...Archive for February 2017


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.

Party polarization is endogenous

Centrist wonks lament party polarization, but rarely point out that it’s not something that just happened. In the context of heterogeneous political geography and malleable district boundaries, a two-party system doesn’t yield the centrism it is often credited with, but a superficial and artificial polarization that demands an eventual populist response. Party polarization is the endogenous and predictable result of incentives created by a first-past-the-post voting system susceptible to gerrymandering.

For gerrymandering to work, the voting behavior of citizens must be identifiable and stable. The way gerrymandering works is to decrease the number of votes that are “wasted” in safe localities by redistricting a party’s voters into less safe or marginally unfavorable localities where they might tilt the balance. The expected outcome is more, closer, wins for the gerrymandering party. However, those closer wins are necessarily more fragile. Even small shifts in party identification or voting behavior, any deviation from the roles assigned to each of us by the gerrymanderers, can undo all their good work. Worse still, deviations are rarely idiosyncratic to a single district. Gerrymandering leaves a party more vulnerable to systematic deviations, which make “wave elections”. Thus gerrymandering creates incentives for incumbents and party operatives to try to cement party identification in stone. Candidates in both parties emphasize issues on which their members are unusually unified and the other party’s members are unusually opposed over issues that might be more important to their constituents, but less clearly drawn across party lines. They then work very hard to make positions on these issues, and only these issues, tribal markers, essential to voters’ identities. We end up in a world with extreme polarization of party platform and identification, despite not so much actual polarization among voters when a broader spectrum of issues than those emphasized by the parties is considered.

A puzzle in this account is why the party disadvantaged on net by gerrymandering should play along. The answer to this is simple. Both parties gerrymander when they get to draw the lines, although the Republicans gerrymandered unusually aggressively and with unusual success in 2010. Further, even absent gerrymandering, both parties “naturally” have districts where they have some advantage, but where elections remain close and competitive. The safest strategy for an incumbent member of Congress in a closely divided district is to cement in place the coalition that brung her the last time, rather than roll the dice on poaching her opponent’s voters (which may open up her own voters to poaching). Incumbent members of Congress in both parties tend to prefer a stably polarized electorate to one in which common ground increases the uncertainty surrounding voter behavior. Even when this disadvantages the national party, in the social science cliché, it’s a case of concentrated benefits and widely dispersed costs. Post 2010, nationally, the Democrats might have been better off de-emphasizing party-polarized issues and embracing causes with cross-party popular appeal. But neither members of Congress individually, nor party activists who’ve made their careers and raised their funds as fighters across well-worn political battle lines, would assent to that strategy. Further, issues with broad popular appeal that have been neglected by both political parties are often issues to which both parties’ “donor classes” are allergic.