Tag Archives: Democracy

And I Thought I Was Being Too Negative….

I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that so many of my posts to this blog are dispiriting. Then a friend shared a link to an article in Salon, saying “read it and weep.”

I’m weeping.

The article analyzed recent polling, and found that 96% of those who voted for Donald Trump say they would do so again. Only 85% of Hillary Clinton voters, however, would stick with her.

That’s not because former Clinton supporters would now back Trump; only 2 percent of them say they’d do so, similar to the 1 percent of Trump voters who say they’d switch to Clinton. Instead, they’re more apt to say they’d vote for a third-party candidate or wouldn’t vote.

President Donald Trump is the antithesis of what Hillary Clinton’s voters desired in a candidate. And in many ways Donald Trump’s incompetent, ignorant, reckless, racist, demagogic and cruel behavior in office is worse than even his most concerned and cynical critics had predicted. This outcome should motivate Clinton’s voters to become more engaged and more active, instead of making a decision in a hypothetical election that might actually give Trump a victory in the popular vote.

The findings from this new poll are troubling. But they should not come as a surprise.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that the American public does not have a sophisticated knowledge on political matters. The average American also does not use a coherent and consistent political ideology to make voting decisions. As Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen demonstrate in their new book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” Americans have identities and values that elites manipulate, which voters in turn use to process information — however incorrectly.

I have read the Bartels and Achen book, and it is hard to argue with their thesis. I also have a young colleague who studies “correct” voting–defined as casting a vote for the candidate whose positions come closest to the positions the voter has identified as important and motivating. (Spoiler alert: a lot of voters don’t vote “correctly.”) As the Salon article puts it,

American voters en masse are not rational actors who seriously consider the available information, develop knowledge and expertise about their specific worries and then make political choices that would maximize their goals.

These matters are further complicated when considering right-wing voters. While Trump may have failed in most of his policy goals, he has succeeded symbolically in terms of his racist and nativist crusade against people of color and Muslims. Given the centrality of racism and white supremacy in today’s Republican Party specifically, and movement conservatism more generally, Trump’s hostility to people of color can be counted as a type of “success” by his racially resentful white voters.

American conservatives and right-leaning independents are also ensconced in an alternative news media universe that rejects empirical reality. A combination of disinformation and outright lies from the right-wing media, in combination with “fake news” circulated online by Russian operatives and others, has conditioned Trump voters and other Republicans to make decisions with no basis in fact. American conservatives do, however, possess a surplus of incorrect information. In that context, their political decisions may actually make sense to them: This is a version of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Republican voters also tend to be have more authoritarian views than the general public. As a type of motivated social cognition, conservatism is typified by deference to authority, groupthink, conformity, social dominance behavior and hostility to new experiences and new information. These attributes combine to make Trump voters less likely to regret supporting him and in some cases — because of a phenomenon known as “information backfire“— to become more recalcitrant when shown that Trump’s policies have failed in practice.

There’s a wealth of social science research confirming these observations.

The 64-thousand-dollar question (as we used to say back when sixty-four thousand dollars was a lot of money) is: what the hell are we going to do about it?

 

What Now?

I’ve been asked to make a speech addressing a question that several  commenters to this blog have asked: what now? How do we rescue our democracy? Here’s an abbreviated version (still long–sorry) of what I plan to say.

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Let me begin by admitting that I was stunned and dismayed by the election’s result. Anyone who isn’t concerned about handing nuclear codes over to someone both thin-skinned and unstable hasn’t been paying attention.

That said, a Hillary Clinton Presidency would have simply been a continuation of the Obama years: irrational Republican opposition to anything and everything the President proposes, even when those proposals originated with Republicans. It would simply have delayed the day of reckoning, and the realization of the extent to which we have lost important American democratic norms.

That loss has been increasingly obvious for some time. Pundits and political scientists have their pet theories for how this has happened: In American Amnesia, for example, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson focused upon what they call a “war on government” that has accelerated since the Reagan Administration; in Democracy for Realists, Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels argued that the generally accepted theory of democratic citizenship is inconsistent with actual human nature. Much of that analysis has been intriguing. None of it that I’m aware of, however, has attempted to answer the question you have asked me: what should we do and why should we do it?

We don’t always appreciate the extent to which cultural or legal institutions—what we call folkways or norms—shape our understanding of the world around us.  In some cases, institutions that have worked well, or at least adequately, for a number of years simply outlive whatever original utility they may have had, made obsolete by modern communications and transportation technologies, corrupt usages, or cultural change. Such obsolescence is a particularly acute element of American political life today.

Eight examples:

The Electoral College. In November, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 2.85 million votes. Donald Trump won the Electoral College because fewer than 80,000 votes translated into paper-thin victories in three states. Thanks to “winner take all” election laws, Trump received all of the electoral votes of those three states. “Winner take all” systems, in place in most states, award all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of that state’s popular vote, no matter how close the result; if a candidate wins a state 50.1% to 49.9% or 70% to 30%, the result is the same; votes cast for the losing candidate don’t count.

