They Really Are Different From Us, Part 2

What should a humble blogger do when there is only one subject that seems worth writing about, but it feels like there’s nothing new to say?

I could call attention to the latest offenses, but don’t we already know enough to realize how important it is to vote against Republicans at every opportunity? And that giving Democrats some control over Congress next year is crucial?

Does it do any good to remind ourselves that a meager 70,000 votes in three states gave that terrible person an Electoral College victory, and that to win he needed an illegal Russian social media campaign, the illegal Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign and the improper (and probably illegal) efforts of Cambridge Analytica to poison the internet, as well as the FBI’s seriously improper intervention in the election? Will it help to know more about the millions of dollars that appear to have been illegally donated to the National Rifle Association by a Russian oligarch so that the NRA could spend more than they ever had before in support of a presidential candidate?

Do we really need to be reminded, in the words of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, that our president “hates criticism; must continually pummel his opponents; never bothers to learn about subjects on which he expounds; thinks everyone in government owes their personal loyalty to him; means what he says for only a fleeting instant; confounds allies with policy zigzags; bullies and blusters; lies continually; and, despite his bravado, cannot take on those to whom he apparently owes his presidency (e.g., the National Rifle Association, the Kremlin)”?

Will it make a difference if we learn more about the Trump family’s corruption, his cabinet’s misbehavior, the continuing crisis in Puerto Rico or how many more civilians we’re killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria? At this point, it shouldn’t make any difference at all to the support we give Democratic candidates.

So this humble blogger doesn’t see the point in writing about our political situation, even though our political situation feels like the only thing worth writing about. I mean, if you’re falling from the roof of a very tall building, is there any point in calling for help? If there isn’t, is there another topic that deserves your attention?

For now, therefore, I’ll leave you with a followup to last month’s “They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us”. It’s been shown in various studies that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. This is from an article in the Washington Post last year:

… Over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals.

This helps explain why conservatives who live in small towns in almost empty places are more worried about terrorist attacks and immigration than liberals who live in big cities that have actually experienced terrorist attacks and are filled with immigrants.

The author of the article, a Yale psychologist, goes on:

And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

These psychologists at Yale had groups of Republicans and Democrats answer survey questions about political topics like immigration:

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

The article mentions other demonstrations of this phenomenon. And I assume that any changes made to the conservatives’ thinking were temporary. But understanding the fundamental fearfulness of our right-wing friends helps explain how strangely they behave. It also helps explain why right-wing media is awash in stories meant to terrify. To conservatives, the world outside their control and filled with strangers is a scary place, full of danger and disruption, so politicians who tell them how bad everything is but promise to protect them (“Only I can protect you”) win their support. I don’t know if it’s possible to make these people less fearful, except temporarily. Eventually some will get used to new realities and older people tend to die off. Meanwhile, we all have to vote every chance we get.

Mapping the 2016 Election

As the president and his co-conspirators plumb even deeper depths of evil and stupidity, it’s worth reminding ourselves how a serious candidate for Worst Person in the World got his new job. A good way to start is to take a look at this new map from the xkcd site. Each little blue person represents roughly 250,000 people who voted for Clinton. Each little red person represents the same number who voted for the evil, stupid guy. (There are also a few little gray people who represent third-party voters.)

xkcd

As you can see, the blue voters are clustered on the coasts and around Chicago. The red voters are spread more evenly around the country. There are 263 blue people vs. 252 red people. That roughly corresponds to the fact that Clinton got 66 million votes while her opponent got 63 million.

Since the United States tries to follow its 228-year old Constitution, however, each state actually held its own separate presidential election. Unfortunately, the Terrible Person won more states (30 to 20 for Clinton), including many of the relatively empty states in the western part of the country. Since almost all of those separate elections were and continue to be “winner-take-all”, whoever won a given state received all of that state’s “electoral” votes, no matter how large or small their margin of victory was. 

Thus, Clinton got 55 electoral votes for winning California by a very large margin and the Worst Candidate got 46 electoral votes for winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by very small margins. (Which shows that if you want to become president, it’s better to win lots of states, even by very small margins, instead of winning fewer states, even by very large margins.)

So, after all the electoral votes from all the states were added up, the Very Stable Genius won a big victory in the “Electoral College” (304 electoral votes to 227) and an important new job, despite getting three million fewer votes nationwide.

If nothing else, next time you see a map like the one below, showing who won America’s 3,000 counties, keep in mind that it’s a poor way to represent an election, assuming the election is based on people voting, not cows or tumbleweeds.

990px-2016_Presidential_Election_by_County.svg

Summarizing the Situation

David Frum, a conservative, summarizes the situation for The Atlantic:

Who and what Donald Trump is has been known to everyone and anyone who cared to know for years and decades. Before he was president, he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist. Before he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist, he was a celebrity gameshow host. Before he was a celebrity gameshow host, he was the multi-bankrupt, least trusted name in real estate. Before he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate, he was the protege of Roy Cohn repeatedly accused of ties to organized crime. From the start, Donald Trump was a man of many secrets, but no mysteries. Inscribed indelibly on the public record were the reasons for responsible people to do everything in their power to bar him from the presidency.

Instead, since he announced his candidacy in mid-2015, Donald Trump has been enabled and protected.

The enabling and protecting not only continues. It accelerates.

Before the Saturday morning tweets, what should have been the biggest story of the week was Trump’s success at mobilizing the Senate and the FBI to deploy criminal prosecution as a weapon against Trump critics. The Senate Judiciary committee—the Senate Judiciary Committee! The committee that oversees the proper enforcement of the law!—formally filed a criminal referral with the Department of Justice against Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous dossier about Trump’s Russia connections. The referral was signed by the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, without even notice to Democrats on the committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said; a startling abuse of majority status and a sharp departure from the norms of the Senate, especially a 51-49 Senate.

The Department of Justice can ignore such a referral. It’s ominous, however, that on the very same day, the FBI obeyed Trump’s repeated demands and reopened a long-closed criminal investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The FBI has come under relentless abuse from Trump, who complains about its refusal to do his will. Is it now yielding?

We also learned this week from The New York Times that aides to the Attorney General sought damaging information on Capitol Hill about FBI director Comey, indicating close cooperation between the White House and Main Justice to exert political control over the country’s chief law enforcement agency.

Michael Wolff [author of Fire and Fury] has drawn the most indelible picture yet of Donald Trump, the man. But the important thing about Trump is not the man; it’s the system of power surrounding the man.

In 2016, there were voters who genuinely, in good faith, believed that Donald Trump was a capable business leader, moderate on social issues, who cared about the troubles of working class white America—and would do something to help. There may well still be some people who believe this—but nowhere near enough to sustain a presidency.

What sustains Trump now is the support of people who know what he is, but back him anyway. Republican political elites who know him for what he is, but who back him because they believe they can control and use him; conservative media elites who sense what he is, but who delight in the cultural wars he provokes; rank-and-file conservatives who care more about their grievances and hatreds than the governance of the country.

After quoting much of David Frum’s article, Heather Digby Parton of Hullabaloo summarizes the situation too:

I had thought that maybe there were some Republicans who actually cared about the nation or at least cared about the integrity of the constitution and the Congress. There are not. A handful have said something but they voted with him and continue to help him expand his power by delivering that tax cut victory which, by the way, any of them could have stopped simply by saying that it raised the debt too much.

They didn’t have to do it. They really didn’t. They are all complicit.

It’s true that the Republican party has been complicit for years in creating a political environment that allowed an ignorant madman to become president. But they could redeem themselves in this moment and they are not doing it.

That scares me just as much as Trump. In order to enact their agenda, the Republican Party is enabling Trump’s authoritarian instincts. And that goes beyond the racism and xenophobia on which he ran. For most of them, that’s a very natural thing to do since they’ve always shared them. But I thought there might be a few elected officials whose paeans to freedom and the constitution were based upon some underlying principles. And I guess I assumed that a handful would be a tiny bit concerned about Russia interfering in the election and possibly compromising the president — even if he was a Republican.

It’s clear that every last one of them was full of shit.

Finally, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post also summarizes the situation:

We have a vice president elected specifically to take over if the president is incapable of serving; the 25th Amendment does not say “but in a pinch, let the secretaries of defense and treasury run the show.” What we have is a type of coup in which the great leader is disabled. He is propped up, sent out to read lines written by others and kept safely away from disastrous situations. This is not how our system works, however.

We’re playing with fire, counting on the ability of others to restrain him from, say, launching a nuclear war and, nearly as bad, jettisoning our representative democracy. Vice President Pence, the Cabinet and Congress have a moral and constitutional obligation to bring this to a stop.

Since all the evidence says Pence, the Cabinet and the Republicans in Congress will not only ignore but take a giant crap on their obligations, we need to stay informed, communicate, show up (e.g. Women’s March on January 20, 2018), donate (e.g. to the Democratic Party), make sure we’re all registered to vote and vote every time we get the chance (especially on November 8, 2018).

Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

Suckers!

Although Trump voters, on average, had higher incomes than Clinton voters, many of his supporters were and continue to be working class or even poor (and predominantly white, of course). He may have been rich, the epitome of a city slicker, but millions of average people (also known as “suckers”) believed that he’d fight for them.

From Ezra Klein of Vox:

Tax cuts for wealthy Americans have long been the fulcrum atop which Republican Party politics rests. But Donald Trump was supposed to be a different kind of Republican. On 60 Minutes, for instance, Trump said he would raise taxes on “the very wealthy,” and warned that the plan would cost him “a fortune” in higher taxes.

