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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

The Political Census

Just two days before the end of Trump’s reign, his appointed Director of the Census Bureau resigned following Bureau professionals’ resistance to his efforts to issue premature numbers in the waning hours of the administration. This was just the latest battle in the political warfare that enveloped the 2020 Census.

It’s not as if previous censuses avoided politics–they didn’t, as I discuss below–but 2020 was notable. For one, the Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question for the first time in 70 years, everyone understanding that its purpose was to scare immigrants, both documented and un-, into evading the count. The Supreme Court blocked that tactic. The administration also shortened the time available to complete the census even as inadequate funding and the Covid-19 pandemic made the work much more difficult. These moves would all produce underestimates of the population, especially in heavily Democratic districts and states. For the same purpose, the Trump administration asserted that House seats should be apportioned, for the first time ever, based only on the number of citizens and legal immigrants rather than of the number of “persons” as stipulated in the constitution (Art. I, Sec. 2).

But census politics goes back a long time–indeed, to the Constitutional Convention, where one of the North-South compromises ended up counting slaves as three-fifths of a person in the census, although, of course, without allowing slaves, nor women, nor Indians, nor the poor, even three-fifths of a vote. In late 1890, to take another example, the superintendent of the Census was compelled to write a ferocious defense against attacks on the validity of census, fending off charges about undercounting in New York (with all its immigrants) and overcounting in the South.

A review of recurrent political issues in the census puts this year’s chaos in perspective.

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This blog has periodically summarized some of the hundreds of studies analyzing Trump’s 2016 success and of his continuing popularity. This particular post will be, I trust, the almost-final one. (I’ll no doubt be sucked into reading the studies following up on the 2020 election.)  

My last update was about a year ago. The research then basically confirmed even earlier findings that Trump effectively combined a blatant appeal to the cultural anxieties of native-born, white Christians, together with overwhelming Republican party loyalty in this era of polarization and with the Founding Father’s kludge, the electoral college, to eke out a win. New research largely elaborates that explanation. So, after a brief review, I’ll turn to asking what this recent history might say about the forthcoming election. 

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Bernie Sanders often declared that his is “a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class,” calling for that class to rise up, vote for him, and make the democratic socialist revolution. He was sorely disappointed. At this writing, soon after the second “Super Tuesday” primaries, it is clear that Sanders mobilized hardly any of the black working class and not that many of the white working class either.Debs

Sanders thus joins a long list of well-educated lefties (University of Chicago, 1964) whom the working class seems to have disappointed. Long ago William Jennings Bryan–who, in his 1896 “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” speech, asked “Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ or upon the side of ‘the struggling masses’?”–lost repeatedly. Soon after, Eugene V. Debs, a hero to Sanders, ran several times for president–explicitly as a socialist on a Socialist ticket–and topped out, in 1912, at only six percent of the popular vote. Compare that to eccentric, conservative businessman Ross Perot who won 19% as a third-party candidate in 1992. Crushing disappointment.

The major exception to the working class’s spurning of the Left was, of course, Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign and then, his 1936 re-election. FDR’s New Deal created a couple of generations of working-class loyalty to the Democratic party. But it took the onset of the Great Depression to get that first win (much like it took the onset of the Great Recession to elect the first black president).

For the most part, the call of socialism, or of democratic socialism, or even of basic European-style welfare-state-ism has done surprisingly poorly with the American working class. Repeatedly, their passivity and even opposition has posed a frustrating puzzle for those of us on the Left: Cannot working-class Americans see where their interests lie? Repeatedly, as well, many of us had faith that, with just the right message or just the right messenger, the masses would rise up, vote the Wall Street bastards out, and vote social justice in. What’s gone wrong?

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Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.

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[Note to readers: I started this blog not for political comments but for reporting social science, especially American social history. But I will scratch the itch… and then return to “regular programming.”]

Premise: Removing Trump is America’s number one priority, because his re-election would make us fall further behind in addressing priorities number two through n–slowing climate change, tamping down war, moderating inequality, repairing the infrastructure, learning to live with growing diversity, and more.

Strategies: They largely boil down to hard-nosed pragmatics: We on the left should not shoot ourselves in the foot.

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For several years now, this blog has tracked growing political partisanship in the U.S., the estrangement between grassroots Republicans and Democrats that echoes some of nineteenth-century inter-party vitriol, although does not reenact some of nineteenth-century bloodshed (yet). The division is increasingly about culture and identity rather than about policy. Differences on issues such as health, immigration, and entitlements are not fundamental–witness red states voting for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage. Instead, more and more voters are basing their policy preferences (and a lot more) on their parties. Furthermore, party lines increasingly match regional, state, and community borders, which intensifies the political consequences.

This polarization had been under way for a few decades among political elites but not among the wider public until more recently. Trump’s victory depended critically on that polarization; his campaign and presidency, in turn, widened it. Both in 2016 and 2018 Trump spurned the “big-tent” outreach strategy of the GOP elites and instead revved up the base over cultural topics.

One result of this year’s midterms is, as many commentators have noted (e.g., here), yet further widening of the cleavage. The very size of the midterm turnout is one sign: Massive mobilization against Trump seemed to spur massive mobilization for Trump. In the end, a handful of culturally red states purged themselves of anomalous Democratic senators as many culturally blue congressional districts purged themselves of anomalous Republican representatives–often by replacing them with the sorts of victors who provoke the Trump base: career women, minorities, LGBT, and even Muslims.

