Matthew Scully. A writer’s responsibility.

Many people are thinking about Donald Trump today. I gave plenty of thought to Trump this morning (see my Facebook post below). But I’m done with Trump for the day.

Now I am thinking of Matthew Scully.

Scully is the speechwriter who prepared Trump’s speech last night, with the intention of making Trump seem as presidential as humanly possible, and of terrifying his fellow citizens into voting for Trump.

I once respected Mr. Scully. He wrote a truly extraordinary and courageous book claiming that conservatives and religious people should be passionate protectors of animal rights.

Now he has put his considerable talents at the service of Mr. Trump. Is he truly confident that Mr. Trump is fit to be President? Honorable? Compassionate?

Is he really sure he’s right, and the many  eloquent  fellow conservatives  who  view Trump as both utterly unfit and terrifyingly dangerous are wrong?

How has he come to view Mr. Trump’s values as in any way consistent with those he once claimed in his own writing as a Christian? A man who has told us, explicitly, in so many words, that he intends to torture innocent people and commit war crimes?

I write for a living. Sometimes I write for corporations. They are not perfect. But I would like to think I would never write to support evil. Others will have to judge.

As for Mr. Scully, he had better be damned sure that his judgment is correct, and his colleagues are wrong. History will judge him. I just hope it has mercy on the rest of us.

———————-

My Facebook post

Donald Trump is not my voice. If he were, I would be ashamed to look my family in the eye.

And, no, Hillary is not “just as bad.” She’s a flawed human being and politician who actually listens to people, sometimes even learns from her experience and her mistakes, and often winds up making the right choice from a set of difficult options.

I’ll take that over a man who says “I alone can save you,” believes that he doesn’t need to learn anything about any issue because his instincts are already perfect, and attracts the passionate support of neo-Nazis all over this country.

I’ll take that over a man who says that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone in public on Fifth Avenue. If a politician I supported ever said that, I’d bail in a second. It would prove that he holds me in utter contempt.

And, no, Hillary is not *just as dishonest* as Trump. Politifact has been tracking their statements for years. Most politicians, including Hillary, average about 20-25% statements that are mostly or fully false. With Trump it’s 75%. No politician they’ve tracked has EVER lied that often.

Don’t just call Politifact “mainstream media” and close your eyes and ears. They provide all the details you need to evaluate their work for yourself. That’s what a citizen in a democracy does.

And it makes a difference. Let’s say you’re talking about tax policy. Trump has gone all over this country saying our taxes are the highest in the world. If that were true, it would be hard to argue against a tax cut. But it isn’t true: our tax rates are somewhere smack dab in the middle. He rigs the argument by lying.

Worse: Trump stands up before a mob and claims that people were out there asking for a moment of silence for the murderer of those cops in Dallas. It never happened. Even his campaign official, Sam Clovis, says they have no idea where he got that.

Who makes up a claim that incendiary? It’s the kind of thing you’d say if you were trying to start a race war. But he doesn’t care about that, does he?

He doesn’t care about that, or you, or anything but himself.

And, no, Hillary is not “just as bad.”

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How goes your “constitution”? Here’s mine

Matt, you said you and Dan were engaging in the theoretical, intellectual exercise of trying to rebuild the US constitution to make it work better. And I’d completely forgotten that about a year and half ago I did almost exactly the same thing.

You’ll recall my obsession with Coursera MOOCs before I went back to graduate school. Well, Coursera has moved to a new technology platform and will permanently remove all of its old courses on June 30th. So this evening, I went back to retrieve as many of my old posts and essays as I could, before they all went into the digital dumpster.

I’ll be posting some of my better stuff here, as I sort through it all and figure out what’s worth showing to you and whoever wanders by. It won’t all be about politics!!! That’s a part of life that must, must, must somehow be kept in perspective. But, lo and behold

…for one course on political philosophy, my final semester project was: create a complete blueprint for a more effective state. 

Here’s what I came up with. [The only edits I’ve made were to eliminate identification of the course and professor, in case he still uses this assignment. Everything else is as I saw the world 18 months ago; I’ve resisted the temptation to update based on all that’s happened since. But there are some things in here that you and I have definitely been talking about, even just today (promoting jurisprudence based on empirical fact)…]

Building a State That Works:
Trust, Legitimacy, Citizen Engagement

We need a state. While arguing against anarchism is far beyond the scope of this project, I will note a single line of evidence: historically, dramatic reductions in violence have been closely correlated with the emergence of states capable of gaining and holding what Max Weber called a “monopoly on violence.” (Hobbes would have said, I told you so.)

We need a state that works. Recent experience suggests this is no easy task. To get such a state, I’ll draw on the ideas of the philosophers we have studied directly or indirectly – for example, Hobbes, Rawls, the Federalists, and others. However, in the 21st century, there are difficult new challenges to making a State work: challenges these thinkers considered only tangentially, if at all.

Why Building a State is Now Harder Than Ever

First and foremost among these challenges: building trust in any institutions whatsoever.

It is true that many institutions have betrayed the trust once given them. However, it is also true that we live in an era where many people reflexively expect the worst from even the best institutions and leaders. Increasingly, many people refuse to believe in anything or anyone, demand perfection from everyone except themselves, and declare themselves betrayed when any institution exhibits the least human imperfection.

Moreover, while the evidence can be debated, I am persuaded that the bulk of evidence shows a greater resistance to operating in large groups for a common public purpose; to participating in traditional roles of citizenship; to working with people culturally unlike themselves; perhaps even to making and keeping friends. Fed by difficult economic times, these trends have built an ever-growing market for fear, anger, and hatred; a market that is served to great profit by modern media.

In a society that has deeply internalized Bob Dylan’s lyric that “not much is really sacred” and Sartre’s phrase “hell is other people,” state-building is forbiddingly difficult. Much of the discussion of constitutions and the structure of democratic institutions elides a key reality: if people hold institutions in contempt, refuse to engage with them, and won’t thoughtfully guide or assess their work, those institutions will fail – no matter how they are structured. The strongest of these institutions will run on momentum for awhile. But then they too will fail. Arguably, Americans and many others are experiencing this right now.

A Closer Look at Trust and Social Capital, and Why They Matter So Much

Robert Putnam defines social capital as “the features of social life–networks, norms, and trust–that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” Social capital powerfully impacts both the way individuals interact with private organizations and with governments; people who are less likely to join the Elks Club or a church are also less likely to vote, serve on juries, or work in political campaigns. They are more cynical about shared efforts to do anything. They are unpromising candidates for citizenry in any democratic republic.

What leads to failures of trust and social capital?

