Tag Archives: Persuasion

The Root Of The (Political) Problem

I recently read Persuasion interview with two noted political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose most recent book is The Tyranny of the Minority.  In two of their initial observations, they summed up the roots of America’s political dysfunctions.

Those observations began with America’s constitutional structure:

Our Constitution has always favored rural areas, which represent a minority of the population. For most of our history, that really wasn’t a big problem, because both parties had urban and rural wings; but now, demographic changes have really led us to a position in the 21st century where the Republican Party is primarily the party for rural areas, while Democrats are primarily the party of urban areas. And so this means that our constitutional structure over-represents rural areas, and so it’s no longer necessary at the national level for the Republican Party to win majorities in order to gain power. That has unleashed a set of distorting impacts on our politics that are very dangerous.

Adding to that urban/rural divide is the country’s longtime struggle with racism and the religious roots of White Supremacy.

Our central argument regarding why the Republican Party has sort of gone off the rails in the last 15 years or so is that, in the latter third of the 20th century, the United States changed dramatically and the Republican Party did not. It became an overwhelmingly white Christian party in a much more diverse country at around roughly the turn of the 21st century and that brought two problems. One is that it had a hard time competing for a national majority (and lost the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections) because it was relying so heavily on white and particularly white Christian votes. And, secondly, a segment of its base grew increasingly threatened; the Republican Party actually did an excellent job of appealing to racially conservative whites over the course of the last third of the 20th century, those who were unhappy with government efforts to enforce civil rights in the last part of the 20th century; and recruited these folks into its party, becoming a more racially conservative party. A primary-winning plurality of the Republican base grew pretty resentful over the visible rise of multiracial democracy in the 21st century. And so the party radicalized.

And so here we are. The entire discussion is worth reading (or listening to–I’m working from the transcription of a podcast, which you can also connect to from the link–but the two preceding paragraphs really focus on the roots of America’s current dysfunctions.

The authors concede that America’s constitutional democracy limits majority rule. Our system constrains majorities from invading the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. But as they also note, without majority rule, there is no democracy. And among important things that ought to be within the reach of majorities is the right to form governments and the right to govern with those majorities.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are quick to point out that–while their book offers suggestions for constitutional amendment–those suggestions are hardly radical. They would align our system somewhat more closely to the systems in Denmark, New Zealand and Finland. And they remind us that

Both Hamilton and Madison strongly opposed the current structure of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. That was designed because small states insisted on it and threatened even to break up the union if they didn’t get it. That was not part of some sort of far-sighted design of our founders. Madison opposed the Electoral College; it was the second-best solution after other alternatives had been voted down in the convention. And both Hamilton and Madison opposed supermajority rules for regular legislation.

Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote–Trump by some three million. Levitsky and Ziblatt say it would be “a great day for America if the Republican Party could win power with majorities fair and square.” That would mean we would have two parties committed to the democratic rules of the game. But as Levitsky notes (rather delicately), “the rural bias of our institutions weakens the incentive of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal.”

Their book–which I intend to purchase– wrestles with the question that frequently animates conversations on this blog: Why, after 150 years, has the mainstream center-right party gone off the rails?

You need a theory for that. Our theory focuses on the perception of existential threat faced by some members of a once-dominant ethnic majority that is losing its dominant status. But secondly and more pertinent here is the electoral institutions that dull the incentive of the party to adapt.



A Comforting Analysis

I should preface today’s post by sharing a basic political premise that comforts me.

When I look around at the multiple examples of injustice, mean-spiritedness, racism and fear that characterize America’s current polarization and unrest, I think back to the 60s and other tumultuous periods in our history. Almost always, those upheavals subside and leave significant social improvements in their wake.

Not perfection. But improvement.

It can be hard to keep that in mind when every day brings new evidence of humankind’s reluctance to deal positively with the challenges we face. And blogs like this one, that tend to focus on those challenges, probably don’t help. But if we take the long view, human society really has seen substantial progress–it’s just a lot slower than most of us would like. And sometimes, because it is slow and incremental, we miss seeing that progress.

