Friday, August 18, 2017

Millennials, the GOP and Charlottesville

Donald Trump's appalling reaction to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville seems sure to have political reverberations for a long time. Ron Brownstein flags what could be the most important--and most negative--effect on the GOP: the consolidation of Millennial voter sentiment against the Republican party. Here's the basic argument:
Trump’s election “may be one of the most costly presidential victories in history for a political party, because [it is leaving] a crimson stain on the party,” said Peter Wehner, the former director of strategic planning in the George W. Bush White House. “I don’t think it … will be easy to get away from.”
Through Trump’s first months, the danger of him branding the GOP as intolerant has steadily smoldered, as he’s rolled out polarizing policies on undocumented and legal immigration, crime and policing, affirmative action, and voting rights. He’s also moved to reverse protections for transgender Americans in schools and the military.
But Trump’s belligerent response to the unrest in Virginia has detonated this slowly burning fuse. His pointed refusal to unambiguously condemn the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups who gathered there may crystallize, in a way no policy debate could, the picture of him as racially and culturally biased, particularly among younger voters. “The truth is, I bet that Millennials have not paid that much attention to the policy stuff he’s done,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster who has extensively surveyed the generation. “But I think Charlottesville is a whole different thing. This is a watershed moment.”
Brownstein goes on to say:
Even before Charlottesville, Trump faced gale-force skepticism from the Millennial generation. In an early August Quinnipiac poll, only one-fourth of them nationwide approved of his job performance, while two-thirds disapproved (fully 59 percent strongly). Just one-fourth said he shared their values; almost two-thirds said he wasn’t honest and didn’t care about average Americans.
Because Trump retains some irreducible support among younger whites, particularly those without college degrees, Baumann said the Charlottesville firestorm would likely do more to harden, rather than expand, that Millennial resistance. “I think he’s really cemented these views of Millennials, and I have a hard time believing there is much he can do to reverse that,” Baumann said…..
[B]y 2020, the highly diverse Millennials will clearly pass the predominantly white baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters. That Millennial advantage will widen over the next decade, and it will be reinforced when the first post-Millennials—the generation born after 2000 that’s even more racially diverse—file into the voting booth.
In a measure of the growing headwinds the party could face, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a prominent Republican pollster who has written a book on Millennials, told me this week that the absence of effective resistance from party leaders or voters to Trump’s posture has left her increasingly pessimistic the GOP can set a direction that will appeal to young people like her.
“Given a lot of the data I’ve seen since the start of the Trump presidency, I wouldn’t blame a young person who is just becoming interested in politics who thinks the GOP … is comfortable with white supremacists,” she told me in an email. “Not just because of perceptions of what Trump believes, but because of the accurate perception that a majority of Republican voters stand with him, even on his most controversial views.” 
This is a Republican pollster talking, generally viewed as one of their leading experts on the Millennial generation! There is no more potent demographic force than generational replacement and Trump's actions may be ensuring that the negative impact of this force on the GOP--already likely to be considerable--is maximized. This, in the end, could be the most important political fallout from the Charlottesville events.

Obscure Music Friday: The 13th Floor Elevators

What? You've never heard of the premier Texas psychedelic garage rock band, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators? This must be remedied right away. Have a listen to their 1967 masterpiece, Easter Everywhere. Pay close attention to the lyrics (if you dare!) My suspicion is these lads were high on something more than life.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Where Does Populism Come From?

The origins of contemporary populism, both in the US and elsewhere, have been the subject of endless debate. That debate is not likely to end any time soon, given the continued salience of populist impulses to our politics. Certainly the recent events in Charlottesville have many worried that populism comes from the darkest of places in the human soul.

But that would confuse the distorted psyches of small numbers of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with the truly mass phenomenon of contemporary populism. Understanding the latter requires a more nuanced and less panicky analysis. 

As one source for such an analysis, I recommend the recent work of economist Dani Rodrik. Rodrik takes a big picture, historical approach to the subject that tries to give both powerful economic and potent cultural forces their due.

