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.

the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trump

Not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I met with a conservative evangelical pastor near his church in a small city in one of the most conservative of the Southern states. He told me how deeply he despised and feared the new president as a threat to his values and his community. Some of his concerns were moral, involving Trump’s sexual behavior. Some were pastoral–he worried that young people would be alienated from Christianity as the faith came to be associated with Trump. And some concerns involved leadership. He felt that he struggled to be a good leader of his church community: accountable, inclusive, a peacemaker. Trump modeled the very opposite style.

I often recall this conversation as I read about White evangelical support for Trump and the criticism he’s now receiving from some evangelical clergy.

That first spring of the Trump era, I formed an empirical hypothesis. I thought that many evangelicals might vote for Trump because of abortion and a few other issues, and I could understand that. However, I thought that admiring him as a leader would correlate negatively with actual participation in a Christian community, once you controlled for demographics. In the back of my mind was the theory that being Christian can have three meanings:

  1. A set of theological beliefs that may have moral and political implications. These vary enormously. Some Christians see Jesus as a pacifist socialist; others think he would endorse capitalism and national sovereignty. But if you take theology seriously, you will assess a politician in its terms, and not just do what he says.
  2. Membership and participation in a community of believers, which may extend from a concrete local church to a denomination or even an ecumenical network of denominations. Churches vary from congregationalist to hierarchical (the word means “holy order or structure”), from traditionalist to innovative, and from homogeneous to diverse; and we would expect these differences to matter politically.
  3. An identity, something you are as well as (or even instead of) something you believe or do. It’s possible to identify as a White Christian man without believing in God or going to church, if you think of Christianity as pure identity, akin to an ethnicity.

I would expect #1 to inform attitudes toward Donald Trump, but in a complex way. Assessments would depend on the theological commitments of the specific believer and the policies of the administration. Theological seriousness would make people into critical thinkers about any politician.

I would expect #2 to teach people lessons about what kind of leadership to expect and admire. In a megachurch dominated by a charismatic and wealthy preacher, people might learn to expect leaders who act at least roughly like Trump. In a congregationalist church or a Catholic parish with empowered laity, people would learn to expect accountability and inclusivity, not to mention skills like listening and mediation; and they would despise Trump’s leadership style in contrast.

I would expect #3 to predict support for Trump because that’s what he offers. He gives no indication of actual belief but looks for all opportunities to say: This is a white Christian nation, and everyone must acknowledge that. I haven’t yet read Janelle Wong’s new book, but this seems to be her finding. It would be consistent with the theory that “Fox News evangelicals” (or “coach-potato evangelicals”)–rather than deeply committed Christians–are Trump’s base.

We had the opportunity to ask about all these topics in one survey. We asked about policy opinions, demographics, admiration for Trump as a leader, and experiences of participation in religious and secular communities. I don’t want to “publish” our findings here, because I worked with several colleagues who aren’t co-authors of this blog, and the statistical issues were somewhat complex. Our work is yet unpublished. But I will say there was no clear evidence that I was correct. The outcome was something like a null result. Once you know that someone is a White evangelical who favors abortion rights, you don’t learn anything new by asking about her personal involvement in a church community.

This is disappointing, but it may not be the end of the story. Assume that you are a serious Christian with conservative politics who actually cares about theology and the community of the living church. Christianity as an ethnic identity is a threat to everything you deeply believe in. Right now, you’re losing the struggle for your faith. It’s becoming an ethnic identity with a dangerous level of resentment, not a belief system. But you have resources to struggle back. You have moral legitimacy, cultural depth, diversity, youth support, and grassroots institutions that are shrunken but still vital. I would expect to see more and more anti-Trump organizing from the evangelical pulpit, and a widening gap between White identity “Christianity” and actual Christian faith.

