osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

A few random reflections on Indiana Primary

I decided to take a long vacay from FB mostly because the primary seems to bring out the worst in people. In some ways, that's a backhanded compliment on reality -- people are taking things very seriously and feel passionately about them rather than disengaged. Even the cynical people I know who would like to stay cynical and disengaged are annoyed because they are finding it harder to stay properly cynically aloof.

But, like any addict, I can't help but make some random observations.

1. Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, what makes democracy work. Democracy, when it works, is not just about selecting a leader. It is the means of selecting a government that has sufficient legitimacy for people to obey it without consistent overt coercion/fear. This does not mean the state lacks police power. But it does mean that the vast majority of Americans do not believe that if they post the wrong thing on Twitter they will get a note from a government censor that politely (or perhaps not politely) reminds them what happens if they step too far out of line.

Trust me on this. Anyone who thinks we live in Amerika should meet and talk to my colleagues from a large number of other countries.

But I digress. Elections are a signal sent by the electorate in a bunch of ways. Traditionally, when democracies work, it's not just about getting 50.1% of the vote so you can ignore the other 49.9%. It is about producing an outcome that the vast majority of the electorate finds tolerable, in part because enough of the voting minority feels they actually influence the outcome. (It is hard to believe now, but in 2000, when we were doing the Florida recount, the majority of Americans viewed both Al Gore and George Bush as acceptable winners regardless of whom they actually voted for in the election.)  When elections are about utterly ignoring the "losing" side because 'we have a mandate!' then democracies become increasingly dysfunctional in their expression.

Note, the actual system is still working fine. It's just that it reflects a society that is fractured and where a majority of the electorate regard a loss of control by their candidate or party as actually de-legitimizing the outcome, not as a signal with regard to acceptable preferences (which then requires some modification to advance your governing philosophy, views or agenda. Or, if you are a corrupt machine, readjusting your rapaciousness/obvious corruption down to more decorous levels.)

Mind you, our political dysfunction is still pretty milld by historic standards. The level of political violence -- ranging from riots to assisinations to serious (as opposed to fringe idiotic) efforts by states to secede -- is still fairly low by comparison with past episodes in American history of political dysfuntion. Nevertheless, the system is reflecting increasing fragmentation and frustration. It will continue to do so until either (a) things become so awful that radical change happens (the outcome of the New Deal); (b) People decide to shift more moderately (the outcome of the 1960s); or (c) total collapse and civil war (a long shot, but it happened in 1861 and we cam damn close several times in the formation period of 1789-1814, when the Whig secessionist plot to have New England (and possibly NY) leave the union collapsed following the end of the War of 1812).

2. Relating the above to Indiana: Republicans reach a new equilibrium. We started the election with the iron certainty that Donald Trump could not possibly become the candidate for the Republicans. As the election progressed, the conventional wisdom became that even if Trump won the majority of delegates, the leadership would stop him with a contested convention.

But the Republicans have spent since 2006 ignoring the massive fractures in their party and de-legitimizing all forms of non-Republican administration. The 2016 primary has forced an alignment of interests in the Republican Party defined by its most vocal base. As a result, not merely the Republican base -- but the Republican leadership -- has gradually persuaded itself to unify around Trump. We saw this last night as GOP Chair Rince Priebus pronounced that now that Trump was the presumed nominee, Republicans should unify behind him because -- and this was the actual hashtag -- #neverhillary.

To unpack that, the GOP spent the years from 2006-2014 fighting in the party between those who wanted to soften ideology to address the concerns of some factions and appeal more broadly to the general population v. those who insisted on ideological purity. Initially, the purists won. But a new equilibrium has been reached within the GOP for someone who cares much less about ideology. Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, his appeal to racism, misogyny, etc., he stood in marked contrast to Ted Cruz. Trump is all about directly addressing what the GOP base perceives as "the real problems" and without much regard for official conservative ideology. Cruz, by contrast, represented the purified ideological wing of the GOP that believes only by rigorous adherence to conservative principles (economic and social) can we be saved.

