Category Archives: democratic politics

What will Trump play while America burns?


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?


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


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.


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.


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.)


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.”


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.)


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.”


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?”


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….

Mr Corbyn and parliamentary bloodsports

corbyn kinder

We count democratic politics on this blog as one of the Big Archetypical deliberately adversarial institutions. Power in the state is not given to a person or group who is carefully determined to be able to use it to run the most just government. It is given to the winners of a highly regulated — and also ritualized — contest; otherwise known as an election.

It is easy for us to see and feel the “game” of politics during elections. In America right now we are consumed by it, and it is covered by the news media in almost exactly the same way the sports media covers professional and college sports leagues. But elections are only part of the game of democratic politics. The next most visible political competition happens openly in legislative assemblies, and then in the maneuverings — partly public, but often in “back rooms” — that precede the debates and votes that take place in the legislatures.

One of the principal complaints about the legislative game, from the point of view of adversarial ethics, is that it has become in the US a so-called “permanent campaign” — legislators between elections are primarily concerned about what they can do (or avoid doing) in the legislature in order to win the next election. If they ever care the slightest about the design and justice of policies, bills, and laws, it is only insofar as public perceptions about these things will influence the next election. (See the criticisms of Mitch McConnell discussed here a few days ago.) This is the heart of the satire in the greatest just-slightly-fictional political comedy ever, the BBC’s Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister), not to mention the now-sharked House of Cards.

This post, however, is less about the “permanent campaign” than about a much more visible manifestation of politics-as-sport (even bloodsport, on occasion). Every legislature has its own written and unwritten rule, conventions, and rituals of debate. And no legislature has had more time to develop these than the British House of Commons, where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition debate face-t0-face on an almost weekly basis. It you were designing from scratch the rules by which a deliberative body would be most likely to develop and enact sensible legislation (what political philosophers do when they theorize about “deliberative democracy“) you would not end up with something like the House of Commons. To say nothing of the House of Lords or the Monarchy.

That said, in the UK, it is what it is. All MPs know the rules, written and unwritten. For example, they never address each other directly, but carry on the debate as if everyone were trying to convince the Speaker. Although outsiders may be aghast at the seemingly buffoonish behavior of British MPs in the House, the MPs themselves are expected to know how to deal with it if they are to have any chance of “winning” the day during Question Period.

Which brings us to the clip-of-the-day in my Facebook newsfeed. Comments on Facebook and Twitter from many of my American friends and friends-of-friends suggests they don’t really know how British politicians, especially the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, are expected to play this game. What is obvious, however, is that virtually every MP on both sides of the isle knows who won and who lost this round.

I see that many British commentators (well, some of my British Facebook friends, at any rate) have all sorts of sinister explanations for the irrepressible smiles of Jeremy Corbyn‘s colleague Andy Burnham, the Shadow Home Secretary, seated behind Corbyn, on his left. I am too ignorant of Labour Party intrigue to psychoanalyze him from this clip alone. It seems to me that Burnham knows the rules of the game, knows that his leader has just been blown up by his own pompously lobbed petard, and done so because of the kind of quick wit one usually sees only on scripted shows like Jon Stewart’s old Daily Show. Burnham seems to be tipping his hat for a move well played by his opponents. Normally, that is one of the hallmarks of good sportsmanship. Corbyn’s inability to do the same, and to immediately change course and attempt to seize rhetorical advantage in a way he had not planned, is also a sign that he either does not understand the game he is playing during Prime Minister’s Questions or, more likely, that his game as a parliamentarian is just not that good.


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?”





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….

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.


       “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?

Is the Supreme Court an arena?

(Posted by Wayne.)

… and if so, is what goes on there like hockey or figure skating?

We standardly think of the adversarial legal system as one of the “classic” deliberately adversarial institutions. (This blog is about whether there are special rules for the design of, and behavior within, such institutions.) The most visible — and tele-visual — parts of the system involve lawyers representing two or more sides of a case battling it out, within the rules, to advance the interests of their clients (or of The People, in the case of prosecutors).

But not all parts of the justice or legal system are adversarial. It’s an open question how we should think about both the theory and the practice of what goes on at the “top” of the system — the Supreme Court (to give a US example; but all constitutional democracies have something similar). It certainly looks adversarial in important ways. Its role is to settle contentious issues in the law, and it does this by dealing with actual cases where one side doggedly disagrees with the other. Like lower courts, it will also listen to lawyers representing the opposing sides. And of course, we can’t ignore the fact that the justices on the Court are nominated by the President and approved (or rejected) by a very adversarial legislature.

And yet, the work of the justices themselves is expected to be entirely professional. They are meant to figure out, individually and collectively, the best interpretation of laws and the Constitution. They are not supposed to be representing any particular interest, and are even expected to set aside their own biases and interests — and if they cannot, on a particular case, to step aside. No individual member of the Court is supposed to be trying to “win” anything. Cases are supposed to be decided on their merits alone — may the best arguments be the winners.

Next week the Court will begin its deliberations on the Affordable Care Act. In advance of the three sessions where the justices will hear arguments, the New York Times has recently highlighted two interesting aspects of the nature of the Court within the deliberately adversarial justice system.

