In the Land of Infants: Partisan Divides in a World Without Discourse

That’s it. We’re through the looking glass. A reality TV star is now president-elect of the United States. The brutal reality of the situation has been difficult to absorb. Watching the electoral map turn red in favor of a deranged carnival barker was truly astonishing.  Feelings? Yeah, I got ‘em: A yawning chasm of disbelief, filled with a potent, bitter cocktail of dread and resentment and anger.

There’s really no point in offering any half-hearted, pusillanimous gesture of diplomacy. The people who voted for Trump made a decision variously stupid, unsavory, and horrid – by all counts difficult (if not impossible) to justify and worthy of strong repudiation. There is no Trump vote that is not rooted in ignorance, racism, self-serving political opportunism, or some combination thereof.

Despite the galling miasma of naivety and misinformation that forms the basis of their political views, I actually don’t hold the view that most Trump supporters are bad people. Some of them are – there’s no denying that part of his success stems from his open appeals to racism and cultural animosity, and, in the this regard, the sudden uptick in attacks on minorities and open white supremacy following immediately on the heels of Trump’s victory is sickeningly telling. But most, I think, aren’t actually bigots. Instead, they’re people who have a few false and unexamined beliefs – about the economic status of the United States, the dangers of a Clinton presidency, the perceived moral and social decay of the nation, the putative causes thereof, etc. – that led them into an extremely poor political choice. They exercised their electoral franchise, as is their right, but did so foolishly.

Apparently, expressing this view is somehow an expression of hatred. That, in any case, is the sentiment I’ve seen echoed across social media in response to moderate and liberal voters who have dared to express any combination of consternation and disapproval at the success of Trump. But this is nonsense. Keep in mind, 59% of Trump supporters (or, more specifically, people with a favorable view of Trump) think President Obama was not born in the United States. 65% think Obama is a secret Muslim. Many Trump voters are also demonstrably racist, with 52% expressing sympathy for the opinion that black people are less evolved than whites. Certainly many of the people who ultimately wound up voting for Trump don’t share these views, but the fact that they cast their lot in with those who do is itself worthy of rebuke. Presumably, they fall into the segment of the Trump coalition who voted the way they did either to stop Hillary Clinton or stimulate change in Washington. Which is weird, because their vote is an implicit endorsement of the perspective that Hillary Clinton is so awful and the U.S. Federal Government so hopelessly corrupt that it is worth aligning themselves with vile, knuckle-dragging bigots to prevent their political opponent from winning.

To this day, I have yet to encounter an argument that justifies the latter position. And that’s not for lack of trying. Vehement, anti-Clinton partisans point, first and foremost, to the vacancy on the Supreme Court  – one that, were congress not polluted with the ideological fanatics and bought-out shitheels that comprise the modern Republican Party, would already have been filled, per constitutional mandate. They see the appointment of a moderate – never mind liberal – judge as a threat to their well-being on the fear that said judge will limit Second Amendment freedoms and hope that a conservative alternative will aid them in their quest to limit reproductive rights. Both opinions are rooted in their own peculiar breed of ignorance, the latter further skewed by the ever-poisonous influence religious zealotry. And tellingly, these concerns expose a fundamental inconsistency in political agenda of the pro-Trump coalition.

Insofar as anyone voted for Trump because they want to see fundamental change in Washington, appointing another conservative to the Supreme Court is a spectacular way to guarantee that never happens. It was the conservative Supreme Court who gave us the Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions. Given the lay of the modern political landscape, our only hope of ever seeing those decisions overturned is through the action of moderate to left-leaning Supreme Court. To the extent that anyone voted for Trump because they’ve lost faith in the legitimacy of U.S. political institutions, their vote will, in a steely twist of irony, have the effect of hastening our march into plutocracy. That is, they will have done their part in accelerating the capture of legislative and regulatory initiatives by wealthy special interests, thereby making government less responsive to the average voter and, as a result, less legitimate in most voter’s eyes.

The anti-Clinton/liberal Trump voter is also commonly a creature beholden to the discredited principles of free-market fundamentalism. They see in Trump the prospect for much-needed market liberalization and deregulation, in line with the view that an open, uninhibited market is the best recipe for economic and social prosperity. The more people are able to freely pursue their raw economic self-interest, unencumbered by rules and regulations, the better off everyone will be. This is a view perfectly consistent with the principles of neoclassical economics. Consequently, it’s considered convenient – even, perversely, morally laudable – to ignore the fact that many of the core assumptions underlying beliefs about market optimality and the infinite wisdom of the invisible hand – and therefore all policy prescriptions based therein – are false, repeatedly disproven in the lab and in the field. Markets are only sensitive to relatively short-term feedbacks, measured exclusively in profit. Any interest in mitigating harmful environmental or social side-effects of market behavior, particularly those that will be primarily felt by spatially or temporally distant populations – i.e., people living miles away from the polluting factors and generations in the future – can only be satisfied through regulation. Those old enough can remember the pollution and litter of a world before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the EPA. Provided Trump and the ideological fanatics in congress get their way – and they manage to live another ten or fifteen years – they might be in for a rather unsettling bit of deja vu. Likewise, if you enjoy a forty-hour work week, anything resembling a living wage, and a work environment that is not completely indifferent to your physical well-being, you have government regulation to thank for it.

None of which is to say regulation can’t be ill-conceived and stifling. There is a strong argument to made that the reach of government regulation – the petty micromanaging of business behavior by bloated bureaucracies – hasn’t grown in some ways economically and socially debilitating. But the people Trump supporters elected to fix government overreach are ideological fanatics, many of them financially beholden to special interests that stand to benefit enormously from a wholesale gutting of the government’s regulatory capacity. That might free up some small business from the burden of onerous bureaucratic meddling, but in the long run, it’ll spell social and economic disaster. There’ll be a few short-run winners, profiting enormously from the work of the lunatics and mendacious sycophants they’ve bought in Washington. But in the end, almost everyone else stands to lose.

So yeah, I think the best we can say of the people who voted for Trump is that they made a dangerously ignorant decision. And I make no apologies about expressing that view. In the most optimistic, permissive reading, these men and women sided with racist jackals and gibbering far-right lunatics for the purpose making sure a Democrat didn’t take the White House. Their justifications for doing so are frail, rooted in misinformation and ideological zealotry, tottering on the razor-edge of outright inanity.

And there we have the deeper, darker truth running right through the heart of this sociopolitical clusterfuck. Almost half (47%) of the people who supported Trump in the days following the Republican National Convention said they did so to prevent Hillary Clinton from taking office. And the same numbers held for Clinton: half of her supporters were motivated by what political scientists call negative partisanship. Putting aside how justifiable either view is – I’d rather not waste any more time kicking that rotting horse carcass – this simple fact tells us something incredibly troubling about the state of American democracy.

