Listen. Time for New Thinking.

One thing I have noticed in this political environment is that people do not listen to political views that diverge from their own. They believe what they believe, and that’s the end of it. Then they project bad intentions on anyone who disagrees. It makes for useless, though necessary, conversations.

This writer makes a good case for some rational reasoning through the imperative of listening to our politics rather than shouting them. We need to chart the correct path forward and it’s not by turning to the recent or distant past. Those mostly provide warning signs for the consequences of foolish mistakes.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform…So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen.

It’s Time for New Economic Thinking Based on the Best Science Available, Not Ideology

A new narrative for a complex age

By Eric Beinhocker 

If 2008 was the year of the financial crash, 2016 was the year of the political crash. In that year we witnessed the collapse of the last of the four major economic-political ideologies that dominated the 20th century: nationalism; Keynesian Pragmatism; socialism; and neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s the center right in many countries abandoned Keynesianism and adopted neoliberalism. In the 1980s and 90s the center left followed, largely abandoning democratic socialism and adopting a softer version of neoliberalism.

For a few decades we thought the end of history had arrived and political battles in most OECD countries were between centre-right and centre-left parties arguing in a narrow political spectrum, but largely agreeing on issues such as free trade, the benefits of immigration, the need for flexible efficient markets, and the positive role of global finance. This consensus was reinforced by international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, and the Davos political and business elite.

In 2008 that consensus was rocked, last year it crumbled. Some will cling on to the idea that the consensus can be revived. They will say we just need to defend it more vigorously, the facts will eventually prevail, the populist wave is exaggerated, it’s really just about immigration, Brexit will be a compromise, Clinton won more votes than Trump, and so on. But this is wishful thinking. Large swathes of the electorate have lost faith in the neoliberal consensus, the political parties that backed it, and the institutions that promoted it. This has created an ideological vacuum being filled by bad old ideas, most notably a revival of nationalism in the US and a number of European countries, as well as a revival of the hard socialist left in some countries.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform. Disaster is certainly a realistic scenario now with potential for an unravelling of international cooperation, geopolitical conflict, and very bad economic policy. But we can also look back in history and see how, for example, in the US at the beginning of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt harnessed populist discontent to create a period of major reform and progress.

So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen. The populist movements do contain some racists, xenophobes, genuinely crazy people, and others whom we should absolutely condemn. But they also contain many normal people who are fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them. People who have seen their living standards stagnate or decline, who live precarious lives one paycheque at a time, who think their children will do worse than they have. And their issues aren’t just economic, they are also social and psychological. They have lost dignity and respect, and crave a sense of identity and belonging.

They feel – rightly or wrongly – that they played by the rules, but others in society haven’t, and those others have been rewarded. They also feel that their political leaders and institutions are profoundly out of touch, untrustworthy, and self-serving. And finally, they feel at the mercy of big impersonal forces – globalization, technology change, rootless banks and large faceless corporations. The most effective populist slogan has been “take back control”.

After we listen we then have to give new answers. New narratives and policies about how people’s lives can be made better and more secure, how they can fairly share in their nation’s prosperity, how they can have more control over their lives, how they can live with dignity and respect, how everyone will play by the same rules and the social contract will be restored, how openness and international cooperation benefits them not just an elite, and how governments, corporations, and banks will serve their interests, and not the other way around.

This is why we need new economic thinking. This is why the NAEC initiative is so important. The OECD has been taking economic inequality and stagnation seriously for longer than most and has some of the best data and analysis of these issues around. It has done leading work on alternative metrics other than GDP to give insight into how people are really doing, on well-being. It is working hard to articulate new models of growth that are inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It has leading initiatives on education, health, cities, productivity, trade, and numerous other topics that are critical to a new narrative.

But there are gaps too. Rational economic models are of little help on these issues, and a deeper understanding of psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and history is required. Likewise, communications is critical – thick reports are important for government ministries, but stories, narratives, visuals, and memes are needed to shift the media and public thinking.

So what might such a new narrative look like? My hope is that even in this post-truth age it will be based on the best facts and science available. I believe it will contain four stories:

  • A new story of growth [see this post]
  • A new story of inclusion [see this post]
  • A new social contract
  • A new idealism

This last point doesn’t get discussed enough. Periods of progress are usually characterized by idealism, common projects we can all aspire to. Populism is a zero-sum mentality – the populist leader will help me get more of a fixed pie. Idealism is a positive-sum mentality – we can do great things together. Idealism is the most powerful antidote to populism.

Finally, economics has painted itself as a detached amoral science, but humans are moral creatures. We must bring morality back into the center of economics in order for people to relate to and trust it. All of the science shows that deeply ingrained, reciprocal moral behaviors are the glue that holds society together. Understanding the economy as not just an amoral machine that provides incentives and distributes resources, but rather as a human moral construct is essential, not just for creating a more just economy, but also for understanding how the economy actually creates prosperity.

In short, it is time to forge a new vision that puts people back at the center of our economy. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is time to create an economy that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are truly at a fluid point in history. It could be a great step backward or a great step forwards. We must all push forwards together.

Based on remarks originally delivered to the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges workshop, December 14, 2016, Paris.

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Why I Shorted Hillary Clinton

Six months before the election.

In the six odd weeks since the Nov. 8 election, the news media has presented a chaotic post-mortem of what exactly happened in this election. Mostly, they are focused on the unfathomable: how did Hillary Clinton lose? Sexism? Comey? Russian hackers? Putin?

But a number of election analysts saw the problems of a Clinton candidacy from afar. In the spring of 2015, I personally told a group of Silicon Valley liberals that Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could choose in the current anti-establishment political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike were openly lamenting even the idea of another Bush-Clinton election.

More damning was the hard electoral evidence already out there on the Democratic agenda under Obama: the loss of the House and Senate, and more than a dozen governorships and state legislatures. How could these facts be ignored? I have discovered in our polarized politics that people don’t really listen to reason, they merely believe. And then they are faced with disbelief at the outcomes. (Scott Adams calls it cognitive dissonance.)

For most of 2015, the primary season was unclear, though most expected the party choices of Clinton vs. Rubio, Walker, Christy, or Bush would play out. Certainly very few–neither myself nor anybody I know–gave Trump even a remote chance of gaining the nomination. The GOP field of intended candidates became a parlor joke of seventeen dwarves crowding the stage. Liberals could not believe any of these could match up to Hillary on the national stage. They reverted to praising her extended political resume, as if that mattered. (Obama, for instance, probably had the shortest resume in modern presidential history.)

I maintained that Hillary had the highest negatives of any possible Democratic nominee and that after this became apparent following the DNC in August, panic would set in. I was off by a month because of someone nobody saw coming: Donald Trump.

After the first few primaries, Trump’s success gave new life to the fantasies Democrats were spinning. After all, Trump had the highest negatives of any candidate in modern history. At the time I tended to agree that a face-off between Clinton and Trump was a bit of a wild card and that by conventional politics, Clinton would seem to be favored. On the Republican side, opinion pollsters and media pundits all discounted Trump’s chances, but his primary wins rolled on. It was about March when I had the epiphany that past history was no guide to the future – this time was different. The anti-establishment wave that had been building since 2000 had finally begun to crest over “politics as usual.”

Ignoring this anomaly, liberals actually began to desire Trump to be the Republican nominee and conservatives secretly wondered if he wasn’t a Clinton shill. But still, I suspected none of what Trump did would accrue to Clinton’s benefit in this election cycle. It was in March, after observing the odd traction of Bernie Sanders, that I laid some wagers betting against a Clinton presidency (note, not FOR Trump or any other nominee, but solely against Clinton for the Democrats). Part of the reason was I felt the confidence of Clinton supporters was emotionally driven, so I got incredible odds that made the bet a no-brainer: 10 to 1, when the betting lines were closer to 4 to 1. I could have laid off this bet on the other side and enjoyed a riskless arbitrage, but I was fairly convinced, as a political scientist who had studied the data on the last 4 presidential elections, that any Clinton-Trump contest would be pretty much a toss-up and I liked the risk-return payoff.

