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10/16/16

Clay Shirky opposes acts of political principle and conscience - except when they support Trump

A while back, Clay Shirky wrote a piece arguing that There's No Such Thing As A Protest Vote, where he rehearsed the familiar liberal argument that we should judge protest voting based on its practical outcomes - not on abstract principles or appeals to conscience:
People who believe in protest votes do so because they confuse sending a message with receiving one...But it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending...People who plan to throw away their vote on Option C usually argue that their imagined protest won’t be futile...[but] none of the proposed theories of change change anything...
Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people.
I've already taken on this odd theory that protest votes are inconsequential, but here I'd like to make a different point: Shirky isn't some kind of results-oriented pragmatist. Shirky does not actually ground his politics in the ruthless logic of the two-party binary choice. Shirky is not operating in some kind of post-ideological space outside of the dictates of principle and conscience. Shirky is an alt-centrist, and it's that ideology that brings him to do stuff like this:


Let's be clear: Shirky can rationalize giving the Trump campaign money by appealing to all kinds of principles. He can argue that he is "sending a message" to whoever attacked Trump's office. He can argue that helping out any campaign that was victimized by a violent attack is just "the right thing to do", and that we should listen to our conscience and follow his lead. If you happen to agree with Shirky's principles, or if you want to "send a message" for the sake of symbolism, or if your conscience is prevailing upon you to give your money to Trump, you might find these kinds of arguments persuasive.

What Shirky cannot do, however, is claim any kind of consequentialist high-ground over protest voters. By the accounting of most political scientists, Shirky's investment in the Trump campaign has certainly just bought him votes. The zero-sum logic of FPTP voting combined with the realities of campaign finance leave us no way around this conclusion. In fact, at this point, the self-identified Democrats who've donated $13,167 to the fund have now bought Trump anywhere between 75 and 2,633 votes. One can plead that this money is exclusively to be spent on the rebuilding effort, but obviously this is just an accounting designation, and any money that gets donated to the rebuilding fund is money that won't come from Trump or the NC GOP.

By any electoral calculus, the material support these Democrats have just given Trump far outweighs the marginal impact your typical protest voter will have by (say) supporting Stein on social media or voting for her next month. But the odds that they will receive even a fraction of the criticism that protest voters have endured are approximately zero.

10/15/16

Why do Trump voters say they support Trump?

Dylan Matthews, in a new piece for Vox, is back to rejecting "the idea that [Trump] voters are motivated by economic struggles". This time around, he has a new argument:
Taking Trump voters' concerns seriously means listening to what they're actually saying...describing these people as motivated by racial resentment...[is] supported by extensive amounts of social scientific research and indeed by the statements of Trump's supporters themselves. 
This, of course, is supposed to cleverly turn on its head the notion that we're being empathetic when we acknowledge that economic anxiety may play a role in motivating Trump voters. Which might seem like a nuance that avoids completely demonizing them - but in fact, Matthews argues, such explanations are "insulting" because they don't take "the stated concerns of Trump voters...seriously in the slightest." In fact, if we take Trump voters seriously, we should dismiss these personal theories of motivation and take them at their word when they say they're motivated by racism.

Fair enough. But if Matthews wants to lean on deference to other perspectives, why does he then invoke "social scientific research" in addition to "the statements of Trump's supporters themselves"?

These two things are not the same! Almost exclusively, however, Matthews relies on a collection of studies that statistically correlate support for Trump with various indicators of racism, and on his inference about the "message this research sends". It's true that those indicators are usually self-reported racism - people making statements like "if black people would only try harder they could be just as well off as white people", for example. But from this evidence, researchers are concluding that one thing motivates the other, and pundits are concluding that one exclusively motivates the other. These may be defensible conclusions about the evidence, but they are not, as Matthews suggests, the conclusions of the respondents themselves.

That distinction is crucial, because Matthews is not making an argument about rigor, but about deference. He wants to cast people who see an economic role in support for Trump as ideologues who are even ignoring the explanations that Trump voters give for their own politics - that way, he gets to turn around the empathy argument so often wielded against liberals who are accused of ignoring economic hardship.

But to pull off that move, you would have to rely on what Trump voters are explicitly saying about their own motivations. And that point is fairly clear: when asked "why they support their candidate", 76% of Trump voters credit his "views on the economy", while only 28% credit his "views on race relations". The single tweet Matthews offers as evidence that "it's not about economics" doesn't somehow overthrow these results.

