Friday, May 1, 2020

COVID-19: The Story So Far

From an overlong Facebook post.

The story so far:

For years, experts had been warning us to prepare for a pandemic respitory disease. We didn’t. Government in particular did not adequately do so, nor did the healthcare industry, since there was no economic incentive for them to do so because healthcare pricing in this country is controlled by the federal government, particularly in the hospital sector where the weight of such a pandemic would fall, which did not incentivize preparedness.

Then a pandemic hit and we squandered many chances to respond promptly (to the extent we could have being unprepared) because the present occupants of the White House and the state houses didn’t heed the early indicators. The former, in particular, attempted his typical routine of trying to create an alternate reality in which the virus went away on its own. The virus didn’t get the memo.

The inadequacy of the preparedness and initial response resulted in tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

When governments finally started responding, the initial step was to initiate lockdowns of the population to slow the spread of the virus. We were told this was to ‘flatten the curve’: meaning to avoid a surge in people getting the virus all at once if it spread uncontrolled that would exceed the surge capacity of the hospital system. If that surge capacity gets overwhelmed at any point, we were told, more people than necessary will die. It will not reduce the overall number of people infected or needing hospitalization, though: it just spaces them out over time. The area under the curve remains the same (aside from the excess deaths due to overwhelming hospital capacity), it’s just flatter.

We were told this step — and the lives jeopardized and reduced in quality as a result of it — were necessary sacrifices. But this phase was only temporary as we built testing and treatment capacity. Testing capacity lets us more selectively isolate people with the virus and those who may have come in contact with them, allowing healthy people to resume their normal lives. And increasing treatment capacity lets us treat more people at once, reducing the need to flatten the curve.

Now, almost two months later, we’ve made some progress. As a country, we’ve gone from doing only a few thousand tests a day to over 200,000. It’s harder to get numbers about increased hospital capacity, though the number of people in ICUs has come down significantly from the peak a few weeks ago (over 15,000 to around 9,000 on a given day), suggesting the curve flattening is working but also that, in many but by no means all places, there is not, at present, a need for as much curve flattening because excess hospital capacity exists. And though 200,000 tests per day is impressive, it’s still an order of magnitude short of what the experts say we need.

And still 95%+ of the population remains under lockdown. Neither state nor federal government have articulated sufficiently detailed plans for getting the treatment or testing capacity we need to end them.

As a result, the de facto plan is to keep the entire population under indefinite house arrest (without any actual crime, trial or indeed any legal basis) as a form of preemptively rationing access to (allegedly) scarce healthcare resources. We are now told this will continue until the rate of infections or hospitalizations declines significantly, which was never something that curve flattening was supposed to achieve. And the de facto plan for dealing with the massive economic consequences of this is socialism: both rationing access to other necessary resources to deal with disruptions to the supply chain the economic devastation is causing, and engaging in massive, hastily assembled wealth redistribution plans, ignoring the fact that if production isn’t occurring than the wealth to be redistributed isn’t being created.

And, perhaps most shockingly, almost all ‘respectable people’ are willing to tolerate it. They are fine with the government pointing a gun at them and their neighbors and saying ‘Don’t leave your house. Don’t run your business. Don’t have your kids learn. Don’t pursue any value other than the ones inside your four walls. Unless you’re a healthcare or ‘essential’ worker, in which case you are expected to put yourself at risk for the Common Good. Do this indefinitely because we’re in charge and, really, this is all we can do. We can point guns, tell people what not to do and shuffle wealth other people created around. We can’t adequately increase testing capacity. We can’t even have an actual plan or strategy for increasing and managing the treatment capacity we have. We certainly can’t invent a vaccine. So stay inside, because we have calculated (correctly) that you, the voting public, will tolerate lives being destroyed, including your own, if it happens slowly enough, in private, and in the name of the common good; but not if it happens rapidly and all at once with people hooked up to ventilators.’

Apparently, they are absolutely right in that calculation. Most people apparently don’t care whether they live. Not in a meaningful sense. If they’re motivated at all, it’s to avoid death. But living is not avoiding death. They may succeed in that. But it isn’t living. When it comes to actual living, we’ve done more in the last two months to dig our own graves and climb into them than any other generation of Americans.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Brief History of Recent American Politics and Why It's a Huge Mistake To Go 'All In' on Either Major Party

For most of the 20th and 21st Centuries, the Democratic Party has been driven by two consistent ideological themes: socialism and secularism. Socialism is bad. Secularism is good. Being a Democratic politician during that period is basically an exercise in how overt you can be with your socialism and secularism and still maintain power, because the Democratic Party is always more socialist and secular than the country as a whole.

