Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Category Archives: Politics

“Good riddance”

There are a variety of things wrong with the Democratic Party; there are a lot of reasons why it’s, generally speaking, losing in the 21st century. I think the most important reason is that, despite what the base wants and the overall popularity of the policies supported by rank-and-file Democratic membership, the party leadership is beholden to the economic elite who favor policies which benefit the already-rich and powerful. Universal healthcare is a good example of a policy that most Democrats, especially the most motivated and committed, want but that the party leadership has hesitated to get behind.

But that’s not the only thing wrong with the Democrats. Josh Marshall has written an article about Alabama’s Republican nominee for Senate (and likely winner) Roy Moore, whose most important financial backer has expressed Christian supremacist and neo-Confederate ideas, and he’s associated with the League of the South (as has Moore).

That’s awful, though it’s not terribly surprising. But whenever you look at stories like this on liberal/Democratic-leaning websites, or when they’re posted by prominent liberal Twitter accounts, there’s a common tendency in the comments or responses. By my count a solid majority of the replies to the above-quoted tweets and a sizable chunk of the replies on TPM are some variation of “Good riddance!” or “Let them go” or “Kick them out.”

So: an explicitly Christian supremacist with ties to more-or-less openly white supremacist organizations want to take control of a state that votes 35-40% Democrat and is 30% or 35% non-white (depending on how you count Hispanics). For a sizable portion of the people who care enough to post about it on the internet, the response is to just let them do that.

This isn’t a matter of whether Democratic policies favor those voters, or whether Republican policies harm them. Compare the way that conservatives respond to stories about, say, the (much over-stated) liberal bias on college campuses. There are calls for affirmative action for conservative academics, calls for the firing of professors who make inflammatory liberal statements, insistence on equal rights for using college spaces for even the most extreme conservative/anti-liberal speakers, and demands that college administrators or even state legislatures step in to protect conservative voices. There’s an element of “That’s what you get when you go to liberal colleges” or talk about conservative alternatives, but it’s in general extremely supportive for conservatives who decide to attend those institutions (a self-selected identity, unlike where you’re born).

I know it’s the internet, and it’s Twitter, and it’s the comments section. I know a lot of people think it’s funny to post such thoughts and wouldn’t actually favor secession. But I also know that lots of black people didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t think the Democratic Party did anything for them. Black voter turnout declined sharply in 2016, and despite the most anti-immigrant candidate in decades, Latino turnout didn’t increase very much. Republicans were effective in reducing (and in some cases, repressing) turnout, but Democrats were also bad at increasing turnout.

The reason so many black and rural Americans feel like Democrats don’t care about them is because lots of Democrats don’t really care about them, or at least they don’t act like they do.


Southerners, southerners, and southerners

People were rightly critical of this idiotic tweet sent by Virginia gubernatorial wannabe Corey Stewart:

idiot tweet

But I am glad for it. Perhaps you, like me, are a history professor teaching American history, and it’s the end of the semester, so you’re in the middle of or getting into a discussion of secession and the Civil War. This tweet is a perfect teaching moment, a distillation of everything wrong with how we talk about secession, the Confederacy, and the South.

Stewart’s comment is about the wrongly-described “Confederate” monument (actually a monument to an attempted Reconstruction-era white supremacist insurrection). Stewart describes “a Yankee” and “a Southerner” as though these are real and natural categories. The implication is that someone from the North and someone from the South would have opposite perspectives about this monument. Stewart’s understanding of “Southerner” means white supremacists who supported the Confederacy; the South’s black population, or for the matter the large white Unionist population and whites like Italians who also faced racialized violence, is completely erased.

I think I am going to start class today with this tweet.

Perhaps the most important part of this tweet, which really does an amazing job of packing so many wrong and bad assumptions into so few characters, is the “don’t matter” part. This rhetorical maneuver asserts that people who oppose white supremacist public monuments don’t care about history, southerners, or the South. People on Twitter have clever comebacks about how really? nothing is worse?, which is fun and enjoyable, but we shouldn’t allow the rhetorical boundary-setting of this tweet to go unchallenged. Nobody is saying these monuments or the history they represent don’t matter; they mattered, and still matter, all too much.

