The Most Important Question For Alabama Voters: How Low Will You Go?

Republished from Breaking / Bannon.

The most important question the Alabama Senate election on December 12 will answer is not: Do Alabama voters care more about abortion or pedophilia?

The most important question the Alabama Senate election on December 12 will answer is: Do Alabama voters care that Roy Moore is an embarrasment to the state?

In other words, Alabama voters must decide: How low will you go?

Abortion and pedophilia themes in this election are emotionally volatile symbols (mostly as vectors of our inner lives, not directly connected to social reality in any meaningful sense) that crowd out debate about the issues that truly do matter in the lives of most Alabama residents. These culture war themes are not irrelevant or unimportant. But they are a small part of a larger conversation, and absolutely should not be tent-pole factors in the outcome of the election.

On issues that matter in this larger conversation – laws and policies governing: taxes, spending priorities, health-care access, reproductive rights, gender and racial equity, immigration policy, environmental protection, foreign policy and diplomacy, national infrastructure, and science and technology investment – Doug Jones and Roy Moore will shape debate and cast votes that are pivotal to the fortunes and the future of Alabama residents and of the United States.

On all of these issues, Doug Jones will be informed and thoughtful. He will not be exciting. Flames will not burst from his ass. But his track record, his “body of work” (as sports analysts like to say), gives us confidence he will reclaim for the Senate some dignity and some policy relevance. By contrast, Roy Moore is an empty suit, an ignoramus who takes pride in his lack of interest in and knowledge of policy matters, and in his lack of concern for the history and significance of the U.S. Senate as an institution.

As a U.S. senator, Roy Moore would not debate or deliberate. He would not inform himself, for in his mind, he has long known everything he or anyone else needs to know – that the Bible contains all truth and is a sufficient basis for making all decisions concerning policy and principle. As a U.S. senator, Roy Moore will stand and fulminate. He will raise high his Bible. He will cite the 10 Commandments. And in his pride and arrogance, he will bring the Senate, as an institution, to its knees.

With respect, then, to this conversation about laws and policies that directly affect the lives of all Americans, the election of Roy Moore would indicate that Alabama voters are prepared to go very low, indeed. But there is more to consider – or perhaps (in the spirit of going low) less to consider.

In his bravura performance as president, Donald Trump has already transformed the United States into a global punch line. Alabama voters know this. They elected him by a margin of 28 percent over Hillary Clinton. A vast (although declining) majority of the state still supports Trump personally and approve of his sub-fuhrer style as president.

With their support for Trump alone, one might conclude a large number of Alabama voters have no shame. But the election of Roy Moore would carry Alabama to depths previously unexplored in the capacity of a state to revel in its own pathos. And personally, I do not believe Alabama is capable of this descent, an existential slipping of the gears that leaves us that much closer to free-fall as a nation.

One theory to support this view is that Alabama voters, like many elsewhere, mostly voted against Hillary Clinton rather than for Donald Trump. A vote against Hillary of coure offers no evidence that matters of policy and principle much concern these voters, of course, but such a vote nonetheless indicates that Trump’s appeal may largely derive from his novelty, that he is a new and shiny object to gaze upon and admire.

Alabama voters already know Roy Moore. He is not new and shiny. He is already a pustulating pimple on the rear end of the state, with support from its hinterlands, but a style and a “body of work” that has long been a source of distress and consternation to many in the state. The most recent sexual predator allegations only surface and reinforce an awareness of Roy Moore’s creepiness that has already been long-acknowledged and understood by people in Alabama.

For these reasons, my hunch is that Alabama voters will choose not to take that next step toward perdition and inflict Roy Moore upon the entire nation.

 

The Incredible Lightness of Banning … Donald Trump from My News Feed

I use Feedly to aggregate stories from about 80 publications, ranging from The New Yorker to Neatorama. On any given day, I scan 200 or 300 stories from this news feed. I select 50 or 60 of these stories to “Read Later” and use IFTTT to post them automatically to the Reading Room of my Jeremiadus website. The website currently archives nearly 9,000 stories, on pretty much any subject you can imagine, under the broad umbrellas of politics, science, literature, philosophy, and culture.

