A Legislative Terrorist

As you all know, I am on a cruise, writing these posts from a spot on the Pacific Ocean. I’m currently six hours earlier than those on Eastern time, and thanks to the time difference and intermittent problems with Internet access, my grasp of the news is hit-or-miss. I’ve been following the incredible chaos playing out on the floor of the House of Representatives with what can only be called a feeling of unreality.

Evidently, Jim Jordan just lost his second attempt to be elected Speaker.

Jordan is easily one of the most despicable individuals ever to hold political office–and certainly one of the least able, least ethical, least accomplished people ever to be nominated as a leader of the legislative body. If successful, he would be third in line for the Presidency–a thought that makes me want to hurl.

Representative Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California, really summed up the insanity of nominating someone like Jordan for Speaker. Aguilar began his brief talk by nominating Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (who garnered more votes than Jordan), and blaming extremism and partisanship for the unprecedented chaos of the House. He urged  Republicans to “embrace bipartisanship to do the work the American people had sent them to Washington, D.C., to conduct,” an exhortation he must have known would fall on deaf ears.

Aguilar went on to point out that Jordan is the “architect of a nationwide abortion ban, a vocal election denier, and an insurrection inciter.”

He has “spent his entire career trying to hold our country back, putting our national security in danger, attempting government shutdown after government shutdown, wasting taxpayer dollars on baseless investigations with dead ends, authoring the very bill that would ban abortion nationwide without exceptions, and inciting violence on this chamber. Even leaders of his own party have called him ‘a legislative terrorist.’

Aguilar pointed to Jordan’s opposition to disaster relief, veterans’ relief, support for Ukraine, and military aid to our allies, including Israel, and added: “This body is debating elevating a speaker nominee who has not passed a single bill in 16 years. These are not the actions of someone interested in governing or bettering the lives of everyday Americans.” Jordan as speaker would mean the Republican Party would “continue taking marching orders from a twice-impeached former president with more than 90 pending felony charges.”

Aguilar’s litany was entirely accurate. (It was also incomplete–he omitted the scandal of Jordan’s coaching days, when he closed his eyes to the sexual abuse of his young athletes.)

What boggles the mind is that 200 House Republicans would ever vote to put someone accurately labeled a “legislative terrorist”–someone described by John Bohner as a destroyer, not a builder– in charge of anything, especially an American lawmaking body.

Sinclair Lewis warned us: it can happen here.

Thomas Edsall recently devoted a column to the state of American democracy, and included a quote from Liliana Mason that goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise inexplicable:

The election of Trump is the culmination of a process by which the American electorate has become deeply socially divided along partisan lines. As the parties have grown racially, religiously, and socially distant from one another, a new kind of social discord has been growing. The increasing political divide has allowed political, public, electoral, and national norms to be broken with little to no consequence. The norms of racial, religious, and cultural respect have deteriorated. Partisan battles have helped organize Americans’ distrust for “the other” in politically powerful ways. In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of “us versus them” and “winning versus losing” is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.

We have evidently devolved as a nation into very strong, opposing tribal identities –in one of which racism plays a prominent role–and we now elect “lawmakers” who privilege their tribe’s “winning” over anything remotely resembling the common good. 

Edsall also quoted Levitsky and Ziblatt, authors of a recent book on the perilous state of American democracy:

By 2016, America was on the brink of a genuinely multiracial democracy — one that could serve as a model for diverse societies across the world. But just as this new democratic experiment was beginning to take root, America experienced an authoritarian backlash so fierce that it shook the foundations of the republic, leaving our allies across the world worried about whether the country had any democratic future at all.

The results of the current effort to install a Speaker will be a clue……


Lie To Me!

It’s hardly news that former President Donald Trump was the lyingest President ever.  A column a few months back by Thomas Edsall shared research confirming that on this one dubious metric, TFG was indeed head and shoulders above the rest.

Donald Trump can lay claim to the title of most prodigious liar in the history of the presidency. This challenges commonplace beliefs about the American political system. How could such a deceitful and duplicitous figure win the White House in the first place and then retain the loyalty of so many voters after his endless lies were exposed?

