Assessing Election Results: Diversity vs. Disparity

The 2020 presidential election will inspire more commentary than any prior American election story.  Because, among other reasons, the opinion polls both anticipating and following November 3, were so often wide of the mark. Blame is now being assessed (see, for example, the New York Times column by Spencer Bokat-Lindell of November 5, 2020) suggesting that the polling profession missed the mark more often than it did with its poor record in 2016. There was widespread acknowledgement of that year’s failures, and of the pollsters’ failures, who have now laid claim to be the “profession” of “psephology,” invoking a level of science and sophistication that in hindsight reveals itself to be the ultimate in hubris.

Throughout the campaign and even more so after the election, the polls statistically described the electorate across a multitude of categories. Among the most widely analyzed, beyond the conventional measures of age, gender, party affiliation and locality were, of course, the detailed breakdowns by race and ethnicity. The latter included not just Blacks, Hispanic/Latino, White, and Native-American, but further sub-categories within each of these identities. With all the identity politics at work in this election and in recent past years, it is no wonder that the Democratic Party should also have appealed for inclusion in the face of this kind of difference and division. It is no wonder too that in the post-election analysis each separate Democrat polling category has argued that it was singularly the segment of Democrat voters that put Biden/Harris over the top. Women’s groups argued that they are firstly responsible for this victory. And the same with Black voters, especially Black women. And even more so in this regard with the Hispanic/Latino community who, ironically, are struggling still to settle on a name to call themselves. And while pollsters are loath to break down the electorate in detail by religion, there is no hesitation about making separate generalizations about Muslims, Evangelicals and Catholics.

Beyond any analysis of past election seasons, the campaigns of 2020 were about diversity. There will be breakdowns of vote totals ad nauseum in the days to come, and each study will likely serve to amplify the significance of identity politics. Despite the appeals for inclusion, the watchword which for the moment seems to have the most resonance, we are being described as a nation not as a “melting pot,” the term once used to describe the American population, but rather as a “salad bowl,” a metaphor used more widely for Canada. The terms “ethnic stew “and “mosaic” are also often used when appeals are made for multiculturalism and tolerance. For election purposes, all descriptions of Americans as an admixture of separate identities may help in the formulation of campaign strategies, but they ignore another dimension of persuasion that is even more important.

This dimension, in contrast to appeals to diversity, is the importance of disparity. This election almost totally ignored the disparities of wealth and income that arguably bedevil our current national circumstances. We are, let’s face it, not only in the midst of a pandemic; we are also plagued by a huge economic recession. There was little discussion of the economic plight of millions of our nation’s citizens, except in the most general terms. Although the academic literature is replete with studies describing the present and growing levels of wealth and income disparity in the country, there was little public attention to these challenges at all — anywhere.

To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic was a prime preoccupation of the national party strategists, with health care policy, race relations, and climate change following close behind. But it is not hard to understand that an underlying feature of all these concerns is the inequalities in household economic well-being and poverty levels.  One needs to ask why such challenges had little or no part in this political season. Why were these other issues able to crowd out any discussions of economic disparity? Arguably, the reason is that there was little attempt to present the data, despite the fact that the professional analysis is all there to be had. Despite the power of modern computerized data analysis, as well as the availability of publicizing vehicles of every sort, there was little discussion of wealth and income gaps that underlay much of this election’s discourse. Had greater effort been made to present such information, it is not difficult to think that the economic circumstances of our population would have displaced the issues that ultimately topped the list. It is also not difficult to conclude that more analysis of personal financial affairs could have altered a good part of both the discourse and ultimate outcomes of the 2020 election.

These underlying economic issues and questions need to be posed to both social scientists and “psephologists,” if they are to remain relevant to the post-election analysis and discussion.

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