The GOP base resoundingly opted for the more pragmatic theology. And the leadership, having elevated party loylaty and party control over all other virtues, now conforms itself to the new consensus.

Indiana Shows The Democratic Party At The Beginning of a Shift to a New Equilibrium. The Democratic Party reflects a different set of constituencies, demographics and sensibilities. This does not change the fact that it is now also undergoing a major internal challenge and sewarh for new equilibrium. The failure of the party in Indiana to unify behind the presumptive nominee -- despite the increasingly long odds against Sanders becoming nominee -- demonstrates that the issues reflected in the primary to date show real, widespread division that cannot be papered over in the long run.

For Democrats, the ideologcal orientation v. pragmatism debate is reversed. The Democrats underwent a major shift starting with Carter, who began rejection of the New Deal ideology in favor of more fiscal conservatism (it was Carter who first started focusing on the deficit, for example) and (modestly) smaller government. The major election loses of the Reagan and (especially!) Bush I years solidified the Democrats as being almost devoid of ideology in favor of pragmatic solutions to perceived specific problems. Indeed, if anyone remebers the politics of the 1990s, it was about suburban "soccer moms," gun and reproductive rights issues. The primary disagreement with Republicans was not about the need to "reduce regulation," but how. The focus on civil rights became significantly muted, with the prevailing philosophy being that the role of government in addressing de jure racism and sexism was ending and that these problems would fade in time.

So now the pendulum swings again. Since Ds actually won POTUS in '08 and '12, and since the Obama Administration has resulted -- by comparison with Bush II -- in general modest improvements in people's lives, a significant reduction in our oversees military commitments, and greater stability for the financial system, Dems are not undergoing the same fragmentation through pressure that Rs did in 2008-16. But the fragmentation between the wings of the Democratic Party is very real and growing.

The 3 Factions of the Democratic Party Solidifying in 2016. For those not clear, we seem to have 3 wings in the Democratic Party. The "Centrist" wing which believes that the 1990s Democratic governing philosophy was esentially correct, but that things went too far once Bush came into office with a Republican Congress. What is needed is not sweeping New Deal style reform of the regulatory and economic system, but targeted reforms to address specific abuses, focus on growing the economy in new areas like tech to create new jobs, and moderate the economic problems of the middle class and working class through limited subsidy (e.g., affordable medical insurance, better low-interest student loans and loan forgiveness programs).

The second wing is the Racial Justice/Gender Justice Wing. This segment of the Democratic Party holds that the chief failing of the Democratic Party (and society generally) has been to ignore and minimize the issues of racial and social justice. The 1990s centrist Democrats were wrong in following a "rising tide lifts all boats" philosophy and for ignoring the way institutional racism and sexism makes government programs (such as the War on Crime) disparetely impact people of color and women. Similarly, the devestating lack of economic opportunity that gives rise to ongoing poverty, stagnating wages, high unemployment in communities of color, and other social ills cannot be solved without directly addressing racial and gender bias and targeting solutions to achieve justice eplicitly for these communities. More personally, the levels of violence experienced by people of color and women in society needs to be addressed by government and explicitly embraced as being about racial and social justice. For this wing, the Democratic Party abandoned these core principles in pursuit of the votes of white men in the 1990s who wanted to believe that our race and gender problems were "behind us."

The third wing of the Democratic Party is a straigh up New Deal working class wing. The economic system has been warped back to the policies of the Gilded Age following 40 years of corrupt money and politics. The Democratic leadership has themselves been complicit -- either as dupes who did not realize the widespread damage of their actions or as willing corrupt participants for moneied interests -- in the abandonment of Keynsian economics and more equitable income redistribution in favor of a neo-liberalism that exalts the unregulated market and embraces income inequality as a necessary consequence of letting the market pick "winners" and losers."

