...Archive for October 2016

Election angst

Domestic politics in the United States are worse at this moment than they have ever been in my sad 46 years of life. And if your response is “they did it”, whoever they are, you are, I think missing the point, missing the problem. We are in this together. Once we’ve made a civil war of it we have already lost, however just the side you choose to fight on. Often moral errors feel like moral imperatives at the time.

One of the many ways contemporary social science is a poor mode for understanding human affairs is its fetish for individual-centered explanations, “methodological individualism” in the lingo. The most robust fact of social affairs is that communal characteristics trump individual characteristics in explaining almost any phenomenon of interest. All of the things we idiot idolize — educational attainment, future earnings, likelihood of poverty, likelihood of imprisonment, whatever — are much better explained by communal factors than by individual factors to the degree that we can orthogonalize the two. [1] Political phenomena are social phenomena. All social facts, characteristics that we too easily essentialize like race, characteristics we perceive as facts of nature like the unity and continuity of our identities, are socially constructed. It is much more accurate to say that communities create individuals than to say that individuals create communities, although of course both statements are true in their ways.

Politics is not about individuals. It is about communities and communal identities. Osama Bin Laden was a wealthy man, the men who brought down the twin towers were educated people who would have been able to live and prosper in Western countries. Surely, then, such acts of terrorism have nothing to do with the poverty and pathologies and resentments of Middle Eastern countries, since the individuals who perpetrate terrorism are not primarily the poor or those most directly affected by those pathologies? Terrorists must just be motivated by terrorism, that is the only explanation. I hope that the shallowness of this argument is self-evident, dear reader.

Dylan Matthews at Vox writes:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

Vox is a wonderful publication along many dimensions. One of its virtues is that it provides constant exercises in how a few statistics or credentialed quotes combined with ones own authoritative voice can mislead bright writers into thinking they know the one scientific truth of things. Matthews and several of his peers at Vox have invested themselves in a narrative that says the sophisticated, carefully evidenced take on the Trump phenomenon is that it’s all racism, nothing else matters. Now, it is obvious that racism and nativism and neofascism are an important and particularly disturbing aspect of the Trump phenomenon, that people who overtly identify as racist or neo-Nazi have found a home in a tent that Donald Trump has made comfortable for them. But it is also obvious that, within the Republican Party, Trump’s support comes disproportionately from troubled communities, from places that have been left behind economically, that struggle with unusual rates of opiate addiction, low educational achievement, and other social vices. If you insist on focusing on individuals, you may miss the connection, because the worst off within communities — actual chronic discouraged workers, addicts — are likely to express no opinion to the degree they can be polled at all. Trump primary voters are white Republicans who vote, automatically a more affluent baseline than the white voters generally. At the community level, patterns are clear. (See this too.) Of course, it could still all be racism, because within white communities, measures of social and economic dysfunction are likely correlated with measures you could associate with racism. Social affairs are complicated and the real world does not hand us unique well-identified models. We always have to choose our explanations, and we should think carefully about how and why we do so. Explanations have consequences, not just for the people we are imposing them upon, but for our polity as a whole. I don’t get involved in these arguments to express some high-minded empathy for Trump voters, but because I think that monocausally attributing a broad political movement to racism when it has other plausible antecedents does real harm. (See also Carl Beijer on the same Vox piece.)

A nation-state is a relatively new form of human community. Its singular problem is scale. Among nation-states, there is a strong inverse correlation between nation-state “success” (however we want to measure that) and “socioethnic fragmentation”. Nation-states “work” when their members are most powerfully attached to a common, broadly shared, communal identity. When members attach themselves primarily to more local or parochial identities, destructive politics of intercommunal struggle often plague the polity. Unfortunately, many people understand this relationship in a very simple, static way. The Nordic countries are famously “homogeneous”, and so are unusually successful as nation-states. Lebanon is a hodgepodge of sects and ethnicities, and has a hard time thriving.

But causal arrows in social affairs usually go both ways. It is equally accurate to say that the Nordic countries have succeeded as nation-states, and so have become “homogeneous”, while Lebanon has not thrived as a nation, and so finds itself ethnically fragmented. Shared communal identities across millions of geographically dispersed people simply do not arise without political organization. Nations create their own publics, or else they fail to do so and then they fail. The United States’ main claim to fame, its main claim to virtue in my view, is E pluribus unum. The United States, during some periods of its history, has been very good at integrating disparate groups of people into a strong national community. Communal identities are never static. Nation-states experience centripetal forces that tend towards integration and centrifugal forces that pull towards fragmentation. Open commerce, frequent geographic mixing, universal education, broadcast communication networks, rich transportation networks, a national civic religion, political consensus, a widely-shared popular culture, shared lifestyles across a broad middle class, and perceived general prosperity are all sources of integration. Physical segregation, widely divergent education, commercial segmentation or exclusion, self-organizing point-to-point communication networks, the absence or decay of civic religion, political polarization, absence of a broad popular culture, economic dispersion that stratifies lifestyles, perceived unfairness in patterns of prosperity, and immigration from external communities can be sources of fragmentation. Some of these “sources of fragmentation” are very good things! Self-organizing point-to-point communication and physical segregation derive from freedom of association. They potentially help enable a diversity of subnational communities and a rich civic society. Tolerance of immigration confers an incredibly valuable option upon potential immigrants, and can support the growth and economic strength of the nation-state. But a successful nation-state must budget the centrifugal forces it can tolerate against the centripetal forces it can generate.

