Pretending It Never Ends

No one stays in the stands after the big game is over, or keeps staring at the television screen, telling themselves the game can’t be over. Your team won or it didn’t. The score is right up there in big lights, until they shut everything down and lock the doors, or if you’re at home, they switch to infomercials for kitchen gadgets. Deal with it. It’s time to move on, unless we’re talking politics. One week out they’re finished counting votes in Florida – Obama won there too by the way. Out in Arizona about a half million votes have yet to be counted – a quarter of all votes cast there – but no one cares about Arizona. The only interesting thing there is the open Senate seat – the Democrat gave his concession speech and now he’s taken it back. It now looks like the Democrats will win another seat, but they retained their majority anyway – even picking up two new seats this time, when the Republicans had been so sure they’d wrest control of the Senate from the bad guys. Scott Brown shouldn’t have mocked Elizabeth Warren as “the professor” up in Massachusetts, as that state is home to MIT and Harvard and all the rest and they’re kind of proud of smart people. That was a bad move, and in the solid heartland of the country, those other fellows shouldn’t have decided to talk about how women’s lady-parts really work and how rape might really be what God intended, if you think about it. People thought about it. They didn’t agree, and other Republican candidates simply displayed how truly angry they were at everything, and found out that their constituents were only mildly disappointed with the world and found their anger tiresome – better to elect someone who wasn’t screaming wildly but just well-intentioned and pragmatic. Spittle is so unpleasant. And all of that meant that what happens with the Senate seat in Arizona really doesn’t matter that much. The score was already up there in big lights. Another late fleid goal by the winning team is just something that sometimes happens late in a game that’s already over.

That doesn’t stop some folks from telling themselves the game just can’t be over. There are now the secession petitions – someone set up a website so anyone can sign a petition asking the federal government to allow their state to just leave – because they love America too much to stay, if you follow that logic. These have come in from twenty states – not from the states themselves of course, as unilateral secession was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court long ago. As you might recall, the Civil War was no fun at all, but then this is just private citizens unhappy that the game is over, deciding it can’t be. Maybe so, but if any of these petitions tops twenty-five thousand signatures the Obama administration promised respond and that response is easy to imagine – thank you for your concern and have a nice day. Fox News will make much of this. No one else will.

Diehards can come up with all sorts of ideas. Perhaps there will be talk that since the Republicans still control the House, where all legislation funding the operation of the government must originate, Speaker Boehner should, if he had any guts, refuse to call the House in session. If only the Democrats showed up there’d be no quorum and the government would shut down – no Social Security checks, no Medicare payments to any doctors or hospitals, no air-traffic control or mail delivery, and no food or fuel or pay for the military. Boehner could demand Obama and Biden resign or the country pretty much ends. Control of only the House is nothing to sneeze at, after all. He could do just that – but he won’t. He too knows the game is over.

The country knows it too. The Republicans lost big – Obama won the electoral vote and the popular vote. The Republicans hoped to regain control of the Senate and thought it would be easy, but the Tea Party crowd forced them to run those very strange candidates in what were supposed to be safe seats. The social conservatives lost big too – two states voted to make the recreational use of marijuana legal and three states voted to make same-sex marriage legal. This time voters – not legislatures or the courts – said same-sex marriage was just fine. Republicans lost almost all the Latino vote, and all minority groups actually – and women too of course, and even half the Catholic vote. There weren’t enough angry old white men and corporate officers to carry the day. Something was wrong with the Republican perspective on America, or with their math. They are now in the process of making adjustments to each, talking about how immigration reform might be okay now – maybe we should not just toss out eleven million or so undocumented workers, even if they are Hispanic or whatever. They’re here, working hard and paying taxes and probably fine folks, so there might be some way to let them stay. And there’s been a scattering of talk that raising taxes on the rich might be fine – a real change.

That’s the thing. Change has occurred, everything has been realigned – everyone is saying that. Everyone is saying that except John Sides:

What is most remarkable about 2012 is not its radical change but instead enduring stability – very modest shifts in state outcomes relative to 2008, relative even to 2000. Very modest shifts in House and Senate seat shares. In terms of policymaking, the 2012 election simply returned the status quo: divided government. This doesn’t mean that policy won’t get made, and maybe Congress will pass policies that Democrats have favored more than Republicans, such as a tax increase for the wealthy or comprehensive immigration reform. But nothing about the current configuration of Congress foreshadows a dramatic shift in policy.