The Electoral College gives  outsized influence to swing states, is a disincentive to vote if you favor the minority party in a winner-take-all state, and over-represents rural and less populated states. (Wyoming, our least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population, but it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.) It advantages rural voters over urban ones, and white voters over voters of color. In 2016, Hillary Clinton drew her votes largely from women, minorities, and educated whites, and those voters were disproportionately urban; Trump supporters were primarily (albeit not exclusively) less-educated white Christian males, and they were overwhelmingly rural.

Akil Reed Amar teaches Constitutional Law at Yale Law School; he says the Electoral College was a concession to the demands of Southern slave states. In a direct-election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge proportion of its population — slaves — couldn’t vote. The electoral college allowed slave states to count their slaves (albeit at a discount, under the Constitution’s three-fifths clause) in the electoral college apportionment. Amar notes that Americans pick mayors and governors by direct election, and there is no obvious reason that a system that works for those chief executives can’t also work for President. He also points out that no other country employs a similar mechanism.

Jamin Raskin, a Professor of Constitutional Law at American University, and a Congressman representing the state of Maryland, favors the National Popular Vote Project, a nationwide interstate agreement to guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes. Under the NPV, all of a participating state’s electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes overall. It would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states holding a majority of  electoral votes. To date, states possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it – have signed on. As Raskin says:

Every citizen’s vote should count equally in presidential elections, as in elections for governor or mayor. But the current regime makes votes in swing states hugely valuable while rendering votes in non-competitive states virtually meaningless. This weird lottery, as we have seen, dramatically increases incentives for strategic partisan mischief and electoral corruption in states like Florida and Ohio. You can swing a whole election by suppressing, deterring, rejecting and disqualifying just a few thousand votes.

Partisan gerrymandering. After each census, states redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. The party that controls the state legislature at the time controls the redistricting process, and draws districts to maximize its own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. The process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

A 2008 book co-authored by Norman Orenstein and Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein are political scientists who have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have shown how redistricting advantages incumbents, and shown that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians reinforces “partisan rigidity,” the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

The most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously doesn’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either; it is difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. Voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places often do not include the voting booth.

In safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that means that challenges usually come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. This system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering is a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively in the Republican party— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

After the 2010 census, Republicans dominated state governments in a significant majority of states, and they proceeded to engage in one of the most thorough, strategic and competent gerrymanders in history. The 2011 gerrymander did two things: as intended, it gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives; the GOP held 247 seats to the Democrats’ 186, a 61 vote margin– despite the fact that nationally, Democratic House candidates had received over a million more votes than Republican House candidates. But that gerrymander also did something unintended; it destroyed Republican party discipline. It created and empowered the significant number of Republican Representatives who make up what has been called the “lunatic caucus” and made it virtually impossible for Republicans to govern.

The Electoral College and Gerrymandering are the “big two,” but there are other changes that would reinvigorate American democracy.

The way we administer elections is ridiculous. State-level control over elections made sense when difficulties in communication and transportation translated into significant isolation of populations; today, state-level control allows for all manner of mischief, including—as we’ve recently seen– significant and effective efforts at vote suppression. There are wide variations from state to state in the hours polls are open, in provisions for early and absentee voting, and for the placement and accessibility of polling places. In states that have instituted “Voter ID” laws, documentation that satisfies those laws varies widely. (Voter ID measures are popular with the public, despite the fact that in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and despite clear evidence that the impetus for these laws is a desire to suppress turnout among poor and minority populations likely to vote Democratic.)

State-level control of voting makes it difficult to implement measures that would encourage more citizen participation, like the effort to make election day a national holiday. A uniform national system, overseen by a nonpartisan or bipartisan federal agency with the sole mission of administering fair, honest elections, would also facilitate consideration of other improvements proposed by good government organizations.

Campaign Finance/Money in Politics. Common Cause sums it up: “American political campaigns are now financed through a system of legalized bribery.”  But big contributions  aren’t the only ways wealthier citizens influence policy. The ability to hire lobbyists, many of whom are former legislators, gives corporate interests considerable clout. Money doesn’t just give big spenders the chance to express a view or support a candidate; it gives them leverage to reshape the American economy in their favor.

A system that privileges the speech of wealthy citizens by allowing them to use their greater resources to amplify their message in ways that average Americans cannot does great damage to notions of fundamental democratic fairness, ethical probity and civic equality.

The filibuster. Whatever the original purpose or former utility of the filibuster, when its use was infrequent and it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, today, the filibuster operates to require government by super-majority. It has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.

The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.

