The More Things Change…?

Alan Abramowitz lays down what is probably the most reasoned assessment of where things are with regards public opinion as it stands now, with regards 2016:  basically, the big picture looks exactly like back in 2012.  On the one hand, this is broadly true…but also misleading.  Let’s think about the moving parts for a minute.

What the findings show is that, within each demographic subgroup, the attitudes towards Clinton and Trump are subsumed by their partisanship.  Republicans will not swing towards Clinton.  Democrats will not swing towards Trump.  However, this is also a bit misleading:  no election is ever won by drawing in the voters from the opposite side, barring colossal failures–and even then, it is not clear if real large scale defections have ever happened. Even in 1936, Republicans voted Alf Landon, not FDR, after all.  So who are the voters who might be persuadable, who might behave differently?  And potentially, more importantly, how many of them are there?

The first step we might want to take is drop from the sample EVERYONE who is a partisan.  We don’t need to ask what the Demcorats and/or Republicans think, at least for not who they prefer relative to the other.    We already know the answer.  We also have a fairly good idea what the vaguely defined group titled “independents” think:  in aggregate, they almost split halfway, at least until when the election day is approaching.  We want to know what the subsets within these “independents” think–but that we cannot do, without the raw data.  The numbers we will be dealing with, unfortunately, will be quite small, which will affect the statistical power of our analysis, but that is part of the point:  the differences that will decide the election–not just this election, but any generic election–will be smallish margins, not the big national figures in absence of something catastrophic.

More important is that the real determinant of the outcome will not be whether the voters of any demographic subgroup change their preferences, but whether they bother to show up.  Here, there are some potentially significant facts which, unfortunately, do not crop up in the surveys.  First, in 2012, the turnout among African Americans was unusually high, almost on par with the whites, and in some subdemographics, e.g. those without college education, actually higher than whites.  We will not see this happen, if we can guarantee one thing now.  Clinton campaign towards African Americans is built on the usual Democratic Party machinery, steering the subset of the African American voters who do vote quite consistently–essentially, Churchgoing old ladies.  Among the larger population, unfortunately, this is a rather small proportion.  If the African American turnout drops significantly, this will cut into the Clinton margin enough, at least, to make the race much closer, although probably not enough to flip the race.  This is complemented on the Republican side by the prospects that Trump might be able to raise the turnout among the so-called Missing White Voters, the less educated, less affluent whites.  Again, the picture here is mixed.  It appears that Trump performs better among them, in terms of support, than Romney did, but the difference is slim.  The real problem for Romney, of course, was not that those who did vote did not support him, but the turnout among them was quite low–thus the “missing” part.  The realistic boost in turnout that Trump can bring about among them, however, does not seem particularly high–but there is no data that would permit gauging this with any kind of reliability.  (I have attempted to cobble together a methodology that extrapolates the numbers from primaries, but lack of previous data in corresponding situations–1980 and 2008 seem the only comparables, and both are too unusual elections to draw too much from them–means that I wouldn’t put even two cents on them.)  Of course, all these are potentially dwarfed by the likely reaction among the more conventional Republican voters:  they will not turn towards HRC, but they could easily mimic the behavior of the “low information voters” (which, ironically, they are in this context) by staying home in extraordinary numbers.  Do note that the dismal poll numbers seen for Trump, when they do show up, is mostly the product of the lukewarm support he enjoys among the Republicans, even if they are punctuated by other polls showing that they are still willing to stand behind the Republican Party, even if its ticket is headed by Trump.  This seems like a recipe for an unusually low tunrout that could change everything.

I think, on one hand, everything is staying as it always has been:  if people do show up, they will behave as they did in 2012, demographic by demographic.  But the real question is about turnout, of which we have precious little data or even theory to build around.

PS.  In a way, I have laid out another version of the old characterization of Trump candidacy, that he has a high floor, but low ceiling.  But this has been true throughout the primary campaign:  Trump never really broke through his ceiling–just that his opponents could not get their act together (and to be fair, Trump has been very skilled in exploiting their inability to coalesce).  In the general election, the story is similar:  the very best that he can do is to squeak out a narrow victory by mobilizing all the Republicans plus a handful of unconventional voters who would not have turned out but for his candidacy.  This is risky because, compared to Trump’s Republican opponents, Democrats start from a very high floor themselves, in form of the broadly favorable demographics that stack the electoral deck significantly in their favor.  Trump enjoys, however, a great advantage in form of the Clintons, who seem determined to exclude from their coalition a lot of voters who, in return for some concessions, might pad the Democratic votes significantly–a large subset of the Sanders supporters.  Clinton may still triumph in November, if only because Trump’s gamble, that he could still somehow maintain the Republican coalition (especially the affluent Republican women) fails, not so much by their defection to Clinton but to “I ain’t voting.”

The whole affair, from the Democratic side, seems way too smug and overconfident to me. Trump is engaged in a huge gamble, for relatively small reward and very high risk.  It is improbable that he will win–although, to be fair to him, without this risk, it is also improbable that the Republicans had a serious chance at the presidency (whether he could have gotten the chances that he has to bring out such MWV’s  he will cobble together without royally pissing off the usual Republican voters is the big, giant question.  There used to be the talk of “hippy punching” to prove your anti-communist credentials.  In this case, one does have to punch some elites to prove your populist credentials.)  Precisely because it seems so difficult for Trump to win, Clinton is entrenching her base and refusing to expand her coalition.  But would she have done otherwise, had a more conventional Republican been the nominee?  Republicans ARE handicapped by their demographic disadvantages so that it will have been a difficult uphill climb, even if through a different route, for any other candidate.  I think, paradoxically, we are set for a stage where things can really surprise.  While improbable, I suspect a Trump surprise is more likely than one’d think–more likely, in fact, than would have been possible with any other Republican candidate, especially in face of the smug and complacent approach that the Clintons are taking.  The odds are not good enough to bet real money.  But, with any other Republican candidate, there wouldn’t have been odds enough for even fake money.

