The Lie

I have a long post about the election and its consequences. TL;DR: I am a neoliberal shill for Hillary Clinton.

There are various groups who are having serious doubts about the upcoming election. On the right, there are conservatives who feel like Trump will not actually be a conservative, and there are libertarians who feel even less inclined than usual to vote Republican. On the left, there are those who have serious misgivings about voting for a foreign policy hawk. And then there’s the “Bernie-or-Bust” movement, which feels it cannot in good conscience vote for Hillary Clinton.

There is a strain of thought in the vocal dissent against Hillary Clinton from the left, in particular the Bernie or Bust movement, that is hard to square. On the one hand, I’m happy that there are those who are actively involved in the discussion of the country’s future: we need more of that energy and less passivity, whether I agree with the views or not. Many of these people care about the crucial issues of the day: discrimination, inequality, war, and healthcare, to name just a few. Their hearts and minds are generally on the right side of the issues.

I preface with these kinder words because I have harsh things to say. My empathy for these people also means that I won’t mince words or water down my arguments against whatever it is they are presently doing. And make no mistake, I believe that what they are doing is counter-productive and harmful: from booing speeches by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to protesting outside the Democratic National Convention with chants of “Hillary for Prison”, or even just proclaiming on social media that they will never vote for Hillary Clinton because of “what she stands for.” They have a right to do these things! At the end of the day, what people do and how they vote is up to them. But if they publicly declare who they are voting for (or who they are not voting for) with fallacious logic and an insistence on idealogical purity, it must be pointed out and they must be challenged, because the outcome they are pushing for could be disastrous. What’s at stake are the very issues they claim to care about. What happens in November will show whether they care about these ideas only in the abstract or whether enough people have grasped the real-life impact.

There are two things I will address. First, whether Clinton legitimately won the primaries. Second, whether a dissenting liberal can morally vote for Clinton in the presidential election.

The first argument we have to dispel of is that the Democratic party primaries were rigged. This is a salient point to make in the wake of the hacking of the DNC emails. Those arguing the “election was rigged” point of view have several points put forth: (1) many registered voters were purged by local election authorities, (2) states with closed primaries like New York worked against Bernie Sanders, and (3) the DNC, as well as the super delegates, showed favoritism towards Hillary Clinton at the expense of Bernie Sanders.

The Nation covers many of these arguments in better detail than I do. I will briefly add my own thoughts here. In short, (1) there is no evidence that the purging of voter rolls favored any candidate in particular (and it may have hurt Clinton more in some places), nor would it have made any difference to the election. It is a symptom of how convoluted and broken our system of voting can be: bringing attention to this is great. But calling things rigged at every opportunity weakens the work against things like Voter ID laws and restrictive hours. (2) Bernie Sanders enjoyed an advantage in caucus states, which are arguably more restrictive and less democratic than closed primaries, where Clinton had some advantage. Clinton won more open primaries and many more votes, in the end. (3) Hillary Clinton won more votes and more elected delegates. Superdelegates and the DNC did not decide the election. Although the nasty emails of the DNC were shameful, it did not influence the outcome of the election. They can be wrong without the system being rigged. The people voted for Clinton in larger numbers than for Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton faced far more scrutiny and negative coverage in the process, even more so than Donald Trump.

To deny the coalition that voted in overwhelming numbers for the winning candidate their legitimacy, while claiming the system is rigged, is to make light of systems that are actually rigged. People seemed more interested in the DNC’s emails, which showed the arm of a political party having some preference for one candidate over another to lead said political party, than in the fact that a foreign dictatorship likely instigated the event in an effort to influence the outcome of the election. Russia. Where elections are actually probably rigged. Words like “corrupt” and “rigged” matter, because the system we have is imperfect, but it is not those things (yet). And so far, it is still our own election to decide. It seems we are more interested in making a point about a pre-existing narrative about unfairness than recognizing the danger in a foreign power attempting to sway our election results. To throw words around is to cheapen peoples’ voices and to further polarize people who largely agree on the issues of the day.

But forget all this, for a minute. Here is the fact of life: the presidential election is a zero-sum game. You either get some of what you want, or you get a lot of what you don’t want. There is no way around this.

What liberal dissenters seek in the voting booth it seems, is a church or confessional. They want to leave feeling pure, like they have participated in the process while having kept their conscience clean. This thirst for idealogical purity, to make a decision that is in complete concordance with their belief system, is ultimately a sign of selfishness. The ballot box is not a confessional. It is not a church. It is a choice. And if enough people say they don’t want Trump but that they could never live with voting for Clinton, then we end up with Trump.