Over the same time period, and particularly since 1980, the Republican Party has lacked a similar unifying ideology and has essentially been a coalition party for those who believe they stand to lose if there's more secularism or socialism. For most of that period, this coalition included
  • Wealthy people
  • Business interests
  • Evangelical Christians (especially since 1980)
  • Conservatives (usually middle/upper class and white) with vested interests in traditional values and social structures
  • Principled free market, limited government supporters
Again, there's nothing essential that unifies those groups under the same banner. They're a coalition opposing socialism and/or secularism. 

Opposing socialism is good, and to the degree that one is motivated by that (e.g. the free market supporters and the overwhelming majority of wealthy people/business interests who acquired their wealth legitimately), it's good.

To the degree that one acquired one's wealth and power illegitimately, most commonly as the result of some government privilege that has been bestowed upon you that actually is a form of statist/socialist/fascist cronyism (a minority of wealthy people and businesses), it's bad and gives the legitimate people a bad name.

To the degree that one is motivated by opposition to secularism (evangelicals, conservatives), it's bad.

To the extent that one was in that coalition for good reasons, being in the coalition with people in it for bad reasons undermined your good positions, even if being in the coalition was a necessary evil.

Since at least the Clinton Administration, it started to become clear that demographic changes in the electorate were going to make it more and more difficult for the Republican coalition to gain and maintain power. The electorate is becoming younger and more diverse, which means more socialist and more secular.

Seeing this, the Republican Party adopted a well-documented and successful effort to achieve and exploit structural advantages that would allow them to maintain power and further their political objectives in spite of the changing electorate. This included working to gain control of state legislatures and securing state and federal judicial appointments. Doing this enabled Republicans to not only better enact their policy goals, but also to stack the deck in their favor in the face of changing demographics through things like partisan gerrymandering and voting requirements that made things more difficult for likely Democratic voters. Essentially, the Republicans adopted and continue to be on a project to establish and maintain long term minority rule.

In the midst of this, another group suddenly became ascendant as a political force: older, lower income white people who previously leaned Democratic but now increasingly felt like their interests were being threatened by the same demographic trends the establishment Republicans were threatened by. Crucially, these people tended to be culturally conservative (and therefore anti-secularist) but economically socialist- (or at least statist-) leaning, favoring protectionist economic measures and social programs that they believed benefited them.

These folks found a voice in Donald Trump and his populism, leading to a question of how the existing Republican coalition was going to deal with this emerging faction. In some ways, the Trump faction was an odd fit for the traditional coalition: unlike the coalition's base, it was blue collar and statist economically. And stylistically it was more populist and, particularly in Trump, vulgar than the traditional base. Also in the person of Trump, it stood in sharp contrast to the values of the evangelical faction in particular. At the same time, it was well-aligned with the traditional base in cultural attitudes, ethnic composition and needing to exploit the same structural advantages to maintain political power in the face of changing demographics.

In the end, the established coalition ended up embracing the Trump voters, but in a sort of bargain with the devil. In exchange for more voters and a commitment to take up common cause in advancing the long term minority rule agenda, the established coalition became beholden to Trump and his base. This is most obvious in stylistic and cultural ways: Trump (and to a lesser extent his base) are more vulgar, populist, nationalist (and white nationalist) and amoral than the established coalition would prefer (or at least would prefer to be perceived as).

But there's a less obvious thing the established coalition had to abandon in the bargain: the last remaining connections (and pretenses thereof) to free markets, limited government and genuine capitalism (as opposed to 'crony capitalism'). The Trump approach includes huge elements of protectionism and bestowing economic favors on preferred constituencies. It included support for leftist positions on issues like healthcare (including support for the essential features of Obamacare as long as you do so while attacking the 'Obama' part of it). It also included adopting a more overtly authoritarian tone and approach to government, which Trump personifies in an absurd sort of way. To be sure, elements of some of these things were always present in the Republican coalition, in which good views on economic issues were always in the minority and good views on cultural issues were even less present. But the good ideological bits of the Republican coalition (the better economic stuff) have now been rendered inert and replaced by protectionist, nationalist cronyism. And the sneaky, patrician, slow-burn approach to achieving minority rule is becoming ever more overt, authoritarian and rapid.

The Democratic party, given its underlying principled commitment to socialism, was never a great home for people who cared about economic and political freedom (it was, and still is, a better home in some respects for people concerned with certain political freedoms related to personal values, identity, autonomy and choice). So historically it was understandable that people concerned with freedom (especially on economic issues) gravitated to the Republican coalition. There really was no other choice if you wanted your views represented by people with actual influence in government. Similarly, the Republican party has never valued diversity, so someone strongly motivated by a concern for that value might understandably gravitate towards the Democrats.

