Who Didn’t Vote in 2010?

One of the stranger threads coming out of this primary election is the delusional idea that the reason Democrats lost in 2010 (and in midterms more generally) is that angry activist progressives refused to vote because they were mad. Barney Frank seems to be the one who set off the meme, but it’s spread to others since then.

I saw the thing show up yet again in my Twitter feed yesterday and it got me annoyed enough to dive into the November election supplements of the 2008 and 2010 Current Population Survey. The survey doesn’t tell you whether people stopped voting in 2010 because they were super-mad progressive activists, but it does tell you how the demographics of the 2008 and 2010 electorate differed, which gives you a better insight into the reality of what’s going on in midterm elections.

According to the CPS, 131 million people voted in the 2008 election while only 96 million voted in the 2010 election. This is a constant reality of midterm elections: huge swaths of the population simply do not vote in them. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if each demographic subgroup saw their participation fall by a proportional amount. But that’s not what happens in midterms and certainly not what happened in 2010. Participation falls in all demographic subgroups in midterms, but it falls more in some than others.

Here is how the composition of the electorate changed between 2008 and 2010 (the figures are the share of the electorate coming from each demographic group):


So who is to “blame?” Younger people, Blacks, Latinos, women, and lesser educated people. Those are the populations that, according to the mythology of this primary election, had the largest shares of people who got so mad that they sat out the election, thereby handing it to the Republicans.

In reality, the midterm drop in participation is not driven by highly-informed, highly-engaged voters that are sitting out as a protest. It’s driven by populations (mostly younger, poorer, and lesser educated) who are lowly-informed and lowly-engaged, and who are thus only marginally attached to the electoral system. This is not a new insight of course, but perhaps one worth repeating given the stupidity unleashed of late on this subject.

Demonizing, Not Engaging

Recent discussions about the white working class and racism (me, DeBoer, Mystal, et al) have me flashing back to the fascinating world of 2008 LGBT politics. In that year, the majority of Black voters came out and voted in favor of proposition 8, a successful referendum that sought to eliminate same-sex marriages in California. Needless to say, this put LGBT writers and activists in a tough spot: do you take out your frustrations and demonize Black people as anti-gay bigots fighting against equality or do you blame yourself for failing to adequately engage Black people on the issue?

After some initial grumbling, the consensus position was to blame themselves for not engaging. In a post at The American Prospect titled “Engaging, Not Demonizing,” Adam Serwer argued:

Andrew Sullivan agrees that “this community needs to be engaged not demonized, and we haven’t engaged enough,” but in the weeks before the vote Sullivan was telling everyone on the Internet that the black community was “the most homophobic ethnic community” which sounds a lot to me like demonizing. That’s not the way to build a political coalition, anymore than Barack Obama won the election by telling white people how racist they are.

Dean Spade weighed in similarly:

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?

Jessie Daniels at The Society Pages shared similar sentiments:

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8. The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hard work of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT. While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do, I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Of course, white LGBT advocates never did successfully engage Black people well enough to bring them around on the gay marriage cause. Instead, what happened is gay marriage advocates ran up their support among whites so much that it didn’t really matter what Black people (a 13% minority) wanted. Put bluntly, majoritarian support for LGBT rights was largely won through a GOP-like demographic strategy of maximizing white margins.


Nonetheless, what’s interesting to me about the 2008 moment is the rallying cry of “Engaging, Not Demonizing.” The liberal response to Blacks opposing gay marriage was not to demonize them as anti-gay bigots that can go fuck themselves for all liberals are concerned. They certainly could have responded that way. As history shows, winning the support of most Black people was not remotely necessary to win gay marriage. But instead liberals responded with calls for further engagement, calls for further outreach, and, crucially, calls for finding “broader social justice goals” and “issues that are central to racial and economic justice” that could possibly unify the LGBT and Black causes.

This is contrasted with some recent liberal sentiments about lower class whites, which are more about Demonizing, Not Engaging. Specifically, the fact that many lower class whites are racist is enough grounds it seems for many Discourse Liberals to say to hell with them.

