A lot of arguments which ought to be about politics become arguments about principles or morality. We can have interesting arguments over competing values, like weighing the concrete harms that might be done by publicly outing undocumented students against support for free expression and nonviolence. Even when we share similar values, people will weigh tradeoffs between them differently to arrive at very different conclusions. And that’s great.

But it isn’t politics. Among the communities that I am a part of, within the well-appointed ghetto I live in, there is an unusual degree of consensus that we are living through a dangerous time, that the current governing coalition of our country represents a mix of malignity and incompetence so hazardous that our absolute priority must be to check and constrain it. That is much less a moral or ethical problem than it is a practical one. Within the political system we have inherited, with its quirks and virtues and flaws, how can we ensure that we have and can sustain the capacity to block the most terrible things?

There are, thank goodness, the courts. They sabotaged the ACA Medicaid expansion, stranding millions of low-income people in Red states without healthcare. They prevented implementation of President Obama’s humane expansion of DACA and implementation of DAPA. But now they have also prevented implementation of President Trump’s ugly executive order on immigration, which is terrible in its content but absolutely terrifying in light of the manner in which it was initially (and intentionally, I think) implemented. So, yay courts.

The courts are important, but not enough. The main and most durable check on the powers of the executive in our system is the legislative branch, the Congress. Like a lot of people, I’ve been very impressed with the Indivisible Guide. I certainly recommend that people read it and join into the sort of groups and coalitions that it recommends. The Indivisible Guide quite self-consciously takes a page from the Tea Party’s playbook, and notes that “If a small minority in the Tea Party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.” It advises people on effective ways to put the fear of God into their own Members of Congress to ensure that they do the right thing.

I want to be clear that I encourage readers to download and read the Indivisible Guide, and to absolutely to engage in the manner that it prescribes. But I think that won’t be enough. The Tea Party, for all of its grassroots energy and astroturf money, might not have had much success if Republicans had not commanded legislative majorities. The Tea Party was effective because its activists were direct constituents to members of the dominant party in Congress, direct not just in the geographic sense of being citizens of their states or districts, but in the concrete sense of being the very same people who voted them into office. The threat of defection by Tea Partiers had real teeth, because it jeopardized members’ electoral coalitions, and their safest and most effective strategy for reelection is to hold their coalitions rather than gamble on alienating old voters to win new ones. However activated the anti-Trump base becomes, even in Republican districts of Red states, members of Congress have little reason to care if they believe that the suddenly engaged members of their constituency are people who didn’t vote for them the last time and who, under current conditions of party polarization, are unlikely to vote for them the next time. This fact is in-your-face visible right now, with members of Congress literally hanging up the phones on passionate voters. When Jason Chaffetz accuses citizens of his district of being part of some “paid attempt to bully and intimidate”, it’s not because he is so foolish as to actually believe that. It reflects a calculation on his part that he can afford to neglect and alienate the people he heard from, because they were people who hadn’t voted for him and never would.

In my opinion, there is no substitute for actually persuading people who might not already be on our side. Could any claim be more banal than to say that politics is about persuading people? However, for a variety of reasons, I think at this political moment, it’s a claim that needs defending. There is a temptation among the most committed activists to be fatalistic about the possibility of persuasion, to imagine that all of those who are not already with us are irredeemable, or that our actions will be so misrepresented by a hostile media bubble that the substance of what we actually do or don’t do makes no difference at all in the court of public opinion. These views are seductive, because they carry with them a whiff of liberation. If persuasion is impossible, then we need not placate, propitiate, conciliate, mollify. We need worry no longer about “optics”. We are free to act, to #resist, to #disrupt. As Mad Dog Mattis put it, when the enemy deserves it, “it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” I suspect that applies pretty well to punching Nazis too. If you tell me, as a moral proposition, that punching Nazis is virtuous, I can’t say that you are necessarily wrong. Moreover, Carl Beijer writes, “If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse [to support a fascist crackdown]” If that is true, no political harm can possibly have been done by the violence and there is no reason to worry about politics or “think globally”. You are free to fight locally, by any means necessary and with no apology.

But Beijer’s claim is not, actually, a supportable view of human affairs. Lots of people who under almost no circumstance would support a fascist crackdown oppose freelance political violence even against people whose views they actively abhor. Mock them as liberals, if you like, but as Jedediah Purdy reminds us

[C]riticism of liberals [does not mean] jettisoning or demoting the core liberal commitments to personal freedom, especially free speech and other civil liberties. The point of the left’s criticism of liberals is that these sorts of rights are not enough to secure dignified lives or meaningful self-rule under capitalism, inherited racial inequality, and an ever-deepening surveillance state. Liberal values are not enough; but they are essential. A broader left program would work to deepen people’s lived experience of liberty, equality, and democracy—values to which liberals and the left share a commitment.

The people who gave the ACLU 24.1 million dollars over a weekend (including me) did so despite knowing the organization has a long history of defending the speech of Nazis and Klansmen. That is not to say that the ACLU was necessarily right in any of these cases. It is not to say, as an ethical or a political matter, that Milo Yiannapolis’ claim to a right to speak at Berkeley outweighs the harms he might have done by identifying undocumented students. It is simply to say that ideas like “free speech” and “nonviolence” are in fact important political commitments that shape people’s allegiances and voting decisions, and that a political movement that wishes to be effective would weigh the costs of contravening those commitments against the benefits of actions that might seem to violate them. Even if you think these commitments are shams, because “free speech” in practice is refracted through far-from-neutral corporate media, because unaccountable political violence is tolerated or perpetrated by the state all the time, it doesn’t alter the fact that most Americans don’t share your view, and will perceive violations of even of what may be Potemkin norms as discrediting. That may not be right or fair, or it may be, but we are not talking about that. We are talking about politics.

