In the Land of Infants: Partisan Divides in a World Without Discourse

That’s it. We’re through the looking glass. A reality TV star is now president-elect of the United States. The brutal reality of the situation has been difficult to absorb. Watching the electoral map turn red in favor of a deranged carnival barker was truly astonishing.  Feelings? Yeah, I got ‘em: A yawning chasm of disbelief, filled with a potent, bitter cocktail of dread and resentment and anger.

There’s really no point in offering any half-hearted, pusillanimous gesture of diplomacy. The people who voted for Trump made a decision variously stupid, unsavory, and horrid – by all counts difficult (if not impossible) to justify and worthy of strong repudiation. There is no Trump vote that is not rooted in ignorance, racism, self-serving political opportunism, or some combination thereof.

Despite the galling miasma of naivety and misinformation that forms the basis of their political views, I actually don’t hold the view that most Trump supporters are bad people. Some of them are – there’s no denying that part of his success stems from his open appeals to racism and cultural animosity, and, in the this regard, the sudden uptick in attacks on minorities and open white supremacy following immediately on the heels of Trump’s victory is sickeningly telling. But most, I think, aren’t actually bigots. Instead, they’re people who have a few false and unexamined beliefs – about the economic status of the United States, the dangers of a Clinton presidency, the perceived moral and social decay of the nation, the putative causes thereof, etc. – that led them into an extremely poor political choice. They exercised their electoral franchise, as is their right, but did so foolishly.

Apparently, expressing this view is somehow an expression of hatred. That, in any case, is the sentiment I’ve seen echoed across social media in response to moderate and liberal voters who have dared to express any combination of consternation and disapproval at the success of Trump. But this is nonsense. Keep in mind, 59% of Trump supporters (or, more specifically, people with a favorable view of Trump) think President Obama was not born in the United States. 65% think Obama is a secret Muslim. Many Trump voters are also demonstrably racist, with 52% expressing sympathy for the opinion that black people are less evolved than whites. Certainly many of the people who ultimately wound up voting for Trump don’t share these views, but the fact that they cast their lot in with those who do is itself worthy of rebuke. Presumably, they fall into the segment of the Trump coalition who voted the way they did either to stop Hillary Clinton or stimulate change in Washington. Which is weird, because their vote is an implicit endorsement of the perspective that Hillary Clinton is so awful and the U.S. Federal Government so hopelessly corrupt that it is worth aligning themselves with vile, knuckle-dragging bigots to prevent their political opponent from winning.

To this day, I have yet to encounter an argument that justifies the latter position. And that’s not for lack of trying. Vehement, anti-Clinton partisans point, first and foremost, to the vacancy on the Supreme Court  – one that, were congress not polluted with the ideological fanatics and bought-out shitheels that comprise the modern Republican Party, would already have been filled, per constitutional mandate. They see the appointment of a moderate – never mind liberal – judge as a threat to their well-being on the fear that said judge will limit Second Amendment freedoms and hope that a conservative alternative will aid them in their quest to limit reproductive rights. Both opinions are rooted in their own peculiar breed of ignorance, the latter further skewed by the ever-poisonous influence religious zealotry. And tellingly, these concerns expose a fundamental inconsistency in political agenda of the pro-Trump coalition.

Insofar as anyone voted for Trump because they want to see fundamental change in Washington, appointing another conservative to the Supreme Court is a spectacular way to guarantee that never happens. It was the conservative Supreme Court who gave us the Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions. Given the lay of the modern political landscape, our only hope of ever seeing those decisions overturned is through the action of moderate to left-leaning Supreme Court. To the extent that anyone voted for Trump because they’ve lost faith in the legitimacy of U.S. political institutions, their vote will, in a steely twist of irony, have the effect of hastening our march into plutocracy. That is, they will have done their part in accelerating the capture of legislative and regulatory initiatives by wealthy special interests, thereby making government less responsive to the average voter and, as a result, less legitimate in most voter’s eyes.

