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Coming Out of the Bubble

Those who live in a bubble had best admit it, and apparently I do. I never thought Trump would be elected President. Not even on election day. Why is this? I guess spending as much time on a college campus as I do has rendered me relatively blind to what’s really going in our democracy.

Now, I’m not a typical professor, insofar as I often vote Republican and resist, on behalf of genuinely liberal education, the reduction of all of higher education to the twin imperatives of competency and diversity. Even so, my “viewpoint” has turned out not to be wide enough for a comprehensively American view.

I can see that a core group of Trump voters—skilled labor—have contempt for the members of a professional elite who can’t do anything real, who are very short on personal virtue (especially courage and honor), are blind to the proud dignity of most American lives, and live a great distance from the shared experiences that used to unite most American citizens and children of God: church, military service, civic organizations, and socioeconomically diverse public schools.

Still, I can’t do anything real—even change a tire or drive a car with a stick shift—and I’ve managed to avoid situations that require personal (at least physical) courage my whole life. I also don’t hang out much with men who drive pick-ups and work with their hands, and so I have no direct knowledge of the subtle and disciplined intelligence required for motorcycle repair or home construction. Only living on the periphery of a failed Southern mill town (the precinct I voted in went roughly 80 percent for Trump) allows me to say I don’t spend every waking moment in the professional/academic bubble.

I respect most Trump voters, as much or more than the academics who voted Clinton who surround me on campus. So many of these voters are my hard-working and loving neighbors, with the best of Southern manners and morals. I know enough to know they’re neither irredeemable nor deplorable; I have seen that they are motivated to practice charity toward the most lonely, needy, and wounded among us by their genuine belief in personal redemption. But I’m not with them enough to have experienced for myself the attraction they have toward Donald Trump, who moves me not at all.

So I’ve found myself stuck in maybe the most narrow and insular of factions. Like a few others, I thought of myself as standing outside the contest that was the campaign. I was a “Never Trump,” but not at all for Clinton. “Never Trump” turned out to be a miniscule group of Republicans who couldn’t see what was really going on on either side. It was the most unrealistic of positions from which to make any accurate predictions. Most Americans unhappy with the two choices still made a choice. They found reasons to be with him or with her.

Most Never Trumpers thought that Trump would lose, probably big, and they would be there to teach the relevant lesson and purge the Republican Party of any trace of the alien interloper. So most of them hoped Clinton would win, and expected she wouldn’t need their help to do so. One particularly eminent Never Trumper—James Ceaser—has termed the day after the election 11/9. The momentous occasion we experienced 15 years ago was, of course, the lawless, destructive violence of the few. Now it’s democracy—or the lawful, destructive mischief of the many. Without denying for a moment how terrified maybe we should be of the very idea of Donald Trump, commander-in-chief, it’s surely an overreaction to say that 11/9 brought the end of the world as we know it (implied by the comparison with 9/11). It was, however, quite the existential crisis for the Never Trumpers, who are compelled to face straight on how marginalized and politically homeless they are. For many conservatives—such as George Will or Bill Kristol—Trump’s victory was a fiasco, more so than for most Democrats, who are still at home in their party. It was certainly not so great for me to notice that, already alienated from the class of professors, I also had no place in either of our great political movements.

The insistent argument of Will and others was that the Republicans shouldn’t and wouldn’t nominate Trump once he was outed as “not a conservative.” I knew enough, from the beginning, to see that that objection by itself couldn’t take Trump out. Then, too, many Republicans, beginning with those who run the Wall Street Journal, thought the “big donor” platform of cutting taxes and regulations to incentivize job creators was enough to win the primaries and again in November. Why did they think that ordinary men and women could be animated by the combination of cutting taxes and trimming the entitlements and other safety nets on which so many depend?

The pro-growth agenda identified with Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan used to work as the foundation of the “opportunity society” in which everyone shares, but, truth to tell, nobody much thinks of the hugely rich as getting the job-creation thing done any more. And the general perception is that most people think their taxes are already pretty bleepin’ low. Conservatives, in short, had come to seem too oligarchic, too much from the rich and for the rich.

