Category Archives: Politics

Title VII

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to agency heads and US attorneys. Obtained by BuzzFeed, the memo read in part:

Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women but does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.

In other words, while federal law previously recognized that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applied to all forms of gender discrimination, the Justice Department is now choosing to interpret the law more narrowly; no longer protecting all men and women from employer, voting, or other forms of public discrimination. Specifically, transgender men and women will no longer have these federal protections.

Currently, only 20 states plus the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals. So with the distribution of a memo, three fifths of our nation’s citizens just lost human rights protections which they had the day before.

It shouldn’t be that easy to take away basic rights.

Additionally, the removal of federal backing puts existing state laws into greater peril, as opponents are already mobilized trying to over turn state laws. Even more of our citizens could lose their rights.

This unconscionable act cannot go unchallenged.

In his memo, Session tries to sound nonchalant about stripping citizens of their rights. The new Justice Department interpretation is “a conclusion of law, not policy. As a law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice must interpret Title VII as written by Congress.”

Scapegoating Congress for this egregious interpretation, however, flies in the face of existing case law and existing understanding Title VII protections.

Sessions attempts to appear all innocent and neutral in re-interpreting this law:

The Justice Department must and will continue to affirm the dignity of all people, including transgender individuals. Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to condone mistreatment on the basis of gender identity, or to express a policy view on whether Congress should amend Title VII to provide different or additional protections.

But it’s not neutral to roll back protections which have been in place, and it’s not innocent to explicitly remove protections covering transgender individuals. Despite his claims to the contrary, this is a policy move, not a legal one.

Furthermore this move comes just days after the United States took a position – as just one of 13 countries – against a UN resolution condemning the death penalty as a sanction for same-sex relations.

Yes, you read that right – we are no longer against the state-sanction murder of people for being gay.

The current administration is waging a war against human rights on many fronts. I know we are tired, we are exhausted and numbed from the constant stream of negative news. But we cannot allow these policy changes to pass silently or without confrontation.

We cannot let it be okay to simply re-interpret someone’s rights away.

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Travel Ban: Take 3

Yesterday, President Trump issued his third travel ban. As you may recall, the previous Executive Order on this topic called for the “assessment of current screening and vetting procedures.” While the ban itself was suspended by numerous legal challenges, apparently the information gathering work was in fact completed.

The new travel ban effects nationals of 8 countries – nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Somalia, and North Korea. Sudan was removed from the previous travel ban list, while Venezuela and North Korea were added. Six of the effected countries have majority muslim populations.

The new ban will remain in effect indefinitely.

Experts indicate that the new ban will be harder to challenge in court. It is more polished, more precise, and more removed from President Trump’s numerous anti-Muslim campaign comments. It ameliorates some of the most egregious problems with the initial, January 27 ban: there will be a several week delay before the new ban goes into effect, people who currently hold valid visa will not be effected by the new ban, and restrictions vary slightly by country, allowing, for example, Iranians with valid student visas to enter the country.

In short, this is what a politically savvy travel ban would have looked like in the first place. It has been thoroughly considered and vetted; carefully dressed up to give the impression of a relatively reasonable piece of U.S. policy.

But make no mistake: this travel ban still represents a grave overreach based in fear and racism. It is still unacceptable.

I have attended several travel ban protests in the last nine months and it looks as though in the near future I’ll be attending more.

And while attending those protests, I suppose I’ll be remembering Machiavelli’s advice to his beloved prince: If you’re going to do something terrible, start by doing something as terrible as possible. Then, when you benevolently scale back to something slightly less terrible, the people will appreciate your reasonableness and moderation.

That’s what a clever dictator would do.

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Adversary Democracy

There’s a long tradition in computer science, largely originating from cryptography, of designing with a generic adversary in mind.

Code should be able to handle the mistaken input of a thoughtless user and should remain robust in worse-case scenarios. The motivation for this approach is simple: programming for ideal users and ideal cases will quickly go awry in the messy world of practical applications. Programming against a malicious or incompetent adversary will make your code better.

