My thoughts on the 2018 congressional election results

How did the polls do?

House Democrats were predicted to win the popular vote by about 9% nationwide. As of about 1 AM  EST, Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by about 7%. Based on these polls, Democrats were predicted to pick up about 39 House seats, not far off from the 30-35 final projected pickups, as of the time of writing). The polls predicted that Senate Republicans would pick up about 1 seat, pretty close to the final projected result of about 2-3 seats (as of the time of this writing). Not a terrible showing when taking a broad view.

How did the political science forecasts do?

An average of political science forecast models of the election results predicted that Democrats would pick up about 36 seats in the House and thus also the majority. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats were projected to pick up about 30-35 seats or so. These same models also predicted that Republicans would pick up 2 seats in the Senate which seems to be right in line with the likely outcome as of the time of this writing, give or take 1 seat.

These models are based on a few key variables: whether it’s a midterm election, presidential approval/disapproval, and prevailing economic conditions. Right now the economy is generally in pretty good shape and, all other things being equal, the president’s party tends to lose about 25 seats. The 30-35 seat loss for the president’s party is consistent with an unpopular president with a reasonably strong economy.

What do these results mean?

A key question for me is what the results imply about how “normalized” President Trump and his brand of illiberal populism has become in the American electorate. Roughly two-thirds of voters said that their vote was to either express approval or disapproval for President Trump. If the House vote was more or less in line with historical averages (about a 25 seat loss), I’d interpret that as a net neutral outcome as far as a presidential referendum goes and a normalization of Trumpism for voters.

A 30-35 Republican seat loss is somewhat higher than what we would expect given other key variables that tend to correlate highly with midterm election outcomes. In other words, if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and maintained a 47-48%-ish approval rating with the same economy, we’d likely see more like a 25 Republican seat loss.

Thus, I interpret the additional 5-10 GOP seat loss as a slight-to-moderate “Trump penalty,” or negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism. The slight GOP gain in the Senate moderates that slightly. Also, Trump has a historically low approval rating considering the state of the economy and Democrats just won the national Congressional popular vote by about 7%.

To me, this suggests that Trump and Trumpism has become somewhat, but not entirely normalized among American voters. At the same time, it has not entirely shifted the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in our political system.

What does this mean going forward?

Given that the House will be controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, it is unlikely that much substantive legislation will be passed during the next two years.

On the Senate side, the most important implication of continued GOP control is that President Trump will continue to be able to successfully appoint conservative justices to the bench.

On the House side, the most important implication of Democratic control is the beginning of aggressive oversight of the Trump administration: investigations, hearings, etc. For the past two years the Republican House has largely declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over one of the most controversial presidents in modern history. The Democrats are ready to hit the ground running.

What are the normative implications of the results?

I tend to distinguish political actions, policies, and priorities between those that are normal in a liberal democratic political system (e.g. disagreement over taxes, budgets, abortion access, etc.) and those that are abnormal and harmful to a strong democratic system (e.g. using totalitarian rhetoric like “enemy of the people” to refer to free media institutions, referring to Nazis as “very fine people,” alienating democratic alliances in Europe while praising authoritarian dictators around the world, etc.).

President Trump is the legitimately and duly elected president based on our Constitutional Electoral College system. While his judicial appointments are certainly strong conservatives and strict constructionists, these are not outside the boundaries of traditional presidential judicial appointments. For the GOP to maintain control of the Senate means that the president’s judicial appointments will continue to be regularly confirmed. This is, in my view, entirely consistent with proper and legitimate liberal democratic outcomes.

On the other hand, President Trump has also engaged in numerous actions which by any standard are characteristic of illiberal democracies and authoritarian political systems (see here, here, and here, e.g.). That the American electorate produced only a moderate negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism is, in my view, disappointing. It suggests that Trumpism has become somewhat normalized in the public mind. Today’s election results showed that many segments of the American public are willing to tolerate a good deal of illiberal populist Trumpism and, for the most part, do not view the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms as a pressing concern.

