Tag Archives: US government

6 Questions for the Social Academic Disciplines after the US Election

Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts  of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election.  So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.

Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution.  I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some.  This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:

1. Political Science

Ok this one’s mine.  Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy.  Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power.  Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together.  The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself.  Protecting minority rights protects everyone.

While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics.  We all did it, so you have to too. There.

I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians.  It makes no sense.

A bonus suggestion for Philosophy:  help everyone understand paradoxes better.

2. Gender and Womens’ Studies

I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour.  I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures?  An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.

3. Psychology

Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances.  I think we need more of that.  Can psychology help us understand  more about the dynamics of voter decision making,  the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division?  What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making?   We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making,  but how might this dynamic work at a community level?

4. History

Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day.  Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present.  Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened.   The boring bits are what we can learn from.   As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive?  I have a feeling we’re going to need that.

5. Communications

Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users.  Consumers are now transmitters.  Conversations are immediate and global.  Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy?   Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our  reality?

6. Artists and Writers

Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else.  Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute.  Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves.  Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.

A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

An American Game of Thrones

As a graduate student, my academic advisor once told me that despite its hype, the American Revolution did not so much create a new system of government as replace one king with another.  The President has king-like symbolic power over the nation’s direction.  For this reason, and because of the diminished stature of the US in the world context, the US ‘throne’ is now a shrinking resource which will see fights the likes of no other in US history.  The polar opposite visions of the country will shrink the middle ground and with it the scope for any real action to be taken.  As the real power to influence events wanes, the symbolic power of the Presidency takes on ever more vitality.  Just look at the way that the President is personally blamed or celebrated (depending on the jobs numbers) for economic turns of events over which they have virtually no control.  Electing a new ‘monarch’ has all of the trappings of a winner-take-all fight in which, to paraphrase Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones fame, ‘you win or you die’.  In this battle, the rules of engagement are murky.   The US ‘throne’ is now a

Ultimately, the game of thrones, whether in American politics or in the popular HBO series to which I have become hopelessly addicted, is about leadership.   The abiding moral paradox is that to earn the throne one must be ruthlessly focused on its attainment, but to keep it requires wiser, more subtle finessing and the ability to keep that ruthlessness in check when necessary.  This is the central distinction that Machiavelli made 500 years ago, encapsulated in the term ‘prudence’.   Warriors like Robert Baratheon (or George W. Bush)  fail as leaders because they lack the necessary diplomatic skill to inspire and activate their symbolic power.   Masters of finesse like Barack Obama (read Ned Stark) must constantly balance their leadership with the necessary hard edge needed to deter challengers, both domestic and abroad.  Such leaders do not necessarily relish or celebrate the violence they must commit.  But, taking the moral high ground can be hazardous to their health.

And what of the Lannisters (er, Mitt Romneys) of the world?  Wealth doesn’t automatically bring wisdom or the prudence necessary to rule.  The wealthy often prefer to manipulate things from the background rather than step forward to and take the power commensurate with their wealth.  In fact, the corruption that wealth brings erodes the necessary respect for power that is a requirement of prudence (Joffrey the false heir apparent, is a clear result of this corruption).  Romney, like Tywin, must constantly keep the ‘lower’ urges of his ‘clan’ from damaging his image.    Ned Stark

In this new age of symbolic power, appearance matters far more than reality, because to focus otherwise risks revealing the appalling truth: the President has little actual power to affect the economy, world affairs, or domestic governance.   The real decisions made in boardrooms, central bank meetings, and war rooms will go ahead with little reference to political affairs.  Collaboration will occur increasingly in secret, while the public sphere will be characterized by unending conflict.  To twist an old adage, in order to get anything done, it must not be seen to be done.