Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Youth Vote

There are two very important things to know about that imprecise data point we call “the youth vote.” There is substantial agreement about one of those things, and equally substantial disagreement about the other.

The data is convincing when it comes to the political preferences of young Americans: they lean Left to a marked degree. Actually, we can argue about the definition of “Left,” since in former, saner times, much of what we now call Left used to be considered pretty moderate, but we are where we are–and where we are is with a youth cohort likely to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

There is far less agreement on the second issue–turnout. Will that youth cohort appear at the polls in numbers sufficient to make a real difference?

A number of older Americans–some of whom comment here–have been permanently soured by past performance. Until very recently, young people (variously identitified as those 18-29 or 18-35) have been less likely to vote than their elders (although older Americans haven’t exactly overwhelmed their polling places either.) And–like curmudgeons in ages past– some older Americans are simply Archie Bunkers when it comes to any aspect of the nation’s youth.

Whatever the merits of the contending arguments, and whatever the age range considered “youth,” turnout by younger voters will obviously be very important in the upcoming election cycle, so I did a moderately deep dive into the data, and found evidence that turnout among young voters has increased in recent elections. Obviously–as those investment analyses always warn us– past performance is no guarantee of future behavior,  but charting trends can suggest a trajectory.

The following data, pulled from the United States Census Bureau and other reputable sources, shows that, in 2018 and 2020, there was a notable increase in voter turnout among young people compared to previous years.

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in the midterm 2018 elections, youth voter turnout (which CIRCLE defines as turnout by ages 18-29) reached 36%. That isn’t exactly a “wow” number, but then neither is 50.3%, which is the percentage of all eligible voters who turned out in 2018. Youth turnout actually equalled the 36 percent of eligible Americans who had bothered to cast ballots in 2014.

What is more significant than the percentage of young people who voted in recent elections is the fact that youth turnout has substantially increased compared to previous midterms.

In the 2020 presidential election,  estimated youth turnout rose to 52-55%, a pretty significant surge in engagement.

For obvious reasons, both youth and older voter turnout have increased more sharply in swing states. In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where the 2016 presidential election was decided by incredibly slim margins, there were notable increases in youth voter participation. The 2020 primary elections witnessed a surge in youth voter turnout compared to previous primary cycles in Texas, California, and North Carolina,for example.

Civic engagement isn’t confined to vote turnout, of course. Over the past decade or so, we have seen increasing activism among young Americans on behalf of social and political issues. Engagement in movements such as Black Lives Matter, and organizations advocating for climate change and gun control has grown–and absent substantial progress on those and similar issues, there is no reason to expect a return to previous levels of apathy.

Youth turnout is important because it is a lopsidedly Democratic age cohort, but what really struck me as I looked into these numbers was the pathetic civic performance of us older Americans. Yes, many young folks have historically ignored their civic duty to vote, but so have millions of their parents and grandparents.

Older Americans haven’t exactly been civic role models.

The fact that only 50% of eligible Americans cast ballots in 2018 can’t all be attributed to vote suppression. Instead, it signals a lack of what we used to call “civic virtue.” When half of those entitled to vote don’t bother, we elect the buffoons, ignoramuses and Neo-Nazis who appeal to small but passionate slices of the voting public–constituencies that do turn out.

The 36% of youth who voted in 2018 matched the 36% of all registered voters who came to the polls in 2016. I personally think both of those percentages are shameful.

Maybe we should emulate Australia, where voting is mandatory. Punishment is relatively minor– failure to cast a ballot will result in a small fine–but the result is a culture that encourages voting, and an electoral result that more closely mirrors the actual preferences of the population.

As we’ve seen, when only culture warriors are motivated to vote,  we get “lawmakers” like Tommy Tuberville and Marjorie Taylor Green. I’d like to say we deserve better, but given our levels of civic participation, maybe we don’t.



Changing The World–For Better Or Worse

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with that famous quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” If you are inclined to doubt that observation–inclined to dismiss as ineffective the efforts of small numbers of activists–I’ve got news for you. 

Very small groups of people can have a very large impact, for good or not-so-good. Case in point: those proliferating book bans.

