Why Democracy Will Not Save Us From the Globalization Divide

Those of us interested in trying to understand the deep political divide that has emerged in the U.S., the UK and other capitalist democracies trace the gulf to citizens’ starkly contrasting experiences of globalization.

The prescient and prolific Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik suggests we’ve entered an era of hyperglobalization, in which globalization has become an end in itself that drives policy choices and constraints rather than serving as a means to prosperity.

Rodrik argues that negotiation of international trade agreements has been captured by lobbyists, with gains accruing narrowly to powerful transnational businesses such as financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies.

As a consequence, he points out, we are witnessing an “insurrection against business and political elites” by workers bypassed by the gains of globalization.

In his work, Rodrik considers two ways of reining in hyperglobalization: intensified global economic governance or greater reliance on domestic economic control.

Rodrik makes the case for the latter. His argument rests on two premises: any effort to derive global standards would encroach on and deny the norms and preferences of varying societies; and inclusion, transparency and accountability of policy making do not operate effectively at a global level. The excesses of globalization are very real, and must be balanced by greater national autonomy if we are to avoid still deepener societal fissures and to begin healing the enormous societal divide between those thriving in a globalized world and those who are struggling.

Fair points.

But there’s a problem. The argument for enhanced national autonomy implicitly assumes that democratic accountability functions well at a national level. Is this true? Is this so in the contemporary U.S.? Is it true in a UK mired in a divisive and debilitating process of exiting the European Union?

Can we assume that the policies pursued by the U.S. government are any more the “will” of the American people than international trade or other agreements reached between negotiators in closed processes?

British exit from the European Union was indeed the result of a popular referendum. But the ill-advised referendum itself was a result of political maneuvering by governing elites who sought to avoid the costs of political leadership. (Put differently, it makes a great deal of democratic sense to hold a referendum on whether to build a new water treatment plant across town. Does it make equal sense to hand over to the public a decision on something with such far-reaching, multifarious and irreversible consequences for the national welfare as membership in the European Union? No. Doing so was, therefore, a gross abdication of political leadership.)

Is domestic policy making any more accountable and any less subject to control by powerful and wealthy elites than the international agreements about which Rodrik so insightfully voices skepticism? Did the American people demand steel and aluminum tariffs? Have we asked the administration to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Did the public clamor for the U.S. federal government to abandon the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and to withdraw from a Paris Climate Agreement based on voluntary national contributions?  Did advocates of ordinary taxpayers have more than marginal input into the recent tax bill?

More directly to the point, do ANY of these policies serve the interests of those who have been left out of the gains from globalization? Or, in contrast, are these policies simply political tools to reward and retain rich and powerful political supporters, while simultaneously mobilizing a political “base”?

Sadly, we cannot – at least at present — rely on domestic democratic accountability to ensure the “sane” globalization Rodrik justifiably calls for. Rodrik is an astute student of economic incentives. At present, political incentives encourage exploitation and exacerbation of societal divisions. These divisions carve a path to political power.

No doubt, the dynamics of globalization deepen the economic and social divide. But our political leadership is dedicated to exploiting this divide, not to healing it.

Without democratic renewal, domestic politics will remain part of the problem.

The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, 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.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?

Students, Teachers and Democratic Accountability

This past week the Governor of Oklahoma and several state legislators pronounced that “you can’t spend what you don’t have” in response to the state’s teacher walkout, about to enter its second week.

As it turns out, the state budget is not chiseled in stone and handed down from on high; it is the product of the actions of the legislators themselves.

The real problem is that legislators are unwilling to raise the resources required to fund education adequately in Oklahoma and several other Republican-governed states, including Kansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.

Adequate funding would require that legislators abandon their persistent and pernicious “small government” mantra, and that they place the needs of the people of the state above those of their wealthy corporate donors.

Across the United States, spending per pupil on primary and secondary education is not low by international standards. The U.S. comes out above average in spending per student, and slightly below the OECD average in terms of effort – that is, spending relative to GDP.

The U.S. spends about $11,400 per pupil on public education. Ultimately, the problem for public education in the U.S. is the unevenness of spending across states (as well as across localities within states).

While New York spends $21,200 per student, Utah spends less than $6600. Arizona comes in at $7489 and Oklahoma at $8082. Oklahoma’s spending per pupil is about $1000 less than Slovenia, a European country with GDP per capita not quite half that of Oklahoma.

After a decade of reduced funding for education, lopping off nearly a quarter of funding to education in real terms according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma legislators in late March passed a $447 million revenue package to fund significant raises for teachers, support staff and state employees.

The Governor and legislators celebrated, considering their work done. Even though they’d fallen far short of the requests of the teachers to also reverse the massive cuts to school funding – so evident in large class sizes, crumbling textbooks and shortages of teachers and supplies alike — they called for teachers to express gratitude.

29103854_830284927157440_5631629795042263040_n.jpg
Literature textbooks in use at Heavener High School in Heavener, OK, eastern Oklahoma close to the Arkansas border. Photo provided by Sarah Jane Scarberry to pbs.org.

Three elements of the revenue package are especially noteworthy.

First, this was the first tax increase passed by the Oklahoma state legislature in 28 years, the result of a 1992 referendum requiring three-fourths of the legislature to support a tax increase.

Second, the measure disregarded some major potential sources of revenue, such as the personal income tax, which has a top rate that has been cut repeatedly in recent years, and the capital gains tax deduction, which legislators so far contend is “off the table.”

Third, the revenue package materialized after the preparation of a mass teacher walkout. Only the pressure of the walkout produced results that the legislature had staunchly resisted for years.

