I have to start with a confession. For most of this week, I have been completely absorbed in the minutiae of the US general election, to the extent that, out with the live blog I have barely had a chance to write anything for Slugger.
According to The Economist, it has burned $13.4 in campaign spending, but it has also brought out the highest proportion of voters since the fraught campaign of 1968 (in the midst of the Vietnam War), which at the time of writing was 61.7%.
The mail-in ballots have returned the US democracy to something more reminding of the geographic and demographic diversity of the US. Time after time TV analysts deep dive into obscure counties (the Parish in Irish parlance) of the battleground states.
Absent the high-speed counting machines (remember the hanging chad thing from 2000 was a punch card issue) may ultimately salve the anger the speed of Twitter and other social media networks might otherwise have baked into a frenzy by now.
The humour on the slow speed of the Nevada count, in particular, has been relentless…
The way NEVADA be counting votes! pic.twitter.com/Y8AJywXgUP
— Demas Kiprono (@kipdemas) November 6, 2020
But this is Covid time. Nothing happens quickly as Twitter (or its populist beneficiaries) would like anymore. In an election in which legitimacy is questioned with casual abandon, Nevada was a real-time demonstration of what democracy actually means.
And as Biden also pulled inexorably away from Trump in Pennsylvania and Arizona, it seemed like the end of an often hysterical “prepare for Mussolini but hope for Berlusconi” era was nigh. A far cry from the margins predicted in the polls, but still very real.
The President’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have fallen on the fertile ground he’s been preparing since 2016. But claims like Fintan O’Toole’s in the New York Review of Books that the US has become a Zombie democracy are surely exaggerated?
When all votes are counted, we’ll see that Mr Trump lost because of who he alienated by mishandling the Covid emergency as much as who he brought out by his reflexive polarisation of the nation. Kevin Cunningham’s guess is white college-educated men:
Perhaps the biggest shift in 2020 was among white college-educated men. Trump led by 14% in 2016, but Biden won them by 2%.
I spoke to Trump-Biden switchers in the rust belt key states.
A clear pattern emerged: Trump’s mismanagement on Covid overshadowed economic competence. pic.twitter.com/yi8azi5AMA
— Kevin Cunningham (@kevcunningham) November 4, 2020
Also, suburban women and independents comprise others who voted Trump in 2016 and then walked away this time, with the suggestion that they wanted fewer political thrills and more of what Chris Dillow calls ‘an image of serious technocracy’.
Despite the US slump into circular (and exit free) culture war narratives, in a crisis, competence still matters, not least because large numbers of citizens are confronted with an overburdened sense of their own mortality. And Democracy can intervene.
Last of the Baby Boomer Presidents?
Trump is not the Republican Party. Despite a jovial claim yesterday from his Northern Irish envoy Ambassador Mick Mulvaney, I doubt he will run again in 2024 for two reasons: one the GOP will see him coming, and two he’s already proved his point.
A third is his age. He may be younger than Biden (the oldest man ever to be elected to the Whitehouse), but I suspect the US public may have had enough of a Baby Boomer generation which only lasted 18 years, but has been incumbent from 1992 till now.
The Boomers run from 1946 to 1964 and are often referred to as the ‘pig in the snake’ generation which alludes to the fact there are much more of them (erm, us) than either before or after. The competition was keen and not everyone did well out of it.
But they missed out on WWII, benefited from a Keynesian expansion of the state in childhood, and supply-side reforms of the 80s that transformed many adult economic prospects, which eventually led to huge asset concentration among their top earners.
Relatively speaking access to that wealth came more easily than either the generation before or those who have come after them: who now face a basket of unresolved issues from downward social mobility, to dropping health outcomes and climate change.
As it happens, Biden is a tail-ender from the generation before and will be 82 in four years time. Generationally he probably has much more in common with the public service-minded George HW Bush than he has with either Clinton or Trump.
But the absence of Democratic success elsewhere begs a question as to whether this is a genuine turn in the road for the Democrats or just a modest (if effective) affordance from America’s electorate to loosen the grip of the wealthiest boomers.