The anti-Clinton/liberal Trump voter is also commonly a creature beholden to the discredited principles of free-market fundamentalism. They see in Trump the prospect for much-needed market liberalization and deregulation, in line with the view that an open, uninhibited market is the best recipe for economic and social prosperity. The more people are able to freely pursue their raw economic self-interest, unencumbered by rules and regulations, the better off everyone will be. This is a view perfectly consistent with the principles of neoclassical economics. Consequently, it’s considered convenient – even, perversely, morally laudable – to ignore the fact that many of the core assumptions underlying beliefs about market optimality and the infinite wisdom of the invisible hand – and therefore all policy prescriptions based therein – are false, repeatedly disproven in the lab and in the field. Markets are only sensitive to relatively short-term feedbacks, measured exclusively in profit. Any interest in mitigating harmful environmental or social side-effects of market behavior, particularly those that will be primarily felt by spatially or temporally distant populations – i.e., people living miles away from the polluting factors and generations in the future – can only be satisfied through regulation. Those old enough can remember the pollution and litter of a world before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the EPA. Provided Trump and the ideological fanatics in congress get their way – and they manage to live another ten or fifteen years – they might be in for a rather unsettling bit of deja vu. Likewise, if you enjoy a forty-hour work week, anything resembling a living wage, and a work environment that is not completely indifferent to your physical well-being, you have government regulation to thank for it.

None of which is to say regulation can’t be ill-conceived and stifling. There is a strong argument to made that the reach of government regulation – the petty micromanaging of business behavior by bloated bureaucracies – hasn’t grown in some ways economically and socially debilitating. But the people Trump supporters elected to fix government overreach are ideological fanatics, many of them financially beholden to special interests that stand to benefit enormously from a wholesale gutting of the government’s regulatory capacity. That might free up some small business from the burden of onerous bureaucratic meddling, but in the long run, it’ll spell social and economic disaster. There’ll be a few short-run winners, profiting enormously from the work of the lunatics and mendacious sycophants they’ve bought in Washington. But in the end, almost everyone else stands to lose.

So yeah, I think the best we can say of the people who voted for Trump is that they made a dangerously ignorant decision. And I make no apologies about expressing that view. In the most optimistic, permissive reading, these men and women sided with racist jackals and gibbering far-right lunatics for the purpose making sure a Democrat didn’t take the White House. Their justifications for doing so are frail, rooted in misinformation and ideological zealotry, tottering on the razor-edge of outright inanity.

And there we have the deeper, darker truth running right through the heart of this sociopolitical clusterfuck. Almost half (47%) of the people who supported Trump in the days following the Republican National Convention said they did so to prevent Hillary Clinton from taking office. And the same numbers held for Clinton: half of her supporters were motivated by what political scientists call negative partisanship. Putting aside how justifiable either view is – I’d rather not waste any more time kicking that rotting horse carcass – this simple fact tells us something incredibly troubling about the state of American democracy.

Critically, it tells us that neither party is doing much of a good job satisfying the interests of their constituents. Instead of voting for candidates that offer exciting policy agendas, the American electorate is locked in a perpetual holding action against their political opponents. For all the reasons I outlined above, I detest the Republican Party. But I detest the Democratic Party only slightly less. They are both beholden to special interests and indifferent to the will of most voters. Indeed, much of the blame for Trump’s victory rests with the Democratic Party, who worked to undermine a popular movement in order to nominate an intensely flawed, deeply compromised candidate. Absent the looming monstrousness of Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserved to lose.

But here’s the rub: when I say I detest the Republican Party, I mean just that: the private organization that works to pave the way for corporate feudalism in service to rabid greed and unhinged ideological fanaticism. I’m frequently disappointed and frustrated by the people who vote them into office, keeping that vile organization afloat election cycle after election cycle, and I make no bones about expressing that view. But when I say a decision to vote for Trump could be permissibly described as ignorant, that is not a whole-cloth dismissal of individual voters, much less an expression of hatred. That people think otherwise is, ironically, an expression of ignorance over what it means to be ignorant. Most people are ignorant about most things, because nobody has the time to develop expertise – or even rounded familiarity – in more than a few subjects. That means they will be knowledge about a few things and ignorant about most others. True of me just as much as a Trump voter.

Social media has been filled with venom and rancor these past few days, diluted by callow calls for love and unity. This misses the point entirely. Now is the time for vociferous criticism and debate. Our widespread unwillingness or inability to engage in these things is surely partial cause to the ideological insularity that fosters such deep partisan antipathy. When someone says your view on a subject reeks of ignorance, don’t respond with some tepid plea that they stop attacking your view or, worse still, the milquetoast inanity that “everyone’s entitled to their own opinions”. Answer them back. Explain how and why your view or choice was well-informed. Do so sternly and directly, but avoid personal attacks and name-calling. Until the citizens of the United States learn how to not only tolerate, but actively celebrate, difficult, uncomfortable conversations about cherished beliefs and political opinions, we can only expect our partisan divides to worsen.

