Pilots, Passengers, and Power Politics

Many people have explored the economic factors leading to the beating of Dr. David Dao on United Flight 3411 last week. I want to address the political causes, as an instance of a more general political process.

By political, I mean the rules that United employees followed, invoked, and broke in the course of the incident. It is useful to ask where these rules come from and why they matter.

Although lots of early takes held that the rules allowed United to remove a passenger for basically no reason, there is a compelling argument that United broke their own Contract of Carriage and violated Federal regulations in the incident. Even if it is not a legally correct argument, in the eyes of a court, United likely will settle rather than take that chance. So we might never see a definitive answer.

Those early reactions were based not on close knowledge of formal rules, but rather general knowledge of an informal rule: that aircrew, especially pilots, have final and absolute authority over whether their passengers fly or not.

Savvy travelers know this, and use it to their advantage. People who fly with guitars or other large, valuable items know to ask the pilot’s permission to carry them on, rather than risk them in the cargo hold — even if the gate agent says otherwise.

On the other hand, this power is often used in arbitrary ways. Harper’s Magazine recently ran a list of reasons why passengers have been removed from aircraft for being or seeming Muslim. The list includes, among other things: “asked for a glass of water”; “asked for a second Diet Coke”; “saved seats for friends”; “read a book”; “solved an algebraic equation“; and “prayed for a safe flight”. In fact, passengers have been kicked off of flights for smelling alcohol on their pilot and reporting it.

We would not tolerate this caprice most anywhere else, except that we grant pilots extraordinary authority to make these decisions. Like the Dao case, courts might well find that pilots exceeded their authority and discriminated unlawfully in some of these cases. If nothing else, it should be obvious that a pilot who doesn’t get algebra is probably not smart enough to fly a plane safely.

The rule that gives pilots this sort of authority makes sense to us because we perceive flying as dangerous. In this case, pilots have a specific sort of power to ensure our safety, from their skill and training in flying the plane. We quite readily translate that capacity into power over us, the passengers.

There is a school of thought in politics that says people gain power over us because they take it by force; that the most powerful people, in the sense of their ability to use violence, are leaders in the natural order of things. This is wrong: almost always, people gain power-over from power-to. Even in brutally repressive regimes — like North Korea — the source of power-over is the power to manage the government apparatus.

Likewise, we do not let the biggest, meanest passenger decide who stays on the airplane or not. We give that power to the pilot, because we expect the pilot alone has the ability — the power — to fly the plane safely.

The problem is that power-to in a particular area does not always translate into a general ability to make good decisions about rules — again, North Korea. In those cases, granting power-over can make the problems we wish to solve even worse.

The Dao case and other lesser abuses point to this problem in air travel. It’s worth noting that our perception of the danger — the fear that legitimizes the pilot’s power — is way off. Not only is flying extremely safe, but the pilot is the most dangerous person on any airplane. Pilot error accounts for 60% of plane crashes; sabotage and terrorism only 9%.

Especially since 2001, we have accepted extreme incursions on our rights in the name of more secure air travel. But remember that pilots on four different aircraft failed to secure their aircraft that day; it was only passengers on United 93 who prevented their plane from hitting its target. And terrorists could have flown a plane into a building every Tuesday for all of 2001, and still not killed as many people as died in traffic fatalities did that year.* Yet we don’t accept nearly the degree of restriction and intrusion in our automobile travel, as we do in air travel.

The rule that pilots get extraordinary power over passengers makes less and less sense the more we look at it. Moreover, it is easy to imagine a better system: each airline or airport could employ a lawyer trained in aviation regulation and civil rights law to make those determinations at the gate, including those situations where passengers contest the flight crew’s sobriety. For in-flight situations with no sky marshal present, senior flight attendants could receive special training in those sorts of decisions, freeing the pilot to fly the plane.

This is a fairly simple example of a general difficulty we have in assigning authority. We over-estimate the extent to which particular power-to translates into responsible power-over, and we misunderstand the problems we need those powers to protect us from. When you scale this difficulty up to situations as complex as, say, a national government, the result can be profound dysfunction.

One example of this is Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services. Price trained as a surgeon, which is a certain kind of power-to. His success as a surgeon and businessman lead to his election to Congress, giving him a degree of power-over. On the basis of his medical and political credentials, he is now in charge of our national health care system, in all its complexity and moving parts. And it’s clear that he will use this power-over in arbitrary ways that harm, rather than help, the people under him. (You can puzzle out how this dynamic played in the Presidential election for yourself, I reckon.)

It’s not even that the wrong sort of power-to leads to power-over: there is also a strong bias in some quarters against anything that hints at prior experience or capacity to govern — against the ‘Washington insider’. The result is that our election systems work against the sort of power-to that translates into responsible power-over.

Some political theorists — including me — think we could do better by selecting our representatives by lottery, the way we do with jurors. Not that lottery is the ideal system, only that it is better than the one we have — especially in expanding representation across gender, minority, and class lines. Crucially, a lottery does not depend on our ability to correctly interpret power-to.

That doesn’t mean I’d prefer a lottery to select my pilot. I’m more interested in pilotless aircraft, and when that happens we will need to have the same conversation about who has power over passengers on commercial flights.

Key to that conversation is appreciating the difference between power-to and power-over, and our understanding that one does not always translate well into the other.