First, it noted that

The White House has begun an aggressive campaign to use approaching Supreme Court arguments on the new health care law as a moment to build support for the measure seen as President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, hoping to shape public opinion on an issue at the center of the battle for the White House and Congress.

Now this would not be unusual as a matter of politics: the President and his party are part of another nakedly adversarial system called democratic politics, and elections are looming. But what is unusual about these current plans is that they suggest that such politics may also be trying to influence the justices themselves.

The advocates and officials mapped out a strategy to call attention to tangible benefits of the law, like increased insurance coverage for young adults. Sensitive to the idea that they were encouraging demonstrations, White House officials denied that they were trying to gin up support by encouraging rallies outside the Supreme Court, just a stone’s throw from Congress on Capitol Hill…

Supporters of the law plan to hold events outside the court on each day of oral argument. The events include speeches by people with medical problems who have benefited or could benefit from the law. In addition, supporters will arrange for radio hosts to interview health care advocates at a “radio row,” at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill.

The law’s supporters may have to get there early if they want the best patch of sidewalk:

Opponents of the law will be active as well and are planning to show their sentiments at a rally on the Capitol grounds on March 27, the second day of Supreme Court arguments. Republican lawmakers, including Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, are expected to address the rally, being organized by Americans for Prosperity, with support from conservative and free-market groups like the Tea Party Express.

Your guess is as good as mine about what influence all of this will have on the nine individuals charged with the final decision. It is nonetheless a curious “grey area” partisan political activity swirling around a part of the justice system that is supposed to be non-partisan and non-political — or at the very least, not susceptible to the emotional volume of support for one side or the other. The White House’s own cautious framing of their strategy seems to acknowledge that they are toeing close to a line they don’t want to cross.

Meanwhile, we hear whispers that the Chief Justice himself, John Roberts, may be approaching his pending vote among his colleagues with concerns that go beyond the correct interpretation of the law. The guess is that he will not necessarily vote for the side with the best arguments.

The consensus among scholars and Supreme Court practitioners is that Chief Justice Roberts is unlikely to add the fifth vote to those of the four justices in the court’s liberal wing to uphold the law. But he is said to be quite likely to provide a sixth vote should one of the other more conservative justices decide to join the court’s four more liberal members.

Why might he be willing to vote either way?

The case will require the chief justice to choose between two competing instincts.

On the one hand, he views himself as a steward of the court’s prestige and authority, and he has called for incremental decisions from large majorities rather than broad but sharply divided rulings. “As chief justice, Roberts has been extremely careful with the institutional reputation of the court,” said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University who has filed a brief urging the court to uphold the law.

The court has not rejected legislation as ambitious as the health care law since the 1930s. There is, moreover, only one plausible way for the justices to strike down the law, scholars who study the court say: by a 5-to-4 vote divided along ideological lines.

All of that might augur a cautious approach.

Now this is not unusual practice for judges in constitutional courts: to decide politically charged cases in ways that will serve to uphold the legitimacy of the Court — where legitimacy requires its being perceived as a fair, neutral party.

So what might this tell us about principles for design and professional behavior in other deliberately adversarial institutions? Sometimes “players” have to act in ways that uphold the “integrity of the game” even if this requires refraining from a winning tactic, or from carrying out a routine professional duty.

Interestingly enough, in the controversial Citizens United ruling, the Roberts Court struck down legislation that the politicians had put in place to preserve (some of) the integrity of their adversarial institution. The politicians had agreed to limit the influence of corporate money, along with perceptions of bias and corruption. Not all members of the majority denied that a flood of corporate money would have these consequences for democratic processes, but they felt nevertheless that rights to free speech couldn’t be infringed for the sake of the legitimacy of that process. If the rumors are true now, however, it seems that the Chief Justice may be willing to overlook a fundamental right being infringed by the new health care law for the sake of the Court’s “prestige and authority.”

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.)

Moving the goal posts… on only one side of the field

The Big Hypothesis motivating this blog is that we can better understand several important institutions by seeing them as regulated contests in which participants who are playing to win will also benefit the public. And sometimes we might get a better sense of what exactly is wrong about some obviously dodgy activity or tactic by looking at the institution in question through this lens.

Case in point: what is wrong with politicians in power changing the rules for elections? And in particular, what is wrong with them changing the rules in ways that will reliably increase their chance of winning the next electoral contest?

Obviously, this strikes us as unfair. But why, especially when this electoral-rule-changing follows all of the legal procedures? Now this blog is non-partisan. We are interested in how best to think about institutional design and ethics across a broad range of institutions. But in America we are gearing up for a long series of electoral contests, and as it turns out, most of the accusations about “tampering” with electoral rules are being directed at Republican lawmakers. My only interest here is to see whether we get a better handle on these debates by focusing on the deliberately adversarial nature of constitutional democratic politics. A couple of weeks ago the editorial page of the New York Times was once again thundering about wide-spread Republican tampering with electoral laws. Their analysis in “The Myth of Voter Fraud” allows us to highlight two rather different rationales for rules in deliberately adversarial institutions. The thunder begins with the following claim (including a link to a recent study):

It has been a record year for new legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote — 19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, more than five million eligible voters will have a harder time participating in the 2012 election.