But following the Trump takeover, both of the major parties' core economic and political approaches are hostile to freedom. Both parties have some isolated pockets where they are better on certain cultural issues, the Democrats more so than the Republicans at present, but neither is consistently good. In their essential features, neither party is currently a home for people who put a high value on freedom, in particular those who understand that political, economic and personal freedom aren't distinct things but are all manifestations of the same fundamental human need to live according to one's own choices and values, rather than under coercion.

The other thing that happened during this time period was people started treating political identity like sports team fandom. Rather than seeing political affiliation as a minor element of identity or a tactical choice, people decided that identification with and finding a home in a political tribe was very important.

Various factors contributed to this. The fact that our political system is a two-party one, including structural factors that confer official power on the two dominant parties in ways that are not appropriate to what ought to be private clubs, serves as a backdrop for this. It is hard to influence politics outside the two parties. But against that backdrop, lacking an actual underlying unifying theme, the Republicans could only really find common identity in one thing: opposing Democrats. 'Being opposed to Democrats' became what it meant to be a partisan Republican, which naturally perpetuated an 'us and them' mentality. Since Democrats believe in the righteousness of their secular/socialist core ideology, it became equally natural to cast anyone who didn't embrace it as an enemy. This 'identity politics' serves to drive people who might find common cause on particular issues or even more granular principles into adopting one party identity or the other, and increasingly to the inflexible, tribal extremes of those identities.

But it's important to step back and remember that party affiliation does not have to be part of one's core identity. Closely identifying with a party may be required for a politician, but it isn't for the rest of us. And that is a benefit to us non-politicians, because neither party is wholly or even largely good. Neither represents a consistent, logical and necessary grouping of principles or positions. Does allowing people to marry someone of the same sex if they wish require a single-payer healthcare system? Does a strict adherence to Christian doctrine entail strict border enforcement? Does a belief that native-born Americans deserve special privileges entail laissez faire capitalism? Do some of these even represent coherent packages of viewpoints or are they hopelessly contradictory?

Working with or within the present political parties may be a useful tactic in achieving one's long term political goals, but doing so does not have to involve finding a 'home' there or buying into the abhorrent positions or contradictions doing so requires.

In particular, it is a mistake to go 'all in' on a partisan political identity in this way if one's primary motivation is to oppose the other guys. Even if one (correctly in my view) identifies socialism as evil and (correctly in my view) identifies socialism as being at the ideological core of the Democratic Party, that does not justify fully embracing the mess of contradictions, bad ideas and (isolated) good ideas that constitutes a partisan Republican political identity simply because the Republicans are (nominally) the non-socialists.

Perhaps it's possible to work for change within one or both political parties to replace the current mixed- to fundamentally-anti-freedom core ideologies, bad positions and contradictions with something essentially good and pro-freedom. Perhaps it makes sense tactically to support one party or the other (or their candidates) at certain times or on certain issues in pursuit of a long term pro-freedom agenda. But to do so does not require one to don an elephant's trunk or a donkey's tail.

I sympathize with people who want to see a more secular, diverse, less cronyistic society but feel forced to accept a package deal that includes socialism if they want to find a political home in one of the two major parties. I similarly sympathize with principled, freedom-loving people who previously found common cause and even a voice within the Republican Party but now find their party lead by a vulgar, amoral economic nationalist. It can be jarring and dispiriting to feel like you have no 'home' politically. Even more so if one goes from having a 'home' politically to suddenly having none.

Especially with regards to the Republican Party, this last point is worth further attention because the turn for the worse was so rapid and so recent as to be disorienting. It always would have been a mistake to go 'all in' on the Democrats or Republicans, even if one or the other was better on certain (or the balance) of the issues. But it's an even bigger mistake to go 'all in' on the Republicans now that they've transformed into something that is, in its core principles and on the balance of the issues, at least as bad as the Democrats and is, arguably, the greater threat of the moment because they happen to be the party in power.

No amount of concern for positive values (such as freedom) or concern that the 'other guys' will advance negative ones (such as socialism) justifies going 'all in' on the Republicans. In fact, it's unclear that even allying with them tactically at present out of concern for those values is prudent since the recent shift in the party is precisely away from those values. It's unclear what can be accomplished by throwing one's lot in with such 'allies', other than inadvertently rewarding them for turning in the wrong direction. Of course, none of that is to imply that one ought to become a partisan Democrat instead. Joining a tribe -- or even accepting the idea that tribalism is required -- is far from the only alternative.

(A related error is to assume that because, e.g., nothing has changed on the Democratic side, the Republican side must still be the better alternative. But this is like saying 'The unpleasant odor is still present on the other side of the room, therefore I'm going to stay on this side even though it has suddenly become fully engulfed in flames.' Perhaps avoiding the bad smell was the right choice at one time. But maybe now it would be better to endure the stink. Or perhaps leave the room entirely.)