One would think the breadth of this feed would extend even beyond the prehensile reach of Donald Trump. But one would be wrong. Of these 9,000 stories, nearly 3,000 reference Trump somewhere in the article. This Trump tilt is not the result of my own selection bias. If anything, my instinct is to choose stories that eschew, ignore, abrogate, elide, defenestrate, and abandon Donald Trump. And yet there he is.

Today, Feedly launched a “mute” feature, allowing users to filter any word or term from their news feed. I “muted” Donald Trump and Feedly “banned” 1,300 recent articles from the publications I track. My world instantly lightened.

Trump is batshit crazy. We know this. But the weight slipping from my shoulders and from my mind has little do with his deranged clown act. The political antics of the Keystone Cop Republicans aren’t really even the source of my distress. The problem is that any time a story invokes Trump and the creepy dementors he has unleashed upon us, we all become rubber-necking assholes craning our necks and bugging our eyes to get the best view possible of the carnage unfolding on the road beside us. We become vampiric, pustule-sucking warlocks, slurping the toxins, getting off on the whole sordid mess.

There is nothing redeemable about the situation. Trump dirties himself daily, but of course our tragedy as a nation is that he dirties all of us. He brings us to our knees. How are we to think about this?

In the 21st century, we lead accidental lives. We appreciate the randomness of existence, but succumb to this randomness, rather than making use of it. We are overwhelmed by noise and can locate no signal. We are awash in images and words, with no ability to parse their meaning, to source them to an underlying reality about which we can (mostly) agree (most of the time). These images and words themselves, recursively, constitute their own reality, a slipstream that pulls us further away from each other, and from ourselves, until our shouts are merely echoes, globules of emotion, randomly firing synapses, ejaculations of judgment.

Fuck you! … fuck you! … haha … haha … 

Trump is obviously a fully accidental species of human, a cratering self-inebriate, careening from one random moment to the next. He is a walking, talking meme. Entirely noise. Entirely unparseable. He truly doesn’t matter, because he possesses no meaning beyond himself. If he were to disappear, we would never miss him, but in the meantime he is all we can think about. So I am thrilled to be able to mute this deranged, minimally human person from my life.

We don’t need to agree about what is true. We only need to agree about what is false.

Consider the drunken sailor of random walk fame, whose problematic journey home inspires the mathematics underlying basic probability and resolves itself empirically in the fibrillations we associate with Brownian motion. Our challenge politically – and it is always a challenge but one now amplified to the nth degree by the random behaviors and speech irruptions of Donald Trump – is our compulsion to locate agency, and causation, in the actions of individuals. We are responsible for ourselves, a truism that has become ontological – we only know we exist because we believe we have free will and that we can own, understand, and account for our thoughts and actions as individuals. Cogito ergo sum.

Leaving aside for the moment the internally dubious merits of this Cartesian formula, the 21st extension of its logic has led us to a place where what we know about ourselves as thinking, acting individuals presumes no access to or understanding of what others know about themselves. Which sticks us in the middle of the radically subjective shit storm that has allowed Donald Trump to commandeer the ship of state. We each travel alone, in darkness. Meaningless beyond ourselves. And so free to judge without standards and without consequence.

But randomness is not the problem. Randomness is, in fact, the solution. Because, of course, truth emerges probabilistically. Form is itself the product of thousands and millions of inebriate movements. Meaninglessness resolves itself into meaning via randomness. Truth and causation will always remain elusive, but with a focus on the actions, not of single individuals, but of thousands and millions of individuals, we can make sense of our policy choices less subjectively, less reactively, less reductively and with a more humble sense of our individual cogito-ing selves in relation to the transpersonal dynamics of populations and of ecosystems, which are forever contingent and in flux.

