A Natural Experiment

We are in the midst of a natural experiment at the national level.

As I wrote about a few months ago, there is a great perceptual divide in the nation. I argued at the time that in the face of mounting evidence of lies and corruption “one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency” while “another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.”

The perceptual rift is deeply embedded, driven, as social psychologists have shown, by motivated reasoning in which individuals adjust to evidence threatening to their world view by modifying their justification for embracing that view rather than revising that view itself.

This appears to be a cogent explanation of a world in which, according to a June Quinnipiac poll, 82% of Democrats believe the Mueller probe is legitimate, while 81% of Republicans indicate it is a “political witch hunt.”

When Prophecy Fails.pngThe psychology of the perceptual divide explains why the incremental accrual of evidence is unlikely to result in significant converge of views. But we have now embarked on a natural experiment — a study in which events unfold that are not designed or planned by those conducting the experiment, and which are applied to the study group — i.e., supporters of the current administration. (Note that the study group would be those who condemn the incumbent of the White House as venal and dishonest were there mounting exculpatory evidence. That is by no means where the evidence is trending.)

The “treatment” applied to those who see a politically motivated investigation of the administration arrives in the form of confirmed legal evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, from tax fraud to money laundering to obstruction of justice, and likely more.

The outcome of the experiment could not be more significant, for the result will illuminate the future course of  American democracy. Will there be continued support for an unfettered press, democratic accountability and for rule of law?

Amazingly, we also have underway a localized microcosm of the larger experiment that is, chronologically, running just ahead of the national experiment.

In California’s 50th Congressional District, Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted on August 21 – the very same day of the federal indictment against Michael Cohen and the finding of Paul Manafort’s guilt on charges of bank and tax fraud. The indictment against Hunter detailed misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses, along with wire fraud, falsification of records, breaches of campaign finance rules and other crimes.

While Hunter has been under federal investigation for a year, we now have an indictment detailing very specific and egregious illegal activities.

The indictment can be viewed as the “treatment” in the “experiment” underway. How will Hunter’s constituents react?

The experiment will continue until results of the November 6 election are settled, unless Hunter were to resign or drop out prior to that time, which to date he has indicated he will not do.

A recent New York Times article about Hunter’s 29-year old Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, quoted a veteran and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who was particularly disturbed by Hunter’s falsified filing of one set of personal expenditures as a contribution to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It’s a form of stolen valor,” this person asserted, adding “that’s just a really crappy thing to do.” The conclusion? This individual “had not decided whom to vote for in November.”

How might we explain a logic that enables those observing the corrupt behavior to nonetheless continue to support, or at least to consider supporting, the perpetrator?

While offering only anecdotal evidence, the San Diego Tribune recently published a few reactions from constituents.

One wrote: “Gadz!! A politician involved in a scandal. That’s it, the world is about to end!!! Truthfully, I think it’s a slap in the face to his constituents, but I’ll vote for him (again) over his opponent, as the thought of the Democrats gaining even one more seat in the House is distasteful at the very least.”

Two components of the logic at work justify the decision to stick with Hunter: (1) all politicians are corrupt; and (2) electing a Democrat to Congress is the worst of all possible outcomes.

A commenter responding to an August 23 article in The Federalist echoes the first element of the justification for backing Hunter despite the indictment:

“This was a stupid crime, easily exposed and provable. Hunter and his wife wanted to live the good life. They probably hobnobbed with many rich people and wanted more. But I wonder if all the other members of Congress are now being audited to see if they did similar things?”

Presenting a version of the second component of the argument – that a member of Congress is simply an instrument for delivering a vote in support of an agenda, another constituent writes to the San Diego Tribune:

“Our good Congressman Duncan Hunter is criminally indicted for spending some campaign funds for personal use. As a public record that should be the extent of it. It was donated money. It’s disappointing, but no one here was a victim. Accordingly, I see no problem with a congressman choosing how to spend campaign funds for election probabilities. He may sacrifice in other ways no one is aware of. It’s how he votes that matters.”

Here we have a third logical construction at work that extends the ability to confirm support in the face of damning evidence: the Congressman makes other sacrifices for his constituents that are not visible. The psychological value of this rationale is that it is entirely irrefutable. Since the sacrifices are unnamed and invisible, their extent and magnitude are up to the imagination.

Buttressing the “all politicians are corrupt,” “it’s how he votes (and the opposition is far worse) that matters” and “he sacrifices in other ways” logics are rationales for dismissing the evidence that involve an embrace of macro-level narratives advanced by the current administration, involving distrust of the media and of the workings of the “Deep State” judiciary.