A good place to start is "The rise of populism shouldn't have surprised anyone", an interview by Ana Swanson with Rodrik in The Washington Post. Here's Rodrik on the deep causes of populism vs. associated political narratives:
I make a distinction between the deep causes of populism, and the political narratives around which they get wrapped. The deep causes of populism are economic and structural, generally speaking. There might be residues of racism and ethno-nationalism in the United States and other European countries, but I don’t think that’s what’s really driving populism. What’s driving it is the economic insecurities, the rising inequality, and the economic and social divisions that have been created, not just by globalization, but by the kind of policies we have pursued in the last few decades.
But the manner in which populism gets packaged is different. You can package it around a right-wing, ethno-nationalistic, racialist narrative, or you can package it around a left-wing social and economic exclusion narrative. What’s happening on a day-to-day basis might make it easier for right-wing than left-wing organizations. Refugees are in the news, and if there is the constant threat of Islamic terrorism, that is going to provide fuel for right-wing populists. It’s much more salient and gives them a way of organizing this broad-based discontent.
There is also a really excellent interview by John Judis with Rodrik on Talking Points Memo. Here is Rodrik on what it might take to defuse populism:
There is a kind of rebalancing we need to do in the world economy....One [area] is moving from benefiting capital to benefiting labor. I think our current system disproportionately benefits capital and our mobile professional class, and labor disproportionately has to bear the cost. And there are all sets of implications as to who sits at the bargaining table when treaties are negotiated and signed, who bears the risk of financial crises, who has to bear tax increases, and who gets subsidies. There are all kinds of distributional costs that are created because of this bias toward capital. We can talk about what that means in specific terms.
The second area of rebalancing is from an excessive focus on global governance to a focus on national governance. Our intellectual and policy elites believe that our global problems originate for a lack of global agreements and that we need more global agreements. But most of our economic problems originate from the problems in local and national governance. If national economies were run properly, they could generate full employment, they could generate satisfactory social bargains and good distributive outcomes; and they could generate an open and healthy world economy as well. (emphasis added)
This is an important issue with the cosmopolitan and progressive left because we tend to be embarrassed when we talk about the national interest. I think we should understand that the national interest is actually complementary to the global interest, and that the problem now is not that we are insufficiently globally minded, but that we are insufficiently inclined to pursue the national interest in any broad, inclusive sense. It might seem a little bit paradoxical but it’s a fact.
Rodrik develops his thoughts on populism at length in an important academic paper, "Populism and the Economics of Globalization", available on his website. One of his central arguments is that, while the rise of populism may have been predictable, the forms which populism takes are less so and depend on a complex interplay between the demand and supply sides of this phenomenon:
The populist backlash may have been predictable, but the specific form it took was less so. Populism comes in different versions. Here I will distinguish between left-wing and right-wing variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that populist politicians highlight and render salient. The U.S. progressive movement and most Latin American populism took a left-wing form. Donald Trump and European populism today represent, with some instructive exceptions, the right-wing variant. A second question I address below is what accounts for the emergence of right-wing versus left-wing variants of opposition to globalization.
I…suggest that these different reactions are related to the forms in which globalization shocks make themselves felt in society. It is easier for populist politicians to mobilize along ethno-national/cultural cleavages when the globalization shock becomes salient in the form of immigration and refugees. That is largely the story of advanced countries in Europe. On the other hand, it is easier to mobilize along income/social class lines when the globalization shock takes the form mainly of trade, finance, and foreign investment. That in turn is the case with southern Europe and Latin America. The United States, where arguably both types of shocks have become highly salient recently, has produced populists of both stripes (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).
I argue that it is important to distinguish between the demand and supply sides of the rise in populism. The economic anxiety and distributional struggles exacerbated by globalization generate a base for populism, but do not necessarily determine its political orientation. The relative salience of available cleavages and the narratives provided by populist leaders are what provides direction and content to the grievances. Overlooking this distinction can obscure the respective roles of economic and cultural factors in driving populist politics.
This all seems quite sensible to me, though I am under no illusions that Rodrik's intervention is likely to end this contentious debate. But if you do find Rodrik's analysis intriguing I urge you to follow the links in the article and read his arguments in full. Also, you might want to check out this very good discussion between Rodrik and two smart European social democrats on the the podcast, Anger Management. Particularly good on the challenges all of this presents for left parties, both here and in Europe.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It Was the Obama-Trump Voters in the Library with the Candlestick!

