In the Doom Loop

By Mike Koetting May 23, 2022

The problem with linked essays when you post the first before you have written the second is that you may find you have jumped—with no place to land.

That seems to have happened to me.

In my last post, I argued that the compromise-required architecture of our governing system when combined with the two-party, winner-take-all nature of our political structure has led to hyper-partisanship and a subsequent democratic gridlock.

At the end of that post, I suggested today’s post would address what to do about it. Unfortunately, on reflection, the things I had in mind seem completely out of reach.

Two Party System Entrenched

It’s not that I had illusions that a frontal assault on this system was possible.

Not because the system is widely-loved.  More than 60% of voters tell pollsters they think the current parties are so broken there should be a third party. But, like many things people tell pollsters, the road from here to somewhere else is not at all clear.

Pew Trust has further analyzed the make-up of the political spectrum, identifying nine separate typologies. They recognize the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the current two parties, but debunk the idea there is a large group of independent voters looking for a home. They say more than 90% of people who describe themselves as “Independent” vote consistently for one party or the other. Moreover, those who describe themselves as “independent” have significant differences among themselves and are the least connected to the political process. In short, they are unlikely to be leading any charge to create a third party. Much more likely new parties would develop from splits within the existing parties.

Unfortunately, the run amok behavior of the current two party system has become its own poison pill. By creating a situation where supporters of each party believe that they are defending the “true” core values of America and the other party is a mortal threat to those values, differences become very stark. Every election becomes “existential.” Nuance in choice becomes irrelevant. You are either for what the majority of your party wants or you are for “the values of the other party.” And any deviation might well cost the party closer to you the election, as did the Ralph Nader voters in the 2000 election, virtually none of whom actually preferred George Bush over Al Gore.

Could We Inch from this Toxicity?

Earlier, when trying to think through how to get fair minority representation, I suggested multi-member districts and proportional representation. It seems highly likely these would have beneficial effects. Systems like these are used in most of the rest of the world and, while they pose their own problems, there is evidence that they will moderate the kind of stark political divide that we now face.

These would not require a Constitutional amendment. They could be adopted by a majority of Congress. Although that’s a lower bar, it is still a formidable challenge. After all, for most of the Representatives that would require a major leap into uncertainty. As it now stands, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other, typically as based on urban/rural status. This is not a free pass for any member of Congress, but it largely limits the direction of attacks. Moreover, it means there is only one relevant election, the primary. The change to ranked-voting would throw out a whole lot of accumulated political wisdom—and alliances, favors and coalitions as well. So one can expect a lack of enthusiasm from established leaders on either side of the aisle.

In each of the last two terms of Congress, Representative Don Beyer, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, and seven of his colleagues, all Democrats, introduced the Fair Vote Act. This bill would establish multi-member districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions, with Representatives elected through ranked choice voting. Such an approach would significantly change the nature of American elections. Probably not a lot at first, but over time strategies would adapt and evolve. These changes can be abundantly defended on theoretical grounds and would, if properly explained, be welcomed by a substantial portion of the population.

Of course, it has absolutely no chance in the real world. Which reflects how strong, and how toxic, the hold of the “two-party” system is on our imagination.

I expect Republicans would be more likely to oppose this than Democrats because they believe that the more they set the ground rules for voting, the better their chance of maintaining power. Ranked choice voting would pose a particular threat to the extremists of the party, who currently have control of the party apparatus. To the extent possible, they try to control orthodoxy. For instance, Republicans in Colorado have sued, so far unsuccessfully, to end the state’s practice of allowing voters who are registered as an independent, to be able to choose to vote in either party’s primary. Keeping primaries as “closed” as possible makes it easier to maintain party boundaries.

Is There Anything to Be Done?

It would seem that we are doomed to persist in this hyper-partisan hell, something that only a small slice of the country wants.

The only solution I can imagine is for Democrats to control all three branches of government, including a supermajority in the Senate—and possibly having replaced several Supreme Court justices–and then decide to change the system. At best, this would not be soon. And I won’t speculate on the degree to which having control over everything would alter Democrats’ willingness to change the ground rules. I can imagine a certain skepticism on that topic. I can also imagine the backlash that would come from trying to accomplish this.

As a theoretical matter, one could argue for pursuing these reforms on a state by state basis. But the poison of the current system makes that a bad idea. States that make attempts in that direction, will find themselves trying to make fairer maps, while states that don’t care about such things will be able to strengthen their hand.