This presents an interesting divergence from deliberative theory, where participants are arguably hoped to be as close to ideal as reasonably possible.

If people can be thoughtful, open-minded, and eager to discover the truth through debate, then deliberation can be transformative. If they enter discussion as “tolerant gladiators,” to borrow a phrase from Huckfeldt, and argue with the goal of convincing others and being convinced when it is appropriate, as Mercier and Landemore write, then we can have a rich and robust society.

Skeptics respond that this is too idealistic a vision. People are just not that virtuous and unbiased. At least, not in the numbers required for a functioning deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democrats continually rebuff this claim. Mansbridge, for example, draws a distinction between adversary democracy and unitary democracy. Adversary democrats not only have hesitancies about the capacities of humankind, but more fundamentally, they believe political life can only exist as a zero-sum game.

In every community decision, in every group interaction, someone wins and someone loses. With this epistemic frame, any shortcomings of humanity are actually besides the point: the best you can do is try to make the distribution of wins and loses as just as possible.

Mansbridge and others strongly argue against this framing. Political life – associated living – is not zero-sum. By engaging in deliberation, by reasoning together, people can collectively build new approaches and solutions which remain out of reach in the adversarial paradigm.

It is not about winning or losing; it is not even about compromise. Deliberation transforms the values and beliefs of participants and gives them space to co-create their worlds together.

I believe whole heartedly in this vision. Politics isn’t zero-sum – or at least doesn’t have to be – and deliberation can serve as a powerful vehicle for collective leadership.

But I am left wondering – do adversarial models have no place at all?

This seems somewhat unlikely, given the current inundation of adversarial political relationships. Yet, the prevailing wisdom among deliberative democrats is that current democratic failings result primarily are primarily epistemic in nature – that if we collectively shift how we think about politics we can build the unitary systems Mansbridge describes.

It seems, though, that the computer science model might have some value here. Imagine an adversary who is wholly uninterested in dialogue. Engaging them in deliberation is more challenging than overcoming their biases or social power, rather they actively engage in trying to make deliberation fail.

There are a lot of great frameworks for deliberation, there’s a lot you can accomplish with structure and moderators.

But if someone is deadset on being adversarial – if they actively don’t want to participate and threaten the wellbeing of other participants – I don’t see how deliberation can survive.

That’s not necessarily fatal to deliberation, though – I still believe strongly in the critical role this work has to play in our democracy, and I would still fancy myself a deliberative democrat who sees this approach as the cornerstone for a healthy democracy.

But sometimes you have adversaries who don’t want to play by the rules. Who don’t want to co-create or reason with others. They just want to destroy.

And for that you need a whole other approach of advocacy, protest, and resistance.

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To Charlottesville, With Love

I have to admit that up until this past weekend, I’ve paid little attention to the Virginia city of Charlottesville. I had a vague sense of the city, thanks to posts from Facebook friends who live there, but I had little knowledge of the city, its people, or the controversies it was struggling with.

When the city was suddenly catapulted into the news this weekend as the site of a white supremacist rally, I began to notice how little everyone else seemed to know about the city as well.

“Charlottesville” became a hashtag, a name synonymous with violent acts of hate. “After Charlottesville” became shorthand for our national angst. How do we move on, what do we do, “after Charlottesville”?

Such language is unfair to the city and does too much to distance ourselves from the situation. Charlottesville isn’t some remote backwater disconnected from the rest of American life. It is a vibrant, diverse, and loving city.

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend could have happened anywhere.

The Southern Poverty Law Center – which incidentally, you can donate to here – is currently tracking over 917 hate groups all across the US. White supremacist rhetoric isn’t isolated to Charlottesville, and it isn’t isolated to the South. It is a national challenge we all most grapple with and stand against.

It’s been a few days since the rally in Charlottesville, and just this morning I caught a piece of the story I had missed before. I had known that neo-nazis descended on Charlottesville in response to the city council voting to remove a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. But what I had missed is that vote came in part as a response to a petition started by a 15-year-old Charlottesville high schooler: Change the name of Lee Park and Remove the Statue.

