Sunday, November 09, 2014

Red Tide

In the disturbing election which mercifully concluded last week, a Red Tide swept across America and returned a corporate con man to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. A look at exit survey data allow us to comprehend what has just happened.

Survey Says….

The NBC Exit Polling in Florida revealed a very interesting picture regarding the gubernatorial election. To wit:  


Among age cohorts, the only group which strongly supported the Republican governor was those over 65. They voted for Scott by a 56-40% margin. All the rest supported Charlie Crist, his Democratic challenger. While Gen X was close at 48/47% and Boomers were only a little more inclined toward Crist, 49/46%, Millennials were as strongly for Crist (D) as their grandparents were for Scott (R), 51/41%.

In short, the only age group to strongly support Scott was the over 65 cohort, largely retirees. While they make up only 13% of the population, they comprised fully one in four of those who actually voted Tuesday. Their impact was greatly disproportionate to their presence in the population. The youngest voters, by contrast, comprise a full 17% of Florida’s population according to the US Census Bureau’s current estimates but had the least impact on the election, comprising but 13% of the voters.


Similarly, white non-Hispanic Floridians currently comprise just over half of the state’s population at 56.5% though they are 66% of the state’s registered voters, a legacy to both a history of racism and recent voter repression measures. Tuesday white electors made up seven out of every 10 voters. Of the three identified racial and ethnic groups, white voters chose the Republican Scott by over 20 points, 58/37%. Black voters (17% of the population,9% of the registered voters, 14% of Tuesday’s electorate) chose Crist by an 85/12% margin and Hispanics (24% of the population, 15% of registered voters but only 13% of the participants in Tuesday’s election) chose Crist by 20 points, 58/38%.

Educational Attainment

The largest single group of voters to support Scott by formal educational attainment was white non-college graduates, 61/32%. The largest group to support Crist was non-white college graduates, 76/22%. Among college graduates generally Crist won 50/46% while among non-college graduates, Scott won 50-44%.

This also generally reflects the urban/suburban/rural splits in which blue urban islands like Orlando, Tampa Bay and the Gold Coast metro areas along with university centers like Alachua County (UF) and Leon County (FSU/FAMU) which are surrounded by a sea of red suburban counties and a phalanx of rural counties in the interior of the peninsula and across the top of northern and western Florida. College graduates tend to be more concentrated in urban areas and the rates decline with proximity to those urban areas. 

Older, Whiter, Wealthier, Fading

This majority in Tuesday’s election who returned the medicare defrauding (largest fraud settlement in US history) and croney-rewarding (campaign manager John Thrasher now FSU president) Republican governor to power Tuesday was much older, whiter and less formally educated than the 47% of Floridians who voted for his Democratic opponent. It is hardly an electorate reflective of the Florida their choices will govern. But it is the electorate who showed up Tuesday for any number of reasons.

In all fairness, the governor’s race wasn’t much of a choice. Scott’s opponent was a rather blatant political opportunist. But the return of a governor attuned to the wealthy, particularly its wealthy retirees, and completely tone-deaf to the needs of the average Floridian bodes poorly for the next four years in the Sunshine State.

It is a particularly crippling blow to Florida’s public education already facing the impacts of budget cuts and efforts to defund public schools as a means of funding private charters. And it is a potentially lethal blow to the one in four Floridians under 65 who have no health insurance to assure them of medical treatment when ill or injured, the second highest state in the country in this shameful category.

However, this pattern was hardly relegated to Florida. This wave of conservative elderly white voters propelled the Red Tide that swept much of America on Tuesday.

The vast majority of over 65 voters are part of the Silent Generation, the cohort born during the last Great Depression and WWII. It is a cohort marked by its focus on achievement, power and status. Their behaviors and attitudes are largely shaped by their experience of the Depression and they tend to be marked by conformity, conservatism (McCarthy’s Red Scare informed their youth) and the demand for comfort. They represent a major shift away from the self-sacrificing qualities of the Greatest Generation that preceded the Silents and the idealism that would mark their successor cohort, the Boomers.

The Silents  are currently the largest voting cohort and the wealthiest. One description refers to Silents as an “early-marrying Lonely Crowd (that) became the risk-averse technicians and professionals of a post-crisis era in which conformity seemed to be a sure ticket to success.” The least racially and culturally diverse of all the cohorts, “[a]s America’s newest and most affluent-ever seniors (no longer “senior citizens”), they wonder why just “following the rules” no longer works for their children and grandchildren.” They are also the most religiously observant and self-reported theologically conservative cohort (47%).