In my perspective, the most important national priority right now is to counter illiberal populist Trumpism as strongly as possible, helping steer American conservatism back to its honorable history of support for small government and traditional values while adhering to liberal democratic principles.

At the Congressional level, though, I am more optimistic. Over the last two years the House of Representatives has largely declined to provide any meaningful “check and balance” against any of the illiberal excesses on the part of President Trump. As I have written, I believe that actions that weaken our democratic norms and institutions are a great deal more important than the regular disagreements over policy that are part of a normal and healthy democracy.

Thus, regardless of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, I view it as a very, very, very good thing that a Democratic majority in the House will begin to exercise meaningful oversight over President Trump for the first time in his presidency. This is perhaps the most important long-term implication of Tuesday’s election results.

My recommendations for the 2018 congressional midterm elections

TL;DR: except for the extraordinary circumstance where a Republican congressional candidate has explicitly taken a stance against President Trump’s actions and rhetoric that weaken our democratic institutions, values, alliances, and norms, I strongly recommend that all U.S. citizens vote and vote for Democratic candidates this election cycle.

Under normal circumstances, I encourage my fellow citizens to regularly vote in elections and choose the option that best matches their policy views. In recent years we have had many honorable candidates from various political parties who present differing choices on political issues while generally agreeing on the broad contours of democratic principles.

Under current circumstances, however, we have elected a president who, while espousing many normal policy positions, has also expressed skepticism and scorn for fundamental democratic values like: 1) accepting the legitimacy of election outcomes, 2) promoting the legitimacy of a free press, 3) promoting friendships and alliances with other democratic nations while not endorsing, legitimizing, or promoting authoritarian leaders of non-democratic countries, etc. etc. (More evidence and examples are available here).

Our political system anticipated that presidents like this would come along from time to time. They designed the Congressional branch to serve as a check on presidents who do not safeguard and protect basic democratic institutions and norms. The majority party of Congress, however, has declined to do so because: 1) they have decided that pursuing policy outcomes and judicial appointments a higher priority than defending basic democratic principles and institutions, and 2) they believe that’s what their constituents want them to do.

Recognizing the legitimate merits of the majority party’s policies and judicial nominations, I respectfully submit that these are less important priorities than safeguarding the basic democratic “rules of the road” which ensure a free democratic system in the United States. Our top priority should be protecting and defending our basic institutions and norms of a free democracy.

Therefore, under current circumstances I *strongly* recommend that my friends show up to vote on Election Day (if they haven’t already) and vote for candidates (especially for Congress) that will not continue to look the other way while the president continues to weaken our global reputation as promoters of free democracy and continues to weaken the institutions and norms of our free democracy at an alarming rate.

Although there are a handful of Republican candidates who have honorably taken stances against the president to promote free democratic values, most of the time this will mean voting for Democratic candidates.

My recommendation is not simply because I sympathize when Democratic party political priorities. Indeed, I have voted for Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats in my voting history. Had President Trump run as a Democrat and won both the primary and general election, however, and proceeded to label our free press “the enemy of the people,” a free democratic Europe as a “foe” and an autocratic Russian president a “strong leader,” and based his platform and megaphone on stoking prejudice against religious and racial minorities while a Democratic Congress looked the other way in pursuit of Supreme Court picks and passing Medicare-for-all, I would today be strongly recommending that my friends vote for Republicans to serve as a check on the president’s actions. This, however, did not happen, and for that reason I am today recommending voting for Democratic candidates in all but a few circumstances.

After all, we cannot continue to have our important and spirited democratic debates over taxes, education, jobs, judges, etc. if the framework and rules for conducing those debates in a fair democratic manner weakens.

As the Washington Post editorial board recently argued:

We believe voters should back any candidate who will stand up to Mr. Trump’s brand of reactionary populism. After Nov. 6, we will have a better idea whether 2016 was the beginning of an extended dark period in U.S. politics or an aberration that shocked the nation’s democrats, of whatever party affiliation, into effective action. Think about that, and vote accordingly.
As moderate conservative columnists have argued:

The rule of law is a threshold value in American politics, and a party that endangers this value disqualifies itself, period. In other words, under certain peculiar and deeply regrettable circumstances, sophisticated, independent-minded voters need to act as if they were dumb-ass partisans. …

the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold. …

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.

