A Mathematician’s Perspective on the Divide

On election night 2016 I had flashbacks to the 2000 election, staying awake late into the evening glued to the television hoping that Florida would come through for, well, in 2000 I was a kid and a total Democrat just like my parents. And I remember how deeply unfair it felt when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush.

Two things about that election stuck with me, that ended up transforming how I think about politics. The first was how close it was. Even back then I had a good enough intuition for statistics to know that if presidential elections consistently come up so close, within a few percentage points almost every time, that’s not random. The second strange thing was this whole idea of red states, blue states, and swing states. A lot of people focus on the swing states but what I found much more mathematically compelling is that there are red states and blue states. Why are there states that don’t change their mind?

The feelings from that election night followed me through the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars I didn’t want and all the way to the polls once I was 18, but in the mean time it was taken as a given in my entire liberal bubble that obviously Bush is stupid and Republicans are stupid and I went along with this way of thinking until those old questions started to dig at me. Why aren’t the Democrats, who are so obviously correct, winning by a huge margin? Why are there Red states at all? The standard answer in my circles seemed to be that, well, if Bush is stupid and Republicans vote for him it’s because they’re stupid, and if Republicans are stupid and half the country is Republican, then it must be that half the country is stupid, look at us the smartest teenagers ever, struggling to make our way through the land of the stupid.

The aura of logical language lends the voice of authority but it doesn’t make something true in real life. I learned that red states are red because they have more rural areas, and blue states are blue because they have bigger cities. I learned that whether you’re Democrat or Republican can be pretty accurately predicted by where you’re born, and no one chooses where to be born. I had to consider that if I were born in a different place with a different family I would be an uncompromising Republican who makes fun of stupid liberals and believes all the anti-liberal stereotypes, and I realized there’s also plenty of awful people who are Democrats just because of their circumstances.

I learned why elections are so close, that if one side leads by a lot, they can put fewer resources into campaigning, while the losing party shifts their platform to appeal to more voters, meaning that Democrats and Republicans are not two fundamentally different types of people with fundamentally different ideologies, but moving targets in a self-balancing system. I had to entertain the premise that maybe Republicans and Democrats are equally intelligent people doing the best they can with what they know, and as I got older and my world grew, I’ve met many very smart and wonderful Republicans who have led me to believe that, as usual, my younger self was too quick to judge.

That is the divide I want to heal. The divide that made my teenage self mock Republicans for their big gas-guzzling trucks while I enjoyed the invisible urban infrastructure that paved my roads, picked up my garbage, and delivered the gas I used to heat my home through hidden pipes. I want to heal the divide that makes some liberals not just mock but actually fear people who find personal and cultural value in gun ownership, the divide that makes us forget how easy it is to demand we all get rid of something that only other people value. I want to heal the divide that leads many nonreligious city dwellers to fundamentally misunderstand the social infrastructure roles of the church in rural communities, caring for the sick and the poor in places far from the offices of government-funded social programs. The shared infrastructure of cities makes it easier, more efficient, to improve quality of life with less money, to adapt to changes in the world, to recover economically.

That’s the usual divide, but with Trump I think there’s a different story, and it’s not one I’ve seen anyone else telling.

You see, a lot of people were surprised by Trump’s victory, and this surprise has led to a lot of speculation regarding the polls and where they went wrong. Which they weren’t really that wrong because Hillary won the popular vote by a large margin so it’s not like there’s some mysterious chunk of Trump supporters we didn’t know about, but anyway. The difference between the polls and the outcome led to this obsession with pointing at different bits of the polls to try and explain why Trump won. It’s the standard fallacy of focusing on what’s measurable because that’s what is easy and incontrovertible. It’s evidence, it’s proof, and anyone with basic math skills can compare numbers in the completely logical agreed-upon form, and let’s combine that with my other favorite intellectual mistake: the one where you get what you measure. If you measure race, you get race, if you measure gender and sexuality, you get gender and sexuality. Media has been taken over with arguing about these things because it’s easy to pseudo-rationally argue about what number is bigger than what other number. The media is centering the conversation around identity politics because that’s what the data is, but it’s not what the data shows.

