Political science

big ideas can be hard to wrap your head around, and maybe not worth it

Last week I read a clear statement about politics, and several separate times I tried to sit down and write a very clear essay about it in an hour or two, and a couple hours later I’d end up with a lot of messy writing and no one clear thru-line. Basically, the idea was too big to get my head around. There seemed to be a lot of points attached to it, and I wanted to get to each one as quickly and efficiently as possible. But easier said than done, or easier thought than written.

Here’s the tweet, by Brandon West of the New King’s Democrats and Center for Popular Democracy:

Basically, Brandon’s first statement is something almost everyone would agree with, but collectively we don’t treat politics like this is what it’s for, so there’s a disconnect between what we believe and what we do. We need to figure out how to bridge that gap, and actually do it, and force the issue, or we’re all screwed.

Here’s where my thoughts go off in countless different directions, and it gets too big to bring it all home. Which points to why Brandon’s post is so valuable. It’s a central guiding principle, which can yield a whole world of thought and guidance for action. There’s not one lesson to be drawn from it, or one action that lives up to it, but if you keep it in mind and keep asking, along with more work and time and thought, it’s a direction that will help.

Here are the disjointed remnants of what kind of thoughts this spurred. I don’t think it all adds up to a whole, but there are patches of lucidity that maybe your own internal writer or editor can complete…

…”(ideally through redistribution)”

While most people would agree in principle with Brandon’s first post, I know people tend to bristle at the sentiment in his follow-up “(ideally through redistribution).” Right now, we’re at a very uneven distribution of power and resources, and it is actively harmful. But people tend to be defensive about redistribution once it becomes possible that any small piece of it will be against them. Part of this is that people are scared of change even if they stand to gain more than they’ll lose. They’ll stick with the devil they know. But most of it is that people with disproportionate power tend to use that disproportionate power to defend their disproportionate power, and they tend to be successful because they’re disproportionately powerful. To some degree, we’re enabling them by being insufficiently organized against power upstream of us, and to probably a larger degree we are “them” because we’re defending our power against less powerful people. We’re likely to be less than conscious of both behaviors - deference to power forced on us and use of power against others. We should quit the bullshit.

The hard truth is redistribution needs to get happen, we need to come around to it, and we need to be organized where we don’t have power and step aside where we do have power and are blocking people.

When talking about outcomes is taboo

One thing that distances politics from focusing on outcomes is when we consider it uncouth to talk about outcomes in a lot of our political dialogue. It’s not because it’s any less objective. It is much more objectively true, for example, to talk about how human-made climate change is bringing about extinction, than it is to talk about how strong certain people looked to us while they were debating it. But it’s easier to talk about things that aren’t outcome-based – who’s popular, who’s not, who seems like a rising star, who has an interesting personality - precisely because these things aren’t connected to deeply held interests. It’s easier to talk around the conflict than try to resolve it. In reality, we get our best signs as to how people would affect real-life outcomes through years of focused study and observation, and we get our best sense of right and wrong through deep moral convictions that need to be examined over a lifetime. There just isn’t much about those truths that can change with a charismatic individual or a strong rhetorical performance.

The result is that a lot of our neutral political spaces don’t really serve to resolve these questions. They may be objective, but not about things that are objectively meaningful to changing people’s lives.

Fact-checking, moral judgment, and “people will die”

On that note, another thing I read over the last week was this article, “Glenn Kessler is Bad and That’s a Fact,” in The Outline, which critiques the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler and the general project of political fact-checking institutions like his “Fact Checker,” home of the “Pinocchios.” The basic critique is that it’s not actually objective, but just another language for the fact-checker’s centrist tendencies, and that this center is based around entrenched interests and is insensitive to lived reality and moral truths. While I don’t agree with the author, Andrew Hart, on every point, I think that core checks out. This, in particular, was valuable:

Kessler’s job is to check the facts. He does not run “value checks” or “policy checks.” I don’t believe that those terms would make sense to him, nor do I believe that he would work at the Post if they did. By placing facts at the center of politics, Kessler finds common cause with centrists who place the burden on voters to fall in line behind candidates instead of the other way around.