See also why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)Civic Deserts and our present crisisthe Democrats and religious Americans and the political advantages of organized religion

Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity

Donald Trump says many things. Some are innocuous and banal. Quite a few are inconsistent. And some provide evidence that he belongs in these three categories:

  1. A “populist” in the particular sense proposed by Jan-Werner Müller. (I also like to retain more positive definitions of the same word.) For Müller, a populist is someone who believes that the whole authentic people is unified behind a set of values that the populist leader explicitly expresses. Therefore, the opposition is illegitimate. Elections that favor the populist leader are sacrosanct, and anyone who criticizes or strives to reverse these results is an enemy of the people. But elections that challenge the populist must have been rigged or stolen. “A los amigos, justicia y gracia. A los enemigos, la ley a secas.”
  2. A chauvinist, meaning someone who explicitly and apologetically favors an in-group and disparages an out-group. In the United States, racism is a major variety. But in some other countries, the leading chauvinists are inspired by religion or nationality instead of race.
  3. A media personality who projects a combative personality, who disparages opponents, who cultivates “outrage,” who “seem[s] to always react to controversy and even aversion by leaning into it,” and who claims honesty or authenticity on the basis that he says things that give offense or cause pain–except not to his core audience. This style is prevalent on talk radio, certain reaches of cable news–but equally important, in supermarket tabloids, WWF, and reality TV shows like The Apprentice.

These three categories need not intersect. You can be an outrageous media personality who isn’t a populist or a chauvinist, a chauvinist who isn’t a celebrity, etc.

None of these categories is new. White Supremacy has been near the center of American politics since the beginning. Various forms of populism and chauvinism were much more extreme around the world in 1939 than today. But there does seem to be a global boom of unapologetic chauvinist populists who use media effectively.

The right doesn’t own these categories, and the left doesn’t consistently avoid them. I know plenty of people who believe that the Tea Party is pure Astroturf, a creature of right-wing billionaires. That is a populist move in Müller’s sense: it declares a large number of actual Americans to be illegitimate participants in politics. By the way, it’s different if you hate and fear your political opponents. That is partisanship, but not populism, so long as you acknowledge that your opponents are fellow citizens and you must share politics with them.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of these categories, but we have never had a president who fits all three. The combination poses a severe threat to our institutions and world peace.

Insofar as the problem is populism (in Müller’s sense), then I think an electoral shellacking will be the best remedy. Even if Republicans lose the 2018 election badly, the strongest Trump supporters (30-40% of the population) will continue to think that he speaks for the whole genuine American public and the election was rigged. However, Trump can’t govern without conservative and business elites. I think they will abandon him if they see that he is dragging them into the minority.

By the same token, if Republicans do better than expected in ’18, and/or Trump is reelected, we are in for much more populism. And if Trump’s presidency ends for a relatively extraneous reason, such as personal criminality, then the picture will be muddy enough that populism will remain an attractive option. (I often think that we are fortunate in our populist; if he were smarter and more disciplined, we would really be in trouble.)

Apart from elections, we have two other assets in the struggle against Müller-style populism. One is pluralist populism , which portrays “the people” as highly diverse (I discuss that rich tradition here).

The other is genuine conservatism. Real conservative thought is diametrically opposed–in principle–to the idea that any government can ever be authorized by a unitary public. The left/right spectrum originated in the French Revolution, and the Jacobin left was the populist side, in Müller’s sense. Conservatism emerged in reaction to the revolutionaries’ claim to a popular mandate, and great conservative thinkers have always opposed such claims. Many Republican politicians will go along with Trumpian populism as long as it wins elections; but conservatives will denounce it from the rooftops. The question is how many conservatives actually exist.

Insofar as the problem is chauvinism (meaning, in the USA, racism, religious bigotry, and sexism), then it’s the next chapter in a basic American story. Progress is hard-won and tends to have a zigzag pattern. I am a fan of Barack Obama for other reasons than his race, but it is significant that he was the first leader of a majority-white nation to have modern African ancestors–and the first US president in modern times to have a foreign father. That was the zig; Trump is the zag. The struggle continues.