I also knew enough to say that the Republican route to victory in November, with someone other than Trump, required learning from Trump’s populism. The GOP has been, especially in recent years, a coalition of conservatives and populists, the latter known as Reagan Democrats. And the former had been parasitic on the latter for too long. Most Republicans are a good distance from being George Will-style—or basically libertarian—Republicans. Most do not share the “donor class” vision that deemphasizes various social issues and is open to various forms of unmediated global capitalism, beginning with open borders. This was a tough year for “classical liberalism,” in part, because the Republican leadership had become too exclusively classically liberal. Still, I also thought that Trump’s crude, pandering populism would be so unattractive to libertarians, moderate Republicans, and swing voters that he couldn’t possibly bring together the coalition that produces victory.

Not long before the election, I was arguing with the (equally clueless) Clinton supporter Damon Linker over whether her landslide would be a strong mandate for the change she believes in or merely a “negative landslide.” Yes, it does seem foolhardy in retrospect but in our defense we were doing that on the basis of a poll or two that disagreed with most of the others. The conventional wisdom at that moment—poor debate performance, the bragging-about-groping tape, and the childish talk about the system being rigged—was that Trump’s campaign had collapsed. Anyone could see he’d been no match for the Democratic establishment, which included the mainstream media.

But as November 8 approached, I could see that the landslide was way off, and that Trump had recovered much of what he’d lost. Then again, it’s natural for a contest to close in the final days, as Republicans come home and all that. I still thought Clinton would win, despite some polls at the national and especially at the state level that showed otherwise.

I told my students that the worst conceivable result—Clinton winning the popular vote, Trump the electoral vote, and the Republicans keeping Congress—was worth thinking about as a possibility. I assured them, though, that they shouldn’t lose sleep over it! Well maybe a little, because that outcome would be accompanied by demonstrations in our cities and on our campuses, even to the point of civil unrest that couldn’t readily be contained. Fortunately, I wasn’t even completely right when I was right. The convulsions we have now aren’t nearly as bad as I predicted.

I also thought, truth to tell, that it would be best for the country, given all the distrust in every direction, if Clinton won decisively but not overwhelmingly, but the Republicans stayed in charge in Congress. I was assuming considerably more ticket-splitting than there actually was. Naturally I turned my somewhat far-fetched wish into a prediction, a prediction shared by many Never-Trump pundits.

A large part of my error was in overlearning the lesson of 2012. Then, Romney stayed close to Obama in the polls until the very end but Obama won with surprising ease. The explanation was that the Democrats were more astutely organized. They used their vast amounts of campaign money well, what with their vaunted ground game, big data, and subtle strategizing. It seemed to me that this time around the Democratic Machine was worth at least a point or two for Clinton.

What was most inconceivable to me was that a very amateurish—“in over his head”—candidate like Trump could possibly defeat an alliance of all the parts of our country’s elitist respectable establishment. Nobody who was anybody was for him, except the rogue gay Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel. I believed something like “they” (meaning the people really in charge) just won’t let him win. That’s pretty close to “the system is rigged.” I didn’t believe Trump when he said it but I held a version of that view.

Trump’s victory was almost entirely his own. He has revised everything we know about how to wage an effective campaign—proving, for example, that money isn’t all that important in politics after all. We can’t forget, of course, how lucky he was in certain ways, beginning with the FBI director’s strange behavior. Clinton has been far too easy on herself to blame that for her defeat, although she might well have won without it. It’s not for nothing that so many Christians believe that the hand of God touched this campaign, in much the same way that the Red Sea was once parted. That, however, would attribute far too little to Clinton’s errors and to Trump’s innovative savvy.

One good thing we learned: The system isn’t really rigged. Another good thing: that Clinton and President Obama graciously accepted its unwelcome outcome. That’s what we should all do, acknowledge the rightful authority of President Trump, and pray that God will give him the grace to behave better than he has in his whole life so far. Those who wanted change voted for him with no illusions about his major shortcomings. His mandate is mitigated by the fact that he didn’t receive a popular vote victory, but people now expect a lot of him, change rooted in nostalgia, making America great again.