* Note to show my work: on 9/11, 2,996 people died in four plane crashes, for 749 per crash. By comparison, 42,196 people died in car crashes in 2001. That divided by 749 gives 56.3…. so even with a plane crash per week and three extra the week of 9/11, traffic was still deadlier by a margin of 1,001 deaths.

Let’s Maybe Not Start A Race War

When I was in college, a dorm mate came to me one day: “Are you going to this Khalid Muhammad speech?” I thought he meant the Al Qaeda leader, which seemed like a poor choice to invite to campus. Instead he meant Khalid Abdul Muhammad, former Nation of Islam leader and black power activist.

The ‘speech’ was a video tape played in the common room of the African-American Studies dorm. The audience was mostly African-American — except for me, my friend, and two Jewish kids who happened to live in the dorm.

The title of the speech was, “The Bullet or The Bullet“: Muhammad argued that the time had come to give up on political change, and that blacks should begin a shooting war to achieve equality. I think it was a condensed version of the speech — I remember it as being only 45 minutes or so. It was hateful, nonsensical, and deeply anti-Semitic.

When it ended, we discussed it. The Jewish students found it terrifying. But most of the black students found it thought-provoking, and the ease with which they processed Muhammad’s argument made me realize I didn’t understand race politics nearly as well as I thought I did. Which will probably always be true. But still…..

When it was my turn to discuss, I basically said: I’m from the South, and I grew up around plenty of white people who would be thrilled to fight a race war. They already have the guns and the hate and this video confirms many of their worst fantasies about black people.

You start shooting, those people are going to shoot back. And there’s a ton of them. Just strategically, this seems like not a good plan.

I don’t remember if my comments made any difference. We didn’t start a race war, so maybe?

Around the same time, I started teaching public speaking. One of the core concepts we drilled into our students was ‘audience analysis’. If you want people to believe you or buy your idea or change in any way, you have to understand who they are and how to motivate them.

This principle applies to political action as well, and in that arena the key debate is ‘respectability politics’. Do we assimilate the norms of our oppressors in hopes of changing their minds? Or reject those norms and insist on liberation on our own terms?

I am sympathetic to the latter idea, but… I’ve never seen it work. Right now Black Lives Matter is the most visible movement to disavow respectability. In three years their biggest accomplishment might be the extent to which they wigged out closet racists in this country. It’s not at all BLM’s fault, but white racist panic helped Trump win.

That said, I think ‘respectability’ is too narrow a construal of the central problem. Respectability is perhaps just an instance of a more abstract problem, that has more to do with how people relate to one another and how change occurs in social systems.

There’s a decent amount of research on how that sort of change occurs, and most of that research points to some form of interpersonal connection as key. Here’s an Atul Gawande story about changing health practices in which he paraphrases Everett Rogers, a leading scholar of social change:

[…]people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

You might have heard of the This American Life episode on changing minds, which featured a bogus study on canvassing techniques. The study was redone properly and showed support for the technique – which then was another TAL episode. Anyway, that canvassing technique depends on cultivating the know/trust interaction in face-to-face politics.

The sociological term for that know/trust aspect is ‘entrainment’ — the connection we get to other people at the face-to-face level. Entrainment is something we do instinctively, to varying degrees. Yet one reason identity politics is so powerful is that we find entrainment easiest with people who are more similar to us. The more the gap between two people, the more work has to happen for entrainment to occur.

You can think of the civil rights movement’s use of respectability as a way to cultivate entrainment. They couldn’t erase the skin color issue, but they did push back the class divide and some of the stereotypes that helped oppress black America. This is why it was so effective for demonstrators to wear nice clothes to demonstrations. It was also why making it an explicitly Christian movement helped.

Entrainment is the main reason I am skeptical of demonstrations as a change model. I’ve participated in a bunch, and they are great for the people who are already on your side. But they have to be very strategic to reach the people who aren’t. Demonstrations usually need a single, clear message, and careful management of visuals if they are to be persuasive.

When I taught civics, I showed my class pictures from various demonstrations, and asked them to tell me what was being protested. The civil rights protests were easy: the marchers all had similar signs, with a unified message. And that was basically the model for a long time.

Then you get into the ’90s, and start seeing people in elaborate costumes, like sea turtles — or this guy, with the hands, from the early 2000s. I don’t remember what he’s protesting — I think the Bush Administration — but what I get from this picture is how much he likes doing papier-mâché. Really, really, really likes papier-mâché. I wonder if he still has the hands.

It’s not to say that giant papier-mâché hands are pointless. Just to say, they probably won’t foster entrainment with people watching at home — unless those people are also fans of papier-mâché.
In 2002, when Bush was talking about a possible invasion of Iraq, I joined a march against that plan. I wore a suit, because I wanted to affect sober reason. A busload of hipsters from New York showed up in glitter heels and fur boas, with signs that said ‘Rockstars Against War’. I don’t know what their theory of change was, but it was wrong.

I have a pretty good idea how Rockstars Against War came to be: a bunch of friends sat around talking about the war protest, and decided it would be ‘super fun’ to dress up, and probably they’d get on TV. But they didn’t really consider the people who would be watching TV, and what they’d think or how they would change their minds. The people watching at home weren’t rockstars, and didn’t believe these hipsters were rockstars, either.

