Category Archives: politics

Some of my favourite people are hacks

Hello, readers. I’m Alex DeForge, a philosophy PhD student at Duke University. I’ve spent a number of years working with non-profits, legal advocacy groups, labour unions, and political parties, so I feel somewhat justified in subjecting you to my commentary on these matters. I’ll be posting here from time to time.

A disclaimer on the following post: I have never worked for a politician that I thought was a hack. Needless to say, I haven’t worked for many politicians.


systemfail

       “Who are all these fuckin’… who are these hacks man?”

                   —  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson,

                         City Council Meeting, July 8th, 2010

Yes, it was inappropriate for a Mayor to say this at a city council meeting, even if he didn’t realize his mike was still onRobertson apologizedHowever, for those of us that are not elected officials, this is often the right question to be asking when assessing our politicians. 

The urban dictionary says that a hack is “a person who is a professional at doing some sort of service, but does crappy work.” So, to determine if a politician is a hack, we have to determine what their job is and whether they are crappy at it.

In a democracy, politicians ply their trade in a deliberately adversarial arena. Joe Heath’s paper, an “An Adversarial Ethic for Business, outlines how in adversarial institutions, we can distinguish competitors’ goals within the competition from the aims of the competition. Applied to elections, our politicians are supposed to campaign with the goal of winning enough votes to be elected to legislative assembly — even though democratic elections themselves aim to select the best representatives of our interests for the purpose of making good social policy. However, after elections, our politicians are supposed to actually govern, which is to do the job of representing their constituents’ interests to create policy and law to serves those interests.

Politicians are supposed to try to win elections and to make good legislation. But because they need to do the first to be selected to do the second, our democratic system can reward tactics that are great for winning elections and terrible for making just legislation. And there is nothing in the structure of our democratic elections that stops us from electing politicians who are just really good at campaigning but crappy at governing.

We see graphs like this that represent senators’ tendencies toward disagreement over legislation. Sure, it might be the case that they are simply representing constituents’ increasingly polarized interests. Regardless, this sort of disagreement makes it difficult to get bills passed. So, even if our elected officials were voting to represent constituents’ interests, they could still be doing a crappy job of creating social policy.

Maybe I have been a little hard on our politicians. Do I think that all politicians are hacks? No. Some of my favourite people are politicians. 

But in all seriousness — a lot of them are hacks. 

 To be clear, I’m not claiming that all politicians are crappy at every aspect of their jobs. In fact, they seem to be very good at campaigning to win elections. What many of them are not good at, and maybe don’t even care about, is doing the “people’s work” that we supposedly elect them to do. It’s this failure that should lead us to ask, “who are these hacks man?”

Let’s revisit the Vancouver Mayor. Back in 2010, the Mayor’s center-left party, Vision, was part of an official coalition with the city’s far-left party, COPE. Vision realized that if they cooperated with the far-left in elections, they would gain the cooperation that they needed in post-election councils to get their municipal projects off the ground. This was a strategic move, too. By running a non-overlapping slate of candidates with COPE, Vision was able to gain the support and votes of Vancouver’s more liberal constituents. 

COPE eventually decided to end the coalition in 2013.

This is an interesting case study because Vision was able to garner votes by taking actions that were prudent for governing. It seems rare these days to find a political climate that rewards behavior that is strategic to good governance, and not just strategic to winning campaigns. 

We should worry that we are doing something wrong if we believe that our democratic elections are supposed to select for the best representatives for the purpose of governing — these days, it looks like we are selecting hacks. 

- Alex DeForge

Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

American Politics: Are We Still Playing the Same Game?

Of all the rhetoric that we have heard during this Republican primary, it is perhaps this comment from Rick Santorum that is the most perplexing:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob.  I understand why he wants you to go to college.  He wants to remake you in his image.”

While Barack Obama’s intention behind the comment was not explicitly to promote a liberal education – but merely to suggest that education, whether it is technical, vocational, preprofessional, or liberal is, on balance, a benefit – Santorum’s disgust for ‘liberal academia’ is quite transparent.  Is this attitude antithetical to the foundations of our democratic society?  Or, to put it another way, are American politicians still playing the same game?

Politics, if it is a game, should be played according to a set of tactical, regulative, and constitutive rules.  Tactical rules are the strategies that are employed by a team or player in an effort to win the game.  For example, if I am playing chess, my opening move won’t be white pawn from h2-h3, since that doesn’t make any strategic sense whatsoever within a normal chess game.  Regulative rules are those guidelines that keep each side from gaining an unfair advantage, or exploiting loopholes that might exist due to the way the constitutive rules are described or set.  It is possible to break regulative rules and still be playing the same game.  The constitutive rules, by contrast, are what defines the game itself, and changing them entails playing another game altogether.  You are not playing chess if, for example, you declare that your winning the game is a result of you, yourself, being checkmated.

