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Monday, October 23, 2017

Why do data journalists keep missing the political story of the year?

That’s the challenge posed by the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel to FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver and The Upshot’s Nate Cohn, two key numbers maestros who have continually predicted the demise — or understated the rise — of Donald Trump.

The political story of the year is that Trump has consolidated non-college educated white Republican voters in a way nobody expected could happen. His appeal is driven largely by these voters’ anxieties, manifested as racism and xenophobia.

We see this in the way his campaign lifted off after his attacks on Mexico and Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech. And his further ascent, which comes after weeks of lying about “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims celebrating 9/11.

Reckoning with Trump’s very classy bigotry is tough for many who seem reluctant to accept that it is the animating force behind his rise. It feels inappropriate to ascribe those motivations to millions of Americans, years after the Supreme Court declared that we’d pretty much solved racism.

This political story of the year is just a comically exaggerated version of the crackdown predicted by analysts like The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent — and the GOP autopsy itself — if Republicans didn’t pass immigration reform. It’s the tragedy of California’s conservative backlash against immigrants from the 1990s, repeated as farce.

Decades ago, white voters in California felt the changes that much of the country is now experiencing. Demographic shifts combined with the natural consequences of conservative economics sparked a partisan crucible of bad intentions —  which resulted in California’s GOP winning some pyrrhic victories that have given way to a general decimation of the party.

There are some unabashed racists who support Trump, but his larger support is the sign of a seriously troubling phenomenon that cannot be ignored. Aging white voters — especially those who have no college education — feel an acute loss of status, opportunity, and security. To deflect their angry anxiety away from the conservatives who have engineered the hollowing of the middle class, they’re being encouraged to rage against ethnic minorities.

Race baiting is a potent distraction, and one that has been either an undercurrent or a driving force of American politics for centuries. Given that the demographic shifts we face are inevitable, we need to take seriously the concerns of these voters, in the hope that they can direct their concerns more constructively.

Here are five reasons why scared white voters can be tricked into sucking up to a billionaire who thinks they’re overpaid.

1. They’re dying faster.
White anxiety has literally become an existential crisis. “Since roughly 1998, disease and death rates for middle aged white men and women has begun to rise,” Josh Marshall wrote in a recent post about a Princeton university study from Angus Deaton and Anne Case on mortality rates. Marshall says you can’t understand politics without understanding this study. His hypothesis about why people are dying at increased rates? “Let’s put this clearly: the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” He doesn’t think the anger at this loss is driving Republican “nihilism.” He thinks both emerge from a common cause. That cause could be the loss of economic strength and hope.

2. They’ve lost bargaining power.
As union membership rates decrease, middle-class incomes shrink
Conservatives want to destroy labor unions. They have no problem admitting it and campaigning on it. Coincidently, as union membership decreases, so do incomes. If there’s no one to lobby for your interests or to bargain from a position of equality, your ability to demand better wages deteriorates. And that works for people who own businesses, while leaving those among us who grew up in an age of growing incomes feeling as if we’ve been denied a natural right.

3. They’ve lost job security and pensions.
Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum took a look at the same mortality study and finds that all white people from 30-65 are seeing more deaths from preventable causes like “suicide/alcohol/drugs.” One factor directly addressed by the study’s authors is the loss of financial security for workers: “The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.”

4. America is changing quickly.
Backlash politics thrives on a sense that the world is going to hell all around you. Whether its same-sex marriage, a black president, a possible woman president, any sense that the old order would endure — and the belief that America would exist forever in its prejudices (but with jet packs) — is nearly gone. While these things seem positive to the ascending majority of America, they terrorize those who’d been promised that they’d be better off than their parents. We cannot overstate how much the demographics of America will change in the next few decades and how disturbing that is to “traditionalists. This passage from pollster Stanley Greenberg makes these monumental changes vivid:

Consider that nearly 40 percent of New York City’s residents are foreign-born, with Chinese the second-largest group behind Dominicans. The foreign-born make up nearly 40 percent of Los Angeles’s residents and 58 percent of Miami’s. A majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried people, and, in cities, 40 percent of households include only a single person. Church attendance is in decline, and non-religious seculars now outnumber mainline Protestants. Three-quarters of working-age women are in the labor force, and two-thirds of women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their households. The proportion of racial minorities is approaching 40 percent, but blowing up all projections are the 15 percent of new marriages that are interracial. People are moving from the suburbs to the cities. And in the past five years, two-thirds of millennial college graduates have settled in the 50 largest cities, transforming them.

The world middle-aged white Americans were born into bears almost no resemblance to the one where they are dying. And unfortunately conservatives have convinced them that the promise of immigrants who we desperately need to grow our economy and fund Medicare and Conservatives is nothing more than a threat.

5. The right wing media thrives on fears.
It’s no coincidence that some of the right-wing media’s biggest advertisers are companies marketing gold, survival gear, and miracle cures that the scientists don’t want you to hear about. Keeping you focused on all the wrong things is essential to the conservative project. And it’s even more important for the conservative media project. The right’s ability to shape narratives — and harass the mainstream media into accepting them — has no parallel in modern life. No matter how many people in the “objective” media may vote or lean left, it’s no match for the nation’s most popular news channel and nearly all the most popular talk radio shows serving as perpetual commercials against the Democratic Party and the unmitigated evil of compromising with liberals. Every day millions of white Americans wake up to find out what they should be terrified of today — a time of unprecedented peace globally and some of the lowest violent crime rates in generations at home. And the right wing media never disappoint them.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the USS Wisconsin battleship in Norfolk, Virginia October 31, 2015.  REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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