How Biden’s laying low strategy is the right strategy

Ezra Klein’s great post is headlined, “How Biden is winning,” but that’s simple… he’s facing a very unpopular incumbent in a bad economy.  Bernie Sanders would likely also be winning handily right now.

But, the reality is also that Biden is almost surely winning by a larger margin than most any other Democrat would be right now.  Part of that is his old white dude-ness.  Part of it is that he’s seen as more moderate than other Democrats.  But, as Ezra points out, he’s also got exactly the right strategy for the times we are in:

After the 2016 election, panicked, wounded Democrats settled on a diagnosis. Trump, for all his mania, bigotry, and chaos, had given angry Americans something to vote for. To stop him, Democrats would need to match force with counter-force, polarization with mobilization. They would need to show as much anger, as much populism, as much wrecking ball energy as he did.

Biden is running — and, for now, winning — by defying that diagnosis. He is executing a careful, quiet campaign focused less on thrilling his partisans than denying Trump the boogeyman he needs to reenergize his base. It’s a campaign that frustrates liberal activists and pundits because it repeatedly, routinely denies them the excitement and collisions that structure modern politics. It’s also, for that reason, a campaign that is frustrating Trump and Fox News, which is why they keep trying to run against Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar instead

The key to Biden’s success is simple: He’s slicing into Trump’s coalition, pulling back the older, whiter voters Democrats lost in 2016. The Biden campaign’s insight is that mobilization is often the flip side of polarization: When party activists are sharply divided by ideology and demography, what excites your side will be the very thing that unnerves the other side. Studies of House elections show this dynamic in action: Ideologically extreme candidates perform worse than moderates because they drive up turnout on the other side.

Biden’s theory of wavering Trump voters is the same as his theory of wavering Republican senators: He thinks they want to vote with him but need help getting over their political hang-ups about voting for a Democrat. And so he is trying to give them that help. He praises the old Republican Party, refuses to pick a side in American politics’ hottest fights. Biden has resisted calls to abolish private insurance, ban fracking, decriminalize immigration, and defund the police. It’s cost him enthusiasm on the left, but it has denied Trump the clear foil he needs. That’s left Trump confused, pathetically insisting Biden holds positions Biden doesn’t hold and getting fact-checked live on Fox…

Biden’s ability to neutralize negative polarization is grimly intertwined with his identity. Biden is an older, white man from Pennsylvania, and that is helping him with the older, whiter voters who make up Trump’s base. And he knows it. In a comment both depressing and true, Biden said, “I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary. I think it was unfair. An awful lot of it. Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.” …

“On the big issues — the stuff voters will notice — he doesn’t want to be seen as particularly polarizing or divisive,” says political scientist Seth Masket, who is completing a book on the lessons Democrats learned from 2016. “But while your average voter won’t pay much attention to the more technical policy concessions, they turn out to have a lot of meaning behind them, and the Democratic activists you want working for your campaign and staffing your organization notice them.”

All this has given Biden the opportunity to run the campaign he’s most comfortable with, and most suited to run. A campaign that’s more about giving people who don’t agree with him on everything permission to vote for him, rather than a campaign about mobilizing his own base. It might not work in every year, against every opponent, but it’s working this year, against this one.

Personally, nothing in politics excites me more than the prospect of defeating Trump and thereby restoring actual democracy.  So, consider me excited for Biden and glad he’s the nominee.

How to understand, race, education, (and everything) in American politics

This Eric Levitz interview with (recently fired/canceled) David Shor is so, so, so good.  It’s long, but so worth reading as Shor has so much good (and so much research-based) stuff to say on contemporary American politics.

This parts about racial attitudes and education struck me as particularly good:

What is the definition of racist in this context?

Ah, right. People yell at me on Twitter about this. So working-class white people have an enormous amount of political power and they’re trending towards the Republican Party. It would be really ideologically convenient if the reason they’re doing that was because Democrats embraced neoliberalism. But it’s pretty clear that that isn’t true.

I think that winning back these voters is important. So if I was running for office, I would definitely say that the reason these voters turned against us is because Democrats failed to embrace economic populism. I think that’s sound political messaging. But in terms of what actually drove it, the numbers are pretty clear. It’s like theoretically possible to imagine a voter who voted for Democrats their whole life and then voted for Trump out of frustration with Obamacare or trade or whatever. And I’m sure that tons of those voters exist, but they’re not representative.

