26 April 2016

Inequality and voting

Bernie Sanders made a hilariously poorly framed statement. Effectively blaming the lack of poor people voting for why his campaign has faired relatively poorly (or at least, isn't winning). One obvious problem with this is that Sanders has not done any better among those voters who are poor and have shown up to vote. There are reasons for that.

I propose that this was a fundamental flaw all along with his campaign. That it was unlikely to appeal to many people who are among the poorest Americans. The reason, to me, was that he was not running a campaign based on the issues that matter to such people. He was running a campaign based on issues that matter to relatively well off white middle class voters. Of the sort one encounters in Vermont.

For example. Most of the poorest Americans live in fairly awful school districts for K-12 primary education. A campaign which promises free college tuition is meaningless to most of these people as their children would not be provided with basic skills and knowledge necessary to be modestly successful at navigating through college and graduating in the first place. The problem of inequality as it relates to college is that a high school diploma has become economically useless, and the reason is that the perception is that most such schools are poorly qualified at providing useful skills to employers. There are lots of ways to try to fix that, some of which may even help and work to improve education and even the possibility of college and a decent living for hundreds of thousands of children. Paying for the college educations of legions of already reasonably well educated suburban children isn't one of these. It is not surprising that it is popular (among recent college graduates, and some professors). But it has little relevance to the problems of the majority of Americans suffering from poverty. It should not be surprising it doesn't catch on as a special message for the poor.

This problem continues throughout. Sanders has made considerable claims about the fairness of campaign funding. But the actual problem for poorer Americans is liable to be ballot access. They can't take off work to go vote (on a Tuesday). If they even can vote (if they have been removed from registration, or have a criminal record, for example). Various states have made it more and more difficult to vote early, or to vote by mail, or even to register to vote. Politicians may certainly be swayed by money and influence, but they're mainly swayed by votes, on the theory that they would like to remain in office. If legions of poorer voters were to show up or be able to show up and vote, one expects this may influence the behavior of some political figures. Middle class voters may wish to feel like their smaller sums may fund better campaigns, but the actual and immediate problem is ballot access, not influence access.

Meanwhile there is not much evidence that more people voting or more access on campaign funding via semi public methods or funds matches has any noticeable effect on the progressivism of governance voters receive. Maine does some of the stuff Sanders seems to like. Maine also has one of the few people in America possibly more insane than Drumpf as its elected and currently serving governor. There may be other good reasons to amend how elections and lobbying are funded. But the formation of some kind of "progressive revolution" is not one of them. Voters who don't vote aren't very progressive (except on economics, where they are often socialistic), and are apt to endorse all manner of biases and prejudices that we probably don't want or will have to fight in court. This is the messy business of democracies is that voters have wacky ideas. Some of them are wrong via prejudices or at best woefully misinformed. This is not necessarily their fault (in some cases), as they have little reason to become well-informed. Non-voters are typically even worse on this score, as they have had even less reason to become well-informed. We should not expect that merely getting more people to vote will have mainly predictable and beneficial outcomes for our society and its civic virtues. This is a silly belief in the rationality of voters toward voting in their self-interest. Something many of them do not in fact try to do. Many people vote out of a sense of civic virtue and simply do not agree on what would best create a better and more prosperous society. Often resulting in what we have as governance. This is not fixed by encouraging more people to vote and having to resolve more of these disagreeable notions.

Railing about bankers and the rich as Sanders often does has its amusing charm I'm sure, but it offers little sustaining fuel for what comes next, and it often rejects things bankers and rich people want on the grounds that it is bankers and rich people who want it. This is not sensible. But it also isn't the variety of inequality which seems to preoccupy most people. Most people have no idea how Bill Gates lives. Or Jamie Diamond. Etc. This does not violate some sense of fairness or attainable goals as a result. They do have some idea how their friends and neighbours and former classmates and co-workers live. The sort of inequality which dominates most people's time and attention and energy is "am I keeping up with my peers"? "Am I able to live in accordance with my perceived shared values?" This is difficult to make into a policy, much less a stump speech. But I suspect it occupies more of daily concern and thought for most people. There's clearly some sense that the game is being rigged, but it is many millions of miles away from our lived experiences in many cases. It is an abstraction, often involving complex legal and regulatory schemes. Our friends, or some random people we know across town doing much better than us, or seeming to via facebook, is a much more accessible emotional problem. I don't understand this variety of envy as naturally sensible, and it obviously affords little comfort in the form of government intervention. But I also don't understand concern over extremely wealthy people necessarily either. Unless we have clear evidence that they are gaining that wealth through misbegotten strategies and tactics at the expense of others, and there are cases that this would be (US sugar or corn farmers for example), I'm not really concerned that some people are outrageously successful. This is not by and large something that deeply disturbs many Americans that some people can get very rich, even among people who are pretty poor. For Sanders, it appears to be. This is not likely to be a connection people will make readily as a result.

A final problem. Perhaps the main one ultimately. Sanders has had difficulty making inroads with minorities, particularly African-Americans. I have read more times than I can count over the last few months that his policies would be of tremendous benefit to such people and why don't they like them or vote for him, as a disturbing example of whitesplaining I suppose. There are a litany of problems with this variety of statement, but a simple objection suffices: the things Sanders and his fans seem most animated about aren't the priority of this community to fix and address. The priority might be something like "we want a police force that doesn't brutalize and kill us and feel like an occupying army in our neighbourhoods". Or "we want the ability to start a business and get a fair loan to do so". "We want our children to be able to go to a decent school to prepare them for their future". There are basic forms of survival and prosperity which have gone unmet and are in need of serious improvement, and these problems cut beyond some version of class warfare that Sanders believes is necessary; they have ethnic and historical roots that are not merely the behavior and intentions of rich people to put in place and accost people for. The prejudices are deeper and broader than that. These issues are as a result often very disconnected from the types of policies and politics which Sanders and his supporters have put forward most often and most readily. Certainly it seems unclear that Clinton offers policies that may adjust these situations in a positive way. She has not endorsed many Black Lives Matter positions as part of her platform, and has a track record that is sketchy at best where race and criminal justice are involved. But neither does Sanders offer some version of an improvement on many of these questions (a possible exception is the drug war, which he seems slightly less enthusiastic about continuing to wage). In that instance, people may go with the devil they know.

One way to look at these questions however is to say that often inequality as a political issue does not seem well connected to inequality as a social issue. It therefore does not resonate the way a political figure believes it will when they talk about it. The reason is fairly simple. Most political figures do not know very many poor people. Or many people from ethnic or religious minorities. This makes it more complicated for them to connect their message in a way that actually feels like it would impact the plight of people who are marginalized and not well off economically. Much policy is then crafted almost entirely in the absence of asking how it would actually impact the people involved, or whether it actually addresses their needs and concerns. A paternalistic "we know better than they what they need/want" attitude also pervades these conversations with notions of "people voting against their self-interest" and the like. Little of this probably feels like it relates to the lived experiences of actual people who are poor.
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