Very broadly speaking (– this is a crude working-hypothesis), the various rules that regulate adversarial institutions are justified in two ways: some of them are justified because of the way they “shape” the contest, or motivate the contestants, so that it will produce better overall results in the long run; and some of the rules are justified for reasons that, in some sense, are prior to, or beyond, the contest — say, because they protect fundamental rights. And some rules may be justified on both grounds.

We worry whenever the “players” who are supposed to be regulated by a set of rules also get to set the rules. We shouldn’t be surprised that they will try to justify the rule-changes by appealing to the latter type of principles: the ones that apply “intrinsically” — in this case the proposed rules are supposed to minimize voter fraud, something that would obviously be wrong in any electoral system. But we have to be suspicious if the players changing the rules for such “intrinsic” reasons will also systematically benefit from those changes. The burden of proof for demonstrating that the intrinsic principles really do apply in the particular case must be a heavy one indeed.

The Times is unswayed in these recent cases:

There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.

Plenty of jurisdictions (countries, federal subunits, etc) simply don’t allow the players to write the rules for their own electoral contests: they establish non-partisan commissions for electoral law and redistricting. I’d welcome a recommendation for a good comparative study of such things.

Redistricting post-Citizens United, y’all

This blog has been sleeping for WAY too long. Let’s try to get it rolling again, at least as a place to continue flagging a wide variety of ethically and politically charged issues that arise within deliberately adversarial institutions.

There have been a few redistricting controversies recently. (Is there actually a “season” for redistricting, or does it happen on different timetables all over the country?) These are always potentially problematic: they amount to changes in the “rules” of the contest that can significantly affect the outcome of the contest — and yet in most states in the US, some contestants themselves (elected politicians) are often in a position to manipulate the rule-change (by changing the boundaries of electoral districts) in ways they help them win. As a strategy for winning elections, it seems a lot closer to bribing the referee than to winning because you are more talented player.

In any case, here is a long story in the New Yorker about an elaborate “plot” (or “strategy,” depending on your political affiliation) by Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, and bankrolled by multimillionaire Art Pope, to gain control of state houses in order to get favorable redistricting for federal congressional elections.

The ethics of not voting

This new book, The Ethics of Voting, by Jason Brennan, looks tailor-made for our blog. I’ve just ordered a copy, but as advanced publicity for it, here’s a quick shout-out.

In democratic theory we rightly pay a lot of attention to the design of the system — especially the electoral system and campaign finance. And we pay some attention (as Bethany and Justin have in posts here and here) to the obligations of professional political actors. But what about the obligations of those other participants in the democratic system, the citizens and voters?

As the blurb says:

Nothing is more integral to democracy than voting. Most people believe that every citizen has the civic duty or moral obligation to vote, that any sincere vote is morally acceptable, and that buying, selling, or trading votes is inherently wrong. In this provocative book, Jason Brennan challenges our fundamental assumptions about voting, revealing why it is not a duty for most citizens–in fact, he argues, many people owe it to the rest of us not to vote.

Somebody had to say it. Amen.

A friendly chat about adversaries

This blog got plenty of free publicity last Friday when I (Wayne Norman) did a turn on Duke University’s weekly “Office Hours” live tweet-in show. For better or for worse, the conversation should be permanently accessible here:

Some of the topics of conversation were plucked from my other blog, This Sporting Life, including one on Why the NCAA Tournament is the American Idol of Sports, and What’s Wrong with the Wonderlic Test.

Bethany’s post here about what we learn about political ethics from primary elections also got a quote and a shout-out during the interview, and it can be found here. Stay tuned for some of her follow-up thoughts on that topic.

Political Power Play: The Game of Politics

We often ideally think that democracy is about taking the political equality of all citizens seriously. It’s about giving them an equal voice and vote, encouraging them to participate, allowing their views to be fairly represented, and facilitating an open and respectful dialogue in the search for the best solutions to the collective problems of society.

In reality, democratic politics are not that pretty. “Adversarial” might not be the first word that pops into our minds when we think of democracy in the US, but maybe it should be. The electoral system in the United States is fundamentally adversarial in nature: parties and candidates are encouraged to play to win.

As citizens in a constitutional republic, every American has one equal vote to elect representatives to the government in each electoral cycle. Elections pit candidates against each other in a competition for power. Almost all the offices of government, from Congress to the Presidency, are elected within this adversarial framework which requires them to compete against other candidates in order to gain or hold their jobs. Although most people don’t want to think of electoral politics as a game, a game is precisely what electoral politics looks like, except the prize for winning is a whole lot bigger than a ring or a trophy—it is power.

This is the first of a series of posts in which I will explore different angles of thinking about democratic politics as a game: one that is heavily regulated to help it achieve certain desired ends, and one that demands a degree of “good sportsmanship” from the players, to be sure. The open question at this stage is whether this way of “framing” democratic politics will help us evaluate and analyze both normative and empirical questions about democracy more clearly and effectively.

