Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

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Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

America: a lament

 

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Let me start by saying this: today has been a wretched day. I’m going to try and get more specific and rational in a moment, but before I do it’s only fair to acknowledge the emotional place I am writing from. This post is not about informing, persuading or educating you. It is about making me feel better. When something bad happens I often find writing about it helpful. Reality may be chaotic and unknowably complex but if I can grab hold of it for long enough to examine it and knit an argument from it, then I feel like I am back in control even if only on the page. I could, for example, feel the gut punch of the Brexit vote and yet still stand up and craft a plan for what should happen next.

But the enormity of what has happened, the range and power of the shockwave it will create leaves me unable to produce anything that coherent. Too much has changed and too little is stable for me to feel I have a purchase on it. And that uncertainty is distressing.

After Brexit, I felt like I’d lost my country. After Trump’s victory, I feel like I’ve lost my world. I used to assume that, broadly speaking and with exceptions, the world would get more prosperous, safer and more co-operative. Even horrifying events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, seemed like setbacks rather than fundamental reversals. Trump’s victory seems more devastating than that.

The most powerful man on earth is a racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theorist, who has admitted to assaulting women, lacks any respect for the rule of law, has dodgy finances, holds some ‘maverick’ views, possesses little understanding of the issues with which he must grapple and most damningly seems to have no compunction about telling blatant lies.

That seems to speak to America and the West more generally having given up on making the world better and instead now just want to lock it out. We have gone to a dark place of hatred and suspicion, and I don’t know if we even want to get out of it.

If this was happening anywhere else it would not be so devastating. Even when grim events hit my own country, like the upsurge in hate crimes that followed Brexit, we could at least see them as our problem rather than something universal. Of course, it wasn’t happening in isolation. Nativism, populism and authoritarianism are on the rise more or less everywhere, and Brexit actually seemed to be a milder form of that tendency. Nonetheless, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and the like still seemed to be a nasty sideshow so long as there was an American president willing to use his country’s enormous power to counterbalance them. Now one of their number is headed for the Oval Office and they suddenly seem to run the world.

I move in circles where to degenerate America and its power is fashionable. Even the American’s do it.  The US and its hegemony was a menace to freedom, the story went, it used its incredible power to get rid of those who got in it – and its corporations – way. It overthrew awkward but democratically elected leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, it missteped all over weaker countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and even made the rest of us sign up to its stupid copyright laws just because Disney can afford a tonne of lobbyists.

That is a reasonable story but it is only partial. It sees America’s imperfect espousal of democratic values as equivalent to other actors rejecting them outright. That’s an especially grievous error because while America is not alone in having these values, no other country backs them up so forcefully. America sometimes act like a bully because its strong and it’s that strength that guarantees freedom in many parts of the world. When Putin eyes the Baltic States, when Xi wonders about bringing Taiwan to heel and when Kim Jong-Un fantasies about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, a voice says “DON’T YOU DARE!” and it has an American accent.

Trendy lefty anti-Americanism has never given America enough credit for this. It has looked at America’s huge defence spending and seen a monstrosity, not a burden it bears for the sake of the global stability in which it wishes to share. Yes, this was self-interested, it made it easier for America to trade and reduced the risk of them being caught up in any instability. But that was also in the rest of the world’s interest too: it made it easier for us to trade and stopped us getting caught up in instability. 

Now Trump, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, doesn’t appreciate this. Which ironically may be what finally gets people like me to see the merit of an America that tries to control the international order. The alternative may not be liberty but that order breaking down, and a return to a world of more naked geopolitics in which Russian or Chinese wolves can eat Ukrainian or Vietnamese lambs. But I fear it’s too late now. We will probably never get a chance to be grateful for that America, for it is likely gone, replaced by something meaner, nastier and smaller.

Can American democracy survive a Trump presidency?

The real danger is not Trump but the person who cleans up the mess he leaves behind

History turns backwards

For decades, the Freedom House think tank has tracked which countries are democracies and which aren’t. For a long time it seemed there was mostly good news. It began in Portugal in 1974, when the Portuguese people toppled their military rulers and forged a new democracy. Freedom House duly recorded this switch. And year after year more such switches came. Military dictators in Spain, Chile and South Korea lost power, followed by communists across the Warsaw Pact countries, and then Africa’s anti-colonial hereos turned post-colonial tyrants began to be dispatched.

Democracy marched on until 2006, when something disturbing happened:

…the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states).

What initially appeared to be a stagnation now looks like a contraction. Freedom Houses’ most recent report noted that:

…the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year — 72 — was the largest since the 10-year slide began.

