Left vs. Left: the Pitfalls of Hasty Conclusions

Like many small ‘l’ liberals, I experienced the early hours after the US election as an existential blitzkrieg.

A candidate who had no experience in public service, zero respect for the core tenets of democracy, made blatant appeals to sexism and racism throughout his campaign and had bragged about not paying his taxes, had mustered sufficient numbers of voters on November 8 2016 to win the United States Presidency.

In those first fragile days, my fellow political nerds and I pored over the exit polls in search of answers, the way a clairvoyant scrutinizes tealeaves to read the future. Whether your source was CNN, The New York Times or one of the fee for service polling houses, the same outlier pattern emerged.

The Republican voting gap between college educated white voters and non-college educated white voters had diverged like never before.

In 2016, on a two party preferred basis, the percentage of non-college educated whites who voted for Trump was 30% higher than the percentage of their white college educated counterparts.

As you can see in Figure 1 below, this is six times the ‘education gap’ previously observed.

Figure 1: Percent of two-party vote for the Republican presidential candidate among whites with and without a college degree, 1980-2016

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The flight of the white working class to Trump became the story. And from that news story, two political narratives were born.

The first was a tale of working class angst and goes something like this: the Liberal elites have lost touch with the ordinary working people and have become an ivory tower establishment beholden to business interest and special interests. Hillary Clinton spent all her time campaigning on the aforementioned ‘special interest’ issues, such as gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, black incarceration and climate change. She had ignored the real economic issues facing ordinary Americans. Feeling that the Democrats could no longer be counted upon to champion the concept of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ the white working classes had abandoned a party that no longer gave a damn about them.

This position was given significant amplification on November 14, when Bernie Sanders appeared on CBS This Morning to indict the Democratic ‘establishment:’

“There needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business. It is not good enough to have a liberal elite.”

“I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.”

The proponents of the above narrative have taken his call deeply to heart. In the two months since the election, the clamour for a back-to-basics working class platform from the hard left has only intensified.

It is worth noting at this juncture, that Sanders himself has been as much a vocal advocate of progressive social policies as he has been for strong social democracy. The narrative that he has come to embody is not necessarily representative of the man.

The countervailing narrative is this: the impact of sexist and racist sentiment as driving forces in this election cannot be downplayed. To ignore this fact is to run the risk of further fragmentation of a society already struggling to adjust to waves of demographic and social change.

For the first time in American history, many whites, particularly those without a college education, see themselves as an embattled group. They resent the fact that in a short space of time, the status of minorities and the role of women has shifted dramatically. The simultaneous loss of white privilege and economic security has led to an increasing insularity and nostalgia for the past. Coming off the back of America’s first black President, the prospect of America’s first female President was too much to bear.

Put another way, non-college educated whites didn’t turn away from the Democrats because they made an insufficient case for jobs. Rather they turned towards the Republicans because they promised to hit the pause button on demographic change.

Trump offered just such a retrograde vision. One where racial minorities could be jeered, women could be harassed, and LGBTI rights could be redacted from policy discourse altogether.

As a liberal I have wavered between these two narratives. Initially I felt strongly that economic dissatisfaction was the major driver for the ‘white flight’ to Trump. In an earlier post I wrote about the likely effect of rising income inequality in the United States on voter behaviour. However I have never felt that it was the only story to tell, nor considered that many of my fellow liberals would take that view.

In the past few weeks I have found myself growing more and more disturbed by proponents of the purist economic narrative, and their call for a wholesale rejection of policies that do not specifically frame the world as a struggle between labour and capital.

‘Identity politics,’ they claim, is the preserve of the urban elites, and of little relevance to the ordinary American who is barely managing to make ends meet. We should be doubling down on the real life-or-death issues affecting the working class.

The reality though is that a ‘class’ is just as much an identity as religion, race or gender. The shrinking demand for unskilled labour in traditional manufacturing industries has life-or-death consequences for some. The same can be said of the rise in hate crimes directed at Muslims, the disproportionate shootings of black suspects by police, and State interference with women’s reproductive rights.