George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M and a retired editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly, stated the case bluntly: “Donald Trump tells more untruths than any previous president.” What’s more, “There is no one that is a close second.”

After establishing Trump’s position as Liar-in-Chief, Edsell got to the question that fascinates me: How do we understand the willingness of Republican voters to not simply tolerate Trump’s lies, but enthusiastically welcome them–and continue to vote for him?

Edsell quotes one researcher who attributes the acceptance of obvious untruths to our polarization:

We are intensely social creatures, but we are prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathetic, generous, honest — in their group and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.

If we see Trump’s lies, Smith continued, “not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might view him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.”

Other scholars attribute acceptance of untruths to “orthodox mind-sets.”  People with such mind-sets desperately need to protect cherished narratives; insights and facts that undermine those narratives threaten beliefs that are central to their worldviews.

Another theory is closely aligned to the tribal explanation– it posits that Trump’s ability to persuade “millions of voters to go along with his prevarications is his ability to tap into the deep-seated anger and resentment among his supporters. Anger, it turns out, encourages deception.”

Almost all of the research confirms the centrality of those tribal identities (giving the term “identity politics” a somewhat different meaning than its common usage).

Identity leadership refers to leaders’ capacity to influence and mobilize others by virtue of leaders’ abilities to represent, advance, create and embed a sense of social identity that is shared with potential followers.

In the process, Trump’s supporters lose their connection to real-world rules and morality.

Esdall quotes one scholar who finds Americans’ political identities becoming “increasingly salient, and potentially more destructive.” Intense partisan hostilities and polarization lead people to demonize the opposition and create a climate of “us against them.” Polarization thus invites lies that create a “moral framework” within which otherwise wrongful behavior serves a moral cause. (An obvious example is January 6th.)

It’s depressing enough when “Lie X”is accepted by large numbers of people, but the speed of its distribution is even more troubling. An article by BBC Science Focus examined that phenomenon:

Mark Twain said that a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. Actually, that itself is a lie – Twain probably said no such thing and the true origins of the quote remain murky. Nonetheless, thanks to recent research into the spread of (mis)information on Twitter, we now know that lies spread more rapidly than facts – and it seems mostly to do with our appetite for novelty.

In a study published in early 2018 in the journal Science, three researchers at MIT analysed around 126,000 stories tweeted by around three million people between 2006 and 2017. Crucially, these stories had all been verified as true or false by six fact-checking websites, including snopes.com and factcheck.org. By comparing the tweets, the researchers found that the lies travelled faster and farther than the truth. For instance, true tweets rarely reached more than 1,000 people, whereas the most widely shared false tweets reached as many as 100,000 people. Falsehoods were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, and it took true tweets six times as long as lies, on average, to reach 1,500 people.

MIT’s research team attributed the speed of dissemination to the fact that lies tended to be more novel and exciting than the truth. They were also better at triggering an emotional response.

Lies that travel fastest are those that support our pre-existing prejudices and are easy to understand. it helps if they’re popular with the people in your “tribe.”

Evidently, a lot of Americans actually want to be lied to.


Intellectual Honesty

Today is primary Election Day in Indianapolis, so at some point this evening we will know the identities of the major party candidates for mayor of the city, and for City-County Council.

I’ve previously noted my concerns about the Republican campaign commercials urging more policing and less oversight as the remedy for (massively-exaggerated) urban crime, and as I was reviewing some files I’d kept, I came across an opinion piece from the New York Times that is particularly relevant to that approach.

The essay was by David French, who describes himself as a “conservative independent.” French left the Republican Party in 2016, “not because I abandoned my conservatism but rather because I applied it. A party helmed by Donald Trump no longer reflected either the character or the ideology of the conservatism I believed in, and when push came to shove, I was more conservative than I was Republican.”

The essay grappled with a question that has become much more salient in our highly partisan debates: Are instances of police misbehavior attributable to “bad apples”? Or do they signal deep and systemic problems with American policing?

