On paper, Tuesday was a good day for Democrats. They took the House for the first time in eight years. Several important Governorships (in advance of post-Census 2020 redistricting battles) were won. Notably vile Republicans like Kris Kobach, Scott Walker, and Dana Rohrabacher lost. The high-visibility Senate races Democrats lost (Missouri, Tennessee) were pipe dreams anyway. You already knew that Florida sucks, hard. So you're not sad because "The Democrats did badly."
You're also not sad because Beto lost, or Andrew Gillum lost, or any other single candidate who got people excited this year fell short. They're gonna be fine. They will be back. You haven't seen the last of any of them. Winning a Senate race in Texas was never more than a long shot. Gillum had a realistic chance, but once again: It's Florida.
No, you're sad for the same reason you were so sad Wednesday morning after the 2016 Election. You're sad because the results confirm that half of the electorate – a group that includes family, neighbors, friends, random fellow citizens – looked at the last two years and declared this is pretty much what they want. You're sad because any Republican getting more than 1 vote in this election, let alone a majority of votes, forces us to recognize that a lot of this country is A-OK with undisguised white supremacy. You're sad because once again you have been slapped across the face with the reality that a lot of Americans are, at their core, a lost cause. Willfully ignorant. Unpersuadable. Terrible people. Assholes, even.
You were hoping that the whole country would somehow restore your faith in humanity and basic common decency by making a bold statement, trashing Republicans everywhere and across the board. You wanted some indication that if you campaigned hard enough, rednecks and white collar bloodless types alike could be made to see the light that perhaps the levers of power are not best entrusted to the absolute worst people that can be dredged up from Internet comment sections running on platforms of xenophobia, nihilism, and racism. In short, you wanted to see some evidence that corruption, venality, bigotry, and proud ignorance are deal-breakers for the vast majority of Americans.
And now you're sad because it's obvious that they aren't. Even where horrible Republicans like Walker or Kobach lost, they didn't lose by much.
So I get it. It's depressing. There's no amount of positives that can take away the nagging feeling that lots and lots of people in this country are just…garbage. They're garbage human beings just like the president they adore. These people are not one conversation, one fact-check, and one charismatic young Democratic candidate away from seeing the light. They're reactionary, mean, ignorant, uninteresting in becoming less ignorant, and vindictive. They hate you and they will vote for monsters to prove it.
Remember this feeling. Remember it every time someone tells you that the key to moving forward is to reach across the aisle, show the fine art of decorum in practice, and chat with right-wingers to find out what makes them tick. Remember the nagging sadness you feel looking at these almost entirely positive results; it will be your reminder that the only way to beat this thing is to outwork, outfight, and out-organize these people. They are not going to be won over and they will continue to prove that to you every chance they get.
This seems like the right place to tell the story of the dude who drove me to the airport the other day. His other job, apparently, was owning a gun store, and when talking about guns his opinions were informed and reasonable , e.g. "banning bump stocks won't stop school shootings, but we should require gun owners to go through safety training and have proper gun safes," ok, I can see that. But then the conversation took a hard right turn into Fox News conspiracy land: all politicians are corrupt, Planned Parenthood spends 10x as much money on lobbying as the NRA, etc. etc. etc. and I just didn't know what to say.
How many words fit on a sampler? I don’t want to get this as a tattoo.
“Remember this feeling. Remember it every time someone tells you that the key to moving forward is to reach across the aisle, show the fine art of decorum in practice, and chat with right-wingers to find out what makes them tick. Remember the nagging sadness you feel looking at these almost entirely positive results; it will be your reminder that the only way to beat this thing is to outwork, outfight, and out-organize these people. They are not going to be won over and they will continue to prove that to you every chance they get.”
Yes. You’re not powerful enough to stop someone from redeeming themselves any more than you are powerful enough to make them redeem themselves. As long as you’re not actively working to prevent them from doing the right thing, you’re good.
Former New York Gov.Mario Cuomo said you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. He might have made a similar observation about losing a race: The morning after is swamped by emotion—heartbreak, exhaustion, and above all spasms of blame-mongering. But as the next election looms, it’s time to put away our Klingon rage and call in Mr. Spock to take a dispassionate look at what really happened.
