Category Archives: 2016 election

the state versus petit-bourgeois white America

Citizens experience the state in the form of people–teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses and doctors. These may be public employees or just subsidized by public funds, as when doctors get reimbursed by Medicare or professors get some of their salary from federal financial aid and grants. They help, serve, and protect; they also advise, cajole, assess and select, and discipline.

If we expand distributive justice (taxing richer people and spending the money on “government”), then relatively needy people will be confronted with human representatives of the state. These interactions will be friction points, sites of cultural conflict and resistance.

This is a well-known problem that has been discussed for a century. Traditionally, it has a strong class dimension: the state sends mostly college-educated people to both help and discipline working-class people. The state represents norms and ways of life embraced by the dominant social class. (I think this was even the case in the USSR.) In the US, the friction also has a racial dimension, even though white people have always been recipients of government support and surveillance in the US.

I think four strategies have often been proposed to reduce the friction:

  1. Make the state more demographically representative of the people it relates to. For instance, work to enhance the racial diversity of public school teachers, especially when their students are people of color.
  2. Design programs and laws–also train the “street-level bureaucrats” who deliver services–to minimize unnecessary moral superiority, reduce patronizing attitudes, and shift the balance to helping people versus disciplining them. For instance, educators are taught to be sensitive to their students’ backgrounds; social workers have norms against being judgmental.
  3. Organize or train the recipients of government services to stand up for their own rights and values.
  4. Expand cash transfers and other detached forms of redistribution that don’t involve monitoring and changing behavior (as education, policing, public health, and social work do).

None of these strategies has ever been fully successful. But we now see a new dynamic. A significant segment of the population identifies strongly as middle class and culturally mainstream. These are white, Christian people who may have attended college (often without completing BA degrees) and who may own small businesses or work in white-collar settings. They live in smaller towns, exurbs, and rural settings that represent a vision of respectability.

Traditionally, they identified with the state, particularly since they were very well represented in Congress, the state legislatures, and the military. Their typical question was whether or not to spend money on the government, which might waste their tax dollars but might also protect their national security, might genuinely help them without a lot of lecturing (think of agricultural extension workers or locally-controlled public schools), and would discipline other people.

Now this class—white, non-urban, Christian, and petit-bourgeois rather than working class–is in trouble. Obesity, opioid abuse, and suicide are rising to the point that their life-expediencies are falling. In some cases, their communities are losing population. Their traditional economic roles are in peril, and they’re told that their children must live and learn differently to retain their class position.

“Mortality by Cause for White Non-Hispanics Ages 45–54,” from Anne Case & Angus Deaton, PNAS December 8, 2015 112 (49)

The very bad trends depicted in this figure are concentrated among white people without college experience, but those with some college show increasing mortality. It’s only people with BAs or more who have escaped that pattern.

The state arrives to tell them to eat different foods, not to smoke, to raise their children differently. It may seem that the state disagrees with the messages that they hear in church, which they attend to live good lives. The state tells them to send their kids to the state university if they want to stay in the middle class. Their taxes and tuition dollars will pay for people who relate to them as the state has traditionally related to the poor and working class. Professors and student-affairs workers will steer their kids into a new culture that the coastal bourgeoisie has created. From the same universities come the k-12 teachers, nurses, and others who lecture them back in their own communities about food and exercise and carbon emissions. (Here I am indebted to Kathy Cramer, among others.)

When asked whether the government should “do more” (1 on the scale below) or “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private business” (5 on the scale), white men have traditionally tilted against government. However, they caught up with white women in their support for government between 2014 and 2016, perhaps because they needed it more. We don’t have 2018 data yet, but we know they voted for Trump that year. This is consistent with needing government but not liking it.

The conflict between petit-bourgeois white people and the state is gendered, because many of the front-line representatives of the government are female, and many of the people with the most counter-normative behavior are men. The conflict is also racial in two respects. First, white, middle class people traditionally distinguished themselves from Americans who needed government aid and guidance, whom they viewed disproportionately as people of color; but that distinction is erased if the middle class also needs help. Second, representatives of the state–especially those who appear on TV–look at least somewhat more racially diverse than white communities do. At the very top of the state structure for eight years was a Black man.

I think these tensions are at the heart of current US politics. Focusing on them challenges both the “economic insecurity” and the “racial resentment” explanations of the 2016 election and its aftermath. A somewhat different premise is that lower-middle-class rural and exurban white Americans are now experiencing the state roughly as poor urban people are used to experiencing it. They need it but don’t like it, because it is always telling them they must change.

I’m not saying that most of them are responding appropriately or wisely, but we might want to dust off our tools for repairing the welfare state: make sure the government employs people who talk and look like those it affects, train them for sensitivity, organize those most affected by the state to push back, and try to shift to cash redistribution instead of invasive behavior-modification.

