Cass Sunstein on the echo chamber and his new book, #Republic

SunsteinSocial media gives us ways to nurture ever more elaborate online communities, but is it friendly to the kind of democracy diverse societies need? In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein, the New York Times bestselling author of Nudge and The World According to Star Wars, shows exactly how today’s Internet is driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it. Recently, Sunstein answered a few questions about his timely new book.

Why did you write this book, and how does it relate to your previous work?

Well, we are obviously in a time of national division. The splits between Americans across political lines are striking and disturbing, and there’s a lot of division and mutual misunderstanding out there. There is distrust and anger as well. Social media contributes to those splits. So I wanted to get hold of what is a really serious problem in a nation that aspires to E Pluribus Unum. The book grows out of my previous books on the general subject—but the media environment has changed so rapidly that some of the central arguments, e.g. about Twitter and Facebook, are entirely new.

What new threats to democracy does the internet pose now that it didn’t pose, say, five years ago? Haven’t people always sorted themselves into like-minded groups?

We used to have a much larger role for general interest intermediaries, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’s diminished, and with it, trust in them has diminished too. The use of niches—especially for people who are politically engaged—is pretty dramatic. Hashtag Nation (#Nation) isn’t really something we’ve seen before. I wouldn’t want to say that things are getting worse, but they’re getting differently bad.

We’ve all heard the term “echo chamber,” perhaps particularly in the recent election cycle. Can you talk a bit about this idea and the implicit dangers?

Echo chambers breed extremism. If you hang out with like-minded people, you’ll get more confident and more extreme—and the group will get more unified. Pretty soon, people in different echo chambers live in different political universes. That makes problem-solving really hard, and it makes enmity really easy. My own work in the White House showed me the importance of focusing on objective truths and of not insulating oneself—echo chambers are destructive to those endeavors.

How can the internet be made friendlier to democratic deliberation?

A big question. Let’s start with Facebook: It should redo its News Feed so as to ensure that there’s less in the way of informational cocoons. Let’s end with each of us: We should make choices so that we hear lots of points of view, including from people we think we disagree with. If you can’t learn something from someone with a very different political orientation, you’re missing a lot. You’re not an ideal citizen, or close to it.

What kind of democracy is needed in diverse societies, and how can your book help us to get there?

We need deliberative democracy—one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves, and learn from them. We need to put a premium on science and facts. We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage. We need a lot more technocracy, not less. The book might have a few ideas on those subjects.

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler), The World According to Star Wars, and #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

Tony Smith on how Woodrow Wilson shaped America’s foreign policy

Why Wilson Matters by Tony SmithThe liberal internationalist tradition is credited with America’s greatest triumphs as a world power—and also its biggest failures. Beginning in the 1940s, imbued with the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the League of Nations to “make the world safe for democracy,” the United States steered a course in world affairs that would eventually win the Cold War. Yet in the 1990s, Wilsonianism turned imperialist, contributing directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued failures of American foreign policy. In Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today, Tony Smith traces how Wilson’s thinking about America’s role in the world evolved in the years leading up to and during his presidency, and how the Wilsonian tradition went on to influence American foreign policy in the decades that followed. Smith recently took the time to answer questions about his book.

How does Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy (1913-1921) relate to today’s world?

TS: Wilson never articulated a grand strategy for the United States. Still, his two terms in office, and especially his design for the League of Nations, laid out concepts for how to “make the world safe for democracy” that came to life with the challenges Washington faced to win the peace after victory in World War II. The package of Wilson’s proposals for a system of world peace called for an alliance of democratic governments, working to promote an integrated international economic system, through multilateral agreements that included first and foremost collective security, all maintained under American leadership. What at first would be a Pax Americana would in time become a Pax Democratica. The result is what we call “Wilsonianism,” the American variant of liberal internationalism. We can distinguish a “preclassical” stage of liberal thinking that goes back to our Revolution, a “classic” period with Wilson, a “hegemonic” stage during the cold war, and an “imperialist” phase that began in the 1990s. This last stage is best called “neo-Wilsonianism.”

Was President George W. Bush the heir of the Wilsonian mantle in world affairs?

TS: Certainly the Bush Doctrine (defined as the National Security Strategy of the United States in September 2002) seemed to show continuity between Wilson’s thinking and that of the Bush administrations of 2001-2009. The key difference lay in the defensive character of classical and hegemonic American liberal internationalism and the offensive posture of neo-Wilsonian imperialism. The neo-Wilsonian belief that democracy was a “universal value” that had “universal appeal” such that the United States could embrace a “just war” doctrine that overthrew the Westphalian system of state sovereignty in terms of a “responsibility to protect” peoples everywhere from autocratic government would never for a moment have been entertained by Wilson. Wilson did not march on Mexico City in 1914, nor on Moscow or on Berlin in 1918. By the same coin, he would surely not have approved the attack on Baghdad in 2003, nor is there reason to think he would have celebrated the April Spring eight years later.

