Below the surface – perception of voting dynamics in the US heartland

One of the perpetually puzzling aspects of voter behavior in the midwest and heartland of the USA, as seen from a progressive viewpoint, is the extent to which poor and economically depressed areas of the country vote Republican, despite the reality that Republican actions to reduce or eliminate “safety net” programs will negatively impact those areas, and despite Democratic party support for measures such as the Affordable Care Act, which have resulted in a large number of people now enjoying health coverage for the first time.
Whenever the decisions of humans collectively fail to make sense, it is tempting to write those decisions off as the result of stupidity, indoctrination or some other defective decision-making process. While attractive, this is self-reinforcing for the worldview of the person engaging in the dismissal, while also absolving them of further responsibility for analysis. (Think of the phrase “they don’t get it”. This is most commonly deployed as a discussion-closing dismissal).
If you go back far enough, everybody in the continental USA is a descendant of immigrants. However, when considering the dynamics of the modern USA, it is probably best to start with the original European settlements, which gave rise to the modern USA.
One interesting pattern that sociologists have noted is that the descendants of recent immigration (starting at the end of the 19th century and continuing to the present day) lean to the left and Democratic in their voting patterns.
A paper that I discovered online (and did not bookmark, so now I am unable to find it) discusses this difference and contrasts it with the voting patterns of the heartland. The paper explains that there were effectively three waves of immigration into the USA:

Wave 1: 1760 to 1840
Wave 2: 1840 – 1890
Wqve 3: 1990 – present day

The thesis of the paper is that the Wave 2 immigrants settled the midwest and the heartland, coming mostly from Ireland, Scotland and to a lesser extent Germany and Scandinavia. Many of the moves were triggered by social upheaval (a good example being the Potato Famines in Ireland, which led to mass emigrations). They brought with them the rugged individualism mindset (essential in an era where they grew up in an agrarian society) and a deep suspicion of government, who had in many cases, by arbitrary and capricious discrimination, tossed them from their original places of residence. Those immigrants, nearly all white and religious, are the original antecedents of many heartland Americans, and many of their values still exist today in their descendents.
Wave 3 immigrants are much more ethnically diverse, comprising, in many cases, people from minority communities who were victims of persecution (the classic example being Jewish people who increasingly emigrated to the uSA in the early years of the 20th Century as anti-Semitism arose in Europe). Rather than government persecution based on the fact that they were poor, the persecution was in many cases based on the fact that they were more educated and successful than the majority communities in which they lived. Those immigrants tended to settle in coastal cities and clustered in the North East and (to a lesser extent) the West Coast, and tended to avoid the heartland. They brought with them values of hard work, but also of education and the need for governments to be protectors of social justice and the integrity of the legal system.
So, if you find the thesis in the paper to be compelling, part of the difference in voting patterns can be explained by the differing origins and careabouts of the newly arrived populations of different parts of the USA.
Now, the wretched question of why those damn rural voters vote against their better interests?
It turns out that there is a rather simple answer. It is explained in this article here.
The people who really are at the bottom of the heap – the really poor, chronically unemployed etc. etc. are unlikely to vote. This is not news. We have known for a while that, in most democracies, non-voters are disproportionately comprised of poor and marginalized groups. They have given up on participating in a system that they probably believe is rigged against them.
The people who are driving voting patterns in many rural areas are the people the next level up on the economic ladder. They are mostly employed, but they feel insecure, simply by looking at the people below them, they are probably thinking “I could be like those guys if things get worse”. They are seeing increasing dependence on welfare by the people below them (in an economically depressed area this is kind of a “Duh!” thing that is bound to happen) but that makes them resentful of those people, who they regard as unable or unwilling to better themselves. Hence the juvenile slogans about “moochers” and “takers”. It is a defensive variant of Othering, the separation of the world into the Deserving (Me and Folks like Me) and the Undeserving (those moochers and takers and People Not Like Me).
In this climate of FUD, political messaging based on resentment memes will find a ready audience. The GOP messaging of self-reliance and personal responsibility also resonates with potential voters who are not at the lowest economic level. It is part of the inherited value system of the heartland immigrants. Get government out of the way, the values say, and everybody will be better off.
if you want a compelling example of how distorted the voting behaviors can apparently become, this article about rural Kentucky throws the paradox into sharp relief. However, it is only incomprehensible if you think that the poorest people are the GOP voters. The people who gave Donald Trump 82% of the vote in Whitley County KY were not the long-term unemployed, who most likely would be eligible for Medicaid (if they were able to work out how to use it). The ACA proportionately helped working people, who still, despite the help, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. While some of the reasoning in this article by supporters of Donald Trump seems to lie somewhere between cloud-cuckoo land and fantasy island (especially the idea that Trump didn’t really mean it when he and the GOP said they would repeal the ACA), the underlying discontent with “business as usual” politics, and the visceral appeal of Donald Trump to people who are fed up with stagnant wages and declining economic activity in their local regions completely negated any single benefit from the ACA.
Goerge Lakoff would, at this point, be nodding his head and explaining that the result in the heartland are perfectly comprehensible when you realize that people vote values, not policies. That is another reality that has to be overlaid on the electorate to fully understand the paradox. However, at its heart, the seemingly puzzling failure of electors to vote their own self-interest is not actually a paradox at all if you understand how various economic tiers participate in the electoral system.