Oklahoma legislators now express frustration that the teachers have not responded with expressions of gratitude and a return to the classroom. In addition to the Governor, who condescendingly referred to teachers as teenagers wanting a better car, other legislators have voiced visible displeasure with teachers for their persistence in showing up at the state capital in large numbers on behalf of their cause.

Legislators and the Governor also have resorted to the insulting and now reflexive tactic of claiming (with zero evidence) that protestors are paid agitators.

Why this reaction? Frequently reelected without little or no opposition, these legislators are uncomfortable with the concept of democratic accountability.

Though it may make legislators in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona uncomfortable, democratic accountability is on the rise. The courageous Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students who started the March for Our Lives movement have given new life to accountability.

Teachers have been empowered by students, and state legislators best take heed.

 

American Democracy on Slow Boil

Last week I promised a post about investments in job training and apprenticeships as an alternative to protectionism, with plans to draw on the example of Germany. With apologies for delaying that post, this past week’s political events compel me to address the fraught state of American democracy.

bring-to-boil.jpgThe catalyst for this shift was my experience listening to news on my drive home from work this Wednesday evening.

Acutely aware of the disastrous state of American politics, the tenor of an NPR segment clarified for me the urgency of addressing the danger at hand. NPR does a commendable job of pursuing political neutrality in a media environment rife with partisan outlets catering to motivated audiences in a deeply divided polity. But is “political neutrality” appropriate in the face of a sustained assault on democratic institutions? Is it “politically neutral” to treat abnormal politics as a version of normality?

In this instance, the “Week in Politics” segment of All Things Considered was reporting on the relentless staff changes in the administration and the rumors of more to come.

The show has increasingly inclined toward playing clips of the current occupant of the White House and his Press Secretary, allowing those voices to speak for themselves. Fair enough.

But informed listeners know with certainty that in hearing these clips they are listening to falsehoods. What happens next on the show – the response to lies — is therefore of great consequence.

After airing a statement from the Press Secretary that was entirely and obviously evasive in response to a direct question, host Ari Shapiro, a skilled professional whom I admire, asked the guest, Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist, the following: “Mary Katharine, how do you think this turmoil affects President Trump’s agenda?”

The response: “Look; the Trump White House does operate differently just as the Trump Organization operates differently. This is how he likes to manage, and I’m not sure it’s that effective.”

There are two fundamental and worrisome problems raised by this exchange. First, the question Shapiro asks implies that the prime victim of the White House pandemonium is its own policy agenda.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking about the consequences of bedlam for American governance, democracy and institutions? By many accounts, in fact, chaos IS the agenda of this administration.

Second, the response from Mary Katharine Ham – not surprising given The Federalist’s libertarian political leanings – treats mayhem as a legitimate management style, albeit one of questionable effectiveness. Boston Herald reporter Kimberly Atkins added of the chaotic management of the White House occupant, “it is how he enjoys it. I think he is fine with this setup even if the people around him are kind of flailing in this chaos.”

We know that executive appointees serve “at the pleasure of the president;” here we have a perversion of this theme in which the executive branch is for the pleasure of the president.

As for the “Week in Politics” program, in pursuing this discussion, NPR becomes a participant in our national reality show, a sort of Talking Dead of the American political scene; a chatty show about the show. The challenge to democratic institutions is urgent, and we need something more from NPR.

In this instance the program, as with much (certainly not all) of the contemporary media, inadvertently participates in the degradation of American democracy by analyzing the disasters of the current administration from within its internal logic. Once we step into this logic, “It’s what the president likes” and “It’s what he said he would do” become viable analyses of behavior that imposes tremendous damage on national unity, policy coherence and the global standing of the United States.

Only by stepping outside the administration’s aberrant logic can we foster the political accountability required for a thriving democratic society.

In a 2017 article in the journal Political Science Quarterlyauthors Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig offer an analysis of the “rhetorical signature” of the current occupant of the White House. They find that this style includes “seeming spontaneity laced with Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability-dodging, and institution-disdaining claims.”

Additionally, the signature “dismisses uncongenial evidence from institutionalized custodians of knowledge” and “rejects conventional standards of accountability.” Finally, the rhetorical signature “questions the integrity of democratic institutions, some of which” (electoral system, courts, the media) “can hold a president accountable for abuse of power or misuse of evidence . . .”

If we normalize these rhetorical and management styles, we subvert democratic accountability and institutional integrity.

As Yale historian Tim Snyder reminds us in On Tyrannyhis caution to contemporary democracies from the lessons of history, “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning.”

Many citizens who are deeply critical of the current administration – and worried about the direction of the American polity – await the November 2018 Congressional elections and express hope that this will be the moment to put American democracy back on course. Is this patience in awaiting the electoral means to check an administration with accelerating authoritarian tendencies an indicator of the strength of American democracy –or of its fragility?

We know that there have been efforts by the current administration to limit democratic participation, such as the recently disbanded electoral commission headed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which began from the premise that the U.S. electoral system is plagued by voter fraud.

Although faced with numerous legal challenges and harboring claims that have not stood up well to scrutiny in a recent federal court hearing of a challenge to a 2013 Kansas proof of citizenship voting law, the work of the commission may well be picked up by other components of the current administration, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

American democracy is on slow boil; the result may be democratic evaporation.

Raising the alarm in On Tyranny, Tim Snyder points out that Russians who voted in 1990 “did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last . . . ”

Indeed, asserting that “it can’t happen here,” Snyder warns regarding the failing of democracy, “is the first step toward disaster.”