An Even Bigger “Big Sort”

I’ve referred previously to the important 2004 book The Big Sort, which documented the way in which Americans have been “sorting” ourselves by choosing to live in areas we find philosophically and politically compatible. The book, by Bill Bishop, cast light on one of the underappreciated reasons Americans are so culturally and politically divided.

Much more recently, a lengthy article fromThe New Republic documented a sharp increase in that sorting. Red states have been bleeding college graduates for a while now–in Indiana, the “brain drain” is a persistent source of concern at the statehouse– but there is considerable evidence that “hard-right social policies in red states are making this dynamic worse.”

Let me just quote a few paragraphs from the article, which–as I indicated–is lengthy.

The number of applications for OB-GYN residencies is down more than 10 percent in states that have banned abortion since Dobbs. Forty-eight teachers in Hernando County, Florida, fed up with “Don’t Say Gay” and other new laws restricting what they can teach, resigned or retired at the end of the last school year. A North Carolina law confining transgender people to bathrooms in accordance with what it said on their birth certificate was projected, before it was repealed, to cost that state $3.76 billion in business investment, including the loss of a planned global operations center for PayPal in Charlotte. A survey of college faculty in four red states (Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina) about political interference in higher education found a falloff in the number of job candidates for faculty positions, and 67 percent of the respondents said they would not recommend their state to colleagues as a place to work. Indeed, nearly one-third said they were actively considering employment elsewhere.

Until very recently, college graduates had split their votes between the parties. But with the arrival of Donald Trump,

college graduates left the Republican fold for the foreseeable future. Trump dropped the Republican share to 44 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2020. If Trump wins the nomination in 2024, the GOP’s share of college voters could drop below 40, and I don’t see any of Trump’s challengers for the Republican nomination doing much better. It isn’t clear they even want to, because today’s GOP sees college graduates as the enemy.

Then there’s the accelerating exodus of OB-GYNs from states governed by Republicans who–in Barney Frank’s memorable phase–believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.

It was hard enough for red states to hold onto their OB-GYNs even before Dobbs. A little more than one-third of all counties nationwide are “maternity care deserts,” typically in rural areas, with no hospitals or birthing centers that offer obstetric care and no individual obstetric providers (not even midwives), according to the March of Dimes.

It isn’t just OB-GYNs and the relative handful of doctors who assist transgender children. It’s also educators.

Since January 2021, 18 states have imposed restrictions on how teachers may address the subjects of race and gender, according to Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz. These include most of the Dobbs Fourteen and a few add-ons, including Florida and New Hampshire. According to a 2022 study by the RAND Corporation, legislative action not only accelerated after 2021 but also became more repressive, extending beyond the classroom to restrict professional development plans for teachers. Let’s call these teacher-harassing states the Morrison Eighteen, in honor of the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose The Bluest Eye is number three with a bullet on the American Library Association’s 2022 list of books most frequently targeted for removal. (The 1970 novel ranked eighth in 2021 and ninth in 2020.)

Taking a tour of the Morrison Eighteen, we find Texas teachers quitting at a rate that’s 25 percent above the national average. In Tennessee, the vacancy rate for all public schools is 5.5 percent, compared to a national average of 4 percent. South Carolina has teacher shortages in 17 subject areas this school year, more than any other state.

But Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida is the undisputed champ. A 2022 study led by Tuan D. Nguyen of Kansas State University found that Florida had the most teacher vacancies in the country, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama (all Morrison Eighteen states). Florida also logged the highest number of under-qualified teachers.

Remember John Edwards theme of “Two Americas”? He wasn’t talking about the culture wars then, but the phrase certainly seems appropriate.

In 2010, the GOP’s incredibly successful Redmap project--its “gerrymander on steroids”–installed rightwing legislators in a number of formerly competitive states. Those lawmakers proceeded to pass the culture war policies that are motivating the exodus of educated citizens and professionals–aka “smarty pants”–  resented by the angry know-nothings who are now the GOP’s base voters.

And so here we are. Click through, read the entire article, and weep….


Some Reflections

Travel is always educational–a way to challenge the “givens” of our own daily surroundings and routines by engaging with different cultures and environments. As our recent, extended trip has concluded, it seems appropriate to share some reflections.

  • In both Australia and New Zealand, we were struck by–and impressed with–the meticulous maintenance of the infrastructure and especially of the public spaces. In New Zealand, especially, the parks and beaches  weren’t only well maintained, they were numerous–and I found it particularly interesting that they routinely included public toilets–also clean and well maintained. Not “pay for use” facilities, as we’ve seen elsewhere, but conveniences open to the general public.

