Elections Are Not a Ruler’s Toy Nor a Sacred Panacea

Some Republican leaders have, at last, started to blame Mr. Trump for burning the bridges behind him after being fired by the electorate or, perhaps more exactly (nothing is grandiose in that presidency), for breaking what he thinks are his toys after he felt scolded. (Will he also scratch graffiti on the oval office desk?) This is more or less what the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that tried to like Trump, argues, although more prudently, in two pieces: “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage,” November 19, by columnist Peggy Noonan; and Lindsay Wise, “Some Republicans Call for Trump to Back Up Claims of Fraud,” November 20, 2020.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on weekend tweets of Mr. Trump attacking the Republicans who have asked him to stop trying to subvert the election results (Catherine Lucey and Ted Mann, “Trump Continues to Challenge Election Results as Legal Options Dwindle,” November 22). Against the (Republican) governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who had said that “We’re beginning to look like we’re a banana republic,” Trump tweeted that “Hogan is just as bad as the flawed tests he paid big money for!” Interestingly, this jab refers to a story revealed last week by the Washington Post, one of the newspapers that Mr. Trump used to blame as “enemies of the people.”

At the exact opposite end of endangering American democracy to serve one’s political self-interest, lies the danger of sacralizing it. In the piece linked to above, journalist Lindsay Wise reports about Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyoming):

Ms. Cheney, the top ranking Republican woman in the House, said that if Mr. Trump can’t stand up his fraud claims and show they would tip the election in his favor, he should “fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

In a classical-liberal perspective, nothing is sacred about ballots. They just need to be cast by eligible voters and be counted correctly. Perhaps this is what Rep. Cheney wanted to emphasize by speaking about the sanctity of the process.

In the mind of populists (as I and other analysts define them), elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people, and they blame the electoral process if it doesn’t achieve that. In reality, the electoral process cannot reveal the will of the people, which is unknowable because it does not exist. It suffices for liberal democracy that the process deliver a good count of the votes cast by a majority or a plurality of the electorate. The populists have it exactly backward: they idolize democracy for what it cannot deliver and undermine its useful process.

We can understand that moral rules develop to support voting because it is an institution that often fosters prosperity and offers some protection against tyranny. Contemporary economists who have formalized this theory of morals include Friedrich Hayek and, in game-theoretic terms, Robert Sugden. But this does not mean that democratic voting is a sacred panacea.

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Elections Are Neither a Ruler’s Toy Nor a Sacred Panacea

Some Republican leaders have, at last, started to blame Trump for burning the bridges behind him after being fired by the electorate or, perhaps more exactly (nothing is grandiose in that presidency), for breaking what he thinks are his toys after he felt scolded. (Will he also scratch graffiti on the oval office desk?) This is more or less what the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that tried to love Trump, argues, although more prudently, in two pieces: “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage,” November 19, by columnist Peggy Noonan; and Lindsay Wise, “Some Republicans Call for Trump to Back Up Claims of Fraud,” November 20, 2020.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on weekend tweets of Mr. Trump attacking the Republicans who have called him to stop trying to subvert the election results (Catherine Lucey and Ted Mann, “Trump Continues to Challenge Election Results as Legal Options Dwindle,” November 22). Against the (Republican) governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who had said that “We’re beginning to look like we’re a banana republic,” Trump tweeted that “Hogan is just as bad as the flawed tests he paid big money for!” Interestingly, this jab refers to a story revealed last week by the Washington Post, one of the newspapers that Mr. Trump used to blame as “enemies of the people.”

At the exact opposite end of endangering American democracy to serve one’s political self-interest, lies the danger of sacralizing it. In the piece linked to above, journalist Lindsay Wise reports about Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyoming):

Ms. Cheney, the top ranking Republican woman in the House, said that if Mr. Trump can’t stand up his fraud claims and show they would tip the election in his favor, he should “fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

In a classical-liberal perspective, nothing is sacred about ballots. They just need to be cast by eligible voters and be counted correctly. Perhaps this is what Rep. Cheney wanted to emphasize by speaking about the sanctity of the process.