More fundamentally, it's a mistake -- though an understandable and easy-to-make one -- to fail to identify and accept the present reality of what both parties are. It's a mistake to support or hitch one's wagon to one party or the other just because one previously has, either uncritically, out of inertia or for failure to adjust one's evaluations in response to changing circumstances (even though it can be hard to process the changes and update the evaluation). And most crucially, it is downright dangerous to go 'all in' on fundamentally flawed parties in a way that implies one becoming or genuinely causes one to become a member of a political tribe whose core values and actions ultimately promote the destruction of one's values.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day in Trump's America

This Independence Day, I am grateful to live in a country led by a strong, fearless, authoritarian figure who can fix everything and solve all our problems. I am grateful that America has finally realized the promise of its founding and elected a reality show entertainer and expert Tweeter to its highest office. I am thankful that instead of conventional politicians, we finally have a man in the White House who understands the common people with the unique perspective that only living in a gilded penthouse can provide.

I weep patriotic tears of joy at the courage our Great Leader displays in taking on the true enemies of our nation: a free press and our country's court system. May multitudes of fireworks spew forth tonight like the torrents of 140-character-truthbombs he targets at the hearts of these un-American swine.

I thank the Great Leader and his Great Collaborators in Congress for fighting dangerous ideas like the separation of church and state. I thank them also for working hard to correct the errors of our Founding Fathers who, let's face it, were pretty cool but could they really be as amazing as the Great Leader? Had John Adams lived under the tyranny of Barack Obama rather than George III, he surely would have appreciated the benefits of a government of men -- succesful, non-loser, high-energy, nonconsenual-female-genitalia-grabbing men -- not laws.

I look skyward, not only at the pyrotechnics (which are awesome, btw!), but also towards a future where our Great Leader will tweet America to realize its true potential as a nation of non-immigrants with massive social programs and expansive government controls that benefit the true Sons and Daughters (but mostly Sons) of Liberty: native-born people who basically look like me and simultaneously think they were born in the greatest country in the world yet have somehow gotten a raw deal.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why I am concerned about Trump supporters

This is a post about why I am concerned about Trump supporters. Most of my recent political commentary and Facebook activism has been about analyzing and trying to oppose militant pro-Trump people. Why am I spending time doing this? Why do I think it's important? Why is it something I'm uniquely interested in? Here's why.

First, what this isn't: This isn't a post about why I'm concerned about Trump being President. I am concerned about this, to be sure, and I think my main concerns here differ from what most people are concerned about. I may post on that another time, but I'm actually much more concerned about the emergence, behavior and ideology of Trump's supporters and the effects they are likely to have on the country than I am about Trump's occupancy of the Oval Office and the effects it might have (even though, again, I do think some of those are very serious).

Second, a clarification of terms. By 'Trump supporter' I mean 'someone who is enthusiastic about the candidacy or Presidency of Donald Trump.' Not all Trump voters are Trump supporters: many voted for him un-enthusiastically or as the lesser of two evils. I'm talking about the people who actively embrace Trump and view him as being representative of them and their views. That still lumps a broad group of people together who obviously don't share a single, well-defined set of characteristics or views. This post is aiming to get at what I take to be the fundamental nature of Trump support as a movement an what it represents, and I think what I am about to describe captures that essential, even if it isn't literally true of every Trump supporter (or to the same degree).

Now, on to two important things you should know about me and my beliefs that ground this discussion:

First of all, I think two of the major cultural achievements of modern western society -- and of America in particular -- are the recognition of individual rights and secularism. In only western societies, and only for the last several hundred years or so out of the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, has it been possible to live one's life without having to conform to the tenets of some religious doctrine enforced at the point of a gun. And it's only these same societies who have embraced the principle that one's life has value because one is, fundamentally, an individual with inalienable rights, rather than by virtue of being a member of some group (such as a tribe, a religious sect, the aristocracy, etc.). While America has struggled and continues to struggle to fully embrace these principles, we're the first and only country to embody them in our founding, and that, in my opinion, is amazing.

Secondly, I think economic freedom -- in particular freedom from government control over the economy -- is a pretty great thing, as well as a corollary of the individual political freedom described above.

It's not my intent to argue for those beliefs here. Rather, I'm simply noting that 1) Those are my beliefs and 2) I think our country's greatness and success have a lot to do with the extent to which it embraces those principles.

This bring me to this analysis of polling data by Lee Drutman. You can read a summary of the analysis in the second half of this column on Slate. One of the things that Drutman observes is that the traditional left/right political spectrum isn't really helpful in understanding the Trump phenomenon. As an alternative, he uses polling data about different groups of voters' attitudes on various issues to break the single left-right axis into a two axis system. In his model, the x axis represents people's views on economic issues (ranging from 'liberal' on the left side to 'conservative' on the right). The y axis represents people's views on social and moral issues, ranging from 'conservative' at the top to 'liberal' at the bottom. Here's a graphic from Drutman's report that shows how voters in the 2016 Election clustered in this model:

You'll notice that I put Drutman's 'liberal' and 'conservative' terminology in scare quotes in the paragraph above the graphic. I think his terminology is fine for the purposes of his analysis, but I want to talk about what the two axes really mean. When you look at the kinds of questions that go into the economic axis (the x axis), it's stuff like
  • How important is the social safety net?
  • What is your attitude towards foreign trade?
  • What is your attitude towards income inequality?
  • To what extent should the government regulate the economy?
This axis represents the degree to which the respondents believe it is the proper role of the government to intervene in the economy: it's a familiar paradigm with socialism, communism and economic facisim at the left, laissez faire capitalism on the right and various degrees of mixed economy in the middle.

The social axis appears like a mixed bag at first, combining questions like
  • What is your attitude towards gender roles? Towards black people? Towards Muslims?
  • Are your stances on moral issues more or less traditional?
  • Do you feel that people 'like you' are in decline in this country?
In fact, I think this axis reduces to a measurement of the respondents' valuing of secularism and individualism (at least with respect to non-economic issues) vs. valuing of non-secular, Christian values and group allegiance.

At any rate, Drutman uses this model to divide the electorate into four segments based on the quadrant they fall into:
  • The bottom left segment: the folks who tend to support government intervention in the economy and value secularism. These are liberals. Most factions within the modern Democratic Party fall here and this group made up a plurality of the 2016 electorate (44%)
  • The upper right segment: the folks who favor less economic control and don't dig secularism. Traditionally, this was the Republican religious conservative base, however, as Drutman's analysis shows, the GOP base is increasingly being co-opted by folks from the next segment (in fact, in 2016, there were just about as many GOP voters in the next segment as these traditional conservatives).
  • The upper left segment: the folks who favor more economic control and don't dig secularism. Drutman calls these folks 'populists', but I'm going to go ahead and call them Trump supporters. These are the folks who favor things like restrictive trade policies and increased government control of healthcare (as long as the name 'Obama' isn't attached to it), hold regressive or traditionally Christian views on social issues, and, in particular, see themselves as members of group that is in decline and getting a raw deal at the hands of other groups. This group has surpassed the traditional religious conservatives and now is the second largest group (28%) behind the liberals.
  • The bottom right segment: the folks who want more economic freedom and value secularism: libertarians in popular (and Drutman's) parlance. This is the group I place myself in (though I dislike the term 'libertarian'), and there are so few of us (less than 4% of voters) that we have almost no voice as a popular movement.
I'm used to my views being in the minority. But what's interesting and disheartening this time is that there's now a major political group whose views are, in both key dimensions, the diametric opposite of my own. This group is now ascendant, has become the second largest political faction and is on the verge of becoming the dominant faction within one of the two major parties. And all of this happened more or less in the space of an election cycle.

And this isn't just about a group whose political views differ significantly -- even very significantly -- from my own. It's not about pure disagreement or rival teams. It's about a political movement that's views on both economic freedom and secularism are antithetical to American values. While it's true (as Trump supporters are fond of pointing out) that other political figures have long advocated for and continue to advocate for parts of this worldview (the barely closeted socialism of progressives, the attempts to institute Christian morality by law of religious conservatives, etc.) there's never been a major political group whose very essence on both fronts represents a 180 degree turn away from our founding principles.

This is concerning because there are tens of millions of these folks. Had Trump lost the election, these folks would still be out there and they'll continue to be out there after he leaves office. They can't be ignored. Their most likely home -- the GOP -- certainly isn't ignoring them. How could they? They make up about half the Republican base. Moreover, as I've argued elsewhere, the more traditional Republicans who comprise the party leadership seem to think they are well-served by allying with these folks, even where they differ on concrete policy issues.

And it doesn't matter if (as I suspect) most of the Trump supporters would disagree with this characterization of them (especially, I expect, with the parts about being opposed to capitalism and the idea that their principles are un-American). What matters is what's actually operative for these folks and what their political beliefs lead to, to the extent that they're successful in furthering them. And on those fronts I think it's pretty clear where these folks are headed: more authoritarian government; a more Christian, less secular country; more government interference in the economy in the areas where they like it; and a political apparatus that is increasingly hostile to those who disagree with them.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook

Wait... what? Seriously? What?

Why would you try to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook? Nothing good can possibly come of that.

If you're going to get into an argument with someone -- and I mean argument in the sense of a debate in which the parties share and react to a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition -- or really have any sort of discussion, there has to be some common understanding of the basic rules and goals of the exchange. And here's where you're doomed to failure if you approach the discussion unawares, because the Trump supporter is playing by an entirely different set of rules and with an entirely different goal in mind.

Let's start with the rules. When normal people make arguments, they follow the rules of logic. To condense the entirety of Logic 101 into less than a sentence, this amounts to presenting premises in a valid structure, supported by evidence, that, taken together, give us reason to believe a conclusion is true.

This only works, however, if both parties A) are willing to actually consider the evidence objectively, B) agree on what it means for something to be true and, crucially, C) acknowledge that the truth is important. But the typical Trump supporter, not unlike Trump himself, is determined to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with their preexisting viewpoint. Similarly, most of us outside of Philosophy Departments at major universities hold a view of truth that has something to do with a statement corresponding to what we can observe in reality. But for Trump and his supporters, not so much.

The last issue -- agreement with the principle that the truth is important -- is, however, the most significant consideration. It relates to the other major point of departure the serious arguer has with the Trump supporter: goals. There are lots of potential goals one might have when engaging in a political discussion with someone of a differing viewpoint, on Facebook or otherwise, for example:

  • To change the other person's mind (though this is pretty dubious)
  • To better understand the other person's position
  • To use the process of arguing/discussing as a means to better understand the topic or discover the truth (which may not lie in either party's original position)
  • To understand the flaws in one's own (or one's opponent's) reasoning
The thing is, the Trump supporter's actual goal isn't any of those things.

As Matthew Yglesias at Vox persuasively argues, there's something else going on when a Trump supporter repeats one of the president's statements (or one from the right wing media, or constructs an original argument using material from one of those sources):
[The statement] serves... as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.
I've argued elsewhere, as Yglesias does in his piece, that the essence of Trump-the-utterer-of-falsehoods is not that he is a liar, but that he is a bullshit artist. The difference is that the liar is trying to deceive you about the substance of his statement: he knows something to be true but wants to convince you that what's true is something other than that. The bullshit artist, on the other hand, makes statements without caring whether they are true or not in order to serve some other purpose.

I have long been of the opinion that the defining feature of the Trump supporter is tribalism: putting membership in and allegiance to group above all else. When Yglesias says that Trump supporters repeat statements 'to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community,' he is identifying one manifestation of this tribalism.

When you or I post the opinion on Facebook that, say, it was improper of Trump to fire James Comey under the circumstances that he did, we do so because we believe that opinion to be correct. We believe it is true. We believe it is right. We hope that by posting it and by providing arguments and evidence that support it, we will convince others of our opinion's righteousness. We could be forgiven for assuming that a Trump supporter, in posting the opposite opinion, is doing so because he believes he is similarly correct and with similar goals in mind.

But the Trump supporter is not, in fact, concerned with the righteousness of his statement. He neither believes nor disbelieves what he is posting, and his posting of it is in no way impacted by any evaluation of whether the statement is true. Truth is not important. In fact, 'winning' the argument in the conventional sense isn't even important (since the Trump supporter knows he is unlikely to convince his counter-party and can simply take a page from Trump's book and unilaterally declare victory with no apparent basis at any time anyway).

What is important is loyalty. The purpose of making the statement is to demonstrate membership in and loyalty to the tribe. To demonstrate it to other members of the tribe. To those who are not members. To the president. To oneself. It is the Facebook equivalent of wearing a MAGA cap.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you can't hope to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook. For you, winning involves being successful in convincing your Trumpian opponent to come around to your side. It requires him to engage in a specific way, which he may or may not do (but -- let's be real -- probably won't). For him, however, winning requires only that you engage with him at all, which you've already done by entering the argument in the first place. Once you've engaged, he has all the opportunity he needs to achieve his actual goal: articulate a pro-Trump position and thereby demonstrate his loyalty. And the more you continue to engage, the more opportunities you provide for him to do exactly that. #winning.

None of this is to say, by the way, that I think one shouldn't get into arguments with Trump supporters on Facebook (or be politically active there in general). I just think one shouldn't do so with the goal of winning the arguments in mind. There are plenty of good reasons to argue other than trying to win, and some of them are more important now than ever.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

But Hillary Clinton...

Whenever some new revelation about a bad thing Donald Trump has done comes to light, his supporters practically trip over themselves racing to remind us of something Hillary Clinton (or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or some other hated liberal) did that is supposed to be similar. The idea seems to be that something about one of those Democrats having done the similar thing is more significant than or mitigates what Donald Trump is alleged to have done.

Having tried to engage with a number of Trump supporters who do this, I am convinced that this tactic is utterly disingenuous. Still, I think it's instructive to examine it. What are these folks trying to accomplish when they do this? I think a few things are going on, and I want to talk about why they are all bullshit.

Trying to appear as if they are calling for justice

On the surface, most of these attempts take the form of a call for overdue justice. For example, when it comes out that Donald Trump shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and someone demands that he be held accountable, the inevitable response is "but Hillary Clinton was never held accountable for her private email server!" The implication here is that whatever Donald Trump has done, it is a far greater miscarriage of justice that Hillary's email indiscretions went unpunished. An occasional variant of this goes "We know Hillary did something improper with having the private email server whereas the allegations against Trump haven't been proven, yet you're all concerned with nailing Trump while giving Hillary a free pass."

Why this is bullshit: Someone who is truly concerned with the mishandling of classified information should, of course, be concerned both about what Hillary Clinton did and what Trump is alleged to have done. Since it's not as if there's a finite amount of justice to go around, it's possible to think Hillary should be held accountable and that we should investigate credible allegations of the same behavior involving Trump and hold him accountable if they turn out to be substantiated.

If you want to present yourself as a true and consistent champion of justice, you need to demonstrate that you want to see the underlying principle applied in all cases. But of course the Trump supporter never does this. It's always "but Hillary Clinton..." and then a blank out. No mention of what should be done about Trump's indiscretion, and certainly no suggestion that the same principle should be applied in his case.

Even if the Trump supporter is willing to concede that Trump should be held accountable, the level of concern never rises to Hillary email level (or Bill Clinton doing inappropriate things with a cigar tube level). As I've argued elsewhere, this way of thinking is ridiculous. Regardless of how egregious you think Hillary's actions were in the email case, she is not the current President. In fact, she holds no office whatsoever. If Trump is doing something similarly bad -- or even, I would argue, something considerably less bad -- it's appropriate to be much more concerned about his behavior right now, since he is the current President and is thus in a position to potentially harm the country through his active misdeeds. In fact, by identifying and addressing Trump's misdeeds now, we may be able to prevent damage to our country, rather than having to resort, at best, to retrospective justice (as was our only option in the Clinton email case). It seems to me that someone who was genuinely concerned with the country's well being would be all forr that.

Accusing liberals of hypocrisy

This usually takes the form of "Look at how the media / Democrats / the person I'm talking to is all over Donald Trump but gave a free pass to Hillary / Obama / whoever over the similar thing they did. What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the target of this attack is guilty of hypocrisy, the Trump supporter raising the issue entails two significant admissions that undermine his own position. First, because it asserts that the target should have been concerned with the thing that Hillary or whoever did, it means that we ought to be concerned about the essentially similar thing Trump is doing now. Thus, the Trump supporter is conceding the premise that what Donald Trump is alleged to be doing (if true) is cause for concern. Secondly, because the Trump supporter then doesn't go on to demand that Trump be treated the way he believes Hillary (or whoever) should have been treated (see above), he opens himself up to the same charge of hypocrisy he is trying to level against his target.

To obfuscate and distract

Most of the Trump supporters I talk to aren't dumb, so I think they grasp the incoherence of their approach on some level. However, just bringing up Hillary has the effect of changing the subject to something other than the misdeeds of the person they support. As Trump himself has demonstrated, obfuscation and distraction are effective weapons, and Trump supporters like nothing more than to rail against their favorite liberal targets anyway. This tactic is also especially effective against well-meaning interlocutors who assume the Trump supporter is approaching the conversation with the same good faith as they are and attempt to answer the Trumpy's charges against Hillary point-by-point, allowing the Trump supporter to succeed in changing the subject.

Why this is bullshit: It's senseless to argue with someone who isn't approaching the conversation in good faith, and these tactics are prime examples of bad faith. Once it becomes apparent that the Trump supporter has resorted to them, he exposes himself as a partisan sheep who doesn't bring anything to the table intellectually.

To garner sympathy

The Trump supporters often fall into this mode among themselves, but sometimes it bleeds out into discussion with people who don't share their viewpoint. The refrain goes like this "The media / Democrats / whoever are out to get Donald Trump. They never went after Hillary like this. The deck is totally stacked against him. See, unless you're part of the liberal establishment, you can't get a fair shake. Woe is us!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the media went easy on Hillary, the appropriate response to their going tough on Trump for similar (or worse) misdeeds is thanks (perhaps with a small dose of 'what took you so long?'). But more insidious is the notion that Trump -- and particularly his supporters -- are deserving of sympathy. Trump supporters championed and voted for a man who is, obviously and transparently, the least qualified, most despicable, most pro-authoritarian person ever to hold the office of President. Far from being victimized by those of us who refuse to tolerate this unacceptable state of affairs, Trump's supporters deserve to be held accountable for being complicit in it. A Trump supporter asserting that we, as decent, concerned citizens, are somehow in the wrong for calling the president to task for, e.g., sharing classified material when they themselves participated in enabling him to do so is obscene.