When I write these blogs, it’s always in the ultimately vain, pitifully naive hope that they will encourage a serious conversation with someone who disagrees with me. Yet I post them on social, media, and this is the response I get:

childrenIs it really a surprise that I eventually begin to nurture a bit of antipathy towards these people. I read books and thoughtful analyses from reputable sources while working to eschew overtly partisan outlets. I fact-check and source and verify, then I synthesize all of that information into a political opinion. The people who disagree with me typically respond in a way that could generously described as extremely childish. I imagine the same is true of conservatives who post thoughtful essays – greeted by vitriol and insults and a barrage of vapid political memes. (By the way, if your political commentary consists primarily of shared-memes, your political commentary is, at best, worthless – more likely, it’s outright damaging, serving only to reinforce and exacerbate partisan divides.)

Of course, I am capable of reasoning beyond my emotional responses. As embarrassing and counterproductive as these people’s political discourse is, I don’t for a second believe I can extrapolate from it to a complete picture of who they are as individuals. Some of them probably help strangers stranded on the side of road, or lend their neighbors a hand during tough times. All of them probably think their family is important, value loyalty among friends, prize hard work and self-reliance, and really only want what’s best for themselves, their family, and their country. The same is true of almost everyone in the United States, regardless of political persuasion.

The trick we’ve all got to master is this: remembering how much most of us share – regardless of heritage, sexual preference, religion, or political affiliation – while taking the bold plunge into a world filled with hard conversations. It is critical that we all learn to talk with one another and recognize that sometimes unpleasant political discourse is part of the price for living in a free and open society under the rule of a representative government. Debate and persuasion are at the core of the democratic experiment. It will, without doubt, fail if we reduce our friends and neighbors and political opponents to tribal abstractions, vilifying those who disagree with us from within the cloistered halls of an ideological echo chamber. Match your hopes for America with a willingness to do something difficult. That means weaning yourself off insipid appeals to unity and instead talking with someone you disagree with. If you can do this without raising your voice or calling the other person a name, you’ll have achieved a real victory – both for yourself and for American democracy.

There will be two types of Trump voter In November – ignorant rabble and traitors

Traitor

There are two types of people who will vote for Donald Trump in November. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into either the deeply stupid or the deeply cynical.

In the former case, a severe deficit in critical thinking and an aversion to verifiable information seems to foster the kind of fear, distrust, and cultural animus upon which Trump has so successfully preyed. This is the plebeian rabble that has supported him from the beginning. Ignorant, hate-filled, and fear-drenched, these are men and women who listen to the oft-inconsistent fusillade of inflammatory rhetoric Trump issues and think he might be onto something. On the other hand, there are the negative partisans and party loyalists, people who find Hillary Clinton so grossly unpalatable — or imbue allegiance to the Republican Party with such exaggerated significance — that they will vote for Donald Trump in spite of his obvious and myriad insufficiencies as a candidate for the U.S. presidency.

The unfortunate reality is that there’s nothing to be done about the rabble. All anyone can do is wait for them to die and hope the next generation is incrementally better. Though in many respects reprehensible, there is also a valid sense in which they are blameless. Their life on the lunatic fringe is a product of bad genes and worse circumstances, trained to value all the wrong things and think all the wrong thoughts by parents, peers, and family members who do likewise — and have done for generations as a matter of reflexive tradition. Intensely tribal and insular, they are products of the endlessly self-perpetuating cycle of stubborn ignorance bred at the poisonous confluence of poverty, tradition, and poorly delivered and/or undervalued education.

It may be a rosy-eyed and naive long-shot to think something can be done about the negative partisans and Republican fanatics. But unlike the moral and intellectual degenerates who are enthusiastically all-in for Trump, there is some hope that these men and women have some reason to which we can offer an appeal. Or, at the very least, a sense of decency and patriotic loyalty that we can wield as a cudgel, beating into them enough shame and personal resentment for ever having considered Trump as a viable option that they will shrink from actually casting a ballot in his name in November.