“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said in January of 2016. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”

The whole Trump pitch was that he was a cutthroat businessman who knew the tricks, had paid off the politicians, had made his billions, and now was going to use his accumulated knowledge to unrig the system, to make it benefit you, the little guy. American politics, he said, was corrupted — by special interests, by self-dealing politicians, by weak negotiators. He was going to fix it all. And many believed him.

In Trump’s inaugural address he said, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

This rhetoric continued after the election: Both Trump’s Treasury secretary and the director of his National Economic Council said the plan wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich. As recently as a few weeks ago, Trump told Senate Democrats, “The deal is so bad for rich people, I had to throw in the estate tax just to give them something.”

In reality, by 2027, 62.1 percent of the tax bill’s benefits go to the top 1 percent, and 42.3 percent of the benefits go to the top 0.1 percent [while millions of lower income taxpayers will see their taxes increase].

The moral of this story is: Never trust a con man when he says he’s on your side.

(But if you insist on trusting a con man, don’t inflict him on the rest of us.)

One of Those Charts

The last time we had a big overhaul of the federal tax code was in 1986. Back then, the poorest 90 percent of the population owned 3 1/2 times as much as the richest 1/10th of 1 percent. I’ll say that again. In 1986, the net worth of the least wealthy 90% of Americans was 3.5 times the net worth of the richest 0.1%.

That’s not the America we live in today. As of 2013, the richest 1/10th of 1 percent owned as much as the poorest 90 percent. To repeat: the net worth of the richest 0.1% was the same as the net worth of the poorest 90%. 

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I’m sure the red line goes even higher now and the blue line goes lower. We should keep this astounding economic inequality in mind when we have the opportunity to vote eleven months from now. That will be eleven months after the Republicans ram through another overhaul of the tax code, one that helps the richest Americans get even richer.

Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Do It

Today’s Washington Post has 38 suggestions from a variety of people on “How to Fix American Democracy”“How to Fix American Democracy”. My favorite is by two Louisiana State professors. It’s the first one on the list: “Require Everyone to Vote”.

A more accurate title for their suggestion would have been “Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Vote”. Their suggestion:

A long-standing defect in U.S. suffrage law is the treatment of the electoral franchise as a privilege that is denied too easily and often because of an ugly prejudice or a convenient pretext. Let’s re-imagine the democratic right of voting as a citizen’s obligation. In our doppelganger ally down under, Australia, voting is compulsory. They have far higher turnouts, and their elections boast greater legitimacy.

We can and should make it much easier to carry out this civic duty: Keep polls open for an entire week, not a single day, and make sure that polling places are easily available — distributed across states according to population density. In addition, let’s expand mail-in voting (which is how citizens who serve in the military routinely vote). Public transportation to the polls should be free. A national registry of voters can be created if hospitals automatically submit birth certificates; this way, voters could be identified by their Social Security number, and arbitrary state requirements could not be used to unfairly penalize them. Anyone who fails to cast a ballot would be subject to a fine, the funds from which could be used to support the costs incurred by this compulsory program.

Instead of permitting voter suppression, which stands out as a blemish on our less-than-fully-democratic system, we should be defining the voter as a national citizen. In reversing the emphasis from suspicion of fraud to across-the-board inclusion, we would come closer to being a “representative democracy” — what we’ve always claimed we are. And at least we’ll be able to say with greater authority that candidates look foolish (or bigoted) when they refuse to consider the interests of the entire body of citizens.

Like most improvements, this has little chance of being adopted until the Democrats control all three branches of the government. But individual states could implement it immediately.

Since young people vote less than old people, and poor people vote less than rich people, making everyone vote would increase the percentage of voters who are young or poor. I think that would be a very good thing to do, but maybe people who don’t bother to vote now because they aren’t interested in politics or don’t follow the news would be bad at voting.

Another suggestion (“Persuade Voters to Keep Clicking”) includes thoughts about ill-informed voters:

Inept, corrupt or extremist political leaders are harming our democracy. So, too, are the voters who don’t check if what they are reading, hearing or viewing is true. Our democracy’s problems are not just caused by bad leaders but also by indolent voters.

Citizens who don’t care about politics have always existed. As have those who vote without knowing much about who or what they are voting for — or against. But things have changed. Today, the failure of these voters to “click again” and find out more about their choices threatens all of us. The Internet makes apathetic voters especially vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues, particular interests or even foreign powers.

The Founding Fathers worried about the impact of the uneducated or ill-informed on American democracy. James Madison argued, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson hoped that education would be the antidote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

It is a paradox of our time: Information has never been easier to find and yet we have all become more vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The Internet is both a marvelous source of insights and a toxic channel through which weaponized lies freely circulate.

That’s why the author of this last suggestion and several other contributors say we need to make sure voters are better-informed. One of them, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, says we should teach critical thinking skills to every student every year. I’m in favor of making Americans smarter and better thinkers, but it would be quicker and probably more effective to make 24-hour cable “news” channels like Fox News and CNN illegal.