Trump, Trust, and Civic Renewal

Here are three observations I take to be axiomatic:
  1. Citizens must trust their government if they are to invest it with responsibility.
  2. Trust between citizens is a good measure of civic capacity.
  3. Trust in institutions is a requirement for collaboration.

After the last few days, it seems obvious that we are headed for an alternative set of arrangements where a less trusting press and a less trusted Executive Branch part ways. I have a hard time seeing the upside of this divorce for progressive goals: since government needs trust to accomplish a lot of its goals, citizens with good reason to mistrust their government are very likely to respond by handing that government less responsibility. That will frustrate populists but not laissez-faire elites. Thus, less trust seems to be likely to increase the uptake of libertarian and neo-liberal ideas.

In some ways that’s the best case scenario: incompetence also lends itself to side deals and rent-seeking. We can end up with the minimal state via incompetence quite easily, but we could also keep the larger state but replace its technocratic reasons with pure regulatory capture and clientism. Think Tammany Hall or Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Yet mistrust did not begin recently. Except for a brief moment of post-9/11 patriotism, the US Congress has rarely been very popular in the modern era. Meanwhile, other indicators of mutual trust among citizens that have recently been quite low are on the rise, like those charted by Robert Putnam and the National Conference on Citizenship, which found in 2010 that in 2008 and 2009 only 46% of Americans talk with their neighbors and only 35% of Americans participate in community groups and organizations. Yet that number is on the rise: a follow-up study for the year 2011 found that 65.1% of Americans did favors or helped out their neighbors, and 44.1% of Americans were active in civic, religious, or school groups.

I would be remiss if I did not point out at that the Women’s Marches on Washington and elsewhere in the US brought out more than 1% of Americans. That’s a mass movement by any standard, to have so many women and men marching on a single day. Every indication is that this was the largest organized protest in the history of the US. Organizing and expanding that group is a major task, but it is one that will both require and create trust.

All of this suggests a rebalancing of trust and energy that is not so much progressive as local and civic. What we’re seeing today is a loss of trust in traditionally trustworthy institutions. Yet I wonder whether this mistrust may have something like a pneumatic quality, where losses of trust in one place are matched by increases elsewhere. It’s possible in the worst regimes to destroy trust everywhere–this is one way that totalitarian regimes operate–but there may be some net-positive transfers at the margin in our as-yet democratic society.

This move to the local is sometimes equated with conservative ideology, because of the long-standing equation of states rights arguments with conservatism. But localism can work to the advantage of progressive cities, too, if the same principles are applied equitably. (They may not be.) More than anything else, the current political climate shifts the kinds of solutions for which our fellow citizens will reach. Rather than hoping to make change at the national level, we must organize our political lives around more local efforts. Rather than seeking assistance from state institutions we must organize and act ourselves.

I have seen four  specific projects suggested that I’d like to endorse:

  1. Replacing defunded programs: we should commit to privately fund programs cut by the Trump administration using any tax cuts that result. That means that if he follows through on the plan to cut school lunches or the National Endowment for the Arts, we should commit to meet the need. It will be much harder to replace Planned Parenthood, however, without state legislatures that can commit to meet any federal shortfalls.
  2. Replace lost federal regulations: The biggest cities rival many small countries as sources of carbon emissions and and as sites of action to slow climate change, so if the EPA cannot act, those cities must overcome free-rider problems to act on their own. If crucial aspects of the Affordable Care Act are eliminated, we should organize within our states and municipalities to replace them. If immigrants and refugees are threatened, we must protect them and act privately. The same goes for LGB (and especially T!) rights.
  3. Rejoin forgotten civic associations: I’m not a Christian, but atheism tends towards civic isolation. That’s why the first thing I did after the election was go to a Quaker Meeting. I also subscribed the New York Times after spending the last five years avoiding its paywall. And I’m signing up for Teen Vogue, too.
  4. Reinvigorate local party politics for both parties: Very few people participate in party politics. Very few people vote in primaries and local elections. Very few people trust either political party. It’s time to fix that. Here’s how Keith Ellison, candidate for DNC chair, describes one fix:

The real idea is not the big events. The real idea is the canvassing, the door knocking, the calling. Then the other thing we do is we continually ask people to help us. We’re asking people, “There’s a vote coming up. What do you think? There’s a vote coming up. What’s your opinion? Sign up on this petition. Sign up on that petition.” People are constantly feeling like they’re partnering with me as the member of Congress from their district.

Both parties can gain strength by becoming more inclusive and engaged. And when they do that, they’ll both serve their constituents–us–better. I continue to believe that partisanship has reduced our efficacy as citizens. But as the Big Sort continues, parties may be the best remedy for the harm they have done.

