THIS Is What’s Wrong With America

A Facebook friend who lives in Todd Rokita’s Congressional district attended his recent Town Hall. In a post following the event, she reported on an exchange she had with the Congressman:

My question was “What evidence do you require in order to revise your opinion on climate change?”

His response was “No evidence could ever exist that would change my mind. It’s all Liberal science.”

If the constituent who posted this conversation transcribed it accurately–and I have no reason to doubt that–this is a disturbing and revealing admission. Don’t confuse me with facts. I’m a zealot who’s impervious to evidence. 

This one exchange is a (horrifying) example of what is wrong with Rokita, with today’s Republican Party, and –to the extent people of this ilk dominate our government–what’s wrong with American politics.

As appalling as I find the sentiment–“I’ve formed an opinion that cannot be altered by evidence or reality”–what is truly illuminating about this exchange is the immediate resort to labeling. Rokita and those like him find no need to engage in reasoned debate, no need to defend their positions; instead of providing grounds for their opinions, they simply dismiss opposing perspectives by labeling them “liberal.”

(Perhaps that response is inadvertent confirmation of the snarky observation that “reality has a well-known liberal bias…”.)

I cannot think of any position more disqualifying for public office–or for any responsible job–than one that refuses in advance to even consider evidence that might be inconsistent with one’s prejudices.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so surprised: evidence has never been Rokita’s strong suit.

Todd Rokita was the Indiana Secretary of State whose discovery of (vanishingly rare) “voter fraud” led to his championing of the state’s Voter ID law, which (entirely co-incidently, I’m sure) disenfranchised poor minority voters who had a deplorable tendency to vote Democratic.

I really never expected to live in a country where science and empirical research required defense, but evidently Luddites aren’t simply historical oddities. So later this morning, I will join other Hoosiers at the Statehouse to participate in a “March for Science.”

As the website for the March explains,

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?

People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely.  Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford.  We must stand together and support science.

The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone — without exception. Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions. At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers.  It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to say, science is true whether we believe it or not. What he implies, but doesn’t say, is that rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster–and so is continuing to elect people who find science unacceptably “liberal.”

 

Trump, Le Pen and Racism

On “Last Week Tonight,” his brilliant take on the world we inhabit, John Oliver spent considerable time discussing the upcoming French elections. The entire segment is worth watching–it’s informative as well as hilarious (if depressing can be hilarious)–but one quote really struck home.

“One of the frustrating things about watching this unfold from America, is this feels a little like deja vu,” Oliver warns, “A potentially destabilizing populist campaigning on anti-immigrant rhetoric who rages against the elites despite having a powerful father and inherited wealth, even as experts reassure us that there is no way that this can possibly happen.”

Anyone who has watched the “evolution” of Le Pen’s movement over the years, from her father’s forthright Nazi-ism to her smoother delivery of White Supremacist bigotry, understands the extent to which the upcoming election is a referendum on the extent of French racist sentiment.

Deny it as we might, Americans watching the French political drama unfold have just held a similar referendum.

Media pundits and “serious” political commentators have resisted attributing Trump’s electoral college victory to racism, offering a number of alternative explanations: economic distress in the heartland, Hillary hatred, authoritarian tendencies. Recent research, however, confirms what many of us saw during the campaign–the unsettling resonance of barely veiled racist appeals.

In an article for the Washington Post, Thomas Wood, a political science professor at Ohio State, mined newly available data.

Last week, the widely respected 2016 American National Election Study was released, sending political scientists into a flurry of data modeling and chart making.

The ANES has been conducted since 1948, at first through in-person surveys, and now also online, with about 1,200 nationally representative respondents answering some questions for about 80 minutes. This incredibly rich, publicly funded data source allows us to put elections into historical perspective, examining how much each factor affected the vote in 2016 compared with other recent elections.

Wood evaluated the evidence for the income and authoritarian hypotheses, and found them insufficiently predictive. He then looked at the data measuring racial resentment.

