A Possible Taxonomy of American Voters

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification, and in biology, that’s sorting things into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species – from the general to the specific. It’s a process of figuring out what’s related to what, and how, and why – on the basis of shared characteristics. That’s useful – it’s always good to know what’s what – but that’s relatively easy when you’re dealing with odd new insects or what might or might not be a rat, or a cat, or might be something else entirely. It can be done, and yes, we are related to apes, not that that matters very much, unless you’re one of those evangelicals still upset about Charles Darwin’s rather innocuous observation that, in nature, one thing seems to lead to another.

It does. So what? God seems to be just fine with that – even Pope Francis says so – for what that’s worth.

Things get a little dicier when you move beyond biology. In politics, deciding on what’s what, on the basis of shared characteristics, gets a bit muddled. What’s a conservative these days? What characteristics do they share? And why do half of the Democrats this year love Bernie Sanders and think Hillary Clinton is a useless tool of Wall Street who doesn’t believe half of what she says?

This is a puzzle, but in the Washington Post, Stephanie McCrummen strings together a series of anecdotes to illustrate the shared characteristics of Hillary Clinton supporters, and finds they’re looking for logic not passion:

They began arriving a full four hours early ,­ hundreds of people stretching single file outside a Phoenix high school. It was a hot and cloudless day, but the people had come prepared to endure, preparation and endurance being hallmarks of a Hillary Clinton rally.

They slathered on sunscreen. They popped open umbrellas. They reached into purses and fanny packs for little baggies of trail mix, ignoring the yelling Donald Trump supporters across the street, and the carload of Bernie Sanders fans that kept whizzing by – “Bernieeeee!” they shouted through the window, their hair flying free. Their own hairlines glistened with sweat.

“She’s a serious candidate, and she doesn’t have to entertain me,” said Chris Haggerty, 58, a pastor in her third hour of waiting, of moving in small increments toward the high school doors.

Elsewhere in America, Sanders was thundering about a “political revolution.” The Republican front-runner Trump was promising to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State. These were the emotionally cathartic rallies that had come to define this unorthodox political season so far – angry, raucous, anti-establishment, and, in Trump’s case, occasionally violent.

A Clinton rally was decidedly none of these things.

This is an odd new species of voters:

Rose Smith, 55, glanced over at the Trump yellers, which included a man with a Smith & Wesson 9mm strapped to his thigh shouting that Clinton should be “taken down a notch.” She did not yell back.

“Trump’s angry; Bernie’s angry all the time,” said Smith, a retired elementary schoolteacher who said she was not angry other than whatever frustration she felt toward the other candidates and their followers, which she sublimated. “Just realistically, I think it’s not a matter of pumping the team up, it’s a matter of playing the game. You can’t have that kind of demeanor. I can’t imagine these men being in the room when some crisis really happens. Is emotion going to rule them, or are they going to have a level head and make calm decisions?”

The man next to her was nodding.

“They always say she’s not emotional enough,” said Rick Beitman, 31, a graduate student sipping from a Starbucks cup. “I like Bernie – my heart is where his heart is, but my head is where Hillary’s is. She’s more logical. She has more structure and organization to her ideas.”

“She’s like a steady plateau,” Smith said.

McCrummen offers many more anecdotes, but it comes down to this:

They were excited by her lack of excitability; thrilled by her boring wonkiness; enthusiastic not about the prospect of some dramatic change but about Clinton’s promise of dogged, small-bore pragmatism, a result of decades of government experience they considered a qualification rather than a liability.

Theirs was the campaign that voters so often said they wanted – one of substance and detail, of practicality rather than dreamy idealism, of freedom through discipline.

One presumes that Sanders folks think the opposite, but at the National Review Online, Kevin Williamson sees a much wider split on the other side, between Aspiration Republicans versus Resentment Republicans:

Aspiration Republicans are familiar enough: They are deeply rooted in the classical-liberal principles of the American founding, they are in the main happy warriors in the Reagan-Kemp-Buckley tradition, they tend to see domestic social problems such as the recent race riots as bumps on the road to a more perfect union, and they tend to extend a fair amount of leeway to a decent guy making a buck. Their vices are a tendency to indulge Whig history and naïve universalism, believing that “the desire for freedom resides in every human heart,” as George W. Bush once put it.

