Monday, November 21, 2016

The proles are rebelling! (well, some of them, maybe)


Let’s get some perspective first, with help from the lyrics of a recent Loquillo song:

The future is shrouded in mist
The present unseen
The past is like ice
On which we slip

Only love delivers us
And it does it once and again
I tell you to believe me
Through an act of faith

Two weeks ago who would rule the powerful USof A was still shrouded in mist, but that piece of information is now part of the past: transparent and visible, but impossible to change (until it recedes further, when the explanations and ultimate causes surrounding it will get fuzzier and fuzzier and we will become unable to ever agree about them). And it is already slippery, as I see four main narratives congealing about how an individual opposed almost unanimously by the elite (even the leaders of his own party were more than tepid in their support) ended up receiving more electoral votes (not popular votes, but such is the peculiar system the Americans use) than his very prepared opponent:

·         It is all about the candidates. Hillary was terrible. Trump was a “master persuader” (in Scott Adams words, man I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see Dilbert in the same light again…)

·         It is all about the economy. The slow recovery of the past eight years has been unequally distributed (all the benefits have gone to the richest 1%) and a substantial portion of the electorate (the ones living in the most economically depressed areas, aka the rust belt, which coincidentally happens to be mostly white) are still hurting, jobs have not come back after the big 2008 recession, hope has mostly died, they suffer from all kind of economic maladies (lack of educational opportunity, lack of investment, crumbling infrastructure, lack of prospects of economic betterment, in sum) and they have showed a collective finger to an establishment that they see, regardless of party affiliation, as complicit with such dire state of affairs

·         It is all about the sociological divide. Half of America lives in rural communities centered around churches and Sunday school, hearing country music and watching NASCAR, the NFL and baseball while owning increasing amounts of guns. The other half lives in big urban agglomerations with no church (but lots of Starbucks and craft breweries), hearing rap and watching the NBA (and maybe also baseball) while thinking owning a gun (let alone walking around with it in plain sight) is nuts. None of those halves understand, comprehends or has the slightest sympathy for the other, and this time the rural one (what Scott Alexander has termed the “red tribe” Anything but the outgroup, and has been recently and most famously portrayed in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as a hotbed of addiction, broken families and other social dysfunctions) was more successful mobilizing their numbers to vote, while the urban one got too complacent and stayed home, lulled by its supposed demographic advantage

·         It is all about race. The vanishing majority of angry white males joined together in a last effort to turn back the clock and regain some of their (unjust?) privileges that they perceive as slipping away from them. The winning message was nativism, overt racism and opposition to immigration and political correctness (understood as a limit in the free expression of white grievances)

Of course, those narratives are not entirely opposed. A tough economy and the perceived lack of fairness of what is seen as a rigged system strengthens what we may charitably call “not very enlightened attitudes” about race. Even if we leave race aside, when you see your lifestyle, your values, even your aesthetic preferences frequently scorned and mocked by a distant elite you circle back to your tribe, formed by those similar to you, and reject everybody lacking the perquisite tribal identifiers (including race, of course, but also religion, attitude towards guns and musical taste). However, I think when analyzing the election’s results it is useful to keep them separate, as they point to very different potential futures:

·         If it were an issue of just choosing the right candidates, there is not much to be done. The primaries process is pretty dysfunctional in both parties, ensuring they both select the candidate that is most appealing to a base that seems unable to expand beyond 50% of the electorate, and that in each electoral cycle seems to push harder for a more partisan candidate, imposing bigger and bigger difficulties to pivot to the center, where general elections were traditionally won, although Trump’s win may make many reconsider that worn out piece of wisdom. Indeed, it could be argued that Trump won on one of the most right-wing platforms ever crafted, whilst Hillary (who, let’s not forget, won the popular vote by what is appearing as a historically high margin) run also on one of the most left-wing platforms ever… All this was to say I think unrealistic that the current dynamic may allow for the future choice of more moderate candidates, with better skills at unifying an electoral body that is badly divided. And such unhealthy division (the much touted increase in partisanship derived from an increased self-isolation enabled by social media and network TV) is what makes the “candidate appeal” theory null and void.

