Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Election 2017: Repudiation of Republicans

Several million Americans voted last Tuesday in the first nationwide election since Donald Trump became President. In the 4-year cycle, this year has the fewest significant election results: two governorships (36 next year) and three state legislative chambers (87 next year) were decided. The media repeated constantly the idea that this was a referendum on Trump’s performance, which is true, but only part of the story. Every race concerned local issues and local personalities, yet we can learn much about our national mood from these statewide and local elections.

Most results are easily predictable from previous elections, because fundamental voting patterns remain dominant. The only Congressional election, replacing Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz who had resigned to become a FOX commentator, was won by another Republican with 58% of the vote. In New York, Democrat Bill de Blasio won overwhelming reelection as mayor, but lost Staten Island, typically a Republican stronghold, to his Republican challenger. In elections for NY City Council, 41 of 42 incumbents won and the last incumbent was in a race too close to call. All seven NY big city mayors won re-election, including the Republican mayor of Binghamton.

Only 2 incumbents lost in the 40-seat New Jersey Senate. Democrats picked up one seat in the Senate and one in the NJ House.

Exit polls in Virginia show how demographic differences in voter preference stayed relatively stable. Just as in the Clinton-Trump contest, voters over 45, men, and whites were more Republican, and women, under 45, and voters of color were more Democratic. The western mountainous regions went Republican and the Washington DC suburbs went Democratic.

But small shifts within these groups had major consequences for the outcome. Democrats slightly increased their percentage of votes in all demographic groups over previous years. For example, Trump won 52% among men and 59% of whites, but the Republican candidate for Governor, Ed Gillespie, won 50% and 57%. Clinton won 56% of women’s votes, but the Democrat Ralph Northam won 61%. The biggest shifts toward Democrats were among young voters 18-29 and middle-class voters with incomes of $50-100,000. The movement toward Democrats repositioned the Virginia House of Delegates, where Republicans held a huge 66-34 seat majority and all 100 seats were in play. Democrats defeated 10 Republican incumbents and picked up at least 15 seats, with 3 Republican seats still too close to call. Control of the Virginia legislature remains in doubt.

The deciding factor in this major legislative shift in Virginia may have been turnout. In the 15 districts that Democrats picked up, turnout increased by 26%.

A different sort of small shift occurred in Washington state, where only 5 state Senate seats were up for election. Two Democratic and two Republican incumbents won huge victories in safe districts, but one open seat in a formerly Republican district was won by a Democrat, switching control of the Senate from a one-vote Republican majority to a one-vote Democratic majority. Three other state legislative seats were flipped, all from Republicans to Democrats, in New Hampshire and Georgia.

Dissatisfaction with Trump and Republican politics since his election is certainly one reason for Democratic gains through higher turnout in these local elections. Another change that exhibited renewed liberal energy was the success of new candidates from previously under-represented groups. Trump’s sexism brought out an army of female candidates who won historic victories. In Newton, MA, and Manchester, NH, the first women were elected mayors. Seattle elected its first woman mayor since the 1920s, and the number of female mayors in larger Washington cities rose from 11 to 27. Women increased their numbers on city councils in Massachusetts to nearly half in Boston and Newton, and doubled their numbers in Cambridge, including the first Muslim woman. In Atlantic City, NJ, 32-year-old Ashley Bennett, who had never held public office, defeated 58-year-old John L. Carman, well-known in local politics for 20 years, for county commissioner.

Non-whites won election firsts: the first black female mayor in Charlotte, NC, and a majority of people of color on the Seattle city council. At least 7 cities elected their first black mayor, including Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia, who was elected mayor of Helena, Montana. Elizabeth Guzman, an immigrant from Peru, trounced a retired Army colonel who has served in the Virginia legislature for 15 years in a traditionally Republican-leaning DC suburb.

Openly transgender candidates won unprecedented victories: first to win election to a state legislature – Danica Roem in Virginia; first to win election to city council seat in a major city – Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis; first to win any election in Pennsylvania – Tyler Titus in Erie school board.

The Washington Post wondered whether “the Trump era will one day be remembered as the last gasp of white male privilege.” That will only happen if Trump continues his descent into national disapproval and the energy of liberal voters can be sustained through more election cycles.

