Barack Obama began the press conference he held the day after his party was crushed in the 2014 midterm elections by implying that the results were of questionable legitimacy because turnout had been so low—by some accounts, the lowest since 1942. “To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” he said. “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
The contention was ridiculous on its face. You cannot hear people who deliberately choose not to speak. Even so, Obama suggested that, had those non-voters voted, they would have done so in support of him and his party:
One of the things that I’m very proud of in 2008 and 2012, when I ran for office, was we got people involved who hadn’t been involved before. We got folks to vote who hadn’t voted before, particularly young people. And that was part of the promise. The excitement was, if you get involved, if you participate, if you embrace that sense of citizenship, then things change. And not just in abstract ways, in concrete ways. Somebody gets a job who didn’t have it before. Somebody gets health care who didn’t have it before. Or a student is able to go to college who couldn’t afford it before.
Obama believes that he and his party have done all these things—that they have helped someone get a job, get health care, go to college. If that were so, why on earth wouldn’t those very people go to the polls to reward the party that had done such wonderful things for them? Well, he explained, “sustaining that excitement, especially in midterm elections, has proven difficult—that sense of if you get involved, then you know, if you vote, then there’s going to be a big change out there.”
That is one way to look at it. The wrong way.
The voters to whom Obama was referring obliquely are between the ages of 18 and 29. That demographic group’s voting pattern since 2008 shows the error in the president’s analysis.
In 2008, Obama won under-30s by a margin of 2 to 1. That same cohort favored Democrats in 2010, but by a margin of 58 to 42—which is a drop of 11 percent. In his 2012 reelection, Obama brought the under-30 number up a little; they went for him 3 to 2. But that was still a 10 percent decline for him compared with 2008.
And in 2014? Under-30s voted 53 to 43 for the Democrats. So consider this pattern: Overall, from 2008 to 2014, the Obama-Democrat share of the youth vote fell by 20 percent.
Now, it is true that under-30s comprised 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 but only 13 percent in 2014. So let us be insanely generous and assume that those missing voters would have broken 3 to 2 for the Democrats as they did for Obama in 2012. By my calculation, those extra votes still wouldn’t have added enough to change the outcome in any of the eight Senate races in which Republicans took control of Democratic seats on election night. (Even in North Carolina, the closest of the races, Republican Thom Tillis would have edged out Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by about 18,000 votes.) In other words, give Obama his lost voters, and the 2014 wave would have broken in almost exactly the same way.
That is why these numbers suggest something very different from what the president thinks. They suggest that young people were wildly enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008, considerably less enthusiastic about him in 2012, and not enthusiastic at all about the Democratic Party he leads in 2014. The president described their failure to turn out thus: “When they look at Washington, they say nothing’s working and it’s not making a difference and there’s just a constant slew of bad news coming over the TV screen.” Not really. They lost their enthusiasm because of him.
That is even more apparent once you note that in several states, there was a substantial difference between the behavior of voters ages 25 to 29 and voters ages 18 to 24. In North Carolina, 25- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrat Kay Hagan by a margin of 59 to 34—while 18- to 24-year-olds only went 47 to 44 for Hagan. In Kentucky, the split was even more stark: The younger cohort favored Republican Mitch McConnell 53 to 42, while the slightly older group went for his Democratic challenger 52 to 43.
This older group went to the polls for the first time during Obama’s rock-star “hope and change” moment in 2008. The younger group came to political consciousness when Barack Obama was already serving as president. Perhaps for the 2008 voter, in these states, and in others, those who have participated only in Obama-era elections are considerably more likely to vote Republican than their older siblings. And again, due to gridlock, or disappointment, or because the GOP is very appealing to them. It, too, is because of him.
The Democrats running for the Senate knew this. It is why they did not want him to campaign for them, and why one of them steadfastly refused even to acknowledge having voted for Obama despite the fact that she had been a delegate at the 2012 Democratic convention. Behaving in this fashion actually ran counter to the conventional wisdom about the highly polarized American electorate that followed Obama’s reelection. According to this new wisdom, campaigns should no longer be dedicated to winning undecided voters, who are supposedly very few in number, but to turning out persuadable voters.
The term persuadable describes a person who is probably generally sympathetic to a candidate but doesn’t feel any drive to go out and vote for him. Getting these “persuadables” to the polls in 2012 was the key to Obama’s reelection triumph. For the first time, pollsters report, the Obama campaign was able to drag people to the ballot box who said they basically preferred Obama but measured their own eagerness to vote at 2 or 3 on a scale of 10. (It had been an axiom for decades that no matter whom voters claimed to support, only those who scored themselves at 4 or above would actually turn out.) The key persuadable constituency in 2012 was voters between the ages of 18 and 29. So despite Obama’s low approval rating, one might have thought he would have remained valuable on the campaign trail as a lure to the persuadable voters who had pulled him across the finish line. That is clearly what he believes. But those campaigns were not run by stupid people. They were run by professionals desperate to win—professionals who probably admire Barack Obama. They kept their distance because they had to. They knew the persuadables weren’t going to be persuaded this time. He had lost them.
The Republicans running against Democratic incumbents knew it, too. Every one of them highlighted the degree to which his Democratic rival was an Obama catspaw. As the Washington Post noted after the election, “Republicans had a simple plan: Don’t make mistakes, and make it all about Obama, Obama, Obama. Every new White House crisis would bring a new Republican ad. And every Democratic incumbent would be attacked relentlessly for voting with the president 97 or 98 or 99 percent of the time.”
Making the election a national referendum on the president hadn’t worked in 2012, and many of the wisest and most intellectually serious people on the right were concerned that it wasn’t going to work this time either—that the Republican candidates needed to set a positive and coherent agenda because, without one, they would not inspire enough people. But those campaigns weren’t run by stupid people either. They saw what the Democratic campaigns saw.
So why did the anti-Obama focus fail in 2012 but win in 2014? The president wants to believe it’s because he’s being blamed for Washington’s dysfunction. But consider just a partial list of horribles the American people have had to face since 2012.
ObamaCare went live in October 2013, and the billion-dollar website that was supposed to guide people through their choices died. Americans learned that the Veteran’s Administration had been falsifying data to hide its dreadful record of failed care. Border states were flooded with tens of thousands of children who had been led to believe that they (and eventually their parents) would be legalized after their horrific journeys. The Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that it had targeted groups hostile to the president, then denied it, and then claimed the emails detailing the actual events had somehow vanished. Americans were given contradictory and confusing details about how authorities were going to prevent the spread of Ebola inside the United States. After we were told the war on jihadist terror was basically a thing of the past, there came the rise of ISIS. The president erased his own “red line” when it came to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Vladimir Putin took a bite out of a neighboring country and is getting ready to take another. That is quite a record to take to the electorate.
No one believes that the Republican Party is popular. And yet, on Election Day, Republicans won eight new Senate seats (with a ninth on the way). The party will have its largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1946. Republicans reside in 31 of the nation’s 50 governor’s mansions, by far the highest number in modern times. In 24 states, the GOP holds the governorship and both houses of the state legislature; Democrats are in the same position in only six states. Republicans will now control 67 of the nation’s 98 state legislative chambers, up from 59. And all this despite the fact that no one believes that the Republican Party is popular.
The New York Times reported on election night that the president did not feel “repudiated.” At his press conference, Obama said the Republicans had had a “good night.” They had indeed, but only because he had been repudiated.
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The Repudiation of Barack Obama
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.