Those of us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever – if it did – turn seventy this year. That’s old, but we left the sixties behind long ago. Almost all of us moved on, led a full life, more or less, and retired from that final career in a series of careers that probably had little if anything to do with peace and love and flower-power and changing the world. That was a long time ago. That ended when everyone went home from Woodstock and took a long hot shower, to wash off the mud, and Richard Nixon settled down in the White House. Even the Vietnam War ended, eventually. Where have all the flowers gone? Disco and polyester leisure suits followed, and then grandchildren.
We let it all go, perhaps because we had won. No one now thinks that war in Vietnam was a fine idea. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 corrected a few racial problems, even if, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that significant parts of the Voting Rights Act were now invalid, because things had changed. They suggested a rewrite, as if Congress would ever do that. Republicans want us to go back to 1962 or so, because black folks and other minorities keep voting for the wrong people – not them. Now there are all the new state-level rules that will make it hard for them ever to vote again – not poll taxes and absurd literacy tests – that would be illegal. Making obtaining the necessary new voter-ID cards an expensive and time-consuming process isn’t illegal – lots of stuff is expensive and time-consuming. Restricting the hours available to vote and not replacing broken voting machines, in certain districts, isn’t illegal either. Times are tough. States don’t have a whole lot of money. This is a prudent use of limited state funds, so they can fix potholes and all the rest. The net effect of all this is to undo what was done in the sixties.
That was a setback, and being slowly corrected now, but abortion is legal and no one has a problem with “the pill” any longer – except the Republicans, who do what they can to make it next to impossible to find a clinic that provides either. That also would undo what was won in the sixties, but that battle was won and will stay won. There’s no going back. And although Republicans hated the first bill Obama signed, in the first month of his first term, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – all about women being able to do something about not receiving the same pay for the same work as men – they couldn’t argue women shouldn’t be paid the same as men for the same work – not after the sixties. They had to talk about how that act would hurt businesses and make trial lawyers rich – but they couldn’t argue with the concept. The little woman hadn’t stayed home, and happily dusted the furniture and then made dinner for her man, since the days of June Cleaver, and that was the fifties.
That decade, however, is problematic. Angry old white men, retired and on Medicare, and drawing Social Security, and getting a pension check each month, from back in the days when there were such things as fixed pensions – back in the day when the company hadn’t cheated and used up all the pension funds on absurd acquisitions, or to fund day-to-day operations when they screwed up, or to buy the CEO a third yacht – back in the day when they themselves “made things” – say they want their country back – a country with a manufacturing economy, not a service economy run on the damned net, and a coal economy too.
They voted for Trump, but that country doesn’t exist any longer. Our “postindustrial society” was first explained by the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell in 1973 – heavy industry, steel, cars, appliances, aluminum, coal mining and oil production, was being overtaken by services — retailing, health care, travel, education, entertainment banking and whatnot. Robert Samuelson carefully explains that there’s no going back. Those votes for Donald Trump were wasted – but many don’t remember the fifties fondly anyway. Those days were conformist and stultifying. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis couldn’t come soon enough, but they came along eventually, as did the sixties. Perry Como and Doris Day became dinosaurs and we all moved on. That was fine. Few wanted the fifties back – Joe McCarthy and people building bomb shelters in their back yards, and lynchings persisting in the South.
Forget that. The fifties sucked. The sixties sucked too – no one remembers “love beads” fondly – but America’s version of Apartheid finally ended, and there was a sexual revolution, and a workplace revolution regarding gender. Rights were asserted and then acknowledged, and then codified – and the music was pretty good too. Things changed.
Republicans may hate that but they should give it a rest. Everyone else moved on. The arguments are over. They were over a long time ago.
They won’t let go. Paul Waldman says that explains the special election in Georgia:
While a lot of was made of the absurd amounts of money spent on the race, the question of Donald Trump’s effect down-ballot or which voters would turn out, Republicans won by going back to a playbook they’ve used a thousand times before, one based on fear and contempt of culturally alien liberals.
In many ways, this race was unique – it’s not as though in 2018 there will be a national spotlight and $50 million poured into all 435 House districts. But if you weren’t watching closely, you may have missed the scorched-earth culture war campaign that Republicans ran against Democrat Jon Ossoff. They barely attempted to make a case for Karen Handel; instead, their argument was that Ossoff is basically a Hollywood San Francisco radical hippie anarchist lunatic controlled by – cover the children’s ears – Nancy Pelosi!
