Category Archives: democracy

What will Trump play while America burns?

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No doubt many of us would consider an election and its attendant politics to be the paragon of an adversarial institution or process. Naturally, we expect a certain degree of hardball from candidates and parties when it comes to a competition for power. However, it’s one thing to raise hell about partisan gerrymandering – the nefarious scheme politicians employ in order to ensure electoral domination by their party and its other candidates – but isn’t it a whole other ball game to claim that an entire election will be rigged and stolen? (Not even that it was fraudulently won, but that it will be. Fear > Facts.)

Donald Trump’s latest, and arguably most concerning, comments regarding the upcoming presidential election have thrown many reasonable citizens into whirlwinds of confusion, anxiety, and outright fear. (If somehow you haven’t yet heard about any of this, this should bring you up to speed.) Those same flippant, yet consequential, remarks have primed his supporters for what may prove to be the least peaceful transfer of power that this nation has ever seen.

When it comes down to it, especially given the salience and perceived importance of the presidency in the minds of many Americans, the United States really only survives due to the gracious and peaceful quadrennial transfer of power from one chief steward to the next after a free and fair election.

While Donald Trump’s warning that such an American rite may be subverted may suggest negative prospects for his ascension to the presidency, giving at least some of us superficial comfort, the fact remains that he seems to have convinced a not insignificant number of ignorant, confused, obtuse, disillusioned, angry, and armed people to prepare for what we can only imagine would be a literal uprising.

Many Americans consider “the election” to be the fundamental institution of democracy, and to spoil our common trust in its practical efficacy and salutary potency disrespects the rules of the game from a procedural perspective – this is a process which he willingly joined and the rules of which he agreed to follow – and threatens the actual security and stability of the United States as a sovereign state. He has stepped beyond his hateful and ignorant remarks to take aim at the very mechanism through which American democracy is able to exist at all.

Sometimes sports fans burn cars or businesses in their own cities when their teams lose, but should a politician burn a whole country when he loses an election?

-SB

Who makes the rules for selecting the rulers?

escher hands

Our major adversarial institutions are not free-for-all, war-of-all-against-all, slugfests. They are highly regulated competitions, with specific rules in place to encourage desirable outcomes: convicting the guilty but not the innocent (law), creating prices and promoting efficiency (markets), electing competent governments (politics), entertaining fans (spectator sports). The “players” are invited to play to win; but the competitions are not in place primarily for their benefit, but mostly for the benefit of those outside the competition.

This, in a nutshell, is why it always matters who gets to write or amend the rules of these competitions. And why we worry when the “players” get to write their own rules. Especially when a subset of the players — the ones who happened to win the last round — get to write the rules for the next round.

As Arash Abizadeh writes in Toronto’s Globe and Mail,

Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

After surveying the options for a better process of electoral reform, Abizadeh recommends something novel:

how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists havestudied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

As they used to say in 1960s sitcoms, that is so crazy it just.. might.. work! It is also not beyond the realm of conceivability that the current Trudeau government in Canada, which promised electoral reform in its last campaign, would consider such a thing.

The probability that anything like this will happen south of 49th parallel, where two parties have successfully colluded to secure a political duopoly for generations, is approximately 0.0. Why think outside the box when the box is just fine the way it is? Why not just hire a consultant…

new yorker escher construction

 

Worth more than 1000 words

I discovered this cartoon a few weeks ago, posted it on Facebook, and within days my post had garnered more than a thousand “likes” and more than 2500 shares. Why all the love? Because it is a Perfect Cartoon. Caption unnecessary.

screwdriver pol

For more wordy reflections on a wider range of ethical issues in political campaigning, see numerous posts on this blog in recent weeks by Isak, below.

Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

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The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

BOATY

The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

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Alexander Hamilton and the Supreme Court nomination crisis

By now there is (probably) not a single person in the country who remains unaware of the impending, but also already incredibly intense, showdown over President Obama’s nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia, who died last month. (Facts: here. Conspiracy theories: here.)

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In justifying their refusal to consider any nominee, many Republicans cited the authority of both precedent and even some vague Senate “rule,” arguments which have since been unmasked as straight up not true. The number and intensity of opinions seems to be growing wilder and fiercer by the day, so I thought I’d one-up Republicans by appealing to an authority even higher than mere precedent or tradition: Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU does a great job explaining in this article (which can be read alternatively as a cross-posting at The Huffington Post if, for some reason, you prefer Arial to Helvetica) how the framers of the Constitution, particularly Hamilton (and Madison), expected situations like this would be handled by future generations.

As its authors note: “Our constitutional system only works if the institutional players adhere in good faith to the Constitution’s basic rules.”

Politics is an appropriately adversarial system; however, it is inappropriate, and even dangerous, to play political games with the basic, constitutive rules of a government. Politicizing the mere maintenance of the fundamental institutions of a system of government risks gutting the framework and crippling the stability of that system.

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.)

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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.