Fact checkers like Kessler are allies of a centrist project because they offer a political language stripped of the very words that would be needed to advance a moral argument. They cultivate a public discourse in which no one can call a wrong a wrong except in a very narrow sense, which means that, so long as the powerful have the right credentials and can dot all the ‘I’s and cross all the ‘T’s, there is no language to voice objection to their immiserating policies.

The article made me think of Brandon’s point, and how this was yet another example of politics drifting away from the central business of improving people’s outcomes. As Hart noted, Kessler wasn’t always accurate even by his own standards. All these things – insensitivity to human outcomes, rejection of morally clear language, and a lack of actual consistency – were present in a video that’s been stuck in my head since I first watched it in 2017, when Republicans were attempting to appeal the Affordable Care Act without a workable replacement. Here’s how Senator Elizabeth Warren characterized the situation:

These cuts are blood money. Let’s be very clear. Senate Republicans are paying for tax cuts for the wealthy with American lives.

Warren’s statement prompted ReasonTV, the video arm of the libertarian magazine Reason (the name implies they equate their free market ideology with rationality itself, a common trope of libertarians in particular and entrenched powers in general) to mock the very notion of invoking the human cost in political discussions, via this “rap” parody:

“People Will Die” by Remy, not to be confused with Remy Ma

In the video, various senators use the phrase “people will die” in bad faith to push a series of ridiculous policies – mandatory organ donation, four mile per hour speed limit, alcohol prohibition, across-the-board life sentences – until an author surrogate (a “voice of Reason,” if you will) tries to calm everyone down by saying “Why not weigh all the costs, the effects, the results, empathize with each other as if we were adults? Use our brains to craft arguments, not vilify.” Supposedly this is the counterpoint to the “people will die!” rhetoric that Warren and the straw men in the video were using.

In actual fact, the process that the character was urging – carefully weighing the costs and having a real dialogue about them – was exactly what McConnell, Trump, and Ryan were refusing to do. One thing that everyone noticed about the repeal push (I know this, because I was following the health care news avidly for months, writing a daily newsletter for activists and interested parties) was how ridiculously rushed and secretive the process was, how all the norms, from policy review to bill drafting to “regular order,” were being thrown out the window. Passage was the only goal. Senators were open about this. Reason’s nightmare – the loss of rational discourse around the outcomes of policy – had happened before Warren spoke. They were worried about a slippery slope while we were already hurtling down the cliff.

Even on their own terms, the civility police had missed the point. At that point, when the evidence was clear that this bill would hurt people (and was overwhelmingly rejected by public consensus) and the Senate Republicans were looking to pass it anyway (whether to achieve tax cuts, deliver a political promise to the hard right, or placate Donald Trump) there was no space for civil debate. People in power were simply trying to do an indefensible thing. Elizabeth Warren was using the language that people use to describe indefensible actions, and she was using it clearly and accurately. But certain types of political minds were more offended by her description of these actions than by the actions themselves. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Politicians mask descriptions of their atrocities in vague or meaningless language to obscure them. In civility-policed discourse, something similar is at play. The language that can plainly describe terrible things is declared out of bounds, so, in response to an atrocity, you’re faced with either normalizing it or stepping out of line to name it.

It’s a common pattern in American politics. We’re all familiar with the people who find structural racism to be basically acceptable, but naming racism to be inflammatory. Remy and Kessler have relatively small followings, but they represent a widespread tendency sometimes known as tone policing, attacking the method of delivering a message rather than the message itself. (Ironically, I think tone policing actually serves to help Donald Trump seem honest - the discourse is so over-policed that people can associate any change of pace with ‘telling it like it is,’ although in his case he has little grasp of, respect for, or adherence to the truth, and even worse he actively suggests things that are harmful to people.) The question we need to ask is what we’re doing to people and for people, and whether it’s right.