It seems they needed a hippie chick from the sixties:
That was the running theme of the television ads and direct mailers that flooded the district, convincing Republican voters that whatever misgivings they had about the Trump administration and however much Ossoff portrayed himself as a mainstream technocrat whose biggest priority was bringing high-tech jobs to metro Atlanta, nothing mattered more than their tribal hatred of liberals. You might think Karen Handel’s brand of extreme social conservatism (among other things she would outlaw not only same-sex marriage but also gay couples adopting children) would be a liability in a highly educated district like the Georgia 6th, but it wasn’t…
As Nate Cohn pointed out a few days ago, 13 of the 15 congressional districts with the highest levels of education in the country are safe Democratic districts; only Georgia’s 6th and a suburban Virginia district are in Republican hands. That’s why Democrats saw an opening in this election. They hoped that with this electorate, which was far more comfortable with Mitt Romney than with Donald Trump (Trump won the district by 2 points, while Romney won it by 23), a mainstream, non-threatening Democrat could win.
But he couldn’t.
The culture wars continue:
If Republicans can win on the culture war in Georgia’s 6th, they can do it almost anywhere.
That’s partly because they have so much practice. For half a century, they’ve been telling voters that Democrats are alien radicals who indulge criminal minorities and bring chaos and violence wherever they go. Richard Nixon rode that message to the White House in 1968 and Republicans have been doing it ever since. So Ossoff, Republicans said, was “not one of us,” the ultimate distillation of the culture war attack. As one ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee said over pictures of anarchists smashing windows and Kathy Griffin holding up Trump’s severed head, “D.C. liberals, Hollywood elites, this is who supports Jon Ossoff. Because Jon Ossoff is one of them. Childish. Radical. They’ve targeted Georgia, but we can stop them.”
Perhaps they can retroactively cancel Woodstock too, but this is how they roll:
While there may be legitimate reasons to ask whether Pelosi should remain the leader of House Democrats – we probably should debate whether the current Democratic leadership is making good strategic and investment decisions – that’s a separate topic from whether she has become a liability as a cultural symbol.
It’s certainly true that Pelosi is a villain for rank-and-file voters. Is that because of her politics? Of course not – her positions on issues are basically those of the entire Democratic Party. Is it because she’s from San Francisco? Of course – Republicans have been using “San Francisco” as a symbol for conservative baby boomers’ resentments for decades, a representation of all the drug-taking and free love and fun that the hippies had while the buzz-cut squares seethed with jealousy and contempt. Is it because Pelosi is an older woman? Oh, you bet it is. Just like Hillary Clinton, she has been the target of a nakedly misogynistic campaign of vilification for years, one that is now baked deep into Republican politics.
And if you’re not a regular consumer of conservative media, you might not realize just how relentless that campaign has been, how often Pelosi is held up by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the rest of the talk radio/Fox News nexus as everything that good honest Americans should hate – which is why nothing Pelosi does actually matters. She barely appears on television, but she’s as potent a symbol for Republicans as ever. She could retire tomorrow, and I promise you, Republicans would still run a thousand ads with her face in them in 2018.
Or they’d replace her with a different villain:
We’ve seen again and again how effective that machine can be: One Democratic politician after another has begun with a profile as an inoffensive, hardworking, substantive public servant (think Dukakis, Gore, Kerry), then quickly turned into a monster who threatened everything Republican voters hold dear.
That may be so, but Jamelle Bouie argues that it’s more complicated that:
How should we understand the forces that gave Trump the election? A new data set moves us closer to an answer: in particular how to understand the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 only to back Trump in 2016. Its lessons have far-ranging implications not only for diagnosing Trump’s specific appeal but for whether such an appeal would hold in 2020.
Two reports from the Voter Study Group, which conducted the survey, give a detailed look at these vote switchers. One, from George Washington University political scientist John Sides, looks at racial, religious, and cultural divides and how they shaped the 2016 election. The other, from political scientist Lee Drutman, takes a detailed look at those divides and places them in the context of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Starting in different places, both Sides and Drutman conclude that questions of race, religion, and American identity were critical to the 2016 outcome, especially among Obama-to-Trump voters.
That’s no surprise. What’s interesting is what the importance of identity says about Donald Trump’s campaign. Put simply, we tend to think that Trump succeeded despite his disorganized and haphazard campaign. But the Voter Study results indicate that Trump was a canny entrepreneur who perceived a need in the political marketplace and met it.
Trump simply exploited the lingering lost culture wars of the sixties;
Whether or not they identified with a party, most people who voted in the 2016 election were partisans. “Approximately 83 percent of voters were ‘consistent partisans,'” writes Sides. In other words, they voted for the same major party in both 2012 and 2016. This is the typical case. But about 9 percent of Donald Trump’s voters had backed Obama in the previous election, equivalent to roughly 4 percent of the electorate. Why? The popular answer, or at least the current conventional wisdom, is economic dislocation. But Sides is skeptical. He concludes that economic issues mattered, but no more or less than they did in the 2012 election. The same goes for views on entitlement programs, on trade, and on the state of the economy in general. The weight of those issues on vote choice was constant between the two election years.