When Trump’s support seemed to be bleeding working-class union voters from the Rust Belt, I was more convinced. But not my liberal Democrat friends. They cited endless poll numbers to support their beliefs, trusting in data from 538. I merely asked that since the polls, including those by 538, had been wrong for almost 9 months, why exactly should they be accurate now? Then they resorted to Electoral College math, but I replied that swing states with slim margins can flip rather easily. A month to two weeks before the election, with Clinton enjoying a 3-6 point lead in the polls I offered to double-down on my wagers against Clinton but got no takers. Apparently, confidence was growing a bit shaky. Trump support never seemed to go away despite the bashing he received in the media.

On Nov. 7, a friend who trusted my objectivity asked me who I thought would win. I said, although traditional measures point to a narrow Clinton win, traditional measures have failed and thus the outcome was still a 50-50 toss-up in my mind. I definitely liked my bet. On Nov. 9, we woke up to a new political reality, but the point is that we should all have seen it coming.

Here is a quote from the Economist assessing the election:

Republicans have long held the edge in America’s wide-open spaces, but never has the gap been this profound: a whopping 80% of voters who have over one square mile (2.6 square km) of land to enjoy to themselves backed Mr Trump. As the scatter plot below demonstrates, as counties become increasingly densely populated, fewer and fewer vote Republican. American politics appear to be realigning along a cleavage between inward-looking countryfolk and urban globalists.

The problem here (see italics) is that this tension in American politics is nothing new. In fact, it’s more than 200 years old. Regional differences have always existed but have become acute at certain times in our history. The urban-rural polarization is particularly sharp today because the parties have divvied up the polity with targeted policies: Democrats target identity groups that mostly live in urban areas and Republicans target everybody else (see this 2006 op-ed on the 2000/04 elections). The divide is compounded by urban media that targets political biases to its main audience: urban liberals. So urban media elites told their liberal urban audiences what they wanted to hear, rather than objective truth. I’m sure liberal reporters like E.J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Meet The Press, the NY Times op-ed page, etc., believed it themselves.

So, now the disillusioned are catching up with reality. Here’s Conan O’Brien stating the obvious:

“I really believe nobody knows anything right now,” says Conan O’Brien. “I really think the whole mantra that everyone must have, not just in this medium but in the world in general, is that no one knows anything.” Trump’s victory has landed a blow to the country’s notions of certainty. “I would say we’re not seeing the death of certainty,” O’Brien said. “But certainty has taken a holiday right now.” Plenty of certainty, now discarded, was generated in 2016. Our cozy silos of belief and customized group assumptions gave us our most brutal campaign in years. “Everyone has their own street corner,” O’Brien said.

As I stated above, partisan preferences have become less about reasoned policies and compromises and more about pure belief systems. Facts that don’t fit beliefs get tossed aside. If you believe Hillary lost because of Putin, or Comey, or sexism, or racism, or Electoral College math, you’re sinking into quicksand of your own making. Winning a majority of almost 85% of the 3141 counties across the nation is a significant statistical feat that can’t be explained by any single factor. From where I sat it had little to do with Trump, who merely road the wave. Rural and suburban America can never be dismissed by either party. Hillary Clinton was the weakest candidate in the post-war era, by far. If I could see it, so could you.*

*BTW, I’m not clairvoyant or particularly gifted with political genius. Using traditional electoral measures I bet on Romney over Obama for an easy win in 2012. But we can learn from our mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WTF Happened? Pick Your Poison.

I can agree with the headline of this article, reprinted from the Huffington Post, but the majority of the analysis is plainly inconclusive (see comments). The Big Lesson is: Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

The Big Lesson From 2016 Is That Neither Party Has A Winning Vote Coalition

The Obama coalition turned out to be pretty weak, but Trump’s might be even weaker.

11/25/2016 03:49 pm ET

Donald Trump won the Electoral College by a 306-232 margin, but lost the popular vote by a more than 2 million votes (and still counting) ― more than any previous presidential winner ever has in a split decision. How this happened is a complex story, much more nuanced than most “here’s why Trump won” stories imply. [We don’t seek complexity, but clarity and accuracy.]

Almost all of those stories contain a piece of the puzzle, but in order to see the real story you need to consider all of the explanations combined. Neither party has much reason to celebrate the outcome of the 2016 election. Republicans have a demographics problem, and Democrats have a geography problem compounded by turnout issues. [Fair enough.]

At the state level, the 2016 vote patterns seem to show a sea of red states with blues isolated to the coasts plus Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Illinois. Looking county-by-county, it becomes clear that the divide isn’t just coasts vs. flyover territory; it’s rural-urban. Pockets of blue in the major cities, college towns and a handful of majority-black areas in the South are evident in this view. TheNew York Times’ graphic below shows just how little actual land area went to Hillary Clinton at the county level: She won 15 percent of the land to Trump’s 85 percent.

 

Yet declaring the United States a country divided by population density overlooks several trends that are key to understanding Trump’s success. The urban-rural split is nothing new; perhaps it’s more exaggerated in 2016 than before, but we’ve known for a long time that rural areas are conservative and urban areas are liberal. But if we consider gradations ― not just dividing counties by which candidate a majority of voters selected, but shading by the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters in each county ― the story is far less clear.

If we can’t blame everything on the rural-urban divide, then what happened? There’s not one single reason why Clinton lost several states where majorities voted for President Barack Obama twice: there are several reasons. [Blogger’s Note: Of course there is more than one reason (i.e., variable) that explains this election outcome. The scientific question is what matters most. Again it is the enduring urban-rural divide and how these match up with the parties’ platforms. All these other explanations are anecdotal to this particular election, in other words, not part of a trend. The interesting new trend is the continued weakness of both party coalitions that has been unfolding over the past 25-40 years.]

These Purple States of America

A few, significant, subplots played out in the supposed Democratic “firewall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and the perennial battleground of Ohio. These states have been close recently, but in 2008 and 2012 Democrats were able to generate support among the rural working class to win over majorities of voters in the states.

But there was a sizable shift in 2016. It’s unclear how many people voted for Trump that had voted for Obama, but Trump did pull a larger percentage of the vote in many counties: more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That could be in part different groups of voters turning out in 2016 as compared to 2012, but anecdotal stories and survey data reveal that there were some party switchers.

Turnout is part of the picture, though, particularly in Michigan and Wisconsin. AsHuffPost previously reported, turnout was down in Detroit’s Wayne County, Michigan and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in numbers large enough to swing the election in those states. Clinton received nearly 78,000 fewer votes in Wayne County than Obama did in 2012, and lost Michigan by under 12,000 votes. She underperformed Obama by 39,000 votes in Milwaukee County and lost Wisconsin by just over 27,000 votes.

Similar patterns of lower urban turnout were evident in Philadelphia and other cities in the Midwest. The numbers suggest these people didn’t vote for Trump: they just didn’t vote at all. And according to reports, the Clinton campaign didn’t make concerted efforts to get them to the polls. Many of these nonvoters were likely minorities who Democrats assumed would support the party in large numbers ― which they do, when they vote.

An additional subplot involves suburban areas and white women. Democrats hoped to make gains in these areas, particularly among typically-conservative women who might be turned off by Trump’s actions and rhetoric. That hope proved false. Nationally, suburban areas and white women voted for Trump in very similar proportions to their votes for Romney in 2012. Romney received 50 percent of the suburban vote, and Trump garnered 59 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted for Romney, and 52 percent supported Trump. [All exit poll data – see comments below.]

Nationally, as well as in the Rust Belt, Democrats lost support among the least educated groups. According to the exit polls, education didn’t matter much in 2012: Obama won college graduates by 2 points and non-college graduates by 4 points. Clinton won college graduates by 10 points and lost non-college graduates by 7 points. Relative to Obama’s totals, Clinton gained 2 points among college graduates and lost 7 points among non-college graduates.

The difference is even more stark among whites: Trump won white college graduates by 2 points, but he won white non-college graduates by 37 points. The racial breakdown isn’t provided in the 2012 results, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t that sharp of a divide among whites or there would have been a gap in the overall numbers. Among minorities, Clinton won college graduates by 50 points and non-college graduate by 56 points. Once you account for the educational divide, income doesn’t seem to make a difference in vote choice.

