Saturday, January 7, 2017

The changing (not so much) electorate

Source; WikiMedia Commons
The eccentricities of our new President aside, American national politics and government in 2017 seem mostly similar to those of the past generation or so. The same policy challenges face us, most notably environmental sustainability, climate change, accommodation of diversity in our communities, security, and the fiscal solvency of government at all levels. All of these raise questions of subsidiarity i.e. the doctrine that public problems should be addressed at the level of government that is as close to the people as practicable. There are serious questions about whether national government involvement in, for example, transportation funding, leads to better outcomes or worse policies (Marohn).

At the heart of all of these issues is the one I think the biggest of all: economic opportunity. It is difficult to sell affordable housing, or immigration, or environmental regulations, or even sidewalks, if people feel their economic prospects are fragile, while those below them on the economic ladder are likely to be idle and dangerous. The 2010s have seen improved economic conditions, including a record 75 consecutive months of job growth, but an NBC/Wall Street Journal in October found nearly half of respondents still "worried or uncertain" about the country's economic future (Source:; see also Casselman, Porter). On a variety of policies, it's hard to take the long view if you're worried about the short term. And it's hard to come together on policy solutions without the social trust that I'm sure would be facilitated by broader economic opportunity.

Now comes, to this familiar menu of problems, the 45th President and the 115th Congress. We only have exit polling data so far, but as far as we can tell from that, the demographic groups that elected them followed patterns similar to other elections dating back to the 1980s. It was during the Reagan years that the New Deal's primarily economic-based party alignment (with a side order of Civil War nostalgia) became crosscut with cultural issues. Demographic group behavior in 2016 looked a lot like 1988 and all the elections in between.

The widely varying electoral outcomes of the past thirty years or so reflect differences in turnout between the party's bases. Increasing polarization in the electorate means mobilizing the base is as much or more important than appealing to the middle (Theriault, Abramowitz). Voting turnout is up among strong partisans and down among independents, and "ideological sorting" means those strong partisans are also strongly ideological. Moreover, geographical sorting means voters live in more politically homogeneous neighborhoods and counties (Bishop); this far more than gerrymandering accounts for the shrinking number of swing states and districts. (The two presidential candidates in the close election of 2016 were within five percentage points of each other in only 11 states, albeit that number is up from five in 2012. Trump won six of the 11, including the big prizes of Florida [29 votes by 1.2 points], Pennsylvania [20 by 0.7] and Michigan [16 by 0.3].)

In the 2016 exit polls produced by the National Election Pool and reported by The New York Times and Cable News Network (CNN) we see typical patterns of partisan support from categories of sex, race and religion. The Times report includes changes from 2012, and there are some interesting ones--Asian Americans voted 11 percentage points higher for Trump than they did for Romney--but they don't come with a ready explanation and are subject to question given the nature of exit polls.

Socio-economic status is a different story. For a long time, Republican support has increased with income level, though the effect is less strong in the post-Reagan era. Education, meanwhile, has for three decades typically shown a strange pattern, with Republican support increasing with education level up to bachelor's degree, then shifting sharply Democratic for those with education beyond a bachelor's degree. The 2016 exit polls sort of continue these patterns, but the groups are extremely compressed. The highest income level is only seven percentage points more Republican than the lowest income level, which is probably neither statistically nor substantively significant. Education groups are all similar, except for "postgraduate" which remained decidedly Democratic. Broken out by race, we see why: Trump won heavily among whites without a college degree, while the candidates split more highly-educated whites and Clinton retained the traditional Democratic advantage among nonwhites regardless of education level.

What's going on here? Political scientists who've studied public partisanship, like Alan Abramowitz, note that it is pronounced among the engaged public. "This group," says Abramowitz, "is made up of citizens who care about government and politics, pay attention to what political leaders are saying and doing, and participate actively in the political process" (p. 4). Engagement has been found to increase with socio-economic status. But maybe that changed this year? It seems on this superficial examination of exit polls that lower-status groups have now polarized along partisan-ideological lines, which worked, at least this year, to Trump's advantage.