Critically, it tells us that neither party is doing much of a good job satisfying the interests of their constituents. Instead of voting for candidates that offer exciting policy agendas, the American electorate is locked in a perpetual holding action against their political opponents. For all the reasons I outlined above, I detest the Republican Party. But I detest the Democratic Party only slightly less. They are both beholden to special interests and indifferent to the will of most voters. Indeed, much of the blame for Trump’s victory rests with the Democratic Party, who worked to undermine a popular movement in order to nominate an intensely flawed, deeply compromised candidate. Absent the looming monstrousness of Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserved to lose.

But here’s the rub: when I say I detest the Republican Party, I mean just that: the private organization that works to pave the way for corporate feudalism in service to rabid greed and unhinged ideological fanaticism. I’m frequently disappointed and frustrated by the people who vote them into office, keeping that vile organization afloat election cycle after election cycle, and I make no bones about expressing that view. But when I say a decision to vote for Trump could be permissibly described as ignorant, that is not a whole-cloth dismissal of individual voters, much less an expression of hatred. That people think otherwise is, ironically, an expression of ignorance over what it means to be ignorant. Most people are ignorant about most things, because nobody has the time to develop expertise – or even rounded familiarity – in more than a few subjects. That means they will be knowledge about a few things and ignorant about most others. True of me just as much as a Trump voter.

Social media has been filled with venom and rancor these past few days, diluted by callow calls for love and unity. This misses the point entirely. Now is the time for vociferous criticism and debate. Our widespread unwillingness or inability to engage in these things is surely partial cause to the ideological insularity that fosters such deep partisan antipathy. When someone says your view on a subject reeks of ignorance, don’t respond with some tepid plea that they stop attacking your view or, worse still, the milquetoast inanity that “everyone’s entitled to their own opinions”. Answer them back. Explain how and why your view or choice was well-informed. Do so sternly and directly, but avoid personal attacks and name-calling. Until the citizens of the United States learn how to not only tolerate, but actively celebrate, difficult, uncomfortable conversations about cherished beliefs and political opinions, we can only expect our partisan divides to worsen.

When I write these blogs, it’s always in the ultimately vain, pitifully naive hope that they will encourage a serious conversation with someone who disagrees with me. Yet I post them on social, media, and this is the response I get:

childrenIs it really a surprise that I eventually begin to nurture a bit of antipathy towards these people. I read books and thoughtful analyses from reputable sources while working to eschew overtly partisan outlets. I fact-check and source and verify, then I synthesize all of that information into a political opinion. The people who disagree with me typically respond in a way that could generously described as extremely childish. I imagine the same is true of conservatives who post thoughtful essays – greeted by vitriol and insults and a barrage of vapid political memes. (By the way, if your political commentary consists primarily of shared-memes, your political commentary is, at best, worthless – more likely, it’s outright damaging, serving only to reinforce and exacerbate partisan divides.)

Of course, I am capable of reasoning beyond my emotional responses. As embarrassing and counterproductive as these people’s political discourse is, I don’t for a second believe I can extrapolate from it to a complete picture of who they are as individuals. Some of them probably help strangers stranded on the side of road, or lend their neighbors a hand during tough times. All of them probably think their family is important, value loyalty among friends, prize hard work and self-reliance, and really only want what’s best for themselves, their family, and their country. The same is true of almost everyone in the United States, regardless of political persuasion.

The trick we’ve all got to master is this: remembering how much most of us share – regardless of heritage, sexual preference, religion, or political affiliation – while taking the bold plunge into a world filled with hard conversations. It is critical that we all learn to talk with one another and recognize that sometimes unpleasant political discourse is part of the price for living in a free and open society under the rule of a representative government. Debate and persuasion are at the core of the democratic experiment. It will, without doubt, fail if we reduce our friends and neighbors and political opponents to tribal abstractions, vilifying those who disagree with us from within the cloistered halls of an ideological echo chamber. Match your hopes for America with a willingness to do something difficult. That means weaning yourself off insipid appeals to unity and instead talking with someone you disagree with. If you can do this without raising your voice or calling the other person a name, you’ll have achieved a real victory – both for yourself and for American democracy.

The Republican Party is Now an Open Threat to American Democracy

Let’s dispense with all this sour nonsense about equal corruption among America’s primary political parties. That little piece of banality has been rotting on the shelf for far too long, and it’s time we tossed it out. Not only is it trite, it’s also untrue. Sure, the Democratic Party exists as little else than an instrument of self-perpetuation, seeking today only to make sure there are Democrats tomorrow. It’s ranks are rife with corruption and short-sighted self-interest. But it hardly holds a candle to the festering political abomination that is the Republican Party.

It’s time we face the facts of the modern political landscape, raw and unburnished. The Republican Party has, in no uncertain terms, become an unbridled threat to American democracy, the perpetuation of constitutional order, and the rule of law. On the national stage, there are vanishingly few Republicans who haven’t either bought wholesale into an outrageous breed of ideological fanaticism or who haven’t been bought – wholesale – by the agents of plutocratic corruption.

Consider, momentarily, the program of recalcitrant obstructionism the Republican Party has undertaken throughout the Obama presidency. They have resisted bipartisan compromise at every turn, undermining the traditions of representative governance in slavish devotion to puritanical ideological proscriptions and wealthy special interests. Unable to overturn the Affordable Care Act via electoral mandate or the legislative protocols outlined in the U.S. Constitution, they have resorted to holding the entire Federal Government – and the people it represents – hostage. Far from a form of patriotic dissent, this is an expression of a deeply rooted and tremendously troubling authoritarian impulse. Beneath the inane rhetoric lies a simple, hideous imperative: govern according to our whims or don’t govern at all.

The ideological fervor and rank perfidy of the Republican Party began to reach its zenith in early 2016, when the death of Antonin Scalia left the Supreme Court one seat short of its full complement. Rather than fulfill their constitutional obligation to review President Obama’s appointee – moderate Merrick Garland – the Republicans in the Senate refused to take action, repeatedly arguing that the American people should have a voice in the appointment (forgetting, conveniently, that the American people had already expressed their voice in the election of Obama). Now, they’ve doubled-down on their original anti-democratic impulse. Senate Republicans like John McCain, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr have advocated indefinite inaction on the matter of Supreme Court appointments – but only if Hillary Clinton wins.

Of course, they and their far-right apologists will be eager to attribute their behavior to bold patriotism – a heroic defense of Second Amendment rights against the pinko activist Clinton is, in their view, sure to appoint. This is bullshit. There is no sense in which patriotic devotion to the founding principles of the United States can be taken to motivate or justify this breed of my-way-or-the-highway governance. What Senate Republicans are essentially saying is that electoral results should validate their will or be blatantly disregarded.

