The Way Forward 1: The Rust Belt

I. Context

For a period of time in the mid to late 80’s we lived in Northern Virginia, an area called Fairfax county, just south of Washington, D.C.

Coming from a five-college liberal stronghold in the northeast, Virginia appeared, to our eyes, to be inexplicably conservative and  WASPish, festering with poorly-concealed racism and class separation.  The Fairfax of today is of course, quite different.  By the standards of America at large, however, Fairfax county of the 80’s was politically centrist, essentially the suburban bedroom communities of the government apparatus, both Democratic and Republican.

Many years later, my brother returned from a visit there with a tale from this early-warning system.

“Obama’s going to win,” he claimed.  “The number of lawn signs, on the homes of people we thought were Republicans, shows it.”  Ten years ago we’d never have believed it, but the world had turned.  A black man could indeed be president.  Of course, Obama won, for the first time.

Likewise, I have my own early-detection systems.  I spent a few years traveling back and forth to Detroit, Michigan, where I became friendly with many people with a different political orientation than my own.  I’d listen to union radio shows in my rental car, and politely decline invitations from my Republican colleagues to go to the shooting range at lunch.  Michigan is officially purple, but was taken by Trump in ’16, so I called some up recently to get the read of the man on the street.  I was convinced that in my northeast echo chamber, the analyses I was hearing were incomplete, lacking in layers or nuance.  Some of the rationales I heard seemed overheated, more a case of shock and awe, wish-fulfillment and a statement of intent to factionalize.  “Whitelash.”  Another: “in a word: sexism.”  So I asked, literally, “What’s the word of the man on the street in the Detroit area?”

“Most people are either happy to have a job or are looking for one.  There isn’t so much ‘on the street talk’ as I think you guys get at your marches.

But I can tell you, I know a lot of people voted for Trump.  When he came here and he said to Ford, ‘If you move any factories to Mexico, I’m gonna tax your ass,’ well, that was exactly what people around here wanted to hear. Immigration is a big concern.”

I asked about the allegations of racism, sexism, what he said about immigrants.

“Let me tell you something.  When I was eighteen, I made $18/hour laying bricks.  A bricklayer makes half that now.  You can drive around and take a look at who’s manning the construction crews now and see the reason.  Sure, some people’s jobs went overseas, got automated, you name it.  But that’s not what people see.  Some guys I know have been out of work, literally, for years.

“So when you hear people chant ‘build a wall,’ are there racists in the crowd? Sure, I mean I think there have to be.  But when we hear you guys just say us wanting to build the wall is just racist, we think, ‘these guys aren’t listening to us at all.'”

And the sexism?  The ‘locker room’ remarks seemed to be a big line-drawer for some people.

“The things he was caught saying made me think less about him and more about how everything we say in public and private conversations is recorded now.   It was hard to take seriously– it just made me realize no one I know could ever be president, given all the raw shit we say.  I mean, I’ve been offensive to everybody.

“My daughter– she’s in college, after that, she just kind of tuned him out, just said to me ‘Dad, please, let’s just not talk about him anymore.’  My wife said ‘I don’t want to hear about that disgusting man in this house.'”  But neither of them marched, I don’t think they even voted for Clinton.  I think they just didn’t vote at all.”

II. Strategy

Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan
Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez.  Distributable with attribution.

Candidate Clinton lost for specific tactical reasons that I believe can be repaired in the fewest moves by concentrating on the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ states: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20).  She won Illinois, which brought 20 electoral votes, for a total of 75 additional electoral votes, well more than were needed to augment her final count of 232.  (Please note that in this analysis I’m omitting traditional rust belt regions such as Baltimore (Maryland) and Buffalo (NY) as both are geographically disparate or attached to solid-blue states that would have gone Democrat in most contests.)

So sure, had she only won another five states, she would have won. An easy thing to say, of course– if only if she had won, she would have won.  But I concentrate on these states because this is a very specific corridor of America with easily-identified and broadly shared economic concerns, not culturally southern, many are historically Democrat in presidential elections, most have vital union presences, and most are very possibly inclined to vote more on economic lines than cultural ones.  Hillary didn’t fail to win them.  She lost them.

This means in that region Democrats can address economic concerns without moving from their key positions, especially given that there are no cultural concessions open to Democrats, no going back on hard-won victories.  Although it would unlock desirable southern states, we can’t offer up gay marriage or women’s choice, and no one is saying or would say anything like that– but that would be the only way to win those states, to suddenly become another party.  By contrast, the rust belt could have been won with messaging we were already using and positions democrats already held.  It probably goes without saying that yes, it is my belief that Bernie Sanders would have won here.

