Philosophers On the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election
Joseph Biden has defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. Trump’s 2016 victory was shocking to many, and his administration has been a remarkably continuous assault on normal expectations for presidential leadership, competence, responsibility, and humanity.
What lessons are to be learned from Trump’s presidency? What are we to make of the fervent enthusiasm many Americans have shown for him? How should Trump opponents and supporters interact and think of each other? What should we take from his defeat? How has Trump changed how we think about politics and political philosophy? How can philosophy help us understand what we’ve been through? What should we hope for from Biden and push for as he prepares to govern? How should we conceive of ourselves as a nation? And what questions should we be thinking about? In this edition of Philosophers On, political philosophers address these and related matters.
As with previous “Philosophers On” posts, the contributions are intended not as comprehensive statements or final words, but rather as spurs to further discussion of the issues here and elsewhere. The idea is to explore ways philosophers and philosophically-minded academics in neighboring fields can add to public conversations about current events, as well as propmt further discussion among philosophers about these events.
The authors and their contributions are:
- Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse (Vanderbilt University) – The Agony of Victory, The Thrill of Defeat
- Elisabeth Anker (George Washington University) – Trickle-Down Domination, and Other Pleasures
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) – The Good News about the Bad News about the Good News
- Spencer Case (Wuhan University) – Against Political Totalism
- John Corvino (Wayne State University) – Rescuing Civility
- David Estlund (Brown University) – Our Institutions, Ourselves
- Saba Fatima (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) – Does It Really Make a Difference to the Global South Who Is In Power?
- Michael Fuerstein (St. Olaf College) – What Is the Appropriate Moral Reaction to Trump Voters?
- Alex Guerrero (Rutgers University) – Moral Deplorables or Epistemic Reformables?
- Adam Hosein (Northeastern University) – Steps in the Left Direction
- Chris J. Lebron (Johns Hopkins University) – The Time For Liberal Moderation Is Over
- Simon C. May (Florida State University) – Building Confidence
- José Jorge Mendoza (University of Washington) – The Latinx Vote: What Entity, What Identity?
- Regina Rini (York University) – ‘Shy’ Trump Voters: an Epistemic and Ethical Puzzle
- Gina Schouten (Harvard University) – Democratic Deliberation after Trump
- Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (Georgetown University) – Not Biden, Us
Many thanks to these authors for participating in this post on such short notice.
Please share this post with others. All are welcome to join the discussion.
The Agony of Victory, The Thrill of Defeat
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris comes as an enormous relief. Our democracy has been saved from a second Trump term, and arguably saved as such. Yet the outcome falls short of expressing a clear rebuke of Trumpism. The GOP now has a choice: take the defeat to heart and rebrand, or double down on the Trumpist program.
Of course, our hope is that the GOP will take the former course. Yet we expect it to further embrace Trumpism with all of its resentment, contempt, and distrust of a significant portion American citizenry. Why? Well, as we see it, the core of Trumpism is the view that a considerable portion of the American citizenry isn’t properly American. Indeed, it is the view that more than half of the public is against America and in some sense actively plotting its downfall. This is why, for at least the past four years, the GOP has grown more explicitly committed to the idea that political power is to be wielded almost exclusively for the sake of its own expansion. That’s how one governs when one sees one’s opponents as enemies of democracy itself. When the other side is out to dismantle democracy, no electoral defeat of one’s own side could be legitimately democratic. Trump was elected not because he came up with this idea and then sold it to the citizens, but rather because he gave voice to that sentiment. It antedated his candidacy and will persist after his Presidency. Regardless of the election returns, Trump’s defeat appears to his followers as a defeat of America itself.
It’s a potent campaign message. It casts our politics as a standoff between good guys and bad guys, light and darkness. Americans love superhero fantasies where there’s no moral ambiguity, but only the need for strength and resolve. Thus, the fundamental story of Trumpism is, for many citizens, both familiar and exciting. And, as national electoral politics is driven by turnout rather than ideas, it’s a narrative that makes for easy campaigning. Through the Trump the Presidency, then, the GOP has gained a new site of grievance and thus a new electoral resource. For their base, it’s an exhilarating spectacle, especially since they’re convinced that the good guys always win in the end. Trump’s loss is simply the part where the bruised hero rolls up his sleeves and clenches his fists in preparation for a more serious confrontation. The election loss hence contributes to the drama of the GOP story. Viewed within this broader background, Trump’s base will see his defeat as part of the thrill.
Yet good campaign strategy does not easily translate into competent governance. Trumpism is a mechanism for winning elections, not governing. And even though it captures the imagination of certain voters, the GOP’s Manichean vision cannot work as a long-term political strategy. At some point, the story gets old, the characters lose their appeal, and the plot fails to deliver. Until then, though, we should expect the GOP to intensify grievances rooted in a conception of America that strikes many as alien but enthralls its base.
As we said, we find the Biden/Harris victory a great relief. But it comes with its own kind of agony. It falls to the new administration to repair trust in democracy. This is certainly no easy task, and it is made even more difficult by the GOP’s emphasis on America’s alleged brokenness. The impulse is to beat Trumpism at its own game: to use political power to deracinate the GOP, to embrace the stance that the other side is fundamentally anti-American and must be shut down.
We feel this punitive impulse strongly. But it must be resisted. To adopt it is to fuel the toxicity, to supply good reasons for the GOP to persist with Trumpism. What must be done instead is to maintain staunch opposition to the GOP policies and political agenda while redoubling efforts to show how the Democrats’ alternative platform is rooted in ideas that take account of the sources of the Republican base’s grievances. This does not mean that the Biden administration needs to concede anything to those grievances. Nor does it mean that the Democrats must compromise their principles to appease their Republican opposition. In other words, in order to rebuild trust in democracy, we must restore the idea that political power aims at something other than its own expansion.
The difficulty lies with the fact that it feels as if taking steps towards accounting for the other side’s concerns is, indeed, a concession to them. Hence, restoring democracy involves a risk. Although Democrats must hold firm to their principles, they must also, at least provisionally, attempt to return to normal political business with the GOP. Importantly, the aim is not to cause the Republican Party to renounce Trumpism. We are not under the illusion that treating the GOP with decency will cause the scales to fall from their eyes. The objective is rather to break the cycle of dysfunction among the citizenry by modeling the commitment to the idea that in a democracy, political power is always exercised among equals. In order to restore democracy, those holding power need to take that risky, agonizing first step.
Trickle-Down Domination, and Other Pleasures
by Elisabeth Anker
Amidst the jubilation this weekend, the public dancing in the streets and the absolute joy of having defeated an anti-democratic authoritarian tyrant, there was an underlying fear. The election was close, and more Americans had voted for Donald Trump than any other president in U.S. history—except for Joe Biden. The underlying fear was less about Trump, however, than what is referred to as “Trumpism”, shorthand for a set of white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian investments. All of these investments have been part of this country since its founding, but they are once again out in full force, and in new ways. Trumpism reveals, in particular, the deep pleasures of domination these investments catalyze in their supporters. This pleasure is what those of us invested in real democracy—which is the equal exercise of collective power across and through difference, and the shared decision-making practices that shape and co-create our world—worry about.
One of the clearest indicators of the illicit pleasures of Trumpism can be found in “inaccurate” electoral polls. Many people have been denigrating political science for inaccurate polling metrics that didn’t capture the extent of Trump support, but here’s the thing: the polls were accurate in 2018. The only two times they were deeply inaccurate were in 2016 and 2020. And the inaccuracy always benefitted Trump. So the problem is not polling per se, but what polling does not capture about Trump. Why do so many people claim to pollsters that they support other candidates, but once they are nestled in the curtained privacy of their voting booth, they color in the name of the person they were too embarrassed to admit voting for?
Now it is likely that some people don’t cop to voting for Trump because, even though they may be horrified by Trump’s leadership, they imagine that he will best ensure their financial prosperity, true or not. Some do it out of a reflexive loyalty to party, though these people are usually captured accurately in polling. But other people do it not only, or perhaps not at all, for these reasons, but because they take pleasure in what Trump offers, even though they do not admit it publicly: in his performances of domination. Trump dominates over political competitors, over the libs he owns, over the skylines he brands, over the immigrants he encages, over the Muslims he bans, over the women he grabs. Trump takes visceral pleasure in dominating over others; if there is one consistency to all of his policies and behaviors, it is this. And this is also what he promises his supporters, that they too can have this power. They too can own the Libs, can force the police upon unruly black people, can grab the pussy of whoever they want. Trump offers the promise and pleasure of trickle down domination.
The pleasure of trickle down domination does not get accurately captured in polls, but its pervasiveness needs to be addressed. Many people own up to it; others, just as energized by its pleasures, do not. Regardless, it is the exact opposite of radical democracy, as it invests in hierarchy of all forms: racial, economic, gender, sexuality, ability. It invests in the wielding of authoritarianism over vulnerable people, in the global politics of America First over “shithole” countries, in the refusal to share power in any way, and in what I call ugly freedom, which is the deployment of the language of freedom to enact violent domination over vulnerable others. While anti-democratic forces have been part of this nation since the outset, Trump’s ability to catalyze the pleasures of trickle down domination have been magnified by the forces of social media, by the inequities and felt powerlessness of neoliberalism, and by the sheer force of his own malignant yet magnetic narcissism.
Fighting this will take enormous energy, but we’ve also seen millions of people in the US already fighting for the promises of radical democracy, both within and outside state institutions. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer against police anti-blackness were the largest in US history, and they were at once black-led and the most intersectional, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-religious, and multi-gendered protests in US history, showing what it looks like for people to come together in solidarity across difference to fight for the end of state brutality, and for equal futures. We also see it within government, not only in the recommitment of civil servants in my hometown DC to providing public services in all forms, but also in new DSA and aligned members of Congress who fight to harness state power for the needs of all people, guided by substantive visions of full equality and freedom. The intensification of these trends, both inside and outside institutions, offer only some ways of fighting against the pleasures of trickle down domination. Perhaps most importantly, they show how alternate pleasures are cultivated: in the sharing of power, in the work for a more equal and just world alongside allies, and in the wild celebrations in our streets when a tyrant is defeated.
The Good News about the Bad News about the Good News
by Jason Brennan
The good news is that Joe Biden has won the presidency with a record 75,404,182 votes as of the time I type this. We get to tell Big Orange, “You’re fired.” Break out the champagne.
But here’s the weird thing. Trump came pretty damn close to winning, and also received…a higher number of votes than Obama did in 2008. Indeed, Trump had higher support from key minority groups than any Republican in the past 60 years. Republicans also gained seats in the House, and are poised to keep the Senate. Already, we see numerous outlets on the far Left saying that progressivism has been set back, and that this election was sharp rebuke of American Leftism.
So, the bad news about the good news is that Trump didn’t get crushed, despite all his massive flaws. And while it trivializes fascism to call him fascist, he nevertheless did use more authoritarian language than normal. He was racist, sexist, and generally deplorable. Why did he receive the second highest number of votes any candidate has ever received? Does it mean that at least 71 million Americans endorse racism, sexism, and light beer authoritarianism, and that many of the oppressed will stand with their oppressors?
The good news about the bad news about the good news is probably not. It’s too early to know exactly what was in voters’ minds going into this election. But extant work in political science already tells us votes don’t quite mean what we philosophers tend to assume they mean. What this in turn means is that most voters don’t really “support” their candidates or the purported ideology of their party.
Many journalists, philosophers, and laypeople subscribe to a theory of voter behavior I’ll call “sixth grade civics”, because it’s the theory many of us are taught in civics classes roughly around 6th grade in the US. The theory says that voters start with a sense of their goals and concerns. They then learn how the world works, and so form an ideology or a set of policy preferences, where these policies are supposed to promote their goals and concerns. They then vote for party or candidate who best matches their ideology or policy preferences, perhaps picking a second or third best choice when their best match has no real chance. Since we all do this, the winning candidate or party tends to match the policy preferences of the plurality or majority. They then try to implement those policies. Democracy thus transforms popular opinion into power, as Phil Parvin summarizes it (though he rejects this theory).
The problem is that sixth grade civics is wrong, or at best true for a very tiny minority of voters. I’ve previously stressed how most voters are too ignorant and misinformed, and too terrible at following heuristics, to effectively vote for their goals. But you can put all that aside. The problems are even worse than that.
If you want a crash course on voter behavior, read these books:
- Democracy for Realists
- Uncivil Agreement
- Neither Liberal nor Conservative
- The Rationalizing Voter
- Hearing the Other Side
Vox did a great popular write up of #3 here.
What these books (and the massive amounts of research undergirding them) will show you is that for most voters, politics is not about policy or ideology. Most voters do not know what their party supports. They do not subscribe to their party’s ideology. They do not support their party for ideological or policy-based reasons. Instead, people vote for who they are, not what they want, to paraphrase Appiah. Different identity groups get attached to different parties for what are essentially arbitrary historical reasons, having little to do with policy, and not even usually because particular parties are good for those groups. (Has Trump actually made Southern evangelicals lives better?)
A better metaphor for political behavior is sports fandom. Bostonians are Red Sox or Patriots fans because that’s a way of showing we’re good, loyal members of our local community. Loving Tom Brady and hating the Yankees is a way of demonstrating this loyalty, and such demonstrations help pay social benefits. (In the same way, we can get rewarded for anti-Trump hyperbole.) For most voters, voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden is roughly equivalent to waving the Terrible Towel at a Steeler’s game. It should not taken to demonstrate genuine commitment to their candidate per se, the candidate’s ideas, or their policies. Pats fans want their team to win regardless of who’s wearing the uniform. The same goes for political fans, at least the overwhelming majority of them.
But surely, you say, having not yet read the books I mentioned, don’t lots of voters have explicit ideologies and policy preferences? Well, no, most don’t. But even most of those who do don’t hold them sincerely. What the more seemingly ideological voters generally do is learn what their party says it stands for and then say they agree. How do we know? The following example from Trump generalizes, as the research shows. Before Trump came along, most Republicans who had any consistent opinions on trade would say they were pro-free trade (as all reasonable people are). When protectionist Trump became the presumptive nominee, these same Republicans started saying they were protectionist, switching almost overnight. (Ugh.) Did Trump convince them to change their minds? No, when asked, they would say, “No, I’ve always thought this way.” In the same way, Jimmy down at the Lansdowne Pub said Tom Brady is the GOAT two years ago, but today will tell you (now that Brady left) that he always though Brady was overrated.
So, sure, there’s something terrible about the fact that so many Republicans support Trump and that Trump just got 71 million votes, more than Obama got. But the good news about this bad news is that it probably doesn’t indicate legitimate ideological support. It’s closer to the mentality that people are willing to root for their team’s quarterback during the big game, even though he’s a scumbag off the field. The typical Republican voter just wants the Republicans to win, but doesn’t actually care whether the Republicans accomplish anything on their platform.
