Donald Trump says that his border wall is being built; yesterday, he even tweeted pictures of it. Today he added, “We started building our wall, I’m so proud of it. We started. We have $1.6 billion. You saw the pictures yesterday. I said what a thing of beauty.”
The budget he signed into law provides $341 million “to replace approximately 40 miles of existing primary pedestrian and vehicle border fencing along the southwest border using previously deployed and operationally effective designs, such as currently deployed steel bollard designs, that prioritize agent safety; and to add gates to existing barriers.”
But the President can have what he wants: a tweet about his own success. Almost 100,000 people clicked to like it. They could feel the #MAGA. Meanwhile, we don’t have to pay for a wall. It has no environmental impacts. Pronghorn antelope may still roam back and forth at will. I assume our neighbors in Mexico realize the wall is not actually taking physical form in the universe that we inhabit as corporeal creatures.
So everyone wins. Could this be the model for solving other problems in the Trump years?
These are the main ideas that I’ve defended (or plan to develop) in my theoretical scholarship. They are organized from micro to macro and from ethics to politics. As always, I put this draft online to welcome critical feedback.
- Each individual holds a changing set of opinions about moral and political matters. These ideas are connected by various kinds of logical relationships (e.g., inference, causation, or resemblance). Thus each person’s moral opinions at a given moment can be modeled as a network composed of ideas, plus links. In a conference paper, Nick Beauchamp, Sarah Shugars and I have derived network diagrams for 100 individuals and provide evidence that these are valid models of their reasoning about healthcare, abortion, and child-rearing. This approach challenges theories that depict moral reasoning as implicit, unconscious, and unreflective.
- A culture, religion, or ideology is best modeled as a cluster of roughly similar idea-networks held by many individuals. Human beings are not divided into groups that are defined by foundational beliefs that imply all their other beliefs. Rather each person holds a unique and often flat and loose network of ideas that overlaps in part with others’ networks. This model avoids radical cultural relativism, as I already argued in my Nietzsche book (1995).
- This model of culture also challenges John Rawls’ argument for liberalism as tolerance and neutrality. Rawls presumes that most citizens hold incompatible but highly organized and consistent “comprehensive doctrines.” As a result, they must largely leave one another alone to live according to their various conceptions of the good. If, instead, we understand worldviews as loose and dynamic idea-networks, we find support for a liberalism of mutual interaction instead of distant toleration.
- We are not morally responsible for the ideas that we happen to learn as we grow up. That is a matter of luck. But we are responsible for interacting with other people who hold different opinions from ours. Such dialogues can be modeled as the interactions of people who hold different idea-networks. As they disclose and revise ideas and make connections, the discussants produce a shared network. In a paper now being revised and resubmitted, David Williamson Shaffer, Brendan Eagan, and I model Tufts students’ discussions of controversial issues as dynamic idea-networks.
- A person can organize her beliefs in ways that either enable or block dialogue. For instance, an individual whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate; neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected. Thus discursive virtues can be defined in network terms, deliberations can be evaluated using network metrics, and we can strive to organize our own ideas in ways that facilitate discussion.
- If people talk, it implies that they were willing to sacrifice time and attention to a conversation. If they have something significant to talk about, they must hold a good in common that they can control or influence. Thus we cannot have the kinds of discussions that improve our own values unless we are organized into functional groups. But creating and sustaining groups requires more than talk. Groups also need rules and practices that coordinate individuals’ action, as well as relationships marked by trust, loyalty, and other interpersonal virtues. In short, civic life depends on a combination of deliberation, collaboration (solving collective action problems), and relationships.
- To enable deliberation, collaboration, and relationships requires favorable institutions, such as appropriate legal rights, widespread education in these virtues, and a robust civil society composed of associations that offer opportunities for self-governance. Since these institutions are inadequate in the USA, we need reform.
- To change constitutional rights, school systems, and other large institutions, political actors must employ leverage. They must move strangers and impersonal organizations at a distance. Making effective use of leverage is an ethical obligation but also a threat to the relational values implied by points 1-7 (above), which are prized by certain political theorists, such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. We must understand how to use impersonal leverage at large scales without undermining or displacing relational politics.
From CIRCLE today:
CIRCLE’s updated Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) is a valuable tool for any individual, campaign, organization, or institution that seeks to increase youth political engagement. Earlier this month, we highlighted the top 10 congressional districts where young people might have an especially high electoral influence. Today we are releasing the top 10 senate and gubernatorial races where young people have the potential to do the same. The YESI can help stakeholders identify places where additional efforts and resources to turn out the youth vote could be decisive. It can also be a tool for equity and broadening engagement, if efforts focus on reaching those not yet engaged in the top-ranked locations.