If you think this stuff doesn’t matter, that, after all, broken windows and burnt limousines, a punched Nazi and a silenced provocateur will be forgotten by the next news cycle, I don’t think you paid very close attention to the Presidential election. Donald Trump, an authoritarian protofascist, ran and won to a significant degree by exploiting a wedge that has opened up between commitments to civil liberties and civil rights. The question of who are the authoritarians, who are the bullies, is actively contested in American politics, and not just by Rush-Limbaugh-types shouting “Feminazi!” When Trump supporters complain about “political correctness”, they are claiming that contemporary liberal norms have rendered it socially costly for them to speak freely and candidly even when they mean no harm. They may be wrong to complain. Perhaps stigmatizing all but the most careful forms of expression around matters of race and sexuality and gender is in fact the best way to prevent severe harms to vulnerable people, and is a development that should be celebrated. Regardless, many Americans, whether they are right or wrong and even if they are mostly white, perceive a cost in personal freedom to these norms. They have not been convinced that those costs are just or necessary, especially in light of their own increasing vulnerability and grievance. Whether or not their discontent is legitimate, whether or not they are right to assert an ethical problem, their perception constitutes a political problem. Much of the work of Breitbart and Yiannapolis is explicitly devoted to widening the perceived incompatibility of civil rights and their supporters’ civil liberties. You can have one or the other, they suggest, a state in which men with arms protect your ordered freedoms, or one in which “those people” — liberals and Muslims and Black people and Berkeley students — are free and run roughshod over your liberties with tools ranging from accusations of racism to Molotov cocktails. Our work should be the opposite, to demonstrate that despite some tensions, commitments to civil rights and civil liberties can in fact be reconciled. A cosmopolitan, multiethnic America need not be a place where protection of everyone’s rights leave anyone unfree. It shouldn’t be so hard to persuade people that antifascism is profreedom. But this is where we are.

The greatest mistake we can make, in my view, is to not try to persuade. Persuasion is not about elegant logic or Oxford-style debates. It is about interacting, with good will and in good faith, with people who look at things differently, and working to understand how they see things so that you can help them understand how you see things. Persuasion involves a meeting of minds, and very frequently alterations of circumstance and behavior by all involved. An argument can be persuasive, but so can a touch, an ongoing friendship, membership in a club, or a new set of coworkers. Persuasion is not academic. It comes not from dispassionate observation of objects, but the interaction and interplay of subjects. Persuasion is personal. Laughter helps. If your response to all this is to scoff, to call forth images of thugs or buffoons from Trump rallies or Gas-Chamber Twitter and mock the possibility of a “meeting of minds”, perhaps I can appeal to our shared identity as reasonable people and remind you that it is an error to conflate vivid with representative. I might also remind you how frequently that same word “thug” is used precisely to supplant the representative with the lurid in order to deceive people about members of other political communities. I might finally remind you that even if I am too optimistic, and the really awful are more representative of the other side than I think, we need only persuade the best 10% of them to put the fear of a much better God into Red-state legislators and to completely flip the arithmetic of political dominance in our country, despite its gerrymandered districts and quirky Electoral College.

Ours is a political coalition that considers itself rational and open-minded, tolerant and cosmopolitan, and in many respects I think that is right. Multiculturalism means not fearing what is ugly in other cultures (and let’s not be so chauvinistic as to imagine we have a monopoly on ugly), but instead embracing what is wonderful. It means placing faith in the capacity of all of our better angels to guide us towards mutually enriching coexistence rather than mutually destructive conflict. We take pride in embracing and respecting people who look and act very differently than we do, who follow strange creeds the substance of which we might disagree with, who follow customs that may render us uncomfortable and require an unusual degree of diplomacy when we are called to interact in any intimacy. These habits and skills, of which I think we are justly proud, are precisely what are required of us now. If we can be as open and charitable and welcoming and diplomatic across the fault lines which have snuck up within our politics as we are towards those we more easily recognize as outsiders, we have a real shot, not only to reconfigure the electoral numbers game, but also to forge a shared understanding that would transform what must begin as a pragmatic exercise in politics into an ethical enterprise after all.

Update History:

  • 14-Feb-2017, 10:20 p.m. PST: “I suspect that applies pretty well to punching Nazis as well too“; “reflects a calculation on his part that he can afford to neglect and alienate the people he heard from, because they were people who hadn’t voted for him the last time and weren’t going to vote for him the next time anyway and never would
  • 16-Feb-2017, 11:50 p.m. PST: Added link behind “authoritarian protofascist” to the event that perhaps most immediately called forth that characterization.

32 Responses to “Persuade”

  1. Lord writes:

    I can certainly see how excesses and violence are not conducive sympathy, but asking for a politically correct opposition may also be a mistake. How are people persuaded? It is probably less through reason than passion. Reason tends towards the rationalization of hopes and fears. The right demonized Clinton relentlessly; the demonization of Trump has scarcely begun, but who would say this was unpersuasive?

  2. PRW writes:

    I’ve seen arguments with some similarities to this one since the election, and i’m left wondering, now as in the previous viewings: what argument is it that you envision would have persuaded Breckinridge voters in 1860 to accept the election of Lincoln? Is it really so far-fetched to suppose that circumstances have moved beyond viability of persuasion?