Being a dick and the art of apology

I had somebody march into one of my Facebook comment threads and be a dick the other day.
Specifically, that person played the tired “if you don’t like it here then leave” card.
There are a whole host of reasons why that, on any logical level, is a really bad argument.
However, there is one overriding problem with it.
Anybody deploying it is being a dick, and therefore is likely to piss me off.
Now, as a general rule, it takes quite a lot to piss me off. However, the combination of lousy argument skills, plus being a dick online, is one way to do it.
The question is: if somebody pisses me off, and they want to repair the damage, what do they do?

The answer is two-fold:
1. Write an unconditional apology in the same forum that the original, dickish comment or posting was made (if you made the dickish comment in public, you owe the apology in public. Don’t be a weasel)
2. Don’t be a dick again. (an apology for bad behavior has limited value if the person making the apology then continues with the bad behavior. It’s a credibility issue).

Some people seem to have a real problem with the concept of an unconditional apology. It’s a statement of the form “I am sorry that I said/did X”. End of statement. No Ifs Ands or Buts.
Thus, the following variants don’t make it:

1. an attempted apology along the lines of “I’m sorry but…”. The “but…” is usually some elaborate post hoc justification for the original dickish statement that, when the recipient parses it, adds up to “I’m sorry but you deserved it”. That isn’t an apology. The term for it is “doubling down”.
2. the favorite construction used by politicians, “I’m sorry if you were offended”. In that latter case, the person attempting the apology is saying (in as many words) “I was right, and I don’t regret it, but that over-sensitive little snowflake over there seems to be all bent out of shape so I will throw them a rhetorical bone. There, snowflake, you’ve got your apology, now quit whining”.

Of course it would be much better if people didn’t write stuff to begin with that makes them look like a dick. Really.
There is a simple two-part rule that I invoke before I hit send on a comment or posting. The rule goes something like “am I about to send something I may regret in more than 24 hours time, and would I be prepared to say that to the person’s face, if it is a personal comment?” Sometimes I sit on contentious postings for a day or so, in order to ensure that I am not merely reacting without thinking or analyzing enough. Do I always get it right? Not always. I have had to apologize online in the past. But if you have to, you take it on the chin and move on. If the person you pissed off isn’t satisfied with an unconditional apology, there is probably something else in the relationship dynamic that is doomed in any case.


