the virus, the election, and democratic theory

[It] seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1

The answer may be “accident and force.” This graph, derived from Christopher Achen, shows an almost perfect correlation between presidential election results and economic growth during two quarters before the election, adjusted for how many years the incumbent party has held office. It implies that who wins the White House in November will depend almost entirely on what the COVID-19 virus does to GDP during this quarter and next. If the US economy manages 1.5% positive growth despite COVID-19, Trump should win. If it declines, he will probably be done, regardless of the Democratic nominee.

One should always be careful about correlation graphs with relatively small numbers of data points and carefully contrived axes. You can fish for combinations of variables that generate uncannily neat pictures. However, this graph shows the result that you would predict if you hold a theory of electoral politics that goes back at least to Joseph Schumpeter in 1942:

  • People have better things to do than follow politics closely, let alone form and test careful hypotheses about the impact of political positions on outcomes (holding other factors constant). Voters are not going to be rigorous social scientists.
  • Instead, voters will assess the most prominent political leaders of the moment by evaluating their own circumstances. They won’t only think about economics, and certainly not only about the nation’s GDP. However, GDP growth is a decent proxy for how well a whole population is faring in their everyday lives compared to last year.
  • People will judge politicians using other heuristics, such as partisanship, demographics, and ideological labels. These factors also determine what we hear or read about the world beyond our doors. (Watching the Fox News homepage during the COVID-19 crisis, as I have done, is an object lesson in ideological framing.) However, in a system like ours, two closely equal voting blocs with their own media networks will emerge as an equilibrium. Who actually wins any given election depends on the main variable that changes from month to month: GDP growth.

This is bad news for any theory of democracy that envisions millions of people deliberating about ideas and making choices. With Schumpeter, we might at least hope that a national election functions as a test of performance, rotating failures out of office. We would expect Trump to lose in November because things will go badly between now and then, and that will serve as a vivid test of his fitness for office, his allies in the media and Congress, and his ideology (nationalism), which has guided his response to the epidemic. The voters would demonstrate collective rationality by throwing him out.

The problem with that theory is the massive element of randomness. The signal can easily be lost in noise. If COVID-19 hadn’t hit now, Trump wouldn’t be seriously tested. If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were president now, the government’s public health policy would be better than Trump’s, but we would still face a global pandemic and probable recession. Then the signal would convey that neoliberalism or democratic socialism–not nationalism–was the failed ideology.

To make matters worse, politicians are systematically rewarded for the wrong things. Andrew Healy and Neil Malhorta show that spending (or not spending) money on prevention has no effect on electoral outcomes. However, relief spending is a big boost to an incumbent. This means that Trump may benefit from COVID-19 if things play out fortuitously for him. If we are in recovery by November and Trump is handing out stimulus relief, the crisis may carry him to reelection. In that case, not only would the public receive a false signal about his competence and ideology, but his policy of doing nothing to prevent a crisis would have been rewarded.

Should we therefore give up on democracy? I definitely think not, for these reasons (and I leave aside the tired argument that it is better than the alternatives):

First, all the models discussed above are based on political leaders who are plausibly competent and whose stances and worldviews put them in sync with close to 50% of voters. Trump has always risked not quite meeting those criteria. Up to now, his approval ratings have been well below what you would expect for an incumbent presiding over historically low unemployment. If he were to lose because his statements and policy choices have alienated a significant minority of voters who would have voted for him otherwise, then we’ll learn that national elections at least serve to weed out true losers. Four years too late, but better now than never.

Second, it matters which groups coalesce into the two large blocs of active voters. Those groups are better served when their side wins. Therefore, it matters which citizens we engage and motivate to vote.

Third, a national election, although important, is an outlier among all forms of politics. It is episodic and short-term. Millions of people participate, each having a microscopic impact. It is entirely mediated, since only a tiny proportion of us actually know the candidates. Given our electoral system, it is filtered through a party duopoly.