What changed was the importance of identity. Attitudes toward immigration, toward black Americans, and toward Muslims were more correlated with voting Republican in 2016 than in 2012. Put a little differently, Barack Obama won re-election with the support of voters who held negative views toward blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. Sides notes that “37 percent of white Obama voters had a less favorable attitude toward Muslims” while 33 percent said “illegal immigrants” were “mostly a drain.” A separate analysis made late last year by political scientist Michael Tesler (and unrelated to the Voter Study Group) finds that 20 to 25 percent of white Obama voters opposed interracial dating, a decent enough proxy for racial prejudice. Not all of this occurred during the 2016 campaign – a number of white Obama voters shifted to the GOP in the years following his re-election. Nonetheless, writes Sides, “the political consequences in 2016 were the same: a segment of white Democrats with less favorable attitudes toward these ethnic and religious minorities were potential or actual Trump voters.”
It seems they were reminded of the sixties:
What caused this shift in the salience of race and identity (beyond the election of a black man in 2008) and augured an increase in racial polarization? You might point to the explosion of protests against police violence between 2012 and 2016, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, events that sharply polarized Americans along racial lines. And in the middle of 2015 arrived the Trump campaign, a racially demagogic movement that blamed America’s perceived decline on immigrants, Muslims, and foreign leaders, and which had its roots in Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize Barack Obama as a noncitizen, or at least not native-born.
And then it gets complicated:
Drutman plots the electorate across two axes – one measuring economic views, the other measuring views on identity – to build a political typology with four categories: liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and populists. Liberals, the largest single group, hold left or left-leaning views on economics and identity. Libertarians, the smallest group, hold right-leaning views on economics but leftward beliefs on identity. Conservatives are third largest, with right-leaning views on both indices, while populists – the second largest group – are the inverse of libertarians, holding liberal economic views and conservative beliefs on identity.
Most populists, according to Drutman, were already Republican voters in the 2012 election, prizing their conservative views on identity over liberal economic policies. A minority, about 28 percent, backed Obama. But four years later, Clinton could only hold on to 6 in 10 of those populist voters who had voted for Obama. Most Democratic defectors were populists, and their views reflect it: They hold strong positive feelings toward Social Security and Medicare, like Obama voters, but are negative toward black people and Muslims, and see themselves as “in decline.”
And there you have it:
This is a portrait of the most common Obama-to-Trump voter: a white American who wants government intervention in the economy but holds negative, even prejudiced, views toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. In 2012, these voters seemed to value economic liberalism over a white, Christian identity and backed Obama over Romney. By 2016, the reverse was true: Thanks to Trump’s campaign, and the events of the preceding years, they valued that identity over economic assistance. In which case, you can draw an easy conclusion about the Clinton campaign – even accounting for factors like misogyny and James Comey’s twin interventions, it failed to articulate an economic message strong enough to keep those populists in the fold and left them vulnerable to Trump’s identity appeal. You could then make a firm case for the future: To win them back, you need liberal economic populism.
You need a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but even then nothing is guaranteed:
Usually, voters in the political crosscurrents, like Drutman’s populists, have to prioritize one of their chief concerns. That’s what happened in 2008 and 2012. Yes, they held negative views toward nonwhites and other groups, but neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney ran on explicit prejudice. Instead, it was a standard left vs. right ideological contest, and a substantial minority of populists sided with Obama because of the economy.
That wasn’t true of the race with Trump. He tied his racial demagoguery to a liberal-sounding economic message, activating racial resentment while promising jobs, entitlements, and assistance. When Hillary Clinton proposed a $600 billion infrastructure plan, he floated a $1 trillion one. When Clinton pledged help on health care, Trump did the same, promising a cheaper better system. Untethered from the conservative movement, Trump had space to move left on the economy, and he did just that. For the first time in recent memory, populist voters didn’t have to prioritize their values. They could choose liberal economic views and white identity, and they did.
This fact makes it difficult to post hypotheticals about the election. It’s possible a more populist campaign would have prevented those Obama defections. But a Trump who blurs differences on economic policy is a Trump who might still win a decisive majority of those voters who want a welfare state – for whites. In the context of 2016, that blend of racial antagonism and economic populism may have been decisive.
But all is not lost:
The good news for Democrats – and the even better news for the populist left – is that unless Trump makes a swift break with the Republican Party, his combined economic and identity-based appeal was a one-time affair. In 2020, if he runs for re-election, Trump will just be a Republican, and while he’s certain to prime racial resentment, he’ll also have a conservative economic record to defend. In other words, it will be harder to muddy the waters. And if it’s harder to muddy the waters, then it’s easier for Democrats – and especially a Democratic populist – to draw the distinctions that win votes.
That’s a pleasant thought, but for us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever, may not be around to see that America and the world really did change forever – in spite of Donald Trump. We all have expiration dates. But things did change. Donald Trump graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in May 1968 with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics. Somehow he missed it all.