Against Political Totalism
by Spencer Case
Both the right and the left talk about losing elections in catastrophizing terms. Michael Anton described the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election” after the hijacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A Clinton presidency would be our national destruction, he claimed, and putting Trump into office was tantamount to seizing the cockpit of the plane. That might also end in disaster, but at least we’d have a fighting chance. What troubles me about this essay is the implication that we were permitted—indeed, required—to do anything to prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency. If we can’t legitimately elect Donald Trump, should we “seize the cockpit” by resorting to fraud or violence? It’s hard to see why not if the alternative is certain doom. I don’t know any conservatives who follow the logic of this article that far, but it’s there to be followed. Likewise the left has slogans like “Vote like your life depends upon it, because it does.” Well, in defense of my own life, I wouldn’t hesitate to commit voter fraud. Again, maybe no one is following the logic of this slogan to its most radical conclusions. But it’s worrying that it’s there to be followed.
The point is this: it’s hard to trust any political institutions, norms, or processes when enough citizens are convinced that everything is at stake, that the survival of our most cherished values depend upon the results of the election. Why concede to someone who will destroy democracy upon assuming office? Respecting laudable political norms doesn’t make much sense if doing so guarantees the imminent destruction of those very norms. Procedural politics of any kind can’t have a long life in a society in which people believe there’s a widespread moral emergency that routinely justifies sacrificing procedure outcome. What if we are really in a moral emergency? Well, then it’s better for us to know about it. Nevertheless, a sense of perpetual emergency poses dangers of its own.
Politics increasingly seems to be everywhere. Organizations we used to think of as neutral are declaring their political allegiance. Scientific American recently endorsed Joe Biden for president. This was the first endorsement of a presidential candidate in the magazine’s 175-year history. Deciding between two political candidates entails taking stances on many contentious political and moral questions. So with this endorsement, Scientific American went beyond science and aligned itself with a political faction. It’s reasonable to wonder whether this commitment will bias its assessment of empirical facts that may bear on political controversies. Scientists aren’t immune to cognitive bias. Popularizers of science certainly aren’t.
This isn’t an isolated case. In 2018, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a position paper by the American College of Physicians arguing for gun control, which provoked gripes from the National Rifleman’s Association. They told the doctors to stay in their lane. Some physicians responded using the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsOurLane. One doctor tweeted pictures of the bloody floor of an operating room and informing her followers that this gunshot patient didn’t make it. The propriety of that is questionable, and so is the notion that opinions on gun policy fall within the expertise of medical doctors. This looks like an example of what Nathan Ballantyne refers to as “epistemic trespassing”: roughly, using one’s expertise in one field to project a false aura of authority in a different domain. Another example is the Harvard School of Public Health webpage running an op-ed asserting that racism is a public health crisis, and elsewhere advising doctors on how to be antiracist.
These efforts to stretch medical and scientific authority for political expedience are bound undermine credibility. Moreover, the pervasiveness of politics is disagreeable. If every corporation feels the need to make some nearly identical statement endorsing Black Lives Matter, then the people who are skeptical of parts of the BLM narrative are going to feel alienated by that movement than they otherwise might. Think of how you’d feel if you received a dozen or so emails from corporations endorsing a slogan associated with the Republicans. Or if Audible, Spotify and Amazon were all nudging you toward books and podcasts about making America great again. I noticed recently that some these companies’ recommendations to me appear to be based not on what I actually want, but on what I’m supposed to want. Isn’t that creepy?
I remember hearing people argue about ten years ago that the so-called culture wars would subside when the left finally won on same-sex marriage (as they clearly would). This would take a contentious political issue off the table, and at that point we’d all have to recognize that the U.S. is a more inclusive place than it used to be. The left did win a decisive victory when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision in 2015, making recognition of same-sex marriage the law of the land. It’s hard to imagine public attitudes turning against same-sex marriage for at least a generation. And yet the “culture wars” seem to be more bitter now. Indeed, they seem to have intensified starting at about the time of the Obergefell decision. What explains this?
My theory is that the victory emboldened the cultural left by proving that total cultural-political victory is possible. Views that had recently been accepted by most Americans of both parties could become grounds for expulsion from polite society and from positions of influence. This is what happened to Brendan Eich, who in 2014 was forced out of his position as CEO of Mozilla Firefox because of his opposition to same-sex marriage. It became possible to hope that a similar transformation could render conservative views on other matters equally beyond the pale. Indeed, why should we tolerate neutrality between good and evil? Affirmation of some obviously righteous leftwing views—e.g., commitments to promote “antiracism” and “diversity”—could soon be preconditions for respectability. One hard push could yield total victory across the board.
Here’s the rub: rarely do attitudes shift so decisively in American public life. Entrenched disagreement is the norm. If mainstream views are routinely declared to be beyond the pale, then the pale is in the wrong place. This holds true even in the case of mainstream views that really are in deep error. If ideas are widely held, then they have to be discussed, not declared to be unacceptable with negative social implications for whoever espouses them. We now see J.K. Rowling being treated as some kind of bigot for holding views on the transgender rights movement that would have put her quite far to the left several years ago. Indeed, twenty five years ago almost no one had views on transgender people that were to the left of Rowling’s. Was everyone a bigot back then?
I think the politicization of everything, together with the left’s increasing cultural dominance, has many conservatives feeling that their backs are against the wall, facing the prospect of permanent marginalization. This is not a position that is conducive to clear thinking. I think they might chill out a bit if the cultural left wasn’t so ambitious. The left would do well to set aside the posturing that they are a ragtag band of resistance rebels boldly speaking truth to power and recognize that they have cultural and economic clout. In the interest of social harmony, they can afford to tolerate a few wrong thinkers in positions of influence. Life is more than politics (or at least it should be) and human beings are more than incarnations of their least rational views.
by John Corvino
In their victory speeches on Saturday, both President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris emphasized themes of decency, empathy, and unity. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” Biden said, after promising to “work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as [for] those who did.”
Notably, in touching on these themes, neither used the word “civility.” This omission did not surprise me. To many modern observers, the term “civility” connotes quaint window dressing at best and a tool for maintaining systemic oppression at worst. After all, civil rights activists who staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters were denounced for their “uncivil” tactics—much like Black Lives Matters protestors today. If you’ve mainly experienced civility as a means for quelling legitimate dissent and keeping the marginalized “in their place,” you have good reason to be skeptical.
It is true that some deploy civility and related notions to cloak injustice behind a veneer of pleasantries. One striking thing about the outgoing president is his regular willingness to dispense with the veneer: He decries critics for being “nasty”—a synonym for “uncivil”—even while tweeting personal insults at them. This paradox appears to invigorate his supporters: He’s the “No bullshit” president who is also a quintessential bullshitter.
Despite these abuses, I hope the concept—and more important, the practice—of civility can be rescued. I take civility to consist in public norms of peaceful coexistence, especially with those with whom we differ. Why do we need such norms?
For starters, it’s nice to be nice and to enjoy pleasant interactions with others. We are social creatures. Part of what made Trump’s presidency so exhausting is his meanness; we feel relieved at a return to norms of decent treatment.
The marginalized rely on such norms as much as, if not more than, the powerful. As Amy Olberding has observed, people are more likely to be rude to their servers than to their bosses. A strong civility culture can protect the dignity of those with less social power. Of course, this point only holds if the norms are fair: Civility that sacrifices equality and dignity for the sake of peace is not worth defending.
At the political level, civility’s deterioration exacerbates partisan polarization, which in turn makes it more difficult to address shared social problems—problems that disproportionately hurt those already at the margins. The same holds true for everyday interactions: When a faculty meeting goes off the rails because people start lobbing insults, it’s generally the grad students or the adjuncts—not the tenured full professors—who are going to get hurt.
In short, we need civility not only because people deserve to be treated with dignity, but also because it helps us get important things done.
One might object that we don’t need the concept “civility” to address these concerns. “Honesty,” “integrity,” “sensitivity,” and “respect” do the job more directly, without civility’s baggage. Perhaps so. But one can argue that practicing these virtues is precisely what civility consists in. It seems useful to have a master concept for good norms of interpersonal interaction.
One might also object that some ideas and practices—-and by extension, some people—really are beyond the pale: one does not civil polite discourse with Nazis, for example. I agree. Even Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers.
But this approach ought to be used sparingly, for both principled and pragmatic reasons. When outrage becomes our go-to stance, we often lose opportunities for working together to effect needed social change.
The general idea is that we are better off when we cultivate habits of mutual respect, understanding, and humility than when we don’t. May the next four years—and beyond—give us a compelling example of this idea in practice.
Our Institutions, Ourselves
by David Estlund
Here’s something I think I’ve learned from the Trump years, something worth keeping in mind in these perilous coming days: social and political institutions can’t be relied on to protect us from ourselves—they are ourselves.
We’ve all heard (less often now than in 2016) that “it can’t happen here,” that our institutions are too strong to allow our becoming an authoritarian society. It’s meant to reassure us, when authoritarian forces are rising, that they won’t be able to break through the walls of our strong institutions. But what are strong institutions? Do our institutions protect us against ourselves in that way? I doubt it, and it’s dangerous to think they do. I don’t mean that that the protection is less than complete. I mean rather that the very idea is a kind of conceptual mistake.
I’ll come to institutions, but first a little about me: I’m extremely unlikely ever to dance like a chicken while presenting a talk. Of course, and importantly for my point here, its being virtually certain that I won’t do it doesn’t mean that anything prevents me from doing it. Dancing like a chicken is easy. In a way that’s too bad. I am not protected from myself, not prevented from staging that humiliating spectacle by my inclination or tendency never to do it. I can dance like a chicken if I want. More darkly, I can also join the KKK if I want to. Whether to do it remains entirely, dangerously, available—wholly up to me. I might have a change of heart, and then those earlier compunctions will have simply gone missing. They don’t constrain me—they are me, as long as I have them, and no longer.
The same goes, more or less, for our society’s norms and institutions, and the stakes are even higher. They don’t limit what we are able to do, and so they don’t protect us from our changes of heart. The institutions are how we behave, not limits on how we can behave if, in sufficient numbers, we decide to.
Our legal and political institutions can, it’s true, protect the rest of us from a few of us. If one person or a small group tries to undermine them, so long as enough others carry on it will fail. That would be enough to protect us against an aspiring authoritarian president, for example. But we, or enough of us, might just decline to carry on, or at least not try very hard. In that case, our so-called institutions will just have faded or changed. The old ones do not somehow hold the line. They can just go missing, something that has been up to us all along. No one needs to kick down any walls. There are no walls.
I say “so-called institutions” because the word itself may tempt the mistake I’m worried about. Some things called institutions have street addresses. Some of those are thickly built to prevent entry or escape. The word conjures bricks and mortar, edifices that stand up not just to others, but even to us if we were to press against them—as if we can kick them and see that they would be hard to breach.
Social institutions, though, are nothing like that. The terms, “practices,” or “patterns,” helpfully lack the connotation of built structures that “institutions” has, and so it’s important to realize this: our social, legal, and political institutions are nothing but some of our patterns and practices. Our anti-authoritarian patterns and practices, such as they are, don’t stand between us and authoritarianism as brick walls might, any more than my practices about chicken-dancing, or whether to join the KKK, stand between me and those bad choices. The institution of the rule of law can’t stop us, since that is a practice that we might—with a nudge from a few pioneers of lawlessness—simply give up in a change of heart. The institution of our courts of law can’t stop us either if, as we easily might, we change. They are of us. And, notably, the institution of the peaceful transfer of the presidency can’t protect us; we might shrink from it when pressed. And then it’s gone.
Institutions are not edifices, and for similar reasons it is a mistake to call them, as we sometimes hear, “sticky.” Our social institutions do not bind us to our democratic patterns and practices, alas. They just are our practices. Again, compare the individual case. Granted, some “habits” are more than just that and are as sticky as superglue—for example, a heroin habit. If only we could, individually and collectively, induce addictions to our best aims and aspirations! But few habits have that element of bondage, and as far as I can tell no social institutions do. Some are long-lasting, but even then they are not outside our power to abandon—if we quit they quit. You might have a practice of being quick about paying parking tickets, but that doesn’t mean it is also a second thing—a piece of duct tape pinning that practice down, preventing you from separating yourself from it and protecting you from procrastinating. The promptness is present until it goes missing. Maybe it’s more or less unlikely to go missing, but if you stop being prompt (which, take my word for it, is dead easy) it’s gone. With societies, too, settled practices may be more or less likely to continue, but that’s not protection. I’m unlikely to dance like a chicken or join the KKK too, but that isn’t something standing in my way. For better or for worse (depending on which practice) even if certain of our institutions seem likely to persist, we are hardly stuck with them. We might choose to stick with them, or, perhaps in just a fateful heartbeat—we might let them dissolve.
How might it be helpful to avoid thinking of our (once?) vaunted democratic institutions as akin to stone castles or to gooey fly-paper? Maybe one way is this: if we could rely on our institutions as strong or sticky protections against ourselves, then early lapses in our culture of democratic commitments might be fairly harmless, kept within limits by the bricks, or the glue, of the democratic institutions we live in. But do we live inside institutions, or are we ourselves the bricks and mortar, or perhaps the paper and tape as the case may be? If, as I am suggesting, a wider lapse of democratic “institutions” is always available to us—if the rise of the lunatics would frighteningly be one and the same as the crumbling of the asylum—then we might more readily realize that once people are continually reassuring themselves that, “it can’t happen here,” that little bit of complacency is a bit of crumbling, and a sign that it may be happening already. The question is not what our “institutions” are made of: bricks, mortar, paper, tape. It’s what we’re made of. The crumbling might truly have been unlikely, but, again, that’s no protection at all. It is and has always been entirely up to us.
Does It Really Make a Difference to the Global South Who Is In Power?
by Saba Fatima
I thought I was mentally prepared for the reelection of Donald Trump. Leading up to election day, my family was quite surprised by my calmness. Yet, come Tuesday evening my anxiety levels were through the roof. I must have refreshed my browser a thousand times for the next couple of days. Needless to say, a wave of relief came over me when I knew for sure that a Biden victory had been secured.
There is so much to be done from providing federal pandemic guidelines, staffing the CDC, rejoining the WHO and the Paris Climate agreement, to reinstating education, public health, and environmental policies that Trump administration rolled back. And of course, there is the ‘healing’ that American media keeps talking about. We are more divided than ever and apparently, we need a president that can heal us. But I have always been a firm believer that actual healing cannot take place without justice. And, given how much we forgive our past administrations, I am not optimistic that there will be much justice dealt out.
But that is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on some of the conversations that are taking place among people who live in the Global South. While many Muslim Americans were relieved to be rid on an openly xenophobic, anti-Black racist, and Islamophobic president, the same was not necessarily true for many Muslims who live in the Global South.
During his tenure, Trump praised dictators and made extremely xenophobic remarks about African nations, Mexicans, South Americans, and about Muslims at-large. His rhetoric concerning other nations seemed to be rooted in his enormous ego and his hatred of people of color from the Global South. His approach to dealing with other nations appeared to be contingent on his personal relationship with the leader of the said country. Yet many abroad saw this as ‘merely’ false bravado and viewed the Trump administration as a non-interfering administration, an administration that did not start any new wars on Muslim lands. Such folks are apprehensive about a return to normal for America.
