Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016.

The Tweet: Friends who are fearing Thanksgiving with relatives across the political divide should embrace the opportunity, however difficult, to begin conversations we all need to have. 

Over the past week, I have had three conversations with friends, each bemoaning the upcoming holiday. Each have families that are split between those who supported Hillary and those who supported Trump. Unlike a normal year, when family members might find themselves supporting different candidates, and such disagreements would not be grounds for family discord, this time, those splits reflect the deep polarization dividing the nation. All of these friends are dreading any discussion of politics. In one case, the most vociferous Trump supporter was opting out of the holiday celebration altogether. In another case, my friends are desperately hoping that the normal discussion of Thanksgiving recipes and usual gossip about family members who are not in attendance will get them through the night unscathed.

In the wake of this election, however, it is more important than ever that people seek to understand the point of view of others. It is important to bringing a divided nation closer to some degree of reconciliation, and it is important to each of us--whatever side of the schism we might be on--to develop a deeper understanding of the perspectives, fears and concerns of our compatriots. And what could be a more appropriate moment for people to engage with each other about their differing world views than with family members over a holiday that celebrates our shared values and experiences. Unlike friends--with whom a political disagreement can destroy a relationship--siblings and cousins are there for life, and even when you have a violent disagreement, the bonds of family cannot be easily severed.

The aftermath of Election Day has cast our country in a harsh light. The most deplorable of Donald Trump's supporters have relished his election as an opportunity to declare their victory and to lash out, while the President-elect has done little to assuage the anxieties and fears that have come in the wake of his triumph, and the prospect that his caustic campaign rhetoric threatens to become public policy. As one friend wrote, "My feeling of being the outsider/the other has never been stronger, though raised in this country since 1967. I see or impose Trumpism on most white people I see in stores and restaurants, maybe unfairly. This is how my family in England felt leading up to and after Brexit, no doubt."

Another friend expanded on observations in my last piece about the economic and psychological depression facing many rural communities that the problem was much deeper than simply the economic challenges facing the rural working class. It reflects the wholesale destruction of the American Dream as a result of "the successful and rapacious behavior of the elites," which provides no path forward for them or for their children. But even worse, he noted, is that no genuinely populist voice is permitted in the public forum, and to hold a view contrary view [to that of the elites] is to be deemed morally inferior.  

This election leapt past the normal range of political and even moral debate to become intensely personal. Somehow, issues of war and peace, and even the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice debates of past elections, seemed to be less fraught than where we found ourselves this year. The candidates castigated each other as morally unfit to lead, and the followers of each responded in kind. Trump supporters were deplorable, women hating bigots. Hillary supporters were craven elites who love the undocumented more than they love their country.

While Election Day may be past, the damage to our national fabric is apparent. On the one hand, as the first writer above suggests, Trump's rhetoric attacked not just the views but the fundamental legitimacy of many in our society, who now find themselves as strangers in a strange land, vilified as outsiders and fearful that a return to "normal" may take a long, long time. 

On the other hand, as the second writer suggests, there is a deeply-felt rage among Trump supporters that a large swath of the country has not simply been ignored, but has been systematically driven to the precipice of despair by coastal elites whose New World Order has no place for them or for their children. For them, the norms of politically correct public discourse left them with no voice, and dismissed them as morally inferior if they did speak out. For them, the election has only validated their anger, but however cathartic the last week may have been, in truth it has done nothing to solve the objective conditions that gave rise to the anger in the first place.

My sister was distraught the day after the election. But a few days later, after glancing through an online piece entitled Reaching Across the Red/Blue Divide, she had a conversation about the election with a neighbor who voted for Donald Trump. (She lives in Berkeley, so the odds of that were pretty slim.) They had a very good conversation that centered around the values that they hold in common, rather than the vilification of each other's candidate that came to characterize political discourse over the course of the presidential campaign. Her neighbor was able to explain her views, and how the things that were important to her overwhelmed her distaste for other aspects of Donald Trump. It was a difficult conversation for each of them. Her neighbor said my sister was the first person who listened to her and didn't yell at her, and my sister, in turn, felt for the first time that she at least could understand and appreciate a different perspective.