In this line, Republicans are also openly advocating impeaching Hillary Clinton – in advance of any criminal conviction or breach of presidential authority. To anyone who thinks representative governance was ever, maybe, perhaps, kind of a good idea, this rhetoric should be both sickening and alarming. These people are unabashedly asserting that their governmental aims and political ideals should be put ahead of the will of the people. Somewhere, lingering not far over the horizon, are open appeals to fascism.  

Still not convinced? Consider the mounting evidence that an ideologically motivated, overtly politicized wing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Inspired by the book Clinton Cash – by Government Accountability Institute president and Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer – they are actively trying to put the worst presidential candidate in history – a man who represents a clear threat to democratic order – in office.

Pressing further down the political hierarchy, it’s clear that many state-level Republicans aren’t big fans of democracy either. They’ve been busy redrawing congressional districts, resulting in voting blocks where the only competition is between hardcore conservatives and far-right extremists. The ideological fanaticism that permeates the Republican House is largely attributable to their incessant gerrymandering. At the same time, they’ve been working hard to suppress voter turnout among ethnic minorities and other traditionally left-leaning demographics. Ostensibly, this is about voter-fraud. But since in person voter-fraud is virtually non-existent, Republicans are on record touting the partisan merits of their actions, and have made demonstrable efforts to exclude left-leaning ethnic minorities from the electoral process, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument that their restrictive ballot initiatives are about anything other than stealing elections.

Unsurprisingly, these authoritarian urges have clearly trickled down into the Republican electorate, evinced in razor-edge relief by the broad support currently enjoyed by Donald J. Trump – a candidate who has repeatedly promised to disregard the U.S. Constitution, undermine the rule of law, use the power of his office to persecute political enemies, encouraged violent recourse against his political opposition, and sewn doubt in the very mechanism responsible for the peaceful transition of power that lies at the core of democracy. Clearly, there is a wide consensus among the rubes and fanatics in the Republican base – lead into a clamor of dark derangement by the pied pipers in the right wing media echo chamber – that the American government should conform to their ahistorical, racially charged vision or cease to exist.

Doubtful? Consider the right-wing militants who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, who, armed and under threat of force, demanded the U.S. government cede public lands to private interests. Or the former senator who suggested a Clinton victory would be cause for brandishing muskets – a clear allusion to violent revolution. This sentiment has been echoed down the ranks of the babbling, politically incoherent mobs of ignorant swine clamoring for the election of Donald Trump. These are people who harbor the dangerous, intrinsically despotic view that democratic governance is only valid when it ratifies their will, advocating remediation through violence when it does otherwise.

On a pragmatic level – measured only in terms of votes cast and the political consequences thereof – voting Republican and entertaining a suite of values consistent with the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are becoming increasingly contradictory domains. It is only through tortured intellectual gymnastics or abject, willful ignorance that these two things can ever coincide in the same mind. More and more, voting Republican is becoming, at the very least, an expression of a bizarre breed of facultative fascism – a willingness to opportunistically dispense with democracy in order to see your ideological preferences satisfied. Reconciling support for Republicans and belief in the principles of representative government is an uphill battle, and the grade is only getting steeper.

Usually, this is the place where conservatives still clinging to some modicum of sensibility retort, “but the Democrats are just as bad!” But this is hogwash – slimmy, pathetic apologetics under a veneer of bipartisan objectivity. Democrats are not openly expressing such vicious disdain for constitutional order and the rule of law. They are not instituting voter suppression initiatives. They did not give us the disastrous Citizens United vs FEC or McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions, nor do they currently openly support them with the vigor of sentate Republicans like Ted Cruz of Mitch McConnell. They do not openly applaud the Federal Government’s precipitous slide into the gaping maw of plutocracy. That anyone thinks otherwise is glaring testimony to the efficacy of Republican propaganda machine and the cesspit of vitriol and misinformation that is the conservative media echo chamber. Only on a political landscape so thoroughly decoupled from the realm of verifiable fact, where a balkanized media presents a populace largely devoid of the tools necessary to critically evaluate information a smorgasbord of “facts” precisely tailored to their extant ideological biases, could something as monstrous as the modern Republican Party emerge and persist.

Conservative apologists might wish to point to the putative Fabian socialism of Barack Obama as justification for their decision to endorse politicians who, in broad daylight, work to erode the foundations of representative government in America. But this is a facade, erected in belligerent indifference to the fact that the little legislation Obama has gotten through congress has been consistently struck in the neoclassical mold of neoliberal economics. Yet even if it were true that Obama was the pinko operative Conservatives fear, this fact alone would hardly justify an assault on the very fabric of American democracy.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument against small-c conservatism. It’s nothing of the sort. If you think government should be smaller and interfere with the affairs of business as little as possible, fine. But in the modern Republican Party, those values have morphed into a form of fundamentalist religion: small government and market deregulation at all costs. This is a platform entirely divorced from reality, rooted instead in ideological zealotry and crude venality. It can only be maintained when people assiduously avoid learning about how the world actually works: that sometimes government is bad and sometimes it is good, that unfettered market behavior can be both incredibly lucrative and enormously destructive.  

By all means, be a conservative, if that is where your inclinations take you. In doing so, however, it is absolutely critical that you avoid doctrinaire attitudes and eschew certitude. Responsible governance can be built in an electorate composed of competing value systems, but only when the people who harbor those values are responsive to evidence and open to the possibility that they are wrong about some things. Uncertainty is the lifeblood of rationality.

There is no political utopia: the manifestation of the perfect liberal vision would necessarily entail misery and oppression for conservatives, and vice versa. Politics isn’t about achieving perfection, it’s about doing the best we can with the resources we have available. Which is a matter of diligently seeking out and correcting the errors that are bound to crop up in any form of political order. If government gets too big and restrictive, respond accordingly. If a market produces harmful downstream consequences, regulate it. If the regulations prove overly restrictive, tweak them. Representative government demands constant effort.

The modern Republican Party exists in defiance of this point. Like religious fanatics, some of them are so convinced that they’ve got the world figured out that they are willing to resort to fascism to see their will through. Others, like bought-out sycophants, are willing to abandon all principle to enrich themselves by selling legislation to the highest bidders. In both cases, the results are the same: an outright assault on the rule of law and the foundations of representative government.

Jeffrey Guhin was Absolutely Right About Neil deGrasse Tyson and Absolutely Wrong About Science

Writing rebuttals to the random thoughts that emerge from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed has become something of a cottage industry of late. He appears to make a game of trying to cram profundity into 140 characters. The results might be generously described as mixed. His most recent misfire came in the form of a proposal to build a virtual nation called “Rationalia”, where all policy decisions are adjudicated by evidence.

