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It’s been nearly five months since I last did a post about the current political landscape. I’m not sure if that represents admirable restraint or if that’s five months when I could have been building my audience by hitching my wagon to the tasty and never-ending Mueller gravy train. But Mueller illustrates a big reason why I didn’t do any posts on current politics. I didn’t have the time or energy to feel satisfied that I truly understand what’s going on, and as things become increasingly polarized it becomes harder and harder to do that in any event, and that’s assuming that I’m satisfied with calling my subjective opinion the truth. It’s basically impossible to get at The Truth.
That said the end of the Mueller Investigation and the delivery of the report was interesting. I got the feeling that there were a lot of Trump haters out there who really felt like it would finally provide the stake they could drive into Trump’s chest which would, at last, kill him for good. When it didn’t, when the report (or at least Barr’s summary, see what I mean) concluded that there had been no collusion, and when no indictment of Trump was forthcoming, there were a lot of people who were very disappointed. And even more people who refused to give up. Including people like Rachel Maddow, who was actually called out by Slate for her descent into increasingly feverish paranoia:
The Howard Bealeization, or Glenn Beckifaction, of Rachel Maddow is a reminder that partisan paranoia has bipartisan appeal. Maddow is right to question the summarizing of a 300ish-page report into four measly pages, to insist on transparency, to challenge the motives of the Trump-friendly AG—and she’s not alone in doing so. But for Maddow, every piece of information remains a clue that might take down the Trump empire. There is no adjustment for how the report has been widely received, no skepticism about what the report might actually contain, just cockamamie connections, the feverish belief that every single thing we don’t know is the all-important fact, that the smoking gun of collusion is out there, and that, yes, Robert Mueller is still going to swoop in and save us.
I remember when I was much younger I was also entranced by “cockamamie connections” though back then the connections all involved the Clintons. And, as recently as the last election, I was unsure what would come out of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails or whether she was in as good a health as she claimed. Which is to say there’s a lot of unknowns out there, all with some potential to excite wonder and suspicion. And it’s very easy to take those unknowns, run them through you biases and come out the other side with some potential theories, some of which probably sound pretty reasonable. In fact it may be that one of the larger problems of our era is how much easier it is to make and disseminate these theories. But that’s a topic for another time.
While the reaction to the end of the Mueller investigation was interesting and probably worth much further discussion, the true reason for bringing it up is that I think the feverish paranoia it illustrates is going to be a large factor in the run up to the 2020 election, which is the true subject of this post.
As usual, it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of the 2020 election will be either Trump or whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination. Accordingly I’ll be spending most of my time discussing the current and potential Democratic candidates, but before I get to that I’d like discuss some possible long shot options where the next president isn’t Trump or the Democratic nominee.
First off, it seems highly likely that Trump will end up with a primary challenger. Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, and libertarian Vice Presidential candidate in 2016, has formed an exploratory committee (if announcing your candidacy is the wedding, an exploratory committee is the engagement). And several other people, including John Kasich have expressed interest. Though the list of people who have publically declined is far more extensive.
I have long predicted that Trump would face a primary challenger, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ll succeed. At the moment the political prediction markets are giving Trump an 85% chance of getting the nomination, and the next most likely candidate after him is Mike Pence at 6%. Which, I assume, represents people who think Trump will be impeached? (If so it didn’t drop as much as I would have expected after Mueller.) But beyond the prediction markets, though it’s something I’ve never entirely understood, Trump has the Republican base pretty well locked up, or at least locked up enough that it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat him in an election composed entirely (or mostly) of Republicans. Based on all of this I have very little hesitation in predicting that Trump will be the Republican nominee for 2020. In other words a primary challenge to Trump would be very interesting, but I believe ultimately unsuccessful.
Another possibility, once again a long shot, would be a serious third party contender. So far, for example, it looks like Howard Schultz is likely to run, though it’s unclear at this point how successful we should expect him to be, so far his polling numbers are pretty low. But he is a billionaire, which counts for a lot, and has Democrats worried enough that they’re apparently begging him not to run. This is understandable, not only does his money allow him to mount a significant challenge, but perhaps more importantly, some polling (albeit asking about a generic independent vs. a generic democrat) suggests that he could pull away five Democratic votes for every vote he pulls from (presumably) Trump. One might wonder why Shultz, who identifies as a Democrat and mostly has very similar positions, would run for President. Particularly knowing that one very likely outcome would be to throw the election to Trump? That’s a great question and it bears a lot on the discussion of the Democratic field in general, but before we get to that I’d like to example one final longshot possibility.
Potentially the most worrying possibility would be if Trump were able to mess with the election in some fashion. You could imagine a variety of ways for him to use the executive branch to do this, ranging from voter suppression of varying legality all the way up to an emergency declaration which postponed the election. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the paranoid left, but my sense is that there’s a fair amount of worry about something like this. If, as Slate claims, Maddow is descending into feverish paranoia, then one can only imagine what’s happening among truly hardcore leftists.