In the mind of populists (as I and other analysts define them), elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people, and they blame the electoral process if it doesn’t achieve that. In reality, the electoral process cannot reveal the will of the people, which is unknowable because it does not exist. It suffices for liberal democracy that the process deliver a good count of the votes cast by a majority or a plurality of the electorate. The populists have it exactly backward: they idolize democracy for what it cannot deliver and undermine its useful process.

We can understand that moral rules develop to support voting because it is an institution that often fosters prosperity and offers some protection against tyranny. Contemporary economists who have formalized this theory of morals include Friedrich Hayek and, in game-theoretic terms, Robert Sugden. But this does not mean that democratic voting is a sacred panacea.

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The relationship between identity and politics is complicated

Back in 1976, I drove from Wisconsin to the Canadian Rockies. In North Dakota I drove past endless miles of wheat farms, with some sunflower farms thrown in. The countryside looked much the same after crossing the border into Saskatchewan, Canada.

But one thing changes dramatically at the border. Just south of the border the farmers tend to vote for right wing candidates that are strongly opposed to Obamacare. To the north, the farmers vote for candidates that support Medicare for all. A system that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would love.

A person’s political views can never be understood in isolation, only in the context of the broader society in which they are embedded. Based on numerous comments that I’ve seen in the press, I don’t believe that either party understands the role of “identity” in politics. Republicans sometimes suggest that their party would have won states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan if not for the votes of cities with large black populations, such as Detroit, Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Democrats suggest that America will gradually become a country where a majority of the population is “people of color” and that this will help their party in the long run. Both are wrong.

If having lots of black voters made a country more left wing, then you’d expect America to be more left wing than Canada, and you’d expect the Deep South to be the most left wing part of America. What both parties miss is that the existence of racial minorities changes the voting behavior of white voters.

There’s very little evidence that a majority of the population will ever become non-white, because the category “white” is so fluid. Watching the NBA draft on Wednesday, I was struck by how many of the first round draft picks came from bi-racial families. Admittedly this is a skewed sample that is not representative of the broader population. But both Hispanics and Asians intermarry at a surprisingly high rate. My Asian wife gave birth to a daughter that our society views as white.

Race won’t go away, but there is no realistic prospect of whites becoming a minority in the US in the foreseeable future. Reason magazine reports that one Washington school district has already declared that Asian-Americans are white:

One school district in Washington state has evidently decided that Asians no longer qualify as persons of color.

In their latest equity report, administrators at North Thurston Public Schools—which oversees some 16,000 students—lumped Asians in with whites and measured their academic achievements against “students of color,” a category that includes “Black, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Multi-Racial Students” who have experienced “persistent opportunity gaps.”

Expect much more of this in the future.

Then there is the “Latino” population:

Though not everyone in the Rio Grande Valley self-identifies as Tejano, the descriptor captures a distinct Latino community—culturally and politically—cultivated over centuries of both Mexican and Texan influences and geographic isolation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish, but many regard themselves as red-blooded Americans above anything else. And exceedingly few identify as people of color. (Even while 94 percent of Zapata residents count their ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino on the census, 98 percent of the population marks their race as white.) Their Hispanicness is almost beside the point to their daily lives.

It is foolish to use ethnic identity to predict the future course of politics.

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College grads and highly specialized societies

Julius Probst directed me to a list of the share of whites that are college educated in various states. (See the list at the bottom of the post.) Note that the 10 states with the highest college share all voted for Joe Biden, as well as 8 of the next 10.  Only Texas and Utah were exceptions, at #12 and #19.

At first glance the explanation seems obvious; white college grads voted strongly for Biden. I believe that’s only part of the explanation; they actually didn’t vote all that overwhelmingly for Biden. Rather, college grads also reshape the broader society in a way that is friendlier to the modern Democratic Party.

When I was young, middle class people would mow their own lawns. As time went by, the “middle class” tended to segment into the upper middle class and the working class, with different lifestyles. Working class people still cut their grass, while upper middle class people frequently hire others to do so, often immigrants from Latin America. Perhaps white people who cut their own grass tend to vote for Donald Trump, while those that hire others vote for Biden, as do the people they hire.