Empathy vs. sympathy

I grew up in public housing in the UK, in a decidedly ratty blue-collar housing estate.
Along the way, I was stigmatized based on where I lived, and learned the hard way how unforgiving both judgmental people and the English class system can be.
However, one thing I noticed early on was that many people on my housing estate, instead of working to better themselves, were content to live off government benefits and live an aimless life. They lacked any willingness to step outside of what they knew and what their parents did. I found the phenomenon of multi-generational welfare dependency in several households, where the parents had never worked for any length of time, instead choosing to have multiple children and game the system. That was certainly not the message that I got from my parents and immediate family members.
Now, gaming the system is regarded differently by many people, depending on where you are in the societal pecking order. For example. hiring a crackshot accountant to ensure that you pay as little tax as possible on your millions earned as a CEO is regarded as perfectly normal (required even), whereas having 2 more children to gain more income is regarded by those same approvers of high-earner tax avoidance as some heinous crime. That is a pernicious double standard that usually tells me more about the selective bubble worldview of the accuser than they perhaps intended me to understand.
However, one of the results of my experiences in growing up, escaping from blue-collar drudgery, and eventually moving countries, is that empathy and sympathy are two different things.
I can be empathetic if I come across people living in grinding poverty who are clearly struggling. (If I was not empathetic, I would be worried about whether I was becoming sociopathic). However, I may have greater or lesser sympathy depending on whether those people are trying to move on and upwards by making good decisions, or whether they are either passively accepting their fate and/or making bad decisions.
It’s like people who claim that they are always getting into trouble. When I talked to several people in the UK who complained that they had been robbed and harrassed, I soon found out that they had been going to areas of cities that were known for being sink-holes of trouble. If you want to stay out of trouble, it’s a good idea to not go to trouble spots. This is basic common sense. It’s also the same reason that every few years when I lived in the UK, we would read about some British tourist who was captured by guerillas or some other insurgent group while hiking in a country usually named something like Afghanistan. I would shake my head in amazement that somebody would think it was a good idea to hike in Afghanistan. It’s like seeing a sign saying “minefield” and setting out to hike across it, or walking out in the middle of nowhere with a sign on my body saying “Hello I am a stupid tourist who can be used as a bargaining asset. please kidnap me”.
At the end of the day, as JD Vance has pointed out in his book “Hillbilly Elegy”, we all have agency. We can sit around and play the role of victim, or we can try to move on. Vance, like me, escaped from blue-collar penury, and, like me, can see both sides of the picture.
Governments really don’t have much of an answer to the “hollowing out” trend, because it would require them to admit things publicly that call into question the integrity and effectiveness of the capitalist model of governance. They continue to trust in market forces to generate enough employment, ignoring the reality that this cannot generate enough employment, in fact the number of jobs is shrinking due to the combination of automation and offshore migration of jobs and industries, and more and more people are trapped in areas with chronic economic depression and high structural unemployment (like my home town).
A lot of the people who are angry and frustrated about their lot in the modern USA have every right to be angry. The country has become progressively more unequal over the last 40 years, with the quaint idea of “trickle down” clearly not working in practice. I personally know people who are having to work 2 jobs just to get enough spending money for modest items. However, people who decide to play the victim 24×7 and expect others to wave a magic wand and Fix Their Lives (with Donald Trump seemingly being many people’s idea of the Guy Who Will Make Everything Right) do not get much sympathy from me. They do need to show some initiative of their own.
The rigid determination of many heartland Americans to stay put in towns that have no possible means for economic improvement is, on one level, admirable, but on another level is damn near incomprehensible. In the past, humans would completely abandon towns and cities if they were no longer useful or safe places to live. Maybe that needs to happen more frequently today.


“Parliament of Whores” and its applicability to the Trump era

So much of the enthusiasm for Donald Trump seems to be based on a deep nostalgia for The Good Old Days, that I was reminded of this section from P.J. O’Rourke’s book “Parliament of Whores”, where he constructs a cue card to allow a hapless Congresscritter to decide what to do at voting time for yet another bill. The bill seems to me to be just the sort of bill that Donald Trump and his bunch of sycophants would have dreamed up in the current climate:

Bill Number: H.R. a billion-zillion

Title: Fiddlemeyer-O’Houligan Unbelievable Grocery Bill

Detail: Amends the federal anti-trust laws to make the price of everything reasonable, like it used to be, and includes provisions requiring kids today to listen up when their dad talks to them

Committee Action: Passed by the House Means and Ends Committee 3/17/90

Pros: Constituents will murder you in November if you oppose it

Cons: President will kill you right now if you support it

Verdict: A toughie

Prior Votes : The 100th Congress was going to pass it, but a lobbyist ate their copy of the legislation.

