What the Heck is a “Liberal”? Same Problem as Translating “Corn” without Knowing What It Is, Apparently.

A curious little Twitter War broke out over whether Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts, is really a “liberal” from the perspective of a Sanders supporter.  To this, Harry Enten, of Fivethirtyeight, added this little tidbit:

“Funny little thing, DW-Nominate indicates that on all roll calls Barney Frank was actually slightly more liberal than Bernie Sanders.”

What the heck is this supposed to mean?  It turns out this means next to nothing.

The idea behind DWNominate and related techniques is exactly like the problem of Google Translate.  When people thought about using computers to translate, they wanted to translate based on grammatical and lexicographic “principles.”  It failed miserably because languages are too complicated and it was impossible to reduce all the rules to something so simple that even a computer could understand.  Google Translate was revolutionary in the sense that it gave up trying to understand the language but used statistical analyses of frequencies using allegedly “identical documents” where skilled humans had already translated between the languages to identify the equivalent words and expressions.  The result has been generally pretty good for workaday translation, but not if you want to convey something subtle and meaningful across languages.

DWNominate operates on the exactly same principle–it is a machine learning algorithm developed before people knew much about machine learning.  Basically, we don’t know what a “liberal” or conservative is, but we know who are liberals and conservatives, supposedly.  So, we start by identifying someone in Congress as a liberal (or a conservative).  If another congressman votes against that person, that person may be even more liberal or conservative.  If a person votes consistently against the original congressman, that person must be conservative.  If another person occasionally votes against the original liberal but hardly ever on the same side as the person identified as a conservative, that person must be even more liberal.  Keep feeding the votes with hundreds (or thousands, if you want to go historical) of congressmen and tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of votes, rinse and repeat, then you get a set of numbers that represent how “liberal” and “conservative” they are relative to each other–even if you have no idea what exactly a liberal or a conservative is supposed to be.  Not bad for a quick comparison and quantification of the more or less obvious liberals, moderates, and conservatives, but troublesome if you take it too seriously–like Google Translate.

The trouble that began brewing in the last couple of decades is that all Democrats began to vote alike and all Republicans voted more or less in unison.  Thus all Democrats look “liberal” and all Republicans look “conservative,” according to DW-Nominate.  Since their scores are nearly the same, it is not clear what exactly it means if they are slightly different from each other.  At best, what it means is that Barney Frank voted with other Democrats pretty much all the time while Sanders occasionally voted on the same side as “known” conservatives (according to DW-Nominate scores) against the Democrats some of the time.  Perhaps we can dig into the vote themselves to identify what these are.  I presume they are issues like guns, where Sanders is known to differ somewhat from the Democratic conventional wisdom.  Does this mean that Sanders is more or less “liberal” than Frank?  Who knows?  What the heck does “liberal” or “conservative” mean at this level of nuance?  (Especially since what they wound up voting on is not itself a random sample anyways–political leaders choose what gets voted on on the floor of Congress, as consequence of all manner of opaque politicking among themselves.)

Perhaps when people claim to be empirical, as in using data, it might help a bit if they actually know of what they are talking about and how that “data” has come to be generated in the first place….


Technocracy vs. Democracy

The Baffler magazine has posted a peculiar article that spans between the absurd and the frightening.

The article does its best to paint the attitude of those subscribing to this “Dark Enlightenment” in highly ideological terms, making them look like right-wing extremists by today’s conventions.  I think this is mistaken.  The real threat that is posed by this manner of thinking, whether they are right-wing or left-wing, is the worshipful attitude towards technology and “meritocracy,” that those who, by (natural) rights, know the “right” answers, should rule over all the unenlightened folks with an iron fist regardless of the latter’s consent.

This is not necessarily a new idea:  this was at the heart of the original Enlightenment, that the enlightened despots should rule unbridled over the unwashed masses through dictatorship of “reason.”  This was the idea behind Marxist-Leninist idea of enlightened communist vanguard forcibly “leading” the masses against their allegedly “false consciousness” for their own good.  This was the “well-meaning” core behind the “White Man’s Burden.”  This is, of course, also the idea that crops up in Tom Frank’s new book, as the driving motive behind the “smug” modern liberalism (and yes, this is exactly why I consider Richard Dawkins the greatest enemy of teaching evolutionary biology.)