Spock ears in place, then, there are three main lessons. First, although the 2016 outcome was unquestionably a dismal and depressing affair, especially for women and people of color, the data suggests the election was always likely to be close based on the fundamentals. Second, there was a pair of black-swan events: Russian interference during the final three months of the campaign, and then-FBI Director James Comey’s letter 11 days before Election Day. Third, Hillary Clinton was an unusually unpopular candidate, and the contentious primary with Bernie Sanders made her flaws even more conspicuous. But this perfect storm—certainly this specific perfect storm—won’t happen again. So forget it. At this point, the only thing that matters is figuring out what kinds of big-picture trends are dominant and what that means for the crucial elections to come in 2018 and 2020.
By far the trendiest of the trend explanations for the 2016 outcome—like the soccer moms of 1996 or the NASCAR dads of 2004—is that economic anxiety among the white working class was responsible for Donald Trump winning Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, thus handing him the presidency. According to this hypothesis, Democrats need to win back these whites to stand a chance in 2018 and 2020. Trump has kept the white working class loudly in the center of the political conversation ever since his election, but a closer look at what really happened in 2016 suggests this conventional wisdom is critically wrong.
First things first: The white working class didn’t lose its identification with the Democratic Party in 2016. From 1992 to 2008, as the party nominated candidates as different as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, party identification bumped up and down but essentially held fairly steady. It was only a few years after Obama was first elected that white working-class identification with the party plummeted by 12 points. By 2016 all the damage had been done, and none of it had anything to do with Trump or Hillary Clinton. It happened before either one ever participated in a primary debate.
White working-class voters who lean Democratic
(by net percentage)
So what happened? In order to weave our way toward an answer, consider a few other things that took place at the same time. The rate of gun sales rose rapidly after Obama was elected, nearly tripling by 2016. Confidence in the accuracy of vote counting dipped suddenly in 2008, and other polls show that trust in the honesty of elections dropped substantially during Obama’s presidency. And of course there was the sudden emergence of the tea party in early 2009, an outbreak of organized white resentment masquerading as a small-government uprising that was unparalleled in both its intensity and the swiftness of its birth, an astonishingly short 30 days after Obama’s inauguration.
These things all point in the same direction: that the alienation of the white working class from the party associated with racial diversity was caused by the simple presence of a black man in the White House. In the same way that racial anxiety among many whites can be triggered by nothing more than a reminder that they’ll be a minority in the future, the constant presence of a black president on their TV probably does the same.
Now take a deep breath. This is where Mr. Spock comes in. None of this means the Democrats’ only path to victory in 2018 and 2020 is to run candidates who are white men. For one thing, there was a lot more going on during the Obama era than just simple racial triggering. Among other factors, there was the financial crisis and the appallingly overt race-mongering of Fox News, Breitbart, and other right-wing media outlets—especially around events like the Ferguson killing and subsequent protests, which produced a huge deterioration in American views of race relations during Obama’s second term.
Still, racial triggering was the core problem. Whites became more sensitive to threats to their status, and at the same time racial anxiety became more predictive of voting Republican. It didn’t happen everywhere and it didn’t happen to everyone. But it happened enough to tip a close election to the guy who most belligerently stoked that racial anxiety.
For Democrats, this is actually good news. It turns out that fanning white fragility can only get you so far: The American National Election Studies program, which has evaluated American attitudes before and after every presidential election since the 1940s, reports that racial resentment among whites has been pretty stable for decades, which suggests the “Obama effect” is likely fairly shallow. Trump’s race-baiting rants may seem like they’re consuming every pixel on the planet, but as we’ll see, they will likely become less effective in the future because the base level of racism he’s appealing to is subsiding. In fact, his overt bigotry is already starting to cost him more supporters than he gains from it. Put this alongside increasing support for Democrats among educated whites, women, Hispanics, and young people, and race is unlikely to be a net loser for Democrats in the future.
None of this means racism or racial anxiety is going away. But the turmoil of the Obama years almost certainly caused only a temporary blip in a steady, long-term national ebb of racial hostility. There’s plenty of evidence for this, but you can see it most strikingly in Trump’s signature issue: illegal immigration. He can rant about it all he wants, but poll data clearly indicates he hasn’t made a dent in public opinion. Illegal immigration has declined over the past decade, and Gallup surveys show that Americans are correspondingly less worried about it. On immigration more generally, Americans increasingly say it’s a good thing for the country and that immigration levels should be raised. Even Republicans have gotten friendlier toward immigration.
