Friday, November 11, 2016

The 2016 Election: tl; dr

Jonathan Pie covers some of the same ground of my previous piece in a powerful way. Worth six minutes of your time. Contains bad language:

The 2016 Election: How This Happened

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" 
-- Edmund Burke
I knew by 6:30 pm Pacific Time that Clinton was going to lose, and lose badly. Shocked, I watched my former classmate Jake Tapper on CNN until almost 11, then stayed up longer reading. I didn't sleep that night, tossing and turning while my brain kept wrestling with the same question everybody else is asking:

"How did this happen"?

The answer is disappointingly obvious:

Trump won because Clinton didn't get enough votes.

I mean that quite literally. Here's a chart:

Original Chart Source

It shows that the number of Republican voters has been basically constant for the last 3 presidential elections (Obama 1, Obama 2, Trump). But look at the Democratic voters! That is an incredible drop-off, and it happened during this "most important election of our time".

(Yes, there are some "bad" things about this chart, like it doesn't start at zero. It's also not adjusted for population growth. Doesn't matter or affect the assertion.)

Here are some more stats from Wikipedia (all numbers are thousands):

DemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. Pop

In these 4 "battleground states", the Republican voter turnout was slightly higher, but in all cases, the Democrat voter turnout was lower, and in most cases, substantially lower than the previous election, even when adjusted for population changes.

The Clinton campaign failed to get people -- Democrats, "her" people --  to turn up and vote. That's why she lost.

The Republicans didn't turn out in massive numbers. They pulled more or less the same voter count they pulled for the last 2 elections, both of which they lost handily. They had the same pull, played the same game. The Democrats just didn't show up.

Why didn't people turn up to vote for Hillary Clinton? I think these factors were primary drivers:

  1. The Candidate
  2. The Campaign
  3. The Culture

The Candidate

Clinton and the Enthusiasm Gap. She was extremely unpopular on the right.

But Clinton was also unpopular on the left, with people resenting her for beating Bernie Sanders, unhappy with her previous stance on gay marriage, support for war, Wall Street ties, and more.

"Another Democrat". At best, Clinton came across like the worst of the late 20th-century Democrats like Dukakis or Kerry: boring, stiff, ineffective.

At worst -- thanks to decades of Republican smears and her own bad judgment (and history of same) -- Clinton seemed possibly corrupt and definitely embodying the Washington establishment, with a track record of saying whatever she thought was most politically expedient. The anti-Trump, in every way.

Overconfidence. Plenty of people including Hillary Clinton (and polls) thought she had it in the bag, and "besides, my vote doesn't matter". This is in stark contrast to Obama's two campaigns, who were hell-bent on getting out the vote and treating it like the urgent mission it was.

Plain old laziness. 8 years of Obama's presidency made people forget what happens when you lose the White House. The GOP and the Trump campaign, on the other hand, were on a crusade.

I do believe current social media culture amplified the above effects substantially.

The Campaign

Clinton ran a weak, uninspiring campaign without a clear message or takeaway. I'm not just talking about the literally passive slogan "Stronger Together" (no verb!), but the meta-message, which was...what? "I'm a woman?" "I'm not Trump?" "More of the same?" There was nothing for people to grab onto.

Or worse, what people could grab onto was disappointing: "More of the same". For those who voted for Trump, that message was interpreted as "We still don't care about you. We still don't understand you. We still don't want to try. We're keeping the system we have. And we still think you're deplorable." Which is not how you add people to your flock. Intentionally or not, Trump was able to scoop up people by saying "I will fight for you."

But none of that should have mattered for Democrats or most people, because even if you didn't find Clinton "inspiring", even if your response to her was tepid, she at least was not the candidate saying "I'm going to register all Muslims. I'm going to jail the opposition. I'm going to silence the press." and so on. By staying at home and not voting, Trump was handed the election.

Clinton and her team had (supposedly) decades of experience at this and were supposed to be experts, especially compared with the Trump campaign's n00b crew, which came up with this logo:

...and still, despite running against the objectively worst candidate in 30 years, Clinton and her team were unable to get people into the voting booth.