It’s not so much that Clinton is a perfect alternative. Far from it. But the revulsion towards Hillary Clinton that would motivate a vote for Trump is the pinnacle of partisan irrationality. It is an impulse born of naked political dogmatism, clearly concocted in the miasma of fact-averse vitriol, paranoia, and victimization that fills the conservative media echo chamber. To vote for Trump simply to spite Clinton is to offer an obsequious votive to the Republican Party, a private organization with a clear mandate to pursue the general interests of the United States as a constitutional republic but no unambiguous evidence of having significantly done so for at least the past thirty years.

The raw reality is that there is no line of reasoning that justifies placing a bloviating, megalomaniacal, chronically deceitful authoritarian into the nation’s highest office over and above an admittedly focus-group manufactured, self-serving political opportunist. The former is an ugly populist, deploying racism, xenophobia, and bloodthirsty chauvinism to great effect among the dregs of the American electorate — completely absent any coherent or realistic policy initiatives. The latter  is a clear perpetuation of the status quo, who nonetheless offers a thoughtful and substantive policy agenda. Clinton is, if nothing else, a career politician. That’s something most of us are tired of, but it’s also something stable and predictable. Though there are many respects in which another Clinton presidency seems substantially less than ideal, the fact nonetheless remains that she is a safe bet. For instance, she has not advocated nuclear proliferation or the murder of noncombatants.

Take another example. Clinton’s record with nonpartisan fact-checking outlet politifact.com reveals a record almost precisely opposite of Trumps: whereas 77% of reviewed statements rate mostly false or worse for Trump, 71% rate half true or better for Clinton. That’s not exactly the record of anyone who could be strictly described as a paragon of honesty, but it is nonetheless exponentially more reassuring than Trump’s. In Trump, we see either a man with a vast disconnect from established and verifiable facts or such monumental disdain for the crowd he’s playing for that he doesn’t feel any need to trouble himself with the truth. To put this in perspective, the previous two Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, enjoy half true or better ratings of 59% and 57%, respectively. A candidate with Trump’s level of disregard for the truth probably isn’t entirely unprecedented. But one who has made it so far almost certainly is.

The whole affair serves to highlight and underline the by turns pathetic and frightening corner into which rigid identity politics have driven the American electorate. Hillary Clinton is a pro-business foreign policy hawk, a modern incarnation of Reagan-era Republicanism. Her presidency promises to be a continuation of an economic agenda driven by supply-side neoliberalism and a foreign policy built around military interventionism — broadly motivated by the parochial interests of economic elites. In a climate devoid of such harmful extremes of polarization, where rigid political allegiances are blindly dictated by voting records and continuously reinforced by self-selected cocoons of ideological reinforcement on social media, traditional conservatives would look at Hillary Clinton and see a reflection of many of their core principles. The only clear distinctions rest in the array of social wedge issues Republican campaign strategists have so deftly wielded to turn a large segment of the electorate into political marionettes. Conversely, liberals and progressives would look at Clinton and see something altogether distasteful.

Instead, people define themselves by steely political binaries, declaring themselves as either Republican or Democrat and falling into party line without any serious reflection on the underlying issues. In a better world, people would abandon partisan affiliation, repudiate both parties for the self-serving, parasitic monstrosities they are, and renegotiate their votes each election cycle according to a piecemeal engagement with the issues.

That, sadly, seems to be a fantasy world. Instead we have to look forward to an election where a dangerous megalomaniac with a puerile and punitive disposition stands a decent chance of becoming president. A significant segment of the conservative-leaning electorate are already beginning to align themselves with the gibbering imbeciles and racists who willfully support Trump and more are likely to follow. Teasing out their final motivations for doing so is difficult, but most of it seems attributable to the pied piper’s on conservative talk radio and Fox News success in convincing them that Clinton is a vicious dragon-lady, a political succubus greedily clutching at their purportedly god-given Rights. This is a hideously shameful state of affairs. All those votes would come with a complimentary cloud of embarrassment and regret, if only their originators had the presence of mind to set aside past partisan boundaries and carefully assess the incredibly fraught political landscape we all tread.