The Alt-Right and Perspective

Most decent people who are aware of the phenomenon are unhappy about the  “alt-right,” a batch of wannabe Nazis who are well known for being loud racists on the internet. I think people are right to have a negative response to the movement. Anyone who proudly claims an alt-right identity is an awful person who makes the world worse. Worse, the success of the alt-right’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump, and mainstream media’s (as usual) ham-handed and incompetent attempts to understand it risk normalizing a strain of proud, open white supremacy and misogyny in a way that hasn’t been accepted in polite company in decades. These are bad things, and we should resist them.

But the alt-right didn’t elect Donald Trump. There aren’t enough of them; if Twitter didn’t exist, nobody would have any idea what the movement even is. And the alt-right didn’t invent racism. American racial inequality is, by most objective measures, worse today than it was thirty years ago. This isn’t a new and recent trend.

Furthermore: The alt-right isn’t locking people up and ruining their lives for possessing marijuana. The alt-right didn’t disenfranchise six million voters because of felony conviction. The alt-right didn’t deport 2.5 million people under the Obama administration. The alt-right isn’t propping up the Saudis’ horribly destructive war in Yemen. The alt-right didn’t organize drone strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians and which Amnesty International says may amount to war crimes. The alt-right isn’t causing climate change or single-handedly stopping the implementation of meaningful measures to address it.

The alt-right is bad and should be opposed. But we should not let the easy and obvious villains obscure the everyday atrocities in which, ultimately, every American is complicit.

Sample Size

The imminent college football playoff announcement has me thinking, curiously enough, about the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. The big debate college football faces, which it has never been able to adequately address, is how to judge championships and rank the “best” team versus the “most deserving” team. College football is inherently subjective in too many ways. Even with the four-team playoff, teams depend on the luck of other outcomes to determine whether they go to a playoff, and a playoff committee will necessarily be subjective in its decisions as to who to include in a playoff and how to rank them. Even the apparently objective criteria of winning a conference title almost always depends on the luck of who you beat and to whom your conference mates lose, especially when leagues without round-robin schedules go by overall conference records, rather than divisional records, to determine divisional champions, not to mention that college football currently has five major conferences for four playoff spots. Other sports leagues, like the NFL or the Premier League, solve this problem in very different ways that college football cannot, for a variety of structural reasons, borrow.

Trying to decide who the best team is, trying to understand outcomes, requires an appreciation that even the best teams will not (because of the role that luck and chance play in any sport, especially college football) necessarily be the team that wins. Take a coach like Nick Saban. “Lucky” seems like an odd adjective for him; he’s been by virtually any measure the most effective coach in the country since Alabama hired him. Saban is the best at the most important skills in college football, recruiting and putting together coaching staffs, and he’s excellent at Xs and Os and player development. But! Really only twice (2009 and this season so far) has Saban made sure his team did everything objectively which could be done, and even 2009 took quite a bit of on-the-field luck. 2011’s national title took a bizarre rematch, 2012 required late season losses by multiple teams, and so on. This is how college football works; even the best need a lot of luck.

This makes ranking “the best” all but impossible. You could make an argument that Penn State, who beat Ohio State, is better than Ohio State. But Pitt beat Clemson and Penn State both, and I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that Pitt is the best team of those three. Despite the faux objectivity of the playoff, chance and uncertainty are a part of college football, and that means that sometimes statistically unlikely things will happen. You can say the team which has the better overall season is better, or the team which won a head-to-head contest is better, and both can be right. In all sports, but especially in college football, there is no objective way to determine this.