The current situation in New York illustrates the problem. In 2014, New York voters approved an amendment to the state constitution laying down guidelines for redistricting and establishing an independent commission to oversee redistricting–exactly what theory would prescribe. But when the Legislature looked at the overall national balance of gerrymandering, it concluded that nationwide Democrats would be unfairly disadvantaged by Red state gerrymanders and adopted a boldly Blue-slanted map. The court, following the law, threw out that map. But a fairer New York map resulted in a more unfair national map. Unless all states agree to give up gerrymandering, why would Democratic states to do so on the hope that Red states would follow suit? Some Democrats have gone so far as to argue that Blue states should adopt rules that specifically use national balance as a redistricting criterion. This, they suggest, would cause Red states to see the futility of such gerrymandering and go along with electoral reform. I don’t plan on holding my breath.

We Are in a Doom Loop

Lee Drutman’s book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, makes a great and compelling argument for why America would be better served to loosen the political party constraints we have put on our national political discussion. Polling data shows great uncomfortableness in the citizenry about the hyper-partisan stalemate into which we have backed ourselves and there are significant differences within both parties. There are plenty of reasons to believe a majority would support the Fair Voting Act identified above—if it were not seen as a “Democratic” proposal.

And therein lies the problem.

We are in the doom loop Drutman warned about. Each party has retreated to its own bunker, picked a world view, and seems willing to defend it to the bitter end. I think the argument is very strong that the Republicans are more at fault on this score in their reactionary posture to the changes of the late Twentieth Century. But, even if some higher authority were to decide that the blame is evenly shared, it wouldn’t get us out of this mess. What we need is a road to disarmament. It could run through structural changes such as proposed above. But those aren’t happening anytime soon.

I would be extremely interested in any thoughts from readers about how to break out of this cycle. I simply can’t come up with anything beyond hoping people come to their senses before it’s too late. And, of course, continuing to support Democratic candidates since the retrograde, authoritarian values of the Trumplicans are anathema to everything I believe in.

The Road to Gridlock

By Mike Koetting May 8, 2022

Months ago, I asserted that democracies require two mutually reinforcing things to survive—a wide spread belief in the importance of democracy and a sense that the government was actually working. I then reviewed some data that showed a weakening of the democratic imperative in the minds of voters and postponed the question of belief in the efficacy until a later day.

That day is today.

I don’t know how exactly one would decide whether a government is “working” or not. America has not descended into the absolute chaos of some clearly failed governments. On a day-to-day basis, we manage to keep things plausibly together. One can point to issues not being well addressed—many are big and important—but when one looks around the world, most other nations are struggling with the same issues. They are hard issues.

Nevertheless, it seems confidence in the American system is flagging. Most Americans tell pollsters the country is on the verge of failure. Many go on to say the problem is hyper-partisanship. I believe that is indeed the source of both many of the real failures in governing and the widespread perception of failure.

But I also believe hyper-partisanship should be no surprise. The real surprise, given the structure of American politics and governance, is that we have been relatively successful in avoiding it in the past.

How We Got Here

The Founding Fathers had very clear notions that having a diversity of pollical opinions was key to a successful democracy. Madison writes, in Federalist 10:

Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests, you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.

In Madison’s mind, one faction could oppress and two factions would fight for the ability to oppress the other. The minority was safe only with more than two factions.

Washington, in his farewell address, worried particularly about the “founding of parties on geographical discriminations.” He feared citizens of each region might live among only like-minded partisans who reinforce their grievances against the other party/region.

Their solution was to create political structures that required compromise to work and to argue strenuously that pollical parties should never gain a foothold.

They lost that argument within years. Turns out political parties are a necessary correlate of democracy. For the bulk of our history, this was not a fatal flaw because there were enough cross-cutting issues that party structures were fairly fluid, even when there were nominally only two parties. The Civil War, by far the biggest rupture in the pollical fabric, was an irreconcilable argument about slavery. That argument was not drawn along party lines, but it did illustrate in technicolor what could happen when an existential political issue gets divided along geographic lines.

Since the Civil War was not explicitly aligned on party lines, for the next hundred years it was possible for the two parties to coexist, each with a divided constituency on what it meant to be a citizen and who was entitled to that status. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the latter primarily associated with the segregationist south. As Lee Drutman points out in his essential book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, there were in essence four political parties. Getting anything done in Congress required people to work across the aisle often with strange bedfellows. That is why Joe Biden recalls being able to work with notorious segregationists. It allowed him to actually pass legislation. The truth is that bipartisanship happened because of the fluidity of parties, not the other way around.