There has been an odd sort of meme developing lately where the argument is being made that Obama-Trump voters actually weren't important in 2016 and, relatedly, that those who voted for Trump, regardless of who they voted for before, are not accessible to Democrats, no matter what appeal the party uses.

I think both of these propositions are dead wrong and I have argued against them before. So I was very pleased to see a detailed article by Nate Cohn in the New York Times today that refutes these propositions and gets the Obama-Trump voters about right. 

Cohn begins with this crisp summary which is entirely correct:
The story of the 2016 presidential election is simple. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white voters without a college degree. His gains were large enough to cancel out considerable losses among well-educated white voters and a decade of demographic shifts.
There are questions and details still up for debate: whether Democrats can win back these voters, and how to think about and frame the decline in black turnout. But postelection surveys, pre-election surveys, voter file data and the actual results all support the main story: The voters who switched from President Obama to Mr. Trump were decisive.
He notes the following about white noncollege Obama voters in 2016:
Just 74 percent of white Obama voters with a high school diploma or less backed Mrs. Clinton in the [Democracy Fund Voter Study Group survey].
Similarly, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study [C.C.E.S.] found that Mrs. Clinton won just 78 percent of white Obama voters without a bachelor’s degree. The figure was even lower in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds.
And on persuadability, Cohn provides the following illuminating data:
 The C.C.E.S. found that 26 percent of Obama-Trump voters identified as Democrats in their postelection study, while 35 percent were Republicans and 37 percent were independents. Including those independents who lean toward a party, Republicans led by a wider margin of 45 percent to 30 percent. Even so, that’s a significant share who continue to identify with the Democratic Party despite voting for Mr. Trump.
Democrats were probably still winning a lot of these voters in 2016. The results speak for themselves to some extent. Jason Kander lost his Senate race in Missouri by just three percentage points, even as Mrs. Clinton lost by 20 points. Even Democrats who didn’t run ahead of Mrs. Clinton over all — like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania — nonetheless ran far ahead of Mrs. Clinton in traditionally Democratic, white working-class areas. 
Mrs. Duckworth’s performance is probably the most telling. She won Illinois’s 12th Congressional District — a downstate, working-class district now held by Republican Mike Bost — by nine points. Mr. Trump won it by 12 points. 
Mr. Bost might seem like a fairly safe Republican for re-election, if you judge the partisanship of his district strictly by his party’s performance in the last presidential election. He certainly would be safe if Democrats wrote off Obama-Trump voters. But the willingness of these voters to support a Democrat for federal office against an incumbent Republican in a fairly decent year for Republicans suggests that at least these Obama-Trump voters remain in play, and Mr. Bost is more vulnerable than it might initially seem. 
More generally, there is reason to think these voters are likelier to vote for a Democrat against a more traditional Republican who hasn’t developed a message to match Mr. Trump’s appeal to white working-class Democrats. These voters, for instance, tend to support abortion rights and same-sex marriage. They support a higher minimum wage. 
All considered, it does seem likely that at least a portion of the Obama-Trump vote can be lured back to the Democrats — especially against traditional Republican candidates who emphasize small government, free markets and social conservatism. 
Whether that means it should be the crux of the Democrats’ path to power is another question. But it will most likely be a part of it, and will probably need to be for Democrats to secure parts of the Rust Belt that continue to play an outsize role in American elections.
So don't let anyone tell you that Obama-Trump voters were not important or that Democrats should give up on them. They were and Democrats shouldn't. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

No, Trump and the GOP Are Not Immune from the Rules of Politics

I was having drinks with a friend last night and we got to talking about the political situation, as we are wont to do. Like most liberals I know, he'd been tracking the precipitous fall in Trump's approval ratings and speculating that this could really help the Democrats in 2018 and beyond. But also like most liberals I know, he caught himself after a bit and allowed as how, after 2016, he really has no confidence that what seems like it should hurt the GOP actually will. We just live in a different universe now and the old rules don't apply. 

