Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Bursting the Shadow Bubble

Governments have faced hundreds of insurrections over the centuries, but none have been as well-documented as last Wednesday’s MAGA mob. This is only partly because past rioters haven’t owned smart phones: one of the weirdest — and most revealing — quirks of the Capitol insurrection was how readily rioters were to document their crimes. Through their smiles and triumphal IG posts about “patriots,” we observe a body of people so trapped in a false narrative they literally can’t imagine an alternative one. These were evangelists of the “big lie” that Trump actually won the election, a belief that would only thrive in an enclosed bubble of fake news.

This bubble has been ably documented over the past five years, and periodic explorers to its inner depths have fed a steady stream of news about the outlandish beliefs held inside. We knew it existed, even if we didn’t understand its population or precise theology. Most of us didn’t understand how angry its members were, or how ready to commit violence, or how intent on overturning a democratic election. The mob was an abject demonstration of all of the above, but also a window into the guileless self-satisfaction that came from living in a reality where they were actually upholding rather than destroying the will of the people. In this bubble their beliefs were pure and unstained by doubt.

When blood and urine spilled on the Capitol floors, we began to understand more clearly how depraved those beliefs were. Perhaps equally as jarring, however, was the way in which the insurrection revealed a second bubble of reality that had grown as a protective shield against the first. In that reality, Republicans were just fighting the good fight, but still believed in American values of equality, democracy, and liberty for all. This second, shadow bubble is inhabited by most people not living in the first, hanging onto the increasingly crazy hope that the GOP was still a sane and normal party of good faith, if one willing to play hardball. A huge amount of effort went into maintaining this hope, because the alternative was too painful to consider.

Thus you had big portions of the media absurdly making excuses for racist, anti-democratic statements by the GOP, arguing they hadn’t really said what they’d just said. Or that those who said it were a crackpot fringe who didn’t understand when to use their inside voice instead of spouting Q-anon nonsense. It was a feint the GOP ruthlessly exploited, first breaking norms and then winking at sensible people as if it were all just normal political theater.

And so many Americans — and crucially Democrats and reporters — chose their own false reality because the alternative was to acknowledge that a powerful, frankly racist wing of American society was committed to end democracy. For many, that was literally unthinkable. They couldn’t imagine such a party existing — or more to the point, they could reconcile their own image of a moral America in which such a faction could thrive and win converts. The shadow bubble was one in which MLK wins and the Confederacy loses, where the sane judgment of upright citizens ultimately defeats demagogues like Joe McCarthy and fringe figures like Barry Goldwater. America, an ultimately moral place, was inconsistent with a party like that. So they didn’t believe such a party existed.

The shadow bubble actually enabled the primary bubble. It fostered inattention and inaction. It laundered every new transgression back into normalcy, so that no matter how extreme the GOP got, members of the second bubble forgave and recontextualized the acts of those in the first bubble. For radicals in the Republican Party, this was an excellent situation.

Last Wednesday’s mob was shocking in part because of the series of unlikely events it took to expose it. The GOP has been on this track a long time — twenty years at least. And yet it took a uniquely incompetent and mentally unwell president, an election close in a few key states but a near landslide in actual votes, and a two-month campaign to overturn a plainly fair and conclusive election to set the stage for that mob to form. Had Trump prevailed, had he not been so insane and begrudgingly admitted he lost (or allowed he wouldn’t be inaugurated in January), had a few GOP members of Congress acknowledged he won — any of these would have broken the chain of events leading to the riot. All these antecedents would still be present, and the actions of folks like Cruz and Hawley would be wholly unchanged, but the shadow bubble would have been working heroically to keep them concealed. We’re able to consider the danger to democracy not because it’s a new thing, but because an incredibly unlikely event forced us to accept it.