Local politics can be much better. So can national politics, over a longer time-span. Consider the improvement in mainstream attitudes toward sexual minorities in the US, which affects the stances of presidential candidates as well as many other aspects of our society. That, too, is politics: the result of advocacy, organizing, discussion, and learning. Our expectations for self-governance should be much higher than our expectations for presidential elections, where we must hope that Alexander Hamilton’s “accident” is benign.

the 2020 election in the shadow of the Iraq War

Polls usually show that foreign policy is a low-priority issue in US political campaigns. This year is no exception: asked to choose one priority, just 13 percent of prospective voters recently selected foreign policy.

But I think the Iraq and Afghan wars influence Americans in deeper ways. These are not “foreign policy issues,” like how we should address Brexit or North Korea. They represent a wound that hasn’t been treated. The question on people’s minds is not, “What should we do about Iraq?” or even “What should have been done in 2001?” The question underneath people’s explicit thinking is: “What kind of people are in charge of our country?”

After all, the decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan caused about 60,000 US casualties. (That includes those killed or wounded but not suicides or PTSD cases.)

It is very hard to know how many Iraqis and Afghans have died, because the data are not available and because it’s debatable how much causal responsibility the US holds for the deaths of various combatants and civilians. However, by 2007, 53% of Iraqis were saying that “a close friend or relative” had “been hurt or killed in the current violence.”

The running tab for the two wars is about $6 trillion, which is about 30% of the goods and services that all Americans produce in a year.

And for all this sacrifice and damage, we have lost–failing to attain any of the original objectives of the Bush Administration. Iran has the most power in Iraq; we are negotiating a ceasefire with the Taliban, whom we supposedly defeated in 2002.

For some Americans, none of this may be very salient. But for others, it reflects a deep betrayal by the global elites who sent our men and women into danger overseas. For still others, it is a classic case of American imperialism running amok. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, the debate has been relatively marginal or even submerged. But I think it’s always just below the surface.

Consider the record of these presidential candidates since 2008:

  • Hillary Clinton: votes for the war, apparently in large part because she, her husband, and other senior members of her own party favored it (not just because of the Bush Administration). She later calls her vote her mistake but still feels qualified to run for president in 2008 and 2016 and to serve as a hawkish Secretary of State in between. Thus she is partly responsible for managing the war after having helped to start it. When she comes before the voters, she loses both times.
  • Barack Obama: against the war from the outset, not in Washington when it starts, seems to want to wind it down; wins the presidency twice.
  • Jeb Bush: the presumed front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2016, but his brother launched the wars. Wins 4 delegates in the 2016 primary.
  • Donald Trump: actually fairly positive about the war when it started, but claims to have been against it, which is consistent with his general attitude that foreign interventions waste American lives and treasure. Beats all the establishment Republican primary candidates and Clinton. In office, battles the national security establishment and generally refrains from deploying US military assets overseas. His record conveys a willingness to spend money on the troops, a reluctance to put them in danger, and a contempt for the top brass. Now he’s in a good position for reelection.
  • Joe Biden: as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he votes to authorize the war. Although he is the former vice president in a popular Democratic administration, he looks likely to lose the current primary.
  • Pete Buttigieg: he opposes the Iraq War yet serves in Afghanistan–sort of the opposite of the bipartisan elites who started the war without putting themselves in danger. Considering that he’s the 38-year-old mayor of the 4th-largest city in Indiana, he’s done pretty well in a presidential primary campaign.
  • Bernie Sanders: the only Democratic primary candidate who can provide clear evidence that he was opposed to the war and tried to stop it. This is credible not only because his House vote was recorded but because he has opposed almost all US interventions since the 1970s.

If you believe (as I tend to) that dominant US institutions deserved to be sustained and protected even after the debacle of these wars, then there should have been a much deeper house-cleaning. It’s true that Members of Congress who voted for the war faced a hard choice with limited knowledge and no foreknowledge of the 19 years ahead. Nevertheless, they chose wrong and should have been banished from public life unless they took full responsibility for their own decisions and used their power to prevent anything similar from happening again. You don’t shake off hundreds of thousands of deaths, a $6 trillion bill, and a catastrophic defeat and move on to other topics. National leadership is a privilege, not a right, and if you help cause a disaster, you lose the privilege.

Some Americans never had strong reasons to sustain dominant US institutions. They have now been joined by people for whom the past 19 years provide reasons for distrust–whether they believe that globalist elites have betrayed real Americans or that America is the global bully of the neoliberal era. Although I make no equivalence between Trump and Sanders–they are opposites in character, policy proposals, and commitment to democracy and rule of law–a national campaign between those two is surely a consequence of decisions made by 2003.

we are lucky with our right-wing authoritarian

(Washington, DC) At today’s Deliberative Democracy Consortium’s Research & Practice Meeting on “Deliberative Democracy and Human Cognition,” Shawn W. Rosenberg made a point that I have often considered but never expressed.

Here is the background to the point: A broad range of people in many advanced democracies are potential supporters of ethno-nationalism (which means racism in the United States), autocratic leadership, and hostility to opposition parties, a free press, and intellectual critics. In a contest with liberal democratic values, this combination has built-in advantages. It is simpler, less cognitively and emotionally demanding, and more affirming of the people who belong to the ethn0-nationalist in-group.

In the United States, the chief representative of that combination is Donald J. Trump. But he lost the popular vote in 2016 and has never surpassed 45.5% popularity in the polling average. I think this is because he combines the globally ascendant right-wing authoritarian package with: personal indiscipline and frequent incompetence, laziness, blatant small-bore corruption and nepotism, a failure to retain the loyalty of his lieutenants, ignorance of the structures of power, a superficial grasp of his own ideology, and a rhetorical style that impresses only a small minority of Americans (a subset of his own voters).

If and when we face a right-wing authoritarian “populist” who moderates his (or her?) rhetoric skillfully, deploys resources efficiently, develops and implements strategies, sacrifices some personal needs and interests for his ideology, and manages the White House competently, we will be in deep trouble.

On the other hand, we might prove lastingly fortunate if this special moment of opportunity for white nationalism in America (while the national majority is still white but perceives status threat*) is dominated by a man who happens to be very bad at his job.

See also: Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; pluralist populism; is Trumpism akin to the European right? etc.

*Whether status anxiety explains the 2016 election is controversial; but even if it doesn’t, the anxiety still seems palpable.

considering censure

The question of the moment should not be what decision to reach in re Donald Trump. Justice is always best served by a process that generates evidence and permits a defense before any decision is reached. A process conducted by Congress cannot avoid being political, but it can be structured so that all sides get heard and the conclusions are open rather than foreordained. This is important for fairness and legitimacy.

Not to hold any kind of process at all would itself be a decision. It would be a clear statement that presidents enjoy impunity when their party controls at least one house of Congress. That would be another step in the degeneration of our system. I think this degeneration reflects fairly deep flaws built into the Constitution. But that is no excuse for non-action.

An impeachment process would require public hearings and debates, which would be valuable for the American people to see and to assess. It would count as a “judicial proceeding,” thus justifying the release of key documents, including those involved in grand jury proceedings. It would also justify sending the president written questions, and if he refused to answer, that refusal would be material to the decision. It would force all members of the House to take a position; all Senators, too, if the House voted to impeach.

On the other hand, impeachment is not much of a sanction if it doesn’t lead to conviction in the Senate. A split result might further cheapen the constitutional remedy of impeachment.

Although Jeffrey Isaac is right that members of the House and presidential candidates can address other issues while an impeachment process unfolds, their attention and the public’s focus are finite resources. Impeachment would dominate politics. If that helped Trump by keeping him in the spotlight or by obscuring a truly substantive debate about policy and philosophy within the Democratic primary, it would not serve the public interest.

Senators should be forced to take positions on Trump’s alleged obstruction, but an impeachment vote could be more politically costly for Democratic incumbents than for Republicans. The Post is reporting that the public is currently against impeachment, 56%-37%. Opinions certainly could shift as a result of the process, but you have to assume that attitudes toward Donald Trump are now pretty durable. It doesn’t make sense to punish a president by subjecting his opposition to a tough political battle.

The considerations against impeachment make me wonder about censure. Like impeachment, censure would not be a foreordained decision but a choice for each house of Congress to consider after due investigation and public debate. The practical consequences of censure are the same as those of impeachment if we assume that the Senate would fail to convict. The civic advantages of the debate and public vote are the same. I suppose nobody knows whether censure counts as a “judicial process,” but the House would certainly argue so when demanding sealed grand jury documents. The public might be more receptive to censure than impeachment, and it could be done quicker.