It’s important to consider what the “change” vote was against. Even a year ago, pundits were writing about the convergence of our two major parties. The Democrats were becoming more accepting of the free market while the Republicans were moving away from their obsession with the social issues, and more accepting of claims for personal autonomy. The convergence, it was said, was pretty libertarian. That might mean that the future—the millennials—would end up herding around Rand Paul.

Didn’t happen. Not just Trump’s voters, but those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, voted against that affirmation of the dynamic of the global competition marketplace. Not only did Senator Paul’s campaign go nowhere, the major Republican donors had no candidate on whom to lavish their money. Their candidate from four years ago had been viewed as an oligarch by working class Americans and members of unions. These voters—who had been fine with voting for their African American President, having been persuaded that he had their back against Romney and his party out to cut their entitlements—flipped this time and so the GOP candidate won the Rust Belt.

The most astute observers are now talking about a libertarian and liberal alliance against the coming authoritarianism of the President-elect. That does make sense on certain issues, such as legal reform and immigration. It might even be regarded as the alliance of what Tyler Cowen calls the “nice,” or those who adopted the manners and morals of displaced cosmopolitanism, against the “brutal,” or those who increasingly embrace a kind of tribalism and an unreasonable attachment to the more honorable and even violent virtues not prized in the conscientious and compliant world of the service industry. But one problem with this alliance would be that “niceness” isn’t the opposite of unbridled brutality. The opposite is the manners and morals of ladies and gentlemen. Donald Trump’s brand—as described by the gentleman Harvey Mansfield, of “not a gentleman”—has mistakenly caused too many decent Americans to confuse being virtuous with being politically correct or even promiscuously sensitive.

But it seems to me that plenty of Trump voters, if not Trump himself, were voting for the ordinary dignity of the relational lives of ordinary men and women that was so well described by the late Christopher Lasch. There’s still room for a conservatism that exists in the mean between libertarianism and authoritarianism—for a coalition in which conservatives refine and enlarge, without in any way dissing, the genuine concerns of the populists. The Republicans, to have a future, still have to learn from Trump without hoping (it’s okay to wish, though) for Trump’s own learning curve bending in the direction of the gentlemanly virtues of magnanimity, generosity, and charity—a humane concern for all his fellow citizens.

Reader Discussion

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on November 29, 2016 at 10:18:00 am

Great essay. However, Tyler Cowen's "nice" cosmopolitans are themselves fairly tribalistic and brutal when imposing their agenda on those they consider inferior to themselves. As somebody (I forget who) has suggested, they should be called oikophobes, not cosmopolitans.

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djf
on November 29, 2016 at 10:21:37 am

I say this with the deepest respect. This blog site is the best thing going on governmental/political issues. But this analysis remains within the bubble. The nevertrumpers are in the bubble. There are many who love Trump. While I was not one, I am beginning to see the reason for the attraction. https://blackstoneinitiative.com/2016/10/14/trump-a-hand-of-god/. I pray.

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David Linton
on November 29, 2016 at 10:23:27 am

They are, in fact, oikophobes (Scruton). They get angry at anyone who says that virtue is more than being nice (see bk. 8 of the REPUBLIC). Good to hear from you, djf.

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Peter Augustine Lawler
on November 29, 2016 at 10:33:30 am

Peter:

Well this is a strange *apologia*, is it not? One in which the same charges are levied against he who is the subject of the apology.

I'll skip the examples from the above essay - they are many.

I will say that for one who regularly advances the value of "place" that it is somewhat surprising to observe that *certain* places are still off limits for those of the "gentlemanly" persuasion. Why is there no *place* for the less erudite? Why do our gentleman guardians continue to conflate a certain crudity of mannerism / vernacular with a meanness of disposition / intent?

Moreover, what have our gentlemen guardians wrought in the past two decades?

Given a choice between the gentleman and the occasional boor, it appears that the people have chosen to not accept further ministrations by the "genteel."

Wouldn't you say, that there is a *place* for that?

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g
on November 29, 2016 at 10:34:57 am

Oops, the above name should be "gabe"

We boors, apparently, are unable to even type in our own names!

