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2/14/17

No, centrists did not have credible suspicions about Flynn

As credible evidence of untoward dealings between the Kremlin and White House national security adviser Michael Flynn continue to emerge, centrist Clinton supporters are predictably running a victory lap:

One minor detail with the article Krugman links to, however: it doesn't actually mention Flynn. Much less his contact with the Russian government, the potential for blackmail, and his lies to Trump about all of this. Just read it - it's a short post. There is absolutely nothing there that indicates any specific foresight about this scandal. Instead, Krugman states three grounds for concern:
1. "indications that Mr. Trump would, in office, actually follow a pro-Putin foreign policy"
2. "Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's campaign manager, has worked for...a Putin ally"
3. "Trump...has substantial if murky involvement with wealthy Russians and Russian businesses"
That's it! And all three of these are easily addressed. The first point, Masha Gessen observed, was entirely redundant:
Trump’s foreign policy statements are perfectly consistent with his character and thinking...the idea that Putin is somehow making or even encouraging him to say these things is a work-around for the inability to imagine that the Republican Party’s nominee is saying them of his own accord.
As for the second point, it neither implies anything about Flynn nor even demonstrates evidence of significant foresight. News about Manafort's Russia ties had broken just that week, and within a month he resigned; as far as I can tell there was never any denial that this was a significant scandal. But neither did that scandal give us any information about Flynn.

Nor, of course, does Krugman's third point. Trump's substantial conflicts of interest around the world were always well known, but this of course does not particularly distinguish him from Clinton, and again, it does not tell us anything about Flynn. By the way, here's all we actually knew about Flynn last summer:
Flynn has advocated for closer ties to Russia, and questions have been raised about his participation as a guest on RT, also known as Russia Today, the Kremlin-funded English-language news outlet. Last year, he was pictured at gala feting RT, seated at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is why Krugman, in an article that supposedly demonstrates how "obvious...this scandal" already was, could only offer the vague horoscopic conclusion of "something very strange and disturbing going on here". And that's why those of us not engaged in frantic wishful thinking were willing to suspend judgement: as I wrote at the time,
As a matter of simple journalism and scholarship, none of the people peddling these attacks are doing the absic work of making their case...They don't rely on the minimal standards of substantiation and argumentation that you would expect of claims as extraordinary as "Donald Trump is [a] Russian agent"...
Of course, it was (and remains) entirely possible that Trump is compromised; there is no reason to put this past him or Putin. But the default assumption here is not conspiracy, and in the absence of hard evidence it has always made sense to be skeptical of these kinds of claims.

2/10/17

Yet another look at the preferences of the 2016 black electorate

I came up this evening with another way of breaking down the 2016 black electorate:


This chart does a few things that you don't usually see:

  • It distinguishes between Clintonites - general election Clinton voters who also supported her in the primaries - and Democrats - general election Clinton voters who didn't support her in the primaries. I based this proportion on typical Yougov / Economist polling, which gave Clinton about 68% of black primary voters.
  • As always, I account for non-voters. This was just a matter of subtracting all black voters from the eligible voting black population as given by Census data.
  • Finally, I made a basic attempt in this chart to account for disenfranchised black voters (D) - about 1 out of every 13 eligible black voters. I did this with the assumption that the disenfranchised populace would vote in similar proportions to the enfranchised populace, EG if half of the enfranchised stayed at home I assume that around half of the disenfranchised voters would stay at home too. This isn't an entirely reliable assumption, but we don't have any data that's more specific and it's better to at least make some minimal attempt to account for their preferences.
The big takeaway here touches on a point I made earlier today: the more you dig into the preferences of black voters, the weaker their support for Clinton actually appears. As far as I can tell, the number of black voters in the general election who supported Clinton and might not have voted for anyone else barely cracks the 30% mark. That even includes black voters who wanted to vote for her but couldn't because they were disenfranchised. The rest of all voters either preferred to stay at home, support Trump, or support a third party or independent candidate.

2/9/17

Some charts on generation warfare

I've written quite a bit about how age and generational conflicts are playing an increasingly important role in American politics - but it occurs to me that I've never actually spelled out how this is happening. So I've put together some charts.*

First, it's worth revisiting a few polls that reveal age inflections in our political polarization:


On basically every major political question you can name, young voters are more progressive than older voters. Young voters overwhelmingly prefer Sanders to Clinton, Clinton to Trump, and Socialism to Capitalism; older voters hold the exact opposite views.

This already is a recipe for generational conflict - but on top of polarized political preferences, we are also seeing massive changes in the sizes of different generational cohorts:


By 2040 Boomers will no longer be the largest generation, and by 2046 Millennials will have assumed that role for the foreseeable future. By 2053 there will be two Millennials for every Boomer.

