Political Evidence File

Nov18: New Political Information: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
What Happens if Americans Stop Trusting the System?” by Andrew Sullivan, in New York Magazine, 19Nov18
Back in 2010, The Index Investor first began to write about what we called “Increasing Threats to Political Legitimacy” (e.g., see the May and September issues). Unfortunately, the trends we identified have continued unabated, and indeed have accelerated. Today, lots of smart people are writing about this issue.

One of those is Andrew Sullivan, whose writing we have admired for years. We therefore paid a lot of attention to what he wrote this month.

“It’s been quite a while now that the phrase “cold civil war” has been bandied about. And it’s useful, so far as it goes. Polarization has now become tribalism, and tribe is now so powerful a force it is beginning to eclipse national loyalty. The two nations, to borrow Benjamin Disraeli’s description of 19th-century Britain, stand facing each other, without blinking, faces flush, equally matched, on trigger alert for offense or another set battle.”

“What we don’t quite know is if this tenuous, balanced equilibrium is sustainable indefinitely, the system careening from one party’s bitterly contested rule to gridlock and back again, until our tribal tensions are somehow exhausted. Or whether the cold civil war could at some point get a little warmer, or even, shall we say, hot…What we don’t know, in other words, is when the legitimacy of the entire political system could come into doubt, across the ideological spectrum, in a way that might sanction undemocratic responses.”

Sullivan has expressed his concerns before, for example in his May, 2016 column: “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny”, which is well worth a read, even if you don’t agree with its conclusions.

We have also seen many other writers searching for historical analogies to the present political situation in the United States. Ones we’ve found thought-provoking include “The Suffocation of Democracy” by Christopher Browning (which compares current circumstances in the US to Weimar Germany), “Lurching to a New Weimar”, by Joel Kotkin, and “The Suffocation of History” by Richard Landes (which criticizes the Weimar analogy).

A quote often attributed to Mark Twain reminds us that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” It is one that we are well-advised to keep in mind.
The Republican Party Has Changed Dramatically Since George H.W. Bush Ran It” by Perry Bacon
Written just after Bush’s death, this column makes extensive use of data to drive home how much politics and the composition of the Democratic and Republican parties in the US have changed over the past 30 years. We all know this is true, but this evidence-rich analysis still comes as a bit of a shock to those of us with long memories.
Is the Left Going Too Far?” by Peter Beinart
An excellent article summarizing the history of two periods of the left’s ascendancy in modern American politics – the 30s and the 60s – which Beinart uses to assess the latest one, whose beginnings he dates to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and the rise of Bernie Sanders. Beinart reminds us that in both these previous situations, the left overreached and triggered a strong electoral counter-reaction, but not before achieving some policy wins.
The Central Challenge of the Age” by David Brooks, in the New York Times, 5Nov18
Following on Beinart’s conclusions, David Brooks highlights some of the challenges facing America’s resurgent progressive left politicians.

“National identity is the most powerful force in world politics today…The Republicans have flocked to Trump’s cramped nationalism and abandoned their creedal story. That has left the Democrats with a remarkable opportunity. They could seize the traditional American national story, or expand it to gather in the unheard voices, while providing a coherent, unifying vehicle to celebrate the American dream. And yet what have we heard from the Democrats? Crickets.”

“What is the Democratic national story? A void…In the past, Democrats tended to see immigration as an economic issue. Most mainstream Democrats have always been pro-immigrant, but they also favored border enforcement as a way to protect working-class wages. Barack Obama deported more unauthorized immigrants in his first two years in office than Trump has so far. Bernie Sanders used to dismiss open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal.” But now, especially in the wake of Trumpian nativism, immigration is seen as a racial justice issue. Calls for law and order on the border are taken as code for racism…”

“Democrats have a very strong story to tell about what we owe the victims of racism and oppression. They do not have a strong story to tell about what we owe to other Americans, how we define our national borders and what binds us as Americans.”

“Here’s the central challenge of our age: Over the next few decades, America will become a majority-minority country. It is hard to think of other major nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together…If the Democrats are going to lead this transition, they’ll need not just a mind‑set that celebrates diversity, but also a mindset that creates unity. They’ll need policies that integrate different groups into a coherent nation, with shared projects, a common language and culture and clear borders.”

“If you don’t offer people a positive, uplifting nationalism, they will grab the nasty one. History and recent events have shown us that.”
Oct18: New Political Information: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” by Hawkins et al for More in Common
SURPRISE.

