Category Archives: politics

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

halifax-harbour-theodore-tugboat_smaller

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

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

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

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

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

BOATY

The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

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

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

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

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

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

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

13727196-sign-for-slippery-deck-on-the-cruise-boat-Stock-Photo

Congressional Military Oversight: A Trial Without A Judge

ChiefsInCongress

The US Congress holds the constitutional responsibilities of declaring war and raising, equipping, and maintaining the military (clauses: Declare War, Army, Navy, Regulate, Installations). The framers of the constitution intentionally gave the legislature these powers to divide control of the military between it and the executive. They sought to prevent either branch of government from using the fighting force to oppress the people or to engage in wanton war making. In short, they wanted an adversarial structure to the mechanism that controlled the military; an institutional check on military and executive decisions that relate to war and national defense.

To fulfill this constitutional duty, congressional committees frequently hold hearings to investigate ongoing military issues, to learn about strategies being employed, and to hold military leaders accountable for the decisions they make. When done right, congressional oversight can be extremely effective (Truman Committee: here). The Senate Armed Services Committee handles these duties for the Senate.

Unfortunately, committee members frequently use hearings for personal or political advantage. Consider testimony on the Syrian Civil War and the Iraq War:

e35416ce4b250830860f6a7067008339

On 10/27/2015, Senator Lindsey Graham (above) engaged in an emotional questioning of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (below) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford about the ongoing Syrian Civil War. He asked both individuals questions on the US strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from office and in all cases he proceeded to interrupt and answer for the witnesses (video: here). His line of questioning was less about learning and more about criticizing the Obama administration. Despite hearing such as the one shown here, Congress is still yet to authorize the ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq, consciously choosing not to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force.

SecDefInCongress

On 9/11/07, then Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem) spent 6 minutes giving a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War before ever asking a question. In this speech she essentially accused the witnesses General David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker of lying (video: here; article: here), stating: “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” It was later revealed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Clinton admitted that she only voted against the surge for political reasons (article: here).

In contrast to Senator Clinton, in the same set of Iraq War hearings Senator John McCain (Rep) asked several softball questions that supported the ongoing Bush-Petraeus surge strategy. McCain was a noted supporter of the surge and his leading questions did very little to probe the war effort or provide any real oversight (video: here; support: here).

Although congressional hearings have a question and answer format reminiscent of a lawyer’s examination of a witness in a courtroom and they are similarly intended to seek some approximation of the truth, there is no equivalent to the judge to keep the questions on track and professional. It’s unfortunate that committee hearings frequently turn political instead of being informative. It’s also easy to understand why witnesses so uniformly hate testifying before Congress.

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.)

cjones02182016-e1455763067689

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

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

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

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

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 3: Bernie Sanders’ “Endorsements”

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

The issue:

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

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

The accused’s response:

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

Categorization:

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

Other relevant information:

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

“Reasonable disagreement” v. “beyond the pale”

niqab4 no text

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

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

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

niqab2

Heath begins like this:

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

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

And ends like this:

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

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

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 1: VOTING VIOLATION and the Cruz Campaign Mailers

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

The issue:

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

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

 

Cruz Mailer

The accusation:

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

The accused’s response:

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

Categorization:

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

Other possibly relevant information:

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