Content Editor: Adam Daroff

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cheering vs Arguing.


I've said it before and I'll say it again: Americans suck at arguing about politics.


Most of what the political "arguments" we see on social media aren't  arguments at all, they're what I call "cheering."

Cheering is basically yelling "our team rules!!!"  or "your team sucks!!!" really loudly. It's a great way to get people who are already on your side to get off their butts and pay attention, and maybe even get involved in political activism. That's obviously important. But it's also obvious that just yelling "my side is awesome" isn't going to persuade anyone to join my side.


Actually, cheering can often be the opposite of persuasive. What looks like an awesome cheer from our side usually looks moronic and evil from the other. In fact, members of the other side often use our cheers to make us look bad to people who we might have been able to persuade to join us. Both sides do this, and actually it's one of the only forms of argument that we're any good at.




Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do we deal with Nazis?




It's crazy that we have to ask this question in 2017, but....what do we do about Nazis in America?

Courtesy of Anthony Crider. Shared under Creative Commons 

It's become clear, especially since Charlottesville, that there are a disturbing number of Americans who explicitly support white supremacy, antisemitism, and actual, honest-to-goodness fascism.

How do we deal with these people?

Now, this is a blog about politics, and I’m a political scientist, so the question I’m asking here is how we deal with Nazis politically. 

I'm not going to talk about what to do if a Neo-Nazi or White supremacist or  KKK member is coming at you with a club, or a car, or an armored division. Those are certainly problems, but they're different from the problems that I'm most worried about right now.

What I'm worried about is how we can keep these sorts of people from hijacking our political process. They can vote after all - they're American citizens - and we've already seen that they can convince other Americans to join their cause, or to vote for someone like Donald Trump. It already worked once, how can we stop them from doing it again?

We have two options. First, we can persuade Nazis to stop being Nazis. As preposterous as that sounds, it's possible, and we already know how to do it. But even if that doesn’t work, we can convince the rest of the country to join our fight against them.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Political Persuasion 201: Stop Trying to Win.



We suck at arguing about politics. This is partly because we always have this dream of how we want the argument to end. We’re going to make some amazing point and all of a sudden our opponent is going to see the light and realize...

Edited from original at xkcd.com.

The idea that we can really “win” a political argument, and force our opponents to wallow in their own wrongness is seductive. But it’s something we need to give up, because it’s NEVER going to happen.

Think about it – have you have you ever seen someone arguing about politics suddenly change their mind and admit they were wrong? It’s pretty rare.

This doesn’t mean political arguments are worthless though. Arguments can change minds. But only if we stop trying to win them.

Monday, July 10, 2017

How to Learn About Science Like a Scientist



Politics these days can feel like a war between those who believe in science and those that don’t. Many conservatives are ignoring the scientific consensus on climate change, while President Trump lives in a word of "alternative facts," yelling "fake news!" at any scientific results he doesn't like. But conservatives aren't the only ones who have trouble with science. No matter what side they're coming from, media reports about science almost never the whole story, and sometimes they get it totally wrong.

 As a scientist, this has been a pet peeve of mine for a while, so I was thrilled to find1 this excellent piece on Last Week Tonight, where John Oliver breaks down this issue:




Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Breaking News: 0.00003% of Trump supporters said something dumb on Twitter





Did you see this? NPR Tweeted Declaration Of Independence, And Trump Supporters Flipped Out.


 I have to admit, I got a rush of Shadenfreude when I heard about this – it confirms everything thing I believe about how dumb Trump supporters really are.

But then I took a step back, and remembered that I hate stories that treat the internet comments of a few dozen people as “news,” and then use it to make claims about how millions of Americans think and act.

I know it's just meant to be fun, but I think that these sorts of articles are actually harming our ability to be talk intelligently and persuasively about politics, by feeding our most powerful biases and making us worse at constructing good arguments.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Treason



What do you think about this?



 I can only imagine what's going through your head. What kind of short-sighted idiot would say such a thing?

This is America after allThe freedom to "defy" and oppose the President is at the very core of who we are as a country.  Heck, it's practically out duty as citizens to oppose our leaders when they do something evil or stupid.

After all, this isn't a dictatorship....yet.

The fact that people actually believe this sort of thing about Trump just shows how dangerous he is.

Right?

