Friday, March 19, 2021

History Suggests Big Change is Coming

When anyone analyzes American politics in 2021, a pervasive assumption nearly always colors their thinking: that gridlock and polarization have cemented the parties into a stalemate from which neither can escape. This is a structural problem with no easy solutions. But what if that isn’t true?

There’s another way to look at this moment— one that suggests Donald Trump presided over an ideological era that has run its course. If this seems farfetched based politics as they happen moment by moment, and especially following the near-existential events surrounding the election of 2020, it seems less so if we look at the past 90 years of American history. That span was marked by two epochs, one liberal and one conservative. In perfect symmetry, the liberal era dawned in 1932 marked by new ideas and large scale change that eventually lost steam, only to be replaced by a conservative era that followed the same pattern, starting in 1980. The contours of each mirror the other, and suggest at least the possibility that we have entered a new era.

Both rose from the ashes of exhausted and defeated eras in which policy prescriptions had run out or become ineffective. They were replaced by ideas that had been popular among the opposition party for decades but considered fringe, but which, in a short time, became new orthodoxies that endured throughout the period. They followed predictable patterns marked by initial ideological vigor and optimism that culminated mid-era in large policy wins, followed by a slow decline. And, even when the opposition party won the presidency, the available policies did not deviate far from the era’s philosophical center (a view characterized by the metaphor of the “Overton window,” discussed below).

The details of course differ. The fear of communism and the Soviet Union that marked the liberal era had no analogue in the conservative. The focus on socio-religious issues that marked the conservative era had no analogue in the liberal. Yet the larger patterns were remarkably similar. In the table below, the liberal era is shaded blue, the conservative red; the ruling and opposition trends chart the ways the parties behaved if they were in or out of power.

Contours of the Eras

Following the free market excesses of the Roaring 20s, FDR inherited a country ready for large-scale government intervention. Throughout his and Truman’s administrations, the New Deal remade American society, and the values of equality prevailed over individual liberty. This continued into the 1960s, when JFK and LBJ not only made gains in civil rights, but solidified government-sponsored safety net programs begun under FDR. Once the left had achieved these sweeping changes, they began pushing for programs that were unpopular, and Nixon, which governing within the liberal orthodoxy, began to plant seeds for the future conservative era. Carter’s administration actually began rolling them back.

Meanwhile, when the liberal era began, Republicans fell into chaos and couldn’t decide whether to proceed by trying to co-opt some of Roosevelt’s messages or by opposing him at every turn. (Not that it mattered much; by 1934 Democrats had a supermajority in both chambers of Congress.) The opposition began to gain strength by the 1960s and the GOP developed a contested blueprint for the future in the failed Goldwater campaign. Nixon governed largely within the liberal consensus, but conservatives continued to gain power, normalizing Goldwater’s seemingly extreme positions. Reagan picked those up and nearly won in ’76 and rode them to victory four years later.

The conservative era followed similar contours. Reagan unleashed an anti-union, pro-market, low-tax era that upended thinking of the liberal era. It reversed the focus on equality and emphasized personal liberty. This thinking dominated American politics through the 2000s. Clinton, like Eisenhower during the progressive era, “triangulated” throughout his administration, adopting conservative positions on welfare, crime, the environment, and big business, solidifying them as legitimate. Much as LBJ completed his era’s biggest goals in the ’60s, George W. Bush managed to finally achieve the deregulation and low taxes Reagan initiated. Finally, Trump, whose approval never reached 50%, presided over the least-popular government in the polling era.

Like Republicans in the liberal era, Democrats fell into chaos following Reagan’s election. A new faction tried to find wiggle room within the values of conservatism, one that courted business and ignored labor while retreating its defense of the poor, marginalized, and politically disenfranchised. This approach delivered some victories in the era, but always on conservative terms. However, during the Bush administration, a more vocal liberalism emerged that looked to government to ensure greater protections for racial, gender, and sexual minorities as well as safety net programs like health care, affordable college, child care, and so on. Still, the conservative consensus prevailed through the Obama administration. Although he managed to achieve many victories in his tenure, they were still framed within the accepted orthodoxy of the conservative era. ObamaCare, as one example, wasn’t a government program; it was a market-based kludge.