Of course, age-inflected political polarization and changing population sizes will only impact things like electoral outcomes insofar as anyone bothers to vote. And while this may seem like bad news for Millennials, who vote at lower rates than everyone else, voting patterns tend to change with age. As the Millennial cohort grows older, they're likely to vote more frequently. If we assume that everyone's voting habits as they grow older will tend to match the age equivalent rates of 2016, future turnout will probably look something like this:


Here, superior turnout only buys Boomers an extra year on top - they lose their electoral plurality in 1941. Millennials gain the plurality a decade later, and by 2060 they outvote every other group combined.

Suppose, then, that these political preference and turnout trends all hold for future Democratic primaries - and suppose that for the next few decades, we continue to see primaries pitting Clinton-type candidates against Sanders-type candidates. Cross reference the above trends, and this is what our future politics would look like:


What this chart tells us is that by 2039, among Americans who are currently eligible voters, support for Sanders-type candidates will completely overwhelm support for Clinton-type candidates. This model relies on some awfully big assumptions, but most of them - population growth projections and lifetime political preference retention - are grounded in fairly rigorous science. 

The most significant unknown here is whether or not Sanders-and-Clinton-style candidates continue to run in the primaries. Another crucial consideration here is that by 2039, in addition to the voters considered here, at least 90 million Americans who are currently under 18 (or are not born yet) will have become eligible voters. We can't predict this age cohort's preferences with any certainty, but if the trend of younger voters being progressive voters holds, Sanders-style candidates would be winning well before 2039.

What we can be sure of, regardless, is that the age of the Boomers is coming to an end. Their generation is rapidly shrinking, and no amount of superior turnout will save them in the long-run. I think it fairly safe to assume that they'll resent this diminished influence after a good half century of political hegemony, and that they'll leverage all of the entrenched institutional and systematic privileges and advantages that they've built for themselves over the years in order to try to retain their power. That strategy can't last forever either, however, and as the rude teen barbarians crash against the gates of old privilege, it's gonna get ugly.


* Brief note on terminology: due to constraints on available data, I've divided the population into four age brackets - 18-29, 30-44, 45-64, and 65+. These brackets correspond roughly, but not exactly, to the commonly accepted "generational" divisions (between Millennials and Gen-X, Gen-X and Boomers, and Boomers and the Silent Generation). These divisions are completely arbitrary and artificial, but the difference explains why, for example, some analysts already consider Boomers a minority generation. For the sake of this analysis this difference isn't particularly important.

2/3/17

Nazi punching probably doesn't matter either way

Controversy over the ethics and politics of Nazi-punching continues - re-ignited, this time around, by the macing of a young fascist woman. Fredrik deBoer thinks that this was bad on the grounds that she is a woman. @ItsTonyNow has tweeted out a more common line of criticism:


Meanwhile, a pretty significant faction of leftists (and even liberals) continue to support Nazi punching as an unmitigated good no matter who the Nazi happens to be, a perspective that I'm personally sympathetic to but that I also suspect is beside the point.

The point I would make here is that it probably doesn't matter either way. 

You can make fun propaganda-of-the-deed type arguments that punching Nazis is a good way to make racists afraid again, but while that may work on the specific person you happen to punch, it's pretty unlikely that leftists will actually be able to successfully engineer an enduring national climate of effective intimidation against Nazis.

Similarly, you can make all kinds of arguments that Nazi-punching is counterproductive:
Want his ideas popular? Physically assault him in front of a camera. His support base will grow simply by people sympathetic to thoughtcriminals...[And] if there ever is a crackdown, the more people you attack for what they believe or say, the more supporters will claim you deserve every bit of the treatment the fascist state gives you.
But realistically, both of these consequences would probably happen either way. If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse; by the same token, Trump is probably already begun drafting whatever draconian anti-left executive order you can imagine, and if he can get away with rolling it out, he will whether you punch someone or not.

To me, these attempts to justify or object to Nazi-punching on consequentialist grounds read like a proxy debate for what is really a disagreement about irreconcilable principles. If your real objection to Nazi-punching is that you are a pacifist, you'll probably need to come up with a different argument against it, since most people aren't pacifists; so you'll probably try to look for pragmatic or procedural objections to Nazi-punching instead. If on the other hand you think that discourse, argumentation, ridicule and such are inadequate mediums for vying with Nazis, then you are going to have trouble communicating with people who think that the discourse is basically adequate for dealing with them. In that case, you're going to be tempted to come up with additional rationales for punching Nazis, like the theory that you'll be able to intimidate Nazis into silence.

If there's any good coming out of Nazi-punching, it's the simple fact that we're having a debate about it: long-unexamined assumptions about discourse, violence, and power are very close to the surface right now, and I think that they deserve to be examined. But as far as practical and political consequences go, I don't think it likely that any of this really matters. This is mostly a moral debate, not a strategic one.