I tell you this to illustrate that we are in a time when democracy is tending to falter. To date this has mostly meant the reversion to authoritarian rule in countries that democratised in the waves that followed the fall of Portugal’s military government. But given the apparent direction of travel, it would be a mistake to feel complacent about more established democracies.

An autocrat at heart

Indeed, it is the most established democracy of all that I am currently most concerned about. That is in large part a result of Donald Trump having a realistic chance of becoming its president. He may be the nominee of a party that traditionally stands for small government conservatism but he is an authoritarian plain and simple. He betrays this predilection with his admiration for autocrats like Vladamir Putin. It is reflected in his evident attraction to violence, be that inciting punch ups at his rallies or suggesting the American military torture captives and executes children. He vilifies the press and advocates using strengthened libel laws to silence them – a classic technique of autocrats who can’t stand to hear about their nakedness. He has a sorry record of corruption that hints at an alarming disregard for the law. He called for his opponent to be jailed and refused to agree to be bound by the election result.  And most alarmingly there is his unmistakably racist rhetoric and willingness to associate with racists and conspiracy theorists. It is thus reasonable to fret as Vox‘s editor Ezra Klein has done that Trump “…is not running to be America’s president so much as its dictator.

If that is his intention, what are his prospects of success? Some are deeply worried. Andrew Sullivan wrote back in May that:

In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.

And also of:

…the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

Their constitution to the rescue?

There is a more sanguine view. Trump may try to behave as an autocrat but the America’s system of government is loaded up with check and balances to prevent that. Politico’s Zachary Karabell reassures us that:

The American presidency is an office of vast powers that are also maddeningly constrained for anyone with dictatorial aspirations. We also know that Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s bears little resemblance to the United States of the 2010s. Before we get too breathless about impending fascism and the end of America as we know it, we need to stop and consider just how hard it might be for a president to bulldoze through the multiple hurdles to unilateral action.

Trump’s own offspring have taken this tack. Donald Trump jnr demonstrated that he has inherited his father’s odd way of speaking but not his talent for creating emotionally compelling arguments by suggesting:

For those who say: ‘Oh he’s so dangerous’, there is nothing dangerous about it.

He is going to have the greatest system of checks and balances in place watching him.

Even Sullivan suggests:

…this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order.

I am not going to deny that the courts and legislature are more powerful in America than more or less anywhere else in the developed world, and that as a result an American president enjoys less freedom of action than say a British Prime Minister.

But this is only partially reassuring. Sullivan correctly identifies the risk that these check and balances might not operate:

Were Trump to win the White House, the defenses against him would be weak. He would likely bring a GOP majority in the House, and Republicans in the Senate would be subjected to almighty popular fury if they stood in his way. The 4-4 stalemate in the Supreme Court would break in Trump’s favor.

Even if these safeguards do operate there are ways around them. For example, if President Trump cannot introduce more powerful libel laws, he could instead instruct his justice department to launch anti-trust investigations into media organisations that displease him. He has already threatened to do as much.

The gridlocked road to Trumpism

At a more fundamental level, I actually fear that America’s systems of checks and balance make its democracy more rather than less vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump.

For starters, it may have contributed to the dissatisfaction that enabled his rise. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that American democracy is in a state of decay because of a phenomenon he calls ‘vetocracy‘.

The U.S. political system has far more of these checks and balances, or what political scientists call “veto points,” than other contemporary democracies, raising the costs of collective action and in some cases make it impossible altogether. In earlier periods of U.S. history, when one party or another was dominant, this system served to moderate the will of the majority and force it to pay greater attention to minorities than it otherwise might have. But in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

Which is bad, firstly because it leads to weak and ineffective governments:

In parliamentary systems, a great deal of legislation is formulated by the executive branch with heavy technocratic input from the permanent civil service. Ministries are accountable to parliament, and hence ultimately to voters, through the ministers who head them, but this type of hierarchical system can take a longer-term strategic view and produce much more coherent legislation.

Such a system is utterly foreign to the political culture in Washington, where Congress jealously guards its right to legislate — even though the often incoherent product is what helps produce a large, sprawling, and less accountable government. Congress’ multiple committees frequently produce duplicate and overlapping programs or create several agencies with similar purposes. The Pentagon, for example, operates under nearly 500 mandates to report annually to Congress on various issues. These never expire, and executing them consumes huge amounts of time and energy. Congress has created about 50 separate programs for worker retraining and 82 separate projects to improve teacher quality.

It is also produces plenty of opportunities for soft corruption:

The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity.

