Friday, July 19, 2019

A house divided

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” The United States is now deeply divided, not on a single issue like the slavery that Lincoln was talking about in 1858, but by something beyond issues, beyond ideology, something much worse: Group identity, sometimes called tribalism. The USA is no longer one country, nor even a union of 50 separate republics. Instead, it’s now a mishmash of “Follow Friday” Tweeps and Facebook Blocked lists, it’s MAGAs on one side and The Resistance on the other. It is a house divided, and that cannot stand.

In the video above, CNN’s Michael Smerconish bemoans the absence of any source of unity in the USA, how even things that were once apolitical are now seen only through “partisan” eyes. He’s right about the loss of opportunities for unity, but it’s not because people are partisan, as he seems to think: It’s because they’re part of different group identities.

Ezra Klein recently wrote about this on Vox, and about how what people don’t understand about the current regime and its supporters is that this has nothing to do with conservatism—ideology—it has do with one thing only: winning. The only thing that matters to them is that they’re marching together, and beating “the Left” as they go.

Because we don’t understand the motivations of the Right, we should all do as Sonali Kolhatkar recently did on Truth Dig, and ask: “Are We Underestimating Trump Yet Again?”. The current occupant of the White House’s campaign team know what it has to do to motivate its base, which is part of the motivation for him stoking the fires of racism, as he did this past week. The Left simply doesn’t understand that base, as Klein suggested. But Kolhatkar seems to think that it’s about some sort of ideology:
“…progressives and liberals have to accept the ugly fact that a sizable portion of America’s population is susceptible to [the current occupant’s] propaganda because they back the president’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant, racist, sexist, homophobic, corporatist, war-mongering agenda—even if they don’t publicly articulate it.”
Do they really? Michael Herriot clearly thinks so, at least in part, but maybe only by default. Writing on The Root, he says (in a piece with one of the site’s common enough confrontational headlines), “White People Want Trump”. He has two points worth looking at. First, that if there is such a thing as an amorphous but unified bloc of voters called “Black Voters”, then surely there must also be one called “White Voters”. The important thing about that is it’s stupid to reduce all people of one race into little more than automatons who all vote alike. I’ve frequently commented on this blog about how there’s no such thing as a unified bloc of voters— Black Voters, LGBT+ Voters, Female Voters, whatever—so I think that point cannot be stressed enough.

His other main point is that to White Voters, as a bloc, race trumps, so to speak, nearly everything else. While he’s at pains to acknowledge that not all White Voters feel that way (extending a rhetorical courtesy that most pundits don’t extend to Black Voters or Hispanic Voters…), he nevertheless provides strong evidence supporting his thesis:
In a June 12 national survey of registered voters, Quinnipiac University pollsters matched Donald Trump against the top Democratic presidential candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker. News outlets across the country including CNN, Newsweek and the Washington Post have reported on the results—namely, that Donald Trump loses against every single one of the candidates by a relatively large margin. But relatively few have mentioned that regardless of the presidential final round matchup, one thing remains true: White people are going to vote for Trump.

Among white registered voters, Trump beat Biden by one percentage point (46 to 47) which is within the margin of error. But Trump won the white vote by six to ten points when matched up every other Democratic presidential candidate. The Quinnipiac poll is not an outlier. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, Trump again landed within the margin of error when white voters were asked to choose between him and Joe Biden. But he won the white vote with every other Democratic contender even though the majority of them disapprove of the job he is doing as president. A poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov from June 9-11 shows that white voters would vote for Donald Trump versus a generic Democratic candidate by a margin of 10 points.
What this suggests is that White Voters are divided along group identity lines, not by ideology. To some White Voters, apparently, race matters more than ideology. When combined with the fact that conservative voters outnumber liberal voters, it points to why Joe Biden polls the best against the current occupant. It also may explain his popularity among Democratic voters who have been polled, even though Democratic activists have a high proportion of women and black people and, well, activists, most of whom are further to the Left and often anti-Biden. This doesn’t mean that a plurality of polled Democrats are rightwing or even necessarily centrist, but that they want a candidate to defeat the current occupant.