The real problems we face are rooted in the outcomes of people’s lives, and the real problem with our political discourse is when we’re unable to square up to these real problems. Language that helps make them clear is good; language that obscures them is bad.

Rebecca Traister on “the Donny Deutsch problem”

Mainstream punditry is so decayed that, even when candidates themselves get more substantive and agile with their understanding of the complex realities of American life and the solutions we can offer, and even when public polling shows the public is recognizing these shifts, the people who interpret the debates attempt to pull us back into the same meaningless nonsense. Rebecca Traister called this “the Donny Deutsch problem” in an article this week. The basic argument is that they represent entrenched power projecting its own discomfort with change onto voters as a whole. (This goes back to the idea from above, that power resists redistribution.) Check it out if you have the time. It’s relevant to the stuff discussed above and a good read.

I didn’t know who Donny Deutsch was before reading the article. Based on this picture, he looks sort of like a cross between Ted Danson, Frankenstein, and Max Headroom.

Why are we so bad at solving problems? Partly because we’re not practiced at it, which is due to capitalism

I said at the top of this that improving the outcomes of people’s lives is a goal and question that takes a lifetime of work. This is because the world is complex and individuals are complex and getting good at anything that requires navigating this complexity is very difficult, especially if it involves getting people on the same page and fighting opposition.

Here I’ll get into a little back-of-the-envelope theorizing. One thing that makes things especially tough is that, as a culture, we don’t train and practice the craft of creating good outcomes for other people. That’s not to say that there aren’t schools of activism, or public service tracks with a culture of knowledge, but that these are not the norms.

From what I can tell most people are trained in a few separate things: labor and careerism, which is usually organized for the private profit of ownership; morality, which is usually based on personal feelings and faith and signaled rather than externalized in deed; and social awareness, which is usually based on taking care of a small group of people, like a family or social circle, and maintain polite relations with outsiders, not rocking the boat. All these things can contribute to the public good in some ways. Some companies produce goods and services that are useful to the general public; sometimes people’s morality compels them to step up and act; sometimes people are meaningfully supportive of friends and family in a way that helps them lead better lives and do better things.

But because the particular practice of actually organizing work toward better outcomes for a wide set of people is not institutionalized or commonly taught in these ways, it’s often tangential to people’s actual efforts – or they can even actively work counter to the public or common good (especially, off the top of my head, big tech, finance, law, corporate management, advertising, fossil fuel) and get feedback that encourages them to do more of the same.

I remember thinking about a version of this problem when I worked a terrible job, started criticizing workplace conditions, and was offered a job in management, purportedly because it would give me the best chance to fix these conditions. If that were really possible, I might have taken it, but it didn’t seem like I’d get any sort of guidance or opportunity to do that, and that my entire network of colleagues and bosses would continue urging me to learn the art, that they were well-practiced in, to keep wages low and employees in the dark. There are ample opportunities, both in the field and in schools, to learn how to organize things to the benefit of management. There are business schools all over the place, but not labor schools. Because we have an economy built around increasing corporate profits, there will always be more opportunity to gain experience in that realm. Donor influence and corporate capture of politics are one thing, but there’s also just an asymmetry in how much practice private interests have to get good at their job and train people to participate. They’ve professionalized the effective use of these tactics and taught them more broadly.

Something similar happens in politics, where there are plenty of opportunities to rise based on producing wins and marshaling power, but delivering better outcomes to people has to be a mission you stubbornly force in on your own. The skill that is professionalized on a bigger scale is not the same one that would be most beneficial to people. Stay in long enough in that environment, you get a lot more opportunities to hone your power-preservation skills than your outcome-distribution skills.