When democracy ends

Not only does a presidential system that allows for divided government seem more prone to creating crisis, it seems less able to weather them than do more parliamentary models. In a seminal 1990 paper called the Perils of Presidentalism, Yale professor Juan J. Linz noted that:

the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government — but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.

And by ‘break down’ he means be replaced by a military junta so ambitious in its use of kidnapping, torture and murder that it turned ‘disappear’ into a noun. As in ‘even decades after the fall of the Pinochet regime the final resting places of over a thousand of the disappeared have yet to be found’.

So why is presidential democracy generally so difficult and why has America nonetheless managed it? Well Linz argued:

what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties-which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties-has something to do with it

Well Linz’s colleagues got their wish. America’s political parties have become way more polarised. There used to be Republican congressmen who were more liberal than some of their Democrat colleagues and Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. Such politicians have now gone extinct. It is unclear if Americans are following or leading their politicians but they are going in that direction too. The proportion of American voters who can be classified as consistently liberal or conservative has doubled in two decades. Research evidence now shows that Americans have stronger prejudices against people of different parties than they do people of different races. Thus the thing that has enabled America’s presidential democracy to endure is gone.

The potential crisis

Polarisation has already taken its toll on the functioning of the American government. To prevent Barack Obama enacting his agenda the Republicans and the conservative movement more generally have deployed every tool of obstruction conceivable: down the line voting against legislation, fillibusters, placing blocks on nominees, refusing to hold a vote on a nomination to the Supreme Court, legal challenges, governors refusing to implement pieces of legislation, government shutdowns and trying to use debt ceiling increases to leverage concessions.

Up to now Democrats have made less extensive use of these techniques than Republicans. That is presumably partly because they are more ideologically invested in the continued functioning of government than small-state conservatives are. But it must also surely be a factor that whilst Republican (primary) voters have come to see compromise as a betrayal, a majority of their Democrat counterparts still tell pollsters that they value it. A Trump presidency would likely negate both of those reasons.

Even assuming the Democrats are in a minority in Congress they can still do plenty to jam up the machinery of the Federal Government. The Republicans have shown them how to do it. And given the antipathy to Trump of many elected Republicans, he might also face resistance from his own party.

The resulting deadlocks might initially take a similar form to that seen during the Obama years, but things would be likely to escalate quickly because Trump is not like Obama.

Sullivan asks us to consider what would happen:

….if Trump’s policies are checked by other branches of government, how might he react? Just look at his response to the rules of the GOP nomination process. He’s not interested in rules. And he barely understands the Constitution. In one revealing moment earlier this year, when asked what he would do if the military refused to obey an illegal order to torture a prisoner, Trump simply insisted that the man would obey: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.”

I do not actually believe that Trump’s demagogic instincts would be enough to allow him to become the authoritarian leader he would like to be. I formed that conclusion reading an excellent long form piece for the Guardian by Christopher de Bellaigue on how Erdogan has bent Turkey to his will. Doing so required a great deal of skill, patience and discipline on his part. A political novice like Trump would almost certainly lack these. His flamboyance may serve him well on the glorified reality show that is an election campaign. However, the fact that he has neither built a proper ground organisation for his presidential campaign, nor yet found a way to avoid rising to every provocation the Clinton campaign devises, indicates he is very unlikely to be able to do the bureaucratic work to turn a democracy of a 200 year vintage into a dictatorship.

But being unable to construct an authoritarian state does not mean he cannot demolish a constitutional one. The real danger of a Trump victory is that he would be the catalyst for the kind of stalemate that Linz pinpoints as being so often fatal for presidential democracies. Trump might not entrench himself as a despot but instead  create the conditions that allow someone else to become one. Much as how in Russia, the crafty Putin followed the shambolic Yeltsin. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which the government is gridlocked or potentially even shutdown, and a President Trump is using his gift for drama to inflame the resulting divisions to the point they turn into social unrest. We can assume that if such instability came to pass it would exact a high economic price too. In such conditions, an American people who are poorer, less secure and less trusting in their institutions might conceivably do what many other people have done in such situations and turn to an authoritarian ruler who offers a modicum of stability – at least in the short term.

It is hard to say where this strongman might come from. Linz’s research highlighted the military as a source. The American armed forces have strong norms against enlisted men intervening in politics. However, a retired figure might find that path easier to walk. Especially as America has been led by former generals before. If you are worried about this possibility then it is disturbing that in an era of declining trust in American institutions, just about the only one gaining trust is the military. However, I suspect the more likely situation is the one represented by Hungary’s Viktor Orban: a previously democratic politician making the shift to being an autocrat.