Political Dimensions Turned Perpendicular…

It is usually not a good idea to compare polls from two different pollsters, but this is strange enough to deserve some further thoughts.  In two polls roughly covering the same period, Quinnipiac has Clinton leading Trump by mere two percent, while ABC/WaPo has the gap at 12 percent.  Looking under the hood, the difference is driven largely by the difference in attitude among the college educated Republicans, especially women:  if they feel that they would rather choose Clinton over Trump, the gap grows hugely.  If they do not, the gap is minuscule.  Indeed, it is instructive that Quinnipiac does not place Trump as doing better than the ABC/WaPo, just that Clinton does much worse in their numbers.

This is not a new pattern:  throughout the entire primary period, Trump has done poorly in head to head polls precisely because he has done badly among the college-educated, affluent partisan Republicans.  His support among the working class Republicans and Republican-leaning independents without college education, in general, has been fairly consistent and stable.  On such occasions when Trump appeared to have “surged” to near parity with Clinton, e.g. after he formally clinched the GOP nomination, he did so because, at least for that period, affluent and educated Republicans closed ranks behind him.  When he begins to lose them, i.e. when Trump got into pissing contest with the Ohio judge and Republican big wigs began denouncing him, his numbers fall overall.

Taking a few steps back, this is a remarkable pattern.  The conventional wisdom in political psychology, at least in relation to American politics, is that the educated and affluent voters with strong partisan ties are characterized by greater stability in their political choice.  Yet, in this year’s race, these voters, at least among the Republicans, are the unstable ones.  (One might wonder if the same would be true for the Democrats, if Sanders won the nomination, only to be opposed by a reasonably “moderate” Republican.)

There is, of course, a good reason why these voters should be unstable.  Trump makes no sense to them.  He seems “reasonable” enough some days, but totally out of loop the next.  These “usual” voters might decide that Trump is acceptable some days, but that confidence is subverted the next.  Without having had chance to build a strong prior on what to make of Trump, their decisions fluctuate wildly.  However, these are not exactly unexpected reactions, even if these reactions seen out of the “conventional” voters might be.  These are exactly how “low propensity” voters behave with regards conventional politics.  Without interest or awareness of the political conventions, they make are forced to decisions on limited information and awareness.  Since very little of their decisions are based on firm foundations but on episodic and idiosyncratic judgments, they are liable to change rapidly.  They don’t know what they are “supposed” to think because they don’t spend that much time on politics, compared to those who pay attention to know what is “supposed” to go with the Democrats and Republicans.

But Trump is not “supposed” to go with the Republicans, at least the usual, conventional variety.  He is obviously successful in connecting with the less affluent, less educated voters with a significant fraction of whom he has built a stable enough bond, for whatever reasons that are orthogonal to the usual “Republican” stripes.  In so doing, he has inverted the psychology of how voters evaluate politics.

This begs the question whether the maintenance of the “usual” politics, including the notions of what “liberal” and “conservative” or “Democrat” and “Republican” are supposed to mean is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.  The “usual” voters, with a certain understanding of politics show up at the polling place and make choices accordingly.  In anticipation of that choice, political actors array themselves along the “usual” political dimension for these voters to see and identify who’s who.  The voters’ understanding of what is supposed to go with what in politics, in turn, is shaped by the politics that they observe, which fits their existing preconceptions by design.  Those who don’t get the conventions, on the other hand, do not know how to choose and are liable to stay out of the electorate.  Thus, the circle is completed and the sunspot equilibrium sustains itself.  But this equilibrium is sustained ONLY if the vast majority of the voters buy into the conventional politics, of what is “supposed” to go with what.  Once the normally inactive voters are activated and the decisions are made on the factors normally kept out of the conventional politics–e.g. immigration, Islam-terrorism linkage, overall policy towards Middle East, etc.–there is no more reason to believe that the better awareness of the “conventional” politics–which, after all, isn’t there any more–should lead to greater participation or increased stability in vote choice.

This is just an interesting observation for now, probably of no consequence to the actual election.  The only serious path for Trump to even the minimalist electoral victory in November requires that he keep all the Republican voters from 2012 while making a reasonably sized inroad among the “unusual” voters, of weak partisanship, lower education, and limited economic means.  As things stand now, Trump may be able to pull off the latter feat with considerable ease, but the former seems difficult to say the least.  The conventional wisdom might be that partisans, in the end, vote and stick to their party…but that presumes “conventional” politics which we do not have.  If my hunch is right, we might see a big drop in turnout among the educated and the affluent, especially among the Republicans, coupled with a surge in turnout among the uneducated and working class.  (I’d love to see an election where the turnout among those who didn’t graduate from college tops that for the college graduates, at least for one party–but that might be too much to ask, or is it?) That, from the perspective of someone who studies elections, will be truly a most beautiful and wonderful thing to see.

Brexit: Paradox within Paradox.

There is something fundamentally paradoxical about this Brexit business.  First, much has been said about how surprising it was, that the markets did not factor in the actual prospect that it might actually win and got flat footed when it did happen.  Then, for past few days, there has been much talk about how all the UK politicians are backsliding and are dithering on the question of actually executing the Brexit.  The conventional wisdom, at the moment, seems to be that Brexit will not happen as the big wigs will somehow talk themselves into a solution.

But this is a dangerously naive belief, I think.  First, the expectation that the vote for Brexit was not “serious” after all feeds the complacency of the politicians, that they can just muddle through without doing anything.  EU leaders will offer nothing and the UK leaders will simply try to duck the issue.  They would rather go pretending that nothing has happened.  The problem is that, while the Brexit vote might not have been cast on the expectation of any solid and well-defined policy outcome, it is nevertheless grounded on very serious and very real discontent with the status quo and, perhaps more important, the fear of what the future holds combined with the broad distrust of the institutional and political status quo.  The pro-Brexit voters may not know what they do want exactly, but they certainly know what they don’t, in other words.