I get why people think that. But do we really live in such a different universe today? Harry Enten has a very useful article up on 538 today, buttressed by considerable data, that argues the general rules still apply and we'd be silly to think anything different. Enten argues:
The available evidence…suggests many of the old rules do still apply. Caution…is more than warranted, especially given Trump’s history of surprising analysts and pundits. Partisan polarization has increased, and there is plenty of time for Trump’s approval rating to improve. But caution is one thing; ignoring history and evidence…is another. And the idea that “the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Trump” strikes me as the latter — at least according to the data before us. Early signs suggest that Trump’s low approval rating is having exactly the negative effect on down-ballot Republicans that history would predict.

Midterm elections are often thought of as referendums on the sitting president. When there’s been an unpopular Democrat in the White House, voters have swung toward Republicans in congressional races. With a struggling Republican president, voters swing Democratic. You can see this by looking at the effect a president’s approval rating has on the national House vote. Specifically, we can look at how much the national House margin would be expected to shift from the previous presidential election based upon the president’s approval rating right before the midterm election.

In 2004, for example, Republicans won the national House vote by 3 percentage points. But two years later, in 2006, with President George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent, Republicans lost the House vote by 8 points — a 11-point swing from 2004.
It’s far from perfect, but in midterm elections since 1946, there’s a clear relationship between the president’s approval rating and the swing in the House vote.
Trump’s current approval rating is 38 percent. Historically, we would expect a president that unpopular to cause his party to lose around 11 points off its previous House margin. Republicans won the national House vote by 1 percentage point in 2016, so this suggests they would lose it by 10 points if the midterm elections were held today.
Other data support his argument:
[T]he generic congressional ballot, a common poll question that asks respondents whether they will vote for the Democrat or Republican in their congressional district. Democrats right now hold a 46 percent to 37 percent lead, according to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate. That’s a bigger lead than Democrats had at any point in 2016 cycle, and it’s in line with the margin necessary for Democrats to take back the House.
There have been 30 special state legislature and U.S. congressional elections since Trump was sworn-in as president. Democrats, as a group, have been outperforming the partisan lean in these districts — tending to come close in ruby red districts, winning swing districts and romping in light blue districts. More specifically, Democratic candidates have done about 16 percentage points better, on average, than you’d expect in a national environment in which no party held the advantage. (Imagine a world in which the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates tie 50-50 in the popular vote). This overperformance holds as well for the smaller subset of congressional elections.
 So quit being so paranoid. No guarantees on outcomes of course, but you can have confidence that what looks bad for Trump and the GOP is bad for Trump and the GOP. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Paul McAuley

People occasionally ask me for contemporary science fiction recommendations and the first name I always mention is Paul McAuley. Usually people have not heard of him. McAuley is British and is far more popular and better-known there than here. I have no idea why. But I do know that anyone who is interested in science fiction and does not read McAuley is totally missing out. He is one of the field's best, particularly in the hard SF subgenre. McAuley is a biologist by training and he particularly shines in extrapolating developments in that field to the future. 

With some minor exceptions, everything McAuley has written is worth reading, including his short stories. Along with his fascinating scientific speculations, he is an excellent writer, with vivid descriptive powers.. This cannot be said of all science fiction writers, to understate the case.