  • They seem to fail when people “hunker down” with others like themselves, rejecting the growing diversity of their societies. Putnam has presented powerful evidence that, for all its long-term benefits, diversity poses a difficult challenge for civic engagement in the short term.
  • They seem to fail when inequality deepens, hardening class distinctions. Deep inequality convinces the poor that they and their children have little chance to advance. It convinces the rich that the poor deserve their current state, whether due to innate or cultural inferiority. While some of the causes (for example, accelerating technology-driven automation) are partially independent of the political system, they collectively make democracy more brittle and less sustainable.
  • Closely related to the preceding points, trust and social capital seem to fail when people sort themselves by religion, class, culture, and especially politics – thereby destroying the cross-cutting ties that have been empirically shown to strengthen democratic societies. This process of sorting is well underway in the US, and seems to be a key cause of its growing internal divisions.

Two examples may suffice. First: the percentage of Americans who said they would be “displeased” if their child married someone from a different political party has grown from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2010. Second: In researching his book American GracePutnam found that “as recently as the 1970′s there was essentially no correlation between how often you went to church and how you voted.” That meant churchgoers met plenty of Democrats, and atheists encountered plenty of Republicans. But, Putnam continued, “far more people have their religion and politics aligned now.” Of those who changed, Putnam added, most “changed their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around… It was hard to believe that people would be making decisions about their eternal fate on the basis of how they feel about Bill Clinton or George W. BushBut that’s the fact…

Building a successful State requires us to somehow counter massive societal trends such as these. Failing that, we must at least make them a visible and central issue in public debate. In significant part, that is my goal for this essay.

Using All the Resources We Have: Philosophical and Empirical

To have any chance at success, we must draw on tools that were unavailable to great political philosophers like Hobbes, Bentham, Smith, and Mill. We have learned some things about human beings in and out of society since they wrote. Hobbes knew much, but knew no evolutionary biology. Adam Smith knew much – including far more about ethics and empathy than is often recognized — but he knew little or no behavioral economics. The founders of the United States sought to create the conditions for happiness, but knew no neuroscience. Even Rawls and Nozick could not benefit from the latest studies of bonobo and chimpanzee tribes.

I don’t mean to overstate our progress towards understanding the human condition. Nor do I claim that an understanding of dopamine replaces Aristotle’s timeless ideas about a human life well-lived. I simply believe we need to draw on all the resources we now have — from both our traditions and the latest sciences, both hard and soft.

When it comes to building trust and social capital, therefore, I will rely heavily on the remarkable work of the aforementioned sociologist Robert Putnam. When it comes to constructing democratic institutions, I will draw on the empirical research of democracy researchers such as Stanford’s Larry Diamond (whose Coursera course, Democratic Development, was immensely valuable to me). When the authors of the US constitution met in Philadelphia, they had approximately one living democratic republic to draw on for comparison, as well as many failures lost in the classical past. We now have over 100 exemplars of varying forms and longevity; we should learn from them.

Setting Specific Goals for Our State

With all this said, I will outline nine explicit goals for my State, and some of what I propose to achieve each goal. I recommend certain constitutional provisions that are more specific than some of what is in the current US constitution (though that document does contain some surprisingly specific provisions that were clearly designed for their time and place and have gradually lost relevance). I am persuaded that we must now enshrine some principles and institutions in the constitution that the founders did not envision. (Implicitly, I believe my State does need a written constitution — first, because it will serve Americans whose tradition expects this, and second, because a written constitution offers something closer to a set of “official rules and guidelines” for managing a State – something that seems more essential now than ever.)

  1. The State must get things done, building confidence in its effectiveness.

Today, measures of State effectiveness and legitimacy that are commonly used with emerging democracies are every bit as relevant to mature democracies. To build its legitimacy, my State will have to get things done. When a State works, people are more likely to buy into it, support its constitutional structure, and resist attempts to undermine or ignore its rules.

To this end, my state will be somewhat less concerned with checks and balances to prevent action, and far more concerned with ways to promote action. For example, while protecting presidential veto, my State’s constitution would forbid requirements for supermajorities to end debate, enact any form of legislation, or confirm executive branch nominations.

Within executive agencies at both the federal and state level, I would seek ways to streamline public input, reduce opportunities to obstruct decision-making through lawsuits related to process rather than substance, and “put a clock” on certain decisions, so decision-making processes don’t continue endlessly, as is now often the case. Citizens will retain (and perhaps enhance) their ability to eject governments that act in ways they do not approve.

To the extent that special interests and “capture” prevent effective action, I will also seek to improve State effectiveness through the steps in #2 below.

  1. The State must aggressively resist capture by elites and special interests, and the corruption and cynicism this generates.

Constitutions represent tradeoffs; they need to prioritize solutions to the society’s most urgent, persistent, and ubiquitous problems, and this inevitably shapes how they define rights. I am far less concerned with the purported free speech rights of those who inject hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns to promote their own ideologies or pet causes. The notion that billionaires will ever have problems using their speech rights to influence the political system seems… unlikely. I am far more concerned that politicians who must spend all their time fundraising have no time left to respond to the petitions of citizens who can’t (or don’t want to) contribute. For American democracy, this problem is immediate and existential. Access to politicians is a zero-sum game; right now, wealthy interests are taking it all.

Research in 2008 by the political scientist Larry Bartels finds that “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.”

Massive influx of private interest money, much of it secret, is now driving national divisions and dysfunction into local elections,including judicial campaigns that ought to be utterly separate from partisan politics. This promotes even greater cynicism about justice as well as politics.

Therefore, my State’s constitution would require public funding of all campaigns, ban large private campaign contributions at all levels, explicitly prevent any court from overturning campaign finance restrictions on free speech or liberty grounds, and prohibit party-based judicial elections at all levels.

If we someday reach a point where our problem is not enough money in politics, or too little power for special interests, or too much oppression of billionaires, we can then amend our constitution to meet the needs of that radically changed society.

To engage true grassroots candidacies and encourage citizen participation in them, my State would also restore tax deductions for small contributions — potentially including in-kind contributions made through campaign volunteer work, if ways could be found to avoid high levels of fraud.

Finally, my State’s constitution would make provision for a well-funded independent special prosecutor tasked with investigating large-scale abuses of the public trust by both public officials and those who do business with or are funded by the taxpayers, and bringing both civil and criminal charges. Reversing the US Supreme Court, my constitution would explicitly permit prosecution based on the deprivation of citizens’ rights to “honest services” from their elected officials.

(The overall effect of the US Supreme Court’s recent decisions has been to accelerate the growth of political corruption. A charitable reading is to note that no current Justice has ever run for public office, and therefore they have no realistic understanding of the realities faced by candidates and elected officials. This has not always been the case; consider former Chief Justices Taft and Warren. One reasonable response is to require my State’s top court to always contain at least two members with elective experience.)

