Vote!! November 6

“Voting never makes any difference.”

“If voting changed anything, they‘d have made it illegal.”

I generally respond by pointing out that it usually only takes up no more than an hour of your time, often less, and what do you expect from such a small investment of time? Quite frankly, I’ve spent days on picket lines to less effect. With early voting and vote by mail you have really no excuse. This is your last chance.

And for those who complain of not being able to “vote my values”, why do you assume this is all about you?

Your vote does make a difference, in some contests more than in others and in some elections more than in others. Which side you’re on is beside the point: if you value some degree of nonviolence in how we settle disputes, get to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, and vote.

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Broken Politics?

In this video, Vox teams up with the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution to cast shade on the Republican Party:

“Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.”

It might surprise you that I have some misgivings about this argument.

Part of it is that I challenge the very existence of a “Republican” or a “Democratic” party. As political parties are understood in most parts of the world, parties here in the States simply do not exist. Fragments of parties exist. The opposing caucuses in legislative bodies exist and they have important consequences — committee assignments, work priorities and the like. There’s something of a party bureaucracy that mostly serves as a conduit for money and as a vendor of political services (polling, data processing, etc.) all of which is available elsewhere. If you are a candidate, you have no obligation to use your party’s services. And there are party clubs. But none of these entities have any organic connections among them. And the parties do exist in the electorate: People self identify as Democrats and Republicans. If there is anything real and vitally consequential about American political parties, it is mostly to be found in the electorate’s self identification. But beyond that, what we see as political parties are entities that have been partially taken over by the government and have, at best, vestigial independence apart from the government. State laws, mostly, govern party structure, party officials, party candidates, even what constitutes “membership” in a political party. Oh yes: finances, too.

This varies from state to state and among the various U.S. territories. We don’t have a two party system but rather over 50 different party systems in this country. A few have multiple party brands, others but two. When you drill down to the local level, you often find a more various political landscape.

The “asymmetrical polarization” that this video documents is a phenomenon that is primarily manifest in the parties’ constituencies. It’s reflected by and amplified by professional politicians and activists for their own ends, but it would not exist in government if it did not exist in the electorate.

The polarization is a result of something that has been in the works since at least the Great Depression, when New Deal Democrats, bothered by Dixiecrat sabotage and obstruction, dreamed of realigning the “parties” in ideological terms. The “Democrats” would be the liberals; “Republicans” would be the conservatives.

Fast forward to the 1960s and both sides were working on this project, including Norm Ornstein and the American Enterprise Institute (out of the wreckage of the Barry Goldwater campaign) on the conservative side. On the left in the 1970s, you had organizations like the New Democratic Coalition (not to be confused with the “third way” folks of later decades) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. The so-called Reagan Revolution and the increased use of primary elections over conventions pretty much accomplished the project. By the 1990s, at latest, the Republican brand had become the brand of conservatives. The Republican brand is not “more” ideological today, it’s just more confident and less willing to compromise than it was in the 1980s.

If one of the our two political brands becomes clearly and dogmatically defined (in this case, the Republicans), the other brand will opportunistically begin to incorporate everyone alienated from the first. It’s also easy to see how “asymmetry” in early stages would feed upon itself unless somehow interrupted. It also seems likely that the social democratic / progressive wing of the Democratic brand will have difficulty dominating its vehicle in the near term at least: too many political refugees with money.

So what is Ornstein complaining about? Given the racism underlying the current Republican brand (it wasn’t always so, at least in this geezer’s life span) and the shifting demographics that promise it less than a majority, it is easy to see how Ornstein and Mann sense disaster on conservatism’s present course. And they’re not alone.

Oh, boo hoo.

Aside from the blatant expressions of bigotry, there’s really not a huge gap in policy between the Trump Republicans of 2018 and the Reagan Republicans of 1980. The most obvious differences are based in personality more than anything else: the audacity of ignorance is remarkable in 2018. Reagan may have about as factually challenged as Trump, but Reagan was an amiable fellow to his friends and was willing (with some exceptions) to be steered. Trump is a stubborn old coot. Today’s open bigotry does count for something, also. I expect without it we might have at least some movement on immigration policy because population growth is the easiest way to grow an economy… among other less benign rationales. But beyond that, what’s new? This is Goldwater / Reagan conservatism rampant.