In fact, the Democrats shouldn’t be too confident in that permanent majority. For one, the growth of pro-Democratic constituencies is happening far too slowly to insulate the party from the natural swings that occur because of economic fundamentals. If there is a recession in 2016, the Republicans will be likely to take back the White House.

Everyone should just calm down:

The final problem with calling 2012 a “realignment” is that realignments are by their nature lasting, and we simply don’t know – we cannot know – whether the Obama coalition will stick together, whether it can translate into Democratic gains in 2014, and the answers to a host of other questions. At a minimum, as Ruy Texeira noted in a separate election post-mortem, the answer “depends on whether the Democrats can provide this coalition with what it wants and needs.” It will also depend on what the Republicans do. It will depend, even more prosaically, on the rate of economic growth in 2016.

Democrats are excited after last week’s election, and they should be. It feels good to win, and winners should celebrate. But talk of realignment reflects a degree of optimism that isn’t warranted.

Still there’s Eric Garfield and his letter to a future Republican strategist regarding white people – from a highly successful white guy who owns his own business who had a few specific gripes with Republicans:

Science - One of the reasons my family is affluent is that my wife and I have a collective fifteen years of university education between us. I have a Masters degree in Science and Technology Policy, and my wife is a physician who holds degrees in medicine as well as cell and molecular biology. We are really quite unimpressed with Congressional representatives such as Todd Akin and Paul Broun who actually serve on the House science committee and who believe, respectively, that rape does not cause pregnancy and that evolution and astrophysics are lies straight from Satan’s butt cheeks. These are, sadly, only two of innumerable assaults that the Republican Party has made against hard science – with nothing to say of logic in general. Please understand the unbearable tension this might create between us and your candidates.

That leads to the issue of healthcare:

My wife and I are quite familiar with America’s healthcare system due to our professions, and having lived abroad extensively, also very aware of comparable systems. Your party’s insistence on declaring the private U.S. healthcare system “the best in the world” fails nearly every factual measure available to any curious mind. We watch our country piss away 60% more expenditures than the next most expensive system (Switzerland) for health outcomes that rival former Soviet bloc nations. On a personal scale, my wife watches poor WORKING people show up in emergency rooms with fourth-stage cancer because they were unable to afford primary care visits. I have watched countless small businesses unable to attract talented workers because of the outrageous and climbing cost of private insurance. And I watch European and Asian businesses outpace American companies because they can attract that talent without asking people to risk bankruptcy and death. That you think this state of affairs is somehow preferable to “Obamacare,” which you compared ludicrously to Trotskyite Russian communism, is a sign of deficient minds unfit to guide health policy in America.

There’s also the matter of deficits and debt:

Whenever the GOP is out of power, it immediately appeals to the imagination of voters who remember the Lyndon Baines Johnson (!) administration and claim that the Republican alternative is the party of “cutting spending” and “reducing the deficit.” The only problem with your claim is that Republican governments throughout my entire 38 year life (Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43) have failed to cut spending and deficit and debt EVEN ONCE. I hope you understand that your credibility suffers every time you promise one thing for three decades and do the EXACT OPPOSITE.

Oh, everyone knows that. It’s the running joke in American politics, but then there’s gay marriage:

As the child of Baby Boomers who got divorced (as was the fashion!) in the 80s and 90s, and for whom 50% of my friends had their homes broken by divorce in the critical years before age 18, I sure am unsympathetic to your caterwauling bullshit that “gays will destroy the sanctity of marriage.” Perhaps if everyone in your generation didn’t take the period of 1978 to 1995 to start surreptitiously banging their neighbors and coworkers, only to abandon their kids because “they just weren’t happy,” I would take your defense of marriage more seriously. The institution of middle class suburban marriage was broken by the generation of aging white baby boomers who populate what is left of the Republican Party, so your defense is wrongheaded and disingenuous.