To some extent, I think debates about respectability politics are similar: more to do with the internal politics of the movement, than how it speaks to those outside. And I see how that can be important, for sure. Yet too much internal scrutiny ignores the people external to the movement, those minds whom we wish to change. And disregard for those minds — even if they are full of bad and hateful ideas — makes entrainment and change much more difficult. In fact, there is a ton of evidence that people are more likely to harden their views against you in those circumstances.

On the other hand, I think the respectability model is a bit overweening, insofar as it demands respectability in both private and public life. My sense is, you can be who and what you are in your private life and still be an effective advocate for social change — so long as you recognize advocacy as an extraordinarily public role and are careful to position yourself in ways that foster entrainment. That may indeed mean bending somewhat to norms you find oppressive, but it does not mean surrendering to them.

This is not an abstract problem for me. In my community — the sick and disabled — we put tremendous effort into making ourselves appear healthy, so that we can participate in public life. To the extent that illness and disability are socially constructed — it’s way more than you would guess — the norms that govern our lives are oppressive. We bend to those norms all the time, especially when we are trying to change them through our advocacy.

I understand the desire to win on one’s own terms, to win complete legitimacy and equality for your complete self. But is anybody their complete self in public? Do the norms we live under really give anybody that sort of freedom? My sense is that the norms are there to spare us the internecine conflict of our unrestrained selves.

And those norms are only ideas, kept in our minds. But they are kept in all our minds, as a society. We keep them together, so we have to change them together. And that means acknowledging and even cultivating the connections that allow us to change. Respectability is just one way to do that. Race war is not.

That’s my view of the question, in any case. If any of it sounds reasonable or useful, you might be interested in my book, Political (how people rule), which explains in more detail the ideas and concepts I’ve used in this post. I’m happy to let you read it free of charge.


“Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.”

The Forgotten Man, by John McNaughton

The promise that headlines this post is a quote from President Trump’s victory speech. It was a throw-away line — I doubt he had any sense as to how massive a promise it really was. But I want to talk about what that promise could mean, if someone were serious in making it.

I first heard the line recently, on an episode of Studio 360 on political art. In a segment with John McNaughton, while discussing his painting, “The Forgotten Man”, they ran a clip from Trump’s speech, as follows:

 Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Kurt Anderson, the host of Studio 360, pointed out that the ‘forgotten man’ was an idea popularized by FDR in the Great Depression. Andersen was implying Trump did not know where it came from, that he or his speechwriters probably picked it up due to the popularity of McNaughton’s painting on social media.

Here’s the thing: ‘forgotten’ is not key word in the quote. That would be ‘potential’. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. Let that soak for a moment.

What could Trump possibly mean? A crude read is simply that Americans will get richer — will earn more money, and enjoy the trappings that more money brings. This lines up well with the rough populism at the core of his economic platform.

But taken literally, his words translate to something much deeper: perfect justice for America. That is a staggering promise for any candidate to make, even more so for Donald Trump.

To see how ‘full potential’ gets us there, you have to appreciate a concept implicit in that phrase: being. It’s an awkward gerund, but it means pretty much what it says: what we are and how much we can be. Trump promised us our full potential being.

Social scientists often use a way of thinking about problems called the ‘ladder of abstraction’. It’s the idea that if you can’t solve a problem, you move to a more abstract version of it. Economics do this all the time: “All things being equal…”. Jim Rosenau used to tell his students to ask, “Of what is this an instance…”. Being, in this sense, is a pretty high rung on the ladder.
In that abstract sense, our lives are negotiations of potential being. In practical terms, we express this in our desire for a good job, for high social status, nice house, those sorts of things. Almost all of what we want is ‘more being’, a rung or two up.

In the same abstract sense, most of what we consider injury or harm is a reduction of being. This is obviously and completely true if someone kills us — we have no being left. But it is also true when we are spurned as suitors, denied the promotion at work, or even when we feel we are not doing as well as our neighbors.

We can lump all of these together as forms of violence. Violence is anchored on the one end by death, of course, but it is a spectrum whose other end is fairly fuzzy. We can — and do — spend a lot of time arguing about what counts as violence on that other end. But it’s always a spectrum of harm — the end isn’t the opposite of violence, just the least thinkable amount of violence.

Abstracting violence to ‘reduction of being’ gives us a nice way to understand the opposite of violence. Using the concept of being, we can define justice as a state in which every person enjoys their fullest being. Justice is the most being we can claim, completely free of violence.The opposite of violence is justice.

So what Donald Trump promised was nothing less than perfect justice: the end of the American carceral state, the disarming of the military, and renewed commitment to the principles of liberty, equality, and justice… right? right? please?

No. He most definitely did not promise that. Because even if Trump were sincere in his promise of our potential being, at a deeper level his estimate of the potential being of every American is far too… conservative. He is, in practical terms, a giant bigot.

Just like we can talk about violence in terms of being, we can talk about bigotry in similar terms. Bigotry is a refusal of being. When a racist says something like, “blacks have lower IQs than whites”, we can abstract that to “blacks have less potential being than whites”. When a sexist says “women should know their place”, we can abstract that to “women’s potential being is incompatible with men’s being”.

