Category Archives: American politics

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 3: Bernie Sanders’ “Endorsements”

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair and unfair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was criticized for running misleading ads in the days before the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries. One ad in particular, titled “Endorsed” (see below), contains excerpts from editorials in Nashua Telegraph and The Valley News praising Sanders. While neither newspaper actually endorsed Sanders, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise (I highly recommend watching the ad—it’s only thirty seconds long and quite cunning).

The accusation:Trump tweetCarroll, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, called Sanders’ ad “deceptive.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a “briefing” outlining Sanders’ alleged habit of using misinformation. Without explicitly accusing him of unethical behavior, one of her ads on Sanders closes with the question, “Why is Bernie Sanders misleading voters?” A Newsweek piece titled “Advocacy Groups Call Foul on Sanders Campaign in Iowa, Nevada,” reports that some have accused the Sanders campaign of “playing dirty.”

The accused’s response:

During a recent debate, Sanders addressed the accusations (sort of). He said, “As I understand it we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of the newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates and to the best of knowledge that is what we did. So we never said, that somebody a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is, blah, blah, blah, blah was said by the newspaper.”

Categorization:

Nobody claimed the ads were illegal. Like the Cruz mailers (a controversy I examined in an earlier post), the ads also don’t appear to be a violation of everyday moral norms. And though technically not false, the ads (especially the “Endorsed” ad) are clearly misleading—something Sanders never explicitly denied. That leaves us with unfair play. While not illegal or an egregious display of personal immorality, critics appear to believe that the Sanders campaign was ‘playing dirty.’

Other relevant information:

Interestingly, few, if any, pundits (that I know of) have questioned Sanders’ personal integrity in the wake of these controversies. In contrast, many attacked Cruz’s personal integrity after his campaign engaged in similar ‘dirty’ tactics.

“Reasonable disagreement” v. “beyond the pale”

niqab4 no text

Isak has begun a series of posts on this blog under the rubric “Upon Further Review.” He explains this project of gathering and analyzing the allegations of “fouls” on the campaign trail this winter and spring on the Presidential campaign trail here, and he continues here (and elsewhere “above” this post in the near future, no doubt). His rubric borrows the language of video-replay officials in American football, and other sports, who take a slow-motion second look at calls they used to be able to make only on the fly.

Canada went through its own federal election in the fall of 2015, and in later stages of that election the then-governing Conservative Party was accused of “playing the race card” — albeit in coded language that might appear almost quaint when compared to the game played by the current frontrunner in the Republican primaries. (I say almost, because it would not have appeared quaint to those whom these Conservative tactics were attempting to stigmatize.) And when they did play the card, Canada’s leading political philosopher, Joe Heath (University of Toronto), called them on it in this post on his blog In Due Course.

Those tracking the US campaign these days should find plenty of useful analysis in Heath’s post: from an excellent summary on why democracies thrive on “reasonable disagreements,” to how we decide when certain tactics that exploit unreasonable disagreements must be considered “beyond the pale.” The cartoon below captures some of Heath’s argument for why certain ways of playing the game of politics fall short of our minimal standards of “political sportsmanship.” (For those unfamiliar, a “niqab” is what the hockey player in the cartoon at the head of this post is wearing.)

niqab2

Heath begins like this:

One of the most important concepts in modern democratic politics is that of “reasonable disagreement.” There are a number of different principles or values that most of us subscribe to, at some level, but in cases where they conflict, it is not entirely obvious how they should be ordered. When should public welfare be assigned priority over personal freedom? How much loss of welfare should be accepted in order to promote greater equality? These are the sorts of questions that define the zone of reasonable disagreement in modern politics. The central distinguishing feature of the right-to-left spectrum of political parties is that they propose different answers to these questions, with the right putting more emphasis on personal freedom, the left more emphasis on equality, and the centre focusing on maximizing welfare. This naturally translates into different views about the role of government in society.

The disagreement is “reasonable” because the underlying principles are ones that are very broadly accepted – they are in fact foundational for a liberal democratic society – the disagreement is more one of emphasis.

And ends like this:

…after Friday’s press conference, I can no longer regard it as morally acceptable for anyone to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada. A week ago, I could still persuade myself that reasonable people could disagree over how to vote in this election, but no longer.

As they say on the sites that troll followers with clickbait: you won’t believe what those mild-mannered Canadian Conservative politicians said during that press conference last fall. But seriously: if you’re looking for guidance on how a committed Republican should vote if Donald Trump is the GOP’s nominee, click into Heath’s post.

