Category Archives: 2016 election

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.

the Hollowing Out of US Democracy

In lieu of an original post here today, I’ll link to a new post of mine on The Evidence Base, a group blog from CESR, the Center for Economic and Social Research at University of Southern California.  I argue that the decline of certain types of associations has left many Americans, especially White working-class citizens, in what my colleagues at the Tisch College of Civic Life and I call “Civic Deserts.” This trend does not explain why a Republican president won in 2016 or why he has taken certain views of policy and ideology. But it does explain the appeal of his leadership style. Citizens who have never belonged to everyday local associations with responsible and accountable leaders do not expect such leadership from their president.

I also explain my SPUD framework, which stands for Scale, Pluralism, Unity, and Depth. SPUD, I propose, is the recipe for effective civic and political organizations, but it is difficult to achieve and is much scarcer today than decades ago.

White racial resentment and the 2016 election

Yesterday, I got to hear Michael Tesler present about his forthcoming book with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck: Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. I don’t want to give away the content based on yesterday’s presentation; the book is due early next year. But promotional materials already say: “Identity Crisis reveals how Trump’s victory was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people’s racial and ethnic identities. The campaign then reinforced and exacerbated those cleavages as it focused on issues related to race, immigration, and religion.”

The 2016 election can’t have a single cause, but this book adds weight to the thesis that White racial identity played a major role–more so in 2016 than at any point since 1968. Tesler made me think of an argument by Manuel Pastor, who has noted that White identity peaked in California when Whites saw their majority control nearing its end. In 1994, Californians passed Prop. 187 to block undocumented people from getting state services and to establish a “citizenship screening system.” Governor Pete Wilson made support for Prop. 187 his hallmark issue and used it to win reelection. Incumbent Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein tried to position herself as a critic of immigration as well.

California is no utopia today, but defensive White identity seems to have passed its peak there. I suspect that facing the prospect of losing majority status triggered a sense of threat. Once Whites actually became a minority in California, the sky didn’t fall, and the sense of threat passed. Whites retain their social and economic advantages despite representing just 48% of the votes cast in the 2016 election. I would contrast Texas, where a White-majority coalition still dominates the electorate but the demographic trends are against them. In 2016, 57% of Texas voters were still White (and they preferred Trump by 43 points), but they must know their electoral control won’t last.

It would be valuable to look in more detail at major cities where Whites lost majority control after 1970. Often, White racial identity peaked around the point when the first Black mayor was elected, which marked a threat to White control. The next mayor was sometimes propelled by White backlash, but then a racially diverse coalition came to dominate, and most Whites adjusted to it.

Earlier this year, Pastor told the New York Times, “The United States just went through its Prop. 187 moment.” That period in California was ugly and lasted a while. Pastor asked, “Why go through all of our pain? That was no fun, and it dashed a lot of people’s lives. We underinvested in education. We over-imprisoned, so we got a lot of people locked out of the labor market. We broke apart a lot of families because of anti-immigrant sentiments. We did a lot of stupid things to ourselves.” The good news is that if the country follows California’s trajectory, we will ultimately reach a better place, but we need to get there much faster and with less damage.

the impact of post 9/11 war on our politics

(San Antonio, TX) Any effort to understand the current political situation must take seriously the fact that we have been war since 2001. Although it’s problematic to assess wars as won or lost, that’s a hard framework to avoid; and in those terms, we’ve lost. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq—let alone Libya or Syria—is in a state that any proponent of these wars would have remotely advocated before we invaded.

Nations typically respond poorly to the experience of losing wars. The post-9/11 conflicts have been somewhat unusual. Even though we failed in our objectives, the vast majority of the human price was borne by people who are remote from US voters in both space and culture—Iraqis and Afghans. We lost no territory and very few lives at home after 9/11. Meanwhile, a small proportion of US citizens have actually been deployed in those zones. Military personnel are far from representative of the US population. Instead, they are concentrated in certain communities and families. It’s easy for some of us to forget that we have been at war; impossible for those who have served in a war zone or have sent close relatives there.

I think that for many Americans, the experience of having fought and lost is very salient. For others, it’s hardly a thought. To be critical of George W. Bush for launching an unjust war (as I am) is very different from feeling the trauma of having personally served and suffered for no apparent reason. Across history, that type of experience has often produced very ugly political results.

Certainly, voters will blame leaders who were responsible for launching and then managing these conflicts. George W. Bush left office deeply unpopular. Hillary Clinton voted (with very few fellow Democrats) for the Iraq War and then, as Secretary of State, took partial responsibility for managing the conflicts (from Libya to Pakistan) when they weren’t going well. I think the political cost of that record has been under appreciated. It didn’t help that she prospered personally and sought even higher office while others paid for decisions that she had supported. Barack Obama got a partial pass because he—like Donald Trump—was out of office when the war began. However, one of several reasons that President Obama was a polarizing figure is that some Americans blamed him for losing the wars he had inherited, some thought he disappointingly continued the Bush policies, and others thought he managed these wars skillfully.

Trump lied that he opposed the war at first, but presumably many people believed him because they never saw the counter-evidence. More importantly, Trump acknowledged the experience of having lost wars and proposed a response: from now on, we will win, because we’ll spend much more money and ignore any moral and diplomatic constraints.

Veterans and people who live in communities with heavy military presence were far more likely to vote for Trump in November. Maybe I have missed it, but I don’t recall hearing a plausible message to those communities from politicians and movements that oppose these kinds of wars. I respect a genuinely pacifist (or anti-imperialist) stance, but it has a long way to go to capture majority support, and it faces valid questions as a policy position. (Should we really not intervene militarily against ISIS?) Any viable message must acknowledge the experience of trauma without patronizing those who have served. And it must recognize the desire for the nation to succeed without being bellicose.