Why, then, is Wilson’s name so often associated with American imperialism?

TS: At the root of the problem is the failure to study Wilson’s political thinking about the origins and character of democratic government developed during the decades when he was one of this country’s leading social scientists, ideas he later followed as president. The result is that American liberal internationalism has lacked a clear identity to give it a compass in foreign relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To call Wilson, as so many have, “a crusader,” “messianic,” and “utopian” is simply to misunderstand the prudent restraint he repeatedly showed in thinking that democratic government would quickly, easily, or indeed ever at all expand worldwide. Yes, he was “idealistic” and “moralistic” in thinking democracy was the best form of government for peoples capable of enjoying its blessings of liberty. But a utopian, and so an imperialist, he never was. Let’s call him a “realistic liberal.”

Why does all this matter?

TS: The American tradition of human rights and democracy promotion, like that which sponsors open economic relations, all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, has badly overplayed its hand. Its belief that our way was the only way led to a clash of civilizations the fruits of which we can see on every side, from the Muslim world, to China and Russia to economic inequality at home. The tragedy is that a way of thinking that did so much to establish the strength of the free market democracies between the early 1940s and the early 1990s should have been the source of its own undoing is an irony whose logic needs to be grasped. Here lies the explanation for how the greatest successes in the Republic’s history in foreign affairs—going from the creation of the Bretton Woods System to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, passing by occupation policies for Germany and Japan—should give way to a change in its course that would lead to the invasion of Iraq under Bush and the surge in Afghanistan and enthusiasm about the Arab Spring under Obama –policies which now constitute the greatest defeats in our country’s history in world affairs.

Is liberal imperialism related to the economic crisis that has best the world since 2007?

TS: Most certainly it is. To read the criticisms of Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is to see the logic of Wilson’s thinking applied to our day with the same concern from American power and American democracy being steadily eroded by what Wilson called “predatory” capitalism. He feared its machinations globally, and not only domestically. Wilson was right.

What can be done?

TS: Neo-Wilsonianism is now deeply embedded in American elite institutions. The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s bears much of the blame for popularizing and militarizing the Wilsonian tradition. However, the neoliberal movement within the Democratic Party did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the development of this thinking, as can be seen from a review of the Obama years and the policies advanced by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The international regulation of the capitalist world and the growth of a national security state simply have too much momentum behind them for us to have much confidence in a progressive future. That said, the faith of an earlier day returned under FDR with astonishing success and may yet be able to light the future before it is too late. Nation- and state-building that Washington likes to discuss so much with respect to our efforts to reform peoples abroad might better begin at home. From income inequality, to campaign finance reform, to prison conditions there should be quite enough here and with our democratic partners to keep us busy. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Tony Smith is Cornelia M. Jackson Professor emeritus of political science at Tufts University. The best know of his earliest work on American liberal internationalism is America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (published by Princeton University Press in 1994 and again, in an expanded version, in 2012).

Rahul Sagar: Are There “Good” Leaks and “Bad” Leaks?

Washington is awash in leaks. Should these leaks be praised or should they be condemned, as the president argues? President Trump’s supporters may argue that his critics—Democrats in particular—praise or condemn leaks as it suits them. Consider the hypocrisy, they will say:

First, since Democrats criticized Wikileaks’ publication of John Podesta’s emails, shouldn’t they also criticize NSA and FBI employees who have disclosed information about contacts between Trump Administration officials and Russian officials? Second, if it was wrong for Edward Snowden to have disclosed communications intelligence, as many Democrats argued at the time, then shouldn’t they also think it is wrong for NSA and FBI employees to disclose communications intelligence about Russian contacts with the Trump Administration?

These questions aren’t trivial. So how to respond?

The answer to the first question hinges on what kind of leaks are in question—those that expose wrongful or unlawful activities as opposed to those that reveal private behavior or information. The former variety further the public interest because they bring to light information that citizens and overseers require in order to hold representatives to account. Leaks about contacts between Trump Administration officials and Russian officials clearly fall into this category. The latter variety may have only a faint connection to the public interest. It may be of some interest to have an unvarnished account of the private conduct of public officials, but this interest hardly seems weighty enough to justify the violation of a person’s privacy (especially when the violation is wholesale). Leaks about Podesta’s pizza orders and office politicking fall into the latter category.