The science of producing good outcomes for people does exist. Lot of people do good for people. Activism is a real career. Academically, there are MPA programs and all sorts of different levels of other things focused on public good. There’s a wealth of scholarship on labor and organizing that I should read. But it’s a problem that we rarely come across this information naturally, that in many parts of American culture none of our job fields or social groups teach it as matter of course. Therefore it’s just that it’s harder to find and smaller than it should be, and underdeveloped. One thing I hope that the post-2016 wave of activism generates is a larger, more thriving field in which people are talking about this stuff and sharing their methods (Again: this is already happening! It just takes effort to pick this up as a Johnny-come-lately like I am, and many of us are suffering from similar knowledge and practice gaps, especially those trained socially or professional for high-status roles.) It will be threatening to power, and in the short term the people who practice it will lose out financially and be scorned for neglecting their shortest path to enrichment, but it is essential to a system that provides better outcomes.

Another footnote is that if this is done well or successfully, you’ll see a movement in which more leaders who address serious problems don’t resemble “traditional” leadership in terms backgrounds or paths to power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, worked for a while as a bartender and waitress. She also isn’t a white guy. This is related to “the Donny Deustch problem” above - Deutsch, a white guy who grew up working for his family’s hundred-million-dollar ad agency, was socially and professionally undertrained in solving and understanding problems in the way that many of the candidates, who started out as outsiders in some way, were.

One example of underdeveloped political systems: the climate crisis which threatens to kill us all

One very clear example of the failure of our political systems is climate change. We have changed the air and water of the earth enough that our society will collapse and we will die if we keep going the way we’re going.

A lot of people cite climate change as a call to take science more seriously, and we certainly need to. But more importantly, we need to take politics more seriously. While “hard” sciences are often exalted at the expense of the humanities, the world’s climate scientists actually pointed us in the opposite direction. Getting the world to avoid civilization-ending climate catastrophe is likely technologically possible, they say, but seems politically unlikely. It’s not that we don’t have the scientific knowledge to save the world, but that we haven’t mastered the humanitarian practice of organizing our society for the general betterment.

Maybe the problem with the masses of underpaid humanities majors isn’t that they hold skills we don’t need, but that, because the value in their skills isn’t easily captured by capitalism and is instead distributed to the community, we have not arranged our society to utilize, engage, and organize these skills in a way that could save us all. Or even worse, the clearest ways to incentivize these skills and make money is often in the service of powerful private interests directly opposed to the public good (consider how much money one can make as a communications specialist for an fossil fuel company, as opposed to an investigative journalist covering the externalities produced by that company).

Or maybe that’s not it. Maybe it’s that the humanities aren’t trained to take results as seriously as other applied sciences. I really don’t know. But we need to get smarter about this stuff.

The work makes radicals - generally to the left

I am far from neutral in my political analysis. Everyone, of course, is far from neutral, because neutrality is impossible. But what I mean is that I align far from the center of the two parties in America. Why would anyone aim for this? This center holds no inherent veracity or moral value, it’s just a central position based on the distribution of power in this country, and how you feel about it depends on how you feel about how power is distributed, and the more you ask about right and wrong the less you’re liable to feel that power is distributed well.

I’ve noticed that conservatives worry about “liberal indoctrination,” but more than people becoming liberal or left through being told what’s right or wrong, I see people move that way from experience the more they focus on the project of improving people’s outcomes and see who’s helping. People start as non-partisans interesting in assuring voting rights and civic participation, for example, and can’t ignore the fact that one party is hostile to the whole endeavor. Or they’re looking for the cure to AIDs, or affordable health care, or a livable planet, or safe reproduction, or race or gender equality, or rehabilitation from the criminal justice system. People I see engaged in serious struggle to make lives better for people often say the same thing about the two parties we have:

1) The current Republican Party is actively dangerous and holds little hope for solutions

2) The current Democratic Party is weak and ineffective, but can at least be pressured and primaried.

These are not people who “trust the Democrats” or have been “indoctrinated” by them, so much as people who see them as the only effective vehicle for positive change in our current political system. And that comes from the work. While I’ve also seen people move from left to right politically, it’s usually been other factors: from progressive left to left-center as they’ve become more economically successful and more invested in that wealth and status, or straight over to the right wing based on personal feelings of hurt or anger, but not from efforts at problem-solving.