The Washington Post recently did a “deep dive” into the growing number of parental challenges to books in the nation’s classrooms and school libraries, and they found something counter-intuitive and very interesting. It turns out that a large percentage of the complaints come from “a minuscule number of hyperactive adults.”

And when the Post says “small,” it means small.The majority of the 1,000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.

The Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that Tasslyn Magnusson, a researcher employed by free expression advocacy group PEN America, tracked as receiving formal requests to remove books last school year. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.

Other findings from the Post’s investigation are unsurprising–the great majority of challenges focused on books with LGBTQ content, followed by those dealing with race.

The Post analyzed the complaints to determine who was challenging the books, what kinds of books drew objections and why. Nearly half of filings — 43 percent — targeted titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61 percent of challenges referenced this concern.

The people filing these objections evidently consider the identification of gender to be “sexual.” And I suppose any mention of race is “woke” and evidence of the incursion of that dreaded Critical Race Theory (which none of its critics can define).

In nearly 20 percent of the challenges, petitioners wrote that they wanted texts pulled from shelves because the titles depict lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, homosexual, transgender or nonbinary lives. Many challengers wrote that reading books about LGBTQ people could cause children to alter their sexuality or gender.
“The theme or purpose of this book is to confuse our children and get them to question whether they are a boy or a girl,” a North Carolina challenger wrote of “Call Me Max,” which centers on a transgender boy.

The objections are to “sexual” content, but the Post reports that in “37 percent of objections against LGBTQ titles, challengers wrote they believed the books should not remain in libraries specifically because they feature LGBTQ lives or stories.”

The article is lengthy and very informative, but I continue to be fixated on that finding that, essentially, eleven people have managed to terrify teachers and librarians, exclude books (many of which have been read by students for decades without appreciably increasing the population of gays and lesbians or triggering psychotic episodes of racial regret…), and producing an enormous national culture war debate centering on censorship.

This is our political problem in a nutshell. The MAGA Republicans who are making government difficult or impossible represent distinct minorities of Americans. A significant number of the gerrymandered Congressional districts that send whack-a-doodles to Washington wouldn’t be safe for the GOP if most of the Democrats in that district came out to vote. 

We bemoan the disproportionate influence of Fox “News” and its clones, but the  audience for Rightwing media is a small proportion of the overall number of American viewers. 

I keep insisting that if enough Democrats and sane Independents get sufficiently active, we can lance the MAGA boil–and I am increasingly convinced that “enough” just requires a relatively small activist base that focuses on a much bigger number: voter turnout.

Or look at it from another angle: If every Democrat and disaffected Republican could identify and register just one previously apathetic non-voter, and could get that non-voter to the polls, reasonable people could retake America, and we could return to the days of (relatively) boring arguments about policy.

Margaret Mead was right: the actions of small groups of thoughtful, committed Americans can send the MAGA warriors to wherever it was that former Americans sent the Whigs.




Revisiting Adam Smith

From time to time, a number of my friends have remarked on the GOP’s emphasis on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and  its corresponding neglect of his Theory of Moral Sentiments–a work that casts considerable doubt over the simplified message for which people cite Wealth of Nations .

Like most Americans, I was familiar with the citation and Smith’s celebration of “the hidden hand,” and unfamiliar with the work itself, so it was interesting and enlightening to read an essay/book review in the New Republic titled “The Betrayal of Adam Smith.”

I had always thought that Wealth was a single volume making a coherent argument about economics; apparently, I was very wrong.

To call it wide-ranging is an understatement; the opposite of a tightly focused, logical argument, its five volumes and 1,000-plus pages range over everything from the problems with apprenticeship to the origins of money to the “discouragement of agriculture in the ancient state of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.”

According to the author of the essay, the massive work was “replete with contradictory ideas.”

and The full complexity of his thinking was reduced to the catchphrase “the invisible hand,” even though (as intellectual historian Emma Rothschild has noted) the words appeared just a few times in his entire corpus of work, and only once in The Wealth of Nations.

The book that prompted this essay was “Adam Smith’s America,” by Glory M. Liu, what the reviewer calls an “intriguing account of Smith’s reception in the United States.”