Finally, insofar as the problem is celebrity politics, I am actually optimistic. I believe that Trump came first in a crowded and splintered Republican primary field because his persona appealed to a minority of the US population. He then beat Clinton in the Electoral College because partisan polarization gave him most Republican votes in key states, and she was deeply unpopular. Compared to a generic incumbent president who enjoys a strong economy and who hasn’t actually passed any controversial legislation (other than a tax cut), Trump is remarkably unpopular. And a key reason is his style. So I think acting like a reality TV star exacts a political cost and is not likely to be replicated.

Sinclair and Bezos: media ownership and media bias

These two stories ran on the same page of the print New York Times on April 2: “Sinclair Videos Renew Debate Over Media Ownership” and “To Trump, It’s the ‘Amazon Washington Post.’ To Its Editor, That’s Baloney.”

Both articles are about possible bias in powerful, for-profit media companies. Donald Trump has opinions on each case. He thinks that Sinclair (which owns 193 local TV stations) is a “far superior” media company that is being smeared by liberals. But he suggests that the “Fake News Washington Post [is] being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly.”

I start with the opposite assumptions: Sinclair is a creepy would-be monopolist, while the Washington Post holds power accountable. I’m no fan of Amazon, but I assume that Jeff Bezos’ investments in the Post strengthen democracy by enabling the newspaper to do more investigative reporting. I see two threats to the First Amendment: Sinclair’s goal of owning more than 200 local TV stations, and a president–who sits atop a regulatory state–threatening the owner of a newspaper.

But imagine that you admired Trump rather than despising him (as I do). You might then reverse the polarity. The biggest threat might seem to be the billionaire with the national newspaper. You might be a little cynical when the Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, says, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon … Not one penny.” Technically true, but Bezos, who makes his money from Amazon, bought the Post for $250 million, and, “Buoyed by [these] new resources, it has added more than 200 newsroom employees.”

I want to control corporate influence on politics, but when people point out that newspapers also influence politics, and they are corporations (or owned by corporations), I cry “First Amendment!” When Rupert Murdoch builds Fox News, I see a billionaire colonizing the public sphere, but when Bezos expands the Post, I am grateful to him.

It’s important to be principled, not arbitrary or reflexively partisan, in making such judgments.

The economics are complex. You can make money selling news that you don’t agree with, or lose money by selling views you like. (Generations of owners of The New Republic will testify to that.) There is evidence of media effects: news companies change public opinion. But consumers also choose which news to buy and thereby affect the production of news.

The sociology is complex. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a publicly traded company that maximizes returns for its shareholders. It is also an organization with a CEO and other leaders who have leverage over the shareholders. And it employs reporters, who can be understood as members of a profession that is committed to the public good. It would be naive to ignore the corporate structure, but cynical to ignore the professionals. An anonymous anchor interviewed by Maxwell Strachan said,

most of the people who are commenting on this have never even watched our local newscast. … They see that we’re a Sinclair station. They assume what they want to assume about it. But we produce good news here. Sinclair does not tell us what to cover, who to talk to, or what to say in terms of local coverage. Our local news, it doesn’t have bias. If people are looking for it, they won’t find it. So don’t call me a zombie. I do damn good work on a daily basis and anybody in my community would tell you that.

Whether he is right or not, his point that many critics have never watched a Sinclair Station’s local newscast applies to me.

Finally, the politics is complex. I have no doubt that Donald Trump is a terrible leader, but I choose to consume news that mostly reinforces that view, and I rarely delve deeply into the other side. We should make judgments and take a stand. Forming a judgment is not a form of bias. But we must recognize our fallibility.