At a guess, perhaps a third of Trump’s supporters—his “core base”—simply detest undocumented immigrants and people of color more broadly. These are the voters Clinton called “deplorables,” and there’s no chance they ever have or ever will vote for a Democrat. But as the Gallup immigration numbers hint, the remaining Republicans are increasingly put off by Trump’s overtly racist appeals.
This is dramatically evident in two gifts that Trump has given Democrats: his attempt to end DACA, and his administration’s policy of family separation. A CBS News poll earlier this year showed that a stunning 87 percent of Americans support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows those who illegally entered the country as young children to stay. That figure includes 79 percent of Republicans. As for Trump’s decision to separate small children from their parents at the border, it sparked an instant backlash thanks to its almost wanton cruelty. Polls show that opposition ranges from 55 to 88 percent.
Put all this together—the origin of Trump’s victory in a temporary triggering effect, the steady generational decline of overt racism, public horror at events like the Charlottesville white supremacy rally, protests over Trump’s Muslim ban, and the increase in support for immigration despite the best efforts of Trump and Fox News—and a sober look at the evidence suggests that broad-based racial resentment is not actually on the rise.
More Americans support immigration
This doesn’t mean that Trump’s racist proclamations and policies haven’t had horrible effects, including giving bigots permission to be more flagrant. But it does mean progressive voters and candidates don’t need to feel like they have to choose between racial justice issues and economic issues—no matter how much Team Trump wants them to. After Charlottesville, Steve Bannon practically declared victory: “I want them to talk about racism every day,” he told the American Prospect. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
He was wrong on both counts. Not only should liberals have little to fear about keeping a sustained focus on racial justice, but Trump’s victory had little or nothing to do with economic anxiety. That may have played a role in the Republican sweep of the 2010 midterms—the global economy had just melted down, after all—but by Obama’s second term it was not as large a factor. There’s endless data suggesting that Americans were getting more economically optimistic during 2016, just as you’d expect during a recovery from a recession.
Because of this, Trump’s right-wing economic populism has gotten little traction. Economists overwhelmingly agree Trump’s trade war will hurt the economy, and the public is decidedly tepid about his tariffs; only 16 percent of Americans think they will help the economy. Last year’s Republican tax cut for corporations and the wealthy has bombed as well. Unpopular from the start, the law is now supported by barely more than a third of voters.
On the progressive side, things are just the opposite: Obamacare continues to become steadily more popular despite Trump’s persistent efforts to undermine it, and a recent poll showed that Medicare for All is now supported by 70 percent of voters—including a majority of Republicans. Even Fox News was forced to admit in its August poll that Obamacare is more popular than the tax cut.
This gives Democrats tremendous latitude in November. There’s every reason to think they can take aggressive positions on Trump’s odious racial pronouncements and cruel policies. At the same time, they can take aggressive positions against his widely disliked economic programs and in support of their own increasingly popular ideas—which appeal equally to the working class of all races.
The “deplorables” may be forever out of reach to progressives, but does it matter? They always have been. The center-right isn’t, and a coolheaded look at the best evidence suggests that most voters who fall in that camp won’t be turned off by a vigorous approach to either progressive values on race or progressive proposals for the economy. Needless to say, this is also the approach most likely to increase progressive turnout, especially among the women and people of color who were most distressed by Trump’s victory in the first place.
Donald Trump’s clock is running out, and he knows it. This is no time for progressives to be timid about saying so.
My friend, the novelist/fabulist/media inventor Robin Sloan, has a charming new short story that imagines how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will become President, first by playing the role in an imaginary movie. Along the way, there are some poignant thoughts about the nature of our political imaginations, the role of new media like Instagram in shaping public perception, and the ways leadership can, spell-like, be brought into being.
Here is the meager gift tucked into the disaster that is Donald Trump: now, anyone can be elected president, so anyone will be elected president. We might never have another lawyer in that office again. Donald Trump broke the seal, but Dwayne Johnson will fulfill the prophecy.
Can you imagine him on the debate stage? The way he’ll look alongside his opponents in the primary? A line of normal, rumpled humans, and then this towering figure. A political revolution: his suit will fit.
If he runs, he will win, and he will run, so the question isn’t, will Dwayne Johnson be president; rather, it’s: what kind of president will Dwayne Johnson be?
“Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth,” said Archimedes, maybe. With this book, we’ll set our feet and push.