Don't beat yourself up for not donating. Hillary Clinton had plenty of money (like Romney), more than Trump. Trump spent half of what Clinton did per electoral vote. Her campaign was well-funded, and was supposed to be well-staffed and well-organized.

The Invisible VP. Without knowing much about Tim Kaine, I can say Clinton's campaign basically make him appear as so much wallpaper, saying nothing and having no personality. Contrast with Joe Biden or Sarah Palin. Kaine was a choice that basically said "Nothing to see here. Show's over there, folks". He added nothing. As someone else noted, Clinton could have made some really bold choices, like picking another woman as a running mate, or picking someone really far left (to lock in the liberals) or even more center (to pull in more on the right). Instead, she went with "invisible".

How bad was the campaign?

Well, for one thing, Barack Obama and the Democrats led the bail-out of the US auto industry in the heart of all those red states. The Democrats saved thousands of jobs, entire cities, and arguably the entire US economy. How come those voters weren't constantly reminded of that? Does anyone believe Mr. "You're Fired" would have saved them?

For another, the GOP and their economic and political policies are directly responsible for literally poisoning the well in Flint, Michigan, and guess who Flint and Michigan voted for? (Hint: Not Hillary Clinton. Go look at that first chart again. Nearly 300,000 fewer Democratic voters in this election than the last one). That is astounding.

Mitt Romney:
Actual billionaire who made money by firing people.
I remain irritated with the left for their inability to address these kinds of issues. How does the left -- the party of unions, universal healthcare, and taxing the rich -- get painted as the "out of touch elite", while the party who cuts taxes on the rich, slashes benefits, and whose last 2 candidates were actual billionaires who made their money firing people (Romney and Trump) get painted as the party of the "working man"? Gross incompetence.

Globalization was supposed to produce dividends, some of which were to be used to help displaced workers. We all dropped the ball on that, and we're paying the price.

I think Trump voters said "well, the Democrats haven't helped us, and Trump is a big "f___ you" to the GOP and the Democrats too, so I'm voting for him." I think that dissatisfaction with the current political system and the economy drove a lot of those Trump voters.

The Culture

I do not think sexism and racism in America are the primary reasons Trump won. Yes, of course those things exist, and were probably factors for a fringe minority, but that minority of people voted, and voted Republican in the last 2 elections.

Again, the numbers do not show any kind of Republican "surge". Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney did. You could argue for every neo-Nazi that voted for Trump, there was a center-right "reasonable" Republican who stayed home. Democrats would have still won if they'd just shown up.

More importantly, for those who keep wringing their hands about the sexism, racism, etc, look at this race and gender data about who voted and how:

52% of white women voted for Trump.
33% of Latino men voted for Trump.
13% of black men voted for Trump.

They likely voted for Trump despite the bad things he said, because they felt he spoke to them somehow. However bothered they were (or weren't) by Trump's words and deeds, those surprising numbers still preferred Trump to Clinton. Let that sink in for a moment.

You have to be extremely cynical and/or condescending to attribute that to "stupidity" or "they were fooled" or "they hate themselves". Or you have to believe that hatred is extremely quick to grow (and deep), because...

This is more or less the same country that elected Barack Obama twice, by large margins (again, see the first chart up top).

I don't think the country has, on balance, become more sexist/racist/whatever despite Trump's campaign. I do think Trump's awful behavior did let the John Birchers, KKK sympathizers, and other lunatic fringe feel like they didn't have to hide anymore, especially when coupled with the awful media.

But people with those beliefs didn't massively boost the GOP voting base. GOP turnout was basically the same. Democrats didn't vote.

Put another way, this wasn't a "victory for sexism and racism", this was "those who oppose sexism and racism decided it wasn't worth voting for in this election."

But let's dig into that for a moment.

First, there are people decrying Trump voters thusly: "How can you vote for a candidate who says such awful sexist and racist things? Who does such awful things? Voting for him is an endorsement of all that awful stuff."