More broadly, in upper middle class areas there’s been an explosion in service industries, everything from pet grooming to nail salons to full service car washes. Many working class immigrant people migrate to affluent professional cites, where they provide services to upper middle class professionals. And while Hispanics shifted slightly toward Trump in the latest election, in absolute terms they still voted overwhelmingly for Biden.

The symbiotic relationship between affluent professions and the immigrant communities that provide services to them creates a very different society from what you see in more “self-sufficient” working class states like Kentucky and Arkansas (the bottom two states on the list.) Indeed if you look at the bottom ten states, only one voted for Biden.

And that one exception–Nevada– is itself very interesting. Biden won Nevada because of strong support among Hispanic voters. While Nevada does not have a big group of college educated whites, it does have a huge tourist industry, catering to affluent travelers. Thus it has lots of the same low-skilled service jobs that you see in places like California, and the immigrant population to match.

This idea is familiar to those who have studied racial politics in America. States with large (but minority) black populations such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia mostly voted for Trump. But that’s not because lots of blacks voted for Trump. Rather having a large black population reshapes society.  It makes the non-blacks behave differently, more likely to vote overwhelmingly for the candidate that blacks are not voting for. In contrast, whites in Vermont probably don’t think about the preferences of their tiny black population when casting their ballots.

The states full of affluent whites and large immigrant populations are likely to be relatively open to immigration, trade, specialization, etc. They will also tend to be more urban.  This creates a dilemma for Democrats. How can they appeal to this group, and also to the factory workers to which Bernie Sanders was trying to appeal (albeit not necessarily successfully?) America is too complex a society for either political party to have a neat and tidy solution to coalition building in a two party structure. There will always be strange bedfellows. Furthermore, as society changes over time, the parties will evolve into new and different coalitions. For the moment, the Dems are the “college plus minorities” party. Who knows what they’ll be in 50 years?

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Trump supported lockdowns

President Trump is such an unusual politician that people (myself included) have trouble seeing him clearly. For instance, Trump is often seen as an opponent of lockdowns. But while he did often speak out against lockdowns during the waning days of the campaign, he actually supported them during the period they were most restrictive.  Here’s a NYT headline from April 22:

Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State

“I think it’s too soon,” said the president, who joined several mayors in questioning Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who had said some businesses could resume on Friday.

And here’s a tweet from April 30:

And it’s not just lockdowns.  I could easily dredge up Trump quotes for and against masks, for and against testing, or for and against any of a number of other policies.

Trump needed substantial votes from two groups that had very different views on Covid-19.  One group, mostly made up of his “base”, included small businesses worried about the economic effects of lockdowns, libertarians opposed to mask mandates, and Hispanic workers who lost jobs due to lockdowns.  Another group included moderate Republicans in the suburbs with professional jobs, who were economically insulated from the crisis but worried about the effects on their health.

It seems to me that early on he sensed that there was a risk of going too far “right” on the issue, losing those swing suburban voters.  Later in the year, it became clear that the problem wasn’t going away and indeed was picking up again.  At that time, he decided to go down the final stretch by appealing to his base with an anti-lockdown message.

I’m not sure that Trump had any good options politically (once the epidemic was out of control), although it’s intriguing to speculate as to what would have happened if he had followed me in questioning the experts (skeptical) view on masks back in early March.  The actual issue in which Trump questioned the experts (chloroquine) didn’t seem to pan out for him in the end, but by late April, experts throughout the world had basically decided that masks were indeed the way to go.  It might have been a big political win for Trump if he’d been ahead of the experts.  In addition, masks are a more attractive solution for small businesses than lockdowns.  In conservative Mission Viejo, almost everyone wears mask when in stores.  In contrast, very few people in North Dakota wore masks, and now they are paying the price.

When politicians encourage people to voluntarily wear masks, they are actually promoting liberty.  That’s because the more people that wear masks, the less political pressure there will be for lockdowns.

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The thing party vs. the idea party

In 1960, San Mateo County voted for Nixon over Kennedy. On Tuesday, this highly affluent suburban county near Silicon Valley voted 4 to 1 for Biden.

In 1960, West Virginia voted for Kennedy. This time around it went 68% to 30% for Trump.