  1. To the extent possible, the State should provide conditions for broad, widely shared prosperity and opportunity.

For many reasons, America (like most mature democracies) is experiencing accelerating inequality. Such inequality is leading to growing social dysfunction, as well as growing disengagement from the political system. It increasingly appears to be a key factor in poor economic growth that impacts even the successful. It makes “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” an impossible goal for growing numbers of citizens, while also making democracy far harder to sustain.

Moreover, large-scale trends are exacerbating the problem. For instance, accelerating automation of both blue-collar and white-collar work is no longer being compensated for by the creation of large numbers of new jobs. We can see the endpoint in societies where only a few live well, and they spend fortunes on security guards and walled neighborhoods to protect themselves from everyone outside. Even pro-technology authors like MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (Race Against the Machine) envision that society may ultimately have to provide a guaranteed income, or at minimum, subsidize wages for tens of millions of people that the market will refuse to pay a living wage.

Given the baneful impact of accelerating inequality on democratic institutions, my State would constitutionalize countermeasures and aggressively utilize tax policy with the intention of moving back towards a more traditional and sustainable wealth distribution.

For example, my State would constitutionalize the right to freely choose union representation, with language modeled on the constitution of today’s most successful capitalist society, Germany: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”

My State would use corporate and individual tax policies to promote higher wages and better training for low-paid employees, discourage soaring executive compensation that has become completely unmoored from business performance; and promote local investment of capital rather than its hoarding or export. My State’s constitution would also explicitly permit the legislature to establish baseline working conditions, including maximum hours and minimum wages; given accelerating automation, there might come a time when the legislature would find it necessary to mandate a shorter workweek.

  1. The State should make decisions based on the best available evidence.

My State’s constitution would enshrine strong, independent, and permanent government research structures to inform decision-makers, such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Technology Assessment (an extraordinarily valuable organization that was unfortunately abolished by Congress in the 1990s.) These organizations would become part of a constitutional structure, and linked directly to the lottocracy features described in Section #9 below, offering randomly-selected representatives the opportunity for objective briefings on key issues from experts not beholden (or at least less immediately beholden) to special interests.

  1. The State should learn from and support institutions that do things well.

My State will seek out opportunities to partner with and support civic and non-governmental organizations at the local level. As James Fallows has eloquently written, “At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity.” My State will seek ways to learn from and encourage more of this.

As Robert Putnam notes, many of the most effective local organizations are religious; my State would seek ways to partner with faith-based (and atheist) organizations wherever this can be done without compromising the rights and beliefs of others. It would posit an imperfect grand bargain: the government will support faith-based organizations in providing social services, but those organizations cannot interfere with the government’s providing additional services to individuals, where these are legal but inconsistent with the faith-based organization’s beliefs.

Since participation in local institutions is a bridge to greater civic involvement, I would promote it in multiple ways. For example, beyond existing unemployment benefits, my State would pay the unemployed a competitive wage for their first eight hours per week volunteering for legitimate tax-exempt organizations.

  1. The State should promote the cross-cutting connections between diverse people that have been empirically shown to strengthen democracies.

One of the greatest failures of modern American democracy is that the vast majority of elected offices are held by people whose political parties have no effective local competition. The Democrat or Republican will always get 65%, 75%, or 90% of the vote, so why bother voting?

Therefore, on the national level, my state’s Constitution would require redistricting for representative offices within states (and perhaps even across regions) to create competitive districts wherever reasonably possible. For example, redistricting maps might require that no district be comprised of voters who had averaged more than 55% or 60% support for the same party in the preceding decade’s elections.

Leading democracy researcher Larry Diamond discusses proportional representation (PR) voting as a potentially valuable tool “for ensuring that all groups in a deeply divided society feel included in the political process, and even for encouraging the development of cross-cutting cleavages that can moderate …conflict over time.”

According to Diamond, majoritarian systems like the current US voting system “have the particularly perverse effect of denying legislative representation to precisely those voters who represent the greatest hope for accommodation, the ones who are willing to vote for a party other than the one that dominates among their group or region… [With proportional representation] votes are not wasted, so parties have an incentive to construct… inclusive lists of candidates, and thus to reach out, integratively, to develop a political base among groups that are predominantly represented by rival parties.”

My State would therefore use proportional representation to temper growing division and extremism, and restrain the tendency to demonize those outside one’s traditional constituencies.

  1. The State should provide equal, fair, and consistent justice, tempered with compassion; and protect human rights against infringement by both public and private agents.

Those who wish their State to deliver equitable, fair justice encounter two difficult paradoxes: How can one build a State that extends equitable, fair justice to all of its people, when many of them seem uninterested in providing such justice to those outside their own “tribes”? And how can one gain the clear advantages of government run at the local level, when empirical evidence indicates that local governance is the type most likely to deny equal justice?

Restorative justice offers significant promise here, given that it combines significant evidence of effectiveness with a sense of intuitive rightness that can appeal to many people who will never take a political philosophy class.

However, my State will also include constitutional provisions to hinder the People when they wish to mete out brutal or unequal justice. For example, I would strengthen the US constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” with additional limitations on punishments for “victimless” crimes and severe restrictions on solitary confinement. My constitution would furthermore guarantee that those who serve their sentences are restored full rights of citizenship and employment.

My State should also constitutionalize a commitment the US (and most nations) have already made: support for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document outlines the core set of human rights that comprised justice as most humans understood it in 1948, after the end of World War II. They include both the types of civil rights enshrined in the US Bill of Rights, as well as rights to healthcare, education, and work. (Nearly every other provision I describe could conceivably earn majority support in the US under the right circumstances. However, I can conceive of no scenario in which a majority of 21st century US citizens would agree to constitutionalize any commitment to international law in any form.)

  1. The State should vigorously encourage greater participation and more meaningful citizenship.

Voting is only a small fraction of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, but it is a start. To that end, my State would make Election Day a national holiday, and would administer voting through an independent national agency the way most successful democracies do. With voting established as a national function, my State’s constitution would mandate a meaningful tax credit automatically linked to federal income tax returns for those who choose to vote.

Again, however, voting is only one piece of civic engagement, and perhaps the least important piece. Election Day and other civic holidays (e.g., President’s Day, Labor Day, and perhaps a new Citizen’s Day) should be recast as major festivals of local and national civic engagement, with opportunities to learn and participate in community and national activities around the idea of meaningful citizenship. While not a constitutional issue, my State would prioritize civic education, and require that it be taught from diverse viewpoints. Where such diverse opinions are not available locally, they can now be provided across the Internet.