Personally, I think it's pretty ridiculous to defer to the theories Trump voters give about their own motivations. For example, when only 28% say they're motivated by his views on race, I suspect that the long-understood problem of social desirability bias is coming into play and that a lot of them are being dishonest. I also suspect that when 78% credit Trump's "views on terrorism" for their support, what they actually mean are his views on Muslims and other minorities, meaning that the role of racism is actually much higher than 28% suggests. Additionally, I also suspect that Trump supporters are unlikely to even realize when they're motivated by implicit racism, even though that almost certainly plays a huge role in their politics. These are all good reasons why we should not "take the stated concerns of Trump voters...seriously" in the sense of allowing them to discredit a more sophisticated analysis.

But of course, when we pursue a more sophisticated analysis, we often get more sophisticated conclusions. Thus for example, in the same Gallup study that Matthews thinks "confirms" his analysis, the author explicitly affirms the role of economic factors in Trumpism: the evidence, he writes, indicates "support for the idea that Trump supporters are less prosperous than others" and he goes on to speculate that "material circumstances caused by economic shocks...are the true underlying causes."

Acknowledging a role for economics in the Trump candidacy does not, of course, preclude a role for racism as well - and as Jeff Spross points out, that was never the left argument to begin with. Regardless, Trump voters are obviously not telling us to rule out economic motivations, and even if they did, it would be ridiculous to defer to their analysis.

10/15/16

Perhaps Trump is a good opportunity to rethink presidential democracy

Most liberal-left discussion of Donald Trump's candidacy has focused, at least implicitly, on keeping him (and similar candidates) out of the White House. Predictably, that goal usually dictates the standard two-pronged agenda of American activism. On one hand, we are enjoined to remedy the various socioeconomic pathologies (economic anxiety, white ethno-nationalism, and so on) that created Trump's constituency in the first place; on the other hand, we have to fight him for the presidency itself.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that this framing of the liberal-left agenda is so popular in an election year - it neatly advances the theory that we need to elect a progressive president, one who can both keep Trump out of office and fight the socioeconomic conditions that led to his candidacy. Every one of his electoral opponents, of course, is necessarily making this sort of argument, and the media will predictably let the way politicians talk about politics dictate their coverage.

There is, however, an alternative that neither the Clinton nor Stein campaigns are likely to ever bring up: we get rid of the presidency altogether.

Yet that's precisely the solution that came to mind this morning when I re-read Juan Linz's The Perils of Presidentialism, available in full here. In that classic essay, Linz weighs the advantages and disadvantages of presidential against parliamentary democracy, and concludes that "the odds that presidentialism will help preserve democracy are far less favorable."

What is truly striking is how closely Linz's nightmare scenarios for democracy correspond with the dangers posed by candidates like Trump. He notes, for example, the
risk that [the president] will tend to conflate his supporters with "the people" as a whole...[this may] bring on a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the mandate that even a majority - to say nothing of a mere plurality - can claim as democratic justification for the enactment of its agenda. The doleful potential for displays of cold indifference, disrespect, or even downright hostility toward the opposition is not to be scanted...
This risk is fostered by the very nature of the presidency - thus, we even see it realized in candidates like Clinton, whose partisans routinely invoke the rhetoric of democratic consensus while marginalizing the opposition's agenda as (to quote Linz) "the selfish design of narrow interests". That move has some particularly ominous precedents when the Clinton campaign starts leaning heavily on nationalistic paranoia about meddling foreign agents.

If that dynamic is detectable in Clinton's campaign, however, it's ramped up to eleven in Trump's, which is built entirely on contrasting the will of "real Americans" with the sinister machinations of all kinds of out-groups (Muslims, terrorists, immigrants, Jews, and so on). And dangerously, the mandate of "Real America", in the eyes of the Trump right, is their license for a draconian eliminationist politics, which includes everything from religious tests at the border to assaulting political protesters.

