The Boring Story of the 2016 Election

Matt Yglesias is basically right about what happened in the 2016 election. Despite the elaborate theories that have been floated over the past few months, the real story as told by the exit polls is very boring: Donald Trump won because Hillary Clinton was an extremely unpopular candidate.

Donald Trump did not win because of a surge of white support. Indeed he got less white support than Romney got in 2012. Nor did Trump win because he got a surge from other race+gender groups. The exit polls show him doing slightly better with black men, black women, and latino women than Romney did, but basically he just hovered around Romney’s numbers with every race+gender group, doing slightly worse than Romney overall.

However, support for Hillary was way below Obama’s 2012 levels, with defectors turning to a third party. Clinton did worse with every single race+gender combo except white women, where she improved Obama’s outcome by a single point. Clinton did not lose all this support to Donald. She lost it into the abyss. Voters didn’t like her but they weren’t wooed by Trump.

Some Pundits Understood This
What’s a bit odd about the post-election punditry is that a good number of pundits understood these basic demographic mechanics well in advance of the election outcome. For instance, Jamelle Bouie perfectly nailed it in February of 2016:

If these issues [of Trump creating deep antipathy among women, people of color, and young people] are borne out in a general election, then Trump will have an even larger problem than negative attacks. He’ll have a negative electoral map. With abysmal ratings among blacks and Latinos, Trump is uniquely unsuited to this year’s demographics, which—all things equal—has a modest tilt toward Democrats. With Marco Rubio or John Kasich, Republicans might have a chance with minority voters. With Trump, that’s gone. To win, he would need to bring a massive influx of new white voters and create a further swing towards Republicans among existing white voters, all without alienating moderate whites or sparking counter-mobilization from nonwhites.

As Bouie notes, if Trump’s politicking caused an enormous swing in the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people towards the Democratic nominee (here Clinton), then the only way he could have won is by running up the score among white voters. It turns out Trump’s politicking did not cause any noticeable swing of the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people, and so he did not need to run up the score among white voters, which is something he failed to do entirely.

Unsatisfying Story
So the overall story the data tells us is that Trump won with less white support than Romney because he managed to hold strong enough with female and nonwhite voters and because Clinton was so unpopular that she bled a significant enough portion of Obama’s coalition into the abyss.

The lack of attention to this story of Trump’s win makes sense because it is satisfying to basically nobody.

Liberals do not like it because they want Trump to mean some of their identitarian arguments are true and because it is extremely humiliating to the liberal establishment in general that their hand-picked candidate was world-historically weak. After writing delusional arguments saying the plain fact of Clinton being bad at politics (something Clinton herself admits) was actually wrong, it’s easy to understand why the post-election truth that Clinton lost because she’s very bad at politics is not one they rush to embrace.

Conservatives do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how voters are not happy with liberal overreach.

And leftists do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how the Democratic party’s refusal to embrace a transformative economic message is dooming it.

Some of these narratives could even be true in general about our political moment. But they are not explanations of what happened here. Clinton lost because Clinton was a really bad candidate. If you had replaced her with almost anyone else, they would have beaten Donald Trump. Bernie would have won. O’Malley would have won. And Barack Obama would have dominated in an absolute landslide.

On the Difference Between Political and Technical Concerns

One of the frustrating things about the centrist response to single payer proposals is that they cannot seem to determine in their own minds whether a particular objection is political or technical. Indeed, often objections will start off as technical and then, when pushed back against, quickly morph into a political argument.

It’s fine of course to make political arguments. It’s also fine to make both technical and political arguments. But what is not fine is to conflate the two.

Catherine Rampell’s latest post is a masterpiece of this kind of conflation. This is especially true because she borrows from the argumentative themes of technical impossibility (“facts, evidence, and experts”) in order to make arguments that are almost entirely about her own personal opinions about how voters will behave.

Consider her money paragraph:

[1] What about the 178 million people who currently have employer-sponsored health insurance and overwhelmingly like it? [2] What about the sticker shock awaiting individuals and employers over the tax increases necessary to pay for such a program? [3] What happens if hospitals go bankrupt because Medicare reimburses at much lower rates than private insurance? Would the government step in and run them, as is the case in Britain?