But it is not true that the Trump administration was non-interfering abroad. For example, while President Obama did launch an unprecedented number of drone attacks abroad, President Trump not only extended the drone wars in Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, but also made the process of authorizing drone attacks more opaque and further reduced any accountability. We continued our war in Yemen where millions are starving to death. We continued our support of military regimes and dictators in other countries. And of course, we maintained a heavy military presence around the world, from places like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, to Djibouti, Kenya, and Egypt.
The truth is that for many in the Global South, it does not make that much of a difference in who comes into power. The general direction of US foreign policy does not change drastically from president to president and it maintains its imperialist nature. The global world order does change. For example, over time, China and India have become major economic players and there has been a rise in right-wing populists coming into power around the world. Our foreign policy adjusts to these changing circumstances. But ultimately, America seeks to maintain its global dominance, both economically and militarily.
For Americans, Trump was an unpredictable player on the world stage and we see the election of Biden as a return to normalcy in terms of America’s engagement with the rest of the world. It is true that the U.S. will be more stable under Biden, but this does not necessarily mean that the United States will suddenly become the bastion of democracy and individual rights. Regardless of who is in power, the United States will continue its imperialist policies.
What Is the Appropriate Moral Reaction to Trump Voters?
by Michael Fuerstein
Something like 47% of the American voting population has voted for a man regarded by about 50% of the country as a criminally incompetent, morally depraved threat to most things that are worth valuing. The question I’d like to raise is this: if you are in the 50% group, then what is the appropriate moral attitude to take towards the 47% group? Below are the primary options that seem available.
There is a familiar skeptical challenge here from discussions of epistemic peer disagreement. Biden-voters see Trump as dangerous, incompetent, and depraved, but Trump-voters see Biden in similar terms. Biden-voters see Trump-voters as dupes of Breitbart. Trump-voters see Biden-voters as credulous ideologues snarfing down propaganda served up by the New York Times (while sipping lattes in a Volvo). If you’re a Biden voter, you think that QAnon is crazy-talk, but Trump-voters think that climate change is a socialist hoax.
If you’re in the matrix, you don’t know that you’re in the matrix. So one option for the Biden-voter is to withdraw moral judgment of Trump-voters by retreating into self-doubt. You, dear Biden-voter, can accept that you are in a fevered state of tribal group partisanship as much as Trump supporters. But since your judgments about Trump are based on science, reason, philosophy and, yes (gasp!) even the New York Times, you need to doubt the credibility of those things too. And now you have retreated into radical skepticism. You are Descartes in front of his fire.
Assume instead that Biden-voters’ harsh judgment of Trump is justified and roughly accurate. How could so many people vote for such a man? One narrative goes like this: “Trump-voters have been ignored by liberal ‘elites’ and the technocratic plutocracy who run the economy. While the U.S. has made enormous economic gains in aggregate over the past few decades, much of the working class has been left behind. Trump promised to stand up for their interests in a new way, and so working-class Trump voters cannot be morally blamed for wanting to ‘shake things up’ by voting him in.”
Let me observe, first, that fewer than 40% of Trump voters in 2016 were working class. Setting that aside, Trump’s primary achievement on economic policy was a massive tax break for rich people and corporations. There is no good evidence that he has meaningfully improved the prospects of the working class any more than a democratic president would have (before COVID, economic growth under Trump was similar to what it had been under Obama).
In any case, even if Trump has generated some economic benefit to his working class base, it’s hard to see how this would morally outweigh any number of his other failures. If you are an outraged Biden-voter who wants to exculpate 2020 Trump-voters in terms of the “we got unfairly ignored by elites” narrative, then you seem committed to the view that “being left behind” is some kind of magical force which dissolves scientific and moral competence. In other words, you seem committed to a rather obnoxious form of moral pity. This attitude is not compatible with basic forms of civic respect. Having this attitude itself seems to reflect some kind of moral failure.
Here is a somewhat different narrative popular among Biden-voters: “Trump-voters consume an endless diet of epistemic garbage served up by conservative media and Russian twitter-bots. They fall into Facebook and YouTube wormholes. They are bowled over by Tucker Carlson’s charisma. But this is understandable because, in this new digital reality, it’s so hard to know who to trust.”
If you think about things in this way, then Trump-voters are not morally culpable for their epistemic negligence because they are overmatched by the modern knowledge ecosystem. In other words you view Trump voters with a contemptuous condescension, probably tinged by fear. To see things in this way is to think of Trump voters, not as moral agents, but instead as dangerous social objects who must be kept in check. Let’s face it: this is—again—a pretty obnoxious point of view.
Alternatively, you might think that Trump voters are genuinely capable of sizing up Trump for what he is. You might think this: “Trump voters are epistemically competent citizens who know what they are looking at and like what they see. They see his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power as morally acceptable. They support his winking endorsement of white militia groups (“stand back and stand by!”). They understand the implications of denigrating public health experts in the face of a historic pandemic, and give him two thumbs up for it.” If this is how you see Trump-voters, then you grant them moral agency and therefore see them as culpable for actions that you regard as morally beyond the pale. But seeing people as culpable for morally horrible things justifies at least some kind of searing outrage, if not outright hatred. This implications of this for our democratic future are truly depressing.
I recently learned that someone in my family orbit voted for Trump in 2016. I don’t know whether they voted for Trump again this year, but I like this person. Over the years we have had some great times together. On the face of things, it seems perverse to say that they are a bad person or that, on balance, they are unworthy of respect, simply because they voted for Trump. It’s true: there is a wild-eyed, virtue-signaling, MSNBC-addicted political homunculus within me who is tempted to say these things. But I don’t want to indulge this unhinged character. In general, reducing people to what they do in the voting both seems like a serious mistake of some kind. On the other hand… there’s the whole thing about undermining democracy, inciting political violence, and showing a callous disregard for the future of the planet.
Respect is the attitude that I want to have towards my fellow citizens. Respect is the attitude we should all want to have, and that political theory tells us we should have. I think the most promising pathway to respect goes through a narrative like this: “People are complicated. People can do bad things in the voting booth while still being caring neighbors and devoted friends who volunteer at soup kitchens. The Trump voter you think you hate may very well be the person rushing to your aid in a crisis. Focusing so narrowly on people’s political behavior is a foolish form of moral reductionism. Try dialing down the self-righteousness for a few minutes before you write off half of your country.”
Like I said, this is the narrative that I want to endorse. Do you find it plausible? I find it compelling up to a point. But I get hung up on the severity of Trump’s objective failings. If someone is a kind and devoted school teacher but also supports a man who would separate frightened children from their parents at the border then what, on balance, is the fitting moral reaction?
Moral Deplorables or Epistemic Reformables?
by Alex Guerrero
Four years ago, I wrote that whoever won, half the country would feel “some combination of anger, alienation, shame, sadness, despair, fear, impotence, rage, and hopelessness.” We—the millions of members of the two parties—were far apart then and have moved even further apart under Trump.
If you are one of the almost 76 million Americans who voted for Biden, what should you make of the almost 72 million Americans who voted for Trump? Let me distinguish two broad views.
The first is to see Trump supporters—or at least many of them—as bad like Trump: as people who are racist, or xenophobic, or sexist, or don’t mind that Trump is; people who spent four years saying “fuck your feelings”; people who don’t mind Trump’s willingness to make up electoral fraud and to disregard norms of law and democracy; people who ignore or embrace Trump’s cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes. These people might be Trump die-hards who worship him, quasi-nihilistic fans who enjoy his talent for enraging the left, or pragmatists who see Trump as a cruel but effective means to their ends. Whichever category they fall in, they are morally culpable for supporting Trump—particularly once it was clear exactly who Trump is and how he would govern—and likely to be what we might colloquially call bad people. Furthermore, this is not something that is easily changeable. These views and values are now deeply held and unlikely to be modified, at least not in the near future, at least not for the vast majority of them. Call this the moral deplorables view.
The second is to see Trump supporters as not nearly as bad as Trump himself. These 70 million Americans might be people who have been misled into viewing Trump in unrealistic ways: as a patriot, a leader, a staunch ally of Black and Latina/o communities, a religious person who cares about all people, a skilled businessman who can support employment and economic recovery, an ally of freedom and justice. These are people whose values—we are to imagine—are not that different from our own. They are not racists, bigots, or sexists, or not deeply so, and perhaps not much more than many of Biden’s 76 million supporters. But they have a large set of false non-moral beliefs about Trump himself, and another large set of false non-moral beliefs about the views and character and positions of those on the left, including Biden. Let us imagine, further, that those false beliefs themselves are not culpably held—they result from the evidence they have encountered in the echo chambers that they find themselves in, and that they find themselves in these positions is not their fault. There are more modest and more extreme versions of this view—maybe people are somewhat morally responsible for their false views, rather than being completely off the hook. But the basic view suggests that Trump supporters could be productively engaged, that they could change their views. Call this the epistemic reformables view.
(I will leave aside the view that asks us to think that Trump himself is not as bad as he seems to be, although of course that is what Trump supporters would urge us to think.)
The first view focuses on the deep moral character of Trump supporters. The second view focuses on the contingently bad epistemic situation of Trump supporters. The correct view probably involves some complex mixture of these.
Many who support Biden will see the moral deplorables view as correct and see the epistemic reformables view as misguided and naïve. The idea of trying to empathize with and constructively engage Trump supporters—something that they almost never do for us—is pointless and morally misguided. We are done with the countless thinkpieces that try to understand the disaffected white Trump voter. If you support Trump, we don’t support you, we aren’t going to try to understand you, we aren’t going to go out of our way to engage you, we are going to fight you tooth and nail, and we are going to defeat you. What that means is not entirely clear. More on that in a moment.
On the epistemic reformables view, we assume that many of Trump’s supporters are not as bad as supporting Trump would seem to require. Something else must have gone wrong. Many put blame at the doorstep of the misinformation ecosystem that exists on the right, led by Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, OAN, Gateway Pundit and others at the extreme edge, and Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, Fox News, and others at something somewhat less extreme—all of this swirled together and shared by the output from smaller operations and individuals through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Parler. This is how people end up believing QAnon, how they end up seeing Biden as a “child sniffing, demented liar,” and how they end up thinking everyone in the Democratic party is secretly a socialist (indistinguishable from a communist) hellbent on destroying America.
There are other explanations, too. The genuine suffering of whole communities that is ignored and disparaged by “coastal elites” who constantly condescend to people they have never met who live in places that they would never set foot in. Their apparently racist and bigoted attitudes are not deep; they reflect lack of education, fear of what is unfamiliar, and being a bit behind rapidly changing social norms. And, as I argue, a further diagnosis can be found when we look at the broad social effects of elections.
On this view, the things to push for are reform of our institutions: educational, political, informational. With those kinds of reforms, we will come to see that millions of Trump supporters are very much like us—people we cannot only tolerate and respect, but also love and embrace. We will also come to see the way in which our own echo chambers and biases have resulted in misunderstandings and misperceptions of them.
We will get more information about which view is correct in the coming years as we see how people change (or don’t) in response to Biden’s presidency and Trump receding (we can hope) into the background. But when I incline toward the second, one reason is because of the relatives of mine who I know both support Trump and, although not perfect people, are not like Trump—and I can see how they have come to believe what they believe, even when that seems like a mistake.
If one thinks the first view is correct, one must think about what other moral obligations come along with that view. Among other things, I think that view should come with a commitment to dissolving the United States political community.
If one is elected to represent a political community, one should be committed to taking seriously the preferences and values of the whole community, compromising with (and certainly not just ignoring) views held by large percentages of the population, and making law and policy that is responsive to the full electorate, not just 51% of it. But one should ignore morally deplorable views and citizens who hold such views. But one cannot do so if that means ignoring the views of millions of people in a systematic way. In that context, the options are either a kind of omnipresent moral paternalism or simple political domination—neither is compatible with basic democratic values, at least not if one expects that situation to be durable over time. Being in a political community requires foundational respect for the views of others in that community, even in the face of disagreement. If that respect is missing—even if it is appropriately withheld—democratic political community cannot exist.
Trump got near 60% or more of the vote in the contiguous states of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. That deep red stripe can pick up other softer red states if they want to join. The Western and Eastern states could be two separate countries, or one. Maybe even raising the possibility results in some change.
Of course, it is true that views do not go away if one simply divides the political community. What one faces then is the situation we are in with respect to many foreign countries with what we perceive to be serious problems—we try to influence them to change and open our borders to those who would like to leave their community and join ours.
To the extent that this response seems excessive, it is perhaps because we still have hope that we are in the epistemic reformable situation. But—I conclude once again, four years later—perhaps we should be more open than we seem to be to talking about whether and why we all want to remain in a country together.
Steps in the Left Direction
by Adam Hosein
Victory came late indeed; the frost of anxiety having crept over us once more. Yet there was real warmth when it arrived. We will hopefully need only a day of the new administration to witness, among other things, the reinstation of DACA, a return to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and an end to the Muslim Ban. There will finally be a federal response to the pandemic that pays real attention to science. These are serious changes with important consequences for the lives of people within the country and around the world.
What will and should happen beyond those early days is already a subject of fierce debate on the left. The more centrist elements of the Democratic party are pushing for a focus on discrete, relatively uncontroversial measures, which can be sold to an extremely polarized nation. Meanwhile progressives, within and outside of the party, insist that it is no time to compromise and that the new administration must seek out large, structural reforms, which cater especially to the underserved populations—such as Black women—whose organizing made Biden and Harris’s success possible.
What to make of this? I suggest that there is a degree of parallel here with long-standing philosophical debates about ‘ideal’ and ‘non-ideal’ approaches to justice, which focus, respectively, on what would make for a perfectly just system and what would incrementally make the world at least a bit more just. My own view about that debate is that we must in fact face the difficult task of always doing both at once: always searching for what can be done immediately and for the better while also maintaining some long-term term vision. I suggest that a similar, difficult task, must now be attempted in left-wing politics.
The weakness of the centrist position is that the scale of injustice in the U.S. right now is simply vast. The economy serves best not simply the rich, but the ultra-ultra-rich, while those at the bottom work in precarious, poorly-paid, harsh conditions. Disadvantaged Black communities continue to be ravaged by the effects of mass incarceration, continuous surveillance, housing instability, crime, and unemployment. Immigrant communities that were already regularly terrorized by ICE during the Obama-Biden years have suffered far worse under the utter vindictiveness of the Trump-Pence regime.
These facts give real impetus to the progressive case. But that approach—in so far as it insists on the party adopting platforms like ‘Medicare for All’ and police abolition—faces its own challenges. These goals look infeasible in the face of (most likely) divided government, with the Democrats lacking control of the Senate. And communities that are hurting so badly need immediate help, not just the promise of a new order. Moreover, in a U.S. where so many people lead precarious lives it is important for the left to show and not merely tell people that it can improve their existence. It is no surprise that even in the face of a deadly virus many Americans were more concerned that they might lose their job from a lockdown: they had no faith that anyone would save them from starvation.
