Back to Prindle Institute

Is Fake News Dangerously Overblown?

photograph of smartphone displaying 'Fake News' story

“Censorship laws are blunt instruments, not sharp scalpels. Once enacted, they are easily misapplied to merely unpopular or only marginally dangerous speech.”

—Alan Dershowitz, Finding, Framing, and Hanging Jefferson: A Lost Letter, a Remarkable Discovery, and Freedom of Speech in an Age of Terrorism

Fake news, false or misleading information presented as though it’s true, has been blamed for distorting national politics in the United States and undercutting the faith that citizens place in elites and institutions — so much so that Google has recently stepped in to provide a tool to help users avoid being hoodwinked. It looks plausible, at first glance, that fake news is a widespread problem; if people can be fooled into thinking misleading or false information is genuine news, their attitudes and beliefs about politics and policy can be influenced for the worse. In a functioning democracy, we need citizens, and especially voters, to be well-informed — we cannot have that if fake news is commonplace.

A recent study found political polarization — left, right, or center — to be the primary psychological motivation behind people sharing fake news. It seems we aren’t driven by ignorance, but vitriol for one’s political opponents. It isn’t a matter of folks being fooled by political fictions because they lack knowledge of the salient subject matter, say, but rather that people are most inclined to share fake news when it targets political adversaries whom they hate. And this aligns with what we already know about the increasing polarization in American politics: that it’s becoming increasingly difficulty for people in different political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats, to agree on issues that used to be a matter of bipartisan consensus (e.g., a progressive tax structure).

In the face of the (alleged) increasing threat from fake news, some have argued we need stronger intervention on the part of tech companies that is just shy of censorship — that is, fake news is parasitic on free speech, and can perhaps only be controlled by a concerted legal effort, along with help from big technology companies like Facebook and Google.

But perhaps the claim that fake news is widespread is dangerously overblown. How? The sharing of fake news is less common than we are often led to believe. A study from last year found that

“[although] fake news can be made to be cognitively appealing, and congruent with anyone’s political stance, it is only shared by a small minority of social media users, and by specialized media outlets. We suggest that so few sources share fake news because sharing fake news hurts one’s reputation … and that it does so in a way that cannot be easily mended by sharing real news: not only did trust in sources that had provided one fake news story against a background of real news dropped, but this drop was larger than the increase in trust yielded by sharing one real news story against a background of fake news stories.”

There are strong reputation incentives against sharing fake news — people don’t want to look bad to others. (Of course, the researchers also acknowledge the same incentives don’t apply to anonymous individuals who share fake news.) Humans are a cooperative species that rely on help from others for survival — and so it matters how others view us. People wouldn’t want to cooperate with someone with a bad reputation, thus most people will track how they are seen by others. We want to know those we cooperate with have a good reputation; we want them to be sufficiently trustworthy and reliable since we rely on each other for basic goods. As other researchers explain,

“[Humans] depend for their survival and welfare on frequent and varied cooperation with others. In the short run, it would often be advantageous to cheat, that is, to take the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Cheating however may seriously compromise one’s reputation and one’s chances of being able to benefit from future cooperation. In the long run, cooperators who can be relied upon to act in a mutually beneficial manner are likely to do better.”

Of course, people sometimes do things which aren’t in their best interests — taking a hit to one’s reputation is no different. The point though is that people have strong incentives to avoid sharing fake news when their reputations are at stake. So we have at least some evidence that fake news is overblown; people aren’t as likely to share fake news, for reputational reasons, than it may appear given the amount of attention the phenomenon of fake news has garnered in the public square. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there isn’t a lot of fake news in circulation on places like, say, social media — there could be substantial fake news shared, but only by a few actors. Moreover, the term ‘fake news’ is often used in a sloppy, arbitrary way — not everything called ‘fake news’ is fake news. (Former President Trump, for example, would often call a story ‘fake news’ if it made him look bad, even if the story was accurate.)