Change Comes Fast

This is the big lesson of the two eras: when things changed, they changed fast and, but the standards of a year or two earlier, radically. It’s as if what an electorate “knows” has suddenly changed. What is considered fringe and unacceptable one year becomes wholly mainstream the next — and what was mainstream the previous year now seems dangerous and extreme. There are a host of examples, but few are as stark as tax rates. In 1931, the highest income tax rate was 25%. In one year it jumped to 63% — a number inconceivable by modern standards. Yet it went higher, jumping to over 90% in the mid-40s. It remained high until the 1960s, when it came back down to around 70%, which is where it was when Reagan began slashing, bringing it all the way back down to 28%.

What is politically possible, what voters see as “reasonable” ideas, exist within what political scientists call the Overton window. During the past forty years, proposing a top marginal tax of 75% would have seemed laughable, inconceivable — even though under a different era it had been that high for decades. And while that window can appear to be nearly immovable, with only the smallest incremental changes coming after years of trench warfare, circumstances that have been building for decades can shift it far to the right or left in a matter of months. Opposition parties work for decades to popularize ideas, slowly dripping them into society’s bloodstream until they seem less alien. Meanwhile, ruling parties eventually achieve their popular goals and then begin to pursue more extreme goals that unnerve voters. These currents create the conditions for quick, radical change.

It’s hard to describe what’s happening without seeing this dynamic at play. Joe Biden was no one’s avatar of progressive revolution. His half-century of politics has been marked by placing himself in the dead center of the Party’s wings. In his long years serving in the conservative era, that meant having taken a number of positions that now seem retrograde. The man who opposed busing to desegregate schools in 1974 now heads the party of Black Lives Matter. That the early months of his administration have been so markedly liberal is evidence that the rules have changed. Joe isn’t a revolutionary leading the party left, he’s the same old politician who finds the middle ground between a Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders. It’s just that the middle has shifted almost unrecognizably in the past year. Given that he is passing more overtly leftist legislation than any Democrat since LBJ, and especially given that it has so far been wildly popular, that suggests the real possibility that something monumental is happening.

The popularity of the relief bill could be an outlier. The Covid-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis. When Democrats push to pass a $15 minimum wage, or a sweeping voting rights act, or to undo the filibuster, perhaps voters will regard these acts as unacceptable overreach. Yet if history is a guide, there’s a very good chance they’ll be popular. In that case, Biden could be the unlikely leader of a new age of liberal politics, a popular leader who will lead the US out of its current period of polarization and calcification. Time will tell, but it’s no more outlandish than the dramatic shifts that happened in 1932 or 1980.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The GOP’s Rightward Ratchet

For forty-odd years
, from the moment my mom tried to explain the bizarre development of a peanut farmer romping through the Democractic primary in the mid-70s, I’ve been magnetized by politics. There’s something irresistible about a massive human project with so many contradictory, layered, and interdisciplinary impulses, all crashing against each other to produce unexpected outcomes. Or it was, until 2016. That’s when I developed a sense of helplessness about politics, which no longer seemed dynamic nor unexpected — and worse, which now seem to be headed on an inexorable path toward a constitutional crisis.

My helplessness stems from the way the Republican Party is has become inaccessible to the normal forces of politics. Like any party, the GOP has always had rival factions that forced self-correction following elective disasters. Representing monied interests — necessarily a minority faction — the party has long flirted with authoritarianism. The John Birch Society and Joe McCarthy in the 40s and 50s were early examples. But it has also had tempering influences — those same elites need stability and order for markets to thrive. If authoritarianism was a sickness, the GOP had antibodies in the form of sensible, democracy-championing leaders like Dwight Eisenhower to heal the Party. For every Goldwater, there was a Rockefeller.