Recommendation: Hide in the cloakroom during floor vote


The Executive Order on immigration restrictions – latest

There has been a lot of comment pointing out that, prior to the stay issued this evening by a Federal judge, many of the government bodies charged with enforcing the change in regulations seemed to not know exactly what they were supposed to do. This was presented as a cross between Lack of Planning and the Law Of Unintended Consequences.
In other words, the confusion was a bug.
The cynic in me does not currently accept that more charitable interpretation. It is my belief that the resultant confusion was a feature, not a bug. The underlying purpose of the Executive Order was not to put a stop to Muslim immigration, to selectlvely profile Muslims entering the USA, or anything directly related to Muslims.
The purpose was to send the message that visitors and permanent residents are not Real Americans (TM) and that they can expect to be targeted for future discriminatory and capricious action. Remember that the underlying rationale for many of Donald Trump’s more expansive promises is nostalgic nationalism, a yearning for the days when America was prosperous, self-sufficient, and Rather White.


Speak English!

Speak English!.
This petulant, foot-stomping demand has been prevalent among the nativists for a long long time in the UK and in the USA.
Of course, the fact that many of the most aggressive complainers clearly have no effing clue about how write or spell English does rather tend to undermine their credibility.
Nonetheless, the demand still keeps being made.
When I look at history, I find the obsessive demands of nationalists from English-speaking countries “speak English” to be highly amusing.
Languages developed and evolved organically over many thousands of years when various groups and tribes of people developed common means of communication. Languages were carried over many thousands of miles by migrations of groups of humans, but those languages did not remain static and continued to evolve.
English is one of the ultimate “mongrel” languages, nominally a Germanic language, but heavily influenced by French, Celtic and old English langugages.
The rise of the modern nation-state, with rigid borders seen as permanent by its residents, is a relatively recent development. With the rigid borders has come a rigid idea that the majority language within the country should always remain the same.
Within those nation-states, however, languages continue to evolve. I am a poor French speaker, but I can tell from reading pages in French on the internet that modern idiomatic French is nothing like the French I was taught in school. Within France, there is a serious-sounding body, the Academie Francaise, that considers itself to be the arbiter of what is acceptable French. The problem is that the Acadamie is attempting to mandate features of a language that is evolving around it. One example from a while back was it’s insistence that French should not contain the loan word “weekend”. The Academie insisted that “fin de semaine” was the only acceptable phrase. Most of the French nodded, and then went back to saying “un excellent weekend” to their friends on Fridays. You can’t mandate language like that. It’s a lot more fluid than many people realize.
The cry of ‘speak English!” is understandable, but what the people doing the crying don’t realize is that by 2100, American English will have evolved to the point where they may not even recognize it. As the percentage of Hispanic people increases, loanwords from Spanish and Meso-American languages will form a larger proportion of the vocabulary, and sentence structures may change more towards a Spanish form of construction. The pseudo-language known tongue-in-cheek as Spanglish may become the lingua franca in the USA.
The “speak English” demand is really a not very well hidden statement of “keep things just as they are. NOW”.


The Executive Order on immigration restrictions

So, amidst all of the brou-ha-ha about the latest Executive Order, an English friend of mine who has lived in the USA for 27 years is now assessing whether he wants to continue to live here.
The message of this EO to me is very clear. Anybody not born in the USA is at risk at any point of being declared an undesirable. They are already refusing to allow legal permanent residents back into the USA since the signing of this EO. (Whether that was even a correct interpretation of the EO is unclear, since the EO was apparently not reviewed by any of the enforcement bodies before the President signed it, which, if true, is about as good an example of professional negligence as you can get).
As a rule, people don’t stay around where they are not wanted. Right now, my conclusion is that this is not the country I moved to in 1998. I am starting to seriously consider moving back to Europe, sooner rather than later.
America had an opportunity to decide what sort of a country it wanted to be when it grows up. So far the message I am receiving is that it wants to be a country governed by repressive, regressive, nationalist and nativist people who think that the outside world is some malign place that they can either shut off or control, while somehow making the country great again.
Those of us who grew up in Europe and studied History recognize that philosophy very very well. It led directly to World War II.
If you are sitting there shaking your head at what I am reading thinking “nah, that could never possibly happen here”, you need to snap out of your complacency, and fast. One of the interesting questions that Germans were asked after World War II was whether they had any inkling that Adolf Hitler was going to lead Germany into a world war. Nearly all of them said that this possibility had never occurred to them, that they simply wanted a leader who would Sort The Mess Out. The idea that Sorting The Mess Out involved dehumanization, demonization and extermination of minorities, the invasion of multiple countries, and the destruction of much of Germany in a war, was not something that they could even have imagined.
But, with hindsight, when the surviving Nazi leaders were interrogated, it was clear from their sometimes-bland post hoc justifications of their actions that they saw power as a means to an end, and any means could be justified either before or after the event as part of the end objective of making Germany Great Again. Also revealed in the German leader interrogations was the extent to which George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” would be a reflective field workbook for nativist authoritarians and demagogues everywhere.
Folks, if you are not taking what is happening very very seriously, you are suffering from exactly the sort of complacency that a lot of people in Europe suffered from in the run-up to World War II.
What I am telling you is that I have no intention of being around to witness the end results of the current path that the central government of the USA is currently walking down.


