Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Political Zones

Here's some Politics 101. Imagine an issue on which voters have views along a spectrum. And imagine that voters toward the middle of the spectrum regard the extremes with suspicion. In a two-party system, each party will try to form a coalition extending from the median voter (or the median voter + 1 or whatever) all the way to the end of the spectrum. Each party will also attack the other party's coalition by calling attention to its most extreme members (who, remember, are regarded with suspicion by "normal" voters).

And of course, to defend its coalition a party will downplay its most extreme members. By "downplay" I mostly mean "try to divert attention away from," because when they become the focus of attention, it becomes a lose/lose proposition for the party that encompasses those voters. Party leaders either have to disavow them, potentially alienating them and losing their votes, or support them, potentially alienating moderate voters. It is a hard choice, and so you'd rather not play the game in the first place. But circumstances can force your hand. By contrast, when a really extreme person within your coalition comes to prominence, you can sometimes win some easy credibility by loudly disavowing the person—the "Sister Souljah" effect.

So picture a number line that extends infinitely far in each direction, with the median voter at zero. Each party claims one half of the number line. Then each party has to divide its portion of the line into a few zones. The easiest is the zone closest to zero—these are the party's most numerous and most unembarrassing members, and the party is happy to highlight how well it is serving them. Beyond that is a zone containing members that the party will defend if forced to, but would rather not emphasize. Beyond that are members that the party will disavow if forced to, but would rather not emphasize. And then beyond that are members that the party will opportunistically disavow when the occasion arises. These are not sharp lines, by the way, nor are they unchangeable. In fact there are often intra-party disagreements about where to draw them. And there are probably interstitial spaces where you refuse to disavow, refuse to defend, and let the voters draw whatever implications they will.

You can see this play out with Donald Trump. I'll focus on two examples. First, we saw the dynamic fail in 2016 in the sense that mainstream voters didn't (sufficiently) punish the Republicans for embracing birtherism, racism, sexual assault, etc. The Republican Party equivocated on which zone Trump belonged in, and ultimately of course he was invited into the inner sanctums of the party. (This amounted to a realignment in which racial extremists were brought toward the center of the party and free traders et al. were pushed away. But I won't focus on that issue here.)

Clinton (and Obama before her) made a hard play along the lines I outlined above, but voters simply couldn't get very worked up about Trump's bigotry etc. This is the "Trump problem" in a nutshell. He has revealed that U.S. voters will not necessarily reject the most abhorrent of people and ideas, and so we are left to wonder what else voters will accept. Where is the "extreme zone" that the Republicans will be punished for tolerating? It doesn't seem to exist.

And that is also what I think was going on after the events in Charlottesville. Trump's coalition extends from relatively normal voters all the way out to murderous white supremacists. Now, fortunately for Trump there are very few murderous white supremacists in his coalition, and so it seems apparent that he could have safely disavowed them (in fact, he could have done so to his own considerable advantage, I think). But Trump doesn't seem to know that play. To Trump, it seems that white supremacists are in the "defend but don't emphasize" space, and murderous white supremacists are in the "don't emphasize but definitely don't criticize unless you absolutely have to" zone.

Why might this be? For two reasons that I can think of. First, while the conservative coalition contains very few people willing to mow down anti-racism protesters, it seems to contain a lot of people who strongly sympathize with anyone who does so (note that the linked article was published before the events in Charlottesville). Just as the electorate doesn't seem to contain enough anti-racists to hold our democracy together, it might contain too many racists for Trump to feel safe criticizing them.

But also I think a certain strand of conservatives rejects the whole concept of a zone on the political spectrum that is beyond the pale. Conservatives hate the dynamic where an idiotic conservative is held up as emblematic and then they are forced to distance themselves. Partly, I think, this is because a faction of the Republican Party has strategically used these zone-drawing decisions as a way of enforcing its own dominance in the party. Trump represents the rejection of that faction and the repudiation of its tactics.

So anyway that's where Trump found himself, handed a seemingly golden opportunity to burnish his credentials, but temperamentally unwilling to disavow white supremacists for racism or even for terrorism.

I guess I am rambling at this point so I'll shut up. But I think this is an important dynamic and a helpful framework for understanding recent political events.