The main disadvantage is that a process to determine whether to censure the president forecloses the possibility of removing him from office. It says that Trump will finish his term unless something else arises that necessitates impeachment. That implication is hard to swallow but might make the best sense overall.

on playing hardball with the shutdown

On the one hand … The recent shutdown and the threat of a second one result from the Democrats’ choices as well as Donald Trump’s. Nancy Pelosi could reflect that she previously supported legislation that expanded walls on the Southern border, that $6 billion is a mere 0.16 percent of the federal budget, and that closing the government to thwart the president’s desire for a wall causes real people real pain–above all the low-income contract workers who will never be repaid for missed work. These might be reasons for her to compromise. I might add that the shutdown gives me the satisfaction of a successful political brawl without costing me anything. (I wasn’t even inconvenienced at the various TSA inspections I crossed while the TSA workers weren’t being paid.) And there is a long, very ugly tradition of sacrificing other people’s immediate interests for political purposes, sometimes justified on the ground that you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs or that the revolution is more likely to begin if the government gets worse. This is a path to evil paved with dubious intentions.

On the other hand … The president was elected with (although not necessarily because of) racist and factually false claims: migration from the south is hurting “us,” a wall would stop it, and the republic to our south can be forced to pay for it. In a world of partisan polarization and weaponized disinformation, there are scant consequences for making such claims. A shutdown forces Trump to pay a price. For the American people and the political elites who watch the public’s reactions, it sharply clarifies what is at stake. It has reminded many voters of the value of civil servants’ work. It deters similar behavior by Trump and by his allies. Along with a few more such conflicts, it may prevent him from being reelected.

In the end, I favor playing hardball. I think the last shutdown was a good moment, and it is worth risking a second one by negotiating hard with the president.

We must be constantly attentive to the dangers of forcing conflicts when other people bear the costs, and we must resist the narcotic attractions of partisan victory. I’ve been reading a lot of Gandhi lately and can imagine him fasting or doing something self-sacrificial after having heightened tensions in this way–for the good of his soul and as a method of preventing hubris.

But he and other nonviolent political leaders do intentionally heighten tensions. When the openly racist Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, “Bull” Connor, was defeated by a White moderate candidate, the Civil Rights Movement rushed to take advantage of his lame duck months in office. They knew that he would turn firehoses and dogs on the children and teenagers in their movement. His reaction was an opportunity for victory that they didn’t want to squander.

Just because the end does not justify the means, it doesn’t follow that you can’t strategize with goals in mind. We must not forget the contract workers who go without pay in a shutdown. Neither can we overlook the long, slow, and vast injustices of our immigration and criminal justice policies. A shutdown forces those issues onto the agenda and may increase the odds of a new coalition governing the country.

If public deliberation is a value (as I think it is), then there would be better ways to reason together about public policy. We wouldn’t have to force vulnerable people to sacrifice in the interest of clarity. But the reality is a system of unaccountable government plus partisan polarization and hypercharged misinformatibon. Under those circumstances, nothing cuts through the fog and illuminates citizens’ choices as well as a crisis. Wise leaders must be ready to force crises if they think they can win.

See also: should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?; game theory and the shutdown; moderation, civility, and bipartisanship are not the same; Brag, Cave and Crow: a contribution to game theory; and Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends.

Brag, Cave and Crow: a contribution to game theory

Game theory models interactions by presenting the “players” as people (or organizations) who face choices, and the outcome as the result of how they each choose. In conflictual circumstances, the players can choose between the option that their opponent would prefer (cooperate) or the one that their opponent would not prefer (defect). In certain unpleasant circumstances, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, every player is better off defecting even though that outcome is worst for all.

Donald Trump has faced a set of conflictual games as president, with North Korea, Mexico and Canada, China, and Chuck & Nancy (among others) on the opposite side of the table. He has frequently applied the novel strategy of Brag, Cave, and Crow (Trump, DJ et al. 2019). It works like this: First declare very loudly that you will defect and the other side will be forced to cooperate, then cooperate, and then declare very loudly that the other side was the one that cooperated.

