Please don’t tear this world asunder
Please take back
this fear we’re under
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop wanting you
I might just stop wanting you
Please make sure we get tomorrow
All this pain and all the sorrow
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop needing you
David Bowie, “A Better Future”
Well, as has been obvious to the rest of the world, the US has been on a bit of a drunken bender for the last year and a half, behaving a lot like a college student when his or her basketball team loses (or, let’s be honest, wins or loses): smashing shit, blowing things up, setting things on fire, tipping things over. Decency, taste, respect, fairness, democracy. Stuff like that.
Then on November 9th America, bleary-eyed, mouth like sand, head pounding, woke up, rolled over. . .and discovered it was in bed with Pennywise the Clown.
“Did you and I. . .you know. . . Oh God!”
This was to be the third in a sequence of posts (after “The Griefing of America” and “The Trump Card“) that was going to look at some ways in which adapting concepts from the world of game design could improve some elements of the democratic process. A couple of them were going to be tongue-in-cheek but there were also a couple of serious ideas mixed in there.
Now all that is beside the point. The challenge is now a lot more basic. To attempt to safeguard the democratic process from further abuse and to hold on to the idea of America as a nation that welcomes difference, celebrates diversity, and doesn’t spend all its time immersed in a fearful haze of mutually contradictory conspiracy theories.
Yeah, only that.
Dude, I am like so hungover
This election result is routinely being described in the media as historic but it isn’t always clear what people mean by that. Certainly there have been electoral upsets before so that isn’t particularly historic. This was also hardly a one-sided drubbing in the electoral college as has been the case in some previous elections. Nor was it the first time that the electoral college result has not followed the popular vote. A nasty, negative tone is also, unfortunately, not unprecedented. What was historic, of course, was the depths to which President-elect Pennywise stooped on his road to victory, often advocating and certainly countenancing hatred for and violence against immigrants (legal and illegal), specific ethnic groups, members of the media, his political opponents, indeed anyone who criticized him sufficiently to get under his very, very thin skin (which is, basically, everyone who isn’t him). And what is equally historic is that for the first time in US history we are going to be led by someone with no governmental and/or military experience. And that someone, moreover, has repeatedly demonstrated throughout the campaign only the haziest understanding of how the institutions of US government have worked in the past and how they work in the present, showed open contempt for the Constitution, for our governing bodies, and for the people who work in government. And we elected him anyway. Because, you know, he would be “strong on trade” or “bring back the jobs.”
It is no wonder the rest of the world is looking on in horror. Now the US has never given a monkey’s for what the rest of the world thinks. But the rest of the world is playing a familiar role that probably many of you have found yourself playing in your everyday lives from time to time.
You have this friend. It could be a man or a woman, but for the sake of this discussion it is a woman. You go back, way back together. She is in a relationship and from your neutral outsider perspective it is blindingly obvious that this person is bad for her. He attempts to control her, monitors her every movement, gradually separates her from her friends, criticizes her appearance constantly in front of her few remaining friends. But she “loves” him because “he gets me.” You try to tell her the truth, but she won’t listen. She gets angry at you for sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.
Then, before too much time has passed, she is showing up at work with fresh bruises and is saying things like “But I know he really loves me.” And she will never leave him. Because, you know, he “gets” her.
It is blindingly obvious to pretty much everyone else (with the revealing exception of the Putins, Dutertes, and Le Pens of the world) that President-elect Pennywise is unqualified to lead the nation and is in his person and character a thoroughly reprehensible human being who has no more use for treating people decently than you and I would have for cockroaches. Everyone else can see this. Why couldn’t we?
(My favorite image to come across my FB feed in the last few days, one that I couldn’t locate for this post, unfortunately, is of a gleeful Kim Jong-un flipping the bird and saying “Who has the crazy leader now, motherfuckers!)
It wasn’t them, it was us
Democracy is the theory that the common people
know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
H. L. Mencken
(You could, in fact, just substitute a string of Mencken quotes as commentary on this farce of an election).
Like many other people, I felt sucker-punched by this election result. But if I had to unpack my initial responses a little more I would say that surprise really wasn’t the big one. I wasn’t surprised that this could happen, I was shocked that it actually did. But the most oppressive feeling was an almost overwhelming sense of disappointment, something that I’ve never experienced to anything like this extent, even when faced with personal setbacks. It just sat there, a heavy thing squatting on my chest, stealing my focus; at several points over the last few days I’ve come to and realize that I had just stopped what I was doing and been staring blankly off into space for who knows how long. It isn’t that I didn’t believe such a result was possible; I just didn’t think it was likely. The reason for that–another in an ongoing series of surprising self-revelations for me this election cycle–is that I realized that beneath all my cynicism there lurked a fundamental optimism about America. I thought that culturally at least the US was moving in a positive direction. Racism, xenophobia and misogyny, the three core principles of President-elect Pennywise’s campaign were obviously not absent from the national scene but we were beginning to make progress. Whatever their economic fears, however massive their hatred of Clinton, surely the US public wouldn’t demolish the dream that the US could become a better version of itself. You know, that “more perfect union” thing.
Naturally there has been no shortage of opinionating over the last few days to try and figure out how this could have happened. Much of this has taken the form of anguished handwringing on the part of liberal voters where the refrain “how could we not see this coming? we live in such a bubble!” has been common. Everyone, however, lives in a bubble. The people who voted for Trump? They also live in a bubble. Moreover, most people have always lived in a bubble. For most of recorded human history your world was your village, township, or very rarely your surrounding locality. Your “news” came largely in the form of gossip, your analysis and critical thinking was via myth and/or religion, and anyone from outside the bubble had to be treated with the expectation that they would be trouble. And you pretty much knew you lived in a bubble, that there was another world beyond where you were. What is most striking about the bubble that most of us are living in, of course, is that a key part of it being a bubble is maintaining the illusion that it isn’t. We weren’t in a bubble, we were global, and connected, citizens of the world, open to new information, efficient info-processing denizens at one with the Twitterverse.