The recent New York Times article focused on Hunter’s Democratic challenger cites a self-identified conservative and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who is “withholding judgment” on Hunter’s indictment due to mistrust of the media. “How can you have an opinion about it if you don’t really know the circumstances?” asked this individual.

Another respondent to the August 23 article in The Federalist, implicitly embracing the “Deep State” conspiracy, writes:

“My question is why was this withheld until after the primary? Most of these events happened years ago and the investigation has gone on for a year. Why the delay? Was it to disadvantage the Republicans in the general election? It seems like it to me.”

Despite this anecdotal evidence, we do not know what the aggregate result of the stark verification of corruption will be. We know that some portion of voters will rationalize – through logics including those outlined above – their continued support for the corrupt member of Congress from the political party they support. We can surmise that that share of supporters of the corrupt Congressman will be substantial, but we do not know if it will be sufficient to carry him to reelection.

The most recent poll of likely voters – from late July — shows a somewhat narrowing race, with Hunter  ahead by 9 points. While this poll occurred in a context of investigations and allegations of campaign finance fraud, it does not yet factor in the formal indictment.

Dynamics at the national level look similar. The experiment is in a relatively early phase, so results remain uncertain. The psychology of motivated reasoning, along with the administration’s construction of narratives of media conspiracy and judicial illegitimacy may be reasons to despair of any convergence of views of American voters. But there are also some glimmers of hope.

A recent Washington Post article cites evidence – however tentative – that the administration’s attacks on the Mueller probe are becoming less effective.

There is little doubt that much more evidence of fraudulent and criminal behavior by the current occupant of the White House is soon forthcoming. The “treatment” applied in the experiment, in other words, will intensify.

As this occurs, we will have a crucial test of the extent to which assaults on democratic institutions and the rule have done deep and lasting damage to American democracy.

Two Plus Two Makes Four!

When citizens in a democratic society participate in public demonstrations, they reveal the intensity of their preferences for a political outcome. In short, they are passionate about a cause. When opponents simply dismiss demonstrators as “hired protestors,” they negate their citizenship and nullify democratic engagement.

image.pngDuring the past few weeks, I have written about the strategy of the current incumbent of the White House and supporters of denying the legitimacy of institutions that normally check the exercise of authority in a democratic system. I have argued that this approach goes beyond the deep partisanship that has become the norm in American politics in recent decades.

I’ve illustrated the argument with reference to the media – the most obvious case — and the civil service (aka “Deep State”), including the Bureau of Labor Statistics that produces unemployment data.

The argument extends to citizen protest. Intense partisanship would involve making the case that the protestors are misguided, misinformed, or simply wrong. But labeling them “fake” – hired actors rather than motivated citizens – eliminates the need to present substantive counterarguments. The exercise of citizenship rights by the protestors is simply erased in one sweeping gesture: fake.

The most prominent recent example concerns the student protestors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who organized the “March for Your Life” rally earlier this year. But the approach was already deployed in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In both cases, as it turns out, those on the right valuing control of power above democracy amplified the impact of their message by pointing to George Soros as the source of payments to protestors, simultaneously nullifying legitimate protest and appealing to their clutch of “anti-globalist”/antisemitic followers.

The tactic is a close kin to the frequent use of the “outside agitator” label deployed in response to labor organizing in the 1920s and ‘30s as well as in response to civil rights demonstrators in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King excoriated members of the clergy for invoking the “outside agitator” argument to oppose civil rights organizing in Birmingham, advancing in an assertion of both social justice and democracy that “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Ironically, the tactic has been employed to powerful effect in Russia, where in 2011 and 2012 Vladimir Putin’s regime pronounced that Russian citizens protesting electoral fraud were paid by the West — AND incited by an “outside agitator,” U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, p. 55).

The approach has now fully blossomed, as indicated by the declaration of the current occupant of the White House at a recent rally in Kansas City that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Sources reporting on this stunning negation of reality underscore the affinity with George Orwell’s 1984, in which the ruling totalitarian party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

In the chapter of 1984 from which I’ve quoted above, Orwell notes that the logic of the totalitarian regime that controls all “truth” would lead it to command that “two and two made five.” He concludes that chapter with this: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Insist that two plus two makes four we must.