This is not as dumb as it sounds.

First, assume that you can convince yourself that you did win. Payers seek to achieve their own preferences or maximize their own satisfaction. If you talk yourself into the idea that you won even though someone might see you as having folded, your subjective feelings are fine. That’s a win. Meanwhile, the conflict is gone and does you no more damage.

Second, if you are Donald Trump, you are always more interested in another game, a popularity contest. You are appealing to an audience of consumers or voters. Insofar as you can persuade them that you won even though you folded, you do win what you wanted most. And in a world of echo chambers and partisan heuristics, often this is exactly what happens. For instance, settle for the substance of NAFTA with minor tweaks, but rename it with an acronym that has “US … A” in it, and you can Brag, Cave, and Crow (BCC) for the win.

In the immediate circumstances, it’s good that BCC pays off for Donald Trump. It’s much better that he should brag about having solved the North Korean nuclear standoff than convince himself that he must actually force North Korea to denuclearize. Likewise, if he can claim he built a wall on the southern border when he didn’t, that will save us all some money, preserve the Constitution, offend Mexico less than a physical wall would, and leave nature and landowners alone.

At this juncture, Trump’s choice is either to Crow or to go back to the Brag stage. In other words, he can declare that he won or else threaten to win in the future with a veto or a declaration of emergency. I don’t think he can both Brag and Crow at the same moment about the same thing, although the echo chamber may be hermetic enough to allow that to work to some degree.

Alas, the incentive to BCC is yet another blow to responsible and accountable governance and public deliberation.

See also game theory and the shutdown; the emperor’s new wall; and why learn game theory?

game theory and the shutdown

In game theory, you model a real-world situation by simplifying it to depict a finite group of “players” who are defined by preferences and choices. You predict outcomes based on how these players will choose. The structure of the choice matters, e.g., Will they decide simultaneously or in turn? Once, or several times? (Here’s my argument that game theory is useful.)

In the case of the current shutdown, it seems that at least the following six players are relevant:

  • Donald Trump: He can choose at any time between the status quo (threatening to veto a continuing resolution, or CR, unless it includes money for a wall) or folding (saying that he would sign such a resolution). His decision-making process is simple: he does what he wants to do. He could, however, renege on a promise to sign a “clean” CR. He presumably wants: 1) the wall, 2) the ability to claim a victory, 3) higher instead of lower popularity, 4) strong support among Republican voters, to head off a primary, 5) economic growth, and 6) an outcome that will satisfy the actual opponents of immigration (who know that a wall won’t really help their cause). NB: these are not in order, because I am not sure how to rank them.
  • Chuck and Nancy: They can choose at any time between the status quo (supporting only a “clean” CR) or else folding (agreeing to fund the wall). Their decision-making process is complex since they are elected by caucuses full of diverse interests and values. They presumably want: 1) no wall, 2) a victory over Trump that is popular on the center-left, 3) Trump’s popularity to fall, 4) the Republican congressional caucuses to fracture, 5) federal workers to be paid, and 6) other policies, such as DACA, to pass. Again, these are not in order–maybe they want 6) most of all.
  • Mitch McConnell: He can choose at any time to propose a “clean” CR or some kind of win/win agreement, such as the wall plus DACA. He presumably wants: 1) this whole thing to go away, 2) conservatives in Kentucky to like him, 3) Republican Senators in diverse circumstances all to be reelected in 2020, and 4) his caucus to hang together.
  • Federal workers: They can choose at any time between the status quo (showing up to work without being paid) or some kind of civil resistance: massive absenteeism, a wildcat strike. Their decision-making is very complex. For instance, the National Border Patrol Council (a union) is right behind Trump, but perhaps its members aren’t. In general, federal workers presumably want: 1) to get paid. Their other interests–such as harming or else supporting Trump–vary.
  • Right-wing personalities and organizations: They can choose to put pressure on Trump or back off. They like the wall but differ in how much they like it. Many know that it wouldn’t actually reduce immigration and are dead-set against giving up a punitive immigration law in return for a wall that doesn’t work. But their opinions on that matter vary. They need not speak in unison, and perhaps it’s necessary to model them as several players. They presumably want: 1) less immigration, 2) symbolic manifestations of white nationalism, 3) Democrats and liberals to look bad, 4) their own audiences to stay loyal.
  • The people who are sampled in opinion polls: They can each say whether they blame Trump or the Democrats. Their decision-making process is individual choice followed by a pollster’s statistical aggregation. They want lots of things, but current polls suggest that the largest group wants: 1) no wall, 2) the government to reopen, and 3) the politicians to move onto other things. This is what they say, but the partisan heuristics with which they’d assess any specific outcome cannot be discounted.