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 1: VOTING VIOLATION and the Cruz Campaign Mailers

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what counts as fair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

In recent days, many have accused the Cruz campaign of using “dirty tricks” during his presidential campaign (you can watch Seth Meyers’ Late Night segment on Cruz for a more entertaining rundown of some of his ‘tricks’). While Cruz has provided those of us interested in campaign ethics with an abundance of material to examine, I want to focus on one particular (and lesser known but perhaps more interesting) controversy that Cruz was forced to address in the past month.

Iowans (and a handful of pundit) were upset about the mailers distributed by Cruz staffers insinuating that potential caucus goers’ participation rates would be publicized. In hopes of increasing turnout, Cruz (presumably) sent these notices—which can be seen in the image below—to those his campaign thought would be likely to support him in the caucuses (a strategy that seems to have backfired in the case Tom Hinkelday).

 

Cruz Mailer

The accusation:

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate condemned Cruz’s tactic because “it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.” Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad called the mailers “unethical and unfair.”

The accused’s response:

After criticism about the misleading mailers, Cruz said: “I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.”

Categorization:

After the mailers made headlines, the Cruz campaign was accused of dishonesty by some and outright fraud (but not illegality) by others. As noted above, Pate and Brandstad argued that Cruz was violating the spirit of the competition. Almost all agreed that the mailers were legal (in fact, Donald Trump deleted a tweet where he stated that they were illegal). And though some accused Cruz of personal immorality following the mailer controversy, his campaign was usually criticized on the grounds that it circumvented the rules of the political game by sending the mailers. Moreover, Cruz himself did not deny that the mailers were deceptive and manipulative (perhaps implicitly acknowledging that, in his view, deception and manipulation have a place in campaigning). All things considered, both Cruz and his critics appear to believe that one’s ethical judgment about the mailers were depends on how one understands the rules of the game. In short, this ethical controversy is about fair play more than personal morality or legality.

Other possibly relevant information:

These mailers have been distributed in previous campaigns with little or no fanfare. Why did this controversy make headlines? Some have argued that this particular mailer was worse than others because assigned letter grades (which usually happened to be an “F”) next to the names of individuals. Others have stated that it looks much more like an official state document than previous mailers. While it seems as though the mailers are now generally taken to be more evidence that Cruz is personally untrustworthy (which, as many have pointed out, is ironic considering he usually speaks in front of ‘TrusTED’ banner), that didn’t seem to be the case, initially.

“Kasich — are you still here?”

thumbs_car-train-crash

Presidential Primaries are a game. So here’s some more elementary game theory — on the game known technically as “chicken” — to predict the Rubio-v.-Kasich endgame. This is brought to you by the brilliant graphics editor at The New York Times, Kevin Quealy. Here’s the conclusion:

The chance to be your party’s nominee for president comes along only every four or eight years, even for the very luckiest candidates. If the candidates lived in a universe in which they could run for president hundreds of times, they might agree that, on average, their shared interests were better served by cooperating. Once in a while, Mr. Kasich might try to win the contest outright against long odds, but, on average, he would probably agree that cooperating, including alternating victories, was the best way to serve his and Mr. Rubio’s shared interests. Game theory shows that initerated dilemmas, played many hundreds or thousands of times, cooperation is a very stable strategy — one reason it is so common in nature.

But this is not an iterated dilemma. It’s a one-time-only dilemma with a tremendous payoff for the winner. As much as Mr. Kasich might think about his legacy, the good of the party or even his own chances in 2020 or 2024, the future is very far away.

Ultimately, they risk an outcome neither he nor Mr. Rubio wants. As Daniel Diermeier, the dean of the public policy school at the University of Chicago, notes, “A very important lesson of game theory is that sometimes the world is a grim place.”

Then again, the Presidential Primaries aren’t just a game….

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post One: Introduction

Like the NFL’s attempts to determine what counts as a catch, this year’s primary contests have been marked by disagreement about what constitutes ethical behavior in campaign competitions. To cite a few prominent recent examples:

At first glance, the negative reactions to these developments are not particularly surprising; all this behavior seems intuitively wrong, at least in the context of everyday morality. Yet there have been other instances of candidates engaging in actions that one would usually frown if witnessed in daily life that that were not met with outrage and controversy. For example:

So what’s the difference? Why do we censure some actions while accepting others as part of the rough and tumble nature of the political game? In other words, what ethical criterion or moral framework does one use to determine the moral ‘wrongness’ of any candidate’s actions? Is it (il)legality of the act? Is the behavior judged in light conventional norms of interpersonal interactions (e.g. lies and insults are generally frowned upon)? Or, are actions judged by something else entirely—like the ‘spirit’ of the competition?

