Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Great Electoral Wipeout of 2014

Like everyone else I know, I've been trying to interpret the mass annihilation of Democrats in the elections that just took place.  I have no particular expertise to apply, and in any case the data we need to test our hypotheses aren't available yet.  Right now, it’s all speculation.

First, let’s agree on the facts.  (1) At the national level the Democrats got creamed.  Their losses in the senate, when this is all over, will prove to be even greater than their most pessimistic pollsters imagined.  Even their victories, like Warner’s squeaker in Virginia (if it holds up), were signs of collapse.  And they got further clobbered in the House.  (2) Governorships and state legislatures went decisively Republican, with few exceptions.  This was a red tide all the way down.  (3) Turnout was low, but even where it wasn't (Colorado), it didn't make a significant difference.

Now for some hypotheses.

1. This was the biggest-spending nonpresidential election the country has ever seen, and a large proportion of the total was anonymous and unaccountable to anyone except political strategists.  There was wall-to-wall TV advertising in October.  My browser was popping with political ads for a state senate race that wasn't even in my district.  (Hey, don’t these guys know about zip codes?)  The bulk of the money was Republican, but of course we don’t know how effective all this spending actually was.  While I’m sympathetic to this howl of outrage by Jeffery Sachs, I think it’s premature to conclude that money was a big factor.  Look for a wave of research (and “research”) conducted by and for political operatives trying to convince donors to pump in even bigger bucks the next time around.

2. It was also an election of fear.  Polls have shown an obsession with ISIS and Ebola that can only be described as paranoia.  I’m not saying that there aren't nasty paramilitary groups around the world or scary diseases, just that the current moment isn't actually scarier overall than others we've lived through, but a substantial portion of the public is convinced that we are staring at the face of  Armageddon.  This was perhaps the main theme of late-campaign advertising and messaging, no doubt driven by the widespread belief that fear activates mental processes favorable to conservatism.  Whether that was a meaningful factor in the rout remains to be determined, however.

3. It was a scream of anger directed at Barack Obama, personally.  The intensity of this hatred is in about the same range as we saw with Bush Junior during the late stages of his presidency, but the causes are different.  With Bush it was above all the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion and the nonchalant dishonesty with which it was peddled, as well as the perception that his ignorance and lack of interest in the hard work of governance was revealed in the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.  To put it bluntly, he came across as an overly entitled frat boy, an easy target as it turned out.  With Obama it’s a little more complicated.  To begin, we can’t overlook the fact that hatred of Obama is largely a white phenomenon.  White people hating a black guy has to have a racial element.  Here’s a very speculative reading: Obama is a professional talker.  He has given us years of smooth talk about making government work for us, supporting the middle class, and managing international conflicts prudently and professionally.  But the reality has been a steadily declining median income, a lack of visible success in government programs, and continuing global chaos.  In the case of ACA/Obamacare, first there was the disaster of the website meltdown, which John Judis, based on polling data, describes as Obama’s Katrina, and then, due to the complexity of the program, the delay (at best) in the impact on health care utilization.  (How many voters have benefited yet from ACA in the form of actually getting health care they needed, reducing their medical spending, and not being enslaved to health insurance benefits when deciding what job to take or stay in?  This might kick in over time, and perhaps ACA will be given some credit for the decline in health cost inflation, but we’re not there yet.)  What I’m getting to is this: there’s a big gap between Obama’s rhetoric and the results on the ground, and this plays into a racial stereotype, the jiving black guy.  The performance of Obama explains a general disillusionment with what his wing of the Democratic party has come to represent, but the racial element explains the hatred.  It’s interesting that Obama has gotten trapped in this bind; clearly much of his original appeal was based on his being able to convince voters that even though he was black he wasn't angry or militant or anything like that.  And that’s still the case.  But he waltzed into a different, but just as toxic, racial stereotype, and since it’s based on not believing anything the man says any more, there’s nothing he can say to defuse it.  Worse, it tarred the entire party in the eyes of many white voters, since they suspected all along that the Democrats had become the party of those people, and now they knew it for sure.  In this context, it’s interesting that a fourth of Republican voters voiced displeasure with their own party in the exit polls, but they hated Obama and the Democrats more.

4. There’s no sign that the electorate shifted to the right on substantive political issues.  In fact, the evidence from referenda around the country, on marijuana, guns, abortion, and the minimum wage, is that, if anything, the swing is moderately to the left.  This election played out on ideological and cultural stereotypes.

5. Blaming the election results on low turnout is a distraction: turnout is, as we like to say, endogenous.  The voters Democrats depend on, younger, lower-income, nonwhite, weren't motivated, as they often aren't.  I think it’s presumptive to claim that their lack of interest is a technical problem to be solved by better outreach and mobilization.  No doubt more accurate targeting and so on can play a role, but surely the biggest element is that, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats don’t stand for anything their base is likely to get motivated about.  Worse, in power Democrats do stand for principles (privatizing education and more liberal and lucrative finance, to mention just two) that are anathema to large parts of their base.  It is not an exaggeration to say, as Arun Gupta does, that “it’s time to rethink this notion that Democrats lack principles. They have a clear agenda and are actually more ideological than Republicans. Democrats like Obama are willing to lose power to carry out the neoliberal agenda.”