The current healthcare debate illustrates the choices and the stakes of the decision to embrace risk, uncertainty, and randomness – as the idea of insurance itself, and the much-maligned but indispensable discipline of actuarial science, tell us we must. The Republican health care legislation backed by Trump obviously has nothing to do with actuarial science and population health (which would make single-payer a no-brainer) and everything to do with crude Old Testament impulses to reward and punish according to the code of the vendetta and to extract the pound of flesh as one would the barrel of oil or the lump of coal.

Which returns us to the drunken sailor of yore, whose journey is poignantly asymptotic. On his own, we know from probability theory, the inebriate sailor’s odds of returning home may be slim to none. But with a population of thousands or millions of drunken sailors, we can reliably predict how many will find their homes again, and at what intervals, without knowing for sure which specific sailors they will be. A profound and soothing thought.

With my Feedly mute feature, I can erase Donald Trump, misanthropic carnival barker who cannot leave home. Public welfare issues that matter in politics remain for me to ponder, clarified and restored by his absence.

Freedom From "Fear Porn": In Defense of Cosmopolitan Elites, Polyglot Cultures, and Global Integration

Much has already been written about Donald Trump’s speech to the Polish people earlier today. This speech, written (presumably) by White House fear-mongers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, adopts a dark and legitimately creepy Saruman-like vibe similar to Trump’s inaugural address. James Fallows commented on the shift in tone of this speech from famous (and infamous) addresses of previous presidents to foreign nations that optimistically emphasized shared ideals about the rule of law and the importance of inclusive legal concepts of fairness and justice, freedom of expression and religious toleration, as our final bulwark against the depredations of war and intolerance. By contrast, both Fallows and Bloomberg journalist Marc Champion noticed the insistent focus in the Trump speech on dark, exclusive and ominously tribal themes (and memes) of threat and danger, of European ethnic and Catholic-Christian religious identity imperiled by Islamic fanatics and cosmopolitan elites,  of the mystical communion of faith, family, tradition, and nation – the precepts of Judeo-Christian western civilization – renewed upon the mantle of a crusade against its foes.

Even the wacky libertarians at Mises Wire have today indirectly voiced their concerns about this blunt-force and mythologized vision of national unity. As Mises Wire editor Ryan McMaken emphasizes, however we may bemoan the painful divisions within our nation, the United States has never in any true sense been “one nation” united by a common religion, language, and culture. McMaken points to obvious fault-lines in national life that have organized and given shape to cultural conflict – between pre-Columbian inhabitants of north America and European settlers; between annexed Hispanic populations and European ranchers, farmers, and miners; between free-labor states and slave states; between industrial and agrarian populations; between polyglot immigrants and English-speaking natives; between established Protestant sects and insurgent religions (before Islam, there were rising populations of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons); between migrant African-Americans and settled European urban working-class enclaves.

Of course, the nation’s ability to absorb these cultural conflicts – which is the renewable source of our energy, strength, and resilience – could not be more opposed to the small-minded, tendentious, and self-enraptured vision of the Trump speech today in Warsaw. The Trump vision (which is of course really the vision of his “Steves”) owes far more to an infatuation with an idea of “Western Civilization” – based on primitive, medieval concepts of control, fidelity, allegiance and honor, and made relevant through transposition into the familiar (but empty) tropes of  “family, faith, and freedom,” and of  “small-town, traditional values.” Of course, anyone who has traveled through small-town and rural America will quickly disabuse themselves of the idea that escaping from decadent metropolitan fleshpots deposits us in a bucolic scene of chastity and virtue. Rural America sits on a decrepit tax base with fragile prospects for economic growth and greatly enfeebled institutions insufficient to support its aging, immobile populations and unable to provide the basis for the sort of flourishing of generations any culture requires.

Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have latched on to the “clash of civilizations” meme as if the Christian West has in the most recent millennium never stopped being at war with neutered cosmopolitan elites and ululating Islamic hordes, In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a controversial (in a good way) history of the exponential decline of violence over time, another Steve – Harvard polymath Steven Pinker – gives us a framework for thinking about the unhinged ignorance of Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – and puts the lie to this idea that there is some kind of organic continuity between Catholic Europe in the the Middle Ages and Western Civilization in the 21st century.