Well, maybe not.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Don't Get Distracted



Effective activism in the Trump era is largely about deciding where to funnel your energy. You can’t have a march or rally or an internet campaign about every crazy tweet Trump fires off. You need to pick your battles and focus on the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

This is harder than it sounds.


The Terrible Budget that Doesn’t Matter

On March 18th President Trump released his budget proposal and liberals on the internet went bananas. They had a good reason to be concerned. The budget proposed slashing funding for a number of critical departments and programs, like the National Institute of Health:
…and even the program that funds “Meals on Wheels”


These memes make it sound that we need to ensure that Trump’s budget isn’t passed, in order to protect our health, and our seniors. 

But what these memes don’t tell you (and what their authors might not even know) is that even in the unlikely event that Trump's budget passes, it wouldn’t have any impact on the funding of any of these programs.

That sounds too bizarre to be true, but to understand why it is you have to spend a few minutes wading through…

The American Federal Budget Process!


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This is Your Brain on Bias



These days it seems like Trump and his supporters are living in their own alternate universe. If you've ever tried to talk to a Trump voter about politics, you know how frustrating it can be. It's like they refuse to accept basic facts about reality, even when the proof is right in front of their eyes, but they're willing to believe whatever "fake news" they read online, or whatever crazy thing Trump says, even if there's no evidence at all.

What do we do about this?

Clearly conservatives just need to stop being dumb and admit that we’re correct, right? Our views are supported by science and data; theirs are not.

But it's not that simple.

Remember This?

To me, this is obviously a white dress with gold trim. Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you're one of those people who sees it as a blue dress with black trim. While the internet was losing its collective mind arguing about this in 2015 someone found out that the dress really is blue and black. But even after learning that, I still can't help but see is as white and gold, no matter how hard I try. If you're part of team "blue and black" I probably sound crazy.

How can different people disagree so profoundly about something so simple as the color of a dress? 

"The Dress" highlights a quirk on how all of our minds work. When we perceive things in the world, like a picture of a dress, we don't just "see it," we construct it.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Political Persuasion 101




If your social media feed is anything like mine, you probably see a lot of political memes like these:



Memes are funny, and they can be insightful. But sometimes we get fooled into thinking they’re persuasive. They're not.

Take that “Obamacare” meme. For many conservatives it felt like an “epic burn” to liberal supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

But if you’re a liberal like me, it doesn’t even make sense. Obamacare isn’t a “thing” you can “have.” It’s an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a Medicaid expansion, a bunch of regulations, and tons of other stuff. But aside from that, it’s not even clear what point this meme is making. Why wouldn’t Democrats want to be “first in line” to “have” Obamacare?

The meme only makes sense when you realize that the author just can’t wrap his or her mind around the fact that some people actually like Obamacare. In the world this author lives in, that's not something that's even conceivable.

We can laugh, but the liberal “Willy Wonka” meme is no better.

This meme is making the argument that Obama obviously couldn’t have been the worst President ever because George W. Bush was clearly so much worse. Maybe that sounds reasonable to you and me, but to a conservative it would make no sense at all. After all, the reason a conservative would want to say that Obama was the worst President ever was because they thought he was so much worse than the guy who was President right before him.

Sure, lots of bad stuff happened in the Bush years, like 9/11, the financial crisis, and the Iraq war, but most conservatives don’t think all of that stuff was Bush’s fault, just like liberals don’t think that the rise of ISIS was Obama’s fault. Maybe conservatives are wrong - maybe all that bad stuff really was Bush’s fault, but this meme doesn’t make that argument. It assumes that you already think that Bush’s presidency was terrible. But anyone who believes that probably doesn't also think Obama was the worst President ever. 

In both of these cases we have “arguments” that appear persuasive to the people who already agree with them, but which are unpersuasive (or incomprehensible) to the very people they are supposedly trying to persuade. If you look through your social media feed you'll see that most political memes are like this.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Obama made America more conservative (but Trump is probably making it more liberal)



In America, there are about as many conservatives as there are liberals. That means that, if you are a liberal, you are going to need to convince some conservatives to become liberal in order to get anything done - because of the whole "democracy" thing.

But maybe not. I sometimes hear liberal activists say that that if only conservative Americans could get a taste of how awesome liberal policy actually is, they would "come to their senses" and become liberals, without us ever having to talk to them.