Crucially, my State’s constitution would gradually phase in a National Service requirement, making a powerful statement that we all owe something to our nation and society after all. As implemented through legislation, this would be linked to new career opportunities (for example, opportunities to pursue a medical career in exchange for a commitment to serve underserved communities for a specified period of time.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea of “requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service” is supported by 57% of Americans in a recent poll  (though this might be expected to decline if a serious proposal were made). There is unquestionably significant pent-up desire to participate in community service: “in 2011, AmeriCorps received 580,000 applications for only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full-time.” My State would harness this passion to make a contribution.

Finally,  Putnam’s research on the negative impact of diversity on civic engagement does mean that our State will need to enforce reasonable immigration restrictions that do not separate families or exile long-time contributors to our society. We are seeking to rebuild a dying or dead civic culture, while also rebuilding the lost sense that “we are all in this together.” This will be extremely difficult, if it is even possible. Through no fault of the immigrants, ongoing large-scale immigration makes it even more challenging.

Since there is no guarantee that even “long-time Americans” will choose to participate in our State as active citizens, my State’s immigration law would prioritize and welcome immigrants capable of passing a challenging set of exams about American citizenship, and agreeing to participate in civic life once they arrive – perhaps by quickly performing the National Service requirement described above. Large-scale participation in National Service by new immigrants might help soften the nativist attitudes against immigrants that are now darkening political debate in America (and elsewhere).

  1. The State should place decisions as close to the people as possible, consistent with the previous principles (which is to say, definitely not always).

I am persuaded that the advantages of federalism in promoting experimentation and local governance exceed its disadvantages. Moreover, as de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in Americalocal democracy is often the best democracy: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” As James Fallows points out, many good things can be accomplished at levels closer to the people, where citizens are more likely to have direct, unmediated access to decision-makers.

However, I am aware that many of the preceding principles in this list work against local governance. For example, I propose national economic policies that would probably not be chosen in all regions. Moreover, as Americans have learned from experience (and as their current Constitution’s 14th Amendment “Due Process” clause was intended to counter), local communities are often dominated by people who benefit greatly from entrenched discrimination and oppression of the powerless. This is the paradox I’ve struggled most to resolve, with the least success.

Having said that, my State would seek to localize and decentralize in areas where it has been empirically shown to do the most good (for example, economic development involving public-private partnerships); and resist localization where it has been susceptible to the greatest harm (for example, civil rights).

One possible mechanism for strengthening local governance and democratic legitimacy is to establish a jury-like process for selecting citizen task forces to recommend solutions to difficult local or regional problems. This does not, of course, protect local governance from federal intrusion (which, I confess, I often find necessary). Another might be to provide central state financial support for National Service performed through local governments in connection with tasks they select; thereby removing some financial pressure from local governments and giving them new resources to deploy to solve pressing local problems.

On a national level, I am persuaded by our Professor to make substantial use of lottocracy – the random selection of citizens for temporary legislative positions of authority. Lottocracy, if it works, does bring government closer to “something like” the people; though it does so without protecting local governance against the central State.

I would combine the current membership of the US Senate – 100 Senators, two from each state regardless of population – with another 200 members drawn by lot from all US citizens. This would reduce but not eliminate the Senate’s overrepresentation of small states, and dramatically reduce its overrepresentation of multi-millionaires.

My State’s 200 randomly selected senators would serve a single three year term; sufficient to master the process, but only half as long as the standard senate term (thereby protecting citizens from overly lengthy representation by randomly selected incompetents). I would utilize all of our Professor’s suggested mechanisms to protect these citizen senators from capture – high pay, agreements not to go work for lobbyists afterwards, etc. I would also guarantee access by these citizen senators to the non-partisan policy resources discussed above in Section #4.

Conclusion

Building (or rebuilding) a state is a long-term process that will require the rebirth of some level of trust, goodwill, and willingness to compromise. No structure, however well-crafted, can make up for their absence. This is why I have focused so much of my effort on rebuilding legitimacy, eliminating obstacles to action, reducing corruption, and re-engaging individuals in the hard work of citizenship.

Would it work? The odds are long. But I invite readers to consider where current trends lead. Democracies do collapse; societies do fail; cosmopolitan cultures can fall into ethnic hatred and warfare; even the most powerful states and empires can cease functioning virtually overnight (as happened in the Soviet Union just 25 years ago). If we don’t want that kind of future for our children, we had better consider where we are headed, and take responsibility as citizens to steer in a different direction.

————————————–

My teaching assistant asked me how I drew the line between laws and constitutionally enshrined principles, and asked whether evolutionary insights offered much value to the constitutional project, given the plasticity of human nature. I responded:

Vis-à-vis your question about drawing lines between statute and constitutionally enshrined principle, these are obviously difficult judgments. To the extent that I was gesturing towards a consistent principle, it was this: I would constitutionalize elements that seemed necessary to sustain a democratic state over time.

As our Professor pointed out early in the course, there are deep tensions between growing inequality and poverty and the ability to sustain a thriving democracy. I believe there’s at least some empirical evidence that massive economic inequality translated into massive political inequality leads to growing cynicism about political activity, growing disengagement, and failing democratic institutions. That’s what my economic and political reforms were intended to address. Given the resources of those who would oppose them, firmly constitutionalizing them seemed the best (if imperfect) defense available to me.

As for managing the tension between centralization and localized decision-making, I very much like your suggestion [to clearly identify the problems that must be dealt with nationally if they are to be dealt with at all]. I think it’s sort of related, maybe orthogonal, to my notion that some problems have proven more amenable to local approaches, whereas other problems seem actually to be exacerbated by them.

It’s an interesting question whether the types of problems societies now face are shifting; are they becoming more localized or more global? Problems like global warming suggest the need for wider approaches. However, there are also forces operating in opposite directions (for example, information technology seems to have led to greater decentralization and more loosely-coupled and federated organizations, e.g., today’s wide-ranging supply chains).

Regarding questions of evolution and human nature, I think I take something of a middle ground. I suspect some of the claims evolutionary psychologists make for their understanding of human nature will very much turn out to be “just-so stories,” speculations without evidence that don’t hold up in the long run. However, we do seem to see some real constraints on human nature associated with evolution…

The human race and its close predecessors spent the vast majority of its millennia as hunter gatherers in groups smaller than roughly 200 people, and there does seem to be empirical evidence that at least some of our behaviors are still very much optimized for such environments. Also, things like language structures do seem fairly hard-wired, constraining the kinds of languages humans create and how we use them.

There even do seem to be some proto-ideas of “justice” visible in babies as young as six months; but also proto-ideas of in-groups and out-groups that may underlie bias and bigotry (and could well relate to the aforementioned need to separate “us” from “them” that would have been present in hunter-gatherer societies)…

I think these kinds of issues especially play out in immigration debates, where nativists make all kinds of claims about immigrants that seem to have very deep roots in in-group/out-group psychology as discussed by Jonathan Haidt (immigrants are dirty, diseased, immoral, will rape our daughters), and quickly withdraw legitimacy from democratic institutions that seem to welcome too many foreigners.

