Wednesday, November 09, 2016

My thoughts in reaction to the 2016 election

I have some comments related to the recent elections in the United States.

My first comment is that the issues with polling are quite interesting.  When we sample from a population and ask questions, we understand that there will be some “random error” or “sampling error” and there are also issues with measurement and so forth, and so in survey research and polling we have a margin of error, or a confidence interval.  Before election night, there were many states where this sort of sampling error suggested that the race was a “toss up” or “leaned” in one direction or another.  Now, normally, the error is fairly random, and the actual result could go either way, a bit higher or a bit lower than the predicted outcome.  However, in the 2016 elections, in almost every state where the presidential race or the senate race was a toss-up, the actual result was more Republican.  This suggests that polling was strongly biased, or skewed, toward being pro Democratic. That is, polling was consistently overestimating the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidate performance. 

This surprised me, as I had been looking at methods of the polling, and thought that most of the polls were under-sampling younger and poorer voters, and younger and poorer voters are more likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates. What happened?  Political scientists will have to examine the results to give us an answer in the coming weeks, but the most plausible explanation is that poor and young voters did not come out to vote at levels pollsters had expected.  Also, it seems persons in historically marginalized groups (African-Americans, women) were not as solidly for Clinton as polling had indicated.  For example, if political scientists know that 90% of African-Americans support a candidate and 50% of African-Americans will actually vote, and then on the election day only 80% of African-Americans support that candidate and only 40% of them vote, this means that for every 100 African-Americans, the favored candidate will only pick up 32 votes, rather than 45.  Something like this probably happened among many of the core “Democratic Party” voter groups such as African-Americans, although I’m not sure what the numbers would actually be.  No doubt Clinton generally was preferred by wide margins among college-educated persons, women, Hispanics, and African-Americans, but I suspect her leads among these groups was slightly less than polling had predicted, and the turn-out among these voters was also less than expected. 

At any rate, this is the most interesting aspect of the election to me.  I am very curious about how this systematic bias in the polling could happen.  Probably one issue is that people were using historical models, and the campaign was unusual and didn’t fit into historical patterns.  The main difference I see is that the Republican candidate was very unusual, without a political background, and his style was quite different.  Most of the social scientists and pollsters and journalists who studied the electorate before the elections come from rather elite strata of society, and my impression is that these types of persons tend to be very conventional, very conservative, and very cautious about the models they use for interpreting the world.  If things have worked a certain way in the past, such people will make the reasonable assumption that things will continue to work that way into the future.  And, if most of those sorts of persons are making this assumption, there will be strong social pressure on everyone in the group to go along with such models and assumptions. 

I thought I perceived some of this in the Democratic primaries.  It seemed obvious to me that Sanders would have a far better chance of defeating Trump in a general election.  It seemed to me self-evident that an outsider anti-establishment candidate who was very likable would offer the Democrats the best chance for defeating another outsider anti-establishment candidate, or especially a traditional bland mainstream candidate.  But, it also seemed clear to me that Trump had so many problems, and would be so unpopular among religious conservatives and elite globalist corporate conservatives that he wouldn’t even be able to defeat Clinton.  I thought many religious conservatives would shun him for some of his behaviors and his language, and I thought his protectionist opposition to trade and his general unpredictability would make him abhorrent to mainstream elite Republicans. As it turns out, many Republican leaders did indeed take a strong disliking to their presidential candidate, and many pious Republicans also felt misgivings about him.  But, faced with the alternative of a Democratic candidate whom they all loathed, Trump was able to win.  He was helped by the surge of voting from persons who normally wouldn’t vote for a Republican or vote at all. These voters offset the defection of the Republicans who couldn’t support Trump. Those conservatives who didn’t support Trump seem mostly to have refused to vote for Clinton.