They are also the cohort which will be much less a major factor in American politics within the next decade with the vanguard of their cohort already beginning to die. In many ways, Tuesday’s election was as much a swan song as a shocker.

It’s not hard to see how an election dominated by this group would have produced the Red Tide last Tuesday. The Congress elected is largely conservative and many are religious fundamentalists. They largely support the continued reverse Robin Hood policies that serve to transfer wealth from the bottom to the top and enrich the already wealthy at the expense of the working poor. When comfort is a primary consideration and the status quo ensures your comfort regardless of its impact on others, it’s not hard to imagine why you’d fight for its preservation.

Toxic Paralysis  

In nature Red Tides tend to be enormously destructive. Caused by a profuse blooming of red marine algae often spurred by man-made increases in nutrients in ocean waters, the algae produce a toxin that paralyzes and ultimately suffocates nearly every form of marine life in sight. Reddish brown waters off the coast give way to odoriferous tides of dead and rotting fish on the shores.

The fear-driven multi-billion dollar negative campaign just concluded has helped elect people to state and national office who are largely reactionary, lacking in any kind of long-term vision. If anything, their conservative vision is oriented to the past and expresses itself in largely uncritical constructions of the same.

The national government is guaranteed of paralysis for at least the next two years. And our state is now completely in the toxic grip of corporate, wealthy interests. The chances that the current leadership of Florida and our Congress will prove capable of meeting the enormous challenges facing our state and our nation are very slim indeed.

But these challenges are not going away. If anything, actively ignoring them, constructing them in ideological terms and failing to act will simply exacerbate those problems. Like the Red Tide, toxic political contexts prove politically paralyzing and suffocating. Indeed, they can ultimately prove quite deadly.  

How this will play out is hard to tell. 

It’s hard to know currently the long-term impact the poorly concealed concerted effort to suppress voting - particularly among people of color, lower income and young voters - will have. It’s hard to know whether America will continue to acquiesce to the devolution of elections into blatant auctions to the highest bidders. It is hard to predict our ultimate tolerance level for the biennial assaults of negative attack ads that now serve to caricaturize candidates, reduce complex issues to simplistic sound bites, actively disinform voters (there is no law that requires commercials to be truthful) and thus depress participation. And it’s hard to know the ultimate impact of corporate influence on the court system in cutting off the last avenue of redress for those effectively shut out of the political process.

So what is the tipping point? Perhaps more importantly, what is the boiling point?

Into the Maelstrom

The answer to those questions will likely determine the response from people we once called our fellow citizens to the seemingly inevitable failure of our government to meet the challenges facing us. When enough people feel they are disenfranchised by a system that no longer holds out hope for change, the system loses legitimacy and the loyalty of those former citizens. When people feel they have no real investment in or expectations from a government, such governments have predictably short shelf lives. And when despair grows large enough in that context, as my seventh grade social studies teacher used to say, “Katie, bar the door.”

Perhaps that is what the militarizing law enforcement of our cities and campuses are already sensing as they line up to receive the weaponry of war and combat training.

I am hopeful enough to believe that America can right itself, that we can once again become the nation our potential suggests we can be and our history demonstrates we once were. America has met incredibly difficult crises before. Indeed, according to generational analysts Strauss and Howe,  the last two periods of crisis in American history in which we were as economically and ideologically polarized as we are today occurred just before the Great Depression and WWII and just before the Civil War prior to that.

America came through both of those tribulations intact but hardly unscathed. There was major turmoil, devastation and loss of life. The question we faced then as today is whether we still want to be a people. Thus far, the answer has been affirmative.

I am increasingly inclined to believe it will take a major shakeup of some kind to awaken the American people and convince us that we must act to meet the challenges that currently threaten to consume us. I sense that minimal reforms that leave profound structural problems intact will not suffice this time. The deck chairs on the Titanic can only be rearranged so many times before the ship goes down. I fear that the coming period of transformation might well be painful, frightening and bloody.  I do not pretend to know the outcome. And I truly hope I am wrong.

Even so, I remain hopeful, even in the face of a Red Tide.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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