That’s an issue where I was especially frustrated with our political philosophers, who seemed to view humans as essentially fungible and cultures as essentially interchangeable. Note that I’m rejecting claims that one culture is “better” than another; simply saying that it’s hard to imagine a democratic society with completely open borders ever surviving for long.

I don’t want to overstate how “hardwired” I think we are. I think societies overall can make progress; I am very influenced by Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and his charts and graphs discussing the reduction of violence over time.

There are so many things that human societies accepted as routine a few hundred years ago; people went to bear-baitings and executions for entertainment; slavery was not just accepted but financialized as big business worldwide, with banks buying and selling bonds backed by slaves just as they now do with mortgages. We can make slow progress over time in, as Peter Singer describes it, widening the circle of concern. But it takes time and indirection; it doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be mandated by constitution. This is why I found the Bush administration’s reversion to torture so horrific; it made a statement that we in America were prepared to reverse hundreds of years of painfully slow and hard-won progress overnight.

Pinker says the existence of a strong central state was one key element in our progress, and I agree. The more I reflect on this, the more I think Hobbes had a really stunningly powerful insight about states and violence.

It’s also why I personally think those who fetishize self-defense and the Second Amendment are taking an awful step back into a more violent past. Delegating protection to a reliable state means that fewer of us will ever have to act violently ourselves; that tends to help delegitimate violence, reduce our tolerance for it, and build less violent societies in the long term. (And it’s why, more broadly, I think libertarians are so terribly wrong.)

…So that’s my constitutional revision. What did you and Dan come up with?

 

 

 

 

Voting AND

I did not realize just how dramatically Brexit turnout varied by age:

blog_brexit_referendum_age_0

So you can say (as your text message put it): “If your generation does to my generation what they did in the UK, I will be very unhappy.”

And people of my ancient vintage can say, with Kevin Drum, “Eventually the kids are going to figure out how badly their elders are screwing them, and maybe then they’ll finally muster the energy to cast a ballot.”

Forced to choose, I’d be with Drum. But that’s a pretty arid and sterile debate, don’t you think? When people like me complain to people like you about young people not voting, it’s pretty ridiculous: you’re on (or pretty damn close to) the front lines in trying to change that.

We’ve all had a teacher who complains about all the students who are absent. In front of a classroom full of everyone who showed up.

So now to generalize about people I can’t possibly understand: your contemporaries. (I would be eager to hear your reaction to the following.)

To the extent that young people don’t vote because they don’t think it’ll make a difference… they clearly have a point. Voting for Hillary Clinton won’t solve all the country’s problems, any more than voting for Obama did. Or, as Bernie Sanders put it in his inimitable way:

No president, not Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, not the greatest president you can possibly imagine can address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country by him or herself. That is the truth, and that is why we need a grassroots political movement in this country: a political revolution.

Whether you share Bernie’s politics or not, it’s pretty obvious voting isn’t enough. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote: just that you shouldn’t leave the polling place imagining you’ve done the whole job. If you do, when a politician doesn’t deliver on all of his/her promises,* you become alienated and walk away — and things get even worse.

So position it as Voting AND.

Voting AND what? Whatever you want: Getting involved in a local or national civic organization, emails to the editor or your congressperson, going to a candidate’s debate, running for office, whatever. You set aside one hour a year to make sure you’re registered and then go vote. You then set aside one hour a month (or more) to be an active citizen, connecting directly to the political system in whatever way works for you. Because there’s no possible way a democracy can work if all people do is vote (or not vote).

From the standpoint of political strategy, Voting AND has a major advantage: It tells people the truth. (Because it’s not as if y’all don’t know that voting for a politician won’t — by itself — solve all your problems.)

From the standpoint of the people you’re talking to, “Voting AND” offers two important side benefits, even if the politicians they vote for disappoint them (which happens, here on Earth).

First, you feel better about yourself, same as everyone does when they get involved in something bigger than themselves. Human nature seems to work that way.

Second, you help prevent the kind of stupid catastrophes that just happened in the UK and might well happen here in November, where majorities of your white elders have somehow hypnotized themselves into imagining that Donald Trump would be a capable President. (They seem to imagine that the job’s #1 qualification is the ability to piss off the politically correct. Apparently I don’t understand my contemporaries any better than I understand yours.)

(There’s also a tiny bit of cold comfort: if the catastrophe does happen, you don’t have to feel guilty that you were too stupid and feckless to try to stop it.)

But those are just the side benefits. The real issue is: you want to live in a good country that works.

I would ask young people the same question I’d ask anyone else: How much effort do YOU think  American citizenship requires?

It’s not Voting OR. It’s Voting AND.

 


*As an aside, if you go back and look at Obama’s promises, he’s kept far more of them than most people realize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The nobility of imperfection: toiling in flawed human institutions

I read your post (of course)…

You mostly talk about Sanders and Clinton as individuals subject to public pressure by their supporters. But underneath that, I think we’re really talking about institutions. And one fraught institution in particular: the Democratic Party.

Heaven knows, the Democratic Party is easy to trash. But, if it sucks… compared to what? What’s a party for? What should, could it be doing? Why doesn’t it do better?** These are complex and subtle questions that deserve far deeper thought than they usually get. For instance: if the Democratic Party is compromised by money and corporate power, why? If lots of people vote in ways that seem (to us) to be against their own economic interests, why? For that matter, when the Democratic Party, or the Obama administration, does something importantly right, how on earth did that happen?

IMO, anyone who thinks these questions have obvious, simple, or conspiratorial answers isn’t thinking hard enough (or very hard at all).

Across the pond, the UK will vote Thursday on whether to “Remain” in, or “Leave” the European Union. As you probably know, “Brexit” has been a vicious campaign. The UKIP’s Nigel Farage (their Trump, roughly speaking) is running a Trumpian “make England great again” anti-immigrant campaign of fear. Maybe you’ve seen his poster:

breaking point

The other day, a local far-right white supremacist (who’d been in contact with America’s neo-Nazis) murdered a young Labour member of Parliament. As he fired his shots, he shouted: “Britain First.”

I mention this because I wanted to share something J.K. Rowling just wrote about the Brexit debate:

No, I don’t think the EU’s perfect. Which human union couldn’t use improvement? From friendships, marriages, families and workplaces, all the way up to political parties, governments and cultural economic unions, there will be flaws and disagreements. Because we’re human. Because we’re imperfect. So why bother building these ambitious alliances and communities? Because they protect and empower us, because they enable bigger and better achievements than we can manage alone. We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.