I usually vote for third party candidates, and I have therefore usually expected to see the candidates I vote for lose elections.  So, I don’t feel any sense that “my candidate” lost because Trump won.  None of the candidates (even the third party candidates) reflected my values or policy preferences perfectly (and it’s unreasonable to expect that any ever would), so rather than saying to myself that one candidate or party was “my candidate” or “my party” I tend to think in terms of “this candidate has these qualities and ideas that I admire, and would probably do these policies that I think would be best, but has these qualities and ideas that I think are wrong, and would support these policies that I think would be disastrous or unworkable”.  Thus, I look at every candidate as a source of some potential good and some potential harm.  Trump has a few ideas I like, but many I don't.  I'm hopeful that his good policy ideas and instincts will be successful, and that he will be thwarted or converted to some other position on his many policy ideas with which I disagree. He seems somewhat mercurial, so it's hard to pin down where he actually stands and guess at what he will actually do.  

  In this election cycle I did not think the media was giving fair treatment to either of the mainstream candidates.  Many liberals and Democrats were unfairly mischaracterizing things Trump had said, or quoting him out of context, or ignoring the overall thrust of his argument because they could pick at specific ridiculous things he said.  And, of course the Republicans and Trump-supporters demonized Clinton and mischaracterized her record and her character in ways that made me feel sick. There was a sort of smugness and hubris in both of the mainstream campaigns, a sort of attitude I thought repugnant, but very human. I think in response to this I was more interested in how the losing side would take their defeat than in how the winning side would celebrate their victory.   

But, as most of my friends and family members are quite liberal, and either strongly supported Clinton or at least strongly opposed Trump, I offer some observations that might bring consolation.

First, about a third of the electorate is conservative.  They will vote for any conservative candidate, whether noble or vile.  They are ideological voters.  They see the world through a value lens that puts more emphasis on purity, respect for authority, and loyalty.  They are not as concerned with fairness, although fairness is important to them.  They are much less concerned about the caring ethic, although most of them are caring and do value caring to some degree. They don’t tolerate ambiguity, especially in questions of morality.  Another third of the electorate is liberal or even radical.  They will vote for any left-wing candidate, regardless of character or background. They are also ideological voters. They care most about policies that are caring and fair. In comparison to conservatives, they care less about purity, respect for authority, and loyalty, although they do care about those.  When it comes to values of conservation and appreciation, or liberty and opposition to tyranny, it’s not possible to characterize the ideological liberal and conservative voters, as those values are about equally important to each ideological frame of mind.  In the long-term, more Americans are embracing liberal perspectives, and those who embrace conservative perspectives are dwindling. 

Second, about a third of the electorate is neither conservative nor liberal.  These voters switch between conservative mental models and liberal mental models.  They think about some issues as conservatives, and other issues as liberals.  Or, on some days they feel more liberal, while on other days they feel more conservative.  They are swing voters.  Also, a high portion of these people care far more about personality, or intangible gut instinct impressions of candidates.  Sometimes these voters just want to vote for “change” without any clear idea of the sorts of policies they prefer.  They vote for personalities and characters more than policy.  The undecided voters who couldn't choose between Trump and Clinton by summer were generally non-ideological.  Undecided conservatives were choosing between Trump or an independent or third party candidate, and Undecided radicals were choosing between Clinton or Stein (most ended up voting for Clinton or just not voting at all—Stein received about half of the votes I thought she would get).

Third, most Americans don’t understand how policy is made.  Many may be able to answer questions accurately about the branches of government, the levels of government, and the political parties, but in their intuitive thinking about how the world works, these people don’t really think through things, and they don’t understand how policies are made and implemented.  When I say most don’t understand, I mean about two thirds of the electorate; the vast majority of the non-ideological swing voters and a significant portion of the conservatives and liberals.  These people intuitively feel as if the president is responsible for everything.  It may be true that Congress must pass legislation to be signed by a president, but these people don’t think about that; they only emotionally react to what is going on, and blame or give credit to the president (or their governor) for everything that happens.  A good example of this would be a liberal voter who blamed Obama for not getting a Universal Single Payer health care reform passed in his first two years of office.  Such a policy was not politically feasible, and anyway, the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate (Pelosi and Reid) had the responsibility to draft the legislation and get it passed, not the President.  Likewise, any liberal who criticized Obama for not passing good legislation in his last six years in office would demonstrate an ignorance of the role of the House of Representatives in the process of passing legislation, and an unawareness of the political climate in the House of Representatives for these past six years. This majority of Americans who don’t understand politics also don’t understand that many important decisions about their lives and communities are made in local government or state government.  They are distracted by news reporting about international affairs and policy disputes or political battles in Washington, D.C., but know next to nothing about what goes on in their state legislature or their governor’s office, let along their city councils. 