For republicans Hillary Clinton was the worst possible candidate: stilted, inauthentic, utterly corrupt, a pathological liar, not liked by her own electorate and with too much baggage. But I seriously think even if the Dems had run FDR, or MLK, or Nelson Mandela, or Barack Obama again the Repubs would have seen them as inauthentic, mumbling, corrupt, inarticulate, etc. (hell, there is a whole segment of the Interwebz devoted to badmouthing exactly those figures, you know: Breitbart, Taki, American Renaissance… oh, well, I forgot one of them was already masterminding the campaign of the winner). Ditto for the democrats, who saw Trump as a misogynist, an overt racist, a populist, a pathological liar, a narcissist, an embezzler, a con artist, a fraudster and a chauvinistic pig. But they would have seen in a similar light most of the candidates that the GOPers were considering (see their treatment of them during the primaries), as they do with any GOP president from Andrew Jackson on (probably the equivalent of the right’s demonization of the record of some figures that a couple decades ago were almost beyond criticism, like FDR and MLK, is the left’s derision towards Ronald Reagan, which briefly seemed to aspire to a similar status).

So it’s really not about the candidates. The climate of venom and despondency that has infected the electoral body is what causes any candidate to be seen as unacceptable and a paradigm of moral filth by almost a half of the population (the ones supporting the opposite party), no matter what. On a side note, and seen from afar, the equivalency as presented by the press between the two candidates has been something to behold. Sorry, my fellow Americans, but the candidate you just happened to choose is by no measure, standard or metric comparable to the one you collectively rejected. But that will merit a post of its own.

·         If it were the economy, it has to be clarified why people who are essentially angry about how wealth is being distributed have collectively decided to hand the reins of power to the party with a program more explicitly designed to give them the hardest shaft, cutting taxes on the already rich and most likely degrading further the flimsy safety net (which they think “those other people” enjoy, but of which they are the true beneficiaries) that barely remains in place. We are embarking in a fascinating experiment which I’m not very optimistic about: is a massive dose of voodoo economics able to get the economy growing again, like the WSJ editorial page has been thunderously proclaiming for years? Because, although Trump has promised everything and its opposite in the campaign trail, Voodoo economics on stilts is what seem to be coming to the republic: reducing the fiscal burden of the segment with less marginal propensity to consume and reducing redistribution (starting with healthcare for the needier and likely following wit food stamps) implies almost by definition reducing aggregate demand. That reduction may (or may not) be counterbalanced by a massive public investment program in infrastructure, which the country badly needs, but if pursued in parallel with the tax cuts that have been so much publicized it is difficult to gauge the impact of the ballooning deficit that may ensue. The other element to be taken into account is deregulation (it is still not clear what and how, as this is one area where it is easy to grandstand but difficult to actually simplify very complex codes that reflect the experience of decades), and this is the one area which I’m more curious about, as some economists seem to think that regulation was the true villain and thus its elimination is all that’s needed to make the universe whole again (Deregulation is princess Celestia from my little pony ). I’m more than a bit sceptic about it, and history doesn’t give us much hope, but I’ll keep an open mind. If the experiment fails, I’m even more curious of how people will react in four years…

·         If it were the sociology it has to be clarified why people who identify themselves as hard-working, straight, God & guns & heartland folks have chosen as their champion a New York millionaire (who claims to be a New York billionaire) with three wives, admittedly loose sexual mores, unscrupulous business practices and a history of stiffing contractors that one would expect to be very badly received by the social milieus where those contractors hail from. Although the white working class seems to resent professionals (which they actually have to interact with, and be bossed by) but have nothing but admiration for rich people that happen to have inherited a good deal of their wealth (What people don't get about the WWC, by the way, the article ends recommending not to confound blue-collar resentment with racism, good luck with that, as I’ll show in the next section), them being conveniently far away, so they can rationalize such distant admiration assuming they surely “worked darned hard for every cent they have” (hilarious, I know). There is a tinge of truth in the fact that Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties (getting there over 12.5 million votes more than Trump), but could only win 332 of the roughly 3,000 less populous ones (in which Trump got 11 million more votes than her), and they were those 3,000 counties which ended delivering the majority of the electoral college to him.

·         If it is race, History (which is but the handmaiden of demography, or was it the other way around?) is still on the side of the Dems, and if not in four years in eight they will more than recover, doesn’t matter how they rebuild or what they do, who they choose to represent them or what platform they run on.

