Why We Teach

My first semester at UTRGV, I was teaching Intro to US government. This was in the fall of 2016, a pretty eventful time in US politics. I was incredibly nervous to be at a new university, in a part of the country I had no familiarity with, trying to figure out how to teach students for whom politics had very different resonances than the folks I had been teaching in Santa Cruz.

I mostly got through it alright. But a big part of that was the students themselves. I can still vividly remember the day after the election, trying to figure out how I could situate what was happening – and what it meant about how the country felt about my students, about this part of the country, about the whole idea of the American dream.

What I discovered is that my students were far more resilient than I was. They still believed in the promise. They still felt like this was a place that could live up to its potential. They were still proud to be here. Not universally, of course. Some were terrified, some were despondent. But on the whole, they had a deep faith in their own potential, and they were certain they could make things better.

Fast forward three years. I just attended the graduation and saw many of those students I first met in the fall of 2016 walk across the stage, big smiles on their faces, diplomas in their hands. I watched them celebrate with their families. I got to meet parents, and in many cases we communicated with smiles more than words – because they spoke about as much English as I can speak Spanish (not a lot!). But it didn’t matter. Because we were united by our admiration and love for these amazing people.

I have students going onto law school at places like UT and St. Mary’s and Colorado. They want to practice immigration law to come back to the border and help people make something of the promise of America. They want to practice family law, to protect women who suffer domestic violence. I have students immediately starting jobs in local politics. I have students applying to grad school. I have students training to be nurses, to be teachers, to be social workers. Some of them don’t know what they want to do yet, but they are excited about the chance to figure it all out. And I’m just so impossibly proud of all of them.

So whenever I feel pessimistic about the future of this country, and the dark places we are trending toward, I try to remember these students. Not to convince myself that everything will be okay, just because I want it to be. But to remind myself that things get better because you work hard to make them better.

Political Vision and the Spark That Starts the Fire: A New Framework for Mapping the Democratic Primary

In the past several years, we have seen several models designed to explain different routes to success in the presidential primary process. In 2015 and 2016, there was much talk of ‘lanes,’ which was generally defined in terms of ideological coordinates. This combined with the popular ‘party decides’ model, which emphasizes acceptability to party elites as a critical factor. Earlier this year, Nate Silver at 538 provided a new approach which emphasizes the ‘five corners’ of the Democratic party, and which offers a more nuanced demographic perspective on the race. While all these approaches both have value, I want to pose an alternative framework, one which is focused not on ideology or demographics but on a broader theory of politics as such.

Specifically, I am primarily interested in how candidates frame their political vision in terms of ultimate outcomes. What is their case for how they will actually get things done? Do they believe in the persuasive power of their ideas? Are they pragmatic? Do they see politics as a battle or as merely a vigorous conversation? How do they conceive of obtaining a political ‘mandate’?

These issues increasingly define campaigns not necessarily because candidates want them to, but because there is no other way to draw serious distinctions in the context of highly polarized political parties. In a classic ‘big tent’ party that contains wide disagreement on issues of economic, social, and cultural policy candidates can carve out paths defined by clear policy positions. In the far more tightly constrained world of 2019, however, there is less room to draw those sort of distinctions. Most of the candidates agree on most issues.

Moreover, even where there is tactical disagreement (what does ‘Medicare for All’ mean, what should be included in the Green New Deal, etc.), the conflict generally functions more as an expression of deeper philosophical attitudes toward change. The argument is not about whether people should be guaranteed health care but how it will be managed.

And this is where the rubber often meets the road. Because it is very easy to articulate a policy platform that is broadly appealing to a partisan electorate, but very hard to explain how an individual campaign will translate their specific variation on the platform into tangible results in a contested political context.

Political Visions: Four Lanes of Expression

If political vision is a key defining feature in primary campaigns, how was this reflected in the most recent election?

On the Republican side, most analysts (myself included) dismissed the Trump campaign for a long time, based on existing theories about primary success. However, Trump’s success is less surprising when considered in the political vision framework. One can certainly argue that his vision was unsustainable and unrealistic (Mexico has not in fact paid for the wall, nor has the swamp been drained), but it was a clear and powerful promise: elect the outsider who doesn’t hew to political correctness and he’ll represent your authentic views. Meanwhile, more traditionally ‘electable’ candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio stumbled in many ways, but one important vector of their failure was a lack of clear political vision. Trump was plagued by inconsistencies, gaffes, outbursts, and policy confusion. But his competitors were hamstrung by an even deeper inability to describe what voting for them would mean.

Trump’s nomination raises plenty of questions, but I’m primarily concerned here with the Democratic side, so the rest of this essay will be focused on developing a rough model for understanding how competing political visions have played out in the Democratic primary process.

Here, the most recent election provided two clear examples of how political vision frames a campaign. While there were of course clear ideological differences between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, often these were not expressed in terms of arguments over what should be done in principle, but rather as arguments over what is possible. For Sanders, there was no slippage between what was good and what should be fought for. Clinton meanwhile believed in making pragmatic choices, picking battles and looking for avenues to make incremental gains.

These, then, define two of the primary ‘lanes’ in my framework:

First, a technocratic pragmatism, which emphasizes the difficulty of politics in a pluralist democracy, particularly one as cumbersome as the American constitutional structure. These candidates emphasize the need for expertise and experience; politics is a difficult game and should be played by those who can effectively manipulate the rules. The heart of the argument is about competence.