As the House begins its second (!) impeachment of Donald Trump, I am deeply uneasy. Republicans are instinctively trying to put the shadow bubble back together. The very members who last week were trying to subvert an election were this week calling for “healing,” understanding just what a powerful inducement that is for denizens of the shadow bubble. Americans of goodwill do want healing. We want back into that reality where democracy magically dispels all corruption, racism, and malice. That instinct is profound, and the GOP knows how to manipulate it.

No figure has been more adept at exploiting the shadow bubble than Mitch McConnell, whose political genius resides in breathtaking cynicism. Yesterday he publicly toyed with a vote to convict Trump in the Senate, despite spending the past two months refusing to acknowledge Trump’s loss. Having spent four years as his servile wingman, McConnell is happy to betray Trump at the moment it serves his purposes, understanding that he represents the perfect fall guy. If Trump can be sufficiently demonized, all the GOP’s public sins can die with him — even as McConnell will return to the very acts that subvert the democracy.

This is a dangerous moment in history, but also an opportunity. The insurrection that never should have happened did, in a context in which the instigators were unambiguous. There is a lot of hard, painful work ahead. Those of us who want live in a world in which lightness overcomes the dark,must now press for legal consequences. We must demand that anyone not committed to democracy be named and opposed, that illegal acts are punished. We have to shore up laws and fix the broken parts of our democracy that allow a majority to govern. It’s going to take a long time and the GOP will fight every step of the way. As bad as it will be, though, the alternative, which until a week ago I thought was inevitable, is so much worse. Real healing is often painful.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

2020 Considered: Part 1, the Results

In the first
of three posts on the fallout of the 2020 election, I consider the results themselves.

Magnitude of the Win

Electoral College (538 total)
270–300: 3
301–350: 4 ← Biden
351–400: 3
401–450: 1
451–500: 1
500–538: 2

Popular Vote Margin
-2.1 to 0%: 2
.1 to 2%: 2
2.1 to 4%: 2
4.1 to 6%: 2 ← Biden
6.1 to 8%: 2
8.1 to 10%: 2
10% and over: 2

A couple other notable facts. Both candidates won 25 states exactly, yet the popular vote margin, with a million votes outstanding, is around 7 million. Much has been made of the widening gap between rural and urban voters, and this is a further example. Nevertheless, had 44,000 people voted differently in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, the result would have been an electoral vote tie, 269–269. Finally, the GOP has been remarkably consistent in the six elections this century. In five of those, they received between 45.7 and 47.9% of the vote. Only once did they exceed that window, in 2004, when an incumbent president was running during wartime. (The Dems, for their part, have never won fewer than 48% of the vote in any election this century.)

Finally, despite the incredible loyalty some Trump voters exhibit, he did underperform relative to other Republicans. He will end up losing to Biden by around 4.5%. House Republicans, by contrast, received just 3% fewer votes collectively than Dems. It’s not a huge disparity, but Trump being Trump hurt his candidacy. (Romney got a larger percent of the vote than Trump did in either of his elections.)


Analysis, extremely Briefly

But 2020 isn’t about White suburban trends in the exurbs or the fracturing of the Latino vote. Rather, the election revealed a major truth about voters in the United States. An incumbent president who grossly mishandled a raging pandemic, who was impeached for uncontested abuse of power, who lied at a staggering rate while shattering norms of governance and behavior, who didn’t bother to hide his visible corruption, and who shared his scheme to steal a national election months in advance managed to get more votes than any other candidate except Joe Biden in an American election. In the end, 75 million Americans voted for Donald Trump because he was a White ethno-nationalist authoritarian. Trying to parse the meaning of the election in any terms that fail to reckon with this disturbing reality mean little.