But this idea of “meritocracy” is predicated on a logical problem:  how “right” are the allegedly “right” ideas?  Harper’s had an article a few years ago about how physicists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the universe and its underlying laws are fundamentally unknowable, at least beyond a certain very limited realm.  Thomas Kuhn, erstwhile physicist turned historian-philosopher, came to the same conclusion decades before.  Ultimately, no theory, no answer is ultimately “right.”  In order to evaluate any theory, we need to measure and understand its variance–or how wrong it is on average.  At some point, the variance becomes irreducible:  the universe is, at its core, fundamentally uncertain (thank you, Dr. Heisenberg) and we have to come to a reckoning with the fact that we don’t know.

The Silicon Valley authoritarian mentality, as best I can tell, and their favorite toys, “data science,” operates on the opposite premise:  all “algorithms” are to be judged on how “right” it gets answers, without concern for how they get there.  I actually heard Google engineers openly speak contemptuously of needing to understand how and how important it is to get the right answers.  Of course, this is how we got the Google Translate, which is simultaneously a greatest con job ever (because the algorithm doesn’t know what it is actually doing, or the greatest achievement in technology (because it does produce vastly superior translation in terms of results than almost anything before).  This breeds contempt and disdain for variance, which stand in the way of getting the “right answers.”  But in so doing, it breeds a medieval, anti-scientific attitude opposed to “learning” in a meaningful sense.  (Orwell, presciently, brings this potential rise of anti-science in guise of technology in 1984.  Yes, there will be scientists coming up with better weapons, surveilance technology, and so forth–but free thinking and unordered, unrehearsed learning that goes with real science will be treated with both suspicion and contempt.)

I wonder if Arrow’s famous chaos theorems have been completely misunderstood as arguments against feasibility of democratic rule.  The implication of Arrow’s Theorem is that a perfectly rigged agenda is impossible:  no matter how you set up the decision rule, some chaos, some unpredictability is inevitable some time.  But is there a difference between a completely ordered, rigged, and predictable “democracy” and a perfect authoritarianism?


Missing White Voters…drawing attention

This is a very insightful article, but I will take issue with one accusation it makes, namely its references to “the pitfall of current quantitative fixation.”  It’s not the quantitative fixation that is the problem, but attention being showered on the quantities that may not relevant.  If one were examining the data carefully, they would have recognized many of these problems.  It is from the lack of sufficiently close attention to detail and inability to think through creatively the data outside the formulaic boxes that these clues were missed, not because of the quant fixation itself.  Paul Feyerabend had an issue with this:  he argued that, for all the fixation with the “scientific method,” many scientists find excuse to dismiss the data contrary to the conventional wisdom (and others have made similar observations about potential pitfalls of such scientific myopia in various fields.)

There will be, one can only hope, a revolution in the way we analyze elections and parties after 2016.  One wonders if we will actually learn useful things or if we will learn only to make worse mistakes after this one.


Sanders and Trump Supporters, Revisited

It seems that the argument that I’d been making on this site is increasingly going mainstream.  I suppose I am not the only one who’d been thinking along these lines and looking at the data.

Do note that the argument that I’d been making is subtly different, and anticipates the likely counterargument:  the average Sanders supporter is indeed a highly liberal young person who is not very likely to jump to Trump.  Clinton is quite right to expect that, come the election day, the average Sanders supporter will indeed hold his or her nose and vote Democratic.  If Trump does win, it will not be because of the average “Bernie Bro.”

The real danger for the Democrats is that Sanders’ support base is more heterogeneous that people think it is:  there is a sizable minority of oldish, liberalish (in the sense that they are willing to vote Democratic), “independent,” working class folks among his voters.  These folks have been showing up as the real source of majority for Sanders in the primaries and caucuses that he won and they  are least likely to stay in the Democratic camp come November.  I would not expect 20% of the Sanders supporters to defect as per Zeits:  I figure that’s the % that might be open to voting for Trump and Trump might win over half of them–but, as I noted before, that will be enough to swing the election if all the other voters stay put, more or less.

Thinking in terms of averages is natural to humans:  that’s dangerous–that is exactly how we are lied to by statistics.  The core statistics is that it quantifies how “wrong” our suppositions are–so even if the average Sanders voter might be so liberal that it is unthinkable that Trump will win over him or her, the variance is so large (i.e. the average has very high probability of mischaracterizing a random Sanders voter) that a surprisingly large proportion might wind up behaving unexpectedly.  This, not making stupid predictions, is why you study statistics.