But that changed, starting in the Sixties, when issues over race, sex and lifestyles began to divide the population into two distinct cultural identities. These began to coalesce around the political parties. Southern Democrats became Republicans and Liberal Republicans became Democrats.

As progressives, particularly civil rights advocates, strengthened their presence in the Democratic party, it moved toward open party primaries to get around the control of the historic power brokers, who were typically more conservative. Republicans followed suit. These changed the dynamics of the elections. Among other things they required more money. Much more money. Between 1974 and 2016, the costs of running for Congress increased by more than fourfold, after adjusting for inflation. Separated from traditional party brokers, candidates turned to national sources to finance their elections. National sources, however, tended to follow national issues more than local issues. Urbanization without political bosses and the lingering impact of the Second World War and the Vietnam fiasco contributed as, bit by bit, the parties became nationalized.

By the mid-90’s, the entire political landscaped had flattened into two, fully separated, nationalized political parties. It was Madison and Washington’s nightmare come real.

Consequences of Totally Distinct Parties

At first blush, it might seem that having two, distinct parties would increase the likelihood of compromise. Unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite. In a situation where there are only two parties, there is little incentive for compromise. If the two parties are about equal in size, the party out of power can maximize its chances of getting power back by obstructing the other party. If the difference between the two parties is large, the majority party has no need to compromise with the minority party.

It is a recipe for either majority domination or gridlock.

Worse yet, since this system rewards magnification of differences between the two parties, they come to see the differences between them as existential. Only one in five Americans believes that voters of the opposite party share the same core American values. At this point, programs make less difference than identity. And since compromises on identity are the ultimate betrayal, there is less compromise.

Further, when a party convinces itself that America’s “true” cultural values hang in the balance, it believes every possible tactic is justified. In the book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt specifically identify  two practices that signal a slide into authoritarianism. One is that each party believes that whatever is within the letter of the law is okay, even it violates the spirit of the law. The other threatening practice is the loss of toleration of opposition, which similarly follows from a belief that one’s opponents are motivated by values intradiscally inimical to your view of the nation’s fundamentals.

All of this leads to ever more polarization since both sides believe they face existential threats and even those who would prefer a more moderate view have nowhere to go outside their party without walking away from their broader identify. See how quickly the “Never Trumpers” became reabsorbed into the Republican party. It wasn’t necessarily they grew to like Trump more. Rather, he was closer to their positions than Democrats—and those were the only two choices on offer.

The divide between our parties is hardened by the difference between urban and rural populations—Washington’s geographical split concern. While we tend to think in terms of “red” and “blue” states, the reality is that all urban areas are “blue” and all rural areas “red.” (In 2016, fewer than 10% of all counties were decided by less than 10%.) Even where there are “swing” districts, it is usually because the district has a combination of rural and urbanized voters.

Following all these changes, it is not surprising that the pollical parties have explicitly politicized the judicial system, particularly important since the structure of American government gives more power to the judiciary than other countries. Court politicization is known to be a factor of further polarization.

All told, these factors make American politics polarized, probably more than anywhere else in the developed world. This is not unrelated to the fact that no other developed country has only two political parties with a winner-take-all system.

What Do We Do About It?

The key is to break up the totally muscle-bound binary party system. This doesn’t happen all at once—the two-party system is too much a fixture of our political imagination—but we can make improvements on it, many of them suggested in previous posts.

I’ll review them in my next post.

Redistricting and the Shape of America

By Mike Koetting April 26, 2022

My last blog attracted more responses than usual. The most important concerns had to do with why I assumed that the only way to get Black representatives in the U.S. is to create majority-minority districts. Why did I assume that Whites would automatically reject Black candidates? After all, commenters noted, there are multiple dimensions in a Congressional election and why assume race is the overriding factor? Not all Blacks share the same political agenda and many Blacks and Whites have similar agendas.

As I noted in the post itself, the answer to that question from an historical perspective is straightforward. Through the 2018 election, more than 80% of Black representatives came from majority-minority districts—in 2018, for instance, it was 88%. This strongly suggests that in order to have anything like a proportionate number of Blacks in the House, there needs to be majority-minority districts. (One suspects the same dynamic is at work in the Senate where Blacks have won only 1% of all Senatorial elections since 1965.)