Advice and Consent

“To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity. In addition to this, it would be an efficacious source of stability in the administration.” -Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #76

There’s something a little bit weird about the role of the Senate’s oversight of Cabinet nominations. Say that a President X campaigns on policy Y, and she wins. Why should her nominee be rejected by the Senate for advocating policy Y? It’s a moment of legislative supremacy that requires additional explanation, and there’s little evidence that the Senate is more small-d democratic than the President, especially as originally envisaged. Some possibilities:

  1. The Constitution is wise, full stop. (Read no farther, heroic originalists!)
  2. Cabinet nominees may have policy agendas upon which the President didn’t campaign.
  3. As Hamilton says in the Federalist Papers, this can help uncover private corruption and conflicts of interest.
  4. This is an opportunity to tame the prince, and that’s always welcome in a system that overemphasizes the presidency.
  5. In order for the balance of powers to work to multiply rather than divide sovereign power, there has to be a lot of opportunities for confrontation and collaboration between the branches. The powers are best separated by repeatedly bringing the branches into contact.
  6. The Senate was supposed to be selected by State legislatures, so oversight of the Judiciary and the Cabinet is important for enforcing federalism and subsidiarity, which was a prerequisite for Union.
  7. The Cabinet has a dual role, working at the pleasure of the President but enforcing the laws enacted by the Legislature. So this is a moment where the Senate can force the Cabinet nominees to acknowledge that dual responsibility and protect against selective non-enforcement.
  8. Like many deliberative venues, nomination hearings require elaborate preparation. Merely educating himself for the Senators’ questions can better prepare a nominee for the policy challenges to come.
  9. It’s all a trick to give the Senate some share of the blame or praise for the Cabinet’s actions.
  10. It’s another stalling tactic in a Constitution that was designed to freeze government and enforce the principle that the government that governs best governs least.

What are some other possibilities?

  • Paul Gowder adds the remaining quote from Hamilton’s Federalist #76 (“He [the President] would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”) and comments: “essentially to prevent the president from appointing cads and bounders.”

Reasons for the Season

Hanukology:

It was basically an argument between two points of view that mixed abstractions and interests (as always), but (also as always) with variations and fluctuations, mind-changes and occasional betrayals. To simplify somewhat, one side, those who later (in Hasmonean times, see below) became known as Saducees, were religious conservatives but pro-Hellenist cultural liberals; the proto-Pharisees were religious innovators but anti-Hellenist cultural conservatives. Before the events that Hanukah is all about happened, the tendency that later became identified as Pharisaic held the High Priesthood and the upper hand in the debate; but a revolt displaced them before they regained control. Amid that revolt, and largely because of it, Hanukah happened.

Why Christmas Matters:

While Jesus is growing inside Mary, she becomes suddenly inspired and belts out a remarkable song — a radical declaration of protest against the wealthy. She sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” and “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The Moral World of Dreidel:

You can, if you want, always push things to your advantage: Always contribute the smallest coins you can, always withdraw the biggest coins you can, insist on using what seems to be the “best” dreidel, always argue for rule-interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to only contribute little ones, etc. You could do all this without ever once breaking the rules, and you’d probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

But here’s the brilliant part: The chocolate isn’t very good. […]

Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and others, in a context where proper interpretation of the rules is unclear, and where there are norm violations that aren’t rule violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion — just like life itself, but with only mediocre chocolate at stake.

Fooey to the World: Festivus is Come:

Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. “In the background was Durkheim’s ‘Elementary Forms of Religious Life,’ ” Mr. O’Keefe recalled, “saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community.”

The hygge conspiracy:

To Danes, nothing could be less political than hygge – since talking about controversial subjects is by definition not hygge – and yet it is clear that the concept lends itself to political use. Davidsen-Nielsen and Jensen told me that the prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was hyggelig – the kind of guy you could imagine having a beer with. “He’s folksy and informal. He’s one of the guys. And he gets away with murder – almost,” said Davidsen-Nielsen. “Hygge is a useful strategy for disguising power. Politically, you can cloak quite aggressive or radical acts with an impression of hygge. Hygge says, let’s forget about everything. Let’s block out the world and have some candy.”

2016 Best List

Let those with enough time to consume all the media in a field decide on the objective bests-of-2016. What follows is a completely subjective list of bests, idiosyncratically limited by what I’ve actually had time to watch, read, or listen to:

Best New Book in Philosophy:

We don’t think hard enough about the metaphysics that underwrites the social sciences. Epstein is more reductionist than he lets on, but this was the book that had me thinking hardest this year.

Runner-up: Nussbaum’s Anger and ForgivenessIt’s pretty great, but I think it loses steam in the speculative last section.

Best New Book in Political Science:

What if democratic theory is a bit too idealistic? The next issue of The Good Society will have a review by Celia Paris.

Runner-up: Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment.

Best Article:

The Unnecessariat,” by anonymous blogger More Crows Than Eagles helped me formulate some things I’ve been trying to say about superfluousness for a while. I think it was the first time a lot of urban liberals in my circles sat down to think hard about non-college-educated whites.

Runners-up: “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” and “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.”

Best Post (here at anotherpanacea.com):

“Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation” hit the front page of the philosophy subreddit briefly, which was weird.

Ironically, large parts of that article are drawn from my dissertation, so I guess I do deserve this Ph.D.!

Runner-up: “Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness,” where I start to work out the Arendtian critique of finance capitalism.

Best television series:

Fully-realized far-future worlds, with fascinating characters and an interesting set of mysteries.

Runners-up include The Good Place, Luke Cageand The Magicians.

Best Movie:

I didn’t watch many movies, and I certainly didn’t watch many good movies. But this was the best movie I saw.

No Award Given:

I didn’t read a single science fiction novel written in 2016, but I’m going to crack open this list ASAP. 2016 was the year we realized how bad it was going to be to have lost Annalee Newitz at io9. The best novel I read this year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.

So what did I miss?