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”…