See also: why the white working class must organizeresponding to the deep story of Trump voterswhat do the Democrats offer the working class?

new CIRCLE report on Millennials’ ideology

CIRCLE has released a new report entitled “Millennials’ Diverse Political Views: A Typology of the Rising Generation.” From the summary:

Millennials are already the largest group of potential voters and are destined to dominate American politics in decades to come. As a demographically and economically diverse generation, they naturally hold a wide range of opinions. In the 2016 election, for example, voters under the age of 30 split their support: 55% percent for Hillary Clinton, 37% for Donald Trump, and 8% for other candidates.

We use recent data to identify clusters of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 into five groups:

  • Activist Egalitarians (39% of Millennials)
  • Participatory Libertarians (29%)
  • Disempowered Egalitarians (8%)
  • Alienated Libertarians (5%)
  • The Lost and Disengaged (18%)

The two egalitarian groups are concerned about social, political, and economic inequality, and they tend to support government action to combat it. The two libertarian groups are concerned about individual freedom and are more skeptical of government. These orientations characterize some, but not all, core characteristics of young people’s beliefs about the size and responsibilities of government, and whether inequality is seen as a major barrier to progress.

Within both the libertarian and the egalitarian sides, there are disagreements about civic engagement. Millennials of all political stripes differ on whether it is useful for people like them to engage with fellow members of their community or with institutions—or both—to change society. Meanwhile, the Lost and Disengaged do not seem sure where they fall, are disconnected from news media, and largely disengaged from civic life.

The largest group, Activist Egalitarians fit an influential stereotype of Millennials. However, they number less than two-fifths (39%) of all Millennials, and are themselves not monolithic. Less than a third (28%) see themselves as liberal or extremely liberal, and 14% see themselves as conservative or extremely conservative. More than half (54%) of Hillary Clinton’s Millennial voters came from this group, but they have mixed feelings about the Democratic Party.

Demographic and Social Differences

There are important demographic and social differences between the groups, particularly related to education and income.

Participatory Libertarians are almost three times as likely to have a college degree as the Lost and Disengaged.

Among the two Egalitarian groups, the Activists are almost twice as likely to have completed college as the Disempowered, more than half of whom have no college experience at all. That a lack of civic efficacy and confidence correlates with these disparities only exacerbates political and social inequalities.

Those who do not believe in the power of people’s collective work in communities and society vary not only on their Egalitarian-Libertarian polarity, but also on why they may not believe that people can make a difference:

Disempowered Egalitarians acutely feel social inequities but may be hopeless that anything could change.

Alienated Libertarians appear to worry about individual prosperity first and foremost and believe that everyone should look out of themselves rather than work with institutions or with each other.

It is encouraging that a majority of young people of diverse ideologies believe that they should work with others to benefit society and communities, and that civic institutions can play a positive role if they are kept accountable. Still, a troublingly sizable minority are unconvinced that they and their fellow citizens can effect change, and/or feel unqualified to contribute to civic life. Engaging these young people will be challenging, but it is not impossible. We must implement multi-pronged, short- and long-term strategies for engagement that support all young people as they develop their civic and political identity. And we must ensure that Millennials have the resources and opportunities to express their identities with a loud and clear voice, and to turn that voice into effective action.

college student voting rose in 2016

Today, my colleagues at Tisch College’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education have released their national study of college students’ voting, based on the voting records of 9,784,931 students at 1,023 higher education institutions.  The team finds a national college turnout rate of 48.3% in the 2016 presidential election, up from 45.1% in 2012, with significant variations by race, gender, field of study, and institution type. Women voted at rates about seven points above men in both years. (It’s interesting that the dynamics of the 2016 campaign didn’t change that pattern.) Asians and Latinos increased their turnout substantially. African Americans’ turnout slipped from a high baseline in 2012.

  • Here is the full national report.
  • This is an interactive portal where you can explore the data yourself.
  • The team also sent individual reports to 1,005 colleges, with their own turnout data broken down as much as possible by students’ demographics and fields of study.
  • On NPR, Danielle Kurtzleben covers the release in a story headlined, “2016 Voter Turnout Dropped At HBCUs, Climbed At Women’s Colleges, Study Finds.”

Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

how political knowledge related to opinions in 2016

Last fall, the American National Election Study asked a representative sample of Americans four factual-knowledge questions about government: which party controlled the House and the Senate, how long a Senator’s term lasts, and which federal program costs the most. The mean respondent got just under two (1.94) of the four items right.

I thought some comparisons would be interesting. As shown in the chart below, Clinton voters scored a bit higher than Trump voters–but not by a mile. Political knowledge of this type correlated somewhat with understanding climate change, and a lot with following political news and planning to vote. Obama and Romney voters had indistinguishable levels of political knowledge. Liberals performed a bit better than conservatives, and both knew more than moderates. Knowing more about government correlated with trusting it a bit less.