Tag Archives: voters

How Much Do You Care?

In politics, it all comes down to salience. 

We often hear about survey research confirming that most Americans believe X or Y (usually, a relatively liberal policy), and then wonder why we can’t get lawmakers to pass X or Y. The usual cynical answer is money–the folks bankrolling the lawmakers–and there is certainly truth to that.

But the most accurate explanation is salience–or more accurately, the lack thereof. How much do the people expressing their approval of policy X or Y actually care about the issue?

I first realized the importance of the answer to that question several years ago, when a commission co-chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Shepard and former Indiana Governor Kernan concluded that Indiana needed to dispense with the 1008 township offices that had once had multiple duties, but for many years had mainly dispensed poor relief and maintained pauper cemeteries. (California, to the best of my recollection, had 59 townships at the time, reinforcing the argument that Indiana’s 1008 were excessive.) The commission noted that, to the extent that township duties still needed to be performed, the counties could easily take over those responsibilities.

Indiana’s townships were created when the ride to the county seat took half a day by horseback. The townships’ poor relief function preceded creation of federal welfare programs; not only was the need for local relief far less, several research projects showed that it cost taxpayers 1.50+ for every dollar of poor relief the townships were dispensing.

In addition, the Commission’s report noted that every one of those townships was paying a salary to the township trustee and a stipend to the five members of a township board. The League of Women Voters published a study showing that a number of Trustees paid rent on offices that were located in their own garages or other accessory buildings, and a number hired and paid family members as office personnel.

It all added up to a big waste of tax dollars, and the Indiana Chamber fielded a survey that found some 80% of Hoosier voters in favor of the change. The problem was, those voters really didn’t care very much. Reforming political subdivisions was way down on their list of pressing concerns. 

I bet you can guess who did care–the township trustees, and members of those township boards. They cared a lot, and they descended on the legislature in droves. Indiana still has 1008 townships.

So we come to the moral of my story. 

 A clear majority of American voters tell survey researchers that they want to protect abortion rights– at least to some extent. An even larger majority wants meaningful gun control and are unlikely to consider the current possible  “bipartisan agreement” sufficiently meaningful. Although we don’t have research on the number of voters appalled by what we are learning from the hearings being held by the January 6th Committee, it is likely to be a large number–even larger than the millions of votes cast for Joe Biden in 2020–and we can assume that those voters care about preserving American democracy and punishing the bad guys who tried to overturn it.

However, the critical question is: how much do they care? 

The midterms are coming up. Will the millions of Americans who don’t usually bother to cast a ballot go to the polls and send a clear and convincing message to lawmakers? Are these issues salient enough to enough Americans  to get them off their couches? Because if the GOP takes over the House or Senate or both, we can kiss goodby to both American democracy and accountability under the rule of law, let alone any glimmer of hope for imposing ethical standards on the Supreme Court, or curtailing the sale of weapons of war to teenagers.

If history is any guide, I’m not optimistic…..

 

Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.

 

Making A List…

There are no perfect candidates. We all have to overlook various aspects of would-be Democratic nominees–issues where we differ, behaviors we consider problematic, experience we consider questionable or insufficient, doubts about ability to win. But just for fun–and for the (unlikely) edification of the occasional Trumpers who visit here–I have begun making a list of the things that a voter will have to overlook in order to cast a ballot for Donald J. Trump.

I’m not the only one “making a list and checking it twice.” A couple of months before the midterm elections, McSweeneys published “Lest We Forget the Horrors: A Catalog of Trump’s Worst Cruelties, Collusions, Corruptions and Crimes.” Politico has published “138 Things Trump Did While We Weren’t Looking” and other publications have weighed in with their own compendiums.

My own list doesn’t even include the Trump voter’s need to overlook the constant lying, the  pussy-grabbing and multiple accusations of rape/sexual assault, the five kids from three wives, the clear signs of mental illness, and the other personal behaviors that used to be considered inconsistent with authentic Christianity. We know his base doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about any of that. Nor do they care that he’s dumb, can’t spell, has the vocabulary of a third-grader and the geography knowledge of a kindergartener.

Presumably, they also don’t care about the widely documented chaos at the White House–unprecedented turnover, backstabbing and leaks, the (also unprecedented) number of unfilled jobs and jobs filled by “acting” appointees (mostly former lobbyists) who don’t need–and couldn’t get–Senate confirmation even from the spineless Republicans terrified of Trump’s immature rages.