When you take the results of the 2012 and 2016 elections, and model changes in Democratic vote share, you see the biggest individual-level predictor for vote switching was education; college-educated people swung toward Democrats and non-college-educated people swung toward Republicans. But, if you ask a battery of “racial resentment” questions — stuff like, “Do you think that there are a lot of white people who are having trouble finding a job because nonwhite people are getting them instead?” or, “Do you think that white people don’t have enough influence in how this country is run?” — and then control for the propensity to answer those questions in a racially resentful way, education ceases to be the relevant variable: Non-college-educated white people with low levels of racial resentment trended towards us in 2016, and college-educated white people with high levels of racial resentments turned against us. [emphases mine]

You can say, “Oh, you know, the way that political scientists measure racial resentment is a class marker because college-educated people know that they’re not supposed to say politically incorrect things.” But when you look at Trump’s support in the Republican primary, it correlated pretty highly with, uh … racially charged … Google search words. So you had this politician who campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti–political correctness platform. And then he won the votes of a large group of swing voters, and vote switching was highly correlated with various individual level measures of racial resentment — and, on a geographic level, was correlated with racist search terms. At some point, you have to be like, oh, actually, these people were motivated by racism. It’s just an important fact of the world.

I think people take the wrong conclusions from it. The fight I saw on Twitter after the 2016 election was one group of people saying the Obama-to-Trump voters are racist and irredeemable, and that’s why we need to focus on the suburbs. And then you had leftists saying, “Actually these working-class white people were betrayed by decades of neoliberalism and we just need to embrace socialism and win them back, we can’t trust people in the suburbs.” And I think the real synthesis of these views is that Obama-to-Trump voters are motivated by racism. But they’re really electorally important, and so we have to figure out some way to get them to vote for us.

How should Democrats do that?

So there’s a big constellation of issues. The single biggest way that highly educated people who follow politics closely are different from everyone else is that we have much more ideological coherence in our views.

If you decided to create a survey scorecard, where on every single issue — choice, guns, unions, health care, etc. — you gave people one point for choosing the more liberal of two policy options, and then had 1,000 Americans fill it out, you would find that Democratic elected officials are to the left of 90 to 95 percent of people.

And the reason is that while voters may have more left-wing views than Joe Biden on a few issues, they don’t have the same consistency across their views. There are like tons of pro-life people who want higher taxes, etc. There’s a paper by the political scientist David Broockman that made this point really famous — that “moderate” voters don’t have moderate views, just ideologically inconsistent ones. Some people responded to media coverage of that paper by saying, “Oh, people are just answering these surveys randomly, issues don’t matter.” But that’s not actually what the paper showed. In a separate section, they tested the relevance of issues by presenting voters with hypothetical candidate matchups — here’s a politician running on this position, and another politician running on the opposite — and they found that issue congruence was actually very important for predicting who people voted for.

So this suggests there’s a big mass of voters who agree with us on some issues, and disagree with us on others. And whenever we talk about a given issue, that increases the extent to which voters will cast their ballots on the basis of that issue.

Mitt Romney and Donald Trump agreed on basically every issue, as did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And yet, a bunch of people changed their votes. And the reason that happened was because the salience of various issues changed. Both sides talked a lot more about immigration, and because of that, correlation between preferences on immigration and which candidate people voted for went up. In 2012, both sides talked about health care. In 2016, they didn’t. And so the correlation between views on health care and which candidate people voted for went down.

So this means that every time you open your mouth, you have this complex optimization problem where what you say gains you some voters and loses you other voters. But this is actually cool because campaigns have a lot of control over what issues they talk about.

Non-college-educated whites, on average, have very conservative views on immigration, and generally conservative racial attitudes. But they have center-left views on economics; they support universal health care and minimum-wage increases. So I think Democrats need to talk about the issues they are with us on, and try really hard not to talk about the issues where we disagree. Which, in practice, means not talking about immigration…

In describing the Democrats’ troubles with non-college-educated white voters earlier, you put a lot of emphasis on discrete decisions that the Hillary Clinton campaign made. But, in my understanding, the 2016 election just accelerated a preexisting trend: In both the United States and Western Europe, non-college-educated voters have been drifting right for decades. Doesn’t that suggest that something larger than any given campaign’s messaging choices is at work here?  

That’s a great point. I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out, you know, “Where did things go wrong?” You see Matt Stoller and Ryan Grim do this, where you try to pinpoint the moment in time when Democratic elites decided to turn their backs on the working class and embrace neoliberalism. Maybe it was the Watergate babies. Maybe it was the failure to repeal Taft-Hartley. Maybe it was Bill Clinton in 1992.