Like almost everyone else, I was very confident and very wrong about who would win the 2016 election. After the election, there was a lot of talk about what the results said about polling: all pollsters are just frauds, we cannot trust them in the future, this suggests larger undercurrents about who can and cannot be accounted for as voters to a degree which undermines any effort at election prediction, and so on. But I don’t think, after considering it almost a month later, that the election really tells us anything about the effectiveness of polling or predictions. Trump’s election looks in many ways like a freak occurrence: his margin in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan appears like it’s going to end up being less than 100,000, a tiny victory . Clinton won a significant popular vote victory. The polls predicted that Clinton had a much higher chance of winning the election than Trump did; that still seems basically correct. It’s statistically unlikely that you’ll get heads if you flip a coin three times in a row, but that happening once doesn’t change the likelihood in the future or the probability of the prediction in the past.

Elections are like college football: sometimes, things are weird and the most likely outcome doesn’t happen.

2016 and watersheds

The 2016 election has been a uniquely depressing experience. Somehow the Republicans managed to nominate, from a candidate pool ranging from awful to merely incompetent, the worst possible option: a racist authoritarian whose existence is a stinging rebuke to the notion of American meritocracy and who undermines easy assumptions about the progress of equality in America. Hillary Clinton, practically the embodiment of what people mean when they complain about hawkish neoliberalism, is somehow the good guy in the 2016 race.

One element that makes the race so unpleasant is its steady presence: the downside of being constantly connected is that you’re, well, constantly connected. Social media and cable news overflow with obnoxious political commentary, stories of Trump’s latest bigoted gaffe, or horserace commentary. You sometimes feel like you can’t get away from this horrible experience through which the American people are inexplicably putting themselves.

Part of this is a reflection of the increasingly (and regrettably) partisan nature of American political culture, but I also think part of it is a need to make the race more exciting than it actually is. Like play-by-play announcers insisting that anything can happen in the fourth quarter of a 45-14 football game, the clickbait/24-hour news media has a vested economic interest in obscuring the extent to which the election has already been decided. In all likelihood, the race is over, and Donald Trump has lost. Most organizations predicting the outcome, as the New York Times forecast indicates, overwhelmingly favor Clinton:


Scrolling down to the state-by-state predictions, Trump would have to hold on to all the Republican states, win every toss up state, and pick off one of the states leaning Democrat to win. Polls can be wrong and anything can happen etc etc etc, but a huge Clinton win picking up 350+ electoral votes seems far more likely than a Trump win by any margin.

There are a few explanations for this state of affairs. One obvious reason that Trump is losing is that he’s Trump. Clinton is a weak candidate, and the things that are necessary to be good at campaigning are not her strengths (or are outside her immediate control, like the continued influence of sexism). But Trump is just about the worst imaginable candidate, magnifying Clinton’s strengths like political experience and temperament for the job while minimizing her weaknesses because he shares so many of them.

I’m curious how much of this is bigger than Trump, though. Demographic forces and political shifts appear to have favored the Democrats for several presidential elections in row (Congress and state elections being a different matter). Since the end of the Cold War, the smallest electoral margin any Democratic president has managed was John Kerry’s 251 in 2004, also the only time since 1988 a Republican won a majority of the popular vote. The two Republican victories were extremely narrow; the Democratic wins have been solid.

I wonder if historians will look at the 2008 presidential election as one of those watershed elections, like 1896 or 1932, that permanently changed the political landscape. 1896 seems like a good comparison: a partisan era when Democrats usually had safe states to count on, but a time when Republicans almost always had the advantage going into a presidential race.

And yet! Republicans hold a solid majority of the political offices around the country. Republicans make up a majority of governors and, even in this awful national year, expect to hold on the House of Representatives with a toss-up for control of the Senate. Maybe a better analogy is 1968, when the New Deal coalition broke and, ushering Republican dominance in presidential elections against Democratic control of Congress.

That said, one can easily take this kind of talk too far; I remember people talking about the inevitable generation of Republican ascendancy even after the 2000 election. Barack Obama’s election may represent only unhappiness with the unpopular George W. Bush and a desire for change, while a Clinton victory might best be understood as a referendum on the exceedingly unfit Trump. But it looks to me like most of the trends at a national level favor the Democrats; it would take considerable Democratic incompetence or scandal (or something attributed as such) to shift the balance.

