Food For Thought…

Ezra Klein’s columns and podcasts are always thought-provoking, and a post-election essay he published in the New York Times was no exception.

He began with a disclaimer of sorts–noting that post-election narratives tend to be like that “flashy jacket that looks just right when you try it on at the store, only to prove all wrong once you wear it out on the town.” Nevertheless, he proceeded to present three reasons for America’s current, stubborn dysfunctions.: calcification, parity and cultural backlash.

The first and arguably most intractable obstacle to functioning governance is  political calcification. Klein cites findings from recent research:

Because politics is so calcified, virtually nothing matters, but because elections are so close, virtually everything matters.

The researchers looked into the effects of Covid, the economy, impeachment, and the George Floyd protests.(The study evidently preceded the effect of Dobbs; that would have been interesting…)

Convulsions that reshaped the country — that filled morgues and burned buildings — were barely visible in the vote. Counties with higher rates of Covid deaths didn’t turn on Trump. Counties where Black Lives Matter protests turned violent went, if anything, slightly toward Joe Biden. So much happened, and so few minds changed. They call this calcification, writing, “As it does in the body, calcification produces hardening and rigidity: people are more firmly in place and harder to move away from their predispositions.”

The cause of this calcification is no mystery. As the national parties diverge, voters cease switching between them. That the Republican and Democratic Parties have kept the same names for so long obscures how much they’ve changed. I find this statistic shocking, and perhaps you will, too: In 1952, only 50 percent of voters said they saw a big difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties. By 1984, it was 62 percent. In 2004, it was 76 percent. By 2020, it was 90 percent.

The yawning differences between the parties have made swing voters not just an endangered species, but a bizarre one. How muddled must your beliefs about politics be to shift regularly between Republican and Democratic Parties that agree on so little?

As Dan Mullindore commented here on an earlier post, calcification helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable election results in Indiana. Along with gerrymandering, it has led to a politics described by Klein as “effective one-party rule leading to a politics devoid of true accountability or competition.”

The second theory–persistent parity– explains why, nationally, political control has teetered, “election after election, on a knife’s edge.”

We live in an era of unusual political competitiveness. Presidential elections are decided by a few points, in a few states. The House and Senate are up for grabs in nearly every contest. In both 2016 and 2020, fewer than 100,000 votes could’ve flipped the presidential election. So even as calcification means fewer minds change in any given election, parity means those small, marginal changes can completely alter American politics.

The third explanatory theory is the one Americans can hardly avoid seeing: cultural backlash.

Starting around the 1970s, generations raised in relative affluence began to care less about traditional economic issues and more about questions of personal autonomy and social values. The core fights of politics turned away from the distribution of money to the preservation of the environment and women’s bodily autonomy and marriage equality.

These changes were generational, and they’ve moved steadily from the margins of politics to the center. That’s led to a backlash among those opposed to, or simply disoriented by, the speed at which social mores are shifting, and the rise, in countries all over the world, of a post-materialist right. That’s led to a slew of right-wing parties that care more about culture and identity than tax cuts and deregulation.

Klein quotes Ron Inglehart’s observation that today’s GOP is obsessed with critical race theory and whether Dr. Seuss is being canceled. It is not obsessed with economic growth or health care policy.

Klein offers considerable data in his discussion of these three narratives, and I encourage you to click through and read the full analysis, but it’s hard to debate the accuracy of his concluding paragraph:

The parties are so different that even seismic events don’t change many Americans’ minds. The parties are so closely matched that even minuscule shifts in the electoral winds can blow the country onto a wildly different course. And even in a time of profound economic dislocation, American politics has become less about which party is good for your wallet and more about whether the cultural changes of the past 50 years delight or dismay you.

I’m pinning my hopes on that “generational change”…


  1. Liberals need a new marketing platform and delivery method. Maybe the powers that be should hire the Lincoln Project members to do our marketing? Like I mentioned yesterday, the other side is crazy!

  2. One thing that this analysis seems to either leave out or discount, is the money. Those dark money donors still care a lot about tax cuts and deregulation. As long as they’re in the mix, the parity can be manipulated.