The UK and EU politicians, in some sense, have a great opportunity in their hands.  Potentially, there are many paths that they can take in varying directions.  Whatever it is, they can do something useful and they will get some credit for doing something, unless it is a total failure, which I think is not very likely under almost any reasonable circumstance–if they act promptly enough.  In absence of a direction that they can agree on, however, they will almost certainly wind up trying to preserve the status quo, under the mistaken assumption that, since the voters did not clearly want anything specific, they can be goaded into accepting the status quo, too.  This is a mistake:  many voters were clear on one thing:  they did not like the status quo.  Even if they are open to any number of disparate proposals, they will not take the status quo lying down.  Unfortunately, the further they dither along, the more likely it is that the voters will become impatient enough to accept even a lunatic and harebrained proposal over the status quo.

The situation in United States resembles the UK situation.  Between Trump and Sanders, there are many voters, perhaps a majority, who do not want to preserve the status quo, even if they are confused about what it is that they really want.  They are distinct enough in their political orientations, and as far as we can see now, Trump is too problematic a candidate, that they can unify behind a single anti-status quo candidate.  Yet, foisting the status quo on them just because they cannot articulate what it is that they really want is the absolutely the worst thing that is possible.  This is where the “leadership” comes in:  to find out what can be done, given the political balance of power, that does not retain the status quo.  This, unfortunately, is a singularly lacking commodity in politics today, here and elsewhere, and the formulaic wonkish thinking that has become vogue everywhere is reinforcing this tendency.

There are some interesting times ahead.

Formulaic Thinking, Cargo Cults, and “Science” (in its varied guises)

I had earlier wondered if the Cargo Cult can be broken–or, perhaps, even “should be” broken–if the cargo keeps flowing.  The situation is analogous, in a sense, to why there are neither true believers nor atheists in the fox hole, as the saying goes.  Soldiers and sailors do not necessarily know why or how bad or good things happen.  They believe that the world around them is complex enough that no simple “theory” is good enough and that they lack both the time and the wherewithal to come up with sufficiently “good” theories, if it is at all possible.  They also reside in a world where the good and the bad are, literally, a matter of life or death.  They are not sufficiently invested in any theory being right or wrong to risk their life and limb just to learn a bit more of the “the truth.”  So they are superstitious, not necessarily because they don’t know the “science,” (if anything, they are far more aware of the nuances and the “variance” thereof) but because they are not invested in proving any theory right or wrong.  Notice that this logic applies to the “anti-science” as well as to science.  They may take “lucky charms” of various kinds seriously enough, but they don’t trust them so much that they are willing to risk their safety on the chance that the charm is indeed so “lucky.”  Thus, they are just superstitious enough to believe in all manner of totems, but they are not so superstitious as to “trust” them.

In most walks of life, even if the stakes are not nearly as high as those facing soldiers and sailors, the same attitude prevails:  life may be complex in totality, but abiding by simple rules, accepted on the premise that everyday things are the way things usually are and “should be,” is usually good enough.  Following formulas keeps you on the safe side most of the time, while keeping you away from undue risk and headaches because the world does not change so drastically often.  Thus, people are creatures of habit, inherently “conservative” in their worldview, usually unwilling to change their minds quickly without a good reason–but not so wedded to their worldview that they are unwilling to change what they think even in face of a “good enough reason,” without attendant risks.  So even socially conservatively minded people, as long as their contact with transgenders is limited and have no reason to be biased against them, might be willing to rethink their opinion if asked nicely, for example.  The caveat “without attendant risks,” however, looms large here:  can the same approach be used to change people’s opinion about guns?  About Muslims?  Heck, even about a lot of race-related questions?  Transgenders, as a group, are simply “a bit odd” in the minds of many–even those who are predisposed to oppose their way of life.  They lack “good enough reason” to oppose them.  Hostility to guns and Muslims, however, belongs to a different plane.  The beliefs may or may not be justified on factual grounds, but there is a widespread perception of physical danger and direct harm that they pose, even with a small probability.  There is a “good reason” that people may persist in their belief in face of attempts to convince them otherwise.  For comparison, one might say that it is easy for a scientist to convince a sailor to start using compass (or, perhaps, to start wearing a red shirt, if the former can convince the latter, rightly or wrongly, the red shirt helps him stay safe) but not to convince him to stop carrying a parrot, if the sailor is convinced that the parrot keeps him away from shoals.  Starting to use the compass (or wear a red shirt) seemingly imposes little cost but promises a chance of potentially large benefits.  It’s a lottery ticket worth buying.  But people will not take up what they consider a big risk without due compensation, at the very least.  Taking away a sailor’s parrot offers him nothing.

To elaborate further on the point I was raising the other day, then, “scientific progress” is an inherently risky process.  “Science” demands that those who have been following a well-established set of routines to stop following them and start introducing variations, just to see what happens.  But every routine is characterized by a belief that it “works,” that following it brings considerable benefits and that not doing so is quite costly.  If the Aztecs reap the benefits of sunlight–huge, obviously–in return for sacrificing conquered subjects, which, for Aztecs is very easy, thanks to their warlike nature, why would they want to risk the world without sunlight for the trivial gain like making nice with the pathetic Tlaxcalans?  Existing mindset–the “culture” or “affect,” depending on whether you were trained in anthropology or political psychology–shapes how people value the consequences of the roads not taken, of the routines being broken.  They are never wrong because there is no evidence to say otherwise, because those paths are not taken.  All data comes from the paths that were taken, and naturally, offer justification for the the broad status quo, except perhaps for incremental “improvements” that may or may not be justified–perhaps cutting off Tlaxcalans heads before cutting out their hearts would make the sun rise faster, or not….  If the Tlaxcalans were not so easy to capture for human sacrifice, maybe things would be different, or not.  After all, ensuring that the sun keeps rising is a hugely important thing.  How do you know if the sun will rise again without the blood flowing?  That might be too huge a risk to take…especially since there is, by definition, NO evidence whatsoever to back it up.  The only thing that enables this leap to be taken is, literally, one of faith, justified by no evidence but a set of contrarian beliefs, as per Kierkegaard’s argument (I think I’m linking to the right book…)..