In the petition, Zyahna B. shares a letter to the editor that she wrote explaining her motivations. First, the statue represents something abhorrent: “When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind.”

But perhaps even more importantly, this message “doesn’t represent what Charlottesville is all about.”

“There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters,” she writes. “There is more to this city that makes it great.”

This fifteen-year-old girl wanted the statue removed because she loves her city and she wants her city to celebrate love.

As we collectively reflect on the terrible events of this past weekend, it is too easy to forget this aspect of the story. Charlottesville is full of amazing, passionate, dedicated people who literally put their lives on the line to stand against white supremacy and hate.

Confronting our legacy of slavery and our ongoing systems of oppression is a national endeavor; no city, state, or region is absolved from this task.

It is facile to point to Charlottesville as a symbol of everything that is wrong with this country. Rather, I can only hope that in confronting this national blight, my neighbors and I can be as courageous, committed, and full of love as the people in Charlottesville. They leave me in awe.

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On Politics and Blame

Perhaps one of the few things that can be widely agreed upon these days is that the state of U.S. politics is less than ideal. Whether your side is winning or losing, it seems, the fight sure is ugly.

Of course, hindsight bias makes it challenging to accurately quantify the depravity of current affairs relative to past political struggles. Things seem pretty bad now, sure, but our vice president hasn’t shot any political rivals, and this isn’t even the first time the world has found itself on the brink of a nuclear showdown.

So perhaps things have always been terrible.

It is both interesting and depressing to read older political science literature; to see the long history of fake news documented by digital humanities scholars, or to read Lippmann’s blistering arguments for why the public will never be capable of taking on the tremendous task democracy has set out for them.

It is remarkable how little has changed; how much those old arguments still ring true.

Lippmann, for example, decried people’s steadfast commitment to their stereotypes – a word he coined. These mental short cuts may serve many useful functions, but they cause deep disfunction in the political domain, as people cling desperately to their fabricated understandings.

Stereotypes offer such familiar comfort, Lippmann argues, that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Lippmann would hardly be surprised by the current state of political polarization.

Perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the critiques of our democracy have remained relatively stable over time. The details have changed and the voracity of certain view points ebb and flow, but, in the broadest sense, the contours of the critiques stay the same.

If our democracy doesn’t work as well as we might hope, there is always someone to blame.

We could join with Lippmann in being skeptical of the average person’s capacity to carry out this work. Perhaps the great majority are simply too lazy, stupid, or distracted to properly engage in democracy.

We could blame the media – they are too caught up in ratings, too interested in sensation and not interested enough in the truth.

We could blame the school system – why haven’t they better prepared their students for the work of democracy?

We could blame whichever Others we find most distasteful. Perhaps people like us and the institutions we’re a part of are smart, capable, and doing everything right. It’s just those Other people, the people not like us, who hold us back from achieving the full vision of our democracy.

Note that these criticisms could come from any portion of the political spectrum – no party has a corner on this market.

And the truth, I would argue, is that all these actors and institutions are to blame. If our democracy is broken – and it certainly seems to be less than ideal – it is a collective challenge which we all must address and which we all must accept responsibility for.

Blame gets us nowhere.

Habermas argues in favor of what he calls “discourse theory” as a middle ground between systems theory and rational discourse theory. Our society is neither a hierarchical network of institutions nor an unstructured blob of autonomous individuals. It is something in between.

As Habermas describes:

The lifeworld forms, as a whole, a network composed of communicative actions. Under the aspect of action coordination, it’s society component consists of the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relationships. It also encompasses collectivities, associations, and organizations specialized for specific functions. Some of these functionally specialized action systems become independent…spheres integrated through values, norms, and mutual understanding.

“The media” and “the public” – even “the left” and “the right” – are such spheres, internally cohesive with their own norms and grammar, but still very much integrated into the entire deliberative system. We can’t just tell one sphere to go fix itself – the solution requires a more holistic perspective that considers broader network.

The solution requires all of us.

