One More Time Editing

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The Editing Service That Reads Every Word

(Not my work. I unfortunately lack the ability to ask the author if he wants attribution, but the original forum this was posted on gets weird about people linking to it. Original author *did* give permission to repost. All emphasis mine. --Joe)


Random stream of consciousness thoughts after a few days, delivered in a random order as I think them up.

Something like a presidential election is massively overdetermined; the number of possible causative stories is enormous. I think it is fair to say, however, that causative stories which relate to the behaviour of the generalised left are probably more useful to examine than things either outside their control or simply things which are unchanging constants. Quick rundown of bad explanations.

  • Clinton lost because of the nature of the electoral college. This is unequivocally true; but while interesting as a general constitutional point, it is not worth turning into an exculpatory fact (particularly because it has been a constant.)
  • Clinton was relatively unpopular. This is true, but a retrospective problem - the takeaway (pick a popular or inspirational candidate) is obvious.
  • Polls failed to pick up problems in traditionally Dem midwest states. True, but there were other ways to know this was the case (and the fact the Dem gestalt was not aware of it is significant)
  • STRAIGHT SEXISM BOIS. This probably did not help - but again, does not help us except to observe that playing it safe with a man might work next time (and is hard to turn into solid explanatory data... correlation of this with other odious Trump-voting tendencies is likely to be extraordinarily strong.)


Figure 1: Mortality by cause for whites 45-54, 2000-2012, WSJ

Reasonable Explanations

If I were to pick five stronger explanatory factors which were closer to being uniquely related to the recent election:

  1. Rise in ethno-nationalist sentiment
  2. Rise in anti-establishment sentiment (not the same)
  3. Fundamental changes in experience of white people in the middle of america, especially men (See fig 1, right)
  4. Loss of unionisation
  5. Some level of disenfranchisement of minority voters

For context, here are the shifts in voting behaviour since the 2012 election:

Fig 2. 2016 Electoral Exit Polling Demographic Breakdown, NYT

Point 1 is clearly visible in the correlations between racial resentment and Trump-voting. However, we must be very careful of drawing the conclusions we want from this; it is one thing to observe a correlation, another to observe strong causation in all cases. The narrative we would desperately like is that we simply failed to observe the underlying evil of the population - but this seems both despairing and too convenient. This likely explains a chunk of Trump support, most notably the KKK David Duke contingent and a lot of the "human biodiversity" alt-right types, but struggles to explain the shifts observed in Latino, Black and sub-$30k income previous Obama voters. I think there is also a lurking point that those now desperately worried that their neighbours are waiting for the signal to whip on their KKK hoods and go lynch somebody are (mostly) drawing a false inference.

Point 2 is visible in a cryptic form in the voting behaviour of those who said "both sides are the same" and then voted Trump. If you think the whole system is stupid then you go for the anti-elite choice. Give people the ability to say "fuck you," to powerful people out of your reach, and if you feel hard done by you will take it. I suspect this is a bigger chunk of the pro-trump vote than the pure white nationalist types.

Figure 3: Branko Milanovic's "elephant graph", showing winners and losers from recent income growth

Point 3 can be seen obliquely (Fig 3 at left, Fig 1 above.)

This is not to say that all or even a huge number of those who voted Trump were genuinely hard-done-by innocent white workers done out of their worthwhile labour in factories or what-have you. It is merely necessary to note that clearly something about the experience for these people has changed in stark contrast with the movement in the rest of the world, and it has not brought much happiness. The most obvious cultural emergence of this would be the phrase "hillbilly heroin," which summarizes both the problem itself and the those who see it as a joke.

Point 4 can be seen in microcosm in Wisconsin. Since Scott Walker took over, unionisation of public sector workers halved (from roughly half to a quarter), with overall unionisation going from 17% to 8% since 2010!

If unionisation is a way for democratic political ideas and power to both reach and be used by poorer and less well educated citizens, its loss would result in an increasingly powerless and dissatisfied working class. This seems to be a relatively tenable position.

So we are left not with a relieving message that Trump is the result entirely of a disempowered working class with whom we need to reconnect, but the idea that they formed a temporary alliance with the unpleasant nationalists out of necessity and not caring very much about the rhetoric. To have changed the outcome fundamentally hinges not on having persuaded most of Donald Trump's supporters, but some. Margins were very small!

Not all Trump supporters were ethno-nationalists; and to most people, tolerance for crypto-white nationalism is not the same as explicit, outright racism. To treat it as such is a move towards useful taboo formation in a population which already agrees with you and wants to establish and signal values, but is an alienating action in one which doesn't, and does not achieve what you want. The difference between a committed KKK member and a frustrated middle american is enormous, and pretending the two are identical provides you with nothing but a recipe for never achieving any useful persuasion whatsoever. The useful assertion "one does not need to give ground to committed racists" does not justify severing all communication with people who have made temporary ideological alliances, especially those whose support we would like!

The ultimate question is not "could we have persuaded the white ethno-nationalist idiots," but "could we have persuaded the 16% of poor people (sub $30k income) who switched from Obama to Trump?" Small effects would have had an enormous outcome. The fact that not all their concerns are necessarily empirically correct does not mean we can fully laugh away the idea that economic anxiety played a part, or that there are people who feel left out in the recent real wage growth.