Polling and America’s growing social cognition failure
Apparent failure to take the Senate shows an electorate capable of sending more than one message at a time, not a Zombified unthinking mass. State House-level failure before the next census means the GOP retain hold over the gerrymandering of boundaries.
There was shock in Florida when the Democrats were reminded that not all Latinos think the same way. Demography is not destiny, not least because it is always changing. Cubans and Venezuelans aren’t so hot on “socialism” as the NE liberal states.
The Ohio rustbelt continues a slow drift away from a party who last won there in 2012, with 50.67% (and 52.9% in 2008). And despite his distasteful utterances on racial matters, there was a significant percentage increase in black men voting Trump.
The GOP now has more women in Congress than at any point in history. You might even look at this outcome and think that Biden has done the Republican party a bigger favour than he intended, by enabling them both to dump Trump and renew.
Biden does have the Whitehouse. Not nothing, but on Tuesday Shane, Ruarai and myself considered whether the Dems would get a bare majority or a decent one. In the event, it looks like we were misled by the polls. Kathy Sheridan says:
…there was little scrutiny of how polls were conducted, even though much election analysis derived from polling data. More philosophical questions remain about the role played by polls in the democratic process. What exactly is their function and who do they serve?
In their podcast, Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes highlight the scale of thr failure of polling by giving the example of two Senatorial races in Maine and North Carolina where the Democrats spent huge money on what the polls had told them were leads of up to 11%.
That’s a catastrophic failure in the governance system of the bigger spending party in this election. It suggests that in many places Democrat strategists were at best working off an incomplete picture of where the electorate was at any one time.
In addition, the media’s reliance on social media (encouraged by President Trump’s mesmeric use of his own Twitter account) means that most of what makes it into mainstream coverage cannot be characterised as a serious discourse of either left or right.
Monopolistic platforms like Twitter and Facebook now own the social graph and personal data of almost every voting-age citizen. They operate on algorithms that favour their own profit and which happen to align with the most irritable, paranoid and tribalist.
Most of these platforms dispose almost entirely of contextual information allowing individuals to imply all manner of dark motives without being required in the least to provide corroborating evidence.
David Amerland calls this the Age of the Amoeba, in which citizens are quietly coerced into our own paths of least resistance, which is generally to assume that you are right about almost everything and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong.
This relates to the catastrophic loss of reliable qualitative data which local journalism once fed capillary-like into Westminster. Regional hacks for Scottish and north of England titles once sat together in the press bar which no longer send anyone.
The Democrats are still out of signal with their base
At the finish of his 2016 acceptance speech to the Republican party Trump hollered a loud “I am your voice”, addressing just the people who had once been core constituency of the US Democrat Party. They don’t and they didn’t all vote for him, but many did.
In the Art of War by Sun Tzu, the sage Zhang Yu notes that as two of five key strategic considerations leadership and discipline come last because ‘it is first necessary to look into the matter of whether you are trusted by your own people”.
In an interview (from about 11 mins in) a few months ago Mark Blyth observed that the Democratic Party no longer has a direct line with which to talk to the 40 million strong white working-class males that have been key deliverers of Trump’s mandate.
Columnist Mark Shields captures the problem in plain language likely to resonate with that historical base, Democrats were once “the shot and a pint party but now they have become the sauvignon blanc party”. Indeed, they have an Ivy League problem.
Listening was enough for many Trump voters who believe (rightly) the mainstream barely cares they exist. If Trump’s economic measures had only modest success, but like most modern populists his primary virtue is his ability to reflect their concerns.
Half the problem the Democrats have is that they have allowed themselves to be distracted from the fact that much of the distress in the country arises from the failure of economics to deliver for ordinary people on the ground. Chris Dillow notes:
…the left must be in favour of economic growth – albeit as green as possible. The great thing about growth isn’t that it makes us richer so much as that it promotes tolerance and egalitarianism.
Farah Stockman has highlighted how the privileges of seniority that blue-collar workers can expect from their commitment to one firm over their working lives (like doing less hard physical work or being consulted) are wiped out when they move on.