The response from those who voted is "Well, he doesn't really mean it, he's just doing that to get elected." Or they say "well, he's the guy my party picked, so I'm voting for him". Or "I'm voting for him despite all that because I think he's ultimately better for other, more important reasons" (like "he represents change"...Does "change" sound familiar?).

And then I'd remind you that, during the campaign, Democrats frequently noted that Hillary had said things she didn't mean (anymore, such as her position on gay marriage). She'd supported things Democrats didn't like, including a more hawkish position on war and drone strikes, and being too cozy with Wall Street and big business.

And they were still voting for her -- and thus endorsing all of that -- because, well, she didn't mean it, or she was just doing that to get elected, or that she was the person the party picked, or that you were voting for her despite all that because... See?

The left's position of "if you don't agree with what we say and how we require you to say it, you are a racist, sexist, misogynist bigot" is not particularly welcoming, helpful, or constructive. I believe reaction to that attitude is part of Trump's appeal and his win.

Some of you reading this are applying that attitude to all of the people listed above who voted for Trump.

It's not so much that people are all those bad things (sexist, racist, misogynistic, bigoted) -- though of course, that behavior does exist and there are some truly awful people -- it's that nobody likes being scolded in that way, to that degree. Especially not for what they perceive as ordinary behavior, like expressing their opinion and speaking their mind, or at least previously tolerated, behavior like cracking jokes.

It instantly alienates allies and makes the opposition even more hostile. It's also toxic to debate, thought, and the other things that the left is supposed to embody and support.

I have watched many of my friends make fun of Trump's (and other GOPers') gender, appearance, and name, and it is painfully easy to see how completely indistinguishable it is from the right doing the same. Except when the right does these things, it's unacceptable, and when the left does it, it's "just a joke" or justified in some other way.

The left's insensitivity and lack of self-awareness towards how they treat those that disagree with them (while demanding sensitivity from same) is staggering, and it is a real problem.

The left has focused on making sure people respect "identity" and "feelings". But "uneducated white men" (and really, anyone who disagrees with the left on anything) have feelings and identity, too, and in a truly equal world, that also deserves to be respected and understood, not denigrated.

I believe some Trump voters felt this instinctively: "How come I have to respect them, but they don't have to respect me?" "How come it's always 'white guys are the worst' and I can't say something about someone who treated me bad or that I don't like?"

Yes, Trump and the right played on the sexism and racism of their supporters and America at large. The numbers show it didn't really do much for them. Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney did.

Conversely, Clinton and the left arguably said "you are sexist and racist if you don't agree with us". And it appears to have driven away some of those who previously supported them. Clinton got fewer voters to turn up for her than Obama did in the last 2 elections.

The left has some reckoning to do here, both with that hypocrisy and the one-downmanship that leads to arguments about who is the worst off/most victimized and therefore most righteous...and that anyone else's complaints, thoughts, or opinions aren't valid. A good example of how destructive and uncomfortable this gets was the Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders conflict.

Because Left, if you don't win, you don't get to do anything, and you risk losing all your progress. You need to do what it takes to win. That means being accommodating and welcoming. It means compromising, and not just on policy issues. It means real tolerance, not just of those who agree with everything you say and how you want them to say it. Increasing dogmatism and rigidity of thought and ideology makes you more like the Rick Santorum wing of the GOP, but with different rules, and I don't think that's who you are or what you want.

What Else?

I think these remaining factors played a role in Clinton's voter failure, but were less significant than people are believing:

Voter Suppression. The GOP's gerrymandering and voter suppression enabled by the shameful repeal of the Voting Rights Act ultimately decreased minority votes by 10-25% in some states. Those are significant numbers, but a strong get-out-the-vote strategy in those areas could have overcome that AND made Clinton look like a hero. And in the big picture, getting out the vote overall would have overwhelmed the suppression in a few states.

