Popularism is probably stillborn

Democrats Thought They Bottomed Out in Rural, White America. It Wasn’t the Bottom:

Republicans have never had a demographic stronghold as reliable as Black voters have been for Democrats, a group that delivers as many as nine out of 10 votes for the party. But some Democratic leaders are now sounding the alarm: What if rural, white voters — of which there are many — start voting that reliably Republican?

“In rural America the bottom for the Democratic Party is zero,” said Ethan Winter, a senior analyst at the group Data for Progress, who studies voter behavior. “I am serious about this.”

Rural, white voters in the past in the North had historic ties to the labor movement and an affinity for the Democratic Party. Increasingly, Mr. Winter said, those voters are more akin culturally to their neighbors to the South than to their local cities and suburbs.

Tom Bonier, one of the Democratic Party’s leading experts on voter data and the chief executive of TargetSmart, agreed. “You look at places in the Deep South where the white, rural vote is approaching 90 percent Republican,” he said. “That’s absolutely the concern.”

I actually looked up the Presidential year results from the county I grew up in eastern Oregon, and it doesn’t seem that the Democrats have really eroded much. They still get about 25-30% of the vote every election, which was the case a generation ago. So that suggests that the Deep South model does not hold everywhere, though it may apply to the Border States.

It is pretty obvious from reading The New York Times piece that there is no way that the Democrats are in a position to address the cultural concerns of rural America. Twenty years ago the Democratic whip in the House was David Bonior, who believed Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided. That sort of stance would be a non-starter for any Democrat except at the most local level now.

It seems likely that Democrats will be competitive at the national-Presidential level, but the way the Senate is apportioned and the ability to pack urban districts in a first-past-the-post system means they’ll have problems in the future winning Congress unless they reposition themselves culturally, which I’m bearish on.

In Bloomberg Matt Yglesias makes the case for a repositioning, The nation and the Democratic Party need a moderate president with populist tendencies and no particular affinity with the cultural left. But he himself notes that the Democratic Party’s staff is just very culturally Left, and just like Donald Trump couldn’t control his administration due to personnel issues, so Biden would have the same problem. Also, we have a historical precedent for repositioning, Bill Clinton’s triangulation after 1994. But do a thought experiment and imagine Biden even attempting to do some of the policies Clinton executed on, like Welfare Reform.

Despite what we thought back then, the 1990’s were a culturally less polarized time.

(the main upside from a Democratic perspective is that the Republicans have not shown much ability to govern and legislate after winning elections)

The Democrats have an operative vs. voter base problem

Both Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority, have turned on the major public message of their book, that demography is destiny and the Democrats just had to wait for the future (the book itself is more subtle, but you can ask Francis Fukuyama how much people look beyond the title).

Teixeria’s essays of late have been very interesting though, as he doesn’t seem to keen on many partisan pieties. His latest, Did the Democrats Misread Hispanic Voters?:

… The reality of the Hispanic population is that they are, broadly speaking, an overwhelmingly working class, economically progressive, socially moderate constituency that cares above all, about jobs, the economy and health care.

Clearly, this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy. Rather, this is a population that overwhelmingly wanted to hear what the Democrats had to offer on jobs, the economy and health care. But the Democrats could not make the sale with an unusually large number of Latino voters in a year of economic meltdown and coronavirus crisis. This suggests there was an opportunity cost to the political energy devoted to issues around race which simply were not that central to the concerns of Hispanic voters and the more radical aspects of which were unpopular with these voters.

This point struck me because in his conversation with Julia Galef David Shor emphasizes over and over how extremely left-wing Democratic operatives are. Shor claims that about 1/3rd of his team as Civis were Democratic Socialists of America members. One individual wasn’t DSA because DSA was too conservative. Shor also implies that Joe Biden’s flip on the Hyde Amendment was dictated by a staff revolt.

My personal experience with friends in academia is that many of them simply are not aware of how socially liberal they are. Their view of what a “conservative” view on a social issue is is just out of touch often. I know for a fact many academics were shocked that California rejected affirmative action again. It’s a majority-minority state. They had expectations.