This leads to a curious paradox, in which “science” and “technology” often wind up being at odds with each other.  While “technology” might depend on “scientific” understanding, it rests on the acceptance of the status quo and the need for incremental improvement of the formulas.  It does not question the validity of everyday things or raise awkward question.  It simply says, yes, the formulas are inherently right, but we can add this one tweak and we can do better.  This was literally being done, to keep up the Ptolemaic astronomy in the Middle Ages:  an extensive system of “tweaks,” in form of epicycles, were added to the basic Ptolemaic formula to keep the basic structure intact.  The skepticism undergirding “science” does not, however, accept the status quo as given.  The formulas are not “inherently right,” but only provisionally so.  To learn where and when the formulas are not, some crazy risks, potentially with big repercussions, need to be taken contrary to things that “everyone knows” to be “obviously” true.   What’s worse, the skepticism yields no obvious short term benefits:  while Copernican theory made the calculations vastly easier, by reducing the number of epicycles that were required, the basic structure was still fundamentally “wrong” in both logical and empirical sense.  It took centuries of additional refinement to get to the classical physics as we understand it, and, other than the computational ease, there was no “good” reason to take Copernicus seriously when his book was published.  As long as the argument was not offensive, however, there was no good reason to overtly “reject” it, much the way social conservatives who partook in the Brockman/Kalla study found little reason to persist in their hostility towards transgenders.  Indeed, without the controversies wrapped up in the Reformation and papal politics, Copernican science might have won over by osmosis anyways.  But, politics happen and Galileo was a prickly and arrogant blowhard who stepped on many toes.

This paradox flies in the face of the popular understanding of “science.”  What people take to be “science” is in fact technology.  Yet, with enough epicycles, you can make creationism compatible with vaccines, oil deposits, and even fossils, at least for the common audience.  From the perspective of the sailor, the question becomes why he can’t keep both the parrot and the compass, and the argument against the parrot is not particularly convincing, given the potential “risks” involved.  The truth is that there is precious little argument, at least in the short term, for “science.”  “Science” will not make us happier or wealthier.  It may not even make us “wiser” until much later than we’d like. So why should we give up our formulas for them, especially if its practitioners are being a collective ass?  Given the proclivity of the social sciences to butt in on controversies of the day, coupled with the far larger uncertainties inherent in topics of research among social sciences, this is especially a pertinent question for them.

Much the same argument prevails in the public policy realm as well:  people are willing to partake in, essentially, a superstitious activity in face of what appears to be a very real risk–against immigration, Muslims, EU, etc.  Are these irrational and foolish?  Perhaps.  But what assurances can you offer against the perceived risks, other than ridicule those who fear them for fearing them in the first place and call them names?  That can only ensure that the argument against fear, already imperiled because of the very real presence of the fear–even if the object of that fear may not be as real as it is deemed–will be rejected with certainty:  not only are people afraid, they are forced to deal with those who are at best uncaring, callous, and oblivious, and at worst, actively seeking to prey on them. If people are behaving formulaically, they often do so for a consistent, even if not always logical, set of reasons.  They can be approached by better understanding where their formulas come from and what sustains them–although success may not always be guaranteed, as per Aztecs and human sacrifice.  It is foolish to believe that they can be simply supplanted by hectoring and ridiculing them.  (Ironically, of course, the same argument would apply to those on the opposite side–as much as Sanders and Trump supporters, in their respective camps, are “odd” and subscribe to formulas that seem “strange,” the supporters of the conventional wisdom also subscribe to various formulas that do not always have a logical underpinning other than they “work” empirically–see this essay for a further exposition.)  Perhaps, if they cannot be dealt with peacefully, they can be consquistadored, like the Aztecs, and converted at the sword point.  But that too is a serious undertaking.  No matter what the recourse, this is a challenge that needs to be taken seriously, which very few seem eager to partake in.

“Science” vs. Science

George Orwell had an interesting perspective on science, as opposed to “science!(tm)” that he elaborated at length in 1984.  Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy of the novel which is hidden somewhere and the appropriate passage, spoken through Emmanuel Goldstein in the Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism (the book within book in 1984) so I can only summarize what I remember roughly:  there is plenty of “scientific and technological progress” taking place in Oceania, as long as they are in support of the Party’s goals, in form of better “rocket bombs,” etc., but “science” in the old sense of critical and empirical thinking have ceased to exist, to the point that there is no longer even a word for “science” in newspeak.  A much more succinct version, in form of a letter from Orwell to the editor of a newspaper, can be found online, fortunately or unfortunately.

Orwell’s critique of the kind of proposal made by this Mr. J. Stewart Cook might as well apply to the attitude towards “science” and “knowledge” among today’s population, indeed, a whole new kind of thinking that undergirds elite thinking about politics, society, and the economy:  that society should be run by the elites who “know better” to the exclusion of the ignorant masses, and so doing, the unstable effect of “democracy,” or as they term it, “vox populi risk,” should be minimized.  This is, of course, hardly a new attitude:  this type of thinking shows up in Plato.  People like Richard Dawkins are practically dripping in this attitude.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that this type of attitude, prevalent in early 20th century, is what led William Jennings Bryan to become a militant creationist.

While Gould, as a scientist, has a lot of issues with Bryan’s science, he fundamentally agrees with the morality of Bryan’s campaign.  Indeed, he has written elsewhere at length the kind of abuse that came out of this type of thinking.  In this dimension, Gould and Orwell share the same viewpoint, as did Feynman:  The basic premise of any science is that, well, science is “wrong,” or at least, is an incomplete and potentially erroneous characterization of the universe.  In order to understand the universe, we need to focus on when and where our theories mislead us.  Whenever we find them, they offer opportunities to refine and develop our understanding further.  It would be silly to pronounce those irregularities and incongruities “wrong” because they do not fit our sense of what the universe “should and must be.”

Yet, using the theory to dismiss inconvenient fact is what always happens, or, even worse, using a mass of facts to dismiss a handful of facts that don’t fit a given pattern.  If the Party, the Doctrine, or the Cargo Cult must always be right by definition, the inconvenient observations must be wrong.  Paul Feyerebend argued that this is, indeed, a rather common pathology among scientists.  Taking the pattern and applying to the whole, including when it is not especially applicable, is a common practice among those who deem themselves “politically knowledgeable.”  Dismissing the inconvenient facts, of course, is easy because many facts are, in fact, not facts at all, but observations with varying degrees of uncertainty.  Against the whole that is mostly true, a handful of odd observations could simply be mistakes, mirages, or other oddities of no significance.  If X is true 99% of the time, why bother checking the exceptions that are rare and unusual?