Second, an approach focused on picking a fight, which argues that political change comes through force, not persuasion. Victory will come when elected official stand their ground on principles and refuse to accept the supposed limits of the existing political system.

The Clinton/Sanders race made the distinction between these two approaches quite clear, and it might seem as though this describes the entire available spectrum. But there are two other ways of approaching this question, which track in some ways along with the Clinton/Sanders divide, but are each also distinct in important ways. These offer two additional lanes in which candidates might cultivate public support.

The third lane is defined by its appeal to a sort of non-partisan common sense. Its proponents try to cultivate a perception of authenticity that escapes the stuffy technocratic elitism of the pragmatic approach while also avoiding the perception of radicalism attached to the ‘picking fights’ model. These candidates trade on the average voter’s distaste for politics by building a ‘just folks’ persona. To win, they must thread a narrow needle by sticking fairly close to the partisan platform within a given race while still framing their position as essentially non-partisan. This is a difficult task, especially in a highly partisan context, but a successful authenticity candidate can sneak a fairly standard partisan platform into voters’ meals by hiding it amidst an ‘aw shucks’ persona. George W. Bush is arguably a successful example of the authenticity ploy.

The final lane is one of cathartic optimism. These candidate appeal to higher principles, hoping to convince voters that politics can be better in some fundamental way. They act as prophets of a new politics, one that can escape from the grubby confines of the existing world. Their promises operate mostly beyond the scope of the presently quantifiable, and therefore succeed (or not) primarily through the emotional connection they can form with voters. Barack Obama is the ne plus ultra example of this approach.

Implications of the Four Lanes Approach to Political Vision

These four lanes provide a framework for assessing the motivational appeal of different candidates. Of course, this is by no means the only relevant way of approaching the question. Obviously, demography and ideology matter a great deal. But these four lanes help to clarify the elusive ‘excitement’ factor that explains why some campaigns catch fire while others fizzle. As such, a focus on political vision may be most useful now, in the early stages of candidate jockeying, as a way to explain who is able to step up a tier, and who does not.

A candidate’s argument about how their unique blend of personal history and political vision will translate into desired outcome might best be considered a necessary hurdle to clear for viability. Inability to articulate a coherent vision of what a campaign means may well destroy one’s chances before they ever get off the ground.

To develop this point, I offer five broad thoughts about the uses of political vision. These are mostly speculative, and should be read as initial forays into the topic, not as definitive statements:

  • First, candidates will face serious problem if they cannot establish a strong presence in one of these lanes. When policy distinctions are minor and every demographic slice is contested, achieving escape velocity depends on the ability to build emotive connections. Campaigns that fail to ignite often do so because their strengths are unable to mobilize action within one of these areas.
  • Second, it is difficult for more than one campaign to successfully occupy a given lane. The space should be treated as a scarce resource that must be fought over.
  • Third, the lanes signify potential energy. They are not a resource waiting to be picked off the ground but an opportunity which requires significant skill (and luck) to exploit.
  • Fourth, a candidate’s history in politics, personal narrative, voting record, and other background facts sharply constrain their flexibility in choosing a lane. For example, Hillary Clinton could never have restyled herself as a bomb-thrower no matter how much she tried, while Mitt Romney could never have run as a transcendental candidate. One strong explanation for many abortive campaigns that structural conditions blocked their entry into any of these lanes.
  • Fifth, the lanes are not created equal. Some are easier to occupy but harder to translate into votes. Others vice versa. For example, cathartic optimism is powerful when successfully invoked, but this is no easy feat. Countless candidates strive for this sort of appeal, but very few achieve it. It may take a generational political talent like Obama to activate this sort of connection.

Political Vision and the Democratic field

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the Democratic field.

First, the pragmatic lane, which was so thoroughly dominated by Hillary Clinton in the last cycle that it effectively shut down the race before it started, is relatively underpopulated this time. Critically, because this model is not concerned primarily with ideology, this is not a ‘moderate’ lane. Rather, it revolves around the claim that expertise, competence, and experience will be sufficient to achieve successful policy outcomes. Therefore, even the closest potential claimant—probably Amy Klobuchar—will have a hard time making a clear case for herself. Her messaging on legislative effectiveness looks more like a standard appeal to bipartisanship, which would arguably make more sense in the ‘common sense’ lane. One could also imagine someone like Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, or Kamala Harris trying to occupy this space, though nothing we have seen so far suggests they are interested in adopting such an approach.

The second lane, which I have termed ‘picking a fight,’ is once again dominated by Bernie Sanders. But, perhaps surprisingly, he appears to be relatively unchallenged in this space. While many politicians took the lesson that leftist policy was viable in the Democratic field, no one seems to have decided to follow Sanders in his broader approach to politics as such. We’ve seen candidates trying to get to Sanders’ left on individual issues—such as gun control, criminal justice reform, or poverty—but none have seriously posed a more radical theory of political action, except for possibly Tulsi Gabbard. This may simply be because none actually share Sanders’ vision of a political revolution, or it may be a tactical recognition that Sanders has a clear first-mover advantage in this area. However, as we will see, failure to challenge Sanders here may be dangerous for candidates with no other plausible lane to occupy.