  3. In the internet age, are American voters as gullible as Ezra makes them out to be?

    Billions for thee, but not for me.

    Anyone still needing polls and charts to describe the “differences” between America’s two capitalist parties are just playing into the rigged game.

    Railway workers could care less about what pronoun is popular today. The same goes for global auto workers getting ready to go on wildcat strikes. The president relies on Congress to force workers NOT to strike to avoid calamity.

    European workers could care less about the transgender rules the media is trying to make everybody care about or the subsequent shootout at a gay bar.

    The oligarchy plays these cultural distractions to distract people from their finances, but it’s hard as the costs of living keep increasing when income stays the same.

    The media, like The New York Times and Ezra Klein, are trying to distract people from the rot and decay occurring in capitalism. Don’t look now, but we must wash billions more in Ukraine while student debt cancellation is on pause. LOL

    All those last-minute campaign promises to Gen Z are being jerked away just days after the election.

    Do you think two years of hearings about the corrupt D’s will make a difference in the cost of living issues?

    It’s all performative for the media and the masses. A giant distraction.

  4. Two comments. If you think about how gerrymandering has turned Indiana into a one-party state, in which the Republicans feel they can do just about anything they wish, think about what will happen if they manage to get control of all three bodies in the federal government.

    Second. About Ezra Klein: His book: “Why We’re Polarized,” published in 2020, expands on many of the things that he discusses in his columns. It is a very “good read.”

  5. I’m delighted to see that more people are recognizing that the two major parties are worlds apart on just about everything. The Republicans are about to expose themselves to the undecided voter like a flasher in a raincoat in your city park. Their agenda is vengeance in the House. They give not a single shit about the economics, only about pissing people off and winning the next election.

    The very fact that Republicans gained seats in the House is truly astonishing. The Senate is a bit more representative than the house as far as the mind of the voter is concerned. Except that how anyone could vote for Ron Johnson for anything boggles the mind.

    In order to break the “calcification” of our voters, I agree completely with Aging Girl. The DNC has had incompetent leadership and “marketing” for several election cycles at the national level. They seem to be calcified in their approach to their messaging and how candidates are promoted. Then, one must be cautious too. Beto O’Roark’s audacious campaign resulted in yet another lost election for him. Again, how could anyone in their right minds vote for Greg Abbott and still sleep at night?

    I doubt I’ll live long enough to see any mercurial changes in the electorate as long as so many voters would rather vote for Satan than a Democrat. I wish the DNC would publish a list about how many ways the Republicans are screwing their own constituents. Of course, gerrymandering’s removal will help too.

  6. It seems evident that the US governance system makes it almost impossible to have coherent strategies for dealing with important, even existential issues, such as climate change and global power shifts. In contrast, the largest despotic states with leaders in place for decades can pursue “the long game.” The most sobering examples are China’s progressive militarization, increased dominance of the South China Sea, their systematic takeover of East African ports (future naval military bases), their growing control over natural resources such as lithium and other materials needed for high-tech equipment, and their massive industrialization that has led to atrophy of key manufacturing capacity elsewhere. If China stopped selling us the chemicals needed to produce medicines, our pharmacy shelves would go bare in a few months. Russia is also a threat because its paranoia and territorial ambitions can play out over decades. The Western liberal democracies do not have the political will, organizational unity, or industrial capacity to resist an aggressive China, and their leaders act accordingly. While Americans are fighting old culture wars internally, our despotic enemies are gathering the reins of global power. The 20th was “the American century,” but the 21st is likely to be “the Chinese century.” Or at least the ignominious end of the American “experiment” in popular representative governance.

  7. Todd makes some good points this morning!

    Are there any redeeming qualities in the political realm today? Has there ever been?

    Today’s offering by any political party or player might as well be considered fool’s Gold, and those who are hunting that fools gold are on a fool’s errand!

    What lens do we tend to look through? One that paints January 6th rioters freedom fighters? Or those who describe them as terrorists? This is nothing new! This very issue is truly an enigma.