Whatever their fears, I imagine they’re almost certainly overblown. Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to build the wall will be a good preview of what he can and can’t do with the power of the presidency, and so far nothing much seems to be happening. Also it’s instructive to look at what leaders in far more repressive countries can get away with. Which is to say, even in places like Turkey and Russia they still hold elections. No, if Trump is still going to be president in 2021, I don’t think it will be because he manages to rig the system. It might be because of a third party spoiler, but I’ve already predicted that won’t be the case either. No if Trump wins it will be because of who the Democrats nominate. So let’s finally turn our attention to that discussion.
According to Wikipedia there are currently 19 people who have either declared or formed exploratory committees (see above) who have also either held public office, been included in at least five national polls, or who have received substantial media coverage. That seems like a lot, now to be fair, there were 17 Republican candidates in 2016, but we’re still over a year and a half from the election, and there’s still plenty of time for more people to toss their hat into the ring. In fact as I write this a new candidate, Eric Swalwell, announced his bid, just last night. I’m not entirely sure why there are so many candidates, perhaps because there’s no clear front runner? The 2016 Democratic primary offers some proof of that. Back then, Hillary was the presumptive nominee and we only ended up with six candidates. Though one would think that Biden would be the front runner. Speaking of Biden…
I’m guessing that if I asked you to list all 19 candidates or even 12 of the 19 that you’d probably have a hard time (without cheating) but I’m pretty sure you’d come up with Joe Biden. But this is all a trick question, Biden isn’t one of the 19. He hasn’t officially announced his candidacy or formed a committee. He’s listed, along with seven other people, as having expressed interest. (All eight are presumably a big enough deal to be taken seriously.) Meaning we could end up with a field of 27! But you can be forgiven if you thought Biden had already announced his candidacy given the amount of attention he’s getting. Or course most of that attention has been around accusations that he “inappropriate touched” certain women.
Thus far seven women have accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable. One question which always comes up in these situations is, “Why now?” I imagine that part of the reason is that once the first accusation is made it becomes easier for other women to come forth, because they know they’re not alone. That still leave us with the first accusation. Why did Lucy Flores come forward at this point in time? The incident she described (which as far as I know Biden has not denied) happened in 2014 and even if it took the #MeToo movement to make it acceptable to call out such behavior, that’s been going on since October of 2017.
Given all this, it would only be natural to suspect that it has something to do with the election. It’s always possible that it doesn’t, but that definitely wouldn’t be the way to bet. To be clear, I’m not questioning the truth of the accusation, just it’s timing. But, if derailing BIden’s nomination played any part in Flores’ decision to come forward, she would be part of a large group of people who don’t want Biden to be the nominee. He’s far too moderate.
I spent a long time observing the widening split on the right between centrists, moderates and neo-cons on one side and the tea party, paleocons, nationalists and eventually the alt-right on the other. And just as 2016 was the full realization of that ideological split among the Republicans, it’s really starting to feel like 2020 will see the full realization of a similar split among the Democrats, between centrists and third-wayers on one hand and socialists and progressives on the other. If so perhaps these (true) allegations are part of that.
In the past, on both sides, schisms like this have been put aside in the interests of winning. So why is this different? As far as anyone can tell the Democrats want to defeat Trump more than they’ve wanted anything in their whole lives, and according to the polls Biden is the person best positioned to do that. This may be true, but those polls reveal something else: every democratic candidate beats Trump. While the lack of a clear front-runner goes part of the way to explaining the size of the field I think Trump’s perceived vulnerability is also a major factor. Returning to the 2016 primaries, on the Democratic side of things, back then everyone figured that in order to keep the White House in their hands they were going to have to nominate a well funded moderate. On the Republican side, while Clinton wasn’t necessarily perceived as weak, it was clear firing up the base with a non-moderate was a very viable strategy. Even so all of the early front-runners were also well funded moderates.
Going in to 2020, it appears the Democrats can nominate just about anyone and they’ll beat Trump. Which means there are many, particularly those farther left in their politics, who feel that they don’t need to compromise in order to win. That it’s finally their chance to elect someone with a truly revolutionary vision, someone like Bernie Sanders who coincidentally currently tops betting on the prediction market.
You might dismiss Sanders as an anomaly. Perhaps he’s attracting so much attention because he did well in 2016, but that just moves the question backwards in time. Why is Sanders, who’s been a public figure since 1991 able to drum up all this nationwide support recently? Is it in spite of his radical agenda or because of it? It’s incorrect to say that this split only started in 2016, it’s been around forever, but certainly 2016 was evidence that it was starting to widen in a more consequential way. And once again I see lots of parallels between what happened on the right and what’s happening on the left.
In my first post of the year I predicted that populism was going to an increasingly powerful force in the developed world, and I think it’s fair to say that Sanders is a populist. Further, populism was certainly a factor in the election of Trump. This is the trend that connects them, and as it gets stronger the split between populists and the rest widens in both parties. As we saw in the beginning, speaking of Maddow and feverish paranoia, there are lots of trends which start on the right side of the fence, but most of them don’t stay there. In fact given that populism is naturally more at home on the left than on the right, it’s entirely possible that it will end up being a far greater force when all is said and done. Which takes us back to the Democratic field.
