What I Learned in 2020
US Politics, Asian Triumphalism, Immigration, and Techno-Optimism
At the end of the year, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on what one has learned. Intellectually, it is healthy to keep updating one’s priors in light of evidence from the real world. I’m going to limit this list to things I’ve changed my mind about due to events, and not to things I changed my mind about through finding books or papers that already existed and shaped my views upon their discovery. In practice, it’s hard to separate the two, as often some real world event will cause me to read up on a literature I hadn’t looked at before. Nonetheless, the following four ways in which my views have shifted are primarily based on events.
1. More convinced of the stability of the American political system, despite cultural changes
In 2016, I thought the Trump campaign was a backlash against immigration and political correctness. And to an extent, it was. How people felt about such cultural issues was a good predictor of how they voted that year, while the economic issues that we pretend matter were not. Nonetheless, in 2020 Trump completely stopped talking about immigration. I would actually tune into his rallies during the campaign to see if it was mentioned at all, and it never was. On policy, he actually did go pretty far in restricting migration, pulling the levers that were under his control even though the president cannot unilaterally change the law. But, as it is doubtful that voters are looking at charts on changes in the net migration rate, for electoral purposes the immigration issue became all but non-existent.
Trump in 2020 also became somewhat of an unapologetic proponent of political correctness. Richard Grenell, his former head of DNI, made gay rights central to his mission and messaging, even inserting it into random diplomatic agreements. Trump acknowledged systemic racism and championed scaled back versions of police reform and criminal justice reform. He talked about putting the first woman on the moon. The conservative movement promotes mediocrities chosen on the basis of skin tone like Terrence K. Williams and Diamond and Silk, practicing a form of affirmative action that would put any liberal university to shame. I have even noticed that media criticism has shifted to reflect the new, “woke” Trump, as in 2016 the main charge was that he was racist, while in 2020 it was more about his dictatorial fantasies, disregard for democratic norms and incompetence.
With all that, we got basically the exact same election results as in 2016, with the outcome determined by a few states simply shifting a couple of points. I had previously thought that culture, not economics, was driving American politics. But cultural issues are still issues. Now I don’t think it’s even that. Conservatism in the US is mostly about trolling the other side, and one can maintain one’s base while running a campaign that both calls Biden a radical who wants to defund the police and a racist for having once been too tough on crime.
This means the system is stable. If our politics is driven by issues, say one side is pro-immigration because it wants a diversifying country, while the other is anti-immigration because it wants to maintain a white majority, things can reach a boiling point. But if people hold these preferences but care more about “owning” the other side than actually getting their way on policy, then the policy can continue on whatever course it is was on and the masses can remain excited about next week’s episode indefinitely.
One of my favorite books of the year was Heirs of the Founders by H.W. Brands, which gave an overview of the lives of three major statesmen in the generation between the founding and the Civil War. The country was divided about slavery then, and each issue was framed and understood through the lens of what it meant for the continuance of that institution. Our politics looks nothing like that. 15 years ago, conservatives were trying to own the libs for not “supporting our troops” in Iraq, 10 years ago it was because they wanted to socialize healthcare, 4 years ago because they wanted to flood the country with newcomers, and today it’s they’re “selling out to China.” None of these things resemble one another, and in another 5-10 years conservative concerns will probably be again completely new.
So far I’ve been focusing on the right. Liberalism is not exactly the same, as I do observe continuity in its messaging and concerns over the last 20 years, always towards more redistribution and being seen as the champions of designated minorities. Yet even here, the concerns that motivate the left-wing masses seem mostly symbolic. Progress is measured in terms of whether we are using the right words and how unforgiving we are towards those that run afoul of ever shifting boundaries. I think “defund the police” emerged as the rallying cry of the George Floyd protests simply because modern liberalism is completely out of ideas, and has no clue what to do about urban crime and the resulting tensions with police, so it outsourced its slogan to the most hysterical voices in the streets. In the real world, though, where politicians have to respond to voters who don’t want crime rates to go up and police unions with real power, attempts at reform are limited, with almost no cities having cut, much less completely “defunded” their police in 2020. Culturally, the post-George Floyd moment has been absolutely transformative, with sports leagues, corporations, and other powerful institutions speaking in unison and taking a clear stand on controversial issues like white privilege and the degree to which inequality is caused by anti-black racism. Nonetheless, it seems that the ultimate result of the most powerful mass political movement on our generation is going to be that we end up as a society with more politically correct speech and more money thrown towards grifters in the diversity-industrial complex, all the while maintaining pretty much the same policies.
