Politics is the least of our worries

I argued two years ago this month, that as scary as the Trump candidacy was, the conditions that made it possible for such a candidate to be successful were much scarier.  I still think that’s true and since then, Trump, now President Trump, has done some really scary things.

The Brooks Triad

So what “conditions” are we talking about? David Brooks, in a recent column, named three.

First, says Brooks, is the erasure of the informal norms of behavior. He cites a recent book that argues that democracy relies not only on formal constitutions but also on informal codes.

Second, is the loss of faith in the democratic system. Brooks gives the example of an Italian voter who said “Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

The third, element is the deterioration of debate caused by social media.

Triad Infrastructure

I don’t disagree with any of those,[1] but my interest goes a little deeper. What are the causes of these three phenomena that David Brooks rightly laments?

Let’s begin with the “informal codes.” Imagine a group of friends hanging out together. Rival gang leaders show up and begin to call one and then another of the members of this group to join them to prepare for war against the others.

democracy 5There isn’t a war, but the gang leaders—these gangs may be ethnic enclaves or nation-states with elected leaders—say that there is going to be a war and furthermore that there should be a war. It is a moral necessity. “Yo, Sam,” calls one of the aspiring leaders, “You have no business hanging around with people like George there. He’s one of THEM. Come over here and we’ll take the war to him.” There’s nothing remarkable about that sentiment—the awful tone deaf language I used to convey it is bad, sure, but you get the idea—and it is, in fact, the basis of shock jock radio.

But what does Sam say? This brings us to the “informal codes” David Brooks is talking about. Does he say he’s perfectly happy and there’s no reason for war? Does he say there are grievances, sure, but warfare isn’t the way to right them? Does he say that he is not under any circumstances going to turn against George, who is a member of his bowling team [2] and a fellow Eagles fan and a fellow member of the City Club and the parent of one of his son’s best friends?

He could say that. And if he were one of the first ones the gang leader called to man the barricades, he probably would say that. But if he is the fifth or sixth one to leave the group of friends, he is going to have to make a choice of communities. The gang community is a community of tight bonds and obvious purpose and is given a very satisfying cohesiveness by being “against” something. The group of friends, by contrast, is a community of weak bonds—the Bowling Alone kind of bonds—and an array of private purposes, and no obvious enemy. We are asking Sam to make a very difficult choice. David Brooks is asking Sam to make a very difficult choice.

What conditions will help Sam make that choice? Well, having some hope for his own or for his children’s economic future would help him. That doesn’t look like it is going to happen, at least not for hourly workers. Things are not getting better and they are not going to. That is not going to make Sam abandon George UNLESS some case can be made that George’s fortunes are better than Sam’s and/or that George can be, in any way at all, blamed for Sam’s dismal prospects.

The best solution to this problem—the problem we are dealing with is maintaining  the crucially important weak social bonds among diverse populations—is for incomes to increase. Failing that, some reason to hope that they will increase would help. And failing that, placing the blame where it will do the most good would help a great deal. [4]

Needless to say, none of these is a solution to the taste of the gang members. What would best serve them is despair about the current group of friends, anger about the prospects of continuing to hang out with them, and hope that something radical like joining a gang and going to war against your former “friends.” will do some good.

Loss of faith in democracy as a system

This is the second of Brooks’ three points and while I agree with it, I would put is somewhat differently. The Framers had very little trust of “the people” and counted on the elites—people like themselves—to steer the ship of state. Early in the history of the republic, we turned to mass-based political parties of which Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party was the first. The theory was that, while ordinary citizens could not run the government, they should be able to choose between two proposed directions and that is what the parties would give them.

This presupposes party voting. So…you might ask…what else is there? Well, there is “issue voting” but that requires a great deal of information about your issue and a focused effort to advance it. But mostly, there is “candidate voting.” Notice the Italian voter Brooks quotes.

“Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

democracy 7The Fascist Party of Italy, about which I have headline knowledge only, is presumably anti-immigrant. They promise to take Italy back to some largely mythical “golden era” when things were as they should be. The party proposes programs about how to accomplish that. Let’s imagine, just to have something to refer to, that everyone who can’t prove he or she was born to an Italian father and mother, has to leave the country. What that means, for our example, is that Signor Salvini has to look at the proposals of the Fascist Party and say, “I don’t care about those.” You can hear that in “I guess he’s a fascist, too,” as if he were saying, “And I hear he also collects stamps.”

That focus on “the candidate,” or more precisely, the image of the candidate that has been marketed to you, simply precludes party platforms. And if you don’t think that we choose among market images of “presidents,” let me pass on to you this comment about President Bartlet and some other candidates.. [5]

A Detroit voter said, in 2003 that she would vote for Bartlet for president because, “I really know him better than Bush or Gore.”   And this is one small clip from the substantial research mixing factual and fictional “leaders.”  See Melissa Crawley’s superb Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington for the whole argument.

Social media as a killer of reasoned debate

I see this as less serious and more serious than Brooks offers it in this column. Reasoned debate has never been our strong suite. It has never been anyone’s strong suite. When the Enlightenment first offered reason and evidence as the solution to our problems, it proposed a program that most people simply cannot or will not follow. We don’t make up our minds rationally about things we care deeply about and trying to arrive at a decision that way is probably folly anyway. Furthermore, when the urban machines of the late 1800s were overturned by the Progressive movement, the idea was that paying voters (jobs, favors, amenities) to vote for the party machine was clunky and corrupt. People freed from the daily bribery of machine politics would be free to make up their own minds and to vote their own interests. That was the point at which rates of voting plummeted to levels that are now among the lowest in the industrial world.