The answer to the second question hinges on knowing when unauthorized disclosures are justified. The president’s supporters may argue that intelligence leaks are never justified because they are illegal. To this the press and First Amendment aficionados may respond that leaks are never unlawful. In their view, the Espionage Act, often used to prosecute leakers, was never meant to be used in this fashion. This response is untenable, but even supposing it were true, it is irrelevant. The Communications Intelligence Act (18 USC §798) plainly makes it unlawful—without exception—for persons to communicate or publish classified information “concerning” or “obtained by” the “processes of communication intelligence.”

So the president is right to say that government employees who have disclosed intercepts pertaining to Russian actions, and even the reporters and newspapers that have published these leaks, have broken the law. But must the law always be followed? Suppose you witness a hit-and-run. There are clear signs saying that you are not to stop or park along the road. You would of course nonetheless stop on the reasonable calculation that disobedience is justified since a weighty interest is involved, and when there aren’t other means of aiding the victim. This is the position that intelligence officers sometimes find themselves in—only they can assist the victim, because only they are aware of the harm that has been done. Indeed when the harm they are witnessing is sufficiently acute, government employees may not only be justified in breaking the law, they may even be obliged to do so.

This is not the end of the story, however. Much depends on how a government employee breaks the law. Let us return to the analogy. As you rush the victim to the hospital are you morally obliged to stop at every red light along the way? It depends, surely, on how crowded the roads are, and how badly the victim is injured. If the roads are busy, jumping a light will likely endanger more lives than it will save. But if the roads are clear, and the victim is hemorrhaging, then it is ethical to run a red light. This is the standard that government employees and the press ought to hold themselves to. If they act rashly they will end up doing more harm than good. Arguably, this is why Snowden does not deserve a pardon—he disclosed classified information without much regard for consequences, seemingly driven by his own pet peeves. Did we really need to learn precisely how the United States spies on foreign powers, for instance. Far better then to act temperately—disclosing only as much information as is necessary to kick start the processes of oversight and accountability. This may be where we are today. But it is not easy to be certain. Since ordinary citizens are not privy to the contents of the intercepts, we must hope that the government employees responsible have faithfully calculated that the cost of disclosing such intelligence is worth bearing because the danger confronting the nation is so great.

There are costs, to be clear. The recent disclosures are likely to have exposed sources and methods since Russian agents have presumably learnt that their communication channels are not secure. There are also political costs for the intelligence community, since the leaks can be—indeed are being—portrayed as an effort to subvert the president.

It now remains for Congress to credibly investigate the worrying claims that have been aired. Should the claims prove true, then we will be indebted to the individuals that have made these disclosures at great risk to themselves. Should the disclosures prove unfounded, however, then President Trump’s supporters will have reason to think that politically motivated insiders have engaged in sabotage, and recriminations may well follow. It is also worth pointing out that should Congress fail to conduct a credible investigation, then further disclosures may be justified. This would be not unlike how the driver in our analogy may drive the victim to a different hospital should the first one prove unwilling to attend to the emergency.

It cannot be said enough that with great power comes great responsibility. This aphorism applies as much to presidents as it does to the press. There are “good” and “bad” leaks. To make the distinction, officials, reporters, and citizens must think carefully about the what, when, and how of unauthorized disclosures.

LeaksRahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University in Abu Dhabi and Washington Square Fellow at New York University in New York. He is the author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy.

William G. Howell: Unilateral Politics Revisited (and Revised) under Trump

The election of Donald Trump clearly marks a break with, if not a repudiation, of the past. But even in these white-knuckle days of his early presidency, we also can discern familiar features of executive power and the politics of unilateral action. Not everything about Trump is new. And if we want to get serious about fashioning a response, whether in support or opposition, we must resist the temptation to treat Trump as purely an aberration.

Let’s begin with the recurrent, if not the customary. Trump is hardly the first president to traffic in nativist appeals, to call for a reordering of national priorities, or to renounce, if only rhetorically, the powers and privileges of a self-interested class of political experts in favor of a supposedly forgotten people. Trump is following a populist path previously trodden by the likes of Andrew Jackson, Williams Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan.

Nor is Trump the first president to launch his presidency with a flurry of policy initiatives. Nearly all modern presidents go out of their way to project an image of energy and command the moment they move into the White House. And rather than work directly with Congress, many of them, like Trump, choose to hit the ground running through administrative fiat rather than legislative engagement.

