It’s All About Race

I’ve been working my way through the numerous books–both the physical ones and the ones on my Kindle–that have been piling up on my nightstand, and I’ve just finished How Democracies Die. It’s a book that has generated a lot of discussion, for obvious reasons. The two scholars who wrote it in 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zimblatt, have spent their academic careers focusing on the ups and downs of democratic governments around the globe. That focus has allowed them to draw conclusions about the normative elements that serve as guardrails protecting democratic institutions, and about the signs  warning of democratic collapse.

There’s a lot to absorb from the book’s copious descriptions of democratic failures in a wide variety of countries–and the authors make no bones about the reality of the threat to American institutions posed by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. It’s all pretty grim–and entirely persuasive.

That said, I was particularly struck by one of the book’s central observations–probably because it confirms my strong belief that support for Trump/MAGA is almost entirely rooted in racism.

About halfway through the book, the authors identified two democratic norms that are essential to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. In other words, acknowledging the legitimacy of one’s political opponents, and “forbearing” to abuse or over-use institutional weapons like the filibuster or Mitch McConnell’s legal but shockingly undemocratic theft of a Supreme Court seat. Extreme polarization erodes those norms; as they write, when societies sort themselves into political camps whose world-views aren’t just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.

When the authors analyzed what had allowed America’s politicians to sustain basic democratic norms for a period running roughly from the collapse of Reconstruction through the 1980s, they came to a very troubling conclusion–that during that time period, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” To the extent that America operated with bipartisanship and experienced reduced polarization during that extended time period, those outcomes “came at the cost of keeping civil rights off the political agenda.”

In the final paragraph of Chapter Six, they write

America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.

That paragraph confirms what a growing body of research has verified–and what any semi-sentient observer can see. The election of Barack Obama unleashed the overt expression of formerly-suppressed hatreds. It seeded the growth of White Christian nationalism, the huge reaction against anything seen as “woke,” the efforts to de-legitimatize efforts at inclusion–and explains the utter inability of most reasonable, non-racist Americans to understand the animus and fury of the MAGA movement.

That paragraph explains so much–as does a sentence in the final chapter, in which the authors concede that it is “difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities give up their dominant status without a fight.”

Even a cursory look at the current crop of GOP nominees up and down the various state ballots shows them publicly expressing opinions that would have been met with horror not all that long ago. Anti-Black, anti-Semitic, homophobic…meanwhile, the numerous Republican campaigns expressing hostility to immigration from the south hardly bother to veil their racism.

It’s been a long time since the Civil War. It’s been a long time since the South was able to dismantle Reconstruction. These days, the country’s accelerating social and demographic changes are making it increasingly difficult to maintain the dominance of White Christians. It’s the recognition of–and hysterical reaction to– that reality that explains Trump and MAGA. How Democracies Die warns us of the way that movement threatens not just social peace/tolerance, but the continued operation of America’s democratic institutions.

I keep thinking about that slogan “The South will rise again.”

It did. It’s now called the Republican Party, and How Democracies Die documents a lesson we have yet to learn: the persistence of this country’s deep-seated racism poses an existential threat to human decency, civic equality and the continuation of American democracy.

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Allow Me To Translate..And Pontificate

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall once again returned to the subject of political polarization, and–as is his typical approach–quoted scholars on the subject. As a former member of that tribe, I will admit that the problem with quoting academics is the occasional impenetrability of the language. (It’s not a problem limited to academia–not long after becoming Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I was counseled by a member of the national staff to stop sounding like an “ACLU lawyer.” Every career has its jargon…)

At any rate, allow me to quote–and then translate–one of the scholars who responded to Edsall:

Interventions to reduce affective polarization will be ineffective if they operate only at the individual, emotional level. Ignoring the role of polarizing politicians and political incentives to instrumentalize affective polarization for political gain will fail to generate change while enhancing cynicism when polite conversations among willing participants do not generate prodemocratic change.

In other words, polarization isn’t just a matter of individual hostility for those on the other “team.” Political leadership bears considerable responsibility for MAGA resistance to democratic norms. The polarization reflected in our everyday conversations is cultivated by political “culture warriors” like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Green and her Indiana clone, Jim Banks. As a different scholar (one evidently more comfortable with normal English usage) put it:

I don’t think any bottom-up intervention is going to solve a problem that is structural. You could reduce misperceptions for a day or two, or put diverse groups together for an hour, but these people will be polarized again as soon as they are exposed once more to campaign rhetoric.