Which brings me to Persuasion’s fascinating analysis of the global far-Right.The crux of that analysis is in the introductory paragraphs:

It is hard to be hopeful about democracy today. We are bombarded with headlines proclaiming democracy’s “retreat,” “crisis,” and perhaps even “death.” In the United States, both Democrats and Republicans believe democracy faces serious threats and President Biden has addressed what he views as widespread sentiments that “democracy’s best days [are] behind us.” Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, recent electoral victories by the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally—parties with far-right, even neo-Nazi roots—led many to proclaim that “fascism was returning” and democracy in danger even in Western Europe, a region where it has long been taken for granted. That’s become the reflexive framing for many commentators addressing European politics. The Guardian, for instance, declared Spain’s election, held this past weekend with the right-wing Vox party potentially poised to enter a ruling coalition, “a key battle in the Europe-wide struggle against neofascism.”

This pervasive pessimism is not justified. Far from being a sign that democracy is imperiled in Western Europe, the evolution of the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally should make us cautiously optimistic. These parties have come to recognize that in order to win votes and political power they had to move away from their far-right roots, moderate their appeals and policy platforms, and pledge to play by the democratic rules of the game.

The article argues that, when democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists lack the incentive to moderate–they can gain power without playing by the rules of the game.

But where democratic norms and institutions are strong—as they have been for decades in Western Europe—extremists tend to be forced to moderate because there is little constituency for explicitly anti-democratic, extremist appeals. And until they moderate, other political actors and institutions are able to keep them from power.

The article documents that moderation, tracing the trajectory of several far-Right European movements–Marine Le Pen in France, Sweden’s Democrats, Brothers of Italy and others.

The author argues that refusing to recognize that these parties have moderated has consequences: it fosters fear and polarization; calling them fascist often bolsters their narrative of being righteous “outsiders;” and calling parties fascist when they are not contributes to misunderstandings about the current state of democracy.

There has certainly been significant democratic backsliding among countries that made transitions to democracy during the late twentieth century. But this is not surprising: all previous democratic “waves”—such as those occurring in 1848 and after the First and Second World Wars—had significant undertows. Notwithstanding, many more democracies have survived the late twentieth century wave than did previous ones. And among established wealthy democracies only one—the United States—has experienced significant democratic decay.

The fact that these parties have moderated doesn’t mean they don’t continue to pose problems, of course. And what is particularly chilling is the author’s explicit recognition that America’s Republican Party has gone in the opposite direction from most of its Western European counterparts: “it has moved from being a center-right or conservative party to a far-right one.”

This reflects underlying weaknesses in American democracy and deep divisions in American society and shows that under such conditions even wealthy, long-established democracies can experience democratic decay.”

The article ends by recommending more democracy– but there’s a caveat:

As long as right-wing populists continue to respect laws, constitutions, and the democratic rules of the game, this is the best way forward: trying to lure voters away from these parties with better ideas.

Large numbers of MAGA world denizens, unfortunately, do not “continue to respect laws, constitutions and democratic rules of the game.”

But then, neither did the Weathermen...


Kinds of Inequality

I sometimes listen to a podcast called Persuasion, in which Yascha Mounk interviews prominent writers and thinkers on a variety of subjects relevant to government and policy. I was particularly intrigued by a recent conversation he had with philosopher Michael Walzer.

Walzer is a noted communitarian, and as someone of a more libertarian bent, I have disagreed with several of his positions. (My issues with communitarianism are for another day…) In this interview, however, he makes some fascinating and persuasive points about the nature–and the varieties–of inequality.

Walzer begins by distinguishing between equality and sameness, and between power and resources.

If you think about the political system we have, we have a mechanism called elections for reducing inequality—radical inequality. Some people win, some people lose. Some people have a lot of power, some people have far less, and many of us are just watching. And yet, in the distributive system—if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded—the resulting inequality is okay. The distribution of medical care should go to the people who are sick or most sick. That seems a natural way of distributing medical care, even though it means that some people get more if they need it, and some people get less if they don’t. 

The most important caveat in the foregoing paragraph is this one: “if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded.”

Walzer then considers the role of equality in achieving justice.

What makes for injustice is not inequality in political power or inequality in the distribution of health care or welfare or education. It is when these distributions don’t take place for the right reasons and through the right procedures. It’s when you get more health care than I do because you have more money than I do. You have taken success in the market and you have bought health care, or elite positions for your children in the country’s universities, or political influence. So it’s the use of one social good which may be rightly possessed to claim many other social goods that ought to be distributed differently. It’s an argument that depends on what the special goods we distribute mean to the people who make them and share them. And those meanings may be different in different societies.