These two areas were “canaries in the coal mine” that is, early indicators of broader national trends. The affluent, highly educated and socially liberal people of Silicon Valley moved sharply to the Democrats in the 1980s, while West Virginia moved sharply to the GOP in the early 2000s. Other similar areas have been following along more recently.

If you try to analyze America politics with 20th century conceptual frameworks you’ll be hopelessly confused. Why do blue collar areas vote for an anti-union party, while affluent areas vote for a party promising to raise taxes on the rich?

Some people argue that the GOP now appeals to uneducated voters, but that’s way too simple. People who run 2000-acre farms producing corn and soybeans are highly skilled. So are petroleum engineers. You need to be highly skilled to run a large Ford dealership. I wouldn’t be very good at any of those jobs. And all three job categories are very likely to vote Republican. Industries where people work with “things” are much more Republican than industries where people work with ideas.

We’ve seen politics change dramatically over my lifetime, with the South going from Democrat to Republican and places like California and New Jersey moving in the opposite direction. Expect further such changes in the future. Southern states with big “post-industrial” cities like Atlanta, Austin and Charlotte will gradually become more blue, while declining Midwestern Rust Belt states will continue to trend red. As recently as 1988, Iowa was one of the two or three bluest states in the country—that’s how fast things can change.

Illinois and Ohio used to be similar Midwestern “swing states.” Now Illinois is very blue because Chicago has become a post-industrial city, an “idea city”, not the old “city of broad shoulders” that Carl Sandberg wrote about. In contrast, most Ohio cities (except Columbus) have not been able to successfully re-invent themselves, and thus Ohio has become quite red.

In the recent election, we’ve also seen Hispanics shift somewhat toward the Republicans, and even black voters have moved modestly in that direction (albeit still overwhelming Democratic.) This Hispanic shift may be important for the future, given America’s large and growing Hispanic population, the high rate of intermarriage with other groups, and the tendency of many Hispanics to work in the same sort of industries as non-college white voters. A situation where low-skilled whites vote Republican and low-skilled Hispanics vote Democratic is not stable in the long run. Think of the earlier migration of working class Catholics from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

The only constant in American politics is continual change.

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Did the Libertarian Party Cost Donald Trump the Election?

No, but it might have cost him Georgia’s electoral votes.

My friend and fellow economist Walter Block has an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal (November 8 and November 9 print edition) titled “Libertarians Spoil the Election.”

Here’s his argument:

Did the Libertarian Party throw the election to Joe Biden? Maybe. At this writing nominee Jo Jorgensen’s vote total exceeds Mr. Biden’s margin over President Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, enough to change the outcome.

First, he’s wrong about Pennsylvania and Nevada. Jorgenson’s vote doesn’t cover the spread.

He has a better case for Arizona and Georgia.

But even there, here’s the problem: Walter is assuming implicitly that the vast majority of votes that went to Jo Jorgenson would have gone to Trump. I think that’s wrong for two reasons.

First, I would bet that about 20 percent of the people who voted for Jorgenson would not have bothered voting had they not been offered that alternative. (What’s my evidence? I admit that it’s gut feel.)

Second, consider the remaining 80 percent. I would bet that at most 2/3 of this remaining 80 percent would have voted for Trump had Jorgenson not run. Why as much as 2/3? Because what I have observed is that young libertarianish people would have preferred Biden over Trump and older libertarianish people would have preferred Trump over Biden, and a much higher percent of older people than of younger people vote.

If I’m right, that means that we would have to take the difference between 2/3 of 80% and 1/3 of 80%, which is, of course 1/3 of 80% and apply that to the Jorgenson totals in each state.

Do that and Walter’s point might work for Arizona and Georgia but it’s not a slam dunk.

Arizona: Biden gets 1,645,277 votes, Trump gets 1,629,845 votes, and Jorgenson gets 50, 121 votes.

80% of the Jorgenson vote = 40,097 votes.

1/3 of that = 13,366 votes.

Biden minus Trump = 15,432.

So even there, not clear that Trump would have won Arizona.

Georgia: Biden gets 2,467,870 votes, Trump gets 2,456,275 votes, and Jorgenson gets 61,951 votes.