Need for Black Representatives

Which gets to the even more basic question: why is it important to have Blacks in office? After all, no Black represents all Black opinion and many Whites do as good a job of representing specific Black interests as Black officials.

My answer is both superficial and at the heart of the discussion of racism. We need Black representation in Congress because Congress writes the laws and the rest of us follow them. As humans, if we don’t see people “like us” in the law-giving group, we will suspect the laws will not reflect our interest. And, conversely, when we see people “not like us”, we wonder how much they represent our interest.

This sentiment cannot be dismissed as a matter of paranoid perception. Although there are complex forces at work—which lead to exceptions, contradictions and remarkable transitions– it is still beyond dispute that on balance laws tend to reflect the interests of those making them. Some times this is because representatives vote in crassly self-interested ways. But, more often I think, it is because their world view has been shaped by their background. As circumstances start to change, some people find themselves with different world views. The presence of Blacks in our highest offices helps change the world views of all, White and Black, office holders and other citizens.  

This is particularly important in America. We are a nation which has relentlessly promoted itself as a bastion of freedom and equality. From day one, however, the rhetoric didn’t synch with the reality. On the one hand, the awkwardness of this disjunct has never been completely lost. Even as the Constitution was being written, there were people calling attention to these contradictions. On the other hand, the majority world view so fundamentally failed to recognize the shared humanity of “others”, alternative realities were overwhelmingly unlikely. However wrong this may have been, it was the reality on the ground, and reflected in the laws of the democracy.

Progress Significant but Partial

We have never completely shaken this problem, but bit by bit we have expanded the boundaries of who is a full participant in the country and the culture.

This gradual broadening depends on both the reasoned conscience of advocates and the actual struggle of people on the outside demanding equality. It has proceeded unevenly, constantly opening up new fissures between not just the majority and “the other”, but between those members of the majority who recognized the contradictions and those who do not. (Or do, and don’t care because the existing arrangements suit their interests.) And among members of minority groups who have different approaches.

These fissures spin off a host of challenges and conundrums. Cultures are the accretion of many years and many tiny pieces–some of which are fundamental, some of which are incidental–but are most powerful as an amorphous whole with tentacles in every part of life.  Consider the extent to which some of our largest cultural holidays are built on Christian holidays. Not a per se problem, but when the percentage of Christians in a culture decreases, every one is a bit at sea. The non-Christians are not entirely sure how to relate and many Christians feel aggrieved at the apparent devaluation of their cultural heritage as the original of the holiday gets pushed further to the background. The annual discussion of the “war against Christmas” is much less about any specific issues and much more the lament for a culture that simply doesn’t have the same salience as it did in people’s formative years. And while it’s easy to say “Well, we’re just broadening the meaning of the holiday” if you are not among the concerned, it’s a much bigger dislocation for people to whom the Christian identify was more central.

Those struggling for full recognition as part of the country and culture face different problems. It is a long road to acceptance. Along that road, it is not hallucinatory to think their acceptance is, at best, provisional. It is not surprising that they continue to think of themselves as “the other”, which is a further irritant to cultural assimilation. Worse yet, should they take offense at the shabby treatment they have received and continue to receive, they are seen as “the angry Black” (angry Indian, angry Muslim, angry woman, etc.), and that becomes a cynical justification for the majority to see them as “the other”.

Racism—but Complicated

Two posts ago, I argued that the support for Republicans among Whites without college educations was due to racism. It is. But when I say “racism” I am not necessarily talking about the full Ku Klux Klan variety of racism. I am talking about the quieter, culturally baked-in variety, which is typically a combination of seeing “the other” as an abstract threat, stacking the deck against them and then blaming the victim for the consequences. This does not depend on animus toward individuals, but a general sense that these ”others” are not entitled to the same things “we” are. And when “they” get help, it is something being taken from “us.”

There are unlimited twists and turns in this story, particularly the significant plot complications caused by the role of economic elites, which play a specific part in racism and likewise contribute materially to the general inequality in American society. The urban and rural stories might also have some different sub-themes. But the role of economic elites will not be addressed until the White working class joins with the non-White working class to address common interests. That will be difficult without a fuller acceptance of non-Whites as equal members of the coalition.

I believe that having Blacks in elective office roughly proportionate to their share of the population is an important part of getting to a place where our society sees them as less an aberration and more simply a fair part of the evolving culture.

Hence, my strong sense of the importance of race in thinking about electoral districts.