I tend to think that Tyler Cowan is right that the federal workers will end this. Of course, their ability to act is much constrained by labor law, but they still have a range of tactics available to them. Mitch McConnell is the other player with a lot of clout–but bad options, which is why he isn’t playing so far.

The time dimension is crucial, since the status quo could be interrupted unpredictably by a disaster that needs a federal response, an economic crisis, a serious decline in Trump’s popularity, an erosion of public support for the Democrats, or a major distraction, such as a certain Special Council’s final report. Smart players must decide how to choose based on deep uncertainty about what happens next.

churchgoing and Trump

The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group has released an important new paper by Emily Ekins entitled, “Religious Trump Voters: How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity.”

Ekins notes that Trump performed best in the 2016 GOP primaries among Republican voters who never attend church (getting 69% of their vote). Examining Trump voters during 2018, she finds correlations between regularity of church attendance and positive attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, acceptance of diversity, approval of immigration (and opposition to the border wall), and concern about poverty.

Here I illustrate that pattern with attitudes toward Black people as the dependent variable. The trend line controls for race, gender, income, education, and age. All the data come from Trump voters. Because the correlation between church attendance and racial attitudes among Trump voters holds with these controls, Ekins suggests that it is causal.

This might not be a case of cause-and-effect. A third factor might underlie both tolerance and church attendance. However, I posited a similar causal hypothesis early in 2017, after I’d met with a conservative Southern pastor who despised Trump’s leadership style and attitudes. This pastor blamed Trump’s support on coach-potato “Christians,” those for whom Christianity is an identity rather than an actual faith, those who get their ideas from Fox News or Breitbart, not from fellow congregants.

Some colleagues and I tried to test this hypothesis using survey data and failed to find it, which is a null result worth noting. Still, I’d like to think that Ekins is right—perhaps more so in 2018 than in 2016.

Why would this pattern hold?

First, Ekins shows that church-attending Trump supporters volunteer and trust other people much more than Trump supporters who rarely or never attend Church. It may be that people who help others and feel they can rely on others are less likely to despise and fear strangers. In turn, church-attendance may promote volunteering and trust, or it may manifest a broader form of social capital that explains both tolerance and church-attendance.

Robert Putnam introduced a distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. The bridging kind connects people who are diverse in some respects; the bonding kind may increase solidarity in opposition to outsiders. One could imagine that churches enhance bonding social capital. America is said to be most segregated on Sunday mornings, and churches distinguish insiders from outsiders. But volunteering and trusting generic others are measures of bridging, not bonding, social capital. Insofar as churches encourage volunteering, they are trying to create bridging social capital.

Another mechanism could be leadership. Real churches have leaders, both clergy and laypeople. Church leaders are expected to be responsive and responsible and to hold the group together. In contrast, Trump just says whatever comes into his mind, usually makes no effort to deliver what he promises, and is happy to divide. I have hypothesized that people who are familiar with real leadership in local voluntary associations would despise Trump’s style. Although we were unable to show that pattern using survey data, Ekins’ new results may suggest that it holds.

A third mechanism could be the content of the faith. I happen not to be religious, and I could criticize the specific content of many sermons and texts on ethical grounds. I am aware that there are mega-churches that show huge audiences jingoistic videos of American military might; there are clerics who praise Trump or cite Romans 13 to defend the administration’s policies. In my opinion, these examples are idolatrous as well as unjust, but my argument does not depend on romanticizing the content of religious expression.