Do I think this would be the inevitable result of a Trump presidency? No I do not. Maybe Trump would be a better president than this campaign has suggested. Maybe the constitution’s checks and balances would kick in and he would be prevented from doing lasting damage. But there is no guarantee that they would, or if they do that they will work as they are supposed to. Like the white blood cells of someone suffering from an autoimmune disease they may start to destroy the very thing they are supposed to protect.

We should not mistake the longevity of America’s presidential democracy for its immortality. Linz’s research indicates that it is an anomaly sustained by a factor that no longer exists. It would be a mistake to assume its survival and folly to gamble it by making Trump president. Already a:

…quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.

That could be a disaster not only for the US but the world. For better or worse, for much of the world America personifies democracy. If it turns its back on it, then the post 2006 retreat of democracy could turn into a rout. A man who does not believe in freedom should not under any circumstances become leader of the free world.

 

When saying ‘not all men’ might actually be constructive

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‘Not all men’ is one of those phrases that has become a shorthand for something wider. In this case it is the tendency of discussions of women’s experiences to be derailed by men wating them to be about their response to it:

…the people saying [‘not all men’] aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem….Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.

However, I do feel that with regards to the tape of Donald Trump more or less admitting to sexually assaulting women, it might help to get to the point rather than deflecting from it.

A key part of Trump and his surrogates attempts to justify these comments has been to essentially say ‘he’s a guy. What did you expect?’

Trump himself characterised it as ‘locker room talk‘. One of his sons said it was “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” And actor Scott Baio said “Ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you’re offended by it, grow up. Okay?”

At which point it becomes a rather salient to note that ‘not all men’ say the kind of things Trump did or do the kind of things he described. The most eloquent itteration of this point came from American football Chris Kluwe, who wrote an open letter to Trump:

I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself, and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.

We are not talking about the difficult stuff here. Clearly heterosexual men are going to notice how attractive or otherwise a woman is. Evolution has hardwired us to do that. And it is hard to stop that awareness subconsciously bleeding through into our decision making. Indeed, it is so hard that there’s a school of thought backed up by strong academic research that rather than trying to avoid it, we should design systems that negate the impact of the resulting prejudices. The archetypal example is having musicians audition behind a screen.

But what Trump is exhibiting isn’t the hard stuff. In the video, he says that he “can’t help” kissing beautiful women he sees but unless he has a psychiatric disorder he in fact can. Doing so requires a conscious decision on his part, as does recounting it later.

In his response to the video, Trump noted that he is not perfect. Well no one is. But plenty of men manage to imperfect without committing sexual assault. It’s not not something being a man compels you to do. Gender is not destiny. Being a man does not compel you to behave that way. The existence of men who don’t proves that. Trump had a choice and he made a terrible one.

Not all men attack women and then brag about it. If you do, that’s your fault and your gender is no excuse.

Trump is definitely not a moderate

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Trump is not a conventional hard-line Republican. But that doesn’t make him a moderate. It makes him a different (and more dangerous) kind of extremist.

The BBC News website currently features a curious video. In it the historian and Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley assures us that while Donald Trump’s “style might be a little crass and he’s said things people think should bar people from the White House”, he’s really a moderate.

Stanley’s opening gambit is essentially to tell us to look beyond the style of Trump’s politics to the substance of his policies. But that’s an unwarranted manoeuvre because there could well be substantive consequences to Trump’s style. In particular, when you have a candidate for President saying that he wishes that protestors at his rallies would be “taken out on stretchers”, it seems responsible to ask whether he might be normalising political violence. We’ve already seen the disturbing case of a homeless man beaten and urinated on by two men shouting “Donald Trump was right“.

To be fair to Stanley he has noticed this unpleasant underbelly of Trump’s campaign. Back in March, he wrote a column arguing not to overreact to the kind of violence we saw at Trump rallies because it “has been a part of American politics for a very long time” and cites as an example the Segregationist presidential campaign of George Wallace. While I see the parallel, I’m not sure it’s a reason to be sanguine. It’s been nearly half a century since Wallace ran for president and the fact that during that period overt racism and the inciting of violence have largely been kept out of mainstream American politics is quite an achievement. But as Trump has demonstrated, it was a fragile one. Indeed, Trump may well be more dangerous than Wallace. The Segregationist was only ever a 3rd party candidate but Trump is going to be the Republican nominee.

Nor do I accept that Trump’s policies are moderate. Stanley tells us that:

[Trump’s] no conservative. He’s a big spender, he wants the rich to pay more tax and he’s anti free-trade.