The third lane, defined by an appeal to common sense, looks to be currently controlled by Joe Biden. While Biden has not technically entered the race, he is certainly competing in the invisible primary, where his appeal seems designed for ‘normal’ voters, rather than for highly engaged online progressive communities. Sherrod Brown could also make a plausible run in this lane, for much the same reasons as Biden. Notably, it is extremely difficult to picture a woman or nonwhite candidate filling this position, given the ingrained race and gender dynamics that surround the concept of authenticity. I will discuss this issue in more detail below.

The final lane, cathartic optimism, is arguably the most contested. Beto O’Rourke clearly fits here, and if Cory Booker is going to make any headway it will depend on his ability to turn abstract comments about an ethic of love into something concrete. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign also probably fits here, if it fits anywhere. The problem for all these candidates, however, is that that cathartic optimism is enormously hard to activate. Occasionally, prophetic messengers emerge and capture the impulse of the electorate, but it is very rare.

Who does this leave out? Most notably: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand. In each case, a candidate with a strong theoretical argument, but some practical difficulties translating the theory into practice.

Harris continues to poll relatively well, and dominates in some of the other models (particularly the 538 majority coalition approach), but so far it’s not clear that she has been able to distinguish herself in this framework. Her case leans heavily on demography and identity. It’s possible that will be sufficient—arguably ‘identity’ constitutes an overarching political vision in itself—but it’s also possible that she’ll need to draw a sharper perspective on her political philosophy if she wants to sustain her strong fundamentals.

Warren was mentioned a potential occupant of the pragmatic lane, but her broader political message makes that difficult to sustain. She is not a technocrat, nor does she have significant experience in governing. She also seems like a difficult fit in the other lanes. While potentially unfair, she will have difficulty activating the forms of authenticity that drive the 2nd and 3rd approaches. She also lacks the cheerful optimism that defines the 4th. She is, however, a brilliant thinker and extremely deep in the policy literature. She might therefore be able to express a slightly new variation on the pragmatic theme, which stresses the need for practical modest gains, and promises to wield the tools of presidency to counteract the deleterious effects of money in politics. So far, such a message has not materialized. Without it, her campaign may remain stalled in the low single digits.

Finally, Gillibrand may be the perfect example of a candidate with plenty of theoretical appeal, but without a viable path to make progress in any of these lanes. Her campaign seems designed to avoid alienating any of the ‘5 corners,’ and she has clearly tried to position herself as a clear anti-Trump politician in an effort to curry favor in an ideological race. She has also used her motherhood to make an identity-based argument. But none of these seems to have sparked a flame, largely because they have no meta-structure to guide them. Gillibrand’s campaign often feels like it’s a bunch of high-quality ingredients being measured against prepared meals.

Making Their Case: New Chances to Light a Fire

There is one final point worth mentioning. The three candidates I have flagged as potentially in trouble according to this framework—Harris, Warren, and Gillibrand—share one obvious thing in common: they are all women. This is important. The framework I have described here is an attempt to offer a broad theory for who breaks through and who does not, and depends heavily on the sort of loose affective connections that can’t be easily reduced to policy positions or clear identity connections. As such, this is precisely where we might expect to find powerful sexist assumptions about women candidates at work. Three of the four lanes I have identified trade heavily on various forms of authenticity, something often denied to women even as it is granted unquestioningly to men.

However, these candidates do have several options available. First, it’s possible for a new ‘lane’ to appear. Until early 2016, it didn’t seem like picking a fight was a plausible path, but Sanders showed that it was. Perhaps one of the women in this race can cultivate a new mode of engagement, which rescues the idea of competence from its association with tentativeness and triangulation. Second, they could survive simply by operating as an acceptable second-choice for many—taking the nomination more by default than through any grand mandate in the same way that John Kerry ended up victorious in the 2004 primary. Third, ultimately demographics might in fact prove to be destiny, and Harris will ride a wave of women and nonwhite voters to the nomination despite never articulating a unique political vision.

Each of these is possible. But I consider them unlikely. Campaigns are complicated processes involving thousands of moving parts. But they are also fundamentally quite simple. Winning candidates capture the imagination of the electorate by pitching politics to them in a distinct way. Losing candidates often say all the right things but struggle because they can’t convince enough people to listen. And for all the twists and turns still to come in the Democratic race, that may ultimately be the most important factor.

The Democratic Party at a Crossroads: Practical Advice for Rebuilding American Democracy

The Democratic Party is at a crossroads . The first two weeks of the Trump administration have catalyzed a powerful wave of protest and political action—the likes of which  haven’t been seen in decades. There was a lot of talk over the past couple years about the possibility of a ‘Tea Party of the left,’ and a lot of doubt that such a thing was possible.

Those doubts are starting to fade. It remains to be seen precisely what this action will actually produce, but there’s no denying the level of energy, or the success it’s already had.

That compares with the institutional Democratic Party, which is agonizingly close to exercising real power, but the distance of just a few votes in the Senate looks like a thousand miles right now.

This disconnect—between a rising movement ready to flex its muscles and an institutional party that simply has no meaningful access to meaningful power—is inevitably going to cause tension. The question for the party is how it wants to respond to that tension.