Yet despite all these trends that favored Trump, Clinton won the popular vote by a wider margin than several past presidents. Clinton cut the Republican advantage to around 5 points in the red state strongholds of Arizona and Georgia, and Texas dropped from a 16-point Republican advantage in 2012 to a 9 point win for Trump. California is still counting, but it looks like Clinton blew Trump out by nearly 30 points in the state ― substantially more than Obama’s 23-point win over Romney four years ago. [Duh. CA is an outlier in national politics these days.]

These results were likely driven by high support for Clinton among minority populations, particularly among Latinos and Hispanics in the Southwest. And although there’s some dispute over just how strongly that group supported Clinton, the most conservative estimates from the National Exit Polls indicate that Clinton won Latinos by 36 points. Other pre-election polls show even stronger Democratic leanings among the group.

Republicans also struggled with black voters. Trump’s 8 percent support is actually slightly more than Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012, but slightly less than George W. Bush’s support among black voters in 2000 and 2004. Black turnout was slightly lower this year compared to 2012 as well, which helped states like Georgia stay red. An uptick in turnout among a group that so heavily favors Democrats has considerable potential to shift those states. [Hispanics, blacks, women, whites – these group identity variables are all driven by exit poll data, not reality.] 

The problem is that none of these states actually switched directions. Had Clinton won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, she still would have been short of the 270 mark, but it would have compensated for the losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which combine for 26 electoral votes. But neither state appears as close to turning blue as some polls had indicated. So these gains meant nothing for the Electoral College, which is what really matters.

To state the obvious, as long as the Electoral College determines the winner, Democrats can’t rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren’t ready to flip yet. The best strategy for 2020 will be to focus on the very narrow losses in the Rust Belt and win those voters back ― which probably means convincing them that Democrats are a better option for improving their economy than Republicans. Democrats clearly lost that battle this year. [That means a tough economic and social policy reversal for Democrats.]

Meanwhile Republicans will try to hold onto those gains and build their very fragile coalition that won the Electoral College. Whether it survives beyond 2016 is anyone’s guess. The Obama coalition didn’t outlast Obama, but the Trump coalition might not survive Trump.
………………..

A caution: most of the interpretations draw data from exit polls, which usually support the kind of personal narrative desired by media. In other words, the idea that our differences are driven by voter group characteristics is baked in the cake of exit polling. The dominant factor of geography and lifestyle choices is obscured by exit polls. Discount the exit poll inferences accordingly, but then what would journalists write about?

Taken at face value, the argument presented here merely outlines how the Obama era was a one-off and the same may hold true for the Trump regime. (Hillary Clinton could have won and that conclusion would still hold true, as confirmed by down ballot results.) But we have no real indication yet of Trump’s fate and reading the tea-leaves (“might not survive”) is a sign of wishful thinking, not objective analysis. I don’t expect much more from the inherent biases of the Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

The New Old World Order

I cite this article because it is quite insightful of the failed political culture in the modern democratic West and particularly the failures of US party elites. It also exposes the larger historical forces at work that suggest the road forward may be rather rocky.

For me this 2016 moment resonates with historical analogies such as the Savonarolan episode in Renaissance Florence that I wrote about in The City of Man, the dissolution of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany, and the Iranian Fundamentalist Revolution in 1979. We haven’t reached those precipices yet, but all arrows point in that direction unless we come to grips with our current failures of both modern liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Donald Trump Does Have Ideas—and We’d Better Pay Attention to Them

The post-1989 world order is unraveling. Here are 6 ideas Trump has to replace it.

Politico, September 15, 2016

Ideas really don’t come along that often. Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, “ideas are a sort of mental dust,” that float about us but seldom cohere or hold our attention. For ideas to take hold, they need to be comprehensive and organizing; they need to order people’s experience of themselves and of their world. In 20th-century America, there were only a few ideas: the Progressivism of Wilson; Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Containment Doctrine of Truman; Johnson’s War on Poverty; Reagan’s audacious claim that the Cold War could be won; and finally, the post-1989 order rooted in “globalization” and “identity politics,” which seems to be unraveling before our ey.es.

Yes, Donald Trump is implicated in that unraveling, cavalierly undermining decades worth of social and political certainties with his rapid-fire Twitter account and persona that only the borough of Queens can produce. But so is Bernie Sanders. And so is Brexit. And so are the growing rumblings in Europe, which are all the more dangerous because there is no exit strategy if the European Union proves unsustainable. It is not so much that there are no new ideas for us to consider in 2016; it is more that the old ones are being taken apart without a clear understanding of what comes next. 2016 is the year of mental dust, where notions that stand apart from the post-1989 order don’t fully cohere. The 2016 election will be the first—but not last—test of whether they can.
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If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics is inconceivable—must be repudiated.

These six ideas together point to an end to the unstable experiment with supra- and sub-national sovereignty that many of our elites have guided us toward, siren-like, since 1989. That is what the Trump campaign, ghastly though it may at times be, leads us toward: A future where states matter. A future where people are citizens, working together toward (bourgeois) improvement of their lot. His ideas do not yet fully cohere. They are a bit too much like mental dust that has yet to come together. But they can come together. And Trump is the first American candidate to bring some coherence to them, however raucous his formulations have been.

***

(Blog Note: It’s Not about Trump.)

Most of the commentary about Trump has treated him as if he is a one-off, as someone who has emerged because of the peculiar coincidence of his larger-than-life self-absorption and the advent of social media platforms that encourage it. When the world becomes a theater for soliloquy and self-aggrandizement, what else are we to expect?
But the Trump-as-one-off argument begins to fall apart when we think about what else happened in politics this year. First of all, Trump is not alone. If he alone had emerged—if there were no Bernie Sanders, no Brexit, no crisis in the EU—it would be justifiable to pay attention only to his peculiarities and to the oddities of the moment. But with these other uprisings occurring this year, it’s harder to dismiss Trump as a historical quirk.

Furthermore, if he had been just a one-off, surely the Republican Party would have been able to contain him, even co-opt him for its own purposes. After all, doesn’t the party decide? The Republican Party is not a one, however, it is a many. William F. Buckley Jr. and others invented the cultural conservatism portion of the party in the 1950s, with the turn to the traditionalism of Edmund Burke; the other big portion of the party adheres to the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. The third leg of the Republican Party stool, added during the Reagan years, includes evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics of the sort who were still unsure of the implications of Vatican II. To Burke and Hayek, then, add the names John Calvin and Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who really reads these figures knows that the tension between them is palpable. For a time, the three GOP factions were able to form an alliance against Communism abroad and against Progressivism at home. But after the Cold War ended, Communism withered and the culture wars were lost, there has been very little to keep the partnership together. And if it hadn’t been Trump, sooner or later someone else was going to come along and reveal the Republican Party’s inner fault lines. Trump alone might have been the catalyst, but the different factions of the GOP who quickly split over him were more than happy to oblige.

There is another reason why the Republican Party could not contain Trump, a perhaps deeper reason. Michael Oakeshott, an under-read political thinker in the mid-20th century, remarked in his exquisite essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” that one of the more pathological notions of our age is that political life can be understood in terms of “principles” that must be applied to circumstances. Politics-as-engineering, if you will. Republicans themselves succumbed to this notion, and members of the rank and file have noticed. Republicans stood for “the principles of the constitution,” for “the principles of the free market,” etc. The problem with standing for principles is that it allows you to remain unsullied by the political fray, to stand back and wait until yet another presidential election cycle when “our principles” can perhaps be applied. And if we lose, it’s OK, because we still have “our principles.” What Trump has been able to seize upon is growing dissatisfaction with this endless deferral, the sociological arrangement for which looks like comfortable Inside-the-Beltway Republicans defending “principles” and rank-and-file Republicans far from Washington-Babylon watching in horror and disgust.