Pinker’s book actually offers any number of angles for thinking about our current cultural conflicts, including a concise (although now somewhat dated) assessment of the more authentically and persistently “medieval” aspects of Islamic culture that allow unabashedly cruel and violent habits to persist, without reducing these practices to some essential “evil” within Islam itself. Pinker also invokes and dismisses the Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” argument that fuels the crusading militancy of the White House Steves.

But I would like to close by simply allowing Steven Pinker to pose some questions about the comparative iniquities and evils of city life and rural life captured by the demographic and political arc of “western civilization” in the past thousand years. For our purposes, the value of these questions is the extent to which they free our minds from what we might loosely call the “fear porn” so liberally peddled by the paleo wing of the Republican Party.

Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.

 

The Dog That Didn't Bark: A 2016 Presidential Election Mystery Unfolds in Wisconsin's Juneau County

In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama soundly trounced Mitt Romney in the great state of Wisconsin, harvesting 52.8 percent of ballots cast in the state (compared to Romney’s 45.9 percent), a margin of more than 213,000 votes. While Romney won in 37 of the state’s 72 counties, these were mostly smaller and more rural enclaves, representing only 46 percent of the total votes cast, and since Obama won his counties by an average of 15.6 percent and Romney carried his counties by an average of only 10.3 percent, well, it was game-set-match early in the evening for Barry in the Cheesehead state.

Bellwether

Obama’s solid triumph in Wisconsin in 2012 was nonetheless not a foregone conclusion heading into the election, given the cross-cutting political currents in Wisconsin, a northern and largely white rust belt state that usually tilted Democrat in national elections but which remained pockmarked by provincial (near-antediluvian) resentments that swept Tea Party Republicans Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Reince Priebus into positions of power and influence within the state and national party establishments, men of “ideas” who, by virtue of having ideas at all (policies tied to goals, supported by principles and evidence, that one could imagine at least implementing, if perhaps not actually working) within a movement defined by its anti-intellectualism, could present themselves as one-eyed kings in the land of the blind.

Wisconsin delivers only 10 of the 270 electoral votes required to secure the presidency, but remains politically significant because of its reputation for enlightened and progressive governance unbesmirched by either the brass knuckles political mayhem of North Atlantic states such as Rhode Island or New Jersey, or of the primal ooze enveloping politics in Southern States such as Louisiana or Mississippi. Wisconsin, in other words, is a bit of a bellwether for national politics.

Obama’s 2012 victory represented the seventh straight presidential election in which the state had delivered its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate (dating back to 1988), and with Hillary Clinton’s political experience, financial war chest, electoral “ground game”, and semi-progressive, semi-feminist bona fides, and with Obama’s historically high presidential approval ratings, pollsters and pundits alike typically viewed the state as safe for the Democrats heading into the election, far moreso than they had in 2012, a comfortable (if not smug) assumption preserving the general consensus that Clinton could not possibly lose the national election (or, perhaps more accurately, a consensus that Trump could not possibly win the national election).

A Cheesy Election

Clinton’s weakness in Wisconsin on election night as returns began to tally provided one of the clearest and most decisive indications that she was in trouble. Indeed, while Pennsylvania and Michigan were simultaneously tilting toward Trump, it’s probably fair to assume that returns from Wisconsin were what knocked most people sideways In the end, of course, Clinton lost to Trump by only the most slender of margins in Wisconsin, fewer than 23,000 votes out of the nearly 3 million votes cast.

Globalization’s implosion, Russia’s campaign skullduggery, James Comey’s ill-timed Anthony Weiner / laptop / Hillary Clinton / email-investigation / announcement (let’s once again blame our national plunge into the abyss on Anthony Weiner’s ubiquitous weiner because … why not), American white male sexual insecurity and fear of strong women, or Hillary Clinton’s own historically deficient campaign skills – each of these may have tipped the balance toward Trump in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). But focusing on these external forces (viewed as things that happened to us, that we were helpless to defend ourselves against) not only mind-fucks the Democratic Party heading into the next round of elections, they distract from things happening to and experienced by real people in Wisconsin that may more accurately explain the election outcome, and surface reproducible lessons for building a sustainable, native political movement in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, that can once again ground our politics in issues of substance.