Though I haven’t seen it personally, I do know that sometimes people get radicalized to the right through service careers in fields like the military and the more militarized side of policing. However, going back to Brandon’s first post, are these endeavors based on “improving the outcomes of people’s lives”? They’re difficult, dangerous service jobs, often undertaken with the belief that these things are important to protect life, but the work that radicalizes people to the right is the work of confronting enemies, which is not directly connected to the lives that are supposedly benefiting from that work. I don’t think, observing recent history, we can say that it’s actually borne out by results that recent wars and the current level of policing improve the outcomes of people’s lives. It is a justification, and often one believed in good faith, but it is not actually central to the discipline, nor is it practically the result that is achieved.

The best objectivity comes from opinion

One sort of counterintuitive thing I’ve found is that a lot of neutral political spaces are not objective. If you set neutrality as some space in between the claims and goals of two political coalitions, so as not to upset either of them, you’re committing to a space that is:

(A) Easily manipulated by these groups in bad faith

(B) Often devoid of meaning or objective truth in the interest of avoiding conflict

The first point is fairly obvious, and there’s been a lot of observation at how the right wing has successfully moved the conversation over the course of decades and the left is gradually learning to catch up.

But the second point sometimes gets missed. If the underlying assumption of a mode of conversation is that two sides are perpetually in conflict, and that it is not our place to resolve it, there’s nothing to say but trivia. Who looked strong, who looked weak, what the new round of conflict is. This type of conversation is incapable of speaking to major changes in our lives or pointing the direction forward. I think sometimes part of why people prefer partisan news outlets isn’t just that they want to be told they’re right, but that they want to be told there is something that is right, something meaningful, something to be done.

Pursuing questions of what should be done, and seeing how it works, is generally a better illustration of the shape of politics than neutral political space, and actually more useful for finding objective truth. (Objective truth is not politically neutral, again, because neutrality is a relation to popular political positions that are based in power and inertia, while truth is a relation to the world as it is.)

I’ve used this analogy before: when I teach math, most students find the principles much easier to grasp once they actually try to solve problems. There’s nothing like the process of working toward a goal and actually applying things to seeing the way things work. When I was trying to learn programming, my more experienced friends said I wouldn’t be able to really learn until I had something interesting that I really cared about to motivate. Similarly, when I teach satire, or really when I coach any kind of writing, the hardest part is getting the student to express how they really think, before they try to craft it into something clever.

So it is for politics. Trying to get something done - something that originates outside the goals defined by either party - shows you the way the system works. It’s not that you need to “get your opinions” from opinionated sources, it’s that you need to enter with your own opinions in mind and refine them in service of a goal.

One example of people applying themselves

One of my most meaningful exposures to deeply serious people in politics came in early 2017, after I attended a “bird-dogging for health care” workshop by Jennifer Flynn Walker, Paul Davis, and Jaron Benjamin and later some actions they coordinated. Flynn Walker and Davis were veterans of the movement to save people’s lives from neglectful government health policy during the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Benjamin started as a housing activist from his own personal experience, and ended up at Housing Works, which fights the often-overlapping crises of AIDS and homelessness in tandem. The activists learned to improve and refine these methods by necessity in the midst of a struggle of lives, and saw a new crisis coming as Trump, McConnell, and Ryan were initially trying to repeal ObamaCare in the first month of Trump’s presidency.

In the context of Brandon’s post above, they were trying to enact that core goal of politics – improving the outcomes of people’s lives – in the face of a politics that wasn’t inclined to see or even consider it.

Ultimately, with an extreme and exhausting effort, they managed to just barely stop the train. They completely tapped out the resources of a massive volunteer network, involving thousands of people across the country disrupting events and town halls, and hundreds coming to DC to get arrested. They also had the allegiance of ADAPT (who had a whole different organizing structure but worked in tandem in a lot of the same forums) and a massive network of people chipping in remotely through groups like Indivisible. This, to stop a bill polling at around 20% support, more unpopular than popular in every state and territory, opposed (generally in statements, rather than in media blitzes or actually resistance) by every prominent medical and public health group in existence, 100% of the opposition party in both chambers of Congress, and many Republican governors. If the balance of power in the Senate had been 1% different, it still would have passed. Our political practice simply did not include enough consideration for what would happen to people. Even the liberal New York Times only occasionally registered it as headline news, and generally attempted to be even-handed.