Any number of commentators (and prominent Republican Party members) have said that Trump is an anti-ideas candidate. If we are serious about understanding our political moment, we have to be very clear about what this can mean. It can mean Trump’s administration will involve the-politics-of-will, so to speak; that the only thing that will matter in government will be what Trump demands. Or, it can mean that Trump is not a candidate who believes in “principles” at all. This is probably the more accurate usage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is unprincipled; it means rather that he doesn’t believe that yet another policy paper based on conservative “principles” is going to save either America or the Republican Party. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville was clear that the spirit of democracy is not made possible by great ideas (and certainly not by policy papers), but rather by practical, hands-on experience with self-governance. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mystical musings in his essay, “Experience,” corroborate this. American democracy will not be rejuvenated by yet another policy paper from the Inside-the-Beltway gang. What I am not saying here is that Trump has the wisdom of an Oakeshott, a Tocqueville or an Emerson. What I am saying is that Trump is that quintessentially American figure, hated by intellectuals on both sides of the aisle and on the other side of the Atlantic, who doesn’t start with a “plan,” but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea—not a “principled” one—that can address the problem at hand, but which goes no further. That’s what American businessmen and women do. (And, if popular culture is a reliable guide to America, it is what Han Solo always does in Star Wars movies.) We would do well not to forget that the only school of philosophy developed in America has been Pragmatism. This second meaning of being an anti-ideas candidate is consonant with it.

If, as some have said, Trump’s only idea is, “I can solve it,” then we are in real trouble. The difficulty, of course, is that in this new, Trumpean moment when politics is unabashed rhetoric, it is very difficult to discern the direction a Trump administration will take us. Will he be the tyrant some fear, or the pragmatist that is needed?

It’s not unreasonable to think the latter. This is because, against the backdrop of post-1989 ideas, the Trump campaign does indeed have a nascent coherence. “Globalization” and “identity politics” are a remarkable configuration of ideas, which have sustained America, and much of the rest of the world, since 1989. With a historical eye—dating back to the formal acceptance of the state-system with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648—we see what is so remarkable about this configuration: It presumes that sovereignty rests not with the state, but with supra-national organizations—NAFTA, WTO, the U.N., the EU, the IMF, etc.—and with subnational sovereign sites that we name with the term “identity.” So inscribed in our post-1989 vernacular is the idea of “identity” that we can scarcely imagine ourselves without reference to our racial, gender, ethnic, national, religious and/or tribal “identity.” Once, we aspired to be citizens who abided by the rule of law prescribed within a territory; now we have sovereign “identities,” and wander aimlessly in a world without borders, with our gadgets in hand to distract us, and our polemics in mind to repudiate the disbelievers.

What, exactly, is the flaw with this remarkable post-1989 configuration of ideas? When you start thinking in terms of management by global elites at the trans-state level and homeless selves at the substate level that seek, but never really find, comfort in their “identities,” the consequences are significant: Slow growth rates (propped up by debt-financing) and isolated citizens who lose interest in building a world together. Then of course, there’s the rampant crony-capitalism that arises when, in the name of eliminating “global risk” and providing various forms of “security,” the collusion between ever-growing state bureaucracies and behemoth global corporations creates a permanent class of winners and losers. Hence, the huge disparities of wealth we see in the world today.

The post-1989 order of things fails to recognize that the state matters, and engaged citizens matter. The state is the largest possible unit of organization that allows for the political liberty and economic improvement of its citizens, in the long term. This arrangement entails competition, risk, success and failure. But it does lead to growth, citizen-involvement, and if not a full measure of happiness, then at least the satisfactions that competence and merit matter.

Trump, then, with his promise of a future in which the integrity of the state matters, and where citizens identify with the state because they have a stake in it rather than with identity-driven subgroups, proposes a satisfying alternative.

This is also why it would be a big mistake to underestimate Trump and the ideas he represents during this election. In the pages of the current issue of POLITICO Magazine, one author writes: “The Trump phenomenon is about cultural resentment, anger and most of all Trump. It’s primal-scream politics, a middle finger pointed at The Other, a nostalgia for a man-cave America where white dudes didn’t have to be so politically correct.”
I have no doubt that right now, somewhere in America (outside the Beltway), there are self-congratulatory men, probably white, huddled together in some smoky man-cave, with “Make America Great Again” placards on their John-Deere-tractor-mowed lawns.
But do not mistake the part for the whole. What is going on is that “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” is being boldly challenged. Inside the Beltway, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is scarcely any evidence of this challenge. There are people in those places who will vote for Trump, but they dare not say it, for fear of ostracism. They think that identity politics has gone too far, or that if it hasn’t yet gone too far, there is no principled place where it must stop. They believe that the state can’t be our only large-scale political unit, but they see that on the post-1989 model, there will, finally, be no place for the state. Out beyond this hermetically sealed bicoastal consensus, there are Trump placards everywhere, not because citizens are racists or homophobes or some other vermin that needs to be eradicated, but because there is little evidence in their own lives that this vast post-1989 experiment with “globalization” and identity politics has done them much good.

The opposition to the post-1989 order is not just happening here in America; it is happening nearly everywhere. The Brexit vote stunned only those who believe in their bones that the very arc of history ends with “globalization” and identity politics.
The worry is that this powerful, growing disaffection with the status quo—both within Europe and elsewhere—will devolve into nefarious nationalism based on race, ethnicity or religion. To combat this, we are going to have to find constructive ways to build a new set of ideas around a very old set of ideas about sovereignty—namely, that the state and the citizens inside it matter. If we don’t find a way to base nationalism on a healthy understanding of what a liberal state is and what it does and expects from citizens to make it work well, dark nationalism, based on blood and religion, will prevail—again.
Nothing lasts forever. Is that not the mantra of the left? Why, then, would the ideas of globalization and identity politics not share the fate of all ideas that have their day then get tossed into the dust-bin of history?

***
Of course, when new ideas take hold, old institutional arrangements face upheaval or implosion. There is no post-election scenario in which the Republican Party as we knew it prior to Trump remains intact. The Republicans who vote for Hillary Clinton will not be forgotten by those who think Trump is the one chance Republicans have to stop “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” cold in its tracks. And neither will Inside-the-Beltway Republicans forget those in their party who are about to pull the lever for Trump. One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.

There are, then, two developments we are likely to see going forward. First, cultural conservatives will seriously consider a political “Benedict Option,” dropping out of the Republican Party and forming a like-minded Book Group, unconcerned with winning elections and very concerned with maintaining their “principles.” Their fidelity is to Aristotle rather than to winning the battle for the political soul of America. The economic conservatives, meanwhile, will be urged to stay within the party—provided they focus on the problem of increasing the wealth of citizens within the state.

The other development, barely talked about, is very interesting and already underway, inside the Trump campaign. It involves the effort to convince Americans as a whole that they are not well-served by thinking of themselves as members of different “identity groups” who are owed a debt that—surprise!—Very White Progressives on the left will pay them if they loyally vote for the Democratic Party. The Maginot Line the Democratic Party has drawn purports to include on its side, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, Muslims and women. (Thus, the lack of embarrassment, really, about the “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.) To its credit, the Democratic Party has made the convincing case, really since the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century, that the strong state is needed to rearrange the economy and society, so that citizens may have justice. Those who vote for the Democratic Party today are not just offered government program assistance, they are offered political protections and encouragements for social arrangements of one sort or another that might not otherwise emerge.

But where does this use of political power to rearrange the economy and society end? Continue using political power in the service of “identity politics” to reshape the economy and society and eventually both of them will become so enfeebled that they no longer work at all. The result will not be greater liberty for the oppressed, it will be the tyranny of the state over all. Trump does have sympathies for a strong state; but correctly or incorrectly, he has managed to convince his supporters that a more independent economy and society matters. In such an arrangement, citizens see their first support as the institutions of society (the family, religion, civic associations), their second support as a relatively free market, and their third support as the state, whose real job is to defend the country from foreign threats. Under these arrangements, citizens do not look upward to the state to confirm, fortify and support their “identities.” Rather, they look outward to their neighbor, who they must trust to build a world together. Only when the spell of identity politics is broken can this older, properly liberal, understanding take hold. That is why Trump is suggesting to these so-called identity groups that there is an alternative to the post-1989 worldview that Clinton and the Democratic Party are still pushing.