Calling them stupid and racist for voting Trump not only won’t bring them back but is built on the misleading idea that separating their interests from those of other communities whose asset base is either diminishing or non-existent can win elections.
The Lexington column in the Economist this week highlights what many of the Sauvignon Blanc crew on the coast miss:
Mexican-Americans care less about Mr Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric than Democrats—in the face of much evidence to the contrary—persist in believing. A doggedly upwardly mobile community, Hispanics do not generally consider themselves to be the downtrodden minority the left refers to them as. The Democrats will not be a reliable alternative to right-wing populism unless they correct such errors and widen their appeal. [Emphasis added]
Biden (and Congress) must fix what Trump couldn’t (or wouldn’t)
In one of my favourite reads of the year, Angrynomics, Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth note that regardless of whether we all agree on how we got here, “tackling inequality in wealth is a challenge that will motivate and change people’s lives”.
Harold Jarche cleanly renders the underlying problem (for both the left and the right if they care about the nation, which of course, not everyone does):
We are the end of an economic period where people with little education & limited skills were able to have high-paying permanent jobs. The bottom has now dropped out, & those at the very top now take advantage of automation, cheap global labour, 0% interest & low corporate taxes https://t.co/75Ej3jug4i
— Harold Jarche (@hjarche) November 8, 2020
Culture war terms of the kind Trump drew people into are limiting because they only tackle part of the problem. Of course, black lives matter, but a key factor in black American anger is that fifty years after Johnson’s good society reforms they’re marking time.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston published a survey recently which showed that…
…white households have a median wealth of $247,500, Dominicans and U.S. blacks have a median wealth of close to zero. Of all nonwhite groups for which estimates could be made, Caribbean black households have the highest median wealth with $12,000.
And yet, Trump attracted record numbers of minority groups (black Americans, Hispanics, and even LGBT voters) as well as retaining an outsized grip (for a comfortable Billionaire) on that 40 million strong white working-class males who are struggling.
Elsewhere Blyth talks about how centrist governments of both the left and the right have seen themselves as exercising responsible constraints on voter volatility: attempts which he believes are ultimately destined to fail.
Tax increases will be impossible to get through this Republican Senate. Besides most capital is lightweight and international. But there may be a willingness to use, as the Bank of England did last week, the negative interest rates available in the bond market.
Sovereign wealth funds have been the preserve of export dominant nations like Singapore or oil producers like Norway, but as Eric pointed out on Cargo Of Bricks, a national wealth fund aimed at future regeneration can be set up with bond market cash.
This is not old school nationalisation. The assets can be traded on global exchanges in order to build up value. As national assets (like our too big to fail banks did back in 2008), it means that states can get a proper return on their bailout investments.
The squeeze on lower age demographics means they are barely saving, but top income quintile (who own over 80% of U.S. household financial assets) is still saving right up to age 80. That means we could have low-interest rates for a decade.
The new President needs an approach with a compelling bipartisan appeal. Obama eventually ground a hostile GOP majority for six out of his eight years though unwarranted politeness and a huge focus on getting his hard-to-dismantle healthcare into law.
Biden’s candidacy settled an ideological maelstrom internally but the future is not clear. As John McGuirk points out in this Twitter thread, both parties are in danger of fighting each other to stand still, with a resulting loss of national legitimacy.
Democracy is not dead, but it does need renewal
Trumpism (let’s call it that since it already exists almost everywhere else) prospers in the widening gaps between technocratic elites (who have the resources and capacity to fix stuff) and the people of the parish (whose communities are increasingly broken).
It can’t be fixed with the same muddle of post-modern make-believe that has bewildered the never-had it-so-good baby boomer winners, but with a strong return to materialist focus on re-building that characterised the immediate post-war era.
Biden can at least still speak the language of the human parish, even if his machine cannot. That needs a qualitative fix in due course, as does financing the urgent arrest of climate change and the economic transition for the working and middle classes.
As for the all-too-easy conclusion that the jig is up already for democracy? Such fatalism is as dangerous (if not more so) as the buffoonery of Trump and Berlusconi. As Biden said during last week’s long slow election count, “the process is working”.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty
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