The emphasis on –and care for–free publicly available amenities really impressed me; it suggests a culture far more focused on community than we in the U.S. are accustomed to.

  • A couple of conversations–one with a passenger on our ship, and one with a New Zealand friend of my youngest son–gave me an insight into the contending reactions to lockdowns that we saw during the Covid pandemic. The first exchange occurred when I was in a line with another passenger; he said he lived in Florida, and (intemperate as it was) I asked him how he viewed Florida’s governor. His response was that DeSantis had “handled” the pandemic exceptionally well.  I restrained myself from remarking that the data showed a rather different result. It may have been less annoying for the Florida citizens who survived; but thanks to DeSantis’ dismissal o medical science, a significantly larger percentage of Florida residents died than died elsewhere.

The conversation with my son’s friend was a bit different. I remarked how much I  admired Jacinda Ardern, the former PM. She laughed and told me that Ardern was far more popular internationally than in New Zealand, and that she would not have been re-elected because of widespread disapproval of the way she’d handled the Covid pandemic–that New Zealanders overwhelmingly thought the lockdowns were too stringent, lasted too long, and were damaging to the economy.

The data confirms that Ardern’s management–a management consistent with medical advice– saved many lives. But those measures did depress the economy.

Both discussions illuminated something I’ve had great difficulty understanding: why did so many people resent the rules and restrictions meant to protect them from illness and death? I guess if you owned a small business or restaurant and the rules caused it to tank, recognizing that your pain had saved the lives of people you don’t know is asking a lot. Still…

  • Humans on planet Earth occupy vastly different natural, economic and cultural environments. The contrast between the native populations with whom we interacted in French Polynesia and Tonga, for example, and those who live in Australia and New Zealand was striking, and confirmed to me how much of individual well-being is  shaped by the institutions of a given culture and society.

I think particularly of the young man who drove us around in Uturoa. He spoke at least two languages–his own and English (and perhaps others), and shared that in addition to providing tours to visitors, he had established a small business exporting fruit and vegetables. He was clearly ambitious, hard-working and entrepreneurial, but it was also clear that what he will be able to accomplish will be limited by the extent of local dependence on tourism, by  the widespread, obvious poverty, and by the lack of a supportive economic infrastructure.

  • On a cruise and far from home, the news takes on a more detached quality. As we have heard heart-rending stories about the hostages, about Gaza and the continued travesty in Ukraine, and been treated to daily reports chronicling the chaos, stupidity and mean-spirited activity that passes for politics in the U.S. these days, it’s hard not to be depressed about the world our grandchildren will have to negotiate. I alternate between hoping that we can emerge from all the craziness and despairing that humanity is headed for another Dark Ages…

Most of all, a trip of this sort reminds me how very fortunate my husband and I have been. We may have missed Thanksgiving with our extended family, but my husband and I absolutely haven’t forgotten to be grateful for having been born in a time and at a place that allowed us to fashion a good life. I just want that same good life for my grandchildren– and for everyone else’s children and grandchildren.

A ship took us to an incredibly beautiful part of the world. Next year, I hope Americans will vote to keep another ship– the ship of state– in the hands of an equally sane, competent captain who can steer us into calmer waters.

I Hope This Is A Silly Conspiracy Theory…

A daily email I receive combines several stories from a variety of sources. A recent one included a really terrifying–and not entirely implausible–assertion. The letter detailed the hundreds of holds that Senator Tuberville has placed on military appointments, and went on to point out that Rand Paul has been blocking Ambassadors and other State Department nominees, that J.D. Vance is blocking appointees to the Department of Justice, and Josh Hawley is similarly blocking Army civilian appointments.

The item concluded with “They’re keeping the roles open for Trump. The next coup is already underway.”

Now, I have to believe that this is a wild surmise–that the anti-American buffoonery of these MAGA culture warriors is simply more evidence of GOP idiocy and dysfunction.

But I will admit that reading the list and assertion made shivers run down my spine.

I’d been aware of Tuberville’s holds. Anyone who reads the news has seen stories about the damage his intransigence continues to do to America’s military readiness. But I have assumed that Tuberville’s obvious stupidity and deep investment in culture war rhetoric explained it. (You will recall that, just after being elected to the U.S. Senate, Tuberville –whose past experience was as a college football coach–was unable to identify the three branches of government.)

I hadn’t been aware of the other machinations to block government activity, so I did some checking. According to CBS News, Rand Paul has announced his intent to block all State Department nominees until the Biden administration releases documents related to the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the Senate to “swiftly” confirm more than 60 nominees to key foreign policy positions, warning in a letter sent to all senators Monday that leaving the roles unfilled was damaging to America’s global standing and national security interests.

