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‘Don’t Look Up’: Willful Ignorance of a Democracy in Crisis

image of meteor headed toward city skyline

Don’t Look Up spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.”

Holly Thomas, CNN

“it’s hard to escape the feeling of the film jabbing its pointer finger into your eye, yelling, Why aren’t you paying attention! … The thing is, if you’re watching Don’t Look Up, you probably are paying attention, not just to the news about the climate and the pandemic but to a half-dozen other things that feel like reasonable causes for panic. … So when the credits rolled — after an ending that was, admittedly, quite moving — I just sat there thinking, Who, exactly, is this for?”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

“[The film’]s worst parts are when it stops to show people on their phones. They tweet inanity, they participate in dumb viral challenges, they tune into propaganda and formulate conspiracy theory. At no point does Don’t Look Up’s script demonstrate an interest in why these people do these things, or what causes these online phenomena. Despite this being a central aspect of his story, McKay doesn’t seem to think it worthy of consideration. There’s a word for that: contempt.”

Joshua Rivera, Polygon

And so on, and so on. Critics of Adam McKay’s climate change satire all point to the same basic defect: “Don’t Look Up” is nothing more than an inside joke; it isn’t growing the congregation, it’s merely preaching to the choir. Worse, the movie flaunts its moral superiority over the deplorables and unwashed masses instead of shaking hands, kissing babies, and doing all the other politicking necessary for changing hearts and minds. When given the opportunity to speak to, it speaks down. In the end, this collection of Hollywood holier-than-thou A-listers sneers at their audience and is left performing only for themselves.

But what if the critics have it all wrong? What if the movie’s makers have no intention of wrestling the various political obstacles to democratic consensus? Indeed, they seem to have absolutely zero interest in playing the political game at all. Critics of “Don’t Look Up” see only a failed attempt at coalition-building, but what if the film’s doing precisely what it set out to do – showing us that there are some existential threats so great that they transcend democratic politics?

“Don’t Look Up” takes a hard look at the prospects of meaningful collective action (from COVID to the climate and beyond) with democratic institutions so corrupted by elite capture. (Spoiler: They’re grim.) Gone is any illusion that the government fears its people. In this not-so-unfamiliar political reality, to echo Joseph Schumpeter, democracy has become nothing more than an empty institutional arrangement whereby elites acquire the power to decide by way of a hollow competition for the people’s vote. This political landscape cannot support anything as grand as Rousseau’s general will – a collection of citizens’ beliefs, convictions, and commitments all articulating a shared vision of the common good. Instead, political will is manufactured and disseminated from the top down, rather than being organically generated from the ground up.

The pressing question “Don’t Look Up” poses (but does not address) is what to do when democracy becomes part of the problem. If our democratic processes can’t be fixed, can they at least be laid aside? With consequences as grave as these, surely truth shouldn’t be left to a vote. When it comes to the fate of the planet, surely we shouldn’t be content to go on making sausage.

Misgivings about the democracy are hardly new. Plato advised lying to the rabble so as to ensure they fall in line. Mill proposed assigning more weight to certain people’s votes. And Rousseau concluded that democracy was only rightly suited for a society composed entirely of gods.

Like these critical voices, Carl Schmitt similarly challenged our blind faith in democratic processes. He remained adamant that the indecisiveness that plagued republics would be their downfall. Schmitt insisted on the fundamental necessity of a sovereign to address emergency situations (like, say, the inevitable impact of a planet-killing comet). There has to be someone, Schmitt claimed, capable of suspending everyday political norms in order to normalize a state of exception – to declare martial law, mobilize the state’s resources, and organize the public. Democracies which failed to grasp this basic truth would not last. The inability to move beyond unceasing deliberation, infinite bureaucratic red tape, and unending political gridlock, Schmitt was convinced, would spell their doom. In the end, all governments must sometimes rely on dictatorial rule just like ancient Rome where time-limited powers were extended to an absolute authority tasked with saving the republic from an immediate existential threat.

This is the savior that never appears. The tragedy of the movie is that our protagonists know the truth, but cannot share it. There remain no suitable democratic channels to deliver their apocalyptic message and spur political action. They must sit with their despair, alone. Like Dewey, Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy come to recognize that while today we possess means of communication like never before – the internet, the iPhone, Twitter, The Daily Rip – (so far) these forces have only further fractured the public rather than being harnessed to bring it together.

By the end, when the credits roll, the film leaves us in an uncomfortable place. In documenting the hopelessness of our heroes’ plight, is “Don’t Look Up” merely highlighting the various ways our democracy needs to be repaired? Or is it making the case that the rot runs so deep, democratic norms must be abandoned?

Whatever the answer, it’s a mistake to think “Don’t Look Up” fails to take the problem of political consensus seriously. It simply treats such division as immovable – as inescapable as the comet. The question is: what then?

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.

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.