And Donald Trump says things like that all the time. It’s clear he has deep prejudices against all sorts of people, in that he sees their lives as less worthy, less meaningful, less being than his own. It’s probably the case that he sees lots of his supporters in the same way, and doesn’t mind lying to them as such.

On the other hand, those of us who share a commitment to equality instead think that black people have the same potential being as anyone else, and that women’s fullest being is not incompatible with men’s. In fact, we might say we hold the view that our laws must assume all people are created with equal potential being. It’s awkward, right? So we can say “all people are created equal”, and get in the right neighborhood.

In terms of being, our commitment to equality and justice is therefore one and the same — inseparable and indistinguishable. They are two sides of the same marble.

Donald Trump promised us perfect justice — but he didn’t mean it. Only by working together for a more perfectly just society can we get anywhere close to our full potential.



In Whom We Trust

In a previous post, I said that Jim Rosenau and I underestimated the disruption to American politics from people going online. I want to expand on that, to consider whether we misunderstood the way people use the Internet, and how that affects social trust. The upshot: probably not.

Jim and I saw the Internet as a profound tool which people can use to improve their lives. Our premise was that most people would use it as such — a premise colored by our own use of the Internet as professionals committed to reason and knowledge. That commitment requires active use, however, to filter useless or bogus information.

What Jim and I did not appreciate is that not everyone uses the Internet the same way. Some — probably most — people use it much more passively, primarily for entertainment. More accurately: we knew that people use the Internet as entertainment, but failed to appreciate how passive use could matter. This may have been a mistake, at least where our research speaks to the 2016 election.

Insofar as it is an entertainment medium, the Internet might be much more like television than we anticipated. This is an important comparison: in a lecture in 1995, putnamRobert Putnam argued that the decline in social capital in the United States was due to television, at least in part. Television sucks up time that would instead be used for social and civic activity, leaving the viewer isolated and alone instead. Television also affects how people see the world around them, making them less trusting and more afraid. Putnam — in this photo from 1995, looking like he just murdered his family — expanded this argument in his famous book, Bowling Alone.
In the book, he includes the Internet with television as causing the decline in social capital.

Putnam used social trust and civic engagement as indicators of social capital. Here is a chart from the 1995 article based on his lecture, showing how social trust, newspaper reading, group membership, and voting vary based on age. The x-axis is year of birth: people born in years up to 1930 have high rates of all four, but these rates drop off sharply for people born from 1945 onward.  putnamtrust

Putnam said that this trend correlates well with the uptick in television viewing, and he found little evidence that other possible culprits explain the data. One of the consequences he pointed to was the ‘mean world effect’ — that television promotes pessimism of human nature, and a view of the world as more violent than it really is (this is also called mean world syndrome). Just offhand, I would guess this is likely a worse problem for the Internet, for those who are passive users.

For a rough look at whether the Internet is in fact making things worse, I went back into the data. I made this graph from the same General Social Survey data that Putnam used for some of his data two decades ago — it’s still being updated regularly. (I did not apply any smoothing to the graph; Putnam used 5-year moving averages). Keep in mind that this is 2014 data (voting for the 2012 election), where Putnam used 1994 data (the 1992 election). So, for example, where 70% of respondents born in 1930 voted in 1992, 100% of them voted in 2012. Granted, 2012 was a historic election, with unusual turnout across the board.  socialtrust

For someone born in 1940, social trust was around 40% in 1994, and about the same in 2014; for a person born in1950 it was 35% in 1994, but twenty years later it was just over 40%. For someone born in 1960, it was just under 30% in 1994, but over 40% in 2014. If anything, social trust has increased for a given age cohort in the last two decades. This is not definitive, but it surely does not support the idea that the Internet is making things worse. Which is a relief for Jim and me — it means we did not totally miss the forest.

Eric Uslaner, who has studied the problem far more than I have, says pretty much the same thing. From this graph, published in a Pew Research Center report, he argues that the disparity in trust between millennials and other generations is due to economic inequality. Overall, it’s hard to say from these graphs that social trust is significantly decreased from its 1987 levels (although, it turns out, there is research that shows it is in decline).


More significant than any year-to-year trend is the generational effect. It is clear that millennials trust less than Gen X, who trust less than Boomers & the Silent Generation. Uslaner specifically discounts the suggestion that Internet usage makes a difference between millennials and any other generation.

It is still possible that the difference between active and passive use of the Internet affects social trust; however, there is not enough difference from generation to generation in who uses the Internet actively and who uses it passively to show in the data. We cannot blame that difference for generational differences in social trust.

I would also point out that the study Uslander cites does not adequate address the consequence of coming of age in a post 9/11 America. Considering that millennials have been fed a steady diet of fear and xenophobia, it would be hard to imagine them coming to adulthood with a great deal of social trust.

How do we improve social trust? Obviously, fix the economy — specifically with respect to inequality. Second, civic engagement of the sort Putnam proposes. It is heartening to see so many people across generations engaged in activism, although those people were likely high social-trust voters in the first place.

Third, I do think there is a role for the Internet in increasing social trust, especially when it comes to combating harassment and bullying online, and helping cement social norms against that sort of behavior. I also think we are just beginning to renegotiate the sources of authority online: in lay terms, we’re just starting to deal with the fake news problem.