French notes that our answers to that question reflect a massive partisan divide.

Every year Gallup releases a survey that measures public confidence in a variety of American institutions, including the police. In 2022, no institution (aside from the presidency) reflected a greater partisan trust gap than the police. A full 67 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in the police, versus only 28 percent of Democrats.

Why do Republicans and Democrats see the issue so differently?

The instant that a person or an institution becomes closely identified with one political “tribe,” members of that tribe become reflexively protective and are inclined to write off scandals as “isolated” or the work of “a few bad apples.”

Conversely, the instant an institution is perceived as part of an opposing political tribe, the opposite instinct kicks in: We’re far more likely to see each individual scandal as evidence of systemic malice or corruption, further proof that the other side is just as bad as we already believed….

There are good reasons for respecting and admiring police officers. A functioning police force is an indispensable element of civil society. Crime can deprive citizens of property, hope and even life. It is necessary to protect people from predation, and a lack of policing creates its own forms of injustice.

But our admiration has darker elements. It causes too many of us — again, particularly in my tribe — to reflexively question, for example, the testimony of our Black friends and neighbors who can tell very different stories about their encounters with police officers. Sometimes citizens don’t really care if other communities routinely experience no-knock raids and other manifestations of aggression as long as they consider their own communities to be safe.

French points out that whenever authority is combined with impunity, corruption and injustice will result. That’s as true of institutions on the Left as on the Right.

The police, after all, possess immense power in American streets, often wielded at the point of a gun. Yet the law systematically shields them from accountability. Collective bargaining agreements and state statutes provide police officers with greater protections from discipline than almost any other class of civil servant — despite the fact that the consequences of misconduct can be unimaginably worse. A judge-made doctrine called qualified immunity provides powerful protections against liability, even when officers violate citizens’ civil rights. Systemic police corruption and systemic abuse should not have been a surprise.

As French admits, he was surprised. He came late to the recognition that his reflexive defense of the “rotten apple” theory was wrong.

The lesson I’ve taken has been clear: Any time my tribe or my allies are under fire, before I yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense, I should apply my principles and carefully consider the most uncomfortable of thoughts: My opponents might be right, my allies might be wrong and justice may require that I change my mind. And it may, in all likelihood, require that I do this again and again.

This admirable example of intellectual honesty–the willingness to question one’s own assumptions and be guided by evidence rather than tribalism–is all too rare on both sides of the political divide. Good public policy–and good public officials–result from dispassionate analysis of evidence, not from a reflexive defense of our political “team.”

Here in Indianapolis, I guess we’ll see after the polls close whether pandering to what French calls the  “darker elements” of the Republican admiration for police pays off….


I Sure Hope This Is Correct..

Most of us have participated at some point in the (largely unanswerable) debate about “nature versus nurture.” Are humans hard-wired to do thus-and-so, or have we been socialized into a culture that expects/rewards it? I recently came across an article addressing a related issue: is our evident tribalism, our “us versus them” default, genetic? Or is it attributable to culture?

Here’s the lede

More than 200 million people were killed in the 20th century due to war and acts of genocide. Many of these conflicts were rooted in ethnic, national, religious, political, or other forms of identity-group conflict. The 21st century is already filled with similar horrors. For many scholars and much of the public, this pattern of between-group conflict emerges directly from humanity’s deep, evolved sense of “us” vs. “them.” To state it simply, human nature is “tribal.” It’s how we built cities, nations, empires. It’s also how each one of those things has crumbled.

But this is not true. Human intergroup conflicts and how they relate to human nature are neither about being “tribal” nor about some evolved, fixed hostility between “us” and “them.”

The argument isn’t that humans don’t create divisions/antagonisms with those they encounter; clearly, “we have the capacity to classify and develop mental shortcuts to use classifications once we have created (or learned) them”. The point is, however, that categories like “us” and “them” are flexible. They need not set up what the author calls “a conflictual relationship.” Neurobiologists have determined that the biological bases of that classification process aren’t “hard-wired.”