Ultimately, you can’t render appropriate judgments without taking a closer look at both the products of these companies (Are their stories any good?) and the detailed ways in which they work. I presume that the Post has a strong firewall between its business operations and its newsroom, but that is an empirical assumption that can be tested. I find this kind of language in Sinclair’s employee handbook disturbing: Sinclair “may monitor, intercept, and review, without further notice, every employee’s activities using Company’s electronic resources and communications systems.” But I don’t know whether anything similar applies at the Post.

All of this plays out in a marketplace. We’d like journalists to have market power over their employers. But for newspaper reporters, the market is terrible:

According to a new Knight Foundation report, “In the decade since the last recession hit, newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — 46.1 percent of total employment. … In contrast, local TV news employment is up 4.9 percent in that same time frame, and most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever.” Many stations are hiring former newspaper reporters and editors.

Despite the rising number of employees in broadcast journalism and the generally tight labor market, Sinclair has leverage over its employees, perhaps because there are just a few TV stations in any community. The anonymous Sinclair anchor says,

These jobs? they’re very hard to come by. And if I quit, I owe the company 40 percent of my salary, plus a percentage of the [redacted] years remaining on my contract, plus any bonuses that they’ve paid to me and any reimbursements that they’ve paid to me. And they’re going to take me to court for it. And in the time that I’m in court, I’m not employable.

See also: media literacy and the social discovery of realitydon’t confuse bias and judgment.

the emperor’s new wall

Donald Trump says that his border wall is being built; yesterday, he even tweeted pictures of it. Today he added, “We started building our wall, I’m so proud of it. We started. We have $1.6 billion. You saw the pictures yesterday. I said what a thing of beauty.”

The budget he signed into law provides $341 million “to replace approximately 40 miles of existing primary pedestrian and vehicle border fencing along the southwest border using previously deployed and operationally effective designs, such as currently deployed steel bollard designs, that prioritize agent safety; and to add gates to existing barriers.”

But the President can have what he wants: a tweet about his own success. Almost 100,000 people clicked to like it. They could feel the #MAGA. Meanwhile, we don’t have to pay for a wall. It has no environmental impacts. Pronghorn antelope may still roam back and forth at will. I assume our neighbors in Mexico realize the wall is not actually taking physical form in the universe that we inhabit as corporeal creatures.

So everyone wins. Could this be the model for solving other problems in the Trump years?

should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use comparative evidence to argue that democracies rely on two “soft guardrails”: constitutional forbearance and mutual toleration.* Forbearance means that political actors refrain from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords them. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely honor the letter but not the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections.

We are perilously close to losing both constraints. This won’t be the first time in our history, but then again, our history has involved major breakdowns, like a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans.

If Republicans beat expectations in 2018 and 2020, both parties’ behavior is predictable. Republicans will remain behind Trump because their base likes him and because the whole party will be winning under his banner. Democrats will resist as aggressively as possible, but with built-in limitations.

The choices for both sides will become much harder if the Democrats do well in 2018 and then 2020, capturing at least one house of Congress and then maybe the whole federal government. The Republicans’ choices will then be:

  1. The GOP stays Trumpian. This is what their base wants. Their losses will have been concentrated in swing districts and among independent-minded incumbents who tangled with the Trump base. The remaining party will be all-in for Trump. Since this scenario assumes that they lost ground in elections, they will be even more hostile to the political system, the media, and the Democrats, now seen as clearly rigging the system against real Republicans.
  2. Or the GOP turns into a principled conservative party that is skeptical of ambitious government, resistant to both taxation and public debt, and committed to constitutional restraint, including a restrained presidency. It presents that package as attractive to younger and more diverse voters and grows less demographically distinct from the Democrats.