I think that says it. There’s a deep nobility in coming together as imperfect people in imperfect institutions, and trying to make them more perfect (as America’s founders so eloquently put it in the Preamble.)

One great tragedy of our time is that we’ve forgotten this. We see “institutions” as belonging to other people, not to ourselves. (Some do, but many could be ours if we cared enough.)

We assume total corruption without even asking questions. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we’re only looking at ordinary people doing the best they can with the realities they see and the complex mixtures of self-interested and principled disagreements they must navigate. We instinctively throw obstacles in their way, as if that were noble. It hardly ever occurs to us that it’s our responsibility to do the hard work of making things better.

The irony is: we all know that the only route to fulfillment is to do something bigger than ourselves. To do that, you have to work with other people. Nowadays, we tend to glorify transient teams that self-organize around a given task and then come apart as soon as that task is (or isn’t) successfully completed. Teams are the quintessential form of organization for people who don’t want to commit irrevocably to anything.

But teams aren’t adequate to the really big things we need to accomplish: things that take years, decades, lifetimes. Maybe a few rare people can help accomplish those big things by writing on their own, alone, in a garret. But for most of us, if you want to be part of something big, important, and lasting, you need to be part of an institution.

And that means subordinating part of yourself to that institution, with all its attendant forces and constraints. It means constantly figuring out what compromises you can accept and which are a bridge too far. It means trying to revitalize institutions against the entropy, heartache, thousand natural shocks that human things are heir to (sorry, Will). Sometimes it means building entirely new institutions. But whenever you’re talking about the forces that make society possible — whether it’s Putnam’s bowling leagues, Tocqueville’s voluntary civic associations, or even the non-voluntary Social Security system — strong institutions are indispensable.

Sociologists like Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas wrote about how modernity created impersonal institutions to replace traditional charismatic forms of authority with something intended to be more rational and legal. The European Union is perhaps the quintessential example, the apotheosis of this phenomenon.

But precious few people “love” the EU: they support it because they think it offers the potential of an incrementally better life, or because abandoning it would point Europe back towards the horrors of the 20th century’s two world wars.

I think we need to somehow imbue or re-imbue bureaucracy with a bit of sacred magic and inspiration; maybe even a sense of quest. That means escaping a fundamental paradox: squaring the circle, cutting the Gordian Knot. If it’s even possible, I can think of only one place to start: to recall why we created these institutions, and why anyone joined them in the first place.

If we’re looking to create just a tiny bit of magic, we could do worse than starting with Rowling: We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.

—————–

**For an interesting counterpoint, read Mark Leibovich’s new piece on the struggles of Reince Priebus, that rare individual who has actually, consciously made the decision to dedicate his life to the Republican Party.

Learning from history (if that’s possible)

In my last post, I suggested that history teaches some lessons to folks trying to assess Sanders’s and Clinton’s outlooks on change.

It got me thinking: What can and can’t you learn from history?

Nobody buys Santayana’s famous quote anymore. Some, like the radical historian Robert Fisk, say we could learn from history but never, ever do. Others, like the late Boaz Neumann, think you can’t learn a damn thing and shouldn’t even try: “Every phenomenon… has its own language and grammar, which is irrelevant to any other phenomenon. History is an intellectual pleasure. It is dangerous to learn from it.” No patterns, no possibility of patterns, just one thing after another.

(But then, we live in an age where literature and philosophy professors say similar things, and wonder why their enrollments are plummeting!)

The not-really-Twain quote “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” seems a bit closer. Then, of course, there’s The Onion, resonant as usual. 🙂

History certainly can’t teach “what’s going to happen next,” or “exactly what to do about it.” Seriously doubt the person who thinks every new historical situation is the next Munich, or Vietnam, or even — maybe I’m guilty of this — the next Reichstag Fire. Such people often seem to possess one fact, like a dog with a chew toy.

Just maybe, however, history at least gives us some context for contemplating the long term (or at least recognizing that it exists). For assessing whether decision-makers are being sufficiently thoughtful. For more completely considering the range of possible outcomes.

Above all, for being modest about one’s own understanding. For that, we need all the tools we can get!

So here are a few things history seems to teach me, as a mere amateur and grad student:

  • Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much it looks like it will.
  • Sometimes, when things start to change, or to collapse, it happens stunningly fast.
  • It’s possible for smart people to blunder into disaster.
  • Similarly, some leaders (not just in politics) look smarter than they are.
  • But occasionally the reverse is also true. Don’t always assume they’re as stupid as they look. They might be responding to incentives or motivations you don’t know about, or just playing their cards close to the vest.
  • Disasters caused by blundering, sleepwalking, or foolishness are more common than those caused by successful conspiracies, which require rare levels of skill and competence.
  • Events have a way of getting out of control.
  • The ability to keep complex events under control sometimes degrades over time — working perhaps once or twice, but not the third time.
  • People always act on imperfect information and imperfect understanding. (Sometimes, “imperfect” is being generous!)
  • Leaders are somewhat more likely to make effective decisions when they know more about their adversaries’ motivations, and the dynamics of the environments they hope to impact. Having a clue is no guarantee of success, but it can help.
  • Failure to act can have consequences, too.
  • Humans behave badly, tolerate worse behavior, and become more tribal when they’re afraid.
  • Often, people who frighten them are deliberately attempting to achieve these ends.
  • Worsening hatred is one of the “events” that can easily spiral out of control.
  • Over the long term, cynicism makes productive societies harder to sustain.
  • It’s horrible to live in times and places with failed institutions. And it’s much easier to tear institutions down than to build them.
  • Bad times can last a very long time. (Centuries. Many of them.)
  • What you know for sure will eventually be forgotten, contradicted, or superseded. This is likely to be true even in science and medicine.
  • The aforementioned does not suggest that notions you pull out of your posterior are as valid as peer-reviewed research.
  • The salience of today’s passions will fade. Conflicts that seem “perpetual” eventually will end. Even ethnic and religious conflicts.
  • Don’t assume unfamiliar people and groups are either exactly like you, or diametrically opposite. (Having said that, most people in most places and times are just trying to keep their heads down and get through the day.)
  • Utopias don’t work. It’s unrealistic to build systems requiring human beings to change dramatically.
  • But it’s also unrealistic to assume people will never change at all. They have, and will.
  • Some aspects of human behavior seem more malleable than others.
  • We still do not understand the interactions of culture, family, sexuality, society, and genetics; nor the impact of changes in these. But we know enough not to oversimplify them. Therefore, resist reductive arguments about these issues, especially arguments describing certain potential changes as either catastrophic or likely to have absolutely no wider impact at all.
  • Markets and money are incredibly transformative human institutions.
  • Humans have not yet proved they can sustain societies for the long term without something like religion.
  • Humans remain embedded in natural systems that often powerfully intrude on their plans.
  • Occasionally, one side in a dispute is 100% or nearly 100% right. It does happen. But that’s not the way to bet.
  • Human courage and nobility are real phenomena. We humans can be awful, but also magnificent. Most of us sit somewhere near the center of some kind of Bell or Power Law curve of human behavior.
  • Things are almost never simple. Beware those who tell you otherwise. Especially if they actually seem to believe it.