The dangerous campaign to delegitimate alternative centers of power – the media, the politically neutral civil service, dissenting citizens, and, of course, U.S. intelligence agencies – will continue. We’ve seen the effort to delegitimize democratic institutions applied to the electoral system, with the claim that the system is “rigged” employed to, well, rig the system.

It is not possible to overstate the stakes of November’s election, which very possibly include the fate of American democracy.

This is not a partisan issue; if the party currently in power retains control of Congress, the administration will perceive license to follow in the recent footsteps of governments in Hungary and Poland and enact concrete measures (beyond those already underway, such as the systematic removal of FBI and potentially Justice Department officials involved in investigating the misdeeds of the current incumbent of the White House) to permanently weaken countervailing institutions.

After all, if the institutions are illegitimate, why not remove their authority?

 

 

Unemployment: Propaganda and Truth

We have gone beyond partisanship; the party in power in our country has engaged in a systematic campaign to manipulate the electorate by destroying the credibility of governing institutions.

This campaign has been disturbingly successful.

Citizens interested in preserving democracy, legitimate political debate and rule of law must combat propaganda – by identifying it, revealing the selfish and destructive motives behind it, and responding with truth.

Last week I wrote about the assault on the free press. The civil service – now presented to supporters of the current occupant of the White House as part of a “Deep State” — has been another object of attack. One target has been the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the otherwise apolitical process of calculating the unemployment rate.

With the unemployment rate declining steadily during the Obama presidency and in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, Republicans decided that reality was stubbornly inconvenient. The unemployment rate was not moving in the desired direction (after all, political ends come before the welfare of the country). The numbers themselves, therefore, would have to be declared fictitious, and those involved in compiling the data would have to be villainized.

With a willing hyperpartisan following committed to condemning the Obama administration no matter the facts, Republican operatives embarked on a coordinated assault on the unemployment data and the civil servants involved in processing the data.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation was at the center of the process. In 2006, Heritage published a “Jobs and Labor” report “Hard at Work,” explaining why the decline in the unemployment rate under George Bush was real, despite a fall in the labor force participation rate. The author of that report argued that “Changing demographics explain part of the lower participation rates. Beyond that, much of the decline in labor force participa­tion (LFP) rates-the propor­tion of the population either in or actively looking for work- can be attributed to the rising numbers of younger Americans opting to invest in their future by continuing their education rather than entering the work­force.”

Five years later, when no longer suited to the political moment, Heritage turned the argument on its head, embarking on a steady stream of efforts to delegitimate the measured unemployment rate. In September 2012, Heritage reported that “The workers now outside the labor force are primarily either studying in school or collecting disability benefits. Approximately 2.1 million more Americans report being outside the labor force and enrolled in school. The weak economy has both made it more difficult for students to find part-time jobs and reduced the opportunity cost of going to school.”

While leaving the labor force to pursue further education represented a choice “to invest in their future” under George W. Bush, under Obama people left the labor force for education because of declining opportunity costs of doing so.

In fall 2012; the right-wing Washington Times brought the popular media into the propaganda effort, publishing an article claiming of the pre-election reduction in the unemployment rate: “At best the new unemployment number is a fluke; at worst it is the product of partisan hacks.”

The New York Post broadened the claim with a fall 2013 article simply asserting “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” The article pointed to a single Census Bureau data canvasser who claimed to have made up his jobs data. Never mind that (a) the person in question did not work for the Census Bureau during the period claimed; and (b) economists familiar with the calculations explained that even if one person’s data WAS entirely made up, there would be zero impact on the data accumulated by thousands of canvassers. As with the news, the concept of “fake” unemployment numbers had entered the discourse.

MarketwatchMic and Forbes (“Did the BLS Give Obama a Major Election 2012 Gift?”) amplified the campaign, picking up on the Post’s invitation to elaborate a case for partisan fixing of the data.

Declaring the officially calculated unemployment rate “fake” or manipulated – a claim that has been proven false — is itself a manipulation, an act of propaganda.

The political advantages of propaganda are that it provides a shortcut to desired political conclusions and that it is immune to evidence. But anyone truly committed to democratic debate shuns such shortcuts and embraces evidence.

The recent decline in the measured rate of unemployment under the current administration is real. But there is important context to this decline, and discussion of that context constitutes legitimate political debate rather than the shameful, destructive propaganda that has become the stock-in-trade of the present administration.

To begin with, the recent fall in the unemployment rate clearly is a continuation of a trend well established during the Obama administration. The unemployment rate is now at 3.9%; during the Obama years, the rate declined from a peak of 10.0% in December 2009 — during the financial crisis the Obama administration inherited — to 4.7% at the end of his second term:

Obama unemployment rate.png

True, there have been 17 straight months of job gains. But this follows 75 consecutive months of job gains under Obama.