The attitude that winds up prevailing, then, is not an inquiry based on skepticism and open mind, but a systematic and coordinated attempt to justify the usual and the common place, why the things that we “know” to be true are true and must be true–if you will, a cargo cult of the mundane and the usual.  The original cargo cult seemed strange because the sudden prevalence of cargo, delivered and gifted by US military personnel in far off Pacific Islands, was but a transient event and it seems odd that a whole cult should have sprung up so quickly around it and persisted for decades afterwards.  Yet, history of mankind is full of other cargo cults of far longer standing and even longer persistence:  “why earth is flat,” “why earth is the center of universe,” “why things always must fall down,” and so forth.  All these are “true” in common observations–that these are, in fact, not really true at all requires observing the kind of subtleties that are not readily apparent to the usual observer.  When everyone “knows” that earth is the center of the universe, and when every person of import has spent time explaining why it must be so, those who deign to ask, “is earth the center of the universe” must be insane, idiotic, or worse and should be dismissed accordingly–unless he is such a recognized genius with friends in high places as Galileo, in which case a lot of political controversy would ensue, to embarrass his friends and allies mostly.

“Science” in support of propping up the widely accepted conventional wisdom, of course, is not simply designed to reinforce the “socio-political” status quo.  Being able to describe the 99% of the universe with reasonable precision is critical because, most of the time, this is the universe we happen to be living in.  We want to design machines, rules, institutions, practices, and such to better take advantage of the patterns that take place most of the time.  Questioning whether earth really is flat is irrelevant for this exercise:  we want to draw maps on a two-dimensional space, which is about the best we can do much of the time.  Creating maps that take advantage of the curvature of the earth, in addition to being difficult, confers very little practical advantage except on very huge scale.  In service of the practical, then, open mind and skeptical empiricism are a distraction, something that should be kept out of minds in favor of various “facts” that are true because they are (and they are true empirically 99% of the time–i.e. true enough to be universally useful.)  Kuhn argued in Structure of Scientific Revolutionsargued that new scientific ideas emerge when sufficient technological progress has taken place to see the exceptions and oddities that conform to the old conventional wisdom–without the technological means to see where the ideas were off, new scientific ideas have no legs to stand on.  It appears to me, however, that Kuhn took too much for granted, that, somehow, technological development that enables scientific progress would naturally emerge by itself.  Technological progress that would push the limits of the conventional wisdom emerge when there is a demand for machines, institutions, and practices of the kind that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom, such as building a ridiculously huge domes or a political coalition that spans both the extreme left, extreme right, and/or a bunch of “nonideologues.”  And a scientific attention is justified only when these events become sufficiently common enough to demand explanation.

Building huge domes was the craze of the Renaissance, and how to push the limits of the building technology naturally drew attention.  Everyone who could afford it wanted to build big domes, and it became painfully clear (literally in many cases) that the old conventional wisdom was no longer applicable as domes grew larger.  But political coalitions spanning odd groupings are rare enough to be dismissed as momentary blips and are rarely successful enough to justify attention.  Of course, incumbent socio-political institutions are, even more than physical universe, even more hostile to vacuums:  creating a vacuum is merely difficult–nature does not “actively” intervene against you.  The Democratic Party does intervene actively against attempts at creating an alternate coalition, for example.  So the availability of the “facts,” in the form of data, is naturally biased against anything contrary to conventional wisdom.  Without an open mind and an inclination for critical thinking, the rare contrary data, rather than used as the means to understand the subtleties where the conventional wisdom is lacking in explanatory power, winds up being rudely dismissed as unnecessary and pointless.

In other words, if the cargo keeps giving, the cargo cult is no longer viewed as a cult by the masses.  As long as the cargo keeps showing up, in fact, questioning the cult is itself verboten.  Feynman’s argument held sway because people saw it strange that people kept expecting cargo even after it dried up.  If they justified the cargo cult on the basis of keeping up some rituals, and if the cargo kept reappearing, the linkage between the rituals and the cargo, however cultish it might be, would have been defended as “science” on the basis of all the “facts” supporting it.  This is hardly a new notion:  the Aztec religion believed that human sacrifice was necessary to keep the sun reappearing morning after morning.  Since they always practiced human sacrifice, all the data supported their belief that human sacrifice is the necessary condition for the sun.  To propose that they stop human sacrifice just to see if the sun would still show up would have been, literally, the basis to be the next human sacrifice yourself.  Stopping this cargo cult took the appearance of the Spanish conquistadores and a complete genocide.

We now know that the Middle Ages were not, after all, the Dark Ages.  In terms of practical technology, the gains were enormous, in metallurgy, construction techniques, shipbuilding, agriculture, animal husbandry, among many other things.  They saw patterns in their common experiences and took advantage of them to improve their practices in all walks of life.  What they did not do was to ask questions as to what if they were wrong, for they had no need to.  Not developing critical thinking skills did not bother them much, and those who did wound up wasting time debating over the number of angels on a pinhead.  While some walks of life, e.g. civil engineering, did incorporate a more rigorous scientific approach if only because of collapsed domes and overturned ships, this depiction remained true well into 20th century.  Most intellectuals who engaged in exploration into skeptical thinking, asking “what if conventional wisdom is wrong,” were often idle rich, or, at least, were sponsored by the idle rich.  There was no expectation that anything “useful” or “practical” should come out of their endeavors and for this reason, their ranks were always rather thin as few could afford to join them.