The Lie we tell is that we have kept ourselves clean and uncompromised in the process. We tell ourselves: at the end of the day, a single vote doesn’t matter. Might as well make a decision fully in agreement with our beliefs so we feel good. Don’t want to ‘give’ something to Clinton and encourage more of this corrupt behavior in the supposedly liberal party into the future. No. They have to learn. And then the argument goes further: we can survive a Trump presidency.

And The Lie is then complete. Not only is it a complete fabrication, it is fundamentally selfish. We have exonerated ourselves of any personal accountability even as we expect it of everyone else. And it becomes clear: these ideas, these issues, they are really just abstract for us. The bar has now been set to “we will survive” 4 years, or 8 years. And having sent a message, we might eventually get a real liberal at the end of that. We can wait. A message is what a vote is worth, then.

This was a bad argument in 2012, when people could look to Romney’s moderate record as Governor of Massachusetts and say, “He’s just saying these crazy right-wing things. He’ll probably be fine as president. He knows better.” It is interesting to note these people continue to say these things about Trump, a man with no similar governing record and no intellectual curiosity or investment in any of the issues at hand. They will, then, convince themselves of whatever helps them sleep at night.

These are the people who have not fully recognized the far right-wing turn of the Republicans in the House and Senate. The more time goes on, the less sane their views become: cut taxes for the rich and gut the safety net, full stop. Romney proposed a similar plan, but people seemed to think he’d turn it around once elected. As if he could go to John Boehner and say, “Hey, let’s do liberal things instead. Forget what I said in the election.” The $5 trillion proposed tax plan of Romney in 2012 has now become the $10 trillion proposed tax plan of Trump and co. in 2016. But we still tell ourselves The Lie so that we can sleep at night.

This was in 2012 when Democrats still controlled the Senate. So back then, we could maybe say: we’ll just have gridlock, which is okay. There are, again, deep-seated problems with this argument, both in 2012 and even more so in 2016, given the power of the executive branch. And should Trump win the presidency this fall, he will likely have a strong majority in the House and a slim majority in the Senate. As we tell ourselves The Lie, we can then ignore the Supreme Court, conveniently, even as there is a vacancy in the court that will be directly and immediately decided by the election’s outcome, and determine the balance of the court. We can then ignore the appointments to agencies like the EPA that issue rules that can silently save thousands of lives in their regulation of toxic chemicals and pollution, or the Department of Labor which just passed a rule giving overtime protections to 4.2 million workers. We can ignore the incredible power vested in the Department of Human and Health Services as Obamacare continues to expand (or not in some states). Make no doubt that under any Republican, these things will go into reverse. And of course, there is the power of the executive branch in conducting foreign affairs, where it seems a declaration of war has become more of a suggestion than a constitutional requirement.

The quest for idealogical purity would have deemed Obama a fake liberal in 2008, despite his lofty rhetoric. He supported civil unions and not gay marriage, and he did not argue for a single-payer system that would demolish the profit-making pharmaceutical companies. He didn’t even argue for the individual mandate, even though he must have known it was necessary for any plan to work. He was a center-left candidate, and one could emphasize the center.

Yet is there any doubt of his impact on the LGBTQ community in the years since, as he has fought DOMA in court, repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and directed the his attorney general to battle states passing discriminatory laws? Is there any doubt, as 20 million more are insured in 2016 despite repeated legal challenges by Republicans, whether we are closer to our liberal ideals of universal healthcare? Did we worry about Obama’s idealogical purity, or did we understand that he was on our side, even if we didn’t agree on everything?

We tell ourselves stories so we can feel good and make sense of the world, which is messy and full of compromise. We tell ourselves The Lie. But politics is not an abstract space. It is not a church for us to feel pure in. It is and has always been about real outcomes. We move up or down.

To say “we can survive,” all in order to send a message (and what is that message?), is to ignore the real, human suffering of millions of people. It is to betray any semblance of a commitment to pro-choice issues. It is turning our backs on the poor and the underclass. One wonders whether the third party candidates, who would not withstand similar scrutiny from the media despite asking for similar attention, have any sense of this. They have a right to run for office, make no mistake, and people have a right to vote for them. But I wonder what those who voted for Nader in Florida felt as Bush prepared to send troops to Iraq in 2003. “We can survive this,” they may have said in 2000. Maybe they did, but many did not.