I can’t, however, leave the topic without noting something that may be important. You may have noticed that my argument about the necessity of majority-minority districts focused on data previous to 2020. Something unusual happened in 2020: all eight of the districts that had newly elected Black Congressional representatives were majority White districts. Likewise, there has been a handful of Black Senators elected in majority White states. It is hard to know if these are trends or aberrations caused by unusual political cross-currents. In any event, they don’t necessarily suggest the beginning of an era where Blacks are—let alone feel—fully integrated into our society. Consider the backlash to the election of the first Black president.

But even if they are hopeful signs, I am not giving up my belief that we need to specifically design our electoral systems to increase the likelihood that it creates elected officials that look like the population at large. Majority-minority districts are certainly not the only way to do this and possibly not the best way to do this. But until we make some other modifications in the system, they remain necessary wherever we can achieve them.

One Final Note

Commentary from my readers did cause me to reconsider one of my other recommendations—expanding the size of the House. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems to make any appreciable difference. What the Representatives do and how we hold them accountable (or not) is much more important. Of course, it’s not like there is anyone out there doting on my recommendations, but just in case, I want to make clear I’ve scratched that one. But y’all should get busy on the rest of them.

Is a Fair Congressional District Possible?

By Mike Koetting April 10, 2022

Blog before last I was focused on gerrymandering. I am returning to the topic, but this time thinking about whether there is a fair solution to creating districts for the U.S.House.

Hypothetical

Let’s imagine a state, let’s call it Pontiac. Pontiac has a population of 5 million, about 70% White and 30% Black. Population is split evenly among some reasonable size cities and rural areas.

These days, a population of 5 million will get Pontiac seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, a little more than 700,000 in population per seat. How should those seats be distributed to be fair?

If one looked solely at the urban-rural distribution, it would give 3.5 seats to each. Given that in reality urban areas bleed into the surrounding rural areas, let’s say 4 urban and 3 rural.

But how to think about race? Since Blacks are 30% of the population, all things being equal, that would suggest two seats. But it’s not that simple. Historically, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act looked at the creation of majority-minority districts. While this approach presents both theoretical and legal difficulties, it makes some sense. At least up until the 2020 election, well over 80% of the Black representatives came from majority-minority districts. Creating such districts can be geographically challenging.

If the Blacks were distributed perfectly equally across the state, there would be no majority Black districts because every possible configuration would only have 30% Black population. On the other hand, if every Black in Pontiac lived adjacent to another Black, it would be relatively easy to assure two majority-minority districts, since the 1.5 million Blacks would nicely fit into two districts.

Of course, neither situation is particularly likely. Blacks, like Whites, are likely to be spread around and some are likely rural while others are urban. So let’s pretend the distribution of population in Pontiac looks something like this.

You can play with these numbers yourself, or you can take my word for it: there is no obvious way to create a majority-minority district of the required 700,000 or so voters. Maybe in the Middle North—depending on a lot of factors—it might be possible to cobble together such a district with only modest gerrymandering. Likewise, depending on how actual geography broke, it might be possible to come up with such a district if one or both of the Middle South cities could be stitched together with City 7 in the Far South and the rural Black Belt. That would probably require a greater degree of gerrymandering and would also complicate the rural-urban balance.

There are probably several conclusions to be drawn from this exercise, but I think the clearest is that the idea of single member, geographically based districts is never going to do a particularly good job of reflecting minority opinions or situations.

In some sense, this is fine. Democracy is supposed to reflect majority opinion. Part of my bill of particulars against the current practice of gerrymandering is that it used to achieve minority control. On the other hand, systematic under-representation of minorities is also undemocratic and demonstrably bad for the body politic. A system that makes it less likely that the Black citizens of Pontiac will have an opportunity to elect a Black representative is problematic as well. That issue is true of any other difference: if 40% of the citizens of Pontiac favor one issue—say restricting easy access to guns—their ability to have representation would depend entirely on the geographic concentration of people with those views. If they were spread through the state, it is unlikely they would get much of a hearing.

Of course, since no Representative is ever elected unanimously, there will always be an underlying question about how they represent those who didn’t vote for them. However, these tensions become greater the sharper the political differences between candidates—a situation which generally characterizes the current zeitgeist.

What Would Be Better?

What about multiple-member districts?

Illinois had such a system for state representatives until 1980 when voters, riding a post-Watergate wave of anti-politician sentiment, voted to get rid of it as a way of reducing the size of the General Assembly.