I would argue, instead, that real faith is demanding. You can find passages and examples that reinforce bigotry, but you will also encounter texts that challenge you. Faith may be consistent with almost any policy position—as we can see from the enormous range of political opinions among clergy—yet participation in a deep and complex religious community is inconsistent with all simplistic attitudes about other people. Cable news and propagandistic websites reinforce what their audiences want to hear, but scripture is strange and demanding. Since religious texts are very hard to figure out by oneself, they require discussion and debate. In turn, the people in any given discussion usually turn out to have idiosyncratic and incompatible interpretations. This is why Martin Luther, despite his break with The Church, believed that we all need a church to keep us honest. Even if the content of preaching and liturgy doesn’t turn us into people who understand and care for others, the decision to attend a service may reflect a desire to become such a person.

In short, religion as a pure identity: bad. Religion as a community of people who struggle to address issues of moral and existential importance: good. Voters who actually attend church are more likely to experience the good form of religion, compared to those who identify as Christians without showing up on Sunday.

See also: the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trumpthe Hollowing Out of US Democracywhy Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet); and why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

postmodernism and Trump

In the Washington Post, Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon argues that postmodernist theorists didn’t inspire or prepare the way for Donald Trump and other politicians who openly disparage truth. Rather, postmodernists lamented a world in which propaganda and media manipulation badly distorted our understanding and judgment. The death of truth “was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that [Lyotard] and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.” Thus, as the Post’s headline puts it, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.”

I think I agree with every sentence in Hanlon’s article, which is a valuable contribution. But he seems to omit an important dimension: our changing views of journalism, science, and scholarship.

Most thoughtful people have long been concerned about political propaganda (in the narrow sense). Lippmann, Dewey, Orwell, Arendt, Hayek, and many others worried that politicians who obtained influence over the state could distort public opinion and obfuscate the truth. That concern has been a central theme in liberalism since long before postmodernism.

Hanlon makes the French postmodernists sound like liberals, in this sense:

But if we bother to understand Baudrillard’s thesis — that our impressions of the [First Gulf War] conflict have been warped by media framing and agitprop — it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis.

But postmodernism also treats natural science, other forms of scholarship, professional disciplines like law, and independent journalism as purveyors of propaganda rather than pursuers of truth. The validity of science, for example, was the issue in the “Science Wars.” Postmodernism is concerned about “the active distortion of truth for political purposes,” but it extends “politics” to laboratories, classrooms, and newsrooms as well as elections and governments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, people who defined themselves as postmodernists were quick to reject the pretentious of institutions like scholarly disciplines and The New York Times. Nowadays, similar people are more likely to defend the elite consensus on matters like climate change, to use findings from social science in their arguments, and to decry the failure of politicians like Donald Trump to respect the truth as presented in venues like The New York Times. On the question of whether The Times or the NSF is a source of truth, Trump sounds like the postmodernist.

Pure objectivity is a myth, almost universally acknowledged as such. However, if you don’t like what influential people are claiming to be true, you have options. First, you can decide where you stand on a spectrum from relativism (“Any claim depends entirely on who makes it”) to critical objectivity (“There are obvious truths that are being overlooked or concealed because the people in charge of knowledge are bad”). Another spectrum goes from reformist (“New people and new research agendas should be incorporated into the institutions that produce knowledge”) to separatist (“We need new institutions to produce knowledge.”) Since these questions are independent, four options result:

When French postmodernism arrived in the US, much of the academic left was reformist and somewhat relativist, or so I recall. A common view was that science and scholarship were valuable pursuits, but they needed to be substantially diversified. Humanists tended to doubt the claims of objectivity made by their colleagues in the sciences. Works like Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988) extended the critique to the humanities. Thus many academics found themselves in Cell A, although some self-described leftists argued that it was a fundamental mistake to undermine objectivity; they defended Cell C.

In that context, French postmodernism was strongly relativist and at least implicitly separatist. Its critique of established institutions (universities, clinics, newspapers, etc.) was radical enough to suggest the need for alternatives–whole new institutions, or perhaps anti-institutions. It made a case for Cell B that many accepted with caveats or else resisted.