It is the job of Hillary Clinton to convince people to vote for her through a combination of policy ideas, convictions and biography, and it is not my job to shame people to vote for her, though it seems I have taken that role here. Nor will my attempts (or anyone’s attempts) work! But all of this is a long way of saying that we must hold those in office accountable, but we must also hold ourselves accountable. Even when it comes to a single, meaningless vote.

The presidential election is only one step in many. Conversations can continue afterward, pushing the party in this direction or that direction. But in losing, there is no next step. And the message we send is not the message we think we are sending: that however dangerous, far-right and racist the Republican party becomes, we will allow them to win so that we can feel good about ourselves.


Trump, the GOP and liberal complacency

There is a storyline right now about how slim Donald Trump’s chances are in the general election, and how the GOP may soon have to perform another famed “autopsy.” Much of it is based on sound analyses of the political environment by writers I respect. In some circles you hear that Hillary Clinton must be absolutely overjoyed at having Donald Trump as her competition. And the Republican Party is having a panic attack as it faces the possibility of fracturing from within, as an epic Clinton victory would have significant down-ballot implications on the Senate, House, and state governments. Or so, that’s the way the story goes.

But I am not so sure.

PredictWise shows a 70% chance of a Clinton victory: this is not large by any means. General election polls show an average 6-7 percentage point lead for Clinton: but this can and will dissipate to some degree as Trump turns his attention to the general election battle.

Recall that prior to the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney in 2012, 538 estimated Obama’s chances of winning on October 3 were 86.1%. Following the debate, it fell to 61.1% on October 12, in the span of less than 10 days, a dramatic turn of events. Yes, things reverted after better subsequent debate performances, and Obama managed to resurrect most of his 2008 coalition amidst an expanding economy, but for a period of time, you remembered that there was no guarantee of an expected outcome. Likelihood of events is not the same as certainty of events. Crucially, in a year where conventional wisdom has been upended time and time again, a humbled observer would think twice about confusing the two.

A lot can change in the world between now and November, and we have seen these things in the past. Jimmy Carter had at one point a commanding lead over Ronald Reagan, but the world refused to stay static. The Iran Hostage Crisis shook confidence in Carter as an energy crisis and recession were unfolding. Right or wrong, the blame often goes to the incumbent party, and suddenly voters who had thought Ronald Reagan too conservative were willing to give those ideas a shot after all.

A strange assumption has then taken hold: that the world will continue to look the same in 6 months. In some ways, this is the best single prediction one could give and most likely outcome, given everything we know about the political landscape and the current economic environment. I am not arguing otherwise. But predictions are validated in large samples: based on data today, if we could run the Clinton-Trump race 100 times, we would expect Clinton to win about 70% of the time. Instead, we observe and care about a finite sample of exactly one in November. We have our best guess today, but this is because we cannot predict what strange events will happen in the intermediate period, or the timing of the next recession, or the next ISIS attack. But something will happen, and the calculus of the election could be significantly changed (or not).

In many liberals, there is a smugness about the demographic changes in the country, and how these changes will automatically guide them to victory for the foreseeable future, as it did in 2008 and 2012. In this complacency is quite a lot of missing data points: despite winning the White House since 2008, progressive causes have been stymied since 2010. Republicans have commanded the House of Representatives since then and they are now firmly in control of the Senate. Republicans have taken state legislatures and governorships (31 to Democrats’ 18), and they enacted “severely” conservative policies in the process. In particular, when the federal government is divided, all of the meaningful change essentially occurs at the state and local level. And the GOP, for all the talk of its death, has cleaned up and enacted their preferred policies.

David Frum, following the passage of Obamacare in March 2010, said:

Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections. But [. . .] So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.

It seems Democrats have forgotten that policy happens at all levels of government. Yet their imagination, by and large, is captured entirely by the White House in election years. It involves the big picture ideas along with great television and significant coverage in all forms of media. No need to get involved with the murky and mundane details of governance at the local or state level. And I am as guilty of this as anyone: how many times have I tried to go to city council meetings (zero)? How many times have I paid close attention to state legislatures when there wasn’t a bathroom bill making national headlines (close to zero)?

Of course, this is broad-brushing of others on my part, and there are many passionate people working at all levels to fight for a progressive agenda. But their numbers pale in comparison on election day to the opposing side.

So the same people who seem unaware of the devastating losses at the state level are now declaring that Republicans will be destroyed after this election due to demography and a loudmouth reality TV star who can’t be taken seriously. Complacency and certainty are terrible traits to have when so much is at stake.