In this system, each district had three seats and no more than two could be filled by any one party. Voters could cast one vote for each of three candidates, split their three votes among two candidates, or “bullet” all three votes for a single candidate. The result was a much more moderate and more representative Illinois House. In no district did members of the minority party get shut out and it was possible for organized candidates of whatever persuasion to “bullet” a candidate into office without necessarily having majority support. (While in theory this could allow for some extreme candidates to get elected, in reality it didn’t because truly fringe groups still weren’t large enough to win a seat.)

How this might apply to the issue of dividing up U.S. House seats in any given state is not entirely obvious. Return to the hypothetical Pontiac. Seven seats is an awkward number. Too many for 2 three-person districts, and not enough for 3 three person districts. That leaves options of a 3-4 split, or two 2’s and a 3 person district.

There are other problems. While there is no theoretical reason why districts should be geographically contiguous, as a practical matter it is hard to get away from this constraint. Therefore, how the population is actually distributed would be relevant to what makes sense. If the population were heavily tilted to one end of the state or the other—or still more complicated, plunked in the middle—that would create additional constraints.

Issues notwithstanding, the approach is worth considering.

Enlarge the House

This would be useful in making it easier to have multi-member districts, but it is also useful in its own right. The size of today’s House has been fixed since 1911, at which point each member represented about 200,000. (In the original House, each member represented 30,000 people.) The US is now more than three times larger than 1911 and each member now represents more than 700,000.

The New York Times has noted that the U.S. House has a materially higher representative-to-population ratio than other comparable democracies. Increasing the size of the House by about one third would bring this ratio in line with other comparable legislatures. The Times also support the idea of multi representative districts for the same reasons outlined above. But with or without multi-member districts, a larger House would make it easier to develop districts with better minority representation. Note the problem of minority representation is not limited to racial issues. As it now stands, New York City has no Republican representatives—which surely is not an accurate representation of the amount of Republican sentiment in the city.

Ranked-choice Voting

Another possibility—also supported by the Times—is to use ranked-choice voting. While this does not directly address the issue of minority representation, it would be a step in moderating some of the partisan warfare because this makes it harder for extreme viewpoints.

Alaska has recently adopted such a system. There is no partisan primary. Instead, there is a general primary and the top four voter getters, regardless of party, go into the run-off. In the run-off, voters rank their choices from one to four. If no one gets a majority, the smallest vote-getter is dropped and their votes go to their second choice. The process continues until someone gets a majority. Maine uses a similar system.

This obviously puts a premium on appealing to voters who, even if you’re not their first choice, are willing to make you their second choice—reducing the attractiveness of extreme candidates.

Final Note

The hypothetical state of Pontiac was not, in fact, all that hypothetical. It’s actually an only-slightly simplified model of Alabama. (Extra credit for any of you political junkies who recognized this.) While I reserve the right to be suspicious of the motives of the actual Alabama map-makers, I have to say working with the Alabama data made me much more sympathetic to the real-world difficulties involved in trying to get to minority representations.

And this is my overall conclusion: Any system that makes it really hard to get to the right answer is most likely a system that is fundamentally flawed. This is almost certainly the case with our single-member, winner-take-all approach to districting for US Congressional seats.

Decoding the White Working Class

By Mike Koetting March 29, 2022

Ever since get Trump got elected, I’ve been trying to put together a coherent story of what the heck is going on with Whites without college education (WwC). Over my recent vacation, inspired by a Washington Post article about J.D.Vance, I gave the project another go and at least it became clear to me why this was so hard:

  • Economic explanations, my usual go-to explanation, contribute, but run out of explanatory power.
  • I was twisting myself into knots to avoid the most obvious explanation, in part because it is so discouraging.

Economic Arguments Lead in the Other Direction

In the old days–say the time before I started high school–it was possible to have a two-party system that made rough sense. It’s not that everyone had the same set of values. But when it came to politics, it could pretty well be arrayed on two dimensions—did you want more government support for the average person or less? And, even on that dimension, great changes weren’t required; modest tinkering around the edges was all that was needed. Issues such as the status of women, sexual orientation, and the hegemony of Christian culture (on a good day, Judeo-Christian culture) simply weren’t salient. Questions about the place of non-Whites were beginning to percolate, but they were still short of choate. Environmental issues weren’t on anyone’s radar.