Let’s take a look at how Hilary/Trump polled in the Rust Belt prior to the election and how they performed thereafter. (Source: RealClearPolitics.com)

State Electoral Votes Pre-Election Polling (%-pt lead) Final Election Results (%-pt lead) Johnson, final Stein, final
IL 20 +11.5, C +16.0 C 3.8 1.4
IN 11 +10.7 T +19.0 T 4.9 N/A
MI 16 +3.6, C +0.3 T 3.1 1.1
OH 18 +3.5 T +8.1 T 3.2 0.8
PA 20 +2.1 C +0.7 T 2.4 0.8
WI 10 +6.5 C +0.7 T 3.1 1.0

Please note, that’s a total of 95 electoral votes on the table.  At the close of the election, Clinton had only accumulated 232 of the required 270, meaning she needed at least another 38 to win.

What is the fastest way to accumulate an additional 38 electoral votes in the fewest possible moves?

March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950.
March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950. Corey J. Shupp: http://via.library.depaul.edu/mom/29/

The most efficient combination is done in two moves: take PA + OH for 38 votes exactly.  In OH, however, Trump held a 3.5 point advantage going in and an 8.1 point advantage coming out. That situation does not improve if we swap OH for IN, where, with Trump having a 10.7 point lead in November which later converted to 19 points on election day, Clinton had no shot whatsoever.

The most achievable combination is PA + MI + WI.  All three showed Clinton winning handily, according to polls. And all three went for Trump, albeit none with more than a 1 percentage point lead.  I find this achievable in that 1% may have been reclaimed with a single well-placed media buy, had anyone known in time.  This literally came down to hours.

A few other points about the data leap out immediately:

  1. She didn’t lose by a lot in this region.  In fact, in most cases in these states, she lost by vanishingly small margins.
  2. That said, we are talking about states that used to be blue in almost every case. Wisconsin last voted red for Reagan.
  3. Assuming Stein votes would have otherwise been absorbed by Clinton, (which seems plausible as Stein is considered left of Clinton, so they wouldn’t have gone to Trump, though they may have stayed home) Stein was indeed a spoiler in WI, MI, PA, and those combined 46 electoral votes would have ensured a decisive Clinton win nationally. Note that Gary Johnson’s votes would have been absorbed by both Clinton and Trump and are thus harder to predict; the key takeaway is that the Democratic party can afford (and should encourage) a Gary Johnson but could not, in this contest, afford a Jill Stein.
  4. Something happened between the polling date and the election date in which all of these states (besides Indiana) switched sides.  I’m partial to Michael Durkheimer’s analysis in Forbes that yes, the non-announcement by the FBI over the weekend played a small part (and these are very small lead numbers), but he also claims that there were also simply more Trump voters than were accounted for. Durkheimer’s thesis is that they just stayed quiet, having seen the social penalty for self-identifying as a Trump voter.  Naturally, this blind spot did not help Democrats.
  5. There is no Democrat winning combination without Pennsylvania’s 20 votes.  Pennsylvania must be won.  I would prioritize this right after Florida (which could be won, as pointed out by Van Jones, by Democrats gaining a legislative win that allows felons to vote.)
  6. Likewise, Michigan’s 16 votes are critical, and usually reliable with less effort than Ohio’s 18.
  7. Illinois is approximately as solid blue as Indiana is solid red.  That means IL can probably be relied on with the current script, likewise essentially no energy or resources need to be spent on Indiana until more of a Democratic beachhead is established.  We just can’t win there, at the moment.
  8. I feel like the case for sexism as the sole driving rationale for Clinton’s loss is undermined by the scores immediately pre-election: many of the pre-election scores showed Clinton winning from data collected as late as Friday.  Something happened over the weekend to dent her polling, and it wasn’t everyone suddenly realizing the candidate was female.  To the contrary, there really is a strong argument to be made that the FBI’s disclosure tipped the scales.
Sugarman, Detroit.
Sugarman, Detroit. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez. Distributable with attribution.

III. Forward

So what now for Democrats in these states?