After it was all over, the explainer publication Vox interviewed Flynn Walker and Davis, and found they said things with different focus:

“People power actually won,” said Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy. She said Obamacare repeal’s failure revealed the power of activism and grassroots mobilization to sink unpopular legislation. “It was the voices of the people who won this campaign.”

But Davis, now an activist with Housing Works, suggested the opposite — that the campaign revealed the limits of what grassroots activism can accomplish against a Republican Congress. “The true lesson here is in the power of vapid cruelty — the [GOP’s] profound commitment to needless cruelty with no rationale or reason,” he said.

and later

“The senators and Senate staffers barely feigned interest that their policies were literally going to kill people in front of them — that’s not a very good lesson, but it’s unavoidable,” said Davis, of Housing Works. “One of the primary things we discovered is that very few members of the Republican Party feel accountable to anyone other than a particular set of Republicans.”

From what I can tell, they were both very accurate. Definitely, what won the campaign was making politicians face up to the people they were facing, which would not have happened without mass organizing of ordinary people. It also was way too difficult and required way too much effort just to get this simple point across that only very few of them actually responded to in the end, and people going this far just to get the bare minimum of government responsibility is not sustainable and dangers and frustrations will exist as long as a small subset of the Republican party dominates politics.

Pop culture side-note: Bird-dogging got a mention on Handmaid’s Tale this week. At this point all I’m watching that show for is the Canada stuff and whatever resistance is left. Nothing good or interesting going on in Gilead at this point. The main white lady hanging innocent people and whatnot. Looking mad and doing nothing. There’s a reason Atwood only wrote one book about that place. Resistance Canada is a different story though. Maybe Luke and Moira will move in with a shop owner, Rita/Pastor Nina will finally make it across the border, and Season 4 will be like a bizarro version of Kim’s Convenience, a lot darker thematically but still funny and with a human core.

It takes all types

Very often in politics, I see the idea that one kind of power will win the fight and other types are irrelevant, and within certain domains it might be really clear what’s missing in bigger quantities. But, broadly, we need to both win elections and push electeds. We need both broad-minded revolutionary vision and technical execution. We also need messages that come in all different tones from all different people. The real question is, are you pushing in the direction of improving the outcomes of people’s lives? In this work it is always right to do the best that you can but to make sure the path to better is being paved.

Practice over theory

I write a lot in a certain tone and certain way because that’s how my mind puts things together and I tend to spend a lot of time in abstract spaces I don’t really understand, putting things together, and it is what it is, but just because I do it and like to do it doesn’t mean I think it’s the most important thing. What matters is what people actually do in all kinds of little ways that affect people and the world. The ways of doing these things are perfected by people other than the people who talk about them. Theory is a way to try and understand what people do to say what things we should follow or replicate or try to expand. (I’m also not even a proper theorist - I never really learned any methods).

And while I’m sending out this writing because it’s done, I’m really trying to get more systematic and useful with my efforts. So it’s just to say practice trying to do better. Some people are saying “praxis” these days and I’ve never used the term and don’t really know it other than that it’s the Marxist way of talking about making sure the rubber hits the road in terms of getting things done.

I myself have been out of practice, and I keep saying it, but really I need to fix this. It’s a gift to be hooked into a coordinated effort, doing real things, having these conversations in bits and pieces with other people instead of just spinning your own wheels, and I need to get back into those spaces and make my words shorter and more efficient and focus on deeds and also learn from people who have said the same things better. I am done writing this thing and will resume fixing my life and hopefully I will find ways to get more directly engaged once I’m on firmer ground myself.