To be sure, Trump failed to deliver on his campaign promise to overturn Obamacare on Day One. But he did direct the federal bureaucracy to ease up on its implementation until Congress gets around to dismantling it. He then put a freeze on regulations currently under consideration and established new protocols that require federal agencies drop two old regulations for every new one they adopt. Trump accelerated the permit process for private companies building the Keystone Pipeline. He reinstated a ban on funding for international family planning agencies that provide information about abortion services. He formally withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He reconstituted the organization and membership of the National Security Council. He instituted a ban on refugees and immigrants coming into the country. In just the first two weeks of his presidency, he did all this and more.

To advance this expansive agenda, Trump drew upon the full arsenal of unilateral directives available to presidents. He issued executive orders, proclamations, national security directives, and memoranda. And like his predecessors, he fabricated altogether new power tools—in this instance, National Security Presidential Memoranda, for which the Pentagon appears to be the primary audience.

Trump also isn’t the first president to invite controversy through unilateral action. Harry Truman desegregated the military, Bill Clinton extended federal protections to hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, George W. Bush directed substantial federal funds to religious organizations, and Barack Obama imposed all sorts of new environmental regulations at times when legislative action on these matters was altogether unthinkable.

We also have witnessed before the kinds of institutional checks that now frustrate Trump. Indeed, they are the essential elements of any theory of unilateral action. Presidents push outward just as far as they can, the adjoining branches of government offer variable amounts of resistance, and in the exchange, the reach and meaning of presidential powers are defined.

But not all is familiar. This go-around, the fallout of unilateral action is a good deal louder and more disruptive than at any other time in modern American history. Never before have so many protests been voiced, so much opposition rallied, so much confusion sowed in the aftermath of orders issued this early in a presidential term.

Just hours after Trump issued his immigration ban, U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, a Barak Obama appointee, intervened and issued a temporary stay. A week later, U.S. District Judge James Robart, who George W. Bush appointed to the bench, expanded the stay nationwide. In the intervening days, impromptu protests and legal clinics sprouted up in airports across the nation. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend the order in court, an act of defiance for which she was promptly fired. Members of Trump’s own administration professed to have learned about the order through the media. Within the State Department, over 1,000 people signed a petition against Trump’s agenda. This past Saturday, then, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was suspending all efforts to enforce the immigration ban.

This is not normal. Far from it. In the wake of most executive orders, broad acquiescence, if not perfect silence, typically sets in. Past presidents, after all, have made a point of vetting their orders with policy experts, ensuring their legality with the Office of Legal Counsel, conferring with key partners and adversaries, and then adjusting accordingly. This advance work has not been in the service of governing cooperatively or ceding ground to political opponents. Rather, it has enabled these presidents to discern exactly how far they can push policy without being subsequently overturned, and then prepare those individuals charged with defending and implementing these orders.

What, then, are we to make of the chaos and fury born of Trump’s early actions? One line of thinking points toward an administration wholly unaware of the president’s position in our system of separated powers and entirely insensitive to the costs of bureaucratic resistance, judicial intervention, and mass protest. The tumult of these past two weeks, by this accounting, reflects poorly on an inexperienced and impetuous man with little regard for the rules of procedure and governing norms of American political institutions.

We have before us plenty of evidence to support this line of reasoning. But there are other possibilities to consider. Maybe Trump (and those who advise him) are quite deliberately trying to escalate the fight with his adversaries. Having inherited a bureaucracy not of his making, Trump may be searching for ways to identify those who will stand with him and those who will merely stand in the way. Nothing draws out a lurking enemy quite like an open battle.

Alternatively, Trump may be trying to lure his opponents into a pitched fight that will do lasting damage to their reputations. A press that misreports—as it did in claiming that Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval office—and a protest that turns violent—as occurred in Berkeley, CA—provide all sorts of fodder for a president bent on discrediting the mainstream media and restoring law and order to the country.

Instead, Trump may be playing to a base that cares less about policy than about waging an existential war on Washington. The dustups caused by these unilateral directives may not productively change policy, but in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, they may serve as proof positive that their man is righteously renouncing the discredited rules of a broken political system.  

We don’t know what exactly Trump is up to. It’s possible that we’re witnessing gross incompetence. Alternatively, we may also be seeing the initial gambit in a new and larger political struggle.

In either case, the spectacle is new, and its stakes are enormous.     

Thinking about the PresidencyWilliam Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago. He is the author or co-author of three Princeton University Press books that focus on different facets of presidential power: Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action (2003); While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers (2007); and Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power.