The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year the Colonies declared their independence, and many of those who sought to break from Britain were familiar with Smith’s work—both Wealth and his earlier writing. As Liu shows, the first thinkers to make use of Smith in America were more inclined toward his musings about politics and psychology than any of his economic prescriptions. Nor did they interpret Smith in a way that narrowly aligned him with a particular political perspective

John Adams, most notably, drew on Smith to meditate on the political power of the rich. In an argument that echoes Smith’s in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his first major book), Adams suggested that there was a deep tendency in human psychology to defer to the wealthy and powerful and to treat them with an esteem that was unseemly for democratic citizens. Smith had warned that the poor man was “ashamed of his poverty,” while the rich man gloried in the “attention of the world” that his wealth conferred. This genuflection, Adams insisted, was still present in the new republic. Wealth had a way (as Liu puts it) of transmuting itself into power even in a constitutional order that lacked an aristocracy.

One of the lessons Americans took from Smith was that countries don’t become rich or poor due to geographic luck, climate and resources (or God smiling on the inhabitants), but rather on how it organized labor—on human will, ingenuity, and effort.

In earlier works, Smith wrote that “sympathy”—or the ability to identify with the pain and joy of others—was among the “original passions of human nature,” and that “the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

How could this be congruent with his argument in Wealth that “self-love”—the “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another”—was what set humanity apart from other animals? …Self-interest was the defining principle of human nature, and the source for the immense division of labor that produced “general opulence” without anyone quite planning that it would do so. But how to reconcile self-interest with sympathy?

An early Chicago School economist wrote that Smith saw a “wide and elastic range of activity for government,” believing that “self-interest and competition were sometimes treacherous to the public interest they were supposed to serve”—and that collective action is sometimes necessary.

It was later economists–especially Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and George Stigler– who are responsible for our current understanding of Smith.

They were drawn to Smith for his commitment to the idea of individual self-interest as the principle that underwrote the entire theory of the price mechanism. For them, as Stigler wrote, The Wealth of Nations was “a stupendous palace erected upon the granite of self-interest.”

That current, truncated understanding of Smith is the “betrayal” of the title.

The essay/review is lengthy, but it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Today’s misunderstanding of Smith is an example of what happens when readers approach a work through an ideological lens. “Captains of industry” emphasize the “hidden hand” in much the same way contemporary theocrats cherry-pick passages from the Bible.

Both  are betrayals.

Rights And Obligations

 A few months ago,  Bret Stephens wrote an essay in New York Times that included the following paragraph about what he–accurately– called the  “classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism,” defined as:

 The idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.

Well, how extremely “woke” of the Times’ conservative columnist…

I continue to be amazed–gobsmacked, really–by the complete 180-degree turn of a Republican Party that used to be serious about such old-fashioned ideas, along with “duty” and “responsibility.” 

In January, Richard Haass published The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. While it once might have been seen as an exercise in “preaching to the choir,” these days, a depressing number of Americans are no longer members of that choir.

As the linked review begins,

It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world.

I am hardly the only observer of today’s rancid and decidedly uncivil politics to endorse the importance of re-emphasizing these obligations. 

Rights–as Haass points out–imply duties. Your right to exercise freedom of speech, for example, imposes a duty on me (and especially on government) not to engage in behavior making that speech impossible. I don’t have to listen or agree; I am free to respond critically–but neither individual citizens nor government is free to censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” ) When an individual citizen does so, it is unbecoming and, I’d argue, unAmerican; when government does so, it’s unconstitutional.

Haass does not limit the obligations of citizenship to the duties implied by our constitutional rights. He quite properly includes duties/obligations of  democratic participation–especially informed voting. 

The approaching national elections are very likely to be a turning point for this country. What is at stake is nothing less than our national commitment to America’s longtime–albeit still unrealized– aspirations to democratic self-rule, liberty and equality.

In 2024, the electorate will be faced with a deceptively simple question: will we continue to work toward realizing those aspirations? Or will we make a philosophical U-turn into White Christian Nationalism? 

It really is as simple–and profound–as that.

I have absolute faith in the good will of most Americans. I remain convinced that–no matter how loud they are– the racists, anti-Semites and misogynists are a minority. What I worry about is the willingness of the majority of Americans to take their civic obligations seriously–to inform themselves, to ignore the incessant messaging that tells them their votes won’t count, and to turn out at the polls.