DeBoer argues that this new posture shows that liberals have evolved towards more conservative modes of thinking, modes which emphasize that only the morally good are worthy of concern:

Yet in a deeper sense I think conservatives have won a major victory, one not understood by them or their antagonists: they have written the notion that dignity, respect, and material security must be earned into the progressive imagination. They have made the notion of a moral meritocracy inescapable in American civic life

While I’d agree with DeBoer that this is a particularly conservative approach, the reality is that these Discourse Liberals do not actually adhere to the approach for populations other than lower class whites. As discussed above, they didn’t and don’t say “to hell with Black people’s needs” just because most Black people oppose LGBT marriage rights. And right-wing efforts to talk about how many Muslim communities across the world hold views about women and LGBT people that liberals find abhorrent are shrugged off instantly. For these and other groups, being morally problematic (under the liberal framework) does not make them undeserving of dignity, respect, and material security.

So what’s going on, then? If liberals haven’t evolved generally towards a “moral meritocracy” worldview, then why do they seem to apply that worldview to the case of lower class whites? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but Emmett Rensin suggested to me earlier that the main dividing line here is whether liberals think you will vote for Democrats or not. That is, lower class whites are seen as largely outside of the Democratic coalition and therefore their moral failings are seized upon as adequate grounds for dismissing them and their problems. But other groups, such as Blacks and Muslims, are seen as inside the Democratic coalition, meaning that when they hold morally degenerate views (again under the liberal framework), the proper remedy is not to dismiss and demonize them but instead to do more and better outreach. Which is to say, the moral high ground that Discourse Liberals stake out with regard to lower class whites is mostly motivated by a more crude partisan tribalism.

This is obviously just a speculation on Rensin’s part, but it seems plausible enough. At minimum, it accounts for why some groups are subject to moral meritocracy while others aren’t.

How certain liberals permanently erase the working class


This tweet from Doctor Vox wonderfully underscores a point I’ve been making for years now: liberal discourse politics ensures a permanent erasure of the lower classes. This is so for two reasons:

  1. Lower class people, almost by definition, cannot engage in The Discourse. They do not have the education, credentials, or jobs necessary to do so.
  2. Upper class people (broadly construed) can engage in The Discourse, but if they do so as a partisan or advocate of the lower classes, they are dismissed because they are not themselves lower class. This move is the one Doctor Vox goes for in his tweet.

Together, (1) and (2) completely suffocate class-driven intrusions into The Discourse. The liberal identitarians apply their discourse politics so as to say only working class voices can speak on the working class, but it’s impossible for the working class to do so given the way media and academia work.

When I make this point, some take it to mean that we need to find ways to get more working class voices in media, i.e. find some way to break down point (1). If you could do that, it would be interesting and perhaps enlightening in some way. But there is a deeper problem that even that wouldn’t solve. The problem is that, no matter how you really do it, identity avatars that engage in The Discourse are necessarily very unlike the identities they are supposed to be representing.

A working class person that would spend their leisure time interjecting in The Discourse would be much different from your average working class person. This is vacuously true as the average working class person does not interject in The Discourse. But it is also non-vacuously true because the kind of working class person who decides to engage in the discourse also likely reads more news, is more interested in politics, and has more developed political thoughts than the average working class person.

Discourse participants are not selected by random drawings. Rather they self-select. And that self-selection destroys any chance that they could be representative.

This is true across the board. Your average woman political pundit is very unlike the average woman. She’s richer than your average woman; she’s much more educated than your average woman; she consumes very different culture and media than your average woman; and she has much more developed and committed political views than your average woman. The same is true of your average black pundit, your average gay pundit, your average Muslim pundit, and so on. The gap between the average pundit and average person they are often said to represent is strained even further by the fact that publications often hire pundits on the basis of their politics, meaning that the only people who get through the hiring filter and into a pundit job are those who share whatever the editorial views of a publication happens to be.

Hyper-educated people claiming to be in touch with working class people is no more absurd than hyper-educated women pundits claiming to be in touch with American women at large, or hyper-educated black pundits claiming to be in touch with American blacks at large. But liberals indulge the latter fantasies and even get aggressively mad at those who don’t indulge them.

In reality, the way any pundit acquires a good insight into any particular group of people is through rigorous study and analysis of that group. Perhaps pundits could opine incisively about pundits themselves and their various internal cleavages without much study. But beyond that, they get insight into groups of people through the same methods that they would get insight into the working class, methods that Doctor Vox and many liberals seem to reject as silly when it’s convenient to do so.