In 1975, the Senate changed several of its rules and made it much easier to filibuster. The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is theoretically taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and argue their case. This “virtual” use, which has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule: it now takes sixty votes (the number needed for cloture) to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill, and allows senators to effortlessly place personal political agendas above the common good and suffer no consequence.

Excessive democracy isn’t as important as many of the others, but it’s not insignificant. When we go to the polls, we face choices that few of us are sufficiently informed to make. At the state level, voters choose not only governors, but Secretaries of State, State Auditors, Superintendents of Public Instruction and Attorneys General; at the local level, we vote for Recorder, Auditor, Treasurer, Clerk and Coroner. I find it hard to believe that the average voter investigates the medical credentials of the contending coroner candidates, or the administrative skills of those running for Auditor.

In the real world, most voters make these choices on the basis of party affiliation. That being the case, it would make more sense to elect Governors and Mayors, and allow them to appoint people to most of these offices. That would improve accountability, since the executive making the appointments would be responsible for the choice of the individuals involved. When the positions are elective, chief executives can reasonably distance themselves from scandals or incompetence by pointing out that the officeholder was the choice of the voters.

Making many of these positions appointive would make voting simpler and faster, without doing actual damage to democratic decision-making. Removing a layer of “excess” democracy is hardly as important as reforming redistricting or ensuring that the Electoral College votes for the winner of the popular vote, but it would reinforce an important element of governmental legitimacy: the belief that public officials hold office as a result of a process in which informed citizens make considered democratic choices.

Substandard civic education. I won’t belabor this, but when significant segments of the population do not know the history, philosophy or contents of the Constitution or the legal system under which they live, are ignorant of basic economic principles and don’t know the difference between science and religion, they cannot engage productively in political activities or accurately evaluate the behavior of their elected officials.

The final institution that has massively failed us also doesn’t need much editorial comment from me: the current Media—including talk radio, Fox News, and the wild west that is the Internet.

The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014; among their findings was that “consistent conservatives” clustered around a single news source: 47% cited Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics, with no other source even close. Consistent liberals listed a wider range of news outlets as main sources — no outlet was named by more than 15%.

People who routinely consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to accept uncongenial facts even when they are accompanied by overwhelming evidence. Fox News and talk radio were forerunners of the thousands of Internet sites offering spin, outright propaganda and fake news. Contemporary Americans can choose their preferred “realities” and simply insulate themselves from information that is inconsistent with their worldviews.

America is marinating in media, but we’re in danger of losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. The frantic competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill, far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy. That same competition has increased media attention to sports, celebrity gossip and opinion, and has greatly reduced coverage of government and policy. The scope and range of watchdog journalism that informs citizens about their government has dramatically declined, especially at the local level. We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The pathetic Indianapolis Star is an example. I should also point out that there is a rather obvious relationship between those low levels of civic literacy and the rise of propaganda and fake news.

The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest between candidates with competing policy proposals, with the winner authorized to implement his or her agenda. Increasingly, however, those democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays. The refusal of the Republican-led Senate to “advise and consent” to a sitting President’s nominee for the Supreme Court was a stunning and unprecedented breach of duty that elevated political advantage over the national interest. Just after the election, North Carolina Republicans called a special session and voted to strip the incoming Democratic Governor of many of the powers of that office.

Such behaviors are shocking and damaging deviations from American norms.

These and other demonstrations of toxic partisanship have undermined trust in government and other social institutions. Without that trust—without a widespread public belief in an overarching political community to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction grow in the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.” It is a prescription for civic unrest and national decline.

If Americans do not engage civically in far greater numbers than we have previously—If we do not reform our institutions, improve civic education, and support legitimate journalism—that decline will be irreversible. The good news is that there is evidence that a revival of civic engagement is underway.

We the People can do this.

But we have a lot of work to do if we are going to save American democracy, and there really is no time to waste.

 

 

About Those Democratic Norms…

This morning’s New York Times contains a disquieting submission from two Harvard government professors. They began

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.

We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.

Pre-eminent among those warning signs is the emergence and electoral success of what the authors call “anti-democratic” politicians, who can be recognized by their failure–or refusal– to reject violence, willingness to curtail civil liberties, and their attacks on the legitimacy of elected governments. As they illustrate, Trump fits the bill.

Another warning sign is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms.

Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.

As the authors note, “partisan restraint” and other norms of democratic behavior have significantly eroded, replaced by naked power struggles.

The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.

The erosion of these governing norms did not happen all at once; the signs of growing dysfunction have been visible–especially at the federal level–for decades. Although Trump did not cause the weakening of these safeguards, he was a clear beneficiary.

In the wake of November 8, pundits have scrambled to “explain” the election results. As James Fallows writes in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump,” most of those explanations are wrongheaded.

Fallows, too, underscores the importance of democratic norms, and the implications of Trump’s contempt for rules of any kind.