What then, to do? What I tentatively suggest is that we must proceed on a policy by policy basis, treating a Biden-Harris administration neither as a savior nor as a purely hostile force. We need to ask both whether a given policy will bring greater justice to the least served, and whether it will ultimately open up or forestall more structural changes. In some cases, this should be straightforward. It appears, for example, that even without congress Biden could quickly forgive substantial student loan debt. Good: let’s support that and seek to make it as generous as possible for low-income households. In other cases, more reflection will be needed on the relation between short and long-term goals. A public option for health insurance (if it can be achieved at all) should be introduced not as an insurance policy of last resort, but with the aim of making it as attractive as possible, showing that we can ultimately do without private insurance. In the case of policing, there is the risk that the administration will focus mainly on making policing less brutal (a fully comprehensive ban on chokeholds, for example), sapping attention from the important long-term goal of introducing a less punitive approach to crime overall. Yet even here, I’m hopeful that humane shifts in funding towards (for example) mental health services can be achieved and used to illustrate that we can both address mistreatment in the criminal justice system and reduce crime. (After all, even in Minneapolis the attempt to dismantle and replace the police department seems to have foundered on a lack of public trust that there is a viable alternative to policing.) In many cases, more radical policies such as a substantial basic income or greater worker control of firms will not be possible to trial at the federal level, but that still leaves the option of attempting to demonstrate their worth at the state and local level.
There are so many hard empirical and moral questions to consider when setting priorities. I certainly can’t claim to have the all the answers, but I am hopeful that the left has an opening if we can focus: get tangible things done, get them done quickly, and do them with an eye to showing that larger changes are possible. It’s a time for policy to not only reflect hope but build it.
The Time For Liberal Moderation Is Over
by Chris J. Lebron
I must confess—I am perpetually puzzled by liberal moderates because, they, mostly self-professed left-liberals, seem to hold their position in direct opposition to the reality of America. Soon, barring the most tragic third act in politics ever, Trump will be gone and I will not bother masking the intense satisfaction his loss brings me. The man is a quite low human being, and that is putting it kindly. Nothing in him would satisfy any of the moral thinkers we hold dear. But Trump, as is now commonly observed, is just a symptom of something deeper in America. He exposed the wide-spread comfort with white supremacy and the easiness of misogyny and sexual aggression. He could not be bothered even trying to mask his opprobrium for the LGTBQ community, which only recently really began to make serious strides in being accepted as the human beings capable of ordinary love that they are, and the respect that that is supposed to bring, and he made clear anyone darker than him coming from a nation without blond people was part of the ‘shithole’ global contingent, amplifying a previously low-level xenophobia that found its champion.
I map all this out because Trump was energized by what the writer Kiese Laymon on social media often terms ‘the worst of white folk’, but he was enabled by ‘the best of white folk’—moderates. For sure, that is a bold claim, so I’ll defend it and let’s see where we end up.
I perceive two arguments in favor of moderation—one practical, and one moral. I shall only mention the practical to briefly to quickly dispense with it, and spend more time on the ethical. The practical argument for moderation is: it gets more things done. I am very willing to accept that that is true, but this just raises the question: what things are getting done and on whose behalf? I won’t be so zealous as to say moderation has never produced any goods. Obama-era moderation produced the most ambitious health-care legislation this nation has ever seen, for example. But the story of America is one where year by year, the least well-off suffer increasing depredations while the best off increasingly monopolize the best of the American dream. Our educational system is in tatters as is our infrastructure. And for all of America’s golden-glow talk of family values, the pandemic has exposed all the ways there is no support for that hallowed institution as families across the income spectrum find that our modes of economic production are antithetical to even basic expectations of childcare. This is all the result of moderation.
The ethical argument for moderation is, on the face of it, compelling as well. It says something like: moderation is the preferred political position because it brings (Rawlsian?) stability to a scheme of (supposedly) ongoing cooperation and ensures wide inclusivity in the polity. Here again, I must admit, this sounds quite nice… as well as ideal theoretical. I fully endorse the ambition to appeal to the widest cross-section of the nation, but I am a pragmatist and I see nothing but trouble in such a strategy.
Moderate politics, by its very nature, takes reckoning with the status quo seriously. Make no mistake, moderates can disapprove of the status quo and seek moral improvement from its values. But, to my mind, to the key problem is they reckon with the status quo and reject accelerationism of almost any sort. They usually do not want tomorrow to look too different from today and they usually do not want to get to their new destination too quickly. (Importantly, some moderates will bristle at my characterization, to which I say—welcome and shamelessly own your progressive instincts; be your best self.
But I am pragmatist and the very first question a pragmatist demands be answered is: exactly what is the reality of the moment and in what ways can I seek to improve the state of the world intelligently; what will make a leap of faith both bold yet well-informed? If in the face of the pragmatic demand we take the above characterizations of moderate politics seriously, I seem prima facie committed to moderation. But, alas, America is a cesspool of nearly every sort of historical injustice one can imagine; injustices that do not merely mar our history but haunt our present and ever insist on sticking around for our future. And this is the moral failing of the moderate. In seeking to reckon with the status quo in a nation like ours they in fact empower it.
To take one example: the Black Lives Matter movement could have been preempted by policies aimed at curbing racist police abuse after the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Instead the Clintons embraced super-predator theory while in 1994 Joe Biden—now the president-elect—stood on the floor of the senate doing his best wink and nod to his ‘friends across the aisle’, some of whom were known apologists for racism, calling for a deepening and emboldening of the police state. Actions like these have been taken by moderate democrats to keep a hold on the Golden Goose of American politics—the average white American. If that’s what it takes, what exactly does that say about moderation?
The answer is, nothing kind or laudatory. It is notable that Occupy Wall St., #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter all came to the fore in the wake of the most promise-filled, and, in some ways successful moderate political regimes—Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s combined sixteen years of executive power. Three of the most dissatisfied and widespread movements in recent American history all happened (and are happening) within years of each other. My view is that these movements are symptomatic of the conditions that enabled Trump—failures of moderates to take intelligent and honest stock of America’s weak moral history and its continuous violations against human decency for many populations. There is a great privilege in saying, “not too far and not too fast” when one can look around the world and think it mostly satisfies your basic material and existential needs. And it is this moral complacency that provided the most fertile ground for Trump’s truly awful four years for a simple and damning reason: he also looked around and concluded, “there is enough of what is already around me to activate ‘the worst of white folks.’ Trump has never created a thing in his life. His career consists, rather, in being perversely shrewd at exploiting others including the milquetoast stances of true moderates, which is what has dominated left politics until just recently.
But now, progressive dissatisfaction is not only a whisper in the wind but a holler in the halls of congress, the number of voices of which continues to grow. Georgia was delivered by a black woman who the party still has not properly thanked. A significant portion of the American people support the removal of valorous totems of our historical villains from places meant for civic decency. Moderates have a moral bill to pay and they need to get it together—2024 is not long off and, as of today, one of our political parties is perfectly clear what it stands for, while the other does not; and the party that is clear sees moderation as its door through which to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the 1950’s, and if that happens, it will in part be the fault of those who travel nearby slowly rather than aim for the horizon audaciously.
by Simon C. May
Some people seem to be quite optimistic about the future now that President Trump has been defeated. I remain quite pessimistic, and not only because Biden’s victory was not as emphatic as I had hoped. As I write, Trump still refuses to acknowledge his loss, preferring instead to foment delusional conspiracy theories about how the election has been stolen from him. I expect a great many of his supporters will follow him into this epistemic bunker, distrusting all evidence to the contrary. I also expect some of these supporters will turn to violence in the weeks, months, and years ahead. This is nothing new—the history of representative government in the United States has more than its fair share of repressive brutality, from New Orleans and Wilmington to Neshoba County and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And alongside this likelihood of increased authoritarian violence, I expect further deterioration in the general public’s level of support for democratic electoral politics. There will be assassination attempts and, perhaps more dangerously, widespread sympathy for the aspiring assassins.
I do not know how best to respond to delusional people carrying AR-15s or to their well-wishing enablers on the sidelines. But if the country is experiencing something of a crisis of confidence in its democratic institutions and practices, I believe the appropriate response is to make those institutions and practices all the more worthy of confidence. For too long, American democracy has been hamstrung by the disproportionate power of an overwhelmingly white minority. The Electoral College could very easily have been won by the candidate with fewer votes, for the third time in two decades. The Senate is likely to remain in the hands of the representatives of the least populous states. And the House is perennially undermined by the gerrymandering work of state legislatures. A comprehensive democratic New Deal is required, one that will restore the voting rights of millions of disenfranchised citizens, combat voter suppression in all its forms, and guarantee fair and competitive congressional districts. The various territories of the United States, especially Puerto Rico, must be admitted as states with full representation in Congress. In addition, it is high time to push for democratic constitutional change: the electoral college system must be abolished, and the powers of the unrepresentative Senate rolled back.
These measures are unlikely to be realized any time soon, of course. But if the country does not start shifting in the direction of democratic reform, then it will find itself increasingly comfortable with and complacent about the creeping authoritarianism that Donald Trump has done so much to accelerate.
The Latinx Vote: What Entity, What Identity?
by José Jorge Mendoza
There is a longstanding debate among Latinx philosophers about what exactly constitutes a Latinx identity. The “Common Bundle” view—a view criticized by Jorge Gracia and defended by Ernesto Rosen Velásquez—suggests that there is no one thing (no necessary and sufficient condition) that comprises a Latinx identity. Instead there are multiple potential properties and having a Latinx identity requires simply securing enough of them. According to Velásquez, these properties are mostly lower-order ones such as: “Speaking Spanish, being named Juan, using sazón or dancing salsa or tango, eating menudo, and having cuchifritos.”
For years I have resisted this position, thinking it too ad hoc and circular to be true or of any real use. Increasingly, however, I have begun to rethink my stance and believe that this year’s election gives it credence, even at the risk of undermining the reality or usefulness of a Latinx identity.
The 2020 election has once again confirmed that there is no monolithic Latinx voting block. Cubans in Florida have again largely supported Donald Trump. And despite the fact that Latinx and Blacks together comprise almost 52% of the Texas electorate, Trump easily won the state again and did so all the while making inroads with the Latinx community. This suggests to me that we should give up on the idea that a Latinx identity is something akin to a racial identity and come to accept that—to the extent that there is a Latinx identity—it is something more akin to a “Common Bundle.”
Critical race theorists such as Ronald Sundstrom and David Kim have for some time now urged us to appreciate the differences between xenophobia and racism. This is admittedly easier said than done, given that the two so often come as a package deal. Still, I think understanding this difference can help make sense of current Latinx voting patterns and perhaps give us a glimpse into what the future holds for a Latinx identity. So here is how I see it.
Xenophobia in the U.S. has its roots in the discrimination faced by German immigrants in the early 1700’s. Before there was Samuel Huntington or Donald Trump, there was Benjamin Franklin who, concerned with dramatic increases in German immigration, asked: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens?” The reason Franklin was so opposed to German immigration was that, instead of assimilating, he saw these immigrants as: “herding together [and] establish[ing] their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours.” Not to mention that Germany was clearly not sending us their best and brightest, only their “…most ignorant stupid…[those not] used to Liberty…[and who would soon] outnumber us.” A hundred years later, when Germans were accepted as real Americans based on their commitment to Protestantism, this xenophobia was transferred onto Irish Catholics and the notoriously nativist and proto-Q-Anon “Know-Nothing” party was born.
Racism in the Americas, however, has a much different origin story. It’s a story grounded in our continent-wide’s history of settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Unlike the victims of xenophobia—who were eventually fully welcomed into Whiteness once their eligibility for citizenship was no longer in question—victims of racism have throughout the Americas remained at the bottom of the well. The U.S. is no exception here. Even after acquiring formal citizenship and embracing hyphenated identities, Native-Americans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans have found that there is no “melting pot” for them. The U.S. can be a “nation of immigrants” but it will never be a non-White nation.
Understanding the difference between groups forged under conditions of xenophobia and those forged by racism helps us understand what is at the core of the Latinx identity and why it breaks apart in the ways and the places it does. A Latinx identity is never more real than when confronting xenophobic concerns. The worries that unite nearly all Latinx people are those that—similar to the Germans in the 1700’s and the Irish Catholics of the 1800’s—target our language (e.g., Spanish) or culture (e.g., music and names) and portray them as somehow a threat to the American way of life. This is our “Common Bundle” and nowhere will you find a stronger sense of Latinidad.
Where things begin to fall apart is when we are forced to deal with issues of race and racism. Here we see how racism has been a continent-wide (as opposed to merely national) project. White Cubans or White Columbians do not suddenly stop being White simply because they are victims of xenophobia. They do not suddenly forget what Whiteness is and the privileges that come with it. Similarly, Black Latinx in Georgia do not stop being Black simply because they also happen to be targets of xenophobia. Nor are Latinx (especially Indigenous Latinx) in the American Southwest, who have historically been victims of U.S. Manifest Destiny, confused about the difference between settler colonialists and migrants fleeing violence and starvation. More so than class, education, age, or religion, race not only explains the different voting patterns of the Latinx community, but it also explains how and why we see the world so differently. So different in fact, that if the best we can expect to find is a “Common Bundle,” then maybe it’s time to cancel the search for a Latinx identity.
‘Shy’ Trump Voters: an Epistemic and Ethical Puzzle
by Regina Rini
What to make of the ‘shy’ Trump voter, who declined to tell pollsters they planned to vote for the now-outgoing president? This is surprisingly rich philosophical terrain. For starters there’s the epistemic question: how do we know there are such people? Some commentators detect their existence in disparity between polling and election results. In Ohio, for instance, polls had shown the two candidates in a near-tie for months, yet Trump won the state by a convincing 8%. Did 8% of Ohioans hide their political intentions? Or is this just a sampling problem, with Trump-sympathetic voters falling between the cracks of telephone polling methods? Political scientists will be working on this question for years (a common method is to ask respondents the views of the people around, taking this as proxy for opinions they are unwilling to own). But to some degree it may be irresolvable. After all, if some Trump voters are shy around pollsters, they may be no more forthcoming with researchers. After two election cycles of unreliable polling, pundits and social epistemologists should be thinking together about the problems of reading other minds.
Supposing there are shy Trump voters, we also have a myriad of ethical questions. For one thing, there is the possibility that some ‘shy’ Trump voters were in fact extremely tactical. Suppose you support Trump’s attacks on the ‘fake’ news media. You might then think it clever to trick the pollster on the telephone, perhaps aiming to lull Democrats into overconfidence and lower voter turnout. If there are many such tactically stealth Trump voters, that’s a serious bad sign for democratic political culture. Deliberative democracy gets its legitimacy from sincere disagreement among avowed equals. When ordinary citizens begin to think first as cynical political operators, always messaging and never deliberating, we lose our grip on the value of reasoning together. This problem isn’t unique to shy Trump voters; it’s increasingly common across the (social) media-savvy political spectrum.
