Presidential Election

Trump Won One America, Clinton Won the Other - and Both Lost for Now

But looks are deceiving (nytimes)

But looks are deceiving (nytimes)

The narrow election of Donald Trump as our 45th president has come as a shock to many Americans.  This is partly because of the faith put into the polls and the tealeaf reading abilities of people like Nate Silver who suggested a comfortable victory for Secretary Clinton.  It is also partly because many could not imagine a man with Mr. Trump’s inflaming rhetoric and utter lack of policy detail securing the votes of enough people.  A large amount of Americans would also blame the usual suspects of coastal elites, establishment politicians, and corporate media for creating and taking permanent residence in a ‘bubble’, leaving them blind to the broader concerns of flyover America.

There is some truth to all of these points of course, but what has also become clear from this election is that there are two distinct, insulated bubbles in this country.  As I have discussed in previous blogs, economic and cultural forces have conspired to gradually divide America into two countries largely unknown and unrecognizable to each other.  Never before in the modern era has an American election been so easily parsed along a cultural fault-line – the city vs. the country.

Though geographically this divide has been self-evident through recent election cycles, the demographics that make up these two (admittedly broad) categories have increasingly parted ways with each other.  Glancing at the exit polls and election results, it is easy to see that diverse counties in and around urban cores overwhelmingly supported Secretary Clinton while white-majority counties along the exurbs and further in to rural areas overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump.

You can point to various explanations as to why this particular election tipped towards Mr. Trump: Republican-leaning white women came home to the party; Black turnout in some key swing states didn’t match previous elections featuring President Obama; the Latino vote proved to be less hostile to Republicans than anticipated; (less convincingly) Gary Johnson and Jill Stein took just enough votes away in other key swing states.

You can also point to the candidates themselves and specifically how Secretary Clinton’s perceived flaws seemed to harm her more than Mr. Trump’s.  How much was that due to anger towards the establishment? How much of this was fueled by sexism (or racism or xenophobia for that matter)?  If this election boiled down to a referendum on the former, the result might be less disheartening, even understandable, but if it was a referendum on the latter, we have revealed something about our country that is deeply disturbing.  A person inclined to outright dismiss one of those narratives shouldn’t be so quick to do so.

No doubt this election will be studied for generations, but the immediate point of concern is how evenly divided these two ‘countries’ are - a tiny change in any one of those previously mentioned variables and the electoral college tips back decisively for Secretary Clinton.  How does either candidate declare a mandate in that environment?

What has been painfully clear is how little contact each of these countries has with each other, despite close geographical proximity. This has left supporters of both candidates fearful and resentful of each other, prone to believe the worst not only of the other candidate, but also of the other group of supporters.   A supporter of one simply cannot understand how a supporter of the other could do so, how he or she could not see what was so clearly true.

As many others have commented on, there is also no national media serving as a gatekeeper to public discourse.  In the interest of ratings and clicks, elements of new and old media alike have devolved, whether consciously or unconsciously, into echo chambers for each worldview, leaving little overlap or exposure to the other.  The media has a lot to answer for going forward.

There are few, if any, other national institutions that inspire trust in the majority of Americans.  This leaves the country with no shared source of information trusted by both constituencies to serve as a jumping off point for policy debates.  The Post-Truth Age has arrived. This makes it nearly impossible for anyone representing one of these countries to govern the other, let alone both collectively.

However, despite the vast gulf between the two, it is clear that they agree on one thing: the neo-liberal consensus of the past 30 years has failed.  Both party establishments have long accepted the core principles of neo-liberalism – privatization, deregulation, financial austerity, increased global trade – while using the culture war to differentiate themselves to the American electorate. Voters have repudiated both parties and Mr. Trump has laid waste to most of the political assumptions both relied on.

But who is President Trump? We have never known less about an elected candidate – his personal qualifications or his policy positions. On the surface he is undeniably an agent of change, but will he form a new, coherent political ideology beyond neo-liberalism? Or once he inevitably faces the obligations and limitations of his office will he fall back into a generic Republican role (maybe with some continued nationalist rhetoric)? How much has the slow bi-partisan emergence of an imperial presidency laid the groundwork for those limitations to fall away? No one knows, least of all his supporters.

This is a trying time for America and, in truth, our institutions have never seen the type of stress test that could come with a President Trump.  Will they stand up against the worst authoritarian instincts of Mr. Trump or will they buckle as much of the Republican Party already has?

And what of the two countries Mr. Trump is assuming power over? Can he effectively bridge the gap between both of these distinct countries and forge common ground? Does he think he even needs to try? In such a deeply divided political and cultural environment, can our institutions even function with or without someone like Mr. Trump as president?

In the wake of such a bitter election, it is hard to see the appetite for rapprochement from either country within America.  There are many structural obstacles to overcome even if one emerges.  But there must be a coming together.  As other countries in the west experience the same type of backlash against neo-liberalism, the very idea of liberal democracy is under siege for the first time in a century.  History has warned us what turning inward from the world and turning against one another can lead to.  America must serve as a source of hope in a troubled world and offer a way forward based on honoring its basic ideals.  One America can survive a President Trump or even help a President Trump succeed. One America can serve yet again as a beacon of stability and prosperity that the world can look to. Two Americas cannot. 