The "Academicisation" of Left Discussions

In general, the states has seen a fairly consistent movement away from cultural time being given to "hard left" concerns (unionisation, straightforward redistribution, honest-to-god marxism, primarily concerned with social class) towards "soft left" concerns (race, gender, feminism etc). This has come with an associated change in vocabulary; as the interlocutors become better and better educated, with groups of degree-having coastal types able to communicate with one another in shared online spaces, the nature of the discussions themselves have become more and more academic. Concerns directly imported from critical theory have become common parts of the discourse. Consider the rise of the phrase "male gaze" - I thoroughly suggest anybody interested seek out the original essay by Laura Mulvey and decide to what extent they agree with her, er, highly Freudian analysis - and how quickly it became a major concern among the online (well, I suppose university-educated) Twitter types.

Concepts like this re-emerging into culture which is shared more widely by Americans will cause problems. Middle Americans play plenty of video games, and if Jeff (aged 22) first encounters feminist discourse by seeing an angry online person complaining about representation in Call of Duty and strongly implying that there is moral fault in both the production and creation of stuff like that, you will get a pretty obvious reaction. Critical theory is something that will hold sway with people already saturated in those kinds of ideas and sharing Slavoj Zizek memes, but it will struggle with people who don't. And if anybody who is not 100% on board is then determined to be an irreparable troglodyte, there will be a backlash. It is probably no coincidence that near 100% of Gamergaters are Trump voters (and again, many of them may well be irredeemable... but we only need to persuade a few of them!)

Concerns about security of income and family will always be stronger than concerns about intellectual purity. The movement of perceived-left values towards social-critical activity has been profoundly alienating for the working class. Consider old Marxists attempting to literally foment revolution amongst the working class.

Obviously this can be taken a little far (ONLINE FEMINISTS TO BLAME FOR TRUMP) and it is self-flagellating, but a version of left-liberal culture that does not have much space for the less educated is going to struggle hard, and anybody with some level of self-critical reflection could consider how it feels to be a conservative here. It is not a welcoming experience. Conservatism is not a fallen state of man which should be punished; it is a set of concepts, some of which the left should be trying to reclaim.

The Circles of Racism

One good example of the shift of how the left talks towards a more academic framework is the use of the word racism. There are 3 clearly distinct uses of the word in use in America:

  • "Conventional." Middle American, which is the fairly straightforward accusation of having an active conscious hatred for nonwhite people
  • The soft-left liberal version, which includes a whole bunch of associated concepts e.g. actions taken as a result of implicit but unconscious bias
  • The high academic use of racism, where it includes the effects of racial policies and actions on a wide range of areas taken in toto over long periods of time. This would include things like classifying income distribution as inherently racist as it is shaped by the racial history of America. Note that this would be frequently rejected inherently by those who usually use the simpler version.

Genuine attempts at persuasive communication require a willingness to use your interlocutor's vocabulary and conceptual framework unless it is irreparably flawed. It is more fun and scores more points with the gallery to declare somebody a poorly-educated bigot, but if these ideas have real value (which I think many of them do) we should be genuinely attempting to spread simple, coherent and persuasive versions of them. These ideas are meant to be part of a generalised liberating set of mental concepts that allow us to address genuine problems; the more popular support and people sharing those values, the better. Having a local outgroup is good fun, but accomplished very little in the long run... and a semilocal invisible, resentful outgroup is worse.


There is a general refusal to prioritise here in some cases. If we allow for the unfortunate truth that many people are unwilling to be persuaded, we should be figuring out which interventions are important and cost the least. The current left has an obsession with the construction of taboo: we must make such and such a sentiment or such and such a phrase unforgivable or banned. This is a classic example of naive interventionism; taboos are socially expensive to enforce and nobody likes having their speech policed. If these policies are ostensibly to achieve some kind of objective outcome, then they should be examined to see if they actually achieve their goal. Popular sentiment in a group usually races ahead of taboo formation, or you get resented minority rule situations.

Where do the young radicalised American right come from? Partly because they encounter internal left-wing assumptions on places of common discourse, e.g. Twitter, and go apeshit. If you hold the values of a vaguely libertarian middle American, the idea of somebody trying to control what you can and can't watch (Author's n.b. it does not matter what the definition of censorship is. it does not matter what the definition of censorship is. people object to the very feeling of having their actions or speech censured or controlled. and yes, telling somebody they "shouldnt" do something is an attempt at engendering action or behaviour...) is inherently aggravating.


The Rehabilitation of Patriotism

There has been a recent, in some ways quite laudable, tendency for Americans to be more clear-eyed and critical of America itself. The heuristic, however, has become another feature of alienation for middle America; "these people hate America and don't share my values!" Reflexive anti-Americanism is a severe weakness for the liberal left, and while many will say "we don't all feel that way"... sure! But left wing thought has had a long problem with patriotism.

While ra-ra, unironic, pro-american sentiment reads to many as being execrable and embarrassing, it is worth remembering that America is fairly unique in history in being an incredibly ethnically diverse country. Some degree of pro-american nationalist sentiment is a sensible replacement for an ethic conception of identity; saluting the flag is a shitload better than a reflexive assumption that Americans Are White. By ceding the construction of strong american identity to the right the left has lost a lot, certainly in terms of argument. A clear-eyed sense of patriotism is something that the left would do well to foment, not least because it is not enough to criticise right-wing narratives. You need to have a replacement; an inclusive, intersectional patriotism would be incredibly powerful. it is no coincidence that "make america great again" did so well as a slogan.

Overall America is a mostly pretty cool country in for a rough four years. I am mainly saddened by the symbolism of a Trump victory. It is a rejection of many things that i think America has been getting increasingly good at; but i do not think it is the birth of a new era of fascist neonationalism. A rejuvenated Democratic party could easily trash the Republicans in 2020, or even make 2018 a much tighter fight than they expect.