Those two watershed moments—the Enlightenment embrace of rationalism and the Progressive affirmation of individually determined self-interest—are the perfect setup for party politics. You don’t have to reason; there are talking points available if you really have to talk to anyone. You don’t have to know your own interest; the party will find and press your hot button issues so that you “feel represented,” whether you are or not. None of those requires “rational debate,” and both, in fact, are alternatives to it. So the structural problem was with us long before social media.

On the other hand, social media did exacerbate the problem. The problem of social media is often said to be that it locks us into monolithic ghettoes of value and fact. Everyone in “my group,” —and that term can now be extended to refer to people who watch the same news stations, who read the same blogs, and who share their opinions online with remarkably similar groups,—feels the same way. [6]. That is a severe difficulty, I grant. It is hard to “debate” anyone when everyone’s views are the same.

But I think there is a worse problem and the social media are not adjunct to this one. They are at the very heart of it. And that is the erosion of the distinction between gossip and truth. Big words, I know. But not too big.

I am not a big fan of “the truth.” My notion of what “a truth” is is just a proposition which can be richly supported by evidence. Needless to say, conflicting propositions can be supported by evidence—really good evidence, not just academic experts for hire by Big Pharma—and we turn then to which propositions really matter. This is the battle among “truths” that Thomas Kuhn popularized in the 1960s and ‘70s and that has left a lasting mark on scientific debate. [7]

democracy 6But if, in the present context, the alternative to truth is gossip, then I vote for truth—even for “truthiness.” [8] When you live in a small village, you know you can pass along “information” you got from one person, because it is likely to be true, but not “information” from another person because he or she–not just “she” as in the picture– is a notorious gossip and just passes along what he or she has heard, without assessing the likelihood of it. Life is the same is small organizations. You get a sense of who screens his remarks for the likelihood that some piece of information is true and who just pass anything on.

But life among the social media is not like that. That’s what makes the Russian meddling in what were once “American debates” so perilous. Anyone can set up a platform called Americans for Truth and Justice and disseminate the most frightful tales. This is the real “fake news” because it is valued  only for the effect it has, not for any data being shared or any real opinions expressed. It is the likely effect alone that matters and no one knows who you are.

What the social media have done is to make is possible to “pass along to friends” allegations about which you know nothing. You become, by consenting to that process, a “platform,” rather than a person. No one says of a platform, “it provides information you can count on.” A platform is just an electronic bulletin board; it cannot conceivably have any integrity. And when millions of Americans, accepting the presuppositions of the social media, disseminate to their friends allegations about which they know nothing, they are just gossiping. [9]


So I agree with David Brooks that it is not so much Trump himself, but the conditions that promote “Trump-ism” that are our real concern. Of the three such concerns Brooks named, I think the most dangerous is probably the effect of social media. If our reliance on social media has finally eradicated the difference between truth (what can be shown to be true) and mere allegation, then we have finally crossed a bridge we will not be able to re-cross.

Ignorance can be combatted by information. Prejudice can be combatted by experience. Even mistrust can be combatted, under some circumstances, by repeated trustworthy words and actions. But is nothing can be established as true—nothing at all—unless we like it, then we have gone too far and will not be able to come back.

That’s the threat. It isn’t just Trump.

[1]This may be the place to say that since the rise of President Trump to power, I have come to value Brooks’s good sense and conservative decency more than I ever did during the Obama administration.
[2] This kind of relationship is the source of Robert Putnam’s article, and later book, “Bowling Alone.” We used to have lots of casual acquaintances who re not like us. It turns out that those mattered more than anyone but Putnam thought.
[3] One of my favorite lines from South Pacific is De Becque’s retort to Capt. Brackett. Capt. Brackett: “We’re asking you to help us lick the Japanese. It’s as simple as that. We’re against the Japanese.”
De Becque: “I know what you are against. What are you for?”
[4] Which brings me to my own favorite field of study. Placing the credit or the blame for some event is one of the most politically fraught decisions citizens can make.
[5] The TV show, The West Wing, hasn’t been broadcast for more than a decade now, but a lot of people know that President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was a very appealing president. His only real liability was being entirely fictional.
[6] The word “feel” has been transformed into a much more general word, now meaning “what I think.” Tom Lehrer once introduced his satirical song, Vatican Rag, by saying that the Catholic church’s new use of secular music has “inspired me with the thought that…” The copy I have renders that transition as “…but I feel…” That’s the transformation I’m talking about.
[7] Briefly, Kuhn argued that one set of presuppositions for research (a paradigm) cannot be shown to be better than another apart from the comparative utility of one paradigm or the other. Ultimately, it is not the truth, but the utility, of research designs that causes some to live and others to die.
[8]Truthiness, according to Stephen Colbert, is “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
[9] Some have complained that this standard would require them to “fact check” everything, but, of course, that is not true. You would only have to check what you were going to disseminate. You are perfectly free to put it in your trash and/or send a snarky note to the person who sent it to you.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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