Meanwhile …

  1. The Democrats play what Mark Tushnet calls Constitutional Hardball. Because they lost a Supreme Court seat when the Republicans wouldn’t even consider Merrick Garland, they return the favor and refuse Trump any new appointments. They launch aggressive investigations against Trump, his family, and his cabinet, focusing on potential financial crimes. They lay the predicate for impeachments and then prosecutions. They shut down the government over budget disputes, reckoning that Trump will send undisciplined tweets that will make him look at fault. If a Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2020, they drive through political reforms that advantage them in subsequent elections. In short, they decide not to be rolled, and also that their substantive policy goals require strong action.
  2. Or the Democrats try to restore mid-20th century norms of constitutional forbearance and partisan toleration. That doesn’t mean that they seat Trump’s Supreme Court nominees or refrain from investigations, but they try to follow the traditional procedures. For example, they bring Trump’s nominees up for votes but vote nay, and they make their investigations as focused and as bipartisan as possible. Democrats look to peel off independent-minded Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and go out of their way to honor these colleagues.

Game theory is tailor-made for situations in which two players can make independent choices and the result is a single outcome. Here is a guess about how these choices would play out.

Democrats play “Constitutional Hardball” Democrats try to restore cooperative norms
Republicans stay Trumpian Democrats probably win on policy–increasingly so as the demographic trends favor them. Republicans retain 35% of the population that is overwhelmingly white and Christian and increasingly angry. The GOP still dominates some states and regions. Right-wingers give Democrats rationales for using increasingly hardball tactics. Political violence grows. Democrats are corrupted by the lack of legitimate checks. Democrats get rolled on policy. Possibly they expand their electoral power as a result of demographic trends plus a reputation for being responsible (if their forbearance is widely understood as such). Possibly they just look weak, and lose.
Republicans shift to principled conservatism Perhaps the Democrats prevail on policy and grow stronger due to demographics. Or perhaps they further erode confidence in government and thus strengthen principled conservatism, which wins elections and policy battles. The republic is safe. Democrats make incremental progress on policy, but Republicans offer a conservative alternative that sometimes prevails.

This is pretty close to a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), with the best option for all being the bottom-right, yet both sides have strong reasons to choose the other course. It’s a little more complicated than a pure PD because it plays out over time. The options and payoffs depend on the precise circumstances of the moment–say, in 2019 with a Democratic House and a narrowly Republican Senate, or in 2021 with (hypothetically) a newly inaugurated Democratic president. But versions of the choices arise at each stage, from congressional primaries today to legislative strategies in 2021.

*See pp. 7-8. However, my comments are based on hearing the authors speak, not having read their whole book yet.

analyzing Donald Trump’s speech patterns

Just before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote:

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I have no expertise in linguistics. To the extent my observations were based on any disciplined research, I was thinking of attempts to model discussions as networks of ideas. I’m interested in how different network structures may allow people to deliberate better or worse with others. I implied that Trump’s “paratactic/ egocentric” style was bad for deliberation.

Unlike me, John McWhorter is a linguist, and he has an interesting analysis in The New York Times. He confirms my observation that Trump’s speech is “paratactic,” “repetitious,” and “subjective.” He also shows that Trump’s style has changed. When he was young man, Trump was much more hypotactic (favoring subordinate clauses and logical connections), more explicitly organized, and less emotive. But McWhorter does not think this is evidence of cognitive decline. Rather, everyday spoken English is much like Trump’s public speech nowadays. Most people most of the time produce disconnected, repetitive bursts of speech, linked by body language and other emotional cues rather than logical connectives. McWhorter thinks that young-man Trump spoke in an unnatural, elevated, formal way because he still thought he had to work at being accepted. Today, Trump thinks he can talk naturally in public forums, so he does. And for some audiences, it works.

This seems plausible. I would only add a normative question: what kind of speech do we have the right to expect from public figures in public forums? Hypotaxis is artificial for all of us; it’s how schools teach us to talk and write in public, to strangers. But it could be that people should talk that way in formal settings, just because the logical connections allow the listener to assess our arguments critically. Skipping over them is normal for private speech among people with strong affective ties, but it’s a way of evading accountability among strangers.