To see whether or not American politicians are still playing the same game, it is helpful to get an idea of what the goal of politics actually is.  Is the goal simply to win — to be elected President, for example — at all costs?  Probably not, since we wouldn’t want a presidential candidate to win by intentionally sabotaging the country, for example.  Indeed, this strategy would be contrary to the very purpose of the office for which the candidate is running.  We might say that the point of the political process is to elect someone into a position of public power who promotes the general welfare of the people.

Is this goal consistent with the de-valuing of, or hostility towards, a liberal education?  Historically, a liberal education was a privilege of the elite, or landed gentry – when one’s income was secure, it was appropriate to be educated in rhetoric so as to become an active, engaged citizen, who could not only make arguments, but listen and assess the arguments of others.  In contemporary civil society, it seems like education supports the democratic process, insofar as it exposes individuals to different points of view, and teaches them to critically assess those views, both for their strengths and weaknesses.  In this way, a liberal education promotes tolerance and recognition of divergent values; and so also promotes other-regarding virtues that are necessary for solidarity, and, by extension, the flourishing of a democratic society.  The major difference, of course, is that in our contemporary context, a liberal education is generally democratized among all classes; it is no longer a privilege of the few, nor should it be.

Even if President Obama’s point was to encourage a liberal education (which it was not), would this be so terrible?  I do not see what is so offensive about cultivating a population comprised of well-informed, educated citizens.  Santorum, however, seems to want to foster a climate of distrust and intolerance of opposing views, which might be fine if the goal of politics is to win at all costs.  However, insofar as the solidarity necessary for well-functioning democratic societies is secured best through education, then it seems that conservatives like Santorum would benefit from remembering the constitutive rules of the political game.  Sometimes a win for a particular candidate is a loss for American society, and I do not think that such a loss is consistent with the point of the political process.

I think we’d all do well to remember James Madison and Federalist #10 here, where Madison talks of factions and their threat to the common good.  Of course, to remember lessons from the Federalist Papers, we have to have read them, and what better place than within the academy itself?

Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.

If truth is the first casualty of war, maybe mental health is the first casualty of primary-season politics

From this week’s issue of the magazine named for the citizens of the city so nice they named it twice. (Posted without permission and removable on request.)

Race-to-the-bottom watch: The sensational path to the gutter

In today’s 24-hour coverage by cable and internet news media, keeping abreast with current events has become more convenient than ever, but has the increased quantity of news come at the expense of quality?

The ubiquitous nature of news as a product of technological innovation has created a fierce competition among media outlets. Cable news networks such as FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC compete daily to increase their market share of a limited number of viewers. In this market of perfect or almost perfect substitutes, the logical option to beating your competitors would be to try as much as possible to differentiate your product from the rest of the field, and this is exactly what cable news networks engage in.

A favorite strategy of networks in distinguishing their products is to rely on the over-the-top personalities of their journalists. As a consequence, we have seen a gradual shift of importance away from the news and towards the newscaster, as the voices of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, and many others work to define a particular station’s unique image. The assumption underlying this trend is that news on its own is not enough to attract viewers; therefore, networks compensate for the dull news with flamboyant hosts (and extreme guests) who do extended opinion shows on the events of the day.

The conundrum is that as one network becomes more entertaining, the others have to scramble to catch up if they want to avoid being left in the dust.  So far, the three major networks have all done their share to stay competitive, but what has been left in the dust is the news they were originally intended to report.

A recent study done by the WorldPublicOpinion.org found that, while there is a significant number of misinformed viewers of all cable news outlets, FoxNews viewers are the most likely to be misinformed about objective facts in current affairs. This may come as no surprise however, as the industry incentives to sensationalize have, for example, frequently led FoxNews’ primetime pundit Glenn Beck to turn world news into entertaining puppet shows for his audiences to enjoy. And puppet shows are not even the end of the story. Some viewers have even turned exclusively to Comedy Central’s Colbert Report or The Daily Show for their portion of the day’s news.

For cable news, the race to entertain viewers has led to a race to the bottom in factual reporting. In order for a network to be competitive, it has to have its own brand of radical anchors that cater to a specific and ever-more partisan audience. The result has been the creation of a perpetually polarized atmosphere and an uneducated viewership. Only time will tell if the demand for entertainment news programs will continue or if viewers will become disillusioned and seek alternative or additional sources for news, hundreds of which are already available online.