This begs a number of questions which, thanks to this not being a natural science using laboratory experiments, are impossible to answer with any certainty, but I'll ask them anyway. What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been a more ideological candidate capable of channeling public outrage (think Bernie Sanders)? What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been from the mainstream of the party but without Clinton family baggage (think Joe Biden)? What if the Republican candidate had been from the mainstream of the party without the weaknesses exposed in the 2016 field (think a non-92-year-old Bob Dole)? What if the election was decided by popular vote not the Electoral College?

We move, then, from fruitless but fascinating speculation back to the issues that started this post, and which generally fuel this blog's discussion. I am not hopeful. Trump, despite his blunderbuss of a personality and erratic policy statements, has apparently not been disruptive enough to break the familiar patterns of American national politics. The Republican Party has parlayed a marginal advantage in nationwide vote distribution into unified control of the national government as well as many states, but has shown less interest in solving these issues than in denying their existence. Experience in states like Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin show the policies we're likely to get from unified Republican control are those that payback their constituencies, some ideological (limit abortions, support Israeli settlement in the occupied territories) but mostly economic (lower taxes and less regulation for health and safety).

Even for those who want to take a principled approach to our most troublesome issues, there is a notable lack of readily available policy solutions, particularly as there is neither a pile of money nor the political will to pay for them. (Is it me, or has every nation policy advocated since the rise of supply-side economics in 1980 been required to be "free" i.e. paid for either by somebody else [the 1 percent, smokers, Mexico, e.g.] or by magical thinking about future economic growth? I mean, I love free stuff, too, but these are serious problems worthy of serious collective thinking!)

Hence the attractiveness in 2016 of expressive politics. The 2016 election makes sense if voting for Trump (or Clinton, or Sanders) is seen as a gesture rather than a constructive choice among alternative policy futures. Trump's odd collection of statements and policy reversals, which would have done in many an earlier candidate, don't matter because the election wasn't about policy, or problems, or even empirical reality. It was about making a statement about who is "us" and who is "them." In that case, the president-elect's insults and taunts in the run-up to his inauguration are far more important to his electoral appeal than his health care policy.

Thursday's New York Times carried two columns about health care on their Op-Ed page. One, by Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, warned based on focus groups that Trump voters "will not be happy if they are asked to pay even more for their health care" as appears highly possible given naming of Rep. Tom Price as his Health and Human Services secretary. Really? Unhappy enough for health care to be a voting issue? Directly below Altman's column, and next to the other health care one, radio news director Robert Leonard approvingly quotes former Republican Representative J.C. Watts on the cultural differences between the parties: We become good by being reborn--born again. Democrats believe that we are born good. that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong--not us. If Leonard's right that that's what conservatives think about liberals, and if liberals think something equivalently condescending about conservatives, we're a long way from serious thought about fixing the health care system or anything else.

Expressive politics can be fun, I'm sure, but not constructive. Their ongoing prominence shows how far we are as a country from the level of social trust needed to have conversations about solving our problems and build stronger communities.

Alan I. Abramowitz, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2010)
Bill Bishop, The Great Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Ben Casselman, “Inequality Is Killing The American Dream,” FiveThirtyEight, 8 December 2016
Charles Marohn, "A Big Pot of Money," Strong Towns, 6 January 2017
Eduardo Porter, “America’s Inequality Problem: Real Income Gains Are Brief and Hard to Find," The New York Times, 13 September 2016
Sean M. Theriault, Party Polarization in Congress (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

PLUS: I just ran across this citation... haven't read it, might be worth a look...
Leonie Huddy, Lilliana Mason and Lene Aaroe, "Expressive Partisanship: Campaign Involvement, Political Emotion, and Partisan Identity,” American Political Science Review 109:1 (2015), 1-17.

"The Election and Our Common Life," 18 November 2016
"Deliberation and the Shutdown," 3 October 2013
"Climate Change and the Dysfunctional Congress," 27 June 2013
"What's the Matter with Congress," 30 May 2013

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