Too liberal? Too conservative?

I’ve been thinking about what the Bernie Sanders campaign means now that it no longer has, if it ever did, a realistic shot at winning the Democratic presidential nomination. One of the most striking differences between the Republican Party and Democratic Party today is that while you can’t really be too conservative/right-wing as a Republican, you can easily be too liberal/left-wing as a Democrat. I think this dynamic explains much about the direction American politics has gone in the last forty or so years.

Republicans talk about Abolishing the IRS even as they concede it’s hyperbole. They talk about further increasing America’s already enormous military spending to cartoonish levels. Saying we need to bomb Iran or really anywhere won’t cost you any support in a Republican race. You can be too libertarian or anti-war to be a successful Republican – Ron Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy and general nuttiness doomed his success. And if you’re explicitly a white supremacist or call for the beheading of homosexuals, you are probably at out of luck. But, a Republican can’t really promise to crack down on terrorism too harshly, or make the IRS and PBS and Department of Education too small, or round up immigrants too fast, and damage their political chances, at least among Republicans.

Among Democrats, it’s a very different story. Hillary Clinton – friend of Wall Street, foreign policy hawk, explicit in her rejection of universal single-payer health care – is the kind of Cold War liberal who was as interested in eliminating any hints of socialism in the Democratic Party as with beating Republicans. Despite talk about democratic socialism and whatnot, Bernie Sanders is basically a New Deal Democrat, with a willingness to intervene in the economy that became unpopular to mainstream Democrats after World War II. Clinton and the Democratic establishment attacked this as unworkable and electorally suicidal. Bernie Sanders was too liberal to win the Democratic presidential nomination, and failing that proved to be incompetent in making the kind of social liberal cues that at least the loudest Democrats think are important.

I think this shift happened because the people making Democratic policy and deciding who the Democratic elite will be are themselves essentially elite – the wealthy and highly educated who replaced working class white voters as the driver of Democratic policy (poor whites being in part replaced by even poorer and politically marginalized black voters who lack the capacity to challenge for party leadership), with the reinforcing result that social and cultural issues replaced economic ones as the main priority.

Or maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. What is certain is that we’ll have a 2016 presidential debate between a party which embraces a centrist candidate and a party which embraces conservative candidates. Clinton is what I would consider center-slightly left on domestic issues and right/interventionist on foreign policy. I actually don’t know if Donald Trump is conservative or if he has any meaningful political ideology at all, but he’s moved to the right during the course of the nomination process in large part reacting to how his audience responds, there’s an argument to be made that he represents the current conservative movement, and it’s fair to say that the candidates the Republicans carried through the nomination process were almost all some variety of solidly conservative.

This is the result of Third Way liberalism. When one side is willing to reconcile the extremes and the other is not, the necessary result is that the political climate will change.

Is There a Case for Trump?

Just to get it out of the way, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is No, probably more accurately Absolutely Not. But in the spirit of inquiry, is there a case to be made that a rational person should vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States? Probably not, but we’ll give it a shot.

Assuming that all the (almost always incorrect) arguments against voting for a third party have swayed a hypothetical voter, they will likely be faced with the choice between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. I can only imagine three reasons to vote for Trump over Clinton.

First, a single-issue voter might favor something that Trump supports that Hillary does not. I find this unconvincing. Neither candidate, especially Trump, is particularly principled. Outside of vague generalities and a distaste for outsiders, it’s hard to figure out exactly what Trump stands for except for Trump. Someone who feels very strongly that Mexicans are a problem or that American companies should be harshly punished for foreign trade might favor Trump. But Trump is so flexible in his beliefs and new to politics that it’s difficult to imagine him actually sticking to any of his campaign promises or being particularly capable in making them into effective policy.