While I eventually intend to develop an empirically informed answer to these questions, this blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair play in the campaign game. More concretely, I will use it to list and categorize (e.g. take note of the justifications provided by both the accused and accuser) some of the ethical controversies that arise during this election season. I suspect some patterns will emerge and I hope that they will help us make begin to make sense of the ‘inner morality’ of elections and campaigns.

Finally, I should note that I am not interested in making judgments about the morality of any particular action, here. One can find a wide variety of opinions both defending and criticizing a candidate’s behavior, regardless of how outrageous or offensive it might be, elsewhere. Thus, I’ll usually refrain from weighing in on any controversy in the interest of uncovering what others think it means to compete fairly during campaign season.

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

spacey

 

 

 

Gaming the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice

This blog is about to wake up big-time: there’s a new seminar on Adversarial Ethics at Duke full of eager bloggers — and it’s election season in the US. The neverending Presidential-election season provides us not only with a hyperactive example of one of the classic “deliberately adversarial institutions,” namely electoral politics. But it has a tendency to suck almost every other institution, including many that are not supposed to be adversarial or partisan, into its flames.

Exhibit A: the selection of a new justice to sit on the putative non-partisan Supreme Court.

There is not a single political commentator or politician who has not already weighed in on what the President and the members of the Senate ought to do now that Antonin Scalia’s sudden death has opened up a new seat on the bench. Richard Lempert‘s post over at The Brooking Institution’s Fixgov blog does a nice job of mapping out the likely scenarios in the language of game theory.

Assuming — kind of big assumption, no doubt — that the President (who is constitutionally required to nominate a new justice when there is a vacancy) and all of the Senators (who must confirm the nomination) are all rational, well informed, and intelligent, game theory should help us to predict what they are likely to do, given their divergent interests and options. I won’t rehearse them here. Lempert’s post is here.

The Supreme Court is a striking example of a kind of paradox or contradiction we see in many quintessentially non-adversarial institutions. The Court itself, and the role the justices have, is supposed to be strictly non-partisan. When they vote on a decision or opinion, the justices are supposed to interpret the law. They are not supposed to be supporting a cause or political movement they sympathize with, nor are they to base their votes and arguments on their own principles. And yet swirling around the Court are tornadoes of partisanship:

  • we know — because psychology — that each justice’s attempts to provide “strictly legal” interpretations of law and the Constitution are influenced in conscious and unconscious ways by values that are hotly contested in the political sphere;
  • for this reason, the nomination process we are seeing now involves high political stakes for the elected politicians who get a say;
  • many of the Court’s decisions have huge implications for the actors in other deliberately adversarial institutions — from those involved in electoral politics to corporations and their stakeholders in the marketplace, and even for sports leagues and athletes;
  • and last but not least, as a Court atop the adversarial legal system, the justices preside over a contest played out between lawyers who are committed to making any argument that will help their client’s interests in the cases at hand.

new yorker scotus ping pong

 

But the Court and the justices themselves are supposed to have the role of a neutral umpire, with no personal interests in any given case, calling strikes and balls as she sees them.

In principle.

Lempert finishes his post with the following reflections of this intriguing “game” we are now watching:

It is interesting to treat the contest between Obama and the Republicans as a game, and to think about the best strategies for each, and how the moves of one might affect the choices of the other. Yet we are not talking about a game. We are talking about consequential political choices that could change the direction of the law in this country for a generation. Voting rights, money in politics, access to abortion providers, environmental regulation, and much more could turn in the short run on the choice of Scalia’s replacement, although in the longer run there are enough aging Justices that the next presidential election is likely to be more consequential. Now it appears the long and short term outcomes may turn out to be intertwined, for the fate of Obama’s nominee may influence what happens in the election. The “game” being played by Obama and the Republican Senate is, however, one that we, the people, can only watch, though we are permitted to root for our favorite team.

It doesn’t hurt that Justice Scalia’s death set the contest in motion during that lull in the American sporting calendar between the Super Bowl and March Madness….