Regardless of the motive, bringing up Hillary Clinton is an attempt by the Trump supporter to switch the topic to one where he believes he holds the moral high ground. But, as noted above, one can only claim to hold such a position if one wants to see the underlying moral principle applied equally and universally. If you don't, it amounts to an admission that you don't believe there is any moral high ground (or principle) at all: just partisanship and allegiance to whatever team you're on. I don't think that's true, and I don't think someone who thinks that deserves to be let off the hook. In the future, my standard response to the 'But Hillary Clinton...' arguments is going to be as follows:

"This isn't about Hillary Clinton. This is about the conduct of the person you put in the White House and continue to support. What he's doing isn't OK, and neither is your supporting someone who does it."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Arbitrariness Candidate

For those struggling for an explanation of what happened, here's the best I can come up with so far:

Obviously, Trump's election represents a rejection of the Establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is, in many ways, the perfect embodiment. But if that's what the voters of this country have rejected, what, exactly, are they *embracing* by selecting President Trump?

Contrary to many of my liberal friends, I don't think the fundamental is racism or sexism or bigotry or even nationalism or authoritarianism. Those are elements of Trump, to be sure, and they are things to be concerned about, but they don't represent the fundamental of what I see people who were enthusiastic about Trump in my own circles embracing. I don't think the Trump supporters among my friends are motivated primarily by hate (though some are far more tolerant of it than I would prefer).

I think the fundamental thing people are embracing is this: the arbitrary. Trump was the Arbitrariness Candidate. He may well be the Arbitrariness President.

The arbitrary is that which is put forth without any evidence. The putting forth and accepting of claims without evidence (or in contradiction of it) defined Trump's campaign and his supporters. He asserted things (e.g. Mexicans are rapists, Ted Cruz's father participated in the JFK assassination, he alone can fix our problems without articulating any realistic or specific solutions, etc.) and a large number of his supporters accepted them even when no evidence was provided, time and time again. Even the racism and sexism that so many liberals fear are based in the belief in the arbitrary: the belief that one race or gender is superior (a belief for which there is no evidence). It is the essence of the Trumpian 'believe me', which is code for 'take my word for it because I'm not going to give you any reason to actually believe me.'

And among his supporters, there is a widespread attitude of 'we know what Hillary represents: the Establishment'. This is true. But then it is quickly followed up by some version of 'Trump may not be perfect, but at least there is a chance that he will be better.' This belief, too, is rooted in accepting the arbitrary. Donald Trump has been in the public eye for many, many years. There is ample evidence to draw conclusions about what he will do as President. The inferences we might reasonably draw based on that evidence aren't guaranteed to be right, but they are at least reasonable, as contrasted with the belief that he will be consistently pro-freedom, conservative or, indeed, consistently anything, which is pure fantasy.

Pure fantasy is not worthy of the same cognitive consideration as a belief for which there is some evidence, however robust or scant. (This is the answer to the emerging group of non-enthusiastic Trump apologists who are starting to say 'Well, you don't know what he'll do as President. Maybe it will be ok." It's true that we don't know for certain, but just imagining that it might be ok without being aware of any specific reasons to think so doesn't count as a refutation of people's legitimate, evidence-based concerns.)

It is a grave, grave error to entertain the arbitrary in your thinking, even for a second. If someone puts something forth without any real claim at supporting it with evidence, there is no reason to even consider it possible. If one entertains every statement that someone puts forth as possible, even with no evidence, that does not constitute thinking. It constitutes engaging in a flight of fancy that one has mistaken for cognition. It is a recipe for the sort of cognitive fuzziness and paralysis that allow one to fall victim to the next charismatic figure who comes along who is capable of conjuring up those fantasies and evoking the emotions they connect with.

I think a good, day one answer to 'what do we do next?' is this: fight the arbitrary. Both in your own mind and in the public square. Demand of your friends, your leaders, your teachers and yourself that views be supported by evidence. Train yourself, and help train others, to identify when things are asserted arbitrarily and to reject them out of hand until and unless some actual reason to believe them is provided -- whether you are disinclined to agree with the assertion or, especially, if you are inclined to agree with it. Do not accept the common belief that because we can't be certain of something, we must entertain all possibilities. That attitude elevates ignorance to the status of cognitive gold standard and is a direct path to the destruction of the intellect.

Contrary to the prevailing cultural attitude, not all opinions are equally valid. If, as a people, we were as adept at detecting the arbitrary as we are at, say, detecting racism, I don't think we would have President Elect Trump, and I certainly don't think we would be as primed for abdicating our collective responsibility to think and judge and embracing an actual dictator as I fear we are.