“Vacant posts have a long-term negative impact on U.S. national security, including our ability to reassure Allies and partners, and counter diplomatic efforts by our adversaries,” Blinken wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CBS News. “The United States needs to be present, leading, and engaging worldwide with our democratic values at the forefront.”

There are currently 62 nominees awaiting confirmation in the Senate, of which 38 are for ambassadorial roles across multiple continents. Of those, “several” have been pending for more than 18 months, a State Department official said.

Rolling Stone has reported that J.D. Vance has been handing out “wokeness” questionnaires to State Department nominees whose Senate confirmations he’s placed on hold.

Vance claimed that the point of the surveys was to establish if any of the nominees had “radical” viewpoints that would cloud their treatment of foreign policy. “If you are injecting your own personal politics in a way that harms American national security and diplomacy, that’s not fine,” Vance told Politico. “The questions all try to get at those issues.”

Politico has confirmed that odious Senator Josh Hawley has been at this for quite a while–he caused chaos in 2021 by blocking  confirmation of several State Department nominees, in a continuation of what Politico characterized then as “the unprecedented GOP-led campaign to slow-walk most of President Joe Biden’s picks for top foreign policy posts.”

Hawley apparently continues to play the blackmail game; in January of this year, Defense News reported

The Senate is on track to confirm many of President Joe Biden’s seven remaining Pentagon nominees after Democrats reached an agreement with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to break his yearlong logjam on Defense Department confirmations in the last Congress.

And just this October, a month ago, according to a publication of the American Legion, Hawley announced that he would put a hold on Army civilian nominations until the service earmarks $41 million for new housing at Fort Leonard Wood.

After doing the above-reported, fairly superficial research (i.e. asking Dr. Google), I’ve concluded that these self-important characters are probably not capable of co-ordinating and conducting a coup. That doesn’t mean that their tantrums aren’t doing a considerable amount of damage. 

“I won’t do my job until you give me what I want” isn’t a particularly attractive way to conduct Senate business, but then, the Republicans in the House and Senate are–to put it kindly–immature and self-promoting. Forget putting country above party–these pompous jerks won’t put country above self.

When We The People wonder why the federal government isn’t functioning well, I think we have a significant part of the answer.

Why We Need To Be Careful With Language

One of the features of contemporary discourse that drives me wild (granted, it’s pretty easy to set me off) is the use of language to label and insult, rather than communicate. For pontificators on the Right,  every social program is socialism (and their view of socialism is indistinguishable from “godless communism”). On the left, the “F” word–fascism– gets tossed about with a similar lack of communicative precision.

The problem with indiscriminate labeling, of course, is that when the real thing comes along, the terminology has lost its proper effect.

Tom Nichols has recently examined that phenomenon in an essay for the Atlantic.

When I was a college professor teaching political science and international relations, I tried to make my students think very hard about using words such as war and terrorism, which we often apply for their emotional impact without much thought—the “war” on poverty, the “war” on drugs, and, in a trifecta after 9/11, the “war on terrorism.”

And so, I dug in my heels when Donald Trump’s critics described him and his followers as fascists. Authoritarians? Yes, some. Illiberal? Definitely. But fascism, a term coined by Benito Mussolini and now commonly used to describe Italy, Germany, and other nations in the 1930s, has a distinct meaning, and denotes a form of government that is beyond undemocratic.

Fascism is not mere oppression. It is a more holistic ideology that elevates the state over the individual (except for a sole leader, around whom there is a cult of personality), glorifies hypernationalism and racism, worships military power, hates liberal democracy, and wallows in nostalgia and historical grievances. It asserts that all public activity should serve the regime, and that all power must be gathered in the fist of the leader and exercised only by his party.

Nichols reviewed Trump’s political emergence, and explained why he was an “obnoxious and racist gadfly” but still a long way from fascism. Nichol’s points out that Trump lacked any political program–really, any consistency beyond his exhausting narcissism.

Trump had long wanted to be somebody in politics, but he is also rather indolent—again, not a characteristic of previous fascists—and he did not necessarily want to be saddled with any actual responsibilities. According to some reports, he never expected to win in 2016. But even then, in the run-up to the election, Trump’s opponents were already calling him a fascist. I counseled against such usage at the time, because Trump, as a person and as a public figure, is just so obviously ridiculous; fascists, by contrast, are dangerously serious people, and in many circumstances, their leaders have been unnervingly tough and courageous. Trump—whiny, childish, unmanly—hardly fits that bill. (A rare benefit of his disordered character is that his defensiveness and pettiness likely continue to limit the size of his personality cult.)

