Issue Based Politics

I believe that politics has always been about identity and about how individuals understood what was in their own self-interest, but in the past politics did not carry such a strong issue based focus, which meant that politics could have more compromise and rational solutions. Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways politics has changed in recent years to understand why our system feels broken and is unable to take action on major issues. Some of the changes in our system are the result of population and demographic changes, and some of the changes in our system are the result of reforms that were intended  to make America more democratic and transparent.

Throughout his book Political Realism, Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, noting how accurate many of Wilson’s predictions were regarding the transformations that began to take place in American democracy in the middle of the century. One quote that Rauch includes from Wilson is,

“The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue free resources will be reduced.”

Wilson accurately predicted where politics would end up as our two parties became more ideologically separated and as our parties transformed by competing against each other in a zero sum political system. Many of our decisions and opinions are not formed today through rational process, but instead are formed based entirely on our opposition to the other party. I would argue that most people don’t have a coherent set of issue stances, but instead inform their decisions based on cues from party leaders or based on signals from opposing parties. We also elect politicians based solely on their fidelity to issue stances, making compromise within legislative bodies impossible. There is no way to put politics back into the disordered system of the past where party did not exactly represent issue stances, but we should at least recognize and acknowledge that effective politics sometimes needs to be flexible on issue stances to be able to function.

What I find the most challenging in today’s political system is that we often don’t understand many of the issues that we say are our driving motivations. When asked why we vote the way we do, we often claim that we are voting because an issue is important to us and that a candidate really supports our preferences on that issue. Often times however, we don’t fully understand the issue or a candidates position on an issue. What we favor is simply that a candidate understands the political ques related to an issue and can demonstrate their loyalty to our side or their opposition to another side based on the issue in question.
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Formal Power Structures

In the United States, and every democracy, political parties play an important role in organizing and structuring the political process. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways that parties have shaped American politics and examines recent trends that have taken power away from parties. Rauch is concerned because political parties establish formal power structures, and when they are removed, the functions they performed do not disappear, but instead shift to other actors, who are often uncontrolled and anonymous.

 

Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson who wrote a book in 1962 titled The Amateur Democrat which looked at the Democratic Party in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. All three cities had their own form of machine politics which Wilson examines in depth at a local level. Even at that time, Wilson noticed the tension between political parties, traditional candidates, activists, and amateur political candidates. Rauch quotes Wilson’s findings writing, “despite being nominally on the same side (all Democrats)…a keen antipathy inevitably develops between the new and the conventional politicians.” Activists are more radical and are focused on getting a win on their particular issue right now, where as professional politicians focus on a long-term game, understanding that decisions need to be made today, tomorrow, one year from now, ten years from now, and a hundred years from now. The process for making decisions over such a time span is important, and it is parties, not enthused activists, that create a structure to allow such decisions to be made over the long run.

 

Wilson describes other essential functions of parties and Rauch describes them in his book, “They recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government. … If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great.”

 

We do not always like our political parties, often because their decisions are not tough enough on the things we don’t like and don’t go as far as we want on the things we do like. Our parties may seem to be too willing to compromise or may appear to be too influenced by other interests than our own, but parties are importantly balancing power and influence in a structured system. If you take parties away or limit their control and influence, you end up in a system where money is finding alternative ways to influence the public and where hidden actors or zealous activists and political junkies shape the direction of politics.

 

While parties are not always positive forces, they tend to be more stable forces. Their slowness to adapt to important issues and their long-term posturing that does not reflect the wishes of citizens today is frustrating and feels undemocratic, but they are a chaos buffer, stabilizing the system, normalizing behavior, and creating political structures that posture politicians and opposing political forces for the long-run. We should recognize that taking power from the party will not necessarily give us the positive outcomes we want. Reducing the influence of parties simply shifts the who and how of political influence, and opening the system to ever more participation by political amateurs and activists can turn governance into chaos.

Political Machines

Recently (though challenged by the current presidential administration), in the United States, our trend has been toward ever increasing democracy. We have more participation in our elections, more direct election of representatives, and we all expect to have more of a voice in the political process. Along the way we have focused on high minded ideals such as transparency, direct public decision-making, and increased platforms for voicing opinions. However, as Max Weber predicted, government, organizations, and society have become and continue to grow more and more complex. Human nature, however, has not changed.

 

Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute argues in his book, Political Realism, that we have made changes to our system, our government oversight, and to the political arena that are intended to bring positive consequences, but have also brought confusion and gridlock. Our efforts to fight every appearance of corruption has made it challenging to build strong parties. Our efforts to limit the influence of money in legislative voting has eliminated quid-pro-quo trades for votes between legislators. Transparency into government decisions and deliberations has combined with social media to give us great insight into the decisions and beliefs of legislators, keeping their actions under a microscope. Each of these changes sounds like a good thing, but in the end, they create a system that is almost unworkable, where participants cannot be fully human.