The evidence obviously seems to underscore the notion that the “best” candidate to defeat the current occupant of the White House is Joe Biden, and those arguing that have been saying that he has the greatest potential appeal to some of the White Voters that voted for the Republican in 2016. Are they right? The reality is, no one knows.

The obvious counter argument is that someone completely different from the Republican candidate—a woman, a person of colour, a younger person, or even a gay man—would create a point of difference, preventing the contest from ending up being between—let’s be honest—two white male senior citizens. This is a potentially risky strategy, though, because it relies on mobilising voters who often stay home—especially young voters those on the Leftward side of Left (or any group that feels in any way excluded by the nominee’s campaign). Even so, are these advocates right? Again, no one knows.

Somewhere between the two arguments is the fact that many of the White suburbanites who voted for the Republican nominee in 2016 were appalled by the current occupant’s behaviour once in office and voted for Democrats in the 2018 Midterms. This could be the most important bit of information because many of those White suburban voters may be conservative on some issues, but many still voted Republican in 2016, not because they agreed with that candidate, but, rather, because they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. Those same voters don’t always respond well to racist appeals, unlike the Republican Party’s base. We don’t have enough information to work out whether they’re sexist, though: They might be, and would vote against any female candidate, or it could be that they simply couldn’t stand that female candidate.

So, it could be that the best Democratic nominee is the one that can best appeal to White suburban voters, without losing or turning off traditional Democratic voters. Or, it could be Democrats need a candidate who’s completely different than the current occupant, while not driving White suburban voters away. The problem is that the two viewpoints have little common ground. Group identity again.

There’s a bigger picture here that’s easy to miss: Group identity isn’t the absolute motivator that some think it is, and that means that the American house isn’t quite as divided as it often seems. Yes, the Republican base is more or less monolithic, but not every voter who backed the Republican 2016 is part of that base. Peel enough of those non-base voters away, without losing any of the Democratic base in the process, and the current regime will be ended.

The USA is at a crossroads. It can continue down its current path, likely leading to cataclysm, or it can change course and begin to repair the damage. But the American house is bitterly divided that it’s unlikely there can be any common ground between the two main warring houses, so only one side can prevail. We know the Right is committed to that goal, and will stop at nothing to win. Is the Left anywhere even remotely close to being that committed?

Those of us who want to defeat the current regime really need to do some deep soul searching on this. The only thing that we should focus on is defeating this regime—it’s the only thing that matters. It’s why so many of us say, “I’m voting Blue, no matter who”, because we know that whoever the Democratic nominee is, that person may well not be our “ideal” candidate. In blunt and harsh terms, we need to get over ourselves and vote for the good of the country.

Let me be clear: I’m NOT suggesting that we should all get behind Biden. I’m also NOT suggesting that we should vote for someone completely different. At this point I don’t personally have a first choice (or second, or third, or…). What I am saying is that we have to be realistic about the electoral challenges we face, including the apparent reluctance of large numbers of White Voters to look beyond their own race, but also the fact that some clearly can and do look beyond race (if the candidate is acceptable), and that there are votes we can win from the Republicans.

The house that is the USA is deeply divided, and only one side can win. But the divisions are more complicated than a simple binary, and therein lies an opportunity. The current regime promises to do even more of the awful stuff it’s already been doing. In stark contrast, the Democratic side is the only hope for restoring the country and rule of law, while beginning to undo the damage the current regime has done.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. But if most of the residents of that house work together, they can repair the house, restore its strength, and keep it from collapsing. That is our challenge, that’s our hope, and it must be our mission.

Let’s ensure the house remains standing.

Tip o' the Hat to fellow expat Wendy, who pointed me in the direction of the Smerconish video.

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