There’s a reasonable point nestling inside Stanley’s daft one. Trump has been willing to make rhetorical concessions to the notion that his white working class base needs government support and that that should be paid for with progressive taxation. But Stanley has been suckered by that rhetoric. Trump’s actual proposals on tax, reduce rather than increase the amount the richest Americans would pay. There’s still a reasonable argument that his policies in these areas don’t go as far as those of the likes of Cruz and Rubio. But that’s a flimsy basis on which to argue that Trump is a moderate.

And far from being centrist, Trump’s policies on trade are remarkably hardline. A 45% tariff on all Chinese exports to the US would be a massive step that would almost certainly provoke a global trade war.

Stanley similarly misreads Trump’s position on foreign policy saying:

If you’re worried about Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger, don’t be: he’s an anti-war candidate.

He even compares Trump’s policies to those of Jeremy Corbyn.

Once again it pays not to take too seriously what Trump says about his own positions. Trump says he opposed the interventions in Iraq and Libya. But he didn’t make any statements on Iraq until after the fact and actually said of Libya: “we have go in [sic]“. If we ignore his post-facto constructions of dovishness, it becomes clear his instincts incline – once again – towards violence. He’s proposed deliberately targeting the families of America’s enemies and occupying countries for the express purpose of stealing their oil.

The one regard in which he appears genuinely less willing to use force than his fellow Republicans is in defence of America’s allies. But rather than placing him closer to the mainstream, this fact illustrates his distance from it. The US joined NATO when Harry Truman was in the White House and its commitment to the organisation has more or less been a given ever since. Now Trump says it’s “obsolete” and “not meant for terrorism” because “NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism.”  This analysis ignores both NATO’s role in Afghanistan and the continuing threat posed by Putin’s Russia. But it arises not just from individual errors of fact and reasoning but also from Trump’s very narrow conception of America’s interests. He seems them as a burden that America carries, not as a means to amplify its influence. And being the human embodiment of stereotypes about soulless businessmen, he quite often views those burdens in narrowly financial terms. For example, he has threatened to withdraw US forces from the Japan and South Korea unless those two countries contribute to the costs of keeping those soldiers there. This is dumb because a) the host countries already do make contributions and b) the costs involved are small in the context of the overall federal budget. Signalling to China and North Korea that the US placed so little value on its allies in the region would make it harder for America to deter them from taking aggressive actions. What is particularly alarming is that rather than trying to minimise the repercussions of what is already a big departure from current US policy, Trump seems likely to amplify them. For example, he suggested that if American troops were withdrawn, Japan and South Korea could defend themselves by going nuclear, a stance that would reverse the long-standing agreement amongst all the great powers that nuclear proliferation is a  bad thing.

What all these positions show us is that Stanley is being myopic. An expert on US politics, he correctly deduces that Trump is not a conventional Republican hardliner. American conservatism has come to be defined by a very particular policy agenda even slight deviations from which will be punished by the likes of Grover Norquist and the Tea Party. And Trump does indeed deviate from that, albeit mostly rhetorically.

But extremism comes in more than one flavour. Trump maybe a novelty in the US but his brand of authoritarian isolationism has plenty of precedents around the world. Some liken him to a Latin American “caudillo“, others to the European far right, and the new president of the Phillipines – who just told journalists they are ‘not exempted from assasination‘ – is often called ‘Asia’s Donald Trump‘. Most entertainingly, Trevor Noah suggested that while Obama was the US’s first African-American president, Trump would be its first ‘African president’ and went on to note his similarities to Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin.

Trump may not adhere to any particular program but the fact that his notions are often half-baked doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerously extreme. Indeed, a significant reason his extremism is so frightening is that there seem to be few stances he will not take. Combine that with a character that seems paranoid, suspicious, hostile to outsiders, and drawn to violence and displays of machismo, and you have a very dangerous combination. Stanley is wrong to be sanguine about one of the most menacing politicians in American history.

Make China great again!

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Why Xi Jinping would vote for a president Trump

America’s political culture can be befuddling even for someone like me who hails from another English speaking democracy. Imagine how baffling it must seem to someone who’s reference point is China. A twitter account called the Relevant Organs, which parodies the Communist Party’s English language propoganda, had fun with this notion during one of the Republican debates. The fictional official running the account supposedly struggled to understand the proceedings:

One can only imagine what this official would have made of the ‘Orange defendant’ saying in an earlier debate that:

“The TPP is a horrible deal, It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, to give it its full name, is a free trade deal recently signed by the US and 11 other countries. Trump’s assertion was strange because as Senator Rand Paul promptly pointed out, China wasn’t one of those 11 countries and is unlikely ever to qualify to join. Indeed, and this is what would have made Trump’s point so confusing for Chinese viewer, the deal is supposed to exclude rather than include rather China. Believing that is not Chinese paranoia. When TPP was signed Bloomberg reported:

A 12-nation Pacific trade deal strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in his strategic pivot toward Asia and challenges China to accept U.S.-backed rules for doing business. A trading bloc stretching from Chile to Japan, with the U.S. at the economic center, bolsters Obama’s effort to counter growing Chinese military and economic influence in the Pacific.

