Scattered Thoughts on a Tragedy

14 Nov

A Trump Administration
The unthinkable happened. I don’t really know what a Donald Trump administration looks like. Anyone who says they do is full of it. I think the best we can hope for is that he’s more interested in personal adulation than actually governing, outsources decisions to advisers (who aren’t Steven Bannon), and what we get is an ineffective, vanilla Republican administration. It’s hard to know what the worst possible scenario is, but given that Trump will have support from both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court will lean conservative, it’s hard to think of what he couldn’t do if he tried. I’m not sure I can imagine what it feels like to be an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, someone without good private health insurance, or so many other categories of people today.

The Electoral College
The first thing that seems obvious to me is the dire need to abolish the Electoral College. Looks like Hillary will end up with hundreds of thousands more popular votes (though obviously the race would’ve looked different if campaigns had been working toward securing the popular rather than Electoral College votes). This is not how democracy is supposed to work. It’s happened twice in the last two decades, and Democrats needs to take it seriously next time they’re in power. But let’s not be silly and treat this somehow as an illegitimate outcome. The Electoral College sucks, but everyone knew and agreed on the rules ahead of time.

Resisting Trump in Washington
I’m torn on how government employees should resist Trump. There are plenty of liberals out there today calling for people of conscience in elected and unelected office to obstruct a Trump administration at every move. I understand the impulse, but that’s not really “going high” is it? Polarization is already at extreme levels, and if the losing side’s response is always to do their best to ensure that governance doesn’t occur, I have little faith in the government’s long-term prospects. We also shouldn’t forget that frustration with Washington’s gridlock is a central reason we ended up with Trump. But perhaps there’s not a way around it. The political system we have encourages obstructionism by the minority in Congress, and there are certainly some things that Trump might do, like attempting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, that I hope will be resisted by federal employees, even if it is not strictly democratic. Democracy is not always a substitute for a conscience.

Trump’s a Creation of the GOP
If there is anyone today who I hope is having a long, hard look at themselves, it’s current and former Republican elites. When you spend decades spreading coded racism, assailing the notion of facts, pursuing disastrous economic policy, obstructing governance, and opposing the most basic social reforms, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an enthusiastic audience is waiting for a man that abandons the dog whistle.

Hillary and the Left
The Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame. Democrats were up against the worst Presidential nominee of a major party perhaps ever, and still managed to lose. Despite her sky-high name recognition, abundant funds, and large organization, Hillary lost. There were certainly other contributing factors, such as widespread sexism, but simply, she was a shockingly bad candidate, especially unsuited for today’s political climate. Not only did her campaign fail to understand the nature of Trump’s appeal and how to counter it, but her campaign was clueless as to where she was weak. She didn’t visit Wisconsin once during the campaign, and in the days leading up to the election her campaign suggested phone bankers call places like Iowa and Utah, where Hillary lost by 30 points even with Evan McMullin getting 20%.

It would be comforting to think that the problem is limited to Hillary or her campaign, but it’s not. This is a problem with the Democratic party and with the Left in America. Too many people don’t think government it working for them and that elites have their best interests in mind. Proposing incrementalist policies, modest social protections, and proclaiming that “America is already great” is no longer good enough. It doesn’t answer the more fundamental concerns of too many. And therefore, if this election presents one lesson, it is the need to do away with technocratic (neo)liberalism that speaks of small, wonkish reforms and is spoken by those that share little in common with the average voter. Additionally, those leading the Democratic party must avoid the perception that they’re a small, distant, self-interested elite, forever trading jobs and favors with each other. This means no more Clinton Foundation scandals, private email servers, and secret Wall Street speeches. If future Democrats want to avoid another Trump, they need to tell powerful stories about what’s happening in this country, who’s to blame (certain elites, but crucially not minorities), and articulate a bold vision of what the future can bring. The Left in general needs bigger ideas, whether that’s a universal basic income or something else, that address the worries Americans have about their futures.

Why, specifically did Hillary lose this election? Or in other words, what made this election different from 2008 and 2012? Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan were critical, even if Hillary under-performed pretty much across the board. The data is incomplete, but with what we have it seems to be some combination of white voters who voted for Obama switching to Trump, higher turnout among working class whites voting for Trump which represented one of the biggest demographic swings this election, and lower turnout/support for Hillary among minorities. How could she have turned this around? As for minorities, she was never going to get the turnout Obama produced, so basically she needed to do better among whites in the Rust Belt.