    But so is political theory, or scientific theory! Hence theoretical physics, and theoretical physicists, or, political philosophy which is theoretical in nature just like scientific philosophical Tenet!

    Do people have faith in philosophical tenets? What about philosophical dogma? The bifurcation of political, religious, and secular Tenets, are dogmatic in nature! But is it based in factual empirical evidence? Absolutely not! Remember, dogmatic or theoretical, really points to being hypothetical or speculative or based on the abstract!

    As an example, some people find creation abstruse, others find evolution abstruse, an excellent example of dogmatic Tenets. As Todd kind of alluded to, it’s extremely difficult to disassociate a person from their dogmatic belief system.

    So, what to do? What’s the solution? I think the answer unfortunately is in the abstract. Us, we use abstract phraseology all the time, thought, reason, hope, honesty, all abstract all seemingly have no tangible qualities.

    So when trying to make an inroad speaking to an individual with these particular belief sets which is actually a huge majority of the population, you would have to be willing to discuss Gray areas depending on the subject.

    Conversation should be casual, they should be brief, we should listen and show some flexibility, always remain calm, guide an individual rather than tell them what to believe. Of course, being able to accomplish these things would seem panaceatic, but it absolutely can overcome cocksureness! If and only if we talk to and not talk at!

    I think Glen Campbell mentioned it in one of his songs, “everybody’s talkin at me, I Don’t hear a word they’re sayin only in the echoes of my mind “

  8. The largest and growing “party” continues to be the “uncommitted”/irregular voter group. They, perhaps correctly, see the DEMs and GOP as all about their own power/influence rather than focused on governing that serves their customers, the people. So, those folks energy goes toward taking care of their health and family and/or entertaining themselves to forget the state of the world (neatly fed by the fast growth of lotteries, sports gambling, legalized weed, etc.).

    ITIO (I’m thankful I’m old)

  9. Maybe it is time to rethink the system we have for electing representatives to Congress. What we now have has been totally corrupted and gives representation only to those who have the money to buy that representation. The goal of fair representation has been lost in a sea of politics and media marketing. Really, we need to take a hard look at what is actually going on versus the Disney version of our hopes.

  10. I was born in 1943. My personal experience supports Klein’s analysis. In my younger years I saw little difference between the parties. I just thought there were good and not so good people on both sides of the aisle. In the mid to late seventies, I became aware that the Democrats more closely aligned with my values. Of course, the more the parties diverged, the more important it became to me to support them. I think that people with values different than mine experienced the same thing. This, the rise of the so called moral majority and we were well on our way to today’s gridlock.

  11. We live in a few moments of a Universe and an evolution of life and culture and knowledge driven by energy that has the property of causing change. We are both the causes of what we control (almost nothing) and the victims of what we don’t (almost everything). Advertising and ego offer the illusion of controlling more. Experience offers the knowledge of limitations, of things tried, and analysis of what change we have caused for ourselves and those around us.

    Swear off of advertising in all of its forms and live by experience.

  12. I believe Sharon just about speaks for me. However, far too much weight is placed on consequences of political gridlock. The equity market is indifferent to politics. In fact, the equity market loves gridlock in Congress. The millennials are emerging with relevant talent to drive virtual innovation in the corporate world. If you live much longer, put on your seatbelts. As for me, pretty much held together by the last coat of paint! 😇

  13. Theresa, I think the ranked choice voting being tried in some states is a step in the right direction. The elimination of gerrymandering and electoral college reform would also be useful in bringing our politics into a better state of balance. There are organizations currently working toward those and other changes. A bit of research will probably lead you to ones you can support.

  14. Sharon, Like you I was born in 1943, but unlike you I was initiated into the world of politics at the age of ten. Back then the chairman of the Democrat Party was often a visitor to our house where he and my father would talk politics…me in the wings listening. I watched the first television broadcast of the Democrat convention sitting on my father’s knee getting a play by play as to what was happening. I’ve run for office twice and worked in government before my retirement.
    What I am proposing is for us to think outside the box. The system envisioned by the founders no longer works, and if view honestly it hasn’t worked for over a century. IMO tweaking the system is not the answer. A whole new system for gaining representation for all based on evenhandedness and fairness should be the goal.