Sanders and Trump, vs. Clinton

Larry Bartels and Chris Achen have an instructive op-ed piece in NY Times today, although they get carried away a bit too far with their argument that voters don’t think and don’t care that much.

Bartels and Achen have been arguing for some time that policy responsiveness by the electorate is largely illusory:  as they put it, it feels like voters are “thinking,” but in fact, are merely rationalizing.  Actual decisions are made on relatively simple or even simplistic cues, especially partisan and group identities but policy specific reasons, if any, are tacked on as justifications post facto.  In other words, tribal ties are what drives vote choices and no amount of triangulation in the policy realm can beat this out.

I think, to a large degree, Bartels and Achen are right, but are rather exaggerating the extent of “tribal” and “partisan” cues.  Tribal cues are not exactly exogenous to party politics:  parties operate by rewarding their own (and their friends) while excluding the outsiders.  Nobody knows the entirety of the policy proposals on hand and even less the specifics of how such policy might be carried out in actual practice and the possible consequences.  Even when they say they are deciding on the “substance” of policy, they are doing so on the basis of very limited facts that provide very little guidance on the actual practice.  The rest, they do on hope and faith, that the non-policy specific clues that they can see, feel, and hear about the candidates provide enough information about the specifics that they cannot observe or evaluate on their own merits alone.

You might notice that I’ve said exactly this about epistemology of teaching science, as much as politics:  when people say they believe creationism or evolution, they are not actually indicating how much they “know” but whether they find the advocates of either camp trustworthy given their background.  Creationists are as knowledgeable as “evolutionists” about science facts, given comparable income and education levels, or, in other words, those who claim to be “believers” of evolution often turn out to be utterly ignorant of science.  The problem is that the former find such folks as Richard Dawkins offensive and insulting, which Dawkins and his like continue to exacerbate through their overtly condescending attitude.  In context of the 2016 election, the real determinant of support for Trump and Sanders alike among voters is the sense that they are not being served–which, in most cases, is unfortunately demonstrably true even if the voters themselves may not be able to describe in great detail how exactly they are not being served or prescribe what exactly they would like done instead.  The Clintons, as the embodiment of the Democratic Party establishment, cannot easily command their trust by simply adopting some set of policy positions.  Indeed, the voters don’t know what they really want themselves, other than they don’t like what they have and that they don’t trust those who currently hold power.

This is something that Trump, as the quintessential PR man, has an exquisite understanding thereof.  Sanders, who, despite current reputation, has been a savvy electoral politician for a long time, likewise has a good understanding of the problem as well.  The role of the politician, in dealing with the voters who are unhappy but lost in the sea of political complexities, is not to ask the voters what they want and berate them for not knowing–which, sadly, has been the modus operandus of too many politicians.  The job of the politician is to win over the trust of the voters and then tell them, in a manner compatible with their understanding of how the world works, what they should want and why it is good for them.  The politician is exactly manipulating the voter:  the voter is ignorant, not stupid.  The voter knows if he is being lectured, being sold a farcical bill of goods, or being baldly lied to.  Blames need to be placed on those whom the voters would find plausbile.  Solutions need to be spelt out in big broad outlines, consistent with the voters’ worldview, not in specifics nor in a complex spreadsheet.  They need not be completely consistent in the particulars, as long as the big picture remains steady and constant.  In all these endeavors, both Trump and Sanders have been remarkably effective in mobilizing slightly different, but partially overlapping subsets of disaffected, largely white (but not exclusively–for both) groups of voters.

Sanders’ failure, I think, is ultimately the product of the institutional status quo:  the symbolism of Barack Obama limits his ability to draw on African-American voters–once again, the symbol trumps the substance, and the truth is, it is hardly obvious what exactly it is that African-American voters want in terms of policy, with the size of variance being what it is.  At the same time, the distrust of the Clintons goes far beyond policy, although it may well be fueled by it–her policy “failures”–the Iraq War, Libya crisis, Wall Street and financial deregulation, free trade, etc.–are all as symbolic as substantive, indicating how far her world is from the disaffected voters.  Just walking back from her positions would not help.  As I said in my last post, she needs to go full “working class” in style if not substance.  Perhaps the style would be more important at this stage, if she could pull it off with believable show of sincerity.  Like George Burns supposedly said, if you could fake sincerity, you got it made:  for good or ill, Bill Clinton used to be able to pull it off (and I mean it as a sincere compliment).  Trump and Sanders have shown that they can, whether because they truly are sincere or they are that good at faking.  I don’t think Hillary Clinton can.