  3. sam froelich writes:

    Awful lot of intolerance of rule of law, activists (tea party and others), differing opinions to welfare state in prior 8 years. to be offended now shows exceptional bias. Thanks for hijacking the term ‘liberal’ it is not open minded as the term suggests in today’s environment.

  4. Nick Bradley writes:

    As its been for quite sometime, US elections are about persuading ‘gettable’ whites. I understand why downscale uneducated white vote for the GOP today – I *do not* understand why moderate, college-educated whites are still republicans. These are nice, reasonable, non-crazy people – Clinton made a play for them and did pretty well in those counties, but they lived in the wrong states.

  5. I honestly don’t understand how educated people can critique our national discourse while ignoring how it actually works. Our media and our academy talk back and forth. If you think that conversation needs changing, I suggest you take it up with them.

  6. A system of “public” universities which only educates the “qualified” is a contingent rather than necessary element of our democracy.

    An “objective” media where facts are facts and everything else is politics with two equal sides, with equal claims to veracity is a contingent (and recent) element of our democracy.

  7. Bob Zero writes:

    I wonder if people aren’t overreacting to Donald Trump. Can he be so dangerous? After all, he has his fans among the Keynesians (Post-Keynesians?).

  8. Mercury writes:

    “As Mad Dog Mattis put it, when the enemy deserves it, “it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” I suspect that applies pretty well to punching Nazis as well. If you tell me, as a moral proposition, that punching Nazis is virtuous, I can’t say that you are necessarily wrong. Moreover, Carl Beijer writes, “If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse [to support a fascist crackdown]” If that is true, no political harm can possibly have been done by the violence and there is no reason to worry about politics or “think globally”. You are free to fight locally, by any means necessary and with no apology.”

    Why don’t you take a deep breath there cowboy and consider where this line of advocacy actually might lead.

    First of all, good luck with that whole “persuasion” thing if you’re going to call half the country “Nazis”.

    Second, Almost 100% of Trump-related violence in the last year has been perpetuated, as per your above justification, by the Anti-Trump protesters of one stripe or another. To give but one example: a reasonable person might conclude that the “Nazis” at Berkeley last week were the ones dressed in black destroying property, intimidating people and denying a podium to a person whom many others wanted to hear speak.

    Finally, if push really comes to shove, as you seem to be threatening, which segment of the US population do you think is more likely to own a gun, have some military/police background or has never uttered the word “safe space”. Yours?

    I will agree with you about encouraging the legislative branch to grow a pair. I’m certainly no fan of *any* president waving his magic wand around and executive-order bombing the crap out of anything he doesn’t like. However, again, YOU PEOPLE are the ones who prostrated yourselves to the whole POTUS-as-Messiah thing with Obama. How great of an idea does that seem now?

  9. reason writes:

    Bob Zero @7
    And I wonder if you are paying attention. This is not primarily about economics. It is much more important than the economic policy for the next 4 years. This goes to the heart of how democracy can (be made to) work or how it can it be destroyed. Trump is fundamentally anti-democratic (perhaps just as a question of character but he also seems remarkably ignorant about democracy). I think David Brin is right, this is just a continuation of the US civil war.

  10. reason writes:

    Mercury @8
    You are welcome to argue here, but please stick to the (not exaggerated or irrelevant) facts.
    1. Nowhere NEAR 100% of the violence came from anti-trump protesters.
    2. The events at Berkeley had nothing to do with liberals or with Trump (himself that is) but are relevant in that the author is pointing out that sort of thing is what he is against.
    3. ???? Did you read the OP? (And well yes the potential for violence on the other side is a great danger).
    4. Yes the presidential system is crap as our author here has pointed out previously, particularly when politics become polarized.

  11. Mercury writes:


    1. Surely you have several examples easily at hand…
    2. Oh really?
    3. Potential, yes. Keep that in mind. But so far most of the violence is being perpetrated by people such as the women in the above clip.
    4. Not necessarily a bad thing. The last time the country was this polarized the result was Republicans (led by a man with a minority of the popular vote) putting an end to slavery.

  12. Kent Willard writes:

    Great points and great writing! One of your best.

    In order to change the outcome, the opinion of the middle 10% need to be persuaded, not the extreme 10% – but we pay attention to the outliers who will never be persuaded. Trump will scare the middle 10% away, if we accept them, and if we offer them a viable economic narrative that doesn’t look like it was written by campaign donors.

  13. Harald Korneliussen writes:

    The idea that Milo Yiannopoulis planned to out undocumented students, but backed down from it because of the protests, is laughable. They’re going to have to use far, far more draconian policies than protest if they want to prevent Milo’s fans from finding out what Milo has to say.

    I’ve marched against nazis. And I have said many times that if the right-wing thugs in Oslo went away tomorrow, then three fourths of all those angry radical leftists would disappear too. And vice versa. They have little use for their beliefs except as an excuse for punching “highly punchable” people, not noticing (or caring) that they are very much that themselves. I was sad to find out Beijer was one of those thoughtless goons.

  14. Tim M writes:


    Click on the link to “punching Nazis” in the original post. The OP wasn’t referring to “all Trump supporters” as Nazis; he was referring to Nazis as Nazis.

  15. Tim M writes:

    Sorry, my comment was directed toward Mercury.