There’s much more, but this is where they lost this one white guy’s vote:

Meanness- Your party is really mean, mocking and demonizing everyone who does not follow you into the pits of hell. You constantly imply – as Mitt Romney did in his “47% speech” – that anybody who disagrees with you does so not by logic or moral conviction but because they are shiftless, lazy parasites who want “free stuff” from “traditional Americans.” Wow, you guys managed to follow up a stunning electoral defeat with insulting the very people you wish to attract for a majority in the political system! Brilliant! You are losing elections because being angry and defensive and just-plain-mean is more important than being smart and winning elections – and thus you deserve everything happening to you.

If you want to know exactly where you failed in 2012, and will continue to fail, here it is. Look you assholes, I’m as traditional an American as it gets, and I do not “want free stuff.” I am a taxpayer, and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. I got my first job – dragging bags of cow manure, horse feed and fertilizer around a farm store – when I was 12. I started my first company when I was 28. I have followed the vast majority of the rules set out for middle class white males (for good and for ill.) And if it weren’t bad enough that your policy positions are a complete clusterfuck for the reasons I lay out in great detail, you manage to follow up the whole exercise with insulting me, my wife, and my friends of every stripe who didn’t vote for your political party…

Other than that, Eric Garfield is fine with Republicans, but if Garfield is not alone, things have changed in the country. Republicans have had their mandate to fix things up and keep us safe snatched from their hands.

Not so fast! In Politico, Jonathan Allen sees things this way:

The status quo prevailed Tuesday night, leaving official Washington to wake up Wednesday to its own version of the déjà-vu-all-over-again movie Groundhog Day. President Barack Obama won another four years in the Oval Office, even with Florida’s 29 electoral votes still in question; Senate Democrats defied two years’ worth of predictions to hold – and possibly expand by one or two – their 53-to-47 majority; and House Republicans, still awaiting results in 17 districts, were certain to keep, and perhaps expand, their majority. Most Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, according to exit polling conducted Tuesday, and it’s a good day on Capitol Hill when the approval rating for Congress tops 20 percent. …

The election just wasn’t a mandate for change:

Instead, it will be the same players gathered around the negotiating table – or refusing to negotiate – as the government tries to deal with a pending fiscal calamity that includes the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the end of Obama’s payroll tax cut, a steep reduction in defense and domestic spending known in Washington-speak as “sequestration” and a debt that exceeds $16 trillion.

What did change? Newt Gingrich says House Speaker Boehner must now claim a split mandate – the House has just as much legitimacy as the president after all.

Ed Kilgore is not so sure:

There are some qualifiers about this take, including the practice of some states of not bothering to report the actual vote in House districts with unopposed candidates, and some quirky results from the “top-two runoff” states of California and Louisiana, where you had congressional “general elections” between two candidates from the same party.

But still, the idea – which was implicit in a lot of “centrist” Election Night coverage – of wise independent American voters deliberately choosing a GOP House to counter the Democratic White House and Senate, forcing the two parties to the table to ratify a Grand Deficit Reduction Bargain, is largely a chimera. You can make a credible argument that would be good for the country, but that is not what “the country” decided. Democrats won the national popular vote narrowly but unambiguously. Republicans are legitimately claiming the spoils of their success in redistricting, but a “split mandate” is an entirely irrational way to interpret the results.

Look at the big lights on the scoreboard. John Sides may be right – this realignment may be temporary – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Republicans talked, once again, about individual freedom and personal responsibility, and doing what God obviously wanted and not ever doing anything that might make Jesus cry, and voters cast ballots for common sense and fair play and fairness – like having the rich go back to paying the normal tax rates after their special Bush vacation from them – all assured by a government that left the God stuff to the churches and synagogues and temples or whatever. That was the realignment.

The odd thing is that this seems to have surprised the Republicans. John Dickerson revues once again how the whole Romney team ended up totally surprised at their defeat – the national public opinion surveys showed he would probably lose and state polling showed he would certainly lose. That never changed, but they didn’t see it that way:

Though Romney said he was “severely conservative,” it was the Obama team that played its hand conservatively. They, too, planned for fewer Democrats to show up at the polls, but in their case it was so that their campaign organization would work twice as hard. On election night in Ohio, when turnout exceeded their intentionally conservative estimates in some districts, they knew that they’d win the state 45 minutes before the networks called it.

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio… “We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. “We could never see that coming. We thought they’d gotten a lot last time.” But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

Kevin Drum comments:

It wasn’t crazy to think that Obama couldn’t match his turnout from 2008, or that Democrats were less enthusiastic than they were four years ago. In fact, the Obama team apparently thought the same thing. And Ohio was a pretty close-run thing if Obama’s campaign wasn’t sure they’d won there until 10:30 pm.

But here’s what I continue to not get. Is it really that hard to predict turnout? Public polls in the last month of a campaign are all based on “likely voters,” and there’s no rocket science to this. They just ask people if they’re likely to vote. And for the entire four weeks prior to the election, Obama was winning the swing states among people who said they were likely to vote. No matter what preconceptions you might have, why would you dismiss this? It’s a butt-simple metric, and it’s worked before: if someone says they’re likely to vote, then they’re likely to vote. Boom! There’s your most probable turnout distribution.

Were they delusional or just incompetent? Drum makes the case that it was the latter, but then there’s this for Dickerson:

The Romney campaign thought Obama’s base had lost its affection for its candidate. They believed Obama would win only if he won over independent voters. So Romney focused on independents and the economy, which was their key issue. The Republican ground game was focused on winning those voters. “We thought the only way to win was doing well with independents and we were kicking ass with independents,” says a top aide. One senior adviser bet me that if Obama won Ohio, he would donate $1,000 for every point that Romney won independents to my favorite charity. (That would be a $10,000 hit since Romney lost Ohio but won independents by 10 points). In the end, Romney won independents nationally by five points – and it didn’t matter one bit.

Matthew Yglesias says this betrays a stunningly weak grasp of social science:

And mastering the social sciences is the key to actual policymaking, not just election forecasting. … That it’ll all come down to independents is a very solid, common-sense analysis of the situation. But it’s wrong. The evidence is really overwhelming that partisan self-identification is much more an attitudinal variable than a demographic one. In other words, it’s unstable. As the political winds shift, people’s self-identification shifts along with it. But their voting behavior doesn’t shift nearly as much. So if for one reason or another – George W. Bush’s unpopularity, House Republicans’ irresponsibility over the debt ceiling, etc. – the Republican Party brand gets damaged, many white Christians over the age of 30 will start identifying as independents rather than Republicans. But these people are still conservative people who don’t want to vote for a tax-hiking, abortion-loving environmentalist. So as conservatives shift out of GOP identification and into independent identification, it becomes easier for Romney to “win independents” without it becoming any easier for him to win the election.

That said, the GOP analysis of the situation really is in line with common sense. It’s just wrong. And the majority of polling operations, along with everyone who’s studied the issue in academia, knew that it was wrong. Common sense just turns out to be a poor guide to a lot of complicated social phenomena.

This is not arcane, as it has broader implications:

This matters for the country substantively because this kind of expert analysis is also important to substantive policymaking. Now let me be clear – nobody likes it when the experts tell them that their preconceptions are wrong. Everyone makes this error. Some liberals do it on genetically modified foods while others do it on tax preferences for investment income. But it is also true that, sociologically speaking, being on the same side as expert opinion is a high-status concept inside liberal and Democratic Party circles. This sociological embrace of expertise acts to temper the psychological mechanism of confirmation bias. On the right, the idea of academic expertise is held in low esteem. Conservatives accurately perceive that academia is hostile to nationalism and religious traditionalism and thus become much more prone to become out of touch with academic knowledge or to reject valid academic insights even on other topics.

Yes, expert opinion is a high-status concept on one side, and when academic expertise is held in low esteem because it might make Jesus cry and it unpatriotic anyway on the other side, they don’t get the votes. Not that many people instinctively reject expert opinion, and when told to do so, they don’t. There’s nothing but trouble there:

The same mechanism that can make you clueless about the meaning of “independent” self-identification can also lead to dangerously misleading public policy conclusions. Common sense and going with your gut are a poor way to understand the world.

Maybe that’s what people sensed all along. Even if the balance of power hasn’t shifted all that much, this has – no more voting for folks who proudly sneer at what they call mere facts and so-called expert opinion, and who keep telling themselves that the game just can’t be over and they really do have the mandate for something or other. The only thing to do now is humor them.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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