Like, Trump didn’t win because of lower black turnout, though voter suppression worked pretty good there. Trump won and also we measured black voter turnout. We measured lots of things.

So I took a fresh look at the data. Lots of data, in larger contexts, and weeks later I’ve finally come to a conclusion.

I was wrong. It’s not really about liberal vs conservative, city vs country, white vs multicultural, not this time. It’s really about old and young. Not vs, and not necessarily as individuals but also as communities and as a culture, ok here we go:

First the shallow data part. Edison Research, which does the US election exit polls, shows that over-45s voted Trump while under-45s voted Hillary, and other polls show other breakdowns, over-50s voting for Trump, the trend of all the polls is that the older you get the more you’re a Trump voter, while Hillary was strongly favored among younger voters. 18-29 most strongly, and 30-45 also. And voter turnout in those age groups looks pretty normal, though if younger voters turned out like older voters did Hillary would’ve won in a landslide, meanwhile Baby Boomers are getting older, lifespans increase, and the older you are the more you turn out to vote so this was a good election for appealing to older voters, and older didn’t used to be a Republican thing but Obama’s appeal to young voters set the stage to take the G out of the GOP this year. But it’s not the pure demographics that popped out to me, but the correlations.

Correlations like… that many rural areas are increasing in average age as young people seek opportunities in the city and the older population keeps getting older, industry changes, and they’re left without a job they’re trained for, and it’s not like there’s a university in town where they can learn new skills and qualifications. Which means this statistic is related to the economy, though remember people who make less than average voted for Hillary, and how much you make is also correlated with age, so while poor young voters voted for Hillary, Trump’s voters are worrying about retirement and healthcare in a system that is failing them on both counts. Age is correlated with race, and US demographics are getting increasingly diverse which hasn’t really hit the voter pools yet, and also consider religion. I don’t mean diversity of religion, I mean the middle-america sort of religion where the church isn’t just a community but the community, with a cohesiveness that trickles down from older members.

I want to talk about age not because it excuses anything, but because it changes how we should approach this. When people living in different places reject each other’s way of life, that’s something to compromise and come together on. But if it’s really that younger people are looking towards the future while older people want to go back to how things were, that’s a different conversation. Trump didn’t just lose the popular vote, he lost the younger half of America.

America has changed. Younger voters are multicultural, we have a diverse range of identity, we’re adaptable, we’ve had 4 different jobs in multiple industries, we don’t expect job security or abundant natural resources or to have the world our parents had. We adapt, and we care for each other, not just in the USA but around the world, because we are connected, we are informed, we have the world at our fingertips. We worry about how we’re going to deal with the environmental issues that have been handed to us, how we’re going to end the wars that have been handed to us. Everyone wants to leave a better world for their children and it would be natural for older folks to be a little resentful that we find so many flaws with the world they’re handing to us, but this isn’t the story of two Americas, it’s a story of new Americas, about a country that has improved and changed many times over. There’s no sides to fight and win. This is a gap you bridge by being kind to each other, by asking older America not to reject America’s youth and younger America to respect our history and our elders and make sure they are not forgotten in a world of new technology. There’s a difference between the young angry neo-nazi Trump supporters that have been so emboldened by him, so encouraged by his administration, and the voters who are older and disconnected and who I think actually make up his base.

Dark forces in the white house would divide us, Steve Bannon is pretending Trump’s win was about a culture war between nationalists and liberals, pc culture and working-class middle America, rather than a generational difference. The same think pieces the media was writing about millennials years ago are now being rewritten as pieces about liberals, but we’re still the same people and we’re not going away. Legacy media is obsessed with the idea of identity politics while we’re already over it, we’re just trying to understand and respect each other in a changed world. And maybe with all these new changes we did forget to include older people’s struggles. Maybe we fell into the fallacy of valuing the lives of hypothetical future people more than the lives of those already here in our communities.