It's not like we didn't know about the gerrymandering or voter suppression in advance. That stuff was public and months out from the election. More should have been done.

3rd-Party Candidates. I don't think every person who voted for Johnson or Stein represented a lost vote for Clinton, but it sure didn't help. The race would have been closer without them in it, obviously, but the margin is likely insufficient to tip the scales.

I remain frustrated with anyone who "protest voted" or actually preferred either of those two objectively terrible candidates: "What is Aleppo?" and The Doctor Who Didn't Believe In Vaccines.

More importantly, the 3rd-party candidates and those who voted for them represent how uninspiring Clinton was for the masses, and how the Democrats just did not have their act together.  You didn't -- and don't -- see this kind of fracturing or erosion on the GOP side, and when it happens (Tea Party), the upstarts are immediately co-opted (assuming they weren't astro-turf to begin with) to make that party "stronger together".

I'll write it again: The Democrats just didn't show up to vote...and some that did voted 3rd-party (but not enough to make a difference).

The echo chamber of social media kept people from really understanding perspectives outside of their own bubble. This same thing clobbered Mitt Romney in the last election.

I see lots of parallels between the Obama/Romney election and the Clinton/Trump election: The confidence of the wealthy establishment candidate against the "upstart" fighting for the people. Romney was blindsided on election night, too. And he also made a dumb comment about the opposition's constituents in the run-up to the election.

The media and their general abdication of responsibility for "telling the truth" and "educating people" in favor of clickbait and panic-generation. This is also our fault, for demanding all our news be free (as in beer), entertaining, and unchallenging. We killed all our newspapers, felt that MSNBC was a fine "Fox for the left", and that having a "Fox for the left" is actually a good idea (it's not).

Of course, the real "newspaper" is Facebook now, and it's full of lies and distortions and completely unaccountable for any of it. And yet, it's how we're all getting our news.

In Closing

"I can't believe Trump won! How did this happen?"

Too many Democratic voters in too many states didn't even bother to vote. At all.

For all Trump's awfulness and all Clinton's greatness, that's how unmotivated they were. Perhaps now the consequences are starting to become evident, the mid-term elections will be different, and perhaps even the next presidential election. I am increasingly skeptical, however.

So, a message to anyone who didn't show up to vote:

All y'all had to do was show up and vote...and most of you are smart enough to figure out how to vote by mail, so you didn't even have to get off the couch. 

And you didn't. You know who you are.

Now, in the aftermath, what do you do? You can march in the street or wear a safety pin or change your Facebook icon. You can volunteer and give money. You can tell yourself you're doing something.

You can blame her. Blame "them". Blame the media. Blame Facebook. Blame Russia.

Doesn't matter. You didn't even vote. You didn't exercise the one right that our nation was founded on, that we've fought wars over, that people have died for. 

You not only lost, you didn't even try. You did nothing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen (1934 - 2016)

Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82.

Mr. Cohen was the real deal. A brilliant songwriter who fused simple, memorable, hymn-like melodies to lyrics filled with poetic imagery and a wry and dark sense of humor welded to an inescapable sadness.

You are probably familiar with at least some of his work, including:

"Bird On A Wire"
"So Long, Marianne"
...and of course "Hallelujah"

Those are the "big hits" from the early days, covered and performed by many an artist, though often missing the subtleties of his wit and delivery. This early work was on a personal scale, and captured something essential about relationships and life.

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
In city and in forest, they smiled like me and you
But now it's come to distances and both of us must try
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye

Like David Bowie, Prince, and Tomita (who have all died this year as well), Cohen was a massive influence on me, and remains a favorite. In my opinion, he was a far greater talent than Bob Dylan (to whom he was compared).

Cohen's public persona wasn't flashy. It was serious, mature, understated. More Frank Sinatra than Elvis Presley. He wasn't "showy", he didn't play to the cheap seats. He got up there and did his thing, and didn't need to spit fire or blood or smash guitars to make you feel something.