Now that Trump has disrupted the Republican Party beyond repair, the success of the future Republican Party will hang on whether Americans come to see themselves as American citizens before they see themselves as bearers of this or that “identity.” The Very White Progressives who run the Democratic Party have an abiding interest in the latter narrative, because holding on to support of entire identity groups helps them win elections. But I do not think it can be successful much longer, in part because it is predicated on the continual growth of government, which only the debt-financing can support. Our debt-financed binge is over, or it will be soon. The canary in the coal mine—now starting to sing—is the African-American community, which has, as a whole, been betrayed by a Democratic Party that promises through government largesse that its burden shall be eased. Over the past half-century nothing has been further from the truth, especially in high-density inner-city regions. While it receives little media attention, there are African-Americans who are dubious about the arrangement by which the Democratic Party expects them to abide. A simultaneously serious and humorous example of this is the long train of videos posted on YouTube by “Diamond and Silk.” To be sure, the current polls show that Trump has abysmal ratings among minorities. If he wins the election, he will have to succeed in convincing them that he offers an alternative to permanent government assistance and identity politics consciousness-raising that, in the end, does them little good; and that through the alternative he offers there is a hope of assimilation into the middle class. A tall order, to be sure.

These observations are not to be confused as a ringing endorsement for a Republican Party that does not yet exist, and perhaps never will exist. But they are warning, of sorts, about impending changes that cannot be laughed off. The Republicans have at least been given a gift, in the disruption caused by Trump. The old alliances within it were held together by a geopolitical fact-on-the-ground that no longer exists: the Cold War. Now long behind us, a new geopolitical moment, where states once again matter, demands new alliances and new ideas. With the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Democrats have been denied their gift, and will lumber on, this 2016, with “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak,” hoping to defend the world order that is predicated on it. If Sanders had won, the Democrats would have put down their identity politics narrative and returned to claims about “class” and class consciousness; they would have put down the banner of Nietzsche and taken up the banner of Marx, again. And that would have been interesting! Alas, here we are, with, on the one hand, tired old post-1989 ideas in the Democratic Party searching for one more chance to prove that they remain vibrant and adequate to the problems at hand; and on the other, seemingly strange, ideas that swirl around us like mental dust waiting to coalesce.

 

Debate? What Debate?

I can’t imagine a more sophomoric attempt at moderating a Presidential primary debate than what occurred last night under the direction of CNBC. Apparently there was no clear winner as much as an overwhelmingly clear loser: CNBC. One wonders when the media elites will address the real challenges and issues the American polity faces. I won’t hold my breath.

The last fiscally responsible adult we had in public service in Washington was Paul Volcker, and he was a Democrat. And elites wonder why the average American is fed up with national politics. Kudos to Cruz.

David Stockman eviscerates the pathetic performance in his blog reposted below:

The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

The Debate: GOP Candidates Elevated, CNBC Eviscerated

by  • October 29, 2015

Well now. We actually got our money’s worth last night.

Almost with out exception the GOP candidates conveyed a compelling message that the state is not our savior, while the CNBC moderators spent the night fumbling with fantasy football and inanities about which vitamin supplements Ben Carson has used or endorsed.

But this was about more than tone. The interaction between the candidates and the CNBC moderators revealed the yawning gap between the bubble world at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street and the hard scrabble reality of economic stagnation and political alienation on main street America.

Yes, the CNBC moderators engaged in a deplorable display of gotcha journalism punctuated by a snarky self-righteousness that was downright offensive. John Harwood is surely secretly on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee and it was more than obvious why Becky Quick excels at serving tea to blathering old fools like Warren Buffett.

So they deserved the Cruz missile that came flying at them mid-way through the debate.

At that point the Senator from Texas had had enough, especially from Carl Quintanilla. The latter has spend years on CNBC commentating about the “market”, but wouldn’t know honest capitalism is if slapped him upside the head, and has apparently never meet a Washington intervention that he didn’t cheer on as something to help the stock averages go higher:

Let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions—Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math?… Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about substantive issues?”

Nor did the Texas Senator let up:

“Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every thought and question from the media was ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?”

As one pundit put it afterwards, “given the grievous injuries inflicted on Team CNBC”  by Cruz and the rest of the candidates, the only thing left to do was “to shoot the wounded”.

Actually, there is rather more. Last night was billed as a debate on domestic issues and the economy and CNBC is the communications medium of record about the daily comings and goings of the US economy and the financial markets at its center. Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

They had to bring in from the sidelines the intrepid Rick Santelli to even get the Federal Reserve on the table. Its almost as if the CNBC commentators work on the set of the Truman Show and have no clue that it’s all make believe.

In the alternative, call this condition Bubble Blindness. It’s a contagious ideological disease that afflicts the entire corridor from Wall Street to Washington, and CNBC is the infected host that propagates it.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

The GOP politicians appropriately sputtered last night about the bipartisan beltway scam rammed through the House yesterday by Johnny Lawnchair, but they were given no opportunity by their clueless moderators to explore exactly why this kind of taxpayer betrayal happens over and over.

Well, there is a simple answer. The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived. Last year it paid the Treasury approximately $100 billion in absolutely phony profits scalped from its massive trove of Treasury debt and quasi-government GSE paper.

That is, over time Uncle Sam has purchased $4.5 trillion worth of real economic resources——in the form of goods, services, salaries and transfer payments——from the US economy, which were paid for with IOUs. These obligations to be redeemed in equivalent goods and services were eventually purchased by the Fed, but with merely fiat credits it conjured out of thin air.

And then the monetary charlatans behind the curtain at the Fed send back to the US treasury the coupons earned on these airballs, causing the politicians to think the national debt is no problem; and that they can buy aircraft carriers and GS-15 salaries indefinitely while booking a “profit” on their borrowings.

Folks, this is just plain madness. Back 1989 when the real median household income first hit its current level of about $54,000, this entire monetization scam would have been considered beyond the pale by even the inhabitants of the Eccles Building, and most certainly by everyone else in Washington——from the US Treasury to the Congressional budget committees to the summer interns in the Rayburn Building.

But after 25 years of central bank induced financialization of the US economy, there has developed a cult of the stock market and a Wall Street regime of relentless financial gambling in the guise of “investment”. Consequently, the massive aritificial inflation of financial asset values is not even recognized by CNBC and its fellow travelers in the main stream financial press—to say nothing of the gleeful punters who inhabit the casino.

But here’s the thing. How did the real median household income stagnant at $54,000 while the real value of the S&P 500 soared by nearly 4X? market cap of US debt and equity issues soared from 200% to 540% of GDP, and now weigh in a $93 trillion?

Real Median Household Income Vs. Inflation Adjusted S&P 500 - Click to enlarge

Likewise, how did the aggregate “market cap” of US debt and business equity soar from 200% to 540% of GDP when main street living standards were not rising at all? Could it be that something rotten and deformed has been injected into the very financial bloodstream of American capitalism—-something which the CNBC cheerleaders dare not acknowledge or even allow conservative politicians to explore in a public forum?

Total Marketable Securities and GDP - Click to enlarge

Worse still, this entire Fed-driven regime of Bubble Finance has inculcated in the casino and its media megaphones the insidious notion that the arms and agencies of government exist for one purpose above all others. Namely, to do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated and the stock market averages rising—–preferably every single day the market is open.

There was no more dramatic demonstration of that proposition than after the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008 when the as yet un-house broken GOP had had the courage to vote down TARP.

But when they were dragged back into the House chambers by Goldman Sachs and its plenipotentiaries in the US Treasury, the message was unmistakable. On one side of the CNBC screen was the House electronic voting board and on the other side was the second-by-second path of the S&P 500.  And delivering the voice-over narrative were the same clowns who could not even mention the Fed last night. The US Congress not dare to vote down TARP again, they fulminated.

It obviously didn’t. Yet right then and there the conservative opposition was broken, and the present statist regime of Bubble Finance was off to the races.

During the coming decade the nation will be battered and shattered by a monumental fiscal crisis and the bankruptcy of the bogus “trust funds” which now pay out upwards of $2 trillion per year to 70 million citizens. At length, the bearers of pitchforks and torches descending on Washington will surely ask how this all happened.