A subset of this argument is straight party-line voting, a voter who might dislike Trump but would rather the Republicans put judges and administrators into office rather than a Democrat. But to what extent is Trump actually a Republican? Could you feel safe about Trump nominating, say, a Supreme Court justice? He would probably nominate his daughter, or himself. And rational voters might worry how much a Trump presidency, even more than just the Trump candidacy, will hurt the long term prospects of the Republican Party. George W. Bush cost the Republicans dearly; the impact of Trump might be generational.

Second, a hypothetical voter might believe that there is something so dangerous about Hillary Clinton in particular that she must be stopped at any cost. People very concerned about Benghazi and general conspiracy nuts fall into this camp. Clinton definitely seems disagreeable to me – evasive, hawkish, a friend if not tool of Wall Street, and a mushy centrist whose main principle seems to be a commitment to government technocracy itself. But there’s no reason to think that Clinton is particularly dishonest or dangerous, compared to any other politician, especially the shamelessly dishonest and generally unhinged Trump. Clinton is bad, but her badness is an embodiment of conventional wisdom – if Clinton is a problem, it’s because Washington is a problem.

A third reason, and what appears to drive most of the Trump support, is a desire to stick it to the establishment. Washington, liberals, cosmopolitans, smug intellectuals, or whoever it is you don’t like – Trump is a way to stick a thumb in their eye. The flaws in this are obvious: Trump is a rich guy who was born rich and got richer mostly through luck or by doing things that made the economy, society, or both worse off. Trump is of the establishment, if not the exact part of the establishment that some voters find so objectionable. And electing Trump, perhaps the least qualified person (in both experience and personality) ever nominated by a major party for president, would be a particularly harmful form of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. There are much easier, not to mention less destructive, ways to stick it to the establishment than by voting for a vulgar, off-brand Mussolini.

Interracial Neighborhoods and the Low-Overhead Life

Last week, I saw this article about living the good life or at least an easier life by moving out of expensive coastal cities to places like the author’s home outside Cleveland, Ohio.

But the more I thought about his essay, the more I realized I’m doing just fine: I live in a Tudor-style house in a tree-lined, inner-ring suburb, and I’ve built up significant equity in it. My son goes to a great school—two of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners are alums. I have a house cleaner. I go out to spendy restaurants about twice a week. And I always have $400 on hand in case of an emergency.


And yet my 2015 taxes reveal that my income was $43,000. How is this possible? Because here in the Rust Belt, we writers—and the middle class—have low overhead.


But here’s the rub: I am able to afford this faux middle-class life on $40,000 a year because I live around poverty. The median income in the city of Cleveland is $26,179; the median income in Shaker Heights, where I live, is $75,177. Nearly a quarter of Clevelanders live below the poverty line, and only about 15 percent have a B.A. And yet, true to form, there are a few small areas within the city limits that I can no longer afford to live, as developers have rushed in to build overpriced housing for a tiny segment of educated professionals.

As a almost-lifelong resident of Alabama, and as an academic who committed to moving to where the jobs are, I support this general approach. The year I spent living in the Atlanta suburbs cost hundreds of dollars more a month than here in my current much nicer house in southeast Alabama. Move to a town with less than 15,000 people, and you can really save some money and live a comfortable life, so long as you don’t mind giving up things like movie theaters or restaurant variety.

That said, there’s another (probably easier) way to get the same general result without moving as far: live around black people. This is a plan that works more for white people, I think, though not necessarily. Living around poorer people means you can buy a bigger house or more land for less money; living in undesirable places means you can buy a bigger house or more land for less money; African Americans tend to be on average poorer than other ethnic groups, and continued racism means that largely black neighborhoods are considered undesirable by a large number of white people.

I recently learned that this has been called “racial arbitrage,”  and what is fascinating to me is that racism remains so powerfully embedded in American culture that such opportunities still abound. It shouldn’t be possible to do this, but here we are. Many whites continue to hold the belief that a mostly-black neighborhood is inherently violent or mostly-black schools are inherently inferior. This creates price differences that willing buyers can exploit; America still doesn’t have many of these willing buyers.