Given this environment, winning elections requires three things.  First, one must motivate one’s allied ideological third to support one’s candidate with enthusiasm and effort.  One must get a higher percentage of one’s support base out to the polls at election time, and must do so regularly, so that elected leaders will feel pressure to consider the opinions of one’s ideological base.  Second, one must sway the opinions of the non-ideological voters, finding ways to appeal to them and make them like one’s candidates.  Third, one must blunt the opposition of the ideological opponents.  This can be done by making one’s candidate more appealing to them, so that ideological opponents will not be able to use visceral emotional disgust in whipping up enthusiasm against one’s candidate.  It can also be done by vilifying and attacking the candidates of the other ideology, but this has been tried through American history, and has proven to be corrosive against civil society and our democratic institutions. 

One way to gain recognition for one’s candidates and make them likable is to have candidates in one’s party come from a pool of civic-engaged persons who are active in non-partisan service and community institutions.  There are a wide variety of social institutions where persons of various religious and ideological backgrounds come together to collaborate in doing important service work.  These institutions include religious congregations, especially in larger mainstream denominations.  Also, the service organizations that promote non-partisan recreation or education, such as YMCAs, amateur sporting leagues, youth development groups like Scouting, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc. fall in this category, as do the service and social groups such as the Masons, Shriners, Rotarians, Lions, and other clubs like that.  Local chambers of commerce, art or historical associations, holiday celebration organizing committees, and community development organizations also bring people of diverse backgrounds together to achieve common goals. To some extent, even the armed forces fall into this category of non-partisan service organizations.  A huge problem for secular liberal and radical groups in this society is that secular liberals participate in these sorts of civic organizations at a significantly lower rate than do more conservative persons. It therefore becomes a problem for the left that they have a smaller pool of talented persons with wide social capital and community service experience. While radicals may offer the intellectual basis for resistance to the extremes of capitalism, they are more likely to be living the sort of individualistic atomized lives that weaken their social capital and political power, whereas conservatives, who may ideologically support the forms of unrestrained capitalism that do the most harm, are more likely to be living lives resisting the excesses of destructive capitalism, by their continuing involvement in non-partisan collective service or community-building groups.

Another problem that liberals and radicals have had in this election cycle is the burden they have placed on themselves by focusing on “social justice” and identity politics.  I say this as someone who cares very much about social justice, and tries to work toward it.  My point isn’t that it’s wrong to advocate for marginalized or historically-oppressed groups, or that we ought to accept rudeness and bullying.  My point is that these struggles have their place, and such movements need to be balanced with other struggles to improve the lives of everyone.  So, for example, liberals and radicals need to be aware that economic opportunity is the real issue that faces everyone.  If we ignore the top 20% of the population’s income distribution, and just look at the bottom 80% of American households in terms of their purchasing power and lifestyles, we can see that things have just stagnated or gotten worse since 2000.  Look at the Pew report on global income distributions, and notice that the United States has actually had stagnation or declines in the percentage of its population that lives with living standards qualifying as wealthy or affluent, whereas most European countries since 2000 have had increasing shares of their population living at these highest levels.  The stagnation or decline in living standards for many Americans, including European-Americans, is a significant issue, and ought to be addressed with just as much, or more intensity than the social justice issues. In 2016, the candidate who did make it his issue won the electoral college votes to become President.  And, I think far more of the critical votes he got in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania represent voters who have suffered declining standards of living, and understood (correctly, I believe), that the Democratic policies would not change their situation.  When the Democrats portray those who voted for Trump as being racist chauvinist bigots (no doubt quite a few are), they are performing an act of silencing and shaming on voters who weren't particularly bigoted, and mainly voted for Trump because they detest the ruling elites and the rentier class on Wall Street and the free trade and neoliberalism that has harmed them so badly, and thought Trump might do more against those perceived (?) enemies than Clinton would.  Calling Trump's victory a victory for fascism or racism or xenophobia is only a half-truth, and the non-ideological Trump-voters who aren't supporters of fascism, racism, or sexism who hear this complaint are more likely to respond with hostility and deepening suspicion toward liberals than they are to feel shame or regret for voting for Trump (at least for now).  