Central Kentucky has a lot of geographically close-knit social media networks

A recent analysis by the New York Times Upshot blog examines the geographical dispersion of social media networks for people in each part of the country:

socialmediadispersion

Darker blue means that, on average, those who live there have fewer social media contacts who live within 50 miles of them while whiter colors mean that, on average, those who live there have more social media contacts who live within 50 miles of the them.

To some extent, one can explain the east vs. west difference by simple population density. Growing up out west, I can attest to the fact that you have to drive eight hours in any direction to get anywhere.

At the same time, I would estimate that even controlling for population density, those in the east central region are more likely to have contacts that live close by. Indeed, central Kentucky is one of the most concentrated places in the country for those whose social media contacts live nearby.

As the authors explain:

Close-knit communities can have their own benefits, like enabling neighbors to rely on one another for economic and social support. But previous research suggests that “weak ties” to people we know less well can be particularly valuable for bringing us information we don’t already have. So people in communities that are more broadly connected may be more likely to hear about a wider range of business or educational opportunities.

 

NYT’s Upshot 2016 new election map is epic

The New York Times’ Upshot blog recently released a fantastically detailed interactive map of the 2016 election and it is epic. It shows every neighborhood-level voting precinct in America with a breakdown of the 2016 presidential election results:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=desktop-with-labels-90sec-640w 

A few things I found interesting:

danvillemap

My town (Danville, Kentucky) looks like this. To me, this map is showing that Danville is a politically moderate city in terms of voting behavior, but that it has a slight Republican edge when it comes to presidential voting. Most precincts voted for Trump somewhere between 50%-60% and Clinton between 35%-45%. Not surprisingly, the strong Clinton precinct is where Centre College is located. The mix of different shades of blue and red tell me that there’s a good deal of political diversity in Danville. One of the objectives of the interactive map is to show you whether you live in a “political bubble” or not. Danville residents, for the most part, do not. (The rural precincts of Boyle County, however, went much stronger for Trump.)

loganmap.jpg

I grew up in Cache Valley, Utah. It is interesting to see that Evan McMullin won a majority in several precincts, and enough to dilute the Republican vote to where Trump won a slim majority in most of the others. It also enabled Clinton to win a plurality in many precincts with only around 40% of the vote.

provomap

Likewise, Provo is one of the most conservative communities in the country, and McMullin won a majority in several precincts and a strong plurality in several others.

There is much more to be explored: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/upshot/election-2016-voting-precinct-maps.html

My thoughts on the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

I’m grateful for the freedom to criticize my president’s words in praise of Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. It’s a freedom that Russia’s citizens do not equally enjoy.

I don’t fault a US president for meeting with authoritarian leaders. But I do fault them when they do so to praise them and imply that they’re envious of their unchecked power.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that liberal democracy is a better form of government than authoritarianism and worth defending and fighting for, both at home and abroad.

I used to think that despite our partisan differences, we all agreed on basic fundamentals like democracy > authoritarianism. I don’t think a candid read of the evidence can support that view any longer.

Our president clearly and openly minimizes the importance of democratic institutions and norms while praising strongman dictators. One party mostly gives him a pass, and the other says we need to focus on economic issues over presidential scandals/drama.

As a Millennial, I didn’t grow up with the cultural memory of WW2, the Cold War, or the Berlin Wall. I took liberal democracy as a given and for granted in my country. I suppose every generation has to learn anew why democracy, despite its flaws, is worth defending.