 

On rumors, 1984, and a post-truth world

Princeton University Press has published a number of titles that focus on the timely issue of deceptive public discourse. Cass Sunstein’s 2014 book, On Rumors takes a look at our vulnerability to falsehoods, with special attention to the ambiguous impact of social media, while Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works offers an ominous examination of how the public is subtly manipulated in a “post-truth” age. But talk of “alternative facts”, reminiscent to many of newspeak and doublethink, is sending droves of readers to the fiction section. George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, surged in sales recently, becoming a surprise New York Times bestseller.  

This led us to wonder just how well the books we published in 1984 have aged. Here’s a look at a few:

The lead book in our Spring 1984 catalog was a history title by Sarah Ann Gordon. Hitler, Germans, and the Jewish Question examined German reactions to the murder of millions of European Jews, showing that a minority of extreme anti-Semites coexisted in Germany with the indifferent or fearfully disapproving majority. Next on the front-list, by Walter Kimball, was the complete correspondence of two of history’s most charismatic men. Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence includes every written communication that passed between the two leaders during the five and a half years of their wartime leadership. 1984 also saw the publication of Uncertain Alliance: the Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army: 1948-1983, by former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure, by Steven J. Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr and Edward H. Lazarus. Now out of print, the latter identified the situations in which Americans abandon the major parties and showed how third parties encourage major party responsiveness.

Interested in reading more about the Orwellian classic? You might want to check out On Nineteen-Eighty-Four: On Orwell and our Future, edited by Abbott Gleason, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha Nussbaum. As they say, the future is now.

 

 

Jeremi Suri: Is Trump blustering toward Armageddon?

Jeremi Suri, the editor for our America in the World series, has penned a powerful longform piece in The American Prospect, detailing how he thinks Trump could stumble into war:

“Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.”

Suri goes on to outline what he perceives as risks in several complicated strategic spaces: The Middle East, Europe, North Korea, and the South China Sea. Suri sets his warning in historical context, asking whether past precedent can offer a warning to current policy-makers. Read the full piece here.

Explore our America in the World series here.

 

Jason Stanley: On the Question of the Stability of Democracy

After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?

Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:

First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
It is.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]

What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]

A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].

Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.

Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]

About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:

During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]

What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]

Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.

Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.

Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.

Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.

American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.

The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.

Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?

Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.

This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.

Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.

For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?

In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.

It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.

There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.

From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.

Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.

And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?

We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.

Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.

Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.

Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.

Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.

StanleyJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

#Election2016: And then we came to the end

Our Election 2016 blog, active since last January, has featured our authors discussing everything from oration styles, to the particulars of populist rhetoric, to the politics of motherhood. And now, gratefully, for many an exhausted blogger and policy wonk, it’s a wrap. Time to get to the polls! If you’ve forgotten the location of your polling place, you can find it on Vote411 by entering your address.

 

GoVoteGraphic

 

Graphic courtesy of our Tumblr design blog.

This Halloween, a few books that won’t (shouldn’t!) die

If Halloween has you looking for a way to combine your love (or terror) of zombies and academic books, you’re in luck: Princeton University Press has quite a distinguished publishing history when it comes to the undead.

 

As you noticed if you follow us on Instagram, a few of our favorites have come back to haunt us this October morning. What is this motley crew of titles doing in a pile of withered leaves? Well, The Origins of Monsters offers a peek at the reasons behind the spread of monstrous imagery in ancient empires; Zombies and Calculus  features a veritable course on how to use higher math skills to survive the zombie apocalypse, and International Politics and Zombies invites you to ponder how well-known theories from international relations might be applied to a war with zombies. Is neuroscience your thing? Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Or of course, you can take a trip to the graveyard of economic ideology with Zombie Economics, which was probably off marauding when this photo was snapped.

If you’re feeling more ascetic, Black: The History of a Color tells the social history of the color black—archetypal color of darkness and death—but also, Michel Pastoureau tells us, monastic virtue. A strikingly designed choice:

In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us in Black: A History of a Color

A post shared by Princeton University Press (@princetonupress) on

 

Happy Halloween, bookworms.

Michael Chwe: Can democracy be saved by those who have been historically excluded?

Election 2016

by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

If only whites could vote, or only men could vote, Donald Trump would be elected president. The people we rely upon to save democracy are exactly those people whom the United States historically excluded: women and people of color.

Women and people of color have been fighting all these years not just for inclusion in U.S. democracy, but for democracy itself, it turns out. Trump’s candidacy is evidence that the project of Western liberal democracy is not self-sustaining; the ethnic and gender group that claims to have originated it has been unable to maintain consensus around its ideals, and must be bailed out by newcomers who actually take those ideals seriously. Women and people of color have been reluctantly invited to a storied and elegant social engagement, only to have to clean up after the hosts trashing the place.