By this logic, all we need to do is just use whatever tricks we can come up with (even potentially "undemocratic" ones - like a coup or revolution) to impose  more liberal policy. Even if most Americans say they don't want these sorts of policies, they'll change their minds once they see how well things are going. Right?

Unfortunately, history tells us that's probably not going to happen.

The Public is a Thermostat.

There's this weird thing that happens in American politics. Believe it or not, the following are both true:


  • Americans tend to become more liberal when a Republican is President
  • Americans tend to become more conservative when a Democrat is President. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What happens when America gets concerned about inequality?



An article of mine on the political implications of American concerns about economic inequality was just published in the scientific journal Political Behavior. The actual article is really long and technical, with lots of math and academic jargon, but here it is in a nutshell.1

What happens when Americans get concerned about economic inequality?

Economic inequality has been getting worse for the last few decades. You can see how the percentage of total income earned by the top 1% has been increasing since at least the 1980s, and the Occupy protests have apparently done nothing to slow it down.


A number of researchers have been trying to figure out why we as a country don't seem to be doing much to respond to increasing inequality.

For many of us, there seems to be a pretty obvious explanation: The "1%" have been using their power and influence to keep the government from stepping in and doing something about inequality.

This is precisely what many social science researchers think is going on. These researchers argue that many Americans are really concerned about inequality, and want the government to step in and do something about it, but the government isn't listening. These researches think that influence of the rich and powerful is preventing government policy from reflecting the “will of the people.”

A key part of this argument is the claim that, when Americans are concerned about inequality, that means they want the government to do something about it. Some researchers who have tried to test this assertion even think they've confirmed it.

But my research shows that they're probably wrong. Americans can get more concerned about inequality without getting any more supportive of government action. In fact, they might actually become less supportive!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Activism in the country of Smallonia



When you're trying to understand something complicated, like American politics, it can help to start by imagining a simplified "model" that strips away some of that complexity. So, without further ado...

Welcome to Smallonia

Imagine that you are a Leftist activist in the country of Smallonia.  Smallonia only has 100 citizens. Like America it is a capitalist society, but the government taxes some of the rich people and uses the money to help some of the poor people. Smallonia has only two political parties – the Left and the Right, and each party has a “moderate” and “radical” wing.

  • Those on the Radical Right want Smallonia to become a purely libertarian society – no taxes, no welfare, just the “free market” doing everything. 
  • Those on the Moderate Right think the basic system is fine, but want lower taxes and less generous welfare programs for the poor
  • Those on the Moderate Left also think the basic system is fine, but want higher taxes and more generous welfare programs for the poor. 
  • Those on the Radical Left (including you) want Smallonia to become a purely socialist society – where the government distributes wealth equitably, and there are no more for-profit corporations. 

Smallonia is run by a democratically elected President. Each party chooses its nominee by majority vote, and then whole country votes on which of the candidates should become President. In the case of a tie, the winner is decided by a coin flip.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Halftime in American Politics - What’s the Score?




After the election, I heard a lot of people say things like “Man, this country is really different from how I thought it was.”  I kind of felt like this myself. After all, when I look around at my friends, my family, my co-workers, and my social media circles, I see mainstream Democrats, radical liberal activists who think the Democratic party doesn’t go far enough, “left leaning” moderates, and a few moderate conservatives who just are as horrified by Trump as I am.

It’s easy for someone like me to fall into the trap of thinking that this is basically what America looks like. To many of us the idea that there could be over sixty million Americans who would vote for someone like Trump just seemed preposterous. But that’s exactly what happened.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Let’s not screw this up



OK, so things are bad. News reports these days seem like excerpts from a dystopian novel - a really tacky and lame one. But a lot of us are fighting back. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with stories of outrage and posts calling for action, and I’m thrilled to see so much passion and energy devoted to resistance and dissent. On the other hand, we need to take a step back.

I study this stuff for a living. I have a Ph.D. in Social Policy, where my research is focused on understanding how you actually get progressive policies to happen in America. For the last decade I’ve researched American public opinion about race, religion, and politics; and I’ve taught statistics and polling methods to graduate students in public policy. I've studied economics, statistics, politics, psychology. and philosophy. And I’m worried.

I’m worried that all this passionate resistance we’re seeing might end up like that other campaign of passionate activism...

Occupy

Remember Occupy? It sure seemed like a big deal at the time. Back in 2011, Occupy protesters had a camp in almost every major city in America. Everyone was talking about how finally things were finally going to change.