To repeat, all of this is simply speculation.  These are hypotheses that can and hopefully will be put to empirical tests.  I especially hope we will have some experimental evidence on the racial dimension of Obama-loathing, since we’d be a lot better off as a society if we could talk about this stuff openly and honestly.  Oh, and we need a programmatic political movement with a post-neoliberal vision and agenda.


Cirze said...

You've cut to the bleeding heart.

Thanks fro your fine reporting. said...

Turnout did make a difference in CO. Last I heard, Hickenlooper held on as governor.

The turnout issue came to this, that hatred of Obama along with Ebola/ISIS hysteria, along with racism, got the anti-Obama people more motivated to turn out, which really does explain many of the surprising results, such as the squeaker in VA (some local stuff here also).

I think the one thing Obama could have and should have done that would have helped on turnout and even attitudes would have been to make executive decisions on immigration, precisely those he is now threatening to do if Congress does nothing. They already did nothing, and a lot of Latinos with good reason said that Obama has been objectively worse than Bush. Obama upped deportations to please the anti-immigration crowd, but got zero in return, so not surprising latinos not motivated to vote Dem, conditions objectively worse. Obama could have done better on that, and it might have made a difference in some races, particularly in the House of Reps.

Barkley Rosser

Bruce Wilder said...

It's a lot of speculation, and somewhat contradictory speculation, which is fine for hypotheses awaiting evidence. It is remarkable to me that out of roughly 1000 words of hypotheses, you devoted more than half to a single point revolving around racism and how Obama is perceived "personally" even though he was not on the ballot.
It is possible that both racism and disproportionate fear are control points for deliberate propaganda campaigns aimed at managing the electorate. And, here's something uncomfortable to contemplate: the perceptions of anti-racist Democrats may be more effectively managed than the racists herded into the Republican coalition. (Really, half of your verbiage was needed to make the point that race figures in American politics? Why is this so emotionally potent? You're not the only one for whom it becomes a key talking point.)
America has become a plutocracy, in which a parasitic elite feeds on the rest of the population. We can wish the Democratic Party could become a reliable instrument for voters seeking to overturn or reform this economic order, but it's not, and Obama and other Democratic leaders have played a remarkably active role in subverting the potential of either the Democrats or the political system to enact effective reform. I do not see "a way out". I do see that a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy is wasted in hiding from this fact.

Peter Dorman said...

Bruce, a couple of things. First, this election, like most significant events, is a conjuncture. There were lots of factors involved, and you could say the result was overdetermined in the sense that, try as I might, I couldn't think of anything that was helping the Democrats this time around. Usually it's a matter of relative weights, but not this time.

Second, you may miss the point of my racial analysis and why I devoted so much space to it. I don't think it's useful to attribute something like Obama-hating to "racism" in a general way. That's not the level at which these things operate most of the time, in my opinion. Rather, racism takes the form of racial templates, proclivities to see matters through a racialized lens or make particular assumptions about other people's motives or behavioral patterns. All societies have their racisms, but the racisms are not all the same, and even in a particular society racism can take multiple forms, not necessarily moving together. I think it's interesting to speculate that, ever since the days of whiteface, two negative stereotypes for black men have been "angry/dangerous" and "jivey". Obama clearly went to considerable lengths to defuse the first (and the Right, though it tried, was unable to nail him on this one), but fell victim to the second. Do you think the Obama team understood this problem and took measures to avoid it, as they did with the angry-militant image? said...


I think it is just plain silly to note that "Obama was not on the ballot." Republicans all over the country were running ad after ad tying their Dem opponents to him, with many of the Dems trying to get away from him as far as possible. That pundits nearly universally are personalizing the outcome as expressing anti-Obama sentiment (whose poll ratings are low) pretty much is accurate.

On the matter or racism, one sign is the massive shift of Appalachia, which went overwhelmingly for Hillary in primaries in 08 over Obama and is the part of the country that has shifted from Dem to GOP more than any other. Think particularly of West Virginia and Arkansas, but also southwestern VA and eastern Kentucky, all of which were strongly Dem quite recently.

Now in WVa and E. Kentucky and SW VA one can throw in the coal issue, with locals perceiving Obama as anti-coal accurately. I sympathize with people opposing mountaintop coal removal in those areas, but the locals do not agree with them. But, some of these areas, throw in TN as well, do not have coal, and have switched hard to the GOP. Sure looks like racism to me, pretty pure and simple in those areas.

media said...

i was born in arkansas and my parents were involved in faubus stuff tho - i wasnt there---one problem i had was they always blamed me. i was like 3 and i was trying to stop fights but i got thrown down the steps or over the porch---they didnt intend it. alot of racism was involved in this election i think. i actually voted (in a small town noone ever heard of ---dc) actually 4 of my votes won (i even voted to legalize cannabis which i actually dont do tho i started at around age 8 and then stopped---then people got me into heroin and k2---all bad news because of violence). its windy today. i pretty much gave up. i was already dead before i was born. so i do music in the past