Good people need to vote like America depends on their ballots, because the version we and they want to inhabit really, truly does.




Why I Don’t Think The Midterms Were An Anomaly

I have a bet with my youngest son. He’s a political pessimist, especially when it comes to the state of Indiana. (The bet involves very expensive dinners…) The bet was triggered by my excitement–and optimism–about Jennifer McCormick’s announcement that she is a candidate for Governor. I think she can win, even in deep Red Indiana; my son has written off the possibility of any Democrat winning statewide office, and has dismissed any predictive value of Obama’s 2008 Hoosier win.

My optimism about McCormick’s campaign is partially due to candidate quality (both hers and that of her likely opponent, the odious Mike Braun) but it is also based on what I see as a national trend: from top to bottom, the GOP is running truly horrible candidates.

At the very top of the Republican ticket, we are almost certain to get either Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. American voters soundly rejected Trump in 2020, and he gets more certifiable as his legal woes mount. DeSantis appears to be basing his campaign on an “anti-woke” platform. Not only is DeSantis most definitely not a guy you’d like to have a beer with, his evident belief that a majority of Americans want to return to the 1950s, when “men were men” (and in charge), women were in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant, no one had ever heard the word transgender, and schools dutifully imparted White Christian propaganda, is simply delusional.

In a recent issue of his daily newsletter, Robert Hubbell noted that Democratic over-performance hasn’t abated since the midterms, when that predicted Red wave failed to materialize. He pointed to subsequent elections in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where voters selected the first non-Republican mayor since 1979 by a margin of 15 points;
a Pennsylvania special election to the state assembly where the Democrat won by 20 points and maintained Democratic control despite the fact that, going into the 2022 midterms, Republicans had held a 113-90 advantage; and a New Hampshire assembly race where the Democrat won by 43 percentage points, “eclipsing Biden’s 27-point margin in 2020.”

Hubbell quoted one analyst for the observation that

Democrats have overperformed the 2020 presidential results by an average of six points across 18 state legislative races this year. . . . They’ve also beaten their 2016 margins by an average of 10 points.

He quotes another analyst who focused in on the underlying reasons for that over-performance: abortion extremism, ongoing GOP-encouraged gun violence, extremist MAGA candidates, and a (finally!) fired-up Democratic grassroots.

In the run-up to the midterms, Republicans confidently pointed to Joe Biden’s disappointing approval ratings as a sign that they would sweep their gerrymandered House districts and retake control of the Senate. As we now know, despite the extreme gerrymandering and the vote suppression efforts, those victories eluded them.

As Morton Marcus and I argued in our recent book, the loss of Roe v. Wade was a major reason for that outcome. Women’s progress toward civic equality requires autonomy, control over one’s own reproduction, and most women who vote understand that. Republicans running for office in 2024 will have to “thread the needle” between primary voters who are rigidly anti-abortion and a general election electorate that is lopsidedly pro-choice.

Good luck with that…

Add to the abortion wars the daily gun carnage that feckless Republicans keep trying to blame on mental health–despite the fact that large majorities of voters, even majorities of NRA members, attribute the mayhem to the lack of responsible gun regulations.

Voters who aren’t part of the White Nationalist Cult that is today’s GOP look at Congress–at Republicans protecting George Santos, hiring Neo-Nazi staffers, threatening to ruin the economy if they aren’t allowed to deprive poor people of food and mistreat veterans...and a not-insignificant number of them are echoing the immortal words of Howard Beale in the classic movie Network:“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”

It’s true that the GOP can count on its cult members coming to the polls. There are more of those sorry creatures than most nice people want to believe, and they absolutely pose a danger to all of us–but they are a distinct minority of Americans. We need to see them for what they are, and recognize the threat they pose to the America the rest of us inhabit, but they can’t win in the absence of majority apathy.

Democratic candidates, on the other hand, appeal to voters who (like Indiana’s McCormick) support public education and academic freedom, who believe in separation of church and state, in women’s equality, in civility and compassion and inclusion–in all those qualities that our parents taught us were admirable, but the GOP disdains as “woke.”

There’s a lot to be concerned about, but like Hubbell, I’m hopeful.