Mean Reversion and State Leans

  • Georgia. 2000: R +11.7%, 2012: R +6.2%, 2020: D +.2%
  • Florida: R +.1%, D +2.8%, R +3.3%
  • Wisconsin: D +.2%, D +14.1%, D +.7%
  • Arizona: R +6.3%, R +9%, D +.3%
  • Pennsylvania: D +4.2%, D +6.4%, D+1.2%


Obama muddies the water in these trends a bit because his wins were substantial, big enough to push him to a win in FL (which has only voted D when he was on the ticket), and run up the score in WI and PA. No idea what was happening in Arizona in 2012, honestly. But following that election there was a lot of talk of abandoning it by Dems — which goes to show how these things are hard. Instead, Arizona moved left in 2016 and again in 2020, following Nevada’s pattern of turning blue. Georgia, similarly, moved steadily blue throughout the century. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seem to be center-left but up for grabs. North Carolina, incidentally, seems to fall somewhere between Georgia and Florida — moving left, but very slowly.

Since states tend to follow national results, we would expect to see some swing in elections where the winner had a big majority versus toss-up elections. A state that typically votes +3 for the GOP might balloon up to +6 in a wave election for a GOP candidate, or be a toss-up in a wave election won by a Dem. In non-wave years, we would expect mean-reversion (that is, such a state returning to +3 GOP). The states like GA and AZ that continually move in one direction illustrate real change. (Worth noting than in a national election in which Biden won by only +2, we’d expect him to lose GA and AZ).

There’s some of this in terms of voting blocs as well. Dems have been winning enormous percentages of Black and Latino voters. That Biden won “only” 88% of Black voters and 70% of Latinos may just represent mean-reversion. In 2016, Trump only won 18% of Latinos — a number without historic precedent — so his 27% in 2020 isn’t so surprising. It’s exactly what Romney won in 2012.


Polling Errors, Trump Voters

  • Minnesota. Polls showed Biden up 9.2%. He won by 7.1%.
  • Wisconsin. Polls had Biden up 8.4%. He won by just .7%, an even larger error than in 2016.

These two states are very similar in nearly every way. Minnesota is the more educated of the two, but Wisconsin’s voters are more educated than voters nationally. It’s hard to see how that accounts for the differences. So what gives?

The 2020 vote was gigantic — the largest in a hundred years. Two things appeared to happen. Biden managed to flip a lot more Trump voters than vice-versa. However, Trump again won a majority of the late-deciders and seemed to get a lot of non-voters to cast ballots. If so, two factors contributed to the error. First, pollsters’ likely-voter screen missed Trump voters. Second, pollsters’ weighting failed to account for Trump voters.

In two elections, Trump has reversed a long-standing dynamic that once favored Democrats in which low-propensity voters are induced to cast a ballot in big elections. Those same voters didn’t show up in 2018 when Trump wasn’t on the ballot, and polls then were a lot more accurate.

A final, plausible explanation is that GOP voters, whom Trump fed a consistent message that polls are fake, disproportionately refused to participate in them.


The Weirdest, Trumpiest Election

This is the Trump age in the smallest of nutshells: the American people knew exactly who Donald J. Trump was, and 46.5% liked what they saw.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Election One Week Out

This is an unprecedented election. To date, ~60 million votes have already been cast [update: this morning’s reports vary from 62-66m], and that number could top 100m by Election Day. Election experts expect a huge turnout, most pegging the number at 150-160m—far more than the 137m who turned out in 2016. 
The really shocking development is that one party, through state suppression and judicial decree, is actively trying to disqualify enough of the vote so the incumbent can cling to power. No one believes Trump can actually win a majority of votes. “Winning” for the GOP amounts to something between narrowly legal technical victory and a soft coup. There’s no way to predict how that will play out, though Dems are trying to run up the score to make it impossible for the GOP to disqualify enough ballots. Our democracy is at DefCon 😱😱😱 and I suspect most of us are just hoping for a miracle here. 
But anyway, we do have polls. These suggest what the actual vote may look like, and that’s important. In 2016, Clinton was sitting on a 5.1% lead in national polls, but it was evaporating quickly. Biden has a stable lead of 9% this morning. More important, of course, are state margins. Below are the current averages in battleground states according to 538. I’ve included all the states Biden and Trump hope to flip. It seems a bit absurd to include South Carolina in the averages, but it represents the same level of reach for Biden (-7.9%) as Minnesota is for Trump. (Biden winning AK and SC is, according to polling, slightly *more* likely than Trump winning NV and MN.)
Barring some kind of super bizarre, not-in-modern-polling error, Biden will win WI and MI. The critical state is PA. If Biden wins it (beyond efforts to disqualify votes), he’ll win the election. Everything else will be gravy. The Senate and statehouses are also a huge deal this census-year election, but you can go read 538 if you want more on them.
Biden Targets [2016 EV: 232]
MI: +8.3% (16/248)
WI: +7.1% (10/258)
PA: + 5.3% (20/278)
AZ: +2.8% (11/289)
FL: +2.4% (29/318)
NC: +2.4% (15/333)
ME 02: +2.1% (1/334)
GA: +1.2% (16/350)
IA: +1.2% (6/356)
TX: -1.3% (38/394)
OH: -1.6% (18/412)
AK: -6.4% (3/415)
SC: -7.9% (9/423)
Trump Targets [2016: 306 EV]
NV: -7.1% (6/312)
MN: -7.9% (10/322)
Hang in there, folks, just one 27-month long week to go!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

On "Cancel Culture"

I just listened to a long podcast by smart people on “cancel culture” (or its doppelganger, “free speech” or being “politically incorrect”) and as so often, I felt like they missed the point. To me this seems really clear, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts. (And sorry, they’re not brief.)

The discussion is, at its root, one of power. “Cancel culture” is the idea that if someone holds an unpopular view, they can now be “canceled” by angry mobs. What they’re really saying is that they’re uncomfortable with the shift in power; once certain people were allowed to say anything without consequence, and now they can be held to account. This is no doubt very unnerving for people who are used to speaking without seeing the consequence of their language.

Three thoughts on all of this:

One: All speech has consequences. In many cases, the consequence lands on someone other than the speaker. Very often we aren’t aware of the effect. We may say something very kind and gentle or rude and mean and go about our day, not realizing that the speech affected someone. Sometimes the language does real damage.

It used to be common for white people to joke publicly about races and their supposed negative qualities. We don’t need to go into the examples—you know them well. There are even phrases in our language like “Jew him down” that were so common they became euphemisms. For decades, a white protestant could use that phrase without suffering even the indignity of a raised eyebrow. That didn’t mean the speech didn’t have a consequence—just that it landed entirely on the target, not the speaker. A public figure using such a phrase in 2020 would spark enormous blowback. An on-air personality using it would probably be fired.

The shift between the two eras is the shift in societal power. In the first case, the bigot inhabited a world in which such violence could never be met with a response. In the second, they are made aware of the consequence of their words and made to account for it. For people newly alive to the latent violence in their speech, this feels like an assault on their liberty. “We used to be able to say this, but now the social justice warriors won’t let us.” But what’s really happened is that society now recognizes the equality and humanity of its members and naked displays of bigotry are offensive.

People who argue for “free speech” when they want to convey bigotry do so in bad faith: the very deployment of speech is intended to have an effect. Bigots intend to harm. They bring up “free speech” as a way of inoculating themselves from consequence. The debate around cancel culture is in most cases one of whether racist speech will be accepted or punished. For people long used to acceptance, this new punishment feels like a “canceling.” But let’s examine that more closely.

Two: Some speech is always censored. The anti-Semite who wishes to use the phrase “Jew you down” may complain that their speech is being inhibited. They’re right! This happens not by government fiat, but societal agreement. We are not emerging into a time of repressed speech, however, just into a time when different speech is repressed. For 400 years, white people have policed what BIPOC people could say. It takes very little imagination to understand this if you transport yourself back to a 1950 diner in Alabama. A Black couple even trying to enter the building would have faced the force of law—never mind if they’d started speaking harshly of the white clientele. When certain people are not allowed in the presence of others, that’s real, tangible cancelation, not merely the burn of shame.