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gabe
on November 29, 2016 at 10:43:21 am

I appreciate those comments. I agree I remain somewhat bubbled.

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Peter Augustine Lawler
on November 29, 2016 at 10:48:20 am

Awwhhh! what the heck, go have some "bubbly" and then get on with it - as I thoroughly enjoy your pieces on "place."

take care
gabe

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gabe
on November 29, 2016 at 11:00:52 am

Well thought out and equally well stated.

However, beware.....President Obama and The Clintons are anything but gracious. The President is preparing to ensconce himself and his acolytes in a D.C. Manse to serve as a shadow presidency. And the Clintons....well they will just never go away. Mark my words!

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BTGbarrister
on November 29, 2016 at 11:20:25 am

Nice blog, however it assumes that Republicans are actually conservative. President-elect Trump arose because President Bush the Younger and his Republican Congress were not in any real sense small government conservatives. Also, while Republicans were good at aping Reagan, the policies they followed were in not Reaganesque at all; Reagan cut taxes that were very high in order to shrink the government (he failed, but came close) whereas Bush tax cuts were a gimmick, designed to appear Reaganesque while benefiting only the wealthy. Where were the Reagan Democrats to go? They tried President Obama, given the choices they were given, but they understood in a visceral way that he wasn't their President either. Trump was the only one who declared that the emperors had no clothes.

Let's hope that God had something to do with this as we're going to need all the help we can get.

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Ron Johnson
on November 29, 2016 at 12:31:49 pm

Mr. Gabe,

Your response did not suffer the loss of your suffix. I could infer the author from the concise poignancy of his words.

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Paul Binotto
on November 29, 2016 at 14:47:13 pm

Comes news today that Madame DeFarge, Oops, I mean Hillary, is "keeping her options open for 2020" -
I would recommend if she has her sights on 20 /20 that she consult a Laser Eye surgeon as she has apparently failed to see that her (and that of her fellow Lefties) vision is quite defective.

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gabe
on November 29, 2016 at 16:40:25 pm

Hi Prof Lawler, thanks for responding. Your insights are illuminating and stimulating, as always. Yes it was Scruton who came up with "oikophobes." And our oikophobes are nice only to the likeminded and to members of certain special groups considered to be "oppressed." If you want to see a progressive turn off the "niceness," just challenge P.C. orthodoxy in a conversation with my brother. Or take a look at any number of progressive reactions to the election available online. Or at some of the intolerant behavior on college campuses by people who probably think of themselves as militantly "tolerant.".

I understand how it is that millions of voters find Trump affirmatively appealing. I do, however, think Trump's appeal is a sign of the deterioration of our culture, as is the attraction a comparable (and probably even larger) mass of Americans feel for Obama, Hillary, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, etc., all of whose outward personal conduct and language are less gross than Trump's but whose substantive message is far worse.

In the end, as bad as Trump is (and his recent appointments are only partially reassuring), from a conservative/classical-liberal/constitutional point of view, he really was the lesser evil in this election.

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djf
on November 29, 2016 at 17:33:11 pm

dj:

" challenge P.C. orthodoxy in a conversation with my brother."

Hey we all have our cross to bear. Isn't that why Thanksgiving was invented so we could bask in the joy of family togetherness (smiley face here) - or was that why football was invented - so we can avoid this togetherness!

take care
gabe

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gabe
on November 29, 2016 at 17:39:08 pm

Smartphones were invented to avoid togetherness, Mr. Gabe; football, to avoid washing Thanksgiving dishes...

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Paul Binotto
on November 30, 2016 at 11:47:15 am

'@djf - thanks! New word: oikophobe - who knew there was one word that so well fit the trendy sensibilities of the "elite" - recollection of obama's "apology tour", or, further back, the 2003 dixie chicks' declared (in London) "shame" wrt GWB.

@Mr Lawler - I think you overemphasize the results towards a populist "win", as almost sounding like there is some "mandate". This looks very much more like a rejection of clinton, and her continuation of obama's policies, than of people being on board with a populist "agenda".