It’s very hard to overstate the potential threat a Trump presidency poses to the United States. Yes, it’s true that no one knows for certain how things will shake out if he were to win in November. But there has been very little – and by very little, I do mean absolutely no – indication that he will perform admirably. Donald Trump is a con artist, his history as a businessman a litany of failures. In terms of disposition, his greatest affinity with world leaders can be found among despots – he has all the thin-skinned narcissism and retributive instincts of Robert Mugabe or the late Muammar Gaddafi. A simple-minded huckster with no interest outside the nourishment of his own ego, a Trump presidency stands almost no chance of turning out better than a Clinton one.

Given all this, it’s quite easy to justify the radical claim made in the title of this piece: that those who vote for Trump for any reason other than their own pitiable idiocy are traitors to the Union. Broadly speaking, we can define the governing principles of the United States as the perpetuation of constitutional order for the purpose of preserving a pluralistic society amenable to the happiness and success of the greatest possible proportion of Her citizenry. There is no valid sense in which Donald Trump is the best choice for fulfilling this mandate. Disturbingly, there are a number of clear indications that a Trump presidency will in fact be directly inimical to these goals. To be fair, there is a narrow sense in which this has been true of the Republican Party since at least 2010, when conservative Supreme Court Justices gave us Citizens United vs. FEC. Since then, Republican congressmen have been intractable opponents to the principles of one-person, one-vote representative democracy, supporting Citizens United and subsequent corrosive decisions while opposing measures to increase the transparency of campaign finance. So for at least the past six years, a vote for a Republican on the national stage has been a vote for plutocracy and against proportionally representative republican governance.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, Trump seems to double-down on these positions, suggesting someone like the judicially reprehensible partisan ideologue Antonin Scalia should fill the vacancy left in the wake of said Justice’s passing. Not only is this in line with the Party establishment’s position on the continued erosion of representative democracy, he has also threatened to actively work to erode the First Amendment, a position perfectly consistent with his frail and punitive character. He has advocated an economic agenda that will directly threaten the stability and prosperity of the United States. He has floated the idea of completely abandoning historically important alliances, moves that would put the United States and the larger world as increased risk of violent, devastating conflict. He has courted and refused to repudiate neo-Nazi and white supremacist supporters. He gives indiscriminate voice to hare-brained conspiracy theories. A vote for Trump is a declaration of allegiance to something other than the welfare of the United States.

None of this is an inflation of available facts, yet already increasing numbers of prominent Republican politicians are lining up to pledge their fealty to interests outside those of the United States and recent polls indicate the Republican electorate is doing likewise. This isn’t just disappointing – it’s disgusting. Certainly they’re not selling military secrets to North Korea or defecting to ISIS, but they are offering succor to a candidate whose values and beliefs are far-too-often thoroughly antithetical to those outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Boil everything down to its bitter essence and it becomes strikingly clear that everyone who votes for Trump is, in a perverse but unmistakable way, voting against democracy. Through a combination of ignorance and belligerence, they will have made themselves enemies of the core principles of republican governance. Few outside the cloistered ranks of Democratic Party insiders are likely happy about a perpetuation of the status quo. It’s a sad choice, but at least those voters who take it can rest with the reassurance that they are not willfully selling our country out to a stew of party loyalty and partisan resentment.

Ultimately, the poisonous status of a Trump vote is granted not by the fact that he is, by an exceptionally permissive interpretation of American values and constitutional propriety, the worst option in November — or any previous November in living memory. Rather, it comes from the fact that no one’s vote needs to be decided along a strict partisan binary. Anyone who finds Clinton thoroughly unacceptable does not have to register their disdain for her by voting for someone who poses a clear, existential threat to the economic and social welfare of the United States. They can research candidates outside the major parties and register their votes there. Or they can simply write in a name, voicing their protest through a vote for Grover Norquist, their favorite talk radio blowhard, the restless spirits of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, or the Ghost of Ronald Reagan. They don’t have to vote for ego incarnate — a vulgar demagogue with no respect for civil liberties, no coherent or sensible policy ideas, a faithless political disposition, and pseudo-fascist tendencies. That choice will benefit few outside of Trump’s sycophantic inner-circle and very likely hurt everyone else.

To vote for Trump is to betray the United States of America— to risk the preservation and perpetuation of constitutional and representative governance on the bet that maybe (and maybe really is the best anyone can say) Donald Trump, despite all indications to the contrary, will make a good president. That’s a dangerous and irresponsible bet to make, but it does suggest a third category of Trump supporter: maybe some of them are just people who want to watch the world burn. If that’s your agenda, Trump is probably the safest bet American’s have ever had.