Why do we have this adversarial system of elections? What non-adversarial alternatives might there be? Is there value, moral or otherwise, inherent in this system; or is it justified entirely by the ends it might promote? Then there are more specific questions of function—if the system really is like a game, what are the rules that govern how it is played or ought to be played? What constitutes fair versus foul play? Who are the referees, what powers ought they be given, and how do we ensure their impartiality? These are just a few questions that I hope to address in later posts.

The Primaries: what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger?

That special time of the election cycle is approaching us—the primaries. A time when members from the same party begin a four to six month cycle of in-fighting that makes even the nastiest of family arguments look like a walk in the park. I have always found the American Presidential Primary system to be fascinating because of the quick shift that the Democratic and Republican (and…Tea??) Parties must undergo between competition and unification. They compete heavily and often ruthlessly for the nomination amongst their own party, but then everyone in the party is expected to turn around after the convention and promote a unified stance behind whoever the nominee may be.

Essentially, what we see in American politics is that our entire political system was established to be a very deliberately adversarial institution. Americans believe that a one-party system, without debate and negotiation, can lead to corruption, or—our Founding Fathers’ biggest fear—a non-representative monarchy. But, within this system we have developed political parties, which are not deliberately adversarial institutions. Yet, every four years the parties break their norm of cooperation and, essentially, become adversarial institutions in order to attempt to elect the candidate who will win the White House.

This seems pretty unusual, right? Well, I would argue that this is actually a commonplace practice amongst many institutions that are not necessarily adversarial in and of themselves, but must compete in a larger adversarial context. Law firms are perhaps the greatest example. The American legal system is very adversarial, but law firms themselves are supposed to be cooperative bodies that are working towards the same goal. However, in order to motivate employees and attempt to rise to the top of their field, law firms often create inter-office competitions that pit employees against one another.

After: It's a different story after the primary, when party unity trumps all.


The American Presidential election system is often criticized, and as we begin yet another election cycle the pundits and criticism will rise anew, but maybe we should all think more about why it is designed this way and how effective competition can be first.

The Hesitant Hand: what Adam Smith did and didn’t say about government regulation, corporate lobbying, and CSR

Ethics for Adversaries has been on spring break, but should be roaring back to life in the coming days.

Here’s a newish book I’ve just ordered on the history of Adam Smith’s Great Idea — the one that still frames so much of our thinking about the ethics of deliberately adversarial institutions. (Steven G. Medema, The Hesitant Hand: Taming Self-Interest in the History of Economic Ideas.)

I just hope the book is better than the first line of Princeton University Press’s blurb, which seems at best skewed and revisionist, and at worst just false:

“Adam Smith turned economic theory on its head in 1776 when he declared that the pursuit of self-interest mediated by the market itself–not by government–led, via an invisible hand, to the greatest possible welfare for society as a whole.”

It is well-known that the famous phrase “an invisible hand” (not even “the invisible hand,” which is what we tend to say now) was used only once in the massive two-volume Wealth of Nations. It comes in a chapter railing against Restraints on the Importation of Goods. Much of the chapter concerns what we would now call the law of comparative advantage — that is, about why it is to each country’s advantage to produce what it can produce most efficiently, and to trade abroad for what can be produced more efficiently in other countries. Throughout the chapter and the book Smith points out the myriad ways restrictions on international trade create inefficiencies. And also how these restrictions inevitably come from business people lobbying gullible or corrupt politicians in order to secure domestic monopolies.

But not only is it inefficient to restrict imports of goods produced more efficiently abroad, it is usually unnecessary. Business people prefer to keep an eye on their investments and to be able to trust the people they deal with, so they will naturally, even other things not equal, invest domestically. As Smith says in the famous “invisible hand” paragraph,

“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, and in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention.”

He is talking about a particular case, and criticizing a particular type of government regulation, namely, what we would now call protectionism. He notes that this basic logic of the market replicates itself “in many other cases.” He does not say “in all other cases.” We know, for example, that the invisible hand will get all messed up in situations that involve collective action problems like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Adam Smith would have had no reason to object to that (and I suspect that a real Smith scholar could point you to his discussions of PD-like situations). And he wouldn’t think that the general welfare would necessarily be increased by trade involving deceit, the exploitation of what we now call information asymmetries, or negative externalities.

It is also noteworthy, given the wording of the Princeton University Press blurb, that he does not say that self-interest via the invisible hand leads to “the greatest possible welfare of society as a whole.” In the “invisible hand” paragraph he is talking about “the annual revenue of every society [which] is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry.” That is, something like GDP. It is obviously an open question whether GDP tracks the “welfare of society.” Even the British Conservative Party doubts that assumption these days!

Once again, I’m no Adam Smith expert, but I have actually read great swaths of the Wealth of Nations, which is more than most latter-day “disciples” of Smith can claim. It is somewhat odd that the enduring lesson from that monumental work is the panglossian one that markets, left to their own devices, always lead to the best of all possible worlds (since that is not what Smith ever says), rather than Smith’s repeated warnings that we should always be suspicious of corporate lobbying and corporate conspiracies.