Of course, another possible explanation for ‘shyness’ might be shame. Are some Trump voters embarrassed to admit their preference to strangers? There are many reasons people voted for Trump, and some are indeed shameful. If you voted for him because of his bashing of Muslims or Mexicans or any other minority group, then you ought to be ashamed. Unfortunately, I think people who supported Trump for these reasons are the least likely to keep quiet. Much more ethically complicated are those who disapproved of Trump’s prejudice-mongering, but tolerated it in exchange for Supreme Court nominations or tax policy or simply for a Republican team win. Many on the left will say that these voters too ought to be ashamed. But productive shame requires a delicate balance between ethical guardrail and social cudgel, a subtlety that almost never mixes with partisan spirit. I worry that trying to shame nearly half of America’s voters will only set up the next dangerous electoral surprise.
Democratic Deliberation after Trump
by Gina Schouten
On Saturday, I blinked back happy tears as I watched my kid delight in a show of joy and relief unfolding all around him: people shouting in the streets, dancing, singing, banging cowbells, and—his favorite—blaring car horns. I didn’t expect to feel such an intense wave of joy myself. We’re far from out of the woods. Trump, apparently, will continue to contest the outcome, and plenty will find his bogus claims plausible. He will leave behind him untold human damage, and we’ll have our work cut out for us caring for one another. Mitch McConnell seems poised to return to his favorite role as powerful oppositional ruiner. And more than 70 million citizens cast a vote for a man who quite openly tried to bring down our democratic system. But on Saturday, I blinked back happy tears because I glimpsed a brighter and more just world for our kids. I will never forget my Frank’s face as he watched our neighborhood celebrate this milestone in our work of building a country that’s worthy of him and of all our children.
In the weeks to come, we’ll turn our attention to Georgia. Many of us will also be thinking hard about those 70 million citizens. My research in philosophy concerns the possibility of building and preserving a democratic justificatory community: a social arrangement regulated by terms of cooperation that we can all accept, in principle, because those terms are justified on the back of values that unite us rather than values that divide us. Of course, the values that seem to unite us—freedom, and some version of equality—mean different things to different people. That’s what makes it so difficult.
Lots of people will look at this election and conclude that democratic justificatory community is dead. Plenty of them will draw that conclusion for bad reasons. People who should know better sometimes observe that we’ve failed to realize some ideal and conclude that the ideal itself is flawed. This ideal isn’t flawed. It might ultimately be unachievable or un-retrievable. But we don’t yet have good reason to believe that, because we haven’t yet given it all we have to give. I, like others I know who come from Trump country and love people in Trump country, have worked hard over the past four years to have the tough conversations we all regretted not having prior to 2016. But I know that in my anger, I’ve sometimes not lived up to high standards of thoughtfulness and reflectiveness. I doubt I’m the only one.
There’s a story we tell about poor and working-class white Trump voters according to which such voters vote against their own rational self-interest. Democratic policies would be materially far better for the poor and working classes than Republican policies. These voters fail to vote on their own self-interest, the story goes, out of spite, or maybe because they’re so thoroughly manipulated by the Right.
But there’s clearly more to it than this. It’s in nobody’s interest to be represented by people who despise them, who patronize them, who write off their values and their lives and their fears as backwater hayseed stuff. Now, I don’t think all liberal contenders do despise and patronize the voters in question—and I certainly don’t think Biden does. But we also all have an interest in being represented by people who don’t treat our anxieties carelessly. Trump voters have an interest in being represented by people who exercise care not to condescend, exercise care not to treat them as despicable, and exercise care not to even seem to write them off. And I do think progressives, academics, and “coastal elites” have been careless about this interest. That’s double-carelessness, for those keeping track: We’re careless about the interest Trump voters have in our taking care about their anxieties, and we’re careless in not taking that first interest into account in diagnosing their supposed irrationality.
Once, when I was interviewing for a job at a prestigious university, one of the people I met with mentioned that one line on my CV “calls out for explanation.” This person was referring to the fact that I went to college at Ball State University. Ball State is a great school, and I flourished there. The confusion, it turned out, was about why someone who seemed to have some smarts—or, maybe, who seemed to be middle-class—would have gone to a public college in Indiana…and, for that matter, not even IU or Purdue. In fact, there’s no explanation called for here at all. Plenty of people with plenty of smarts go to the college with the reasonable price tag that’s down the street from home. Plenty do it because of the reasonable price tag; plenty do it because they like home; plenty because they aren’t schooled in institutional hierarchies; and plenty do it for a complicated cocktail of reasons. To treat this vast range of possibilities as a little bit mystifying is a small blip of accidental snobbishness, and such blips add up.
The story matters because it’s so innocent. The person in question is a lovely, thoughtful, kind person. They weren’t offering this as any sort of reason not to hire me; only raising an idle curiosity. The difficulty is that those of us who swim every day in the waters of “believe science” and “check your privilege” would need to exert some effort to be full-on anti-snobs. Of course, we should believe science and we should check our privilege. But liberal ballot measures seem to have outperformed liberal candidates in this election. There are allies to be had. And I have it on good authority that some of them just care quite a lot that they not, on top of lots of other hardship, be talked down to constantly. Our small blips of snobbery and condescension show up in tweets that then become screen shots, etc. If only for strategic reasons, then, the effort to be full-on anti-snobs is effort we should exert. I think we should exert it, too, because rebuilding justificatory community is not just about the reasons we offer to our opponents for the policies we want to adopt. It’s about the work of reasoning together with respect.
Some will say that a quick move toward reconciliation or toward rebuilding the bedrock of shared values is misplaced: We can nurture our anger awhile longer; indeed, maybe we owe it to Trump’s victims to stay angry at his enablers. Trump voters threw a bomb into something I love, and in so doing they jeopardized our kids’ futures and demolished a lot of what I thought my country stood for. The result is parents separated from their children, racism and violence emboldened, and a public health crisis so mishandled that kids are out of school and families are out of food. Like many who will read this, I’m pissed. But. If the question is whether the possibility of democratic deliberation across difference is dead, I think an honest answer has to begin with admitting that some of us on the left really are just a little bit smug, just a little bit dismissive, and that maybe-just-maybe there’s an interest behind some conservatives’ antipathy that’s worth taking more seriously.
Not Biden, Us
by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
The celebrations in the streets announce that we’ve been saved. But from what?
Maybe: fascism. President Trump was responsible for genuinely concerning trends and policies: simply making shit up even when the stakes were high, or installing corrupt loyalists atop regulatory agencies like the EPA, government media outlets like the VOA and continuing to challenge the electoral results via the DOJ. A deeper authoritarian turn is certainly conceivable, especially had he won.
But a shrewd operator Trump is not. Whatever the cunning of his advisors, the man on the throne himself has always been more Gob Bluth than Antonio Salazar – a more powerful check on his authoritarian ambitions than the Democratic House of Representatives ever managed to mount. His most credibly authoritarian actions (with the important exception of his election challenges) were also the aspects of his regime that were least exceptional in US history: brutal suppression of protests fit squarely into a long arc of fascist racial domination in this country; ICE arrests and deportations declined under Trump relative to Obama.
Maybe the election didn’t save us from fascism, but a cultural crisis. “Character and decency are on the ballot,” we were told. Now that the election is won, “the era of demonization is over”, and we can now go back to politics before cancel culture and rude protestors ruined everything.
I’m not holding my breath. As noted in The New York Times: 71 million people voted for Trump, whose candidacy spoke to real grievances and desires. If the Republican party ever finds someone able to both tap into these and, say, read reports rendered in words rather than pictures, we may have ourselves the beginning of an even more serious problem.
So much for saving us from either fascism or incivility. Did the election results save us from anything, then? No, I’d answer. They did, nevertheless, do something profoundly important: give us a winnable playing field.
The “us” is important. Elites in both parties have marked those agitating for minimally humane government policies as enemies (even when those policies are popular!). The President-elect has long since promised corporate kingmakers that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected President, despite the fact that fundamental change is a requirement to address problems like the climate crisis with even mild seriousness. Nothing will change, then, if the corporate elites that have captured our public institutions have anything to say about it.
What do we have to say? Whatever you think of Sanders’ failed primary campaign, he got the slogan right: “Not me, us”. Waleed Shahid puts this in some historical perspective: “Lincoln was not an abolitionist, FDR not a socialist or trade unionist, and LBJ not a civil rights activist.”
So, by all means, celebrate the election, and consider contributing to local organizations working to give the Democratic party a majority in the Senate. But, whoever these elections put in power, get prepared to fight them – and, as Frederick Douglass reminds us, to receive absolutely nothing if we do not.
Jason Brennan, I haven’t read the five books you cited, but I’m curious about this “wag-the-dog” phenomenon you’re describing. Is there any evidence that this phenomenon is more widespread among some political parties, rather than others? Also, when you say that “for most voters, politics is not about policy or ideology,” what do you mean by “most”? (Would you put it at, say, 60 percent, or more like 90 percent?)Report
Michael Fuerstein – I am sympathetic to a version of your recommendation that we display respect for ordinary people who supported Trump. But I think it is important to distinguish, following Darwall, between recognition respect and appraisal respect. It is reasonable to strive to manifest our recognition respect for those with whom we have profound moral and political disagreements and who we believe have made grave errors in their political choices. However, that does not entail a requirement to manifest respect for blameworthy failures to act decently at the ballot box. It is, of course, sometimes difficult to convey recognition respect while denying someone appraisal respect since strong moral condemnation of a person’s conduct is often interpreted (and sometimes correctly) as a denial of recognition respect. But I do not think we actually convey recognition respect to others if we avoid conveying justified strong criticism of plainly morally objectionable political conduct.Report
Trump didn’t kill nearly enough people in the Middle East to meet “normal expectations” of humanity from a POTUS.
It’s unbearably predictable that *now* would be the time to cancel the idea of a Latinx identity. If the category isn’t useful for electoral politics, then consign it to the flames!
It’s nice to see a couple of entries point out that if you believe your political opponents are out to destroy the polity and erase your ‘tribe’ not only from political power but from acceptance in society, you aren’t likely to respect instrumental norms very much. And then we see entry after entry doubling down on both those fronts. Sigh.Report
José Jorge Mendoza, the suggestion to think about Sundstrom and Kim’s xenophobia/racism distinction is well taken, but I am not sure what you wrote tracks their account of xenophobia, with its emphasis on “civic ostracism.” To quote what I see as the most relevant passage:
“There are important distinctions to be made here between prejudice against racial outsiders, civic outsiders, and the pursuit of chauvinistic ethics and racial group-interests based on claims of indigenousness. A conception of xenophobia is needed to name and, thus, to draw attention to and discuss beliefs, attitudes, and related affects of such civic ostracism…. We can easily imagine someone who qualifies as a racist because they have malevolent feelings about some group, or regards them with antipathy or inferiorizes them, but nevertheless accepts them as citizens (if not equal citizens) of the United States. Imagine such a character remarking about Native Americans that, ‘they are savages but at least they are our savages.’” (Sundstrom and Kim, p. 35)
You emphasize the targeting of language and culture, but Sundstrom and Kim seem to have something different in mind—the taking of certain groups of people to be irremediably unfit for citizenship, for civic belonging. Judgments about language and culture may play a role in such judgments about constitutive civic “outsiderness,” but not necessarily or exclusively. Perceived position vis-à-vis the history of U.S. empire matters too. Cuban Americans don’t challenge (or, rather, aren’t perceived to challenge) the received nationalist mythology about the U.S. in that way that, say, someone with ties to certain other parts of Latin America might. It’s also relevant to recall that the U.S. fought a war with Mexico and that the conclusion of that war led to long-lasting conceptual gymnastics about who was a citizen of which country.Report
Nice piece Spencer, but I worry about the implication of one of your examples. You give the example of the American College of Physicians arguing for gun control, “which provoked gripes from the National Rifleman’s Association. They told the doctors to stay in their lane. Some physicians responded using the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsOurLane. One doctor tweeted pictures of the bloody floor of an operating room and informing her followers that this gunshot patient didn’t make it. The propriety of that is questionable, and so is the notion that opinions on gun policy fall within the expertise of medical doctors.” The implication here is that opinions on gun policy do fall within the expertise of the NRA. Perhaps you didn’t mean to imply that. I certainly hope so. The NRA is an advocacy organization for gun enthusiasts. Asking their opinions on gun policy is liking asking the opinions of the editorial staff of High Times on marijuana legalization. I’m not sure whose expertise you think we should consult on gun policy. Emergency room doctors at least have access to some pretty relevant information (the often fatal results of using guns). If I had to choose between the opinions of the American College of Physicians and the NRA, I would clearly choose the former. But presumably there are better options still?Report
I think Case’s piece is more problematic than Norcross seems to. I get that Republican voters may feel their “backs are against the wall” when organization after organization comes out to endorse broadly Democratic causes. It sucks to feel besieged. But those organizations are often doing what they take to be necessary, given current political realities.
An example: Case objects to Scientific American endorsing Biden. Well, the endorsement was inspired by the fact that prominent conservatives have spent decades dismissing and politicizing science (e.g., global warming, COVID safety measures, censoring the CDC, blocking the CDC from gathering data on gun violence…).
There’s a better question to ask: Why do all of these diverse organizations feel like they need to endorse broadly Democratic causes in the first place? I have no particular love for the Democratic party. But an adequate answer needs to at least *gesture* towards the fact that the other party houses Qanon congressional delegates, explicitly set it self against BLM, and even inspired life-long Republican higher-ups who are in no way liberal (e.g., the Lincoln Project) to break ranks.Report
To forestall objection/confusion, let me add that there are of course cases of gratuitous politicization. We can all agree that gratuitous politicization is a bad thing. I’m objecting to the overall message of the piece–a message set, in part, when Case singles out non-gratuitous cases of politicization (like Scientific American) as gratuitous. Politicizing and then rejecting really important bits of science, with the result that lots of people die needlessly, is not something anyone or any party should get a pass on.Report
Alastair, you write: “The implication here is that opinions on gun policy do fall within the expertise of the NRA. Perhaps you didn’t mean to imply that. I certainly hope so.”
What I said, what you quote me as saying, doesn’t imply that at all. I said I didn’t think the doctors were experts on this, and so sympathized with the NRA gripe, but that is all. I don’t consider the NRA experts.Report
Luke: Scientific American *is* a case of gratuitous politicization. Are things more grave now than during Reconstruction, both world wars, Prohibition, etc.? hard to believe. I think it was acceptable, and probably wise, for them to be neutral through all that time, so why not now? You think there are good, science-based reasons to oppose some Republican policies. Ok great. But there might be other reasons to support some of their policies e.g., the immorality of abortion might be an overriding issue. So SA is at least implicitly taking a stand on this (i.e., they’re assuming that it isn’t). And in so doing, they are undermining their own credibility. Now at least 70 million people are going to be somewhat more suspicious of what they say about climate change and whatever else that bears on evaluating Biden’s policies. And I doubt this will be their last political endorsement.
Also, if we can all agree that there’s gratuitous politicization going on, then it seems you agree with my bottom line even if you don’t like this example.Report
Molly, Jason may answer your question, but if you’re tacitly hoping that Democrats are less susceptible to bias, motivated reasoning and other aspects of polarization and tribalism than Republicans, don’t hold your breath. AFAIK, political tribalism is an equal opportunity offender. See e.g. this recent meta-analysis (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691617746796), although see this response as a counterpoint (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691618788876). It’s tempting to see liberals as more motivated by policies and conservatives as more motivated by tribal affiliation, but I haven’t seen clear evidence of that. Jason must know (I haven’t read the books either).Report
Spencer: Thanks for the response. Can I try to make the point in a different way?
You ask if things are particularly grave, RIGHT NOW, such that Scientific American should make an endorsement. I think the answer is yes, and I kinda think you should too: we apparently both think climate change is real/urgent. Scientific American chose to speak–RIGHT NOW–partly because they believe Republican science-ignoring has been instrumental in getting us to a tipping point. It’s about to start costing more lives than ever before.
I think lots of reasonable people in various organizations see our current situation like that. Climate change fallout *by itself* is likely to cause historic levels of harm–levels which escalate every single year we fail to implement real change. Add in harms from a botched COVID response, from systemic racism’s effect on health outcomes (cue the Harvard School of Health, another of your examples) … and it weighs enough that broadsides on American democracy tilt the balance towards making an endorsement. So the point of my first post, now made in a different way, is that it seems strange to explain the string of endorsements you objected to as the result of liberals being high on victory from the culture war.
I apologize for the tone in my first post–I don’t want to be as combative as it sounds, particularly not if your goal is to make social-political space for Republican voters to change their minds about climate science. Thing is, the conservative folks I know well marinate in the Fox News Universe; an endorsement from Scientific American is not gonna be what stops them changing their minds.Report
1. Most studies show Democrats are as bad as Republicans or worse (e.g., in Iyengar’s studies). I say that as someone who often votes D and never votes R (except participating in the 2016 primary to try to get Rubio instead of Trump).
2. As for percentages, there is a philosophical judgment call to be made here about how stable a person’s preferences must be, and how filled out they must be, for them to count as having real preferences. But if you read the Kinder and Kalmoe book, which presents not only their work but reviews decades of related work on ideology, the highest estimate you could reasonably produce is 20% of the public has real policy preferences. They seem to think it’s more like 10-15%.
For most people, party affiliation is stable and robust, and has little to nothing to do with ideology or policy preferences.Report
Jason (or someone else who knows),
Sorry to ask for another inquiry into unfamiliar work, but does the data support a clear explanation for changes in affiliation? Both Democrats and Republicans have seen the demographics of their supporters shift over the past 40-60 years. That would suggest people are responding to something (though, of course, not necessarily ideology).
Second, when given the option, it seems like around a 1/3 of US voters say they’re “independent”. How should we understand the role of their identification to how they end up voting (since they obviously don’t all vote for 3rd party candidates)?
These are genuine questions and not implicit criticisms.Report
Colin – I agree that respect in this case is consistent with, and indeed entails, forceful criticism. I find myself unclear, however, about what sort of respect is warranted in a more general way. I take it for granted that we owe people the respect of not doing violence to them, of not subverting the democratic process, and of not using the political system to do things that systematically disregard their reasonable values and interests. That fits with my rough understanding of “recognition respect.” Nonetheless, I think it is consistent with all of these things to treat other people as, in effect, obstacles to be navigated along the way to meeting the minimum requirements of a decent society, rather than partners in the kind of deliberation, compromise, and reciprocal concern that enables the construction of an inclusive democratic will (democratic decisions that are genuinely representative of the diverse perspectives and interests within a society). When I ask whether respect is warranted, this is what I have in mind.Report
Saba Fatima’s entry prompts a few thoughts on foreign policy, partial not comprehensive. By way of preface, foreign policy (apart from questions relating to immigration and border “control”) did not get much attention in the campaign (very little in the debates, for example). I’m sure that Biden’s campaign put up foreign-policy position papers on its website, but I confess I didn’t read them.
Now to the issue of change vs. continuity that Fatima raises. It’s true that many of the basics of US foreign policy usually don’t change all that drastically from one administration to the next, and that will probably continue to be true here. That said, I would expect some changes under Biden (putting aside purely rhetorical changes and differences of tone, which are sure to occur, and focusing on substance). For instance, less hostility to international organizations (Trump cut off US funding for the World Health Organization, e.g.; Biden is likely to restore it). Also the US will rejoin the Paris climate accords. On the Middle East, I would expect some adjustment in US policy toward Iran (how dramatic remains to be seen) and also some adjustment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (again, how dramatic remains to be seen) where the Trump administration acted completely in line with Netanyahu’s preferences; Hanan Ashwari , a prominent Palestinian official and negotiator, recently described Trump’s policy on I/P as “an unmitigated catastrophe” from the Palestinian standpoint. Third, on the issue of the US presence in Europe, and Germany specifically, I doubt Biden will follow through on the Trump plan to cut by half the current number of US soldiers stationed in Germany (which would be a sensible or at least a defensible move, in my view, albeit that Trump proposed it for the wrong reasons).
Where we likely won’t see much change, as Fatima observes, is on US “imperialism,” i.e,, military basing around the world, size of the defense budget, nuclear “modernization,” and the other things that go to comprise what the US defense establishment thinks is necessary for “security” very broadly construed. Policy toward China and Russia probably won’t change a lot though there may be some adjustments on the margins, ditto on trade policy. For some of this, though, we’ll just have to wait and see. The moves toward a peace settlement in Afghanistan that went further under the Trump admin than before (with the US and the Taliban actually signing an agreement) will probably be continued in some way by Biden, though again the details remain to be seen.Report
Since I have often criticized DN for failing on this front, I’d just like to register my appreciation for the reasonably diverse range of perspectives, here. It is clear that the resulting discussion is correspondingly fruitful, thought provoking and in a way less antagonistic or reactionary. There is, I think, a larger lesson here for American democracy, one that resonates with Schouten’s piece in particular. Thanks, Justin!Report
Arent the current state of affairs evidence that people cannot govern themselves? Reality is…real. Climate change may end us. We KILL each other over which belief we hold. Do we deserve existance?Report
Matt King – In *Democracy for Realists*, Achen and Bartels present data suggesting that the movement of Southerners away from the Democratic party was a function of psychological “warmth towards Southerners” more than any particular set of ideological commitments. Yet once people shifted their partisan political identity, we can also observe shifts in their policy reactions which conform to the party line. In other words, the shift in party affiliation was driven by changes in how the parties aligned themselves with Southern identity rather than policy or ideological views. Ideological “beliefs” – to the extent that people have any – then follow as a consequence of that identity shift. This is one example of the dog of group identity wagging the tail of political affiliation and ideology.Report
Sorry – No one cares but, to get the metaphor right, I should have said “the tail of group identity wagging the dog of political affiliation and ideology”Report
Thanks for the reply! If Democrats are “as bad … pr worse” about having policy preferences than Republicans, would it be right to infer that the 10 to 20 percent of Republican voters who DO have policy preferences might have made a difference in this election? (The reasoning would be that the Republican policy preferences might not have been fully canceled out by the policy preferences of Democrats, so Republican policies could have tipped the scales–not in terms of the Presidential election, but in terms, for example, of electing representatives in Congress?)Report
Whoops! I posted my comment too soon.
To put my question more succinctly, even if it’s false that “at least 71 million Americans endorse racism, sexism, and light beer authoritarianism,” would it still be reasonable to conclude that at least 7.1 million Americans endorse racism, sexism, and light beer authoritarianism?Report
Hi Spencer, I’m glad to hear you don’t consider the NRA to be experts on gun policy. I stand by my claim that what you wrote at least loosely implied the opposite, given standard conversational assumptions. Given that the NRA issues far more proclamations on gun policy than does the American College of Physicians, it’s a bit strange to sympathize with the NRA’s criticism of the doctors’ proclamation, but not also to call out the NRA. Anyway, to get to my question which you didn’t address, who is qualified to opine on gun policy?Report
It depends on why the Republicans endorse Trump. Though I also enjoy pooping on Republicans for fun, it’s probably more like this: They think he’s actually helping promote jobs and incomes for blue-collar workers. They think his deregulation works. They think border control is good and the coverage of Trump is overblown. Etc.
Maybe 14% of so of Americans that are actually ideological, but that doesn’t mean they are high information or well-informed.
“Evil be my good” is rare in politics.
As for wondering what Republicans think, I’d recommend reading Diana Mutz’s book *Hearing the Other Side*. One of the things she shows is how we have silly constructions of what the other side thinks that have little to do with their actual ideas. More highly engaged and political people tend to demonize the other side more, assuming they are stupid and evil.Report
Great questions. As for why certain demographic groups get attached to different parties, including why they shift, read *Democracy for Realists* and *Uncivil Agreement*. They can show entire demographic groups changing parties overnight for things having little to do with ideology or political interests, but I can’t think of a general trend to summarize the causes of the shifts beyond that. Michael already gave one example above.
As for independents, the overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed independents are “closet partisans”; they vote for the same party every time. Most people don’t swing.
My colleague Hans Noel has this cool popular piece on “10 Things Political Scientists Know” that most people don’t: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/hcn4/Downloads/Noel_Forum.PDFReport
I wonder how far the good news about the bad news could go. Suppose party X wins on a platform of genocide, territorial expansion, and the destruction of democracy. “Good news! Most X-voters aren’t bad people at all! They are just committed to their team!.”Report
Ok. Then would this be an accurate summary of your argument? Republicans voted for some racist, sexist, and authoritarian policies, but we should not despair about their moral character because (a) most Republican voters were not motivated by those policies and (b) even the 10 to 20 percent of Republican voters who were motivated by the policies were not motivated specifically by the racist, sexist, and authoritarian parts of them?Report
Perhaps a blind spot in this conversation—
Several of its crucial premises just aren’t given any credence by Trump voters— e.g. the idea that Trump is racist or xenophobic, that Trump is tearing the nation apart (they’ve felt oppressed by institutionally dominant narratives and culture for at least 20 years), that Trump is dangerous to minorities, that he is an aspiring autocrat, that he is pliant to the interests of hostile foreign powers— these ideas are totally alien, such that when declaimed on by lefties, they strike Trump supporters as either brazenly disingenuous or blithely self-deluded.
It follows that any inquiry into how to treat Trump supporters who knowingly support this purported Trumpism (or are somehow hoodwinked by it) misses the important point. The epistemic/moral problem (which I do not assume lies only on the right) is deeper. Trumpers are aware of the allegations but never agreed to the terms of the conversation.Report
Actually, it’s likely that around half of all Republicans hold authoritarian leaning attitudes, and do so for reasons that are related to ‘ethnic anxiety’.—-
Which is consistent with Brennan’s argument that their voting behavior alone doesn’t reveal their attitudes very well. But there are other routes to the attitudes.
(I’m not commenting on their moral character either way.)Report
Yes, this is my problem with confronting the moral implications of support for Trump: most people I know who voted for him accept a version of factual reality that is so different from my own, we are not even having a meaningful conversation most of the time. Perhaps you get a reasonable and low temperature exchange going; your relative explains that Trump made peace with North Korea and this is a good reason anyone should support him. you explain that he did nothing of the sort and that North Korea has gone right on testing missiles just like always – indeed, If anything they became more brazen in such efforts just after the public love affair between Trump and Kim Jong-Un. You might as well be speaking in Martian, saying these things that will not register at all as factual information with the Trump voter, no matter what evidence you provide via articles or lists of dates that missile tests happened or anything of the sort. What does one do with this kind of breakdown of communication about real events? I genuinely would like to know. I’ve lost some family members over this and relations with others are deeply strained.Report
A summary of some studies that indicate it was racial (not economic) concerns that largely motivated Trump supporters in 2016. It will be interesting to see what we learn about 2020 as the studies come forth.
On Alex Guerrero’s exploration of breaking the country up: I’m naively still optimistic that more unites us than divides us, but if that’s wrong, I’m not at all sure breaking up the US is a solution to the problem.
The 2020 numbers aren’t solid yet, but in 2016 Donald Trump got 6.49 million votes from California, Washington and Oregon, as against 6.28 million votes from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Missouri and Arkansas combined. Conversely, there were 4.66 million Clinton voters in Texas and Louisiana, compared to 4.56 million in New York State. Those neat red and blue states on the electoral map disguise how thoroughly intermingled Democrats and Republicans are geographically. The history of breaking states up by majority-population, even while large minorities live in the ‘wrong’ regions, is – to put it mildly – not encouraging.Report
(The “reply” feature seems to no longer work. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not, but it seems like a slight negative to me.)
But, I wanted to second David Wallace’s point at 7:25. There are few, if any, cases of succession that do not involve “population transfers”, typically involuntary ones. It would almost certainly be so if the US were to break up. Most philosophical accounts of secession just ignore this, but it makes them of limited use, I think. If people are interested, I discuss some of these issues hereReport
Thanks for your thoughtful piece. I wonder if an analogy would help us appraise your respect-people’s-complexity response to Trump voters. Here’s an initial start. I think of the book about Ruby Bridges that I read my daughter. It has pictures of White people screaming angrily at the prospect of a young Black girl going to school with their children. Suppose one of these people screaming with contempt was really sweet to their (White) friends and neighbors, spent their time gathering gifts to send to soldiers, etc. I have no doubt this is plausible.
But, the important questions seem to be: what attitude should we have towards that person? Is there a difference that would justify a different attitude towards Trump voters? Is there a different case that would make for a better analogy? Any thoughts?Report
Jason (at 9:12) and others ask: what attitude should ‘we’ (in context: Trump opponents) have towards Trump voters? (It’s easy to ask the same question with the opposite moral valence: e.g., what attitude should pro-lifers take to women who get abortions?) I think a precursor to that question is: why do ‘we’ have a moral obligation to form an all-things-considered judgement of ‘them’ at all? Why are we obliged to move from judging a given action someone carries out as bad, to forming a judgement of the whole person? People are complicated; they do good things and bad. To paraphrase David Lewis: perhaps we should leave the task of weighing up someone’s good and bad actions to form an all-things considered assessment to those who believe in a Last Judgement – and perhaps they should leave it to the Judge.