But how does ideological polarization work when the structure of our governments (both on the Federal level and on the level of the States) demands some degree of consensus? (Think of the “checks and balances” that you learned about in high school civics class.)

The answer, obviously, is not very well.

And that’s a problem for us lefites, too.

Don’t neglect to vote!

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Fake News

by Bob Roman

Recently David Greising, the President and CEO of the Better Government Association, posted an editorial, Even in an Age of ‘Fake News,’ the Truth Wins Out, that denounced fake news and the spread of “alternative facts” and innuendo in public life while, reasonably enough, touting the good work that the Better Government Association does in promoting truth. Among other things, Greising wrote:

When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.

If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.

It is a clarion call for the light of truth against the cynical, power-obsessed forces of self-serving lies: Forces so inured to deception that its practitioners are unable to distinguish actual journalism from their own bloviating. As Roy Edroso at the Village Voice put it:

Yeah, that’s how journalists operate. They claim they’re “reporting news,” but they’re really passing on orders to kill. It’s easy to understand why conservatives think this way. They themselves admit that right-wing media outlets don’t do a lot of reporting, and most are simply content to chest-pound on behalf of Donald Trump. So would they even recognize what journalism is? Under such circumstances it would make sense if they came to consider journalism in the same way they consider creative endeavors: as vaguely disreputable dark arts practised only by their enemies, to be beaten back with slander and propaganda.

But: “If it’s news, it can’t be fake”? Really?

Whatever else is going on, there’s a fundamental miscommunication here. For partisan ideologues, fake news can also be news with an agenda or news with a particular spin, including controversies based on a biased or false premise. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Partisans have a particular reason to be sensitive to this as so much of what partisans do is directed at putting their particular issues of concern on the political agenda, in other words, manipulating the news media coverage (or lack thereof) of issues.

This can be really quite blatant. Consider for a moment the practice of setting up “spin rooms” for journalists after a political event such as a debate or a political convention. The point is to reiterate and explain talking points, making sure of the most favorable interpretation of events. “Spin rooms” as a formal practice was first begun by the Reagan for President campaign back in 1984, but similar efforts before and since can be found in the old Sunday morning talk shows on TV or even today on social media such as Twitter. Is this “fake news” only when it includes lies?

Broadcast media, radio and television, dominated journalism for most of the 20th Century, and these entities had been encouraged to be neutral, at least in the sense of allowing time for multiple viewpoints. They use a publicly “owned” medium, after all, with the consent of the government by license: the electro-magnetic spectrum. This has had a decisive influence on the ethics of the profession, but before broadcast news, there was not even a pretense at neutrality. In the 19th Century, for example, U.S. newspaper editors were typically major players in the internal politics of U.S. political parties (including minor parties).

But journalists are not just journalists / reporters / scribes. They are story-tellers. If you’re a journalist, your bosses want an audience to sell to advertisers, yes? And you, the journalist, want an audience to read or watch or listen to what is said, right? So: “if it bleeds, it leads” or “personalize your story”, but there is more as well. As any story-teller will confide, a story stands on the shoulders of previous stories. Your audience will bring their own baggage to whatever they are consuming so it helps if they can tell part of the story themselves. As an experiment, find a news story covering the politics or an event in some part of the world about which you know next to nothing. Don’t be surprised if it makes no sense or, at a minimum, if it leaves you puzzled. The puzzling missing pieces are the parts of the story the intended audience brings to the report. If you are telling the audience something entirely new, the audience will require an education. This imposes an “opportunity cost” on any new perspective while the familiar will go down easy.

