Saturday, November 8, 2014

My 10 takeaways from the midterm elections

Before I begin, I spent some time on the below, and I hope you'll read it and comment, but I should also say that Elizabeth Drew's recent piece on the elections is fantastic. In particular, she 1) explains the historically low turnout (33 percent); 2) criticizes Democrats for worrying that "any boasting about the improvement in the economy since he took office would make them appear out of touch, since the recovery’s positive effects have done little to improve the situation of much of the middle class. The unwillingness to tout the benefits of the Affordable Care Act despite its clear success was a major missed opportunity"; 3) notes that "The across-the-board opposition to a president’s program by the opposing party that Obama encountered was without precedent"; and like many of us, 4) wonders how Obama could miss low-hanging fruit like Ebola (current cases: zero) — easy chances for the superficial grandstanding to which superficial Americans respond.

1) We're still a 50/50 nation.

Remember all those articles from the Left after 2008 about how that was a transformative election that would fundamentally remake the American political map? Uh huh. So along the same lines I've been chuckling at the right's overly positive spin on last week. Er, winning seats in the 6th year of an unpopular presidency is not only not transformative — it's typical. Of course Democrats should worry at their shrinking map, but no more than usual. The Republican won the North Carolina Senate race 49.97% to 47.29%. In other words, North Carolina remains purple, the nation remains divided, and the Democrats, who have won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 presidential elections, are on track to win another, especially as the economy continues to improve. Of course, this last point depends on whom the Republicans nominate. If they can convince their Bible Belt wing that the jig is up on gay marriage (to use one example), and nominate a pro–gay marriage candidate, 2016 will be very interesting. If they nominate a dinosaur, game over.

2) TV pundits really are that bad.

Er, would the FCC please require that before one gets a job as a political talking head on TV, he or she has to take at least one upper level college history class, one political science class, and one class that involves at least baby-level qualitative analysis. It boggles my mind that idiot pundits look at a Senate election with far more red states than blue states and conclude that it means anything general about the electorate. Can they seriously not understand the idea that the 35 seats up for election were not evenly distributed across red and blue states? 

3) The Republicans gerrymandered tremendously well.

I am much more worried about the House than the next presidential election. Migration (and immigration) has a way of undermining the best efforts of gerrymandering, but the GOP did a fantastic job after the 2010 Census. [Note to Dems: next time you win an election two years before a Census-year election, hold tight on helping anybody (e..g, those without health insurance). A lot of Americans really believe that charity is enough to take care of people, even people with preexisting cancerous conditions.]

Just two years ago, in the 2012 elections, the Democrats won a million more votes than the Republicans on election night, and walked away with a deficit of 33 seats. We just didn't talk about that enough, as of course it set the stage for bigger losses. The 2012 vote was even in Pennsylvania, but the Republicans gained 13 of the state’s 18 House seats. In North Carolina, the Democrats won the vote, but Republicans won 9 seats to 5. And so on. (I haven't looked at the 2014 numbers.)

A good example of gerrymandering comes from my backyard (it’s not a perfect example; Salt Lake City has such a huge percentage of the population in Utah that there's no way the city cannot be broken up. But of course how it is broken up is the rub.) Literally my backyard. I could take a stroll up the hill and stand in the "three corners" of Utah congressional districts, which divide the People's Republic of the Avenues perfectly. I live in the 4th, and wrapping the 2nd, with some of the most conservative rural voters in the nation, around the Upper Avenues (including Karl Malone's old house), was pure genius. Here's the map:
Thank you Cedar for this image.
Gerrymandering is as old as the republic (the founders missed this one, as brilliant as they were), and it's a bipartisan problem, but it's gotten worse due to technology, the racial stratification of voting, which makes zip code–based gerrymandering easier (see heavily Black and heavily Democratic districts throughout the nation), and the general nastification of our politics. I'm not a hopeless romantic, but I would like to see more people start talking about this important issue and getting involved with various reform efforts (e.g., efforts to let bipartisan commission determine redistricting). This should not divide Republicans and Democrats. One's viewpoint on the Keynesian consumption function bears little relationship to the fact that having only 40 competitive seats every cycle is poisoning our democracy (and eliminating centrists). 

4) Neither chamber is very democratic (small d) right now. 

See above for the House. In the Senate, a Wyomingite's (hmm, didn't know that was the term) vote for Senate is 66 times the value of a Californian's. 66! It's kind of depressing that American politics are becoming a battle for which side can capture the most over-represented rotten boroughs. I'll match your Wyoming with our Vermont! 

5) Western Kansas really is a burned-over district.

J's family is from the Erie Canal area, the original burned-over district (so named by the great abolitionist Charles Finney as he noted that the area had been so evangelized during the Second Great Awakening that there was no fuel left to burn, no un-converted people). I can't get a real tap beer where I live today because of a certain migration from the burned-over district.

My friend Jim ran a very good campaign in the Kansas Big First — and was endorsed by every newspaper in it! — but in the end there was little he could do to combat the waves of reaction that have roiled through western Kansas since the culture war of the 1960s.** Rep. Huelskamp repeatedly voted against expanded benefits for veterans, voted against the current campaign against ISIS, and has been Exhibit A for the unwillingness to compromise in Congress. But none of this mattered because he is anti-choice and anti-gay. Note to any socially liberal Republicans reading: this is your base.

** To everyone who gave money to Jim — thank you very very much. I am pessimistically realistic that most of what we do makes little difference — as I joke to my students, how much influence does even the Vice President have? — but I do believe it is very important that we energized Democrats in western Kansas, and proved (not the least through winning the endorsement of every single newspaper) that there is a viable alternative to reaction.

6) The demonization of Obama has been a very effective strategy.