Back in the Familiar Terrain

Talking heads will point to the recent polls as signs that the expected 2016 race is getting tighter.  We don’t know such things:  too many things can change, after all.  However, the polls are indicating a few things that I’d been pointing about before.

According to Washington Post/ABC poll, 85% of the Republicans are now lining up behind Trump–comparable to the Democrats consolidating behind Clinton (86%).  This was very much expected:  the educated, affluent, and partisan votes are the hardest to convert.  If the Democrats expected that the allegedly uncouth, anti-conservative inclinations of Trump would alienated many Republicans to make up for any gains he’d make among the “missing white voters,” it seems that, at least so far, the strategy is not working out.

I’d been pointing out for some time that the key component of the Bernie Sanders coalition is not the young and the hyper-liberal who make up the majority of his voters:  come November, they will either be voting for the Democrat or not be voting at all.  The votes that can potentially shift are the oldish, independent, working class voters who make up about 1/4 to 1/3 of his coalition–and a lot more in some states, such as West Virginia.  While enough of them may be sufficiently liberal that they would not vote for Trump, perhaps upwards of 1/2 of them might.  Roughly, that’d make up about 3-5% of the national electorate, normalizing for various potential changes in turnout (e.g. likely drop in African-American turnout, for example).  Without a significant loss of normally Republican voters by Trump, which now seems increasingly unlikely, Trump could conceivably end up with 50-52% majority in popular votes and a much larger electoral college victory given the concentration of the missing white voters in strategic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.    While Trump may not enjoy much appeal to the average minority voters, no Republican in recent years does anyways–witness the dismal performance of Mitt Romney in 2012, and this is a man who could credibly have claimed to be a Mexican-American, which he technically is!  A decent sized minority of Hispanics, moreover, is and has always been Republican–those who are not recent immigrants and are reasonably affluent, especially small business owners–and Trump offers them no good reason to change their worldview.  While a 52% majority is probably quite improbable, a narrow majority seems increasingly likely.

The triangulating instincts of the Clintons are making this outcome more probable, not less.  The missing white voters don’t care much for the conventionally defined liberal-conservative continuum anyways.  If, as the polls seem to indicate, these voters find both pro-business conventional conservatism and identity-politics-oriented conventional liberalism of today’s mainstream politics distasteful, pivoting towards the “center” by embracing both, as the Clinton campaign seems to be trying to do, would almost certainly ensure that these voters will either stay missing or vote for Trump.  At least in terms of rhetoric, Trump (and Sanders) have been appealing to this concurrent hostility to both conventional conservatism and liberalism.  For now, it appears that the party/ideological blinders of the conventional Republican voters are keeping them from reacting negatively to these appeals, rendering ineffective Clintonian triangulation (and casting aside the sacred idols of modern political science–good riddance!).

There really is one thing that Clinton can do to fight this:  go full redneck, or at least, go full working class, if not in substance, at least in style.  Bill Clinton used to be able to do this instinctively, although even he seems to have gotten too gentrified to pull this off now.  Hillary never could.  Her campaign manager supposedly quipped, “Sanders will run like a Brooklynite, while Hillary will run like a senator.”  Too bad people don’t trust a senator the way they would a Brooklynite these days.

Missing White Voters, Revisited

Seems that Nate Silver has finally caught on to the point I’d been harping on here for a while:  that Missing White Voters are a big deal electorally and that Sanders, much more than Trump, has been drawing them.  Indeed, the “independents” have been the secret sauce behind Sanders’ success in the primaries.

What Trump has been doing is that he has been pissing off the regular Republicans:  they are, apparently, increasingly lining up behind Trump now that there is no more race among the Republicans.  A large chunk of Sanders voters, upwards of 1/3 at least, as I’d been estimating based on exit polls, cannot be counted on line up behind Clinton should she be the nominee.  The bounceback in polls that one might expect for Clinton after she formally wraps up the nomination cannot be as large as that for Trump:  Trump is merely getting back the Republicans who favored “real Republicans” returning home now that there is no other Republicans.  Clinton has to win over the Sanders supporters who were not Democrats to begin with if she wants to win.