Low social trust is a crucial problem for our democracy. While it is low, it is not the lowest it has ever been. The Internet is — sigh of relief — not making things worse, as far as we can tell.

Politics For People

Today I renamed this blog — from The Violence Of Nations. The original title reflected my dissertation topic when I started this blog, intending it as a catch-all for random bits generated in that process. (If you go to the earliest posts, you’ll see what I mean.)

But I have not been in the process of writing a dissertation for… almost 4 years, at least officially. I say officially because they officially told me I was in the process of writing a dissertation for a few years prior to that, but in retrospect I was merely on a snipe hunt.*

Anyway, the new title reflects my current interests and my efforts to plug the manuscript, plus I hope to hop on the populism bandwagon. The Violence of Nations was too dark for most people, I think, and anyway it didn’t describe most of my posts. This new title is blander, but more apt.

*In the sense that a snipe hunt is a hazing ritual and that if you refuse to do it for the sound empirical reason that snipe are real birds that do not live anywhere near your Scout camp and the proposed method for hunting them is absurd, the older Scouts will accuse you of being uptight and insist that snipe are make-believe anyway. That I was unwilling to hunt snipe as a 13 y.o. probably says a lot about the kind of graduate student I became. Yet somehow I still earned my Eagle Scout.

See Something. Say Something.

It is right to denounce the many prejudices which lofted President-elect Trump to that alarming perch. But let us stop pulling our punches.

For many ally-inclined liberals, the terms we use to describe bigotry are profound insults. Call the average white, New-Urban-dwelling, M.A.-holding, thirty-something non-profit professional a ‘racist’, and you can expect to spend the next hour or so hearing his social justice resume (“…and I watched all of The Wire – twice!”). It is important to him to not be racist, because the term is deeply meaningful to him.

But for people who are racist — or sexist, ableist, ethnocentric, homophobic, and so on — it makes little difference to be called such things, especially now that they are winning. Over the last few decades, they have learned to dismiss these labels as ‘political correctness’, as such merely subjective — and, what’s more, subjective within a frame of reference which by definition they do not share.

But, you protest, it is objectively ‘racist’ when someone etc. etc. etc. — and, hello, I am in the choir. Now look at the world we live in today and tell me the label ‘racist’ — and so on — is doing any work in changing minds of people who aren’t already inclined to be allies. And then tell me ‘racist’ is the worst thing you can call someone opposed to racial equality.

We use these labels to call out ideas and behaviors which are morally repugnant to us, but it is a mistake to assume that the labels have any valence across the lines they draw. They don’t — not any more.

In fact, I believe these labels — far from being grave insults — began life as euphemisms. That is: terms like ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ (and so on) allowed advocates for racial and gender equality (and so on) to talk about the people opposed to those goals in words polite enough for civil discourse. And for a while, perhaps, that worked. But, again: look at the world we live in, and tell me ‘racism’ — and so on — is doing any work.

These words hid other words too ugly for public debate: hatred, ignorance, fear, and so on. Liberal advocates worried those words might provoke negative reactions — which would probably look a lot like right now, despite our best efforts.

Of the ugly words, I believe fear most explains our current circumstances. Or rather — what a person does when he is afraid most explains our current circumstances.

I have no problem with fear: it is okay to be afraid. It is normal and healthy to be afraid, sometimes. A person, as far as I am concerned, might tremble in fear, scream in fear, whimper and piss his pants in fear and yet not be morally suspect.

But the moment that person allows his fear to harm someone else, he becomes a coward. Cowardice is always morally suspect. And I think it is excessively deferential to flatter as ‘racism’ (and so on) what is only rank cowardice.

We can use ‘coward’ to point out how much morally repugnant behavior on the right is driven by fear, while avoiding counter-claims of political correctness. But to be effective, use of the term must describe concrete instances of cowardice. For example:

  • It is cowardice to fear brown people so much that your only consolation is a brutal policy of deportation and/or an impossible fantasy wall.
  • It is cowardice to fear black people so much that the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ drives you to profanity- and epithet-laden tirades against strangers.
  • It is cowardice to fear Muslims so much that you can’t accept as neighbors a family in flight from the awful violence in the Middle East.
  • It is cowardice to fear trans people so much that you would force them to use the wrong bathroom.
  • It is cowardice to fear your own mortality so much that you would deny healthcare to other people who desperately need it.
  • It is cowardice to fear for your position so much that you deny others their equal and full participation in civic and social life.

To some degree it is unfair to blame people in this country for being afraid. We have been fed a steady diet of fear for fifteen years, so much that fear — far more than any virtue — has become our national habit. (Forget kneeling — I don’t understand how anybody finishes The Star Spangled Banner with a straight face.)

The fact that fear is our prime factor does not excuse gross cowardice. Plenty of people rise above fear, resisting it with courage and hope and faith. So I am disinclined to charity towards anyone so weak in his beliefs that he will not also resist — and still less towards him who feeds his fear a steady diet of hate and paranoia. These people are cowards because they choose their fear over others’ well-being. They choose to be cowards. Let us not promote them to ‘racist’ (and so on).

