The Competition

This is the weekend – the Super Bowl, and it’s Super Bowl 50 this time. This seems to have become an institution that defines America, or maybe it’s simply the only experience left that everyone actually shares in our fragmented culture. We do self-select the news we want to hear and hang around with like-minded people. Much has been made of the Big Sort – Americans have been sorting themselves into startlingly homogeneous communities for years now – tribes, really – but (almost) everyone watches the Super Bowl. We can share that, and this one should be good. Denver has that wily old quarterback who has lost most of his skills, other than his superb ability to read defenses and immediately find the one weak spot, over and over. Peyton Manning can humiliate those big hulks and speedsters on the other side – and Denver’s defense is the best in the league this year. They could shut down the immensely talented Charlotte offense led by their absurdly talented young quarterback, Cam Newton – full of life and fun and sheer happiness and as entertaining as the young Muhammad Ali ever was in his deeply ironic brash boasting – and Cam Newton is a nice guy too. He’s deeply cool and it’s not boasting if you can do it. Damn, it’s the highly talented and articulate and intelligent and pleasant young black man versus the wily old white guy from another age, fading away – it’s Obama versus McCain or something. This should be good.

The other weekend competitions are tribal. The Thursday before the Super Bowl, the Democrats had their final debate before the New Hampshire primary. This was the big one-on-one. Martin O’Malley was long gone. This was Hillary Clinton facing off against Bernie Sanders and it got nasty – not that any Republican gave a hoot. That’s okay. The evening before the Super Bowl, the Republicans will have their own New Hampshire debate – and Donald Trump will show up for this one. Slate’s Josh Voorhees says Marco Rubio will take a beating at this one – not that any Democrat gives a hoot. Let those guys work it out. None of them is much of a threat to Hillary Clinton, or even Bernie Sanders, maybe. If that’s how they want to spend their Saturday evening, fine. Democrats will drive the Volvo to that new vegan restaurant and discuss income inequality and racial justice over gluten-free something or other and then catch that new French art film. Let the Republicans argue over who is the toughest and most ruthless, about who we bomb the shit out of next, and who shouldn’t really be here, and who doesn’t really deserve any kind of healthcare at all, because the rest of us sure as hell aren’t paying for their problems. Democrats find such talk depressing. What’s their problem?

That leaves only one remaining completion for the weekend. Who is really cool? That’s always decided on Saturday Night Live. Hillary Clinton appeared on the show in October – she was the bartender who commiserates with Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of Hillary Clinton. Maybe that was cool. Donald Trump hosted the show in November and did a bit of a goof on what a buffoon he can be in various sketches, but that fell flat. Saturday Night Live had its best ratings in decades that night, but Trump didn’t seem to get his own jokes. His massive ego got in the way. He’s just not cool, but now, a few hours after the Republican debate wraps up, there’s a third competitor:

Bernie Sanders is headed to “Saturday Night Live,” the Vermont senator’s campaign confirmed on Friday.

Saturday’s live sketch-comedy show will be hosted by Larry David, who impersonated the Democratic presidential candidate on “SNL” back in October.

It is unclear to what the senator’s role will be on the late-night show.

That may not matter. That’s what S. E. Cupp, the fetching young conservative now a regular on CNN, argues. She notes that the guy is already cool:

At CNN’s Democratic town hall this week, Hillary Clinton highlighted the biggest problem for her campaign in one answer: “That’s what they offered.”

The question was why she took a whopping $675,000 fee to speak to the Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs. To be sure, for a once-proclaimed moderate and newly branded progressive, there is no good answer to this question. But as bad ones go, the only worse response would have been “because I really, really love money” – particularly as Hillary struggles to get out in front of the formidable challenge from Bernie Sanders.

But it’s not just the dissonance between her record and her image that is giving Bernie oxygen in what should have been a much easier primary. It’s that he is cool. And she is not.

That’s not my opinion, mind you. I am not cool, nor do I pretend to know what is cool. But the standard-bearing arbiters of cool — millennials, or people whose souls have yet to be crushed by later life — do know. And they have anointed Bernie as the ultimate hipster.

Cupp runs through all the data that shows that, and then adds this:

In context this should make little sense. For one, he’s a thousand years old. He looks and talks like a resort standup working the Borscht Belt – but without the jokes. He hammers the gloomy reality of income inequality and greedy establishment corporatists with all the spunk and charm of an executioner. He was first elected to office the year MS-DOS debuted.

And yet, in the same way Tony Bennett and Betty White probably have more young fans now than they do boomers, Bernie is retro, old school, hip to be square.

Hillary is just square.

Bernie is not:

Bernie is a true believer. He’s local, where she’s global. He’s the artisan bacon selection at a hip Williamsburg microbrewery, and Hillary is a plate of loaded potato skins at the mall TGI Friday’s.