Option One: Muddling Through

One impulse—one grounded in frustration with the accusations of spinelessness and cowardice—will be to lash out. I sympathize with this impulse. After all, it must be incredibly frustrating to narrowly lose an election of such significance, and to lose partly because your own base simply didn’t turn out in the numbers of the previous cycles. Then, after being stripped of all capacity to affect events, to be called cowards for not doing anything.

To this point, it’s important to note here just how limited the Democrats are. Many people are calling on them to ‘block’ Trump’s nominees, but they simply can’t do that. Even a fully united Democratic caucus would simply watch each nominee sail through on a 52-48 vote. Others are proposing that they utilize the techniques of obstruction to grind things to a halt. There is something to this, but it only goes so far. All of the rules that make such obstruction possible are amendable. Abuse them, and Republicans will simply change the game.

Given these limitations, you can make a real case for trying to muddle through in the majority of cases—saving your powder for a few choice efforts when it might actually be possible to move the needle. A policy of complete rejectionism, after all, might communicate to moderate Republicans: ‘we cannot be negotiated with,’ and would likely drive a permanent wedge between Congressional Democrats and Republicans.

So, rather than huffing and puffing nonstop, why not try to build connections with those on the other side of the aisle who are distrustful of Trump? These are the McCains and Grahams and Sasses of the world, who might ultimately be willing to switch sides on some important votes—but will only do so if they can position themselves as a voice of unity and reason.

The final argument for restraint is a concern that simply mimicking the nihilistic antipolitics of the Tea Party will do irreparable harm to the structure of political legitimacy. Things are already dire, but so far the Democrats have remained a party committed to the premise that governing norms are possible, that comity is possible, and that pluralism is a viable condition for governance.

All of these points deserve serious consideration. It’s not crazy for the Democrats to consider this. But in spite of these concerns, I can’t endorse ‘muddling through.’

The game has changed, and Democrats are going to get burned—and burned badly—if they fail to recognize it.

The Politics of Normative Disorder

We live in tumultuous times. The normative systems that bound together our political community have been fraying for decades, and each new crisis only heightens this effect. This crisis is not simply about Trump, the Republican policy agenda, Steve Bannon, or growing nationalist fervor. Each of those are important, but ultimately would be containable if our political system still functioned at full strength.

After all, political norms are quite powerful—and far more durable than you might expect. Those who violate them may win individual battles, but they rarely survive long enough to win wars. Conditions of stability and order are ultimately re-imposed, either by casting out the challengers or (quite commonly) by coopting them—drawing them within the fold.

However, this system of legitimacy depends on a complicated linked structure of normative expectations. One norm alone is quite weak; it can easily be violated or (more commonly) reinterpreted to the point of indeterminacy. But many norms together are a powerful corrective force.

What we have seen over the past several decades is a corrosion of normative expectations as such. We tend to pay most attention to the individual cases, where longstanding habits are cast aside—the filibuster is weaponized, the debt ceiling is held hostage, a candidate brags about sexual assault, etc.—but the underlying structure is also being weakened.

This does not mean that we have entered a death spiral—and that political norms are irrecoverable. That point may come eventually, but we aren’t there yet. But the escalating crisis in political legitimacy does mean that we need to have a serious conversation about how the wounds are going to be sutured. Failure to engage that problem means sleepwalking over the cliff.

When facing exceptionally dangerous challenges to the long-standing structures of American politics, it is not only acceptable but necessary to employ extraordinary measures. That means that where Trump is trying to dislodge the basic workings of American democracy and rule of law, resistance by any means possible is a good watchword. Buy contrast, where Trump is simply pushing for a conservative political agenda, radical rejectionism is dangerous. Separating these two may be difficult in some cases, but is absolutely necessary.

At the end of the day, there is no going back to the previous generation. Things have changed, and not in a good way. If Hillary Clinton were president right now, I’d be far more sanguine about the possibility for a mid-course corrective and a resuscitation of political faith from within the confines of politics-as-usual. But Clinton is not the president.

And when the ship of state is being steered by a man who wants to crash into icebergs, it’s time to either start shifting your priorities, or else start searching for lifeboats.

Option Two: Happy Warriors

So this brings us to the other possible strategy for regaining power: the ‘happy warrior’ approach. In this world, Democrats pound the airwaves and the pavement talking up a counter-agenda to Trump. They take a page from the Bernie Sanders playbook and speak loudly for a set of values that prioritize working people, which make concrete and aggressive promises to secure equality for minorities and socially excluded groups, which draw a sharp line between themselves and crony capitalism.

This strategy will obviously appeal to their base—who have long been calling for such things. But it obviously carries risks as well. First, and most obvious, is that many of these positions are not especially popular with the median American voter. Second, many of these commitments would be extremely difficult to fulfill, even if they regain power. Third, moving in the direction of affirming ‘the Tea Party of the left’ risks reproducing the same toxic effects generated by the original Tea Party: ever-heightening partisanship and ever-weakening party control, growing distrust for any and all normative restrictions.

These risks are real and should not be dismissed out of hand. But the risks of not acting are even worse.

The question for Democrats is not whether they should seek to mobilize a multicultural populist movement. The movement is here. It was evident on January 21st when the women’s march produced the biggest single day protest in US history. It exploded a week later with spontaneous mass demonstrations across the nation to challenge the anti-Muslim refugee exclusion act. The slumbering beast of leftwing political action has been awakened, and it will not go gently into that good night. The only question left for Democrats, then, is how they will relate to this fact.