While the racist may not find ‘racist’ meaningful, he almost certainly finds ‘coward’ meaningful. The sexist may cite some ancient stupidity, or the Islamophobe may point to tragedies real or imagined, and thus each acquit himself of the charge to his own satisfaction — but they cannot so easily excuse cowardice. Why should we then let them off the hook?

It is healthy, I think, that people on the left have a reflexive aversion to calling these people cowards. I share that aversion, and I do not make this suggestion lightly. I too wish for a time when polite language was vital to public debate. But now our politeness is derided as weakness, and the terms we might use to curb bigots instead seem to embolden them.

At this point, bracing honesty may be our only real recourse left. They do not care that they are racists, sexists, and so on — but I think we can make them care that they are cowards.

Things Falling Apart

More than nine years ago, Jim Rosenau and I wrote a chapter* on the potential disruption in world politics, due to the tech revolution. This was an ongoing theme in Jim’s work, but we were challenged to come up with a more rigorous defense of his claims.

The gist of our argument was that the spread of the Internet and related technology would drive challenges to entrenched authority. We saw this as especially important as more of the developing world’s people came online. We said those challenges — in culture, society, and especially politics — might well remake the world in ways we cannot now recognize.

We pointed out that many people compare the Internet to the telegraph — an information technology that did not much affect world politics. We said that was fine as a bottom parameter, but the top parameter — the most change we can expect — is likely to be something akin to the printing press. This part was my main contribution to the chapter.

The printing press drove changes that ultimately reshaped the world. Within a hundred years of its introduction in Europe, the Reformation kicked off in Europe, destroying the Catholic Church’s political hold on that continent. A hundred years after that, the Peace of Westphalia ushered in the modern international system — which then was spread from Europe to the rest of the world.

In our guess of its impact, Jim and I saw the Internet as probably closer to the printing press than the telegraph. But we believed the first real disruptions were still a generation away, and that the United States would remain relatively stable until those changes began to affect the world around us. We were long on the timing and wrong on the source, but otherwise we are right: this is much closer to the higher order changes we predict.

We underestimated the consequences of our own country coming online. The changes we forecast are exactly the changes that drove this last election — except that instead of happening among young people in Brazil and India, they happened here among mostly older people. Part of the problem is that Jim and I were both optimistic: we felt that people are generally decent, and the technology is generally helpful. Jim died in 2011, and I will admit to second thoughts.

While the concerns that drove President-elect Trump’s supporters are seen as retrograde — closing borders, ending free trade, etc. — the challenge his campaign posed to established authority is forward-looking, in the sense Jim predicted. The distinction between the cargo — old — and the vessel — very new — is crucial here, and matters in our response to his Presidency.

There is now, I think, a sense among those who did not vote for Trump that if only we can get him out of there, we can get back to normal. With respect to our institutions of authority — the vessel — this is possibly dangerous: normal was the old way. Normal was not working. It will not work again.

Jim and I did not offer concrete advice for U.S. governance then, but I will now. The authority structures we have built over the last hundred years or so are out of date. They must be made more transparent and more accountable. While this is true of our government, it is also true of our political parties. In fact, that change has to begin with the parties: we need our parties which not only promise change, but embody it in their internal form and function.

If the backlash against Trump only serves to reinstate the Democratic party as is, we will be back to square one. If Trump’s presidency is simply co-opted by the Republican party as is, we will be back to square one. The problem will still exist — and the pressure will continue to build. Not to defend Trump in any way, but it might — just might — be better that we go through this paroxysm sooner, rather than later. The later it comes, the more severe it is likely to be.

The challenge to authority has begun sooner and with more disruption than Jim and I predicted — at least in this country. Were he alive, I think he would view this election with a mixture of marvel and dismay. But he, more than anyone, would see it for what it is.

It is the first tremor of something new in the world. And none of us can yet say what, exactly.

*The chapter was later – much later – published in Governance, Regulations, and Powers on the Internet.

What Do Kids Know About Politics?

Imagine most kids in this country start kindergarten able to do basic math — like multiplication and division.

Imagine that instead of teaching them more math skills, our schools instead teach about mathematicians: famous mathematicians, how mathematicians get jobs, what mathematicians do at mathematics conferences. That would be weird, right?

Yet that’s exactly how we teach our kids about politics.

Last week, I was at a local park and nearby two boys were playing. They were maybe 5 and 7 years old, and they mostly argued. Said the younger kid (I wrote it down): “It’s American football and whoever gets the trophy it’s only one, okay? It’s only one.”

I have no idea what that was about, but they went on like this for ten minutes or so. It was hilarious and adorable, but also totally typical. Kids that age tend to be preoccupied with making rules for their games.

And making rules is what politics is all about. The kids in my park were learning how to make rules — how to be political.

In Dr. Spock’s famous baby book, he writes that by age six kids are “no longer interested in make-believe without rules. They want games that have rules and require skill[…].” This interest in the rules gets more intense as they age: “A group of eight-year-olds is likely to spend more time arguing about how to play a game than they do actually playing it”.

In a book titled Play, psychologist Catherine Garvey writes for children of this age, rules are both how they structure their play, and also a toy for them to play with:

Play with rules, in both senses, appears at an early age [….] We can speculate that by playfully violating conventions or testing limits — especially those imposed by the consensus of the peer group — a child not only extends the knowledge of his own capabilities but also learns about the nature of social rule systems.