(That’s not to say that there may not be pragmatic reasons to take a given attitude to someone in order to change their behavior on some important matter. But the question often seems to be asked in a moral, not just pragmatic, context.)Report
Jason (at 9:12) – I see two primary disanalogies between the white screamers in your example and Trump-voters: First, following Jason Brennan’s observations in his post, voting is often a relatively passive act in a way that screaming at children is not. Many (probably most) people aren’t thinking all that much about the consequences of what they are doing and may have only a dim (at best) idea about the objectives of their act in the voting booth. As Jason Brennan puts it, voting is often the equivalent of “waving the terrible towel at a Steelers game.” Second, if there are 150 million people voting, then no individual vote is of much (or perhaps any) consequence. So moral responsibility works differently for voting than it does for screaming at children. It is much more like Derek Parfit’s “harmless torturers” example if you are familiar with this case (in *Reasons and Persons*). There are probably other examples besides voting which have these two features, but it strikes me as relatively unusual in combining (a) extremely high stakes outcomes with (b) relatively low levels of individual agency and responsibility (perhaps contributing to climate change is a similar kind of case). I think that the more you see Trump voters as responsible for, and intending to bring about, morally egregious consequences such as the violent suppression of non-white interests and identities, the harder it is to accept the “people are complicated” argument as a basis for respect. The “people are complicated” argument works best when you see Trump voters as doing something negligent as a part of a massive group rather than as doing something intentionally harmful as individuals. And my sense is that, indeed, that is probably the correct way of looking at things more often than not. I’m curious how others think about this.Report
It’s interesting to revisit this now, with the final Jan 6 Committe hearing looming. (What attitude should we, supporters of democratic norms and laws, have towards those who supported obviously authoritarian and anti-democratic candidates?)Report
@ David Macauley–thanks for that link. When I chased down the first two surveys, I decided I would try to imagine what my friends and family who voted for Trump would think about the metrics that were being used to measure racism. I worry that they can only bear the weight of the claims being put on them if we already think Trump voters are racist. In the first case (the PRRI essay), the authors are measuring anxiety over cultural displacement and they explicitly say that attitudes about race were not found to be significant. In the second article (“Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism”), racist attitudes were measured by graded responses (on a six-point scale) given to three questions:
1. White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.
2. Racial problems in the U.S. are rare, isolated situations.
3. I am angry that racism exists.
As the authors note, people were scored as racist for answering these questions in a way that indicates believing that racism in the U.S. isn’t the problem that some people suppose. And consider how odd that last question is–I don’t think I’d say I was angry that cancer exists, but surely that doesn’t make me a fan of cancer.
I didn’t look at the third article, because I ended up feeling pretty disillusioned about the merits of the first two. But I’m open to corrections. As it is, I think these kinds of surveys (and the news headlines they generate) are troublesome because there are honest-to-god racists who voted for Trump–and surely more honest-to-god white racists voted for Trump than Biden–and it would be good to know how widespread that problem is.
And let me be clear: even though we ourselves think that racism is in fact a problem, it doesn’t follow that those who disagree with us are ipso facto racist. But that’s exactly what these metrics appear to presuppose. At best what these studies show is that Trump voters don’t think that racism is the problem that Biden voters do. But we already knew that. And if that’s all it takes to count as being racist, then not only do these kinds of conclusions not advance our understanding of what divides us, but they positively inhibit that understanding by making it appear that our division is more extreme than it is. Or so it seems to me.Report
Thanks for those thoughts. I do think you’re right that my question was an instance of the general — what attitude should we have towards people whom we think we have good reason to believe do extremely reprehensible things? I think that could potentially be different than asking how we should all-things-considered evaluate their character, and it seems to me to be a question that we come across (‘we’ being everyone) in our daily lives. (When I try to figure out what attitude I should have towards someone, I don’t think I’m trying to make an all-things-considered judgment about their character.) That’s why I thought it was interesting and useful to think about. Does that make sense, or do you think it’s still not an interesting question? (If someone believes it’s not problematic to vote for someone as clearly and heinously anti-democratic as Trump, then maybe they can think of a different example to focus on.)Report
Michael — thanks for that!
I do wonder if those differences you point out are relevant; at the very least, I wonder if it’s worth thinking about them more. We could re-imagine the White screamers case to think about that, but we could also think about other analogies. The Harmless Torturers is an interesting one and maybe we could re-tool it to see if we could make it analogous. I’ve got too many irons in the fire right now to do that, but I’m going to be thinking about it more. I think you’re right that this might be a challenging case precisely because it’s hard to think of another case that’s (a) relevantly similar but (b) we can make a pretty clear and uncontroversial judgment about. Still, it would be something worth considering. Thanks for the stimulating discussion!Report
“Given that the NRA issues far more proclamations on gun policy than does the American College of Physicians, it’s a bit strange to sympathize with the NRA’s criticism of the doctors’ proclamation, but not also to call out the NRA.”
It’s not strange at all. The NRA is an activist group. They aren’t in a position to throw the weight of some ostensibly non-partisan branch of science behind what they say. Physicians, on the other hand, have a kind of authority, which is recognized by people of both political parties, and which is capable of being eroded. That’s the moral issue I wanted to draw attention to. Now you might think that the NRA deserve criticism too for a bunch of reasons. Fine. But this now seems to amount to: “Why aren’t you making the points I want you to make?”
“Anyway, to get to my question which you didn’t address, who is qualified to opine on gun policy?”
Anyone can opine on gun control because we have free speech. I think what you mean are: Who are experts on gun control? I guess I would say economists, political scientists and philosophers who have researched this issue.Report
Let’s distinguish between two lines of criticism.
1. It’s not true that we are in a more dire position in 2020 than we were at any point in time in the last 175 years, contingent on the outcome of this election.
2. Scientific America’s decision to endorse Biden undermines their credibility. Two sub-claims a) it psychologically undermines their credibility in the eyes of Trump supporters/Biden opponents; b) it gives us a reason to doubt their credibility when they evaluate scientific matters that bear on Biden’s policies.
The two claims are independent. If we really are in a uniquely dire position, the more reason for Scientific American not to undermine its credibility. But again I doubt that the election is more grave than any time in the past. Will Biden’s handling of COVID and climate change be so much better than Trump’s that this election is more consequential than any of those previous elections? I think particularly of some of the post Civil War elections that resulted in a neutered Reconstruction, resulting in almost a century of Jim Crow. It seems to me that more was at stake there.Report
Thanks for the reply Spencer. Unsurprisingly, I’m still not convinced. My point was about conversational implicature. I agree that it’s not surprising that the NRA issues lots of proclamations. My point was that citing their criticism of the ACP’s proclamations, without also criticizing their proclamations, carries the implicature that you think they are qualified to make such proclamations (and you know perfectly well that “qualified to make proclamations” doesn’t just mean “has the right to” in this context–you’re a competent English speaker). That implicature is easy enough to cancel. But, as with many of our disagreements, I don’t see us agreeing any time soon about this.
The more substantive question concerns whether the ACP really undermines its credibility by issuing proclamations about gun control. You say that the experts might be “economists, political scientists and philosophers who have researched this issue”. I presume that the restriction to those “who have researched this issue” is intended to apply to all three disciplines, and not just the last one (or two). It would be very strange if economists in general were experts on gun control, but only those political scientists and philosophers who have researched the issue. In fact, I can’t see why you include economists on the list at all. What does training in economics have to do with gun control? But, given the charitable assumption that you restrict the class of experts to those in any discipline who have researched the issue, why the implicit assumption that those members of the ACP responsible for their declarations haven’t researched the issue? Or perhaps the assumption that researching the issue is sufficient for (or even just more likely to produce) expertise on gun control when added to training in one of the three listed disciplines, but not when added to training in medicine? Perhaps you are thinking that expertise on gun control has to be informed by the ability to understand the kind of statistical comparisons of rates of death/injury/assault etc. that are often cited on either side in academic discussions of gun control. I agree that such understanding is at least relevant, but we have no reason to think that economists, political scientists, and philosophers in general have a higher level of this ability than do physicians (who often write articles in medical journals that require high-level statistical analysis), or mathematicians (whom you didn’t list). Nor do we have any reason to think that such understanding is harder to achieve for physicans who research the issue than for your preferred list of academics. Furthermore, in addition to the understanding of statistical analyses being relevant, it’s not unreasonable to think that a deep understanding of the negative effects of the use of guns might also be relevant. The kind of understanding that might only be possible with the first-hand experience of such effects. That’s the kind of expertise that at least some physicians are far more likely to have than economists, political scientists, or philosophers. In sum, I see no reason to think that whichever subset of the ACP was responsible for the proclamation about gun control lacks the relevant expertise possessed by whichever subsets of economists, political scientists, and philosophers also issue such proclamations. And I see at least some reason to think that the physicians possessed some relevant expertise almost certainly lacking in the academics.Report
This is in response to the Alastair/Spencer thread.
I don’t think it’s odd to criticize the ACP’s decision to issue a statement about gun violence without also criticizing the NRA for responding, even if you disagree with the NRA on the matter (as I do). If the general thrust of Spencer’s argument is right, then the ACP’s decision is lamentable in a way that the NRA’s is not. We already knew the NRA was going to oppose pretty much any and all regulation of guns, and they don’t squander any credibility when they come out and do just that. They don’t have any non-partisan role to play in society that is compromised when they issue statement’s on gun control. Not so with the ACP.
I also don’t think it’s odd to include economists (along with political scientists and sociologists) among the people who do have relevant expertise concerning gun control. Questions about the likely effects of regulation on gun violence are social scientific questions much more than they are medical questions. While economist who hasn’t studied the question may not be in a position to say anything, she will have relevant analytical tools in a way that doctors, as a group, will not.
That said, unless and until the American Economic Association (or relevantly similar associations in political science or sociology) convenes a panel to study the matter and issue some consensus statement (as in the IPCC report on climate change), I don’t think there’s anybody in a position to issue a declaration on gun control comparable to the one the ACP did.Report
Just a quick response to David Wallace and Matt above re: breaking up the U.S., the presence of sizable groups of Republicans even amidst Democratic majorities, and the bad history of state dissolution (perhaps most prominently in the minds of many, the breakup of Yugoslavia).
Obviously, a short blog post is not the place to set out a full plan for state reconfiguration. A few quick thoughts.
First, if we take on board Duverger’s law, we will expect to see two dominant parties, and those will be present everywhere, with Republican supporters and Trump supporters in significant numbers even in places that lean heavily Democratic. In line with the work Jason Brennan cites, I am skeptical that these are all cases of deep ideological or policy divergence, or that the depth is the same within CA as it is between California and Idaho, but it may be. My sense is that the larger, deeper divides (no surprise) come when you have people living in radically different social and economic environments, with radically different levels of population density, dominant occupations, religious observance, racial and ethnic diversity, and so on.
Second, states themselves are arbitrary boundaries. If Central/Eastern WA, Central/Eastern OR, and NE CA want to join with Idaho, Utah, etc., we should be open to that. Obviously, the larger split now is between urban/suburban v. rural, and that might suggest more complex subdivision than the very rough state-level picture I offered. I expect many would be happy with a truer, deeper level of political autonomy.
Third, that things were done badly in former Yugoslavia (for example) is not a reason to think it always has to be that way. (It is, of course, a reason to be careful in how one proceeds, and what is permitted in terms of forced population transfers, etc.) For one thing, it could be done incrementally and placing individual choice and volition at the center. It already is being done incrementally, as many individuals have left behind their deep red states to move to blue cities. That’s a story a long time in the making. One could supplement that with giving people a sizable support voucher to allow them to ‘shop’ and consider relocation after the different options have been identified and created.
For another, it could be done simply by at first going for a considerable amount of decentralization and defederalization. Some simple ideas: have distinct constitutions for the three different regional republics, with distinct constitutional courts as the highest court. Let the Red Republic have its gun rights, quasi-Christian quasi-theocracy, and restrictive abortion laws if that is what people overwhelmingly want. Have most taxes paid to the regional republic and distributed to member-states of the particular regional republics (so Red Republic states pay and receive money only from other Red Republic states), rather than to the full current U.S. That process could happen gradually, non-violently, and without any ‘ethnic warfare’ dimension to any of it. Given that it is happening in a context of general stability, transparency, rule of law, local autonomy, and democratic governance, I don’t see a reason to think it will inevitably go just as badly as things went with the breakup of Yugoslavia.
More generally, our view can’t be that because political dissolution has sometimes gone badly, that it inevitably must, so we have to be stuck with our exact current nation-states with their exact current boundaries and members. Even granting that these are hard issues and potentially dangerous ones, we have to see the status quo as presenting us with similar dangers, both in terms of potential intracommunity violence and conflict, currently disturbing levels of oppression and domination, and in terms of having a completely non-functional political system that isn’t allowing us to work together to address the most pressing problems we face.Report
What Dan Greco said is right. I’m talking about economists and political scientists who have worked in just this area. Some mathematicians, too, if we’re talking statisticians who’ve done interdisciplinary work on this topic, like modeling on a partly empirical paper, could be experts. It’s not the kind of analytical skills that we’d expect individuals in these fields to possess, but the content of their research. If you’re still not persuaded, then perhaps the problem is ethos. Imagine someone else saying all this stuff with a British accent. It should definitely be persuasive now.Report
To Alex Guerrero (briefly, because I don’t want to pretend any great expertise here):
– it might be – it probably is – true that many Trump supporters and many Democrats are non-ideological. But insofar as that’s true across the board, it cuts against the idea that the US is too fundamentally divided to remain one country. I’m not aware of evidence that (say) Trump supporters in rural bits of blue states, or Democrats in the suburbs of Atlanta and Houston, are less committed to the ideological aspects than their counterparts in (respectively) the rural South and Manhattan.
– sure, US states are somewhat arbitrary boundaries (though breaking larger states into chunks de novo rather than reconstructing existing or ancestral political divisions has some pretty unsuccessful precedents). But the real problem is that the relevant geographical division here is roughly urban/suburban vs exurban/rural, and that doesn’t lend itself to any clean division, along state boundaries or otherwise. If you literally broke the country up into the bits that voted Democrat and Republican, you’d end up with a scattered archipelago of urban concentrations, not two viable nation-states.
– there is also a fluidity in the loyalties of various bits of the US that doesn’t hold of, say, longstanding secession/independence debates in places like Catalonia or Scotland. It’s less than forty years ago since California voted for Ronald Reagan. The suburbs are going Democrat now but they weren’t even 20 years ago. The educated vote is shifting; the young vote very differently from the old.
– I agree that there might be well-worked-through, bipartisan, humanitarian ways of dividing up the country that would avoid the problems that have occurred in cases like Yugoslavia. But almost by definition, if your national government is rendered so dysfunctional by political divisions that it needs to be broken up, it’s not functional enough to develop a sensible division plan. Or put the other way around, if red and blue tribes can cooperate well enough to amicably separate, they can probably cooperate well enough that no separation is needed. (I do agree that a higher level of autonomy would be good – I’d accept trading California’s right to restrict gun ownership for Arkansas’s right to restrict abortion – but that’s viable in the existing constitutional structure if the national political parties wanted to move in that direction – and if they don’t, I don’t see a lot of prospect of their cooperating on a different constitutional structure.) The more likely situations for breakup seem to be secession or insurrection from some states (over a disputed election, say), and that leads straight down the road to conflict.