Liberals and radicals can take heart from Clinton’s defeat if they consider the long-game.  Had Clinton won the presidency, she still would not have been able to oversee the passage of significant legislation.  The U.S. House is under firm Republican control, and will remain under Republican control for a long time yet.  Since most people consider the President responsible for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen), Clinton would have been blamed for the continuing inertia in the federal government, and she could have become a one-term president.  She certainly would have remained unpopular, as she faced incredible levels of vicious attacks from people who hated her.  Now Trump will have the White House, and he will have allies in control of the House and Senate, and he will be able to install conservative Supreme Court Justices.  This should frighten liberals and radicals because of what he might accomplish in the coming two or four years, but remember that the Democrats can filibuster in the Senate, and that whatever happens in the next two-to-four years will be blamed on Trump and the Republicans. If you really believe that his policies will be disastrous, then it should be easy for the Democratic Party to pick up seats in the 2018 mid-term elections and win the presidency in 2020.

If you are a liberal or radical or a Clinton supporter, how do you think Trump will do?  Will he have successes in the administration of the White House?  Will his cabinet appointments be persons of the highest caliber?  Will he present himself on the world stage as a great statesman who instills confidence in our allies?  Probably, you think he will do none of these things.  If you are right, and he is a disaster as an administrator, how will the American people react?  Also, what sort of legislation will the Republicans pass?  What policies will Congress give Trump to execute?  Will these be successes, making America prosperous?  Will we avoid having a recession in the next three or four years?  Again, if you believe Trump and the Republicans offer ruinous policies that will harm the working classes and middle classes, then you only have to wait for these terrible policies to unfold so that the Democrats might actually regain control in the White House and Congress in four years when the two thirds of the electorate who aren’t ideological conservatives react to the Republican policies.  

Trump supporters and Republicans now have their chance to put together the policies they think will work best.  If they can stop Democratic filibusters in the Senate, they can repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordability Act.   With what will they replace it?  Over sixteen million persons gained access to health insurance with that law, and how will they vote if they lose their insurance?  Trump will be able to appoint anyone he and the Republicans like to any judicial or cabinet post.  So, the Republicans have a chance to try out their vision.  Will they balance the budget?  Will they cut deficit spending?  Will they create new jobs?  If they are right, and their policies work, we will see the sort of improvements they have been promising.  The Republicans control most state governments, and now they control the Federal government.  By the time they have passed their policies and those polices have taken effect, around 2017-2019, we will see what fruits they bear.  If the Republicans have been right about the world all along, they will be so successful and popular that they will easily see Trump re-elected in 2020.  

Radicals and liberals, however, don’t anticipate this.  They think that the Republican policies will be destructive, and they expect the American people to suffer.  If they are right, the suffering American people, at least the third that are non-ideological, and the half that think the President is responsible for everything that happens, will react to the Republican hegemony by electing Democratic challengers in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and the Trump presidency will go down in history as a four-year lesson to the American people in why they should not trust such candidates.    


This is not a thing anyone needs to argue about.  We can just wait and see.  The American economy and society over the next four years will either vindicate Trump and his supporters and the vision of America held by the Republican Party, or it will not.  If it does, the conservatives will deservedly keep power and America will thrive in greatness. If it does not, the liberals and radicals can come back and win elections like the Republicans did in 1994 and 2010, and get their own chance to put their vision into effect.  The Democrats haven’t had this chance during Obama’s time in the White House because Obama’s policy ideas were blocked by conservative Democrats in Congress and the Republican Party.   The same was true in the 1990s during Clinton’s administration.  By giving the Republicans Trump as president, and nearly full control of the levers of power, the Democrats stand their best chance of letting the Republicans demonstrate what their policies would actually inflict upon the American people, and then perhaps getting their own chance to sweep into power in Congress and the White House four years from now.  If Clinton had won, it seems entirely implausible to me that the Democrats could ever have taken back Congress, and we would not have seen any opportunity for Democrats to control the White House and Congress together for eight to 16 years. By having Trump elected, Democrats may get that chance in merely four years, assuming they are right that Trump and his policies will bring wreckage and ruin to most Americans.

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