One of the first pieces of music I ever heard was his song "Suzanne", done by both Judy Collins (on her 1966 "In My Life" album) and Neil Diamond (on his 1971 "Stones" album), and both of which my father owned and played. I am also pretty sure my Dad played this on guitar and sang it to me.

I rediscovered Cohen in the late 80s as I filled in my musical education at college, his world-weariness and bleak wit a perfect fit for my sophomoric depression.

Originally a kind of folk-rocker, it was around this time Cohen experienced a kind of renaissance among the post-punks, and was covered on several different tribute albums in the late 80s/early 90s.

By then, Cohen had also traded in his acoustic guitar for (deliberately) semi-cheesy synths and drum machines. He was even dating Rebecca DeMornay, who produced his album "The Future".

I studied him more intensely in the 90s as I was learning to write songs, marveling at how he could make something so beautiful out of such simple pieces, and how deeply shaded and well-constructed his lyrics were.

His backing tracks seemed both deliberately minimal, something of a joke, and kind of sleazy, but arguably even better-suited for conveying his lyrics, both conveying the ridiculousness of the 80s machine and presciently anticipating our impending technological future.

By now Cohen was also old enough and experienced enough to be not just cool, but beyond cool. He posed on the cover of "I'm Your Man" with a half-eaten banana in his hand, looking like he just stepped out of a French New Wave film. Why a banana? Andy Warhol. Phallic joke. Maybe he was hungry. Who knows. But he pulled it off, and it was amazing.

Great songs from this era are numerous:
"I'm Your Man"
"Everybody Knows"
"The Future"

Cohen still wrote about personal stakes and relationships, but his work from this time began to get more political and focused on the world at large:
Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with fingers crossed
Everybody knows  the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor
The rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows 

"I'm Your Man" is a great example of how he can inflect his lyrics just slightly and keep things a little off-kilter, hilarious, and sad. It's romantic and creepy and depressing:

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner, take my hand, or
If you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man 
If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I'll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver, climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can
I'm your man 
Ah, the moon's too bright
The chain's too tight
The beast won't go to sleep
I've been running through these promises to you
That I made and I could not keep
But a man never got a woman back
Not by begging on his knees
Or I'd crawl to you baby and I'd fall at your feet
And I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat
And I'd claw at your heart, and I'd tear at your sheet
I'd say please  
I'm your man
And if you've got to sleep a moment on the road
I will steer for you
And if you want to work the street alone
I'll disappear for you
If you want a father for your child
Or only want to walk with me a while across the sand
I'm your man
...and if all of that weren't clever enough, as the song fades out, Cohen starts the lyrics over again from the top, suggesting that the narrator is making this pitch to a different woman passing by, having been rejected or ignored by the first. Brilliant. Perfect. Subtle. Cool.

Some of my best songs from this period were attempts to emulate his literate writing style.

In 2001 Cohen started a late period to his career, blending his previous ideas and achieving a kind of distilled version of himself. Every record had great, timely songs, such as "My Secret Life":
...I smile when I'm angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by
But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And I'd die for the truth
In my secret life
Looked through the paper
Makes you wanna cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white
Thank God it's not that simple
In my secret life 
I bite my lip
I buy what I'm told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old
But I'm always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it's crowded and cold
In my secret life

As perfect as those lyrics are, they're even better when Cohen sings (or perhaps, more accurately "sighs") them to his perfect little melody and groove:

Cohen's final record was just released. "You Want It Darker" is a fitting send-off. Cohen himself had said he was ready to go and on the title track, he sings "Hineni, Hineni, I'm ready, my lord". At 82, it's hard to say "too soon", but I miss him already.

It is difficult to imagine any modern pop singer demonstrating this level of artistry. They just don't make them like this anymore.

I like a lot of music most other people don't, but almost everyone can appreciate Leonard Cohen. If you've never heard him before, great starting points are his early collection "The Best of Leonard Cohen". For later stuff, his 2014 "Popular Problems" is just about perfect.

Thank you for the music, Leonard, and thank you for all you taught me. I am in your debt.