 

Regarding the changes we have made, Rauch writes, “government cannot govern unless political machines or something like them exist and work, because machines are uniquely willing and able to negotiate compromises and make them stick. —progressive, populist, and libertarian reformers have joined forces to wage a decades-long war against machine politics by weakening political insider’s control of money, nominations, negotiations, and other essential tools of political leadership.” Rauch is highlighting the fact that machines can build coalitions, can link together like-minded individuals on certain issues, encourage them to commit to support other issues, create safe places for debate, and break through gridlock. Our transparency in politics has limited the effectiveness of machines by broadcasting discussions. Our democratic grabs at political primaries has limited parties from directing candidate selection, and has left us vulnerable to demagogues and celebrities with unsound political beliefs.

 

I would not argue that we should try to undue all the changes we have made to our political system, and I don’t think Rauch would argue for such dramatic changes either. But what we can do, is create some spaces and institutions that operate with a greater focus on the long-term continuous political process and not on winning short term political games. One can easily argue that our system of primaries is less democratic now, because only the most ideologically extreme participate in parties, leading to the selection of candidates that do not match the public. Wrestling control of party nominations away from the public may give us more moderate and representative candidates, who actually better represent the people who are supposedly electing them in a democratic fashion. Allowing for backroom discussions within politics can also help our representatives move forward with more legislation. Forcing each candidate to openly voice their arguments for or against a bill can put legislators in a catch-22 situation, a bill must pass on a national level, but may be politically toxic on a local level. We should expect that priorities, even on small local levels, will conflict, and expecting a perfect answer from each politician for each vote is unrealistic and potentially damaging to the over all process. These are the arguments that Rauch presents throughout his book, which is designed to start a conversation around how we govern ourselves and relate to our political process. Striving for more fair, more understandable, and better democratic systems is always a good goal, but sometimes our virtues trip up the system because we are political animals who need to negotiate challenging deals, build teams and coalitions, and make sacrifices to compromise on important issues for people at local, state, and national levels.

Realists

In 2015, Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute wrote a book about how politics should to operate in order to actually get anything done. His book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, cuts against our traditional thoughts about the ways in which we can improve our society and country. Rauch looks at movements that have great moral purposes, but that seem to make general duties within government more difficult and challenging. Particularly in legislative bodies today, government seems to be operating poorly and in a way that stokes the flames of partisan anger and opposition. Very few people have a positive view of any governmental agency, and if there is one thing all American’s seem to have in common today, it is a distrust of political parties and a sense of disgust toward national political bodies.

However, our government did not always have such a negative public view and did not always struggle to act on even basic legislation. Rauch begins his book by discussing some of the tools that government has used to clear a path for basic legislation and functioning. Of generations past in the United States he writes, “not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.” Previous generations understood the negative perception of the shady things that seemed to take place in government. They recognized the danger of fraud and corruption, and they acknowledged the need to hide under the table business. Nevertheless, these were tools that helped the country move forward. Rauch argues that today, operating with a government that cannot move anything forward, what we need is a little more of this old-school politics, and a little less of today’s sunshine disinfectant.

Where this all stems from is the most basic flaw of human societies. We can only be rational about  the ways in which we get to our ends, we cannot be rational about the ends themselves. This is to say that the goals and the desired outcomes we want to see in society are inevitably and unavoidably political. How we choose what society wants, what society should do, who we should help, who gets to be part of our group, and what will be excluded from society is not a scientific question but rather a question of identity and self-interest. These questions are simply political with no possible answer satisfying everyone.

Human rationality can only be applied once an end has been selected. Once we have agreed on an outcome, or once a majority voice has selected the desired end state, we can rationally work out the best way to get there. It is like a group of 10 couples who all must decide when and where they want to take a vacation as a big group. There is no perfect destination to satisfy everyone’s desires of seeing family, visiting big tourist items, and finding off the grid treasures. But once a decision has been made, the group can identify the most efficient route to take that maximizes the time spent viewing what most everyone wants. If the group primarily wants to spend time at a beach in southern Spain, then the most efficient travel option is a flight directly to Southern Spain, and the travel rout that flies into Bilbao in northern Spain then uses public transportation southward across the country is not considered. However, if visiting art museums and seeing a wide swath of Spanish culture is the main goal of the trip, flying to and staying in coastal southern towns is not a rational option to meet the goals, but flying into Bilbao and traveling across the country by bus is an ideal plan. The end goals must be selected before a rational decision can be made to meet that decision, but seeing art and culture is not inherently better than relaxing on a Mediterranean beach.

Government will always be hampered by this question, no matter how rational or how similar we become and no matter how good our artificial intelligence one day becomes. Government therefore, needs a way to move things forward that deescalates the tension of identity and self-interest. This is the argument that Rauch puts forward. He does not argue for the backrooms filled with cigar smoke and fat cats driving the show. After all, generations before did give us painfully slow desegregation and a political period rife with presidential assassinations and violent racial protests. What we can plausibly see however, is a system where discussions and deliberations can be secret, because what may be good for the nation could be toxic for an individual based on their constituency’s identity and self-interest.