The privilege to speak has always been reserved for a small, elite group. In 1950, everyone on a TV newscast or writing in the op-ed pages of the local paper was a white man. To the extent diversity ever appeared, it might have been in the form of a white woman. Giant segments of the population have for centuries always been canceled.

Recently, two high-profile writers resigned from their posts at the New York Times and New York Magazine. Citing blowback they received on social media for their words, they invoked cancel culture. The right wing media went into fits of hysteria, claiming this as evidence of illiberalism so profound it stamped out their voices. But we’re talking about resignations by two people with the most powerful platforms in the country. They weren’t jailed or lynched or evicted or stripped of their livelihood (indeed, both will just retreat to safer domains where their articles won’t be scrutinized by ideological foes) like actually-canceled people routinely are. And of course, the system they decry as impossibly unfair was the one that installed them in these positions to begin with. Andrew Sullivan, the New York writer, posted his final column, a jeremiad describing his supposed oppression, on the very platform he claimed was silencing him. (The irony characteristically eluded him.)

The tumult of the moment is scrambling what we consider acceptable and unacceptable speech. The important thing for those who feel put out that they have to watch what they say is this: people have always had to watch what they say. Now you do, too.

Three: Being embarrassed is not being canceled. We are having a debate in the US right now about what speech will be censored, and it is deeply disorienting for those who thought they understood the rules. One day it’s okay to exalt Jefferson Davis and the Washington Redskins, and the next day people tell you you’re a racist for doing so. It surely feels unfair. For people used to thinking they weren’t doing anything wrong, it stings to learn of the harm they’ve caused. No one wants to feel that.

But shame and embarrassment aren’t cancellation. Even losing a job is for most people not true cancellation, because given the structural realities of society, it is not disqualifying. They will land in another job. (In the vast majority of cases, of course, there’s no consequence beyond loss of status, of being forced to feel shame.) Before the Black Lives Matter protests, the phrase “cancel culture” applied to sexual harassment more than race. Here, too, the actual consequences experienced by the offender (sexist, assaulter, rapist) we’re almost always far smaller than the victim who brought the charge. When cases like Matt Lauer’s came up, people were laser-focused on his losses rather than those of the women over whose jobs he had control. Republicans are still apoplectic about Brett Kavanagh, despite the fact that he now sits on the Supreme Court.

I get how hard this is for people. As a middle-aged white guy, I am privy to a lot of the anxiety other whites are feeling about the possibility of being canceled. I do understand it. I also know that since whites do have social power, when that shame curdles into victimhood and grievance, we end up with far more sinister problems like the one we elected President. And I get how even people of good will feel that this is such a fraught moment they’re worried about causing offense even when they don’t mean to. There’s a very real risk we will, as a consequence of the ambient and structural racism we’ve all imbibed, say something racist and feel the shame of having to see it. That’s scary, and this will be a painful transition.

I do hope, however, we can at least begin to tease these issues apart in good faith. Much of the "cancel culture" discussion isn't good faith--it is an effort by some to try to police speech and herd it back to the comfort zone they always inhabited. And that muddies the water for those actually engaged in a good-faith effort to understand these things.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Random Thoughts Four Months Out

Scattered thoughts accumulating amid the torrent of news.

1. I keep reading the hot take that the veep selection “doesn’t matter.” This is an over-reading of historical data. We have never had a candidate a third of the electorate sees as having cognitive decline, who will be 78 years old when he takes office, and who is almost certainly not going to be able to serve 2 terms. He is very likely hiring his replacement, someone who will take over in his first term or run in 2024. Sarah Palin mattered a great deal. This pick is not nuthin.