The conspiracy part we do remember from the famous quote about how we should worry whenever members of the same trade meet, “even for merriment and diversion” since they will inevitably try to fix prices. That is why even conservatives support anti-trust regulation; even if they also tend to think it is unfair in almost any particular case. But just as relevant today would be Smith’s utter contempt for business people lobbying and corrupting hapless politicians in order to enact particular regulations that serve their interest more than the public’s. Smith was concerned with trade restrictions that create unnatural monopolies, but he would be just as worried today about lobbying to allow for the exploitation of other market failures in a modern economy. And he would have been horrified when the right-wing — supposedly pro-market — justices on the Supreme Court used the Citizens United case to make it easier for corporations to pursue their interests by manipulating election processes.

And while this new book is drawing our attention to the famous “invisible hand” paragraph, it is worth noting that Smith was no fan of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, either. He continues the paragraph quoted above by noting:

“By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

Are some elections literally slam dunks? Did your Congressman win the way Blake Griffin did?


[Note: this is the inaugural post by Brandon H.]

Is politics a sport? Some things such as the rules in sports and the referees who enforce them seem accurately analogous to election laws and the election boards and courts that enforce them. Other more controversial comparisons have been suggested, none more interesting than the comparison between spectators and voters.

The simplest argument against this comparison is that spectators in sports may influence the outcome of the game but they do not directly determine it. To work around this objection, let’s see if there are similarities between (a) voters and speculators in the 2011 NBA slam dunk contest — an example of a sporting event where spectators do have more of a say in the outcome — and (b) the voters in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections.

The 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, which took place in Los Angeles, was highly anticipated for one major reason, the participation of the exciting and high-flying rookie phenomenon Blake Griffin. Blake plays for the local Los Angeles Clippers and opened a nationwide competition that aimed at giving him new dunks that he could use on national TV. Day of the competition Blake was able to electrify the fans and won the competition in convincing fashion. Even those who supported Blake’s victory question whether he was the best actual dunker in the competition. ESPN columnist John Hollinger says “in truth, McGee should have been facing DeMar DeRozan in the final instead of Griffin, but the hometown Los Angeles crowd swayed the judges heavily in Griffin’s favor.” He goes on to say the excitement in the arena every time Griffin dunked was electric and though “it’s not necessarily fair… it’s the reason he won.” In other words he may not have been the best dunker that night, but he knew how to work the crowd and do things they would love, and it was this quality that delivered the trophy.

How does this compare to political campaigns and voters? In recent history there has been a growing trend in campaigns to engage in negative advertising. Often these ads have no information about the candidate’s platform and amount to little more than personal attacks. According to the study by Amherst 54% of ads in 2010 were pure negative advertising. The truth is, whether voters want to believe it or not they are being treated much like the spectators in the Slam Dunk contest. Politicians are trying to distract the voters from the true issues and play to their emotions in order to win. Just like Blake Griffin.

Something to think about next time you hear a political consultant or pundit referring to some candidate’s chance of winning as a “slam dunk.”

Politicians and Professors

Some professors go into politics. Some politicians later become professors. But is there any reason to think the rules of the two “games” should be the same?

See this article by David D. Perlmutter, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Why Politicians Should Be More Like Professors. Perlmutter points out that President Barack Obama has sometimes been accused of being “too professorial.” But just what, asks (Professor!) Perlmutter, is wrong with that? He suggests several ways in which it might actually be good if politicians adopted a more professorial demeanor. His final suggestion is that politicians need to be more like professors in their willingness to work together to solve shared problems. “More than in any other trade, professors will sit down, work together with people with whom they hold deep ideological differences, and get the job done.” As for politicians: “It’s fine to be partisan about ideas,” he says, “but governing must be collaborative.”

By way of prescient rebuttal, see this piece by our friend (and sometime professor) Andrew Potter, writing in the Ottawa Citizen: Gangster Politics.

In a philosophical debate, what everyone involved is trying to get at is the truth. As a result, each party has a vested interest in the discussion remaining as rational and free of bias as possible. Even better, the truth is what economists call a “non-rival good” – many people can partake in the truth at the same time without anyone’s share being diminished.

In contrast, what is at stake in the political realm is not truth but power, and power (unlike truth) is a “rival good” – one person or group can wield power only at the expense of another.

Unfortunately, the very essence of politics makes partisanship inevitable….

In general, if you’re going to propose new norms for a game, it’s good to have a clear understanding of what is really at stake in that particular game, first.

Do we really care if political leaders lie to us?

This afternoon I attended a terrific seminar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics led by Amber Diaz, a PhD student in political science at Duke. Amber was presenting some preliminary results from a large survey she has conducted on Americans’ reactions to learning that their political leaders sometimes mislead them. According to the Kenan Institute’s web site, her dissertation is tentatively entitled: “Bumbling, Bluffing, and Bald-Faced Lies: Mis-Leading and Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations.”

It shouldn’t surprise readers of this blog that during the discussion of many different kinds and contexts of deception in politics, it seems to make a difference whether we interpret the deceptive politician as being engaged in an essentially competitive or a non-competitive activity.