He’s a cause; she’s a corporation. He’s one of a kind; she’s a chain. He’s a bumper sticker; she’s an infomercial.

Her Goldman Sachs mess-up was just another fresh reminder that for all of her slick messaging and careful branding, Hillary doesn’t see that taking more than half a million from a Wall Street bank because “that’s what they offered” is off-brand. But millennials do.

Okay, fine – he’s cool – but Kevin Drum argues that this is arguing about nothing much. The difference between these two is about something else, and he opens with this:

Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow supports Hillary Clinton: “I think Bernie’s terrific as an advocate. There’s a difference between a strong community advocate and being someone who can get things done.” Martin Longman says this is an example of how nasty things are getting: “Breaking out the Sarah Palin talking points isn’t smart. Talk about how people view socialism all you want, but don’t dismiss community organizers or advocates. This isn’t a Republican campaign.”

I had to laugh at that. Nasty? I’d rate it about a 1 on the Atwater Scale. Toughen up, folks.

Yeah, in 2008, Sarah Palin was saying that Obama was no more than a community organizer – he didn’t know shit (not that she put it that way) while she had been an actual mayor, even if it was tiny Wasilla, and knew how to run things, so he had no clue about the presidency. Some people bought that. Some people once bought Edsel station wagons. It doesn’t matter. Drum thinks this is pretty simple. Bernie Sanders is more progressive than Clinton. Hillary Clinton is more electable than Sanders. That’s it. End of story.

Maybe it’s time to get serious:

I mean, come on. They’re both lefties, but Sanders is further left. The opposing arguments from the Clinton camp are laughable. Clinton is more progressive because she can get more done? Sorry. That’s ridiculous. She and Bill Clinton have always been moderate liberals, both politically and temperamentally. We have over two decades of evidence for this.

As for electability, I admire Sanders’ argument that he can drive a bigger turnout, which is good for Democrats. But it’s special pleading. The guy cops to being a socialist. He’s the most liberal member of the Senate by quite a margin (Elizabeth Warren is the only senator who’s close). He’s already promised to raise middle-class taxes. He can’t be bothered to even pretend that he cares about national security issues, which are likely to play a big role in this year’s election. He wants to spend vast amounts of money on social programs. It’s certainly true that some of this stuff might appeal to people like me, but it’s equally true that there just aren’t a lot of voters like me. Liberals have been gaining ground over the past few years, but even now only 24 percent of Americans describe themselves that way. Republicans would tear Sanders to shreds with hardly an effort, and there’s no reason to think he’d be especially skilled at fending off their attacks.

I like both Sanders and Clinton. But let’s stop kidding ourselves about what they are and aren’t.

What does being cool have to do with any of this? And things on the other side are just as absurd:

First up is Donald Trump, who canceled an event today because airports were closed in New Hampshire… CNN reports that Trump’s operator at LaGuardia was open for business, and the operator in Manchester says it is “always open for business, 24 hours a day.” And even if Trump did have airport trouble, it was only because he insists on going home to New York every night. Apparently the man of the people just can’t stand the thought of spending a few nights at a local Hilton.

This whole thing cracks me up because of Trump’s insistence that he’s a “high energy” guy. But he can’t handle a real campaign, the kind where you spend weeks at a time on the road doing four or five events a day. He flies in for a speech every few days and thinks he’s showing real fortitude. He’d probably drop from exhaustion if he followed the same schedule as Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush.

And then there’s Marco Rubio:

To me he seems like a robot: he’s memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren’t bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person’s notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

Of course, this is just a specific example of a more general problem. Every four years, it looks to me like none of the Republican candidates can win. They all seem to have too many obvious problems. But of course someone has to win. So sure, Rubio reminds me of an over-ambitious teacher’s pet running for student council president, but compared to Trump or Carson or Cruz or Fiorina or Christie – well, I guess I can see how he might look good.

And then there’s Ted Cruz:

Cruz really pissed off Ben Carson in Iowa, just like he seems to piss off nearly everyone who actually gets a whiff of him up close. This is bad for Cruz because he’s trying to appeal to evangelical voters. Unfortunately, Carson has apparently decided that as long as he’s going to lose, he might as well mount a kamikaze attack against Cruz on the way down. And evangelicals listen to Carson. If he says Cruz bears false witness, then he bears false witness.

Drum is talking about this:

Ben Carson compared Ted Cruz’s mea culpa for spreading rumors about his campaign to the “attitude” Hillary Clinton expressed after the Benghazi attacks, Buzzfeed reported.