In response, sociologist Jeffrey Guhin entered the ‘rebut Tyson’s twitter feed’ industry with a perversely ill-conceived takedown. The flaws with Tyson’s reasoning are rather elementary and simple to articulate. Brass tacks, a nation in which policy was dictated by the weight of evidence wouldn’t be able to make much policy. While it’s hard to think of an issue where evidence is entirely immaterial, there are plenty of issues where the weight of that evidence is far less than decisive. Choices about what kinds of policy to enact on issues like abortion, capital punishment, and resource redistribution can and should be informed by evidence, but they are ultimately decided by the ceaseless competition among changing value systems.

It’s clear that Guhin has some sense of this, but instead of driving the point home, he turns to an attack on the entire process of scientific discovery and the veracity of the results it yields.  In doing so, he reveals an embarrassing misunderstanding of the way science works and the reasons for which it is granted special credence as a knowledge-gaining activity. Indeed, it’s difficult to read Guhin’s piece without coming away with the impression that he literally does not understand science at all.

Guhin’s primary gripe with science seems to be that scientists are people and, like all other people, they are driven by irrational impulses and blinkered by unexamined prejudices. This is an extraordinarily mundane observation, but it has long provided fodder for assaults on science from people in across the “other ways of knowing” spectrum, from eastern spiritualists to vehement anti-vaxxers. In terms of originality and impact, it might fit somewhere between the observation that rocks tend to be hard and you’ll die if you don’t eat.

The fact that scientists can be just as biased and irrational as anyone else is precisely why science, as a process, eschews appeals to authority. General relativity isn’t considered a powerful scientific theory because the man who came up with it, Albert Einstein, was a well-respected scientist. It’s considered powerful because its predictions match observable reality with incredible precision. Other scientists checked Einstein’s work, making observations and performing experiments to test how closely it aligned with reality. Their results indicated that general relativity is an immensely successful explanatory framework.

This is the feature of science that Guhin really overlooks. Much of the rationality of science emerges from the structure of scientific communities. Guhin’s ignorance of this fundamental point suggests he spends more time cataloging the perceived moral infractions of science than actually thinking about how science works. Myriad researchers compete and cooperate with one another in the shared pursuit of new knowledge. Though any individual scientist might be blind to the flaws of her experimental methods or pet hypotheses, plenty of her peers will gladly assist her in uncovering every point of error. The community structure of science serves as a course-corrective for the subjective biases, irrationality, and dogmatism exhibited by any of its individual constituents.

So when Guhin points to social Darwinism and phrenology as scientific failures, he neglects to mention that their eventual dismissal is a clear indication that the process of scientific discovery works just fine. Those ideas fell out of favor because the cold arbitration of observable reality, in concert with the relentless scrutiny of peer review, found them wanting. Recognizing that they didn’t do any explanatory work, scientists cast those ideas aside, where they joined the colossal dust-heap of failed scientific ideas.

As Guhin rightly suggests, the history of science is, more than anything else, a story of failure. In the long run, most scientific ideas turn out to be wrong in some way or other. Many just need to be tweaked, but others are discarded outright. Usually the results are pretty innocuous. J.J. Becher’s phlogiston theory of combustion never hurt anybody, nor did Joseph Priestly’s recalcitrant defense of it.

Indeed, almost all of the failures Guhin seeks to cast as instances where science grossly violated the bounds of human ethics are really nothing of the sort. Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalinist Russia labored to present a veneer of scientific credibility, but never really exhibited anything of the sort. Both were expressions of state religion, where ideological fundamentalism and political fanaticism actively stifled scientific research and trampled many of the values most esteemed in science. Other sins Guhin tries to pin on science, like scientific Marxism, were dismissed decades ago because they were never really scientific in the first place.

It’s absolutely critical to remember that every time a scientific idea has turned out wrong, it has been a scientist or a community of scientists that discovered its faults. More importantly, in the quest to understand the nature of reality – to construct reliable explanations of how the real world actually functions – science is the only thing that has ever worked. Measured against its litany of failures, the halls of successful scientific explanations can seem rather sparsely populated. But science is also the only process capable of landing a robot on a comet and building enormously sophisticated pocket computers. It’s the only source to turn to when you want to explain the structure of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe or pluck information about the origins of the cosmos from data on the temperature of empty space and the Doppler shift of distant galaxies. It’s the only method for identifying the causal linkages between patterns of global climate change and human behavior. It’s the only tool for uncovering the causes of diseases and successful methods for treating them. With the right kind of belligerent myopia, it’s easy forget that all these things are the product of science. Though it might only do so rarely, science is literally the only method for uncovering truths that transcend the boundaries of language and culture.

Given all this, it might be possible to see a nugget of truth beneath Tyson’s otherwise unrefined suggestion. It points to a more modest claim: that in any decision-making process where scientific evidence can be brought to bear, that evidence absolutely should be granted special emphasis. It’s not that values don’t have a role to play. It’s that values independent of reason and evidence are a recipe for unmitigated disaster.

 

Media Bias Isn’t Right or Left – It’s in the Very Nature of the Market

“The media is biased.”

The above might be one of the most common refrains on the modern political landscape. Conservatives decry the selectivity of the liberal media and the limitless capacity of left-wing pundits to find offense in the mundane. Likewise, liberals bemoan the pernicious influence of the conservative echo chamber and the accompanying spread of the poisonous white victimhood narrative. The details vary, but the core complaint is the same. Indeed, that news outlets do an incredibly poor job at fulfilling their journalistic mandate – to deliver a detached and accurate presentation of the facts – is one of the few points of near unanimous bipartisan consent. The only thing people can’t agree on is where that bias comes from. Is the spin right or left?

The answer, paradoxically, is both and neither. It’s hard to argue that the quagmire of vitriol and misinformation that populates conservative talk radio and Fox News isn’t tainted by ideological bias. Likewise for outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post – to their credit, they’re not engines of white grievance culture, but they add their fair share of spin to their reporting.

Deep down, however, the problem is more insidious. It doesn’t stem from journalists and media moguls with an ideological agenda. On a more fundamental level, the desultory lows of modern reporting are an inevitable outworking of a system that makes profit the final arbiter of success, dictating what does and does not work in an industry tasked with contributing an invaluable public good to society. Most of the sensationalism, hyperbole, and misinformation that characterises the 24 hours news cycle and your Facebook news feed is attributable to the fact that outlets are concerned with making money before and above any interest in presenting the public with reliable information and thoughtful analysis.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

For decades – maybe even centuries – the studied doctrines of neoclassical economics have been the closest thing America has had to a national religion. The free market is a sacred institution, ever wise and all-knowing, securing the best outcomes for the most people by letting their acquisitive impulses guide them to success. It doesn’t matter the partisan affiliations of the congress or presidency – neoclassical thinking and neoliberal policy has dominated government agendas for decades.