Likewise, story-telling evokes expectations of drama, irony, gossip and closure. My impression is that maybe closure is a bigger part of broadcast journalism than the web or print, but it is nearly universal. Listen to almost any radio or TV news report and pay attention to the last few sentences: it will be a conclusion, typically some clichéd conventional wisdom apropos the topic of the report. It’s the safe thing to do, after all, and often enough the reporter is dealing with a subject about which the reporter knows very little. How could one go wrong by parroting what is broadly accepted, however inane? Except that often this wisdom is also a judgement: Trump has no chance of winning or Bernie Sanders’ campaign will go nowhere, as examples.

As an aside, it’s not only the need for drama that turns political coverage into a horse race story. The late Tom Wicker learned the hard way as a journalist: If you do not want to be scooped, you have to cover the possibilities as well as what has happened:

“…Whitman had had the foresight to get a pledge from Kurfees that if he did run, he’d break the story in the Sentinel. I kicked myself for weeks because if I’d thought there was even a possibility that Kurfees would run again, I could have offered him more circulation for an exclusive in the morning Journal. Moral: in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”

— Tom Wicker, On Press, page 37

Fake news, definition 2, anyone? “Which often are not facts at all,” fake news, definition 1, anyone? And this isn’t even allowing for interviews with players who speculate on possibilities with the aim of creating a particular outcome.

Tom Wicker is right. Sometimes what we think we know is simply untrue. Consider the routine press reports about studies recommending how a particular diet will lead to particular healthful benefits. Often enough these are studies using small populations of dubious statistical value, sometimes even financed by entities with an interest in the results. Is this “fake news”? Public radio’s On the Media has devoted episodes to debunking false statistics (see, for example, “Prime Number” or “The Stat Police“), yet they continue to be routinely incorporated in reporting. But repeated and debunked often enough, it leaves room for people to doubt even spectacularly dangerous phenomenon like human-induced global warming.

When you add all this to an epidemic of pathological cynicism and mistrust, you have an atmosphere deadly to even republican democracy. But contra David Greising, the profession of journalism is not a simple victim here.

With the rise of the web and cable as major media, we’re seeing a shift back to advocacy as a legitimate part of journalism. This influences expectations regarding all of journalism. And being human, when we look for bias, inevitably we’ll find it, even when it’s not exactly there. See, for example, On the Media’s exercise in navel-gazing back in 2012 on whether National Public Radio has a liberal bias (~ 20 minutes):

What journalism should consider is a professional standard that admits to bias and advocacy but requires the inclusion of information sufficient for the news consumer to decide for themselves.

Fake news as manufactured lies is indeed a problem, has been a problem for longer than we usually remember (doctored photos for example), and promises to become a more of a problem as it becomes possible to create audio and video that is very nearly convincing. For a deep dive into the possibilities, check out Radiolab’s episode Breaking News (2017). For an update on the progress of video algorithms, see A New Computer Program Generates Eerily Realistic Fake Videos at Science News.

I don’t mind David Greising tooting the BGA horn; they do good work, mostly. And I’m certainly no friend of Donald Trump. But it is worrisome that when we discuss “fake news”, we seem to be talking past one another, assuming that there is a mutual understanding of what is under discussion when in fact there is not.

It’s also difficult to defend journalism from our Liar-in-Chief when journalists have been so willing to give past occupants of the White House a free pass. And consider just how uncritically beat-the-drum, rah-rah coverage has been over our various military adventures. This hasn’t always been true, it’s true. LBJ had his credibility gap, for just one example. But this very inconsistency leaves journalism’s credibility open to question at a time when it should be galvanizing the public to action instead.

Suspend Your Disbelief

How to create a cult or irrevocably polarize an issue in seven easy steps…

and yes, t-shirts are available.

Caution: this methodology has real-world applications. Vi Hart uses the pi v. tau “controversy” as an example (heads up, math geeks!), but her seven steps will sound dismayingly familiar in the context of politics today, especially today…

It may be a lefty bias on my part, but it seems to have it’s greatest use these days among conservatives and in Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) controversies. But like Alinksy’s organizing methodology, it can be used (in whole or in part) from any point on the political spectrum.

It’s especially apt for social media wherein audiences can be found with amazing efficiency. It’s an example of how new technologies make particular human behaviors more viable.

Of course, you wouldn’t fall for this, would you?