What ultimately needs to be remembered is that government cannot rationally chose and advance a goal. Government can do its best to reach its desired end state, but selecting an end that hurts some and leaves representatives vulnerable creates a system where some members must oppose all action by that government as a signal to their compassion, concern, and identification with their constituents. A government with hidden deliberations and gear greasing allows for compromise and realistic legislation. Some discussions must be allowed to take place in ways that shield legislative members from direct criticism so that they cannot later be attacked and vilified for decisions that hurt some but move the majority in the right direction. Government needs a way to be a little bit wasteful and a way to put up with a little bit of abuse in order to move society forward. Constantly patrolling for abuse and waste is expensive and ultimately makes people less likely to take action and try to make things better.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Finding Your Voice in Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, mostly focuses on physics and the complex state of how our leading physicists were thinking about the universe in 2014. The book also, however, focuses on Gefter’s journey into science journalism, about her life and experiences, about our quest for knowledge, and about the ways in which we try to express and share what it is we know and learn. A little over halfway through the book, Gefter writes about her first attempt at writing a book, and endeavor she undertook with her father.

 

Gefter struggled to write a book with her father that would be more than a repository for the knowledge that she and her father had gained over the years as they delved ever deeper into the complex physics of spacetime, relativity, and quantum mechanics. She describes her efforts to write a book and how her publisher described her final product as lacking her true voice. All her life, writing for a bridal magazine, writing academic papers, and trying to break into science journalism, Gefter had felt that she needed to write with a voice that was distinctly not her own. She had adopted the voice of a stuffy, old, British man for the academic papers she wrote in college, mimicking the style she saw in the academic papers around her, and her bridal magazine days early in her career seemed to lack any voice at all. To be able to write successfully, Gefter was challenged to find her true voice, and to use her voice to describe the science she loved and wanted so passionately to understand and be a part of.

 

She wrote about the feedback that her first editor, Katinka Matson, gave her regarding her first attempt at a book, “Matson felt it was the co-authorship that had muted my voice. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was Safe and Screwed, like their confusing co-authorship structure. You violate the laws of physics when you try to speak from two observer’s points of view simultaneously. Maybe you violate the laws of publishing, too. Maybe our book had been an impossible object from the start. Maybe it didn’t make sense to try to write a book using both our voices, since it would add up to no voice at all.” In trying to fit her voice in with her father’s voice, Gefter left something out of her writing. She felt that she could not write as herself, and as a result she adopted a different persona for her writing, a persona that lacked her energy and spark and that failed to authentically convey her own excitement and interest in the puzzling and sometimes paradoxical science of the universe.

 

The answer for Gefter was not necessarily to give up the idea of publishing a book with her father, her copilot on her journey though physics. The challenge and answer for Gefter was to figure out what she needed to do to write as herself, and early on in her writing career this meant developing her writing voice independently, and then learning to incorporate others people and elements.

 

In the passage above, Safe and Screwed are two characters that she introduces in Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn when talking about black holes and the experiences that two people would have if one crossed the event horizon of a black hole and the other did not. Safe would be outside the even horizon, alive and presumably happily floating along in space. Screwed, on the other hand, would be burned apart by Hawking radiation and the part of him not devoured by quantum particles would be pulled and stretched by the gravitational force of the black hole. Screwed and Safe are how Gefter came to understand what our experience of black holes would be like, and sharing their stories and perspectives was the type of innovative science writing that Gefter needed to cultivate to express her own voice. Throughout the book, Gefter references Screwed and Safe, and she brings in other characters to help us see what is taking place at the edges of our understanding of the universe. This was the voice that Gefter needed to develop. She needed to step beyond the safeness of stuffy academic writing and passionless editorial writing to be an authentic, yet possibly screwed, science writer.

 

In our own lives and activities we must do the same. We cannot simply write, think, or do the things that we have seen before us. We cannot adopt styles and personalities because we think that is what other people expect. To be authentic to ourselves, to be innovative, and to make an impact and a difference, we must be ourselves, cultivate our own voice, and we must not be afraid to show who we are. We are not all stuffy old British men, so we should not write, speak, or behave as if we are, simply because most people in our jobs act that way or because that is the model of success we have seen before. I don’t think we literally all act like stuffy old British men, but in our lives we adopt certain personalities not because those personalities express who we are, but rather what we think we want to be, and because those personalities signal to others that we are part of a tribe (or at list think we are/want to be) and that we can use the same words and hold the same virtues as others in the tribe. Moving forward, for society to grow, become more inclusive, and develop new innovations, we must find ways to be ourselves and be more creative in the way we interact with and relate to the world. Otherwise we will never be able to communicate our excitement about the corner of the universe that fascinates us, and we will never create the meaningful societal connections that form the cornerstone of society.