These essentially fascist currents in American politics are in no small part driven by the battle over the presidency, which many people see as their only vehicle for exercising political agency. As Linz continues,
...a president bids fair to become the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor. They are prone to think that he has more power than he really has or should have and may sometimes be politically mobilized against any adversaries who bar his way. The interaction between a popular president and the crowd acclaiming him can generate fear among his opponents and a tense political climate.
Again, this cuts both ways. The 2016 election has clearly become the locus of intense anxiety for millions of Americans, who see the whole of their political fates bound up in a single decision. It may be Clinton's politics that causes the right to fear gun confiscation, Sharia law, high taxes, and so on - but it is the expansive power of the presidency that makes them fear that she might actually be able to do all of this, and that incites them to express intense, boundless fear and paranoia as radical enthusiasm for Trump. Meanwhile, that same enormous power seduces Trump supporters into seeing him as the silver bullet for all of their problems, and cultivates intense frustration and disappointment when he encounters obstacles to victory.

These incentives aren't unique to Trump supporters - partisans for Clinton are driven by many of the same anxieties. Suffice to say that this is not how you have to arrange your democracy. In a parliamentary democracy, political struggle is diffused into a larger number of electoral decisions, which has the paradoxical effect of lowering the stakes and diluting the toxin of social conflict.

Obviously, while a presidential system may amplify democratic discord and express it in fundamentally dangerous ways, the presidency isn't the exclusive source of conflict in the United States. The familiar problems of poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and so on are all contributing to polarization and the rise of extremism in the United States. But this isn't a counterpoint to Linz's argument - in fact, it simply affirms it. Repeatedly, the author points to the United States as the major exception to the historical rule of instability and dysfunction in presidential democracies. But there is, Linz argues, a reason why the US has been able to make it work:
the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties - which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties - has something to do with it... In countries where the preponderance of voters is centrist, agrees on the exclusion of extremists, and expects both rightist and leftist candidates to differ only within a larger, moderate consensus, the divisiveness latent in presidential competition is not a serious problem. 
In other words, the rise of Trump likely bodes the end of the presidential system, one way or another. Either we replace it with a more democratic parliamentary system, or we watch political polarization turn the presidency into an increasingly undemocratic institution incapable of mediating social conflict. For obvious reasons, if we prefer the former outcome, we probably ought not rely on presidential candidates to fight for it.

10/12/16

How do gender *and* age shape the electoral college?

Yesterday, Nate Silver posted a widely-disseminated article aspiring to show how the 2016 election would play out if only men or women voted. Predictably, the election swings deep blue when only women vote, and bright red when only men vote. Out of curiosity, I used Reuter's new States of the Nation tool to take a quick look at this year's age gap, and while the results were similarly predictable, this approach encounters three significant problems. First, the tool only allows one to drill down to the 18-30 year old bracket, which excludes Millennials ages 31-34. Second, a lot of the sample sizes are too small to produce reliable data, which means that even states like South Carolina (with 9 electoral votes) can't be called. And third, 538 used a completely different methodology to produce its maps:
Here’s a quick way to estimate it. In the polls I cited above, Clinton is doing 10 points better among women than among the electorate overall. So we’ll add 10 points to her current polls-only margin in every state to forecast her performance if women were the only ones who could vote.
This is a pretty fast-and-loose approach that I don't have much confidence in, but it at least makes it easy to make some apples-to-apples comparisons. So relying on the 538 approach, here's what the election looks like if only Millennials voted:




In a youth election, Trump is held to single digit electoral votes, and Clinton wins every state except two: Wyoming, and Nebraska's third district. Compare this to what happens if no Millennials vote:


Here, Clinton still manages a win, but Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, and Maine's second district all swing into Trump's column. More likely, this could threaten Democratic hopes of capturing the Senate by allowing Republicans to keep control of seats in Indiana and Wisconsin - both states Democrats hope to flip.

The conclusions here are pretty straightforward:
  • In the electoral college, at least, the gender gap is bigger than the age gap: there is a 270 vote swing from men to women, compared to a 213 vote swing from olds to millennials.
  • These gaps create significantly different outcomes, however, because they're centered at different points: women are more reactionary than millennials, and men are more reactionary than olds.
These points raise an interesting intersectional question: how do age and gender combine to influence electoral outcomes? To answer this, the first thing we need to do is break down the vote margins for every combination of old and young men and women, which gives us a table like this:


Already, it should be completely obvious that age ends up playing a far more important role in predicting preference than gender. Trump has a slight advantage among old men, and because of the sheer number of olds voting, it's easy to look at the electoral college and conclude that this pattern holds for all age groups. But in fact, not only does this pattern not hold among millennials - it actually reverses, so that Clinton has an 8.4 point advantage among millennial men compared to millennial women. Even among millennial women, however, Clinton's advantage is astronomically larger than it is among old women, who actually do .2 points worse than the national average.