In a sense, the events of 19th and 20th centuries, where advances in physical and, to a lesser extent, social science helped massively reshape the practical aspects of life, for good or for ill, through the chemical dyes, the atom bomb, polio vaccine, and the New Deal/fascism/communism, brought about an interest in investing in the “sciences,” but these were to be the practical sciences, i.e. how to build better means to enforce the will of the Party, not questioning the Party itself.  So “data science,” as practiced, is really to squeeze from the data whatever it is necessary to “make benefit the Great Party,” not to better understand wherever the data is coming from.  Is this any different from the “science” of 1984?  But, if the Party is paying for the science, why would they want to promote “wasteful” thinking that may not yield profit for itself?

The implications are messy:  in a sense, we are entering the new Middle Ages.  The promise of “data science,” in the end, is not that we will better understand the universe, but that we will have better plows and bigger domes, because we know “better formulas,” even though we don’t necessarily know why the formulas work (we just know, literally, those are the patterns we find in the data).  In a sense, this is smugly antiscientific, incurious, and even offensive, yet, not something that I can find an objection to on practical grounds.  Greco-Romans may have had critical thinking, but they also had worse swords and less efficient agriculture, after all.

Social Pathologies behind Brexit and Trump

I was either pleasantly surprised (at the perceptiveness) or unpleasantly surprised (at the hard realities it pointed to) at this blog piece.  This is hardly a unique observation for UK and Brexit.  The analogies to the movement behind Donald Trump have been frequently drawn.  This is also at the heart of some of the “ultraleftist” radical politics in South Korea and “ultrarightist” politics in Japan that drew much attention lately.  This may be true even for Islamic fundamentalism and the decidedly dangerous anti-system movements in Russia and Ukraine that is mistaken as support for “democracy” on the basis of their opposition to oft-brutal, but pragmatic authoritarian regimes.

The pathologies everywhere are the same:  the future that is being promised by the technologies of today does not look so pleasant for inviting for many people.  If anything, plenty of people are finding themselves without a clear place of belonging, a sense of purposes, without stable jobs that offer meaning, and even security for their physical and mental well-being.  Among other things, this has manifesting itself in form of increased mortality among certain demographic segments, in different societies (the study by Case and Deaton and its linkage to support for Trump have drawn much attention, but this has been seen before, in the other literally dying post-Cold War empire.)  To them, being told “America is already great” or “EU is already great” is both a lie and an insult.  If the other America is doing so well while they are literally dying, there must be something wrong with this version of future that is unfolding.

“Welfare” is not an answer to this crisis, even if it is not called such.  The point #2 raised by the post is, in this sense, extremely observant.  Since 1970s onward, the British Labour government was rather attentive in its attempt at ameliorating the declining state of well-being among those hit by deindustrialization.  However, no one was deceived by this “shadow welfare,” not least among its recipients.  The observation that Labour offered them “redistribution” but not “recognition,” that even if they were spared starving, that they were still denied the “dignity of of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense,” is critical.  The problem is that while “redistribution” is relatively easy, “recognition” is not.   Indeed, what exactly “recognition” would entail cannot even be defined with clarity.

I am tempted to draw this back to the question of “trust” in politics.  Being offered sincere “help” by a “friend” whom you can trust at a personal level is not the same as that of being offered a handout by someone who does not care for your interests, needs, or values, especially if the latter comes with the expectation of servile gratitude, or at least an appearance thereof.  I’d like to draw attention, in this sense, to a peculiar paradox of electoral politics among African Americans:  in the latter half of 20th century, welfare recipients among African Americans were NOT major supporters of the Democratic Party.  Certainly, if they voted at all, they’d have voted Democrat, but their turnout was dismally low.  Those who were ready and willing to vote, in addition to voting Democratic, tended to be churchgoing old ladies with some measure of economic security.  These were the voters whose trust politicians genuinely tried to earn, rather than take their support for granted on the basis of “generosity” with public dollars, and this show of respect was reciprocated with trust.

The fourth observation, that the social sciences, in their obsession with “data” cannot even process these trends, is also spot on.  A major fight broke out in twitterverse over how liberal Barney Frank “really” was, in course of which some went so far as to invoke DW-Nominate data, as if it means anything.  (The short answer is that it doesn’t:  it is based on votes and the best it can show is that some people are very “liberal,” some are very against them–thus presumably “conservative”–and others are somewhere in between.)  The questions of “trust” and “recognition” are conceptual questions that are, at present, poorly defined.  Of course, the same is true with “ideology.”  Yet, we are substituting data and measurements in lieu of defining and conceptualizing them–literally, in case of how DW-Nominate was developed in the first place.  So we spend much time talking about data and measurements, except they mean precisely nothing.  Since we pay very little attention to variances, the statistics themselves are rather meaningless, except as fodder to stuff arguments for one side or the other with.

Pathologies of Modern American Party Politics…

When I used to teach about American politics, the theme of the course ran much along the lines of this recent article in The Atlantic:  how the kinds of politics that we often find “corrupt” and “grubby” provided for stability in politics while trying to do away with them necessarily made for more chaos.  It is tempting, then, as the article seems to suggest, that simply re-inserting more “corrupt” practices (deregulating money and opening the door to more “earmarks” and other forms of pork barrel politics, for example) would help restablize the politics.

This is, I think, badly mistaken.  While it is true that “corrupt” practices were common during eras of more stable politics, they were themselves symptoms, not necessarily causes, of what really brought about that stability.  What made for stability in the American politics of the past was, to use the words of Tip O’Neill, “all politics were local.”  However, the localized orientation of the politics took different forms in different eras.  During the 19th century, the local focus of the politics was the local party organization, perjoratively called “machines.”  While many trafficked in pork barrel politics and other “corrupt” practices, this was a supplement, rather than the main activity:  what made the “machines” work was that they organized for socialization of their would-be-supporters at the local level, through among other things, staging parades, picnics, and other social events involving large scale participation among the locals, what Michael McGerr described as “popular politics.”  While devoid of “policy” content, they helped reinforce the sense of community and trust in local political leaders:  while they may not always agree–or even know what to agree on, given the complexities of politics–they could be assured that they were dealing with the members of the same communities with broadly shared values, principles, and interests who could be trusted to do the right thing.