So, to summarize, it was not a tremendous difference in the quality or the charisma of the candidates (the less qualified by far won); it was not the economy (the losers of globalization chose the candidate that most assuredly will ensure they keep losing ground); it was not the sociological divide (the rural working class chose a urban millionaire who shares none of their values); there is only one explanation left (those globalization losers with a traditionalist set of values, that happen to be mostly lily white, decided that Hillary Clinton was too cozy with blacks and latinos, which at the same time they see either as undeserving poor or as illegal immigrants pushing their salaries down and stealing their jobs, and so either voted against her or stayed home).

Before moving on, there is one particular canard I’m reading a lot which I would like to put to rest: A significant number of NYT and WaPO commenters keep claiming that it is all the Democratic party leaders’ fault, who chose the wrong candidate, understood as the less liberal one. I suspect those angry and self-righteous commenters are the same ones that kept pillorying the editorial boards of the MSM for warming up to Mrs. Clinton (the ones that made me write presciently Hillary has the steepest hill to climb). Such luminaries keep thinking that, had their first (and in many case only) choice been the candidate, he would have “easily” defeated Trump, based on a number of (early and thus not that significant) polls that showed a marginally better chance of the Vermont senator winning in a two-way race against the real estate mogul than the one ascribed to Clinton. Look, this election has upturned many old certainties, and I am as error prone as the next analyst, but there is one truism I think still holds: there is no way a self-professed “democratic socialist” can win a general election in the USA. Not before hell freezes over, or pigs fly. The college-educated kids tend to repeat that Sanders would have done better with the white working class in the rust belt that costed Hillary the election. I doubt that (remember the working whites are against “Washington insiders” precisely because they see them as redistributionists that take their hard earned money to give it to the blacks and immigrants), but even more significantly ,he would have lost the majority of the college-educated elder whites that Hil won as they were repelled enough by Trump to consider voting for her, and that I have a hunch would have felt threatened by Bernie in a way they didn’t feel with her at the top of the ticket.

Be it as it may, reading back my analysis and immediate forecast (What to expect after Trump loss, Yep, I said it, Nazis! and Only maybe he doesn't lose after all ) I think most of it still stands, with some minor caveats (and a major one, of course, as I thought Hillary would be the winner after all):

·         The death of the GOP is as certain as it was, but the new ANSWP will at least be able to maintain its previous name of “Republican party”, which will make such death undetectable for the less insightful observers. Even some of the old cadres will remain (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan), and of course they will claim to be applying the traditional GOP recipes all along, but international isolationism, breach of trade treaties and massive deficits (does somebody believe that the huge tax cuts announced by Trump are going to be even partially offset by proportional cuts in spending? What about the promised military buildup? And the fact that there will be a whole new breed of cronies to shift funds to in addition to the old ones, which will surely reposition themselves?) will give the game away, being the opposite of what the GOP has nominally stood for (maybe with the exception of the deficit, which they always had a soft spot for as soon as they gained real power).

·         Also, I stand by my prediction of expecting more repression as a necessary manifestation of the ANSWP true nature, a further increase in guard labor and the prison population (where you know which races will be even more overrepresented, don’t you?), a further militarization of the police (and forget about that wishy-washy liberal dream of having them wear body cameras so they can be more easily indicted if they misbehave… them misbehaving “judiciously” more and more frequently is exactly part of the package, as long as they do it only with “those people”), further intimidation of the press, further erosion of niceties like the right to challenge your detention in court (or the expectation not to be tortured when detained) and of course, all of it will happen with the approval of a SCOTUS that is about to turn violently to the right (probably one of the most momentous consequences of the election, as the justices appointed by Trump -anywhere between one and four- will constitute a conservative supermajority likely to last for a full generation).

·         The split of the Democrats (them losing the white working class) didn’t have to wait for the arrival of a more astute, more cunning führer. It has already happened, and they are likely to go through a very turbulent period at least until the next midterms, with a discussion perversely reminiscent of the one in the GOP between those blaming the defeat on their candidate not being left leaning enough (all those Sanderistas that doomed Clinton by not showing up to vote in enough numbers and that now are in the front lines of the firing squad claiming, against all odds, that their preferred option would have crushed the Orange one) and those arguing that they need to regain the center to appeal to the hosts of dissatisfied working class traditionalists (the “rural America”) that broke off so decisively for Trump this time. As I pointed towards, the working white class has indeed separated itself from the urban poor (where blacks and latinos are overrepresented) and strongly rejected “identity politics”, which were a very salient part of the Democrats’ agenda, as representing a set of values they find utterly alien. Trying to bring them back to a wide coalition is going to be challenging (to put it mildly).