The numbers tell the story:

1) trump received 0.9% less of the total vote than Romney in 2012, while clinton received 3.1% less than obama in 2012.

2) Meanwhile, voting age population increased by 9.1M people (eligible voters by 10.7M, according to Pew) from 2012 to 2016.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2016
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/03/2016-electorate-will-be-the-most-diverse-in-u-s-history/

3) If trump won over the rust belt working class who have traditionally been dem voters, he must have, then, also lost many what would have been expected GOP voters. Evidently, many stayed home.

To put this in perspective, had 2008 had the same percentage of voting age population turnout as 2016, clinton's share would be 63.1M - obama actually won 69.5M votes.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout_in_the_United_States_presidential_elections

Or, to flip that around, had 2016 had the same percentage of voting age population turnout as 2008, trump's share would be 66.4M - he received only 62.6M votes. clinton's share would be 68.9M vs 64.8M actual votes.

All this reflects that BOTH candidates were rather unpopular. BOTH did have historically high negatives.

Bottom Line: While the GOP does retain Congress and trump took the WH, there is no resounding "mandate" as such for a populist agenda.

Given trump's lack of clarity (and "flexibility" on many issues), it is not at all clear there is a "mandate" for anything specific other than "change".

Doubtful that trump's path is sustainable in future, but we've been surprised throughout 2016, and there's room for more in these next four years.

Does he (and the GOP) keep his rust belt voters? What happens to those voters who abstained? Perhaps if trump proves competent, and not too egregious on some of his more extreme policies, he might win them back? But does he appeal to them only at expense of the rust belt supporters, or is there a balance that keeps the electoral college votes onside?

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Big Maq
on November 30, 2016 at 13:11:18 pm

Provocative, interesting observations & assertions - was there actually a larger percentage of abstention or did larger percentages instead vote Green, Libertarian, Mickey Mouse?

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Paul Binotto
on November 30, 2016 at 13:56:28 pm

The one thing I did not see in the excellent piece is a reference to those of us who have become furious at the PC establishment, personified by Obama and Clinton, as a consequence of their never ending insults and personal denigration of anyone who disagreed with any of their policy positions. Any disagreement with Mr. Obama resulted in our being smeared as "Racist". Concern about Mrs. Clinton's habitual playing fast and loose with the law was portrayed as Misogynistic. Concern for the open borders was both racist and fascist, The idea that the constitution constitutes a legally biding contract between the American people and its Government, rather than a quant list of suggestions to be modified or ignored as required by "Progressive" policy, resulted in accusations of totalitarian, anti gay, anti anything decent in humanity. The idea that neither Marriage, nor abortion are referenced anywhere in the constitution, and hence would perhaps be matters for state rather than federal regulation has been rejected as too far beyond the pale to even consider and those of us who have such questions are seen as total barbarians who would oppress any and all within our power to do so is offensive in the extreme. In short, it is not just disaffected white uneducated workers who are upset with the status quo. Many of us with post-graduate degrees and high incomes are sick of being insulted and denigrated by the PC elite.

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Jerry Mixon
on November 30, 2016 at 14:11:35 pm

One of the great ironies of this mea culpa, is that the bubble surrounding Prof Lawler does not just apply to politics but to his views on who holds knowledge. Prof Lawler needs to keep searching for his bubble's boundaries. Prof Lawler implies throughout the essay that one must have attended university and work in a white collar job to have either formal knowledge or wisdom. The most Lawler seems to allow his blue collar neighbors is a sort of 'down-home' street savvy. Professor Lawler, if you went into the homes of your blue collar neighbors you would find people of varied and deep intelligence who read and keep up with the world in far more variety than your ultra-bubbled university cohorts. The least knowledgeable people I know are recent college graduates and their university professors. 'Insular knowledge' is a kind term for people on campus and the tech world today.
The very worst type bubble is the one that holds the idea that only ignorant barbarians work with their hands.
Perhaps, it is the bubble that stereotypes blue collar as ignorant that most leads the 'elite' [self designated] to totally be wrong about people outside their bubble.