A few days after the election, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for TrumpAsra Nomani sought to explain her vote for Trump, and started by insisting that she was neither a bigot, a racist nor a white supremacist, and that she was pro-choice, and believed in both gay marriage and climate change. For her, the single most important issue was radical Islam, and in her view the tendency of Obama and Hillary Clinton to dance around the issue of Qatari and Saudi support for ISIS and radical Islamists. She feared the influence that those dictatorships would in a Clinton White House in the wake of their multimillion-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Most Trump supporters are not bigoted lunatics--even Hillary conceded that her 50% estimate was probably too high. Just as an extreme point of reference, former David Duke--Donald Trump's most vocal KKK supporter--only won 3% of the vote in his race for the U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. I know little else about that race, but that result would suggest that the extreme right wing share of the electorate is fairly small, however vocal it might be.

As difficult as the prospect of talking politics this year over Thanksgiving dinner might be for my friends, they each have more to gain than they have to lose by engaging in an open-minded conversation with their Trumpian family members this week. This does not mean agreeing with anything they say, but starting a conversation with an agreement on both sides to set aside the campaign talking points and moral judgements. Don't start by asking why they voted for a man who is a racist, just tone it down start with something more neutral, "Help me understand your thinking behind your vote..." And then just try to listen to your siblings and cousins who have a different point of view. It will likely be hard for each side not to fall back to the moral judgements of the campaign rhetoric, but it will be important to try, and most likely rewarding in the end.

It is a starting point, but for both sides it is an important one. We have a long journey ahead, but if we cannot start those conversations within our families, it is hard to imagine as a divided nation how we will even be able to take the first step forward.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, November 18, 2016

White votes mattered.

The Tweet: White working class voters, who supported Obama twice, turned their back on Hillary. She was the candidate of the status quo, and the status quo has not been good to them. 

Donald Trump's victory on Election Day did not shock me. That is not to say that I predicted it; I didn't. But less educated white voters--Trump's core demographic--historically turn out to vote at less than half the rate of more educated voters, and turnout by demographic group is one of the many assumptions embedded in most polling models. If turnout among those voters turned out to be higher--which seemed likely given their enthusiasm in supporting Trump's candidacy--then higher than expected turnout could make for an election day surprise.

As it turned out, rural voters--generally older, whiter and less educated--turned out in force for Donald Trump. Cries by Hillary supporters--and the candidate herself--that the results smacked of racism are not convincing when one looks at the election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and sees the number of largely white, rural counties that were won by our first African American president in 2008 and 2012, but chose Donald Trump this time around.

As New York Times election polling guru Nate Cohn observed last week, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran on a platform of change and as the champions of the aggrieved working class against the establishment, and each won almost half of the primary votes in their respective parties. The Clinton campaign knew from the outset that one of the challenges that she faced was that 2016 was viewed to be a year when voters wanted "change" vs. the status quo. This was understood both because the American electorate rarely gives a two-term ruling party another bite at the apple--the most recent exceptions to the rule being George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Rutherford Hayes in 1876--and because of the slow pace of economic recovery from the 2008 financial collapse. Despite Bill Clinton's somewhat strained efforts at the Democratic National Convention to describe Hillary as a "change maker," she could never shake her positioning as the candidate of the status quo.

For much of the Democratic coalition, the status quo has not been so bad. The American Dream remains alive for more recently arrived, and growing, demographic groups. For Latinos and Asian Americans, as well as for large segments of the African American community, upward mobility remains an attainable goal and the prospect of younger generations being better off than earlier generations remains a reality. For more educated whites, the American Dream remains alive as well. Each generation within that demographic may not necessarily surpass their parents in terms of incomes, but for those Americans advanced education, contribution to society and other goals related to self-actualization have become part of the metrics of individual success, rather than financial well-being alone. For less educated whites, however, the status quo has become, literally, intolerable.

