4/24/19

A simple strategy for restoring felon voting rights

Once in office, immediately frame your victory as a national referendum on felon voting rights. Give Congress one month to pass legislation, warning them that if they fail you will be forced to start using the blunt instrument of mass pardons in order to enact this clear democratic mandate. 

If they miss the deadline, begin by issuing pardons that will draw as little opposition as possible: clear cases of wrongful conviction, some innocuous subset of non-violent offenders, and so on. Repeat the initial demand, warning that you will issue even more pardons if Congress fails to pass legislation. Repeat, repeat, and repeat until Congress passes legislation or it becomes politically impossible for you to continue.

*   *   *

This proposal may seem extraordinarily radical, risky, and combative, and I have no doubt that even sympathetic socialists can come up with legitimate strategic and legal quibbles over the particulars. To its credit, however, I think that this kind of strategy recognizes several important political realities that socialists need to come to terms with moving forward:

1. The modern presidency, despite its serious shortcomings, still has more democratic legitimacy than the Senate, the Supreme Court, state and local governments, and arguably the House. Socialists who are committed to meaningful parliamentary or direct democracy need to recognize that what we have ain't it, that what we have was not even designed to be it, and that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Right now the presidency is both our most democratic institution and our best hope for creating a better democracy, and socialists should not hesitate to use it.

2. The president's most viable route to enacting the democratic will will often be through executive action. This is really just an elaboration on point (1), but we should be clear-eyed about it: in the immediate future, Congress will pose an often insurmountable obstacle to democracy. The most effective way the president has to deal with this is through his executive authority: either by simply using it, or by leveraging it to force legislative concessions. Presidents need to bow to this reality and proceed accordingly by pursuing an agenda that is open to working outside of antiquated legislative norms.

3. Our next president should maximize her political leverage by moving as quickly as possible after she is elected. When a president is elected, there is always significant uncertainty about how much of a power-shift has just taken place - and yet there is also extraordinary ideological and institutional pressure on our elite to affirm, out of respect for democracy, that whatever has just happened is legitimate. That's why, despite the usual allegations of foul play at the polls, elections also usually end with the opposition making a big show of respecting the results, congratulating the winner, and declaring hopes for their success.

This moment can never last, but as long as it does, our next president needs to take the opportunity to affirm that a change has taken place - to ratchet in new norms and a radical shift in our politics, all with the memory of a recently mobilized and commanding political majority close at hand. There is never a better time to pursue socialist ambitions as aggressively as possible.

4. One of our immediate priorities should be to expand and entrench our power. This is just remedial Machiavelli so I don't want to dwell on it - either you accept it, or you don't - but since US socialists are so allergic to wielding and maintaining power, the point has to be made. When we take control of the state, one of the very first things we need to do is ensure that all of the antidemocratic obstacles placed in the way of our continued control of the state are completely destroyed. If you do not do this then it is probably only a matter of time until the enemies of democracy take power once again and tear down everything you have accomplished. This was one of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration, and it allowed the radical right to exploit the Achilles' heel of his incrementalist politics.

The left must not let that happen again. As I argued four years ago, one of the best ways to prevent that would be for our next president to move quickly to enact democratic reforms through executive action - and that calculus hasn't changed.

4/19/19

The case for a Fox News boycott is extremely weak

Bernie Sanders held a town hall on Fox News this week. By most accounts, it was a smashing success. It also, however, reignited a familiar debate on the liberal-left: should anyone ever go on Fox News?

My take on this is that the case for a Fox News boycott is remarkably weak. This is particularly true when one considers the sheer weight that it has to carry - all of the demands it makes of skeptical comrades.
  • First, it asks us to abandon any political benefits that an appearance on Fox News might seem to offer. One can argue that it would win votes, expose viewers to a different perspective, raise left morale, and so on - but that answer will always be that the cost of breaking the boycott is too high. Partisans of the boycott have to hold the line on this, because if they make exceptions, then suddenly every appearance is negotiable.
  • Second, it asks for moral authority. Since the boycott demands universal buy-in, its advocates have to insist that their strategy is not a legitimate approach but the legitimate approach. Necessarily, the partisan of the boycott claims the right to call skeptical comrades enablers of the right - perhaps unwittingly, or perhaps, of course, due to their sinister right-wing sympathies. This is why so many debates over what should be merely a question of tactics devolve into serious allegations of moral failure.
  • Finally, the boycott demands all of this for the indefinite future. This is not some surgical short-term action; it's a long war against a machine that has been at this for years and shows no signs of slowing down. And there is, evidently, no reality-check that we can conduct which would allow us to conclude at some point, "Okay - this isn't working."
This is a lot to ask from comrades who oppose the right, and who hope for an end to Fox News - but who don't find the arguments for a boycott terribly convincing.