I had believed in America, and America had let me down. However, figuring out which parts of America let me down is a little more tricky than it might at first appear. To many liberals, it felt as if there had been a sudden explosion in the number of racist xenophobes and that they had been galvanized by a skillful schlockmeister. Turns out that isn’t the case. But the truth is much more disturbing. The forces of evil didn’t win this election; the progressives lost it.
A look at recent US electoral history reveals that one of the most reliable explanations for who wins and who doesn’t is one of the easiest to understand: voter turnout. Put simply, when turnout is high, Republicans almost always lose. This of course is why Republicans have spent so much time and treasure trying to enact voter suppression laws in so many states. This election, perhaps surprisingly given all the hype, had a remarkably low turnout; the lowest in several years, in fact. The following data comes from the United States Election Project, a data collection project maintained by political scientist Michael McDonald. McDonald has been collating voter participation data not just for the nation as a whole but for individual states, with the most comprehensive data being for the period 1980 to the present. Voter participation rates for the last five presidential elections are as follows:
The 2016 totals are still provisional given that many states have not yet certified their results. Certainly no one expected this election to top the near historic high that saw Obama elected. But it is struggling to reach even the 2012 figure, an election during which conservatives mobilized hot and heavy against all the evils of the Obama administration. Moreover, you can see the influence of lower turnout in precisely those battleground states that Clinton lost.
North Carolina: 2008: 66.1%; 2012: 65.4%; 2016: 64.6%
Florida: 2008: 66.6%; 2012: 63.3%; 2016: 65.1%
Pennsylvania: 2008: 64.2%; 2012: (missing data); 2016: 61.3%
Michigan: 2008: 69.7%; 2012: 65.4%; 64.6%
Ohio: 2008: 67.8%; 2012: 65.1%; 2016: 64.5%
Iowa: 2008: 69.7%; 2012: 70.6%; 2016: 68.6%
Wisconsin: 2008: 72.7%; 2012: 72.9%; 2016: 68.3%
With the interesting outlier of Florida (and that is probably connected with the unrealistic expectations Democrats had concerning what a larger Latino turnout would mean) every single one of these critical states saw significantly lower turnout. None of these states saw a blowout result; most were tight races with Trump eking out a victory by one or two percentage points. In that kind of dogfight, declining voter participation was going to mean, if historical precedent were any guide, a Republican victory.
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These figures are probably slightly higher than the more dismal voter turnout figures you are used to seeing. That is because most of those figures are calculated based on the Voting Age Population (the possible pool of everyone in the US who is of voting age) (VAP). But within that population, large numbers of people are not eligible to vote, so McDonald subtracts both non-citizens, the incarcerated, those on parole, etc. and this produces a lower number, the Voting Eligible Population (VEP).
Part of the reason McDonald does this is that he has a theory that much of the supposed fall in voter participation rates since the 50s and 60s has been due to the steady increase in the non-citizen population, and (to a lesser extent) a rise in the incarcerated population. And there is some truth to his theory. Here is a chart showing a comparison of what participation looks like when you compare VAP with VEP.
His theory is, however, now in a little bit of trouble. Participation rates have been declining again since the recent historic high of 2008, and according to his own data set the percentage of non-citizens has remained virtually static during this time (8.2% (2004), 8.4% (2008), 8.4 % (2012), 8.4% (2016)).
Just how much do we suck?
McDonald’s data, however, also suggests something else. Given the fact that overall turnout was struggling to reach 2012 levels, and Republicans won a lower share of the popular vote, it would be reasonable to expect that their share of the vote hadn’t increased that much at all. Indeed, that is what we find. Below is a graphic a friend sent me, cobbled together by someone on Reddit from data on Wikipedia (and before everyone jumps up in arms, Wikipedia’s election pages are some of the most useful on there, precisely because the information is so contested).
This graphic was assembled when the popular vote count for 2016 was nowhere near complete (and we are still waiting on Michigan as I write this). But it offers a striking visual indicator of relative voter turnouts for each party. Let me break it down numerically with more up to date figures.
Republicans: 59,948,323 (2008); 60,933,504 (2012); 60,371,193 (2016)
Democrats: 69,498,516 (2008); 65,915,795 (2012); 61,039,676 (2016)
The bottom line: Republicans in 2016 couldn’t even reach their 2012 turnout levels. Meanwhile, Democratic support cratered.
So the entire Pennywise narrative that the media bought hook, line, and sinker, and is still peddling after the election, that he was mobilizing an unprecedented number of disaffected and economically marginalized voters just doesn’t hold up. Republican voting numbers have remained remarkably consistent across three elections now. Now maybe Trump galvanized a whole new group of people whose numbers just happened to make up the difference for all the sane Republicans who stayed home and thereby produced an overall number strikingly similar to that of previous elections. Or, the simpler conclusion is probably the correct one, and it has a measure of comfort in it.
There hasn’t been any sudden upswing in the number of racist arseholes in the US. We are, instead, dealing with the same old core of racist arseholes that we’ve always been dealing with. That is the good news.
The bad news is that liberals gave this one away. They walked away en masse with scarcely a backward glance and handed this election to Trump on a gilded Trump monogrammed Made in China platter. And now that same old group of racist arseholes feels newly empowered to inflict their racist arseholery on the rest of us.