Truly, markets are extraordinary engines for innovation. This is hardly controversial. But there are severe flaws inherent in the central dogmas of traditional economic theory. For over a century, economic research has been dominated by a program aimed at deducing theoretical expectations from logical axioms about what people ought to do get the most bang for their buck. Lacking a strong observational or experimental basis, it has come to entail a number of assumptions that run contrary to what people actually do in the real world. That humans are perfectly rational and all-knowing, for one. If the economy were comprised of millions of Lt. Commander Datas or Mr. Spocks, this would make sense. Unfortunately, it’s comprised of humans with severe limitations on time, knowledge, and attention, along with deep psychological biases that inhibit their ability to behave with perfect rationality.

Here’s another flaw in traditional economic thinking: it treats the economy like a closed equilibrium system. In less arcane terms, that means economists have tended to model the economy as something that exists in isolation – i.e., the only inputs are economic inputs like supply and demand – tending in the long run to seek balance and stability. Neither assumption is true. What happens in the economy affects the social and political world, and vice versa, often in unpredictable ways. The downstream consequences of a firm’s decision to produce a product or adopt a marketing strategy echo well beyond the pocketbooks of its employees and shareholders.

In economics parlance, down-the-road or outside effects of market behavior are termed “externalities”. They can be good or bad, positive or negative. Think of a business that moves into a community, creating new jobs, increasing wages and providing a new source of tax revenue, perhaps allowing residents to afford needed improvements to languishing school facilities. Or think of an industry that, as a byproduct of production, creates hazardous waste materials, some of which leach into the local water supply. These are externalities.

On a policy level, externalities generate a lot of the conflict over how much of a hand governments should have in policing the behavior of economic agents. Market fundamentalists – i.e. the most devout adherents to the neoclassical paradigm – argue that economic agents can react to externalities by changing their market behavior, rewarding or punishing companies depending on the full range of social, economic, political and ecological changes they generate. If a company poisons the local water supply, consumers can punish it by buying from a competitor.

Critics argue that this view isn’t very realistic. What if the company poisoning the local water supply does most of its business overseas? How are local consumers to wield their buying power to induce the local factory to adopt better waste management procedures when the vast majority of the revenue supporting that factory comes from India or China? Perhaps they can prevail upon the Chinese to stop buying the product, but since the traditional paradigm also assumes economic agents are infinitely selfish, this seems unlikely. As rational agents, the overseas consumers are buying that product because it is the best option among available alternatives. They aren’t going to change their behavior because some people in a small town thousands of miles away are feeling sick. It’s difficult to see how the market contains any mechanism for correcting the problem.

Profit and the Press

Now, consider the problem that emerges when businesses are tasked with producing a product that is primarily intended as a social or political good. This doesn’t have to be weighed as some kind of nebulous abstraction. There is a real-world example, and this is where we get back to the news media.

Think of the purposes of journalism. Make a quick list. Read it off. Where, on your list, did you put “to generate a profit”? Not very high, I suspect, if it even came up. You probably listed things like “encourage and maintain an informed citizenry” or “discover truth” or “present information” or “record history” before you got around to “make money for owners/shareholders”. And, contrary to the views of free market fundamentalists, you weren’t wrong in your assessment.

Journalism, from the inception of the American experiment, has been widely understood as essential to the successful function of government. Participatory governance – by the people, for the people – is impossible absent an informed citizenry. News outlets do the important work of keeping people apprised of world events, helping them make smart decisions when it comes time to choose which candidates or policy initiatives to support in the voting booth. In economics terms, most of their value exists in the form of externalities.

In the traditional paradigm, this doesn’t really represent much of a problem. The vast majority of people don’t have the time or the resources to keep an eye on all the events that might be pertinent to their choices as a consumer or a voter, so they outsource that work to the media. The value of any journalistic endeavor rests primarily in its relative capacity to edify its audience, so according to the rational actor theory of economics, people should subscribe to the news outlets that do the best job of delivering quality, reliable information. It’s in their own best interest to do so.

But in the real world, we’re faced with the question – what exactly is the market for high quality information? Most of the issues voters face are complicated. Understanding and interpreting them requires nuance and sophistication, prolonged attention and careful analysis. How many cable subscribers are there who would rather sit through a three-hour presentation on the causes and consequences of climate change than watch a football game? I would, but I’m a weirdo. Most people would prefer the football game – and all the attendant spectacle – to the lecture.

Media outlets invested in providing journalistic coverage face stiff competition. Not only do they have to compete against other journalistic entities, they have to compete against every other piece of entertainment jockeying for our attention. Given the predilections of the audience, it’s no surprise that this leads to situations where something like an inelegant but accurate description of Donald Trump’s voting base can be exploded into a point of vicious contention. Controversy sells – a mundane reporting of the facts does not. People are more likely to pay attention to strife and sensationalism than they are to raw information, nuanced discussion, and considered analysis. The market responds accordingly. We get the news media we deserve, not the news media we need.

Governing Blind

The myriad failings of modern news media can be boiled down to a simple disparity between the goals of journalism and the goals of the market. Journalism is principally meant to inform and enlighten, but economic agents sink or swim by their ability to make money. In the rational utopia described by traditional economic thinking, this wouldn’t be a problem. People would recognize that they stand to benefit from searching for and zeroing in on the news outlets that do the best job of providing them with reliable information and thoughtful analysis. Ideological biases would be immaterial, because people would be compelled by raw economic self-interest to look beyond partisanship and uncover the truth. The reporting strategies of CNN and Fox would be eradicated by consumers rationally pursuing their parochial monetary interests.

Problem is, we don’t live in that world. That’s a world where people know exactly what is in their own best interests and act accordingly. But we know, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that people don’t actually behave that way. Most people don’t save as much money as they should. Many people use credit cards and high interest loans to buy giant flat-screen TVs and impractical cars. Diabetics eat candy bars and alcoholics continue to drink alcohol. Rarely do people have the information necessary to create an accurate forecast of the downstream consequences of their buying choices, and even in cases where people do, they still often make the wrong decision. Irrationality pervades individual decision-making and entire markets (which are, of course, the emergent result of hundreds, thousands, and millions of individual decisions). 

It has been understood for decades that human rationality is, at best, extremely bounded. People are significantly more inclined to satisfy short-sighted emotional impulses than they are to act on a carefully calculated assessment of the costs and benefits of each decision they make. So, where it would certainly be best for people to seek out deeply reported, scrupulously sourced journalism, they instead choose to lend their attention to stories about a grossly unqualified candidate’s latest blunder, distant murders with no real relevance to their day-to-day lives, or vapid celebrity gossip. People gravitate to the macabre and the outrageous. The news media, seeking to profit before they inform, is eager to indulge.

In a participatory democracy, this presents a severe problem. Absent good information, the will of voters is nearly impotent, easily hijacked by charlatans and hucksters who appeal to their extant ideological biases and unsavory prejudices. For evidence, one need look no further than the desperate state into which the right-wing media echo chamber – putative news outlets like Drudge and Breitbart and Fox News – has driven the Republican party: millions of conservatives have been driven to a point of ideological lunacy by the blustery voices of media pundits who get rich selling fear and rage and conspiracy. The ramifications of this are manifest every time a poor voter punches the ballot for a candidate who will enact policies virtually guaranteed to worsen her economic prospects, simply because they present a facade of family values or down-home traditionalism they she appreciates.