1/31/17

Clinton and the PUMAs still debt-collecting from Obama

Mike Allen, for Axios:
The worst-kept secret inside Democratic circles is how bitter Hillary Clinton's team is at President Obama over her election loss...[they are] blaming Obama - more than Putin, FBI Director James Comey or, um, Hillary herself - for the defeat. Clintonites feel that if Obama had come out early and forcefully with evidence of Russian interference in the campaign, and perhaps quicker sanctions, she might be president today. 
The persistent refusal among Clintonites to accept any responsibility for the defeat of their campaign seems easy enough to explain with the usual points about cultishness and epistemic closure - but how to explain the special resentment for Obama? Even if you insist that Putin cost Clinton the election, it seems like blatant displacement to then say that Obama, by failing to stop him, is even more responsible.

Seeing this much animus seep through the facade of solidarity with Obama and his base that Clintonites tried to present, I can't help but detect an undercurrent of pretty familiar entitlement:
[T]he sentiment, among today's PUMAs, is everywhere...Obama was an affirmative action president, and [PUMAs] expect us to "make history" again...out of some weird sense of reciprocal obligation.
If you believe that Obama did not deserve to beat Clinton in 2008, it's easy to see how you might come to think of supporting him as an unearned favor that he would, some day, need to pay back. And if you think that he missed a crucial opportunity to do so by ensuring victory for Clinton, you might very well see this as something more than incompetence - you'd be tempted to see it as a direct betrayal. This is how entitlement breeds resentment; and it's why Clintonites, to explain that resentment, have to displace blame from Putin onto the man who should have stopped him.

It is not irrelevant, of course, that this man happens to be black. Clinton's 2008 campaign was irredeemably poisoned with racial entitlement, and the polls make it clear that those attitudes and biases remain among her supporters to this very day. Given that the "Putin stole it" narrative is already heavily inflected with one form of racism, we shouldn't be surprised to find related grievances towards Obama inflected with another.

1/30/17

Millennials and people of color are the opposition

I've been looking through Trump's favorability polling, and you will be shocked to learn that his support remains divided by gender, race, and age. The first divide remains the weakest: only a slim majority of women (50.9%) disapprove of Trump, and while he can't win majority support from men, he does have a plurality of them (at 48.3%). Race, on the other hand, remains the strongest divide: people of color give Trumpo his strongest disapproval ratings (63%), while his strongest approvals come from white people (53.2%). Similarly, the age gap is pretty distinct:


Trump is winning most of his support from the olds, with a slight bump from doofuses in Generation X; meanwhile, the only age group where he faces majority disapproval is Millennials (at 55%).

While the sample sizes are too small to specify the intersectional percentages with much confidence, it seems generally clear that race is playing the largest role in determining opposition to Trump, followed by age, and then gender. If you are a person of color, you are almost certainly going to view him unfavorably whether you are young or old; if you are white, then the age trends become more significant. Gender predicts a slight preference, but the other factors seem more important - if you are young you're likely to disapprove of Trump even if you're a man, and if you're old you're likely to approve of him even if you're a woman, and if you're a person of color you'll disapprove either way.

None of this will come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the demographics of American politics in recent history, but the age dynamic is worth emphasizing since it's so persistently ignored by in the media. And for reasons I've noted repeatedly, age gaps are always worth bearing in mind whenever the confrontations and rhetoric between the left and the right start getting militant.

1/28/17

Trump is pitting Americans against the submerged state

The consensus take on Trump's opening salvo of executive orders is that he's overpromising by failing to take into account basic issues of implementation and legality - and that this, eventually, will turn into a political liability. These "quick moves could hurt Trump down the line," according to Politico. "Trump’s aggressive pace in his first days as president could backfire," Abigail Tracy writes for Vanity Fair. And David Axelrod argues that these failures will become a challenge for Trump:
Trump, he said, could face an even more difficult challenge..."The appeal he had as a candidate is that people clearly want someone to snap their fingers and just make something happen, and he saw that desire and played to that desire," Axelrod said.
This gets Trump's appeal right, but one should pause before assuming that Trump will be blamed for any of this. Most of the obstacles he faces are fairly bureaucratic, technocratic and legalistic in nature, which is precisely why so many publications are having to roll out explainers about them. And though wonks and pundits certainly care about these things, most Americans are far more interested in seeing problems solved than in how we get there. 

No one cares about rules

Just consider what would seem to be the most serious objection to Trump's executive orders: the Muslim ban and the sanctuary city defunding scheme are both illegal. Will Americans care?


Predictably, Trump supporters aren't too concerned about the "rules" - but here, the crucial point to consider is that even 41% of Democrats don't harbor in-principle objections, and the general population is even more ambivalent. There are substantial reasons why Americans are mobilizing against Trump, but contrary to what Chris Hayes and MoveOn.org seem to think, rulebreaking probably isn't one of them.