Note that I say "arguments" in the plural. Because unfortunately, the debate over a Fox News boycott seems to have a real whack-a-mole quality: address one case for it, and you'll soon be informed that the argument for a boycott is something else entirely. This makes it difficult to have a productive conversation on the topic, and it also makes it hard to write about the boycott in a systematic way; the best I can do is take on the different arguments one-by-one.


WHACK-A-MOLE ONE: "No one who watches Fox News is open to persuasion"

The view that all Fox News viewers are brainwashed partisans may be popular among activists who are looking for a simplified culture war, but it is just that - a simplification. In fact, about one in every five Fox News viewers identify as liberal, according to a study of ideological segregation by the National Bureau of Economic Research. [1] Consider meanwhile that Bernie Sanders, for example, has a roughly 13% approval rating among self-identified conservatives [2]: that puts the "gettable" Fox News viewers at as much as 30%, depending on what one is hoping to accomplish.

Additionally, one also has to take into account the way that any given Fox News appearance can disseminate beyond the channel's immediate audience, generate secondary media coverage, produce viral content online, and so on. These propagation effects can be hard to measure rigorously, but nevertheless, it seems clear that in today's media ecosystem an appearance in Fox News can become an appearance everywhere.


WHACK-A-MOLE TWO: "Fox News will make you look bad"

Because the channel is notorious for bullying guests, manipulating them, and misrepresenting them with unscrupulous editing, advocates for a boycott occasionally argue that one simply can't do a successful appearance on Fox News. This objection isn't really worth contesting much beyond pointing out that it's demonstrably untrue. In just the past year, leftists from Katie Halper to Elizabeth Bruenig to Rutger Bregman made extraordinary appearances on the channel, and as Nathan Robinson argues, all it really takes is some talent and preparation.


WHACK-A-MOLE THREE: "If you go on Fox News, viewers will regard it as a legitimate outlet"

Here, I think advocates for a boycott run into a serious practical problem that opens up with a simple question: for it to work, does everyone have to participate? Or does it become more or less successful as more or less people buy in?

Consider the first possibility: that for the boycott to work, the liberal-left needs to hold the line and deny Fox News even a single fig leaf of legitimacy. It's entirely possible that this is how it would have to work; by analogy, we can look at the GOP's strategy of denying Obama-era legislation bipartisan legitimacy by refusing to give it even a single vote. As soon as a single Blue Dog Congressperson or a rogue pundit appears on Fox News, one can easily imagine a tidal wave of commercials featuring their image and selling every show as "fair and balanced."

If this is how the boycott needs to work, then the analogy to the Obama-era GOP gives us another insight: strategic discipline is extraordinarily difficult to maintain among large and diverse groups of people with different interests over the long term. The goal of maintaining this kind of absolute, unbroken boycott - and not just among politicians, but among pundits, activists, and anyone else who could possibly give the network ideological cover - strikes me as so ambitious that I think it's entirely fair to question its plausibility. As evidence, I point to the past fifteen years of attempted boycotts, which have never been able to achieve universal buy-in for all kinds of obvious reasons.

On the other hand, one can always argue that the Fox News boycott doesn't need to be absolute to achieve its intended effect; for it to work, the liberal-left only need to reach some critical mass of people unwilling to appear on the channel to delegitimize it. This strikes me as a more plausible strategy, but it also means that we have to start talking about the boycott strategy in a different way: as soon as we concede that it doesn't need absolute buy-in, then one can legitimately make the case for circumstantial exceptions.


WHACK-A-MOLE FOUR: "If you go on Fox News, you'll legitimize it for advertisers"

This is the boycott argument proper: we should stay off Fox News as a way of imposing financial pressure against its owners, forcing them to change their business model in order to retain its corporate sponsors. I don't think it takes much imagination, however, to see that this argument faces the same buy-in problems as the last one. If we can put pressure on advertisers without demanding absolute buy-in on the boycott from the liberal-left, then any particular appearance is negotiable. If on the other hand the boycott demands absolute buy-in from any and all potential guests on the liberal-left for the foreseeable future, then it's probably not going to work.

On that note, I think it's worth reflecting on how this strategic analysis fits into broader debates about boycotts on the liberal-left. There is no denying that they've proven themselves a powerful tool in the hands of activists working to achieve specific, limited goals; even when it comes to Fox News, the liberal-left has successfully used boycotts to bring down hosts and cancel shows. But part of being a socialist is recognizing that some problems are simply too big, and too entrenched in the fundamental operations of capitalism, to solve with private-sector activism and conscientious consumption. The proletariat does not have infinite leverage, through our collective resources and sheer force of will, to bend and shape markets however we please; that's precisely why we have to overthrow capitalism altogether.

