The Future of Democratic Values

Hey, did you know we are having an election here in the United States? I think I saw it mentioned on TV. Whatever your preferences may be, everyone eligible should try to get out and vote.

This election has, without a doubt, been somewhat unique. I’m cautiously optimistic that Hillary Clinton will win, that we will celebrate the election of the first female President in the history of the republic, and that she will do a relatively good job — although as a good Bayesian I know that empirical predictions are never certain, and in an atmosphere like this uncertainty runs relatively high.

Even if Clinton wins and the U.S. avoids complete embarrassment, I’m still very worried about what this election has revealed about the state of the country. No matter who our next President might be, there are real reasons to be concerned that the U.S. is veering away from some of the foundational principles that are necessary to a functioning democracy. That may sound alarmist, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted. Historically, democracies don’t always last forever; we’d be foolish to think that it can’t happen here.

This isn’t a worry about the specific horrible wrongness of Donald Trump — it’s a worry about the forces that propelled him to the nomination of one of our two major political parties, and the fires he so willingly stoked along the way. Just as a quick and hopelessly incomplete recap:

  • Trump built his early political notoriety via “birtherism,” explicitly working to undermine the legitimacy of our elected President.
  • He has continually vilified immigrants and foreigners generally, promoting an us-against-them mentality between people of different races and ethnicities.
  • He has pledged to violate the Constitutional principle of freedom of religion, from banning Muslims from entering the country to tracking ones that are here.
  • His campaign, and the Republican party more generally, has openly engaged in suppressing the vote from groups unlikely to support him. (“‘We have three major voter suppression operations underway,’ says a senior [Trump] official.”)
  • He has glorified violence against protesters who disagree with him.
  • He has lied at an unprecedented, astonishing rate, secure in the knowledge that his statements will be taken as true by a large fraction of his intended audience.
  • He has presented himself as a uniquely powerful strongman who can solve problems through his personal force of will, and spoke admiringly of dictators from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-un to Saddam Hussein.
  • He has vowed that if he wins the election, he will seek vengeance on those who opposed him, including throwing his opponent into prison.
  • He has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election outcome, implying that he would refuse to accept the result if he lost.
  • He has pointed fingers at a shadowy global conspiracy in charge of world finance, often with explicitly anti-Semitic overtones.
  • Several Republican politicians have broached the prospect of refusing to confirm any Supreme Court nominees from a Democratic President.
  • A government agency, the FBI, has interfered in a Presidential election.
  • Republicans have accused Democratic officeholders of being traitors.
  • A number of Trump supporters have spoken of the prospect of violent resistance if Clinton is elected.

This is not a list of “why Donald Trump is a bad person who is disastrously unqualified for the Presidency”; that would be much longer. Rather, I wanted to highlight features of the campaign that are specifically attacks on (small-“d”) democratic norms and values. The assumptions, often unspoken, by which legitimate political opponents have generally agreed to operate by over the course of the last two centuries and more. Not all of them, of course; there are glaring exceptions, authoritarians who have run roughshod over one or more of these norms in the name of personal glory. History generally looks down upon them, and we consider ourselves fortunate that they didn’t have greater success. But fortune can run out.

The most worrisome aspect of the situation is the very real prospect that these attacks on the foundations of liberal democracy will not simply disappear once Donald Trump rides off into the gold-plated sunset; that they will be seized upon and deployed by other politicians who couldn’t help but notice Trump’s success. If that’s the case, we will have a real reason to be concerned that American democracy will stop working, perhaps sooner rather than later. I don’t think it’s likely that such a disastrous scenario would come to pass, but one has to balance the small likelihood against the devastating consequences — and right now the probability seems closer to 0.05 than to 10-5.

Democracy is a curious and fragile thing. It’s not just “majority rules”; crucial to the project are the ideas that (1) minority rights are still respected, and (2) in return, losing minorities respect electoral outcomes. It’s the second of these that is under siege at the moment. Since the time of the Federalist Papers, it’s been understood that democracy is an attempt to provide common self-rule for people who don’t agree on everything, but who at least share the common values of democracy itself. Having strong, even extremely passionate, political disagreements is inevitable in a democratic system. The question is whether we cast those with whom we disagree as enemies, traitors, and cheaters who must be opposed in every measure at every turn; or as partners in a grand project with whom we can fiercely disagree and yet still work with.

I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of how we got to this precarious point, though there are a number of factors that certainly have contributed. Continue reading

Inside the Mind of the Republican Party

The rest of the world is looking at the United States and wondering, with good reason, why we have gone crazy. Not the entire country has gone crazy, of course. But we have a system of government in which a medium-sized minority can bring things crashing down if they so choose, and exactly such a group is rending one of the major parties apart. The minority group is roughly “the Republican base,” an uneasy alliance of Evangelical Christians and the Tea Party.

So it’s interesting and important to understand what these folks really think — something the media, with its valorization of drama, isn’t very good at conveying. The polling organization run by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg has recently tackled the issue, and presents a fascinating summary of what the concerns of the Republican base really are. (Carville and Greenberg are committed Democrats, of course, but I got the link from The American Conservative, where Ron Dreher completely agrees and expresses his horror and dismay.)