No one cares about the individual mandate

Similarly, Politico notes that "key members of Congress weren't consulted" about Trump's very first executive order, which "could effectively gut [the] Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate"; this may very well make health insurance unaffordable for millions of Americans, and Michael Hiltzik argues that "Republicans will find it very difficult to evade responsibility for the consequences, because they will emerge in direct response to Trump’s order."

But this isn't quite true. If Trump manages to destroy the individual mandate, this will allow a lot of healthy people to stop paying for insurance that they don't think they need. The second-order consequence will be that insurance pools will have fewer people, and those people will tend to be sicker. Only then do you get to the third-order consequence, where insurers charge higher rates to cover a smaller, sicker pool.

In other words, Trump only gets blamed for what happens next if you buy a fairly complicated and counterintuitive three-step economic analysis of cascading effects that are mostly invisible to the typical consumer. Most Americans (63%hate the individual mandate, in part because it doesn't appear to have any direct relationship to the goal of providing effective and affordable health care - so there's no particular reason to assume that they'll blame Republicans for any problems that emerge as Trump gets rid of it.

No one cares about the submerged state

Expect this kind of dynamic to emerge time and time again: Trump will violate some law or destroy some government program, and the liberal-left will have a difficult time objecting to it because people generally aren't inclined to defend either. This ideological pathology didn't come from nowhere. It's a direct consequence of what Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler calls the submerged state:
Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible...its benefits are channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations...The submerged state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market.
There could be no clearer example of how this problem plays out than Trump's attack on health care. If we had a simple, single-payer system in which the government directly provided insurance, the consequences of any attempt to shrink it or eliminate it would be obvious, and Americans would have a stronger investment in defending it. But instead, the ACA was designed to do something far more complicated: to provide affordable health insurance using a system "based on the private marketplace", one that would maintain the role of private, profit-seeking corporations as insurance providers.

This attempt to preserve capitalism made the ACA so insanely complex, and the government's role so remote and indirect, that today when Trump tries to dismantle Obamacare, most people don't know what's going on - and they don't care. This approach to policymaking, Mark Schmitt writes, has been powerfully abetted by
Democrats enraptured by subtle, invisible social policies...liberals moved away from large, decisive programs such as Medicare and embraced gentler interventions that could be seen as using market forces for social good...liberals adopted the Delphic pronouncement that government should “steer, not row”—that is, provide subtle incentives to guide the private sector along the right path.
The submerged state similarly weakens the rule of law. Consider, for example, Trump's plan to defund sanctuary cities. Arguably, this violates a Supreme Court ruling that "if the federal government wants to put conditions on funding to local governments, the conditions must be reasonably related to the purpose of the funding." If most Americans felt some personal interest in this ruling, then it's easy to imagine Trump's executive order turning into a political liability.

But why suspect this will happen when 57% of the population doesn't think they're using government social programs at all? The government's role in providing for the general welfare is so enormously obscured that only some Americans will feel any stake whatsoever in defending abstract laws regulating federal funding. 

Trump is a Caesar

Critics like Axelrod suspect that the public will turn on Trump when his dramatic promises and force-of-will politics crash against the complexity of modern governance. For another perspective, however, consider Gramsci:
It is the sheer complexity of civil society that paradoxically makes such Caesarist interventions feasible...Charismatic figures...present themselves as being able to "get the job done" without the time-consuming need to win over the institutions of civil society. Caesarists figures are thus likely to be populist leaders who make direct, personal appeals to the people. (Steven Jones)
Instead of turning against Trump, Americans may very well turn against the government. In Trump, they will see the same figure who they identified with during the election: an angry voice of rebellion against an entrenched, recalcitrant establishment. They will sympathize with his failures and grievances, because they too have faced the merciless, unyielding logic of late capitalist neoliberalism, with its unconquerable institutions and its indifference to their problems; instead of feeling betrayed by Trump, they will see Trump as an underdog, and believe that he's being betrayed by America.

The theory that Americans will blame Trump for his failures in governance ultimately assumes a faith in government procedures and institutions that no longer exists. To defeat him, the opposition needs to abandon the submerged state and present a vision of government that powerfully and directly intervenes in society and gives people nice things:
Give people nice things, and make it easy. Provide things that it is generally understood that government should provide. Education, health care, roads, sidewalks, supertrains. Generous unemployment benefits, easier bankruptcy, affordable childcare that doesn't have some absurd eligibility formula, consumer protection laws. Everything should be universal benefits paid for by taxing rich people more than we do. (Atrios)
Use the government to give people what they want, and Trump loses his scapegoat. Hide the government behind the market, and America has nowhere else to turn - it can only get lost in the futile ambitions of messiahs and madmen.