Nichols had continued to warn against what he called “indiscriminate use” of the term fascism– because he worried that the day might come when it would be accurate, and he wanted to preserve its power to shock and alarm.

That day has come.

Nichols points to Trump’s recent speeches–incoherent as usual, but now liberally sprinkled with terminology favored by Hitler and Mussolini, words like vermin and expressions like poisoning the blood of our country. He then enumerates the truly horrifying programmatic changes Trump and his allies have threatened to enact once he’s back in office.

Trump no longer aims to be some garden-variety supremo; he is now promising to be a threat to every American he identifies as an enemy—and that’s a lot of Americans.

Unfortunately, the overuse of fascist (among other charges) quickly wore out the part of the public’s eardrums that could process such words. Trump seized on this strategic error by his opponents and used it as a kind of political cover. Over the years, he has become more extreme and more dangerous, and now he waves away any additional criticism as indistinguishable from the over-the-top objections he faced when he entered politics, in 2015.

Precision in language matters. We’ve seen how the Right’s longtime practice of calling every government program “socialism” has eroded the negative connotations of that term. Nichols is correct in observing that overuse of the term fascist has dangerously dulled recognition of what that term actually means.

The contest between an aspiring fascist and a coalition of prodemocracy forces is even clearer now. But deploy the word fascist with care; many of our fellow Americans, despite their morally abysmal choice to support Trump, are not fascists.

As for Trump, he has abandoned any democratic pretenses, and lost any benefit of the doubt about who and what he is.

Indeed he has.



Incremental Progress

As regular readers of this blog know, I support a UBI–a universal basic income–rather than the current patchwork of social programs that are socially divisive and fiscally inadequate. That support rests on three convictions: first, that no one is truly free who must face a daily struggle just to survive; second, our current government safety-net policies are dividing, rather than unifying, our diverse population; and third, market economies work best when buttressed by a strong safety net.

As I’ve argued before, public policies can either increase or reduce polarization and tensions between groups. Policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Think about widespread public attitudes about welfare programs aimed at poor people, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare. Polling data since 1938 shows growing numbers of Americans who believe poor people are lazy, and that government assistance—what we usually refer to as welfare—breeds dependence. These attitudes about poverty and welfare have remained largely unchanged despite overwhelming evidence that they are untrue.

Social Security and Medicare send a very different message. They are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone are much more likely to escape stigma. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

There is a growing body of research favoring the approach, and I was interested to read a  New York Times column that traced growing support for the proposition that–duh– the best way to combat poverty is with money.

For the past three decades, federal aid for lower-income families has largely consisted of handing out coupons: housing vouchers for families that need housing; food stamps for families that need food; Medicaid cards for health care.

Sometimes, however, what families need most is a little extra money they can spend as they see fit. Researchers have found that even small amounts of cash can make a big difference in the lives of children from lower-income households, improving their grades, their chances of graduating from high school and their income as adults.

In an important shift in poverty policy, some states are starting to provide that kind of financial aid. During the recently concluded spring legislative season, states including Minnesota, Colorado and Connecticut created programs to give people money.

The increased interest in such programs was sparked by the temporary expansion of the federal child tax credit during the pandemic. The credit reduces the amount of federal tax that families with children owe, and in 2021, Congress raised the maximum credit per child to $3,600 from $2,000. Importantly, it also authorized payment of the entire amount in cash to households that didn’t owe enough in taxes to fully benefit. Until then, families that earned less money had received less help.

Unsurprisingly,Republicans refused to extend the program, and their refusal prevailed thanks to Senator Joe Manchin, who agreed with Senate Republicans that only people who work should qualify for help.

But for that one year, the government offered the same assistance for every eligible child.

Since then, Democratic majorities in seven states — often with support from Republican legislators — have created their own “refundable” child tax credits, the technical term for the policy of paying benefits in cash to families that can’t use the full value of a credit because they owe less than that amount in taxes. The only two states that had created refundable child tax credits before the pandemic, New York and California, both significantly increased eligibility.

The states hand out less money than did the federal government. The largest credit, which Minnesota created in May, offers up to $1,750 per child for households with incomes below $35,000 per year — roughly half the lapsed federal credit. But unlike the federal expansion, the state credits are meant to be permanent.

There is now a significant body of research supporting not only cash payments, but also the importance of a robust social safety net to market economies. Will Wilkinson, vice-president of the libertarian Niskanen Center, argues that the Left fails to appreciate the important role of markets in producing abundance, and the Right refuses to acknowledge the indispensable role safety nets play in buffering the socially destructive consequences of insecurity.

It’s slow, but perhaps we’re learning…