I am not interested in blame. I’m not interested in post-mortems on political campaigns or past policy initiatives. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but ultimately I more interested in the future.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this earth together. We have to find ways to work together, to co-create our world together. We can’t put all our energy into passing blame. “Fixing” politics begins with each one of us.

…Or, perhaps, we’re all going to die.

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Computational Models of Belief Systems & Cultural Systems

Work on belief systems is similar to the research on cultural systems – both use agent-based models to explore how complex systems evolve given a simple set of actor rules and interactions – there are important conceptual differences between the two lines of work.

Research on cultural systems takes a maco-level approach, seeking to explain if, when, and how, distinctive communities of similar traits emerge, while research on belief systems uses comparable methods to understand if, when, and how distinctive individuals come to agree on a given point.

The difference between these approaches is subtle but notable. The cultural systems approach begins with the observation that distinctive cultures do exist, despite local tendencies for convergence, while research on belief systems begins from the observation that groups of people are capable of working together, despite heterogeneous opinions and interests.

In his foundational work on cultural systems, Axelrod begins, “despite tendencies towards convergence, differences between individuals and groups continue to exist in beliefs, attitudes, and behavior” (Axelrod, 1997).

Compare this to how DeGroot begins his exploration of belief systems: “consider a group of individuals who must act together as a team or committee, and suppose that each individual in the group has his own subjective probability distribution for the unknown value of some parameter. A model is presented which describes how the group might reach agreement on a common subjective probability distribution parameter by pooling their individual opinions” (DeGroot, 1974).

In other words, while cultural models seek to explain the presence of homophily and other system-level traits, belief systems more properly seek to capture deliberative exchange. The important methodological difference here is that cultural systems model agent change as function of similarity, while belief systems model agent change as a process of reasoning.

 

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Defining Deliberation

While there are many definitions of deliberation – and many substantive debates about what constitutes ‘good’ deliberation (or perhaps it must be good to count as deliberation) – I like Jane Mansbridge’s ‘minimalist definition’ as a good starting point for understanding the term.

Deliberation, she writes, is “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

While there is much that may be missing from this definition, I do think that it captures the core of what deliberation is all about. It is, fundamentally, a form of communication which engages reason and normative beliefs about shared concerns.

But the simplicity of this definition, perhaps under-states the value of deliberation; the power people can have in shaping their own communities.

Dewey writes that:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that…It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

When Dewey writes that ‘democracy is a way of life’ he means that the ideal of democracy can only be achieved when we co-create our values and institutions together; when we deliberate to answer the question, what should we do?

But more fundamentally, the Deweyian invocation to democracy as a way of life, tells us that deliberation is democracy. It is not “just talk” or isolated blather. Deliberation is the very stuff of democracy itself – and when we live our lives as good citizens, engaging regularly and rationally in conversation with all members of our community; when we treat every conversation as a chance to improve ourselves and co-create our world; when we take democracy as a way of life –

Then we are indeed creating democracy itself.

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The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes

I am heading out later today to head to the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) conference. My advisor, Nick Beauchamp will be presenting our joint work on “The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes.”

Here is the abstract for that work:

Debate and deliberation play essential roles in politics and government, but most models presume that debates are won mainly via superior style or agenda control. Ideally, however, debates would be won on the merits, as a function of which side has the stronger arguments. We propose a predictive model of debate that estimates the effects of linguistic features and the latent persuasive strengths of different topics, as well as the interactions between the two. Using a dataset of 118 Oxford-style debates, our model’s combination of content (as latent topics) and style (as linguistic features) allows us to predict audience-adjudicated winners with 74% accuracy, significantly outperforming linguistic features alone (66%). Our model finds that winning sides employ stronger arguments, and allows us to identify the linguistic features associated with strong or weak arguments.

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A Ban by Another Name

There was the expectation that Presidential Travel Ban 2.0 would be upheld as constitutional.

As NPR reports, it was specifically amended to address previous concerns: “It omitted Iraq from the list of barred countries, removed references to religion and excluded green card holders and people who already had visas, among other changes.”