Climate change moreover is a life-or-death issue of biblical proportions. One moreover, that disproportionately affects those with lower incomes, who are less likely to be insured, and more likely to be captive to geography.

With the passage of time comes the capacity for deep analysis. The public, the politicos and the pollsters have had a chance to analyse the campaign and voter sentiment in fine grained detail.

The final vote count which puts Clinton ahead of Trump at a count of over 3 million has dampened liberal panic to implement a knee-jerk solution.

We can see now that Hillary Clinton did not neglect the working class in favour of an ‘identity politics’ (ie ‘idpol’) agenda. A simple word frequency count of all her campaign speeches, in the primaries and the general races, indicates that economic concerns were at the centre of her campaign.

Figure 2 Word Frequency count of Hillary Clinton’s speeches (Source: Vox)

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Furthermore, statistical analyses of voter sentiment has enabled us to progress beyond simple generalisations about the exit polls ie. ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are sexist and racist’ versus ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are struggling economically.’

Researchers at The University of Massachusetts Amherst surveyed a random sample of voters on a range of issues including their attitudes to gender inequality, race relations and the state of the economy and a range of factors. They then used a binomial model to analyse the effect that these characteristics had on voting behaviour. This kind of model is useful because it allows us to consider simultaneously the effect that a range of factors have on voting Republican, and to separate out which factors had an effect, and to what extent.

The results of one of the models in the study, which included only white likely voters, are summarised in the table below.

Those factors that have a statistically significant on the likelihood of voting Republican are colored red.

Table 1 Summary of Probit estimates of factors affecting white two-party vote for Trump

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The above results show, somewhat predictably, that economic dissatisfaction, racism and sexism are all important ‘explanators.’

College education is not in and of itself an explanatory, once sexism, racism and economic situation are taken into account.

Also women in the study tended to vote Republican, and were not discouraged by the infamous ‘hot mic’ tapes. Go figure.

It is not just white voters that were motivated significantly by these three factors. The same model was run on a sample grouping of all races with similar results.

Each graph shows how much the likelihood of being a Trump voter increases for two people who are exactly the same, but for a shift in sentiment on one of the below scales: economic dissatisfaction, hostile sexism and acknowledgement of racism.

Figure 3: Predicted probability of voting for Trump based on values of economic dissatisfaction, racism, and sexism

sexism-graph

Note: Predicted probabilities based on a variation of Model 1 which includes respondents of all races, while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.

Clearly the push-to-Trump factors of economic dissatisfaction, sexism and racism are not just a problem for non-college educated whites, but the voting population at large.

It also appears that Clinton was rejected, in large part, because of her gender. The effect of sexism was markedly more pronounced in 2016 than in the 2012 election.

Figure 4 Predicted probability of voting for Republican nominee in 2012 and 2016 based on values of sexism

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Note: Predicted probabilities based on the models in Table 3 while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.

The reality that the Democrats lost the Presidential election, despite pitting the most qualified candidate imaginable up against a narcissistic clown, calls for serious self-reflection and greater understanding across constituencies.

The need for empathy for white voters experiencing loss of privilege, was expressed perfectly by outgoing President Barack Obama in his final address.

“For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.”

At the same time he warned against falling into the trap of reverting to the purely economic narrative tailored to the white worker:

“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

A sustainable civil society cannot purport to leave anyone behind, either economically or socially. Recognising the effects of income inequality, and job insecurity on those without a college degree does not mean that we trash the idea that everyone – regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or health status – has a right to participation in public life.

As I write this article, the first steps to repealing the Affordable Care Act have been taken and Trump has revealed his pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, a Senator who is strongly anti-abortion and gay marriage but is good with torture.

It should be bleedingly obvious that this is not the time for small ‘l’ liberals to be fighting amongst themselves. There has been some truly excellent deep thought on how the Democrat Party can reconnect with its base, that does depend on a single narrative. It’s time to look at what constructive action can be taken to revitalise the left rather than searching for the enemy within.