Do they serve as force multipliers, amplifying voices, lending logistical and organizational assistance where necessary, and leaning hard on the instruments of our political institutions in the limited places where it is possible? If they do, they may find that this is a powerful vehicle for enhancing their own authority within the halls of power. The Trump administration is engaged in a war—and for now, the Republicans in congress have decided that it’s safer to go along and get along, as long as it keeps the guns pointed outward. A truly mobilized political opposition, one that draws aid and comfort from a mass movement of engaged citizens, will make that calculation much harder to sustain.

Is this a scary proposition? Of course it is. But we live in terrifying times. The sooner the Democratic Party accepts this reality, the sooner they’ll be able to contribute positively.

Fail to side with the people and they’ll quickly find themselves attacked from all sides. And most damagingly, they’ll have chopped off the legs of the burgeoning movement before it even got the chance to fully form. A groundswell of public action mobilized in favor of equality, justice, and tolerance has a powerful chance to transform the nation. The single least productive thing that could happen to this movement would be to descend into intra-left bickering of the sort that has often defined ‘progressive vs. liberal’ arguments (see: the 2016 Democratic primary).

The left has captured lightning in a bottle this week. This happened as a response to a deep crisis in American politics, but such is often the way. Moments of crisis also create opportunities. We would all be far better off if things had been otherwise. But this is where we are. The Democrats have an opportunity to catalyze this movement. They would make a huge mistake if they allow themselves to become its enemies.

Practical advice for the Democratic Party

Okay, so let’s assume the Democrats take my advice. What should they actually do? Here is my 8-point action plan.

1. Maintain a united front, even if when feels like you’re under attack. Many on the left distrust the Democratic Party, for some good reasons and for some reasons that are (in my opinion, and likely yours as well) nonsense. The nature of this thing means that you’re going to get a lot of pushback, a lot of distrust. Snide remarks will be made. Doubts will be raised about your commitment. You will feel the urge to respond. Resist this impulse. Remember: you are a Happy Warrior. You will demonstrate your bona fides through action. You will grin and get on with the next task.

2. Symbols matter. Most of your actions over the next few months and years will have very little legal consequence. If zero Democrats vote to confirm Tillerson, or if 48 do, it probably won’t matter. Even if a few Republicans are willing to side with you on minor points, the Congressional leadership is not going to disentangle from Trump absent a sea change in the political landscape. So: your actions will have little material consequence. But this doesn’t mean they don’t matter. People will be watching closely to see what you do, regardless of its ultimate effect. This may feel frustrating, but see #1 above.

3. Rejectionism is preferable to collaboration. Given the two previous points, the strategy on Trump’s appointments is clear: obstruct, refuse, reject. Employ whatever tactics are available to gum up the works, refuse to allow quorums, do not accede to unanimous consent, do not vote yes for people who are clearly unqualified. Trump doesn’t need your votes, but they offer some small evidence of normalcy. You do not have to provide this to him.

4. Rejectionism must be grounded in a broader argument in favor of norms. As you employ the techniques of resistance, however, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize. The goal is not simply to resist Trump. The goal is to restore a sense of optimism and faith in the American people. If Democrats regain control of power in two or four years, but attempt to govern over a people even more fractured and disillusioned, it will be to very little good purpose. So: you should constantly be clarifying the reasons for your obstruction, and offering clear and fair offramps to Trump and the Republicans. Your message is “run this government in a normal way, and we will play the role of a loyal opposition. Behave like budding authoritarians, and we will resist.”

5. Filibuster any Supreme Court nominee.  As I write this, Trump is promising to unveil his choice to fill Scalia’s seat. You must filibuster this nominee. This is one of the only actual points of leverage the Democrats still hold, and it would be madness to give it up. It is likely that McConnell will eventually break the filibuster by invoking the nuclear option. Accept this as an inevitability, and fight anyways. There is absolutely nothing to gain from waiting. Your message is ‘we will consider the qualifications of any further nominee for a different vacancy. But we cannot in good conscience permit the unprecedented obstruction of Merrick Garland to be rewarded.’

6. Your primary job right now is to be a community organizer.  The clearest and most powerful way to resist authoritarianism is to perform its opposite. If the message of the left is going to be ‘the power of the people,’ its actions should be an operationalization of this idea. Demonstrate your willingness to work for the people by actually doing it. Organize rallies, help build call lists, facilitate coordination, provide avenues that make it easy for people to get involved. A huge part of the Congressional job is constituent service, anyways. This is just an extension of that existing role. The key point here is that the country is full of people who desperately want to help, but feel powerless to do so. They will show up to rallies, if they exist, might make some calls, donate to the ACLU. But they want more chances. Your job is to create the opportunities for all of them to play a role.