  16. Mercury writes:

    @Tim M

    Well, being that the guy profiled in the CNN article doesn’t identify himself as a Nazi, there is no meaningful political movement in the US calling themselves Nazis or a universal understanding of what “Nazi” is supposed to signify in 2017 I think it’s safe to say that “Nazi” was being used as a metaphor, not a literal label, by SRW in this post which also happens to throw around terms like “by any means necessary” and encourages readers to follow a link about resisting Trump whom he calls a “protofascist”. All this before bending over backwards to avoid condemning the violent protesters at Berkeley whose actions and demeanor really are reminiscent of the 1930s Brownshirts. For F-sake, you PERSUADE people by peaceably sitting down in a room, advancing arguments and hearing each other out. As far as I can tell that’s pretty much what happens at your average Milo campus lecture…when they aren’t being disrupted as per above. If SRW thinks that 1A rights should suddenly be radically curtailed he should just come on out and say it.

    But no, there are no dots to connect here. I’m misunderstanding the semantics. SRW wrote this 2000 word article because he’s super-concerned about the 119.5 weirdos in the US who actually call themselves “Nazis” and he’s giving us all a heads-up just in case we get an opportunity to punch one of them. But just them – got it?

  17. vlade writes:

    @reason 9 – it is always about economics. People who are economically safe, and very importantly, don’t see themselves as permanently stuck at the bottom ladder (i.e. there’s either broad economic equality, or an equivalent of the old “american dream” that is actually believable), are much more likely to be well predisposed to others. People who feel economically unsecure will not.

    The economic security can be replaced, to an extent, by creating some social cohesion, the sense of belonging and having a purpose – people will sacrifice a lot to that. But that generally leads to us-and-them, wars etc. So a decent economy, with a lifestyle that can also offer some sense of fulfilment will go a long way towards being willing to consider others.

  18. vlade writes:

    SRW, I salute your optimism about human race. History shows it’s mostly unfounded, but on the other hand if the human race didn’t have unfounded optimism, we’d still be living in the trees. Unfounded optimism is a necessary precursor for progress.. Just don’t expect the change in your lifetime.

  19. Bob Zero writes:

    reason @9

    I am not sure I get your point. You mean to say that Keynesian policies could be made to serve anti-democratic goals? That, so to speak, the alt-left, Social Democracy represented by that blog is little more than an alt-right in lamb’s clothing?

    But at least something is clear: now I know people do overreact. And that coming from a commentator calling him/herself “reason” is just the icing on the cake. :-)

  20. Mercury writes:

    And another thing…

    SRW writes:

    “The courts are important, but not enough. The main and most durable check on the powers of the executive in our system is the legislative branch, the Congress. ”

    Yes, that’s the way it’s supposed to work alright but the reason the immigration situation is such a disaster right now is because one chief executive, Obama decided to not enforce certain immigration laws and rules PASSED BY CONGRESS and on the books right now. Trump, at least on immigration, scores highest by this metric. The open borders side is and has not been standing on the high ground when it comes to legal/constitutional procedure at all. In fact, their efforts have been mostly characterized by extra-legal coercion and bullying – maybe because they themselves don’t believe they can win any other way. Funny, that’s not how angels usually roll.

    SRW says he’s all about civil discourse and persuasion…unless it’s the other side who wants to gather people peaceably in an auditorium and state their case (Milo). Also, immigrants should not be expected to culturally assimilate to any great extent as per our country’s motto and long standing tradition/expectations, it is Americans who must be morally shamed into adjusting to the cultural practices and folkways of immigrants no matter how bizarre, barbaric and antithetical to their own (one assumes anyway, he identifies no limits). How has that super-enlightened policy been working out in Leftist poster-child Sweden?

    Sorry but the bad faith and intellectual disingenuousness on display here is pretty transparent. This is why a critical mass of Americans are sick of people from “well-appointed ghettos” going out on their balconies and announcing what’s best for them.


  21. rsj writes:

    I know that Milo is just a hook with which a door is opened, but it’s important to note that there is no basis for the belief that Milo was going to “out” any individuals to ICE. He has never done that. He categorically denied planning on doing this and stated he has no idea where this notion came from. Instead, an opponent of Milo’s who had no access to the content of the speech or special connections to Milo expressed a “concern” that Milo “might” do this. This concern was reported as “Milo will do this”. Which quickly became “Milo must be stopped to prevent him from doing this”.

    If we are going to be making outreaches, we can’t be inventing things to be outraged by. The reporters have been extremely irresponsible here.

    Another interesting note. I raised this point at SFIST today (which featured a story about Milo coming back to Berkeley, and stated as a matter of fact that Milo would have outed a student). They deleted the comment and banned me.

    I think what’s going on here needs to be taken in a broader context. The cultural and economic policies — e.g. economic liberalism and identity politics — of the last several decades have drifted away from the beliefs of a large subset of the population. This is true everywhere. For example, tech workers, when polled anonymously, don’t really care about under-representation of women in tech. They have to pretend to care publicly, or keep their mouths shut.

    When something like that happens, when you have to pretend to have a value that you do not, in fact have, then the opportunity is ripe for someone like Milo to come along and engage in transgressive speech. The only way to convince men in tech that lack of women in tech is a real problem is to debate the issue. To bring in data and arguments. But you can’t debate the issue if it is a taboo. Moreover you can’t debate the issue if you are convinced, as a foregone conclusion, of the outcome of the debate.

    What we’ve had, instead of real debates, is a series of lectures after which the overton window just shifted, even though many, many people remained unconvinced.

    And in so doing, many people are radicalized to things that they otherwise wouldn’t be opened to.