80% of the Jorgenson vote = 49,561 votes.

1/3 of that = 16,520 votes.

Biden minus Trump = 11,595 votes.

So there there’s a much better shot at Walter’s point.

In his op/ed, Walter makes a strong case for Trump over Biden, most of which I agree with. Walter is critical of Trump on protectionism, as he should be. But he does leave out a major issue, one on which Biden is head and shoulders above Trump: immigration.

 

 

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The Liberal Solution

American voters (those who, in the electorate, actually vote) are split into two halves, each of which hates the other and wants to impose its preferences and values on others (assuming that each half is homogeneous). A Twitter follower of mine suggested that breaking up  the country into smaller pieces may be a solution.

It would still not be possible to gerrymander the country into homogeneous parts except with a very large number of pieces. I replied (in not perfect English) with another solution:

The other solution is to shrink the federal government to the point where it doesn’t matter much who is elected–except that voters keep the option of kicking out any elected ruler who turns [out] to be a liar and fraudster (or a dangerous ignorant).

This is the (classical) liberal solution, which a three-century-old tradition has been after, from John Locke to Adam Smith, from David Hume to James Buchanan–not to forget Jean-Baptiste Say and many others. At the extreme margin of this tradition, we even find some anarchists–witness Anthony de Jasay’s “capitalist state” or Robert Nozick’s “minimal state.” In some sense, the liberal tradition would split America into 330,000,000 pieces each made of one free individual (including children, who are sovereign-to-be persons). Live and let live.

A solution somewhere on this liberal continuum is not easy to reach, as the past three centuries demonstrate. But the alternative equilibrium, tyranny, is not exactly endearing.

My Twitter correspondent seemed to agree. He finally tweeted:

We learn to leave each other alone.” <–sounds like a plan!

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Some thoughts on polling

Pollsters can try to adjust their sample for gender, race, political party, education, and a dozen other demographic categories. But there’s one category for which it would seem inherently impossible to adjust—differences in willingness to talk to pollsters that cuts across the other demographics. Many Trump voters simply don’t want to respond to pollsters.  And you don’t discover the political skew of the non-responders until the election itself.

We’ve already seen that there’s a huge partisan difference in willingness to use mail-in ballots; why should we be surprised that there’s a modest difference in willingness to talk to pollsters?

Perhaps this anti-pollster attitude is more common in places like Wisconsin, with lots of farmers and smaller industrial towns, as compared to Arizona, which fewer farmers and small industrial towns. At least that seems to have been the case in both 2016 and 2020.

On a separate issue, I’ve frequently argued that working class whites that are struggling to get by don’t like being told by Ivy League professors that they benefit from “white privilege”. I don’t even think Hispanics like the concept. (Note to commenters: This point is completely separate from the question of whether working class whites do in fact benefit from white privilege.)

All year long I’ve had a nagging feeling that the “woke” movement could hand the election to Trump. Perhaps it did not, but I suspect it came close to doing so. Perhaps a Trump victory was prevented by something as random as a big October surge in Covid deaths in Wisconsin.

Too soon to say!

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A good night for libertarians

We don’t yet know the final outcome of last night’s election, but there are hints that we may be facing a divided government. The stock market is up strongly, perhaps anticipating that if Biden wins he will not be able to enact a “big government agenda”.

We do know the outcome of many other referenda, and there seem to be lots of wins for libertarian-leaning voters. John Cochrane has a post expressing satisfaction with the outcomes of a number of propositions in California, where voters defeated rent control and affirmative action, and approved a measure exempting ride-sharing employees from burdensome regulations. Uber and Lyft drivers will be able to continue operating as independent contractors.

Elsewhere, pot was legalized in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and even in highly conservative South Dakota. The national trend seems unstoppable.  What’s holding up New York?

Possession of all drugs was decriminalized in Oregon, and psychedelic mushrooms were decriminalized in Washington DC. Illinois voters seem to have rejected a progressive income tax.

More speculatively, there is some indication that the “socialist” label (fair or not) has little appeal to many minority voters.

To be sure, there were a few losses for libertarians, such as Florida raising its minimum wage. But overall, a very good night for libertarians. Please add races I missed in the comment section.

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