After the decline of the machine politics came the era of personalized politics, or the “home style” as described by Richard Fenno.  The centerpiece of this era was the local incumbent politician rather than an organized machine, but the key to the politicking remained the same.  Rather than spend too much time on the technical details of policy, the politician would spend most of the time communicating with the locals as a local, building a sense of trust in himself as herself as a good member of the community who shares its values, principles, and interests, and indeed, someone who could be trusted to do the right thing, even if the details might remain murky and unclear.

Localized politics traffics in less than rigid adherence to principles, and that is the problem for many “purists.”  Radiolabs, on public radio, had a curious story some time ago about a transgender person who became the mayor of a small town in Oregon.  Rural Oregon is not exactly a hotbed of social liberalism:  indeed, the town in the story is a rather staid, quite socially conservative place.  However, the difference is that the transgender person who was elected mayor was a local, whom everyone knew for decades and liked, so to speak.  The sense of broadly shared values, interests, and principles went much deeper than the mere appearance and the fact that he became a she.  The “trust” transcended the mere technical details like biology.  To the outsiders who are not privy to the sense of community and trust that undergirded this peculiar turn of politics, of course, this is corruption and deviation.  The “facts” of politics are so obvious and fundamental that the vague and undefined “community values” and such nonsense might seem trivial next to the principle.  For those to whom “politics” comes first, these eccentricities must be stamped out.

There are times when the primacy of politics does take the center stage.  It is worth noting that the era of machine politics comes to an end in McGerr’s account as the Great Depression starts unfolding.  The politics of personalized and localized trust is inherently “conservative” in the sense of preserving the status quo.  The politicians and/or machine seek subsidies from the national politics to further the local activities that reinforce the community values and trust that, after all, keep them in office.  In return, they are happy to keep the status quo going and keep trouble off the table.  If the status quo is going fundamentally askew, bringing misery upon many, the personalized and localized trust of the individual politicians may not be enough to keep them in office–especially if they are seen as the defenders of the “wrong” side in national politics.  This is what happened to the Republicans in the New Deal Era and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats in 1994.  Many politicians who were well-known for establishing and maintaining excellent ties to their local communities were nevertheless swept out of office due to their association with the “wrong” side of politics.

Survival of these “personalized and localized trust” politicians in an era of major national turmoils is predicated not so much on their own skills but the kind of leadership exercised at the national level.  National political leaders can enlist their support, in exchange for subsidizing their local socio-political activities, for national policy that reinforces stability, something, at least, that does not bring the nation to the brink of political crisis that winds up overriding personal trust for many voters.  On the one hand, lack of rigid ideological adherence to any “principle” by many of these politicians makes this achievable.  It does not mean it is necessarily easy:  it does require a “vision thing,” not just letting things take their “natural course” for the sake of getting along just to get along.

Even more critical is that, in order to build “politics of personalized and localized trust,” you need personalized and localized trust to begin with.  Who enjoys that sort of trust today?  Where are the communities where there are localized values and beliefs that define them?  The short answer is that there are not as many of them as one would like:  cities and suburbs hold most of the US population today and they are not exactly “communities” where the residents interact with each other all the time.  When the South began to turn Republican, the process was especially fast in the suburbs, where many of the populations were not even Southerners.  Many parts of the rural South, where strong communities built on long-term trust endured, elected politicians tended to remain Democrats of long standing, until they died out–literally.  While many of these communities and their representatives were deeply “conservative” in the usual sense, they were far more often than not willing and ready to cut deals with the Democratic Party when necessary, for the right “localized” price.  After all, they were elected on the basis of being “community” people, not ideologues.

The prospects of restoring stability to today’s politics, then, are bleaker than not.  Hillary Clinton, on surface, ought to be the most stabilizing figure in politics:  she has the support of all the right people, she is seemingly a “moderate,” and she certainly raises plenty of money from all quarters.  Yet, she is fundamentally distrusted.  She has no roots in any community.  Nobody knows where she is from.  This is not just her problem.  In 2012, Matt Taibbi had made a curious observation in an article that was otherwise about how Mitt Romney is a shady businessman:  how Romney had no “accent,” no visible trace of any community that he belonged to that showed up on his campaign trail.  This is, of course, a bit untrue:  Romney was, after all a key member of the Mormon community and that was a critical component of his support base, but not something that was sufficiently broad.  In contrast, Clinton truly has none.  (Yes, she is a woman, but then that is too broad a category to elicit real “trust.”)  Adding more money, more pork, and more “corruption” to a system that lacks an underpinning of trust will simply make the system more corrupt and even less trustworthy, not more stable or more “accountable.”

PS.  There is an interesting point raised about EU agricultural subsidies and Brexit in this blog post, in reference to this LRB article:  point #2, that handouts don’t bring gratitude.  This is, of course, why trust precedes corruption.  It is not corruption and pork that undergirded politics of the old, but the fact that politicians who are deserving of the locals’ trust were securing things from the political process on their supporters’ behalf.  Without trust, all the subsidies are just giveaways handed out in contempt, in shallow attempt to buy acquiescence.  They are accepted in as bad a taste as are given.

Dog Catches the Car in UK…

Nobody expects a British withdrawal, apparently (with a nod to Monty Python), including UKIP.  As soon as Brexit has apparently won, Farage has disavowed his pledge to divert UK’s EU contributions to NHS, the British national health service whose relative dysfunction compared to, say, its Continental European counterparts had been the subject of much discontent.  Of course, that Farage should have “conceded” (as if he was the main representative of the pro-Brexit crowd) as soon as the exit polls were in, but the actual results were not, was a giveaway that he did not want to win and did not expect to in the first place.

Without a serious prospect (or so people thought) of Brexit, putting all sorts of blame on Brussels and promising the wonderful and beautiful things that could be done (nevermind if they are realistic) with the resources being diverted thither is easy.  Brexit would lose and they would not be in position of having to put them up, but, in the short term, enjoy a surge in popularity arising from the widespread discontent with the status quo.