All of which is sad and sorry, regardless of how predictable it was. Which brings us back to the title of this post. Remember my Toynbeean framework for prognosticating the downfall of Western civilization in its moment of apparent triumph? (a quick reminder: Everything going to hell - but gently ) The dominant minority had indeed succeeded in imposing a universal state on the world, but it had lost its creativity to confront external challenges, so it was slowly being swamped by them, isolated from its worst effects thanks to its enormous (and growing) wealth, and unable to inspire the masses as it turned more and more intently to extract rent from them forcibly. That masses had in turn become proletarians (again, in Toynbee’s sense, very different from Marx and having nothing at all to do with who owns the means of production). Not sharing the values of the dominant minority, and more and more excluded from the decision mechanism that set society’s direction, all they can do to express their dissatisfaction with their lot is to revolt (I was going to title this post “the proles are revolting!”, but wasn’t sure my readership would appreciate the double entendre).

And boy, are they revolting (rebelling)! In a most peaceful manner (at least in the West). The British don’t want to be part of Europe, doesn’t matter how much poorer such choice makes them. The Colombians don’t want to accept the ex-terrorist (or leftist insurgents, depending on your viewpoint) of the FARC between them, doesn’t matter (again) how much it costs them. The Americans vote in for the highest office a “colorful” character like Trump, doesn’t matter what absolutely all their representatives (in academia, in the MSM, in both established parties, in the summit of the corporate world -with the exception of Peter Thiel) tell them. The Europeans, caught in a demented institutional straitjacket they seem unable to shake off, will keep lurching towards greater extremism until such constraints are dismantled, and all bets are off what may happen afterwards…

The common thread in all those cases is the all-too-predictable reaction of a majority that has been consistently lied to. Lied to by a value system (a dominant reason) that kept on telling everybody that relentless competition was the only way to happiness, as it would make everybody better off. But enough people is reaching an age when they plainly see they are not materially better off than the previous generation, and in many cases they are significantly worse off, as even when they have barely as many material goods as their parents (normally obtained working longer hours), they realize that in the hustle and bustle of producing and acquiring them for themselves they didn’t find time to beget and nurture a next generation big enough to sustain them in their old age, which now looms as a frightening time of reckoning (even Ross Douthat has realized this: The post familial election ).

After discovering they have been lied to, it comes as no surprise they distrust every message they receive from the ones they identify as liars (all the members of the dominant minority) and they become easy prey for the lies of anyone perceived as an outsider (I think it was Chesterton who quipped that the problem with people that has lost the belief in God is not that afterwards they believe in nothing, but that they believe anything). Of course, most of the “outsiders” (most of them as belonging to the old dominant minority as the most frazzled establishment pol, btw) don’t have a clue of how to deliver the prosperity they promise their gullible followers, so they resort to that old populist playbook: propose simplistic solutions to every problem and find a scapegoat to blame when they do not work.

So we will soon find what particular scapegoats the last wave of populists chose. And how they fail, of course, because nothing short of a complete redefinition of the dominant reason will be enough to arrest our collective decline. And redefining dominant reasons is darn tough, indeed. To begin with, it requires clear sighted thinkers with the ability to reach enough people (what used to be known as “respected public intellectuals”) able to formulate and advocate for it. When those thinkers are heard, the society (or civilizational group, in Toynbees terms) can change course and avoid catastrophe. When they are not, the society crumbles (think late Roman empire, or Tang’s China) and a new one surges from the rubble and the ruins, free from old habits of thinking. Of course, if such unfettering compensates all the suffering, the impoverishment and the dissolution of social bonds caused by the crumbling is an open question. How bad will it be this time? I started this section asserting that so far the rebellion of the proletariat has been entirely peaceful and through democratic means. Once they discover they are as much being lied to as they were under the “old” plutocracy (which happens to be exactly the same as the new one) such peacefulness should not be taken for granted any more… 


  1. Here from your NYT comment. I agree, particularly regarding Sanders. Some of his IDEAS may have appealed to Rust Belt voters, but his persona was in-electable. He couldn't even secure the nomination (and I LIKE Bernie and think Hillary had too many liabilities.)