    Large numbers of people believe that transsexuals are just men wearing a woman’s clothes. But elites think this is a bigoted view. Instead of openly discussing this over decades, and having a back and forth debate — the window just shifts. But the center of mass does not shift with it.

    Now Milo comes along, and says “they’re just gay men in a dress,” and people cheer. They cheer because someone is representing their view and breaking the taboo. This is the benefit of transgressive speech — it says “no, the window boundary doesn’t belong here.”

    So the response by the opinion makers *should* be “perhaps we shifted the overton window too fast”. Instead, it’s “let’s exclude him/punch him/etc”. But blaming Milo is not going to cause the overton window to be optimally placed. It wont persuade people. Another Milo will come along, and say “No, it’s just a guy wearing a dress,” and he’ll be as popular as the first because the mass of people did not move.

    What will persuade people is enlarging the window. You remember the debate, that we should have had about trade in the 1990s, but politicians and economists shut down? Well, we still need to have it. That debate about transgender rights is one we still need to have.

    And this is very painful for a segment of the population, because it involves giving up control and letting deplorables into the dining room.

    Banning and mocking is much easier, but the response in that environment is that your legislators hang up on you as well. E.g. the Democratic party continues to be a shrinking minority party that only exists in high wage urban areas and college campuses. The center of mass builds it’s own media institutions and its own window, while it mocks and smashes the previously shared institutions.

    Moreover the elite has to take the lead on conciliation. If you want to debate values, you can’t, as a prerequisite, ask someone to change their views before being allowed into the debate.

    The anti-immigration, anti-trade, anti-identity politics people cannot be both excluded from discourse and persuaded.

    These views must be normalized sufficiently enough that we agree, at least in principle, that there are some situations in which immigration/trade/identity politics are bad and are prepared to have a debate as to how far these things go. Calling them Nazis doesn’t accomplish that.

    Alternately, the role of the right is going to be to continue to smash institutions that exclude them and build up their own replacements. This is a battle that the left will lose, and one that really isn’t worth fighting.

    [note: edited “transvestites” to intended “transsexuals” with the author’s permission —SRW]

  22. rsj writes:

    And since I have been ranting and not yet banned here :P,I’ll say that the window of opportunity for having this debate is quickly closing.

    Things like legitimacy of institutions, once lost, are hard to regain. Once alternate institutions are established, there is little motivation for the right to be conciliatory. Many people on the right just watch Fox, read Breitbart, and don’t really bother with what the NYTimes has to say.

    They still need to send their kids to university, but it’s pretty easy for the government to clamp down and demand first amendment protections as robust as title 9 protections if schools are to receive funding. Hell, it’s easy to revoke title 9 protections. The left will be amazed at how many republican groups spring up all over, and they will long for someone as mild mannered as Milo to speak there. Universities today are already fairly authoritarian institutions.

    There is a small window of opportunity during which there is still a somewhat common set of opinion leaders and shared institutions for shared norms to be agreed upon in a national dialogue.

    Once that passes, I’m worried that we will be in a situation like the 50s where the slur of the day will be communist or internationalist rather than fascist or nativist.

  23. Skye Winspur writes:

    Very well said, Steve. “Laughter helps” is particularly true, I think. Melissa Mccarthy is one of the mightiest weapons we have against authoritarianism right now. She certainly has unsettled Trump.

    Beyond laughter, I have a lot of optimism in the ability of younger generations (I am 35) to create new civil society institutions. Yes, we know our Robert Putnam and our C. Wright Mills and we are aware that mass media often lies to us. The two major political parties may never fully embrace us, but every day we are practicing the ‘interaction and interplay of subjects’ that you identify as key to persuasion. Very very few people under 40 can afford to live in an epistemic bubble.

  24. stone writes:

    I’m in need of open debate not just to try and persuade people I disagree with but to try and make some sense myself of the swirling contradictions of my own viewpoints. Take the Open Borders issue. I want everyone to be able to make the most of their talents and to be free to live where and with whom they want. I don’t want anyone to be oppressed, exploited or homesick. But what policy is least bad for all of that? Jeremy Grantham made a sobering point:
    “For the best example of the non-compute intractability of this problem, consider Nigeria. It had 21 million people when I was born and now has 187 million. In a recent poll, 40% of Nigerians (75 million) said they would like to emigrate, mostly to the UK (population 64 million). Difficult. But the official UN estimate for Nigeria’s population in 2100 is over 800 million! (They still have a fertility rate of six children per woman.) Without discussing the likelihood of ever reaching 800 million, I suspect you will understand the problem at hand. Impossible.”
    Ideally Nigeria would be somewhere where people wanted to stay and prosper. What if anything could we here do to ensure that? As things stand, wouldn’t Open Borders just make the current tragedy worse?
    The EU is supposed to ensure workers’ rights in Europe but migrants from Africa work under slave conditions as agricultural labourers. How is agricultural robot development (and the decent jobs involved) going to compete with that?
    I’m struck by how in 1973 Cesare Chavez led the United Farm Workers to set up a “wet line” along the Mexican US border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the US illegally and potentially undermining the UFW’s unionization efforts. In the 1970s, affluent, trendy US people took part in consumer boycotts organised by the UFW to further support that unionisation effort. How does that tally with the current narrative as to what is a “deplorable” stance on immigration?