How Census Data Gets Weaponized (Even When the Data Isn’t Actually Great)

Bending the stats to fit a narrative (abcnews)

Bending the stats to fit a narrative (abcnews)

This week, the US Census reported some generally good news economically.  For the first time since 1999, wages across all income levels have increased, the poverty level has decreased, and the number of uninsured has also decreased. This is undoubtedly welcome news for many households.  However, a few people, including Kriston Capps over at City Lab, have pointed out that these numbers don’t tell the full story.  The cost of housing looms large over this discussion, deflating the positives in this story considerably.  That doesn’t mean the report won’t become a useful tool in competing political narratives - while ignoring the broader picture.

Let’s start with the trends.  The US Census Report estimated that between 2014 and 2015, the real median household income increased by 5.2%.  During that time period, the official poverty rate fell by 1.2% to 14.3%.  Finally, the number of uninsured fell by 1.3%, resulting in 90.9% of Americans having some form of coverage. These are clearly welcome developments.

There are many ways to measure income, poverty, and insurance coverage. Inevitably certain assumptions are made that include or exclude variables that would change these numbers.  For example, the US Census report described in detail the difference between the official national poverty level and the supplemental poverty level. Without going into the details, it basically comes down to how they factor in children under-15 in a household.  I’m personally not sure how you could justify not counting them, but I won’t get into the nuances of this argument today.

The point is to say that these numbers don’t give an entirely accurate (or at least detailed) picture of the state of the economy and no one at the Census or any policy wonk would make that claim.  

A more detailed (and problematic) view of the numbers becomes apparent when you look at the geographical picture for more context.  The simple truth is that most of the income gains came in major cities (+7.3%), some suburbs around these cities (+4%), but none in rural areas. They actually saw a decline in income (-2%.)**

[**Author's Note: The day after publishing this blog, an article appeared that showed that the Census information on rural income was incorrect. It has actually increased by 3.4%. The discrepancy is a result of the definition of 'rural' which is slightly different between the Current Population Survey (cited in this blog) and the more finely-detailed American Community Survey, where the more accurate number comes from.]

I’ve written about why most economic gains are happening in increasingly fewer parts of the country, mostly concentrated around coastal cities and a few in-land cities.  Those cities are where the good jobs are.  It’s also where the ‘bad’ jobs are.

This fact alone might not be a bad thing, although you would hope for more diversity in job creation regionally from perhaps a cultural and political standpoint. The problem is how hard it is for people to move to these cities where those good or bad jobs are - and how hard it is to afford to remain living there.  Mobility is not following productivity or vice versa as pervious economic expansions have tended to do.  It’s making it harder for people (especially the poor) to actually gain from the overall economic expansion. That's not a sustainable model.

It’s no mystery why this is true – rent in these cities is expensive and rising.  That’s why the wage increase numbers aren’t really that impressive.  Sure, wages went up in cities 7.3% in 2014-2015 but rental costs went up nationally during that period by 4.6%. The gains are more than wiped out without even looking at the huge variances between cities.  

So even though the basic facts of this report are all positive, the details show a much more fragile and structurally broken landscape economically.  We see this disconnect when we look at recent polls. 75% of Americans are concerned about losing their homes in a downturn and over 50% of Americans are cost burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). 

If all of these people are that anxious and insecure about their housing status, how is the cost of housing not a bigger issue politically?

Housing isn’t a major political issue because it doesn’t fit the narrow set of narratives identified by the media.  This is generally true, but especially true in a presidential election year. There’s the usual horse race coverage that the media loves but doesn’t ever actually address policy discussions. There’s the ‘mood of the nation’ coverage that vaguely taps into the public interest but rarely gets into deeper issues and concerns. And then there is this year’s hyper-partisanship coupled with the bizarro nature of Trump v Clinton that has all but drowned out meaningful policy exchanges.

So instead of supplementing this Census report with important context about what these numbers say and what they don’t say (and how they fit in to the larger political and economic landscape), media coverage has folded it into three predictable narratives: the apolitical and shallow: “Everyone is Doing Great Now in Economy;” the partisan spin: “Hilary Deserves Obama Third Term;” or the partisan rejection: “Economy is Doing Terribly Under Obama/Clinton.” 

Whether it’s a jubilant Jason Furman in the Obama Administration or a self-assured Paul Krugman at the NY Times, you can see the Pro-Hilary spin.  Whether it’s a “surprised” Brietbart or a perma-skeptical Fox News, you see the Trump/Republican spin. One side plays up the shallow headline reading of the report, the other downplays or attempts to question it.  Neither side spends anytime in the nuance of the actual report and no one from the political media class appears to be either.  Most of the media just covers the headline.  That’s not a formula for policy action.

None of these narratives are helpful or even ‘true’ in a useful sense.  We should of course be glad that income is rising and poverty and uninsured rates are falling, but is the economy actually ‘healthy?’ If the gains are all happening in places where the cost of living is increasing significantly, and the losses are all concentrated in rural areas, shouldn’t this be alarming? Shouldn’t this prompt actual discussions about how to alleviate the housing crisis and create more economic opportunity?

It’s not the job of the US Census to provide broader context to their reports. It’s certainly not their job to provide policy descriptions (they aren’t even allowed to set their own definitions for what or how to measure something).  But if we can’t rely on our elected officials or the media to contextualize this information and to ask the right questions about what it means, how can we even begin to address the larger challenges facing our country?