As the economy recovered,  and the critique of Obamacare narrowed, the Republican strategy of making a relatively unpopular president more unpopular — and turning the conversation from public policies (see No. 8) to the personality of the president — panned out. I do not claim to have researched the numbers here, but my sense is that Democrats underperformed given the 5.9% unemployment rate entering the elections (now down to 5.8%). Does anyone know this literature? Does it account for the unemployment curve, e.g., does it matter that we have come a long way from the bottom (1936 election?), or does only the absolute figure matter? And how much did stagnant wages matter? Anyway, my sense is that this election was not about the economy (it certainly was not about the rejuvenated dollar!). And while it was about Obamacare in the sense that Obamacare is a proxy for government capacity, the claims that Obamacare would wreak havoc on the economy and reduce unemployment have proven hollow. What's left is the correct critique that many people had their insurance change as a result of the law, and not always for the better. To oversimplify a bit, we as a society have been asked to choose whether to privilege A) a large swatch of relatively well-off people who vote and who have seen their coverage change (and why many of these people blame the government and not employers for the change in their benefits is beyond me), or B) the ten million plus people who gained insurance. Honorable people can disagree here, obviously, but I don't agree with our decision to side with A, especially given the fact we needed to push back against record inequality, and Obamacare is doing just that. I am partisan, of course, but in the end, I find it truly bizarre that the party has done the most to block everything and been the most anti-compromise  and has been the less moderate — has been rewarded.

7) We're not quite a post-racial society yet (duh). 

If you're a conservative and worried that I'm about to drop one of those "It's all racism!" bombshells, slow down Speed Racer. I will make the much more modest point that racism accounts for some of the anti-Obama sentiment. These researchers, for example, put the racism effect at 2-3%. Not very large at all, actually, and perhaps a heartening measure of our society's progress, but still enough to matter in a 50/50 nation. Is it really surprising that some White people still don't like Black people that much? If you think that racial thinking is gone from our society, and if you are White, next time you answer your door and a Black person shows up, ask yourself how long it took your brain to think "It's a black guy." And if you're Black, do the same when a White guy shows up.

Or, let's play a game for a second. Imagine, all things being equal (and minus a sex scandal), that President John Edwards had passed the Stimulus and healthcare and taken most troops out of Iraq and relaunched the fight against ISIS (and all the while had retained his southern accent). Do you think that our politics would be the same today?

Or, if you want some data, please read about Harvard's Project Implicit, the famous study showing the prevalence subconscious racism, or note what Nate Silver has to say (and now Republicans love Nate Silver because he correctly predicted the Senate). HUFFPOLLSTERreports:
Nate Silver and Allison McCann combined eight GSS measures, including those captured by the NY Times graphic, into a combined index of negative racial attitudes: "We accomplished this by averaging the number of white Americans who provided the arguably racist response to each survey item, extrapolating the value for years in which the General Social Survey didn’t ask a particular question based on the long-term trend in responses to it. As of 2012, this index stood at 27 percent for white Republicans and 19 percent for white Democrats. So there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties. They probably represent a slightly larger minority of white Republicans than white Democrats.

And these numbers may have been inflated this cycle because, as young people stood on the sidelines (Point No. 11: young people really are lazy), the electorate was crazy old.

One more example: my Utah fourth congressional district is +14 Republican, but the African American Republican Mia Love won here by just 4,000 votes. Granted, she is crazy and almost to the Right of of Tim Huelskamp, but still ...

In sum, do you think this guy really ran the numbers on the Stimulus? 

8) Most Americans are not skiers.

How sad to think that Sen. Mark Udall (who lost in Colorado) is the nephew of Stuart Udall, Kennedy and Johnson's secretary of the interior, who wrote an important environmental book on the era titled The Silent Crisis. And by the way, Udall was Mormon!

Putting aside the growing numbers of Americans who actively seek to roll back environmental laws, the environment keeps moving farther and farther down the list of concerns. The reasons here are many, including, ironically, the very success of 1960s and 1970s environmental laws (many Americans today have no idea that our rivers used to burn), the fact that Americans are more divorced form the land than ever before, the general conservative ascendancy, and the big money poured into the climate change denialism. But the fact remains that today's Americans are silently committing one of the greatest acts of moral abdication in the nation's history.

I've never met a skier, Alpine or Nordic, who denies human-induced climate change. But during the 2011-12 season, for example, and this was after a few years of solid growth,  about 4.3 million Americans cross-country skied at least one time (source: Snow Sports Participation Survey). Not enough to match the Koch Brothers.

9) Americans don't do public policy or research. They do me-search. 

No great shocker here. I don't expect Americans to know that a vast majority of economists across the political spectrum, as measured by the conservative University of Chicago economics department, approved of the Stimulus, or to understand the science of climate change. I sure don't understand the latter. But is it too much to ask that Republicans who support veterans and the war against ISIS at least know (and vote accordingly) that Huelskamp repeatedly voted against benefits for veterans, and voted against the new war on ISIS? And just a little recognition that one's experience is not the only data point (see responses to Obamacare) would be nice. Can every college from now on please require students to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow?

10) Kansas conservatives are some of the worst hypocrites known to man. 

When a liberal professor at KU tweeted his negative views of the NRA, all hell broke loose, and the KS Regents enacted an unconstitutional policy restricting the free speech rights of professors on social media. When Coach Snyder broke University policy and endorsed Pat Roberts in an "interview" outside the football stadium that appeared in a Roberts ad, in the process likely breaking state laws banning endorsements by state employees and then lied about not knowing his interview would be aired in an ad, a lie revealed when the Roberts campaign threw Snyder under the bus and revealed that the whole thing was premeditated (!!) — the response was? Well, sorry, no time to explain. I've got to get some work done before the big K-State game today. I think that's a good place to end. 

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