“This report lays out the findings of a large-scale national survey of Americans about the current state of civic life in the United States. It provides substantial evidence of deep polarization and growing tribalism. It shows that this polarization is rooted in something deeper than political opinions and disagreements over policy. But it also provides some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.”

At the root of America’s polarization are divergent sets of values and worldviews, or “core beliefs.” These core beliefs shape the ways that individuals interpret the world around them at the most fundamental level. Our study shows how political opinions stem from these deeply held core beliefs. This study examines five dimensions of individuals’ core beliefs…[and[ finds that this hidden architecture of beliefs, worldview and group attachments can predict an individual’s views on social and political issues with greater accuracy than demographic factors like race, gender, or income.”

“The [population] segments have distinctive sets of characteristics; here listed in order from left to right on the ideological spectrum:

Progressive Activists
(8%): younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    Traditional Liberals (11%): older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.

    Passive Liberals (15%): unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.

    Politically Disengaged (26%): young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial.

    Moderates (15%): engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
      Traditional Conservatives (19%): religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
        Devoted Conservatives (6%): white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic.

        Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged, and Moderates constitute the “Exhausted Majority” that together comprise 67% of the electorate.

        Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”
        Yes, It Can Happen Here” by Andrew Michta, in The American Interest, 30Oct18
        This article is another indicator of the how close we may be to a critical threshold related to societies’ capacity for taking collective action to successfully address the most dangerous threats they face.

        After decades of multicultural deconstruction of its nation-states, the Western democracies are internally fracturing, and their societal and national bonds are dissolving. Today, thinking about national security in the West means taking stock of the effects not only of the dwindling sense of mutuality of obligation among the citizenry but also of levels of ethnic, racial, and political polarization not seen since the late 1960s. The current fashion for identity politics has advanced to the point that the progressive decomposition of Western nation-states is now a near-term possibility.”

        “While civilizational collapse may still be a long way off, Western democracies face an erosion of the consensus of what constitutes the larger national community, and hence why its members should rally to defend it in an emergency…since the coming of age of the ’60s generation, the overarching concept of Western cultural affinity as the foundation of national identity in a democracy—one in which an overarching shared heritage can be filled by multiple ethnic narratives but ultimately remains the key trope defining the values at the center of idea of citizenship—has been progressively displaced.”

        “In a world where national solidarity is increasingly deconstructed by the narratives that have begun to leak into broader society from their wellsprings in the academy and media, tribalism will ultimately render the nation unable to function not just in the area of public policy, but most critically when it comes to national security and defense. If Western culture is nothing but a mechanism of oppression, what is the meaning of Transatlantic solidarity in a crisis? If our nations are little more than shared legacies of shame and systemic injustice, why risk blood and treasure to defend them?”
        America’s Resilient Center and the Road to 2020” by the Progressive Policy Institute

        (Note that PPI, whose motto is “radically pragmatic”, dates from the 1980s; when it was created as a policy development think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, which was created to move the Democratic Party back towards the middle of the political spectrum after George McGovern’s presidential defeat.)
        SURPRISE.

        This analysis provides a very thought provoking look at the size of key segments and policy views of US voters at the time of the 2018 midterm election. Democrats (39%) and Democratic leaners among Independents (9%) comprise 48% of the electorate. Republicans and leaners (31 + 8) account for 39%, and true Independents for 13%.

        On a different, but important dimension, 32% identify as conservative in their views; 44% as moderate; and 24% as liberal (note that 62% of Independents plus Democratic and Republic leaners identify as moderates).

        “Despite a strong economy, Americans are anxious: 66% worry about keeping healthcare coverage; 64% about paying healthcare bills, 63% about saving for retirement; 77% believe today’s children will be worse off than parents.”

        PPI also found “unexpectedly strong support for nationalized health care”, which 75% of Independents favor.

        Another surprise was that 85% of voters are worried about the size of the national debt – “a possible sleeper issue” in 2020.

        PPI’s Conclusion: “Two requirements for a Democratic win in the 2020 presidential election are a big tent and a pragmatic, solutions-oriented agenda.”
        November 2018 US Election Results
        Two interesting indicators. (1) The swing towards the Democrats among suburban women. In some cases, (e.g., Connecticut), the emotional vote against Donald Trump appeared more powerful than economic self-interest. (2) Yet while the Democrats now control the House of Representatives, the Republicans will pick up one and possibly two seats in the Senate to further strengthen their existing majority.