To be clear – Donald Trump did not light up the state of Wisconsin. He won with a plurality of only 47.2 percent of the vote, while receiving nearly 3,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, who harvested 45.9 percent of the vote. How could this be? First, despite the fairly obvious significance of this particular election, nearly 100,000 fewer people in the state voted in 2016 than in 2012 – a turnout drop of three percent. Second, candidates not named Trump or Clinton received nearly 200,000 votes in 2016, while third-party candidates in 2012 tallied only about 40,000 votes. Finally, and decisively, Wisconsinites voted for Barack Obama in 2012 as if he were a tangy, ripe Wisconsin cheddar, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton perhaps more closely resembled a somewhat moldy and odoriferous Stilton blue. Clinton received nearly 250,000 fewer votes in 2016 than Obama in 2012, a stunning collapse on the order of 15 percent. Clinton defeated Trump in only 12 of the state’s 72 counties. She outperformed Obama in only two of these 72 counties (on a vote percentage basis). If she had swung about 12,000 of the votes she lost from Obama that went to Trump and the third party candidates (less than five percent of the vote gap with Obama!), Clinton would have defeated Trump in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s Wobegon – Juneau County

Let’s look at Juneau County, where among all counties in Wisconsin Democratic Party fortunes most steeply plummeted in 2016. Juneau County is a postcard-perfect rural enclave nestled in south-central Wisconsin, about 75 miles northwest of Madison and 140 miles northwest of Milwaukee. In 2012, Barack Obama claimed 52.78 percent of the vote in Juneau County while Mitt Romney received 45.75 percent of the vote, numbers almost identical to the statewide distribution of votes. This “normalcy” matters. As we’ll see, in many other respects, Juneau County truly is “normal” – not quite Lake Wobegon, but not too far off, either. Which makes it all the more surprising that in 2016 Hillary Clinton received only 34.71 percent of the Juneau County vote, while Donald Trump claimed 60.76 percent of the vote.

Much has been made of stark demographic breaches of the national fabric exposed in the course of the 2016 election – rural-urban / white-minority / male-female / old-young / less education-more education. Post-election, Wisconsin journalists explored the Juneau County phenomenon largely along these lines, with an emphasis on support for Donald Trump in rural counties with dispersed, shrinking (and aging) populations, stagnant economies and wages, and encroachment of formerly “urban” problems such as homelessness. However, when one looks closely at demographic, economic, health, and general welfare trends in Juneau County between 2012 and 2016 (looking for, and assuming one will find, causative or correlative movement of some data dial that will explain the electoral hydraulics of the 2016 election), what is striking is the extent to which there is no barking dog. The mystery becomes … not what specific trend caused this tectonic partisan and electoral shift, but how this pronounced shift could have occurred in the absence of any obvious environmental cause.

Demographic Distinctions

Juneau County is an averaged-sized Wisconsin county (about 765 square miles) with a population (26,664) and a density (34.8 people/sq. mi.) almost precisely comparable to averages for Wisconsin’s other 43 counties with populations under 50,000. In 2016, Donald Trump received more than 60 percent of the votes cast in 18 of these counties, compared to only three of the 28 counties with populations exceeding 50,000. Compared to the entirety of the state, the population of Juneau County is substantially more rural, older, and less racially and ethnically diverse, a profile that almost perfectly matches the demographics of the counties that broke hardest for Donald Trump in 2016 (Florence, Green Lake, Oconto, Taylor, and Washington).

The one vector of divergence from these Trump Counties is gender – only 46.9 percent of Juneau County is female, tied with Adams County for the lowest percentage of females among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Notably, while all five Breaking-Bad-for-Trump counties also broke sharply for Mitt Romney in 2012 (with an average victory margin over Obama of 23.2 percent), Adams County, like Juneau County, broke hard for Obama in 2012, then swung radically against Clinton and for Trump in 2016. A very different dynamic. Is it somehow related to the gender skew? Unclear, but it surely does matter that Adams County and Juneau County are peas in a pod – immediately adjacent to each other and carved in 1858 from the same 60 km-square (approximately 40 mile-square) plot of land (see this interesting history of Adams County for more information).