Please click to Explore the Interactive Index or Read the Full Report and Methodology
I was on WGBH’s “Under the Radar” today with host Callie Crossley and an excellent student activist named Victoria Massey, who is a senior at Charlestown High School and a member of the Hyde Square Task Force community organizing group. The segment is entitled “Is Student-Led Activism A Driving Force For Change In America?” It airs on Sunday but is officially available for listening and sharing now. Here it is.
And here’s how the conversation was framed:
Alexander Hamilton wrote his first political pamphlet as a student at King’s College, now known as Columbia University. He was 17 years old. On February 1, 1960, The lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, were started by four college freshmen started the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. Three years later, the “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, involved kids as young as 7 in peaceful protests against segregation. And this weekend, a group of high school students who got the nation to say “Never Again” will lead thousands at the March For Our Lives.
Student-led activism has always been a part of American culture. Could it be one of the country’s driving force for change?
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use comparative evidence to argue that democracies rely on two “soft guardrails”: constitutional forbearance and mutual toleration.* Forbearance means that political actors refrain from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords them. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely honor the letter but not the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections.
We are perilously close to losing both constraints. This won’t be the first time in our history, but then again, our history has involved major breakdowns, like a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans.
If Republicans beat expectations in 2018 and 2020, both parties’ behavior is predictable. Republicans will remain behind Trump because their base likes him and because the whole party will be winning under his banner. Democrats will resist as aggressively as possible, but with built-in limitations.
The choices for both sides will become much harder if the Democrats do well in 2018 and then 2020, capturing at least one house of Congress and then maybe the whole federal government. The Republicans’ choices will then be:
- The GOP stays Trumpian. This is what their base wants. Their losses will have been concentrated in swing districts and among independent-minded incumbents who tangled with the Trump base. The remaining party will be all-in for Trump. Since this scenario assumes that they lost ground in elections, they will be even more hostile to the political system, the media, and the Democrats, now seen as clearly rigging the system against real Republicans.
- Or the GOP turns into a principled conservative party that is skeptical of ambitious government, resistant to both taxation and public debt, and committed to constitutional restraint, including a restrained presidency. It presents that package as attractive to younger and more diverse voters and grows less demographically distinct from the Democrats.
- The Democrats play what Mark Tushnet calls Constitutional Hardball. Because they lost a Supreme Court seat when the Republicans wouldn’t even consider Merrick Garland, they return the favor and refuse Trump any new appointments. They launch aggressive investigations against Trump, his family, and his cabinet, focusing on potential financial crimes. They lay the predicate for impeachments and then prosecutions. They shut down the government over budget disputes, reckoning that Trump will send undisciplined tweets that will make him look at fault. If a Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2020, they drive through political reforms that advantage them in subsequent elections. In short, they decide not to be rolled, and also that their substantive policy goals require strong action.
- Or the Democrats try to restore mid-20th century norms of constitutional forbearance and partisan toleration. That doesn’t mean that they seat Trump’s Supreme Court nominees or refrain from investigations, but they try to follow the traditional procedures. For example, they bring Trump’s nominees up for votes but vote nay, and they make their investigations as focused and as bipartisan as possible. Democrats look to peel off independent-minded Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and go out of their way to honor these colleagues.
Game theory is tailor-made for situations in which two players can make independent choices and the result is a single outcome. Here is a guess about how these choices would play out.
||Democrats play “Constitutional Hardball”
||Democrats try to restore cooperative norms
|Republicans stay Trumpian
||Democrats probably win on policy–increasingly so as the demographic trends favor them. Republicans retain 35% of the population that is overwhelmingly white and Christian and increasingly angry. The GOP still dominates some states and regions. Right-wingers give Democrats rationales for using increasingly hardball tactics. Political violence grows. Democrats are corrupted by the lack of legitimate checks.
||Democrats get rolled on policy. Possibly they expand their electoral power as a result of demographic trends plus a reputation for being responsible (if their forbearance is widely understood as such). Possibly they just look weak, and lose.
|Republicans shift to principled conservatism
||Perhaps the Democrats prevail on policy and grow stronger due to demographics. Or perhaps they further erode confidence in government and thus strengthen principled conservatism, which wins elections and policy battles.
||The republic is safe. Democrats make incremental progress on policy, but Republicans offer a conservative alternative that sometimes prevails.
This is pretty close to a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), with the best option for all being the bottom-right, yet both sides have strong reasons to choose the other course. It’s a little more complicated than a pure PD because it plays out over time. The options and payoffs depend on the precise circumstances of the moment–say, in 2019 with a Democratic House and a narrowly Republican Senate, or in 2021 with (hypothetically) a newly inaugurated Democratic president. But versions of the choices arise at each stage, from congressional primaries today to legislative strategies in 2021.
*See pp. 7-8. However, my comments are based on hearing the authors speak, not having read their whole book yet.