Silly Memes 101 – the “Real folks were out working” rationalization

So…one of the memes I keep reading, here on Facebook and on other social media platforms, is that the lower attendance for the Inauguration of Donald Trump was because his supporters were too busy working, whereas the supporters of Barack Obama were out of work scroungers. Another variant of the meme is that the large numbers of attendees at the Women’s Marches this weekend were (again) because a lot of Regular Folks have to go work, whereas the march attendees don’t have to work.
If that really is how you are trying to rationalize reality…
For a start, as I explained a couple of days ago, once you are rationalizing, you have admitted to the facts of the situation. Now you’re just attempting to come up with an explanation that makes sense to you.
Secondly, any explanation along these lines is what in science is called a hypothesis. More bluntly, it’s an idea for which no evidence yet exists.
In order to convert a hypothesis into something more credible, you have to provide evidence.
This requires work. Like information gathering, analysis and computation.
Memes seldom comprise any assertion based on anything that approaches a work ethic. This is amusing in this context given that the accusation seems to be that Regular Folks are busy working while the demonstrators are out sucking off the public teat or some such Bad Activity. It seems that whoever is working on these memes isn’t doing any work worth a damn either, because all I am seeing is a hypothesis presented as fact with no supporting evidence. In other words, a juvenile attempt at a smear.
If this is all the opponents of facts and the Women;s Marches have got, they are already in Zero Credibility Land.


That inauguration

Will I be watching it?
Hell no.
But that is not unusual. I have never watched an inauguration real-time, and I have only ever seen snippets of the ceremony after the fact in the media.
I have a day job. Plus, I am not big on ceremonies and hoopla. In 3 weeks the Superbowl takes place in Houston, and if it is left up to me, I will turn on the TV 30 seconds before the actual kick-off.
Whatever the participants say in today’s ceremony outside of the legal requirements to become the next President and Vice President is really not that important when compared to what they actually can and will do. They can set a tone for the future, but the next 4 years are what counts.
As to whether Donald Trump is a legitimate President? Well, he won the Electoral College, so that makes him the President under the current rules and laws. However, claims that he won “in a landslide” are bullshit. He also clearly did not win the popular vote. Like all would-be authoritarians, he is ignoring those facts and claiming a “mandate”. Personally I think that phrase should be treated with derision in modern politics. There are almost no politicians elected by a majority of eligible voters in the world today, unless you decide to count those mysterious elections in far off lands where the President is elected with 99% of the vote (and his opponents are mysteriously absent from the ballot).
The election result is what it is. History and electors will judge the next POTUS by actions and results. I forsee difficult times ahead for the USA, as a concerted effort is made to regress the country’s governance processes, marginalize dissent, and re-instate poor treatment of people who are not definably and obviously White and American. The election was dominated by a small but decisive group of electors for whom inclusiveness and equitable treatment for all were unacceptable when compared to what they believe has gone wrong with the country.
Like many electorates in the Western World, “throw the bums out” and “turn back the clock” are in fashion. However, time never runs backwards, and, as Pete Townshend sardonically wrote, sometimes you get to “meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”.
I will spend today donating money to media writers and organizations that need resources in order to fight the attempts that are imminent to roll back protections and rights from any number of different groups in society. These organizations will be opposing authoritarian actions, and that takes time and money.
Some organizations that will be getting my money today are:

Electronic Freedom Foundation
Planned Parenthood
Jim Wright (mr Stonekettle)
David Neiwert (aka Orcinus)
Juan Cole (informed comment)