Daily Howler logo
BLOWING IN THE WIND! Almost half the country agreed—unless you were reading Charles Blow: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2010

The shape of shared sacrifice: The Bowles-Simpson proposal seems to be fading away; increasingly, it seems that the Deficit Commission will reach no group agreement. But we did want to explain the “sacrifice” Bowles and Simpson wished on the top one percent of earners, who now hold a massive—and rapidly growing—share of the nation’s income and wealth.

As noted, several groups have now crunched the numbers of the Bowles-Simpson proposal. At the Tax Policy Center, the chairmen’s proposal was “measured against two baselines—the current policy baseline and the current law baseline.” To read the full explanation of those “baselines,” just click here. But basically, this means that the Bowles-Simpson proposal was measured against the world left by President Bush—and against the earlier world left by President Clinton.

Question: What sort of “sacrifice” would be required of the top one percent? How would those people make out under the Bowles-Simpson proposal, as opposed to what was required under President Clinton? We had planned to discuss that today, but we see that the Tax Policy Center has updated its analysis, making its work even harder to explain than it already was. For that reason, we’ll simply quote Jonathan Chait again. Then, we’ll make a few basic remarks about our broken discourse:

CHAIT (11/17/10): [T]he Tax Policy Center has broken down the distribution of the tax changes. The commission's plan would be more progressive, and would tax the rich at higher rates, than the Bush era tax code. But it would be less progressive and would tax the rich at lower rates than the Clinton-era tax code.

Say what? Bowles-Simpson “would tax the [top one percent] at lower rates than the Clinton-era tax code?” That is the kind of “sacrifice” visited on the nation’s wealthiest people—on people who have become much more wealthy since the Clinton days?

In our view, that’s a strange form of “sacrifice.” People at the top of that top one percent are making much more money than they did even a dozen years ago. But so what? Now that we’re confronting an alleged national crisis—a crisis requiring “sacrifice” by everyone—Bowles and Simpson propose that massively wealthy people be taxed less than they were in those halcyon days, before we all had to sacrifice! At least, that’s the way this proposal would work if you accept Chait’s paraphrase of the Tax Policy Center’s analysis. Last week, we thought we understood that analysis. Now that the Center has updated its already opaque work, we can’t really say that we’re sure.

This brings us to a central problem within our broken democracy:

How is anyone ever supposed to know the facts about such proposals? Groups like the TPC publish analyses, but their analyses tend to be written in the high-fallutin’ academic lingo that very few folk understand. Presumably, progressives want the average voter to have the chance to understand how proposals like Bowles-Simpson work. But where do you go to see such matters explained in regular English?

For decades, pseudo-conservative spin tanks have pimped economic disinformation—but that disinformation has always been packaged in ways which are easy to process. (If we lower tax rates, we get extra revenue! The Social Security money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it!) Decades later, the liberal world still hasn’t created a place people can go to learn the actual facts. Did Bowles and Simpson really propose the type of “sacrifice” in which the very wealthy would have to pay less than they did under President Clinton? If you have a friend who doesn’t believe that, where could you send him or her to see this matter explained?

The liberal world has been badly outplayed over the past forty years. Rush and Sean churn pure disinformation—but it’s digestible. On our side, we sit and stare into space and say how stupid they are.

BLOWING IN THE WIND (permalink): For our money, Charles Blow produced his most interesting column yet in Saturday’s New York Times.

That doesn’t mean the column was good. On balance, we’d say it wasn’t, although it raised an intriguing question.

Blow discussed the response to a recent survey question—the same survey question we mentioned last Friday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/19/10). The question was asked by the Public Religion Research Institute. It was part of a post-election survey which undergirds that group’s new report.

What is the survey question at issue? In the survey, respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

SURVEY QUESTION: [Do you agree or disagree?] Today, discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

For ourselves, we don’t know why people would agree with that statement. We would have said we disagreed, or we might have declined to answer on grounds of vagueness. But oodles of Americans did agree with that statement. Overall, 44 percent of respondents said they agreed; 54 percent said they did not. (Two percent didn’t answer.)

Might we check our basic math? Forty-four percent of respondents is almost half the country!

Last week, at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer referred rather snarkily to the responses to this survey question; she then mistakenly linked to an earlier report by the Public Religion Research Institute. That said, Mencimer took a familiar path in her “analysis” of this question. She focused on responses by Tea Party members alone. She said those responses provided the latest sign of the Tea Party’s racism. Bring on the snark!

MENCIMER (11/17/10): So another pollster has attempted to address the question of just how racist the tea party movement really is. OK, that’s not exactly what the new Public Religion Research Institute survey set out to do, but that’s basically one of the most interesting take-aways. In a report published today on the role of religion in the 2010 elections, the institute released its findings from a 2010 post-election "American values survey" that asked, among other things, whether respondents believe that white people face significant discrimination. It’s sort of a loaded question, but still a less direct way of asking people about their views on race.