A recent study evidently found that widespread popular opposition to anti-democratic policies is insufficient to prevent their adoption. That research found that what the scholars called “backsliding behavior by elites” occurred irrespective of a lack of public approval or support; and that much of the problem is rooted in the fact that “Americans, despite their distaste for norm violations, continue to elect representatives whose policies and actions threaten democracy.”

In other words–and this will most definitely not come as a shock to any citizen who’s been paying even the slightest attention–virtually all of the current dysfunctions of governance are caused by the various doofuses we’re electing. (I cannot restrain myself from reminding you, dear readers, that it is frequently thanks to gerrymandering that we are electing these performative, anti-democratic culture warriors.)

As another scholar opined,

Whatever techniques might exist to reduce citizen animosity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce hostility among elected officials. It doesn’t matter if we can make someone more positive toward the other party if that effect is quickly undone by watching cable news, reading social media, or otherwise listening to divisive political elites.

In other words–as several of the researchers contacted by Edsall confirmed– positive effects of efforts to intervene and ameliorate polarization “are almost immediately nullified by the hostile rhetoric in contemporary politics.”

A professor of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine attributed the persistence of polarization to what he dubbed a “moralized political environment,” and that phrase resonated with me. I am hardly the only person to see today’s political disputes as evidence that contemporary political combat takes place between partisans who hold significantly different values. 

As Edsall noted,

The issues dividing the parties have changed. When the two parties fought over size of government, taxes, social welfare programs, it was possible for partisans to imagine a compromise that is more or less acceptable even if not ideal. Compromise on issues like abortion, gender roles, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, the role of religion is much more difficult. So losing feels like more of a threat to people’s values.

From my vantage point, we have moved from good faith arguments about the proper approach to various issues–the “how”–to arguments about “whether.” Rather than debating, say, the best way to feed poor children, we confront self-identified “pro life” politicians who simply oppose spending any tax dollars on food for poor children. Rather than debates about America’s global role and the least dangerous way to approach Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, political figures like Braun and Banks vote–as conservative George Will wrote–“to assure Vladimir Putin’s attempt to erase a European nation.” Etcetera.

We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones.

Survey research confirms that a majority of the American public is on the right side of those moral debates–but that obsolete political structures allow MAGA Republicans–a statistical minority– to ignore We the People.

Political structures empowering ideological minorities are the reason we can’t just “make nice” and “all get along.”

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The Importance of How

The essential question that faces all policymakers is “what should we do about problem X.” That question has two parts. Once problem X has been identified, and a goal has been established (solving problem X), the remaining question becomes how. 

After all, we could dramatically reduce crime by locking citizens in their homes between, say, 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. We could reduce the transmission of flu by decreeing that all Americans wear masks during flu season. You can probably think of other methods of approaching social problems that would undoubtedly achieve their goals, but would simply create hostility, division and other problems.

Of course, deciding the proper “how” requires some fundamental agreement on the nature of the problem. We’re seeing this now, with the issue of immigration. Republicans define the problem as too many of “those people” entering the country; Democrats see it as the challenge of distinguishing between criminals and legitimate refugees entitled to help while hampered by obsolete laws and a dramatically under-resourced system.

When I taught my Law and Policy students, I focused upon the importance–and complexity–of those “how” solutions. Do we have broad agreement on the problem and what a satisfactory solution might look like? If so, how do we craft a policy that will achieve that solution without inadvertently creating or exacerbating other problems?

I recently read Washington Post column that focused on a vivid example.

There is a grim, fairly popular story of the American social contract that goes roughly like this: Motivated by entrenched racial hostility, the greed of the rich (or maybe something else), the richest country on the planet refuses to develop a true welfare state that might secure the well-being of its citizens.

The column proceeds to examine the extensive social science research confirming the nature and extent of America’s inequality, and the multiple social problems that have been attributed to poverty and inequality.

Taxation and redistribution have been successfully resisted, branded as illegitimate scams to feather the beds of welfare queens. Globalization and technological disruption have been embraced even as the institutions designed to protect the most vulnerable workers — unions, minimum wages — have lost their power to provide for a dignified living.

In this American story, the less fortunate — Black, Brown and White — are left to scratch by as best they can, often falling into a deep well of misery. The rich engorge themselves way beyond anything seen in other wealthy, industrialized societies of the West. And yet, though the destitution is clear for all to see, recent research suggests that the story built around it is, at best, incomplete.