Democracy does not work without an informed electorate. People need to have a basic understanding of the issues they face if they are to have an effective voice in addressing them. Productive action on problems like climate change and the nation’s precipitous slide toward plutocracy is impossible when large segments of the population are in the dark about their causes. Already, a disinterested and uninformed electorate has allowed the legislative process to be captured and bent to the parochial whims of special interest groups. Voter influence on the shape and function of laws is virtually nonexistent.  But there are still domains where the will of voters is decisive, and it is becoming increasingly clear that their profound ignorance about a host of important issues hobbles their power to help sculpt a functional government.

King Dollar

There are plenty of people who think that an urge to promote a political agenda has corrupted news media. They aren’t entirely wrong. Outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are, to be both fair and inclusive, purveyors of politically motivated garbage. But the entire apparatus of modern news media represents the market’s unequivocal failure to secure an optimal outcome in an industry built to do something more important than sustain itself and make money. Fox and Breitbart exist because the public, contrary to their own practical best interests, has an appetite for partisan rancor and misinformation. Those outlets exist, above all else, to pay tribute to King Dollar.

Consider the reality of our world. By almost any metric, we occupy a segment of human history safer and more stable than any preceding generation. More people have access to basic healthcare and infrastructure than at any point in history. Interpersonal violence has been declining for years. Minority rights are more broadly recognized. Fewer people die preventable deaths. Accessing information – about practically any subject – is easier than it has ever been.

Yet the news media – obliging its audience’s thirst for the ominous and prurient – has done an outstanding job of convincing everyone that the world is tottering on the brink of destruction. People see harm in the most unlikely of sources and dismiss real hazards that are difficult to put into everyday terms. Parents think their children will be kidnapped if they play outside unsupervised. Nearly everyone overestimates their chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack. People across the political spectrum think GMOs are threatening and vaccines are dangerous, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, conservatives consistently dismiss legitimate concerns over anthropogenic climate change as part of some perverse liberal ponzi scheme and large segments of the public remain oblivious to the patterns of regulatory and legislative capture that are rapidly eroding their democratic voice. 

In each case, the weight of evidence is clear, but the news media has assiduously cultivated an impression of discord and debate. Why? Two reasons: First, an acrimonious atmosphere attracts more attention. Second, those outlets that opt for a careful reporting of facts risk alienating the portion of their audience that subscribes to the relevant brand of nonsense.

The failings of modern journalism are perhaps the starkest illustration of the market’s inability to generate optimal outcomes in any industry with loftier ambitions and more profound implications than the accumulation of wealth. We expect more of news outlets than an ability to pay the bills or enrich shareholders. But the need to do both while appealing to the basest predilections of short-sighted, fickle humans – competing for attention with Dancing with the Stars and Keeping up with the Kardashians and the Walking Dead – pulls the media off course. There’s simply more ad revenue in a story about a celebrity meltdown, a controversial candidate, or the nefarious backroom dealings of the political opposition than there is in insightful, rigorous reporting about how the world actually operates.

Saddeningly, this is not a bug in the system. Since its inception, professional journalism has been shackled to the yoke of markets, ceaselessly bent to the task of generating revenue through the sale of subscriptions, individual newspapers, or advertising space. From the yellow journalism of the 19th century to the scandal-mongering of modern news networks, the entire enterprise has shown an unfortunate – but predictable – tendency to drift away from its purpose as a social good, perpetually guided off-course by the narrow incentives imposed by capitalism. In this light, it is clear that the paragons of journalistic professionalism are aberrations. As long as King Dollar rules, bad journalism will remain unavoidable.

To market fundamentalists, this is heresy. Already conservative politicians and pundits who recognize the corrosive influence right-wing media has had upon their base are positing that a market correction is on its way. There’s really no indication that this is actually a reasonable expectation. It’s simply a desperate recitation of an old article faith: that the market always know best. That would be true in the market of Homo economicus – that cold, rational, calculating beast with perfect knowledge and infinite foresight. Not so, in the world of Homo sapiens, who have limited time and attention, extremely faulty and myopic foresight, and are plagued by a variety of cognitive biases that reliably pull them off course.

Brass tacks, this is a massive problem. But it’s also a solvable one. I can think of a number of useful measures, but for the time being, let me suggest just two: turn off the 24 hours news networks, permanently, and be a little more discriminating in your Facebook clicks. Think of what you want in your journalism and act accordingly. This means mastering our impulses – and that’s no simple trick. In the long run, however, we’ll need to rework journalism from the ground up.

For now, if you’re still inclined to think of the media is biased, so be it. Just remember that the bias isn’t so much Red or Blue as it is shades of green.

The Stubborn 40%: or, What the Fuck is Wrong With the People Who Still Support Donald Trump

This is probably the first presidential election in living memory – and certainly the first election within my lifetime – where there is a clear, unambiguously wrong answer on the ballot. There is enough flexibility in the principles of representative governance and liberal democracy – enough space for interpretation in the values spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution – that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were defensible choices for president. The same is true of Obama and McCain, Kerry and Bush, Bush and Gore, and so on, going back decades. For years, thoughtful voters have consistently been able to punch the ticket for either major party candidate, anchored by a believable defense that their decision was consistent with both a sensible reading of traditional American ideals and a rational interest in peace and international stability.

Not true, in 2016. This year, the American electorate has been presented with the starkest choice imaginable, a decision cast into sharp relief by the fact that one candidate is professionally, temperamentally and intellectually unqualified for the office under contest. Donald Trump represents a threat, not only to the American Experiment, but to the economic and political stability of the entire world. An egomaniacal gasbag and lecherous charlatan, dispositionally insensitive to constructive criticism and new information, Trump has sown distrust in the legitimacy of the very system meant to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, corroding faith in the central mechanism of democratic governance. To boot, he has fueled his campaign on racism, tribalism, xenophobia, and virulent nationalism, all while promising to blatantly disregard the Bill of Rights and the governmental strictures outlined in the larger body of the U.S. Constitution. He has boasted about sexual assault and pedophilia, openly toyed with the idea of using the power of the presidency to persecute his political opponents, and – in a blazing display of contempt for long-standing international relationships, peace, and human life – advocated nuclear proliferation and preemptive nuclear strikes. His ignorance about science, economics, the structure of the U.S. government, the function of executive branch, and international affairs is staggering, dwarfed only by his need to satisfy his own ego at virtually any cost.

