Tag Archives: politics

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.

A Matter Of Morals

This is a very difficult time for those of us who are old enough to remember a much different politics.

When I was in City Hall, most elected Republicans and Democrats (granted, not all) could disagree over certain policies while agreeing about others. State Senators and Representatives could argue on the floor of a Statehouse chamber and go to lunch together afterward. Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen (yes, they were all men) would carry the City’s water in Washington.

And politicians of both parties honored election results and participated in the peaceful transition of power.

Why has that changed? Why do members of Trump’s hard-core MAGA base seethe with resentment and hatred of “the libs”? Why do so many of us respond to their hostility with incomprehension– as if they were representatives of a different species?

Well-meaning observers–pundits, political operatives, writers–counsel Americans to listen to one another, urge us to try to understand and respect each other, to make genuine efforts to bridge our differences.

Why do those pleas fall on deaf ears?

I think most thoughtful Americans struggle to understand the abyss that exists between the  MAGA true believers (and the integrity-free officials who pander to them), and the rest of us–the “rest of us” encompassing everyone from genuinely conservative “Never Trump” Republicans to the Bernie and AOC wing of the Democratic Party.

Like many of you, I have struggled to understand why Americans’ political differences have magnified and hardened. Clearly, our information environment has contributed greatly to the construction of incommensurate realities. That said, however, I think there is a deeper reason, and we find it at the intersection of politics and morality.

Political contests are about power, of course–about who gets to make decisions about our communal lives and behaviors. And power is obviously a great aphrodisiac. But purely political battles center on policy disputes–everything from where the county commissioners are going to put that new road to whether the country will enter into a particular trade agreement.

When politics works, the battles are overwhelmingly “how” arguments: how will we provide service X? What sort of law will solve problem Y? Who should benefit from program Z? Those battles certainly implicate morality, but not in the way or to the extent that our current disputes do. Increasing numbers of Americans believe they are engaged in a battle between good and evil–and to the extent the issues dividing us really are fundamentally moral ones, there is little or no common ground to be found.

I was struck by this observation in an article titled “The MAGA Hat Isn’t Campaign Swag. It’s a Symbol of Hate.”

Unless you’ve been marooned on the International Space Station, you know that Trumpism is racism, blatant or latent (here’s a summary of the voluminous evidence). That makes the cap no different than a Confederate flag. It’s racial animosity woven in cloth, unwearable without draping yourself in its political meaning. It would be like donning a swastika and expecting to be taken for a Quaker.

We Americans are still fighting the Civil War. As an article in the Guardian noted yesterday, the GOP has morphed into the Confederacy.

There has been a steady exodus from the GOP as its MAGA core has assumed effective control of the party.  And to be fair, there are still plenty of people who continue to vote Republican who do not fall into that category, although their willingness to ignore the obvious makes them complicit at best.

Those of you reading this post may disagree with the assertion that Americans are fighting over morality, not politics as we typically understand that term. But accurate or not, millions of thoughtful Americans  believe they are engaged in a battle for the soul of this nation, and are horrified by what they see as the willingness of some 40% of their fellow-citizens to spit on the aspirations of our founding documents and subvert the rule of law in order to retain a privileged status that they enjoy solely by reason of their skin color, gender and/or religion.

This isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even politics as that term is usually understood.

Americans are having a profound and fundamental argument about reality, the nature of justice, the obligations of citizenship, and the kind of country we will leave our children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard chasm to bridge.

 

Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.

The Appeal Of Fascism

A comment to a recent blog post reminded us of the overwhelming–albeit under-appreciated–power of culture. The famous banner in Bill Clinton’s war room was wrong. It isn’t “the economy, stupid”; that message should be edited to read “it’s the culture, stupid!”

The problem is, in today’s United States, there are two very different cultures. (Actually, there are many permutations within those two “mega” cultures.)

As a recent essay at the Brookings Institution site put it, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by an enormous margin (more than five million votes and counting) the size of Donald Trump’s vote is a “stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America.”

The essay from the usually circumspect Brookings didn’t mince words; it compared Trump’s core appeal to the appeal of fascism,

the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.

Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.

The rest of the article discussed the very real costs of divided government, in the event the Georgia run-offs do not deliver slim control of the Senate to the Democrats.  Those costs are clearly obvious to the people who read and comment on this blog–divided government, whatever its merits at other junctures of our national history, will make it impossible to address the structural issues that have entrenched government power in a minority party unresponsive to and contemptuous of the needs of a majority of Americans.

So what does this have to do with culture?

In the quoted language, I was most struck by the definition of “Trumpism” as a rearguard action focused on preserving white privilege. White privilege is the essence of the alt-right movement–it is clearest in the pronouncements of the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, and the Klan remnants who see themselves as the protectors of “White Culture,” but it isn’t limited to those fringe movements.

We can see “white culture” in the urban/rural divide, in the sneering dismissals of “cosmopolitanism,” in the denunciations of coastal and global “elites,” and in the efforts to protect Confederate monuments as exemplars of Southern culture rather than reminders of American willingness to enslave dark people. Etc.

I was never a huge fan of John Edwards, whose Presidential campaign dissolved for a number of reasons, including his infidelity (remember when infidelity actually harmed a candidacy? talk about the “good old days”!), but he was onto something with his highlighting of the existence of “two Americas.”

Cultural change is inevitable, but it is also difficult and slow, and it creates understandable and unfortunate resentments. It will take time–and changes in both the media and social media platforms– for those resentments to abate.

Pious exhortations to more progressive Americans to “reach out” to those resisting social change aren’t just embarrassingly one-sided (no one is telling the alt-right to try to understand those dark-skinned or Jewish or Muslim “libruls”); they also have a distressing tendency to be either naive or condescending– or both.

I don’t know whether the gulf between America’s very different cultures can be narrowed or bridged. I have no suggested magic wand, but at least a part of the longer-term solution needs to be a new appreciation for the importance of public education in public schools–education that emphasizes what we diverse Americans presumably have in common: allegiance to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Enlightenment approach to empiricism upon which they were constructed.

An in-depth civics education would at the very least be an inoculation against the appeal of fascism.

 

 

 

 

Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.