That is, the child learns how to make rules, how to break them, and how those rules make up their social world. And just as children are beginning this stage, we put them in school — where they are taught to follow rules, not make them.

Adults spend a lot of time trying to teach children rules — whether the games and activities at school, or organized sports on weekends. Kids then have few chances to make and choose their own rules.

One alternative school in Colorado did exactly that; in this report from the school, ‘people’ refers to small children.

A number of people today proposed that it would be cool if we had no rules. So we agreed that we could try having no rules in the mush room. Most people did try it out for a least a bit. People did try out some cursing, really rough play, putting “hard” items like shoes and water bottles in there and even sand and rocks. After a while people were getting bumped into or hit with pillows and balls, and it got very messy. We ended up having a meeting afterwards to see if people wanted to propose keeping the idea of NO rules and we had an overwhelming majority of thumbs down, disapproving of the no rules suggestion.

Kids learn pretty quickly that rules help them structure their lives to avoid conflict and violence. Kids learn on their own how to make basic rules, but when it comes to formal politics, schools tend to teach kids that their skills are irrelevant.

Now imagine how much better they would be at making and choosing rules — as students, as adults, as citizens — if our schools could instead teach them to use and improve their skills.

Why don’t we? Because our understanding of politics is bogged down in the myth that it’s something only politicians do. Coming back to the math analogy, it’s as if we pretend there’s no link between the math kids already know and the top-level calculus that mathematicians do.

The people who study politics rarely connect what politicians do to the everyday politics that each of us learn and practice. So there are few books or classes to teach it, much less curriculum for schools to put in front of students.

There’s a reason our national political scene looks so childish and inept: most people in this country never get a chance to learn political skills, outside of the playground. But if the point of public education is to prepare students to be engaged citizens, we should be more deliberate about teaching them how to make and keep rules.

We should teach politics as a skill necessary for democratic participation. We should teach kids that their capacity to make rules really does matter.

Our kids start school primed and ready to learn about making rules. We should stop teaching them politicians, and start teaching them politics.

The Only Scandal In Hillary Clinton’s E-mails

I read this very long Politico article about the Clinton e-mail scandal, so you don’t have to. It goes into insane detail about who did what when, but the scary truth behind it all is this: the grown-ups have no idea about the Internet.

The upshot of the article is that very little evidence suggests Hillary Clinton deliberately broke the law. In fact, she clearly did not know enough about the technology to see that she might be breaking the law. So the real scandal is how clueless she was about the Internet, given that she was Secretary of State.

To be clear: 100% I don’t think this means she should be arrested. If you do, you’d have to convince me that you both know what an ’email server’ is and could properly set one up yourself. I’m pretty sure I could do it, though I haven’t. I am also pretty sure that all of the people in Congress calling for Secretary Clinton’s imprisonment couldn’t pick an email server out of a CompUSA catalog, much less make it work.

Given the circumstances Clinton faced, it’s not at all surprising she chose to use a private email server. Clinton used an email server to get around the State Department’s sclerotic tech systems; this is an organization that only gave its employees proper Internet access in 2001, under Secy. Powell’s tenure.

And while Powell may have suggested Clinton use a private email address to avoid the State Department’s tech problems, the article makes clear that Clinton otherwise had no interest in solving or even looking at those problems. The portrait that emerges is of a person who simply does not understand or appreciate the technology crucial to our society and economy. Here’s a quote:

Hillary Clinton, for her part, proved remarkably uninterested and unfamiliar with new technology. By time she moved into Foggy Bottom, much of the world had jumped aboard the iPhone bandwagon, but Clinton would cling stubbornly to her BlackBerry…

Some version of that first sentence appears in the article several times: Clinton did not know the technology and did not care to know. It’s the indifference, more than anything, that is damning. She not only had zero curiosity about the technology, she surrounded herself with people who didn’t understand it, either:

Aides like Mills, Abedin and Sullivan all said that while they knew her email address, they didn’t understand the technology behind it and were “unaware of existence of private server until after Clinton’s tenure.” Mills said she “was not even sure she knew what a server was at the time” she was Clinton’s chief of staff. It’s not even clear Clinton herself understood her email was running off a homemade computer in her Chappaqua basement: Clinton told the FBI she “had no knowledge of the hardware, software, or security protocols used to construct and operate the servers.”

You might think basic Internet technology would be irrelevant to the State Department — but no. Not only is the Internet extremely useful for organizations with offices spread over nearly every country in the world, but it is also the most promising technology for human knowledge and freedom since this country was founded. The article makes clear that while Clinton said nice things to say about the Internet, she  had no real idea what she was talking about.

What’s more, the Internet and related tech pose an extraordinary challenge to international politics as it is presently organized. The politics we take as the foundation of the international system emerged from transformations brought about by the spread of the printing press in Europe; how we understand our world and interact with it is grounded very deeply in the norms and habits of literacy, with respect to the printed page. America’s political foundations — like the idea that a written document is more important than divine right — are a consequence of literacy.