In competitive “games” — especially those involving strategic rationality, where one party is taking into account how the other is trying to outwit her — we routinely leave room for “ethical deception,” or at least ethically excusable deception. Poker players can bluff, quarterbacks can pump-fake, pitchers can throw change-ups, negotiators can deliver a phony ultimatum, detectives interrogating suspects can trick them into believing they already have DNA evidence proving their guilt; and so on.

What about political leaders? Do we demand that they always tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? We might be inclined to answer, “Yes, of course!” And when we say this it is because we are thinking about them as our public servants, with a fiduciary duty to look after our interests rather than their own. One of these interests is in knowing the truth, and not being manipulated or disrespected. We hate the idea that a political leader would lie to us because he knows full well we would not go along with his scheme. We hate it even more if he lies to us in pursuit of some personal or partisan interest.

Amber Diaz’s research aims to see just how righteously indignant we really are when we realize we’ve been duped. Is this something that we make politicians pay a price for? (Amber is more than welcome to post on this blog if she wants to tell us more about the answers her research and number-crunching are turning up!)

But the fact is, we are not always upset about politicians being deceptive, and not just in cases where we might want to say “I know he’s a sonuvabitch, but he’s our sonuvabitch!” Sometimes we recognize that politicians are engaged in deliberately adversarial contests; and we respect them for being wily in some of these situations.

This is most obviously the case in the conduct of foreign affairs (a realm Amber is looking at, in fact). Here we see our leaders as engaged, at least partly, in an adversarial contest against our national rivals or enemies. We expect them to deceive these rivals sometimes (e.g., to send spies and special ops into other countries), and this may well require that they deceive us too. Similarly, we might expect political leaders involved in sensitive international negotiations (e.g. for trade, or arms-reduction, treaties) to bluff and make hollow threats.

But we may even excuse deception within domestic politics precisely because we take seriously the constitutionally adversarial nature of democracy. Political leaders are not merely public servants with paternalistic duties to look after our interests. We have deliberately locked them into adversarial contests with rival politicians, and with rival sources of power in our society. We might want to tie one hand behind their backs in these contests. But if we understand the nature of our adversarial system, we cannot tie both hands. For this reason, as my colleague Kieran Healy pointed out in today’s seminar, we often gain a grudging respect for “successful” politicians who know how to win at the game we place them in — even when they are not “our sonuvabitch.”

In any case, if we are a bit confused or inconsistent in our evaluations or, or reactions to, political leaders lying — and this is what Amber’s preliminary data seem to be showing — it is at least in part because we are confused and inconsistent about how partisan or non-partisan we expect the game of politics to be.

Should Coroners Be Elected?

A lot of major social and political institutions these days are what we are calling “deliberately adversarial.” In fact, so many are — to varying degrees — that we have to search harder for good examples of “deliberately non-adversarial institutions.”

Take the criminal justice system. Some parts of it are fairly adversarial, most notably the highly regulated competition between prosecutors and defense attorneys. And some parts of it are relatively non-adversarial: for example, as the narrator at the beginning of Law & Order always put it, “the police who investigate crime.” A police force is largely bureaucratic service agency. Policies and orders are conveyed hierarchically. Employees are trained and hired to carry about the basic tasks, like investigating crimes and handing out parking tickets. We could imagine a deliberately adversarial alternative to this way of “keeping the peace.” There could be private firms that individuals and firms contract for security, to investigate crimes, to make arrests, and so on. (These services obviously exist in the market now to supplement the work of the police.) But in all civilized societies, we now rely heavily on bureaucratic police forces, not vigilantes and hired goons.

Another part of the criminal justice system involves coroners and medical examiners. And that is also, surely, a non-adversarial system where highly trained medical experts are hired to determine the causes of all deaths (in order to decide if the death was possibly caused by a criminal activity that needs to be investigated).

That’s how it always is on TV. But not, it transpires, in all parts of the US:

In a joint reporting effort, ProPublica, PBS Frontline and NPR spent a year looking at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

Blunders by doctors in America’s morgues have put innocent people in prison cells, allowed the guilty to go free, and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing…

More than 1 in 5 physicians working in the country’s busiest morgues—including the chief medical examiner of Washington, D.C.—are not board certified in forensic pathology, the branch of medicine focused on the mechanics of death, our investigation found. Experts say such certification ensures that doctors have at least a basic understanding of the science, and it should be required for practitioners employed by coroner and medical examiner offices….

And here’s the kicker:

In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn’t a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes.

The NPR report on the radio included interviews with two rival candidates for the office of coroner in Colorado (I believe). One has held the job for a while and is a medical doctor. He has run as a Democrat, and just barely won the last election against a Republican tide where many voters vote for the entire ticket (i.e. vote for every Republican running for every office on the ballot). His rival for the office is a businessman, not a doctor, and his platform was based on a complaint that the “sitting” coroner was wasting too much money by performing too many autopsies.

In many cases, it is a relatively easy call whether an institution should involve a deliberately adversarial element — like an election or the use of a market — and in these cases are main issues are about how the competition should be regulated and how the individuals occupying special roles should negotiate various ethical dilemmas.