In this case, after fifteen years, the liberal-left has not even come within radio-telescope distance of bringing down Fox News. It's a multi-billion dollar brand, and despite occasional fluctuations in business expenses, its ad revenue continues to grow. Our occasional successes with targeted boycotts have brought down particular shows, but they've merely been a manageable business expense to the network at large.

Fortunately, if you're a socialist, there's an alternative to consumer activism: you can seize control of the machinery of ideological production through the arm of the state. Until then, there are probably going to be occasions when it makes sense to go on Fox News. There will also be occasions when it doesn't. Either way, socialists can discuss them without leaning on the simplistic solution of a boycott and the vacuous moralizing that usually follows.

4/12/19

The flimsy case for Russia's role in Sanders to Trump crossover vote

The Washington Post has just published an article about "the Russian effort to target Sanders supporters - and help elect Trump". Once you wade through about 1500 words of background, however, the substance is quite thin: the Post asked two researchers to "[examine] English-language tweets identified as coming from Russia". 

What did they find? 9000 tweets that used the word "Bernie," and "thousands of other tweets" that were allegedly "designed to appeal to his backers".

That's it. The article doesn't even indicate whether this was an exhaustive survey or whether they were just looking at a sample group, which means that we have no way of knowing the scale of the campaign. Taken at face value, however, these numbers are absolutely trivial. To say that they won Trump a single state, you would have to argue, for example, that three out of every five "Bernie" tweets flipped a Clinton voter. To say that they won him Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, you would have to argue that each "Bernie" tweet flipped Trump more than four votes. 

Here, we are back to arguing that Russia's ad campaign was, as Brian Feldman put it, "supernaturally effective and persuasive" - that it had an impact out of the reach of ordinary social media marketing campaigns by several orders of magnitude. It is entirely possible, of course, that the tweets discovered in the Post article were part of a much larger campaign - but it does nothing at all to establish this, leaving us with a handful of utterly meaningless numbers.

A final note: in passing, the Post cites an Ohio State University paper which argues that "about 4 percent of President Barack Obama's 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories." But to swing the election, Trump only needed to win about 2 percent of Sanders supporters.

In other words, all of this data is entirely consistent with a scenario in which Sanders supporters were twice as resistant to Russian propaganda as Obama supporters, but still swung the election. The article, then, tells us nothing about the scale of Russia's efforts to target Sanders supports, nothing about their effectiveness, and nothing about about how receptive Sanders supporters were. Why did they publish this, again?

4/10/19

Nate Silver's new candidate ranking method favors some candidates, penalizes others

Nate Silver has posted his "current thinking on the tiers in the Democratic primary, in terms of likelihood of winning the nomination." As usual, it has come under a lot of criticism from people with different intuitions about how the candidates should be ranked.

Fortunately, however, we don't have to rely on subjective intuitions - because Silver has done this before. Back in December, Silver posted another tiered ranking of the candidates; but then, he explained that his ranking was based on Likert scores. This makes the comparison straightforward: all we have to do is calculate updated Likert scores based on recent polling, and we can figure out how the candidates would rank using his previous methodology. Here's how it shakes out:



Here I have also assigned each candidate a "corrected tier" that - like Silver's post in December - is based on their Likert ranking. This gives us a clear view of how his new ranking differs. Red cells indicate that Silver has underranked the candidate; green cells indicate that he has overranked them.

When Silver posted his December rankings, I noted a serious problem in his method for calculating Likert scores that significantly changed candidate ratings when it was corrected. This time, instead of correcting that error, I have simply adopted his previous method to demonstrate that Silver is not even applying his flawed methodology consistently. Note that there are, between his last ranking and this one, two major points of continuity:
  • In both rankings, he significantly errs in favor of Kamala Harris. The last time, failure to account for "not sure" ratings boosted her score by .3 points; this time, he has ranked her in tier 1a, when she should at best be in tier 1b.
  • In both rankings, he significantly errs at the expense of Bernie Sanders. The last time, failure to account for "not sure" ratings dropped his score by .03 points, placing him in tier 1b rather than 1a; this time, he again places Sanders in tier 1b when he should be in 1a.
I don't think that much further elaboration is necessary. There is no math or method to Nate Silver's madness; he's simply making it up as he goes along, and changing his approach in ways that appear to consistently favor some candidates and penalize others.