Educational attainment has emerged over the past several decades--and most starkly since the 2008 financial collapse--as the most important factor in the financial security and prospects of American families. While much attention has been paid to the fact that median wages for American workers have been flat in real terms for almost 40 years, less attention has focused on the disaggregation of that data and the correlation of educational attainment with family incomes and unemployment rates. Simply stated, median incomes for households with a householder with a high school degree or less declined modestly in real terms over the course of the two decades from 1991 to when the financial collapse hit in 2008. From the post-2008 recession through last year--the Obama years--incomes for that cohort declined a further 10% in real terms. In contrast, households with a householder with a college degree or more saw real incomes rise steadily from 1991 through 2008, and in the years since then, after a brief decline during the recession, those incomes have been restored to pre-collapse levels.

In a similar vein, historical data on unemployment rates illustrate the impact of educational attainment on individual economic security. As shown here, Americans with a Bachelor's degree or more experienced an unemployment rate in the 2% range in the years leading up to the 2008 collapse. That rate jumped up to 5% at its highest point during the post-2008 recession, but have since returned to the 2-3% range. In contrast, unemployment rates for workers with a high school degree or less were in the 7-8% range before 2008. The unemployment rate jumped to over 15% for those workers during the post-2008 recession, and have since returned to the 8-9% levels.

Workers with less education have been hit both ways by the evolution of globalization, trade and technology over the past several decades. Those who have jobs are likely to have seen their real incomes decline steadily. They are more likely to lose their jobs, and when they do, they are more likely to have difficulty finding work--and this data does not reflect the numbers of workers who simply dropped out of the labor force in the face of deteriorating economic prospects.

It is not an overstatement to suggest that for many less educated whites the status quo has become, literally, intolerable. A seminal moment in the run-up to the 2016 election came in September 2015 with the publication by two Princeton economists of a paper with the less than eye-catching title Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. The paper documented the rising death rate among less educated, white, working class Americans in their 40s and 50s, primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

The picture painted by that paper was quite stark. In contrast with all other demographic groups studied in the U.S. and in other industrialized countries, which demonstrated a consistent pattern of declining death rates, the cohort of less-educated whites (USW) showed steadily rising death rates--they were literally killing themselves off, primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Over the period studied--as shown in the graph--from 1999 to 2013, the number of deaths were almost 100,000 higher than would have been the case had mortality rate held constant. Had the rate continued to decline, the authors of the study point out, as it had during the prior decade--and as it did in other countries as shown here--a half a million deaths would have been avoided. This is comparable to the number of Americans who died due to the AIDS epidemic.

The combination of the household income data and this mortality data suggested that the situation of economic, psychological and spiritual depression facing less-educated white Americans was and remains dire. It was a demographic that Bill Clinton spoke to directly, that supported Barack Obama across the Rust Belt, but that this time around supported Donald Trump by more than two to one.

This graphic, prepared by Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, illustrates the correlation of educational attainment data by state and the election results. It presents the election results in stark terms as a split between those states with higher levels of education--and therefore a higher degree of household financial security and resilience--and those with less of each. While much was written over the course of the campaign season about the plight of the working class, the Clinton campaign--much to the chagrin of Bill Clinton--paid little heed to the existential plight of white working class voters. Her callous disregard for the plight of coal miners, to say nothing of her infamous basket of deplorables comment, only deepened the divide between her campaign and those voters, notwithstanding their long history of supporting Democratic candidates.

Hillary was not alone in her disdain for the plight of less educated white voters. Establishment Republicans have long dismissed the economic travails of their compatriots, as Jeb Bush did before the Trump campaign got rolling: “We have people that mope around thinking ‘my life is bad, my children will not have the same opportunities that I had.’ What a horrible notion in America, the most optimistic of places." If anything, Mitt Romney was worse, when in his 2012 campaign against Barack Obama he foreshadowed Clinton's rhetoric as he lumped those voters into his famous 47% basket of the undeserving, suggesting that as president, it would not be his job "to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." 

For old school Republicans--as mirrored in Jeb's and Mitt's comments--the message to Americans traditionally has been Don't like your lot in life? Do something about it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But this time around, Donald Trump tossed aside the old time GOP religion and sang instead a song that could have been cribbed from the IWW Songbook--or the Bernie Sanders campaign--the system is rigged, and you deserve better. That used to be the Democrat message, but this time Hillary didn't deliver it, Donald Trump did. He declared his love for "poorly educated" voters, and they loved him back.