But in the case of coroner or medical examiner, surely there is a good case for saying that the selection procedure should be non-partisan and based on expertise. No? Especially in the relatively unusual (by international standards) American case where police chiefs, district attorneys, and judges are elected and usually affiliated with political parties. In the case of suspicious deaths (say, someone who dies in police custody) we wouldn’t want to also be suspicious of whether the coroner was protecting these political allies… would we?

Conference Announcement: Property, Markets, and Morality

At least since the publication of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, most discussions on the foundations of political economy have been about the design of a very important deliberately adversarial institution we call “the market.”

Here is an announcement for a conference on some of the philosophical and ethical issues at the heart of capitalism (so to speak), taking place in my neck of the wood.


18-20 March, click here for an early schedule.

University of North Carolina Greensboro


Hillel Steiner (University of Manchester), “Greed and Fear”

Richard Arneson (UC San Diego), “What is Wrong with Working for a Boss?”

Daniel Russell (Wichita State University), “Capabilities, Redistribution, and Ownership”

Michael Munger (Duke University), “Euvoluntary Exchange and the Difference Principle”

Julian Lamont (University of Queensland), “University Education, Economic Rents, and Distributive Justice”


Eric Mack (Tulane University)

Geoffrey Brennan (UNC Chapel Hill / Australian National University)

Jonathan Quong (University of Manchester)

Daniel Shapiro (West Virginia University)

Bas van der Vossen (UNC Greensboro)

This symposium is hosted by the philosophy department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and the BB&T program in Capitalism, Markets and Morality.

All welcome. Attendance free, but registration required.

To register and for more information, please contact Bas van der Vossen:

Before there was there was Ethics for Adversaries, the book

This blog shares its name with what we believe was the first academic book to deal with the dilemmas of ethics across a broad range of what we are calling “deliberately adversarial institutions.” Arthur Isak Applbaum’s book came out in 1999, and continues to be widely read and cited in the scholarly community. But it cannot be said to have spawned a new subfield. Yet.

There have been philosophical worries about the perverse consequences of competition in public and private life ever since Socrates denounced political corruption, and Plato scorned the Sophists (the lawyers of his day) for discarding the truth when it was not in their clients’ interest. But few before or after Applbaum have tried to develop a framework for addressing these dilemmas across the full range of competitive institutions, and to link this up with more “foundational” ethical and political theories.

(Applbaum is not founding member of this blog team; though he would certainly be welcome if he wanted to join us.)

From time to time, we will post salient quotes from scholarly works, including Applbaum’s. Let us start where Applbaum himself did (in the preface to Part I of his Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life), with a quotation from the 16th-century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne:

“Likewise in every government there are necessary offices which are not only abject but also vicious. Vices find their place in it and are employed for sewing our society together, as are poisons for the preservation of our health. If they become excusable, inasmuch as we need them and the common necessity effaces their true quality, we still must let this part be played by the more vigorous and less fearful citizens, who sacrifice their honor and their conscience, as those ancients sacrificed their life, for the good of their country. We who are weaker, let us take roles that are both easier and less hazardous. The public welfare requires that a man betray and lie and massacre; let us resign this commission to more obedient and suppler people.”

Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Useful and the Honorable.”

Montaigne is addressing the morality of roles. There are defined roles in all institutions (i.e. adversarial and non-adversarial), and some of these will require role-holders to do things they could not do outside of those roles. In this blog we will focus especially on the roles within deliberately adversarial institutions, which are even more ethically treacherous. Montaigne’s reluctant public servant administers poison-as-medicine for he knows it is ultimately for the public good. But in contemporary adversarial institutions like financial markets and electoral politics, that links between legal and winning tactics, on the one hand, and the invisible-hand benefits for the public good, on the other, may be so tenuous or dubious they look like delusional rationalizations. If only we could be sure that it was not the “weaker” among us who gravitate toward these roles….

State of the Union, part 3: the reactions

Over the past two decades, academic political philosophers spent a lot of time thinking and talking about “deliberative (read: cooperative) democracy.” But can there be any doubt that our actual democracy is overwhelmingly adversarial or competitive and not cooperative? Consider this typical analysis of last night’s SOTU by The New Republic‘s Ed Kilgore, under the headline: “Snore or Snare: the State of the Union set a cunning trap for Obama’s enemies.” This piece appears in a section of the on-line magazine called “Politics. The Permanent Campaign.”

The piece operates under the assumption that important political moments must always be partisan. So even when the message itself is explicitly cooperative, as Kilgore thinks it was, it must ultimately be a tactic in the contest. Here are some representative snatches from the piece.

Much of it could easily have been harvested from any number of interchangeable speeches given during the last 20 years—not just by presidents by members of Congress, governors, mayors, and CEOs—from both parties. Yet that may have been exactly the point. By staking his claim to decades of well-worn political detritus, I think Obama has set a cunning political trap for his enemies...