Overstating the problem fake news represents is also troubling as it encourages people to police others’ speech in problematic ways. Actively discouraging people from sharing ‘fake news’ (or worse, silencing them) can be a dangerous road to traverse. The worry is that just as former President Trump did to journalists and critics, folks will weaponize the label ‘fake news’ and use it against their political enemies. While targeting those who supposedly share fake news may prevent misinformation, often it will be used to suppress folks who have unorthodox or unpopular views. As the journalist Chris Hedges observed,

“In late April and early May the World Socialist Web Site, which identifies itself as a Trotskyite group that focuses on the crimes of capitalism, the plight of the working class and imperialism, began to see a steep decline in readership. The decline persisted into June. Search traffic to the World Socialist Web Site has been reduced by 75 percent overall. And the site is not alone. … The reductions coincided with the introduction of algorithms imposed by Google to fight ‘fake news.’ Google said the algorithms are designed to elevate ‘more authoritative content’ and marginalize ‘blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.’ It soon became apparent, however, that in the name of combating ‘fake news,’ Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are censoring left-wing, progressive and anti-war sites.”

Perhaps the phenomenon of fake news really is as bad as some people say — though the evidence suggests that isn’t the case. In any event, we shouldn’t conclude from this that fake news isn’t a problem at all; we may need some form of policing that, while respecting freedom of expression, can empower voters and citizens with tools to allow them to avoid, or at least identify, fake news. But we can acknowledge both the need for fake news oversight and the need to significantly curtail that power.

“Politicians in Robes”: Neutrality in the Supreme Court

photograph of judge in robes

As the Supreme Court decides which issues to take up on its docket — abortion, gun rights, and perhaps even affirmative action — legal seers are already tallying the expected results. Emphasizing the court’s 6-3 conservative majority, many see these cases as having all but been decided; the writing is on the wall.

The political leanings of the Roberts Court have only grown more visible. While an air of secrecy often attends the justices’ business and keeps the inner workings of the Court hidden from public view, any sense that the Court stands removed from the political fray is quickly disappearing. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor have increasingly called out Kavanaugh’s inconsistent rulings, and he’s been taken to task for his hollow virtue-signalling and performative hand-wringing. This isn’t like when Justice Alito sparred with Gorsuch over his textualist read of Bostock. In Kagan’s dissent in Edwards v. Vannoy just last week, she explicitly chastised Kavanaugh for his approach that “treats judging like scorekeeping … about how much our decisions, or the aggregate of them, benefit a particular kind of party.” This, Kagan argues, is simply not how judges are supposed to approach their duties. Judging requires focusing on the legal merits of the case before you; it isn’t about anticipating political fallout according to party affiliation or balancing “wins” and “losses.”

The divisiveness seen in the Court mirrors the ugly politics in Congress that preceded its recent newcomers. All three justices, Ian Millhiser points out, were “nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the country.” Given the hypocrisy surrounding Gorsuch and Barrett’s appointments as well as the acrimony on both sides over Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it will be hard to dispel the notion that the Supreme Court is just another battleground for political score-settling.

Add to this a common belief in the practice of strategic retirement – justices timing their departure to ensure the installation of like-minded predecessors – and it’s hard to see the Court as anything other than an ideological land grab. The lottery appointment system, ensuring that justices are confirmed unevenly, erodes public trust and stretches the connection between the people’s will and their rulers’ authority to its breaking point.

Taken together, these considerations question the Court’s ability to serve its necessary function as a check on power and legal backstop. Contrary to Justice Roberts’s claim that the Court’s job is merely to “call balls and strikes,” the prevailing perception is that justices are overwhelmingly motivated by their personal political agendas and, thus, the Roberts Court stands committed to effecting the Right’s political will.

So what do we stand to gain by maintaining the fiction that justices are nothing more than umpires? Why deny the Court is composed of “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges”?

However well these cynical accounts reflect the reality, it does great and lasting damage to our legal system to reduce the High Court to just “another political institution” — a nine-member Congress replete with the familiar political hackery and partisan warfare. That damage can’t be undone by simply expanding the bench to instill balance and force it to better reflect citizens’ diverse viewpoints. Any politics-driven reform to the Court threatens to undermine whatever is left of the public’s trust in the institution. The Court’s role as guardian of individual rights, ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, and final arbiter of the law is very much at stake. Ultimately, the Court’s decisions confer legitimacy only insofar as we believe in its singular ability to apply the law in neutral fashion, according to a standard we (perhaps naively) think insulated from political ideology.

These convictions have led Justice Breyer to claim that the “peril facing the Supreme Court comes less from partisan judges than from citizens who, encouraged by politicians, equate impartial justice with agreeable judicial outcomes.” Rather than focusing on results, we should expect judges first and foremost to follow the law. Public trust comes from our faith that, in interpreting the law, justices rely on their legal ability and interpretative powers rather than fidelity to a particular political party. We call on the Court to deliver legal pronouncements rooted in a theory of constitutional interpretation rather than barefaced political morality. The Court stands apart from other political institutions because we see its members as possessing a specific kind of expertise and assessing cases according to a unique and independent metric. Judging is about applying neutral legal criteria, not about partisan policy preferences; it’s about divining the meaning of words, the intentions of authors, and the implications of past precedents. It’s an investigation rather than a contest, a deliberation rather than a quarrel, an art rather than a science.

Apart from this prioritizing of procedure over product, we also tend to think that the justice’s lifetime tenure insulates them from political pressure. On the one hand, this makes the justices unaccountable to the people; these unelected officials exercise enormous power over the lives of citizens without fear of recall. On the other hand, this suggests that judges are freed from the rancor of party politics and are beholden to no one (including the person who appointed them).

But what do we do with the incongruity between this idealized fantasy and our political reality? How do we restore (or at least maintain) public trust in the institution? Expanding the bench threatens to burn whatever credibility the Court has left, but staying the course promises death by a thousand cuts. From regular appointments to term limits, perhaps President Biden’s Supreme Court reform commission can show us the path forward, though no one seems to be holding their breath.

On the “Canceling” of Liz Cheney

photograph of Liz Cheney at Trump inauguration

On May 12th, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to remove Wyoming congressperson Liz Cheney from her leadership position as their conference chair. Previously the third-highest ranking member of the Republican Party in the House, Cheney’s responsibilities were focused primarily on maintaining an organized, unified approach to policy and governance among Republican lawmakers. Earlier in 2021, Cheney came under fire from her party members when she publicly criticized former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and behavior — including voting to support Trump’s second impeachment trial. After surviving an initial vote to revoke her chairship in February, Cheney was censured by the Wyoming GOP for failing to support Trump (Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina faced a comparable backlash for his similar vote). But after a tense leadership retreat at the end of April, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who had supported Cheney in February, but was recently caught criticizing her to a reporter with an unexpectedly hot microphone) instigated another attempt at her removal; after only sixteen minutes of debate, Cheney’s position was revoked by an unrecorded voice vote behind closed doors.

Prior to 2021, Liz Cheney had enjoyed relatively consistent political success as the sole representative of Wyoming in the House, routinely winning elections with supermajorities of the vote (her 2020 campaign, for example, saw her win 73% of primary ballots and nearly 70% of the general election). Particularly considering her political pedigree (her father is former Vice President Dick Cheney), it is perhaps unsurprising that Liz Cheney has been frequently mentioned in speculations about the future of the GOP’s leadership. Despite her recent setbacks, Cheney has indicated her plans to fight for her political future in the coming primary election (several additional candidates have already filed to run for the Republican nomination and Trump’s political team has indicated its intent to support one of her challengers).

The question for us to consider here is: what did Liz Cheney do wrong?

On its face, one answer to this question is plain: Cheney failed to show fealty to Donald Trump, the leader of the Republican party. Although once an ally of the former president (and supporting over 90% of his policy positions with her votes), various events during his final months in office — and particularly his instigation of the mob that attacked Congress on January 6th — led Cheney to break from what John Hudak and others have called “the Church of Trump.” Insofar as Trump’s political persona has become a synecdochal representation of the party as a whole, Cheney’s critiques of Trump’s behavior might be seen as critiques of the party itself — certainly by members of the party’s rank and file; consider how one man in Gillette, Wyoming explained his anger at Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump: “’We are very loyal people here,’ said Paul Roberts, 47. ‘We didn’t elect her to vote her conscience.’”

One might, then, be tempted to draw comparisons between the contemporary adulation Donald Trump receives from Republicans and the political theory of philosopher Thomas Hobbes. When Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina (who has represented his state in Washington since 1995), states that the Republican party can not “move forward without President Trump,” Graham is evoking an image of Trump as a political figurehead whose authority and power is of supreme importance for the continued functioning of the government — much like Hobbes’ notion of the Leviathan. To Hobbes, the world is a frightening and violent place filled with dangers — he infamously describes life in this so-called State of Nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — and only the strength of an absolute monarch can protect the citizenry and maintain social stability. Certainly, much of Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, his fear-based politics, and his persistent cultivation of an authoritarian strong-man image over the last half-decade suggest a desire to be seen as a Hobbesian Leviathan (and the acquiescence of many long-standing party members within the GOP to such a vision is telling). By casting doubt on the primacy of the leader, Representative Cheney might be viewed by Republicans as a seditious enemy who needs to be removed from her influential position within the party.

However, this explanation seems incomplete — and not least because of the formal presumption that the United States recognizes no actual king. Although Cheney is one of the only party members to experience official punishment for her conscientious objections to Trumpism, she is not the only influential Republican to criticize Donald Trump. Consider, for example, the former governor of Massachusetts and current senator from Utah Mitt Romney: not only was Romney the sole Republican to vote for Trump’s conviction in both of the president’s Senate trials, but he has repeatedly criticized the former president’s approach to politics and even indicated publicly that he did not vote for Trump in 2020. Nevertheless, Romney has enjoyed relatively consistent support from many of his constituents and managed to avoid a censure vote from the Utah GOP in April (though a few Utah counties have since voted separately for his censure). Arguably, Romney, as a former Republican presidential nominee and long-standing representative of the party on a national scale, is an even bigger threat to Trump the Would-Be Leviathan than Liz Cheney, so why is she in even hotter water?

It might well be thanks to Cheney’s gender. Philosopher Kate Manne has argued that “misogyny” is not merely a matter of women being hated in virtue of their gender, but rather that misogyny manifests when women are systematically mistreated because of social structures that disadvantage them. More specifically, misogyny is “primarily about controlling, policing, punishing, and exiling the “bad” women” who do not conform to the roles expected of them by those in power. Even if Trump is not a full-blown Leviathan, he certainly still wields considerable clout within the GOP: criticizing him, as Cheney has, could easily earn her the label of a “bad” woman who “deserves” to be exiled.

Consider, too, Cheney’s expected replacement as chair of the conference: four-term Representative Elise Stefanik from upstate New York. Although Stefanik’s voting record has been far less aligned with typical Republican positions than Cheney’s, she has been a vocal supporter of Donald Trump for some time. During Trump’s first impeachment trial, Stefanik found the spotlight with her passionate defenses of the accused president and has since continued to consistently back Trump, amplifying his claims about alleged voting irregularities in the 2020 election and voting to reject some of President Joe Biden’s electoral votes. In this way, Stefanik might be understood as someone who is playing the game so as to be included on the GOP/Trump team — she is a “good” woman serving well the interests of the system in which she finds herself (contrast this with Stefanik’s first few years in Congress when she was actually quite critical of Trump). Now, her pro-Trump performances have earned her praise from the former president, even as he has been increasingly critical of Cheney. By speaking her mind and voting her anti-Trump conscience, misogyny demands that Cheney be punished — even by Stefanik, who twice nominated Cheney for the leadership position she is now poised to assume.

The future of the Republican party — and whether the Cheneys/Romneys or Trumps/Stefaniks come to define it — remains to be seen. One thing, though, is certain: the consequences of hyper-partisan political attitudes negatively affect many people (both external and internal to the parties in question) — and women, in particular, bear uniquely potent pressures. When an authoritarian figure demands loyalty above all other virtues (and functionally “cancels” people who choose independence), everybody beneath the Leviathan’s boot loses.

Wrongs that Are Wrong to Forgive?

Charles Koch portrait photograph

On November 13th, The Wall Street Journal published that Charles Koch, one of the infamous Koch brothers who have wielded an unprecedented influence over the media coverage and political direction of the U.S. in recent decades, now regrets his role in dividing the nation and contributing to our present circumstances. This apology was met with a range of reactions, from indignation, skepticism, and generous calls for attitudes approaching gratefulness that he may change his ways. Koch’s reversal raises questions about when it is appropriate, obligatory, or impermissible to forgive someone for the harm they’ve caused or the wrong they’ve committed.

These standards are complicated because the paradigm case of forgiveness involves close, personal relationships. Because we each are obviously not perfect, there are times when we fail to live up to our commitments to one another and this can cause harm and disappointment in those that we care about. If a friend breaks a promise, for instance, and shows regret, forgiveness can provide a way to move forward. The show of remorse can take various forms (some people prefer apologies, some are moved by a commitment to behave differently in the future, etc.), but no longer holding a wrong-doer “to account” is a form of forgiveness that we recognize easily from our day-to-day lives.

In this model, forgiveness could be “for” both the person who was harmed as well as the wrong-doer; forgiveness helps the shared relationship. In other cases, forgiveness can be a lightening of the emotional load of the person who has been harmed. To carry the weight of having been treated badly can be difficult. It can erode your faith in others or occupy more of your mental energy than you’d like. Forgiveness, in these circumstances, can be a lifting of the emotions wrapped up in blaming the one who hurt you. It could be a good thing for the person wronged.

Another model of forgiveness focuses more centrally on the person who failed. Instead of forgiveness functioning as a way of letting go of the labor tied up in ongoing blame, this model emphasizes forgiveness as a sort of gift we can give to one who has committed a moral wrong. It can seem like we ought to forgive, then, either for our sake as the harmed, or for the person who harmed us’ sake.

But there are other cases where it can seem wrong or inappropriate to forgive. For instance, offering forgiveness could be bad for those harmed, if they seem not to take themselves or their value seriously. Forgiveness could also be bad for the wrong-doer; not holding one to account may inhibit one’s development morally, for instance.

For wrongs that don’t fit these paradigmatic cases, things can be more tricky. When a group is harmed, for instance, either by a government or individual, forgiveness may not be as appropriate as it might be in the interpersonal case.

For example, in the 1990s, President Clinton made an apology for the U.S.’s “past sins” when visiting a number of African nations. This was a case of a representative of the government of the U.S. apologizing (attempting to accept fault and demonstrate regret) to a diverse group of people (past and present, foreign and domestic) regarding the ills of American slavery. The relationship here is obviously more complicated than the interpersonal one.

In his book, The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal writes about a former Nazi, complicit in the murder of a number of Jewish people, attempting to apologize and seek forgiveness from him, seemingly as a representative of all Jewish people. His standing to accept the apology and offer forgiveness is fraught, and many of his friends and family suggest it would be wrong to offer it.

These examples are significantly different from the interpersonal cases because the blame and accountability take on a different form. Likewise, when a person like Charles Koch causes harm, it is similarly difficult to map our standards of forgiveness to his behavior. Given the scope and depth of the bigotry and divisiveness he has supported, that forgiveness is no one individual’s to offer. And while Koch has made the initial step of expressing regret over dividing the country, he also continues to fund those same causes. This lack of genuine commitment to reparation and altering his behavior make the task of determining the appropriateness of forgiveness easier.

Political Fragmentation and Experimentation

image of US map with flags of states

On Tuesday September 22nd, the conservative lawyer and political commentator David French published his new book Divided We Fall. The book provides a careful diagnosis of current American polarization, a chilling prognosis of where this polarization might lead us, and ends with a prescription that we reinvigorate American federalism by devolving power out from the federal government and back to the states.

I found Divided We Fall especially interesting because one of my favorite books published this year was Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. French and Klein end up discussing and addressing many of the same issues; French from a more conservative position and Klein from a more liberal one. As such, it is fascinating to note where they agree and where they disagree.

Both think political polarization is increasing and that other forms of division are aligning along the political spectrum. Increasingly if you disagree with someone about who should be president, then you also likely live in a different state, read different books, watch different shows, shop at different stores, and disagree about religion.

Democrats don’t just support more redistributive taxation, they also live in cities, tend towards secularism, shop at Whole Foods, read The New York Times, own a copy of Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, watch Game of Thrones, and are terrified of the political power of the oppressive conservative right. Republicans, in turn, don’t just support free-market deregulation, they also live in rural and suburban areas, regularly attend church, eat at Cracker Barrel, watch Fox News, own a copy of Tim Tebow’s Autobiography Through My Eyes, watch Walking Dead, and are terrified of the cultural power of the ideologically intolerant progressive left.

The number of ‘landslide’ districts are increasing. People increasingly live around those with similar political views. As such, those they meet in real life are likely to agree and reinforce their views. Layered atop that geographical siloing, we also find ourselves in curated online environments surrounded by those of like mind.

Both books provide an excellent overview of these issues. French’s delves more into the cultural differences between liberals and conservatives, while Klein spends much more time discussing the historical polarization between the democratic and republican parties. But the essential diagnosis is quite similar.

Though French and Klein agree almost entirely on the diagnosis, they disagree partially on the prognosis. French and Klein both worry that American politics is on a trajectory to grow increasingly bitter, and become increasingly dominated by hate and fear. However, French takes his prognosis several steps further and argues the situation could grow so bad that we should currently take seriously the possibility it leads to secession. The discussion of secession is the weakest part of the French’s book. But since I don’t want this to turn into a book review, I’ll put my particular criticism aside (interested readers can keep an eye out for a forthcoming blogpost in which I review French’s book at greater length). Whether or not you take seriously the possibility of secession, however, both French and Klein agree, and are right to agree, that the health of our democracy is compromised by continual polarization into fear-filled communities.

Now here is what is fascinating. French and Klein agree on the diagnosis and much of the prognosis, and yet, their prescriptions are radically different, indeed they are almost opposite. French calls for a renewed Madisonian federalism. He thinks that as Americans grow further and further apart ideologically, it is less and less tenable to adopt one-size fits all political solutions at the federal level. Klein, in contrast, calls for reforms to increase the effective power of the federal government. Klein thinks that we should make it easier for the government to pass sweeping federal policy because if politicians were forced to actually govern they would need to find actual solutions and, more importantly, it would create track records of policy to which voters can hold politicians accountable.

Interestingly, even here, there is a profound agreement about what is needed for reform. French and Klein both think that we need greater policy experimentation. We need policy proposals to be put into effect so that we can see what the effects are. French wants to see this occur synchronously between states. He wants California and Tennessee to both attempt sweeping health care reform. In each state attempting different solutions, what works can get more broadly adopted. As more states adopt the successful policies they can each try different refinements giving us even more useful data about what works best in what sort of states. Klein wants to see this experimentation occurs asynchronously between administrations. When democrats are in control let them pass Obamacare, when republicans are in control let them actually repeal it, and then let the American people decide which approach they actually liked.

There are lots of arguments one could make for either proposal, and you can hear many of these arguments made in this discussion between David French and Ezra Klein (given how much I liked both books I was super excited that French showed up on Klein’s podcast).

French’s central argument against Klein is that sweeping federal policy is just too dangerous in a fractured political climate. If you see the future of your nation at stake, then seeing the other side empowered to enact sweeping federal change will drive your political tribe out of its mind. And given that you receive your news from the news sources sanctioned by your tribe, you won’t even end up with the meaningful data that allows you to see when the other side’s policies actually were not so bad.

Klein has several arguments against French. Perhaps the strongest being that federal action really is just necessary. We can’t wait forty years to see the effects of state by state climate reform, we need a massive federal response to global warming and we need ten years ago. We can’t wait three years to see which state’s COVID response worked best, we needed a unified federal strategy back in March.

Both French and Klein have a point, and it is useful to just note that I think there is a plausible middle ground between their views. Perhaps what we need is a federal government that can do more, but chooses to do less. Where the federal government is able to pass sweeping policies where a federal response really is needed, but which also leaves to the states anything that need not be done at the federal level. This solution would be a form of subsidiarity — the view that problems should be tackled by the most local form of authority competent to handle the problem. Thus, if states really can adopt healthcare reform, then they should be empowered to do so. But if we require national coordination to solve the free-rider problem of fossil fuel use then the federal government should be ready and able to act.

Klein and French both draw our attention to the current problem of political polarization. It’s scary to think their solutions differ as much as they do, and makes it clear there might be no perfectly good options before us. But I think it is clear that something at least needs to be done. For now, I’d start by reading both books!

We’ve Got Politics Wrong

photograph of democratic and republican party figurines atop the American flag

In the heat of partisan divisions, it is tempting to think different sides of the dispute are deeply committed to distinct and irreconcilable political and moral principles and values that explain their disagreement: partisan rifts are about ideology, not party affiliation. However, despite the intuitive appeal of this view, we have good evidence that it’s backwards: party affiliation trumps ideology. Understanding why will clarify our thinking about politics.

First, let’s begin with an unnerving fact: your single vote doesn’t matter to the outcome of an election (except in astronomically rare cases). It isn’t hard to see why: in a large democracy, for your vote to count, it must break a tie. But there are scant opportunities for your individual vote to break any ties. As a Louisiana resident, voting in the upcoming presidential election is highly unlikely to make a difference; the state will be carried by the Republican. And the same holds, to varying degrees, up and down the ballot.

You may object that “even if an individual vote doesn’t matter in deeply blue and red states, the same isn’t true of swing states.” A swing state is likely the best chance one has to decide an election outcome with a single vote. Even this is highly unlikely: an optimistic estimate is that an individual vote has a 1-in-10 million chance, and on average about a 1-in-60 million chance, of deciding the outcome of an election. Just to get a feel for the odds: this is roughly equivalent to the odds of winning a state lottery twice. (Since no one rationally thinks that will happen, we should think the same of deciding an election with a single vote).

When I bring this point up, people often cite the U.S. Presidential election in 2000 as a case where a few votes mattered a lot. However, this is a poor response for a couple reasons. First, the fate of that election was ultimately decided by the courts; so there’s a sense in which even in that rare case, individual votes didn’t matter. Second, the fact that something unlikely happens — like someone winning the lottery — doesn’t show it will likely happen again. The fact that we focus on that particular example, at least in American politics, is itself revealing.

Partisan affiliation trumps ideology partly because a single vote doesn’t effectively influence policy; but it can signal allegiance to those in one’s tribe. The incentives at play are revealing: voters are rationally ignorant because it is rational for them to be politically ignorant. Indeed, the average voter lacks the most basic of political knowledge: which party controls the White House; which party is in favor of banning abortion; which party supports free trade. There are many examples like this. There are poor incentives to be politically informed: if an individual vote is incredibly unlikely to decide the outcome of an election, voters lack the incentive to be politically informed. It would make sense to be informed if an individual vote would likely make a difference; one would want to study to ensure their vote had the desired impact.

Sometimes political commentators argue voting only takes a few hours: one must register, pick their preferred candidates, and then vote. This is nonsense. It would only make sense if voting didn’t require knowledge. However, we should vote well if we’re going to vote; even if a single vote won’t influence the outcome of an election, voting badly in aggregate does. And voting well requires substantial expertise in economics, foreign affairs, and educational policy, to name but a few. Voting well is costly too: it is hard to undertake, requiring thousands of hours, and with high opportunity costs.

Worse still, even if someone is informed enough to vote well, there is no guarantee that they will; there’s a good chance they’ll vote badly for reasons unrelated to how informed they are. We are susceptible to what psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning’: the unconscious tendency to find arguments for conclusions we want to believe stronger than arguments for conclusions we dislike. A creationist may require a low level of evidence for her view, but require that evidence for evolution meet a much higher evidential bar. Likewise, a smoker may dismiss studies showing a link between cigarette smoke and cancer, but accept similar studies showing a relationship between trans-fat and heart disease. Consider a real-time example: the partisan divide over police and teachers’ unions. Democrats favor the latter, but not the former; Republicans are the reverse. This is odd: if one thinks police unions are corrupt because it is very hard to fire a bad cop, then by similar reasoning they should think teachers’ unions corrupt too (and vice versa). If, however, support for one’s preferred union were an exercise in signaling partisan affiliation, this strange mix of policy positions would make sense.

Everyone engages in motivated reasoning; but the more politically informed someone is, the more likely they are to engage in such reasoning. Perhaps greater political knowledge enables one to better defend their prior convictions. This speaks to an epistemic paradox at the heart of democracy: we can’t vote well without sufficient expertise; but the more politically informed we are, the more likely we are to engage in politically motivated reasoning. This is why some philosophers argue it would often be morally better to ignore politics. We lack the incentives and psychological objectivity to vote well. And given the opportunities costs of voting well, and that an individual vote isn’t worth much, civic-minded citizens among us, who sincerely want to make the world a better place, would be better off doing something other than voting, like say, working at a homeless shelter.

The Politics of Ego

Photograph of former Starbucks CEO sitting on a stage gesturing with his hands spread

It is no secret that hyperpartisanship amongst the American electorate is rampant and is only growing worse. In 1994, 17 percent of Democrats had a very unfavorable opinion of Republicans, with that number at 21 percent for Republicans’ attitudes towards Democrats. As of 2016, those numbers have risen to 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively. About eight-in-ten Americans now even say that Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on basic facts. This partisanship has had a paralyzing effect on American political functions in recent decades. The 100th U.S. Congress (1987-1988) was able to pass 7 percent of bills that hit the floor into law. For the 115thU.S. Congress (2017-2018), that number has been cut by more than half at 3 percent. However, at what appears to be the pinnacle of American partisanship, a push for centrism has emerged amongst the candidates for the 2020 presidential race.

Ex-CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, announced he is “seriously considering” a presidential bid as an Independent in January of this year. In a statement he wrote on Medium, Schultz called out hyperpartisanship, accusing  “the far right and the far left” of “holding our government hostage by engaging in revenge politics and preventing sensible solutions to big challenges.” He highlighted America’s “broken two-party system” which fails to give power to every person’s vote, and emphasized most Americans’ desire for “cooperation in Washington.” The solution to America’s shortcomings, in Schultz’s opinion, is to have a “credible, centrist independent on the ballot in all 50 states.” Schultz appears to believe that this “credible, centrist independent” is himself, given his interest in casting a presidential bid. Despite his apparent devotion to truly representing the American people, Schultz appears to be lacking a platform.

In an interview with CNBC, Schultz gave hollow answers about his political positions. For instance, when pressed about immigration, Schultz stated that the U.S. should pursue a “good immigration policy.” Similarly, when asked about the national debt, Schultz claimed that the debt is “the greatest threat domestically to the country,” but made no allusion to how it should be addressed. According to his original statement on Medium, his primary policy strategy is to “draw upon the best ideas from all sides.” Yet, on the issues, it seems as though Schultz is merely criticizing both sides of the political spectrum instead of highlighting their best ideas. A lifelong Democrat up until this point, Schultz believes that the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left, and has expressed disdain for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal. Schultz has been less specific in his criticism of the right, but has made his distaste for President Trump very clear, accusing him of “creating episodic chaos every day.” In an interview, Schultz claimed, “I will do nothing on any level to proceed [in his campaign] if I thought that in proceeding I would in any way persuade Americans to vote and re-elect Donald Trump.” Since Schultz was a lifelong Democrat, one might expect it would most effectively block Trump from being re-elected if he ran as a moderate Democrat and pushed bipartisan policy from there, as it would mitigate the risk of him splitting the Democratic vote. However, Schultz insists on running his campaign as an Independent, making it appear as though he expects the American people to trust him to be the solution to the nation’s woes. Schultz wants to run for president not because he believes he can fix hyperpartisanship, but because he believes he is entitled to the post.

Schultz’s ego infiltrating the political sphere is not an isolated case, nor have political egos ever been uncommon. The ex-CEO considering a presidential bid simply because he can afford to do so is somewhat reminiscent of Victorian-era monarchs and industrial party bosses from the U.S.’s Gilded Age. While those examples both lie in the extreme, ego in American politics now shows itself in more subtle ways. For instance, just earlier this month President Trump autographed Bibles while on a trip in Alabama to survey disaster damage from recent tornadoes. Similarly, and also occurring earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a sweeping voting rights bill from reaching the Senate floor. When asked why he would not even see the bill, McConnell responded simply by saying, “Because I get to decide what we vote on.” The egos that dominate the political sphere also trickle down to infect public discourse.

While not a direct cause, inflated egos in American politics definitely contribute to the nation’s hyperpartisanship. The most apparent example of this relationship is the bloated field of candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. So far, 13 candidates have announced their campaigns, while two more have announced exploratory committees. The large number of candidates has already begun a trend of hyperpartisanship within the Democratic Party, with centrists and progressives settling in to polarized camps. This not only poses the risk of the Democratic Party dividing itself and alienating potential voters, but also of an unrepresentative candidate being nominated as happened with Donald Trump and the Republican Party in 2016 (the largest primary in American history). This is not to say that all of the Democratic candidates are running glamour campaigns, and even those who are do not rival the ego of Howard Schultz.

Schultz poses a particularly interesting case in ego politics, as he claims a platform of bipartisanship, while espousing beliefs that deepen partisan ties. In merely criticizing Democrats and Republicans alike, Schultz does not draw people closer to the center, but drags them further into negative partisanship. In order for centrism and third parties to be successful, they must forge their own path in addition to highlighting the shortcomings of other parties. This work, however, does not begin with a presidential candidate, but with a shift in political culture. A major weakness of centrism, and of third parties in the U.S. in general, is that it tends to lack a direct path.  Third parties in the U.S. typically fall into defining themselves by relative comparison to what they are not or what they are against, making them more susceptible to becoming about candidates rather than about ideas (as is the case with Schultz). Thus, Schultz’s potential campaign becomes a test for American centrists to either accept unhelpful criticism without resolve in supporting Schultz, or to forge their own initiatives to escape polarization if they truly wish to do so. America’s two-party system deserves to be reevaluated, but jumping onto the political scene without solutions does not offer any potential for progress.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.