It’s not that people were unaware that this Panglossian version of events was fiction. Everyone knew corporations were rapacious, there were homosexuals and abortions, and hypocrisy around family life was common. It was becoming harder to ignore the problems of Black people. But, still, no one had to admit these things. There was simply a shared, and well re-enforced, agreement to ignore those facts. It was the price of cultural consistency.

But once each of these possible dimensions became subject to discussion, the combinations could no longer be sorted along a two-dimensional axis. Every voting pattern was subject to a wide range of differing, and perhaps conflicting, possibilities.

We see this clearly in the situation of WwC. There can be no objective argument about the fact that their relative social position has deteriorated. The America of the last fifty years has hollowed out the middle class. The great machinery of the country that created a robust middle class has rusted to a standstill. It’s been replaced with a society that well rewards those who fit into its new economy. The largest number of winners are in the upper middle class–primarily college educated folks who have jobs with sufficient salaries, vacations, pensions and healthcare. The more attention grabbing winners are the 1 percent, the elite whose life styles dazzle and whose incomes soar into the stratosphere. Those without college educations, on the other hand, have taken a real beating.

Parallel, the economics of the last fifty years have brutalized the non-urban area. Virtually all economic growth has been in the cities. Nine out of every ten new jobs are created in just 11% of the counties. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans are 22 percent more likely to experience poverty, food insecurity (by a 19 percent margin), and to lack health insurance (by 15 percent), contributing to higher rates of depression, addiction, suicide, and other “deaths of despair.” Little surprise rural areas are bitter. They blame the solidly Blue cities. (And the favor is returned: urban dwellers typically blame rural ignorance for their problems.)

It is not unreasonable to look for explanations of WwC anger in these factors. In that context, “liberal on economics and conservative on culture” might make sense. But this is stymied by the two-party problem. There is no party of economically liberal and culturally conservative, so forced to choose, people forego the “economically liberal” part to vote for conservative culture. Compromises are necessary.

But that’s not consistent with the way the WwC portray their situation. They explain their votes as push back against the Democratic elite for having created these circumstances.

Say what?

Sure, certain Democrats and certain policies supported by Democrats have contributed to the widening gaps in our society. And the role of the professional class and big money in the Democratic party does bear continuing scrutiny. To be a successful party, Democrats must think more carefully about the full range of economic implications of their policies and do a better job of addressing these issues.

But to blame the drift in the economic structure on the Democrats is beyond ridiculous. Take NAFTA, the poster-child for supposedly anti-working class policies. A majority of Democrats in both the House voted against NAFTA and the bill was supported by more than 75% of Republicans in both the House and Senate. And while Clinton did sign the bill, it was actually proposed and negotiated by George Bush. The converse is also true. Virtually any issue that delivers direct benefits to the working class has been supported by Democrats and strenuously opposed by Republicans.

What explains this logical disconnect? I believe it is because “the elite” argument is mostly a smokescreen for the second problem in understanding the WwC position, the one I didn’t want to acknowledge in its full virulence.

Racism

While it is clear there are a variety of factors alienating the WwC–stagnant blue collar wages, urban versus rural discord, lack of opportunity, restricted mobility routes—despite being relevant, they don’t really explain what’s going on. if these were indeed driving the anger, why would someone vote for Republicans, who since Ronald Reagan have been systematically dismantling the things that actually made America great?

Then, another part of my vacation reading kicked in, The Shattering, Kevin Boyle’s superlative account of how America became unglued in the Sixties. It’s not that I didn’t know the facts, but seeing them again through the lens of the last five years, the answer seemed inescapable. WwC support for the Democratic Party fell off a cliff with the passage of various Civil Rights measures.

Rereading the stories of these events, I was again shocked at the viciousness of response to the Civil Rights movement. It was categorically worse in the South, but it happened in the North as well. In 1968, Wallace won 12% of the vote in Ohio, 10% in Michigan and 8% in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He actually won the Michigan Democratic primary in 1972

Overall, WwC support for Democrats dropped by 20 points during the Sixties, down to 35% and has remained stuck there since. Democrats lost the WwC when they integrated schools and began affirmative action. Other explanations may lead to fuller understanding, but the major loss in support was before any of those issues materialized.

Why Was I Puzzled?

Why did I have a hard time seeing something that, in retrospect, is so clear? Well, for one, there are other relevant facts. The situation of the WwC is unfair and it is product of deliberate policies that could have been decided differently, as they have in virtually all other advanced democracies. The WwC has a right to be pissed. America has a very incomplete understanding of achieving the common good.