Neither one nor two are technical problems. We know how to move people from employer insurance to Medicare as we already do this for people when they turn 65. It is technically feasible to do this even if they “overwhelmingly like” their employer insurance. We know this because many 64-year-olds like their employer insurance and yet get pushed onto Medicare. We also of course know how to levy taxes even if people are “sticker shocked” by them.

Three is a technical problem but its solution is trivial: increase provider payments to the level necessary to prevent sector exits.

Rampell continues her takedown:

And most important, how do you actually pay for this enormous, multi-trillion-dollar overhaul? (Is Mexico paying?) Given Americans’ allergy to higher taxes, it’s not enough to dismiss fiscal concerns by assuming Americans will gladly give Uncle Sam the money they currently earmark for a private health insurance system.

How do you pay for it? You raise taxes. Rampell seems to know this is how you pay for it, but then shifts into an argument not about the technical possibility of raising taxes in one of the most lightly taxed countries in the developed world, but instead about her hunches concerning the persuadability of people on it.

Like I said at the top, it’s totally fine if pundits want to write takes that say that, in their opinion, voters won’t like it and can’t be persuaded. I wouldn’t say pundits have a whole lot of credibility on the topic of how voters behave, but hey everyone is entitled to an opinion.

What is really obnoxious though is this tendency exemplified by Rampell where she conflates technical and political challenges in order to borrow from the scientific patina of the former to mask the random conjecture that typifies the latter.

You Prevent Private Coercion With Labor Market Regulation

McArdle has joined the ranks of conservatives suddenly concerned about private coercion. In a prior post, I discussed Dougherty’s entry into that discussion and so here I want to also address McArdle’s.

Overall McArdle’s piece mostly mirrors the ones that came before it: mass outrage at someone’s opinions or statements can destroy their ability to get employment, something they need to survive. This is not entirely unlike the way a state might kill you or throw you in prison for your opinions or statements. McArdle makes sure to say private sanctions are not as bad as state sanctions, but it seems like they certainly could be as bad. After all, a private sanction that fully eliminates your ability to get income is a death sentence. You literally starve without income.

Like the other writers working in this genre, McArdle struggles to understand that there exist institutions perfectly capable of stopping this kind of thing, albeit institutions that conservatives loathe.

Mass private coercion, which even if not quite as bad, still needs to have safeguards put in place to protect individual liberty. But we have no legal or social framework for those.

The legal framework that provides safeguards to protect individuals from private coercion is called labor and employment law. Through that framework we create rules that forbid employers from terminating people for certain reasons. These reasons include discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, and some other categories. They include retaliation against certain worker conduct: self-organization, whistleblowing, and filing complaints with government agencies. The list goes on.

In the case of conservatives being worried that major corporations no longer share their social worldview and are thus prepared to oust them for expressing it, one very obvious solution to that problem would be to amend the Civil Rights Act to include political opinions and statements as one of the things employers cannot discriminate against.

Such a rule already exists in Denmark’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Act:

The Anti-discrimination Act prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on the labour market on grounds of:

  • Race, colour or ethnic origin
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • National or social origin
  • Political opinions
  • Age
  • Disability

Or, if you want to be more comprehensive about it, you could pass a law that forbids terminations carried out for reasons other than incompetence or economic redundancy. By whitelisting the kinds of things you can fire people for, you get out ahead of having to constantly add to the blacklist of things that you cannot be fired for.

As I pointed out in my Dougherty post, these kinds of protections do more than directly block the application of coercion. Once they are well-established, they should stop efforts to apply the coercion in the first place. People try to get businesses to fire people, get web hosts to drop content, and get payment networks to cancel payment services because these entities actually have the power to do these things. Once the power is removed, it will become futile to try this stuff and so people will stop trying it. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why nobody thinks to call the local sheriff to have the people whose opinions they don’t like arrested?

Ultimately, conservatives will never come around on the utility of basic labor market regulation, even as they somewhat comically grasp in the dark towards that obvious conclusion. This is because a major constituency of the conservative coalition is very affluent people whose interests are best served by ensuring managers have as much discretion to hire and fire as possible.