Monday, December 12, 2016

The 2016 Polls Were OK

Because Donald Trump won the electoral college and because it takes weeks for the full popular vote totals to be counted, the perception has set in that the polls were wildly wrong this year. But they weren't! Here's my layperson's understanding of what happened.

To get a rough sense of how the national polls performed in comparison to recent presidential elections, let's look at the Real Clear Politics national poll average for the last four elections.

RCP Average
Kerry v Bush 2004
Bush + 1.5
Bush + 2.4
Obama v McCain 2008
Obama + 7.6
Obama + 7.3
Obama v Romney 2012
Obama + 0.7
Obama + 3.9
Clinton v Trump 2016
Clinton + 3.2
National polls were only slightly less accurate this year than in 2004 and 2008, and significantly more accurate than in 2012. Ok, but what about state polls? Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium used only state polls and calculated that Clinton's margin was 2.2%. This was highly accurate. Wang missed Clinton's actual winning margin by only 0.1%.

Ok, but if the polls were fairly accurate, why did so many data journalists miss what was coming? Part of the answer is that they didn't. We've had over 50 of these presidential elections, and it turns out winning the popular vote is a really good way to become president. Winning it by millions of votes is an even better way to become president. This is what Clinton did, but she lost the election. Every once in a while, the candidate most people vote against manages to thread the needle and win.

This is what Trump did. He had very small margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, getting just the right amount of votes in just the right places. Given the size of Clinton's lead, the aggregators were probably right to believe she was the heavy favorite to win the election. Losing the popular vote by millions means you need everything else to fall perfectly into place. For Trump, the stars aligned.

But that doesn't mean there weren't clues before election day that this could happen. Many of the aggregators seem to have missed signs that there was an unusually high chance of a popular vote/electoral college split. Polls showed Clinton outperforming in sunbelt red states that she was unlikely to win in any case, like Texas, and underperforming in important midwestern states like Ohio and Iowa. This opened up the possibility that Clinton would have an unusually high number of "wasted" votes. And that's exactly what happened. The possibility of Trump losing the popular vote while winning just the right number of key swing states was the main reason Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight gave Trump a significantly higher chance than the other aggregators.

Even though aggregations of state and national polls ended up being fairly accurate, there were larger errors in a few swing states. Few observers anticipated that such a large gap would open up between swing states and the rest of the country. Ohio, a state Obama carried twice, ended up being 10 points more Republican than the national vote; Iowa, 11 points more Republican. Those are surprising numbers. But Trump's strength in those states was already apparent before election day, even if the magnitude of his victory there was unexpected.

So the polling industry did not collapse. The polls have had better years, but they've done worse too. They were ok. And that means they continue to be useful instruments. But the aggregators were overconfident in the conclusions they drew from them, underestimating the range of uncertainty created by the interaction of polling, the popular vote, and the electoral college. The pundits failed more than the data failed. The shock many of us felt on November 9 was moral rather than empirical. It was less about what the data indicated was possible, and more about our own inability to imagine that such an indecent outcome could really occur.

All of this might seem like a moot point, but it has implications for political strategy going forward. The more popular candidate lost, and Democrats should act accordingly. They should resist the urge to try to draw profound lessons from this election. They got unlucky, and yes, the electoral college is dumb. They don't need to become more Trumpian in their appeals or move toward his policy positions. He's an unusually unpopular president-elect. They need only resist him and they will reap political rewards while doing the right thing.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What To Expect From A Trump Presidency

This is going to be bad. Really Bad.
I've noticed that fairly large numbers of people are trying to treat the coming Trump administration as a normal political moment. It's not. What is happening now transcends our normal partisan divides and ideological debates. If our response to this election is no different from how we responded to Romney v Obama or Bush v Kerry, we're seriously misreading the moment.

It is possible that Trump's presidency will not be a disaster. But we should be honest that such a hope is a leap in the dark. It's blind optimism. It is possible that Trump's first 70 years on this earth were the opposite of the coming four years. It is possible that Trump's campaign was a wild ruse telling us nothing about his administration. If, on the other hand, you simply believe that Trump's past behavior and declared intentions are a rough guide to how he will govern, we are entering into the darkest and most dangerous time in modern American history.

In contrast to every other modern American president, Trump's basic instincts are authoritarian. He does not believe in liberal democracy. He is a demagogue willing to stoke the most dangerous fault lines in our society in order to gain power for himself. We now must hope that his foolishness creates a presidency marked more by simple bungling than by a coherent plan of oppression.

If you are a moderate and peaceful soul inclined to say, "Let's give him a chance," you have already been disappointed. After the election, when asked if his rhetoric had gone too far, Trump responded, "No, I won." Perhaps there is no clearer statement of the moral code of this unrepentant man. Strength and winning are good. Weakness and losing are bad. Innocent human beings are fodder for the whims of the strong.

Trump's early appointments demonstrate his sincerity. He ran as an authoritarian white nationalist. Now he has appointed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, a radical who proudly declared that his loathsome website was a platform for the racist alt-right crowd. He has brought on retired General Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, a man who is explicitly Islamaphobic. He named Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General, a man who supports mass incarceration and opposes voting rights.

So what should we expect from a Trump presidency? Start by assuming that Trump has generally been sincere and will try to govern roughly as he campaigned. He will continue to lie with impunity, and will seek to silence and bully the press to make his lies seem normal. He will continue to create a climate of hostility against nearly everyone who isn't Christian, White, heterosexual, and male. Muslims and immigrants are likely to be targeted with special harshness.

Expect some moments of calm. Expect the media to tell us about Trump's surprising moderation. But four years is a long time. If Trump doesn't launch a proactive campaign of oppression beginning January 20, it is likely to be only a matter of time. It's not that Trump will have a coherent plan to subdue the Republic. Indeed, probably his only clear plan so far is to arrange his affairs to allow maximum corruption and profiteering. This he has already begun to do. If nothing else, he and and his children intend to become very rich. But recall, again, that Trump's instincts are authoritarian and demagogic. There are going to be crises, both foreign and domestic, during the next four years. Trump will not respond well to any of them. Trump's mercurial and vindictive character will come through. And the thought of men like Bannon and Sessions whispering in Trump's ear is not comforting.

It is possible things will somehow turn out more or less alright. But the more likely scenario is that we are entering a very dangerous time. Much of the media will continue to follow after the latest shiny object. We must discipline ourselves to pay attention to the big and important questions:

How is Trump subverting democratic norms?

How is he weakening constitutional protections?

Who is he endangering?

We must be aware of the stories that might occur quietly in the background of a Trump administration, from a Justice Department that will actively support white supremacy, to a Trump family that will enrich itself at the public's expense. Depending how much money Trump can persuade the Republican congress to spend, the economy may be booming. If that happens, most Americans will be satisfied and will let oppression and corruption spread. Will you be satisfied?

How are you going to maintain your integrity?

We must resist. Remember how you felt in the summer of 2015 when Trump came down the escalator? It was an entertainment story. Trump as president was too absurd to seriously consider. Keep that feeling. You were right. It's still absurd. It's still a disgrace. If we lose sight of that basic fact we've lost something important, we've lost some of our own decency.

We must be loving, militant, disciplined, and nonviolent in deed and in spirit. We must pray for Donald Trump. Pray that he will repent of his evil designs. During the next four years we are likely going to need to take to the streets in protest. We are going to need to be organized in our communities and ready to act in solidarity with any group Trump targets. We are going to have to put unprecedented pressure on a Republican congress that has few moral scruples but will respond to power. We must treat an attack on Muslims as an attack on us. We must be prepared to protect the DACA kids from deportation.

The fake world Trump and his most ardent supporters are creating is only going to grow stronger. Just as millions of people have been portraying Trump as a decent man, millions of people will stand ready to explain and excuse any oppression during the Trump administration. If a terrorist attack takes place on U.S. soil and Trump begins putting Muslims in detention camps, millions of our fellow Americans will defend him. If Trump begins murdering Muslim Americans, millions of people stand ready to explain how it's really not as bad as the liberal media makes it seem.

We must engage Trump supporters with undiminished love and decency. Love is resistance. We must be open-hearted, lacking bitterness or animosity. We cannot rely on the usual norms of respectability that help us be kind to each other. We must love not because Trumpism is reasonable, but because the people who have put their faith in it are human beings made by God, and are infinitely valuable. And so, too, are all the people Trumpism will hurt. In the dark era we are entering, affirming the sacred worth of every person we encounter is an act of resistance.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Now, White Evangelicals?

I admire my neighbors so much. The morning after the election, as I walked John to school, I saw people going about their business, many as if nothing had happened. They were headed to work, or taking their kids to school. Some smiled and laughed. Others talked in whispered tones about the disastrous events of the day before. Many were silent.

The quiet fortitude and love of people accustomed to oppression stood in marked contrast to the fear and selfishness that propelled white evangelicals toward their deathly embrace of a new king to rule over them. While my neighbors appeared unbowed by a man threatening violence and oppression against them, white evangelicals appeared to be scared of their own shadows. Behind every corner lurked another possible threat to their privileged position in American life. And so, on Tuesday, they were vigilant.
Let's talk about those white evangelicals.

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump supporters could make is to assume that the blowback they're receiving right now from their fellow Christians is political. It's not; at least, not primarily. For decades, Christians of color have been urging white evangelicals to repent of racism. That repentance--a broad and thorough phenomenon if it is real--is still nowhere in sight. For decades, Christians of color have been demanding that White evangelicals enact systemic reforms in their colleges and churches. Those reforms have usually been too little and too late. For decades, Christians of color have been warning white evangelicals to stop perverting the gospel. The perversion continues apace.

In much of evangelicalism, whiteness has spiritual authority. In these spaces, whiteness connotes theological maturity and biblical literacy. Theology rooted in the specific cultural contexts of American white supremacy is rendered as the default and normative theology, its racial origins and implications made invisible. If a person of color toes the line, preaching the same individualistic theology with its attenuated understanding of sin, society, and redemption, he (and yes, it's usually a he) is eagerly celebrated:

"Look at our model minority."

"Look at our exceptional Negro."

If that person of color seeks to dismantle the social, economic, and spiritual authority of whiteness within the church or institution, all manner of stonewalling and obfuscation ensue:

"This was never the plan. We wanted you on display. We didn't want you to change us."

This broader context of theological error and systemic sin made this week's political events possible. White evangelicals turned out to be Trump's core constituency. Preliminary data indicate that 81% voted for Trump, a higher number than even George W. Bush received. We can debate until we're blue in the face just how much awareness they had of what they were doing. What is clear is that the general environment of racism and ignorance in the communities in which they live and worship prevented them from seeing their fellow Christians as equally valuable human beings. Even more, the humanity of immigrants and Muslims and many others appeared to be little more than collateral damage in white evangelicals' quest to protect themselves.

As my former pastor in Chicago wrote this week, "most ethnic and religious minority American citizens feel that a Trump election is a vote against their identity. It says to them that "America doesn't want you here". It feels like a vote to go back to the way things were (Make America Great Again), when they were treated even worse then they are today."

Some white evangelicals surely knew this and voted for Trump anyway. Others literally did not know. In either case, they have an enormous amount of listening, learning, and reflecting to do.

But what of the nearly 1 in 5 white evangelicals who opposed Trump? We have our own problems:

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump opponents could make is to use this occasion to declare our divorce with evangelicalism. I've already seen people I respect take this route. But you know what? People of color don't need us to assert our innocence. When we look at white evangelicalism and say, "I'm not that!" I understand that we might mean it as a statement of solidarity with people of color, but I worry that we are really making this declaration for ourselves. We don't want to be associated with white nationalism. But if we huffily announce that we're not evangelicals, how does that help people of color? Seriously, what good does it do them? They don't need us to loudly signal to the world our virtue and enlightenment. They need us to be missionaries to our communities where white nationalist idolatry has overrun the church.

We, as white evangelicals who claim to oppose racism, are the people best positioned to bring our white evangelical brothers and sisters to repentance. It's not anybody else's job to do it. This is all on us. This is our inheritance. Shouldn't we stay and try to make it right? When we bail out, loudly declare that we're done with evangelicalism, we become yet another set of critics lobbing stones from the outside. What good are we then?

Look, I'll be the first to admit I don't know what this means for me or how exactly we should go about these things. When you fight racism as a white evangelical, you will be accused of being too harsh, of being too patient, of being too wishy-washy, of being too radical. You will be constantly misunderstood. The only certainty is that you won't have a comfortable home within white evangelicalism. But maybe we can stay within its fold anyway? I'm struggling through this.

There's another mistake to which a third group of white evangelicals are vulnerable. These evangelicals have tried to keep their head down and bring peace to warring factions, desperately wanting both pro- and anti-Trump evangelicals to get along for the larger good of the church. The worst mistake these moderates could make is to think that there are two morally equal sides suffering from a temporary political disagreement. When the white evangelical church in its predominant expression is living in open and unrepentant sin, bowing down to the gods of whiteness and nationalism, what does it really mean to be a peacemaker? It must not mean giving equal comfort to the oppressor and the oppressed.

This is an exciting time to be a follower of Jesus. More than ever before, I feel assured that the great work of God is proceeding far from the centers of white nationalist Christianity. As God has introduced himself to us as a defender of the needy and a warrior on behalf of the oppressed, let that also be our calling card.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Final Appeal

Tomorrow we face perhaps the most consequential presidential election since 1864. Two great questions were at stake in that contest over 150 years ago:

Would the republic survive?

Who would be included in it?

Echoes of those questions face us today. Voting for Trump—for authoritarian White nationalism—aligns us with the most destructive political tradition in American history.

Though I’ve always been interested in politics, I’ve never before spoken out about an election as I have this year. But never has someone so completely unfit in every possible way been this close to the presidency. His comprehensive ignorance and foolishness are disqualifying by themselves. Combine that with his cruelty and his publicly declared plans to oppress people, and we have a dangerous brew. His oppressive plans are not abstractions to me. I can't assume it's all talk. I know the people he has maligned. They’re friends and neighbors.
Our community is full of good people. It is not the hellhole of Donald Trump's racist imagination.
I am shocked and grieved that so many American Christians are willing to follow the oppressor because he might be on their team and appoint supreme court justices to their liking. This dream is so consuming that Christians are willing to trample on their neighbors in their rush to see it brought to reality.  

A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for new kinds of oppression, with no realistic prospect of reducing its existing forms. Tomorrow, please care for others and protect your integrity by voting for anyone but him, or abstaining.