I wonder about this same problem with Latinx voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, but unless they are part of the intelligentsia are not socially bleeding-edge liberal (and don’t consider themselves “Latinx”). A lot of times white academics I know just don’t want to admit that “BIPOC” and Latinx people don’t really agree with them on a lot of these cultural issues, since they believe their views are derived from antiracism, so when nonwhite people disagree it must be false consciousness.

For academics, “this is academic.” But what if the Democrat’s operative class is subject to the same problem?

(I assume the equivalent with Republicans is that they always believe they haven’t “explained” economic libertarianism well to a populace that really isn’t too keen on it)

The decade of “Culture Wars” to come

There’s a new think tank, The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, that recently started up. It caught my attention because it’s headed by my friend Richard Hanania, and Zach Goldberg, of “Great Awokening” fame is a research fellow. I just got done recording a podcast with David Shor and we talked about the role of culture and economics in the modern political parties (the full podcast will be posted this week for subscribers to my Substack, and free in a few weeks on the main podcast site, but you can listen to a few minutes of Shor talking about his Sephardic Jewish background here).

One of the things that Shor mentions is that activists and academics have priors that shape the way questions are asked and therefore the answers that come out of those questions. So, for example, Shor does not accept the idea promoted by many Democrats that the public fundamentally has left-wing economic views. Rather, he seems to think that the perception is due to the manner in which questions are couched and framed by motivated activists and scholars.

Go where the data go, even unto China!

The first report produced by CSPI is not one whose conclusions I am particularly congenial to, The National Populist Illusion: Why Culture, Not Economics, Drives American Politics:

During the Trump presidency, some of the most interesting and innovative thinking on the center right has come from writers and politicians sometimes called “national populists.” This group challenges Republican orthodoxy on questions of economics and suggests that a new policy agenda, focused more on working-class concerns, could realign the U.S. electorate. We consider the plausibility of their claims, examining the relevant scholarly literature and recent trends among voters. The data show that most voters who supported Trump were overwhelmingly driven by cultural rather than economic concerns. This implies that the national populist vision is unlikely to provide major electoral gains for the Republican Party. Trump’s popularity among his supporters suffered very little due to his governing mostly as a conventional Republican politician, and those of his party who have adopted more redistributive voting patterns in Congress in recent years have not realized resulting gains at the ballot box. In fact, the American public gave Trump higher marks on the economy than any other major issue, contradicting the claim that more free market economic policies create an electoral cost. We also note that continuity with previous trends, rather than electoral realignment, was the norm in recent election cycles, meaning that the idea that there has been a major shift towards Republicans becoming the “working class party” is mostly a myth. Republican success in the future will depend on the party speaking to the cultural, rather than economic, concerns of its voters, whether symbolically or in more tangible terms. This can mean championing issues that Republicans have ignored in recent years like opposition to affirmative action, in addition to facilitating the kind of backlash politics towards cultural liberalism among non-white voters that has worked so well among whites in recent decades. Economic policies that seek to address working-class concerns but hinder overall growth can alienate both voters and donors for little gain.

Well, Hanania and company are offered up a prediction. Perhaps in ten years, they’re be profiling them in The Atlantic. I hope they have their crayon drawn charts handy.

Also, if you want 100 proof shit-posting, I recommend Richard’s Twitter account. It’s based.

Republicans buy sneakers too!

In 1990 Michael Jordan infamously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers too!” The issue here is that Jordan was a Democrat, and people wanted him to weigh in on North Carolina politics, which were racially polarized at the time. But Jordan was a national figure, whose cultural influence and reach is hard to explain to young people today. At the time I thought Jordan was being kind of a coward. He should have expressed his views, and not stressed too much about it.

I think about that more now because we do live in a very polarized society, and there aren’t unifying figures like Jordan who try to keep politics low-key.

Consider The New York Times. I still subscribe, but just barely. It has slowly and then more quickly turned into the journal of American wokeness. There are huge sections that I don’t even bother reading, because they don’t have any credibility with me. They’re written with a particular audience in mind, and I’m not that audience. It’s preaching to the choir masquerading as reportage. They’ve moved beyond the “view from nowhere,” and though it has been profitable, cultivating a deep and loyal subscriber base, it has reduced the paper’s broader cultural reach.