Two brief thoughts about 2016

To me, the most interesting storyline from the 2016 presidential race is the Democratic establishment and media’s enormous distaste for Bernie Sanders and his supporters. There’s the whole idiotic Bernie Bros thing, of course. But look at the way that Hillary Clinton supporters treat the young people supporting Sanders. Is it any surprise that young voters don’t engage in politics? When they do and they, quite reasonably, turn away from the pro-war, pro-Wall Street, establishment neoliberal in Clinton, they get sneers and pooh-poohs. Somebody with more time should go back and check if pundits who have criticized Bernie’s young supporters have also complained about young people not participating in politics. You’d have thought winning the overwhelming majority of under-30 and under-40 voters in Iowa would have changed things, entirely and irrefutably proving Sanders has greater appeal for young voters, but it seems to have made it worse.

The response to Sanders reminds me of the way that Republicans responded to Ron Paul. You’ve got this older guy who, for a variety of reasons, connects with young and committed voters. Instead of working with this, the party establishment pushed Paul/Sanders away, because their critiques get to the fundamental corruption of the party itself.

Speaking of Ron Paul! With Rand Paul dropping out, I think the second most interesting story of the 2016 race is the total failure of Rand Paul to learn the lesson from his father. If anything, he’s learned exactly the wrong lessons.

Ron Paul’s principled small government appeal was marred because he’s kind of a crazy person, and he is prone to start talking about monetary policy and the Fed and other things with absolutely no traction in a national political campaign post-1896. Rand Paul decided the lesson to take from Ron was to move toward the Republican center, courting traditional Republican constituencies. But that just loses what makes Ron’s message unique. What Ron Paul needed was to sound polished, to not associate with crazies and racists and crazy racists, and to get good at the ugly and boring parts of running for national office. But Rand has his share of kooks, clearly hates campaigning and is bad at it, and sounds only slightly more psychologically together than his dad. The result was an even less realistic shot at the Republican nomination than Ron had in 2012.

Several Thoughts About Oregon

1. It’s likely that if the armed men taking over federal property in Oregon weren’t white, they would face a far greater threat of state violence.

2. The depiction of this event in the media would also be very different if this was not a group of white men. In particular, the differences in how the media portrays this event (like this awful tweet) and how it covered, say, the protests in Ferguson is just infuriating.

3. Whatever the merits of their specific grievances, the armed men taking over federal buildings are entirely correct that the U.S. government acts in tyrannical and unfair ways.

4. It seems like Dwight Hammond and Steve Hammond, the men whose jailing apparently inspired all this, have been treated unfairly by the American criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums are almost always improperly harsh.

5. These guys are basically wacko losers taking over an empty bird sanctuary, right? Heavily-armed wackos can of course be dangerous and destructive, but #oregonunderattack seems a little over the top.

6. Apparently the police are still letting them get deliveries of food and other supplies. I am not an expert on this kind of negotiation, but that seems like an obvious mistake.

7. Federal land use policy in the West is so messed up. I don’t even know how you’d start going about fixing it.

8. At least on Twitter, lots of people are calling for Waco-style state violence against these men. Liberals and progressives are falling into the same Bushian pattern we see on the right – you oppose the federal government, you must be terrorists. You intend to use armed force to defend yourself, you must be a terrorist. I don’t like that the attitude about this seems to be that you’re either defending insurrection or you’re in favor of immediate and overwhelming state violence

9. If nothing else, it seems like making these men Martyrs for the Cause is the worst possible outcome in every respect.

10. I’ve seen the Whiskey Rebellion brought up as a historical comparison, a description of what the federal government should do. It’s valuable to remember how that ended, at least in terms of federal action: only two men ended up being convicted (or the 24 charged) of treason, and George Washington granted presidential pardons to both.

11. The goal should be to extend the privileges of people like the Bundys or the Hammonds to everyone, not to extend the danger faced by people like Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or [countless other people mistreated by the American government] to previously protected groups.