Like I say, it's hard to go wrong, But I particularly recommend his far future Confluence trilogy, a masterpiece of imaginative world-building:
Confluence - a long, narrow, artificial world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world beyond the end of human history, served by countless machines, inhabited by 10,000 bloodlines who worship their absent creators, riven by a vast war against heretics.
This is the home of Yama, found as an infant in a white boat on the world's Great River, raised by an obscure bureaucrat in an obscure town in the middle of a ruined necropolis, destined to become a clerk - until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining scion of the Builders, closest of all races to the revered architects of Confluence, able to awaken and control the secret machineries of the world.
Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and to discover if he is to be the saviour of his world, or its nemesis.
The entire trilogy can be had as a $15.99 Kindle e-book.  

Another masterpiece is Fairyland, perhaps the definitive biopunk novel. 
The 21st century.
Europe is divided between the First World bourgeoisie, made rich by nanotechnology and the cheap versatile slave labour of genetically engineered Dolls and the Fourth World of refugees and homeless displaced by war and economic upheaval. In London, Alex Sharkey is trying to make his mark as a designer of psychoactive viruses, whilst staying one step ahead of the police and the Triad gangs. At the cost of three hours of his life, he finds an unlikely ally in a scary, super-smart little girl called Milena, but his troubles really start when he helps Milena quicken intelligence in a Doll, turning it into the first of the fairies.
Milena isn't sure if she's mad or if she's the only sane person left in the world; she only knows that she wants to escape to her own private Fairyland and live forever. Although Milena has created the fairies for her own ends, some of the Folk, as fey and dangerous as any in legend, have other ideas about her destiny ...
Another Kindle bargain at $5.99.

Other books I loved include his early novel, Eternal Light, his Quiet War sequence (The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun, In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires and his recent Jackaroo books (Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere). 

Most of these are also available in inexpensive Kindle editions--perhaps to encourage us Yanks to pick up on this great, but mysteriously neglected author. Time to stock up!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Are Democrats United?

Yeah, pretty much. Sure there's some ongoing tension between erstwhile Sanders supporters and erstwhile Clinton supporters, but really it doesn't amount to much despite the occasional heavy-breathing newspaper article. Compare to the knife fights we regularly see in the Republican party. It's not even close.

That doesn't mean of course that there isn't debate within the party on how to best move Democratic priorities forward. That's as it should be. But what Democrats shouldn't have is aggressive litmus tests on which exact policy Democrats must support to embody those priorities. That would be one way current Democratic unity really could start going south.

Paul Krugman had some useful thoughts along these lines in a recent column

Krugman argues:
Some even want to make support for single-payer a litmus test for Democratic candidates....A commitment to universal health coverage — bringing in the people currently falling through Obamacare’s cracks — should definitely be a litmus test. But single-payer, while it has many virtues, isn’t the only way to get there; it would be much harder politically than its advocates acknowledge; and there are more important priorities.....
I’d enhance the A.C.A., not replace it, although I would strongly support reintroducing some form of public option — a way for people to buy into public insurance — that could eventually lead to single-payer.
Meanwhile, progressives should move beyond health care and focus on other holes in the U.S. safety net...When you compare the U.S. social welfare system with those of other wealthy countries, what really stands out now is our neglect of children. Other countries provide new parents with extensive paid leave, provide high-quality, subsidized day care for children with working parents and make pre-K available to everyone or almost everyone; we do none of these things. Our spending on families is a third of the advanced-country average, putting us down there with Mexico and Turkey.
So if it were up to me, I’d talk about improving the A.C.A., not ripping it up and starting over, while opening up a new progressive front on child care.
I completely agree with Krugman on the desirability of taking on the child care issue in a big way. And speaking of improving the ACA, Gerard Anderson, Jacob Hacker and Paul Starr have an excellent piece in Health Affairs on "Making the Exchanges More Competitive by Bringing Medicare into the Fold". Well worth reading and another demonstration that there are many ways, not just one way, to further the goal of universal health coverage.

So let the debates continue. But Democrats should skip the litmus tests stuff. Leave that to the Republicans and their ongoing civil war.