7. Overpromising is okay. Democrats are particularly sensitive to the dangers of over-promising. This was a big part of the Clinton/Sanders fight, and obviously there is a real sense in which Trump took power simply through the power of repeatedly lying about what he could do. So the party has a tendency to speak in terms of the possible, rather than the true goal. But there is no better time than now to reach for the stars. The party is out of power, and has just as much chance of achieving a comprehensive carbon tax as it does of achieving modest restrictions on oil drilling. So: shoot for the moon. Tell people what you really want. Give them a reason to believe in the power and importance of an active, well-run, engaged government. You don’t want to make promises so impossible that it will provoke backlash once you achieve power and then utterly fail to keep them. But you do want to articulate a real vision, a comprehensive picture of significant transformation. Many agenda items of the left are not especially popular, but ideologies are not set in stone. Get out there. Speak, persuade, incite, mobilize. If you make the case and make it well, people will join you.

8. Look to California. And New York, and Massachusetts, etc. But especially California. Democrats are out of power at the national level, it’s true. And they’re not in great shape in many states. But they are absolutely dominant in California—a state that is large, rich (with a GDP of $2.4 trillion – it’s one of the 10 largest economies in the world, all by itself), and quite diverse. Now is the time to experiment, to push the margins of political possibility. The country as a whole may be retrenching significantly, but there’s no reason why California couldn’t aggressively pursue a Western European style of democratic socialism. We’re already seeing California challenging the national government on issues like sanctuary cities. They should do a lot more, and the Democratic Party should devote some of its substantial institutional and intellectual heft to helping them.

Nate Silver and the epistemology of uncertainty

solid-as-a-rock

Michael: Gee, it is my business model. I mean, if you had a business model, then by all means, you go in there and do…

For the last few weeks, frantic liberals have been checking the 538 election forecasts, and discovering a lot of reasons to worry. Their model – which famously predicted a relatively easy win for Obama in 2012, against the wisdom of pundits who insisted it was a 50/50 election – dropped Clinton down into the 60s at the start of November, and only finally ticked slightly back over 70 last night.

This compares to a host of other models, which have all consistently put the race in the 80s and 90s – a virtually sure thing.

Meanwhile, Silver has been quite pugilistic with his critics, making two key arguments. First, predictions are difficult and our knowledge imperfect. Our models ought to incorporate that doubt, something that he thinks the other forecasting systems don’t do enough of. Second, drawing on information sources outside of a systematic model introduces bias. People will cherry-pick information that matches their desires, and the introduction of that bias will pollute the conclusions.

What Nate Silver gets right about forecasting

Both of these arguments have value, and deserve attention. Models are only as smart as the work that we put into them. They organize information, providing stable techniques for analyzing and unfolding the meaning contained in the data. But all the assumptions of the model are the assumptions WE humans generate. And there’s good reasons for us to be skeptical about the quality and reliability of our guesses.

Which is to say: broadly speaking, Silver is right to encourage us to frame our thoughts through rigorous models, but also right to remind us that rigor is not the same thing as certainty.

However, and it’s a big however, threading the needle between those two premises can be difficult. And Silver has definitely failed to execute it perfectly in this cycle. In part, this seems driven by his notable failure in the Republican primary, where he famously declared Trump had virtually no chance. Of course, so did many others (including your humble blogger here), so that’s hardly a specific fault of Silver’s. But regardless, the experience seems to have left him a little snakebit. In his autopsy of that prediction, Silver noted that the basic error was one of punditry – shooting from the hip based on anecdote and guesswork, rather than constructing and then trusting a systematic model. And there’s some truth to that, as I’ve just explained. But there’s also a serious risk of overcorrection.

Remember: models only produce useful information to the extent that we build them on solid foundations. That means that good analysis often requires both assessing what the model tells us, and then assessing what information it might be failing to capture.

What’s ‘missing’ from the 538 model

In the 2016 presidential election, there are a few crucial pieces of information that 538’s model doesn’t include, which someone interested in improving the science of forecasting should care about a great deal.

First, the model doesn’t ‘know’ anything about turnout operations. The political science here is scattered, and mostly suggests that turnout has relatively little effect. But ‘little’ isn’t the same as zero. Particularly when one campaign is a well-oiled machine and the other is, to put it politely, a dumpster fire.

It’s important to note that 538 makes no claim to incorporate this sort of information. Nor should it. Turnout probably does matter, but given our current state of knowledge, it would be wrong to suggest we have the tools to meaningfully incorporate it into a rigorous system. So this isn’t a knock on the model, per se; it’s just a reminder that ‘unmeasurable’ is not the same thing as ‘nonexistent.’

Second, the model doesn’t ‘know’ anything about other forecasts. This is a big deal. Research has shown that the ‘wisdom of crows’ holds with forecasters, as much as it does with polls themselves. Just like you shouldn’t remove outlier polls, you shouldn’t remove outlier forecasts. But it’s important to place them in context. And the context of 2016 makes clear that 538 is a fairly significant outlier. Does that mean that Silver’s model is wrong or broken? Of course not. It might end up being the most accurate! But a good forecaster will acknowledge the questions raised by their outlier prediction, even if they believe that their method is in fact the best one.

And that’s something that 538 hasn’t made particularly clear. When they talk about other models, it’s usually in terms of ‘who’s right’ but rarely (if ever) is the meta point made that averaging the results might well be more accurate than any single model.  And in all other discussions, the background assumption of all their commentary is that the 538 model is a true representation of the state of the race.

But this is antithetical to the principles I described above: which suggest caution and humility as the benchmarks of good predictions. Silver has every right to be proud of his system, and should do his best to explain why his assumptions are superior. But he also ought to do a better job of communicating the risks of overreliance on any single model.