Many observers debated how important Trump’s racial appeals were to his voters. During the campaign, Trump made overt racial comments, with seemingly little electoral penalty. Could the unusual 2016 race have further affected Americans’ racial attitudes?…

Since 1988, we’ve never seen such a clear correspondence between vote choice and racial perceptions. The biggest movement was among those who voted for the Democrat, who were far less likely to agree with attitudes coded as more racially biased.

The statistics told the story.

Finally, the statistical tool of regression can tease apart which had more influence on the 2016 vote: authoritarianism or symbolic racism, after controlling for education, race, ideology, and age. Moving from the 50th to the 75th percentile in the authoritarian scale made someone about 3 percent more likely to vote for Trump. The same jump on the SRS scale made someone 20 percent more likely to vote for Trump.

The unexpected results of the Brexit vote in England have been widely attributed to anti-immigrant bias. Le Pen’s appeal is explicitly racist and nationalist, and she is expected to easily make the run-off in France’s upcoming election. In the United States–long considered a beacon of inclusivity, despite our frequent lapses–the electorate ignored the terrifying personal and intellectual deficiencies of a candidate who appealed to their tribalism and racial resentments.

Are these events– and others, like the Turkish election– evidence of the decline of cosmopolitanism, and a global triumph of tribalism? If so, what happens next?

 

It’s Much More Than Just Fake News

This is the time of year when my students–graduate and undergraduate–present the results of their research projects to their classmates (and, of course, me). One of my better undergraduate students focused upon the legal implications of the increasing use of household “personal assistants”–those sort of “Siri for home use” voice-activated electronic devices like Amazon’s “Echo.”

In addition to detailing the investigative uses of such devices by law enforcement, he pointed out potentials for informational mischief, especially when those devices are asked to conduct a search; unlike a google search performed on a computer screen, which yields pages of results and thus highlights inconsistent responses and the questionable credibility of certain of those responses, a virtual assistant simply responds with whatever information has been moved up in the response list by someone good at search engine optimization.

His example: responding to question “who won the popular vote,” one personal assistant read from a single (conspiracy) site reporting that Trump had actually won the popular vote.  No list, no context, no description of the source.

If the implications of his presentation weren’t troubling enough,a report from the Medium website gave me chills.

A data scientist and others had begun digging into so-called “fake news” sites after the election.  It soon became clear to them that they were dealing with a phenomenon that encompassed much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate public opinions and behaviors to advance specific political agendas.

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

Analytica has declined to work on any Democratic campaigns,  and according to the story, is negotiating to help Trump manage both public opinion around his presidency and to expand sales for the Trump Organization.

Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America….

There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.

Markets and Inequality

Those of us who believe in the efficacy of markets (a fundamental tenet of capitalism) must be prepared to accept a certain degree of inequality. Your invention of a better mousetrap will cause my older model to lose market share; your admirable work ethic will earn you a higher wage than my preference for taking long weekends.

Theoretically, in a genuinely capitalist system, the market will reward merit more liberally than it will reward mediocrity.

Of course, a genuinely capitalist system will not be rigged to benefit the powerful and/or well-connected at the expense of others. America has long since morphed from capitalism to corporatism, a system in which lobbyists for powerful interests are able to ensure that government regulations favor their well-heeled clients.

In capitalist systems, the theory is that the promise of greater rewards is an incentive for innovation and diligence; advocates justify the resulting inequalities by pointing out that everyone benefits from the resulting entrepreneurship. A rising tide, we are told, lifts all boats.

When capitalism devolves into corporatism, only the boats of the powerful and well-connected get lifted, and it becomes much more difficult to sustain the pretense of meritocracy.

In capitalist/corporatist systems, rampant inequality poses challenges that ideology cannot satisfactorily address. Social scientists and historians tell us that when the gap between rich and poor widens too much, there are very negative consequences for social and political stability. In order to manage the size of the disparities, most first-world countries today have “mixed” economies; governments socialize the services that markets cannot provide (public safety, environmental protection, healthcare, etc.) and—importantly—recognize the existence of an obligation to citizens who for one reason or another, cannot earn a living wage.