Carson was asked by Todd Starnes on a podcast posted Thursday night about whether Cruz “handled himself as a Christian” in response to reports that the Cruz campaign circulated rumors among supporters the night of the Iowa caucus that Carson was suspending his campaign.

Carson took issue with Cruz failing to take what Carson called “corrective action.”

“Not to take corrective action is tacitly saying it’s okay, or it’s sort of like, as Hillary Clinton said after Benghazi, ‘What difference does it make,'” Carson said.

Starnes followed-up with Carson on the comparison, to which Carson added, “I’m not saying that it rises to the level up Benghazi, I’m saying it’s the same kind of attitude.”

There is a lot of unhinged competition out there, but Drum is more interested in the real competition on his side of things:

Let’s face it: Hillary Clinton has never been a natural politician. Most Democrats like her, but they don’t love her, and this makes Sanders dangerous. What’s more, since Clinton already has a record for blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead to a charismatic opponent, he’s doubly dangerous. If Democrats convince themselves that they don’t have to vote for Clinton, they just might not. She has lots of baggage, after all.

Is this fair? No. It’s politics. But Clinton still has more money, more endorsements, more superdelegates, more state operations, and – let’s be fair here – a pretty long track record as a sincerely liberal Democrat who works hard to implement good policies. Sanders may damage her, but she’s almost certain to still win.

Yep, everyone should calm down, but they won’t. In 2012, Jonathan Haidt gave us The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

As America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done the seemingly impossible – challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum. Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns.

Drum summarizes:

In a nutshell, Haidt suggests that we all view morality through the lens of six different “foundations” – and the amount we value each foundation is crucial to understanding our political differences. Conservatives, for example, tend to view “proportionality” – an eye for an eye – as a key moral concern, while liberals tend to view “care/harm” – showing kindness to other people – as a key moral attribute.

This is the full array:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

That may be a bit much to digest, but in a new article Haidt and Emily Ekins write about new research that uses their theory to analyze supporters of an array of the current presidential candidates, and Drum summarizes that:

Democrats tend to value care but not proportionality. Republicans are just the opposite. No surprise there. But were there any moral values that were unusually strong for different candidates even after controlling for ideology and demographics?

Yes. Sanders supporters scored extremely low on the authority axis while Trump supporters scored high on authority and low on the care axis. Outside of the usual finding for proportionality, that’s it. Hillary Clinton supporters, in particular, were entirely middle-of-the-road: “Moral Foundations do not significantly predict a vote for Hillary Clinton; demographic variables seem to be all you need to predict her support (being female, nonwhite, and higher-income are all good predictors).”

So there you have it. Generally speaking, if you value proportionality but not care, you’re a Republican. If you value care but not proportionality, you’re a Democrat. Beyond that, if your world view values authority – even compared to others who are similar to you – you’re probably attracted to Donald Trump. If you’re unusually resistant to authority, you’re probably attracted to Bernie Sanders.

Haidt and Ekins put that this way:

Bernie Sanders draws young liberal voters who have a strong desire for individual autonomy and place less value on social conformity and tradition. This likely leads them to appreciate Sanders’s libertarian streak and non-interventionist foreign policy. Once again, Hillary Clinton finds herself attracting more conservative Democratic voters who respect her tougher style, moderated positions, and more hawkish stance on foreign policy. …

On the Republican side… despite Trump’s longevity in the polls, authoritarianism is clearly not the only dynamic going on in the Republican race. In fact, the greatest differences by far in the simple foundation scores are on proportionality. Cruz and Rubio draw the extreme proportionalists – the Republicans who think it’s important to “let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences,” as one of our questions put it. …

One surprise in our data was that Trump supporters were not extreme on any of the foundations. This means that Trump supporters are more centrist than is commonly realized; consequently, Trump’s prospects in the general election may be better than many pundits have thought. Cruz meanwhile, with a further-right moral profile, may have more difficulty attracting centrist Democrats and independents than would Trump.

Perhaps much of this is obvious. If you value proportionality but not care, you’re a Republican, and if you value care but not proportionality, you’re a Democrat – but that means both sides talk past each other. They don’t disagree. There’s nothing to talk about. They inhabit different moral universes. Who is the toughest and most ruthless? Who is the most decent and caring? Each side wonders why those folks over there are asking such dumb questions. Who is the coolest? That’s an easier question, but not a particularly useful question. Who cares?

The Super Bowl is easier. One team will score more touchdowns than the other. Everyone agrees that that’s how it works. At least one thing unites all Americans.


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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2 Responses to The Competition

  1. harryzenz says:

    Facelift sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

  2. tmezpoetry says:

    And here I thought SNL had their best turnout when Fey was doing the ditsy Palin thing. And of course Trump can’t get the joke, narcissist usually don’t. Love the article. I think you are right about Bernie.

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