    There are a lot of "thinkers" putting forth good arguments. The problem is that the media that rural white America consumes ignores them and will continue to do so.

  2. I wish I could, with some (perhaps Trumpian) rhetoric, sweep away your argument here. Alas, I cannot. You're on to something.

  3. do you consider the electoral college 'democratic?'

    1. with small "d" or capital "D"? Just kidding... and good question. Depends on what you mean by democratic. Most democracias are not all that representative, and "one man, one vote", although a catchy phrase, has almost never been put in practice (not in America, and not in Europe, where they have their own variants of "first past the post" or D'Hondt law" that end up giving much more weight to some votes than others). That said, the electoral college is a republican institution, intended to check both populism and the temptation of a sitting president to "buy" reelection by concentrating on a subsegment of the population at the expense of the rest. It can indeed deliver some unpalatable results (Bush and now Trump) making presidents of the losers of the popular vote, but I wouldn't outright come out for its abolition...

  4. A very good and fair minded analysis. Thanks. I learned a lot.

  5. Read your comment on NYT Klugman piece. I am sorry to say you are seeing a big scary but insightful picture. Saddest of all is your pessimism regarding an inspiring and intelligent voice to bring the middle to our collective minds. My father always said, lose the middle class and you have a revolution. I think lose balance and you descend into dystopian chaos. I plan on paying off my house rather than investing in stock markets and hoarding seeds for food, and wood for our wood stove. I think they have elected our demise. At the age of 68 my deepest sympathies are for the young...including my adult children and grandchildren.

    1. Hhmmm... all my life I've been quite the optimist, criticized by friends and family for seeing everything with pink-colored glasses and assuming everything would turn out right. But my writing has of late take a distinctly Cassandran tone. maybe its the normal process of ageing, may be the times are indeed getting somber by the day. Dunno, one thing we should have learned is that predicting the future of human affairs is darn tough (and that is a good thing!), so may be even a mercurial and utterly unpredictable character like Trump may end up being good for the republic. I mentioned we are about to witness the second round of an economic experiment which I'm not specially sanguine about, but even then, I'll keep an open mind and hope for the best. Now, given waht we knew (and what the campaign has confirmed) of the character of the rpesident-elect, as another commenter has noted it's gonna be a bumpy ride!

  6. All quite thoughtful, but consider:
    - Recent studies/polls showed 40% of Americans have authoritarian tendencies, believe the country has moved too far to the left (ACA = socialism, black President, LGBT equal rights, abortion rights, rights for illegal immigrants, Black Lives Matter) and feel threatened (too many immigrants, globalization, wars don't end with victory, Muslim refugees in America and Europe while Muslim terrorists kill people in both countries).
    - Race has always been an indigestible factor in America. So programs/policies for help to the 20% or so of the population which needs it to achieve/maintain social democratic values are against the beliefs/wishes of the first 40% mentioned.
    - Even if the other 40% were to consist of liberal social democrats who are united in their preferences (not so in America)it would be easy to divide/confuse them with tactics, media manipulation, at which the GOP has always excelled.
    - White workers who lose jobs/earn lower wages don't want hand-outs. They want economic power. Trump seems to promise them that. Of course, he can't deliver, but they don't know it.
    - Trump's economic package is incoherent. Higher fiscal deficits (because of tax cuts, incentives to private investors in infrastructure)are inevitable, and because of the basic macro identity mean higher trade deficits, i.e. higher imports and a greater need for funding these imports. Protective policies in trade (tariffs on imports, jaw-boning to "Buy American") are inconsistent. Because of the macro policies America will not become great again, but weaker, more dependent on Chinese funding of its twin deficits.