Where is this bitter polarization heading?

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On August 24, 2018, President Trump warned 100 evangelical leaders who had been summoned to the White House that the fall’s midterm elections are “very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion.” White evangelical Protestants had overwhelmingly–77% of them– voted for candidate Trump in 2016 (versus 57% of white mainline Protestants), while the religiously unaffiliated had voted overwhelmingly against him–only 24% for Trump. A year and a half later, white evangelicals and the unaffiliated were virtually unchanged in their rates of heavily supporting versus heavily opposing the president.

Religion and politics have been intertwined through much of American history, especially since Catholics starting moving here in large numbers. Americans’ party allegiances tended to follow their religious allegiances. Seemingly new to this century is the extent to which the reverse is true, that politics is driving religious identity.

Since this possibility was first discussed by some of us about 15 years ago (1, 2, 3), this reversal of mover and moved has become increasingly apparent. A few weeks after Trump’s declaration to the assembled evangelicals, the election-predicting website 538 posted a story titled “Americans are Shifting the Rest of their Identity [sic] to Match their Politics,”drawing on an as-yet unpublished study I discuss below.

Two recent developments in this story lead me to update earlier posts (4, 5, 6): In the academic world, research on how politics shapes religious expression has boomed. And in the real world, the mutual influence between Caesar’s realm and God’s realm has tightened.

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Feel-Good or Do-Good Politics

A few recent developments have again highlighted a tension in left politics. One is the public shaming of Trump administration officials, calling them out in venues like restaurants, a tactic encouraged by at least one Democratic congresswoman. Another is a never-say-die mobilization against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, a campaign that is supremely unlikely to succeed and would, if it did, simply lead to someone else at least as conservative being appointed. A third are calls to abolish ICE, the agency that has been deporting the undocumented, an event about as likely to happen in the near future as the Congress abolishing Trump golf courses.

mai 68

So, what is the point of calling for such bootless initiatives? Mainly, it appears, it is to energize people, to join them together in righteous and exciting solidarity, to declare their indignation and moral purity. And what about actually getting something done? Not so much.

Left activists have done this before, declaiming outrage, while right activists have more quietly but effectively advanced by focusing on what matters: votes. Some on the left have learned this lesson, as new grass-root groups have flipped Republican-held districts, but others are still stuck in the “Occupy” mind set.

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In the off-season–and any season without baseball is “off,” as in slightly rancid–the big news in the sports world was political, the fierce controversy over NFL players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest… well, a variety of things, from police shootings to the rhetoric of the president. A good deal of this sports politics had to do with race–as a good deal of all American politics has to do with race. That helps explain where baseball stands in this controversy.

Hart_McCovey_Mays_1967

Hart, McCovey, Mays 1967

With rare exception, baseball players remained standing during the anthem and stood apart from the protests. While the 2017 World Series winners, the Astros (minus Puerto Rican player Carlos Beltran), made the ritual trip of champions to Trump’s White House on March 12, 2018, the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors spurned the ceremony and several members of the Superbowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they would boycott a similar event. This contrast emerges from the historical connection between race and baseball.

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Explaining Trump Some More

It’s over a year now, but academics, journalists, and political junkies still cannot get their fill–nor can I–of addressing the question, Why Trump? The obsession is understandable. Aside from the clear and present dangers his administration poses to the nation, there is the compelling puzzle of how so many Americans could vote for a man who…. well, whose own leading appointees call him an “idiot” and a “f**king moron.” As I wrote before, the social science question is not why he won. Trump’s electoral college victory can be blamed on many small incidentals (and, perhaps most deeply, on the Founding Fathers’ suspicion of popular democracy). The big question is why Trump did so much better than other also out-of-the-mainstream but less outlandish candidates like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.

vote here

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Discussion has largely focused on whether Trump’s special appeal to white working class (WWC) voters which helped him win the Republican nomination and then key swing states arose more from those voters’ economic anxieties or more from their cultural anxieties. Journalist German Lopez’s recent review in Vox of several studies leads him to conclude that “the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.” That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racial taunt underlines Lopez’s claim.

In response to such assertions, conservative columnist Ross Douthat reasonably responded that both motivations mattered and that economic concerns should not be dismissed as an important source of Trump’s appeal. Liberal columnist Kevin Drum responded that Trump’s racist support was no different than that of past GOP candidates and, anyway, it’s all besides the point, because his election is former FBI Director Comey’s fault. Neither Douthat’s nor Drum’s responses is compelling–nor is it compelling to reduce Trumps’ supporters to racists. Better understanding of the Trump phenomenon is both intellectually interesting and potentially important. So, I return to the topic of a post about a year old, “Explaining Trump,” only this time with much new data and debate to integrate.

As before, distinctions must be made, even after setting aside the question of why Trump won the electoral college. We must separately address the question of who became key Trump enthusiasts from the question of why he managed to get 46 percent of final vote (while Goldwater in ‘64 got only 38 percent, Wallace in ‘68 14 percent, and Perot in ‘92 19 percent).

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