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Stop Saying ‘Mail Order Bride’

Last week NBC’s media department announced a plan to develop a culturally edgy sitcom that would follow ‘a widowed single father who orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines to help raise his two preteen daughters.’

Presumably NBC was trying to surf the zeitgeist of smash hit sitcom Fresh off the Boat, based on comedian Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up Chinese-American in 90s suburban Orlando.

Mail Order Family meanwhile, is grounded in female comedian Jackie Clarke’s memoir of growing up with a Filipino stepmother, whom she didn’t like.  Clarke had previously drawn on this material for a segment on the NPR podcast ‘This American Life.’

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Jackie Clarke volunteered to shine a light on the Filipino migrant experience.

In the podcast, Clarke describes her stepmother Pora as an opportunistic, emotionally unhinged woman who has zero interest in being a mother. The illustration from the press kit for the show pretty much reflects the picture Clarke paints in her segment.

Whilst valid content for a personal, if somewhat exploitative podcast, giving Clarke authority to speak for the Filipino spouse migrant experience is problematic. People are free to share their experiences, but when they also deal with other culturally sensitive topics, how they tell their story matters.

And given the way Clarke tells the story…well let’s put it this way, no one wants to see a little freckled redhead running around with tape on her nose to look more Asian, while her self-involved stepmother looks on in disinterested disgust.  The portrayal of the Columbian hot-head wife from Modern Family is positively progressive in comparison.

Needless to say the Twittersphere went nuts and within three days of releasing its media kit for the show, NBC promptly and wisely announced its decision to cancel the show.

I was relieved as hell, but also somewhat bemused by the basis on which my fellow Twitterers-in-arms had objected to the show.  The focus was human trafficking, rather than the negative stereotypes about female Asian migrants that would be propagated by the show.

To be clear, human trafficking is defined as ‘the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.’

Human trafficking comes in many forms and is a grave worldwide problem.  I agree 100% with the sentiment that human trafficking is not funny. I just don’t think it applies here.

To say that a woman who meets and marries a man from a more financially developed country through a dating agency is likely to be a ‘trafficked woman,’ perpetuates stereotypes of migrant women labelled ‘Mail Order Brides’ as desperate victims with no agency.

The term ‘Mail Order Bride’ is used to describe women who publish their interest in marrying abroad on an international dating website.  While they may eventually decide to become prospective spouses in a foreign country, these women do not sell themselves for sex or marriage, they merely sell their image and profile to the service provider.

The functionality of these sites is similar to OKCupid or Tinder.  That is, foreign suitors can message women, but are not given private contact details. What happens from there is up to the individuals themselves. If the relationship evolves to the point where marriage is on the table, they are free to apply for a Partner visa.

Australia has a high number of Partner visa applications every year. They constitute around 25% of our migrant intake, and for the most part applicants are from low-income countries. As a result we have extensive provisions to ensure that this visa is not exploited by human traffickers.

For starters, in order to be eligible for Partner visa, extensive evidence of a genuine relationship between the applicant and the sponsor must be shown. We’re talking photos, emails, interviews and third party statements. I’d also like to highlight that, duh, the Australian sponsor must have met the visa applicant in person.

(This highlights the first fallacy of the term ‘Mail Order Bride.’ If you had to travel to the country of origin to be able to bring an Amazon kindle into the country you’d hardly call that a ‘Mail Order Kindle’ would you?)

Critically, Partner visa holders who experience family violence are able to apply for Permanent Residency.  This ensures that visa holders cannot be coerced to stay in abusive relationships through the threat of deportation.  They are not ‘trapped women.’

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The top 10 countries of origin for Partner visas in the decade from 2001-02 to 2010-11 show the high level of migration from low-income countries.