  25. Mercury writes:

    At some point it will become much more obvious that the “who gets to emigrate to America” is a subordinate issue to “how many get to emigrate to America”. Is growing our population far beyond ~330mm people really in the best interests of most, current American citizens? Because we are a nation of immigrants is America somehow morally obligated to attain the average population density of the rest of the world? What would that likely imply for average living standards in this country? Given the obvious and growing problems we have with the labor force participation rate and automation, should macro “growth” still be the priority? Is American prosperity really just the result of luck, malevolence and unearned privilege or can its culture, values and institutions still be a model for less developed economies/societies to raise living standards? I think these questions are more fundamental than the rhetoric behind the finger pointing and name calling that commands the most attention.

    Americans are warned about the prospect of “top-heavy” demographics that only immigration can fix, as if age demographics aren’t temporary by definition and the proffered immigration solution will not have its own long-term problems and trade-offs. Perhaps there is a lesson that keeps emerging from behind successive but thinner coats of paint about what happens when a government grows too big, promises too much and has trained its population to rely to heavily on its largess. Why do the people always have to adjust to new realities but not the government? When the population and tax revenues of Flint, MI shrunk (for instance) wouldn’t it have been better if the government shrunk too…instead of looking for (dangerous) ways to cut the cost and quality of vital services?

    Regardless of whether it is “right” or “wrong” it would eventually be of great empirical value to the rest of the world if Japan resisted pressures to flood its country with immigrants to solve its own aging population problem. What happened next? Was there a great decline in living standards? Did technology provide significant solutions? After their population shrank, did it rebound sharply? Was their ethnic and cultural homogeneity ultimately beneficial or a hindrance?

    There is a sizable contingent of people who think that the whole concept of nation states is outmoded and that we need to “progress” toward more centralized government where Davos Man rules over “citizens of the world” in a quite authoritarian manner. It should be obvious that this would be easier to pull off if global inequality were flattened out, not by bringing the bottom up but by bringing the top third or so down. Prosperous and productive societies tend to resist outside hegemony. Is it really cynical to think that Globalists are pushing open borders in part to dilute outperforming populations down to the point where they are less productive, confident and comfortable….and as a result more fractious, desperate and pliable?

  26. stone writes:

    Mercury@25, I’ve also thought of Japan as an example of how immigration restrictions don’t necessarily look so nasty. As a visitor, Japan seemed to me a very friendly and admirable place. They have a life expectancy of 85 so presumably are managing to care well for all those elderly people. In Flint Michigan I guess the issue is more one of tax revenue falling below what is needed to keep legacy local government debt servicing costs from spiraling But with a central government with its own currency (as in Japan), the whole “demographics causing fiscal unsustainability meme” seems bogus to me too. There is no where near an issue of there being a shortage of labour to work attending to real needs if well paid and trained. So providing food, shelter and nursing care is not the issue. The “demographic problem” is purely an issue of hang ups about financial conventions. Fortunately Japan seems to be doing an OK job of navigating through that and so has no fiscal problems at all.

  27. Longtooth writes:

    The many questions and points of view expressed in the comments illustrates quite well the intractability of the use of rational persuasion as the means of shifting people’s opinions and belief systems upon which those opinions are based. Has anybody had experience where they’ve actually convinced somebody with a college education to shift their basic belief system and thus change their opinions on race, religion, immigration? I’ve tried for 20 years to no avail. It always boils down to some core belief system, which as best I have been able to figure is something that was inscribed between child-hood and pre-pubescent developing brains by an idolized family member (immediate or extended family).

    What is well known to work isn’t rational persuasion by discussion, but propaganda based on emotional ties. Lying works if it promotes your fundamental well-being as you perceive it. This is ultimately predicated on a belief that you deserve x, y, or z…. freedom x, y, z…. opportunity x,y,z.

    @Stone wrote about the Nigeria emigration problem. This is a subset of immigration in general All immigration problems are predicated on a believe that because you have the power to acquired and defend some geographic territory on the globe you get to define what happens within our territory. But this is predicated only on the “might makes right” paradigm of human interactions and well being, which necessarily means one gains at another’s loss. This can only be defended by applying religious god’s as a foundation or by “natural scheme of things”… meaning how animals survive.

    But humans have evolved to have cognition and so called “intelligence” that allows for imagination to be used, along with rational and logical thought processes so the “natural scheme of things” as it applies to the lesser mammals doesn’t necessarily extend to human mammals as a justification.

    What I think the elephant in the room most are missing is the basis for the fundamental foundation for why anybody with sufficient might has a right to use it’s territory for it’s exclusive benefits. Open borders is indeed the solution which nobody wants to accept because it will mean those who happen to live in environments without sufficient resources and economic power (translating to military power) will necessarily also as much right to live in any territory on the globe that suits them. But it also means no one territory belongs to any one government so it basically subverts the entire notion of “private property” in the broad real-estate sense of the term.

    In the meantime reality is that the global population will continue to grow, putting more and more pressure on nations with lower population density to accept immigration or the alternative to let them die of malnutrition, territorial might makes right genocides, starvation, internecine war’s, disease, etc). The net of this is the argument that “its their own fault”, which very interestingly is one of the U.S.’s most used ultimate rationalizations to defend their “might makes right” belief system.

  28. Longtooth writes:

    I would only add that politics is “might makes right” under a set of rules everybody agrees to abide by .. .until they don’t. When they don’t severe disruptions occur … civil war as in the U.S.’s version comes immediately to mind. It is then ultimately a choice between physical war versions of “might makes right” and abiding by a set of rules for “might makes right”… a trade-off which is somewhat self – adjusting.