If we look at how these differences would play out in the electoral college, it's clear where Trump's support comes from and where Clinton's support comes from. Among older women, Clinton would actually lose an electoral vote in Maine's second district. And among young men, Clinton wins every electoral vote except one, in Nebraska's third district. It's youth that most powerfully predicts support for Clinton, with gender proving unreliable at best.

10/8/16

Trump's tape vindicates the left-feminist critique of liberalism

Donald Trump's [latest] inflammatory remarks, just publicized from a 2005 recording, have sparked an extraordinary and much-deserved political backlash - even within his own party. A lot of the outrage has simply been directed at the "extremely lewd" character of his remarks, as when he calls a woman "a bitch" and ridicules her "phony tits"; some critics have been most offended by the "vile degradation" of "hitting on married women"; others have criticized his "boasts about sexual assaults".

One aspect of Trump's comments that has been largely overlooked, however, is his explicit admission of the way that power licenses his odious behavior:
When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything...grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.
The few responses to this have been telling. When Joe Biden decries such behavior as "an abuse of power", he isn't actually criticizing the power that lets people like Trump "do anything" - he's simply condemning its "abuse". And within capitalism, Kash CEO Kaz Nejatian insists, this is the approach we must take:


This is a decisively liberal feminism: one that takes hierarchies of power for granted. Within liberal feminism, the opportunity to abuse power must be defended, and even the opportunity to abuse women; if your "freedom" to acquire ungovernable economic power puts women at risk, so be it. Liberal feminism allows us to do things like "condemn" patriarchy, and shame it - but any collective action that actually mobilizes the arm of the state is prohibited, as this would be an imposition on "freedom". Contrast this to this second approach, proposed by Matt Karp:


Unlike Biden and Nejatian, Karp is actually prioritizing the danger posed by Trump. For obvious reasons, the VP and CEO are both first and foremost interested in preserving hierarchy, and only within that framework are they willing to consider the safety of women. But when Trump says that it is power that allows him to "do anything", Karp takes this seriously, and concludes that people should not have the kind of power Trump has if it puts women at risk. If this is a problem for capitalism or an imposition on the freedom of men to "abuse power", so be it.

Obviously, as Karp's own formulation suggests, the "extinction of the billionaire class" alone can't solve the problem of patriarchy; things like shaming have a role to play, too. But a feminism that exclusively relies on the latter because it prioritizes the preservation of billionaires over the preservation of women hardly deserves the name feminism; it's just capitalism with a "feminist" brand.

10/6/16

Harold Myerson thinks we have a white racist millennial Clinton-defector problem. He's wrong.

I anticipated this in my previous article, but since Harold Myerson is making the argument directly, I'd like to shoot it down directly:
Hillary Clinton is still having trouble winning the allegiance of the young...an apt description of the millennials holding out for the third-party candidates: They’re all white...a hard core of young, white Bernie-or-Busters may yet believe that voting for Stein, or even Johnson, is an expression of their disdain for the system.
As noted, Clinton is not actually having trouble winning the allegiance of millennials - she's winning about 53% of them, compared with a minority of 38.9% among olds. Meanwhile, a plurality 39.3% of olds are voting for Trump, compared to just 24.7% of millennials. Clinton does not have a millennial problem - she has an old people problem, and a millennial solution. Analytically breaking down these age groups into conveniently gerrymandered sub-demographics (white millennials! third-party defector millennials! white third party defector millennials!) does nothing to contest the broader, obvious age trend; it just makes one's analysis increasingly narrow, and increasingly irrelevant.

Faced with these brute numbers, Myerson now only has one possible move: to compare today's young voters with those from 2012. But if we do that, the second premise of his argument collapses: Myerson wants to blame "white skin privilege" for the failure to support Clinton, but if the last election is our baseline, it's young people of color who are running from the Democratic party. He can, that is to say, only salvage his critique of millennials by abandoning his critique of white people, and vice versa.

A second problem with Myerson's race critique is that he repeatedly tries to make it into a specific critique of leftists. He opens with an anecdote about Stein and Sanders supporters; he quotes an organizer who singles out Sanders supporters; and he closes by once again brooding about the notorious "Bernie-or-Busters".