Only since 2008 has our country’s choice of president differed from the choice of a majority or near-majority of white voters. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won 47 percent of the white vote compared with Gerald Ford’s 52 percent, and in 1992 Bill Clinton won 39 percent of the white vote compared with George H. W. Bush’s 40 percent (the remaining 20 percent of the white vote went to Ross Perot). In all other elections from 1972 to 2004, the candidate who won the white vote won the presidency. However, in 2008 Obama won 43 percent of the white vote compared with McCain’s 55 percent, and in 2012 Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote compared with Romney’s 59 percent.

White men have consistently voted Republican since 1972. When has their favored candidate lost? In 1976, 47 percent of white men voted for Carter and 51 percent voted for Ford, a 4 point “gap.” In 1992, Clinton won 37 percent of the white male vote compared to Bush’s 40 percent, a 3 point gap. In 1996, Clinton won 38 percent of the white male vote compared to Dole’s 49 percent, a much larger 11 point gap. In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of the white male vote compared to McCain’s 57 percent, a 16 point gap. In 2012, Obama won only 35 percent of the white male vote compared to Romney’s 62 percent, a 27 point gap. If only white men could vote, Romney would have been elected in a landslide. But the US elected Obama. As the population of color grows, and the power of women only increases, white men become less important.

How will whites, especially white men, adapt to the new demographic reality: gracefully, petulantly, or destructively? Even ostensibly liberal whites (for example Academy Awards voters, who are overwhelmingly white and male) will have to make changes far outside their previous experience. For example, the relatively liberal Bernie Sanders campaign never tried very hard to reach black voters and focused on working-class whites, an error which should have been obvious. Perhaps the U.S. avoids confronting global warming because of deeply-ingrained American consumer habits. But the U.S. has been led by white men longer than it has been a consumer society.

In a democracy, your goal is to get more votes than your opponents. So if you must offend one group in order to ingratiate yourself to another group, you should try to offend a small group. When Romney famously remarked in a private fundraiser that he was not going to “worry about” 47 percent of the U.S .electorate, what surprised me was not his callousness but his apparent belief that 47 percent was a small number. Maybe you can write off 10 percent of the population, but if you write off 47 percent, you have to win almost all of the 53 percent remaining to win a majority.

Trump insults very large groups such as women, Latinos, and veterans; indeed there are few groups whom Trump has not personally offended, including Republican voters. It is as if Trump does not realize that he should be trying to get votes, not express dominance over other people. His behavior is more consistent with an authoritarian strongman operating in pre-democratic times, or a vindictive mob boss seeking to defend territory in an autarkic free-for-all, not a candidate seeking to win an election. Perhaps Trump supporters, who tend to have authoritarian personality traits, also don’t really believe that we are operating in a democracy.

Much has been said about how Trump supporters are racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic, but it is possible to be racist or anti-immigrant and still support basic democratic values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and equal protection, and basic norms of civil society such as politeness, mutual respect, and avoiding threats of violence. What particularly delighted Trump supporters, and distinguished Trump from other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz who took equally bigoted positions, was Trump’s demonstrated willingness to violate democratic values and basic norms of civil society. Evidently for Trump supporters, the “racial and gender order,” enforced by the authoritarian tactics of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and violence, is more important than democratic values. Trump has endorsed violence against protestors at his rallies, tried to intimidate the news media, called for his opponent to be jailed, and most recently stated that he will not necessarily respect the outcome of the election. Each statement crosses a new “red line” but should not be surprising; violating democratic norms is the essence of Trump’s brand and what attracts his supporters. Among Republican voters, 84 percent say that listening to Trump brag about sexually assaulting women does not change their support for him.

Elizabeth Warren has said that Trump is the “natural consequence” of Republican extremism. But this does not go back far enough. Democracy and protection of basic human rights are valued by people who seek protection from persecution. Perhaps the roughly 40 percent of U.S. voters who support Trump are willing to sacrifice democratic values because they never expect to be in need of the protection that democratic values provide; they have always been part of the ruling coalition, and believe they always will be. Trump is struggling among Mormons, who are normally solidly Republican but have a fear and real history of being persecuted, and is struggling among white Catholics for partly the same reason. Part of Trump’s weakness with women voters is that women understand being victimized by men in a way that men do not.

Another possibility is that Trump supporters fear being outside the ruling coalition so much that they feel they must resort to authoritarian means to preserve their ruling coalition. In other words, if they truly believed in the strength of democratic values and institutions, they would not fear becoming a numerical minority. But perhaps they never believed in the first place.