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Alan Reyes M.D.
on November 30, 2016 at 14:43:13 pm

Dr. Reyes, Point taken, although I thought I was admitting that (but maybe not enough). Peter

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Peter Augustine Lawler
on November 30, 2016 at 15:33:07 pm

the Author is incorrect on one very significant item:

"Trump’s victory was almost entirely his own."

It demonstrably was not. With very few exceptions GOP candidates down the ballot did better than Trump did - either winning by bigger than expected margins, or losing by narrower ones. the over all message is that progressivism continues its two decade decline across america. No doubt Trump tapped a populist aspect of this decline and that de riguer pur laine conservatives were to rigid and/or inept at taking advantage of it particularly those trying to become POTUS.

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Gord Tulk
on November 30, 2016 at 15:45:18 pm

Professor Lawler: I enjoyed reading your post and thought much of what you had to say was important. I still think though, you are in a bubble, so to speak. When Trump spoke of the election being 'rigged' by that I never took him to mean some sort of formal dishonesty at the voting both, (although that apparently is what he meant in some cases) but a larger sense of the media being essentially all in for on side of the political spectrum, and obviously, and with apparent bias out to tilt the results of the election by whatever means. This goes for what the DNC and Donna Brazille did to Sanders in the primaries. Although Trump's victory was entirely his own as you put it- you neglect to mention-and this is important-the stunning lack of competence displayed by both Clinton and Obama that allowed the movement he lead to grow and development. After all, he took states that had gone democratic for 25 years (Pennsylvania). Lastly, the contempt displayed by the Democrats was entirely underestimated by you and by Clinton-as they were in a bubble-with predictable results. Apparently, the Democrats have still not learned their lesson-as they have just re-elected Pelosi head of what remains of her party.

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Peter Monat
on November 30, 2016 at 19:32:32 pm

Great comment!

Perhaps, the single best thing to come out of the recent election is this:

Hayeks admonition regarding the "expertise" of government central economic planers may now be seen to be equally as applicable to the intellectual elites. i/e;. that such an exalted status for our *experts8 is predicated upon both a false assumption and a groundless presumption. to paraphrase here: The experts *PRESUME* to have greater knowledge and cognitive ability than the average citizen, AND the average citizen assumes that their presumption is based in fact.

Let us hope that this is no longer the case as we all know what happens when one *ass-u-me-s*

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gabe
on December 01, 2016 at 09:43:50 am

Paul, the answer is BOTH, and can be gleaned from the links provided.

All remaining votes (not Dem, nor GOP) jumped from 1.4% of VAP in 2008 (and 1.5% in 2012) to 4.9% of VAP in 2016. Most of that gain went to the Libertarian Party (+4M votes), while Green also gained some (+1M votes).

Taking Pew's eligible voters as a baseline for 2016 and 2012, and assuming similar percentage eligibility for 2008 among VAP, looks like abstainers were up from ~33% of the eligible voters in 2008, to 36% in 2016 - the difference = ~15M more votes not cast.

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Big Maq
on December 01, 2016 at 09:59:12 am

So interesting, thanks for responding! It seems so odd that abstainers comprised such a large percentage, as the polls (at least where I reside in PA) seemed to have lines longer than I can recall in recent previous presidential elections.

Perhaps this may be explained by a geographical and demographical shift of abstainers and voters this election cycle, opposite in character and location from previous elections; thus only giving the perception of increased voter turnout (which necessarily received the greatest media coverage).

Best, Paul

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Paul Binotto
on December 18, 2016 at 09:56:09 am

Dear Peter,

Thank you for the thoughtful essay. I have been waiting that piece for quite a while. I too hope for Trump’s own learning curve bending in the direction of the gentlemanly virtues of magnanimity, generosity, and charity—a humane concern for all his fellow citizens. I am not optimistic.

Merry Christmas

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Tom Thompson
on October 16, 2018 at 08:34:27 am

[…] about the late Peter Lawler, despite his Catholic intellectualism (or perhaps because of it), was his repeated recognition of, and respect for, this kernel of authentic Christian life that subsisted at the core of so many of those […]

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Pentecostalism and the Deplorables in The Apostle

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.