I never believed America was headed for civil war. But I was still open to the idea that you would get politics that were significantly more dysfunctional than we have now, with potentially disastrous results. Now, I don’t even believe we’re headed towards anything that looks much different from the past. American politics keeps people entertained, but is ultimately about very little. Meanwhile, while we’re all distracted, the permanent government bureaucracy and major corporations continue to make most of the important decisions that affect our lives, with little input or attention from the mass public. This is largely good, as if other institutions functioned the way Congress does on major issues, everything would come to a halt. Not an aesthetically pleasing result for people who want to see democracy work well and bring us together, but the public’s inattention and ignorance might be what saves us.
2. More convinced of East Asian triumphalism
When faced with COVID-19, China, Taiwan, and South Korea implemented strict testing and tracing policies that helped keep their infection and death rates low. Yet, in that case, how does one explain Japan, an aging country that did much less of that, but only has as of this writing about 3,000 deaths in a nation of 127 million? One theory I’ve seen put forth is that East Asians have faced selection pressures that made them less vulnerable to the disease (here’s Razib Khan’s writeup). Seems plausible, yet for this theory to be true you would expect East Asians to have lower death rates from COVID everywhere. Currently in the U.S., the Asian rate of cases is 0.6x the white rate, but hospitalizations and deaths are slightly higher than for whites. Of course, the American classification of “Asian” includes people like Indians and Pakistanis who are genetically distinct from groups like Chinese and Koreans, yet I’m pretty sure that East Asians make up a majority of the larger category. Thus, the results don’t indicate wildly different levels of COVID susceptibility for East Asians compared to whites living in the U.S.
If government policy and genetic adaptation to the virus do not satisfactorily explain East Asian success, what does? I lean toward a behavioral explanation. The courses of infectious diseases are often disproportionately shaped by a minority of “super spreaders” who have a lot of contact with other people and behave irresponsibly. Yet a glance at international statistics shows that East Asians have unusually low levels of extremely irresponsible behavior, as can be seen by rates of crime, drug use, obesity, and out-of-wedlock births. Such behaviors are largely outside the control of government, at least given the limits placed on the state by modern democracies. Every country in the world would like to see fewer such pathologies, but some places suffer a lot more from behaviorally driven population shortcomings than others. In this view, East Asian nations succeeded because the bottom decile or qunitle of their population is a lot better behaved than it is in America or Europe.
A personal note on the cultural issue. Living in Southern California, it was common to see East Asians wearing masks even before the pandemic. I remember being shocked by this when first coming to UCLA, and thought that the people with masks were getting treatment at the hospital. But after a while, I noticed that I never saw blacks, Hispanics, or whites wearing masks, and determined this just must be a cultural norm.
A lot of things are like pandemics in the sense that society is often at the mercy of its worst behaving members. A few aggressive panhandlers can make public transportation unusable, one or two rowdy students can disrupt a classroom, a small number of fraudsters can make a government welfare program unworkable, and a few shoplifters or occasional looters can chase businesses out of an entire section of a city. How many litterers does it take to ruin the aesthetics of a neighborhood? Americans will never behave like East Asians on their own, but what’s truly dispiriting is that we’ve lost the will to stop the few actors that make life difficult for the many.
As Lee Kuan Yew told Fareed Zakaria in 1994, the West has forgotten that “There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the result of being a victim of society. You are just an evil man, prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them.”
So East Asia not only handled the coronavirus better, but I take its success as representative of underlying traits that can be channeled to other productive ends. There will be other diseases, economic shocks, and natural disasters. 2020 teaches that whatever they are, East Asia will likely be better able to deal them than the West is.
Of course, “East Asian triumphalism” is a euphemism for “Chinese triumphalism.” China has nearly 7x the population of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore combined. This is bad news for those who want to maintain American influence at its current level. The only thing that I can see standing in the way of China ultimately becoming the most powerful country in the world is its low birth rate, yet given what we’ve seen in terms of government competence and willingness to address issues head on, I would expect Beijing to be better positioned to fix this problem than most Western countries.
3. Less convinced of the importance of the immigration issue for changing American culture
As mentioned above, if there was one actual issue that could explain the rise of Trumpism in the Republican primaries, it was immigration. I still think that to the extent that issues matter, this one is more fundamental than any other for American politics, even though, again as mentioned before, we overrate issues as a general matter.
