Democratic strategists are worried sick of Donald Trump refusing to concede. That betrays a bit of a panic over a nothingburger. Yes, the loser has ritually conceded since 1896. The tradition is so strong that contenders do not deviate from the formal structure of the confession:
The defeated candidate comes out first. He thanks supporters, declares that their cause will live on, and acknowledges that the other side has prevailed. The victor begins his own remarks by honoring the surrender.Barton Gellman, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2020.
This conservation of homology, of elements of performative speech arranged formally, attest to the ritual that surrounds the transition of power in the United States. The reenactment of this performative ritual is part of the reproduction of democracy in America. It will indeed be a sad day in the history of the American experiment if the loser were to refuse to concede. But it is not like Trump can actually hold on to power if he clearly loses. The trouble that is brewing this fall is of a different sort.
In his speech accepting the official nomination of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden listed “four crises” confronting the nation that the incoming administration would face. Besides the immediate challenges from the pandemic and the attendant recession, he listed racial justice and global warming. There is nothing random about the choice of the four crises. Entire armies of strategists, pollsters, focus group experts signed off on the list. Behind them were Democratic party operatives and power houses; bundlers and investors; and our Silicon Valley overlords. For that is indeed the Harris-Biden coalition — the senator from Silicon Valley is obviously the stronger party on the ticket. The speech was presumably cleared with all the veto players. We have no reason to doubt the competence of the Democratic Party elite. Yet, the list of crises reveals a very strange lacuna.
White working-class Americans began killing themselves in increasing numbers twenty years ago. Yet, it was not until five years ago that someone noticed. In 2015, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper showing the all-cause mortality for middle-aged whites in the United States had been rising since 2000. In later work that controlled for confounding due to age differentials for which their original work had been criticized, Case and Deaton showed midlife all-cause mortality in the United States pull away from 2000, in the wrong direction, from other Anglo-Saxon countries.
The rise in mortality was, as they had originally documented, confined to non-Hispanic whites.
They documented two more facts of great political significance. First, these excess deaths were due to what they called “deaths of despair” — suicide, alcohol poisoning and drug overdose. Second, they were strongly class biased. More precisely, they showed that deaths of despair were not increasing among college-educated whites but concentrated among those with a high school diploma or less.
It has been shown that the bulk of the excess deaths have been due to the drug epidemic.
Drug overdose deaths have kept rising since Case and Deaton broke the story in 2015. The Wall Street Journal collected data that shows that the epidemic has intensified during the pandemic. We are on track to hit one hundred thousand deaths from drug overdose alone this year. That would be half as many as the death toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a fair bet that deaths of despair would be greater than the number of deaths due to COVID-19 at year’s end. Yet, the Democratic Party does not think that this is a major crisis facing the nation. Nor does the articulate elite or the professional class more generally. Indeed, have you seen anyone in the prestige media point out this simple fact? It is not hard to see how the epidemic could have been missed altogether for fifteen years. It is the same reason that the epidemic of deaths of despair is not a national crisis for a Harris-Biden administration.
Some lives just matter more than others, you see? The roughly one thousand victims of police shooting fatalities (1k) every year apparently count more than the hundred and fifty thousand (150k) deaths of despair; orders of magnitude be damned. More precisely, in the professional class understanding, the roughly two hundred black men (0.2k) who are shot and killed by the police every year exposes the white supremacism of American police forces and the blue collar officers who man them; while the hundred and fifty thousand deaths of despair merely attest to the self-destruction of the poorly-educated.
COVID-19, the condition caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus that originated in Wuhan, China, is only fatal for the old and those with preexisting heath conditions. It is a health emergency; not the end of the world. As I mentioned, even with all the comorbidities, it is not clear whether more Americans will die of COVID-19 than deaths of despair this year. Indeed, the more I look into what is going on — the extreme social isolation and widespread depression — the more certain I feel that they won’t. Call it the Policy Tensor’s wager on this God-forsaken year.
Perhaps a quarter-of-million Americans will eventually die of COVID-19. More than half-a-million white working-class Americans have already died due the epidemic of deaths of despair. Yet, we accepted a virtual police state because of the pandemic, while exactly nothing has been done to tackle the epidemic. Why?