        This will make any attempt to impeach President Trump much more difficult, as while the Democrat controlled House may pass a bill of impeachment, the Senate must vote to convict. While that is not impossible, it appears unlikely given the currently evidence that would be used to support the impeachment bill.

        That this election provided a conclusive victory for neither side guarantees that political conflict and overall uncertainty will continue unabated, and will likely worsen, between now and the 2020 presidential election.
        Following her party’s poor election performance, Angela Merkel resigns as head of CDU and announces she won’t serve as Chancellor beyond 2021. Macron’s popularity continues to fall as his reforms bite.
        Another indicator of the extent of the collapse the political center across multiple democracies, due to its inability to adequately respond to increasing economic uncertainty, and popular concerns about immigration and terrorism. As it other nations, it is the parties on either extreme that are gaining at the center parties’ expense. In Germany, it is AfD and Greens who are gaining while CDU/CSU and Social Democrats are losing support.

        As the Financial Times Martin Wolf wrote this month, “Populist forces are on the rise across the transatlantic world…The common thread of all these movements is rejection of the contemporary western elite and the synthesis of liberal democracy, technocratic governance and global capitalism that it promoted. It is a revolution against the establishment.” (“The Price of Populism”, 24Oct18)

        See also, “How Social Democracy Lost Its Way: A Report from Germany” by Tobias Buck in the Financial Times, 17Oct18
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        Sep18: New Political Information: Indicators and Surprises
        Why Is This Information Valuable?
        Nostalgic reminders of a different and more unified United States – or at least a different political landscape – at Senator John McCain’s funeral at the beginning of September provided a stark contrast to the shocking polarization and extremism on display during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings at the end of the month.
        I experienced firsthand the euphoria in Europe that was triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which contributed to the enormous psychological shock produced only a few years later by the savage civil wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. I often think that the European psyche has never recovered from this whipsaw.

        While not as powerful, September’s bookend events in US politics cannot help but have produced a similar shock to the US psyche. How it plays out is uncertain at this point; suffice to say that I believe it has widened the scope of what some will see as acceptable political ends and means to pursue.
        Are We on the Verge of Civil War? Some Words of Reassurance” by Morris Fiorina
        Fiorina’s quantitative analyses of the American electorate are always first rate. In this article, he uses a range of data to argue that we are further away from major political change than many media storylines would have us believe. It is a good antidote to what seems to be the conventional wisdom, at least for the surprisingly small minority of highly politically active citizens. That said, he also notes the importance of the ideological sorting of America’s two main parties (i.e., the disappearance of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans), and the increased uncertainty this creates about political dynamics in the United States.
        America is Moving Towards Oligarchical Socialism” by Joel Kotkin
        Surprise.

        While most political speculation has been focused on the potential implications of rising populist/nationalist movements in the United States, Kotkin provides a provocative alternative view that expands our mental models of the current political situation, and the range of outcomes that could result from progressive dynamics.
        “Before they can seize power from the president and his now subservient party, the Democrats need to agree on what will replace Trumpism.

        Conventional wisdom implies an endless battle between pragmatic, corporate Clintonites on one side, and Democratic socialists of the Bernie brand. Yet this conflict could resolve itself in a new, innovative approach that could be best described as oligarchical socialism.

        Oligarchal socialism allows for the current, ever-growing concentration of wealth and power in a few hands — notably tech and financial moguls — while seeking ways to ameliorate the reality of growing poverty, slowing social mobility and indebtedness. This will be achieved not by breaking up or targeting the oligarchs, which they would fight to the bitter end, but through a massive increase in state taxpayer support.”
        The Science Behind the Brexit Vote” by Michele Gelfand in The Guardian
        “When people feel threatened, they want tighter social norms.” This fits with other research that finds people to have a stronger preference for conformity when uncertainty is high. This is the appeal of populist authoritarian leaders explained at the level of individual cognitive neuroscience.
        The Problem with Populism” by JP Morgan Research.
        Like Bridgewater’s report on the increasing attractiveness of populism, and Francis Fukuyama’s recent essays on the same subject (as well as others by Andrew Sullivan, Michael Lind, and Yascha Mounk), this report analyzes the root causes of various forms of populism’s rising appeal, and speculates on the possible consequences if these views grow in political popularity.