As I have a lot of family members from developing countries – particularly Bangladesh and the Philippines – I have known a number of women who have come to Australia via Partner visas.  A constant source of angst for me has been the negative racial stereotyping of these women in the West.  The controversy over Mail Order Family showed that these stereotypes are alive and well. Many people still cling to the somewhat racist and sexist notion that if you met your partner through an international dating web site, you are either a desperate woman or a gold digger.

There are many reasons why a woman from a low-income country would consider looking abroad for a life partner, as the preferred choice, without any sinister incentive.

A common reason women choose to list with agencies to marry abroad is that they have ‘aged out’ of the conventional marriage pool in their own country.  For example, much has been written about the phenomenon of Chinese ‘leftover women.’ These are women over the critical age of 27 who have embraced education and urban living, but are considered too old for marriage. It should come as no surprise that many of them set their sights abroad in their search for a spouse.

Divorced women and women with children out of wedlock, particularly in very religious countries, are another group that may have difficulty finding a partner at home.  This is certainly the case in the staunchly Catholic Philippines, where a divorce can only be obtained via an annulment.

Economic drivers play a big part of course. But they are more economically complex than simply wanting a grey-haired sugar daddy.

Over the past few decades many developing countries have followed India’s lead and invested heavily in education. Unfortunately professional opportunities in these countries have not caught up with the rich skill base of the population.

An unmarried cousin of mine in Bangladesh with postgraduate qualifications in pharmacy once lamented:

“It is very hard for us women, there are about 800 applicants for every professional job.”

By emigrating with a foreign spouse, these women can fulfil their dreams of career and family with far more agency than they would have at home.

I’m particularly frustrated by the fact that a racial double standard seems to apply when women improve their economic situation through marriage.  We see this double standard throughout Western literature and popular culture. From Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming, any number of Jane Austen heroines, to Carrie Bradshaw getting a big fuck-off-walk-in-closet care of Mr Big, we celebrate these protagonists.

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Big promptly proposes to Carrie Bradshaw upon presenting her with the shoe-closet of her dreams.

But when an Asian woman improves her situation through marriage, and there is a visa involved, our views are very different. Why?

My theory: racial stereotypes about Asian women as sex objects run deep. I could not even begin to guesstimate the number of times I have heard the now infamous line: “Me so horny. Me love you long time”, quoted in popular culture or by idiot coworkers.

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Hypersexualised stereotypes about Asian females such as in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket run deep in Western culture.

Asian women are casually fetishised to the extent that week long bucks cruises in Thailand are a thing.  We got a solid reinforcement of these stereotypes in The Hangover II, which in the credits, featured the (sadly) iconic image of a woman launching a ping pong ball from her vagina.

Let’s be real.  We would never define women at home by invoking some sexist reference as to how they met their husbands. How about Nightclub Hookup Bride? OKCupid Bride? Blind Date Bride? Used-To-Date-His-Friend Bride? Or Victorious Other-Woman Bride?

(one of these could be used to describe my relationship, please take our poll below)

Many people express doubt that there can be a real and equal partnership that is based around structural inequality.  That is, the economic inequality between a suitor in a high income country, and a prospective spouse from a low income country.  This is of course nonsense. There is some level of inequality, be it financial, social or emotional, in the life of most relationships. This is something that does not remain static and changes as people go through different phases of their lives.

Despite what Phil Collins momma said, you can hurry love. To do so inevitably exposes one to the potential risks of scammers, play-ahs and a broken heart. Nevertheless, for most of us, companionship is a fundamental human drive. For many people an international dating agency has proven a sensible way to seek out a partner and resulted in a happy marriage.  Increasingly, women are also seeking out male partners on agency listings.

I would like to submit some alternative adjectives to describe women who meet their partners through international dating agencies, for your consideration:

  • Brave: they are willing to travel and make a home in a new place away from their support networks and culture.
  • Headstrong: they often confront disapproval from their families for being willing to marry a ‘foreigner.’
  • Resilient: many face down judgement and suspicion from in-laws who see them as gold diggers from a backwards culture.

Ultimately, their stories are not mine to tell, but if any of these women ever write of their experiences, I would watch that sitcom.