Highlights from “The War on Alcohol” by Lisa McGirr

I recently finished a fascinating overview of the politics of Prohibition in the early 20th century entitled The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, written by Harvard’s Prof. Lisa McGirr. Some of the book’s highlights include:

  • Part of the motivation for Prohibition was of course to improve American health and well-being. This was a peripheral concern, however, compared to the more central motivation of enacting policy which would make it more difficult for lower-income racial/ethnic minority groups to organize politically. Many of the political debates of the early 20th century pitted, on one side, working-class immigrant/Catholic/Irish/German/Italians against upscale Protestants and business entrepreneurs. Prohibition was understood to be a policy designed primarily to make it more difficult for urban Catholic immigrants (who often voted for the Democratic political machines in big cities) to organize politically, as the neighborhood saloon was a key political setting in many urban contexts.
  • This was all the more evident given that government enforcement of Prohibition was directed disproportionately at poorer regions and working class neighborhoods. In many cities, wealthy, upscale citizens could enjoy drinks at the local speakeasy assured that the police would leave them alone. Lower-class consumers and rural bootleggers, however, never enjoyed such assurances.
  • Further, Prohibition had no stronger support than among the Ku Klux Klan. “The dry mission intersected perfectly with its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist agenda” (135). During this era, to support Prohibition was to put oneself on the side of “respectable” morality and upstanding American values, which was understood to be under assault from un-American (often Catholic) radicalism.
  • The hatred of Prohibition among working-class ethnic neighborhoods and immigrant communities was a key issue that swung many of them to the Democratic Party in the early 1930s. It is not a stretch to say that Prohibition was a key factor (in addition to the Depression) in the electoral realignment of the 1932 election that led to FDR, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party’s ascendancy for the next several decades.
  • The effort to enforce Prohibition led to an unprecedented expansion of the federal state in the 1920s, as many resources were needed for enforcement and punishing violators. In the view of Prof. McGirr, this directly paved the path for the further expansion of the federal government in the 1930s under FDR. Further, it set the stage for a later expansion of the federal state during the 1970s-1990s with the War on Drugs.
  • One of Prof. McGirr’s central theses is that Prohibition was the War on Drugs of the 1920s. Much of the rhetoric and social anxieties were the same, especially when it came to how alcohol and drugs were perceived to be associated with lower-class and ethnic/racial crime. “Law and order” was a rallying cry of Prohibition just as it was for the War on Drugs in the later part of the 20th century.

From a personal perspective, it was interesting to learn how clearly Prohibition was linked to anti-immigrant, anti-radical, and anti-Catholic sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s. It was in this context that the LDS Church revised its suggested recommendation against alcohol to a much more rigid prohibition and linked teetotalism strongly to its own cultural identity. Given that the LDS Church in the early 20th century was making a deliberate effort to appear normal, mainstream, and “American” after the end of polygamy in the late 19th century, hitching its cultural identity to the Prohibition wagon was a natural, and in many ways, successful strategy.

My advice to Congressional Republicans: fight President Trump’s trade war

GOP Senator John Cornyn recently explained why most Congressional Republicans are reluctant to push back against President Trump’s aggressive economic tariffs:

The (understandable) logic is that Congressional Republicans who defy Trump on these tariffs risk facing his Twitter-wrath which may hurt their reelection chances and/or congressional majority in this November’s midterm election. As a result, they have chosen mostly to keep their heads down rather than to speak out in defense of free trade (with a few notable exceptions), something that has traditionally been a key conservative/Republican priority.

Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that tariffs have historically hurt economic growth. Indeed, the World Bank has recently warned that Trump’s tariffs risk starting a trade war that could cause another global economic recession similar in magnitude to the 2008 recession.

This matters for a variety of reasons, but more to Senator Cornyn’s concern, there is a strong correlation between economic performance and midterm congressional outcomes. When the economy is weak, the president’s party suffers heavy losses. 

Thus, I would advise Republicans who are concerned about maintaining control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections to do everything they can to oppose President Trump’s recent tariffs. Not only would this demonstrate that their party’s commitment to free-market economic principles is genuine, but it would also help improve their reelection chances this fall.

Further, if President’s Trump’s tariffs do indeed spark a global trade war and a subsequent global economic recession, it will be very, very, very difficult for President Trump to win reelection in 2020, as domestic economic growth during the election year is a key predictor of presidential and election outcomes.

In sum, I predict that congressional Republicans will do more to hurt their chances this November by going along with President Trump’s tariffs than they would by opposing them.