At that time, most of the academic right claimed to be strongly anti-relativist and also reformist (Cell D). They viewed relativism as an insidious attack on core values. Conservatives were reformist because they thought that conservative voices were marginalized in the academy and the media and deserved more prominence. Conservatives believed in truth and wanted to change who spoke most powerfully about the truth.

However, some conservatives were separatist: Cell D. They might gravitate to the Federalist Society, the Liberty Fund, evangelical colleges, conservative think tanks–or even “Creation Science”–as alternatives because they had given up on the academy and government-funded science. They believed in objectivity but had lost faith in professors and reporters to produce or disseminate it.

I think a lot of the academic left today falls in Cell C. They believe that real knowledge is possible but that we must enhance diversity in newsrooms, laboratories, universities, and funding agencies in order to get closer to the truth. “Diversity” refers not only to the demographics of the researchers and reporters–although that is important–but also to their topics and methods. Many academics on the left are vigorous defenders of tenure, federal science funding, public radio, and other bulwarks of fairly traditional knowledge-production. Women Also Know Stuff is a perfect example of Cell C.

This means that the academic left shares some of the values that animated conservatives during the 1970s-1990s. Meanwhile, there are strands of the right that now prefer Cell B. They debunk truth, doubt the value of independent scholarship, and want to create alternatives to Fake News, lying scientists, etc.

It’s in that respect that French postmodernism presaged the era of Donald Trump.

See also: Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanitiesconservative relativismteaching evolution, creationism, Intelligent Design; and media literacy and the social discovery of reality.

how not to talk about The People

Maria Bartiromo (Fox News): As the commander-in-chief, as the president of this great country, what can you do to bring us together?

Donald Trump: Our people are so incredible. …  Do you know, there’s probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base. I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy.

As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump equates “us,” the people of America, with “the people who voted for him.”

This is the rhetorical move that Jan-Werner Müller, in his globally influential book (2016), uses as the definition of “populism.” Populists “claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. … Elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.”

Müller has previously quoted Trump–“the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”–as evidence that the current president is a populist, in this bad sense of the word.

I agree that the slippage between Trump’s supporters and “the people” is a very bad sign. However, it is not straightforward to define populism (meaning a problematic phenomenon) in this way. Trump says many things and is inconsistent in his appeal to “the people.” Meanwhile, a wide variety of political actors also depict the public as a homogeneous entity that is on their side.

Some of them define “the people” in racial or ethno-national terms. That tendency seems more accurately described as racism or xenophobia than as populism, especially if anti-racists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez count as populists (as Müller would suggest).

And sometimes it is the strongest champions of democratic institutions who use rhetoric that looks populist according to Müller’s definition. For instance, Jimmy Carter presented himself as an ordinary American (a peanut farmer and a Christian, not a Washington politician) who could best reflect the values shared by all Americans (Johnstone 1978). Carter invoked a unitary public and promised to connect directly to the people, unmediated by interests and organizations. His Inaugural Address could be coded as populist rhetoric, in Müller’s sense of the word. Yet Carter was committed to constitutional limits, respected his critics and the opposition, and made the promotion of democratic freedoms a centerpiece of his agenda.

Thus it is not clear that searching for Müller-style populist language will identify actors who are hostile to democratic institutions and processes. There is an upsurge of repression around the world—and it is not limited to racists and xenophobes—but there is a better word for it than “populism.” That word is “authoritarianism.”

For the purposes of empirical research, I would dispense with “populism” in the Müller sense and look instead for authoritarianism and racism as distinct but sometimes overlapping phenomena that are ascendant in our time.

Müller is, however, right that there are pitfalls to invoking a unitary public that is on one’s side–or defining one’s side as “the people.” This is an excuse for trampling on rights, whether your opponents are demographic minorities and immigrants (the right-wing variant), or corporations and the rich (the left-wing version), or extremists (the centrist version). It’s always better to recognize the legitimacy of the actual human beings who disagree with you and who vote for the other side.

Citations: Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia; Universoty of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 101; Christopher Lyle Johnstone, “Electing Ourselves in 1976: Jimmy Carter and The American Faith,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, vol. 42  Issue 4, *Fall 1978), p. 241-249. See also Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrityfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populismseparating populism from anti-intellectualism and two kinds of populism.