But they will not need to look much beyond last night’s debate for the answers. The nation’s fiscal process has been literally shutdown by the Fed and the Wall Street gamblers and media cheerleaders who insouciantly and relentlessly demand of Washington that it do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated.

As a result, we have had the absurdity of 82 months of ZIRP and a orgy of public debt monetization that has driven the weighted average cost of the Federal debt to a mere 1.75%.  And when a few courageous remnants of fiscal sanity like Senators Cruz and Rand Paul have had the courage to resist still another increase in the public debt ceiling, they have been treated as pariahs by Wall Street and the kind of snarky financial media types on display last night.

The fact is, the President has clear constitutional powers to prioritize spending in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling. That is, he can pay the interest on the debt, keep the Veterans hospitals open, send out the social security checks and prioritize any other category of spending that he chooses from the current inflow of tax revenues, and for as long as it takes to legislate an honest fiscal retrenchment.

Needless to say, that would create howls of pain from the Federal vendors who wouldn’t get paid, the state and local governments which would have to wait for their grant payments and the Federal employees who would be put on furlough.

But that is not the reason that Mitch McConnell and Johnny Lawnchair have capitulated every time a debt ceiling crisis has reached the boiling point. That kind of action-forcing circumstance was managed by Washington innumerable times in the pre-Bubble Finance world, including upwards of a dozen times during my time in the Reagan White House.

But back then no one thought that Wall Street would have a hissy fit if the government shutdown for a few days or if the fiscal gravy train was temporarily put on hold; nor did politicians much care if it did.

My goodness. Paul Volcker had taught Wall Street a thing or two about the requisites of financial discipline in any event.

No, what is different now is that the establishment GOP politicians are petrified of a stock market collapse, and have been brow-beaten into the false belief that a government shutdown will create severe political costs.

Baloney. Even the totally botched affair in October 2013 created no lasting damage—-as attested to by the GOP sweep in the 2014 elections.

At the end of the day, all the hyperventilation about the political costs of a government shutdown or the forced prioritization of spending in the absence of a debt ceiling increase is pure Wall Street propaganda; and its an untruth amplified and repeated endlessly, loudly and often hysterically by its financial media handmaidens.

At least last night some GOP politicians gave it back to them good and hard.

Maybe there is some hope for release from the destructive pall of Bubble Finance, after all.

Gerrymandering Our Demise

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

The graphic above is an historically famous newspaper illustration of the first application of redistricting based upon choosing voters likely to vote for one party over the other, thereby assuring the election of a favored candidate. The map is of Massachusetts’ counties in 1812 and how they were cobbled together by redistricting to elect congressional candidates favored by Governor Elbridge Gerry. Newspaper wags thought the result looked like a salamander and dubbed the creature a “gerrymander.”

A recent exchange I had with a Political Science colleague over some electoral studies we’ve conducted separately illuminated for me how redistricting, or gerrymandering, is contributing greatly to our national political polarization and governing dysfunction.

After the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 I became quite curious about the red state-blue state narrative promoted by the media to explain the election results. The narrative keyed on subcultural stereotypes across America that served to define political preferences. Most of us are familiar with such stereotypes (guns and religion vs. Priuses and lattes), but it struck me then that the differences had to be  more correlated with geography than cultural identity. After all, red-blue was a geographic pattern, so it had to incorporate a geographic explanation. I conducted an empirical study of those elections that compared county voting with county census demographics. The results revealed that the most significant factors determining party preferences were population density and household formation. Other census characteristics–such as race, gender, age, income–added no explanatory power. (In 2005, I published an op-ed explanation here.)

To bring us up to date, I read another study last week (titled, The 2014 House Elections: Political Analysis and The Enduring Importance of Demographics) that analyzed the 2008, -10, -12, -14 elections in the same manner, comparing census demographic data with congressional district results. The author found that the two most important factors were population density and race/ethnicity of minority vs. white voters. At first I wondered why our results differed, as I suspected nothing much had changed in the electorate beyond a presidential candidate who was the first African American in US history. After some discussions I realized the differences between counties and Congressional districts (CDs) is because county lines, like state lines, are not redrawn to influence electoral outcomes while CDs are deliberately redrawn to favor those outcomes.

Below are some examples of tortuously drawn CDs that are intended to bind racial and ethnic communities together to elect racial and ethnic representatives in a white majority nation.

Worst GerryMandered districts

It didn’t take long to figure out that the difference between the results of the two studies can be traced to the unit of analysis: counties vs. congressional districts. Counties reflect a cross-section of lifestyle preferences based upon geography and demographics versus congressional districts that are carved out to achieve a desired electoral outcome based solely on race or ethnicity.

Underlying this policy objective is the assumption that only a racial or ethnic minority candidate can adequately represent a racial or ethnic community. We can debate whether this assumption holds true or not, but the unfortunate result is that gerrymandering reinforces the bias. In other words, if we’re looking for racial bias and then organize our electoral system to reinforce racial and ethnic divisions, is it any wonder that we then find a correlation between race and political outcomes?

There are other pernicious effects of redistricting along racial and ethnic demographics. First, it reduces electoral competition, and this works equally well for both parties. As non-whites get carved out of white districts, the remaining districts are more purely white. In effect, we are sectioning our electorate into white and non-white political entities. This goes against our long-running public battle to integrate communities, but reducing electoral competition also means parties and candidates can become less responsive to voters’ demands and not suffer for it. This translates into democratic governance that is anything but “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Second, democracy is founded on the process of compromise, but how does a political group defined by biological identity compromise? It becomes impossible to compromise one’s racial, ethnic or sexual identity, so we get much less compromise on issues that go beyond biology. This inability to compromise has greatly hampered our democratic governance. We have basically yielded our politics to a class of elites who are highly motivated to secure and wield power and wealth in their favor: the 99% governed by the 1%.

Taken in total, regardless of the political benefits, what gerrymandering and redistricting has done is weaken our commitment to one of the founding tenets of the American experiment, expressed in the Latin words, e pluribus unum: Out of One, Many.

Instead we’ve allowed ourselves to  become too easily divided and conquered.

 

 

The Politics of Polarization

tugofwar

I watched an interesting debate aired by PBS over political polarization in American politics. The debate actually focused solely on the partisan/ideological divide as it pitted “right against left” in its panels and choice of participants. You can view the debate here.

I found some truths and falsehoods presented on this issue. First, I would agree with George Will that partisan opposition is fundamental to the design of the US electoral and governing system. We have two parties so that issues can be reduced to simple dichotomous choices where the choice that prevails can be said to represent a majority of the nation’s citizens and thereby claim a mandate, whether that be weak or strong. Polarization today is evenly matched in a 50-50 nation, which makes elections highly contentious and volatile. It also makes it hard to claim a mandate, and rightly so.

The left-liberal argument seems to be that electoral polarization causes government dysfunction, but this is exactly the purpose: to challenge one side’s view of “good” government by forcing majorities and supermajorities in elections and governance. One discussant claimed that gridlock did not express the “will of the people” because of large scale disenfranchisement of minority groups. Whether disenfranchisement is salient or not, this is not what the data show to be driving polarization. In fact, if one controls for race, for instance measuring only white people, we find the same polarization patterns exist.

Matt Kibbe argues that the system is experiencing upheaval due to information technology that opens the political process in many ways that challenge the old guard. In other words, the political and media elites no longer control the show and are understandably upset with their loss of hegemony. This paints our political dysfunction as an insider-outsider, populist-elite conflict that has tilted toward the outsiders. I’m not sure it has, beyond informing the outsiders just how outside the process they are. The apparent result has been widespread dissatisfaction with the governing status quo, but that doesn’t drive polarization as much as blame-gaming.

But the debate focused on the narrow ideological differences between left and right, whereas most of the polity does not adopt pure ideological or partisan identities. The fastest growing group of voters identify as independent and non-affiliated. So, we are still left with the question of what is driving polarization and we need to answer that question before we have a chance of understanding it. One problem is that the proffered answers usually support one’s political agenda rather than truth.

