The Pendulum of American Politics

Voters cast their ballots to vote in state and local elections at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, U.S. November 5, 2019. (Ryan M. Kelly/Reuters)

On the menu today: an eye-opening poll on political animosity; a powerful argument that America’s elites have forgotten what their positions require of them; and a question about the Senate’s consideration of witnesses in the impeachment trial.

Would the Country Be Better Off If Large Numbers of the Political Opposition ‘Just Died’?

This weekend, one of the speakers at Stand Together mentioned a survey conducted in 2019 that tried to measure just how much each side of the partisan divide downright loathed each other:

Just over 42 percent of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” In real numbers, this suggests that 48.8 million voters out of the 136.7 million who cast ballots in 2016 believe that members of opposition party are in league with the devil.

The mass partisanship paper was written by Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland.

Kalmoe and Mason, taking the exploration of partisan animosity a step farther, found that nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”

Their line of questioning did not stop there.

How about: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?”

Some 20 percent of Democrats (that translates to 12.6 million voters) and 16 percent of Republicans (or 7.9 million voters) do think on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.

We’re not finished: “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale ranging from “a little” to “a lot.”

People realize that we’re stuck with each other, right? There are almost 63 million Americans who voted for President Trump and almost 66 million Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton. We will have an election in November, and 60-some million people will vote for the president and 60-some million people will vote for his Democratic opponent. One candidate will get more than 270 electoral votes, and that will decide the winner, but those 60-some million people on each side aren’t going anywhere. An exceptionally small number of people who threaten to leave the country if the candidate they loathe wins actually follow through on this.

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There is no scenario of “final victory” where masses on the other side just give up and decide that the opposition was right all along.

Some Democrats may believe that demographic changes will eventually give them a decisive majority, but they forget something. As the elderly die off, the older members of the younger generation become middle-aged. They get married, have kids, buy houses and get mortgages, and get a 401(k). They start to complain about the marriage penalty, public schools that aren’t good enough for their kids, care about the home-mortgage deduction, and want policies that make the stock market rise. They climb up the income ladder and start to get frustrated with tax rates. Also, they start to wonder why pop music isn’t as good as when they were teenagers, and eventually, they start telling kids to get off their lawn.

There’s churn in the electorate each year. Roughly 3.5 million Americans turn 18 each year; roughly 2.5 million Americans die each year. Approximately 620,000 to 780,000 legal immigrants become U.S. citizens each year.

In 2012, you saw a lot of assessments that declared that demographic shifts were building to a permanent change in partisan balance in the country: “Indeed, electoral demographics have become the driving force of the past two presidential elections, a fulfillment of Peter Brimelow and Ed Rubenstein’s 1997 prophecy, “Demography is destiny in American politics.” They forecasted 2008 as the year when a shift in ethnic demographics would ensure the Republican party’s inexorable slide to “minority status.”

That assessment looked prescient in 2008, less so in 2010, looked back on track in 2012, much less accurate in 2014, wildly wrong in 2016, and somewhat back on track again in 2018. (Turnout rates within particular demographics can change!) Why, it’s almost as if people’s voting decisions aren’t as predictable as political scientists think, and the parties adjust their messaging to court previously skeptical demographics. Today’s Democrats are doing a lot better among white-collar suburban professionals than they did a decade ago. They’re doing a lot worse among blue-collar whites. Democrats contend Trump is a rabid xenophobe with a particular animosity towards Latinos. Most polling indicates he will get between 25 percent to 30 percent of the Latino vote, around the 28 percent that exit polls indicated he received last time.

Because there won’t be any mass alien abduction that removes millions of Americans from the voter rolls, we need to find ways to live with one another. Sure, the winning side can enact its preferred policies, but the pendulum of American politics has swung back and forth since 1992. Anything you enact can get repealed by the other guy down the road once he’s got the presidency and a congressional majority. The best way to establish a lasting change — like, say, welfare reform, the Patriot Act, Right to Try, or the First Step Act — is to pass it with a reasonably bipartisan majority. If both sides buy in, both sides have an incentive to make the idea work.