And then there is the other species:

The Resentment Republicans are familiar enough, too. They may not be the progressive cartoon character (Headline: “How to shut down your right-wing uncle at Thanksgiving dinner!”), but there is a little of that in them. They tend to reject the classical liberalism of the American founding in favor of a more Continental, blood-and-soil/throne-and-altar nationalism. And that nationalism often isn’t quite national: Often it is merely tribal (“We the People vs. the Establishment,” as the talk-radio ranters have it), and often enough it is simply racial, a tendency that has been dramatically (even shockingly, for me, at least) revealed by the rallying of the white-nationalist element behind Trump, and Trump’s predictable footsie-playing with it. The Resentment Republicans are not happy warriors; instead, they are apocalyptic.

For them, Black Lives Matters isn’t a destructive and sometimes thuggish protest movement but the announcement of a pending race war; so is La Raza; so is the fact that East Podunk State U. offers an undergraduate degree in African-American studies. (“Where’s the white-studies degree? Huh? HUH!” You can hear it.) When somebody makes a buck – or a few more bucks than they have – they see conspiracy, favoritism, the hand of the wily Oriental, the sweaty Mexican, or the nefarious Jewish banker at work, depending on how far down that sorry road they’ve gone.

So we have four distinct species of American voters here – pure – no Luther Burbank hybrids – but in an Associated Press item, Jennifer Kerr sees shared voter characteristics in a different way:

It was in Nevada, just about month ago, when Donald Trump proclaimed his affection for the uneducated.

“We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated,” the Republican presidential front-runner boasted after coasting to a decisive victory in the state’s caucuses.

He should, because that’s a key shared characteristic:

Trump overwhelmingly leads his rivals for support among the less educated, and draws more modest backing from college graduates and those with postgraduate study, according to exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research.

In an analysis of voters by education in states where exit or entrance polling is available, nearly half of those with high school diplomas or less schooling said they supported the billionaire. Just over 40 percent of those with some college study favored him. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz captured the next best showing among the two groups, with 27 and 28 percent, respectively.

But this may not be what you think:

“I think it is incorrect to look at the data and conclude that those voters are more ignorant,” Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an interview. “Instead, there’s a strong correlation between having a college degree or not, and your economic situation in life.”

Cramer explains, “These are folks who have been feeling a real struggle to make ends meet for decades now and they see a candidate coming along who says to them, ‘You’re right. You’re not getting your fair share. It sucks. And I’m going to stand up for you.'”

“That’s really appealing to people,” Cramer said before Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin, where Cruz is leading Trump in polls.

So the issue is not education in itself:

So far, Trump’s populist pitch to ordinary folks facing economic uncertainty is resonating, says Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“A lot of people have underestimated Trump because they expect a candidate to do things in a certain way. And because he breaks the mold on that in some respects, they miss when he’s making these appeals that speak directly to the voters,” he said.

And that too deserves an anecdote, from the Republican debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, in February:

Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got into a testy exchange over their positions on eminent domain, the process by which the government takes private property for public use.

Trump drew boos from the audience when he dismissed Bush saying, “Let me talk, quiet,” and he then told the crowd that the booing was coming from “donors and special interests” in the audience – pressing his populist, anti-establishment message.

Cramer calls it the “politics of resentment,” when a candidate taps into the economic stress and gives people something concrete to blame. “Trump is able to direct people’s profound uneasiness with their situation in life at a target” – the government, trade policies, or a group of people.

Richard Barry then extends that to the Democratic side:

If Professor Cramer is right, and I think she is, Democrats should wonder why they aren’t having more success with voters who are “feeling a real struggle to make ends meet.” Aren’t Democrats the ones who want to help? But, and this is the point, it’s not about what is being said, but how it is being said.

Many Democrats, me among them, have proudly pointed to the highly intelligent policy debates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have had on several occasions as proof of our political and intellectual superiority. We have marveled at how crude Donald Trump has been with almost everything he has said, but there is little doubt he has connected with his supporters in a visceral way.

And for the Bernie Sanders supporters, I like his message, and if he were teaching a graduate seminar, I’d be taking notes. I just don’t know that he is reaching less privileged voters with the way he is framing his argument.

In fact, this sort of taxonomy is useful:

As awful as Donald Trump has been on issue after issue, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, Democrats need to pay more attention to why he’s done so well with the poorly educated. I’m not saying Democrats should follow him into the gutter by appealing to every obnoxious prejudice held by voters, but that they grasp the need to connect with voters’ felt experiences and move somewhat away from the wonkishness those of us lucky enough to have gone to school love so much.

If Trump had any ability to speak intelligently, he wouldn’t have said he “loved the poorly educated.” He would have said that he acknowledged and respected the challenges faced by Americans not able to access higher levels of education and that he valued their support and would work with them to provide greater opportunities for them and their families.