Third, and from my perspective most important, the model doesn’t ‘know’ how to process two durable and persistent features of the public polling: a stable Clinton advantage and a large number of ‘undecided’ voters.

pollster-trendline

You can see both of these in the Pollster trendline, which shows A) a clear and unbroken Clinton edge and B) percentages for Clinton and Trump that add up to quite a bit less than 100%.

What is uncertainty, actually?

From Silver’s perspective, this adds a great deal of uncertainty to the race. A three-point lead of 51-48 is very hard to overcome, since one candidate already has a majority of the votes. A three-point lead of 45-42 is much less safe, because it doesn’t require flipping voters to make up the gap.  So, in his model, Clinton’s persistent lead is interesting, but doesn’t indicate all that much safety.

And if those voters really were undecided, that would probably be true. What I’ve increasingly come to believe about this election, however, is that ‘undecided’ is a poor way to describe that missing 10-15%. I think that very FEW of them are genuinely undecided.

Instead, these folks are relatively strong partisans who don’t like the candidate their side is running and would prefer not to vote for them. And as long as the election remains far off, or looks like a blowout, they’ll remain on the sidelines. But when things seem to be getting close, they grudgingly fall in line.

The ‘Clinton wall’ hypothesis

I’ll be the first to admit that I lack a rigorous model to undergird this theory. But it strikes me as exceptionally plausible, and conforms quite nicely with the available facts. This theory suggests that ‘not Trump, dear god not Trump’ is an incredibly stable majority opinion among the electorate, with a significant subset who’d prefer to avoid casting a ballot for Clinton if they can avoid it. And it hypothesizes that anytime Trump draws close in the polling, a number of these leaners will fall in line to buttress the ‘Clinton wall.’

And that’s precisely what we see. Trump has bounced off that Clinton wall quite a few times. That’s partly due to the cycles of the campaign (the convention, the debates, the traditional unveiling of sexual assault tape), but it’s also likely an underlying feature of the electorate itself.

Silver built a model designed to look at undecided voters and extrapolate uncertainty. Given the parameters he set, newer polls matter more than older ones, and they establish trendlines for filtering other information. Those are perfectly reasonable assumptions. But other models don’t approach the question the same way. They take older polls as setting some important Bayesian priors about electoral attitudes.

Those models see a race where one candidate has led from start to finish and interpret ‘tightening’ in the polls as the normal ebbs and flows of a fundamentally exceptionally stable campaign. They are therefore a lot more CERTAIN about the strength of Clinton’s lead.

The problem isn’t punditry; the problem is bad punditry

Who is right? We’ll have to wait to see, and might not know even after the result are in. After all, everyone is predicting a Clinton win, and the difference between 70% and 90% simply isn’t going to come out in a single wash cycle.  And chances are extremely high that no one is really ‘right’ here. Because that’s not how most science works. Our models are rarely correct. They’re just approximations, given what we knew at the time. As we get more information, and encounter new unexpected scenarios, we try to refine and improve our predictions.

And that’s been the real problem with 538 this cycle. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the model. It may in fact be the most accurate! But there has been something wrong with Silver’s attitude toward this kind of criticism. Faced with this sort of error, he’s tended to retreat into the bunker, more invested in defending the legitimacy of his assumptions than he is in improving the quality of forecasting in general.

That’s perhaps understandable, given the monetary incentives that drive the forecasting business, and given his desire to avoid another embarrassing incident of underselling Trump’s chances.  After all, it’s easy to default back to the model, and to refuse to speculate much beyond what it tells us. But that’s a form of intellectual laziness, and one that doesn’t acknowledge that one of Silver’s greatest strength has always been his ability to blend data and analysis. That’s a crucial skill, and it’s one he’s been letting atrophy a bit, in favor of playing the role of iconoclast and destroyer of ‘conventional wisdom.’

So, if his mistake in the primary was to ‘act like a pundit,’ he hasn’t really fixed the problem. He’s doing less ‘pundit-like’ speculation, sure, but he’s replaced it with a different sort of punditry: where people take a baseline set of information with which they feel comfortable, and then do their best to minimize and ignore everything else.

In effect, Silver is behaving a little like the crusty old sportswriters he’s always criticized: certain that the stats they know tell the whole story, and nothing else is deserving of their attention.  The 538 forecast is a heck of a lot better than batting average and game-winning-RBIs, of course, but it still needs improvements. And it’s more likely to get those improvements if it’s understood as a technique for assisting analysis, rather than as a form of analysis itself.

UPDATE: I clearly chose a poor time to hypothesize about Silver missing the underlying strength of the Clinton campaign. In my defense, I did my best here to represent the variety of possibilities–and acknowledged the real possibility that Silver was on the right track. And I do think it’s true that the models need further refinement. That said, the 2016 election clearly provides strong evidence for the premise that even ‘dumb’ data analysis will often defeat ‘smart’ theoretical modeling.

Why presidential elections are a bad place to fight the two-party system

three-body-problem

I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem, and it got me thinking about third parties. Here’s the analogy: the problem with third parties in US politics is that the law of physics under which they operate create impenetrable barriers for a three-party equilibrium.