But then you read about other countries and you see that the same story is happening everywhere. It happened in England with Tony Blair. It happened in Germany with Gerhard Schröder. The thing that really got me was reading about the history of PASOK, the Social Democratic Party in Greece. And you’re reading about an election in the 1990s where it’s like, “the right-wing New Democracy party made gains with working-class voters,” and you realize there are broader forces at work here.

So why is this happening? The story that makes the most sense to me goes like this: In the postwar era, college-educated professionals were maybe 4 percent of the electorate. Which meant that basically no voters had remotely cosmopolitan values. But the flip side of this is that this educated 4 percent still ran the world. Both parties at this point were run by this highly educated, cosmopolitan minority that held a bunch of values that undergirded the postwar consensus, around democracy and rule of law, and all these things.

Obviously, these people were more right wing on a bunch of social issues than their contemporary counterparts, but during that era, both parties were run by just about the most cosmopolitan segments of society. And there were also really strong gatekeepers. This small group of highly educated people not only controlled the commanding heights of both the left and the right, but also controlled the media. There were only a small number of TV stations — in other countries, those stations were even run by the government. And both sides knew it wasn’t electorally advantageous to campaign on cosmopolitan values.

So, as a result, campaigns centered around this cosmopolitan elite’s internal disagreements over economic issues. But over the past 60 years, college graduates have gone from being 4 percent of the electorate to being more like 35. Now, it’s actually possible — for the first time ever in human history — for political parties to openly embrace cosmopolitan values and win elections; certainly primary and municipal elections, maybe even national elections if you don’t push things too far or if you have a recession at your back. And so Democratic elites started campaigning on the things they’d always wanted to, but which had previously been too toxic. And so did center-left parties internationally.

What is your understanding of why there’s such a profound divide between college-educated and non-college-educated people on these so-called cosmopolitan issues?

Education is highly correlated with openness to new experiences; basically, there’s this divide where some people react positively to novel things and others react less positively. And there’s evidence that this relationship is causal. In Europe, when countries raised their mandatory schooling age from 16 to 18, the first generation of students who remained in school longer had substantially more liberal views on immigration than their immediate predecessors. And then, college-educated people are also more willing to try strange foods or travel abroad. So it really seems like education makes people more open to new experiences.

But politically, this manifests on immigration. And it’s ironclad. You can look at polling from the 1940s on whether America should take in Jewish refugees, and college-educated people wanted to and non-college-educated people didn’t. It’s true cross-nationally — like, working-class South Africans oppose taking in refugees from Zimbabwe, while college-educated South Africans support taking them in.

Other research has shown that messaging centered around the potential for cooperation and positive-sum change really appeals to educated people, while messaging that emphasizes zero-sum conflict resonates much more with non-college-educated people. Arguably, this is because college-educated professionals live really blessed lives filled with mutually beneficial exchange, while negative-sum conflicts play a very big part of working-class people’s lives, in ways that richer people are sheltered from. But it manifests in a lot of ways and leads to divergent political attitudes.

When tribal/polarized politics leads to awful governance

So, I was reading with dismay last night about the incredibly stupid Republican plans at economic stimulus.  Hello– payroll tax cut?  People who don’t have jobs don’t have payroll taxes.  Meanwhile, get the virus down and give schools the money they need to adapt, don’t try and blackmail schools!  Meanwhile, we are potentially on the verge of an economic cliff. 

It’s not just Trump (but, clearly he’s the driver of much of the worst of this), but how can the whole damn entirety of Republicans in Congress be this stupid.  Don’t they want to get re-elected?  But, ahhhh, there’s the rub.  So many voters will vote for Republican no matter what, even if they watch them drive the American economy into the ground.  Give the people the cultural grievance they crave (other people who don’t really belong here or who aren’t “real” Americans like you are taking what you deserve!!) and they’ll keep voting for you even as you immiserate them.  

Now, there actually really will be some very real political impacts from this awful governance– Trump will likely lose and Republicans are on track to lose the Senate– but in a remotely just world, Republicans would just be wiped out in November.  And they should be working like hell (and trying to fix things!) to keep that from happening.  But since most of them are still in relatively safe seats and get by with the cultural grievance squirrel(!!) we’re stuck with awful, awful governance.  

squirrel!!! - Distracted Dug | Meme Generator

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