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My Labor Day Weekend Reading: “Democracy for Realists” and “The End of White Christian America”

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Fun guy that I am (heh), I spent a chunk of Labor Day weekend reading two books — Democracy for Realists and The End of White Christian America. (Note: with regard to the latter book, see the above video the author, Robert P. Jones, speaking at Brookings this summer. Also note that Jones stresses that he himself was raised in “White Christian America…in the red clay of middle Georgia,” and that he finds it ironic to be the author of a book about “the decline of this world.”)  Both books were fascinating, IMHO, and also have substantial relevance for the 2016 presidential race, as well for federal and state elections in general, so I thought they might be worth summarizing here on Blue Virginia.

The startling conclusion of “Democracy for Realists” is that we need to completely ditch the “folk theory of democracy” – the belief, arguably held by most Americans, that informed, engaged citizens know what they want, are good at retrospectively evaluating the effectiveness of parties and politicians, and rationally vote for candidates and parties that a) reward success; b) punish failure; c) conform with their policy and/or ideological preferences.

Why ditch the “folk theory of democracy?” Because, as the authors lay out in 300+ pages data, evidence, statistical analysis, historical examples, etc., the “folk theory” is completely, or very close to completely, false. To the contrary, “conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research,” which finds that (bolding added by me for emphasis):

  • [M]ost democratic citizens are uninterested in politics, poorly informed, and unwilling or unable to convey coherent policy preferences through ‘issue voting.'”
  • People are not good at “assess[ing] responsibility for changes in their own welfare,” with voters often “punish[ing] incumbent politicians for changes in their welfare that are clearly acts of God or nature,” and with a “highly circumscribed” (diplomatic language for “they’re really, really bad at it”) ability “to make sensible judgments regarding credit and blame.”
  • Voters are also “not very good at…recognizing” changes to their own welfare, let alone figuring out which politician, party or policies are responsible for those changes – good or bad. The authors cite examples of droughts, floods and even shark attacks – none of which had anything whatsoever to do with the incumbents’ policies or competence, yet which (absurdly) caused voters to punish the incumbents and reward challengers, even if the challengers were extreme, crazy, nonsensical, you name it.
  • Voters are also highly “myopic, focusing almost entirely on income growth in the months just before each election,” instead of look at the much more accurate “performance of the economy over the course of a president’s entire term.”
  • Thus, we often see voters “punishing their leaders at the polls when economic conditions worsened and rewarding them when economic conditions improved, with short memories and little apparent regard for ideology or policy.”
  • The end result: “election outcomes are mostly just erratic reflections of the current balance of partisan loyalties in a given political system,” and “that means that the choice between the candidates is essentially a coin toss.”
  • Perhaps even more troubling, it turns out that voters are “first and foremost…members of social groups,” and that their “social identity” (e.g., as white southerners, Latinos, African Americans, Catholics, women, whatever) largely determines which party and candidates they support or oppose. In short, “For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgments about where ‘people like me” belong.”
  • The bottom line is that the “primary sources of partisan loyalties and voting behavior…are social identities, group attachments, and myopic retrospections, not policy preferences or ideological principles.” Oh, and minimizing the discomfort of “cognitive dissonance,” that’s a big one.
  • Facts don’t really matter much either, the authors argue, as most people simply end up “constructing preferences or beliefs consistent with” their partisan/group identities. That includes better-informed citizens, who often end up in the same place as lesser-informed citizens, but are merely “better able…to bolster [their] identities with rational-sounding reasons” (check out climate science deniers’ bizarre, nonsensical comments online, as they are a perfect – and disturbing – example of this phenomenon).
  • The idea that “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy” (e.g., direct voter referenda, getting rid of “elites” and “smoke-filled rooms”) has proven to be an almost complete failure, with “some direct popular control of policy-making” often “frighteningly costly” in reality (think of the anti-gay-marriage referenda during the 2000s, or California’s infamous anti-tax Proposition 13), no matter how appealing it might sound on the surface.
  • Oh, and if all that isn’t bad enough, it turns out that political “preferences and judgments” are more the “consequences of party and group loyalties,” not the causes of those loyalties. Thus, if you’re a Republican for instance, and your party shifts wildly on a core issue like free trade (e.g., as Donald Trump has done this election cycle), all of a sudden..voila! you also shift wildly on free trade. Or any other issue.

All of which is pretty depressing, that is if your preference is for a vibrant democracy filled with informed, engaged citizens and politicians responsive to those citizens’ needs, preferences, etc. But, as the quote goes, “wishing doesn’t make it so,” and the authors of “Democracy for Realists” make a persuasive, evidence-based case that the “folk theory of democracy” – as popular as it has been – isn’t at all accurate.