You would think they might care about the fact that the administration has engaged in an unremitting assault on the rule of law. (The most recent episode, in which the President and Bill Barr meddled with the sentencing of Roger Stone, demonstrated that they no longer even feel the need to hide that assault.) Their leniency for corrupt cronies contrasts with their criminalization of humanitarianism–threats to sanctuary cities and prosecutions of people leaving food and water for desperate people trying to cross the border.

You might think they’d care about the decision to forego ABA vetting of judicial nominees–a clear sign that the people Trump is elevating to the federal bench aren’t just ideologues, but also embarrassingly unqualified.

You might think they’d care about deep cuts to the CDC, including cuts to research that would combat pandemics like the one we are dealing with now.

You would hope at least some of them would be appalled at the number of environmental regulations that have been eliminated or eviscerated (that old Tom Lehrer joke about America being a country where you can’t drink the water and can’t breathe the air no longer sounds so funny and old-fashioned).

Evidently no one in Trump’s base enjoys America’s National Parks, or appreciates the public lands we used to protect, since they are willing to overlook the underfunding of park maintenance and the encouragement of drilling and mining on once-protected national monuments.

Trump’s base also must be willing to overlook America’s withdrawal from our international obligations–the petty nastiness shown to our most important allies, the sucking-up to the world’s worst demagogues, and the betrayal of weaker allies like the Kurds, who trusted us. (I guess the fact that America’s President is a laughingstock around the world doesn’t bother them, either.)

Tariffs? The base has to overlook the extra costs burdening American consumers; overlook the spike in farm bankruptcies (despite the fact that taxpayers have paid farmers billions to offset the harm done by those tariffs–much more than the auto industry got during the Great Recession); overlook the fact that the “old” GOP was right to oppose tariffs and trade wars because they inevitably hurt us much more than they hurt the other guy…

So much for overlooking. I’ve reluctantly concluded that Trump’s base actually approves of policies most reasonable people find mean-spirited and/or appalling: enriching the already rich and screwing over the poor, cutting Social Security and Medicare, trying to destroy Obamacare, spending billions on an utterly ridiculous border wall that won’t deter illegal immigration…and especially, keeping brown people out of the country even if it involves caging their brown children.

The fact that Trump and his collection of idiots and gangsters reject science and evidence is actually a plus with the base–Trump’s supporters hate “elitists” (i.e., experts and people who actually know what they are doing) with a passion.

And what about the devotion and endorsement of white nationalist groups, the KKK and Neo-Nazis? That’s a plus too. That’s evidence that he “tells it like it is,” that he recognizes the superiority of straight, white, “Christian” males, and is working to make America “great again”– for them. 

Well, “working” is probably a misnomer…..but they overlook the “executive time” (when we pay him to watch TV) and the excessive amount of golf, too.

 

When Politics Becomes A Culture War

I have my favorites among the columnists who write for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and I’ll admit that Tom Friedman has never been one of them. It isn’t that I disagree with him any more frequently than I disagree with others; he simply tends to address issues with which I’m less engaged, and to do so in a hectoring manner I find annoying.

I do think, however, that he hit this one “out of the park” as the saying goes.

The column was titled “A President With No Shame and a Party With No Guts,” which gives you a pretty good hint about the subject matter.

If your puppy makes a mess on your carpet and you shout “Bad dog,” there is a good chance that that puppy’s ears will droop, his head will bow and he may even whimper. In other words, even a puppy acts ashamed when caught misbehaving. That is not true of Donald Trump. Day in and day out, he proves to us that he has no shame. We’ve never had a president with no shame — and it’s become a huge source of power for him and trouble for us.

And what makes Trump even more powerful and problematic is that this president with no shame is combined with a party with no spine and a major network with no integrity — save for a few real journalists at Fox News like the outstanding Chris Wallace.

When a president with no shame is backed by a party with no spine and a network with no integrity, you have two big problems.

Those three paragraphs go a long way toward summing up where Americans find ourselves these days. But the observation that really struck me was this one:

The G.O.P. has lost its way because it has been selling itself for years to whoever could keep it in power, and that is now Trump and his base. And Trump’s base actually hates the people who hate Trump — i.e., liberals who they think look down on members of the base — more than it cares about Trump. This is about culture, not politics, and culture doesn’t change with the news cycle. And neither do business models — and Fox News’s business model is to feed, and feed off of, that culture war by allowing many of its commentators to be Trump’s parrots and bullhorns.