Steve Hochstadt
Boston MA
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 14, 2017

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Perfect Love in a Tiny Package

I’ve become a grandfather.

My granddaughter Vera is a month old. My wife and I are getting to know her by singing silly songs, carrying her around, and watching her rapid development at this very young moment.

Everyone who hears the news congratulates me in a different way than new parents are congratulated. The lives of new parents are forever transformed by new responsibilities. That’s long ago in my past. This time, experienced grandparents tell me how much fun I will have.

Connecting as a grandparent has been transformed by social changes over the past few decades. The increasing geographic mobility of American families means that many grandparents live too far away for regular visits. But even though we were over 1000 miles away when she was born, we could see Vera every day via a video chat. Keeping in contact with family across generations has never been easier.

Naturally new technology brings new dilemmas. Coming from a generation where party lines were still common and there was only one screen in a household, grandparents of my age are likely to disapprove of young children carrying video games and movies around in their pockets.

Social change creates the potential for generational conflict centered on grandchildren. Grandparents visit and then go away. We cuddle and sing songs and read books, but we don’t take on the heavy daily duty of parenting. We follow the parents’ lead, help rather than make big choices. We change diapers, but don’t decide whether cloth or paper. We feed, but don’t pick out what baby eats. We don’t decide how to decorate the nursery, whether or not to follow the traditional gendered color choices for clothing, or how much screen time will be allowed. After each visit, we go back to our own lives, eagerly anticipating the next visit.

One of the delights and pitfalls of grandparenting is highlighted in a how-to produced by the Guardian newspaper, called “10 ways to be a fabulous grandparent”. They advise: “stick to the parents’ rules when you’re looking after the children … mostly.” Experienced grandparents often say that “spoiling” the child is a great joy. The child soon learns that grandparents often have license to allow forbidden things, like sweets or later bedtimes. But differences in rules can bring conflicts with the parents. The Guardian advises grandparents: “Accept that you have no control: The hardest thing about parenting is being responsible for everything. And the hardest thing about grandparenting is accepting that you’re not.”

The real fun of grandparents is their difference, but that doesn’t have to include extra leniency. What I treasured about visiting my grandparents were the new card games they taught me, the exotic foods my grandmother prepared, the different conversations we had, the strange magazines lying around, the unfamiliar TV programs they watched.

Becoming a grandparent changes familial relationships. A child becomes a parent, assuming responsibilities and making decisions once reserved for the grandparent. Those decisions inevitably become comments, positive or negative, on the grandparent’s parenting. Some of these choices are socially determined by evolving conventions of good parenting. Fathers in the delivery room and breast-feeding are no long uncommon. Putting baby to sleep on her stomach under a blanket is now taboo. These shifts can appear to represent rejection of the grandparent’s child-rearing practices.

How one acts as a grandparent is not entirely a matter of choice. Not all grandparents can afford to view grandparenting as a series of fun visits. About 1 in 10 grandparents in the US live with their grandchildren. About 6% of children under 18 live with their grandparents and that percentage is dependent on race: 12% of African-American children live in grandparent-headed households, but only 4% of white children.

Historical social shifts have changed the relationships among generations. Rising divorce rates and increasing numbers of families where both parents work encourage more regular grandparental care for children. Economics play a key role. The recent depression increased by 20% the number of children mainly cared for by their grandparents.

Of the 20 million pre-schoolers in the US, about a quarter were cared for regularly by their grandparents, about a third of children under 2. Typically grandparents provide care when mothers are employed full-time, and are more likely to jump in as caregivers for single mothers in poverty.

Even when parents are capable of taking care of children by themselves, grandparents are invaluable. A friend told me that parenting is a humbling experience, placing young adults before difficult decisions: should I feed now or later? should I let the baby cry itself to sleep? which bit of contradictory advice from books, friends and internet should I listen to? Grandparents don’t have all the answers, but we can bring extra hands, patience and skill to the most important human task – bringing up baby.

Vera doesn’t care about conflicts between parents and grandparents over who makes the rules. She doesn’t care about rules. Right now she single-mindedly seeks warmth and love and a dry diaper. I can provide those.
That’s the best thing grandparents can do.