On the Question of Strategic Voting

photograph of "voting" sign on a wall

On October 21st Canada elected a new parliament. In this election the issue of strategic voting became prominent. There were six political parties considered to be capable of electing members to parliament. Three of those parties are commonly grouped as “progressive,” including the Liberal Party who won a plurality of seats in the election, the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP), and the environmentally focussed Green Party. Because of this competition voters had to weigh the option of voting for the party that is their first choice or strategically voting for a party that is less favored but more likely to win in order to avoid victory for a party that is more strongly opposed. This tactic has been discussed and debated amongst those in the media and in the academy. Strategic voting is an ethical issue because it can affect the quality of democracy, however even the language used to discuss the issue reveals something about how we make value judgments.

In Canada certain electoral ridings tend to be traded back and forth between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. If a voter prefers the NDP, for example, they are confronted with a choice: They can vote according to preference, even though it may be very unlikely those candidates will win, or they might decide to vote tactically. While they may not prefer the Liberal candidate to win, they may want the Conservative candidate to win even less; the voter may then strategically switch their vote for the Liberal Party in order to avoid a Conservative victory. The effect is that the vote share that would normally go to the NDP or the Green Party is suppressed.

This phenomenon is not foreign to American voters. Political scientist Gar Culbart has analyzed data from four presidential elections and found evidence that primary voters tend to select candidates more likely to win the Presidential election, rather than their first-choice preference. But strategic voting can apply past the nomination stage as well. In the last Presidential election left-leaning voters (particularly Sanders supporters) had to face a difficult decision between not voting at all, voting for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein, or, despite not liking her candidacy, voting for Hilary Clinton in order to prevent a Trump victory.

The issue of strategic voting has become a controversial topic. One the one hand, if a voter wishes to prevent a certain candidate from winning, and this is more important to them than voting for their first-choice candidate, it seems like a sincere preference and for some voicing it may be considered to be a moral obligation. Pundits like Bill Maher have been fiercely critical of those who do not vote strategically. Drawing attention to issues like climate change and the Supreme Court, Maher has criticized voters who opted for Jill Stein or even not voting at all instead of voting for Clinton because she was “the lesser of two evils.” Similar criticism followed the 2000 election where 537 votes separated George W. Bush from Al Gore in the state of Florida. Had left-leaning Nader supporters voted strategically, Gore would have won the state and the presidency. In other words, failure to vote strategically can lead to negative consequences.

On the other hand, arguments have been made that strategic voting is wrong. In 2006 in response to pressure placed on voters by the Liberal Party for NDP supporters to vote Liberal to stop a Conservative victory, Jack Layton noted that it is “frankly offensive” for Liberals “to tell Canadians they are limited to two choices, that they are limited to a choice between corruption and conservatives.” Indeed, it can lead to complacency amongst the political class if they can use the specter of the other side winning in order to secure votes, knowing that because voters lack a better option they don’t need to be as responsive to what voters want. This can lead to disengagement and frustration with the democratic process.

While the choice to vote strategically is an ethical issue, the way strategic voting is characterized can also raise ethical concerns. Strategic voting involves value judgments, and as a value judgment the language and rhetoric surrounding the issue is problematic and misleading, even amongst academic writers. In the wider public discussion, voting strategically has been described as “voting against” something rather than voting for something. To avoid a strategic vote, some politicians will suggest that voters “vote their conscience” rather than engaging in prudential reasoning. Academics studying the matter will compare strategic voting to “sincere” voting or will describe a strategic vote as a voter not choosing their “preferred candidate.”

But such language is misleading. As Philosopher John Dewey notes, value judgments are always specific. He argues that “A decision not to act is a decision to act in a certain way; it is never a judgment not to act, unqualifiedly.” Thus, if one does not wish to elect a politician, they are never merely voting against something. Instead. they are deciding that an election is worth boycotting, or that another politician is worth supporting (if they weren’t, one would have no reason to be strategic). Thus, it is never merely the case that we vote against things.

Dewey further argues that in forming a value judgment there is a difference between what we like and what we would prefer. Indeed, I may like the idea only eating donuts for the rest of my life. However, I consider both the means required to do this and the effects it would produce problematic and so I reject the idea. As Dewey sees it, “reflection is a process of finding what we want, what, as we say; we really want, and this means the formation of a new desire, and a new direction for action.” Does it make any sense then to claim that if my diet includes things other than donuts, I am not eating sincerely? Am I not, after careful reflection, eating my preferred diet?

The debate regarding strategic voting is complicated enough without including connotative language which suggests that a strategic vote is not “sincere,” not a vote “for something,” or that it means one is not following their preferences; all of these have the potential to illegitimately question the legitimacy of a vote and drag the debate in an unhelpful direction. By the same token, calling a vote that is not made for strategic reasons a “wasted” vote is not helpful either since the vote may be intended to avoid the long-term problem of an unresponsive political class. Perhaps the best way to examine the ethics of strategic voting is to clarify our language and to examine the issue carefully in terms of what voters are trying to achieve by making such value judgments and whether their judgments deliver the results they expect and are comfortable with.


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Putting Politics Aside: A Lesson in Common Courtesy?

President Obama has been making headlines lately for missing the funeral of Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, who passed away unexpectedly on Febuary 13th. When asked why the president would not be in attendance, his aid deflected the question, instead relaying that “Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will be attending Justice Scalia’s funeral.”

Continue reading “Putting Politics Aside: A Lesson in Common Courtesy?”