Tea party critics won’t be surprised to hear that 61 percent of people who identify with the movement said discrimination against whites "is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities." (White evangelicals also saw doors slamming in the faces of white people, with 57 percent agreeing that discrimination against people like themselves was equal to that against minorities.) That view was shared by only 28 percent of Democrats and about half of independents. Republicans were closer to the tea party on that question, with 56 percent agreeing that discrimination against whites is a big problem.

Pleasingly, Mencimer brought on the snark. Without making a direct claim or assertion, she implied that the Tea Party’s 61 percent agreement rate helps us “address the question of just how racist the tea party movement really is.”

Mencimer then posted the incorrect link, then crept off to nap in the woods.

One hour later, Kevin Drum—who is normally much more sober—linked to Mencimer’s post. He referred to this “disturbing finding” about the Tea Party, then offered the incorrect link himself. A bit later, Digby also linked to Mencimer. She said Mencimer had “dug into the latest survey on the tea party and come up with some interesting data.”

“The whole report is here and it's fascinating,” she wrote—as she linked to a different report.

Like Drum, Digby accepted Mencimer’s narrow focus on Tea Party responses. That said, we thought Digby’s reaction to those response was basically sane and intelligent, for reasons we’ll detail below. But everyone was upset, or semi-upset, with this latest “disturbing” sign of the Tea Party’s racism. And that’s where Blow’s new column comes in.

Why did people agree with that statement? As part of Saturday’s rambling effort, Blow cited the responses by white Tea Party members—and he extended the circle of blame beyond the Tea Party itself. But he only cited responses by whites—and he focused on certain sub-groups. In so doing, he deep-sixed an intriguing part of the data:

BLOW (11/20/10): [M]any whites are exhibiting the same culture of racial victimization that they decry.

The latest evidence of this comes in a poll released this week that was conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and financed by the Ford Foundation. The poll found that 62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

It’s an extraordinary set of responses. And my question is the same one used by the right to defend the Tea Party against claims of racism: Where’s the proof? There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one.

Blow didn’t accuse anyone of racism, though he did say that this “extraordinary set of responses” provides “the latest evidence” that “many whites are exhibiting the same culture of racial victimization that they decry.” That said, Blow was quite selective in the way he presented the data. If you look at the graphic which accompanies his piece (click here), you will see that many people said they agreed with that statement about discrimination. Perhaps most strikingly, this included many blacks and Hispanics:

Percentages who agreed with the statement about discrimination against whites:
Tea Party supporters: 61 percent
Independents: 49 percent
Whites: 48 percent
All respondents: 44 percent
Minority Christians: 38 percent
Hispanics: 32 percent
Blacks: 30 percent

Has discrimination against whites become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks? Skillfully snarking, Mencimer suggested that the Tea Party’s 61 percent agreement rate was the latest sign of the group’s racism. But if the data in Blow’s graphic are accurate, 30 percent of blacks agreed with that statement, along with 32 percent of Hispanics!

Forty-four percent of all Americans agreed. Snarking skillfully, Mencimer airbrushed those people. On Saturday, so did Blow.

Why did so many people answer that question that way? We have no idea. But note the way Mencimer reacted to this gift from the survey gods. Snarking nicely and linking wrongly, she seized the latest chance to link the Tea Party to racism. Blow had a similar reaction. For him, the responses by white Tea Party members and white Republicans represent “the latest evidence” that “many whites are exhibiting the same culture of racial victimization that they decry.” But if that’s what we learn from the white response, what do we learn from the responses by blacks and Hispanics?

Answer: In the land of tribal narrative, we learn nothing at all! Those reactions got airbrushed away in Blow’s column. The scribe ignored those responses completely, even as he said that this answer, when given by whites, is a sign of their racial bad faith.

In our view, Mencimer and Blow were hacking fairly hard as they pondered this survey question. For our money, Digby’s reaction was much more sane—and was more humane. For once in recent years, Digby banned the bomb, trying instead to figure out why people responded as they did. It’s true—she didn’t mention the fact that many minorities gave the same answer as those Tea Party members. (Most likely, she didn’t know that fact; it wasn’t included in Mencimer’s post or in the published report.) She didn’t discuss the fact that 44 percent of all Americans—49 percent of all independents—answered the question that way.

But instead of dropping an R-bomb on Tea Party heads, Digby behaved like a mensch. She reacted as Dr. King might have done. This is what she wrote:

DIGBY (11/17/10): I think it would be interesting to ask them what they consider discrimination. I would guess that some of them think affirmative action is discrimination, and that's not an intellectually incoherent view. Liberals take the position that past discrimination makes it necessary to tilt the playing field to racial minorities and women for them to get an even break, but it's not unreasonable to take to the opposite view. However, I'm not sure that's the main thrust of their complaint. I think they see that taxation is discrimination because the government redistributes money to people they don't believe deserve it.

And certainly conservative Christians believe they are discriminated against by the first amendment's prohibition against establishment of religion. They really do believe that America is a "Christian nation" and that the government should be proselytizing on behalf of Christianity.