Social Welfare Indicators – Positive Trend Lines

Social indicators include measures of well-being determined by health, education, and child welfare factors. Given Juneau County’s radical political tilt, between 2012 and 2016, away from Obama and the Democratic Party and toward Trump and the Republican Party, one might except some disjunctive negative movements in some (or many) of these indicators. In fact, what is striking is how little these measures changed in four years, and to the degree change did occur, how much of it was in a positive direction. Here are some examples.

  • Between 2012 and 2016, in Juneau County, median household Income rose (from $40,228 to $45,158).
  • Unemployment fell (from 9.9 percent to 6.7 percent).
  • The teen birth rate fell (from 39.2 per 1,000 births to 35.64 per 1,000 births).
  • The percentage of low birth weight babies fell (from 6.0 percent to 5.7 percent).
  • The percentage of children living in poverty fell  (from 25.7 percent to 20.8 percent).
  • The violent crime rate remained stable.
  • The percentage of the population receiving at least some post-secondary increased slightly (from 49.4 percent to 50.7 percent).
  • Per capita health care costs declined slightly, even with an aging population (from $7,644 to $7,541).
  • The number of uninsured adults fell (from 2,455 to 2,351).
  • The percentage of people in “poor” or “fair” health dropped (from 19.5 percent to 14.5 percent – even while it rose across the state, generally, from 12 percent to 14.9 percent).
  • The percentage of smoking adults decreased sharply (from 28.4 percent to 19.2 percent).
  • Reported cases of Chlamydia fell (from 199 per 100,000 people to 184 per 100,000).
  • The percentage of adults who drink excessively fell (from 26 percent to 22.7 percent).
  • Diabetic screenings increased.
  • Mammography screenings increased.

On the downside,

  • Between 2012 and 2016, in Juneau County, the percentage of children qualifying for free lunch programs increased from 31.2 percent to 46.6 percent, a figure far higher than the state average of 35.3 percent.
  • The percentage of the population with some form of diabetes rose (from 9.2 percent to 10.7 percent).
  • The percentage of obese adults increased (from 29.9 percent to 33.9 percent).
  • Preventable hospital stays for Medicare enrollees increased (from 3,350 to 3,849).
  • The percentage of county residents with limited access to healthy food rose (from 4.9 percent to 5.4 percent).

Migration Patterns – Stagnation and Turbulence

Population dynamics and migration patterns matter enormously for any effort to assess underlying political stress points. Geographic pockets characterized by declining, aging populations are typically an important source of support for reactionary political movements. Locations defined by measurable population flows and dynamic migration patterns are typically more turbulent, socially and politically, but also more forward-looking and less trapped by nostalgia or by fever dreams.

Between 2012 and 2016, in Wisconsin, the state’s population remained steady, while international migration into the state averaged 0.32 percent of the population across counties. By contrast, in Juneau County, the population fell by 1.65 percent and international migration increased by 0.18 percent. These population and migration numbers are consistent with population trends in the five counties listed above that delivered the highest percentages of votes to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which registered, on average, virtually no change to their population totals in the four years between presidential elections, while registering only a minuscule amount of international migration as a percentage of county population (0.1 percent).

By contrast, the five counties where Hillary Clinton received the largest vote percentages (Ashland, Dane, Iowa, Menominee, and Milwaukee) averaged 3 percent population growth and international migration flows exceeding 1.1 percent of the counties’ populations (with many of these arrivals landing in professional, government, and academic centers such as Dane County and Milwaukee County). This turbulent migration profile also closely tracked counties that favored Barack Obama in 2012. Ironically, perhaps, locations less directly confronted by the reality of dynamic population flows often react more intensely to fears about its impact on their communities. Given Juneau County’s dramatic pivot toward Donald Trump in 2016, we can plausibly wonder about the impact of events outside the actual boundaries of the county, particularly given the absence of obvious triggers within the county.