Nations are either integrating or they are fragmenting. The United States spent much of the 20th Century integrating. It is currently fragmenting. We currently discuss and perceive this in very racialized terms (a fact which in my view is itself a symptom of the fragmentation). Through about the 1990s, more and more groups of people integrated into a community it is now offensive to describe as “American”. We now refer to this community as “white”, in order to emphasize by contrast the unfairness and horror of the United States’ greatest shame, our failure to fully integrate descendants of the immigrants we involuntarily imported and then brutally enslaved. Since around 2000, in my view, the “white” United States has been fragmenting. Integration has been replaced by ethnogenesis. The communities from which Trump enthusiasts disproportionately arise may be increasingly white supremicist, but they are no longer unproblematically “white” in its meaning as “default American”. They compete for national identity with ascendant “people of color”, sure, but before you go on about racial last-place aversion, note that they compete more directly and much more bitterly with a cosmopolitan but disproportionately “white” urban professional class, whose whiteness has itself been problematized, as underlined by a resurgent anti-Semitism where Jews stand-in for this class broadly.

And before we get caught up categorizing and imposing moral rankings on the various new ethnicities we are inventing, we should pause to emphasize that these are accidents, not essences. Our polity was going to fray, because we have allowed centrifugal forces to grow much stronger than the forces that might tend towards integration. Regular readers will be unsurprised that I think economic stratification and differential stagnation are the deepest sources of fragmentation and the first that we should address. We may also need to consider ideas like universal national service, or Singapore-style residential integration incentives. I hope we won’t consider rolling back our chaotic, open communication networks in favor of a more “curated” shared information environment. I hope we will find ways to define a more multidimensional space for our politics to play out, rather than limiting ourselves to an increasingly polarized line between two camps neither of which adequately represent us. Whatever we do, we will have to reconcile sometimes conflicting goals of national integration, economic success, and respect for liberal values.

For the moment, we have to get through the catastrophe that this election has become. A fault line was always going to appear between the economically dominant class and much of the rest of the country which has been left behind. In my view, it is a very great tragedy that Bernie Sanders did not win his primary campaign to represent the left-behind in a positive and inclusive way. All humans are racists in some ways and to some degrees, but it was not at all inevitable, I think, that we end up in a “battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash”, as Chris Hayes put it. Donald Trump offered a particularly comfortable home to the most ethno-nationalist fraction of the left-behind, and no home at all to people of color. But many not-unusually-racist “white” people who, fairly or not, perceive Clinton as an icon of a corruption, now see Trump as the only game in town. It is tempting, among those of us who would be appalled by a Trump victory, to try to sway undecided voters by equating voting for Trump with racism full-stop. That’s a bad idea. If it becomes the mainstream view that Trump voters are simply racists, it leaves those who are already committed, those who are unwilling to abandon Trump or to stomach Clinton, little choice but to own what they’ve been accused of. Racist is the new queer. The same daring, transgressional psychology that, for gay people, converted an insult into a durable token of identity may persuade a mass of people who otherwise would not have challenged the social taboo surrounding racism to accept the epithet with defiant equanimity or even to embrace it. The assertion that Trump’s supporters are all racists has, I think, become partially self-fulfilling. In and of itself, that will make America’s already deeply ugly racial politics uglier. It will help justify the further pathologization of the emerging white underclass while doing nothing at all to help communities of color except, conveniently for some, to set the groups at one another’s throats so they cannot make common cause. It will become yet another excuse for beneficiaries of economic stratification to blame its victims. Things were bad before this election. They are worse now, and we should be very careful about how we carry this experience forward. These are frightening times.

P.S. I will be voting for Hillary Clinton. Not happily. Perhaps there is room for optimism. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I very much hope that the Democrats win the House and Senate as well. If I’m to be disappointed, I’d rather have clear lines of accountability rather than have blame diffused by claims of gridlock. I don’t think Donald Trump should be President. I think he’s unfit, and a statue of an upraised middle finger would be a better choice for all concerned. Regardless of my views, I respect your vote however you choose to cast it, because that is the first courtesy we owe one another in a democracy.

Update: James Kwak offers a much better and more careful discussion of the Vox piece I didn’t like so much.

[1] What does that mean? For example, if you tell me an individuals’ parental incomes, that’s very informative about, say, likely educational achievement. But you are giving me information both about the individual and about her community, since incomes aren’t uniformly distributed across communities. If you offer me just one of (a) the decile of parental income within a person’s community (under almost any reasonable definition of community, but without identifying the community) or (b) the identity of the community from which which she hails without the specific income information, (b), the identity of the community, will be more informative.

Update History:

  • 17-Oct-2016, 10:10 p.m. PDT: Add bold update with link to James Kwak’s piece.
  • 7-Nov-2016, 1:30 p.m. PST: “…most powerfully attached to a common, broadly shared…”; “The United States main claim to fame…”; “But And before we get caught up categorizing…”