This is going to be a tricky challenge.  Many of these are not ideological voters.  The conventional left-right dimension in politics means much less to them than those who are more politically “sophisticated.”  No amount of triangulation can win them over:  they simultaneously want more “liberal” policy and less “liberal” policy from the government; they are interested in more interventionist, regulationist, protectionst, and inward looking US federal government–exactly the opposite of the kind of government Clinton and DLC, as well as the regular Republicans, have been promising, and had been promised by both Sanders and Trump, albeit with serious stylistic differences.  The triangulationist-centrist instincts of the Clintons will spell disaster for them.  What Hillary Clinton needs is the Good Old Boy Southern charm of her husband to cover up the sharp political edges of her program, but times are much worse for the Missing White Voters than they were in 1992 and the Clintons have lost so much of their old credibility that it is not at all clear that that will be enough.

The Follies of “Data Science,” Nate Silver Edition

I think this attempt at self-justification by Nate Silver with regards the failure of his prediction models during the primary race, with respect to Trump (and while he does not say so often enough, Sanders) is a lot of bunkums.

The term “punditry,” like old fashioned baseball conventional wisdoms, has come to be a bad word among those who fancy themselves data-enlightened.  Yet, they are perfectly reasonable approach to understanding the problems where live data is rare:  in effect, all that represents is “substantive expertise and knowledge” substituting for data that does not exist.  As per the alleged saying by Marvin Minsky, an uninformative prior (i.e. the uniform prior) is still a prior.  By making the assumption, you are tearing down the possible giants whose shoulders you might be standing on and throwing yourself down to the ground zero.

The ultimate target of Silver’s blame, of course, is not really the usual “punditry,” but a body of political science theorizing, encapsulated in The Party Decides.  But this is, and has always been, a dodgy theory.  It rests on the assumption that the party leaders can, ultimately, always rig the game so that their opponents are always frustrated.  The anti-establishment tone of the campaigns in both parties, especially current wave of discontent swamping the Democratic Party, actually demands that the moving parts behind this theory should have been given a more serious thought rather than simply taken as a crude “predictive” tool.  It should have been obvious from the beginning that, while the resources of the establishment may be sufficient to forestall revolts most of the time, it may not be enough to stop them all the time, and it is desirable to identify what the warning signs are that might indicate that the institutions are about to fall apart–which they did, to an extent, for both parties in 2016.

One analogy might be drawn to civil engineering (and indeed, most of the old fashioned engineering problems):  steel bridges don’t collapse very often, but nobody believes that steel bridges are uncollapsible just because they don’t collapse often enough.  They know that bridges, depending on the material and construction techniques, will be able to tolerate stress from a certain set of weight for some time under a certain set of circumstances.  While very little data may be obtained from the fully constructed bridges, the building materials and techniques are subject to rigorous tests and these tests, using the understanding of other sciences, are translated into reasonably reliable estimates for how much stress an actual bridge can tolerate.  Simply by recognizing that the party establishment may not be all powerful, that given enough weight and circumstances, it might just collapse, more thought could have been given to this old fashioend engineering-like approach–if only the practitioners were sufficiently skeptical, constructively speaking (pun intended) to begin with.

This is, I think, a problem with a lot of “data science” approaches.  I have ranted often that data science, predicated on using data for generating predictions, is not really a science.  It occurs to me that it is not really an engineering discipline either, at least in the old sense, as engineering too rested on the premise that all “theories” are ultimately wrong if pushed to the limits (i.e. the “theory” of a steel bridge ALWAYS collapses under the “extreme data” of very heavy weights.)  More and more, it strikes me as a modern day cult, closer to astrology than astronomy, in that it too rests on generating “prophecies,” if only based on a more rigorous examination of the past.

PS.  I think I was being a bit unfair to Silver who does, after all, recognize the value of poor predictions as learning opportunities in the scientific process.  The criticism applies to the “data science” mindset on the whole, which values predictive power above an understanding of the process that generates the data rather than particularly to Silver.  As the popularizer of this mentality to “journalism,” however, Silver does deserve a fair share of this blame, particularly since the rest of the essay tilts more to disparaging theory building as mere punditry, rather than how to best integrate theory building and data analysis as good “science” should be.