One need only to look at the correct maps of election results to understand that polarization exists and it is largely a geographic phenomenon. 2004countymap-final2The Red State-Blue State narrative is not quite accurate as the real divide is obviously urban-rural, as illustrated by county election maps. This is confirmed with robust statistical results from recent presidential elections. As one moves from the urban core to the rural periphery, the share of the vote by county moves monotonically from Democrat to Republican. This fact has given rise to those bizarre and amusing subcultural characteristics of opposing voting groups: Republicans own guns, go to church, drive pick-up trucks, and listen to country western, while Democrats drink lattes at Starbucks, drive hybrids, and listen to rap and hip hop. There’s some truth to these stereotypes that feed our amusement, but these lifestyle choices do not drive political preferences, they coincide with political preferences. There’s a big difference, because when identity drives politics, there is little room for compromise.

This coincidence has become salient because both parties have tailored their party platforms to appeal to rural or urban voters. In other words, the parties have created political identities, not voters. We can observe the reality in the suburbs, where cultural caricatures are harder to apply. The true divisions in American politics these days are pretty much the same as those divisions that have existed over the past two hundred plus years: rural regions have different policy preferences than urban, metropolitan regions. The data show that these preferences also correlate with household and family formation, specifically marriage vs. singles and single heads of household. Population density of the county along with the share of married and female heads of households explains roughly two-thirds of party voting preferences in elections today. These differences in preferences have existed in societies throughout history and across countries, so they don’t present any different challenge to our democracy today. The real problem lies in the final third of the explanation for polarization, which is ideology or political philosophy.

Unfortunately, this conflict is usually misrepresented by self-interested parties. So the real challenge we face are the myths promoted by those elites who study and propagandize politics. This would include both parties, the political class, and most of the mainstream media elites. It would also include self-interested parties that exert great influence over the funding of politics, such as major corporations, the banking system, and public unions. This PBS debate exposes the tendency of experts to perpetuate these myths for reasons best known to them.

Mr. Will is correct that the driving force of the polarization we speak of today is ideology over the proper role of government in democratic society. I would have to say that the burden of proof on this rests with the pro-government advocates on the left, as the status quo ante for the US has been limited government that is constitutionally proscribed. The burden of small government proponents has been to meet the demands of democratic society without shifting the sphere of private life to the public sector. One cannot merely say such demands are illegitimate because legitimacy is a function of what a democratic polity demands within the constraints of constitutionalism. If voters demand economic security, the task is to help meet that demand in the most efficient and just manner possible, which usually doesn’t mean creating another universal entitlement program. An old Chinese proverb illustrates this perfectly: better to teach a hungry man to fish than give him a fish to eat.

Eric Liu seems to understand this, though he also appears too willing to fall back on the default of government-driven solutions by expanding public goods. Instead of really addressing the issue Mr. Will presents, the opposing discussants resort to claiming the question of bigger or smaller government is a false dichotomy. Intellectually, perhaps, but practically it seems to be the simple dichotomy that our political system was designed to distill and resolve. The petty and personal nature of our political conflict is merely a manifestation of this inability to reconcile these opposing positions. Personally, I am convinced it can be done, but it starts with understanding the true nature of our politics that puts to the test many of the belief systems we hold so dear.

Red-faced or Blue-blooded: Exploding the Myths of American Party Politics

States apart copy

I’m reprinting this here because in the ten years I’ve been studying and researching this political dysfunction, it only gets worse. And I rarely read or hear any rational analysis – only one-sided arguments. The media has really misguided America because they write narratives and don’t study hard data.

Red-faced or Blue-blooded: Exploding the Myths of American Party Politics

In recent years American politics has become highly polarized, making democratic governance less amenable to compromise and more gridlocked. After a generation of conflict and heightened partisanship during the Obama presidency, as we careen from budget battles to periodic government shutdowns, we seem no closer to bridging the gap. One reason for this impasse stems from a misunderstanding of our politics driven by a popular media narrative that perpetuates cultural stereotypes, political myths, and partisan hyperbole.

The narrative appears to have emerged during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, when the media colored the states red and blue in their visual props in order to better represent the Electoral College races. This was actually instructive because there was an obvious clustering of red states and blue states: blue in the Northeast, along the coasts and the Great Lakes regions; red in the south and throughout most of the Midwest. The media explanations for such clustering focused on exit poll survey data that was based on voter identities and preferences, including race, ethnicity, gender, age, church attendance, etc. And therein lies the problem: analysis based on identity is going to come up with identity-based answers, yet the very fact that the pattern is geographic (red and blue states) means that a spatial factor has to be at work.

Urban vs. Rural

Of course, media pundits had a ready answer for the geographic state pattern: red states in the South represented a racial bias while those in the Midwest demonstrated a fundamentalist Christian bias. Thenceforth, the narrative of party polarization in American politics settled on the cultural and personal attributes of voters, claiming that party affiliations and voting patterns were being driven by race, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, and lifestyle preferences, such as the type of car one drove or the music one listened to. Closer inspection of the hard data, however, exposes the fallacy of this narrative.

If one looks at a more accurate map that breaks down voting patterns into smaller units, of counties or Congressional districts, a more nuanced geographic pattern reveals itself. Blue voters are shown to be concentrated in urban areas, while red voters dominate rural areas. The suburbs represent the swing voters or the purplish middle ground, with inner suburbs voting more blue and outer exurbs more red.

The advantage of county voting data is that we can compare it with county census data on race, ethnicity, age, gender, income, household formation, population, etc. Comparative statistical analysis then shows which of these factors most accurately explains voting patterns. What we find is that the most significant factors are the population density of the community and the number of married households vs. female heads of household. All other factors turn out to be relatively insignificant, including, surprisingly, race.

One might ask, “How can that be? We know that there’s a racial divide where blacks predominantly vote Democratic and whites vote Republican.” (Actually, that’s only half true; whites are much more evenly split.) Certainly race had an impact on the 2008 election, but the novelty of voting for the first non-white president was less of a motivating factor in 2012. Exit polls do show that black voters vote Democratic by overwhelming margins, but the fact that they live in urban areas and have a high correlation with Female Heads of Household (.8 in the 2000 census) means that these two other factors trump their racial identity.

If we take black voters out of the analysis completely, and thus remove any racial bias, we find the same results are even stronger among the non-black population: urbanites mostly vote blue, rural residents mostly red, while suburbanites are mixed. Married households lean red and single households lean blue.

There is a self-selection process that reinforces these results because single voters tend to live in large cities and married couples choose to move out of the city into suburban and rural communities in order to raise families. These two factors—population density and family formation—help explain the majority of these red-blue voting patterns. (We’ll address a third factor when we get to ideology and religion.)

Rural–urban splits in American politics are nothing new and are driven by a natural divergence of economic interests. The first regional party divide was between Hamiltonian Federalists (cities in the North and East) and Jeffersonian Democrats (farming interests across the South and near West). The next battle, over the Second National Bank of the U.S, pitted Jacksonian Democrats against the Whigs. Then, of course, we had the Civil War between North and South over slavery and tariffs. This was followed by another split over banking as McKinley Republicans fought against the Bryan Democrats over gold and silver-backed money. (The 1896 Electoral College map looks almost identical to that of 2004, but with reversed colors: the South and Midwest favored the Democrats, while the Northeast and coasts went Republican.)

Parties and Media

This begs the next question: “Why do certain regions now vote Democrat or Republican so consistently instead of mixing their ideological preferences?” The fixed pattern is an outgrowth of the two party platforms that were set in the 1950s and 60s, when Democrats began to appeal to urban voters with Great Society social programs and identity-group politics, while Republicans targeted rural and suburban voters with lower taxes and family-oriented policies. Consider the fact that the South was once solidly Democrat and is now solidly Republican. The agrarian South has been consistently traditional and conservative; it’s the parties that have flipped, not the voters. The parties have organized their platforms and campaigns to appeal to constituencies based on geography. And by pursuing these electoral strategies, the parties have become ideologically more pure, reinforcing the natural policy divide.

Recent Red-Blue patterns have become hardened for two additional reasons that stem from party and media incentives. First, both parties benefit from a polarization myth based on identity. Why? Because if voters identify strongly as either Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, their votes are virtually guaranteed and party candidates don’t need to spend campaign funds trying to win them over. This is why presidential candidates don’t bother to campaign in solidly red or blue states, but focus all their energies on swing states. (More pernicious is the fact that national Democrat candidates can pay lip service to the minority vote and suffer no real consequence, while Republicans have chosen to essentially write off minority voters.)