This, it seems to me, is the real problem, and it may be intractable.

Ever since the stunning result of the 2016 Presidential election, I have tried–and miserably failed–to understand how any sentient being could have voted for Donald Trump, a man so obviously unfit for office (not to mention polite society) that people who knew anything at all about government and/or business considered his candidacy a joke.

This is a man who makes polite people cringe and kind people recoil. If someone like Trump tried to strike up a conversation at a bar, most of us would change seats. He’s like the ignorant, self-absorbed uncle you don’t invite for Thanksgiving, because you don’t want your children to think his “all about me” behavior is acceptable.

I understand that hatred for Hillary Clinton (nurtured by misogynists for years) may have motivated some voters to cast that vote–but how do you explain the 30% of Americans who still support him? Fox News can spin–or ignore–the news, but you would expect anyone reading his misspelled tweets or listening to his delusional “word salad” speeches to be appalled.

I think Friedman answers that question when he writes that “Trump’s base actually hates the people who hate Trump — i.e., liberals who they think look down on members of the base — more than it cares about Trump. This is about culture, not politics.”

If he is correct–if Trump’s support comes from people who hold deep animus toward those they dismiss as “elitist” and “cosmopolitan” and who are more interested in “sticking it” to people they believe fall into those groups than in good or even adequate government– they aren’t going to change. They aren’t going to wake up one morning and say “gee, maybe sticking it to those snobs isn’t worth doing irreparable damage to the country and the planet.” They are lost to reason.

If Friedman is right–if this is culture war– efforts to right the ship of state need to be focused on the 49% of eligible voters who didn’t bother to cast a ballot in 2016.  I can only hope that Trump has been their wake-up call.

Voting One’s Interests

Fareed Zakaria is a savvy observer of both domestic governance and international relations, and he makes a very good point in a recent Washington Post column.

It has become a (tiresome) truism that many Americans “vote against their own interests.” This assertion has always annoyed me, because it embodies a couple of arrogant assumptions: first, that the speaker/writer knows better than those voters where their “true” interests lie; and second, that voters’ interests are limited to economic issues.

Zakaria uses the negative financial consequences of the GOP’s tax “reform” bill for Trump voters to make his point:

Congress’s own think tanks — the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office — calculate that in 10 years, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 (around the median income in the United States) would effectively pay a whopping $4 billion more in taxes, while people making $1 million or more would pay $5.8 billion less under the Senate bill. And that doesn’t take into account the massive cuts in services, health care and other benefits that would likely result. Martin Wolf, the sober and fact-based chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, concludes, “This is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the U.S. income distribution toward the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority.”

The puzzle, Wolf says, is why this is a politically successful strategy. The Republican Party is pursuing an economic agenda for the 0.1 percent, but it needs to win the votes of the majority.

Cue the chorus: why would the people in Trump’s base continue to support him, when his actions (in concert with his party’s) are inimical to their interests? Wouldn’t they desert him if they realized that he is pursuing an agenda that privileges large corporations, wealthy families, and well-positioned rent-seekers? When will they come to their senses and see that Trump and the Congressional GOP are putting in place budgetary policies that will be devastating to the predominantly rural people who voted for him?

Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. “The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger,” writes Wolf.

I fully agree with Zakaria’s rebuttal to that analysis.

But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump’s base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, retweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do. In fact, Trump’s populism might not be as unique as it’s made out to be. Polling from Europe suggests that the core issues motivating people to support Brexit or the far-right parties in France and Germany, and even the populist parties of Eastern Europe, are cultural and social.

This is a much more tactful way to explain what the data shows, and what I have repeatedly argued: the majority of Trump’s supporters are White Nationalists (aka bigots), for whom the indignity of Obama’s eight years as President was simply a bridge too far. The real “interests” of these voters aren’t economic; they’re tribal. They are desperately clinging to the white privilege that is diminishing in a rapidly diversifying society. That desperation overpowers any other “interest.”

As Zakaria writes,

 What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?

So long as they see Trump normalizing and justifying racism and misogyny, these voters aren’t going anywhere. Polls suggest that they represent around 30% of Americans voters, a depressingly high number.

Getting that other 70% to the polls has never been more important.