But increasingly, the Internet — with its norms and habits still evolving — is taking precedence over print. We see the beginnings of that process in this country, where many people give as much weight to speculation on the Internet as to published science or official documents. And when billions of people for whom printed matter was a luxury come online and find a world of knowledge at their fingertips, they will probably have some edits for the lucky few in the developed world. Jim Rosenau and I co-authored a book chapter arguing that the developed world can only guess what those changes will look like. The fact that it’s in an actual printed book probably explains why our argument has gotten little traction, but here’s a taste:

…the diffusion and convergence of information technology portends a shift “along the lines of those that began to occur when people first settled into villages and formed nation-states”; indeed, as a result of this shift, “we are on the verge of a major series of social changes that are closely tied to emerging technologies.” Put in more political terms, as whole generations possess the new equipment and acquire the habit of using it reflexively, the tensions between governments and governance, between individuals and organizations, and between users and owners will become more conspicuous and acute and drive crises of authority throughout the world. It is, however, much too early to assert with any confidence the ultimate resolution of these changes because they are still underway; the Internet literate generation has yet to fully replace its predecessors, and even that may only be the first step. Nonetheless, it seems likely that when those in the present younger generations enter the ranks of elites, activists, and thoughtful citizens throughout the world, the nature of politics within and between countries will be, for better or worse, profoundly different than is the case today.

In plain language: we are at the very beginning of the Internet age, and we have no idea where it might go. Probably, it will involve very massive change in our political order, and there’s not much we can do to stop it at this point. To many — even most — governments, that change will seem a challenge, maybe a threat. The governments that least understand the technology, that least appreciate its potential for transformation, are most likely to see it as a threat and respond to these changes poorly.

So developed countries need leaders who can help adapt our global political order to the change, without being baffled or confused or afraid. In that respect, President Obama was a half-step in the right direction. The facts of the email scandal, laid out in painstaking detail, suggest that Hillary Clinton is a step backwards.*

Hillary Clinton is still the best candidate in the race. But she will not be effective as President if she does not understand — at least a little — the Internet. Our future requires that the President see the Internet as more than just a tool, but as a technology that is transforming our world. And the real scandal in the email story is that Hillary Clinton does not.

*In this respect, Donald Trump is cutting off our legs while shouting we’re the best at stepping and there has never been a greater stepper in the history of the planet.

Let’s All Stop Pretending There Are Third Parties

This November, voters averse to the two main candidates might notice lots of other parties on the ballot. Don’t believe it: there are no third parties, and we should stop pretending it’s so.

True — there are organizations that represent themselves as national parties, but they have no presence at that level. In a practical sense, they don’t exist. Having them on the ballot is a fantasy that hides real problems in our electoral system.

What makes a party real? At the national level, that means a presence in states — not just a state, but several. Consider this table, which breaks down control of state legislatures: in 37 states the legislature is composed solely of Democrats or Republicans, with no other party present.

Moreover, most of the ‘third-party’ legislators in the other thirteen states are independents. Maine has three or four, Louisiana has two, and New Hampshire has an independent in both the state House and Senate.

Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas each have a single independent legislator. Nebraska’s legislature is technically non-partisan, but even there only one member identifies as independent — the rest are Republicans and Democrats.

Keep in mind that independent means no party affiliation — so not a third party. But if independent were a party, 10 to 40% of Americans would be members, making it perhaps the biggest party in America. Yet only 22 out of 7383 seats — fewer than 3/10ths of a percent — in state legislatures are held by independents. That’s how strongly the system favors the two main parties.

For actual third parties, the picture is even bleaker: only Vermont has a significant third party presence, with 12 legislators outside the two parties: six are from the Vermont Progressive party, and 6 are independent. New York has one member each from the Independence and Conservative parties. In New Hampshire, a Republican state representative switched his party affiliation to Libertarian.

And that’s it — that’s all the third parties there are. Nine seats in three states (not counting territories). Only the Vermont Progressive party has won more than one seat. No other third party has been that successful. None have seats in more than one state, and none has a seat in Congress.

That means, in concrete terms, there are no third parties in national politics. This is not meant to dismiss the hard work of activists in those organizations. Instead, the problem is a system that prevents them from gaining any traction against the Republicans or Democrats.

The system that protects the two parties has existed for a long time, and might be getting worse. See this timeline of the House of Representatives: red is Republicans and blue is Democrats. vishistoryHORThe timeline shows that the last time there was significant third-party presence in the House was 1937, and even then it was small (you can’t see it in this low-rez screen cap, so it’s definitely worth clicking through and zooming around a bit). In fact, the two parties have dominated the House ever since 1858, when the Republican party came into play.

There are very few, brief periods where more than two parties have had significant presence in the House, and the system quickly collapses back to its two-party equilibrium. Often, third parties are absorbed into one or the other party, but sometimes they are shut out and left to die.

Our electoral system makes it very hard for other parties to compete against the Republicans and Democrats. But, oddly enough, it also makes it very easy for other parties to pretend to compete. This hides how strictly biased the system is, by giving us the illusion of choice.

So voters may think that a third-party candidate is the best way to protest, and demand reform. Yet that vote may might even make the two-party system worse, by distracting us from real options for change.

The good news is that there are real options for change, and real ways to break the two-party stranglehold, and make our system more competitive for third parties. Reforms like the alternative vote and multi-member districting can make government more accessible to outside parties. These might be difficult to pass, but nowhere near impossible.

Those changes, if they happen, will happen at the state level. No Presidential candidate — not even Congress — can fix our system, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.