What we are seeing in the widespread support for Trump is not just right-wing extremism but a deep, almost fatal, weakness in the Western democratic project. Despite constant promulgation of democratic values in its civic, educational, and cultural institutions, the majority of the largest ethnic and gender group in one of the world’s most powerful democracies are willing to dispose of those values when their historical dominance is slightly threatened. In a country founded on the ideals of welcoming immigrants and religious tolerance, with even a national holiday celebrating these values, the majority of the members of the largest ethnic group support a candidate who calls immigrants murderers and rapists.

This weakness has always existed, but Trump’s candidacy has revealed it more fully and shockingly. Trump has taken more extreme positions than any major candidate has taken before, not on the left-right spectrum, but on the desirability and legitimacy of democracy itself, and we observe roughly 40 percent of America in support. A person’s preferences over two outcomes can be observed only when she chooses among those outcomes. For the first time in modern history, Americans have been offered a clear choice between democracy and authoritarianism, and 40 percent are choosing authoritarianism. Not all of this 40 percent are Trump enthusiasts; for example, some might support Trump out of Republican party loyalty. But in some sense the existence of reluctant Trump supporters is even more alarming: a reluctant supporter is willing to vote for authoritarian values and tactics despite revulsion for Trump, and might become enthusiastic if a more polished authoritarian comes along.

Until Obama’s election, the conflict between democratic institutions and the “racial and gender order” was less apparent because the outcomes of national elections were consistent with overall white and male dominance. It is often said that the first test of a fledgling democracy is when the first peaceful transfer of power takes place. If we think of this transfer as occurring from one ethnic and gender group to another, democracy in the United States and in most western European nations has not yet passed its first real test. Instead of willingly giving up power to multiracial and multi-gender coalitions, a majority of whites and males support a candidate who wants to upend the democratic process.

It is sometimes claimed that people not in the Western cultural tradition are not “ready” for democracy. But the opposite is true. The majority of the ethnic and cultural descendants of Western Europe in one of the largest democracies are demonstrating their willingness to abandon democracy in an attempt to preserve their ethnic and gender authority. If a majority of Asians, Latinos, or African Americans, or a majority of women, supported an openly insurrectionist leader, this would be considered a national emergency.

What will Trump supporters do once Trump loses? By 2065, white men are projected to be between 20 and 25 percent of the US population, and by then would presumably realize the futility of an electoral strategy centered around themselves. But in the medium term, the 40 percent of the population who are Trump supporters will maintain power, especially in regions such as the southern and mountain states. Our federal system, which gives less populous states like Nebraska and Wyoming disproportionate representation and allows state legislatures to create congressional districts, creates safe seats for Republicans but makes the party unresponsive to national demographic trends. Republicans will not build multiethnic coalitions or appeal broadly to women and thus will not win the presidency, but they will maintain seats in Congress and lose them only slowly. Hence they will continue to use tactics of obstruction at the federal level and maintain “white enclaves” in certain states which will last even as the percentage of whites in the nation as a whole declines.

After the Civil War, the federal government found it too costly to enforce the rights of African Americans in southern states, and tolerated lynching, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Only more than a century later, when the civil rights movement forced the issue, did the federal government intervene. In the coming decades, will the federal government find it too costly to intervene and “pacify” the enclaves of Trump supporters?

What will people who oppose Trump do once he loses? Most of us will feel like a bad dream is finally over and things will go back to “normal.” But “normal” no longer exists. We used to see people like the armed white supremacists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as pathetic idiots, but now it is clear that circumstances exist in which 40 percent of the U.S. population would support people who are equally pathetic and idiotic, and much more dangerous. It is now obvious to everyone, including would-be demagogues, that these 40 percent are mobilizable, and that white male authoritarianism can attract much more than a fringe. Even before Trump, white nationalists enjoyed enough congressional support to force the dismantling of the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that monitored their activities. After Trump loses, will there be enough political will, for example among moderate Democrats, to confront the hatred and violence his campaign has legitimized?

The Republican party, which could have gone in the direction of multiethnic coalitions after its 2013 “autopsy report,” has gone in the opposite direction, and cannot really change course given its now close and radioactive (to women and people of color) association with Trump. Hence a large chunk of the U.S. political system is “locked in” to white male authoritarianism at least for a few decades.

Some recommend trying to understand and sympathize with Trump supporters, who feel like something is being taken away from them and have low education in an economy which increasingly rewards only smarts and favors “female” over “male” personality traits. This is of course necessary, but this sympathy and understanding is more expedient than fairly given; have you ever heard anyone advocating sympathy for the “Asian working class” or “Black working class?”