The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.

Fallows dismisses two popular explanations of that choice: the belief that this was a sweeping “change” election, and the theory that the vote reflected the “desperation and fury” of citizens living away from the liberal coasts. Change elections drive waves of incumbents out of office; as he notes, that didn’t happen. The “rage” theory is similarly wanting. As Fallows says, that theory misses

the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years….

A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.

It really is the media.

Count me among those who have become convinced that the decline of responsible journalism, the proliferation of “fake news” sites and the increasing sophistication of propaganda (Russian or homegrown)–abetted by a dangerous lack of civic literacy– are largely to blame for the disconnect between citizens and their national government, and for the erosion of those all-important democratic norms.

Fallows’ concluding paragraph is  profound.

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.

Rule of Law? Respect for Democracy? Not in the Age of Trump…

Remember the quote–attributed to John Adams–to the effect that the then-new American Constitution had created “a government of laws, not men”?

One of the most important improvements in our human efforts to improve governance was development of the concept of rule of law–the radical notion that fair rules should be established and everyone–including government officials and others in positions of power– should be expected to follow those rules (including the rules on how rules should be changed).

Adherence to the rule of law, in spirit and fact, is absolutely essential to the legitimacy of a governing authority.

Which brings us to the truly outrageous behavior of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina. As the New York Times reported earlier this week,

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature on Wednesday took the highly unusual step of moving to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor after a bitter election that extended years of fierce ideological battles in the state.

After calling a surprise special session, Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly introduced measures to end the governor’s control over election boards, to require State Senate approval of the new governor’s cabinet members and to strip his power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.

Republicans also proposed to substantially cut the number of state employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure, giving Civil Service protections to hundreds of managers in state agencies who have executed the priorities of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

These extraordinary steps–taken in the wake of a democratic (note small “d”) election that produced a result displeasing to the state’s GOP–unquestionably violate democratic norms, and may well violate the North Carolina state constitution.

The election of a Democratic governor came despite sustained Republican efforts to suppress African-American votes–efforts so transparently and blatantly aimed at (disproportionately Democratic) black voters that a court described them as “surgical.” Several of those measures were struck down, but a number of others–moving polling places, shortening voting hours–had the intended effect.

Even in the face of massive vote suppression, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate somehow won.Hence the special session to strip the new Governor of authority–and the transformation of North Carolina government into an illegitimate putsch.

As the Times editorialized

This legislative power grab is the latest underhanded step by a state Republican Party desperate to stay in power in a state where demographic changes would normally benefit Democrats. Republicans in North Carolina, a presidential battleground state, have used aggressive redistricting and voting suppression measures that are among the most brazen in the nation to win elections. The courts have blocked some of these efforts, but Republicans have found workarounds, for instance, by limiting voting hours and sites.

Calling what is happening in North Carolina a “legislative power grab” is like calling cancer a “minor illness.” It is a shocking violation of democratic norms, and a frontal attack on the rule of law.

It is one more element in America’s current wholesale retreat from the principles that did make America great.

Our Tribes, Ourselves

My friend and colleague Art Farnsley teaches in the Religious Studies Department at IUPUI; he also writes sporadic Op-Eds that have appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and Religion News Service.

His most recent one deserves to be widely read. It begins

Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.

These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.

It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.

A number of social scientists are beginning to recognize that “who we are”–what “tribes” shape our identities–explains much more about all of  us, and about our human cognitive processes, than we have hitherto been willing to concede. Tribalism doesn’t just operate in the religious realm. As Farnsley notes,

It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.

This may sound obvious to some, but I learned it the hard way. I have spent too much of my adult life pretending the opposite, that politics is about ideas and we develop our positions through reason, logic and formal argumentation. It’s time I accept the truth: Who we are comes first in politics too.

I just finished reading a recent book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, that reaches the same conclusion–in their case, via lengthy review of overwhelming amounts of scholarly research. They argue–with copious evidence– that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us want to admit. They also demonstrate that voters adjust their policy views and even their understanding of what is and is not fact to match their tribal identities.

Achen and Bartels include political parties among the tribal loyalties that motivate us. Our choice of partisan affiliation originally depends significantly on affinity, on the belief that “people like me” share more characteristics with one or another political party, but then the partisan affiliation itself becomes an important part of “who we are.”

Assuming the accuracy of these descriptions of political identity–and assuming the country and world survive the Presidency of an unstable and wildly unfit buffoon–Americans will need to think long and hard about the implications of “democratic realism” for the design of our democratic institutions. As Achen and Bartels confirm, there is much of value in our Constitutional system; we need to protect what is valuable, but we cannot do that unless we jettison what they call the “folk theory” of how democratic institutions actually work.

As Art Farnsley notes,

Political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation. It’s about whose status goes up or down. The operatives know who we are.