It is also true that race is a particularly difficult issue to ameliorate, so finding an easier answer would be good. And there is a degree of guilt as I have been largely insulated from the adverse consequences of the changes in our society There is some uncomfortable truth to George Wallace’s quip that school busing wasn’t an issue to a kid being driven to a private school.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that this runs against my fundamental concept of human beings. I really believe all people are created equal and that in a country founded on that principle, almost everyone should as well because this a self-evident truth. I recognize that concepts of equality change with time and that each revision raises new problems. Still, I want to believe that there is underneath a broadly accepted truth, and as we settle on a new consensus, people will accept it. I also want to believe that at core, people are fundamentally rational and they will act in ways that align with their expressed interests. Cynics aside, most people actually conform to my hopes. But, alas, not everyone. And when groups are involved, things can go really haywire.

I don’t exactly understand the factors that lead to racism. Lots of explanations have been offered. And I realize that there are even legitimate differences on what constitutes racism, let alone how we move forward. But having recognized the centrality of this problem to our society—which is driving a meaningful sector of the population to act irrationally—all our lives will be diminished if we don’t find an antidote.

Can We Tame Gerry’s Salamander?

By Mike Koetting February 27, 2022

My first trip to Europe was in 1971. I was surprised at how many Europeans spoke English and how much more they knew about America than I knew about their countries. One of my more vivid memories was a conversation with a Norwegian family on the train from Bergen to Oslo. They were asking a bunch of questions about how exactly our federalist system worked and somewhere in there I mentioned gerrymandering. They had never heard the term. When I explained, they were simply incredulous. “Why would you do that? It’s so anti-democratic.”

Whatever gerrymandering I was alluding to in 1971 was child’s play compared to what we have now. With big computers, advanced geocoding and the ability to integrate large data sets, it’s become science. Maybe now’s a good time for a recap of what’s going on.

Continue reading “Can We Tame Gerry’s Salamander?”

Hmm. What Now?

By Mike Koetting February 8, 2022

I’m back. Sort of.

It has been a struggle for me to come back to the keyboard. Going into the holidays, it had been my plan to continue my series on what it takes to sustain democracy. But I’ve been unable to generate sufficient enthusiasm for an abstract analysis of what sustains democracy when all around me it seems that the actual battle to sustain our democracy is raging—and the results are much too uncertain. And I am totally frustrated by how much seems out of my hands.

Continue reading “Hmm. What Now?”

How Deep Is the Popular Support for American Democracy?

By Mike Koetting December 9, 2021

In my last post, I asserted that democracy needed two things to be sustained: deep popular support for the idea of democracy and an appropriate governing vehicle to make it work. Today’s post considers the status of popular support for democracy in America.

By support for the idea of democracy, I mean something that’s both simple and complicated. It starts with some understanding that democracy is inherently imperfect. Since it is fundamentally a system for mediating a series of compromises among different values and solutions, there will always be plenty of reasons to be unhappy. Supporting democracy, then, is simply accepting that your side doesn’t always win and that you will, more or less happily, go along with the majority—even if that means accepting some limits on your individual preferences from time to time.

Continue reading “How Deep Is the Popular Support for American Democracy?”

What It Takes to Sustain Democracy

Mike Koetting November 23, 2021

What It Takes for Democracy

The ongoing news has me feeling like a passenger on a plane that has been hijacked—unable to really control the outcome, but with the strong sense this is going to end badly.

But who are these hijackers?

For many of us, the immediate response is “the Republicans.” Fair enough. But I don’t think that is a sufficient or complete answer.

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What Swing Voters Might Be Thinking

By Mike Koetting November 14, 2021

In the old days—back when there was ticket-splitting and public health and infrastructure were bipartisan issues—swing voters were generally conceived of as people whose political ideology was explicitly centrist and who would consider the circumstances of a particular election and make a calculated choice. I am not sure that’s a particularly illuminating description of today’s “swing voters”. Nevertheless, they remain as important as ever—maybe more important.

As we all know, the country is bitterly polarized and this polarization is not even from place to place. Some places are securely red and some resolutely blue. When it comes to Senate seats and electoral votes, there are not that many places likely to in fact “swing.” California and Mississippi aren’t going anywhere. Given the evenness in the split of givens (by our political architecture not the population), the small number of places that are fluid become exponentially more important, and within those places, the relatively small number of swing-voters will control the outcome.

Continue reading “What Swing Voters Might Be Thinking”