‘There Is Just One Elite, and It Is Increasingly Becoming Its Own Sector of Society.’

The above point ties in pretty well with today’s excellent excerpt from Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream:

As William Deresiewicz has noted, the percentage of students at selective colleges whose families are in the top quarter of income earners in America has gone from roughly 45 percent in 1985 to more than 65 percent today. Our meritocracy is plainly rearranging itself into a more familiar aristocratic pattern, which leaves us less and less persuaded of its claim to legitimate authority.

For similar reasons, the American elite has actually grown more homogeneous in terms other than race, sex, ethnicity, and family connections. Business elites, professional elites, political elites, cultural elites, media elites, and academic elites were not so long ago fairly distinct groups of people in American life — each with its characteristic set of educational backgrounds, cultural identities, political affiliations, and life experiences that crosscut in constructive ways. Today, we increasingly find a uniform body of elites atop these different institutions, all of whom share the same kinds of educational backgrounds, cultural affinities, and political priorities. Different sectors of American society no longer really have their own elites, because there is just one elite, and it is increasingly becoming its own sector of society.

What is worse, this new aristocracy is in some important respects less modest about its own legitimacy than the old. Because each of its members must work to prove his or her merit — to pass the key tests and clear the key hurdles — today’s elite is more likely to believe it has earned its power and possesses it by right more than privilege. Because our elite as a whole has inclined to this view, it tends to impose fewer restraints on its use of authority and generally doesn’t identify itself with the sort of code of conduct that past aristocracies at least claimed to uphold. Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as the fulfillment of an obligation to give back but rather as a demonstration of their own high-mindedness and merit.

People have risen to positions of great responsibility and public trust without seeming to recognize that they have those responsibilities and public trusts. As if to illustrate Levin’s point: “Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, has been arrested and criminally charged with making ‘false, fictitious and fraudulent statements’ to the U.S. Defense Department about his ties to a Chinese government program to recruit foreign scientists and researchers.”

A less-discussed aspect of the recent college-admissions scandal was that so many of the parents caught in the fraud, besides the famous actresses, worked as investment executives, doctors, lawyers, and other positions of considerable public trust. Many people trusted these individuals with their retirement savings, their health, their fate in the hands of the law. All of these people were “elite” in their income and social standing. And all of them, when push came to shove, felt it was okay to cheat to get ahead.

What If the Senate Heard from Lots of Witnesses?

The word that John Bolton’s book will include accounts of conversations directly relevant to the accusations against President Trump made it more likely that the U.S. Senate will vote to hear from witnesses. As of this writing, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t know which way a vote on that issue would shake out.

Senator Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) was discussing a possible Bolton-for-Biden “one-for-one” witness deal. A thought experiment: What if the alternative course was taken, and both the impeachment managers and the president’s defense team could call all the witnesses they wanted? Clearly, McConnell would prefer to get this trial over and done with as quickly as possible. Everyone knows how it ends. But maybe a trial that drags on for weeks and weeks, maybe months and months, would check a bunch of boxes: No one could argue that the Senate rushed the decision, the public that has largely tuned it out would grow more convinced that it’s a waste of time, and it would drive Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren batty.

The good news for impeachment advocates is that public support, as measured through the FiveThirtyEight aggregation, is 50.6 percent. The bad news is that opposition is 45.2 percent. That’s a slight improvement since the beginning of the year. But the overall trend looks like a flatlining EKG monitor — 80-some percent of Democrats, low 40-some percent of independents, and less than 10 percent of Republicans support removal. (In October, 79 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of independents, and 13 percent of Republicans supported removal.)

That’s the kind of public-opinion split that makes a party-line vote on impeachment probable.

ADDENDUM: A fascinating revelation about some of the stories we heard about the world’s most wanted terrorist, straight from Robert O’Neill, the U.S. Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden: “We invented bin Laden’s kidney failure so we could tell which sources were lying to us. ‘It’s him, I saw the dialysis machine.’ It’s called counter-intelligence. You’re welcome.”

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