Sunday, April 5, 2020

Disinformation, polit[r]ics and the 2020 election.

February 23, 2020 by  
Filed under Business, Money, News, Opinion, Politics, Weekly Columns

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( “And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all of its affairs – the prosperity of an entire economy, the security of some 300 million citizens, the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food, the future of its vast system of education, the soundness of its national highways, airways and railways, the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal – to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ into the national lexicon.  It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man – no matter how fallen – can be president.  And in that perverse way the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.”  By Ta-Nehisi Coates from “The First White President”

We will know soon enough whether the 2016 presidential contest was a black swan event (a fluke) or the harbinger of a dark turn in American politics.  In any case, the upcoming 2020 elections will be far more consequential, coinciding with the decennial census.  The victorious party in 2020 will not only control the presidency, but also the ability to draw congressional and state legislative districts, determine the number of congressional representatives in each state and the allocation of federal funds, among other things, for the rest of the decade.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that he views any encounter with Democrats as “a knife fight in an alley.”  In that context, Democrats should expect that he and his colleagues will not only do everything to win, they will do anything to win.  We should, therefore, be prepared for one of the “dirtiest” political campaigns in our nation’s history.


Cheating for political advantage is as old as the republic itself.  One of the oldest forms is gerrymandering.  Named for Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of Massachusetts in 1810, Gerry drew a legislative district outside of Boston so contorted it was said to resemble a salamander; hence the name.

The practice continues to this day and recently courts have tried to distinguish between political gerrymandering (considered acceptable) and racial gerrymandering (deemed unlawful).  Given that the political parties are so racially divided, (white/Republican v black and brown/Democrat) it’s hard to see how the courts can make this distinction between the two.

Voters in Florida overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4 to the State Constitution granting felons who had served their sentences the right to vote.  This was expected to add over one million voters, mostly black and brown, to the voting rolls.  Florida’s new Governor, along with the Republican controlled legislature, promptly passed a law to prohibit ex-felons from voting until they paid any fines and fees they owed from their previous convictions.  The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down that law as reminiscent of Jim Crow era “poll taxes.”

Georgia’s new Governor, who was Secretary of State when he was a candidate – effectively allowing him to referee a game in which he was also a player – purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls prior to the election allowing him to win a close contest, and Ohio has enacted a “use it or lose it” law purging voters who do not respond to a change of address notice they receive in the mail.  Other states have begun to purge voters who have not voted in the previous two elections.  Voter ID laws have sprung up in states across the country.  All of these efforts are aimed at overcoming the demographic challenges facing a declining Republican voter base.  That’s in large part what the fight over the 2020 census was about last year.


Innuendo and spreading false rumors targeting a political opponent are nothing new as well, but social media has poured gasoline on the fire making disinformation our most serious threat.  We are already seeing the Russian playbook from 2016 ramping up again and being replicated by domestic groups, including the president’s re-election campaign.  The Atlantic article by McKay Coppins gives a detailed account of how this is being done (

Coppins quotes Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political advisor, as the intent being to “flood the zone with shit.”  It works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative, but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.  Coppins concluded by saying “the 2020 election will not be a choice between parties or candidates or policy platforms, but a referendum on reality itself.”

This is an update to Orwell’s “1984-style” propaganda that sought to get you to believe the “Party line.”  Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “The most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.  It taught the people to believe in everything and nothing, think that everything is possible and that nothing was true.”  We see that today where the wildest conspiracy theories, like “Qanon” (Trump is fighting the “Deep State” and a Democrat ring of pedophiles led by the Clintons) spread across the internet.

What’s to come…

Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University says “the 20th century grand-coalition model is increasingly unlikely in today’s environment.”  That’s largely because “liberals and conservatives live in different, non-intersecting information universes” and a recent Knight Foundation poll found that most non-voters cited “lack of interest”, or “dislike of the candidates”, as the reasons for not voting (in 2019 more people voted for their favorite Porn Hub video – 141 million – than voted in the 2016 election – 139 million) even though three quarters of them were registered.

Other pollsters and pundits are also saying that modern elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by “extreme shifts in who decides to vote in the first place.”  Rachel Bitecofer, who correctly called the 2018 mid-term Democratic wave based on this theory, also said that today’s voters are more motivated by “negative partisanship”; voters more motivated to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals.

If this indeed is the case, Democrats would do well to heed the results of the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll.  It shows that voter interest was growing fastest for the upcoming 2020 elections in large urban areas.  While “certain voters” – those who definitely planned to vote – rose by 7% nationally, they rose by 9% in metro areas of one-to-five million and 8% in metro areas of five million or more.

In 2016, 40% of eligible voters did not vote, including 2.5 million in Michigan, 3.5 million in Pennsylvania and 1 million in Wisconsin.  Trump won those states by a combined 77,774 votes.  In these same areas people “certain” to vote rose by 10% (to 67%) compared to what was reported in the same survey in 2015.

When deciding Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that sanctioned “Separate but Equal” giving rise to Jim Crow laws throughout the South, Justice Henry B. Brown’s majority opinion reasoned that “whiteness was a form of property” and by forcing whites to sit next to blacks their “property would be devalued.”  Trumpism, and his nostalgia for “Gone with the Wind”, is but the latest version of white supremacy.  Even though stereotypes of Trump voters are hillbillies from West Virginia and rednecks from Alabama, remember, he won every white demographic – albeit by varying margins – in 2016: young, old, men, women, those with college degrees and those without high school diplomas.

If Democrats want to win in 2020, they need to forget pie-in-the-sky grand plans and follow the data that shows higher voter enthusiasm in urban areas where their base lives, and turn them out to vote by giving those Americans something, and someone, to vote for.

Staff Writer; Harry Sewell

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