But to do this, he has to play fast-and-loose with the numbers, and in a way that strikes me as pretty deliberate. Consider, for example, the crux of his argument, which the article even highlights in a pull-quote:
Presumably, this 2% discrepancy demonstrates some kind of white privilege among leftist voters. That's why it's interesting that he omits a directly relevant fact: the same poll reports that Stein is also at 4% among Latinx and Asian Americans. An even more interesting point is that he includes those same numbers when he reports on Gary Johnson, who has the backing of "15 percent of whites...but just 8 percent of Latinos, 6 percent of Asian Americans, and 4 percent of African Americans." Comparatively, it seems clear that white supremacy is far and away the province of young libertarian voters, and that there is no detectable third-party voting trend that's unique to young white leftists; it also looks a lot like Myerson erased Stein's support among Asians and Latinxs precisely to obscure this point.


Finally, it's worth putting the millennial attrition issue into perspective. When Myerson notes that Stein and Johnson have 4% and 11% of the millennial vote, one's tempted to conclude that this amounts to 15% of the youth vote for Clinton. But in fact, as YouGov reports, only 35% of third party voters under 30 say that they prefer Clinton to Trump - meaning that she's really only losing about 5% of the youth vote to third parties. And since there's no significant evidence that this 5% is disproportionately white, it's hard to escape the impression that Myerson is accusing young leftists of racism for no good reason, while ignoring support for Trump in how own generation that's larger by several orders of magnitude.

10/6/16

The blame-the-kids two-step

In just the past few weeks, The Hill, The Observer, Salon, Paste, Fox News, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Bloomberg, and Vox have run articles referencing "Clinton's millennial problem" - and that's leaving out the endless parade of television and social media pundits saying the exact same thing. From, this, one might suspect that there is some kind of specific and known challenge that Clinton faces among millennials - and usually, the conclusion is that it is up to millennials to fix it.

But look closer, and you'll actually notice that the anti-millennial grievance has switched between two lines of criticism, each equally baseless in their own way.

Argument 1


Here, in argument (1), millennial support for Clinton is inadequate compared to other age groups. Specifically, olds like to point to the comparatively high youth support for third-party candidates in order to suggest that support for Clinton comparatively low. This of course is demonstrably incorrect on multiple grounds. Voters under 30 give Clinton her second highest margin of all age groups, and millennials (when we bracket generations correctly) give her a margin greater than every other age group combined. And while millennials may vote for third parties in high numbers, most of that attrition is coming from Trump's camp, not Clinton's. For instance, among supporters of Gary Johnson, every other age group has a significantly higher attrition rate from Clinton's camp than millennials do.

Thus, argument 1 fails completely: millennials are voting in higher numbers for Clinton than anyone else, and defecting from her far less. 


Argument 2

That's why, particularly in the past week or so, we've seen a slightly different complaint:


In argument 2, millennial support for Clinton is inadequate compared to their support for Obama. The premise here is that we should expect age groups to give Democrats a certain level of support based on the last election, and that their failure can be measured by how much that support declines.

It should probably be enough to say that pointing to the last election really just defers the question: instead of asking "are millennials underperforming," we're now asking "did millennials overperform last time?" But instead of leaning too hard on that, I'd like to make a distinct point:

18-30 year old voters

Clearly, if failure is simply measured by decline, then young African Americans are failing liberals more than anyone, followed by Asian Americans and then Latino/as. Any shift among support among young white voters, meanwhile, is so small that it's barely outside the margin of error (as is any current difference between young whites and older whites). So you cannot, that is to say, talk about the decline in youth support for Democrats without laying almost exclusive blame on young voters of color. Somehow, I doubt that Clinton's (largely white) media surrogates will have the audacity to rally behind that complaint.


What if Clinton does not actually have a millennial problem

Often when a grievance has to rely on multiple, shifting lines of critique, we can take this as a good indication that the arguments are just being backfilled to support the complaint. This is particularly true when the criticism turns out to be unusually baseless and flimsy; when this happens, it often makes sense to start looking for motivation. One egregiously incorrect data mistake is understandable - two are suspicious, and beg for an explanation.

Here, I think the explanation is pretty simple. Clinton's lead over Trump has tightened over the past month, to the point of occasionally disappearing altogether. This is making Clinton supporters nervous, and naturally they are looking for someone to blame. And because olds are significantly overrepresented on the editorial boards and in the opinion columns of elite media, this anxiety will predictably express itself as an inclination towards blaming young people. The persistence of this grievance says almost nothing about the actual numbers - past or present - but it says a lot about the ageism in our media.