In fact, as a number of researchers have confirmed, the United States spends a lot of money on redistribution–on that word Republicans find so repulsive: welfare. The problem isn’t that we haven’t funded programs intended to help the needy, the problem is how those programs work–or (mostly) don’t.

Inequality might not cause these symptoms on its own. Instead, many of America’s social maladies stem from the strategies it has chosen to mitigate the lopsided distribution of income, which leave its citizens singularly vulnerable.

The essay went on to suggest “fixes” with which I largely disagreed, because I have concluded that the worst aspect of America’s social welfare system is its tendency to divide, rather than unify our citizenry. (Our patchwork “system” is also wasteful, far too bureaucratic, and inaccessible to the working poor, but those are problems for a different post.)

As I have repeatedly argued, public policies can either increase or reduce polarization and tensions between groups. Policies to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Currently, far too many Americans have very negative attitudes about welfare programs for poor people. In contrast, overwhelming majorities approve of Social Security and Medicare. That’s because Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; as I’ve previously noted, virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits.

Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma.

In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, to create social solidarity–an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

In our current, highly polarized political environment, we need to focus on whether the solutions to social problems unify or further divide our quarrelsome nation.

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How We Got Here

I was recently asked to “guest lecture”about political polarization to an undergraduate class.

I began by conceding that, from where I sit, it’s getting worse, not better. I noted that we now have businesses expressly catering to the Right-wing: social media platforms like Truth Social and Rumble, coffee sellers like Black Rifle, crypto start-ups like MAGA and Coin, and even investment funds–Strive is an anti-ESG fund created by Vivek Ramaswamy, the annoying presidential candidate, that has now exceeded a billion dollars in assets.

These are businesses specifically catering to people who want to ban books, shove gay people back in the closet, and return women and people of color to second-class citizenship. It pains me to say this, because I spent 35 years of my adult life as a very active Republican—I even won a Congressional Republican primary in 1980—but Republicans have devolved from a political party into a cult, and membership in that cult has become their core identity. As we saw during COVID, thousands of them were willing to forego vaccination and die in order to “own the libs.”

Before delving into some of the reasons for polarization, it’s important to distinguish between political polarization and other, far less stark differences between Americans. As one scholar recently noted, those political differences are between the Republicans who’ve gone full MAGA and most other Americans…Today’s Right is entirely focused on the interests and fears of white Christians, while the Democratic coalition is much more diverse.

Ezra Klein has observed that “Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous.”

Research tells us that MAGA Republicans are disproportionately White Christian Nationalists who believe that only White Christians can be “real Americans.” That’s not a belief consistent with moderation or negotiation—or the Constitution.

Some on the far Left of the Democratic Party are also rabid, but today’s Democrats and Independents are ideologically diverse—they range from ex-Republicans like me to the Bernie Sanders/AOC branch of the party (which is still not nearly as “Left” as the Left in Europe). It’s a very troubling situation, because we really need two adult, rational political parties engaged in good-faith policy debate, and instead, as the antics in the current Congress demonstrate, we’re now at a point where actual governance seems impossible.

Reasonable people in both parties look at  the MAGA crazies in Congress and wonder how these people get elected. It’s a significant structural problem: Gerrymandering has moved the “real” election to the primaries in all but a very few Congressional districts—in safe districts, Republican incumbents move Right and Democratic ones move Left to protect against primary challenges, exacerbating the distance between Left and Right. It isn’t only gerrymandering; as the book “The Big Sort” demonstrated, Americans have been clustering–choosing to live in places where they’ll have like-minded neighbors—making cities Bluer and rural areas Redder, and diminishing the likelihood of regular intermingling with people who disagree with them.

Polarization is also promoted by propaganda outlets like Fox News, and by the collapse of local newspapers that reported on less ideological community issues.

We also can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people have lost touch with reality. Back in 2016, a Public Policy Polling survey found 12 million people in the US who believed that interstellar lizards in “people suits” rule our country. Around 66 million Americans believe  aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, and around 22 million believe that the government faked the moon landing. Then there are the various QAnon conspiracy theories, the people who believe Bill Gates put chips in Covid vaccines…it goes on and on.