And that’s the beauty of Obama’s address. He basically put together every modest, centrist, reasonable-sounding idea for public investment aimed at job creation and economic growth that anyone has ever uttered…

Paul Ryan’s deficit-maniac response played right into Obama’s trap

Moreover, Obama’s tone—the constant invocation of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans are certain to oppose most of what he’s called for, while going after the progressive programs and policies of the past—should sound familiar as well…

By playing this rope-a-dope, Obama has positioned himself well to push back hard against the conservative agenda. …  Boring it may have been, but as a positioning device for the next two years, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece.

What better proof can we have that Obama’s speech was cunning and adversarial than that it sounded so perfectly non-partisan and cooperative!

The State of the Union, part 2: our Sputnik moment

The second “adversarial ethics” theme in President Obama’s State-of-the-Union speech last night came with the rhetorical emphasis on “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

For those any younger than Obama — and I guess that includes me, for I am three weeks younger than Obama — “Sputnik” was the name of the Soviet satellite that won them the first round of the “space race” in 1957.

(For those younger than, say, my students, many of whom were born in the 1990s, the Soviet Union was basically Russia. Russia and America were competing, in part to prove to the countries that were wavering on the sidelines that their system of government and political economy was the one to emulate. They decided to try to demonstrate their superiority by being the first to master space. To boldly go where no dog, monkey, or man had gone before. Both sides built their space programs on the backs of Nazi rocket scientists they captured at the end of the Second World War. But the Russians seemed to have snatched the smarter ones. They won the first three quarters of the contest by getting the first satellite, the first animal, and the first human into space; but America won with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter by landing the first man on the moon. There’s a great exhibit on the whole race in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was kind of a Big Deal, as the headline in the New York Times, above, makes clear.)

So the time has come for our generation’s Sputnik moment. Only now it is the Chinese and the Indians we are competing against. (The Russians are not our main competition any more. It turns out, capturing some Nazis and making them build you rockets does not prove that your political and economic system is superior. But I digress.)

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” …

Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there…

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

In an earlier post here we highlighted Paul Krugman’s skepticism about this renewed emphasis on international competitiveness. From the perspective of adversarial ethics I would add only that it is a curious (rhetorical, no doubt) framework for motivating a number of policies and investments that aim to improve the American economy. Again — as with the argument for squaring the competitive instincts with the cooperative spirit which I discussed in the post below — this argument for taking seriously the international competition with the Asian giants appeals baldly to American nationalism. How dare they try to beat us at our own game! We practically invented innovation and entrepreneurship. (As George W. Bush once said, “the French don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.”)

It’s a curious appeal to nationalism and national pride. If we can’t be motivated to adopt smarter policies for the simple reason that they would improve our lives, are we really more likely to adopt them so that those uppity foreigners don’t prove they are better than us? As a humble philosopher, I don’t know the answer to that question. But the President is paying good money to people who presumably do. Our Sputnik moment indeed.

All that said, I generally liked and admired the speech. Politician’s speeches are not usually about showing why they believe a policy is justified, but rather about trying to move people who are not inclined to agree with them. And they do this because they are locked in a fierce competition with people who don’t want them to succeed. That’s what adversarial democracy is all about. A bit of rhetorical flourish is surely not unethical in such a contest. Is it?

The State of the Union, part 1: toward a more perfect competition?

Democracy is a delicate — well, often not so delicate — balancing of competition and cooperation. The competitive aspects of democracy are largely justified as the best available means to good government in the public interest over the long haul. By forcing would-be leaders to compete for the loyalty of the electorate, they are incentivized to at least appear to act and to propose policies that will benefit the public and not just themselves.

But again, the rough-and-tumble of the democratic competition does not guarantee good government. Sometimes winning tactics might undermine the public good. Sometimes cooperation across the partisan divide can be a more effective way to do what is best for the society. Opinion polls routinely find the electorate clamoring for more cooperation and less partisan gamesmanship; but they also reveal that people want both sides to cooperate around the policies already favored by their prefer partisans.

Adversarial ethics in the political realm is in part about when the competitors should set aside their attempt to “win” the next contest and instead cooperate with their opponents to achieve more directly results in the public interest.

I suspect that all State-of-the-Union speeches implore the members from both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences — and their focus on the next election — and to work cooperatively together. And President Obama’s speech tonight was no exception. In fact, it led with this “adversarial ethics” issue.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

This way of defining the basic war in the breast of any democratic polity — between competition (to benefit the public indirectly) and cooperation (to benefit the public directly) — could be uttered by any President of either stripe. Of course, all it really does is describe the inherent, perennial conflict.

It says nothing of any substance about the solution — unless you consider the globbing of sweet nationalist syrup over this mess to be a solution. Do we really think that it is a shared sense that we are members of a common family that sets Americans apart as a nation? Do we have to believe that we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world in order to set aside our partisan differences and work together? If we can’t set those differences aside to come up with, say, a sane system of healthcare for all members of the American nation, are we really going to do it because we are duty-bound to light that beacon for foreigners who are counting on us to lead the way?!

The absurdity or vacuousness of this appeal to nationalism just shows how acute this tension is between competition and cooperation in 21st-century democratic federal politics in the United States of America. It is a perfectly adversarial union.