I thought about that when reading this article on Coinbase, ‘Tokenized’: Inside Black Workers’ Struggles at the King of Crypto Start-Ups Coinbase, the most valuable U.S. cryptocurrency company, has faced many internal complaints about discriminatory treatment. It was an interesting piece, and I read it out of curiosity. But it changed my views not at all. It was never going to change my views. The reason is that I feel that the journalists who work in the tech space are very biased, and of course, they were “out to get” Coinbase. If, for example, they couldn’t get sources, they wouldn’t have published a piece with the title “Coinbase faced accusations of racism, but that didn’t check out.” From the beginning, you knew there was only one conclusion that would sell copy, and they were going to find that conclusion. Coinbase has 1,400 employees now. It would be easy enough to find “sources.” The story writes itself.

A lot of my perception of the tech reporters at The New York Times is colored by Mike Isaac, who has a very obnoxious Twitter presence. He’s constantly showing his ass, and you get the feeling that he thinks non-woke people are subhumans who should be sent to reeducation camps. A lot of this is probably performative, and it sure gets him attention and followers. But, it colors my view of the “objectivity” of these reporters as a whole.

The motto of The New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” But my view is that it’s some of the news that’s fit to print. And some of the other news, well, let’s just ignore that…

In the 2000’s many bloggers were behind the idea that the “view from nowhere” was a problem. But now that we have moved beyond that, it feels like a frying pan to fire situation.

There’s a similar problem with academia. I see many people in science saying things about coronavirus that I agree with. Their words and views are judicious, often cautious, and on the whole objective. But, there are other moments when they are not talking about coronavirus when they are highly partisan and engage in very harsh language about the tribal Other. For the purposes of coronavirus we are all “in it together.” But the people who are trying to guide the policy…they kind of hate half the population. Or at least they perform in this way in public on social media. It’s what’s expected for the tribe. So you can just scroll through someone’s timeline, and see them engaging in their tribal passions, and then try and flip into objectivity. But what is seen can’t be unseen.

I have no solution for this, but, I do know that friends who are public school teachers are careful what they say on social media. Or they were a decade ago. Perhaps it has changed. The reason is that they need to create a separation between themselves and their students, and putting too much of their personal life and views out there might puncture that distance.

Portland is radicalizing, the rest of Oregon is not

The New York Times has a piece out, 100 Days of Protest: A Chasm Grows Between Portland and the Rest of Oregon. It is one of those articles where the reporter talks to individuals who present a gripping narrative in an ethnographic sense. Aside from Portland, there are names of towns that are probably unknown to most people. Gresham, Sandy, and Boring.

I’m an Oregonian. I grew up in Northeast Oregon, close to Idaho. I’ve spent time in a liberal college town in western Oregon, a liberal arts town in southern Oregon, and also a few years in Southeast Portland, south of the Hawthorne district. There are even a few readers of this weblog who will date to the period when I lived in Southeast Portland in the early 2000s, and would sometimes post about strange things I’d observe around the Powells on Hawthorne (e.g., the one time I walked past a Haredi Jewish guy who seemed to be speaking in ebonics inflected English, arguing with a pierced individual, on the issue of Israel).

The piece in a general stylized sense reflects a reality: Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest, is highly polarized between liberal urban islands in the midst of conservative rural hinterlands. Over my lifetime this has gotten more extreme. One of the reasons is that the decline of the unionized resource and manufacturing has meant that a Left faction similar to Northern European social democrats is not a major force anymore (towns like Ballard and Astoria have strong ethnic Nordic flavors). In its stead has been the rise of cultural liberalism, driven in large part by the migration of “Californians” into cities like Seattle and Portland, but also smaller cities and towns such as Eugene, Bend, and Ashland (some of the most anti-California people I’ve met turned out to be the children of people from California, of course). I put Californians in quotes because a lot of the Californians may not even be from California, but rather people who made a successful career in California after graduating college in the Northeast.