It is easy to look at this election and say, well, it was close... a few votes here and there... James Comey... the glass ceiling... But it is also reasonable to suggest that this race should have been a blow-out. As James Carville taught Bill Clinton years ago, It's the economy, stupid, and it almost always is. This time around, the problem wasn't that the message never got through to the voters, it never got through to the candidate. As a result, a large swath of voters who had no business voting for Donald Trump--including a large share of the 60% or so of the electorate who believed him not to be unqualified to be president--voted for him anyway, because at least--as Bill Clinton once did--he felt their pain.


Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The last days of America.

The Tweet: After Tuesday, will House Republicans choose to become part of healing the rifts facing the nation, or join the newly empowered radical fringe that Donald Trump has brought to prominence? 

Hannity and Drudge Cite WikiLeaks to Claim Clinton Campaign Worships Satansays the article that popped up on my browser from The Daily Beast a few minutes ago. These people are batshit crazy, as Senator Lindsay Graham (R. SC) pointed out months ago. And it is not just Steve Bannon and Alex Jones, the skillful impresarios of the alt-right who have been pitching this stuff for years, who have now elevated conspiracy theory to the inner sanctum of the Republican campaign. Batshit crazy has gone mainstream.

A few days ago, Congressman Trent Franks (R. AZ) made the rounds of the cable news stations. A proud member of the right wing House Freedom Caucus, Franks went on--as members of his caucus are wont to do--about the dangers to the future of the Republic as we know it should Hillary Clinton win the White House. This will be the last election in America... The Constitution will be destroyed... Hillary Clinton wants to yank babies out of the womb and kill them the day before they are due... The Second Amendment will be repealed... Liberty is at stake... and on and on.

While Franks gave all the indications of being a man who believed every word he was saying, I had no idea what he was talking about, or how they come up with this stuff. This was not Sean Hannity, a cable news huckster who needs to find new line of chatter to keep his ratings up and his advertisers happy, this was a prominent member of the House of Representatives, who evidently lives his life so buried in his right wing cocoon that he believes the nonsense he and the members of his caucus put out there to keep their constituents riled up.

There is little new in Franks' political version of end times rhetoric. Twenty years ago, during the 1996 presidential primary season, Senator Phil Gramm (R. TX) predicted a similar demise of the nation should he not succeed in his presidential bid: If we do not win, within ten years, America as we know it will cease to exist. The difference in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump is that however extreme Franks' rhetoric might seem to be, he is being flanked to his right by the Republican nominee for President and his inner circle. As hard as it is to imagine, the conservative movement in America is now at risk of being coopted by alt-right operatives who have little or no concern for the future of the country, but only for their own, bizarre extremist agenda.

Donald Trump--the man who may yet become the 45th President of the United States--pushed us farther down the path of hyperbolic conspiracy rhetoric when he placed former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon on the top of his campaign organization. His relationship with Trump has allowed Bannon to take his "alt right" coterie of white supremacists, anti-semites and fellow travelers out of the dark corners of the Internet onto center stage. Trump and Bannon are bound together by an understanding that in today's swiftly merging news-politics-entertainment complex, no rhetoric sells quite like conspiracy theory rhetoric, and in building the Trump Movement around the least educated, most deeply alienated sector of the American electorate, they have found fertile ground for their symbiotic marketing pitch.

Bannon's influence over the Republican nominee was evident in the deeply conspiratorial commercial that Trump is using as his closing argument on the last weekend of the campaign. The ad, “Argument for America,” makes an age-old argument of a global conspiracy that oppresses working people. "For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people who don't have your good in mind." The images are of working Americans, who are the victims of this global conspiracy; of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and other government officials across the globe, who "don't have your good in mind"; of piles of money; and of "those who control the levers of power in Washington" who all just happen to be powerful Jews. The essential argument is unchanged from the century old anti-semitic screed, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: The victims, the corrupt government taking the money, and those pulling levers behind the scenes, the Jews. All narrated by the man who will change all that, Donald Trump.