Rather, our neurobiology reflects a highly flexible system that can represent the self and others. Additionally, how “us” and “them” are divided can shift quickly and dynamically. This is a very different reality from the assumption of a natural, inherent “us vs. them” mentality.

Scientists have also found that humans have the capacity to have “harmonious interdependent relationships that cross group boundaries.” (Sociologists call those relationships “bridging social capital.”)

Decades of study of intergroup dynamics in primate societies, human foraging groups, and small scale societies reveals that natural selection has shaped a greater reliance on tolerant between-community relationships in humans than in any other primate species (or possibly any other mammalian species).

Even the argument that the “us vs. them” mode of existence came into being with the evolutionarily recent advent of agriculture, cities, states, and nations is not correct. Humans are neither Hobbesian beasts nor Rousseauian egalitarians; we are a species that is characterized by between-group relations that are complex and dynamic, good and bad. There is no doubt that between-group conflict had a role in our evolution. But the fossil and archaeological evidence casts substantial doubt on whether such conflict was prevalent at the level and pervasiveness to support an “us vs. them” human nature argument.

The author takes offense at the use of the term “tribalism” as a shorthand for the “us versus them” thesis–a use to which I plead guilty. He points out that the term “tribe”  identifies a societal structure that is “older,” more “primitive,” and less civilized than European forms of society, and argues that the term thus carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. I’m not sure I agree with that characterization, but I do see his point.

But that does not mean humans are naturally peaceful or always getting along. No other species creates cash economies and political institutions, changes planet-wide ecosystems in a few generations, builds cities and airplanes, arrests and deports its members, drives thousands of other species toward extinction, and intentionally hates and decimates other groups of humans. But why all this is the case is not a simple “us vs. them” story.

The author argues that invoking the notion of “tribalism” for the world’s problems is misleading–it suggests that our conflicts are pre-ordained by our hard-wiring, when the various ways in which we “slice and dice” our fellow humans is far more malleable. We are not biologically-impelled to fight those who are dissimilar, and we are capable of defining and redefining those dissimilarities in a multitude of ways.

Today, conflict between groups, peoples, and identity clusters are entangled with extreme economic inequality and the ongoing violence of nationalism, religious conflict, racism, and sexism — all complex realities with histories, dynamic social processes, and multiple, often different, factors shaping outcomes. There is no simple “natural” explanation for the messes we create.

Ultimately, it’s the culture that determines whether we prize co-operation or conflict.


Political Paranoia

Awhile back, in one of his newsletters, Paul Krugman reminded us that we’ve always had lunacy in America. He was right–before the equation of vaccinations with (ahem!) both communism and fascism, the fluoridation of water was a favorite target. And I remember when the John Birch Society assured us that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” 

As Krugman pointed out, however, the difference between then and now is that the entire GOP has embraced bizarre theories like Trump’s “Big Lie.” Conspiracies are so mainstream in the Republican Party that, as he wrote, “These days you’re excommunicated from the Republican Party if you don’t embrace the Big Lie that the election was stolen, don’t denounce modestly center-left Democrats as the second coming of Stalin and, increasingly, don’t declare that mask mandates are the equivalent of the Holocaust and vaccines are a globalist plot to achieve mind control.”

The question of our time is: What has given “political paranoia” critical mass? Krugman didn’t offer an answer, and I certainly don’t have one.

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This seems to be a good time to revisit it.

Hofstadter was commenting on the right-wing of his time, and its success in nominating Barry Goldwater. (In the wake of Donald Trump, Goldwater seems eminently normal, whether one agrees or not with his political positions.) Explaining his choice of language, Hofstadter wrote

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

The essay included illuminating examples reaching back to 1855.

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

The examples–which he elaborates–are telling, but it’s the following paragraph that struck me. It could easily have been written this year.

The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

At their base, American grievances always come back to tribalism, and to threats posed by “the Other” to the world within which White Christian men are comfortable.

Ironically, it’s their refusal to accept a changing reality that is by far the biggest threat we face.