Tuesday, March 15, 2016

There Are Only Two Ways to Run a Government

Much ink has been spilled during this Presidential campaign cycle about the divisions within American politics. Analyses both sophisticated and mundane have been offered suggesting what divides us from each other. Of particular interest: what separates supporters of one candidate from supporters of another? Why do those people support candidate A, and what makes them different from supporters of candidate B? These are interesting and, to some degree, illuminating questions. But they miss a larger point.

The larger point is this: in the end, amidst all the ideologies and labels about "conservatives" and "liberals" and "progressives" and "tea partiers" and "socialists" and whatnot, there are really only two ways to run a government. All of those labels denote preferences - that is, things that people prefer to see in terms of the outcomes of politics. But as most people who study politics know, it's not about the outcomes so much as it is about the process. And in process, there aren't a multitude of options - there are only two:

1) We recognize that we have different preferences and devise a system in which everyone has a chance to express their preferences and give input. The end result is a weighted average of those preferences, with some bright lines ("rights") established and agreed to ahead of time that cannot be violated no matter what mass preferences are.

2) Political outcomes are decided by threats, intimidation, and force. Whoever has the most power will impose their preferences on everyone else, by threats if sufficient, by violence where necessary. Politics is essentially an extension of combat. Compromise occurs only when opposing preferences have sufficient power to balance each other.

In short, governments run either by a process of rules and agreement, or by a process of force and violence.

The first option, government by process and agreement, is largely but not completely a function of the Enlightenment. It holds up a particular set of ideas, chief among these being that people should not kill each other over political outcomes and that maximizing the welfare of the whole population is something that, as in Kant's Categorical Imperative, everybody should reasonably want.

The second, government by force, has largely been the default mode through much of human history. It can be found in every corner of the world, among every people, in nearly every age. It is so ubiquitous that some have suggested that it is at the heart of the human animal, a part of our very nature.

These are, to some degree, ideal types. Governments have been known to use horrific force against some groups (Jews in Nazi Germany, for example) while those same governments engage in cooperative action to look after the welfare of "their own". It is usually the lure of tribalism (or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or racism - take your pick) that lures people back from the ideals of a reasonable society for all to a society in which violence against some is OK, even warranted.

Why does this matter? Because we tend to forget that, behind all of the other left/right, liberal/conservative divides that we put up, that there are some questions far more fundamental. We also tend to forget that, at least once upon a time, there was something that we really did all agree on.

I say "once upon a time", because now we have the Drumpf phenomenon.

I have said previously that I prefer not to write about Drumpf, because he gets enough press as it is. What I'm arguing here is not specific to his campaign, or to his followers. The phenomenon that is the Drumpf campaign has simply laid bare the choice that we face. It has also forced us to confront a difficult reality: we may have thought that Americans at least agreed on this, but it turns out that we do not.

What we have been faced with in recent months is a candidate, and his followers, who are clearly in Camp #2. They draw fairly clear lines between "us" and "them", even though members of both groups are what the rest of us would identify as "Americans". And Drumpf and his followers are clearly all too willing to engage in violence - in fact, that's exactly how they think things should be. Compromise, listening to others, following rules - those are for the weak, Drumpf says. And his followers clearly agree.

The Drumpf phenomenon is not alone here. Increasingly, "protestors" have been going to Drumpf rallies and attempting to shout him down or otherwise disrupt the proceedings. One even rushed the stage at an event here in Dayton, although that individual's motives were unclear. And while there has been much talk about free speech rights and their limits, some of these protestors aren't engaged in speech per se - they're trying to force a different outcome. They, too, want to exercise power in order to impose their will on others, if only in a limited way (by disrupting an event).

When faced with force, it is easy to resort to force ourselves. It is tempting to argue that we need to "fight fire with fire". But in a political process, that takes us all down the same road. We're not conducting campaigns anymore, we're simply engaged in a backyard brawl. And every escalation by one side is taken as justification for counter-escalation by another.

For me at least, this is what the Presidential campaign is about. It's not about Democrat or Republican, not about Conservative or Liberal, Socialist or Capitalist. Those are for the most part outcome preferences. This election cycle is really about the fundamental process question: what kind of politics do we want? Will we decide our futures together, as one nation of competing interests and ideas working with each other? Or will our futures be decided by brute force, with the strongest and most brutal winning out?

I know that kind of country I want to live in. I used to think I could take it for granted. I don't think that's true anymore.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Authoritarian Movement, Fear, and the American Soul

If you read nothing else about the Donald Trump (Drumpf!) phenomenon, go read this (somewhat lengthy) article: The Rise of American Authoritarianism.

The article is an excellent distillation of research done, both in the last couple of decades and recently, about authoritarian tendencies within the American body politic. This research produces an explanation not only for the "Drumpf phenomenon" but for a lot of other things in American politics. That explanation includes this observation:
And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians. 
And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment's centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.
I've no doubt that this will lead to a whole new wave of political strategizing by both Democrats and establishment Republicans about how to "win" in this new landscape. Democrats are likely very happy with this development, as it tears apart their principal competitor. Establishment Republicans are likely very concerned, as this threatens to split their coalition and lead to defeat not only in this round but for years to come.

