Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Post-Election Rant: Are We Taking Democracy Seriously?

New York Times/November 8 10:00 a.m.
Tuesday was a good night for Democrats and America. Not scorched-earth-catharsis-feel-good good. But good. We will have a House of Representatives that engages in oversight of the executive branch instead of Devin Nunes's Russian-interferance-cover-up. We will talk about tweaking Obamacare to make it better instead of removing pre-existing conditions coverage. There is a chance that--perhaps?--Congress will at least entertain the thought of responding to gun violence like yesterday's latest mass shooting with more than sanctimonious hand-wringing.

Nate Cohn at the Upshot explains why the Democratic gains, in light of losing three or four seats in the Senate, are more impressive than it appears. Most prominently, at the beginning of this election cycle, only nine House Republicans represented districts that tilted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. This typically represents the high water mark of losses in a wave election. For example in 2010,  Democrats had to defend 67 House districts that had tilted Republican in the previous presidential election. This makes the outcome of the Democrats flipping perhaps 35 House seats unusual and impressive. In the Senate this year, the Democrats were defending 10 seats in states that president Trump had carried in 2016, including five where Trump prevailed with more than an 18-points margin.

So good job, Democrats.

Structural disadvantages remain moving forward. There are many House seats that remain grossly gerrymandered in favor of Republicans; there is the fact that Republicans continue to control a majority of state houses and governorships and that the GOP has embraced aggressive vote suppression operations as a tactic for securing minority rule, with the Supreme Court showing no interest in doing anything about it; and then there is the fact that sparsely populated red states enjoy a huge structural advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College under the constitution.

Structural imbalances, gamesmanship, and zero-sum-hyper-partisanship devoid of positive values has rendered our politics petty, too party-over-country, not sufficiently wise; it has left our electorate misinformed, poorly led, and apathetic. Even in light of some good news for Democrats this election, the prospects for moving forward in a constructive fashion seem bleak. Witness that abomination of a press conference in the White House yesterday. Does this look like a country ready to tackle its most serious problems with energy and skill? Our democracy is demoralized and dysfunctional.

When it comes to our elections, and what they might accomplish, we are far removed from the optimism of John F. Kennedy speaking in 1963:
"The educated citizen knows that .... knowledge is power, that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all; and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, enlighten the people generally, tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day; and, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist, at every level of government, the improvement of education for all Americans."
                                        --John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963.

Our politicians don't seek to enlighten the people. Just think of Trump's cynical deployment of the army to fight "the caravan" at our southern border as an instrument to distract the electorate. Think of that despicably racist campaign ad promoted by Trump on the eve of the election, equating desperate refugees deep in Southern Mexico with a sociopathic murderer convicted by an American court. Think of our pathetically smirking climate science denialists tossing snow-balls in Congress. Think of House members who block the CDC from conducting research about gun violence. 

Too many in our politically polarized electorate do not seek learning, do not explore the unknown, do not value the advancement of research, or value the improvement of education for every American. Too many do not place as their first priority what might be good for our country.  Trump's base watches Fox News, a propagator of "blue lies"  (like telling lies about your team's cheating), for partisan entertainment--not for truth seeking. 

Our democracy needs a shot in the arm of renewed idealism. Citizens need to stop treating news as infotainment. We need to find our way back to some idealism; we need to  take our responsibilities as citizens more seriously.

The Election was Fought by Half the Electorate

Consider that in this time of crisis, in this age of Trump, half the electorate opted to sit out this election. And we talk like this is a great thing because an improvement on the even more pathetic participation rate in the 2014 mid-term election.

There are approximately 228 million eligible voters in the United States, and less than one-half of these (113 million) bothered to participate in this mid-term election. The exact voter turn-out and number of votes cast will not be known for some time due to uncertainty in our system caused by poorly updated voter rolls, provisional ballots, recounts, and mail-in ballots. But the broad outlines are clear: one-half of our fellow citizens failed to vote. The question stares us in the face: are we serious about Democracy?

Voter registration is not terrible. In 2016 Politico reported that voter registration had reached the 200 million mark. Assuming this number has held steady, this leaves approximately 28 million eligible voters who have not registered to vote. More seriously, however, it means that in addition to 28 million unregistered voters, there are 87 million registered voters who failed to show up for this election. More than half of the eligible voters did not participate in this mid-term election.

Young Voters Aren't Showing Up

According to this Pew study, younger voters (53 or younger in 2018) make up a majority of the electorate (59%), but they vote in far fewer numbers than older voters (accounting for only 39% of votes in the 2014 mid-term election, for example).


Because younger voters skew Democratic, if they showed up in the same numbers as older white folks, Hillary would be president, Ted Cruz would no longer be in the Senate, Bill Nelson would not be heading for a run-off,  Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill might be heading back to Washington. The future of these younger voters would look brighter. [Apologies to any GOP fans reading this, but that's my judgment; I could be wrong, but I don' think so] Exit polling from Tuesday's election confirms this data: younger voters skew liberal and they stayed away from this election in droves. See, e.g. the exit polling cited by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber. [But a caveat: as Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report reminded us on the PBS Newshour tonight, in some Red states like Indiana, the Democratic edge among young voters is much less pronounced; national numbers and trends don't always translate to individual state races!]

Asian Americans and Latin Americans Aren't Showing Up

Latin Americans make up the largest minority in the United States, 56.5 million people. According to Pew Research seventy-eight percent of this group are citizens, i.e. 44 million or 14% of the total population. Although Latin American citizens make up 14% of the voting population, exit polling from the current election confirms that Latin Americans cast just seven percent of the vote--they are underrepresented by more than half.

Asian Americans, too, are not showing up in the same numbers as older whites.

The failure of young voters, Latin American voters, and Asian American voters to take Democracy sufficiently seriously to show up and vote in the same numbers as older white voters skews the electorate to the right. And whether or not it skews politics to the right, the apathy and failure to participate in the process is a problem. With a disproportionate percentage of older white voters supporting Donald Trump and his brand of White Nationalism, it's high time for young voters and minorities to ask themselves "What kind of country do we want?" It's high time for them to start showing up in greater numbers at the polls.

The Poison of Fox News

On the eve of the election Fox News personalities Sean Hannity (average nightly viewership in February of 3.3 million; his radio show reaches 13.3 million) and Jeanine Pirro, who has an hour show on Fox News on Saturday nights in prime time, appeared with President Trump at a campaign rally in Missouri.  Rush Limbaugh (not on Fox) was also there.  It's no surprise. When we consider the inane and corrupted level of our political discourse and wonder how it could be that 63 million people cast their vote for a mendacious, cruel, and bullying blowhard like Donald Trump for President of the United States, we look to Fox News and think of Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro. The fact that these smarmy spinners of conspiracies, cheerleaders for partisan fictions, and enemies of genuine inquiry should wind up speaking at a Trump campaign rally is no accident. Since 1996 Fox has prepared the soil for Trump by entering into a symbiotic relationship with the GOP and entertaining and nudging its ever rightward moving base with blue lies, spin, and manufactured ill-founded outrage.

We need to get back to basics. We need to find our way back to some idealism. It's what Beto O'Rourke attempted to do. It's what some of the entering Democratic House members like Ocasio-Cortez will try to do. We should help them. We should renew our dedication to democracy. We should cleanse ourselves of the poison that is Fox News. And we should get out and vote.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles