Tuesday, August 01, 2017

It's the War, Stupid

In September Hillary Clinton will release a campaign memoir. The book is called What Happened. Publisher Simon and Schuster tells us what to expect:

Now free from the constraints of running, Hillary takes you inside the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger than fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules . . . She lays out how the 2016 election was marked by an unprecedented assault on our democracy by a foreign adversary. By analyzing the evidence and connecting the dots, Hillary shows just how dangerous the forces are that shaped the outcome, and why Americans need to understand them to protect our values and our democracy in the future.

Perhaps a better title for the book would be "What Happened According to MSNBC" since the publisher's  blurb strongly suggests that Hillary may have borrowed Rachel Maddow's Russian dot-connector. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, quite accurately I think, has labeled the Democratic Party establishment obsession with Russia as a case of "Putin Derangement Syndrome" that borders on mass hysteria. Noam Chomksy highlights the hypocrisy.
Given Mr. Trump's shady financial history, there may in fact be something to all the colluding with Russia business. The problem is when establishment Democrats use the Russia investigation as an excuse to not confront the real reasons why Democrats continue to lose elections that should be won. As noted by the economist Doug Henwood:

And what exactly are the claims made by these Putin-did-it stories? That were it not for Russian chicanery, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by five million and not almost three million? That displaced machinists on the banks of Lake Erie were so incensed by the Podesta emails that they voted for Trump instead of Clinton? That Putin was pulling FBI director James Comey’s strings in his investigation of the Clinton emails? That those scheming Russians were clever enough to hack into voting machines but not clever enough to cover their tracks?

Suppose Hillary and/or political pundits were to make a serious effort at understanding what happened in November of 2016. What would that look like? In an important and insightful working paper posted just this past June on the Social Science Research Network, Douglas Kriner (Professor of Political Science at Boston University) and Francis Shen (Associate Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School) make a major stride toward going beyond partisan, self-serving, conspiratorial analysis of the elections results. Kriner and Shen are best known for their 2010 book The Casualty Gap: The Causes and Consequences of American Wartime Inequalities (Oxford University Press, 2010). In that book, the authors defined the "casualty gap" as "a disparity in the concentration of wartime casualties among communities at different points on the socioeconomic ladder."
In their recent more piece (entitled "Battlefield Casualties and the Ballot Box: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House?"), Kriner and Shen build off the claims of the 2010 book and make a compelling case that Donald Trump benefited from the war fatigue afflicting communities in traditionally blue states that swung away from Hillary. According to the authors:

America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. 

Until 2016 Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had all been reliably blue states in presidential elections. Conventional wisdom argues that Hillary lost the states due to a combination of factors including her lack of campaigning (especially in Wisconsin), the attraction of the Trump campaign to low income whites and whites without college degrees, Hillary's inability to match the Obama enthusiasm and turnout among voters of color, the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary among millennials, the impact of then FBI Director Comey's public statement re-opening an investigation of Clinton emails, "fake news" targeting the Clinton campaign, and third party candidates "spoiling" the election. And of course some believe the results were the result of hacking. Each one of these factors have received significant media coverage.


In looking at the connection between battlefield casualties and voting, Kriner and Shen are in a  territory completely ignored by the mainstream, corporate media. Yet their statistical model produces some fascinating results: In Wisconsin, Trump received 47.8 percent of the vote to 47 percent for       Clinton. If Wisconsin had the same battlefield casualty rate as New York, Kriner and Shen estimate that the results would have been 48.4 percent Clinton, 46.4 percent Trump. Michigan's actual results were 47.6 - 47.4 for Trump. With a lower rate of battlefield casualties, the results would have been 49-46 for Clinton. Pennsylvania's actual results were 48.6 - 47.9 for Trump. With lower battlefield casualty rates, the results would have been 49.5 - 47 for Clinton. Many pundits argue that Clinton should have spent more time campaigning in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania--especially in rural areas. Yet if Kriner and Shen are correct, Clinton's hawkish foreign policy proposals combined with her past support for wars would have made her presence in those areas absolutely toxic. Perhaps it was better that she just stay away. 

Why has discussion of "war fatigue" in relation to the 2016 election results been completely absent from the media? Kriner and Shen argue it's because of the class and social status of the pundits: " . . . most American elites in the chattering class have not, at least in recent years, been directly affected by on-going conflicts. Children of elites are not as likely to serve and die in the Middle East, and elite communities are thus less likely to make this a point of conversation. The costs of war remain largely hidden, and an invisible inequality of military sacrifice has taken hold. Our analysis . . . suggests that Trump recognized and capitalized on this class-based divergence. His message resonated with voters in communities who felt abandoned by traditional politicians in both parties."

In a previous Media Rant I argued that the militarism of the Obama administration did not represent any significant change in the "War on Terror" as laid out by George W. Bush. The implications of Kriner's and Shen's findings is that Hillary Clinton--who spent much of the 2000s and 2010s as an enthusiastic advocate of militaristic adventures--may have paid for that advocacy in at least three traditionally blue states that went for Trump.

Since the day after the election it has become painfully obvious that Mr. Trump's campaign represented the most massive bait-and-switch operation ever visited upon the American voter. Anyone who hoped that a Trump administration would bring some relief for war families or narrow the casualty gap has already had those hopes crushed. My great fear is that through sheer arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence Trump might well spark a global war that will make Iraq and Afghanistan pale by comparison.

What should be the lesson for the Democrats? My guess is that in her September book release tour Hillary will warn of the need for Democrats to be vigilant in the face of Russian interference in elections and fake news. The Kriner/Shen paper suggests a different, more meaningful lesson: the Democrats should reject the premises of the "War on Terror" and lead the effort to re-think the nation's militaristic posture. They should acknowledge the reality of the casualty gap and pledge to minimize or, better yet, eliminate it.

Read the Kriner/Shen paper here.