The story and its narrator are so cynical and idealistic at once that it’s hard to characterize. Wasn’t the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” a self-invention of sorts? the story’s narrator asks. Couldn’t a new myth, a new colossus, reanimate that central idea, that openness to all peoples and possibilities, again?
The fact that on the one hand, America is “a nation of Presidents,” creating its own institutions, rules, and leaders, and a nation that could swoon for The Scorpion King because his Instagram videos are just so damned good, just illustrates one of hundreds of central contradictions about this place.
Are those contradictions hindrances to us? Do they fuel us? Or are they just unavoidable, constituent elements to the place and its peoples?
I don’t know. But I’m glad this story is poking those contradictions with a stick.
So, back when Ancillary Justice was essentially sweeping that year’s SF awards, there was some talk from certain quarters about it not really being all that, people only claimed to like it because Politics and SJWs and PC points and Affirmative Action and nobody was really reading the book and if they were they didn’t really enjoy it, they just claimed they did so they could seem cool and woke.
My feelings were so hurt that I wept bitter, miserable tears every time I drove to the bank with my royalty checks. I mean, those people must be right, it’s totally typical for non-fans who don’t actually like a book to write fanfic or draw fan art, totally boringly normal for students to choose to write papers about a book that just isn’t really very good or interesting, and for professors to use that boringly not-very-good book in their courses, and for that book to continue to sell steadily five years after it came out. I totally did not laugh out loud whenever I came across such assertions, because they were absolutely not ridiculous Sour Grape Vineyards tended by folks who, for the most part, hadn’t even read the book.
Now I am sorry–but not surprised–to see some folks making similar assertions about N.K. Jemisin’s historic (and entirely deserved) Hugo Threepeat. Most of them haven’t read the books in question.
But some of them have. Some of them have indeed read the books and not understood why so many people are so excited by them.
Now, Nora doesn’t need me to defend her, and she doesn’t need lessons from me about the best way to dry a tear-soaked award-dusting cloth, or the best brands of chocolate ice cream to fortify yourself for that arduous trip to the bank. Actually, she could probably give me some pointers.
But I have some thoughts about the idea that, because you (generic you) didn’t like a work, that must mean folks who say they did like it are Lying Liars Who Lie to Look Cool.
So, in order to believe this, one has to believe that A) one’s own taste is infallible and objective and thus universally shared and B) people who openly don’t share your taste are characterless sheep who will do anything to seem cool.
But the fact is, one doesn’t like or dislike things without context. We are all of us judging things from our own point of view, not some disembodied perfectly objective nowhere. It’s really easy to assume that our context is The Context–to not even see that there’s a context at all, it’s just How Things Are. But you are always seeing things from the perspective of your experiences, your biases, your expectations of how things work. Those may not match other people’s.
Of course, if you’re in a certain category–if you’re a guy, if you’re White, if you’re straight, if you’re cis–our society is set up to make that invisible, to encourage you in the assumption that the way you see things is objective and right, and not just a product of that very society. Nearly all of the readily available entertainment is catering to you, nearly all of it accepts and reinforces the status quo. If you’ve never questioned that, it can seem utterly baffling that people can claim to enjoy things that you see no value in. You’ll maybe think it makes sense to assume that such people are only pretending to like those things, or only like them for reasons you consider unworthy. It might not ever occur to you that some folks are just reading from a different context–sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically different, but even a small difference can be enough to make a work seem strange or bafflingly flat.
Now, I’m sure that there are people somewhere at some time who have in fact claimed to like a thing they didn’t, just for cool points. People will on occasion do all kinds of ill-advised or bananapants things. But enough of them to show up on every SF award shortlist that year? Enough to vote for a historic, record-breaking three Hugos in a row? Really?
Stop and think about what you’re saying when you say this. Stop and think about who you’re not saying it about.
You might not have the context to see what a writer is doing. When you don’t have the context, so much is invisible. You can only see patterns that match what you already know.*
Of course, you’re not a helpless victim of your context–you can change it, by reading other things and listening to various conversations. Maybe you don’t want to do that work, which, ok? But maybe a lot of other folks have indeed been doing that, and their context, the position they’re reading stories from, has shifted over the last several years. It’s a thing that can happen.
Stop and think–you’ve gotten as far as “everyone must be kind of like me” and stepped over into “therefore they can’t really like what they say they like because I don’t like those things.” Try on “therefore they must really mean it when they say they like something, because I mean it when I say it.” It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many folks step into the one and not the other. Maybe ask yourself why that is.