See also: Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberationDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

Trump’s approval rating as a case study in public opinion

Donald Trump’s popularity is really quite stable. For a while, it looked as if he was losing a point or so per month, but that trend has reversed. From the perspective of January 2018, the flatness of the line is striking.

Then again, presidential popularity is usually correlated with economic performance. A strong correlate of approval for an incumbent president is satisfaction with the direction of the country. Since the economy is humming along and satisfaction with the direction of the country is modestly risingone would expect Trump’s popularity to be 7-17 percentage points higher than it is.

To be clear, I don’t think that the economy is producing fair results. But historically, measures like satisfaction and consumer optimism usually correlate with presidential approval. Trump has broken that pattern.

Also, a prevailing model in political science holds that our demographic identities come first. They lead us to affiliate with political parties that seem to represent or encompass those identities. Our attitudes toward politicians are then strongly colored by our partisan affiliations.  But party identification sometimes changes faster than the demographic composition of the country. I’ve created the following graph of party affiliation using Gallup data (moving averages over 7 months). It shows that there’s not been that much change over time–the y-axis goes from 20%-50%–but Republican identification (the red line) has fallen since Trump was elected. First Independents (gray) seemed to gain at the expense of Republicans and Democrats, but lately it’s been Democrats (blue) who have increased their share.

I’d conclude that underlying factors–demographics, economics, and partisanship–do explain most of a president’s support. But they don’t fully explain it, and Donald Trump is demonstrating that you can alienate a lot of people from yourself and your party if you really act like a jerk. This is kind of a perverse finding (doing a very bad job can cause damage), but it’s still evidence that rhetoric and intentional action matter, regardless of what else is happening in the world. It lends support to a theory I have long suspected: agency is often hard to detect because most people who lead major organizations and movements are pretty competent, and their efforts tend to cancel out. Trump is an exception that shows that intentional behavior and competence mattered all along.

If the economy continues to prosper and Trump doesn’t behave even worse, I suspect we will see some improvement in his popularity. The underlying circumstances will count more and more. On the other hand, if the economy hits some bumps, he’s vulnerable. (But that is truly not to be wished for, because too many people will suffer.)

tools for the #resistance

I was in Eau Claire, WI, on Sunday and honored to present to a large group of active citizens convened by a local Indivisible chapter and other parts of the #resistance. I offered five tools for thinking about political movements. My presentation went into somewhat more detail, but this is the gist.

First, the question for citizens is “What we should do?” — where “we” means a concrete group of people like the folks convened in a room in Eau Claire on Sunday.

The hard part is to avoid a shift into “What should be done?” or “How should things be?” Those questions evade responsibility. They are also excessively easy. Carbon should be taxed; Trump should resign. Those points may be correct but they don’t tell us what we should do.

Second, any functioning political group, network, or movement should combine deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships. Deliberation means discussing what to do in diverse groups. That makes us wiser. Collaboration means actually getting work done together, coordinating voluntary action. And civic relationships are the reasons that people participate.

That framework is central to my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, which I wrote while Barack Obama was president. I have considered whether this framework is obsolete when a man who threatens the republic occupies the White House. I still believe it applies. For one thing, people learn to value deliberative and collaborative styles of leadership by participating personally in decent groups. When only 28 percent of Americans report belonging to any group that is inclusive and accountable, no wonder many tolerate Trump’s style of leadership. Besides, every large-scale social movement, no matter how adversarial, needs deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships to move forward. These are scarce but renewable sources of power.

Third, try to maximize four goods that are often in tension. “Scale” means involving a lot of people. You can’t win without numbers. “Depth” means transforming people, building their skills, confidence, wisdom, and leadership. That’s necessary because we must all grow to be effective. “Pluralism” means encompassing a diversity of ideas and identities. Groups that fail to be pluralist get stupid and are unable to appeal to outsiders. “Unity” means coming together for one cause. Together they spell “SPUD,” which is a handy acronym. The challenge is that Depth trades off against Scale, and Pluralism against Unity. But the best movements achieve a bit of all four.