Of course, however, the discontent was even more widespread than expected.  Brexit was taken seriously, and people who supported it are now expecting something productive–even if they may not be sure what that entails.  Of course, there is a deeper rot:  if Brexit is so terrible and irresponsible, it should never have enjoyed such strong influence in the first place.  Why did Brexit gain enough popularity to actually win?  This suggests that much of the blame, then, belongs to the blase and nearsighted incumbent elites who have governed in London over last four decades:  who were so confident of their own righteousness that they were oblivious to the problems building up and did not do enough to keep the discontent from boiling over, beyond pointing fingers.  In other words, the fiasco that will surely befall Britain now is the joint production of both opportunistic Euroskeptics and the myopic elites.

Something similar is brewing on this side of the Atlantic too:  I honestly wonder if Trump expected to be where he is now.  He really does sound quite clueless and unduly irresponsible.  For all we know, the entire thing probably was a publicity stunt to improve the visibility of his business undertakings.  Yet, the smugness of the Democratic establishment might just be enough to push Trump to victory in November in spite of himself.  Then what?

Expect every UK politician to dither and duck for as long as possible.  It would be foolish, even if the referendum is not “legally binding,” for anyone to disregard it.  However, it does offer no timetable or specific mandates and there is ample room for the actual politicians to avoid the topic head on for a long time.  Actually pushing the Article 50 button will destroy any serious politician who dares it, after all.

“Majority Rule” in Politics.

Billmon is raising a set of interesting questions about morality, politics, and majority rule–and in a way, this is the question that has been raised about the seeming unwillingness of Sander to concede the race for weeks on.  In the end, it comes down to a seemingly simple question:  who gave the majority the right to rule and when does that right expire?

The short answer is that no one did and the majority does not have a “right” to rule, beyond the tacit acceptance by the winners and losers alike.  This has not always been the case:  during the Feudal Ages, the usual operating procedure was for a “legislative body,” typically made of nobles sitting as equals, to operate by unanimity.  How the Polish Sejm operated as late as early 18th century was, in fact, typical of the politics in Feudal Europe.  Of course, the politics at the table was not the only form of politics:  the alternative was to take to the sword point and the lance tips, if the disagreements were not resolved at the table.  During the age of Feudalism, of course, warfare became brutally expensive:  an army of knights was not only difficult and costly to maintain given the economy of the era, they were notoriously ineffective at attacking fortified castles, where a few dozen men could hold off even an army of thousands.  The losers at the table could always resort to resistance and defiance by force and cajoling the supposed victors to pay the due cost in arms and blood to bring them to submit.  Often, this was not worth it:  except for the very trivial matters or with very weak opposition, it was not worthwhile to force a decision upon anyone that they did not want.

What changed the situation towards incrementally less unanimous decision was the spread of “liberties” and rights.  Many possible decisions that could be subject to politics were no longer deemed licit to be debated politically, which, in turn, lessened the stakes of what was being subject to politics.  The losers rarely lost so badly that they were willing to resist forcefully.  The winners, furthermore, became sufficiently gracious that the losers had a stake in maintaining amicable relationship with them in the long term, even at cost of accepting short term losses.  Mayhew’s description of Congress in his 1974 masterpiece applies, in a sense, to the evolution of politics away from the Feudal era:  politics became so “universalistic” in the rewards that offers so that even the losers are happy to go along, even while losing.

This, of course, is one reason why dictatorships often become illiberal democracies even if they do successfully “democratize.”  The most strident enemies of authoritarians are not “the people” (assuming “the people” even exists anywhere.), but the best organized and the most numerous social grouping, even if it only constituted a minority of the whole–say, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.  They want to seize the power so that they can use it exclusively for their agenda at the expense of everyone because they feel that they can, if the politics were decided by elections.  This reflects, in turn, a more nuanced and cynical view of electoral politics that often escapes the citizens of established democracies:  elections are won by the better organized, not “the people.”  The prospect of being forced to submit to the tyranny of this “majority” (that is not really a majority in most cases), in turn, energizes the resistance of many in favor of authoritarians, as we witness in Syria today, for example.  The bottom line is that, without credible guarantees for the losers so that they would not rise up in arms, majority rule cannot work in the long or even medium term.  This is not exactly alien to American history:  between December, 1860 and April, 1861, Southerners decided that there was nothing that the North could guarantee that they could trust, and decided to take to the arms, after all, even if they could not contest politics at the ballot box.  Taking them back, in turn, involved giving them a great deal of guarantees that lasted for more than a century after the South was militarily defeated.

What does this mean in context of politics today?  There are two separate games at work:  Sanders and his fans lost the primaries at the ballot box, but they are still holding out–in a sense, the latter is more important than the former, for there is no guarantee that they came out just to see Sanders elected (which makes mockery of how it was Obama who was special in 2008–he wasn’t!)  And more importantly, do the conventional Democrats even want to make any concessions, since it does not appear, for now, that they need the Sanders voters much?  On the legislative front, what can the Congressional majority, whether Democrats or Republicans, offer as guarantees to keep disruptions of legislative business from becoming the norm in the future?  For the time being, the Democrats engaging in the sit-in seem to have realized the error of their ways and decided to call it quits…but it is not as if their refusal to carry it to the conclusion will prevent it in the future, even if it might take decades.  The notion that filibusters in the Senate can be stopped by adopting rules via majority rule came up in 1970s in course of the filibuster reform that made cloture invokable with 60 rather than 67 votes, or perhaps even 1950s, if the stories about Richard Nixon entertaining the possibility of rules changes are true.  The compromise of 1978 did temporarily put to sleep the idea of rules change, but it did not last forever.

Without taboos (that keep certain topics from being politicized, by force of morality) and guarantees (to keep even the losers happy enough to not to stir up trouble), the seeming majority rule in the House cannot be sustained.  For all the citations of Federalist #10 in defense of institutionalism, James Madison did not trust institutions that much:  he did, after all, say the following:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

“Virtue” comes in form of credible commitments to maintain the guarantees, both in terms of rewards and compensation for the losers and the commitments to keep inconvenient issues off the table.  Without this credibility, majority rule is dead, for it is so easy for even a small minority to disrupt the proceedings legally.  While the majority may be able to suppress this minority disruption by force, such resort to force ultimately eliminates any reason that the minority would put up with the facade of “democracy”