To be specific: first-past-the-post victory conditions, for single-member districts, layered on top of the Electoral College (state-by-state) presidential system, all doused in a healthy draught of Madisonian federalism. Bring all this together, and you have a set of institutions that are structurally hostile to third parties.

And yet, for some reason, the ‘two party duopoly’ is almost always blamed on things like media refusal to acknowledge third parties, the cynicism and/or stupidity of voters, and efforts by the existing parties to isolate and exclude other alternatives.

Now, to be clear, all those things do matter. But they are mostly the effects, not the causes, of our political system. The media tends not to treat third parties as viable because, given the institutional setup I just described, they aren’t viable, except under truly extraordinary circumstances.

The problem: ‘third parties’ aren’t really parties

We run into trouble on this point, largely because our indeterminate language fails to really capture the nature of the conflict. For the average third-party-curious voter, parties are primarily ideological coalitions, organized around a package of issues. So, if the two main parties fail to reflect your particular package of values, you defect and seek out another option.

The problem is: given the structures of our political system, that’s not what parties are.

Sure, the two main parties have ideological positions, and those do generate the terrain on which most partisan separation takes place. But those values aren’t the core functions of parties. The core function is, quite simply, to win elections. Obviously, winning elections in a country full of people with deep political and moral values means that parties have to become vehicles for the expression of those values. But they must constantly balance those interests with the baser objective of maintaining a coherent organizational structure upon which to mobilize future action.

To put it as bluntly as possible: that’s what it means to be a party, given the underlying physics of the American political structure. But that’s precisely what existing third parties refuse to do, and for obvious reasons. After all, they are organized (to the extent that they are organized at all) around dissatisfaction with the transactional structure of the existing parties.

This simple fact generates a huge amount of conflict among partisans of both models. Much of the ‘throwing away your vote’ rhetoric lobbed in both directions stems from a failure to understand what the other side even wants.

Third parties and the three-body problem

So what does this all mean for third party debates?

Well, put simply: the barriers to meaningful third party participation in politics have almost nothing to do with top-level votes for president, but have everything to do with the nitty-gritty details of the electoral process.

Since there is no plausible equation for a stable three-party system in our existing physics (the three body problem), those third parties that do successfully intrude into an election are certainly capable of producing chaos, but the terminal result is always ejection. Usually of the upstart party, though it’s always theoretically plausible for one of the existing two parties to collapse.

But, and this is crucial, even if the upstart party somehow knocks one of the others off the perch, it won’t really change anything. Because the reasons why parties act like they do (as transactional entities—with all the corruption, side-dealing, and collaborative elitism that this entails) has nothing to do with their ideologies. It’s a function of basic two-party equilibrium. No matter how radical a new entrant might be in its conception, victory inevitably drives out that radicalism. You only need look at the Republican Party of the 1860s, which went from Radical Reconstructionism to an elite-driven Corrupt Bargain in under a decade.

Much like The Santa Clause, if you kill one of the old duopoly, you merely end up taking its place.

These are the two possible effects of third party voting in a presidential race: 1) a bee-sting campaign, which inflicts pain on the target but also kills the bee, and 2) a Santa Clause campaign which fails to resolve the underlying problem of two-party dominance.

The mutable physics of two-party systems

However, none of this is to say that the situation is hopeless.

Because, it turns out, the physics of the political universe aren’t locked into place. While it takes a lot of work, they can be changed. It just requires reorienting your attitude toward the problem. Fighting this out at the level of the presidency is like trying to put out a burning building with a squirt gun. But if you go further upstream, far less pressure is necessary to shift the course of events.

And here is a place where Madisonian federalism becomes an advantage. Because our system as a whole is exceptionally difficult to move. But each individual polity does have the freedom to set its own election laws. Which means there’s room for experimentation at lower levels. And election reform at the state/city/town level is absolutely doable, and has the potential to spill up, if people genuinely prefer it.

There’s plenty of options here: proportional representation systems with multi-member districts, single-transferable vote models, systems that let you indicate all acceptable candidates, etc.

None of these systems are perfect, either. But they are at least real alternatives, in the sense that they create room for third parties to function as ideological agents without being crushed by the weight of our institutional structure.

So who should you vote for in the presidential election?

Vote for whoever you like!

I’m not making a categorical argument against third party voting. A ballot for Johnson or Stein (or someone else) DOES have real effects, and you might well decide that those effects are positive ones. A few examples:

  • You might want to send a message, playing the role of the bee whose sting can punish those who moved away from your issues.
  • You might hope cultivate a viable party, capable of replacing one of the current kings of the roost. This was at least a plausible scenario for Johnson in the winter and early spring. It hasn’t turned out that way, which suggests that we’re not too likely get a new Santa Clause anytime soon. But if ever there was a time for an external revolt, Trump is likely the guy against which to act.
  • You might simply feel that your vote simply reflects your personal convictions, and you have to go with whoever is closest to those convictions.

Now I don’t happen to agree with any of those approaches, but they are reasonable, grounded positions. My only argument here is that ‘striking a blow against two-party-ism’ is simply not one of the plausible outcomes of a Johnson/Stein vote.

So if you can tolerate one of the major party candidates, but are hesitant to vote for them mostly out of disgust for the duopoly, my advice is to find other more useful avenues for expressing that frustration, and cast a vote for one of the major parties in the meantime.