We need to think about how we can make whites, especially white men, feel that they can continue to be valued and respected members of society. The end of apartheid is a reasonable analogy: famously, Nelson Mandela appeared in full uniform for the 1995 world rugby final won by the South African team, lending his support to a sport and team that symbolized apartheid. For many, this gesture did more to unite post-apartheid South Africa than any other event. Perhaps Obama can go to Branson.

The danger to democracy itself from Trump supporters is real and must be confronted. It is the greatest danger to democracy since World War II, even perhaps since the Civil War, and completely internal. If we had done a better and earlier job with confronting, as opposed to accommodating, white and male privilege, and convincing people that what they feel is being taken away is something that they never should have felt they had in the first place, we might not have reached this situation. Combating white and male privilege is now not only about justice but also about steering democracy away from self-destruction. As it is, we made our society just inclusive enough to save it.

ChweMichael Suk-Young Chwe is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge and Jane Austen, Game Theorist (both Princeton).

Adam Seth Levine: Does Populist Rhetoric Undermine Itself?

Election Series Banner

by Adam Seth Levine

The 2016 presidential race features no shortage of populist rhetoric. While scholars and commentators disagree about the extent to which candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are truly populists, there is no doubt that they have frequently employed rhetoric that contains two essential features: first, a critique of contemporary political and economic life and, second, a call for broader participation by the people that will set things right in response to an elite held responsible for these problems.

At first blush, these two features would seem to be perfectly compatible with one another. However, a growing body of research shows that they often are not. In fact, the sharper the critique of contemporary life—and, in particular, the more it is phrased in terms that are personally relevant—the more likely it is to undermine people’s desire to heed the call to action. In short, populist rhetoric is often self-undermining.

This line of research uses experiments to randomly assign people to receive populist rhetoric (or not) and then measures their level of political engagement. The general conclusion that emerges is that, when rhetoric reminds people about critiques of economic and political life that relate directly to their personal financial concerns and/or ways in which our democracy fails to be responsive the wishes of the citizenry, then such rhetoric often reduces rather than increases their willingness to spend scarce resources on activism. At the same time, however, it does increase people’s concern about the issues and willingness to express support for remedies. So, it satisfies one goal while at the same time undermining another. This pattern is important because, while public opinion can impact the shape of the political agenda and the likelihood of policy change, that link is not automatic. Such change is more likely to arise when there is also organized activism pushing for it.

For instance, in my 2015 book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction, I conducted a series of experiments in which some participants were randomly assigned to receive general information about a civic organization along with populist appeals related to its work to address health care costs or education costs, while others just received the general information. I found that when the populist rhetoric reminded people about financial constraints they were personally facing (e.g. students with education loans, or people without health insurance facing large health care costs), then it reduced their willingness to donate money to the organization. If they were in the labor force, it also reduced their willingness to spend time by joining the organization. Yet, in all cases, people become more concerned about the issue at hand and were more likely to consider it a political priority. In short, reminding people about their financial constraints often does not motivate them to want to spend money or time on politics, even if it heightens concern about the problem.

What about critiques of contemporary political life? During the 2016 race, both Trump and Sanders have repeatedly warned that citizens’ voices are not being heard and that the election is rigged. Robyn Stiles and I recently tested the effect of this kind of rhetoric on people’s willingness to be electorally engaged. We found that in each case messages about elections being rigged or the wealthy buying elections reduced electoral engagement, even though they increased the degree to which people expressed increasing concern about the problem. In short, telling people that their voice may not matter does not make them want to spend scarce resources exercising it, even if it makes them more likely to support policies that would reduce political inequality.

While these two experiments by no means cover the full range of populist rhetoric, they do highlight the central point: there is often a critical and unrecognized tension within the two main goals of populist rhetoric. What to do? One answer is that sparking activism in response to people’s concerns about contemporary economic and political life will often require tapping into motivations other than the issues themselves. After all, people get involved in politics for many reasons that are not solely about the personal grievances and policy goals they hold, such as motivations tied to social influence and other social goals (e.g. the desire to respond affirmatively to a friend). Invoking these motivations is not always easy, but at the same time holds greater promise for sparking activism in situations where the rhetoric itself is self-undermining.

Levine

Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published in a variety of outlets such as the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Review of Behavioral Economics, and Political Communication. His work has won numerous awards, including the 2011 E. E. Schattschneider Prize. This prize is the highest dissertation award in the field of American government and is given annually by the American Political Science Association. He is the author of American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.