Older voters didn’t grow up with the idea of climate change, it’s not about liberals being smart and Republicans being science deniers, the numbers tell me it’s about age. Statistics tell us Trump voters are uneducated but remember education levels have increased with time and that’s a good thing, and also maybe we have some work to do in bringing education innovation to people who aren’t in school, and don’t come into contact much with more recently educated people.

Older voters didn’t grow up with the internet. The numbers show that older you get the more time you spend watching television, that’s where information comes from for a lot of people, and legacy media, in their efforts to be fair to the other side and get ratings from their audience are completely missing how pro-Trump they sound to younger demographics, whether they—or Trump—think they’re being pro-Trump or not. Maybe when young people rejected old media and went to the internet, we didn’t think through all the side-effects.

Maybe we can spend some time teaching older folks about climate change and how to sort out hoaxes on the internet, and they can spend some time teaching younger folks about the importance of turning out to vote and how to use telephones to call representatives.

Trump played to people’s fear, not just to general economic anxiety but about retirement and their legacy and their own mortality. Fear of the existential threat posed by imaginary invasions. He knows how to speak to people his age, to white people who grew up during the cold war, and in places where support will trickle down because of community structure.

There’s an important difference between those who fear the unknown and those who hate the known, between those who avoid someone because they don’t want to be hurt and those who engage with someone because they want to see them suffer. The former behavior might not be acceptable, but it’s approachable. You can talk about it.

I don’t make excuses for bigotry but maybe we can change how we approach it for the large share of Trump’s voter base who might be active in opposing it if we give them space to. There’s plenty of older folks who are excited to be challenged and engaged by the young American culture, who are willing to admit they’re wrong when they’re wrong, even if it challenges their authority.

 But from what I’ve seen of Trump and Bannon, they enjoy seeing the suffering of those who disagree with them, they seek to punish those who oppose them, and you can’t have a successful dialogue with someone who would like to see you hurt. Democrats won’t work with Trump, but Republicans can’t work with Trump. They could obey him, but they can’t work with him. Whether the white house reflects it or not, there is no future in Trump. The world already changed.

Some of Trump’s voters just want to burn it all down but most of them have shown that they care about the future of our country, they are engaged, they want to work hard, and maybe we can find a direction for that energy that we can agree on, rather than leaving older generations behind. Because we’re going to have this same problem when we’re old and future generations are fluent in technology we can’t imagine, that connects them to information and understanding that we can’t access effectively. Let us learn now how we bridge the gap of age in a world of increasing information technology.

Can we call our older friends and family and tell them our concerns, tell them about the world we see? Can we listen to their stories? Can we remember that our representatives and senators are also mostly older and didn’t grow up with the internet and aren’t reading our twitter feed and give them a call to share our concerns? Can we reach out personally to those who get their information that way? Can we find a way to disagree in our opinions but agree on the facts? Can we ask those who grew up in a different time to support us? Can we ask those who grew up in a different time how we can support them?

I feel mostly hopeful but there’s a certain bittersweetness to it and I can’t help think of my grandma. I lived with my her when my mathematical work started becoming popular, I respected her dictatorial authority in her home and I forgave her the occasional comments that one would call “old fashioned” when said by your own grandma. But I often think about the fact that when she was ill, she made a conscious decision to die rather than leave home. It’s not an uncommon choice. We are defined by the things we value more than ourselves. My grandmother made a home; and as frustrated as I was with her unwillingness to use the internet or accept a broader range of identity, she made me welcome in the home that was worth more to her than her own life. 

And so, to the future generations who value the lives of all of us equally, I entreat you to remember that life is to be honored universally but spent individually. Be kind to those who truly define themselves as Americans first, those who would whole-heartedly welcome you into the country they would give their life for. That is a kind of nationalism to be respected, and I think we can find a way to come together in support of America’s new culture while still honoring those who got us here.

[This post, including video, is Public Domain CC0]