  15. I, too, am pinning my hopes on the much younger generations. When talking with my DIL the other day, I opined that one hope for reasonable and lasting gun control was parents getting fed up with their children participating in “live shooter drills” and taking that anger to the polls. Since this is a time for giving thanks, I want to thank you, Sheila, for giving me a glimpse of sanity each day,

  16. I am old enough to remember the rule of thumb a great Republican senator and diplomat, Arthur Vandenburg, of Michigan, set forth: That differences in foreign policy ended “at the water’s edge.” This solidarity at foreign conference tables was necessary to show that we were united in our position on whatever issue was up for debate.

    No more. Now such foreign policy experts as MTG and Boebert roundly criticize the State Department for our stands on Ukraine and any other stance State takes that does not fit their “be against Biden whatever he wants to do,” making headlines in Beijing and Moscow and encouraging those countries to refuse to agree to peace in re Ukraine and changed policies in re Taiwan, all hardly what was proposed by Senator Vandenburg.

    We leave brain surgery to brain surgeons; we should leave diplomacy to PhDs in the State Department, not someone who flunked a GED test.

  17. I do hope the younger generation can straighten out this mess, but I do not hold much hope. I see the US turning into a one party (R) system that is Fascist in nature. That is why I chose to leave and move to a more stable democratic country.

  18. Theresa. I’m open to ideas outside the box. Right now I have no idea what those might be or how to effect radical change without violent conflict.
    What do you have in mind?

  19. I really like Ezra Klein, but he often is too clever by half, and loves to indulge in “both sides-ism”.
    Calcification is just that.

    First, Trump voters “knew” that COVID was a myth and the “evil doctors” were just writing COVID for cause of death on everybody’s death certificates, when it clearly wasn’t the case.
    Second, when Black Lives Matter protests turned violent, (1) there were cases where Trump supporters were suspected and/or known to have committed the violence, (2) Right-wing hate speech (see how violent Black people and Progressives are) increased, scaring the Biden voters and independents, and (3) should one rationally choose a narcissistic would-be dictator because some small number of people misbehaved (they destroyed property and didn’t kill people).

    Point in case, my father, a Republican in his youth, did not turn into a racist when he got mugged in front of his place of business by a young Black man, nor after the Detroit riots of ’67 burned his business and caused him to file for bankruptcy. He remained the “Liberal” that he became after he married my mother. Why change your philosophy over a single incident.

    Again, the National Parties didn’t diverge, the GOP took a hard right turn. AOC’s rhetoric may be different, but her policies aren’t that different from Hubert Humphrey. And Democrats still have their Blue Dogs (favoring Reaganomics) and Joe Manchin. The GOP purged very conservative Liz Cheney. Enough said.

    Echoing Aging Girl, I would point to successful propaganda by the Republicans (for as long as I have been alive). Liberals are terrible at marketing.

    Democrat = Liberal/Progressive = Socialist = Communist = Spawn of Satan.

    I have seen those terms thrown around by Republicans since the red-baiting that occurred during my youth.

    I remember one woman on the phone (one election ago) asked me if Christina Hale was “that radical socialist”. I like Christina, but I would never describe her that way, nor did I think that Kiwanis (where she worked for a number of years) was a hot bed of “socialism”.

    That’s how an incompetent (in the record) ex-Secretary of State employee beat Destiny Wells, whose qualifications were on a different scale from the next person to hold that office. “She’s radical”, we were told.

    As for the younger generation, of course I have hope. Our elders didn’t understand the Boomers either. Back in ’68, I was invited to the 4th International TOPS (Technical, Office, and Professional workers) of the UAW in Black Lake, MI to “explain today’s youth” to the members (along with another student). They didn’t understand our opposition to the war. Boomers made our mark with Civil Rights, Equal Rights, and anti-war movements. The younger generations will make their mark with LGBTQ+ Rights, Climate, Gun Control, and other important issues. I expect that they won’t understand their children’s fight for other issues after I am gone. So it goes.

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