    1. Why is Obama a black president given he is half white and half black?

  7. The white working class, rural, older, non-college educated population does not support the progressive agenda of higher taxes on the rich to reduce inequality and pay for more accessible or better social services. These voters want more economic power and a higher social status. They will get neither one nor the other. See the articles by Shiller and Roach in the link below:

    1. Many thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Had already seen the Shiller & Roach article, plus Kirk Noden in "the Nation": and Zack Beauchamp in "Vox": and honestly I'n not so convinced about that "economic power" they yearn for. One would assume less uncertainty about medical coverage, pensions, living wage, etc. can be understood as empowering, can't they? On the other hand, social status is something I can 100% understand and agree they see ass slipping from them, as status is by definition relative, thus a zero sum game, thus something that if some distinct "other" gains you necessarily lose... which brings us back to racial animus.

  8. I am also here from your NYT comment. This post is the best summation I've read analyzing the election results.

    I agree with Liesl above on both of her points. I am also a Bernie fan and cognizant of Hillary's liabilities, also think it would have been unlikely for Bernie to have won.

    The media that feeds rural white America does not, for the most part, attempt to provide thoughtful coverage of major issues. The consumers of those publications do not, for the most part, want that kind of coverage.

    And so we are here.

  9. Also came here from your NYT comment on Krugman's column. I agree that those overweighted (electorally), rural, non college degree voters are resentful not only of the moronic sense of being left behind by society, but also of being chosen over by marginalized groups. At risk of given them too much credit in that they knew that Trump would not make their lives any better, they'd rather drag anybody they can with them (notwithstanding their belief on an inalienable right to a manual job requiring no advanced skill or education but yet worthy of a living wage at the same time that they vote for the party that strives to dismantle labor rights).

  10. Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride. (I'm independently wealthy and live in California, so I'm basically insulated.)

  11. Wow, great read. If the slow decline/collapse is inevitable. What should one do to protect themselves and their family?

  12. man, if only I knew!... Now, s long as the collapse is indeed slow, we are in good shape. Be as good a human being as you can be and educate those around you to also be kind, gentle and self-reliant, and you may leave the planet with the knowledge of leaving it a better place than what you found (that's my philosophy of how to live in a nutshell, decline or not decline).
    Things get murkier if the decline accelerates by some moronic action of the dimwits we seem more and more poised to elect, and becomes a downright collapse. It may be morally good then to take some courses of action, justified by the need for self-preservation, that in isolation would be considered morally reprehensible (egoistic, harsh, even cruel). That opens a somewhat disheartening casuistic that would merit a post of its own (in preparation)

  13. Agree, they want more economic power and higher social status. With Trump they feel they have "won", which has to be a strong drug when you feel you've been losing for years. The problem with a drug is once the initial high wears off the hang over sets in. But if Trump's economic policies (which make no sense to me) fail the liberal elites and the liberal media will be blamed. There will be no personal responsibility.
    The other thing I fine interesting is all this name calling by the Trumpsters such as whiner, stupid, Hillary bitches etc. Call me all the names you like. That will not change my economic situation (which is quite good) or the empowerment I have in society that I worked to earn.
    I will say though, that they have a point. As a society, if we displace thousands of workers with no plan as to where they are going to go to prosper, there will be extreme upheaval. And now we are paying the price.
    It's too bad the only conversation going on now from both sides is demonizing the other side. I think there are solutions out there if we could work together, but that seems a long way off right now.

    1. Your last paragraph sums up where we are now - personality replaces policy as reality TV tropes become the norm. Here in the UK, Brexit won on the back of easily disprovable 'facts' (e.g. the NHS will benefit by £360M a week) that the Remain side failed to properly refute or point out that the leavers had no mandate to implement even if they won, because they were too busy demonising Nigel Farage.

      I saw exactly the same thing happen in the US election when Democrats were too obsessed with the Trump circus to notice that a lot of people reliant on the Affordable Care Act didn't realise that Obamacare was the same thing, and that a vote for the GOP was going to cost them right there.

      Making that clear could have swung the election on it's own; and if someone had bothered to explain exactly why coal mining was no longer viable...

  14. Came here from Krugman post in NYT. I live in Washington state. The sheer volume of jobs and prosperity around here because of the tech heavyweights make this a bubble. But I believe a bigger problem is coming down our way. The jobs lost by automation of manual labor are the past, those lost by automation of simplistic cognitive labors, what we call services today, will be significant in the next 20 years.

    While automation can produce all the goods and services needed by the society, the people needed to produce them will continue to diminish.

    To put it a little more dramatically, it will take another version of French revolution to get some equalizing balance :)