TPP’s failure – which would be assured if Trump ever became president – would actually be a big win for China both economically and geo-politically.

I point up this incident to highlight a major problem with Trump’s policy proposals. He presents them as a sign of his toughness and his determination that America should ‘win’. Yet they’d almost certainly weaken America’s position.

To see why place yourself in the position of a Chinese observer of America considerably more sophisticated than our fictional debate watching official: Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Foreign policy is important to you. Once upon a time, the rule of the Party was legitimised by Maoist ideology but you gave up on that decades ago; then it was the astonishing improvements in living standards the people were seeing and for which the Party took credit but now those seem to be tapering off; so now he will be hoping that nationalism might do the job. If you can show them the Party has – to coin a phrase – ‘made China great again’ then they’ll feel good about that and won’t start asking for any pesky democracy.

You’re well on its way to achieving that objective. Gone are the days of Western powers waging wars to make the Chinese buy opium or of Japanese soldiers marauding round the country commiting every human rights abuse imaginable. And in the near future – recent troubles notwithstanding – China should become the world’s largest economy  and that will eventually pay for the most powerful military.

Nonetheless, you still worry about the US. Not that you have anything against the place; your daughter went to Harvard! But history has taught you not to trust them. All the way back to the 19th century despite their anti-imperial rhetoric they followed the lead of the European nations and took part in the exploitative unequal treaties. They’ve been arming the rebel holdouts in Taiwan for decades. And moves like TPP give you every indication that they intend to continue undermining your country for a while longer.

Given the shifting balance of power, you know they can no longer achieve that alone. They need the co-operation of your neighbours. Unfortunately, they have a lot of scope to do that. Despite all that spending on Confucius Institutes, most people in the world still have more admiration and trust for American liberalism than Chinese autocracy. That’s especially true of your neighbours who regard you as an overbearing bully. So what you really need is an undiplomatic oaf to come along and torpedo America’s relations with these potential allies. Well cometh the hour, cometh the man!

The aforementioned oaf is not an unknown quantity in the People’s Republic. He was an executive producer for a Chinese version of the Apprentice and the original American version has fans in China. And his books have been translated into Chinese. And in a country with such a rapidly growing economy entrepreneurs are a revered group. To quote one of Xi’s most important predecessors: “to get rich is glorious“.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be impressed by Trump. His boorish sexism and racism probably won’t bother Xi as much as it does most westerners; despite the CCP’s supposed commitment to equality and brotherhood, the niceties of political correctness have never really caught on in China. Still even for the head of a regime that regularly equates Islam and terrorism, banning all Muslims will seem a bit much. But what will be really shocking to someone like Xi is that an individual without a background in public administration might be considered a fit person to be president. The Chinese system, in theory at least, is a meritocracy that owes more to Confucianism than communism. Entrance to the civil service is by competitive exam and promotion is – in theory at least -based on performance. In order to be allowed to run a big city you must first prove yourself running a small one. Hence in order to reach a position like Xi’s you need to have a great deal of experience. The possibility that a newcomer with a flair for showmanship could be made president just he gets the most votes, confirms all your prejudices about democracy.

And Xi can already see the mistakes Trump is likely to make. The rejection of TPP would undermine US credibility with regards to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. All of the countries that claim islands within that space – Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – were signatories to TPP. If Washington proves unreliable on trade, then why would these countries expect it to back them up militarily? Without a superpower in their corner they are going to be much less assertive in challenging Beijing, which would conversely then feel able to be more assertive. It might well begin building more artificial islands and deploy larger forces to the islands it already has. The US would then be faced with a China able to lock them out of the South China Sea altogether, which is precisely what American policy up to this point has been geared towards avoiding.