Here are the ideas floating in the mind of an average member of the Republican base, expressed in convenient word-cloud form:

tea party word cloud

For slightly more detail, here are the bullet-pointed main findings:


Most of the Republican base are not fat-cat plutocrats — there aren’t enough of those people to make up a sufficiently substantial voting bloc. A lot of the people described here are poor or at best middle-class, but their cultural identity and self-image is derived in large part from race/nation/religion/lifestyle categories that they see as under attack. The dominant emotions here are fearful ones. (I don’t mean to be condescending by talking about “these people”; this is the environment that I grew up in myself.)

This kind of analysis helps understand why Obamacare — which, for all its faults, is primarily aimed at providing health insurance to more people, many of whom are squarely in the Republican base — is such a hot-button issue. It’s not that they don’t want health insurance; it’s not even that they don’t want the government involved (since they love Medicare and Social Security). It’s that they see Obamacare as a craven ploy to get more people (people not like them) dependent on the government, establishing a permanent Democratic majority, and therefore easing the way for more power going to immigrants, gays, and so on.

Some of their analysis is actually correct! The demographics are tending strongly against what we now think of as the Republican base. The world is changing, and they don’t like it.

The scariest part of the report is that last bullet point, that “climate is next.” The Republican civil war is already bringing the US to the brink of financial disaster. It could end up causing the entire planet immeasurable harm. Scientists need to realize that the climate change debate, like the creationism-in-schools debate from a while a back, is actually not about scientific facts. It’s about culture, and that’s a much more difficult problem to address.

Celebrating Darwin in Congress

Sometimes the most trivial things can seem, in context, like brave stances. Here is ex-physicist and current New Jersey representative Rush Holt standing up in Congress to say nice things about Charles Darwin.

Admittedly we’re not talking super-brave here — Princeton and surrounding townships aren’t exactly hotbeds of young-Earth creationism. But it’s sadly true that forthright statements in favor of evolution have become “controversial” among national politicians in this country. Happy to see someone do the right thing.

(Aside to WordPress/YouTube wonks: there are two ways to embed a YouTube video on the blog, the new “iframe” way and the old way. It seems that the old way means that videos don’t show up on mobile devices, but the new way means that videos don’t show up in the RSS feed. Any wisdoms?)

Social Failures

A school shooting in Connecticut has left 18 elementary-school children dead, as well as nine other people, including the shooter. An event like this will naturally lead to calls for stricter controls over guns. Which it should! There’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights of responsible citizens to own guns, while making it difficult or impossible for the kind of person who might walk into an elementary school and open fire to easily obtain weaponry. (Earlier this week in China, a disturbed man walked into a school and began … knifing. It was a tragedy, but nobody died.)

But our inability as a society to enact sensible gun rules is nothing compared to our massive failure when it comes to dealing with mental illness. We don’t know whether the Connecticut shooter actually was mentally ill, but it’s hard to imagine that the massacre was the act of someone calmly contemplating alternatives and coming to a rational decision. This graph, showing rates of people in mental health facilities and in prisons over time, tells you all you need to know. Around 1970, a combination of well-intentioned campaigns to clean up horrific conditions in mental health institutions and a desire on the part of governments to cut costs led to a huge number of people being dumped out on the street without the ability to really care for themselves. Combine that unfortunate situation with our bizarre drug laws and incarceration policies, and many of those people end up in prison, with little or no treatment for their conditions.


From an even bigger-picture perspective, modern secular/cosmopolitan society faces an enormous challenge over how to take care of its less fortunate citizens. We no longer live in a world of small towns and rural hamlets where people know each other and neighbors take care of those who are less fortunate. (I’m not sure we ever did, but there is undeniably less neighborly cohesion now than there was when communication and transportation was much more primitive.) It’s easy for “institutionalization” to be a scapegoat, and I have no doubt that conditions in mental health facilities were and are often very deplorable. But doing little or nothing is not the right alternative.

Election Day

Here’s an entertaining explanation of why winner-take-all voting procedures generally evolve into two-party systems, typically forcing most voters to support candidates they don’t always agree with.

But vote anyway! (If you are a US citizen, or a citizen of another municipality which happens to be voting today.) You never know when you might cast the deciding ballot.

I have to go figure out the jillion (okay, eleven) ballot initiatives we have to deal with in the barely-functional direct democracy called California. One of them — Prop 37, which requires labels on certain genetically modified foods — poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the science seems to indicate that genetic modification doesn’t introduce any special health risks. (At least not to individuals; there may be deleterious effects on the diversity of food sources, but that’s a different issue.) On the other hand, giving consumers more true information is generally a good idea. Is it a weird kind of reverse-paternalism to not give people correct information because they might take the wrong message from it?

p.s. At the end of our Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, Jerry Coyne offered “I think the best someone can do to move naturalism forward is to vote for Obama.”