In the United States, we have a number of elected officials—in Congress, certainly, but also in statehouses around the country—who reject the logic of mixed economies, and refuse to recognize the threat that extreme inequality poses to social stability and national cohesion. Paul Ryan’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s brutal (kick ‘em when they’re down) budget proposals, the persistent efforts to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide critical medical care to the needy, are assaults that strike many of us as indefensible—especially since they are almost always accompanied by tax giveaways to the rich.

Those arguing on behalf of these measures insist that their purpose is to defend market economics. Most of them know better; the rhetoric is an effort to divert attention from the fact that government is doing the bidding of powerful, rich and very greedy special interests.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this assault on the poor is the not-so-subtle characterizing of needy Americans as “Other.” “They” are immigrants, living off the sweat of “real” Americans; “they” are lazy people of color. If “they” are female, they’re immoral sluts popping out babies in order to qualify for the public dole. It doesn’t matter that none of these characterizations are remotely factual; the dog-whistle references and dishonest descriptions find a willing audience among people who see themselves as part of an America that is rapidly losing cultural hegemony.

The “Other” is the shiny object that distracts attention from corporatist wheeling and dealing.

If current levels of material inequality are bad for America—and they are—this cynical effort to distract our attention by widening our social divisions is even worse.

A Good Question–And Some Dispiriting Answers

A recent article in the New Yorker raised a troubling question: How is it that an Administration as disorganized as Donald Trump’s has been so methodical when it comes to attacking the environment?

Next week, millions of Americans will celebrate Earth Day, even though, three months into Donald Trump’s Presidency, there sure isn’t much to celebrate. A White House characterized by flaming incompetence has nevertheless managed to do one thing effectively: it has trashed years’ worth of work to protect the planet. As David Horsey put it recently, in the Los Angeles Times, “Donald Trump’s foreign policy and legislative agenda may be a confused mess,” but “his administration’s attack on the environment is operating with the focus and zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.”

The list of steps that the Trump Administration has already taken to make America polluted again is so long that fully cataloguing them in this space would be impossible.

The author did follow that disclaimer with a long list of actions that were increasingly depressing as I read them. And she pointed out that the Administration’s horrendous budget proposal would  slash the E.P.A.’s budget by thirty-one per cent–more than it proposes reducing the State Department’s budget (twenty-nine per cent) or the Labor Department’s (twenty-one per cent).

The proposed cuts would entail firing a quarter of the agency’s workforce and eliminating many programs entirely, including the radiation-protection program, which does what its name suggests, and the Energy Star program, which establishes voluntary efficiency standards for electronics and appliances.

These initiatives are, of course, insane. But so much of Trump and his Keystone Kop Administration is insane. What is particularly worrisome is that in this one area, the Administration appears to be moving effectively to accomplish its goals. (I’ve been counting on the disarray and incompetence of the Trump White House to blunt the effect of his actions.)

How is it that a group as disorganized as the Trump Administration has been so methodical when it comes to the (anti) environment? The simplest answer is that money focusses the mind. Lots of corporations stand to profit from Trump’s regulatory rollback, even as American consumers suffer. …

But, while money is clearly key, it doesn’t seem entirely sufficient as an explanation. There’s arguably more money, in the long run, to be made from imposing the regulations—from investing in solar and wind power, for example, and updating the country’s electrical grid. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Amanda Erickson proposed an alternative, or at least complementary, explanation. Combatting a global environmental problem like climate change would seem to require global coöperation. If you don’t believe in global coöperation because “America comes first,” then you’re faced with a dilemma. You can either come up with an alternative approach—tough to do—or simply pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.

We evidently live in a world where significant numbers of people would rather make the planet unlivable for their children and grandchildren than face unpleasant realities or co-operate with Others.

I find this incomprehensible. And deeply worrisome.