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The State of the Campaign, August 2020

With the presidential election just three months away, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and associates about how I assess the current state of the campaign.  I’m no political strategist or polling expert, but I think that the trends are pretty clear.

Although Trump’s free fall has slowed and maybe even stabilized, nearly all polls show Joe Biden with a substantial lead, both in the national vote and in critical battleground states.  Even Rasmussen, a notoriously pro-Trump poll has Biden up by 3 points. 

Trump supporters will be quick to dismiss most polling, pointing to his victory in 2016 despite polls showing him tailing Hillary.  But there is more than a little bit of mythology to such claims.  For one thing, Hilary actually did win the popular vote, pretty much in line with polling. Polls did largely miss Trump’s narrow victories in key battleground states that gave him his electoral college victory, but even here they weren’t that far off. The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Nothing suggests that polls are so far off the mark that they can be safely ignored this time around. 

It is also important to realize that Trump’s 2016 victory was narrower than his electoral vote count suggests.  Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes, and without those three razor-thin victories, he would have lost the election. To win reelection, therefore, Trump must repeat his victories in each of those states, while also defending all the other states he won, or switch one or more Hilary states to his column.

Looking at the map it is hard to find Hilary 2016 states that look vulnerable to Trump in 2020; maybe, if you squint real hard, Minnesota.  On the other hand, a surprising number of Trump 2016 states appear to be in play.  In addition to the aforementioned Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden is at least competitive in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, with an outside shot at Georgia and Ohio. (Democrats will talk a good game about Texas like they do every year, but it remains out of reach).  That’s a lot of places for Trump to defend and a lot of paths to victory for Biden.

Obviously, we are a long way out and a lot can happen between now and election day. The debates, the ultimate progress of the pandemic, whether or not the economy recovers, continued racial unrest, and dozens of other things that are totally unknown today (2020 hasn’t been exactly predictable). 

Both candidates are tremendously flawed.  It is remarkably easy to imagine Biden doing or saying something stupid that antagonizes swing voters or raises further doubts about his competency.  He is already being pulled to the left in ways that undermine his “return to normalcy” message.  If he scares moderate voters who have soured on Trump, especially in the suburbs, things could unravel quickly.

And Trump is, well, Trump.  There is no indication that he has either the desire or the discipline to expand his appeal outside his base.  He would love to turn the election into a choice between him and Biden (or Biden as defined by Trump), but increasingly the election seems more like a referendum on Trump.  That’s not good news for the president.

In the next few weeks I will offer my thoughts on the merits of both candidates from a policy perspective.  But strictly from a horse race point of view, one has to say that things are trending solidly in Biden’s direction.

COVID Thoughts

I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, so I’ve refrained from getting involved in Coronavirus debates that I’m clearly not qualified to comment on.  Moreover, when it comes to the current “keep it closed” vs “open it up” debate, I genuinely have mixed feelings.  I don’t think the case is as iron clad as either side would have you believe.

However, I do have a few thoughts:

  1. First, condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. I have friends who have lost family members, and other friends working on the front lines of this pandemic.  There is no minimizing their pain.
  2. Can we stop with the conspiracy theories? The virus is real and at least somewhat deadly. It is not just like the flu. While there are undoubtedly errors in reporting, the deep state is not plotting to inflate case numbers.  In fact, the number of deaths from COVID-19 are more likely to be underestimated than overstated. The mortality rate may turn out to be relatively low, because of a more widespread infection rate, but that same high infection rate means the total number of deaths will be high even if the infection mortality rate is low.  Comparisons to other causes of death are usually apples to oranges, for example comparing flu deaths over an entire year to COVID death’s in one month.
  3. The need to “flatten the cure’ in order to prevent overwhelming our health care system was real and vital. As it was, the health care system did not have the capacity to deal with the pandemic in many hot spots. (We can debate reasons for this at a later time).  The cost to healthcare workers has been unimaginable.  Had caseloads continued to spike, the result would have been truly catastrophic.
  4. Shutting everything down as hard as we did might not have been the optimal strategy for fighting the virus. But given how badly we underestimated the original threat and how much time we squandered, our lack of testing capability, and how littler information we really had, a blunt object like “stay at home” might have been the only realistic option we had under the circumstances.  We no longer had time for fine tuning.  There is plenty of blame to go around for that: China, the government healthcare bureaucracy, the media, politicians from both parties at all levels of government, and the Trump administration. We blew it and we are paying the price for that.
  5. And our government, especially the federal government, continues to fail. We still lack the testing capacity necessary to truly estimate risk in different areas.  There also continue to be shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  All of this makes any effort to relax stay at home orders a roll of the dice.
  6. Some governors and mayors clearly went overboard. Mowing your own lawn or buying plant seeds were not really major risk factors.  Banning drive-in church services or shutting gun stores was gratuitous.  In overreacting, these officials undermined support for more legitimate stay-home demands.
  7. Many “open it up” proponents overestimate the speed at which we can bounce back economically. And, they overstate the number of deaths caused by the shut-down and the shut-down induced recession, especially in the short-term.  Still, years of research do show that prolonged economic downturns do cause deaths.  It is not “lives vs. the economy;” it is” lives vs lives.”  The question, therefore, becomes one of balancing risks.  That is something we don’t like to talk about, but we do all the time.  We don’t ban cars because of traffic fatalities.   However, we also don’t allow you to drive 100 mph through a school zone.
  8. There does seem to be gradual morphing of the rationale for shutting down, from “don’t overwhelm the health care system” to “no one should die from COVID-19.” That would be a shift with profound implications. Are we really willing to stay shut for a year or two until there’s a vaccine?  And what if a vaccine is never developed?
  9. On the other side, what are “open it up” advocates prepared for what might happen if we open to fast or too soon and the course of the infection resumes its pre-shutdown geometrical rise? Is there any level of deaths that would be too high for them?  What happens if we go back to levels that overwhelm the health care system?  Even the strictest interpretation of libertarian theory suggests that my right to swing my fist ends at your nose. With a highly contagious virus, we are all fist swingers.
  10. Still, we are going to open. This is partially because there are limits to how much economic damage we can sustain.  But equally important, there is a growing “shut down fatigue.”  We are just not made to be able to handle prolonged isolation. As the weather improves, people are going to become increasingly restive.   Ultimately, stay at home orders can only last as long as people are willing to comply.  That consensus was very strong early on.  It is becoming less so.  The question therefore should be how best to open.  That is a question that could benefit from a bit more good faith discussion and tolerance.  Those on the other side of these questions are not either trying to kill people or ruin the country.  We are all stumbling in the dark, trying to find the best solution (not the perfect) to a bad and unprecedented situation.