The second reason that Red-Blue patterns have come to be reinforced lies with the media. Mainstream media is centered in metropolitan areas and must appeal to these audiences or go out of business. Their reporters live in the same urban communities where they work, so their worldview is largely colored according to urban interests. These facts do not necessarily imply a deliberate political bias, but since mainstream media’s audiences have been heavily politicized (liberals read the big city papers and watch the three major urban networks), its coverage of politics has tended to exhibit a strong leftward, or urban, bias. As a consequence, alternative media has expanded to meet the preferences of non-urban audiences with a rightward bias. These media biases reinforce polarization in a vicious feedback cycle as people only tune in to the news that confirms their political views. For these two reasons—party and media incentives—we can’t expect that political polarization will be reduced by either of these institutions.

We need to understand that voting patterns are correlated with lifestyles because geography is also associated with lifestyle choices. But lifestyle choices do not determine political identities. This is an important insight that many of our national politicians consistently misread. We saw it when Barack Obama claimed that small town folks “cling to guns or religion” because they are “bitter” about their economic “frustrations.” On the Republican side, we witnessed a similar gaffe when Mitt Romney claimed that the 47% of Americans who “don’t pay income taxes…[and] were dependent on government” would always vote for the party promising them more benefits paid for by taxes on someone else. Both of these statements are gross caricatures of our political culture.

Religion and Ideology

This brings us to the last issue that colors our political divide: the thorny question of religious faith and practice. The proxy for religious faith, which is difficult to measure, is frequency of church attendance. Residents of red states go to church more frequently than residents of blue states. Thus, churchgoers are generally thought to represent the ideological Religious Right that votes Republican. This view concludes that religious faith is politically opposed to secularism.

This is not quite accurate, however, and contributes to yet another misreading of our politics and religion. Churches provide different functions within rural and urban communities. In rural areas the church is a communal meeting place where people gather for social purposes as well as to observe their faith. In an urban secular environment, this social need is more likely to be met by reading the Sunday paper at Starbucks.

What frequent church attendance does do is create an organizational structure for political messaging, wherein large numbers of voters can be reached efficiently and effectively. In this sense, churches have played the same role for the Right as industrial unions have played for the Left. Republican political strategists have taken full advantage of the growing evangelical movement as Democrats have suffered the decline of unionization. It is a mistake for the secular Left to confound religious attendance with conservative orthodoxy and attack political opponents for their faith instead of their politics. Religious belief is highly pluralistic in America, meaning there are many faiths and denominations that disagree on almost all aspects of religious doctrine and political preference. Attacking people of religious faith merely unites them in defense of that faith, even when they may not agree on much else.

The most salient split for our politics lies in the ideological differences between orthodox and unorthodox belief. This applies not only to religious belief, but to the secular world as well. Another way to put this is that in our society we have secular fundamentalism as well as religious fundamentalism, and they both influence our ideological preferences. Fundamentalism is defined as strict adherence to orthodox doctrines. We might categorize fundamentalists politically as one-issue voters. So, on the Right, we have cultural conservatives, evangelicals, pro-life, creationist, pro-family groups, while on the Left, we have environmentalists, liberation theologians, pro-choice feminists, and same-sex marriage advocates. Moderates of all stripes are those who occupy the middle ground of our politics. Politically, the focus on ideology becomes too complex to really draw any hard conclusions. For instance, where are the conservationists? Do they side with environmentalists or with traditional naturalists? And where are the libertarians?

The ideological divide has often been characterized as a split between traditionalists and modernists, but I don’t think such a classification fits American politics very well. Instead, I would suggest a different label to describe the majority of Americans who are neither conservative, liberal, nor radical.; They are “tolerant traditionalists,” rooted in the past but willing to embrace change at their own pace. They are bound by faith but amenable to reason. They are not really polarized on the big issues, but they do have different political and policy preferences based on geography, family formation, and ideology. These differences need to be negotiated through democratic politics with the goal of reaching acceptable compromises and creating a more coherent political society—much more cohesive and functional than we have witnessed in recent years.

The real picture: Between 2000 and 2012 not much has changed, only gotten worse…

2004countymap-final2

2004 Election by Congressional District

PurpleAmerica2000small PurpleAmericaVanderbei Election2008 Election2012

Maps are by Robert J. Vanderbei and can be found here.

Why Ideology Matters in American Politics

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Political polls in recent years have shown how little citizens approve of U.S. politics, with Congress receiving an approval rating as low as 16%, while the president’s approval-disapproval differential shows a 16-point deficit (41% strongly disapproving vs. 25% strongly approving). Most would agree this reflects a general dissatisfaction with national politics in America.

Ideology has taken the brunt of the blame for this, with the label ‘ideologue’ tossed around like a pejorative. But this would be a popular misconception promoted by the media, as are most of our political myths these days. Ideology is not really the problem, and may be the best solution to our partisan dysfunction.

Ideology, as promoted in the 21st century, is different than that of the 20,th which was defined by the clash of “isms”: principally liberalism vs. fascism, socialism, and communism. There have been other variants of lesser appeal, such as nationalism, collectivism, racism, and linguistic or ethnocentrism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China, ideological conflict has been decided in favor of liberalism, as manifested through democratic capitalism founded on the moral principles of liberty, equality, and justice.

Political parties use ideology to define themselves under the broadest of terms, but in America our ideologies have always been variations of liberalism. Those other “isms” of the far left and far right have never gained a foothold on our shores. After defeating the more malign extreme ideologies overseas in two world wars, our political parties at home split hairs over progressivism vs. conservatism, as defined by the economic class interests of capital vs. labor.

Sometime around 1968 our two major political parties began to redefine their “ideological identities” to fit those of their targeted voters. In effect, the question of moral principles became liberty, equality and justice: Yes, but for whom? The Democrats focused their efforts on minorities, unionists, feminists, and gays with policies such as affirmative action, welfare, collective bargaining for public unions, women’s and gay rights, while the Republicans focused on religious groups, finance, and business with culture wars, tax cuts, and deregulation.

This has created serious problems for the governance of a pluralist democracy based on constitutional principles. For example, our country’s past was cleaved by racial conflict, inciting a civil war and deeply affecting our politics to this day, a full century and a half later. (Many today mistakenly blame the history of racism for the political divisions we see now between the “red” region of the South and the periphery vs. the “blue” regions of the north and Pacific coast.) The true lesson of the transformation of the South is that the ideology of racism was defeated not by the grievances of the oppressed, but by the moral power of liberty, equality, and justice. White European Americans could not deny the moral justice of emancipation, liberty, and equal rights, as stated in the Constitution, but unrealized for almost two centuries.

Unfortunately, the problem we have today is that we have reverted to this “Southernization” of national politics that pits immutable identities against each other. A political party based on an ideology of identity is little different from one based on skin color. The result has been the fractionalization of national politics into a civil war of self-identified Democrats vs. self-identified Republicans. There is no route to negotiation and compromise under these terms – it’s a zero-sum game of win or lose. This is the nature of elections, but it cannot and has not yielded good governance. In a nutshell, this is why we can’t stand our politics.

Instead, we must return to the true nature of ideology based on ideas rather than identities. These ideas are present in our politics, but, when engaged, quickly revert to imposed identities. Our political discourse should not focus on rich or poor, black, white or brown, straight or gay, but on the moral principles that guide citizens in their personal and social behavior. These moral principles include liberty, equality, security, solidarity, justice, charity, civic responsibility and accountability—not for whom, but for all. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans differ in their emphases on these moral principles, but the larger point is that different ideas can converge on these principles over how society should be governed and ultimately how we govern ourselves. The continuum we need to negotiate travels from libertarianism at one end to statism at the other.

Electoral politics in a democracy is about dividing and conquering the opposition, but ultimately democracy is defined as “government by the people, for the people,” not “by the party, for the party,” or “by the elites, for the elites.” It’s time to redefine our politics according to moral ideology based on first principles. It would be helpful to push public discourse in that direction.