I don’t think “punditry” (or old fashioned baseball know-how) is necessarily a bad thing.  What is missing is that they do not provide the means with which how wrong they are can be evaluated.  Statistics provides such means, and as such, transforms magic into science.  As a twist on Clarke’s quote goes, any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science.  Any “science,” on the other hand, that is not analyzed might as well be magic and superstition–thus my contention about astrology above.  Unfortunately, humans are magical creatures who’d rather “believe in” fairy tales than analyze them, and both punditry and “data science” approaches try to exploit this proclivity.

PPS.  I can’t help but wonder if the data journalism folks will compound this mistake with another one, for exactly the opposite/same reason.  Polls until recently have shown Trump losing badly to the Democrat, whether it is Clinton or Sanders.  As I’ve been harping on this site, this is largely due to Trump’s weakness among the partisan Republican voters who are both educated and affluent, who are least likely to cross the party line on the election day.  I don’t see Trump losing a lot, if any meaningful proportion of these voters, now that the Republican race has been sorted out.  Those are precisely the poll numbers that should be discounted, according to political science theories.  Of course, having once been burned by the “punditry,” pure data types will insist on ignoring it, I imagine, to their peril.

Pop Culture and History (and Social Science) as Advocacy

A movie about the Nat Turner rebellion  is expected to hit the theaters soon.  Obviously, the movie does not pretend to be an apolitical piece:  it reuses the title of a famous and equally political (from the opposite direction) film from a hundred years before.  While, obviously, I have not yet seen the film, I can’t say I approve of this tendency, of “historically based” films being used for advocacy any more than I have of the “science” ™ being used for advocacy:  like I said about science as advocacy, if you shill through art, you are not an artist, you are a shill.

The historical background of the Nat Turner rebellion is just as dubious as that of the Klan, if on a very small scale:  the historical Nat Turner was a slave preacher and, for all intents and purposes, a cult leader with a worldview not unlike that of a Charles Manson:  he thought he was commanded by God to kill whites and the victims of his rebellion were, by and large, a fairly innocent lot, other than that they subscribed to the contemporary social practices–several of which, I suppose, would be incompatible with the present day morals.  The rebellion, of course, was followed by an equally indiscriminate massacre by the local militia other other armed whites, reinforced by sailors from US navy warships, of local blacks, both slave and free.  There is no disputing that the conditions of slavery contributed to certain details of the end times theology preached by Turner.  Certainly, he was able to gain many of followers due to the oppressive conditions of slavery.  But hardly any act of great violence perpetrated by many draws participants without “good” reasons, at least from their perspective.  In the end, Nat Turner was a literal madman and a mass murderer who contributed to tragedies for many, not someone who should be cast unambiguously into a hero.  Yet, the background to these many personal tragedies was the institution of slavery.  Perhaps he will still have become a mass murdering cult leader even without slavery surrounding him, but he may not have been able to gather as large a following as he did and the number of victims might have been limited.  It certainly would not have contributed to the further complication of the national political millieu as the actual rebellion did that would eventually lead up to the Civil War.  Will the movie depict him as this complex figure and the even more complex set of circumstances that led to the situation escalating as far as it did?  I hope it does, but I don’t expect that it will–or at least, it will be done very well (not necessarily a knock on the filmmakers–I just don’t think it is very easy to impart upon the audience/readers how complicated a given situation is beyond the simple declarative morality.)

Another recent controversial film that was certainly not apolitical was The American Sniper. For all the controversy that it drew, I thought the movie’s portrayal of the real life sniper, Chris Kyle, was reasonably well done and nuanced:  he was hardly an unambiguous hero, but a man increasingly slipping into madness and, as the movie unfolded, was gradually becoming a homicidal maniac who actually enjoyed killing.  In many ways, a cross between a Hamlet and a Macbeth–not a clean-cut “hero.”  To his credit, this is typical of Clint Eastwood films, including those from his Spaghetti Western days.  Different audiences, I suppose, saw different things, based on the reactions that I’ve seen, though.