In other words, so much for this or any other election being a great debate about “the issues,” or a serious evaluation of whether we are truly “better off today” than we were 4 or 8 years ago. In the case of the 2016 election, if “Democracy for Realists” is correct, then essentially zero voters will sit down and conduct a thorough analysis of how the Democratic and Republican Parties have performed on economics, foreign policy, you name it, since 2012 (or what their platforms call for this time around). Likewise, very few voters will punish bad behavior, such as Republicans’ almost complete irresponsibility, obstructionism and extremism since the Tea Party “wave” elections of 2010 and 2014. And very few voters will sift through the almost constant stream of lies and exaggerations by Donald Trump – or about Hillary Clinton.

Instead, again, people will vote in this election, as they have voted in past elections, mostly on the basis of their partisan/group identities. That explains how 40% or so of the country (or the state) can even consider voting for a Donald Trump (or an EW Jackson in the 2013 Virginia Lt. Governor’s race) — because they’re the nominees of the party (the GOP in these two cases) and/or the group the voters identify with. End of story, pretty much — doesn’t matter if the nominees are completely deranged, extreme, unqualified, bigoted, corrupt, incompetent, etc. Ugh.

This brings us to “The End of White Christian America,” which looks at how one crucial group identity – that of being a white Christian (or more particularly, a white Protestant, and even more particularly an evangelical/fundamentalist white Protestant) in America – has been doing recently. The short answer: not well. The longer answer: white, Protestant Christian America has been rapidly losing not just its majority, but also its power in terms of setting the nation’s cultural and policy agendas. In its place, the country has seen the rise of racial, ethnic and other minority groups;  non-Christian religions and religiously unaffiliated voters, etc.

These trends help explain the angry backlash we saw after President Obama’s election, with the rise of the “Tea Party” and, now, the rise of the fearmongering, bigoted demagogue Donald Trump. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the rise of the diverse “Obama coalition,” which increasingly is becoming the majority in this country, no matter how much it makes the Tea Partiers and Trumpsters – who, I’d note, are heavily weighted towards white, male, older, fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity – feel like they’re losing “their” country and need to “take it back” or “make it great again.” Gee, what could that possible mean? Hmmmm…

But as angry as these Tea Party/Trump folks might be, they’re simply not in the driver’s seat demographically anymore, and certainly not in the sense that they can put the country in a time warp back to the 1950s or whatever, when (a lot of them believe) their type of people were in charge, and everyone else could like it or lump it.

What this all strongly implies for the current presidential election is that Trump will likely lose to Clinton, most probably along similar electoral lines as in 2008 and 2012, with a rising “Obama coalition” (non-whites, non-evangelical whites, etc.) and with a similar, angry backlash (which we’re already seeing) from the Tea Party/Trump/”we want our country back” contingent.

Of course, this angry backlash won’t help the Republicans, but more likely will drive away the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups – Latinos, in particular, but also Asian Americans, the religiously unaffiliated, atheists, etc.  – for years to come. As a Democrat, of course, that’s fine with me. But as an American, I do find it troubling to see a country so divided, with a significant minority that’s so angry and alienated from the reality of our country’s changing demographic makeup.

With that, let’s end this long blog post on a note of hope, from the closing pages of “The End of White Christian America” (bolding added by me for emphasis):

The demise of White Christian America also has the potential to reconfigure and revitalize national politics. Given its current makeup, the Republican Party clearly has more at stake here than the Democratic Party, but both parties—and more importantly, the American public – stand to gain from a partisan shake-up…With a two-party system, it may be inevitable that the parties will align along a liberal-conservative spectrum, but the polarization we are currently witnessing is turbocharged by the racial and religious divisions. The death of White Christian America – and the White Christian Strategy that catered to it – provides a rare chance for the development of a new political playbook that will be good for both parties and the democratic process as a whole

Let’s hope…

  • Video: In NH, Bernie Sanders Rips “Pathological Liar” Donald Trump

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xqOBM1PsoY&feature=youtu.be

  • Video: Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton speak in Cleveland

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXAcVO2vNeU

  • Elaine Owens

    What strikes me as I have observed the past few elections is the astute realization by the founding fathers that there had to be restraints on democracy. Of course, what they wrote into the Constitution whre their biases against women, those who were not wealthy, their acceptance of chattel slavery, etc. However, I believe they were absolutely correct in feeling that the “masses” could be too easily swayed by emotion and fear to act in ways that might be destructive to the republic. We have probably been saved from real trouble more times than we know by the separation of powers written into the Constitution.

  • pa2vadem

    Robert P. Jones appeared at my church along with David Gregory, who is Jewish, and Diana Butler Bass who is a Protestant theology professor. I bought his book after listening to him speak. He mentioned that Trump has the support of the religious right due to their wanting to go back to a simpler time in our history.