 

 

Sanders, Clinton, theories of change, and you

First of all, congratulations on graduating from The College of William and Mary! A wonderful achievement. I’m incredibly proud of you. And I want to reflect about it with you on this blog. Because there’s lots more to life than elections. Even with that gigantic sociopathic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-child Donald Trump currently striding through all our nightmares…

Stay-puft-marshmallow-man

It sounds like you and your unnamed friend are wrestling with what nowadays sometimes gets called “theories of change.”*

Does change happen incrementally, within the “system” (as we old hippies used to call it) — through compromise, coalition, and small steps forward? Or is such “change” hardly worth the name? Is the system so fundamentally corrupted by money and power that it must be revolutionized — and quickly, before it’s too late?**

I remember almost identical debates between young people volunteering for George McGovern, Ed Muskie, or other 1972 Democratic primary candidates (or for local congressional candidates like Allard Lowenstein) vs. those who considered electoral politics nothing but a fraud. So this is nothing new. (It’s a lot older than 1972, too. There are echoes of it in the 1930s debates among New Deal Democrats and all the nearly-forgotten sects to their left; the temporary Communist strategy to participate in so-called “popular fronts”… in fact, Debs himself left the IWW in 1906 over issues like these.)

Since the debate is long-standing, we can apply the tools of history to see if it offers any plausible lessons. Let’s set a standard: Which changes involving the political system have helped the most people live better lives? Which were designed to help a lot of people, succeeded in doing so, and became part of the permanent fabric of American society?

Here’s my first cut at a list:

  • 1934: The National Housing Act of 1934 (FHA)
  • 1935: Social Security
  • 1935: Wagner Act (establishing NLRB and right to unionize)
  • 1944: The GI Bill
  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
  • 1956: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, (Interstate highway system)
  • 1958: National Defense Education Act (student loans; scientific/graduate education)
  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act
  • 1965: Medicare
  • 2003: Medicare Part D (drug coverage)
  • 2003: Lawrence v. Texas / 2013 US v. Windsor
  • 2010: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — probably

I’m sure there are others. (Which am I forgetting?)

Some of these were deeply flawed by racism (notoriously, FHA); and others aren’t self-evidently progressive (interstate highways). Nor are they all the brainchildren of Democrats or liberals (Eisenhower’s NDEA, Bush 43’s Medicare Part D drug benefit). But, to me, they all meet my progressive standard: They improved a lot of lives. And they put the lie to the claim that government can’t do that.

Obviously my list isn’t definitive. A conservative might add Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts; I think their net impact, given his 1982 and 1983 tax increases, is deeply ambiguous even if you accept dubious conservative premises. Some liberals might add LBJ’s other War on Poverty programs, though only some survive (e.g., food stamps, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps). There’s the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958, authorizing the agency (ARPA) that essentially created the Internet. I’ve excluded this because it wasn’t crafted with intention or expectation of large-scale non-defense benefits. Other possibilities, depending on your worldview: Roe v. Wade (abortion rights); Griswold v. Connecticut (privacy penumbras & emanations — but for all the mockery, how many conservatives or liberals deny a right to privacy anymore?)

But, for the sake of my argument, let’s use my 12.

Each has its own book-length political history. But, at the top level, what do we see? A mix of “inside” and “outside” strategies.

In the examples aimed at achieving justice for mistreated groups, these movements usually start outside, with the grassroots, and find most of their energy there. Even here, however, a significant “inside” component develops.

Without a massive gay rights movement, Lawrence v. Texas and US v. Windsor would never have happened — but for this “outside” movement to triumph when it did, intelligent “inside” strategy was also required (Human Rights Campaign, Olson & Boies, etc., following the template created by the NAACP in advance of Brown v. Board.)

At the other extreme, some major societal transformations were enacted almost entirely by an insider elite: Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System (accelerating the growth of post-war white American suburban society) and the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act come to mind. These had external constituencies, but largely resulted from negotiation among government stakeholders seeking to solve a problem. I can’t think of comparable examples since the 1950s. (Which itself seems instructive.)

Usually, though, it’s both: inside and outside. Example: the unexpected links between FDR and the anti-New Deal American Legion that helped make the G.I. Bill happen in 1944, notwithstanding opposition from elite colleges, segregationists, and even some other veterans’ groups. (A fascinating story!)

My list includes major social changes involving downward redistribution of wealth (Social Security, Medicare, the Wagner Act). These were promoted and enacted by wealthy individuals (FDR, LBJ) who received huge amounts of dark money from even wealthier individuals.

You wouldn’t think this could happen, by Sanders’s telling. It doesn’t make sense. But history tells us it does happen. Usually, however, when the system is under immense pressure (e.g., from a powerful civil rights or union movement, or economic collapse).

The scarcity of such political pressure helps explain why there’s been no such redistribution for 50 years. (Except for Obamacare — yet another reason it’s so hated.)

So if, like Sanders (and me) you want big changes to reverse accelerating inequality, you have to wrestle with questions like:

  • Why is there no huge outside pressure for specific large-scale redistributive actions? Why wasn’t there even in 2009-2010, after the economic collapse and bailouts?
  • What are the strengths (and, IMO, deep weaknesses) of the voting coalition Sanders has built? What does that coalition’s (apparent) limits teach us?
  • How did Occupy move the issue of the 1% into public debate, and why didn’t it accomplish much more?
  • What might be the next steps for harnessing and building on the energy represented by Occupy and now Sanders? (I hope Sanders is thinking seriously about this, always assumed he was, and keep waiting for some actual evidence he is.)
  • How might “outside” movements work with “inside” people to shape agendas and transform them into actual change?
  • Can any of this happen when the suspicion of elites, organizational structures, and government is as deep as it is today? 

There’s one more way my list is skewed. It doesn’t include changes that never happened. Of course — they didn’t happen! But that begs the question: why not?

Sometimes the “outside” movements for them never come together. Or they are so massively alienating to mainstream constituencies that they backfire spectacularly (see Cloward/Piven‘s lunatic notion of flooding the welfare system with so many applicants that it would collapse, leading to a guaranteed national income).

Sometimes momentum for change dissipates, like an ocean wave fading onto shore. I felt this viscerally in 1978, watching liberals and unions pulling out all the stops to pass aggressive full-employment legislation. They had to settle for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which committed to… basically nothing. (It’s still the law. Did you even know that?)