That turn of events would certainly perturb Tokyo and Seoul. However, what would really concern them are the noises Trump is making about America’s treaty commitments to defend their countries. Essentially, Trump wants them to contribute to the cost of keeping American forces in the region – which they already do – and to have a reciprocal requirement to defend the US. Now given his self-image as the master deal maker, he would contend that he’d make Japan and Korea agree to his demands. But there are practical difficulties he may not be able to bluster past. There are lobbies in both countries that dislike the presense of American soldiers and would make it hard for their governments to make concessions. And Japan’s pacifist constitution – which was written by the US – would make things complicated. And even if Trump could bring this shift about, Japan and Korea would be left smarting and resentful and less likely to co-operate on other matters.

Even on the other side of Asia, Trump would likely push countries towards China. He subscribes to the conventional Republic stance on Iran: that he would back out of the nuclear deal. That would suit China fine. If it is the US turns its back on a perfectly viable deal then China will feel no need to reimpose sanctions. That will allow it to form trade links with Iran and thereby gain second hand influence in the Middle East.

 

Trump might well respond that this wouldn’t matter because as president he would put China in its place and leave these allies and potential allies with nowhere to turn but the US. The meat of this appears to be his intention to slap tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. Essentially what Trump and others allege is that China has artificially lowered the value of the Renminbi to make its exports cheaper than they otherwise would be. There are a number of problems with this. For starters, it’s not true. China has been actively trying to stop the Renminbi depreciating and its one of the few currencies of emerging markets not to have fallen in value recently. And tariffs are a weapon that launches backwards as well as forward. Slapping them on Chinese goods would hurt American consumers as well as Chinese producers. Indeed, while reducing Chinese exports to the US would have a negative impact on firms that exports it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for their economy overall. One of its major problems, which Xi appears to be trying to rectify, is that the economy relies too heavily on selling goods abroad rather than at home. American tariffs that depressed exports might actually help achieve this objective. So what Trump is proposing is essentially to threaten Beijing into stopping something it’s not doing in the first place with a policy which if enacted would cause more harm to the US than China. And by utilising that weapon to combat a phantom threat, he does not have it available to retaliate against say a cyberattack.

Trump’s misreading of the situation vis a vis America’s relationship with China arises from two fundamental problems. Both of them can be gleamed in his claim that:

America doesn’t win anymore… nothing works in our country. If I am elected president we will win again.

 

Such a sweeping claim is unlikely to right in all circumstances and buying into it will obscure the cases where it isn’t. Clearly there are aspects of US foreign policy in Asia that aren’t working. For example, North Korea is resolutely not being denuclearised, quite the opposite in fact. But plenty of what the US is doing to maintain a geopolitical balance with China seems to be working. In particular, it does seem to be preserving and expanding its network of allies in the region. Consider the following for evidence of this:

Screenshot (10)

That’s not enough to stop a shift in power from the US to China but remember that power is a relative concept. America can lose it not through its own failure but as a result of the success of others. Indeed, it would be surprising if China did not become more powerful in the wake of shirking off the self-imposed handicap of a centrally planned economy. Washington can find better or worse ways to deal with China’s rise but that ascent does not necessarily indicate that American policy isn’t working.

Among the worst ways of dealing with the situation would be to alienate allies. Trump’s focus on relentless ‘winning’ seems misplaced with regards to geopolitics. Is it desirable to ‘defeat’ your friends? If President Trump was to make losers out of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and even Iran that wouldn’t make America the winner. The beneficiary would be China. Rather than facing a co-ordinated effort to prevent it asserting it dominating its neighbours, it would face a variety of actors none of whom would be strong enough to challenge it and many of whom would doubt it was worth it anymore. That would substantially increase China’s options and reduce America’s. So if Xi Jinping had a vote in the Republican primaries, he’d probably cast it for Trump.

 

Caveat: The post above has taken it as an axiomatic that the US should see China’s rise as a threat and seek to counter it. There’s a real debate to be had about that. Nonetheless, Trump seems to percieve China as a menace and I have chosen to critique his proposals on their own terms.

5 initial thoughts on the Iowa results

I’m writing this on a train using my phone. So apologises for spelling and grammar errors. But:

1. All credit to Bernie – who once seemed like a fringe candidate – for pushing Clinton into a near as dammit draw. Nonetheless, I stand by my view yesterday that anything less than a crushing victory in Iowa shows he doesn’t have the depth of support to win the nomination. It’s a near perfect demographics for him. A draw here means a defeat nationally.

2. The New Hampshire primary now looks far more interesting on the Republican than the Democrat side. It should be an easy win for Sanders as it has even better demographics for him than Iowa and is adjacent to Vermont.