This is all interesting in an academic sense, but while I do have preferences among parties and policy positions I largely try not to have a dog in that fight. Parties are going to do what they do regardless of what I think or don't think, say or don't say. I'm more interested in what this means for us, individually and as a people known as Americans.

One of the key observations in the literature cited above is this one:
non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.
Authoritarianism (the tendency to look for "strong man" solutions to perceived problems) is largely driven by fear, either in general (in response to broad social changes, for example) or in particular (fear of specific dangers seen to be near at hand - terrorism, gun violence, home invasion). I've written a lot about fear lately, much of which can be summarized in one of my favorite clips:

All of this raises a very important question to those of us who are not authoritarians and don't want to live in a country ruled by fear: What can we do?

My answer to this question is not political (in the traditional sense of "vote for this person" or "join this party"). Most of the people motivated by this question are going to do those things anyway. But as the Vox article points out, authoritarianism is not about this particular election. It's a significant force, and it's not going to go away no matter who wins in November.

So if you're really concerned about rising authoritarianism changing our identity as a people, I think the best answer isn't political, it's personal. What can you or I do to make our communities less authoritarian?

Answer: interact with people in such a way that they become less afraid.

Without going too deeply into the research on authoritarian tendencies, I will take as given that a portion of the population is authoritarian simply by nature. I'm not going to "talk someone out" of being authoritarian. This is not a subject to rational debate; authoritarianism lives at the gut level - the affective/emotional side of our psyche. There isn't some clever argument or set of factoids that is going to transform someone who is deeply, ideationally authoritarian into something else.

To the extent that some of the authoritarian movement is a response to fears perceived in the environment - as the research above suggests that it is - then we have an opportunity to make a difference. This too is less about arguments and facts, although those can be helpful. But ultimately you can't convince somebody who is afraid of a terrorist attack by telling them that they're more likely to be killed by falling furniture. Statistics don't convince emotionally.

So how do you engage with authoritarianism in ways that might actually move the needle? Not by rational argument, but by relationship. If authoritarians (or those who have been driven to it by perceptions) are driven by fear, show them that the world isn't as scary as they think. That other people (you) can be counted on to be decent, honorable, trustworthy, even if you're different. And above all: show them that you are not afraid. Not afraid of them, not afraid of terrorists, not afraid of the many (largely phantom) menaces that people conjure up in their minds.

Why would this matter? Because more than arguments and facts, people are moved by stories and the way those stories make them feel. You yourself are a story to everyone you meet. The more you interact with them, the more of your story they get to see. If your story is one of peace and love, they may begin to see that fear is not the only option. That other paths are possible.

There's nothing foolproof about this. Some folks are so driven by fear that they will dismiss you as a nut, a loon, an idealistic dreamer out of touch with reality. So may even get angry, because your story challenges theirs. So be it. There is no "formula for success" here. It won't work every time. But it's likely the only thing that will work.

So if you are concerned (as I am) that there is a rising tide of authoritarianism, fear, anger, and hatred in our nation, the answer is not to fight fire with fire. Fear does not dispel fear. Anger does not counteract anger. And snark, while amusing, is not a tool for change. To borrow from the stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
In short: if you don't want to live in a community ruled by fear, then don't. Don't be afraid. And let everyone see you not being afraid. This is the only thing you can do. And if enough of us do it, then we will all be right.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Presidents Aren't Gods

This Presidential election season, it's good to keep things in perspective by reminding us of a very important truth:

We're electing a President. We're not choosing God.

Presidents, you see, aren't nearly as powerful as we seem to want (or need) them to be. The US Presidency, as powerful as it is, is profoundly limited in its ability to influence events both inside and outside the United States. Some examples:

• The course of the civil war in Syria, including the fortunes of Daesh/ISIL, are largely beyond the control of the President. That war follows its own logic and its own path. If we sink enough resources into it, we can alter that path - but not in ways we can control. See, for example, Iraq.

• The economic fortunes of the United States are only loosely tied to what the President does. Much of a President's impact is filtered through Congress. If you think taxes, spending, fiscal policy, etc. matter to the economy, blame Congress, not Obama - you may notice that Congress hasn't much followed what Obama wants in the last few years. If you think interest rates and monetary policy matter, blame the Fed. The best a President can do on his own is tinker at the very small margins by tweaking some regulations here or there. The economy is driven by much larger forces.

• Social change in the US tends to see US Presidents following, not leading. Anybody who blames Obama for the legalization of gay marriage has bought into an illusion. That change was driven by a combination of social attitudes among Americans and legal conclusions reached by independent judges.

• Russia's annexation of Crimea was a function entirely of Russian near-abroad political calculations, immune to influence by Obama or any other US President.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

It's reassuring to believe that a US President can fix everything we see wrong with the world. It's also easy for people running for that office to blame every ill in the world on the current officeholder. Small wonder that we tend to get more and more disappointed with our Presidents over time - we expect too much, and when they can't deliver we turn to the next person who promises the sun, the moon, and the stars.

So remember this election season: we're voting for someone who will be important, but we are not electing an Omnipotent Being. Your favorite candidate will not turn the world into Utopia. And your least favorite candidate will not destroy it and bring about 1000 years of darkness.

It's just a President, after all.