Focus on the unions.  Here’s something that needs to be one of the top-three talking points for all go-forward Democratic communications: this is our plan for the blue-collar worker.  In Democrat terms, this has always been done by partnering with the unions.  This plan needs to be put forward as an economic issue, a jobs issue, and a cultural issue.  Meaning: strategic communications and creative briefs all must have imagery and iconography that speak to how the blue collar worker can expect to see a transformation and a vision for the next two decades.

UAW leadership endorsed Clinton.  UAW members went off script, and an internal poll showed 28% planned to back Trump.  That kind of defection was expected at other unions as well. Given the narrow margins of victory shown, that was more than enough to get us a 1% creep.

Now, here’s a fact.  I’ve worked in technology for twenty years.  I’ve never been in a union.  I’ve never needed one, no one I know in the industry has ever wanted one.  We work at the edge of the future, and the startup world’s tech and culture (offshoring, onshoring, automation, telecommuting) is usually followed by other industries, in their own time.

So it may be that the role of the unions themselves and their value proposition itself needs to change.  I’ll write about those specific prescriptions later, for now, the core message is simply that this is a conversation that Democrats and Progressives need to be involved in, need to guide.

We need to have everyone who has heard the message be able to answer this question for themselves: “What will you do to get me a job, and to protect it?”

Trump addressed this.  His solution wasn’t the right solution, but it answered the question: “I’m going to take your job back from the Mexicans that took it, and I’m going to tax your bosses who try to send it anywhere else.”  Take issue with the answer if you like (and I have an issue, here and there), but it’s an answer.

Sanders also had an answer to this question. “I’m going to take the investment from the rich people who are robbing you blind and pour it back into this country to create jobs for people like you.”  Also an answer.  Also has its own issues and presuppositions.

What was Clinton’s answer, again?

Right.

 

The Lisa Simpson Problem

nelson
Clinton and Trump get to know each other after the debate.

The New York Times seems to have caught on to what I have been saying all along: that candidate Hillary Clinton has a Lisa Simpson problem.

For those of us who watch The Simpsons, this rings true almost instantaneously.  Lisa is brilliant, she’s insightful, she is tireless, she is optimistic.  She can be relied on to come up with the most sensible plan.  She’s always done the reading, she’s always hunting for the extra credit.  She transcends the term kiss-ass because her interests coincide with the teacher’s, and she couldn’t give a damn what the teacher thinks because she doesn’t have to.  She knows she’s right. Lisa seeks progress, not out of a need for self-aggrandizement, but out of love. She is, truly, surrounded by idiots.

This is also what makes her irritating.

Lisa courts controversy on the Simpsons not because what she wants is wrong.  The problem is that she makes everyone else feel worse about themselves.  She swims through their malaise unaware, their desire to pull her down to earth, to knock her down a peg, buoyed only by her optimism and goodwill.  Everyone usually knows she’s right, and it isn’t the point.  Her idealism isn’t just inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.

What they need from her isn’t a plan, what they need is for her just be one of them, to stop acting so high-and-mighty.  This is Springfield,for God’s sake.  There’s no room for greatness.  What you must do, to survive here, is accommodate yourself to mediocrity.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Here’s a favorite quote (heavily paraphrased):

Principal Skinner: “Finally, Lisa falls from her high horse!”

Lisa Simpson: “But, if I change the plan this way, we can still do what I proposed!”
Skinner: “Aaaaand up she climbs.”

Feels reminiscent of Clinton being bombarded by a non-scandal, doesn’t it?

This is what Trump understands.  So long as he can keep her boxed-in to the role of the class nerd, he has half a leg to stand on, or at least, some ready roles that the audience understands.  As Krugman puts it at the top,

“I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Mr. Gore.”

I tend to agree.  The sexism that turned against Hilary Clinton was absolutely unmistakeable.  But the core of the problem that she was made to bear wasn’t that she was a woman, it was that she was a nerd: out of touch, clueless, trying too hard, uncool.  (She was also,  variously, an evil genius, corrupt, a shrew, a harpy, a neoliberal hawk,  and so on, given the variety and wide scope of the insults, probably all too much to cram into this metaphor.)

Trump, meanwhile, is the classic bully.  Seeing him play the role of Nelson Muntz was obvious, without too much embellishment.

The question really is, which Simpsons  character was Bernie Sanders?

Am I Racist: Trump Edition

trump-2Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.

Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.

But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.

Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .

So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.

The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.

By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.

So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.

This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.

(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)

The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.

The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.

No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared.  It’s not.

The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.

Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.

Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).

We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.

The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.

Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.

So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.

Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.

Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.