George Orwell famously claimed that all art is propaganda.  Every artist, author, even scientist has some political view and is given to the temptation to use his craft to shill for his beliefs.  I also think this is how most art is reduced to useless garbage that cannot transcend their times.  Science, defined broadly to include history and other “factual” pursuits of knowledge, to its credit, has sought to resist this temptation for most part by focusing on timeless truths devoid of moral questions.  But the audiences demand moral clarity, and the temptation to shill becomes difficult to resist if the artist seeks fame and fortune that only a large and/or respective audience can provide.

PS.  I suppose one way of describing a common attitude associated with the movies that “advocate” on the basis of far too complex events and people is, “he was a mass murderer, but he was a mass murderer for justice.”  I heard something analogous describing a real policy, by someone who orchestrated by that policy before:  Richard Holbrooke describing the bombing campaign against Serbia that he concocted as “bombs for peace.”  What’s next?  Mass murder for human rights?  Genocide for life?   That kind of attitude makes me sick.  My worldview, in fact, tends to be opposite:  no matter how hard we might strive for justice, peace, or whatever, there will be mistakes.  We need to be, at minimum, cognizant that regardless of how grand and beneficent how goals might be, we are imperfect and we will do wrong along the way.  We should do all that we can to make whole those whom we injure even in pursuit of the good, not justify our misdeeds by claiming that we were trying to do good.

Parties Devolving….

Billmon, my favorite ex-blogger, makes a series of interesting observations about the state of parties.

Billmon finds it puzzling that parties have given up the role of being intermediaries, but, somewhat ironically, that is entirely consistent with the way political science theories about parties have been evolving last few decades.  Somewhere along the line, the idea that parties are supposed to play a brokering role among contending factions within the party has been essentially dropped and forgotten–especially in the US context.  Theories, wrapped in neat formalism, that purported to show that parties are simply tools for the party medians to rig the institutions and force the outcomes of their choosing on the rest of their parties became the norm.  (“purported” because this logic runs into a serious logical problem:  the same logic that would allow the parties medians to govern, i.e. that the “majority” rules should imply that the majority party’s median should not be able to prevail ultimately over the popular median…but the logic of allegedly powerful parties persisted mainly by huffing and puffing.)  Of course, if indeed the role of the parties is for the alleged majorites within each to force their will on the rest, this semi-authoritarian role of the party institutions is precisely what we should expect.

In a sense, the evolution of the political science to focus on the “control” rather than “mediation” is natural and logical, even if ultimately self-subverting.  Control is easy to theorize about and measure.  What exactly “mediation” means is not easy to theorize and nearly impossible to measure in a consistent sense.  But if so, this is typical of the anti-scientific “data science” type mindset:  we will just hang our brains out to dry and just let data tell us whatever where we have data, because, well, we have no brain.

There is even more disturbing aspect to this:  how do we know who/what the medians are? The only way one could tell is that the medians are “supposed” to win therefore whoever wins must have the median on their side.  But if the role of the incumbent party leaders is to rig the party institutions that they win, even if the numbers may be against them, can the results of the “elections” that led to their victories be trusted as reflecting the popular sentiments?  The practitioners of techniques like DW-Nominate are somewhat aware of this, but they are seemingly willfully refusing to see it as a fundamental problem–merely a methodological problem that will somehow sort itself out with some fancy formulas, not a fundamental problem–although, to be fair, this would threaten the validity of a lot of their measurements (and worse, how they are being used).  In the actual practice of politics, this becomes even more perverse, to the extent of Orwellian proportions:  we know we have the support of the (mythical) median because we won even though we won because we count the votes through the rules we have concocted to our advantage.

The interesting implication of Arrow’s theorem that has been persistently ignored is that majorities are ephemeral like shifting sand dunes:  they are inherently unstable.  Hayek, with his obsession with the epistemological problem in politics and economics, would have counseled that the “majority” that rules at any one time should be advised  to insure themselves against losing their status.  Of course, this is precisely what Mayhew argued as the the basis of his “universalist” theory of legislative/coalitional politics, even if not in so many words.  Instead, the actual practitioners of politics of taken up the path he advised against, as inducing too much instability:  of building a narrow coalition that forces its will over unwilling or even hostile masses.  Some amount of institutional rigging would help prolong this, but only at cost of increasing instability.  Beyond some threshold, the whole lashup can only come crashing down.

PS.  I’ve been reminded that this “political science” perspective applies rather narrowly to American politics worldview.  This is definitely true.