Neither major party was ideologically or regionally homogeneous, and that helped preserve a healthy balance. Unfortunately, the realignment of the parties following the Civil Rights era damaged the GOP’s directional gyroscope. Southern White reactionaries streamed out of the Democratic Party, infusing the GOP with a whole new dimension of racial resentment and religious fervor. (The Dems, a coalitional party, remained riven by competing factions and experienced the opposite trend — one driving their Party toward moderation.)

Realignment introduced two new toxins into the GOP. The first, from the unyielding religious right, was a moral certainty that snubbed cooperation. You can’t horse-trade with godless baby-killers. The second, an eschatological mindset dredged up by the “lost cause” of the civil war — the idea that good, honest people can’t win and will always be painted as villains — infused the party, at least at the grassroots, with nihilism. That the parties had by that time become homogeneous meant Republicans lost members who held socially or racially liberal views. No one remained to challenge moral certainty or the sense of cultural loss.

We don’t need to go through the full history, which starts with Nixon’s southern strategy and picks up speed with Reagan’s libertarianism and Gingrich’s zero-sum politics before blossoming in the mass media world of Fox News and the internet. What’s important in the development is that Republicans began to see a winning strategy that defied normal politics.



They realized that if they never broke ranks, every loss became emblematic of their worldview of lost causes, grievance, moral certainty, and existential threat. They could use loss as a boomerang to future success. And so, first in fits and starts but later with precision clockwork, the pattern became clear: always escalate the fire-breathing to shore up emotional engagement of the base, adopt a scorched-earth policy toward negotiation, and further demonize Democrats. Gingrich was the evil genius who saw the unerring wisdom in this course. The GOP became a rightward, authoritarian ratchet, always turning in one direction.

What it means is that after ever election, win or lose, the GOP gets more extreme. If they win, as in 2016, it is evidence the cause is true. If they lose, its because someone has betrayed the cause. Either way, the answer is the same: get more extreme, move further right, and burn the heretics. Moderates — those politicians who would actually negotiate with Democrats — were mostly run out of the party by the mid-aughts. Now a moderate is anyone who has been in office long enough to have come of political age before recent ratchets to the right. Heroes of the party from one decade become betrayers the next. Even the Paul Ryans eventually become squishes.

(The rest of us played some role in this, allowing whatever latest extreme actions the GOP committed to become normalized. We held the parties to different standards and wearily accepted that one party was in the business of destroying its rivals while the other, to retain legitimacy, had to woo theirs. It was the dysfunctional relationship of the abused to the abuser, and I say that not to diminish even a tiny bit people abused by parent or spouses, but to emphasize just how dysfunctional our politics have become. As one party gets ever more extreme, everyone must accommodate themselves to the changes.)

So, it was of course inevitable that Republicans would begin to openly embrace violent sedition and treason. It was inevitable they would abandon even the pretense of supporting democratic elections. It raised eyebrows to learn of a plot to kidnap and kill a Democratic governor, but it didn’t surprise. The assault on the Capitol was more startling but hardly, knowing everything else we have leaned about the party, unexpected. And the latest revelations that a sitting Congresswoman called for politicians to be killed (GA’s Marjorie Taylor Greene) were just more of the same.

So here we are and this is why I am so enervated by politics. We have passed the point where the politics common to democracy still function. There is no legal or political solution to stop the GOP, no self-correcting mechanism to snap them out of this nihilistic vortex. If I could look back into the history post-Gingrich and find a single case where the party bucked this habit, it might give me a little hope. There isn’t one. The opposite is true: when any Republican politician has tried to buck this trend, they soon become ex-politicians.


No one knows what this means. We’re way off the grid in terms of normal democratic politics. In past eras I understood the rules and would have delighted in the gamesmanship of the two parties as they maneuvered for popularity and power. Now I watch in horror as one party quickly escalates its assault on those rules, seeing them as the ultimate barrier to their ends — along with, of course, those who want to to preserve them. It is an extremely bad time in America and I lack the imagination to see an easy way out.

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.