And pigs would fly. Donald Trump knows better, and Conor Lynch explains why:

Trump represents the culmination of Republican – and American – stupidity. For many voters, his ignorance of both foreign and domestic issues is offset by his bold and folksy rhetoric, along with his absolute confidence, which, as Bill Maher recently noted, “is perfect for the country that scores low in math and science but off the charts in self-esteem.” In this age of 24/7 entertainment, where even the news is seen as a form of escapism, his sophomoric antics are considered fun and amusing, while his vulgar and often inflammatory comments are regarded as rebellious by those who are fed up with perceived “political correctness.”

Trump, of course, didn’t invent the politics of simplemindedness. Republican patron saint Ronald Reagan was incredibly ill-informed and even hostile toward learnedness, but he was an actor who could pull off inspiring speeches with a kind of paternal charm.

That’s a bit harsh, but Matt Taibbi is harsher:

Trump isn’t the beginning of the end. George W. Bush was. The amazing anti-miracle of the Bush presidency is what makes today’s nightmare possible.

People forget what an extraordinary thing it was that Bush was president. Dubya wasn’t merely ignorant when compared with other politicians or other famous people. No, he would have stood out as dumb in just about any setting.

If you could somehow run simulations where Bush was repeatedly shipwrecked on a desert island with 20 other adults chosen at random, he would be the last person listened to by the group every single time. He knew absolutely nothing about anything. He wouldn’t have been able to make fire, find water, build shelter or raise morale. It would have taken him days to get over the shock of no room service.

Taibbi was not impressed with the man:

Bush went to the best schools but was totally ignorant of history, philosophy, science, geography, languages and the arts. Asked by a child in South Carolina in 1999 what his favorite book had been growing up, Bush replied, “I can’t remember any specific books.”

Bush showed no interest in learning and angrily rejected the idea that a president ought to be able to think his way through problems. As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in The Bush Dyslexicon, Bush’s main rhetorical tool was the tautology – i.e., saying the same thing, only twice.

“It’s very important for folks to understand that when there’s more trade, there’s more commerce” was a classic Bush formulation. “Our nation must come together to unite” was another. One of my favorites was: “I understand that the unrest in the Middle East creates unrest throughout the region.”…

But Bush’s tautologies weren’t gaffes or verbal slips. They just represented the limits of his reasoning powers: A = A. There are educational apps that use groups of images to teach two-year-olds to recognize that an orange is like an orange while a banana is a banana. Bush was stalled at that developmental moment. And we elected him president.

And that led to this:

In Bush’s case he had Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove thinking out the problem of how to get re-elected, while Dick “Vice” Cheney, Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld and Andrew “Tangent Man” Card took care of the day-to-day affairs of the country (part of Card’s responsibilities involved telling Bush what was in the newspapers he refused to read). …

It took hundreds of millions of dollars and huge armies of such behind-the-throne puppet-masters to twice (well, maybe twice) sell a voting majority on the delusion of George Bush, president. Though people might quibble with the results, the scale of this as a purely political achievement was awesome and heroic, comparable to a moon landing or the splitting of the atom.

Guiding Bush the younger through eight years of public appearances was surely the greatest coaching job in history.

But this could be done: 

Rove correctly guessed that a generation of watching TV and Hollywood movies left huge blocs of Americans convinced that people who read books, looked at paintings and cared about spelling were either serial killers or scheming to steal bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. (Even knowing what a bearer bond is was villainous).

Okay, you need to know that 1988 Bruce Willis movie to get that reference, but it works here:

The hero in American culture, meanwhile, was always a moron with a big gun who learned everything he needed to know from cowboy movies. The climax of pretty much every action movie from the mid-eighties on involved shot-gunning the smarty-pants villain in the face before he could finish some fruity speech about whatever.

Rove sold Bush as that hero. He didn’t know anything, but dammit, he was sure about what he didn’t know. He was John McClane, and Al Gore was Hans Gruber. GOP flacks like Rove rallied the whole press corps around that narrative, to the point where anytime Gore tried to nail Bush down on a point of policy, pundits blasted him for being a smug know-it-all using wonk-ese to talk over our heads – as Cokie Roberts put it once, “this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.”

Now, Trump is doing the same thing, but with a twist:

The plan was never to make ignorance a political principle. It was just a ruse to win office. Now the situation is the opposite. Now GOP insiders are frantic at the prospect of an uncultured ignoramus winning the presidency. A group of major donors and GOP strategists even wrote out a memo outlining why a super PAC dedicated to stopping Trump was needed.

“We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” they wrote. Virginia Republican congressman Scott Ringell wrote an open letter to fellow Republicans arguing that a Trump presidency would be “reckless, embarrassing and ultimately dangerous.”