This also applies to “pretentious” writing. “That writer is only trying to look smart! Readers who say they like it are only trying to look smarter that me, a genuine,honest person, who only likes down-to-earth plain solid storytelling.” Friend, your claims to be a better and more honest person because of your distaste for “pretentious” writing is pretension itself, and says far more about you than the work you criticize this way. You are exactly the sort of snob you decry, and you have just announced this to the world.
Like or don’t like. No worries. It’s not a contest, there’s no moral value attached to liking or not liking a thing. Hell, there are highly-regarded things I dislike, or don’t see the appeal of! There are things I love that lots of other folks don’t like at all. That’s life.
And sure, if you want to, talk about why you do or don’t like a thing. That’s super interesting, and thoughtful criticism is good for art.
But think twice before you sneer at what other folks like, think three times before you declare that no one could really like a thing so it must be political correctness, or pretension, or whatever. Consider the possibility that whatever it is is just not your thing. Consider the possibility that it might be all right if not everything is aimed at you. Consider that you might not actually be the center of the universe, and your opinions and tastes might not be the product of your utterly rational objective view of the world. Consider the possibility that a given work might not have been written just for you, but for a bunch of other people who’ve been waiting for it, maybe for a long time, and that might just possibly be okay.
*Kind of like the way some folks insist my Ancillary trilogy is obviously strongly influenced by Iain Banks (who I’d read very little of, and that after AJ was already under way) and very few critics bring up the influence of C.J. Cherryh (definitely there, deliberate, and there are several explicit hat tips to her work in the text). Those folks have read Banks, but they haven’t read Cherryh. They see something that isn’t there, and don’t see what is there, because they don’t have the same reading history I do. It’s interesting to me how many folks assume I must have the same reading history as they do. It’s interesting to me how sure they are of their conclusions.
C. J. Cherryh has some really good books in the pantheon of sci-fi classics. Including the Hugo Awards to prove it. The other thing that's useful about that footnote is that sci-fi has always been known as a dialogue between authors, and everything's strongly influenced by so many other things. In the early history of the genre that was often celebrated ("I love how you used this idea and took it a new direction." "I like what you had to say about this other author's worldbuilding idea." "Did you borrow that thing from other author? It's so cool" "Did you read other author's response to your response in their followup". Even: "I know you didn't get this thing from the other author, but it is cool how you both arrived at the same spot.") The dumb thing is seeing people today use that for gatekeeping ("You can't write an FTL novel until you've read this exhaustive reading list" or "Everything to be said about cryonics has already been said" or as simple, but damaging, as "Stop stealing ideas" as a useless critique). It is a stark contrast in what you see in today's Hugo coverage alone versus what you find in old classic Hugo discussions (some of the very early Hugo winners weren't even good books outside of the conversation they were a part of in that dialog zeitgeist). It's possible that the genre is too big now to celebrate as easily that weird idea that books can be naturally in conversation with each other, even accidentally, rather than use that as gatekeeping to distrust books that are "conversing wrong" (miss "required" reading lists or alternatively have new perspectives that are unwelcome because the old traditions are set in stone now/outside perspectives are less interesting now). It's a shame if that's the case, but maybe we can hope to rekindle that original spirit of the genre. Bringing things full circle, my personal discovery of C. J. Cherryh was in the early days of the internet when I was a high schooler posting sci-fi short stories to a predecessor to what we'd now call a "blog" and then called a "zine". I was doing some random internet searches and discovered one of the made up words in some of my stories was also a setting of C. J. Cherryh's, which lead to me reading some of her books. For whatever reason, in hindsight perhaps we'd call it Impostor Syndrome now, I wrote an email to her to apologize for using the same name in some of my stories, not expecting a reply back. C. J. Cherryh sent back a nice email that basically said that that's alright, somewhat common, and a part of how the genre works. Sometimes it leads you to interesting directions like reading interesting new-to-you authors because you both happened to pick the same random made up word for some stories.
We aren't satisfied with being right. We also want to feel obviously right. So right that the people who disagree must be evil, stupid, crazy, or all three.
When something that we don't get turns out to be wildly popular, it is most comfortable to laugh it off or make negative claims about those who subscribe. But it is more useful to think very hard about what it brings to the table that you don't get. And to try to understand the perspective of those who find it delightful. As in so many things, comfort and truth pull us in different directions.