In describing these three polls, I do not suggest that they are as clearly defined in reality. Nor are they exclusive. You will find plenty of Racial Justice folks in both the Centrist wing and the New Deal wing. You will find plenty of Centrists who support significant reregulation in some areas and even reversal of the 1990s Democratic policy, but do not support overall change in the economic system. Clinton's financial regulation program, for example, seeks to focus on particular areas of financial markets deemed unduely risky and generally serving no positive public policy purpose (recall that financial markets are supposed to serve a positive public policy purpose of promoting efficient allocation of capital). This contrasts with Sanders' policy approach of explicitly restoring the New Deal structural regulations designed to limit the influence of corporations and business trusts on society as a whole. And both Clinton and Sanders agree on the need to target government programs explicitly against racism and sexism.

What we see in Indiana for Democrats is intersting in that it confirms what we have seen the entire election season so far for the Democrats. The splits are real and are not going away. More to the point, those unhappy with the Centrist wing want to ensure that their interests are represented in the evolving party consensus. It is not, I think, a coincidence that Bernie wins an upset everytime the conventional wisdom pronounces the primary "over" and the Clinton campaign very visibly shifts to the general election. Yes, this also has to do with the primary map. Because the distribution of the Democratic "wings" is regional as well as demographic by age, race, profession and income level, the primaries have tended to jump around between "Hillary Country" and "Bernie Country."

But it is also the case that voters unhappy with the traditional governing philosophy of the Democratic Party are using their signalling power. It is not as if voters in Indiana can't do math. Even the most hopeful and committed Sanders supporter understands the odds against them. The fact that they continue to believe it is worth the fight against the odds is a testament to their commitment to making their voices heard.

Which leaves Democrats where Republicans were in 2006/08. The party is shifting to a new equilibrium. A party in which 40-45% of its primary voter base is explicitly supporting a radical change in direction despite clear rejection by 55%-60% of the party voting base is  party divided against itself. That is not a difference that is settled by telling either side how stupid and/or corrupt it is.

For those who believe elections are about choosing a candidate and then supporting the party, this message will be irrelevant. Hillary supporters holding this view will demand party loyalty to avert the predicted apocalypse that they have consistently predicted whenever the other party holds power. (I personally think the apocalypse of a Donald Trump presidency is destabilization of global politics with renewed risk of war and economic collapse rather than ravaging gangs of racists and the end of reproductive freedom as we know it, but I also thought the apocalypse of a W second term was going to be an economic collapse rather than a war with Iran, so what do I know?) By contrast, Sanders supporters who view elections as the means by which we annoit the one legitimate candidate will simply stay home.

What falls to those who care about citizenship, however, is continuing discussion, debate and engagement. If Democrats want to head off a destructive party realignment on par with what Republicans have experienced in the last 10 years, then the party will need to reach a new consensus that reflects the balance among its 3 dominant wings. That's not just a leadership thing. It begins with actual respectful listening to each other rather than aggressive persuasion. It begins wit a focus on issues and policies and philosophies rather than a focus on candidates and elections. It requires a tolerance for a raucus, bruising debate that will often degenrate into disrespect and insult becuase we are dealing with issues on which people feel passionately. And it means being willing to walk away angry, take the time to calm down and digest, and come back *again* for more discussion and debate because that is what's necessary to make our politics sufficiently functional to address the challenges we face as a nation.

As I began, I will close. Democracy is a reflection of society. When the voters are fractured and regard the institutions of government as illegitimate, then the political process reflects this. In Indiana last night, we have two parties in different stages of establishing their new consensus. For Republicans, the new consensus (at least for the moment) is a radical rejection of ideology in favor of a candidate that speaks to the emotional needs of the base. No one cares anymore that Trump is not a "true conservative." The pent up frustrations of the base will be heard, and the leadership will now reluctantly conform.

For the Democrats, Indiana shows that the process of party realignment is real and not going away. Rather than falling into line, the 40%-45% of the party base unhappy with the dominant party governing philosophy is still voting to make itself heard. Whatever happens in 2016, the Democratic Party is going to have to either consciously address reconciliation or preapre for a very ugly fragmentation and realignment.


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