Hold on. It wasn’t scary to imagine George “Is our children learning?” Bush with the “responsibilities for worldwide confrontation” at his fingertips? It wasn’t embarrassing to have a president represent the U.S. on the diplomatic stage who called people from Kosovo “Kosovians” and people from Greece “Grecians?”

That’s the problem here:

Trump’s ignorance level, considering his Wharton education, is nearly as awesome as what Bush accomplished in spite of Yale. In fact, unlike Bush, who had the decency to not even try to understand the news, Trump reads all sorts of crazy things and believes them all. From theories about vaccines causing autism to conspiratorial questions about the pillow on Antonin Scalia’s face to Internet legends about Americans using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to shoot Muslims, there isn’t any absurd idea Donald Trump isn’t willing to entertain, so long as it fits in with his worldview.

But Washington is freaking out about Trump in a way they never did about Bush. Why? Because Bush was their moron, while Trump is his own moron. That’s really what it comes down to.

This is a dire situation, and one caused by not understanding the taxonomy of the American voter:

We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment. The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island. Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married with Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs. It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.

Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines. There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.

Lynch adds further context to that:

After eight years of Bush, it was hard to imagine a less intelligent or articulate Republican on a presidential ticket, and then Senator John McCain decided to tap Sarah Palin – who made Bush look like Stephen Hawking – as his running mate. Her inability to answer basic questions evinced a frightening lack of knowledge and judgement in someone who might have been a heartbeat away from the presidency. But once again, this was part of her appeal. Later on, McCain staffers revealed that her ignorance was even worse than it looked… Palin thought the Queen ran the British government, didn’t know the difference between North and South Korea, thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and had never heard of the Federal Reserve. …

And now here we are in 2016. After 10 months on the campaign trail, Trump seems in no rush to become more knowledgeable on the issues – or more “presidential,” for that matter. And why should he be?

Isaac Chotiner interviewed the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat about this, and other matters, and the young conservative intellectual says that he feels an odd mix of vindication and depression:

The Trump phenomenon has proved one part of our thesis in a remarkably vivid and totally unexpected way, while also possibly suggesting the inefficiency of wonkish policy ideas to address underlying problems. I don’t think there is any question that Trump has revealed or exposed a deep alienation of a very large – larger even than I expected – swath of Republican-leaning voters from the basic orthodoxies of the party. That is the problem… I didn’t expect it to be exposed in quite this manner, but it has, and it is woven together with awful celebrity politics and xenophobia and violence – I would say the dark side of Trump, but it’s mostly all dark side at this point. As someone who is trying to imagine a future conservatism, it leaves you wondering whether you are too late – the alienation is too strong to be addressed in meliorist ways  – and whether it’s a little silly to imagine that a bunch of pundits and journalists could come up with five great policy ideas that would fix this problem.

That’s okay. The Hillary Democrats feel exactly the same way. There’s much to be said for figuring out what’s related to what, and how, and why – on the basis of shared characteristics. People should do more of it. It’s just basic taxonomy. It’s useful.

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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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One Response to A Possible Taxonomy of American Voters

  1. I read most all of your summaries; always find them very interesting; often send them along to others; usually agree with the general thread. You do a great job.
    This is true with this post as well. Thank you.
    I’m a Hillary guy: have been so since the Obama-Hillary match began sometime in late 2007 early 2008. I supported her up to the point that Barack Obama was nominated by the Democrats in 2008.
    Obama was a great candidate, and I knew that long before the election: I saw him in person in Minneapolis four days before the Minnesota precinct caucuses of 2008, where on my own piece of paper I wrote “Hillary Clinton” as my preference after walking a half mile on a cold evening to get in the school where the caucuses were taking place.
    My “circle” then were progressives, the core of the Bernie crowd at the moment.
    I was astonished, after the election, how these same progressives who voted for Obama almost immediately turned on him because he hadn’t closed Guantanamo, pulled all of our troops out of Iraq, etc., and this was before he was even inaugurated.
    Now I see the same phenomenon. “Killary” is one of the LEFT epithets I’ve heard, for instance. “She lies….” I think the right wing spin machine long ago selected the progressive left as one of their preferred targets for propaganda, and it has worked.
    If Bernie isn’t nominated, lots of progressives plainly and simply won’t vote at all. And they’ll feel righteous. And the Democrats will lose.
    I worry more about them, than about the Trumpists.
    For anyone interested, I’ll do a little blog about God for President on Tuesday (tomorrow), posting during the Wisconsin primary, before the election is called for whomever….
    Have a great day.

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