In other words–as I used to tell my students–it depends. And it’s complicated.

Mounk responds to Walzer’s observations by referencing current criticisms of American capitalism, especially the dominance (not simply the possession) of money. As he says, it is one thing to buy yourself a nicer watch or car than your neighbor can afford. It is another thing entirely when your greater fiscal resources buy you “better healthcare, better access to education, better access to opportunities for your children, higher likelihood of winning political office.”  That is when we are rightfully concerned.

As Walzer puts it,

It doesn’t bother me if you can collect rare books and I can’t, or if you can take a month’s vacation and I just get two weeks. That doesn’t bother me. It’s when your wealth matters in every other sphere of activity—and right now, crucially, in politics. It’s when your wealth can buy a senator or a judge, or a law, or an exemption from a law—all of that I want to rule out. I don’t think it’s crucial to a socialist or social democratic society, that someone who has an economic green thumb or some entrepreneur who invents some machine that people enjoy using, that they make more money than I make. It’s what they can do with the money that matters.

The interview contains a number of very interesting exchanges, including Walzer’s description of himself as a liberal communitarian, and his criticism of the illiberal Left. I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety–but I’ll end by highlighting Walzer’s observations on the “education wars” I often write about.

Walzer notes that, when it comes to conflicts between religious doctrines and public education, we’ve gone quite a long way in the direction of accommodating religion. As he says, we’ve allowed religious communities to create parochial schools. We’ve allowed the Amish to take their kids out of school before the established legal age. We’ve allowed the Haredim in Kiryas Joel to run a public school system. But these children are going to grow up to vote in our elections, and that fact gives citizens of the democratic state an important interest in their education. That interest leaves considerable room for parental decision-making, but–as Walzer says– it is too important to abandon.

A thought-provoking conversation.



Is Design Censorship?

We live in a world where seemingly settled issues are being reframed. A recent, fascinating discussion on the Persuasion podcast focused on the role of social media in spreading both misinformation and what Renee DiResta, the expert being interviewed, labeled “rumors.”

As she explained, using the term “misinformation” (a use to which I plead guilty) isn’t a particularly useful way of framing  the problem we face, because so many of the things that raise people’s hackles aren’t statements of fact; they aren’t falsifiable. And even when they are, even when what was posted or asserted was demonstrably untrue, and is labeled untrue, a lot of people simply won’t believe it is false. As she says, “if you’re in Tribe A, you distrust the media of Tribe B and vice versa. And so even the attempt to correct the misinformation, when it is misinformation, is read with a particular kind of partisan valence. “Is this coming from somebody in my tribe, or is this more manipulation from the bad guys?”

If we aren’t dealing simply in factual inaccuracies or even outright lies, how should we describe the problem?

One of the more useful frameworks for what is happening today is rumors: people are spreading information that can maybe never be verified or falsified, within communities of people who really care about an issue. They spread it amongst themselves to inform their friends and neighbors. There is a kind of altruistic motivation. The platforms find their identity for them based on statistical similarity to other users. Once the network is assembled and people are put into these groups or these follower relationships, the way that information is curated is that when one person sees it, they hit that share button—it’s a rumor, they’re interested, and they want to spread it to the rest of their community. Facts are not really part of the process here. It’s like identity engagement: “this is a thing that I care about, that you should care about, too.” This is rewarmed media theory from the 1960s: the structure of the system perpetuates how the information is going to spread. Social media is just a different type of trajectory, where the audience has real power as participants. That’s something that is fundamentally different from all prior media environments. Not only can you share the rumor, but millions of people can see in aggregate the sharing of that rumor.

Her explanation of how social media algorithms work is worth quoting at length

When you pull up your Twitter feed, there’s “Trends” on the right hand side, and they’re personalized for you. And sometimes there’s a very, very small number of participants in the trend, maybe just a few hundred tweets. But it’s a nudge, it says you are going to be interested in this topic. It’s bait: go click this thing that you have engaged with before that you are probably going to be interested in, and then you will see all of the other people’s tweets about it. Then you engage. And in the act of engagement, you are perpetuating that trend.

Early on, I was paying attention to the anti-vaccine movement. I was a new mom, and I was really interested in what people were saying about this on Facebook. I was kind of horrified by it, to be totally candid. I started following some anti-vaccine groups, and then Facebook began to show me Pizzagate, and then QAnon. I had never typed in Pizzagate, and I had never typed in QAnon. But through the power of collaborative filtering, it understood that if you were an active participant in a conspiracy theory community that fundamentally distrusts the government, you are probably similar to these other people who maybe have a different flavor of the conspiracy. And the recommendation engine didn’t understand what it was doing. It was not a conscious effort. It just said: here’s an active community, you have some similarities, you should go join that active community. Let’s give you this nudge. And that is how a lot of these networks were assembled in the early and mid-2010s.

Then DiResta posed what we used to call the “sixty-four thousand dollar question:”  are changes to the design of an algorithm censorship?

Implicit in that question, of course, is another: what about the original design of an algorithm?  Those mechanisms have been designed  to respond to certain inputs in certain ways, to “nudge” the user to visit X rather than Y.  Is that censorship? And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” is the First Amendment implicated?

To say that we are in uncharted waters is an understatement.



On The Other Hand…

Sometimes, this blog focuses so much on the crazy, the hateful, and the depressing that the whole human landscape seems bleak. I’m not going to apologize for pointing to the problems we face, because they’re real and we need to think long and hard about solutions. But an unremitting focus on the “dark side” can be misleading.

There are also bright spots in that landscape.

I’ve been subscribing to a Substack newsletter called PersuasionA recent one consisted of an interview with Yascha Mounk. Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the founder of Persuasion. He recently published a book titled “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure,” and it was the focus of an interview conducted by Ravi Gupta.

Mounk readily concedes that diversity makes democratic government difficult. The very human proclivity to prefer those with whom we share an identity makes civic equality a “really difficult thing to get right.” But then he says

I also want to make people a little bit more optimistic, because I think when you look at the injustices today, and you don’t have that perspective, you might think, “What’s wrong with us? Why are we so terrible?” But then when you compare it to other times and other places, you realize this is just a really, really hard thing we’re trying to do. Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.

At the conclusion of the interview, he returns to that optimism.

When I look at what’s actually going on in society, I don’t despair. America has become much more tolerant in the last decades. We have really rapid socioeconomic progress of minority and immigrant groups, in a way that’s rarely appreciated by either the left or the right. The best study suggests that immigrants from Central or South America, for example, are rising up the socio-economic ranks as rapidly as Irish and Italian Americans did a century ago. This shows that the far-right is wrong in believing that there’s something somehow inferior about them. But it also shows that parts of the left are wrong in thinking that our countries are so racist and so discriminatory that nonwhite people don’t have opportunity. Thankfully, actually, people have opportunity. We see that in the way in which their children or grandchildren in particular are rising up very rapidly. Now, there are also all kinds of sensible things we can do in terms of how we think about our country, the education we engage in, the kind of patriotism we embrace, the kinds of policies and acts of Congress that we should pass—and that’s important, too. But fundamentally, my optimism comes from the developments that I already see happening in society.

Mounk rests his argument on verifiable data; my own (occasional) optimism is more anecdotal and scattered. Just a few of my observations, in no particular order:

When I was still teaching, the university students who filled my classes were overwhelmingly inclusive and committed to their communities, the common good, and the rule of law.

The massive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were multi-racial–the first time I have witnessed widespread diversity in racial protests.

Someone recently reminded me that eighty million Americans came out during a pandemic to vote against Donald Trump.

There’s constant progress on efforts to combat climate change– like recent development of a new, thinner and more efficient solar panel. 

Increasing numbers of out LGBTQ people are being elected to political office, and not just in blue parts of the U.S.

Ketanji Brown Jackson will join the Supreme Court.

For the past week, my husband and I have been on a cruise (we’re headed for Amsterdam to visit our middle son). We have taken previous cruises, and virtually all the couples we met on those trips were devotees of Fox News. I still recall some of the dismissive comments (and worse) leveled by these financially comfortable travelers about poorer (and darker) Americans. I am very happy to report that everyone we’ve had an opportunity to converse with on this trip has at some point indicated strong disapproval of what the GOP has become. Several–like yours truly–identify as “refugees” from the Republican Party.

It’s anecdotal, true…but encouraging.