But Occupy refused to give a list of how exactly it wanted things to change. It wanted to bring the issues of inequality to national attention, to give a voice to the “99%,” but it refused to make any specific demands, or to endorse any specific political figures or party. In the words of Occupy activists and authors Amy Schrager Lang and Daniel Lang/Levitsk,

’demands’ cannot be made... they are not meaningful in a time when an apparently seamless social and economic order is able to absorb and sell back to us anything that can be contained and marketed.

That’s a cool quote, but I’m not really sure what it means.


Did Occupy Succeed?

Flash forward to 2017. Let’s look at economic inequality. Occupy's lasting rhetorical legacy was its attack on the power of "the 1%." Here’s a chart showing the percent of all income in  America that was earned by the “top 1%” over the past 30 years.1





Income inequality hasn't gotten any better. Actually, it's gotten worse. In 2011, when Occupy was in full swing, the top 1% were earning around 19% of all income in the US. In 2014, the most recent year we have data for, they were earning around 20%. If Occupy wanted to reduce income inequality, it hasn't had any success so far.

What about our political system? Occupy talked about reducing the influence of money in politics. How's that going?  Well...


  • The President is a billionaire CEO
  • The Secretary Education is a billionaire CEO
  • The Secretary of Commerce is a billionare Wall Street investor
  • The Secretary of State is the former CEO of ExxonMobil
  • The Secretary of the Treasury is a former investment banker and hedge fund manager

If Occupy wanted to reduce the influence of billionaires, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers in politics, it hasn't had much success.

What about Bernie Sanders? Even though Occupy avoided talking about changing the system through “traditional” political channels, Bernie Sanders led a “political revolution” that seemed to epitomize everything that Occupy was about.

 And then he lost the Democratic primary by almost 4 million votes.

Now, maybe you believe that some faction of the “1%” (say, members of the DNC) used their power and influence to unfairly deny Bernie the nomination and victory he deserved. Maybe you're right. But if the 1% was able to (fairly or otherwise) deny Bernie Sanders the nomination, then that would imply Occupy must not have been very successful in reducing the power of the 1%.

It’s hard to evaluate the success of a movement that avoided making any actual demands, but even Micha White, who helped found the Occupy movement, has called it a “constructive failure.” And that was before the 2016 election.

How can we make sure we don’t fail again?

The lesson of Occupy is that passionate protests and activism don’t always lead to things actually getting better. The stakes are so much higher today than they were in 2009. Democracy itself could be on the line. We can’t afford to screw this one up.

Even though I was skeptical of Occupy while it was going on, it had an impact on me. I believed in the movement's message about inequality, but instead of joining the the protests, I got a Ph.D. in Social Policy and wrote my dissertation on the political implications of American beliefs about economic inequality.

Now I want to help us avoid making the same mistakes again.

One of the big problems with Occupy was the assumption that as long as we’re doing “what feels right” then everything will somehow work out. If we want to get things done in politics for real, we need specific goals and specific plans for how to achieve them. We need to be willing to wade through some boring data. We need to dig into complex issues and ask ourselves tough questions about what we really know, and what we don’t. We need to admit that we could be wrong.

Activism is important. We need passion and hope. We need catchy slogans like “we are the 99%!” We need sit-ins and protests. We need complex ideas boiled down to a few sentences that can go viral when we can slap them on a Game of Thrones meme. That’s the only way we can get Americans to sit up and do something.

But activism isn't everything. We also need to have a slower, more deliberate discussion, where we bring in data, research, and rational arguments to try and understand what’s going on and what we can do about it.

That’s the sort of discussion I’ll be leading here. In these posts I’ll be presenting data and arguments from a number of different fields that I think can help us engage in effective resistance and produce real, positive results. Because this time, I want us to actually accomplish something.

Notes:

 1 This data comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can check it out here:

References:

Lang, A. S., & Lang/Levitsky, D. (2012). The Politics of the Impossible. In A. S. Lang & D. Lang/Levitsky (Eds.), Dreaming In Public: Building the Occupy Movement. Oxford, UK: New International Publications

Vasil, A. (2016). What Micah White learned from the failure of Occupy Wall Street.   Retrieved from https://nowtoronto.com/news/ecoholic/what-micah-white-learned-from-the-failure-of-occupy-wall-street/