So it was surprising – perhaps even shocking – when a judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order and a judge in Maryland soon after issued a preliminary injunction; both of which blocked the nationwide implementation of the ban.

Proponents of the ban howled at it’s continued blockage; opponents celebrated the victory; and reasonable people from both sides wondered what was constitutionally right in terms of future present beyond the scope of this immediate issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice believes strongly that the ban is legal – indeed, they revised the previous Executive Order language with the explicit goal of issuing an order that would stand up in court. Proponents of the ban further argue that the judges who have moved to block it have overstepped their judicial bounds; issuing rulings from partisan passions rather than from the blind legal ideal.

But Judge Derrick K. Watson – the U.S. District Court judge from Hawaii who issued a temporary ban – sees the matter differently. Watson argues that he was simply considering the wider context, something which is fully within his legal purview to do.

As NPR describes: “The judge concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that “a reasonable, objective observer … would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]””

In other words, it doesn’t matter if the specific wording of the new order is carefully crafted to be technically constitutional: it’s the implementation and spirit that is everything.

While this defense may ring of judicial overreaching, I’m inclined to favor the judge’s interpretation – and I’m fairly confident my opinion isn’t simply due to my own distaste for the order.

President Trump himself has made it clear that he favors a “Muslim ban,” that he wants to block people from a specific religious group from entering the country. The injunctions against this ban say, in no uncertain terms, that such a goal is unconstitutional, no matter how you dress it up.

In the days following the initial travel ban order, there was chaos and confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on. Lacking clarity from the order itself, those tasked with the actual enforcement of the ban had a lot of leeway in how it was interpreted and how it was carried out.

There is nothing to prevent a Muslim ban which is gracefully worded to avoid the word Muslim from becoming exactly what it is intended to be. The letter of the law doesn’t need to read “Muslim,” but as long as the intent is clear – as long as there’s the risk of unconstitutional treatment at our borders – such a ban is and should be considered unconstitutional. A little window dressing doesn’t change that.

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Political Engagement and The Busy Work Day

In ancient Greek philosophy, the role of citizen was both noble and consuming. You couldn’t be a laborer and a citizen, you couldn’t engage in mundane work and be a citizen. Being a citizen was a full-time endeavor, it involved keeping up on the news, participating in your community, and being informed enough to wisely rule over all those non-citizens who actually made the world work.

Our sensibilities have grown a bit more egalitarian – engaged citizenship is no longer the sole purview of gentlemen of leisure. Anyone can be a citizen, and furthermore – everyone has the right and responsibility to engage as in the work of collective rule.

But while I fully support this inclusive vision of citizenship, it does come saddled with the jaunty air of trying to have it all.

Citizenship is hard. It is a full time job. Especially now with our 24-hour news cycles and better connected world, it is literally impossible to stay perfectly informed on every subject – much less spend time thoughtfully debating and reflecting on them.

In Michael Neblo’s book “Deliberative Democracy between Theory and Practice,” I was struck by a statistic mentioned near the end of his analysis: in one survey, he finds that 42% of respondents felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session. I’m fairly certain I’ve seem similar statistics around voting and jury participation, though I’m afraid I don’t have the wherewithal to track those down right now.

The current challenge of engaged citizenship isn’t just one of apathetic citizens, too unenthused to exercise their rights – it’s one of under-confidence in one’s own ability to learn, think, and engage critically and productively.

Some of this, I feel, comes from the increasing professionalization within the civic space: why muck up the works when people who really know what they’re doing are involved? But I think some this all comes from this “having it all” notion of citizenship.

Of course, I want engaged citizens to be informed and reflective – but perhaps we need a better bar of what it means to be informed. I watch, listen to, and read the news regularly, and yet I often find myself feeling badly that I am not more informed. Unlike an ideal Athenian, I’ve just got other things to do.

But below that over optimistic bar of ideal citizen and above that disconcerting low of fake news, it’s entirely unclear to me just what the informational habits of a good citizen ought to be in a world that is more crazed than ideal.

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