 

Libertarianism Needs to Change

No, not in our basic beliefs and principles. The concepts of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace should remain the core of what we are.  Those ideas, after all, are essential to human flourishing.  If widely implemented they would make for a better and more prosperous world, one in which most people thrive.

But we do need to change how we express, prioritize, and apply those principles.

In part, this is simple pragmatism.  If we hope to achieve political, cultural, or societal change we will need to reach a much larger audience, an audience that is not predisposed to agree with us.  Libertarianism has been – and remains today – overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class white men.  But a majority of our larger audience, the audience we must reach to be effective, is made up of women and people of color.  White men currently make up just 31  percent of the U.S. population.  By 2050, that will be closer to 20 percent.  There is no way to become an effective political or social movement without attracting women and people of color.

It is not surprising that as a white male middle-class movement, we have tended to stress those issues of importance to middle-class white men, things like tax cuts, deregulation, gun rights, and so forth.  Of course, those issues remain important.  But too often the privilege we enjoy blinds us to other issues that have a higher priority to women, the poor, or people of color. Thus, we prioritize a change in marginal tax rates over police misconduct.  We treat the use of tax dollars for welfare as worse than the use of tax dollars to hold immigrant children in cages.

It is this prioritization of issues that are important to us – or to people like us – that makes it possible for some libertarians to say idiotic things like “Americans were freer in the 1800s than we are today.”   African Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans, among many others would strongly disagree.

This is obviously not to say that high taxes or welfare programs are good.  I’ve spent my career arguing that most government programs are counterproductive, that high taxes reduce economic growth and leave us all poorer, and that social welfare programs fail to lift people out of poverty.  But on the vast scale of bad, even immoral, public policy, we should be careful in weighting our priorities.

Second, we should recognize how our policy preferences impact less advantaged groups, or at least how they will perceive that impact.  Property rights are clearly an important concern, as is the freedom of association, and free speech.  We should always be wary of government infringement of those rights.  But when we use those concerns to oppose civil rights laws or champion speech by neo-Nazis, we are missing the forest for the trees.

And speaking of speech, we should understand that words matter.  We should show empathy not contempt for those in need.  We should explain how government intervention has contributed to their marginalization, not criticize them for the situation in which they find themselves.  We should understand that the playing field is not level.  The poor and minorities don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  We should reflect this in how we talk about issues.

Along those lines, we should understand that just because government should not censor speech does not mean that we should therefore welcome racist, misogynistic, or other hateful speech.  Yes, we want a big tent, but there are limits to the size of that tent.  Racists, incels, and xenophobes have no legitimate place in our movement.

Perhaps we are so accustomed to being outside the political mainstream that we take a perverse pride in sticking it to that mainstream.  Or maybe, as a political minority, we instinctively feel solidarity with other political minorities.  But all non-mainstream political movements are not created equal.  We are not standing up for free speech or daringly transgressing social norms when we allow those who hate to use our movement and our platforms.   We can oppose government policing of speech, while also policing ourselves.

There’s a practical point to this, of course.  As my friend Adam Bates has pointed out, if you invite both Nazis and African Americans into your movement, you are not going to have very many African Americans.  But more important is the moral point: Our goal as libertarians should not be winning esoteric academic debates but in creating a society in which every human being can flourish.  That is not a society that openly tolerates racism and other forms of hatred.

I became – and remain – a libertarian because I believe in the inherent equal worth of every person.  Liberty is important, not as an abstract concept, but because it is key to the conditions that enable people to be all that they can be – to flourish.   But far too often we fail to speak to that ideal.  If we hope to become a successful political movement – if we truly want to change the world — rather than maintain an ivory tower status quo or ideological purity – we need to do so more often.

And, more importantly, we should do so because doing so is a measure of our own decency and humanity.