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Nate Silver’s election post-mortem at FiveThirtyEight has included analysis of voting patterns that indicates “swing counties” pivoting hard from Obama to Trump tended to reflect lower levels of education rather than lower levels of income. Juneau County, with post-secondary education levels well below the mean for the state, largely conforms to this model, but the education variable cannot itself serve as an explanation for this electoral pivot. What we need are plausible explanations for the pivot that factor in education, but position it as a source of susceptibility, not in itself as a cause. In other words, lower levels of education may allow for more voter volatility or unpredictability based on Factor X or Factor Y.

And so, given the absence of any contributing “shock” to Juneau County – indeed, with measures of well-being generally high and/or on the rise –  we are left with an unsolved mystery. What might account for the dramatic vote shifting in Juneau county in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, from Obama to Trump, from Hope to Dope? With respect to endogenous factors that give Juneau County itself some agency in the voting outcomes, I am inclined to propose two contributing factors: a) the breaching of some critical gender/age boundary (which we might call the Get Off My Lawn effect); and b) the counterintuitive idea that increased stability and well-being in Juneau County may have liberated many of its residents from attention to the empirical reality of their lives (the realm of necessity), and presented them with license to travel more deeply into the darker and more speculative and imaginative recesses of their minds (which we might call the Richard Hofstadter effect).

  • Get Off My Lawn – There are a lot of older white dudes in Juneau County (and even moreso in Adams County). More than 30 percent of Juneau County are white males 35 years of age and older. By contrast, the same cohort in Madison’s Dane County comprises only 22 percent of the population. And the pace of this aging has accelerated in recent years, even while it has skewed increasingly male.  This older-white-male skew is not uncommon among generically Republican-leaning counties (the skew is is even more pronounced in Oconto County, Wisconsin, for example, where Trump defeated Clinton by more than 36 percentage points). But what I want to suggest is that the impact of this shift may not be linear. It is possible that when the less-than-well-educated-older-white-guy percentage crosses a specific threshold (I am going to arbitrarily say 30 percent of the population!), a susceptibility to a cranky, reactionary, centrifugal politics may rapidly establish itself, independently of the objective circumstances of the life surrounding one (imagine a lot of bitched dudes with too much time on their hands enlisting in the online Breitbart jihad – these message boards don’t write themselves).
  • Richard Hofstadter – This is where we can recall our debt to the redoubtable American historian Richard Hofstadter, whose books on Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and on The Paranoid Style in American Politics can provide us with a kind of solace, in that we learn to what extent the politics we are now experiencing, no matter how bizarre they seem to us in the moment, are definitely in the American grain. Hofstadter’s specific contribution to understanding this pickle in which we find ourselves is to consider how politics can target and address emotional and psychological states with reference to matters of status, which is relative, versus interests. This summary is hopelessly oversimplified, but for our purposes, the tantalizing possibility is that the Obama-Trump pivot in Juneau County takes place in the mind’s eye, not with reference to what is actually outside one’s window, but in association with what is just beyond one’s view, just down the road – the police shootings in Madison, the riots in Milwaukee, a crawling anxiety that things are not quite right at home, even if they seem just fine. And so much of these imaginings may revolve around relative perceptions of status and well-being, which can of course leave one vulnerable to a sense that all is in flux around you, partly because there is so little flux in your stagnant little frog pond – that folks different from you and your family and friends, folks you don’t know but who (because you don’t know them) are more easily imagined as alien, invading hordes, marshaling in the fetid urban zones surrounding Madison and Milwaukee; an unruly, unworthy, unsanctified mob receiving undeserved benefits and favors and handouts that never accrued to you or to your little peace of heaven in Juneau County, Wisconsin.

Speculative, yes, but the recipe makes sense to me : A critical mass of less educated, aging white males + Local stasis or stagnation + Multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-cultural flux just beyond one’s borders = the Donald Trump Fever Dream.


Note on sources – The analysis in this essay uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from the fantastic County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and (appropriately) the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.