes found the book, The German War, to be “an extremely interesting yet disheartening tale of a civilized people’s descent into barbarism.”

Much of the collaboration was “patriotic.”

A number of German soldiers and officials were uneasy or outright horrified by what was happening, but most did nothing about it. All but a handful of non-Nazis supported the war to the end because they believed defeat would lead to Germany’s annihilation..Most Germans convinced themselves that the war was one of self-defense, a fight for survival, because the evil French, Russians, British and Americans and their “Jewish masters” all wanted to destroy Germany…

Germans also engaged in moral equivalence: The bombing of German cities by the U.S. and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’ “terror” bombings.

Survival of the “real” (Ayran) Germany. False equivalencies. Unsettlingly familiar…

Obviously, not all of the people who continue to call themselves Republicans are racists prepared to acquiesce to barbarism. The GOP continues to contain plenty of good, moral people–and I agree that we should continue to look for them, and when we encounter them, “reach out” and engage and make good-faith efforts to understand where they are and why they remain.

But the majority of today’s GOP is another matter entirely. We have steadily mounting evidence of its march toward reaction, racism and yes, barbarism. Former high-level Republicans who have left the party warn that elected officials like Paul Gosar , Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and a significant number of other “deplorables” (sorry!) are now the mainstream of the GOP. They really do reflect and represent the people who voted them into office.

I submit that seeking “common ground” with such people is suicidal–that there is a monumental and morally-significant difference between debates over such things as the efficacy of tariffs or the contours of the social safety net and arguments over the human rights of people who don’t look like us.

Yes, it is important to understand why people react to cultural change or economic disadvantage in such irrational and destructive ways. Such understanding is necessary in order to fashion policies to minimize the dangers such reactions pose.

But that’s a long-term goal.

In the shorter term, it is critically important that we highlight the immorality and profoundly anti-American nature of what political observers are witnessing–not because doing so will change those who are lost to logic and human connection, but because failure to do so will lull the many “good Americans” who haven’t been paying attention into quiescence.

Ultimately, it isn’t the “bad guys” who threaten American values. It’s the “good guys” who remain unaware and/or disengaged. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing…..”