In 2016 there was one Democratic candidate with a truly radical agenda, this time there’s significantly more. Though before we get to the numbers, in the interests of fairness I imagine something similar will happen with the Republican field in 2024. In the same way that the current Democratic field contains lots of individuals with positions very similar to Sanders, the 2024 Republican field will most likely contain lots of individuals with positions similar to Trump. As I said it’s a trend affecting both sides of the aisle.
To quantify that trend: among the Democratic primary candidates at least a dozen support some form of single-payer healthcare. Another 15 support the Green New Deal. Most have not expressed an opinion, but of candidates which have, over 80% support expanding the Supreme Court. Eleven support tuition free public college. Essentially everyone but Biden wants nationwide legalization of marijuana. And finally, there’s the issue of reparations for slavery.
Reparations is something of a microcosm of just about everything that’s going on in politics right now, and is worth examining in more detail. To being with, here again, Biden is the outlier. He is the only one who is definitely against the idea. Looking at the rest of the field, there are seven listed as unknown, another six who partially support the idea, and finally an additional six who fully support it. In other words a clear majority supports some action on reparations, and while it’s possible that’s as high it will ever go, I’m guessing it will increasingly become an issue where the candidates have to take a stand, and that some of those seven currently in the unknown column will come out in favor of at least partial reparations.
Beyond the striking level of support for the idea there’s the issue of how recent it is. I realize that there were limited reparations during and after the Civil War, and that a bill calling for a committee to study the issue was first introduced in 1989, and has been introduced at every legislative session since. But the idea certainly hasn’t been mainstream. Some people point to a 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates as reopening the debate, but even Obama didn’t think anything was going to come of it and told Coates, that politically it would be much easier to implement some sort of universal poverty reduction program. But then, starting this year interest skyrocketed.
Much of my worry about new progressive ideas comes from lack of data. When a subject goes from “0 to 60” in the space of 100 days, it’s difficult to know how seriously we should take it an d what kind of legs it will have. It could be a flash in the pan, a slow, but powerful trend, or the dominant issue of our time, surpassing all others. This is important because the range of outcomes is so large. It could end up fizzling out entirely, it could get stuck in a committee, or it could end with actual money being allocated. And here is where it has the potential to get really crazy. Once you’re talking money, estimates can get as high as $60 trillion dollars!
Beyond the newness of the issue and the fervor it has generated, it also promises to be incredibly divisive for the country as a whole. I know that many candidates are just proposing that a committee be formed to study the matter, and on its face that sounds unobjectionable, perhaps even laudable. But what are the chances that this committee, if formed, will end up recommending that no money be paid out? I would say that it’s not zero, but it’s very, very close to that. And once some amount of money has been recommended, then people will start arguing that justice demands that it be paid out. Any predictions on how your stereotypical poor white Trump voter will react to that? That’s where the divisiveness comes in. Now to be clear maybe that shouldn’t matter, maybe paying out reparations would be so empowering that no matter how divisive it is we should push ahead. In the same way that it was worth the death of 600,000 soldiers to end slavery, maybe it’s worth anger and even violence in order to correct this latest injustice. But will it? Would it be the end of racism, and racial preferences?
One of the best arguments I’ve heard for reparations is that it’s essentially just a civil lawsuit. If someone does something bad to you under the law you’re entitled to sue them for damages. This is fairly well-trod territory and it’s a system that actually works adequately if not perfectly. But one key feature of the lawsuit process is once it’s been decided and damages have been awarded, you can’t bring the same complaint before the court again. Is that how reparations would work? That once paid out racism and race relations would be solved? If so I am all for it, but I suspect that’s not what would happen. I think we would end up with a country even more divided by racial identity than it is now, without much to show for it.
I’m basically out of space and I still haven’t covered how you would determine who gets reparations and who doesn’t (a problem Native American tribes are struggling with in determining the distribution of casino profits.) Further afield I haven’t talked about the strange power Ilhan Omar seems to be exercising over the Democrats, or my weird excitement for Andrew Yang. And then there’s parallels which could be drawn between the Democrats and the UK labor party, who made Jeremy Corbyn their leader and who still aren’t in power despite the total debacle that is Brexit.
The key point I wanted to get across is that while there is a good chance that the Democrats will select a moderate who will easily beat Trump, I see lots of early signs that they might not. To repeat, the most visible moderate, Biden, hasn’t even entered the race yet! This is obviously what ended up happening to the Republicans and look where it got us. Yes, Trump won, but that’s precisely what I’m getting at, there are currently individuals in the Democratic Primary who I think would be as bad or worse than Trump. Perhaps you don’t think that’s possible, fair enough, but let me put another way. They might not win. In fact, it’s looking like the only way the Democrats can lose is by nominating someone less electable than Trump, and that may be exactly what they end up doing.
When I did a DNA test it came back with 0.01% Sub-Saharan ancestry, which, if accurate, would almost certainly imply that one of my ancestors was a slave, so if you think reparations is a good idea, you could start with me.