For ourselves, we have no idea why all those people answered the way they did. For our money, Digby engages in a bit too much speculation when she starts imagining what Tea Party members and Christian conservatives think. (Bowing to a familiar impulse, she also semi-implied that all members of these groups would have the same basic “complaint.”) But Digby did something we found quite amazing. Amazingly, she imagined that Tea Party members might hold a view that isn’t “intellectual incoherent.” She pictured such people adopting a position that “isn’t unreasonable.”

To our ear, that sounded like a new morning. But in our view, Digby’s first remark was her most striking: “I think it would be interesting to ask them what they consider discrimination.” Hear! Hear! the analysts lustily cried, rising as one in their carrels.

In that statement, Digby rejected the instant tribal reaction, unless you choose to read her statement as sarcastic/sardonic. For once in her recent life, Digby seemed to say it might be interesting to learn what the other guy thinks!

In a giant, continental nation, there’s no other way to do politics. You can’t just blunderbuss ahead, name-calling everyone who doesn’t agree with your inerrant view of the cosmos. In a giant democratic nation, those people have a name—“the electorate”—and you aren’t likely to win them over if you don’t understand what they think. (Or if you signal open contempt for their very being.) But curiosity about the other guy has been hard to find in the liberal world which has emerged in the years since Iraq.

Can we talk? Rather plainly, contempt for the “tea-bagger” drives a great deal of our new liberal culture. (Except when our “intellectual leaders” explain themselves to Jon Stewart.) Curiosity about the views of Tea Party members is virtually non-existent; the notion that their views aren’t necessarily crazy/stupid/racist is rather hard to find. The love of loathing drives much of our world. To some extent, we would say that Mencimer and Blow each put this instinct on display.

Mencimer ignored the fact that 44 percent of all respondents answered that question in the way she suggested was racist. Are they all racist too? Mencimer excused herself from answering. Days later, Blow ignored the fact that almost one-third of blacks and Hispanics had given that same response.

Why did all those people answer that way? We have no idea, but we’d like to hear them explain. We’d like to hear what Tea Party members would say. We’d like to hear blacks and Hispanics (and “minority Christians”).

We’d like to hear how the world looks to them. How else do you run a democracy?

Why did people answer that way? Basically, we don’t know—and there’s no substitute for simply asking the people in question if you want to find out. Having said that, we would offer two observations, after reading through the 231 comments to Blow’s column (click here).

First observation: Many people, including Blow, seem to conflate the following terms: “racial discrimination,” “racial bias, “feelings of racial prejudice.” If Blow himself conflates those terms, many others may do so as well. In some cases, this may affect the way that question was answered. (That said, there is no substitute for asking people to explain their answer.)

Second observation: People don’t give a fig about data. We scanned all 231 comments, although we didn’t fully read those which were very long. But we didn’t see a single comment which noted the data in Blow’s graphic—data which showed that almost one-third of blacks and Hispanics answered that question in the way which was deemed to be damning. We didn’t see a single person who asked a fairly obvious question: If so many black and Hispanics agree with that statement, why is it damning when other folk do? We didn’t see a single person who was struck by the large overlap between the responses by the “good” and “bad” groups.

We live in a highly tribal time—a time when observers pick-and-choose data, using them to denounce the other tribe. We thought Blow’s column followed this pattern. By the end of his column, he was playing “the public” against “the right:” He was saying “the public must reclaim the facts of the race debate in this country,” while implying that “some on the right” agreed with that survey statement. But it wasn’t “some on the right” who agreed with that statement—it was 44 percent of all respondents (otherwise known as “almost half the public”), including 30 percent of blacks! These facts were disappeared from Blow’s column, as its author extended blame to groups he doesn’t like.

Good grief! Almost half the country agreed—unless you were reading Charles Blow! We have no idea why they did. We’d like to see somebody ask.

Counting crackers: We thought Digby behaved like a mensch, but not so much with many of her commenters. Increasingly, our liberal tribe likes to snarl—and we love to loathe:

DIGBY COMMENTER: Further proof that the Teabaggers are delusional and live in a different universe from the rest of us.

DIGBY COMMENTER: Used to be people like this were held in contempt, and laughed at regularly.

DIGBY COMMENTER: Look, it's unfair to think the Tea party is nothing but racism pure and simple. Take away the admittedly healthy dose of racism in the movement, and it's not as if there is nothing left; there is the xenophobia, the lachrymose religiosity, the bogus constitutionalism, the crackpot and highly selective libertarianism and, above all, the (willed, cultivated, cherished) cretinism.

DIGBY COMMENTER: What's a Tea Party without some crackers?

According to one of Digby’s readers, 30 percent of blacks and Hispanics should be “held in contempt, and laughed at regularly.” To another reader, this survey is “further proof that the Teabaggers are delusional and live in a different universe from the rest of us.” Presumably, this tribal loather meant to say that 61 percent of “tea-baggers” live in that different universe. (Thirty-nine percent disagreed with the statement.) Did he know that 30 percent of black and Hispanics live in that universe too?

Thirty percent of blacks are crackers! This is where it goes when we let ourselves loathe. The plutocrats win this way.