My major gripe with the piece in The New York Times is that it presents a false picture of reciprocal polarization. The data people at The Times actually have put out their precinct-level 2016 results that illustrate what I’m saying. For example, here is a sentence from the piece: “In the town of Gresham, 15 miles from the urban canyons of downtown Portland.” Gresham is contiguous with the eastern half of Portland. In 2002 on a clear weekend day with good weather I actually walked from my place in Southeast Portland to Gresham on surface streets. The main thing you’ll notice is that Gresham is noticeably more working class. The meth epidemic that hit Oregon hit Gresham particularly hard. But Gresham is not a deep-red suburb. As is clear from the map, Gresham narrowly voted for Hillary as opposed to Trump.

The precinct that I lived in Southeast gave 5% of its votes for Trump. In contrast, 40% of people in Gresham voted for Trump. Another town mentioned was Sandy. It is true Sandy is on the conservative side. I knew people from Sandy. But again, if you check on the map above you’ll see that 55% of people in Sandy voted for Trump. This is the majority, but this is not overwhelming. 35% seems to have voted for Hillary (large third party vote obviously).

If you’re an Oregonian you notice some other patterns. The very wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego only gave 25% of its vote to Donald Trump. This is very Trumpy compared to Portland, where most precincts are 5-10%. But, it shows the strong cultural trends in the broader zone around the city. Further to the east, where there are some more conservative suburbs, wealthy West Linn voted 30% for Trump, while poorer and more working-class Oregon City voted 40% for Trump.

What is the major takeaway? Looking at the map it is hard to find any populous region in “Red Oregon” which is as anti-Hillary as Portland is anti-Trump. The conservative town of Baker City gave 22% of its votes to Hillary. The conservative city of Medford in southern Oregon voted about 40-50% for Hillary (depending on the precinct).

There are places where very blue cities are surrounded by red-tinged suburbs. Look at Milwaukie. But that’s not the story here. Portland is basically a political culture where the right-wing is occupied by the liberals and the left-wing is occupied by the radicals. To some extent, it’s always been like this, but the dynamic has amplified over the past 40 years. In 1988 George H. W. Bush won 37% of the votes in Multnomah county, dominated by the city of Portland. In 2016 Trump won 17%. If you look at these two elections you see some evidence of polarization on both sides, but the counties which went noticeably more Red are very lightly populated (e.g., < 5,000 votes!). Suburban Portland has gone from a Red tilt to a Blue tilt (e.g., Washington county, which is the wealthier suburban Portland area was slightly leaning toward George H.W. Bush but now only gave Trump 30% of the vote). Jackson County, the most populous Red county has only become more marginally Red (9% margin in 2016 vs. 7% in 1988).

As an Oregonian articles like this just make me more skeptical of these narrative-driven pieces about American regions. Interesting. But true? Check the data journalism of The New York Times first!

One billion Americans is about families

I will probably pitch a review of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, but since Matt Yglesias is pushing for preorders, I will note a few things about the book that might induce some people to buy it.

Firstly, it’s not a case for “open borders”. The title is kind of a gimmick or hook. Yglesias spends a bit of time laying out why one billion Americans isn’t crazy (our density would be like France, not Singapore), but he’s not that focused on the number and getting to it. Rather, from the perspective of someone on the Right, the takeaways from this book that were positive are that he actually makes an argument for “national greatness”, for families and children, and the conviction that America is not totally corrupt and unsalvageable. This is all clearly aimed at a college-educated liberal audience, so Yglesias has to be careful about how he makes some of them, but I’m glad someone is making the case. It takes some courage, for example, to accede to liberal concerns about climate change, but rebut catastrophism and suggest that the future could actually be better than the present.

For me, the less compelling sections of the book are those where he’s making points that agree with the priors of those of his liberal audience. Yglesias could say anything about how great mass transit is, and his audience would go along with it. So I don’t feel that those portions were given as much thought as the “Slate-pitch” aspects. Anticipating criticism sharpens the mind! Expecting adulation does not.

Finally, for those on the Right, the idea of mass immigration is terrifying. If you aren’t a libertarian, I don’t think Yglesias will convince you. But, to be frank I’m a lot more open to the idea because I’m not sure what sort of culture we’re trying to save at this point. Our cultural elites are pretty rancid in my opinion. The ultimate question is whether they are capable of making immigrants “turn” faster than their utility would be for the type of people that think nuclear families are great and should be promoted. If the number of immigrants is small obviously they will fall in line. But what if it is so large that they can insulate themselves more?* I know it sounds crazy. But 2020 is crazy already…

* From what I have heard from friends, the “woke” activism at places like Google did not come from the Chinese and Indian foreign nationalists, who are insulated from that sort of thing.