Why didn’t she? It’s too early to say definitively, but pre-election descriptive work suggests a few interconnected explanations. The first is that many Rust Belt whites feel government no longer looks after their interests, and is run by Washington elites with whom they have little in common with. They probably took the “Basket of Deplorables” comment personally as representative of the disdain with which politicians view them, and thus voted for the anti-politician. The second is that these are people who have either seen their economic circumstances decline recently as jobs move overseas or at least live in areas where this is true. They feel the American Dream is slipping away. This isn’t in their imaginations. The working class of developing countries has had the smallest relative gains in the last few decades, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise this group lacked enthusiasm for the candidate most associated with free trade. It’s possible the effect existed across racial lines, as lower turnout among minorities, many of whom are working class, may have been the product of economic dissatisfaction.

Race is of course the elephant the room when it comes to explaining Donald Trump’s support. It unquestionably played a central role in his victory, and is linked the two explanations above. But this isn’t a monocausal story. Many of the crucial voters that delivered the election to Trump probably voted for Obama in 2012 based on county-level data. What seems much more likely to me, is that in addition to a hardcore racist element among Trump supporters, plenty of Trump supporters were willing to vote for a racial answer to social and economic questions when they didn’t see an alternative on the Left.

Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, what can be done to address the specifically racial aspect of Trump’s support? First, there is a desperate need to understand and take seriously the grievances of Trump supporters. This isn’t some hippy-dippy peace and love response; this is cold hard pragmatism. Some Trump voters need to vote for Democratic candidates in the future, and they need to be persuaded to do so. Shaming them for racism isn’t working. Tragically, going forward the barrier to multi-racial coalitions constructed by whites may present a dilemma between focusing on issues relevant to minorities and whites. And if absent minority turnout inspired by someone like Obama, focusing on whites might be the most electorally prudent, at least in the short-term. I honestly don’t know what this would look like, and morally, don’t know how to evaluate such a strategy.

On Quantitative Social Science
There are perhaps reasons to think the backlash against people like Nate Silver is too harsh. They’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and are honest that their estimates are probabilistic. Just because Trump wins when he had a projected 30% chance of winning doesn’t make 538 wrong.

However, I think there are a lot of reasons for pessimism. The overwhelming consensus by all major pollsters that Clinton would win, perhaps in a landslide, is fairly galling. The major failure of polls this time was in the Midwest, but it’s not as if pollsters hadn’t been warned. During the primary, Hillary was projected to easily win Michigan, but Bernie pulled off a surprise upset. He also won Wisconsin and Minnesota. Should this have not produced a major update of forecasting models?

It looks even worse when you put the American election in comparative perspective. The phone polls for Brexit suggested it would fail, which turned out to heavily underestimate voter turnout by discontented whites outside of urban centers. Pollsters didn’t learn here either.

The American Presidential Election is the political event in the world for which we have the most data. If even an aggregate of various forecasting models can’t predict with any certainty what’s going to happen in this case, we need to question the approach. It’s not that good forecasting/modeling is impossible. But there’s a serious need to critically evaluate the assumptions present in the data. Reflective of the technocratic approach, all of us spent far too much time checking 538 and not enough trying to understand the nature of Trumpism. I know I did. We need good description before we can even begin to predict outcomes. And sometimes, we’re never going to be able to predict with any certainly. I think most social scientists know this in theory, but too many did not act accordingly. I don’t share the opinion of some that those that got it wrong are irredeemable, but what I do want to plea for is introspection and the recognition of our own ignorance. May it help us see the light.

On Activism
Prior to this election, I was fairly comfortable with my life choices. Academia is what I’ve always enjoyed most and been good at. Especially given my frustration in the policy and activism spheres, it seemed like an obvious choice. I had long imagined that years of academic study would turn me into a better person, a more thoughtful person who could reliably decipher right from wrong and propose realistic solutions to social ills. That once I got to a certain level of education, I’d be able to effectively engage in progressive social change. But a man that repudiates everything I believe in was just elected to the most powerful position in the world. If the analysis of so many others can’t prevent it, how effective can academic analysis be? Will the world be in a place where positive change is achievable by the time I feel I’ve become a sufficiently thoughtful person? Will that day ever come? I am no longer so certain.

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