3. This isn’t necessarily a disaster for Trump. His support seems fairly evenly spread so Iowa has no particular significance for him beyond being the first state to vote. But it has shown that his poll numbers are soft, as well as demonstrating the limitations to a campaign based on doing obnoxious things in order to get free media. If he wants to be the nominee he needs to start building a conventional political machine that matches it’s rivals for field offices and ads.

4. Rubio is now the presumptive ‘establishment’ candidate. His rivals for that position will probably hang in till New Hampshire but after this result it seems unlikely any of them can outpoll him there.

5. My instinct is that both Rubio and the Dems will be happy if Cruz’s win in Iowa makes him and not Trump the guy they have to beat. Trump is wiley and unpredictable. By contrast, Cruz is an inflexible hardliner with little room to manoeuvre policywise. He combines that with being the guy who shut down the Federal government and an air of smugness marinated in creepiness.

The best things I’ve read recently (22/01/15)

This week Republicans vs Democrats, Trump vs the National Review, and Avatar vs cultural irrelevance.

Against Trump (National Review)

“It is unpopular to say in the year of the “outsider,” but it is not a recommendation that Trump has never held public office. Since 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president with no credential other than a great flow of words, both parties have been infested by candidates who have treated the presidency as an entry-level position. They are the excrescences of instant-hit media culture. The burdens and intricacies of leadership are special; experience in other fields is not transferable. That is why all American presidents have been politicians, or generals.”

Five Years Ago, ‘Avatar’ Grossed $2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint by Scott Mendelson (Forbes)

“Avatar crossed $1 billion by the end of its third weekend and topped Titanic‘s $1.8b worldwide cume, or what I used to call the ’Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak’ of box office records, in just 38 days. It went on to earn $760m domestic (compared to Titanic’s $600m haul in 1997/1998, not counting the 2012 3D reissue) and a stunning $2.7b worldwide, topping the (at the time) $1.8b worldwide cume of Titanic by 50%. Even five years later, there are only 22 films that have grossed even half of Avatar’s final $760m domestic cume. Even five years later, only Titanic and The Avengers have earned half of Avatar’s $2.7b gross while just 30 films have earned a third of that worldwide. Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time by such a margin that we may not see anything approach its global cume for a very long time, if ever. Yet for all intents and purposes, the film is all-but-forgotten.

It did not become a cultural touchstone in any real sense. Kids don’t play Avatar on the playground nor with action figures in their homes. There is little-if-any Avatar-themed merchandise in any given store. Most general moviegoers couldn’t tell you the name of a single character from the film, nor could they name any of the actors who appeared in it.  Even its strong showing at the Oscars hurt the film, as the narrative turned into “mean and scary James Cameron” against “weak and helpless Kathryn Bigelow” as if the former Ms. James Cameron needed any sympathy votes as she went on to become the first female Best Director winner for The Hurt Locker. Avatar didn’t inspire a legion of would-be Avatar rip-offs, save perhaps for Walt Disney DIS +2.08%’s disastrous John Carter. It didn’t set the mold for anything that followed save its use of 3D which turned the post-conversion tool into a valuable way to boost box office overseas.”

This is what makes Republicans and Democrats so different by Ezra Klein (Vox)

“I’ve often heard liberals wonder why there’s no Democratic version of the Tea Party. I’ve often heard conservatives complain that their party doesn’t spend enough time coming up with serious policy solutions for issues like health care. And, to be sure, there are some liberals trying to popularize Tea Party–like tactics and some conservatives trying to come up with sweeping new health reforms.

But it’s hard for these initiatives to succeed. There’s a tendency to imagine the parties as mirror images of each other, and thus to believe they can easily follow the other’s strategies. But they can’t. The parties are good at different things because they really are different.

That difference, however, can lead to deep misunderstandings. Democrats tend to project their preference for policymaking onto the Republican Party — and then respond with anger and confusion when Republicans don’t seem interested in making a deal. Republicans tend to assume the Democratic Party is more ideological than it is, and so see various policy initiatives as part of an ideological effort to remake America along more socialistic lines.”

The most infuriating paragraph you will read this week

In  a reflection on why Donald Trump’s proclivity for making stuff up doesn’t seem to bother his supporters Anna Pluta of FiveThirtyEight highlights some research that is as depressing as it is annoying:

In 2000, James Kuklinski and other political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established an important distinction: American citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uniformed. The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans [Emphasis added].These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data,” Kuklinski and his colleagues found.

This is not a new idea. Back in the 1930s Bertrand Russel wrote that:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.

This unfortunately tallies with research outside the political arena. For example, some studies indicate that parents who believe that vaccines are dangerous become more resistant to vaccinating their children when presented with scientific evidence that they are safe.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.