    The rules aren’t just those inscribed in a constitution or judicial interpretations or congressional law or state law, but those that are a function of long tradition. One of those traditions is that outright lying with disdain for truths and expertise in science and experience has been forbidden in the rules as a generalization … not that there aren’t infractions (fraud, etc) but that this tradition has superseded “ends justify means”. That tradition has begun to be seriously broken down — not just with Trump or by the far right. It began earlier.. Nixon comes to mind although even then a bipartisan publically displayed congressional committee mitigated it’s future promotion as a means of “ends justify means”. Sometime between then and more recently the polarization of ideologies has muted the congressional committee means of mitigating the effects and justifications for outright lies. In this sense freedom of speech has no bounds which then removes a tradition that has been part and parcel of the U.S. political system.

    Trump and team are just taking this to a whole new level which simply attests to the fact that the “ends justify the means” has now become an accepted aspect of U.S. politics by the public. And once outright lying (knowingly and with intent to do so) is acceptable in politics it subverts the entire business of operating under a set of rules everybody agrees to or the alternative … truths are no longer relevant to discourse as a means of finding solutions to differences of benefits and the trade-offs they require.

  29. stone writes:

    Longtooth@27&28, first off, I think it is a mistake to view the impetus to migrate as being about people wanting to move to places where there is more land per capita and natural resources per capita. The UK has a population density of 269 people/km2 and Nigeria has 200 people/km2 . Nigeria produces 2.5 million barrels of oil per day (population is 187 million) whilst the UK produces 1 million barrels of oil per day (population is 64 million). So that example has a desperate impulse to migrate from one area to another with each having about the same level of natural resources and space per capita. However there are much much more extreme examples. People are just as desperate to migrate to Singapore (it has about the worlds highest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality rate, best educated population etc etc) and Singapore has a population density of 7807 people/km2 and NO natural resources.

    What people want to migrate into is somewhere with a functioning political economy. They want to join a community where they can make the most of their talents and prosper in peace and harmony. That has nothing to do with land. It is culture and institutions. Perhaps it is much like how people want to join companies or faculties. People want to join the staff of Goldman Sachs or Harvard or Google for reasons that have nothing to do with what real estate those institutions occupy. If you did a global questionnaire, what proportion of the global population would want to join the staff of Goldman Sachs or Harvard or Google? My guess it would be >10% of the global population. If the all joined today and all got full inclusion, would there be anything left at all for them?

    Looked at in those terms, the Open Borders campaign seems much more murky to me. Open Borders looks to me like a recipe for extinguishing the very thing that it is hoping to share around.

    The most crucial point to me is that there is no physical reason why all seven billion of us can’t live within countries that have functioning political economies that make them desirable. That’s the real challenge for humanity IMO.

  30. stone writes:

    Further to my comment @29, I think much of the current hand wringing is around conflicting opinions over who can justifiably be viewed as having “ownership” over a country. If as I said above, the essence of what makes a country is its political economy, then who deserves to share that and who should choose who joins?

    I guess much of the “elite vs deplorables” conflict comes because the elites view themselves as being responsible for the national success and view their economically excluded “deplorable” fellow citizens as having no claim over the benefits of the favorable system that has been set up. The elites consider that if elite interests are furthered by immigration, then the “deplorables” have no more say than do the would-be-immigrants. As the “deplorables” see it, the desirable functioning political economy that is the country is as much theirs as it is the elite’s and they have as much right to decide who can join. Furthermore it totally isn’t true that what is good for the “elites” is good for the “deplorables”.

    I guess the “Japanese way” is the view that it is in the enlightened self interest of elites to ensure that full use is made of the existing local population and no one is thrown on the scrap heap. That ensures a wider harmony that is necessary for the overall system to thrive.

  31. Longtooth writes:

    @Stone 12;40am

    If I inferred what you stated as “I think it is a mistake to view the impetus to migrate as being about people wanting to move to places where there is more land per capita and natural resources per capita.”

    I certainly didn’t intend to since what I stated was quite specific:
    ” …will necessarily also [have] as much right to live in any territory on the globe that suits them.”

    My point was simply that borders and nations are created by “might makes right” which is a believe system arguably extending from hunter-gatherer tribalism and now justified by a god’s decree or by “natural animal laws of the wild”, both being rationalizations to maintain and support “might makes right”.

    Civilizations have grown larger than “borders” of “nations” over time and have been modified multiple times by geographic regions. The general historic pattern has been to extend the geographic boundaries of civilizations to larger and larger geographic content. The European and North American (US, Canada) is a single, “western” civilization for example, which by NAFTA trade relations is a move to include Mexico in that same civilization group…. eventually.

    I see no reason this historic trend will not continue simply because it enhances the status of life for more of the human race, increases the efficiencies of humans overall, and reduces the reasons for wars and back-sliding. In the end it really is about resources and population densities.

    Open boarders in the long run force balanced use of real-estate & resources according to human preferences for improved lives, which spread the use of resources more or less equally among all humans. Of course this reduces the benefits of the “haves” (elites as you refer to them) but extends more of them to the have-nots so there is no net gain or loss among humans. So nation-states with closed borders is precisely the reason why we continue to use “might makes right” as the operating paradigm, and hence continued conflict. As the population of the globe continues to grow the real-estate & resource ownership issues will become greater, the use of “might makes right” will increase to protect the “haves” from the “have nots”. But is only sustainable if the have-nots are killed-off enmass (famine, disease, genocide, wars) since otherwise the “haves” will not be able to continue to maintain exclusive ownership and control —- we see this repeatedly in history with revolutions and civil wars.

