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The Weeds: Vox writers share the biggest lessons they learned from 2016

On the latest episode of Vox’s podcast The Weeds, editors Sarah Kliff, Ezra Klein, and Matt Yglesias each shared one key lesson they’ve learned from the wild year that was 2016. We’ve also added the lesson of Vox’s Dara Lind.

Sarah explains how the year rattled her faith in the durability of government entitlement programs; Ezra discusses how the election should upend our understanding of the safeguards in American politics; Dara weighs in on what we learned about overt racism; and Matt takes stock of our national obsession with the presidential race — and its dangerous implications.

Below, I’ve transcribed the editors’ explanations of their big 2016 lesson. You can also listen to the episode in full at the link below, or — better yet! — subscribe to The Weeds on iTunes here. There’s going to be a big need for podcasting in 2017.

As always, also feel free to email us at weeds@vox.com.

Ezra Klein: There is no “you must be this decent” bar to play in American politics

The big 2016 lesson from Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein: America’s political polarization has made the country remarkably vulnerable to takeover by widely disliked demagogues.

Here’s Klein:

Before 2016, here’s how I thought about American politics: “We have very sharply partisan politics, so pretty much any candidate the Democrats or Republicans nominate will start with 45 percent of the vote.” But I had a lot of weight on the “pretty much” part of that sentence. I thought there were candidates that wouldn’t begin or end with 45 percent of the vote; and I thought that would include Donald Trump, who was very unpopular in their primary and in the country.

The way in which Trump acted throughout the campaign struck me as beyond what would work in American politics — even given what you know about party support, that you could drop below the floor. That there was a “You must be this decent to ride” dimension to American politics.

And I was wrong about that. The implications for me about being wrong about that are pretty profound. That’s why I thought American politics was safe from demagogues and really dangerous players. But if no matter who Democrats or Republicans nominate, they’re guaranteed 45 percent of the vote, then you’re in a much more dangerous place, because the parties are very weak and can be taken over by all kinds of players.

If anyone can take over the primary, it becomes a real vulnerability where dangerous players can come in and take over American politics. I’m much more scared about the stability of American democracy.

A few stories to learn more about the political science Ezra is talking about:

Sarah Kliff: Passing big government entitlements doesn’t guarantee their stability

Here’s Vox senior editor Sarah Kliff on how 2016 undermined her belief in the resilience of government entitlement programs once enacted:

I had believed this thing about Obamacare that I had written multiple times: that it was here to stay and that it wouldn’t be repealed. After King v. Burwell, I wrote a headline saying that Obamacare had survived its final test and that it’s here to stay. I wrote a lot about how 20 million people have insurance and how Republicans can’t take that insurance away. That now [that] Democrats had rolled out these benefits, the law had secured its place in history.

This year has been a challenge to thinking about how benefits and policy interact. You’d think that as you give people things, they’d rally to protect it, that the other party would be less willing to dismantle it, and that you wouldn’t want to take away this thing they rely on.

And now we’re in the point where the party [that] promised to take away [insurance] from 20 million people is not backing down from those promises and instead moving forward quickly on the Affordable Care Act. It’s challenged my view that benefits are hard to dismantle. The ACA hasn’t been repealed yet, and maybe this theory holds truer than I believe it will right now. But I’m much less confident in this view that you can pass a benefits program and expect it to be really entrenched in history the way Medicare and Medicaid has been — and that opens up a big question about what the future of entitlement legislation looks like.

A few pieces to learn more about what Sarah is talking about:

Matt Yglesias: Do people put too much weight on presidential politics?

And last but not least, Vox executive editor Matt Yglesias on how 2016 revealed our overwhelming (and potentially counterproductive) obsession with national politics:

My lesson — and I guess some people will say this is obvious — is that I have been really surprised by how much people care who the president is. That when you look at numerical trajectories on consumer confidence and optimism about the future of the country, there are incredible shifts among people based on what they think of who won the election.

I’m not surprised to see a partisan shift. But it’s huge. And not just huge in magnitude — huge in magnitude compared to things like the 2010 midterms. We’ve witnessed big turnabouts in the political balance of power that didn’t involve Barack Obama being replaced by Donald Trump. And they didn’t move the needle at all.

Meanwhile, I cannot count on my fingers the number of people I have witnessed spontaneously bursting into tears in the two weeks after Donald Trump won. And nobody cried because of things like congressional races — I know people who worked on the heartbreaking loss of Kay Hagan in the North Carolina Senate race. Even they didn’t cry. But nonpolitical people were devastated by Hillary Clinton losing.

Liberal people who live in Austin do not seem to me to care on an emotional level that the state government of Texas is so much more right-wing than the state government of Rhode Island or California. On an intellectual level, they might. But certainly nobody ever says, “I’m leaving Austin and moving to Providence because I care so much about progressive politics.” People are really emotionally affected by the presidential election, and then appear to care not at all about any other kind of politics.

It strikes me as surprising in its extent and a little wrong and disturbing in its implications. Left-wing people from California are furious every day on the internet about how Bernie Sanders did not beat Hillary Clinton in the primary. They live in California, this super-liberal state, and have nothing to say about health care policy in California.

If you care a lot — if you think you care a lot about single-payer health care — you should care. But don’t just care at the federal level.

For more reading on what Matt is discussing:

Dara Lind: Overt racism really is worse than the alternative

Lee Atwater talked about how the "Southern strategy" meant saying "states' rights" instead of the n-word, then saying cutting taxes instead of "states' rights." Basically, racist appeals stopped being appropriate to express in public, but you could use ideology to say the same thing.

For a generation, liberals have pointed to that and said, “Look, small-government conservatism is really about race.” But people who aren't liberals aren't persuaded by that. And it's kind of exhausting to talk about this stuff, or implicit bias, or all the other stuff that perpetuates racial inequality but isn't literally the KKK, and keep saying "No, I know it doesn't look racist, but trust me, it is."

So in 2016, when people from the alt-right to Breitbart.com to Donald Trump really started working to shift norms about what it's appropriate to say about race — and I'm talking about, like, the attack on Judge Curiel for being Mexican here — there was a kind of obscure relief: Oh, well, at least it's out in the open now.

But it isn't actually clarifying the debate at all. We're still having endless arguments about the role racial animus played in the election of Donald Trump. And meanwhile, the effect is spreading way beyond politics: Jenée Desmond-Harris has written about how we're seeing everyday people totally cool with this really obvious, nasty racist crap in a way we haven't before.

I'm not saying, “Oh, this is what racism really looks like, not what the liberals have been saying is racism.” It can be both. From the public response to the opioid crisis to the people Sarah talked to about Obamacare, a lot of people are totally cool with government help as long as it's going to the “right” people. And that doesn't have to be racially defined, in theory, but at this point there are decades of baggage defining it that way.

A really hard problem facing liberals right now is how to get, like, the Kentuckians Sarah talked to to hear "small government" as "not helping me," instead of "not helping those other people." But the populists have an option that's way easier: just explicitly promising to help the "right people" and not everybody else. Jamelle Bouie at Slate calls it the "white welfare state."

And the more okay it is to be a little more overtly racist in public, the easier it's going to be to do that, because you don't need to resort to these abstract terms that end up unable to distinguish between the "right" and "wrong" people to get help.

For more reading:

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