– I accept the point, of course, that the country has very deep problems and we can’t just ignore them even if solutions are difficult. That said, those problems mostly pale compared to actual armed conflict between factions of a broken-up US. The Yugoslav civil wars killed about 1% of the entire population, displaced vastly more than that, levelled large parts of cities, obliterated the economy. (And the people of Yugoslavia had nothing like the advanced weaponry that the US has – and that, most likely, the ‘red’ bits of a broken-up US would mostly get.) It would be reasonable to say ‘let’s run a small risk of that absolute catastrophe, because it’s worth it to deal with the less-bad, but terrible, problems we now confront with certainty’. But I don’t think it would be reasonable to say ‘our current problems are already on a par with that catastrophe.’
Thanks for the thoughtful reply in any case.Report
Quick comment on the NRA/ACP sub-thread: I take it that Spencer would have no objection if a new pressure group, ‘Physicians for Gun Control’, was set up and started lobbying. The issue isn’t so much about who has appropriate expertise as it is about whether organizations set up to represent some group of professionals or experts qua professionals/experts ought to be taking contentious political stances. (I’m sympathetic to that, though I think there are gray areas.)Report
Spencer, you say “I’m talking about economists and political scientists who have worked in just this area. Some mathematicians, too, if we’re talking statisticians who’ve done interdisciplinary work on this topic, like modeling on a partly empirical paper, could be experts. It’s not the kind of analytical skills that we’d expect individuals in these fields to possess, but the content of their research.” Fair enough, I’m not denying that such people can be experts. My complaint with your original post was with your dismissal of the ACP’s statement as somehow undermining their credibility. So why do you believe that the physicians responsible for the ACP’s statement can’t/don’t also possess the relevant expertise? You’ve already admitted that the kind of analytical skills we’d expect individuals in the field to possess is not what you’re focusing on, but rather the content of their research. Do you think physicians can’t/don’t work in “just this area”? And why the implicit suggestion that the kind of information that at least some physicians possess, but is much less likely to be possessed by the economists/political scientists is not also relevant?Report
As a Latino, I’ve never been persuaded that the biggest threat presented by Trumpism has anything to do with race. While race-oriented (or sex-oriented) concerns about Trump are surely understandable, to focus on these as the primary threats, I think, dangerously distracts us from the biggest problem.
That is, as a teacher and scholar of constitutional law, the entry above that resonates with me most, by far, is David Estlund’s. His focus on the nature of, and (implicitly) the importance of, institutions is spot on:
“Our anti-authoritarian patterns and practices, such as they are, don’t stand between us and authoritarianism as brick walls might, any more than my practices about chicken-dancing, or whether to join the KKK, stand between me and those bad choices. The institution of the rule of law can’t stop us, since that is a practice that we might—with a nudge from a few pioneers of lawlessness—simply give up in a change of heart.”Report
I know I’m probably beating a dead horse here, but that Intercept article about racism as an explanation for Trump’s election is even more flawed than I realized. In addition to the fact that the first study cited in that article was explicit in finding no significance for attitudes about race in voting for Trump, I did a little more digging and discovered that the second study draws on research that also explicitly denies identifying the attitudes supposedly being “measured” with racism (see p.61 of “Construction and Initial Validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale”, used in the study “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism” discussed above).
One other point, because it’s been bugging me all weekend. I already noted that the third of the three statements used to measure respondents’ “racism” was rather bizarre. But the second one strikes me as baking a certain political ideology into the whole framework these researchers are using:
2. Racial problems in the U.S. are rare, isolated situations.
To see the problem with using an affirmative answer to this question as evidence of racism, suppose you’re someone who denies that the notion of “systemic racism” is either coherent (as Thomas Sowell has) or is playing an explanatory role in the situation black Americans face today (as Coleman Hughes has). Someone who agrees with that statement on the basis of a position like either Sowell’s or Hughes’ would be classified as “racist” by the authors of “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President”. Never mind the fact that this classification is explicitly repudiated by the creators of the framework these researchers are drawing on; such a classification would force us to see people who reject the narrative of systemic racism as themselves racist! If this isn’t a reductio of that study, it sure puts pressure on the merits of the conclusions the authors want us to draw from it.
What should we conclude? First, this is more evidence in support of the position on which the Heterodox Academy was founded in 2015—ideological presuppositions are harming social science research, and to the detriment of our ability to understand one another outside of our political tribes. Second, there is room for philosophically-minded social scientists, and philosophers of social science, to do some conceptual housecleaning in these fields.
And let me emphasize: the issue is not whether we ourselves believe that systemic racism exists. The issue is whether disagreeing with the political ideology that uses terms like “systemic racism” is sufficient to count as being racist. Insofar as we are being fed a narrative that treats disagreeing with that political ideology as a form of racism, then of course we’re going to find “scientific studies” that purport to show that Trump voters are racist.
What this illustrates is that the research behind this narrative is flawed. It doesn’t explain where we and Trump voters part ways–it just highlights one aspect of our disagreement and brands them as “racist” for not having our view.
For this reason, it’s incumbent upon us to pay enough attention to the narrative on offer, and the research supporting it, to see what’s going on. This strikes me as a role that the professional philosopher might be very well suited for.Report
Preston Stovall, you make important points. In fact, it might be the most important meta-point one can make right now, given how obvious it is that ideology plays such a significant role in the production of, and framing of, knowledge these days. We see it also in how many are framing the Trump phenomenon.
Defining ideology as “sacred narrative,” I ran across a great example of it recently. An article discussed a “study” about “dog whistle” phrases employed by Trump, an example being a phrase Trump used relating to the strengthening of our southern border. According to the study’s authors, this statement was clearly a racist dog-whistle. But they found a majority of Latinos agreed with the assertion (same % as Whites). They went on to address the anomaly that Latinos would approve of such an anti-Latino dog whistle statement. Never did the authors stop to reexamine their assumption that the statement was a dog-whistle in the first place. Because that premise was, in a sense, ideologically non-negotiable it seemed.Report
I just blogged on what Americans actually think about democracy these days. https://luckorcunning.blogspot.com/2020/11/what-americans-really-think-about.htmlReport
Why don’t I think the physicians have the same sort of expertise? Well, I wouldn’t want a political scientist or an economist doing my heart surgery! Similarly, expertise in treating wounds caused by guns doesn’t confer expertise in setting policies to reduce gun wounds, let alone trading off different priorities (e.g., freedom to purchase guns versus increased rate of gun-induced injuries).
Consider other policy matters: what our foreign policy should be, what speed limits we should have, what our economic policy should be, etc. Are all of these matters on which physicians could comment *as subject matter experts*? Would it be appropriate for a physician to advocate for slower speed limits by tweeting the picture of a bloody operating room floor, letting us know that this was a person who died in a traffic accident? I think clearly not. That’s a weapons-grade appeal to emotion being made in the name of medical authority. So I don’t see how expertise of physicians can be extended to gun control without exploding the boundaries between disciplines altogether and making mincemeat of the whole notion of an appeal to *relevant* authority.
One last point. I want to emphasize the difference between an analogy between skills and the transferability of skills. What I’ve read on pedagogy suggests that it’s very hard to educate people to have generalized reasoning skills. People who are good at reasoning about one subject matter can’t necessarily transfer that to a different domain, even if the experts in that domain have similar skill sets (e.g., distinguishing between different types of evidence). Hence physicians having similar skill sets to policy experts doesn’t necessarily make them relevant subject matter experts on policy.Report
Thank you Edward (if I may)–that’s another telling example of this phenomenon. And I share the concern that this is something close to the core of the problem we’re facing. There can be no hope to exercise shared agency when there is no foundation of shared understanding among different parties concerning what they are after and how they would plan to get there. And to the extent that researchers are actively inhibiting that understanding with this kind of spin doctoring, the research itself is worse than unreliable. It actively interferes with our collective self-government.Report
Responding again (quickly, as I have to teach soon) to Alex G. above:
Alex says, “Third, that things were done badly in former Yugoslavia (for example) is not a reason to think it always has to be that way.”
That’s right, as far as it goes, but I don’t rely on that extreme of an outcome. Also, we have _lots_ of examples of bad outcomes, enough that we ought to be very careful. My more basic point is that, even in cases where violence doesn’t follow, the arguments that are supposed to justify splitting up states (I think Kit Wellman has the best argument) don’t actually provide workable solutions. For any set of lines you can justify drawing on those accounts, there’s another set that’s just as good, making any division arbitrary, at best. (I discuss this, and the problems that follow, in the paper I link above.)
More generally, though, it again seems that this reply depends on assuming or hoping for the good outcome, but not giving us any reason to think it’s likely. That’s a pretty common thing to do in political philosophy, but I don’t think it’s acceptable in the end. We really should be thinking harder about what the likely outcomes of our policy proposals are, not just the desirable ones if everything went right. Again, I try to sketch what I think would be required for an acceptable policy in my paper, and argue that, once this is clear, splits like this seem a lot less desirable and plausible, even though, of course, not impossible.Report
Spencer asked: “Consider other policy matters: …, what speed limits we should have, what our economic policy should be, etc. Are all of these matters on which physicians could comment *as subject matter experts*?”
I am not so sure about foreign policy (it includes too much, I think), so I have cut that bit, but I think that certain physicians would likely be very valuable contributors to discussions about speed limits, if they have experience treating people (people in cars, pedestrians, bike riders, etc.) hit at different speeds. And, pictures of what crashes at different speeds to do people might be helpful. Now, there are worries – the cases seen by doctors might be too salient to them, damaging their judgment, and pictures might have too much non-cognitive impact. So, we’d want to be careful about the influence we gave to doctors here. But, it seems obviously wrong to exclude them a priori, in the case of a discussion of speed limits. And, the parallel in that way to gun policy seems fairly straight forward to me, too.
The comparison of doctors and economists also seems wrong to me as drawn by Spencer. He rightly says we wouldn’t want an economist to do our heart surgery. That’s right, but that doesn’t tell us anything about this case unless we think that the only relevant issues are ones of the sort that economists are well suited to study on their own. But why think that? Take the reverse case. I don’t think we should let doctors, on their own, set our health care policy. We should want the input of economists and others for that. It seems plausible to me that we can make a similar case with the input of doctors on gun policy. If that’s so, while the ACP’s statement might be _wrong_, it seems implausible to me to claim that it was wrong in principle to make it.Report
Norcross asks Case “Why do you believe that the physicians responsible for the ACP’s statement can’t/don’t also possess the relevant expertise?” And Case says “Well, I wouldn’t want a political scientist or an economist doing my heart surgery!” Good quip, but it doesn’t seem like Case is terribly familiar with ACP policy position papers.
If one thinks that the relevant experts on gun control are economists, political scientists and philosophers who have researched this issue, I gather they would be delighted to hear that the ACP papers on firearms do indeed defer to these experts throughout. The papers say that because the relevant experts recommend certain sensible gun control measures,the ACP recommends that physicians act in such-and-such ways. This recommendation is limited to their interactions with patients and their roles as public health officials.
So it doesn’t seem that the ACP is even doing the sort of lane-straying research that offends Case’s sensibilities. The point of those policy papers is largely to recommend to *physicians* what they should do in light of the aforementioned expert opinions.Report
They are deciding how to weigh the evidence of those experts in other fields, publishing their conclusions in a medical journal — lending their opinions the imprimatur of medical science — and adopting the slogan “this is our lane.” From the NPR article on this:
“Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my f****** highway,” wrote forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, in a tweet that has gone viral.
The accusation of epistemic trespassing fits.Report
The nightly litany of health-care professionals, worn-out and fearful for their lives and ours too as they pronounce people dead from C19 while some of their patients protest unto death that it’s all a hoax–do they not have some collective epistemic claim to authority? Do they not have some collective first-hand experience that a pandemic is real? Against 10s of millions who claim it is not or ignore it? They aren’t epidemiologists–they have no statistical expertise. Yet can’t enough voices with direct experience with the results of the lack of a reasonable public policy speak to some real truth?Report
Spencer, what you quote in your last comment seems like a perfectly reasonable contribution to the relevant policy debate to me (as would an equivalent one about speed limits) so I guess I just don’t understand what you think is objectionable here.Report
To me it seems rather glib for someone to assert that removing bullets from corpses makes her an expert on how we should regulate guns as a society. And that’s being done: behold the doubling down on “this is my lane.” I think there’s a pernicious equivocation between being affected by the outcome of gun violence — having to do this dirty work — and possessing expert knowledge about its broader social causes, and the sorts of tradeoffs we should be willing to make to decrease it. What does taking bullets out of someone really tell you about policy questions? I guess it might give you some idea about the prevalence of gun violence, but you’d be better off looking up statistics on that from official sources. It’s not exactly rarified knowledge that being shot is bad for you, or that gun violence leaves doctors and forensic experts with unpleasant work. People on all sides of the debate about gun control obviously know this. At most the kinds of experiences this forensic expert cites might motivate her to really investigate the issue and thereby gain a deeper understanding. So I think the appeal to expertise exhibited in this quote is fallacious. Fair?Report
Isn’t the contribution from doctors here more ‘lived experience’ than ‘expertise’? (Which, to be sure, isn’t always how they describe it.) We don’t strictly speaking need the testimony of Sandy Hook parents to know that it causes emotional distress to parents when their children are murdered, and there’s a defensible – if cold – approach to public policy where one just sets aside that sort of testimony and looks at the statistics. But there’s also a case that the testimony of the personally-affected helps us understand the significance of terrible events in a way that statistics can’t.Report
David Wallace said, But there’s also a case that the testimony of the personally-affected helps us understand the significance of terrible events in a way that statistics can’t.
Yes, this is (part of) what I’m getting at. It seems to me to just be a fact that people don’t understand or appreciate dangers or bad effects when put in pure statistical forms, or at least most don’t. This is true of speeding, of drunk driving, and of guns. Doctors are often helpful at providing information in ways that can help people understand the situation better than they would from a purely statistical account. Of course, such accounts can go wrong. (We see this with people who think strangers are a special danger to children, or who think unauthorized immigrants are especially likely to be criminals, because of sensationalistic presentations.) But, that they can go wrong doesn’t mean that they must go wrong, or that they have gone wrong in the case Spencer discusses. I don’t see any evidence that they have gone wrong there, in fact. Given that, I still find the argument against the doctors here completely unconvincing.Report
Ok, I think we’re really getting somewhere now. I agree with David that this is something more like “lived experience” but I think that’s importantly different from medical expertise. Note that a gunshot victim could have as much, or even more, lived expertise of this kind. That’s not what medical expertise is all about. Being able to tell a moving story about X isn’t the same thing as understanding it as a true expert might (though it might motivate someone to acquire that knowledge). I’m also of the opinion that lived experience is vastly overrated when it comes to discerning policy issues generally. Two examples from my own life: my family was badly affected by the 2008 crash and I am currently in China being quarantined for the third time this year because of COVID. Do these things make me a subject matter expert on housing market bubbles and COVID, respectively? I think they clearly don’t. I’m not even close to being an expert on these things.Report