There is no case to be made that the values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the U.S. Constitution are laudable aims and useful guideposts for measuring the efficacy and legitimacy of Federal authority and that Donald Trump should be president. The two claims stand in mutual contradiction. Either Constitutional order is desirable or Donald Trump should be president. Either international peace and stability are worthwhile or  Donald Trump should be president. Either all human lives are inherently valuable or Donald Trump should be president. Either active racism, sexism, and xenophobia should be stripped from humanity’s collective consciousness or Donald Trump should be president. There are simply no reasonable arguments behind the proposition that the office of president comes with a mandate to help ensure peace, prosperity, equality, and liberty and that Donald Trump is even a good (never mind the best) choice for said office.

Thanks to Donald Trump, our decision about who to vote for runs far deeper than the issues that normally divide the electorate. It’s not about whether or not climate change is real and caused by human activity. It’s not about whether it makes sense to impose a fundamentalist interpretation of one religious tradition’s definition of marriage on an entire country. It’s not about whether the federal government has grown too large, or what kind of tax system works best. Nor does it have much to do with immigration, deficits, terrorism, or privatization. Sure, all of those issues matter, and all of them will be influenced in some way or another by the outcome of the election. But on a more fundamental level, this election is about who we are as a nation. It’s about whether we’re a country of principled, thoughtful voters, willing to make tough choices to uphold cherished values, or a country of degenerate ideologues, racists, and dupes willing to follow an authoritarian huckster to the edge of chaos – and over. This is the election that will validate or discount the Founding Fathers’ concerns that mob rule could pave the way for despotism.

Yet none of this seems sufficient to convince some 40% of the electorate not to let their blind partisan loyalties and ideological intransigence ride our country off a cliff. Very likely, Donald Trump will lose the election. But the fact that he will lose by anything less than a crushing electoral landslide is deeply troubling. Though Hillary Clinton is an inarguably flawed, deeply problematic candidate, there is no justifiable sense in which her presidency poses a threat to the perpetuation of democratic order. Not so with Trump, whose strongest affinity to world leaders rests among petty, megalomaniacal African despots.

The fact of the matter is, anyone who finds the prospect of a Clinton presidency thoroughly unpalatable need not vote for Hillary Clinton. They can sate their political conscience by voting for Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin or Jill Stein. Barring that, they can display their stalwart defiance against the prevailing political order by writing in a name, voting for a fictional character or their imaginary friend. The existence of third party candidates is hardly a secret, yet a distressingly large swath of the electorate is still considering a vote for the most poisonous candidate since Barry Goldwater. Informed citizens making thoughtful choices are the lifeblood of representative governance. If those criteria obtained in this election season, the Trump campaign would look up to Jill Stein’s polling numbers with envy. Clearly, there’s a cog somewhere in the machine.

The explanation for this is, I think, twofold. First – and most simply – there is the raw fact that some of Trump’s base really do fit into that basket of deplorables. They are racist, sexist, xenophobic nationalists with a paltry understanding of the way the world actually works – if we dare be so permissive as to grant that it even exists. Their feelings of disillusionment, disconnection, and disenfranchisement come from a very real and understandable place: the fact that there is no place for them in the society more intelligent and ethical people are trying to build. Their primitive worldview belongs in the dustbin of history and the rest of us should be doing our best to place it there.

Second, and perhaps more distressingly, there is the wider problem of increasing partisan acrimony and ideological insularity. People on both the left and the right are both unwilling to seriously entertain opposing views and frighteningly eager to disparage contrasting perspectives. This is a problem that exists on both ends of the political spectrum, but in the candidacy of Donald Trump we have what amounts to a natural experiment definitively proving that it has driven the political right completely – and, perhaps, irreparably – off the rails. The conservative media echo chamber has done such a good job of vilifying the political left and spreading a baseless, parasitic white-Christian victimhood narrative that some Americans are willing to fall in step behind an obvious political disaster in order to best their political and ideological opponents. We’ll only know if this is true of the political left when the Democrats nominate someone like Flavor Flav or Kim Kardashian to run against someone like Bobby Jindal or Mike Huckabee – that is, someone abjectly unqualified against someone deeply problematic.

This means that after a few million American heroes do the mature, responsible business of electing Hillary Clinton in order to defeat Donald Trump, there will still be plenty of work to be done. In 1972 George McGovern’s presidential ambitions were obliterated, losing the election with only 37.5% of the popular vote and 17 electoral college votes. McGovern was a reasonable candidate running against an incumbent Richard Nixon (who would be impeached and ultimately resign just two years later). Jimmy Carter lost his second term to Ronald Reagan, winning only six states, despite being a perfectly ethical, intelligent, sane human being. Donald Trump – a puerile, impulsive, pathological liar and conspiracy theorist with virtually no foresight and a repeatedly self-expressed disregard for the rule of law – stands to win something like 40% of the popular vote and at least 35% of the electoral college. This fact alone stands in glaring testament to the fact that our political system is in need of serious repairs.

There’s nothing to be done about the plebeian rabble who actually think Trump makes sense. Anyone who listens to what Trump has to say and actively cheers his candidacy is, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause. Our only hope is that their children and grandchildren turn out slightly less ignorant and intolerant than they are, allowing the slow march of progress to move another few inches forward.

Going forward, there needs to be an urgent program of national soul-searching, the focus of which must be on discovering and eradicating vectors of tribalism and ideological intransigence. We need to find out how we got to a place where people who aren’t racists, xenophobes, or struggling to find their way in a complex world with the cognitive faculties of a sea cucumber are willing to vote for a signally unqualified maniac in order to prevent a flawed – but capable – candidate from winning. They’re willing to trade a potentially bad president for what could very well be our last president. And that, no doubt, is a disturbing symptom of some kind of national lunacy. We’ve had bad presidents before. Hopefully it’ll be a long while before we have our last one.

At root, some of this flows directly from a fallacy at the core of democracy’s central contention: that people can rationally discern what is best for them and will reliably act accordingly. A large and growing body of psychological, anthropological, economic, and political evidence demonstrates that this is simply not the case. Even hyper-intelligent people with rigorous, specialized training in things like game theory and formal logic can be pulled off course by emotional impulses and ideological biases. For a recent field case, look no further than the remarkable success of Trump. It’s tempting to think of his base as entirely comprised of gibbering idiots, but that’s really not the case. A large proportion of the pro-Trump electorate is dangerously ignorant, but there are also very intelligent people seriously considering him as a viable option. The best explanation for this otherwise perplexing phenomenon boils down to deep psychological biases that lend themselves to reactionism and groupishness.