For starters, a slowly boiling pot is easier to ignore. Deaths of despair have been rising exponentially since the structural break in 2000. Another reason is that solutions are hard to come by. The etiology of the epidemic is clear: the hourglass economy that followed the Clinton betrayal destroyed the working class family, and it is the destruction of the working class family that has led to an epidemic of despair. No one knows where to intervene or how to temper the despair. (I have shown previously that overdose deaths are the strongest predictor of the Trump swing. So we have the causal diagram ‘Clinton betrayal -> hourglass economy -> destruction of the working class family -> deaths of despair and Trump’.) But whether or not there are discoverable solutions, why did it take 15 years for anyone to simply notice the trends?
Part of the answer is surely that the professional class, which is expected to do all the diagnostics and hogs all the articulation, and the working class, where the epidemic is unfolding, live in separate worlds. A vast microgeographic and social gulf separates the two. It is not so much that the epidemic is not reaching the superzips favored by the professional elites. It is everywhere:
Rather, the effective distance is social. If you know New York, it is the social distance between 116th and Broadway and 116th and Columbus, two blocks and two orders of magnitude in income and education away. Professionals simply don’t know anyone who has lost a close friend or family member to the epidemic. It is not usual for waiters at fancy restaurants to talk about their personal or social lives with the clients.
COVID-19, meanwhile, was a potentially serious threat to American civilization. Put another way, the initial panic was justified; although there were some, like the Swedes, who kept their cool. But the Bayesian update that needed to happen this summer — okay guys, this is not exactly an existential threat — simply did not obtain. Why not?
We can get closer to answering this question if we refine it: Why did the prestige media continue to fan panic over the pandemic even after it was clear that the actual threat was many orders of magnitude smaller? Part of the answer to this question is surely that the prestige media had found an excellent stick to beat the president with. No one can explain the perplexing upside-down international cross-section of the coronavirus toll. But no matter. If sufficient hysteria could be generated over the pandemic’s toll in America and hung around the president’s neck, then perhaps Biden could bring it home in November.
There might be an element of genuine hysteresis involved. Perhaps due to recognizable rigidities in professional class ideology. But we would be stupid to dismiss the grand-strategic logic at play. In any case, what is clear is that the COVID-19 panic has greater currency in the professional class and among Democrats than the working class and among Republicans because of how ecologies of attention are fragmented along class-partisan lines. Put simply, the more exposed you are to the prestige media — essentially a function of status — the greater the panic.
This brings us to the heart of my argument. I have argued previously that Democrats threw their weight behind BLM because the latter was enjoying unprecedented popularity in June; but that the strategy backfired once American cities descended into violence and it turned out that there was little support for defunding the police. My argument here is homologous. Professional elites, who dominate the Democratic party, from Zuckerberg on down, perpetuated the panic over COVID-19 with an eye on the election. But it is looking increasingly likely that it may cost them the election instead.
The logic is straightforward. Because the panic is more intense among Democrats, they are much more likely to mail their ballots. This is a recipe for catastrophe in November. Mail-in ballots are guaranteed to be counted later, giving Trump the opportunity to declare premature victory in a ‘red mirage’ scenario. They are also less likely to be counted, both because of random errors in authentication, and because Team Red will throw whatever it has to disqualify mail-in ballots in the firm knowledge that they are very likely to be votes for Team Blue. The expected behavior of Democrats, particularly professional class Democrats, is opening up entirely new paths for Trump to get back into the Oval Office. Moreover, the more the prestige media fan the coronapanic, the worse it will be. In the event of a contested election, we cannot rule out unprecedented violence in the streets — with Antifa squaring off against better armed right-wing militias.
I will have much more to say about the present political conjuncture after the debate. But for now let us note that the strange lacuna of Biden’s list of four crises offers us an important clue to the present conjuncture. For the blind-spots of the professional class are a slower-moving but more important factor shaping the present conjuncture than strategic errors. They are, in fact, what makes it possible to lose the election due to a strategic error.
But let’s not make this unnecessary strategic mistake. Democrats need to convince each other to go vote in person — especially in battleground states. Forget about the polls and the projections. There is simply no need to tempt fate with unforced errors.
Now, let’s see if Biden can debate Trump. Don’t forget that there will be two nations watching.