Autarky in the USA!

I am on record as saying COVID-19 is bigger than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis put together. It is probably the biggest thing that’s happened since the end of the Cold War. In terms of intensity and impulse, I think COVID-19 is a bigger compressed shock, as the “end of the Cold War” really occurred over five years or so.

So if I think COVID-19 is such a big deal, what has it made me change my mind about? I do believe that the free-trade globalization of the late 20th-century went too far. I am aware of comparative advantage, and the reality that trade makes us all richer in myriad ways. It is quite persuasive. But I think richer isn’t always the best because the gains in efficiency come at the expense of robustness.

In The Human Web McNeill and McNeill argue that the multipolarity of civilization allowed for there to be redundancy over time. While the late Bronze Age collapse was extended, and to some extent resulted in total cultural erasure (the Classical Greeks were unclear that their own ancestors had created the great cyclopean citadels of the Bronze Age), later civilizational regressions were not as catastrophic because “not all the lights went out.”

The problem in the current globalized era is that specialization has gone so far as to remove redundancies in the supply chain in a “just-in-time” world. Specialization and economies of scale in China mean that our inputs and materials are extremely cheap, allowing us to purchase other things, but if China’s “lights go out” as they did in early 2020 it cascades through the system, we experience a major “supply shock.” In some cases, it is really hard to find alternatives to China, as they’ve cornered the market in all the requisite skills.

Also, to be entirely frank I think we need to revisit the neoliberal idea that trade and engagement allow for liberalization over time. I still support engagement in particular, because I dislike war a great deal, but it seems quite clear that free trade works best between regimes which are ideological in sync on the fundamentals.

For the United States, a move toward more autarky won’t be that difficult. Most of our economy is “internal” already. Unlike small nations like the Netherlands, or, export-driven economies such as China’s, trade is not necessary, it is a bonus. I don’t think it’s a bonus we can afford anymore. When exogenous shocks hit us, nations can only rely on themselves. Ask Italy.

The Republicans are becoming the stupid party

Click to enlarge

Recently my wife asked me how stupid Republicans were. I made a comment to the effect that Republicans weren’t that stupid compared to Democrats. But…I hadn’t checked in a while. So I decided to look at the WORDSUM results in the GSS.

WORDSUM is a 10-word vocabulary test that has a 0.71 correlation with IQ.

I crossed WORDSUM with PARTYID and merged the different Republican and Democratic groups together. I looked at Republicans and Democrats, and then also filtered it by just non-Hispanic whites. The date range goes from 1974 to 2018.

As you can see, on the whole, Independents are less intelligent than Republicans and Democrats. This makes sense, as moderates are less intelligent than conservatives and liberals. Though there are plenty of bright people “in the middle,” many times Independents and moderates are just not very smart and don’t have any strong views and principles.

The pattern for Republicans and Democrats makes historical sense. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican party was the party of the upscale. This began to change in the 1990s, and in the 2000s a realignment began as many very educated individuals tended to become strongly identified with Republicans. But, there was still parity between non-Hispanic white Republicans and non-Hispanic white Democrats into the early teens. But over the last few years among non-Hispanic whites, the vocabulary scores of Democrats have been increasing and that of Republicans has been decreasing.

None of this is entirely surprising. I simply hadn’t bothered to check the GSS in many years on this topic. But the Republican party’s shift to being the downscale faction is clearly being reflected in these results.

Table below the fold.

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Liberal democracy as a balance between deontology and consequentialism

Not often I comment on politics as such, but this piece, The Joe Rogan controversy revealed something important about the American left, is more interesting than its title. The author basically suggests that the conflict is due to the fact that individuals switch between operating in a deontological or consequentialist framework, depending on the context.