Steve Hochstadt
Missoula, Montana
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 7, 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Respect for Respectable Ideas

I went out to breakfast on Sunday. I planned to fight the weeds in my garden in the afternoon, so I had on torn jeans. I was concerned that I would be out of place among the well-dressed Sunday public.

I was wrong. Jeans, hoodies, T-shirts, basketball shorts and camo were everywhere. My long-sleeve Levi’s shirt put me in the sartorial elite.

My expectations had been formed in another era, and I had not adjusted to the reality passing before my eyes. It’s not just dress styles that have changed. The whole idea of respecting Sunday has been shifting during my lifetime.

Membership in a religious congregation fell from three-quarters of Americans to just over half since the 1950s. Going to church has fallen slowly, too, from about 50% to a low of 36% last year.

Following public behavior, American governments have gradually stopped enforcing Christian practice. There was no baseball in Boston on Sundays until 1929, and then Red Sox could not play in Fenway on Sundays, because there was a church nearby, and had to play in the Boston Braves stadium.

Forbidding the sale of liquor on Sundays lasted much longer, into the 21st century in many states. The lingering effort to keep Sunday respectable by not selling disrespectful alcohol continues in less and less rational forms, such as the prohibition in Illinois of retail alcohol sales until 11 AM, except in Chicago, where only the big supermarkets can sell alcohol after 8 AM. You also can’t buy a car on Sunday, but you can get gas, get your car fixed, and buy a motorcycle. Of course, you can buy guns on Sunday.

The most socially significant change on Sundays is the intrusion of retail commerce, led by the big national chains trying to put local business out of business. Respect for a common day of rest is gone.

Why was I concerned anyway, aren’t torn jeans fashionable? Just check the internet. You can get jeans with “distressing and a frayed hem for an extra edge of attitude” for $51, marked down from $80, or many varieties of torn jeans from Nordstrom’s for over $200.  “Gentlemen’s Quarterly” offers a style guide to ripped jeans, which declares that more than 2½ tears is trying too hard. Yves St. Laurent offers ripped men’s jeans for $750.

Big city folks putting on the Ritz usually get others to tear the jeans. My small-town students mostly do their own ripping.

But fashion rarely imitates life. Jeans with grass and dirt stains, ragged holes at the knees and obvious wear don’t pass GQ’s test and aren’t hawked on the internet.

So what do the artificial holes mean? Tearing jeans ruins them for work. Eventually they no longer can do their job of protecting the body from the rigors of dirty work. I don’t understand those carefully planned tears, but I don’t think they represent respect for the physical labor that causes real holes.

Maybe respect is what has really changed. Respect for Sunday, respect for work, respect for the ideas and customs which were dominant when I grew up. We see the evidence of new definitions of respect and disrespect in the news every day.

Some of the respect revolution has been welcome. Men generally exhibit much more respect for the integrity of women’s bodies, so now violators get slapped in the face, not on the back. But it will take more than a few outraged slaps to make any further progress.

Disrespecting black people is also no longer normal. Roger Angell tells the story of the presence on the Harvard lacrosse team of a black student in 1941, which caused the US Naval Academy team to refuse to play, until the Harvard athletic director overruled the coach and sent the student home. The President of Harvard apologized to the Naval Academy commander for the inconvenience.

There is still plenty of gender and racial disrespect across America, but the change has been remarkable.

Some respect shows disrespect for others. The conventional respect for Christian Sunday was not matched by any public respect for Jewish Friday evening and Saturday. America may be a majority Christian nation a bit longer, but government Christianity is no longer a virtue in the democratic US.

My torn jeans on Sunday are not a sign of disrespect, but an expression of a different culture, one of many that have combined to make America. We don’t need to all respect the same things. Respecting our diversity means understanding that Americans will respect different things.

Some traditional forms of respect are now controversial. Our public space is torn about the idea of respecting the Confederacy. Respect of equal rights leads to disrespect for slavery and its defenders. The oldest US universities, so disrespected by conservative pundits, are among the leaders in examining how they profited from and strengthened slavery. What conservatives call political correctness, I call honesty about the past.

Respect is good, when it comes out of the broadest respect for our fellow humans of all kinds.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 24, 2017