    I see no rational reason why we must continue to operate on a “might makes right” premise other than the fact that the haves (e.g. the “elites” as in we in the U.S. for example) refuse to share in the bounties the globe offers (as if “we own those bounties”) so that they can enjoy a better existence than those who happen to be restricted to the regions of their birth… which is purely happenstance. The globe’s land area does not have equally distributed arable land, climates, ores, or energy supplies. So by what right do any boundaries give those that happen to reside within regions with ample arable land, climate, ores, and energy supplies a greater proportionate use of them?

    Look at it this way. In general, towns and city’s are sub-units of counties, counties of larger bounded regions (states, province, etc.) and those of larger bounded units we now call “nations”. These are all governed by a common interest of maintaining civilized life without constant warring among the members (which makes the composite membership better off without those constant wars). I see no rational reasons why these common interests should end at “national” boundaries. They are a human device, an artifact, premised on “might makes right”.

    But please don’t misconstrue the above as my being a utopian idealist. Far from it. I recognize the present state of things as being “the way it is”. That does not mean that it will or should continue “as the way it is” now. So I promote and vote for things that will move toward change that will benefit human-kind, regardless of the geographic regions in which they now reside. One of these is to stop using borders as ownership .. e.g. increase immigration, spread the resource and wealth beyond one’s own borders more widely (more free trade relations), better means of compensating those that suffer by more free trade (as in the US industrial sector for example)…. all of which shift the bounty more to a greater proportion of people on the globe.

    Obviously I’m vehemently opposed to nationalism, single religious belief systems, all forms of racism, and discrimination for any reason of one group of humans by another. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why such exist, now or in the past, and will continue to exist in the future … albeit at reduced levels with time if history is any indication.

    I hope this makes my point clearer.

  32. rsj writes:


    There is a real danger in sitting in an armchair and deciding that long held structures should be dismantled because it doesn’t seem to moral to you. I call it the “libertarian disease”, since they have traditionally been the ones to espouse radical restructuring based on some ideal. Usually a poorly thought out ideal. But even the best minds don’t really understand complex self-organizing systems very well.

    But recently, others have been a bit more prominent. For example, those advocating for unrestricted capital flows. Why shouldn’t I be able to buy a bond in Thailand just because I have a U.S. Passport? It’s a solid argument from the comfort of the armchair.

    But as capital flows are liberalized, you see increasing financial instability, currency crisis, banking crises, and great stresses put on the productive sectors of nations subject to volatile capital flows. So actually it’s not a good idea for you to be able to buy that bond, regardless of the simple argument that made so much sense before. Trade needs to be managed. Capital flows need to be managed, even if you think John Stossel makes a lot of sense.

    The armchair neocons decided that America was going to reshape the middle east, and the end result was a complete disaster and radicalization of an entire region. There is a direct line from Bush I’s intervention in Iraq to Al Quaeda and the war on terror. There is a direct line from our destabilization of Libya , Egypt, and Syria and the migrant crises we have now as well as the humanitarian crises in the horn of Africa and in the Levant. So, it turns out that getting rid of dictators wasn’t really a good strategy, regardless of the sensible arguments in Commentary magazine.

    Migration also needs to be managed. There are significant cultural and economic stresses that happen when a nation accepts more immigrants than it is able to absorb. Take, for example, Sweden’s experience. Sweden is a high skills economy. There just aren’t a lot of low skilled jobs available in Sweden. The employment rate of migrants from outside the EU, which are primarily low skilled, is about 50%. That not only lowers living standards in Sweden, it also prevents assimilation. It also turns out that migrants from the Middle East and North Africa don’t have the same culture as Sweden, and that deeply held beliefs about things like freedom of speech and the role of women in society don’t just change when you cross a border. There are huge problems with crime and especially rape. The Swedish police system isn’t prepared for wars being fought between Somali and Eritrean gangs, or grenade attacks, cars being set on fire, and human smuggling rings in their cities. If you take a society with a violent crime rate of 1 in 10,000 and add 10% of the population with a violent crime rate of 1 in 500, you end up with a violent crime rate that is 10 times what it was before, and a need to increase the police force and judicial system by a factor of ten as well. That is a huge disruption in people’s lives that you have no right to impose on them because nation states seem quaint to you, or because you are a big fan of “The Once and Future King”.

    Now if you think, “countries are an anachronism”, well, that’s just not the world we live in. Countries are the unit of political organization, taxation, regulation, and shared culture. The fact that countries have different institutions is the driver for migration. The rich in Nigeria are to blame for Nigeria’s lack of development, because they control the government of Nigeria and prevent broad based accumulation of social and physical capital. That battle against local power stuctures needs to be fought in every nation, rather than giving up and moving to some country where that battle has been largely won.

    It doesn’t matter that this seems quaint to the person who shutters their windows and loves to sing along to “Imagine” when they are in the shower. We live in the world that exists, not in books or rock songs, and we need to recognize the extreme poverty of our minds as well as the frailty of our ethical systems before taking a sledge hammer to complex self-organizing systems in the name that “well, this seems really outdated”.

    I would add that many of the people who advocate for free movement or looser migration are the biggest NIMBYs around. They see no problem with restrictive building codes, professional licensing cartels, or choose to live in or send their kids to, houses and schools that have high barriers to entry. They have the wealth to exert a lot of control about who they live next to or compete with.

    This isn’t to say that we should have no immigration at all. But tread carefully and slowly before tossing out the nation state.

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