As you surely know, deontology is the idea that you always have a duty to do the right thing, whether that right thing is convenient for you, or even for the world. To me, this is most evident once you become a parent. You can make a contrived utilitarian explanation for why you behave selflessly in relation to your children in a proximate sense (as opposed to ultimate evolutionary one), but really it’s that in their bones most people feel they have a duty to their children. As far as consequentialism, for Americans, I think we’re often told that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima hastened the end of the Pacific War.* The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Though the author doesn’t frame it this way, I think the deontological and consequentialism framework map onto the liberal and democratic strains of our republic. Liberalism is about rights, liberties. Humans as ends in and of themselves. Democracy is about the body politic, the aggregate will as opposed to individual preference. If you emphasize deontology too much in a democratic contest, I predict you’re likely to lose more often than not. If you emphasize consequentialism to the total exclusion of deontology, you lose the human dignity which democracy is supposed to safeguard.

The piece above brings up the cases of Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, both of whom could be argued to have been party to and/or directed war crimes. Both these individuals have been associated with or had connections to contemporary members of the liberal-Left (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). Of more timely relevance, it is curious to me how neoconservative hawks such as Max Boot and William Kristol are now accorded some (often grudging) acceptance on the moderate Left. Not only did Boot and Kristol support the Iraq War, but they went along without too much objection to the economic positions of the Right up until recently. The question we have to face then is why is Joe Rogan such a problem, while these reformed conservatives are not?

It seems to me that the key here is that liberalism, the deontological impulse, has limits and scopes. Parents may act in a way that is governed by deontology in relation to their children, but the same people can be coldly utilitarian when it comes to strangers. American foreign policy is nasty and brutish. But the policies which Powell acceded to, Kissinger architected, and Kristol and Boot cheered, resulted in the death or misery of foreigners. Obviously even people on the center-Left object to the killing of foreigners, but operationally their empathy and identity are with people in their own nation-state (even if they espouse the rhetoric of no borders). Similarly, many of the loudest voices in “cancel culture” are from the middle-class and above. Though these people favor redistributionist policies, they may not concretely be familiar with people who have dealt with inter-generational poverty (as opposed to a stint as a ‘starving artist’ in one’s 20s). Offensive comments by a famous influencer are more impactful for such individuals than the removal of social services which few of their intimates use in any case.

One final thing in relation to deontology and consequentialism is that many on the moderate Left who are behaving in a deontological manner in relation to Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders also assert that Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020 is an existential threat to the republic. If that is true, then I am curious about their deontological tendencies here, where they make the case that one shouldn’t give on some principles to gain votes. Perhaps the revealed preferences show that they don’t actually believe Trump to be an existential threat?

* I am aware people dispute this.

Huge difference in attitudes toward homosexual behavior among Democrats by race

There has been a little hullabaloo in the media about lack of support for Pete Buttigieg in the black community due to the skepticism of his identity as a married gay man. My own prior is to assume that there will be some differences in attitudes, but it will be modest. I come to this position because when I’ve looked at survey data black Americans and white Americans aren’t as different as the stark caricatures make them out to be. Contrary to Republican assertions black Americans are not really socially conservative, though they are more moderate than white liberals (what’s really going on usually is that white liberals are very socially liberal).

So I decided to look in the GSS for the years 2016 and 2018 at a variable with large sample sizes, HOMOSEX. It asks about whether people think “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are:

– always wrong
– almost always wrong
– sometimes wrong
– not wrong at all

You can see the result above. The difference in attitudes is huge. I added white Republicans and Hispanic Democrats, and you can see black Democrats are even further in their views than these groups.

Though the sample sizes are smaller when you go into the cross-tabs, here are some demographic slices. Notice that white Democrats born after 1984 almost all think that homosexual sex between adults is “not wrong at all.” In contrast, younger black Democrats are divided. It is less black Americans are homophobic, and more that white Democrats have moved very fast and very far on this once polarizing social issue.

Finally, I ran a logit regression with a dummy variable. It looks like religion and education doesn’t explain all the difference. Probably due to how social consensus on political issues emerges, the separation of black and white social networks has caused this split, as the consensus in the latter has not spread to the former (among Democrats).

Variables for replication: race, partyid(r:1-3;4;5-7)*, hispanic, degree, cohort.

Tables below

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