What of the issue’s substantive importance, divorced from the politics? There has been a tendency to exaggerate the impact on American culture and politics. Ann Coulter’s book Adios America! convinced many on the right that if they lost the immigration issue, they would lose everything else. On the left, many looked with glee to the day when a rising tide of diversity wiped away the last bastions of white conservative culture and gave them a permanent ruling majority.
Both sides underestimated the assimilating power of American culture. I got a glimpse of this as an undergrad when I traveled to Europe and heard American pop songs in bars and saw dubbed cartons from the US on TV. This year, we’ve seen foreign countries import Black Lives Matter slogans into cultural contexts in which they make no sense, and, on the other side, QAnon is also spreading across Europe. In France, Emmanuel Macron sees identity politics as an American ideology that threatens the Republican values of his country.
In that context, predictions made by people like Pat Buchanan and Samuel Huntington about a Mexican secessionist movement in the southwest look quite silly. Last year, Ilhan Omar wrote a letter to USA Powerlifting calling on them to lift their ban on transgender women, while conservatives fantasize about her being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Balkanization is not our future. Rather, minorities will be assimilated into one of two camps, and although most will likely vote Democratic in the immediate future, we can’t be sure that will remain the case as immigrant identity fades back further into the past. Excluding blacks, who remain solidly Democratic, the same things seem to predict voting behavior among both whites, on the one hand, and Asians and Hispanics, on the other. Among these are sexual identity, gender, religiosity, and college attendance. Recently, the New York Times ran a detailed report showing the extent to which Asian and Hispanic precincts shifted towards Trump in 2020. As whites moved in the opposite direction, this gave us our least racially polarized election in a long time.
As talked about in point 1, the remarkable truth about American politics is how stable it is. Even looking at the George Floyd protests, for all the demographic changes of the last few decades, the narrative and events leading up to it would have been easily recognizable to a time traveller from the 1960s. In a high crime urban area, an African American man is killed in a confrontation with police, leading to riots, roiling the Democratic Party and creating hopes among Republicans of benefitting from an electoral backlash. Unlike early 1990s LA, in Chicago this year the immigrant store owners protecting their businesses were Mexicans instead of Koreans. But racial inequality, specifically between blacks and whites, remains central to our politics and arguably the most fundamental issue across which we polarize. This is just as true today as it was three generations ago, and we are no closer to solving the problem.
One of the most important cultural trends I’ve seen in the last few years is the increasing number of American youth who identify as LGBTQ. When I first saw results showing that a quarter or third of young adult women were no longer identifying as exclusively heterosexual, I did not believe it. But the evidence kept piling up, and similar results were found in the UK. Conversations about young people and why they’re not getting married and having kids tend to focus on economic causes, while missing the much larger story that what was always seen as the default sexual orientation among humans is now being questioned for the first time. Like the events surrounding George Floyd, this cultural earthquake had absolutely nothing to do with immigration.
4. More optimistic about science and technology
To balance out what sound like more pessimistic reflections, I’ll close on an optimistic note. Earlier this year, we were told that a COVID vaccine was impossible by the end of 2020. Not only did the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer create one, but so did Moderna, and even before that both China and Russia developed their own versions. In fact, the vast majority of the delay since the start of the pandemic has been spent overcoming regulatory hurdles; the actual science turned out to have been relatively easy, which is why multiple companies were able to do it in record time. Any reasonable cost-benefit analysis would suggest we should have gone faster.
How many other things that seem impossible scientifically are really mostly problems of bureaucracy and incentives? Cancer and the natural aging process caused more damage in 2020 than COVID-19 did. What if we also treated them as emergencies that we must solve? We don’t because new threats always create more urgency than things we are used to or processes that are seen as “natural.” Yet there’s no logical reason we shouldn’t. If there’s one lesson we draw from the pandemic, I hope that this is it.
Merry Christmas to all, and Happy New Year.
Hi Richard, I'm just learning who you are, only now reading some of your essays, and I'll be paying more attention in the future. Thanks for your contributions. I'm wondering if you have updated your assessment about political stability in the U.S. since your year-end commentary on 27 December, an update that might be warranted by the chaos at the Capitol in DC on 06 January?
Also Taiwan is more advanced than the Democratic Republic of China and they have been floundering their response to population decline. Anyone with a memory would know that all you'd need to do is apply population growth reduction tactics made in the 60s in reverse. Bigger family ideal, less access to contraceptives, less working women and promoting religions that would usually have several kids(last part is my own observation). There's also something else important that I may be forgetting.