Fourth, work at several levels of power. The discussion of  “faces” or “levels” of power goes back at least to Stephen Lukes and John Gaventa in the 1970s; I borrow from the recent version by Archon Fung. The basic idea is that you can challenge a particular wrong, or a rule or policy, or who makes the rules and policies, or what’s on the public’s agenda. For instance, you could help an individual vote, change voting laws, change who makes the voting laws (e.g., who draws district boundaries), or change how the public thinks about voting.

I venture the generalization that right-wing leaders are much better than the left at the third level of power. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has relentlessly attacked public sector unions (except police) so that union leaders can’t help determine policies; and he has passed restrictive voters to change who participates in elections. The left is better at the first and second levels of power, but those levels have limits.

Finally, I reposted my “How to Respond?” chart, which I first released on this blog a couple of days after the November election. (Click to expand it.) It offers a set of strategies for activists in the current moment.

You can do more than one of these things. Probably some people should be doing each of them. But the eight options in the bottom row are too many for any one person or group to undertake, and they are in some tension. It’s hard for a group devoted to winning the 2018 election also to convene ideologically diverse conversations to bridge the gap between right and left. So most of us need to choose.

Note that I didn’t write, “How to respond to Trump’s victory.” This diagram doesn’t pretend to be nonpartisan or politically neutral. It offers options like winning the next election with a Democratic coalition and resisting the administration. But it is meant to be somewhat open-ended and subject to various interpretations. Genuine conservatives might take it to mean, “How to take our party back from a big-government chauvinist.” And leftists might interpret is as “How to respond to three centuries of injustice, in which Democrats are complicit.” As always, a plurality of views is an asset.

One way to use these tools might be to brainstorm concrete actions and then ask which cells in the last table you are filling, which levels of power you are addressing, how you are doing in SPUD, and whether you have deliberated and collaborated well. This process will not generate The Right Answer but it may help inform your strategies.

new research on “civic deserts”

(Washington, DC) My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan coined the phrase “civic deserts” to name places where there are few or no opportunities to be active and constructive participants in civic life. The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.

Today at the National Conference on Citizenship, we are releasing Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and me. It’s a 36-page report that documents the declining opportunities for civic engagement in America. John Bridgeland and Robert Putnam also write about it today in a PBS opinion piece.

This is an example of a table from the report:

Thanks to friends at USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research, we were able to ask a  large, representative sample of Americans whether they belonged to various kinds of groups; if so, whether they participated actively in any of them; and if so, whether they thought that the group’s leaders (a) usually did what they promised and (b) usually tried to serve and include all the members. It turns out that only 28% of adult Americans actively belong to groups whose leaders are accountable and inclusive. That statistic does not tell us how much geographical space is taken up by civic deserts, but it suggests that they are common. And the historical data implies that civic engagement used to be much more widespread.

I separately formed a hypothesis that lacking direct, personal experience with good leadership would make a person more tolerant of the leadership style of Donald J. Trump, controlling for one’s political ideology. In other words, given two people who agree with Trump on issues, the one without experience of good local leadership would be more supportive of Trump as a leader. This was testable with the USC data, which includes a whole battery of questions about ideology, issues, and Trump. My hypothesis turned out not to be true: partisanship and media choice seem to explain opinions of the current president almost completely, and experience in groups adds no explanatory power. Still, I think there may be a more circuitous story about civic deserts as a cause of Trump’s victory: the decline of civic associations increases the power of partisan heuristics and ideological media. Even if that hypothesis is also false, civic deserts are still a problem, because civic engagement benefits health, economic development, safety, education, and good government.

See also: The Hollowing Out of US Democracy (my blog post for USC); Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do (a new CIRCLE article); America needs big ideas to heal our divides. Here are three by Bridgeland and Putnam; and the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts.