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Justice Breyer and Strategic Retirement

photograph of a contemplative Justice Breyer at a speaking engagement

Though President Biden’s election win is still fresh, many political strategists and advocates are already thinking about the 2024 election. Amid the various areas of concern, the increasing conservatism of the Supreme Court has become a central focus for Democrats. Serious consideration of expanding the Supreme Court is becoming increasingly unlikely. In its place, a wave of calls for Justice Breyer’s resignation has followed. Calls for Supreme Court justices to retire are not new, but the fervor in these renewed calls is considerably more intense. These voices raise significant ethical issues surrounding the Supreme Court and the political duties of its justices.

Are calls for Justice Breyer to retire ethical? Is age a sufficient reason to call for one to step down? Should political concerns influence the actions of Supreme Court justices?

Calls for Justice Breyer’s retirement are often directed as appeals to Breyer’s ethos. His refusal to retire has been labeled as out of touch, supremely consequential, and essential to safeguarding his legacy. Many of these appeals have the appearance of being ageist, motivated by prejudice about his getting on in his years. Justice Breyer is the oldest sitting member of the Court. At 82 years old, Breyer has technically passed the average life-expectancy of an adult male in the United States. Older people already face significant discrimination in society, and the force of that stigma should be considered in calling for Breyer’s resignation. Ageism is especially prevalent in the workforce. Calling for Breyer to retire due to his age arguably perpetuates the notion that older people have little left to contribute.

It is likely, however, that the calls to retire are also born out of the idea that Justice Breyer has served his time. In fact, he has served for nearly a decade more than the average tenure of a Supreme Court justice. Supporters of his retirement might also point out that the majority of appointed Supreme Court justices in history have opted to retire. Though appointments are technically for a lifetime, 57 out of the 108 Justices left office voluntarily. With these facts in mind, calls for Breyer’s retirement arguably reflect Supreme Court norms.

Defenders of Justice Breyer, however, point to the inconsistency of his critics. It’s hard to ignore the blatant difference in treatment which Breyer is receiving compared to his predecessors or even current fellow justices. Justice Ginsberg passed in the last few months of the Trump administration, leading to the appointment of Justice Coney Barret, who was highly unpopular with Democrats and especially pro-choice advocates. Justice Ginsberg had a history of health complications, yet was applauded for continuing to serve on the bench. In comparison, Justice Breyer has far fewer physical health complications, but has been subject to a plethora of scrutiny for continuing to serve. Perhaps this clear difference in treatment is a result of Ginsburg’s celebrity-like popularity in American culture, or even her perceived status as a liberal icon. It is also possible that the increased scrutiny directed at Breyer is a direct result of Ginsburg’s death and its aftermath. Democrats are fully aware of Republicans’ ideal Supreme Court candidates, Trump’s appointments shifted the balance of the Court decisively. Perhaps, then, calls for Breyer to retire are a direct response to this political reality, making for an unfair comparison between the treatment of Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsberg.

This suggests that many of the calls for Breyer to retire are motivated not by discrimination regarding his ability to do his job adequately, but rather out of concern that his seat might need to be filled at a politically inconvenient time. If not for fear of a potential future Republican-appointed justice, there likely would not be any scrutiny aimed at Justice Breyer. As such, calls for Justice Breyer’s retirement are premised on the assumption that the Supreme Court is a political institution (for discussion, see Tucker Sechrest’s “Politicians in Robes”).

The politicization of the Supreme Court has been a topic in legal scholarship for decades. Critics of this phenomenon argue that using the Court as a political scoresheet undermines the public’s faith in the legal institution of the country to be fair and even-handed. One might also argue that the very structure of our government, which prioritizes the balance of powers, indicates that the Supreme Court was meant to be an institution far removed from politicking. Indeed, the Court has historically handed down politically disfavored decisions which had enormous effects on American society, for better or worse.

Despite the fervent calls for his retirement, Justice Breyer has made it clear that he will not step down. Unlike his critics, Breyer believes that political compromise is still possible and should be pursued by the very Democrats who criticize him. Whether this is virtue or folly, his critics would do well to consider what ultimately motivates their impatience and where it might lead.

“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.

The Broader Moral Issue Behind the Filibuster

black-and-white photograph of U.S. congress in session

This week, the American Rescue Plan became law after being passed along party lines despite overwhelming bi-partisan support from state and local figures as well as voters (according to opinion polling). The massive stimulus measure has been taken as an indication that “the era of big government” is back, and indeed given the challenges faced with COVID-19, the threat of climate change, the urgent need to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, it isn’t particularly shocking that a significant share of voters now want government to be more proactive. It should be no surprise then that the Senate filibuster continues to be a lightning rod of controversy as more Democrats have called for reform. But is this just politics or are there more subtle moral concerns at stake when it comes to changing the filibuster?

Those who oppose getting rid of the filibuster tend to point to three general reasons to keep it. The first is that the filibuster is in keeping with the general philosophy behind the Constitution, specifically to prevent swift passage of laws. The second is that the filibuster protects minority rights. The third reason is more political-practical in nature; warning of the dangers of what would happen if the other side were able to do as they wish, and nothing could be done to stop it.

In response to the first reason, two important points need to be noted. In a 1995 article defending the filibuster, Bill Frenzel notes, “The Framers created our system based on their profound distrust of government […] Their intention was to prevent swift enactment of laws and to avoid satisfying the popular whimsy of each willful majority.” However even if slow government was the goal of the Constitution, it isn’t clear that the filibuster was a good means of accomplishing this. James Madison argued requiring more than majority support would reverse “the fundamental principle of free government,” while Alexander Hamilton argued that such requirements serve to “substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

What is more important, however, is that the Framers of the Constitution were influenced by 18th-century political philosophy and were responding to 18th-century problems. So, the question is whether such conditions still hold today, and if we should be bound by what the Founders wanted? The answer appears to be no, as even Thomas Jefferson argued that the Constitution should be revised and updated to meet the needs of new generations. While it is tempting to think about political philosophy in a-temporal terms as establishing stable institutions to protect an invariant set of fixed human rights, we might instead consider political institutions the instruments that allow the public to conduct its business.

In response to the second reason — the protection of minority rights — the question is always one of which minority and which rights we are talking about. If we are talking about the rights of a minority of citizens against the tyranny of the majority, then we already have a solution to that; it’s called the Bill of Rights. If we are talking about the rights of a minority of Senators, then we need to ask how far those rights should be extended. The right to review and debate legislation is important for any legislator in the minority, but whether there is a right for a minority of lawmakers to effectively veto legislation is another. Senator Raphael Warnock, for example, recently posed this very question, asking whether the minority rights of Senators should outweigh the voting rights of citizens.

If we put aside the first two reasons, as, by themselves, they aren’t reasons to keep the filibuster specifically, we must address the actual perceivable consequences of making changes to lawmaking policy. For example, Mitch McConnell recently warned of a “scorched earth Senate” where Republicans would use every rule at their disposal to halt the chamber and once returned to the majority would pass all manner of laws unacceptable to Democrats with “zero input” from them.

First, it is worth noting that most other legislative chambers do not have a filibuster rule like the Senate, despite hailing from nations which rank high on the democracy index. For example, prior to the 1990s the Legislative Assembly of Ontario was far more permissive about the length of speeches, allowing one member to tie up the legislature for weeks, culminating in a 17-hour long speech. The rules of the legislature were later amended to limit the time for members to speak, but even after this filibuster was eliminated, there were plenty of opportunities for obstruction. For example, one member was able to tie up the legislature for hours by introducing a bill whose title included every lake, river, and steam in the province. The title had to be read aloud by the member and the clerk.

Despite eliminating the chance to filibuster, the sky did not fall in Ontario. Just as McConnell has threatened to tie up the Senate using tactics like having bills be read aloud, legislators in Ontario resorted to new tactics and procedural moves to obstruct which were only permitted until they also became a nuisance. Yet, what follows from jurisdictions that allow for the easy passage of legislation based on a majority vote? Firstly, it means that administrations are far more able to enact the platforms they run on. Thus, voters more often see their political preferences be reflected in law.

But this also means that a newly elected government can always repeal and replace what came before far easier. This can be problematic because it creates greater instability and uncertainty. Sometimes this happens as a major piece of legislation can be repealed in short order by a new government who may choose their own policies. Good examples in Canada include a national childcare program that was almost enacted before a newly elected Conservative government cancelled it. In Ontario, the Liberal government’s cap and trade program was abolished quickly by a new Conservative administration.

While the swinging pendulum of political winners does mean that laws and programs can be enacted and repealed more frequently, it is rarely a free-for-all either. Certain programs, policies, or laws simply have too much public support to allow new governments to wipe the slate clean. For example, even when Conservative governments enjoy large majorities and could easily do so, you don’t see them repealing programs like public healthcare because the public would not stand for it.

So would a filibuster-less Senate be a disaster? Certainly McConnell is right that even if Democrats pass all the legislation they want, Republicans can just as easily repeal it next time they’re in power and further enact all sorts of reforms that would be objectionable to Democrats. However, in the long term the back-and-forth of major legislative reforms, repeals, and replacements would not be sustainable. It is in the public’s interest to have some degree of stability even if it takes voters a while to realize this. However, this kind of legislative experimentation might make it easier for the public to connect policies and ideas with real-life consequences. It’s one thing to vote Republican if you know little can get done, it is another thing to vote Republican if you know they can and will take away your healthcare. And if they do, your future voting preferences might change. In essence, eliminating the filibuster reveals how important it will be for voters to be more informed advocates when it comes to policy and to be less inclined to knee-jerk defenses of ideology.

Reforming the filibuster may not be merely a matter of exacerbating political problems, but rather it reveals and identifies a moral one. In a time where political reform is easier without the filibuster, what kind of changes to political culture should result? What are our responsibilities to be informed when we vote? Given that fellow citizens may not agree with all of our policies and may have the option to repeal them in the future, are we obligated to seek input from opponents in order to ensure that policies have enough support not to be undone after the next election? Would a scorched-earth approach with “zero input” from the other side ever be a good thing? In essence, are we not forced to ask how we can better “get along” with opposing voter blocks and what would that look like? Could this actually lead to more compromise and less polarization? And in our present political culture, where is the line drawn between pure obstruction and a meaningful challenge from the voting minority? And if some obstruction is welcome to protect the rights of the minority, how far should those rights go?

As I said, even if you eliminate the filibuster there are other tactics that can be used, just as they were in Ontario. The issue will not just go away. The debate for the nation is not whether a legislative tactic should stick around, but about the kind of political culture we should have.

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.

Winning Graciously and the Problem with Empathy

photograph of Joe Biden speaking with microphone with American flag in background

In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden placed a strong emphasis on national unity and reconciliation. “For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance,” Biden said in between bouts of cheers and honking car horns. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.” Biden presents himself  as a president for all, a message which many Democrats and centrists have wholeheartedly embraced as a path to ending, in Biden’s words, a “grim era of demonization” (though he did not specify who or what exactly has been demonized, or whether one side of the political divide is more blameworthy for this demonization than the other).

In the wake of his victory, celebrations have erupted across the globe. People in blue Biden-Harris t-shirts dance in the streets of New York, and across the Atlantic, fireworks are being set off over London. While this outpouring of joy feels well-earned, it’s worth considering what attitude the left ought to take towards Trump supporters going forward. One of the central questions of ethics, famously taken up by T.N. Scanlon in his 1998 book, is what we owe to each other. Many Democrats are wrestling with this question now: what obligations do those on the left have toward their (somewhat) vanquished political foes?

On the one hand, gloating over the defeat of an opponent seems more likely to sow further division than mend bridges. This is primarily a practical consideration for politicians and legislators. As political scientist Ian Bremmer points out, the Republicans may still maintain their hold over the Senate, depending on how the upcoming election in Georgia turns out, so a commitment to compromise and teamwork between both sides will be key going forward. In a tweet, he suggests that “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them.”

However, many on the left are pushing back, citing an inextricable problem with the brand of amnesiac empathy Biden encourages. Karl Popper’s famous “tolerance paradox,” inspired by observations of facism in Europe in 1945, states that,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Unfettered tolerance contains the seed of its own destruction. An America that is truly for all, for both Trump supporters and the far left, cannot help but destroy itself. The solution, it seems, is for the tolerant to commit to uplifting the downtrodden and disenfranchised while opposing those groups that perpetuate structural violence, a kind of qualified tolerance. Biden’s call for reconciliation may ultimately feed into the pernicious logic that allows for good people “on both sides,” though it seems unfair to preemptively attribute such reprehensible moral equivocation to Biden’s fledgling administration months before he’s even been sworn into office.

So, do we strive for unity which may elide the very real struggles of the disenfranchised, or sink deeper into mutual estrangement, which risks stagnation in the aim of moral purity? The reality is that many of us have no choice but to compromise with one another, to enact change step by step rather than in a glorious blaze of revolution. Political compromise may constitute a moral compromise, but it may pave the road for a future where such concessions are less difficult to make. This may feel like a deeply unsatisfying approach to those long ignored by mainstream political discourse, and it doesn’t always address the deep hurt victims of structural inequality have faced for centuries in this country.

Regardless of the difficult road that lies ahead, this is a moment where celebration is warranted. In particular, Biden’s stance on climate change and immigration are a source of hope for many across the globe, though it is still to be seen whether or not his administration can enact substantive change within our deeply fractured system. But once the euphoria wears off, Democrats and Republicans alike will have to reckon with Scanlon’s question in the tumultuous months to come.

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.

Treating Principles as Mere Means

photograph of US Capitol Building with mirror image reflected in lake

With the Republican about-face concerning Supreme Court Senate votes, hypocrisy is once again back in the headlines. Many accusations of hypocrisy have been directed at Senator Lindsey Graham, whose support for a Senate vote for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee so clearly clashes with earlier statements — he said in 2018 that “if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election” — that his behavior seems like the Platonic form of a certain kind of hypocrisy. Graham has responded with a hypocrisy accusation of his own, writing to Democrats on the judiciary panel that “if the shoe were on the other foot, you would do the same.” Amidst this controversy, it’s worth taking a step back to ask what force the accusation of hypocrisy is supposed to have.

In earlier columns, I have explored some suggestions for why hypocrisy is morally objectionable and rejected them. In this column I want to consider a theory first articulated by the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay. This account says that hypocrisy is morally objectionable because it involves treating important religious, political, or moral principles as mere means.

Immanuel Kant famously intoned against treating persons as mere means, or using them as mere instruments for the satisfaction of our own desires. What’s wrong with this is that it involves a kind of category error — it treats persons, beings with the capacity to rationally order their lives, as if they were things.

Clearly, however, this can’t be exactly what Kittay means when she talks about hypocrites treating principles as mere means: principles are not persons. Yet there is a link here. The kinds of principles Kittay is concerned with — moral and religious principles — are supposed to be adhered to because they are right, and not because they are useful to the adherent. Kant expressed this point with his distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is one that is binding on you regardless of what you happen to desire. You can’t claim that some moral principle — “don’t kill innocents,” say — is not binding on you because you happen to want to kill innocents. That principle provides a reason for you not to kill innocents regardless of what you happen to want. By contrast, a hypothetical imperative — for example, “go to the store” — is only binding if you have some desire that will be promoted by acting according to the imperative. If there were nothing you wanted that you could get by going to store, that imperative would not be binding on you.

So, when Kittay says that hypocrites treat principles as mere means, she means that they treat categorical imperatives as if they were merely hypothetical. The hypocrite will adopt and discard moral principles as it suits them. Sometimes that adoption will be merely rhetorical — some hypocrites are entirely conscious that their pretense of principle is a charade. But other hypocrites will sincerely adopt moral principles, only to discard them whenever holding to them becomes inexpedient. In the case of Senate Republicans, their hypocrisy lies in their adoption of the principle of not confirming Supreme Court justices during an election year when it was convenient for them to do so, followed by their abandonment of this principle when it was convenient to do that. In doing this, they treated what seemed to be a categorical imperative — one that was binding on them even if they didn’t want to adhere to it — as if it were hypothetical.

What’s wrong with treating principles as mere means? For Kittay, the problem has to do with trust. According to her, we trust that when people claim to hold to certain categorical principles, they hold to them as categorical. We rely on this belief in our dealings with them, assuming, for example, that they will hold to those principles even if it is inconvenient for them to do so. Moreover, their assurances of commitment are all we have to go on; we can’t look into their souls to see what their true attitude toward their principles is. Hypocrisy reveals that there can be a deep divide between what people say they are committed to and what they are actually committed to. Thus, hypocrisy shows us that the part of our lives structured by principles is actually quite fragile, depending as it does on our trust in what people say. We therefore have strong incentives to expose and condemn hypocrisy. As Graham’s Democratic challenger for his Senate seat recently tweeted, “Senator Graham, you have proven that your word is worthless.”

There is, I think, another point to be made about how hypocrisy undermines categorical principles. What hypocrisy reveals is that for at least certain people, categorical principles are a mere mask for the unvarnished pursuit of power, wealth, and self-aggrandizement. The trouble is that compared to such people, those who voluntarily restrain themselves in accordance with categorical principles are at a distinct disadvantage. This puts pressure on everyone to abandon their principles. Thus, hypocrisy tends to erode everyone’s commitment to categorical principles as such. And if we think that categorical principles are good on the whole — that they help solve certain coordination problems, for example — then this is a bad thing for everyone.

So, what Senate Republicans have revealed with their latest hypocrisy is that for them, politics is a game of power untempered by principles. But when Republicans throw their principles overboard when it is convenient for them to do so, this increases the incentives for everyone else to do the same. And that, I will wager, is worse for everyone in the long run.

The Melodrama of the United States Postal Service

photograph of rusty mail boxes in rural New Mexico

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads the motto of the United States Postal Service (USPS). But what neither acts of god nor nature can impede, politics can grind to a halt. The USPS has become another among many points of contention between Democratic politicians and the administration of President Donald Trump. But for an institution that predates the United States itself, political struggle is old hat.

The current issue facing the USPS is alleged by the Trump administration to be simply financial. It’s a poorly run business hemorrhaging money, according to new Postmaster-General  Louis DeJoy. Appointed in June 2020, DeJoy previously worked in the private sector as a management consultant for supply chain logistics. His appointment was criticized by Democratic lawmakers as blatantly partisan, as DeJoy is a significant political contributor to the the Republican Party and has never previously worked in the USPS. (New Breed Logistics, of which DeJoy was the CEO at the time of its sale to XPO Logistics, did work extensively with the USPS during DeJoy’s tenure.) Moreover, the restructuring measures DeJoy has executed are being decried as a deliberate effort to suppress voting by sabotaging the viability of mail-in ballots ahead of the November 2020 presidential election. Limits on overtime pay, and a policy of holding until the next day mail that cannot be delivered within scheduled working hours, have led to massive delays to mail service in Philadelphia. Some residents have gone up to three weeks without receiving scheduled deliveries.

USPS financial troubles are not a fiction, and they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the postal woes are due largely to external factors rather than bad management. In fact, bipartisan legislation burdened the USPS with tremendous financial obligations. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006, Section 803, requires of the USPS something required of no other institution in the US. The USPS must fully fund the projected future healthcare expenses of retired postal workers each fiscal year. Even this extraordinary requirement wouldn’t have led to such deep financial problems for the USPS, but for the Great Recession of 2007 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both circumstances depressed the already shrinking volume of letters and first-class mail from which the USPS used to derive much of its revenue.

But the existence of financial problems, whatever their provenance, is a red-herring according to Philip Rubio, historian and author of Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS remains tremendously popular and effective. It delivers many times more items than FedEx and UPS combined, and delivers to many more places than any other service in the US. Rather than thinking of the USPS as a business, Rubio urges that it should be thought of as a public service. It is not meant to be profitable, competitive, or even self-sufficient, but to provide a necessary service and to serve as a tool of federal power. The monopoly the USPS has over the delivery of letters was given to it by Congress between 1845-1850, when they effectively legislated competing courier services out of existence. Without legislative intervention, the USPS would likely have been displaced long ago. But with the support of Congress, the postal service has largely grown and thrived.

This is the crux of the postal melodrama. It is another theater of the conflict between the self-styled champions of free markets and their sworn enemy — government services. The billionaire conservative political donor, Charles Koch, spent years fomenting political action against the USPS. The politically libertarian Cato Institute routinely publishes paeans of postal privatization, calling for the invisible hand to unmake what the US Constitution wrought. As always the argument is that stifling competition is bad: bad for the consumers who might see better service and lower prices; bad for entrepreneurs who might make their fortunes but for being stifled by legislative meddling; and bad for the companies that “benefit” from regulation because they stagnate. Proponents of privatization look at the example of several European nations that have (partly) privatized their post: the Netherlands, Germany, and England for example. Germany’s DeutschePost DHL Group has become a diversified, global company that continues to run a profit, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Privatization has allowed cost-cutting steps for the postal service in the Netherlands, which stopped Monday delivery due to an overall decline in postal volume — though such changes still have to be approved by Dutch parliament. Why do such changes still have to be ratified by the legislature if the post is private? Because they are still mandated by law to provide universal letter courier services.

Stressing the universal service mandate is the counterargument made by opponents of privatization when they claim the USPS is a public service rather than a business. Without mail delivery many people wouldn’t get their paychecks, medicine, tax forms, family newsletters, etc. While a private company could provide these services, to those willing to pay fair market rate, the question is whether the market should be allowed to dictate the price and availability of such services. Others argue that replacing the trusty old post office with a soulless corporate delivery and logistics firm would eliminate the community binding role that local post offices play in small and rural communities.

But even necessary services, like utilities, are often private companies — both in the United States and abroad. Private companies that provide gas, electricity, and telecommunications services are subject to governmental oversight but still run in order to turn a profit for their owners or shareholders. Both private and public models can work — so the issue is ultimately one of principle. The question to ask is what services do we as a society want to allow to be governed by a principle of profit; and are there any services that it is immoral, or just unwise, to allow to be so governed? Libertarian-minded people will argue, as they are want to do, that any restriction on people entering freely into contracts with each other is morally and politically destructive. Others will counter that this is a nice, abstract fantasy that doesn’t capture the real relations of political and economic power among individuals enmeshed in historic systems of oppression.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the political tug-of-war in the US over mail-in-voting, the USPS has been a political target for free-market advocates. The timing of the restructuring of the USPS and subsequent delivery slowdowns strikes many seeking President Trump’s ouster as suspicious. It coincides with his unfounded, but frequently stated, concerns about voter fraud and suggestion that the November 2020 election be delayed. We should all watch intently the continuing saga of the USPS.


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Principles, Pragmatics, and Pragmatic Principles

close-up photograph of horse with blinders

In this post, I want to talk about a certain sort of neglected moral hypocrisy that I have noticed is common in my own moral thinking and, that I expect, is common in most of yours. And to illustrate this hypocrisy, I want to look carefully at the hypocritical application of democratic principles, and conclude by discussing President Trump’s recent tweet about delaying the election.

First, however, I want to introduce a distinction between two types of hypocrisy: overt and subtle hypocrisy. Overt hypocrisy occurs when you, in full awareness of the double standard, differentially apply a principle to relevantly similar cases. It is easy to find examples. One is Mitch McConnell’s claim that he would confirm a new Supreme Court Justice right before an election after blocking the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland because of how close the nation was to a presidential election. It is clear that Senator McConnell knows he is applying the democratic principle inconsistently, he just also does not think politics is about principles, he thinks it is about promoting his political agenda.

Subtle hypocrisy, in contrast, occurs when you inconsistently apply your principles but you do not realize you are applying them inconsistently. Names aside, a lot of subtle hypocrisy, while it is hard to recognize in the moment, is pretty clear upon reflection. We tend to only notice our principles are at play in some contexts and not others. We are more likely to notice curtailments of free speech when it happens to those who say similar things to ourselves. We are much more likely to notice when we are harmed by inequitable treatment than when we are benefited by it.

We are especially likely to hypocritically apply our principles when we begin to consider purported reasons given for various policies. If the Supreme Court issues a decision I agree with, chances are good that I won’t actually go and check the majority reasoning to see if I think it’s sound. Rather, I’m content with the win and trust the court’s decision. In contrast, if the Court issues a decision I find dubious, I often do look up the reasoning and, if I think it is inadequate, will openly criticize the decision.

Why is this sort of hypocrisy so common? Because violations of our principles don’t always jump out at us. Often you won’t notice a principle is at stake unless you carefully deliberate about the question. Yet, we don’t just preemptively deliberate about every action in light of every principle we hold. Rather, something needs to incline us to deliberate. Something needs to prompt us to begin to morally reflect on an action, and, according to an awful lot of psychological research, it is our biases and unreflective intuitions that prompt our tendency to reason (see Part I of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind). Because we are more likely to try and think of ethical problems in the behavior of our political enemies, we are much more likely to notice when actions we instinctively oppose violate our principles, and are unlikely to notice the same when considering actions we instinctively support.

I can, of course, provide an example of personal hypocrisy in my application of democratic principles against disenfranchisement. When conservative policy makers started trying to pass voter ID laws I was suspicious, I did my research, and I condemned these laws as democratically discriminatory. In contrast, when more liberal states gestured at moving towards mail-only voting to deal with COVID I just assumed it was fine. I never did any research, and it was just by luck that a podcast informed me that mail-only voting can differentially disenfranchise both liberal voting blocs like Black Americans and conservative voting blocs like older rural voters). Thus, but for luck and given my own political proclivities, my commitment to democratic principles would have been applied hypocritically to condemn only policies floated by conservative lawmakers.

This subtle hypocrisy is extraordinarily troubling because, while we can recognize it once it is pointed out, it is incredibly difficult to notice in the moment. This is one of the reasons it is important to hear from ideologically diverse perspectives, and to engage in regular and brutal self-criticism.

But while subtle hypocrisy is difficult to see, I think there is another sort of hypocrisy which is even more difficult to notice. To see it, it will be useful if we take a brief digression and try to figure out what exactly is undemocratic about President Trump’s proposal to delay the election. I, like many of you, find it outrageous that President Donald Trump would even suggest delaying the election due to the COVID crisis. Partly this is because I believe President Trump is acting in bad faith. Tweeting not because he wants to delay the election but because he wants to preemptively delegitimize it. Or perhaps because he wants to distract the media from otherwise damning stories about COVID-19 and the economy.

But a larger part of me thinks it would be outrageous even if President Trump were acting in good faith, and that is because delaying an election is in tension with core democratic principles. Now, you might think delaying the election is undemocratic because regular elections are the means by which a government is held democratically accountable to its citizens (this is the sort of argument I hear most people making). Thus, if the current government is empowered to delay an election, it might enable the government to, at least for a time, escape democratic accountability. Of course, this is not a real worry in the U.S. context. Even were the U.S. congress to delay the election, it would not change when President Trump is removed from office. His term ends January 20th whether or not a new President has been elected. If no one has been elected, then either the Speaker of the House or the President pro tempore of the Senate takes over (and I am eagerly awaiting whatever new TV show in the Spring decides to run with that counterfactual).

But there is a different principled democratic concern at stake. Suppose a political party, while in control of Congress, would delay an election whenever polls looked particularly unpromising. This would be troublingly undemocratic because while Congress would have to hold the election at some point before January 3rd, they could also wait till the moment that the party currently in power seems to have the largest comparative advantage. But just as gerrymandering is undemocratic because it allows those currently in power to employ their political power to secure an advantage in the upcoming elections, so too is this strategy of delaying elections for partisan reasons.

But what if Congress really were acting in good faith. Would that mean it could be democratic to delay the election? Perhaps. If you were confident you were acting on entirely non-partisan reasons, then delaying in such contexts is just as likely to harm your chances as to help them. And indeed, I could imagine disasters so serious as to justify delaying an election.

However, I think in general there are pragmatic reasons to stick to the democratic principles even when we are acting on entirely non-partisan reasons. First, it can be difficult to verify that reasons are entirely non-partisan. It can be hard to know the intention of Senators, and sometimes it can even be hard to know our own intentions.

Second, and I think more profoundly, there is a concern that we will tend to inequitably notice non-partisan reasons. Take the Brexit referendum. When I first saw some of the chaos that happened following the Brexit vote, I began to seriously consider if the UK should just hold a second referendum. After all, I thought, and still think, there were clear principled democratic issues with the election (for example, there seemed to be a systematic spread of misinformation).

The problem of course is that had the Brexit vote gone the other way, then I almost certainly would never have looked into the election, and so never noticed anything democratically troubling about the result. My partisan thoughts about Brexit influence what non-partisan reasons for redoing the election I ended up noticing. To call for redoing an election is surely at least as undemocratic as calling for delaying an election (indeed, I expect it is quite a bit more undemocratic, since it actually gives one side two chances at winning), and yet I almost instantly condemn the call to delay an election and it took me ages to see the democratic issues with redoing the Brexit vote.

Here, it is not that I was hypocritically applying a democratic principle. Rather, I was missing a democratic principle I should have already had given my tendency to hypocrisy. Because partisan preferences influence what non-partisan reasons I notice, I should have adopted a pragmatic principle against calling for reelections following results with which I disagreed. Not because reelections are themselves undemocratic (just as delaying an election might not itself be undemocratic), but because as a human reasoner, I cannot always trust my own even non-partisan reasoning and so should sometimes blinker it with pragmatic principles.

AMC, Face Masks, and Avoiding Political Controversy

photograph of empty movie theater with lights up

American cinema giant AMC made waves on social media recently when announcing its policies regarding the wearing of face masks in its theaters. Like a lot of businesses that are planning to reopen during the easing of restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, AMC initially stated that they would take preventative measures in spacing out patrons in movie theaters and requiring employees to wear masks. Controversy arose, however, after the CEO Adam Aron reported what the chain’s stance would be with regards to requirements on the moviegoers themselves, one he stated in an interview with Variety:

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

Soon afterwards, however, the company reversed course. In a press release, they stated that in response to “an intense and immediate outcry” from their customers, and “with the full support of our scientific advisors” that they would instead be requiring all guests to wear masks in their theatres. Indeed, as wearing masks is considered by experts to be a good way to help prevent the spread of the virus, especially in enclosed spaces like movie theatres, AMC’s update policies appear to be a step in a better direction.

While AMC’s updated policy is one that better reflects current scientific advice, it is somewhat disheartening that the outcry had to occur for them to change their policies. However, Aron stated that what motivated AMC’s initial policy decisions was not necessarily a distrust of the recommendations of scientists, but rather an attempt to avoid a “political controversy” (of course, one might also read this as “an attempt to avoid losing customers who don’t want to wear masks”).

Say that an issue is politicized if one’s stance on it is a marker of a certain social or political identity. Politicized issues are not hard to find. Consider recent discussions in the US and the UK with regards to the removal of statues of figures who engaged in the slave trade: one’s stance on whether statues should be taken down or preserved can be taken as markers of one’s position on the left- or right-wing of the political spectrum, respectively. Many scientific issues in particular have also become politicized: one’s stance on global warming, for instance, will typically cause others to categorize one as being more left-wing if they accept the scientific consensus, or right-wing if they reject it.

It is perhaps not surprising that in America the wearing of masks has become a subject of political controversy, with those who refuse to wear masks tending to be more on the conservative end of the spectrum. Motivations for refusing to wear a mask include a belief that the dangers of the virus have been overstated, and that a mandate to wear a mask is perceived to be a violation of personal rights (at least in the minimal sense that one believes one should not be required by the government to do things one does not want to do). It seems clear that when it comes to scientific matters, what one ought to do is to follow the best available advice from the scientific experts. And, of course, there are important moral concerns surrounding how a refusal to wear a mask can put others at risk of serious harm. These are all important issues that have been and will continue to be discussed for a long time. And because the issue of wearing face masks has become politicized, these discussions will inevitably be political in nature: in taking a stance on the issue one risks being affiliated with progressive or conservative views, and thus risks offending those who do not accept such views.

But let’s say that you don’t really want to take a political stance. Maybe you’re exhausted by the endless debates, and fighting, or maybe you just really don’t want to risk making anyone mad at you by taking a side. You might be sick of all the politics, and just want to sit this one out. Can’t you do that?

This is perhaps what the CEO of AMC was trying to accomplish, and as the backlash to their attempts to avoid taking a political stance indicates, the answer appears to be that remaining neutral was not an option. While it may be one’s intention to avoid taking a stance on an issue that has become politicized, in some cases refusing to take a stance will itself place one on the political spectrum. In AMC’s case, while the choice to leave it up to moviegoers to decide whether to wear masks may have been intended to be politically neutral, that one should not be mandated to wear a mask is precisely the stance associated with the political right. Additionally, while it may have again been intended to not take sides on the scientific issue of whether masks are good preventative measures, given that the current recommendations by scientific experts is that people ought to wear masks in public, letting one’s customers decide again constitutes a rejection of the scientific consensus.

You might think that it is unfair to drag someone into a politicized dispute that they did not want to be part of. To which one might respond: too bad. Consider the following analogy: say that you and I are sitting in a dark room, arguing over whether we should turn the lights on. We both get tired of arguing, and decide that, to avoid further conflict, we will both refuse to take sides. In doing so, however, we have committed to a side, whether we wanted to or not: as a result of our refusing to decide, the lights remain off.

This is obviously a simple analogy for more complex situations. But what it shows is that controversies over politicized issues are not always the kinds of the things that one can avoid. Sometimes neutral ground just doesn’t exist.

The Politicization of Disease

photograph of seesaw with 1 paper cutout man balanced against 20

Obviously, keeping coronavirus and politics separate is impossible. There is no doubt that the disease will have (and already has had) a profound impact on this year’s political election. But even outside of this very practical sense, COVID-19 presents a political problem: How can we most usefully marshal our resources to combat a pandemic and best manage the expected (and unexpected) fallout?

The virus’s rapid spread has emptied everything from sports arenas packed with fans looking to see the King to the studio audiences of Late Night royalty. It’s laid waste to grocery stores and made princes of price gougers. It’s changed the shape of education, and altered the nature of employment. That our discussion of coronavirus get political is inevitable. Every day policy decisions are made regarding everything from curfews to quarantines. Even the WHO’s decision regarding if and when to call this recent outbreak a “pandemic” was a matter of political calculation.

But the current crisis has also provided ample opportunity for partisan exaggeration, posturing, and grandstanding. As we speak, Republicans and Democrats are locked in combat over the details of a $2 trillion relief bill with both sides accusing the other of prioritizing politics over public well-being. That criticism–prioritizing politics over the public good–is perhaps the best explanation of our disdain for politicization: when the possibility of political victory eclipses the pursuit of all other values. And the current crisis has already been seized on as an opportunity to gain significant ground in the war of ideology.

Earlier this month, in his Oval Office address, the president labelled our adversary a “foreign virus” which needed to be “defeated.” The intentional and repeated institutional use of phrases like “Chinese Virus” since has been explained as a strategy made of two parts immigration policy, one part trade war leverage, one part world relations retaliation, and perhaps one part misdirection. But regardless of the rationalization, these actions are gravely irresponsible and morally reprehensible, especially in a time when gun sales are skyrocketing and Asian Americans are purchasing firearms in response to increasing threats of violence made against them. Whatever political points there are to win here can’t be weighed against the very real and very present threat to human life.

Likewise, while Trump has laid claim to the “wartime president” mantle, he’s been loath to invoke the Defense Production Act relying instead on his famed deal-making skills. In the midst of critical shortages in medical supplies, Trump is betting on market forces to correct course. When challenged Sunday on why he was waiting for corporations to identify and satisfy current needs, the president was adamant that “we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business.” The president’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, echoed this sentiment stating that, “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.” When pressed further, Trump dared the press corps to “Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

Nevermind the false comparison between the Defense Production Act and nationalization, the president’s refusal to direct manufacturers is privileging economic rhetoric at the expense of public health. The current emergency situation calls for pooling national supplies, adjusting for mass production of basic goods like gloves, masks, gowns, respirators, and prioritizing distribution according to gravest needs. Without a coordinated approach by the federal government to make deliberate decisions about supplies and allocations, individual states have been left to fend for themselves. As Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker described it, “It’s a wild, wild West out there.”

Given these developments, the president’s announcement Monday that he was already rethinking the social and economic lockdown was not particularly shocking. As Adam Gaffney wrote on The Guardian last week, “Trump has made it clear he sees this pandemic chiefly as a threat to the market and wealthy people’s personal interests (and relatedly, his own political future) – not to the people whose lives it will threaten or claim.” The economic collapse we have yet to fully experience represents a very real threat to Trump’s private business interests and political fortunes. Concern for public health is, at best, a distant third. Dan Diamond of Politico has even claimed that Trump

“did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, […] partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear: the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Unfortunately, the prioritization of private goods over public health has not stopped there. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday arguing that we should all get back to work in the midst of this pandemic in order to mitigate the coming financial crisis. Senior citizens, Patrick argued, bear an obligation to their grandchildren to risk death in order to preserve Gen Z’s financial solvency. “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Thankfully, the Lieutenant Governor’s suggestion of trading one’s life for another’s financial gain has been met with much scorn and derision. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo maintained that “You cannot put a value on human life,” and Bill Gates weighed in stating that we can’t just carry on and simply “ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.” Apart from arguments regarding the pricelessness of human life, it’s also important to note that framing the issue as one of personal choice fails to acknowledge the way in which those willing to take these risks undermines others’ ability to choose. One person’s behavior can put others at risk who have taken steps to insulate themselves; the value of personal choice cuts both ways.

While the reception of Patrick’s remarks have largely been heartening, his rallying cry isn’t without its supporters. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, for example, opened the university’s doors yesterday to welcome back students, and is expecting faculty to report to campus. Last week, The Atlantic offered a new take on an old saying: “Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.” But the US seems forever poised to test the truth of that inference.

Meaning in Political Discourse

image of "Marxist" black-and-white label

Political polarization has become an important issue in recent years. On matters of public policy it seems like there is little room for rational conversation when people of different political stripes cannot agree on the same basic facts. Solutions to the problem of polarization are likely to be as complex and as plural as the causes of the problem, but there is one issue that may be an important starting point: meaning. A lack of clarity in the meaning of certain terms in political discussion only weakens our ability to engage in fruitful dialog. It fragments our political culture and encourages us to continue to talk past one another. If refining the meanings of our words helps to improve our political discussions, then the issue takes on a moral importance as well as a logical one.

For the first example, let’s consider what the term “socialist” means. The issue has become important as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has at times used terms like “socialist” or “democratic socialist” to describe his positions. Yet according to some he is not a socialist at all, he is a democratic socialist and not a regular socialist, or perhaps he is not a democratic socialist but a social democrat, or still others insist that he is not a socialist but an all-out Marxist. Why is it so difficult for us to decide what Sanders is? Debates about the finer points separating these different views are not new; political ideologues have argued about these distinctions for years. However, much of these debates has always centered on articulating a position relative to an entire political and metaphysical philosophy.

For example, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels was the philosophical driving force behind Marxism. It held that history and society is largely structured by matter, by the control of material forces, rather than ideas or ideals. Borrowing from Hegelian thought, this historical materialism will result in the end of history; historical change is driven by class conflict and will end with the elimination of class: communism. Such philosophical views not only affected Soviet economic thinking, but their thinking about everything else. For example, Soviet science initially rejected genetics since the notion that an inherited trait made an organism better than others ran counter to the Marxist understanding of history and nature.

But terms like socialist, communist, democratic socialist, social democrat are, in many ways, now divorced from these larger philosophical systems. Instead they have been giving new meanings and associations in contemporary contexts. This is important. For example, some try to distinguish between socialism and communism purely in terms of what governments should enact as policy. Communism means the elimination of all property, socialism allows for the retention of varying forms of private markets we are told. While this may be partially true, it wouldn’t be how a Soviet communist in 1920 would have understood the term. But here in 2006 Sanders defines democratic socialism in terms of making sure that income isn’t a barrier to healthcare, education, and a clean environment. Sanders tends to refer to policies not philosophies when situating himself on the political spectrum.

If these terms no longer refer to specific systems, then the meaning of such terms becomes fuzzy. Sanders doesn’t seem to mind using any of these terms so long as he can redefine them in terms consistent with policies that he supports; the label is of secondary importance. This may be why he continues to use terms like “socialist” and “democratic socialist” interchangeably. Little distinguishes him policy-wise from self-proclaimed capitalist Elizabeth Warren or from FDR, except additional rhetoric. But the looseness of such terms can only serve to create confusion and room for empty political name-calling. It is problematic to take concepts which had their original meaning embedded in a 19th century philosophy and place them in a 21st century context. If something sounds vaguely like what the Soviets would do, then you are labeled a “communist.” Given this tendency toward oversimplification, we must be vigilant about how we use such terms moving forward. The real question we should ask ourselves is whether favoring policies of universal healthcare or education constitute necessary or sufficient conditions for using terms like “communist” or “socialist.”

Another example of unclear meaning creating problems can be found in a term like “social construct.” Originally coming out of sociology, social constructivism examines the ways in which society and social interaction structures our understanding of reality. Like “socialism” it emerged from academia operating under certain methodological and philosophical principles, and like “socialism” the term can be understood in several different, complicated ways. At one end of the spectrum social constructivism might hold that how we understand and use concepts is socially influenced while at another end it may hold that our entire understanding of reality is socially determined; the world is the way society says the world is.

It is often noted that gender and race are social constructs, but how is the term “social construct” being used and why is it controversial? Those who insist that there are only two genders, for instance, will tend to argue that biology tells us that we are born with XX or XY chromosomes and that this is all that matters. Part of this political conflict is a matter of epistemic and metaphysical disagreement. A hard realist about epistemology may hold that there is only one way that the world is, and that science is the path to find objective truths about it; social factors only get in the way. To their way of understanding it, only the two-gender theory “carves nature at its joints” so to speak. Social influences, including all of the values, perspectives, and experiences that come with them, only serve to lead to biased or subjective science. Thus, any discussion of more than two genders can be accused of engaging in mere “political correctness” (another poorly defined term) or ideology.

But one does not need to understand “social construct” in this way. Social influences and interactions, practical concerns, and even values, can affect the way we understand and study a topic without falling into complete epistemic relativism. For example, in her book Studying Human Behavior Helen Longino argues that different scientific approaches to studying human behavior do not all agree about what constitutes an environmental causal factor and what constitutes a biological causal factor. To some extent how we divide the world up into what constitutes a behavior, what is environmental, and what is biological is a social construct, but that does not imply that the end conclusion is simply made up or that accepting the findings of any given approach constitutes only subjective or ideological agreement.

Yet, unfortunately the notion persists that social construction implies subjectivity. For instance, Joshua Keating of Smithsonian Magazine notes that time is a social construct. Social interaction influences our understanding of concepts like minutes and seconds, “being early”, “late”, “fashionably late”, or “workday.” Yet he notes, “Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance if not outright resistance.” But there is no good reason to accept the conclusion that simply because a concept is (at least partially) a social construct, it is therefore subjective.

As philosopher Ray Lepley notes, our interests and desires do not confer value, they create value in interaction with reality. The way we understand and use the concept of time has (generally) proved itself objectively well at allowing us to navigate our environment in ways that are relevant to our society. For other societies a different understanding of time may prove itself objectively good at allowing them to navigate their environment. When different societies interact, it creates new problems for our established ways of tracking time that need to be worked out.

On the other hand, socially constructed terms can be merely subjective in the sense that they do not allow us to successfully interact with the world. For example, Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist tells us that race is a social construct in the sense that it is a socially-created concept that does not allow us to predict factors like intelligence or explain innate differences between peoples and populations. Empirically, it is an empty concept. So long as we avoid understanding the terms “social construct” and “reality” in mutually exclusive ways, questions like: How many genders there should be? work themselves out empirically over time as various societies, (and sub-societies,) and their environments all continue to interact with each other. Thus, as long as we clarify the meaning of these terms, we can have conversations about these topics and discuss the merits of using concepts without talking past one another or worry that one side is merely trying to instill their ideology over others.

There are countless other extremely loaded terms which can be used to create arguments to attack others while avoiding serious debate and discussion. What do terms like “political correctness”, “liberal,” “democratic,” “conservative”, or “fascist” mean in their 21st century contexts? These questions are not new. Early analytic philosophers concerned about the rise of nationalist and racist beliefs in Europe argued that clarifying meaning could help resolve political questions. It is still worth taking up the task today.

The Harms of Reporting Political Insults

photograph of reporters' recording devices pushing for response from suited figure

This week I had the most amazing experience reading a news article. The article was discussing the preparations being made for the impeachment trial and I came across this sentence: “Trump tweeted right before and after Pelosi’s appearance, in both instances using derisive nicknames.” What an idea: to avoid repeating what is essentially name calling and to simply refer to what kind of statement was made. Afterall, what is the journalistic value of reporting that a politician called someone else by derisive nicknames and then repeating those nicknames? Does it make us more informed? Does it make national political debates any better? Perhaps not, and this means that the question about whether journalists should repeat such insults is an ethical one.

After the 2016 Presidential election there was much discussion about the issue of journalistic standards and the merits of covering a candidate like Donald Trump so much. Even before the election there were reports that Trump had essentially received over $2 billion dollars in free media simply because he was so consistently covered in the news cycle. Later there were those in the media, such as CNN President Jeff Zucker who acknowledged the mistake of airing campaign rallies in full as it essentially acted as free advertising. According to communication studies professor Brian L. Ott such free advertising did affect the electoral results. What this means is that media is not always merely a bystander covering election campaigns because that coverage can affect who wins or loses. This is relevant for several reasons when it comes to reporting and repeating political insults.

For starters, such insults can act like a form of fake news. Part of the problem with fake news is that the more it is repeated, even while being demonstrated to be false, the more people are likely to believe it. In fact, a study has demonstrated that even a single exposure to a piece of fake news can be enough to convince someone that its contents are true. Even when a report explicitly aims to repute some false claim, the claim itself is more likely to be remembered than the fact that it is false. Now, if we think about insults and nicknames as a piece of information, we are likely to make the same mistake. Every “Lyin’ Ted,” “Shifty Schiff,” or “Crooked Hillary” in some form offers information about that person. The more it is repeated the harder it is to repudiate claims related to it. No matter how many fact checks are published, “Crooked so-and-so,” remains crooked.

One may argue that if the media took measures to stop directly quoting such names and insults and simply noted the fact that an insult was made or is being popularized, then it is no longer performing its journalistic function of informing the public. It might be wrong to not report on direct quotes. However, if insults are more likely to stick in the minds of the public than the information repudiating the stories behind such insults, then the result may be a less informed public. As for the matter of reporting on quotes, this issue is already being discussed in terms of whether the media should repeat quotes that are factually incorrect. Darek Thompson argues that the media should put such quotes in “epistemic quarantine” by abstaining from direct reporting on the language being used in the name of securing the original purpose of journalism: to report the truth.

There is another objection to consider. By not covering insults and replacing them with general descriptions of the comments the media will no longer be reporting neutrally. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that politics is not just about information it is about branding. According to Amit Kumar, Somesh Dhamija, and Aruna Dhamija one outcome of political marketing is the political brand. If a politician is able to cultivate a personal brand, they can create a style and image which is distinct, and thus are able to target specific “consumer citizens” in a way such that politicians are able to establish an instantaneous reaction with the public.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spent years cultivating a brand beginning with his boxing match with a Conservative Senator, with it establishing a sense of “toughness, strength, honour and courage.” One can only imagine that his recent beard growth, with its ability to project experience, is an attempt to change that brand. However, just as a company’s brand can be tarnished, so can a personal brand. When an insult like “Cooked Hillary” is used in a repeated and targeted way, it damages that brand in a way distinct from merely insulting someone. It acts less as an assertion of fact and more like a way to connect concepts on a subconscious level. Thus, when the press repeats insults, they are acting as a form of advertising to attack a political brand. In other words, repeated reporting of such insults is already non-neutral in its effects.

Perhaps reporting insults still serves a journalistic purpose, however it is difficult to see what purpose that is. Such insults are less about the merits of policy and are essentially ad hominem attacks. In fact, the reporting of such ad hominem attacks makes addressing empirical claims very difficult. According to a study, attacking an individual’s credibility may be just as effective as attacking the claims that the individual makes. For instance, attacking Clinton for being corrupt “could be just as effective as actual evidence of criminality, and no less influential.” In other words, once an ad hominem attack is made, the empirical facts of the case do not really matter. Dr. Elio Martino of Quillette notes, “If attacks on a person’s character are effective, and potentially irreversible even with the subsequent addition of facts, it becomes easy to discredit people wishing to tackle the difficult but important issues facing our society.”

So, reporting ad hominem attacks essentially does not aid in keeping the public informed. However, others have noted that reporting insults only serves to make politics “more trivial and stupid.” In a polling exercise in Australia, a group sought to get voter perceptions of political leaders and to form a word cloud of the responses. The responses mostly consisted of insults. As Terry Barnes notes, “While it may be a bit of fun—and it’s always fun for the rest of us to see political figures publicly humiliated—this tawdry exercise dumbed our politics down that little bit further, trivializing for the sake of titillation.” This isn’t an issue isolated to one politician or one nation; reporting on ad hominem attacks is trivial and it damages our ability to carry on political conversations. It is hard to see what journalistic purpose the reporting of any political insult could have.

All of this brings me back to the article I began with. It was so pleasant to see a pointless insult not being directly quoted, but simply noted. My hopes were dashed, however, when I scrolled further to not only find the tweet containing the insult embedded in the article, but to also find the article itself later mentioning the “derisive nickname” in question: “Crazy Nancy.” Would I have been missing out to know that a politician insulted another without knowing what the insult was? I don’t think so.

Hyper-partisanship and Centrism in Modern Political Discourse

"Remember" by Ian Sane licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Hyper-partisanship in the United States political system is becoming more and more of a topic of concern among Americans. Politicians from both parties are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground, more extreme and even “radical” factions of both the right and the left are beginning to take hold, and many politicians who are less willing to compromise are being elected into office. This kind of partisanship has transcended the discourse among elected officials as these types of sentiments have taken hold among media outlets, and in turn, the electorate.

Continue reading “Hyper-partisanship and Centrism in Modern Political Discourse”

Opinion: Kavanaugh Was the Wrong Choice

photograph of Mississippi senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Brett Kavanaugh smiling while sitting on a couch

It’s a headline we’ve all probably seen in some form during the past month: allegations of sexual assault against nominated justice Brett Kavanaugh disrupted his confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. Updates on the interruptions surrounding his confirmation have dominated news cycles since alleged victim of Kavanaugh’s forceful advances, Christine Blasey Ford, testified against him in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. To quickly recap, here is a timeline of significant events that have transpired with Kavanaugh’s confirmation:

           

July 9: President Donald Trump announces his pick as Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court bench.

September 16: Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her while they were both in high school go public in a Washington Post report.

September 17: Kavanaugh issues a statement denying Ford’s accusations.

September 23: A second woman, Deborah Ramirez, comes forward with sexual misconduct allegations from when the two were in college together. Kavanaugh subsequently denies these allegations.

September 26: A third woman, Julie Swetnick, accuses Kavanaugh of targeting girls for sexual assault. Kavanaugh also denies these allegations.

September 27: Both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

September 28: Senate Judiciary Committee votes to send Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Senate floor.

October 1: White House directs FBI to interview anyone deemed relevant in their investigation of Kavanaugh.

October 6: The Senate confirms Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

These events have brought the push against the #MeToo movement to a head, as Kavanaugh’s defenders elicited many similar arguments that were used in defense of the men who were accused of rape/sexual misconduct soon after the movement’s birth including Louis CK, Al Franken, and Matt Lauer. Perhaps the most commonly-used of these arguments is the presumption of innocence. Actor, comedian, and producer Jeremy Piven stated after being accused of sexual assault that “lives are being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence.” In this, Piven refers to the subverting of formal legal processes in these accusations by publicly labeling men as sex offenders when there is no concrete proof or general consensus supporting the accusations. Thus, to Piven, the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” seems to have been wrongly undermined in these situations. More relevant to Kavanaugh’s case, Hans A. von Spakovsky of Fox News writes, “if you believe in the presumption of innocence, based on what we know now it would be unfair to assume that Kavanaugh is guilty of sexual assault and deny him a seat on our nation’s highest court based on uncorroborated accusations.”

Furthermore, Kavanaugh’s backers argued that the instances of sexual assault his accusers detail occurred in 1982, when Kavanaugh was only 17 years old and the culture surrounding sexual assault was much different than it is today. Rod Dreher, an editor at the American Conservative, tweeted, “I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge…This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.” In 1982, long before the #MeToo movement and American society’s mainstream prioritizing of sexual consent, forced sex between young people was merely seen as “fooling around” or “boys being boys.” The extent and severity of sexual assaults on young women had not yet been exposed to the public, so most people were not engaged in discourse about the issue. In fact, the first nationally-observed Sexual Assault Awareness Month was not until April of 2001. Therefore, as Kavanaugh supporters argued, how could Kavanaugh have understood the need for consent before discussions about consent were even being had in the mainstream?

Whether for the sake of partisan politics, women’s rights, or molding the future of conversations about sexual assault, Democrats in Congress fought vehemently to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Senator from California and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in an article for The Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court justices should not be an extension of the Republican Party…I strongly oppose Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.” Feinstein’s argument raises a fair partisan concern, but there are other, more ethically-grounded reasons why Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court and why the previously-mentioned defenses of him fall short.

What Kavanaugh’s supporters seem not to realize is that Kavanaugh was not being tried as a criminal, although he and Ford’s testimonial process bore great resemblance to a criminal trial. Rather, Kavanaugh was undergoing intense scrutiny to deem whether he is worthy of holding one of the most prestigious and permanent offices in the United States’ government. Therefore, the presumption of innocence does not apply to this situation. There will be no verdict of “guilty” or “innocent,” but rather one of “fit” or “not fit” to serve on the Supreme Court. Being denied the confirmation would not have “ruin[ed] Judge Kavanaugh’s life,” as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina believes it would have, rather it would have prevented a potential sexual deviant from holding one of the most ethics-centered positions in the U.S. Even if one holds a sound belief that Kavanaugh is innocent of committing sexual assault, why should our country take the risk? Especially in a political climate where sexual assault cases are at the forefront, we cannot afford to do so. Politics aside, President Trump and the Republican Senate could have nominated and confirmed a judge with similar politics and competency as Kavanaugh, but without his questionable past.

Should Kavanaugh’s past be allowed to affect his future? The short answer is that it shouldn’t matter. The extended answer requires us to step back and look at Kavanaugh’s confirmation from a broader view. Bearing the entire country’s already horrific rape culture in mind, Kavanaugh and his individual life should have no bearing on the nation’s future. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately one-third of perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse are themselves juveniles, with an overwhelming majority being male. By confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the President and Congress have sent a resounding message to the rest of the nation that high school boys can sexually assault their female peers and still grow up to hold one of the highest offices in the nation. The danger of sending this message greatly outweighs threats to Kavanaugh’s individual future.

Unfortunately, the Senate disregarded these points and sided with partisanship over morality and logic to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court anyways. While the future of our nation looks bleak with the lifetime appointment of Kavanaugh, what can this debacle teach us about the intersection of ethics and politics? Perhaps the most important lesson to take is that public officials, especially politicians, should be judged based on the ethicality of all of their actions, and how they react to those actions. Kavanaugh, vying for the most ethics-centered position in the nation, was accused of an unethical action, and reacted with anger and brute denial rather than understanding and acknowledgement of a social climate in the United States that is dangerous for women. Whether he is guilty or not, his refusal to recognize the backlash that survivors of sexual assault commonly face implies that he does not see consent to be tied directly to ethics. In today’s politics where sexual assault is at the forefront of modern law, the U.S. needs a new justice who will view these cases with objectivity and poise, will set a good example for the rest of the nation, and will have a sound moral compass. Brett Kavanaugh is not that justice.