Despite--or perhaps because of--the elevation of conspiracy theory to center stage in our politics, Tuesday's election has suddenly devolved from the mass spectacle of Donald Trump into a relatively traditional calculus of Democrats vs. Republicans, where victory on Tuesday may well come down to the question of who turns out their vote. For all the alienation of mainstream Republicans from the nominee foisted upon their party by its "base voters," at the end of the day, Republicans are coming home. After all we have lived through with Donald Trump--from the lashing out at Mexican "rapists" and Muslims on the first day of his campaign, to mocking the disabled, to the odd flirtations with Vladimir Putin, to his fight with the Khan family, to the Access Hollywood video--when it comes time to vote, it appears that little of it will have had much enduring salience. Donald Trump might be a con man, a pathological narcissist and a creep, but at the end of the day, Republicans by and large appear to be concluding that they prefer their creep to the Hillary Clinton that has been demonized and caricatured in their imagination.

I understand the mainstream Republicans who have normalized Donald Trump in their minds and come back home. They are just your average American partisan voters. They are recognizable to me because most of my Democrat friends and relatives could not imagine actually voting for a Republican under almost any circumstance. Or certainly not a pro-life Republican. (I make that particular distinction, as many Philly Democrats voted for the pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor in 1986 over the pro-life Democrat Bob Casey.) And this year, when most Republicans have bought into the demonization of Hillary Clinton pitched by Republicans and Bernie Sanders alike, their choice is not be so difficult to understand.

I have less sympathy for the Republican base voters, who bought into Donald Trump early on and are now gleefully prepared to foist him on the nation, and the world. They remain blind to the simple reality that their candidate has conned and manipulated them from day one. He will build no wall, he will bring no factories back, and he will not cure what ails them. What he has done instead is to absolve them of responsibility for their own lives by heaping the blame on others--ironically, just what Republicans long accused Democrats of doing to pander to their voters. Once the election season is finally passed, it will be evident that those voters have done incalculable damage to the country that they claim to love, while doing little or nothing to grapple in any serious way with the very real pain that confronts them in their daily lives.

As we watch the Democrat firewall wobbling in real time, the prospects of Donald Trump marching into the White House is becoming more real than anyone imagined just two weeks ago. It still remains Hillary Clinton's race to win, but if she does not, it will likely reflect higher turnout than polling models are projecting among less educated white men, a demographic that historically has voted at half the rate of their more educated peers. Those voters represent the core Trump constituency, and if any group looms likely to out-perform this year--perhaps along with Latinos aggrieved by Trump's vitriolic rhetoric--it should be them.

Each morning for the past week I have woken up with a knot in the pit of my stomach. While I know that the pain in my gut is most likely an aftereffect of my recent two week stay in a hospital in Philly with a ruptured appendix, it is hard not to attribute some of it to election anxiety. I have weaned myself off of Nate Silver and the gang at fivethirtyeight.com, and instead now follow Sam Wang and the Princeton Election ConsortiumNo, I cannot argue the merits of the analytic approach of one site vs. the other, but Sam Wang's projections, shown here, have been more stable, and as such seem to quell the gnarling tightness in my gut, whatever its cause. Sam has been unruffled by the recent collapse in Hillary's numbers and the conventional wisdom that Trump is closing in. I know, intellectually, that this is a poor reason to invest my faith in him, but having Nate Silver deliver bad news day after day had become like water torture. So, I chose Sam.

Does Trent Franks wake up each morning with this same knot in the pit of his stomach? Does he lie awake in the middle of the night fearing for the demise of the Republic, just as I fear the rise of the alt-right and the occupation of the White House by neo-Nazi sympathizers and right-wing conspiracy nuts? He should, but perhaps not for the reasons that he imagines. The rise of the alt-right and its success in appealing to the Republican base has changed the political landscape facing the conservative movement and the country, and Steve Bannon and Alex Jones are charting a path that Franks and his colleagues should be loath to travel.

Over the course of this election, we have not only seen the normalization of Donald Trump's behavior by a large swath of the Republican Party, but the encroachment of the alt-right into our politics. This cannot continue. We cannot, as a nation, accept batshit crazy as the new normal. And the reality is that much of the burden for reversing the course we are on will lie with Trent Franks and his colleagues. They are going to be forced to decide if they and their fellow conservatives are prepared to work to heal the rifts that the nation faces, or if, instead, they prefer to align themselves with a cynical cabal that has been elevated to power by Donald Trump, that is content to contribute to the nation's destruction.


Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.