But there’s another reason why big changes occasionally fail to happen: rejection of incrementalism. The classic example: Ted Kennedy’s lifelong regrets that he’d refused to support Richard Nixon’s national health care plan. Later in his life, one sensed Kennedy’s pain in reflecting on how many people died for lack of Nixon’s flawed insurance.

Then Obama came along, with his compromises and coalitions designed to build just enough corporate support and hold off just enough opposition. (In an environment where there was no mass uprising for single-payer, and a nationwide Tea Party rebellion against doing anything at all.)

So, now, half the Americans who didn’t have insurance have it now.

And it’s half as good, and half as widely accepted, as it should be. And way better than nothing.

And some waitresses and home health aides and laborers will live to see their grandchildren. (Thanks, Obama!)

My takeaway?

If you want important change, there’s a place for people outside the system, making a powerful moral case for changes that nobody else imagines yet… people who know that organizing for the impossible may take decades, even lifetimes.

There’s a place for the Bernie Sanders-es of the world, who bring those moral arguments to the floor of Congress. Even if they never pass any significant legislation.

There’s a place for grubby incrementalists who work in the trenches to write legislation (and press releases)… get the best deal they can… get across the finish line with something that actually improves people’s lives… something that can be improved later.

And there’s a place for you, if you want one.

There will always be tensions between outsiders and insiders and those in between. (Think LBJ and Martin Luther King.) But if they don’t work through those tensions, nothing happens — and we can’t afford that any longer.

———————–

*I never realized: “Theory of change” is a specific approach used by non-profits to organize thinking about how to get where they want to go. Worth knowing more about!

**Another viewpoint, profoundly stupid and ahistorical, is: “let it all burn.” That’s the play-toy anarchist, Guy Fawkes mask, Joker “why so serious,” politics-as-Marvel-blockbuster view of the world. Have actions premised on this worldview ever led to anything but catastrophe? How do people with this adolescent white male comic book mindset imagine they’ll escape the fallout? In a VR helmet?

On Trump, Irrational Hate, and the Philosophical Difference Between Sanders and Clinton

Hillary Clinton at a campaign event for Jeanne Shaheen. COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

I’ve been quiet on what’s been happening politically. Not on a personal level, as you know from talking to me and from the volunteer campaign work I’ve been doing. But I haven’t been engaging much with it online and in writing. I’m witnessing such an intense dissociation from facts and values that I believed were common and among people I thought shared my views. I see millions of people deciding that Donald Trump, a man who:

Equally disturbing, I see Sanders supporters, who ostensibly believe in ideas like justice, fairness, and equality, and issues like immigration, climate change, and poverty, saying how much they despise Clinton, that her nomination would be illegitimate because superdelegates would help, and that they’re considering not voting for Clinton because of how much they dislike her. They’re impervious to the facts that Clinton has 3 million more votes than Sanders and that the nomination system they’ve railed against (correctly, in my opinion), advantages Sanders. (About half the contests he’s won have been caucuses that make it difficult for anyone with a life to vote and result in dismal turnout.)

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. We’ve both been familiar with him years before most of his supporters even knew who he was. He’s been ahead of most Democrats in defending LGBT rights, calling out the vastly unequal distribution of wealth, and advocating for a government that does more to give working people a leg up. But he is and always has been a socialist. This country has never been particularly warm toward socialism in any form. The most successful American socialist candidate was Eugene Debs, and he got the highest total number of votes (913,664 votes) while sitting in a jail cell. Over 100 years later, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans would not vote for a socialist. Clearly, Sanders has attracted a ton of support, especially among the youngest generation of voters, who are friendlier toward socialism than capitalism.

But now, in late May, it seems like Sanders’ support is fueled more by an irrational hatred of Clinton than a desire to create change. I see people on Facebook conflating Clinton and Trump as if they have remotely the same personality traits, beliefs, and goals. I was never a big fan of Hillary, but I always respected her experience, her excellent understanding of policy, and her commitment to women’s equality. None of the scandals she’s involved been involved with (Whitewater, Vince Foster, Benghazi, the emails, etc.) have proved her to be the snake so many people believe she is. She’s way too secretive and cautious, and that makes her look dishonest, but I think that was borne out of decades of vicious attacks on her and her family. If I had garbage continually lobbed at me for 25 years, I’d probably develop similar traits.

But there’s an important philosophical distinction between Sanders and Clinton that I’ve been conflicted about, and is often the subject of arguments between me and a certain friend.

While Sanders has a bipartisan record, he is more of an activist than a policymaker. As Congresswoman Slaughter said to me during my internship, in the 16 years they were in the House together, he passed three pieces of legislation, and two were naming post offices. I read an article in Politico today that delved deeper into Sanders legislative record. It found that Sanders had relatively little influence on major liberal policy achievements. He did make small, meaningful contributions, like increasing transparency of the Federal Reserve in Dodd-Frank and successfully advocating for funding for community health centers in Obamacare. But he was never a major player in crafting significant laws, and his influence on policy has paled in comparison to other senators, like Elizabeth Warren, who’s made protecting Dodd-Frank a hill to die on.

Hillary Clinton has always taken a more policy centered approach, and while she hasn’t always been successful, it has produced results. Looking up what Clinton has actually done, I was surprised to find a laundry list of legislative and diplomatic achievements. As First Lady in 1997, she was instrumental in passing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which had bipartisan support, and has improved health care access for millions of children in poverty. As a senator she helped write and pass the Pediatric Research Equity Act, which requires pharmaceutical companies to study the effects of their drugs on children, which has made crucial drug information available for hundreds of drugs. She fought to get billions in aid for 9/11 first responders to get needed medical treatment. She sponsored and fought for the original Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which became law shortly after she left the Senate. As Secretary of State, she rallied the world to put tough sanctions on Iran that forced them to the table, while pressuring countries like to China to cut their emissions, which have led to the US-China Climate Agreement and the Paris Agreement.

We can argue that her policies have come up short, that her instincts are too hawkish, and that she’s too cozy with Wall Street, but there is no question that the woman gets shit done, and that much of it has been really good.

That said, the political system needs to be shaken up. It is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the status quo. Sanders is right: we need a political revolution. Of course, that requires more people voting in presidential and midterm elections than have ever done so, and voting Democratic. Our present two-party system is deeply unsatisfying, but until we change our voting system, which won’t happen anytime soon, the Democratic Party is the only electoral vehicle capable of affecting liberal policy change.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m too pessimistic, lacking in imagination, and too willing to compromise. I certainly give up too quickly in my day to day life. That hasn’t stopped me from getting involved and fighting though, if for a candidate that is far to my right. Let my contribution to the revolution be to motivate others to stand up and fight.