Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump and the failure of incrementalism

Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are advancing an epochal tax bill "that could reshape major areas of American life," the New York Times reports:
Some see in this tilt a reworking of basic principles that have prevailed in American life for generations... 
“This is a repudiation of the social contract that Franklin Roosevelt announced at the New Deal,” Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, said...
This may seem like unusually apocalyptic prose for a news report, but we've heard a lot of this in the past year. The American Healthcare Act, Esquire warned in May, would "fundamentally reshape the American healthcare system" if passed; in June, Time Magazine explained that "the Paris Agreement represents a...decade of international discussions on climate change" and that Trump's withdrawal would "toss aside years of grinding work from the global community."

On front after front, the Trump Administration is teaching us the same lesson: in just a few moments, the right can completely nullify decades and decades of patient, pragmatic, hard-won incremental progress. This point is not really all that controversial: the night before her 2016 loss, Hillary Clinton warned that Trump would "rip away the progress we’ve made and turn the clock back, sending us back in time"; similarly, President Obama warned that Trump "in the first couple of weeks sitting in the Oval Office [could] reverse every single thing that we've done."

But contrast that warning with Obama's own words just a few weeks later during his farewell speech:
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion...
This theory of "forward motion" may be a truism among American liberals, but it's directly at odds with a point liberals will themselves admit in moments of insecurity: you can lose every inch of progress in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a sufficiently ambitious right or some unusually bad luck. More often progress can die the death of a thousand cuts, as one can see in the steady, deliberate erosion of the welfare state in the US; but occasionally you get a Donald Trump, and then the reversal becomes impossible to miss.


The theory of incrementalism, as far as I can tell, is that we should prefer the guarantee of slow-but-steady progress, which is achieved through modest ambitions, to the risks of immediate victory. What Trump is showing us, however, is that even if you win a short-term incremental victory, you can still end up with nothing in the end. You can engage in years of modest pragmatic compromise climate change diplomacy and find yourself right back where you started a decade later; you can pass "achievable" business-friendly health care legislation on the assumption that this will engineer some kind of universal coverage down the road, and then have it gutted as soon as the opposition takes power. If what we care about is progress, an incremental victory can easily leave you in the exact same place as you'd be if you'd taken a big political gamble and failed.

The only way the progress rationale for incrementalism survives is if you accept liberalism's mystical theory that for some reason (Providence? American exceptionalism? Wishful thinking?) progress never gets completely reversed or eroded away. Perhaps there are other reasons to prefer incrementalism as a political strategy, but if we take the threat of Donald Trump seriously, we should abandon this "forward motion" ideology once and for all.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Most liberals support violent sex offenders

YouGov has conducted some polling on American politicans embroiled in sex scandals, and the results are not particularly flattering for liberals.

An extraordinary 71% of self-identified liberals still approve of Bill Clinton, compared to 52% of moderates and 19% of conservatives. That majority is even stronger among Democrats (at 77%), especially compared to independents (37%). This despite the fact that 75% of liberals and 68% of Democrats believe that he "probably" or "definitely" committed sexual assault.

Similarly, Al Franken retains majority support among liberals (at 54%) and plurality support among Democrats (at 42%), compared with plurality opposition among independents and moderates. This, even though most liberals (66%) and Democrats (64%) believe that he's guilty of sexual harassment.

Two simple points:
1) Particularly over the past year, it has become popular to insist that only a trivial number of unusually vocal liberals are reactionary, while an overwhelming majority are quietly sympathetic to left politics. For example, this was the standard (tortured) reading of a poll a while back which demonstrated that only 8% of Democratic voters oppose Bernie Sanders. But what polls like this show us is that in fact significant majorities of Democrats are quite willing to take reactionary positions when it's politically convenient. 
2) A similar line of rationalization spares liberals from critique by bracketing off reactionary politics as a problem of so-called moderates and centrists - the toxin hasn't spread among liberals per se, just among an odd and distinct species of fence-sitters and No Labels enthusiasts. In fact, however, what we see here is that support for dangerous misogynists is actually stronger among liberals and Democrats than among independents and moderates.
In my view, all of this is pretty easy to understand once we accept that ideological and partisan labels often have more to do with tribal identity than with values and political committments. A third or so of all Americans grew up in liberal Democratic families, socialize in liberal Democratic communities, and live in liberal Democratic districts. Predictably, these people will tend to think of themselves as liberals and Democrats, and they will tend to cheer for causes and positions aligned with liberals and Democrats. This only implies so much, however, about their personal priorities, interests, and sympathies.

When Phil Ochs famously said that American liberals are "ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally", he was making this basic distinction between politics and cultural identity. As the response to Clinton and Franken is demonstrating, this is a distinction that the left would do well to bear in mind.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

What does Northam's win teach us about the Democratic coalition?

I'm inclined to say "not very much". Virginia's off-year governor races turn out a smaller and different constituency than what you see during other elections, which means that you can win with different coalitions. And as Clinton taught us, you can win Virginia and still lose the country. Still, I suppose that the demographic breakdowns are inevitable, so here's all you need to know:


These numbers indicate how much Virginia's Democratic coalition changed in each demographic as a percentage of voters between 2016 and 2017. To calculate them, I just determined Clinton's margin of victory (or defeat) against Trump in each demographic, and I subtracted those numbers from the corresponding figures in this election. I also adjusted for changes in turnout. This year, for example, Northam won a major demographic that Clinton lost in Virginia: voters making $50-100k a year. And this improvement is even more significant because this year a bigger slice of the pie made $50-100k: 33% of voters in 2017, versus 30% in 2016.

So if we just look at demographic shifts, the story is straightforward: Northam improved on Clinton's numbers with a coalition that was whiter, more middle class, and that had more men. (The rest of the margins are probably too small to mean very much.) Again, I don't think that this tells us much about what Democrats should do in future campaigns. But I do suspect that it will affirm what much of the party establishment is already thinking:


Northam himself flirted with this strategy with his anti-immigrant comments; moving forward, I expect more of the same.