Research tells us that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty trigger beliefs in conspiracies. People who feel powerless use those theories to regain a sense of control– to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless in the world they inhabit. Right now, thanks to the enormous gap between the rich and the rest of us, the increasing effects of climate change, and the speed of social and technological change, a lot of people are disoriented and fearful. They’re looking for explanations—and unfortunately, a lot of them are also looking for someone–some “other”or group of “others”– to blame.

We need to understand that these divisions aren’t about policy. They’ve become part of personal identity—for a certain subset of people, it’s all about who you are and who you and your group hate. And for too many of us other Americans, who aren’t all that polarized, politics has become just another kind of team sport—my guys versus your guys. Team loyalty.

I concluded by telling them “I hope your generation figures out how to bridge the gap my generation is leaving you, because I don’t have a clue.”

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I Was So Wrong…

As I cleanse my email feed every morning , deleting multiple frantic requests for just $2/$5/$20 or whatever, I’m reminded about my original, oh-so-naive belief that small-dollar fundraising would improve governance by removing the influence of big-dollar donors…

Silly me.

I was thrilled when Howard Dean first demonstrated that the internet could be employed to encourage small donations.  When Obama raised enormous sums in small increments, I  thought the days of depending on political fat cats was over–and since no candidate could be “bought” for these small contributions, I counted this as a win for democracy.

Let’s just say it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.

Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. Unfortunately, however, this approach to fundraising produces different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall consulted the research–and reported on the gloomy conclusions that the research supports.

Increasing the share of campaign pledges from modest donors has long been a goal of campaign-finance reformers, but it turns out that small donors hold far more ideologically extreme views than those of the average voter.

In their 2022 paper, “Small Campaign Donors,” four economists — Laurent Bouton, Julia Cagé, Edgard Dewitte and Vincent Pons — document the striking increase in low-dollar ($200 or less) campaign contributions in recent years. (Very recently, in part because Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and in part because Joe Biden has not been able to raise voter enthusiasm, low-dollar contributions have declined, although they remain a crucial source of cash for candidates.)

Bouton and his colleagues found that the total number of individual donations grew from 5.2 million in 2006 to 195.0 million in 2020. Over the same period, the average size of contributions fell from $292.10 to $59.70.

Edsall also quoted a 2019 article, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization.” That article warned about the consequences of increasing dependence on small donations, due to the fact that low-dollar donors tend to be “considerably more ideologically extreme than the average American.”

This is one of the most robust empirical findings in the campaign-finance literature, though it is not widely known. The ideological profile for individual donors is bimodal, with most donors clumped at the “very liberal” or “very conservative” poles and many fewer donors in the center, while the ideological profile of other Americans is not bimodal and features strong centrist representation.

It turns out that rising dependency on small-dollar donors has been one of the major reasons we’ve seen a decline in the strength of political parties–and the inability of party leaders, especially but not exclusively in the GOP, to control their respective crazies.

Political parties have been steadily losing the power to shape the election process to super PACs, independent expenditure organizations and individual donors. This shift has proved, in turn, to be a major factor in driving polarization, as the newly ascendant sources of campaign contributions push politicians to extremes on the left and on the right.

Edsall writes that Citizens United “was a crucial factor in shaping the ideological commitments of elected officials and their challengers.” It ushered in our era of independent expenditures and of dark money, leaching power that used to be exercised by the political parties.

The small donors who contribute to Trump are also those who fund the looney-tunes.

Edsall reports that Marjorie Taylor Greene raised $12,546,634, with 68.32 percent coming from small donors; Matt Gaetz raised $6,384,832, of which 62.24 percent came from small donors; and Jim Jordan raised $13,975,653, of which 58.05 percent came from small donors. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and AOC appealed most to small donors (although I would note that Sanders and AOC are both sane and hard-working legislators–something that  certainly can’t be said about Greene, Gaetz and Jordan.)

Donations of $200 or less made up 69 percent of the individual contributions to Trump’s campaign.

And speaking of Citizens United, in its wake, spending by ideological and single-issue independent expenditure organizations grew from $21.8 million in 2006 to $66 million in 2016. During that same time-period, spending by political parties fell from 24 percent of the total to 16.2 percent, and the influence of dark money grew significantly.

There’s much more in Edsall’s column, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. The bottom line is that we now have a system that incentivizes extremism. Social media and the Internet enable lunatics to self-finance; they don’t worry that Fortune 500 companies will stop giving them money, because 30 percent of the population wants insanity and is willing to fund the politicians who give it to them.

I have no clue what we do about this, but a more politically savvy Supreme Court would help….

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