On Diaper Stamps

In last few months especially, there has been a big media push in favor of creating a new diaper welfare program. The push seems to have its origins in 2010, when the Huggies diapers brand commissioned a study showing the need for diapers among the poor. In that same year, Huggies founded the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN), which was headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies, also has a large production facility in nearby New Milford, Connecticut. A year after the NDBN was formed, in 2011, CT representative Rosa DeLauro first introduced the DIAPER Act in the House (cosponsored by 3 of the other 4 CT representatives, among 16 others) and CT Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the same bill in the Senate (with no cosponsors).

The exact contours of the desired diaper welfare program are unclear, but proposals I’ve seen include block granting money to states so that they can provide actual physical diapers in-kind to people in need and a SNAP-like system where diapers could be bought using EBT cards. While this is all obviously well intended, it’s also amazingly absurd at the same time.

The crux of the argument for a means-tested, in-kind diaper program is summed up by this graph based on the Current Expenditure Survey.


Since diapers cost the same whether you are poor or rich, it turns out that when you divide diaper expenditures by income, those with lower incomes end up spending a greater share of it on diapers than those with higher incomes. It may also be the case, though evidence on this front is not forthcoming, that poorer people spend more money per diaper for the usual “being poor is expensive” reasons — can’t shop in bulk, nearby retail is sparse and heavily marked up, etc.

The argument that many families with young children don’t have enough income to meet their basic needs is obviously well taken by me. You don’t need to divide diaper expenditures by income to prove that. A glance at the child poverty statistics is more than enough evidence on that front.

But the question is what should we do about this? Should we really create a new block grant or SNAP-like program to provide means-tested, in-kind diapers? Do we really need another one of these “commodities” type programs? Is it smart to have people lose their diaper supply when they receive more income, along with their food stamps and healthcare (Medicaid)?

The answer is of course no.

If you want to offset the costs of diapers for parents of young children, that can be done extremely easily by simply giving every single family with young children a cash payment each month equal to the cost of diapers.

In the Washington Post piece on the topic, Luke Tate is quoted as saying some people spend as much as $1,000 per year on diapers. So let’s use that figure and say each family will receive approximately $83/month for every child under 3 in their family. According to the 2015 ASEC, there are approximately 15.9 million children under the age of 3 in the US. If you multiply that by the $1,000 per child, that’s $15.9 billion, which is equal to slightly less than 0.09% of GDP. For a fiscal rounding error, you coud give every single family in the country enough money to pay for diapers.

Regular readers will know that this cash-for-diapers program is just a type of child allowance, a topic The Century Foundation recently released an excellent paper on. This is the direction we should be going for providing resource boosts to families with children (especially young children), not more bizarre means-tested, in-kind deliveries of particular commodities. The child allowance is clean, easily administered, and universal. Diaper stamps is a kludge that will involve much higher administration costs and create weird means-tested cliffs that make life miserable for low-earners while also unnecessarily thinning out the program’s constituency.

Hillary Clinton’s Pathetic Fiscal Plans

Catherine Rampell has an odd article at the Washington Post about how Clinton is a fiscal conservative. What’s strange about it is not the overall point. After all, Hillary is a fiscal conservative both in the sense that she favors a fairly balanced budget and in the sense that she is extremely reluctant to increase government spending. What’s strange is that Rampell claims Clinton intends to greatly expand the size of government.

Here’s Rampell:

You’re probably used to thinking of Clinton as just another spendthrift liberal, oblivious to fiscal restraint. And it is true that she wants to expand the footprint of the federal government.

By a lot.

Consider her “New College Compact,” which would substantially reduce higher-ed costs for new students and lower debt for past ones. She also plans to expand the Affordable Care Act. Her proposed expansions and investments in clean energy, early-childhood education, family leave, veterans’ services and infrastructure look pretty costly, too.

Is that really “a lot?” By what standard? According to the TPC scores, Clinton intends to expand the tax level by 0.5 points of GDP over the next decade. Here is what that looks like compared to the tax levels of all the countries the OECD has data on:


Other scores have her increasing the tax level by as much as 0.7-0.8 points of GDP! Which is roughly equal to how much she intends to spend. Centrist Democrats might be impressed by this massive leap, but that only speaks to their extremely conservative fiscal views (in the global perspective). If we added 0.7 points of GDP to the tax level per decade, it would take 318 years to achieve the current tax level of Denmark.