Furthermore, the rate of job gains has not increased. During the stretch of 75 months of job gains of the Obama recovery, the U.S. economy gained 199,000 jobs per month; during the second Obama administration, the average monthly gain was 217,000.

Since January 2017, the rate has been 189,000 per month.

Finally, the decline in the unemployment rate does not mean that working people are better off. In fact, during the past year, while wages rose by 2.7%, inflation was 2.9%. The average worker, in other words, is losing ground in real terms.

In short, while propaganda renders recent job market performance miraculous and unprecedented, facts suggest otherwise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not been lying; the current administration cannot tell the truth.

 

Time to Defend Democratic Institutions

Partisan division over the news media is nothing new; but something new – and more sinister – is certainly afoot.

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Assessments of the fairness of news coverage have long varied by party identification, with each party perceiving news coverage of the presidency as less fair when their party occupies the White House. Partisan identification also shapes perceptions of media bias – views of whether the media are “liberal” or “conservative.”

Seething crowds ranting against the press at rallies held by the current occupant of the White House provide anecdotal evidence of a more sharply divisive tone. But there is something more systematic going on.

So what has changed?

A 2013 Pew Research Survey revealed a deep partisan divide, with 65% of Republicans viewing the media as liberal (17% conservative; 12% as neutral) and Democrats more evenly divided between 36% perceiving the media as liberal, 37% as conservative and 20% as neutral. But there was a critical area of common ground: 69% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats indicated in the survey that the press play a vital watchdog role, “keeping leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

In just four years, that shared assessment vanished. Pew conducted a similar survey in 2017, and a review of the findings proves unsettling. While 89% of respondents identifying with the Democratic Party believe the media “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” only 42% of Republicans believe this. What’s especially astonishing is that the figure for Republicans tracks that of Democrats upward during the financial crisis and the latter years of the Obama era. In fact, at the close of the Obama era, Republicans had a slightly higher preference for the media’s watchdog role, at 77%, versus 74% for Democrats.

The 47 percentage point gap in views of the role of the press as a check on government’s exercise of power between Republicans and Democrats is by far the highest ever recorded in the Pew Survey, which has been asking this question since 1985. The highest gap prior to this was 28 points, recorded during the George W. Bush administration in 2005.

An academic article on public attitudes toward the press by John Immerwahr and John Doble published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1982 – still close on the heels of the Watergate scandal – showed that citizens wanted evenhanded coverage of major news events and equal time to competing political candidates. Survey respondents also strongly supported the rights of reporters to criticize the president and of newspapers to print stories the president considers biased and inaccurate.

But partisanship has now produced an environment in which respect for those press freedoms is not shared across the political spectrum.

I’ve written previously about the deep perceptual divide in American society (and in the UK, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the debate that has ensued), and the manner in which the arrival of new evidence – of, say, Russian contacts previously denied by people associated with this administration – only deepens the divide rather than drawing citizens toward common conclusions. By itself, the perceptual rift is not new.

What IS new is that the current administration and its backers have systematically undermined support for institutions that represent checks on its authority – and which also represent the bedrock of democracy.

In the realm of media perceptions, Republican political operatives have prepared the ground for years; the 2013 Pew Survey reveals evidence of this in a strong perception of “liberal” bias by Republicans. But, as I will write about next week, the intensified assault on institutions began with a systematic critique of the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Obama Administration. Unable to accept evidence of a steadily declining unemployment rate following the financial crisis, right-wing political groups and think-tanks embarked on a systematic campaign to impugn the data and the institution producing them. The results were inconvenient, so the strategy was to label them a fiction.

That assault continued with the press, and has since encompassed the civil service (“the deep state”) and even citizens expressing dissent in the form of protest (“paid actors”).

We’ve moved well beyond a simple partisan divide. From a state of affairs in which adherents of each political party believe institutions are biased in favor of the other side, but embrace the value of the institutions and want them to be fair, we’ve arrived at a moment in which supporters of the party in power reject the institutions themselves. This gives license to the party in power to systematically undermine those institutions.

In his book, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder underscores a lesson also advanced by leading scholars of fascism, such as Robert Paxton: institutions do not defend themselves. As Snyder points out, the error made by supporters of democratic institutions is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

It is time to defend our institutions. Stand up for the free press. For the civil service. And yes, for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.