It is these biases that are inflamed and exaggerated by the conservative media echo chamber. Working on extant emotional preferences, outlets like Fox News and right-wing talk radio take people who might be inclined to vote conservative for a variety of thoughtful, principled reasons and turn them into ideological fanatics, possessed of such an unbridled distrust of the political opposition and passionate partisan loyalty that they would rather vote for one of the worst candidates in history than vote for a troubled candidate or third party alternative. The modern media landscape excels at taking the very likely evolved emotional preferences that limit our rationality in everyday decision-making and exploding them into unbridgeable barriers.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see what can be done about this. All of the most likely solutions seem to fall somewhere between paternalism and authoritarianism. The only recourse that seems in line with our desired aims – mitigating partisan intransigence and ideological fanaticism – and our guiding principles – freedom of speech and expression, for instance – is discourse and persuasion. Sadly, this seems the method that has proven least effective on the modern political landscape. Whatever progress it yields will be glacial. But personally, I think it’s worth a try.

Which sets an agenda going forward. Those of us who recognize the existential threat Donald Trump poses to our political system and are willing to act accordingly should make efforts to convince redeemable Trump supporters (i.e. those outside of the basket of deplorables) to see the light. That doesn’t mean convincing them to adopt a liberal worldview – I don’t see how that’s possible or even, necessarily, desirable. Rather, it means encouraging them to divorce themselves from the information vectors that are poisoning their thinking – turning off Fox News and conservative talk radio, avoiding sites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report, and leaving books written by right-wing pundits on the shelves. In the spirit of detente, we might propose a trade, turning our attention from blatantly liberal news sources. This is not because they are in anyway equivalent to Sean Hannity or Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh, but because we can all (regardless of political inclination) afford to spend less time watching or reading material that only serves to confirm or reinforce our existing worldview.

If this is a route to progress, it’ll be both tedious and frustrating. But simply convincing friends and family to avoid sources that seed dangerous and demonstrably false narratives into the national consciousness could go a long way toward moving the United States toward a place where productive discourse and bipartisan compromise are once again feasible. Importantly, it might get us to a place where a candidate like Donald Trump will be drummed out of the primaries well before we get to a place where the fabric of democracy looks precipitously close to unraveling.


So who am I voting for? I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

And, because it is both funny and considerably more intelligent than anything Trump has actually said, enjoy:

Ted Cruz Thinks Captain Kirk Would Be A Republican – He’s Wrong and Here’s Why

Kirk

Captain James T. Kirk

According to a recent New York Times interview, Ted Cruz thinks Captain James T. Kirk would have been a Republican. He’s wrong – and here’s why. (Naturally, we’ll file this is one of the more important topics I’ve written about.)

I’ll skip the pedantry of pointing out that Republicans and Democrats no longer exist in the future depicted in Star Trek. Instead, let’s get right to the heart of the matter – James T. Kirk is the captain of a starship on a mission of exploration for a socialist government, and Star Trek itself is a rosy-eyed depiction of a socialist utopia, crafted by and populated with humanists. The very essence of Star Trek should be anathema to the modern Republican.

For the woefully uninitiated, here’s bit of a primer. Star Trek takes place in the 23rd – 24th centuries, following the adventures of men, women, various aliens, and even a few androids, operating on behalf of Starfleet, the exploratory/defensive wing of a massive, centralized bureaucracy called the United Federation of Planets. Member planets in the UFP are in many ways autonomous, but are nonetheless bound by the dictates of the central authority of the Federation. Society is classless, and the economy operates without the exchange of money.

Star Trek depicts a world in which values closely aligned with progressive humanism have triumphed. The Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is celebrated, and collectivist phrases like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” carry the weight of moral compunction. The motivating force behind the mission(s) of the starship(s) Enterprise is a search for knowledge simply for sake of knowledge – and at great personal risk and material cost.

Infinite diversity

The Vulcan symbol for diversity. Spock describes it as follows: “The triangle and the circle – different shapes, materials, and textures – represent any two diverse things which come together to create truth or beauty – represented by the jewel.”

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, put the spirit of diversity that drives Star Trek quite forcefully:

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms… If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

One can be forgiven for thinking these are values individuals inclined toward conservatism – at least as expressed by the modern GOP – don’t really appreciate. People who think members of the LGBT community do not deserve to share the same rights as everyone else are miles away from delighting in “those small differences”. They are expressing the sort of regressive attitude that will forever keep the most plausible, most reachable aspects of the future depicted in Star Trek forever grounded in the world of science-fiction.

Likewise, Republican rhetoric is often firmly rooted in a celebration of individual self-interest and anti-establishment sentiments that are contrary to the submission of individual needs to the collective good. Nor can it be said that people who cut funding to organizations like NASA and the National Science Foundation come off as particularly big fans of the quest for knowledge.

Hell, even free market capitalism, approached with near religious reverence by the modern GOP, is portrayed as an artifact of humanity’s childish past in the universe of Star Trek. Its primary practitioners are the Ferengi, hideous aliens who are variously treated as predatory, lascivious villains and greedy, bumbling clowns. The Koch brothers, Donald Trumps, Mitt Romneys and Herman Cains of the Star Trek universe are greeted with scorn and distrust. Their motivations are viewed as sordid and puerile. But for the modern Republican, capitalism and the quest for profit is the glue holding the moral architecture of the universe together.

So why does Ted Cruz think James T. Kirk, the equivalent of a NASA mission commander working for the government of the Netherlands, is a Republican? To begin with, there seems to be a natural human tendency to paint our heroes and role-models in the subjective palette of our individual values. Cruz is projecting his ideals on the charming space-rogue that is Captain Kirk. According to Cruz, Kirk is “working class” and “a passionate fighter for justice”. What exactly “working class” means in a classless society is, and shall remain, mysterious. But Cruz is dead-on when he describes Kirk as a passionate fighter for justice. He’s just wrong in thinking that characteristic makes him a Republican. There are passionate crusaders for justice on both sides of the aisle – they just have a few differences of opinion concerning what qualifies as “justice”. I have a strong suspicion that Kirk might be a little more sympathetic to the liberal/progressive perspective on justice than the conservative one.

In the interview Cruz says that “readers of science fiction are interested and attracted to the future. And politics is a battle for framing that future.” The future depicted in Star Trek is one in which the pillars of modern Republican ideology – Christian theology, free market capitalism, nationalism, traditionalism – have been cast aside in favor of the ideals espoused by progressive humanists. Christianity is properly viewed as a collection of myths – a comfort blanket for humanity’s infancy. Economic and monetary interests have been entirely subordinated to the will of the state and the society it serves. Multiculturalism is the rule of the day and the shackles of tradition have been broken away and replaced by context-sensitive humanistic ethics.

Let me reiterate: there’s no reason the conservatively inclined shouldn’t like Star Trek. The world depicted in Mad Max is a morose and violent hellscape. But those movies – the latest entry in particular – are great entertainment. I just wouldn’t want to live in that world. Based purely on observations of their behavior and stated political beliefs, I suspect something along those lines captures a person like Ted Cruz’s appreciation of Star Trek. It’s fine from a distance, but he sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, his political record is that of a man who works diligently to prevent it from ever happening.

gene-roddenberry

Wise words from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.