2. Trump is in massive trouble. We’re seeing the convergence of several trends that are likely to worsen, not improve, before Election Day: the coronavirus and his handling of it; the long-term effects of the economic collapse (all of the govt support will end before the election); elite GOP support; Trump’s own personal behavior. For example, in the past week he’s retweeted white supremacists, said things are “very good with the coronavirus,” twice failed to say what he’ll do in a second term, and is almost certainly lying about the Russian bounties. He’s running in a nakedly white supremacist ticket in a year when Americans are shocked by structural racism, and is beset by corruption, incompetence, and miscues at every step.

I know people are thinking he has some magic dust (and the electoral college does legitimately favor him), but the window has shifted in the past four months. Then the range of possibilities was a modest Biden win on one side to a modest Trump win on the other. Now Trump has to hope for the barest of EC wins (he’ll certainly lose the popular vote)—and the chance of a Biden landslide (400+ EV) grows. When the battleground moves to TX, Trump is screwed.

3. I have long assumed this election would be marred by widespread GOP efforts to repress the vote. Republicans knee coming in that Trump’s margin was thin, and they’d want to give him every chance to eke out a win. If he enters the fall down a dozen points, trailing in FL, OH, AZ, NC, GA, and TX, I wonder. Every state has its own local calculations, and the worst offenders will continue to pursue efforts to suppress the vote. But nationally, the GOP may see that rigging an election they’re about to lose badly would only compound the disaster.

4. The chance that Trump bails before the election is not identical to zero. He’s a quitter. As a conman and grifter, he knows that there comes a time to pack up the snake oil and get out of town. His mental health is fragile, and I wonder whether his ego can handle getting crushed in an election. Isn’t it at least plausible that he might declare America already great, claim the deep state and media are rigged against him, and decline to run?

5. I have been so energized and excited by the activists protesting structural racism in the United States. This has been such a terrible stain on our body politic, a darkness we carried into everything we did. The currents of the modern Republican Party, from John Birch to Goldwater to Reagan, have all been shot-through with a kind of racial revanchism that sought to launder hate into heritage. It’s so long past due that we owned up to our history, made restitution, and abandoned the legacy of white supremacy. That a Trump administration would end in mass protests for racial justice and polling showing large majorities supporting them—it fills me with joy. So much work left to do, but this moment is so important, so powerful.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Imagine a foreign leader with a growing reputation for corruption facing unrest at home amid a constant series of scandals. His own government attempted to remove him, and he is facing a number of damaging lawsuits. In order to quash them, he directs his government to fire the attorney leading these investigations. How would the media report this blatant corruption? How would our government respond? What conclusions would people draw about the government?

That is of course the situation we confronted last night when AG Barr attempted to remove the Attorney in NY last night. It’s wildly corrupt. (To his enormous credit, Geoffrey Berman refused to leave.) It’s far more dangerous than the lurid spectacle of a rally amid a pandemic or any tweet. It is a clear case of authoritarianism and an effort to undermine the function of democracy. And it’s happening four months before an election. If this isn’t telegraphing what kind of corruption we can expect if Trump is re-elected, I don’t know what it would look like.

Friday, June 19, 2020


Adam Serwer, the excellent Atlantic magazine writer, spoke today on WNYC and offered what counts basically as a rosetta stone for American politics--so important on this Juneteenth.

"Race is the historically important political dividing line in American politics. When you have a party that becomes ethnically homogeneous, they begin to see nonwhite constituencies as a threat to their control of the political system. This happens regardless of which party we’re talking about. We’ve seen it happen with the Democratic Party and we’ve seen it happen with the Republican Party. They become more hostile to democracy because they don’t want to share power with people who are unlike them. That’s in contrast to a more diverse party. Having to share power with a diverse constituency that is unlike you breeds a kind of tolerance that is necessary for civic participation and multiracial democracy."

In commenting on the current politics, he added, "Donald Trump is not the cause of prejudice in the Republican Party; he is the manifestation of the fact that the Republican Party has become an almost entirely white, Christian party."