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COVID, Alex Jones, and pseudoscientific discrimination

23 Mar

Yesterday, noted huckster Alex Jones was on Yale’s campus to film a video in front of the Skull and Bones Secret Society. A Yale Daily News article described the scene as, “Jones stood outside of the Skull and Bones tomb on High Street…He came to New Haven with bodyguards and a cameraman; neither Jones nor those who accompanied him wore masks.” The article goes on to present two students’ contrasting views on whether Alex Jones should be on campus, maskless, during a pandemic.

This framing of this debate strikes me as deeply misguided (but if you’re here for a screed against campus cancel culture, you’re not going to get it). Jones was standing on a public sidewalk in New Haven. His visit was entirely outdoors. Outdoor transmission of COVID can happen, but it is significantly, significantly less likely (18.7x according to this study, or basically never according to this one). Wearing a mask outdoors is preferable to not, but it’s important to recognize that its marginal effect on COVID risk is very small, because the underlying risk is already tiny. While someone like Alex Jones deserves mockery, scorn, and protest, he deserves it for political reasons, not for his maskless, outdoor appearance in New Haven.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, it is important to recognize that most people can’t totally eliminate COVID risk in their lives, and therefore one should be clear about what is more and less risky. Being outside unmasked is simply far less risky than being inside with others masked. Wearing a mask and good ventilation are far more important than sanitizing surfaces. A year into the pandemic, it’s worrying how many of these differences in risk levels are not commonly understood or incorporated in government policy.

Second, there’s the issue of who is on the end of pseudoscientific COVID-shaming. I’m not really concerned about the Alex Joneses of this world. I am concerned that misdirected social sanctioning inspired by COVID can be used as another way to exclude and punish marginalized populations. When mask-wearing orders went into effect in New York, unsurprisingly, some of the first people violently arrested outdoors for violating it were black. In another viral video, a man berates a Hasidic Jewish man walking on an empty sidewalk for carrying his mask. Neither of the victims posed any serious public health risk.

The pandemic has limited our ability to move in the social spaces we normally would, and has also understandably led us to try to decrease the number of people with whom we come into contact. But there’s a dangerous path in which well-intentioned, health-inspired social sanctioning ends up targeting people for engaging in normal, responsible behavior. This social sanctioning will almost inevitably be racialized, as whites continue to get COVID vaccines at a higher rate than non-whites. Ultimately, pseudoscientific COVID-shaming can create even more unequal views and policies about who belongs to different public spaces.

To return to where I started, Yale currently asks visitors to stay away from campus because of the pandemic. While there is certainly a public health rationale to the policy, I sincerely hope justification is never used to prevent regular New Haveners, the majority of whom are non-white, from walking through Yale’s public spaces.


A warning about the future of American democracy

6 Sep

This election will determine whether or not American remains a democracy. I try not to be alarmist as a political scientist, but I believe most Biden supporters are not nearly alarmed enough about the upcoming election. I don’t mean that Trump has a very high chance of winning the electoral college, but that most Americans don’t understand this election will not be like the ones we’re used to. In short, this will not be a free and fair election, and that should deeply concern us.

Trump has telegraphed exactly how he intends to steal the election: intimidate minority voters, sabotage the post office so mail-in ballots can’t be counted, encourage election violence by armed supporters, and declare victory long before results are counted. His strategy is plausible, and therefore deeply worrying, given his disproportionate support among in-person voters. His plan for stealing the election is a model common with aspiring authoritarian leaders around the world, and will be aided by the disruption caused by COVID.

I believe that the only way to ensure Trump leaves offices is BOTH a large Biden margin of victory in the electoral college AND massive street protests before and after the election. The large margin of victory will make it difficult for him to claim he won, and large street protests will demonstrate to other government officials they will be punished if they go along with Trump to not count ballots. Otherwise, Trump will claim victory early, cast doubt on the validity of mail-in ballots, and paralyze vote counting efforts through government channels or with armed supporters. Without massive protests, congressional republicans won’t challenge him, and congressional democrats won’t be able to. The supreme court may rule for Trump, and if they rule against him, they’ll have trouble enforcing their decision without the GOP’s cooperation.

What can you do to prevent this authoritarian power grab? Request your absentee ballot now so the weakened post office isn’t overloaded around the election! If you live in anything approaching a swing state, vote in person or drop your ballot off at a collection center directly if you’re able. I cannot stress enough that people need to be prepared to protest fraud, because it’s clear our governmental institutions alone will not uphold democracy. Finally, expect results to come in slowly, and when Trump inevitably tries to sow confusion about whether ballots are valid, see through it.

Ultimately, our election laws and constitution won’t save us. Democracy will be maintained through millions of Americans going out of their way to ensure that we don’t look back at this election as the point after which progress became impossible.

Neoconservatism Is So Ingrained We Don’t Even Realize It’s There

5 Jan

When the Iraq War began, I was 10 years old. I am now 27, but here we are again, facing the prospect of another Middle Eastern war started by the United States. The hallmarks are the same: transparently false explanations for why it is necessary and an incoherent rationale (even if the potential for escalation is thankfully lower at the moment). Given the unpopularity of the disastrous Iraq War, and a general lack of appetite for sustained military confrontation (both from the American public and our Commander-in-Chief) how could it be happening again? I think it’s difficult to explain this possibility without talking about the pervasiveness of neoconservatism.

What do I mean by neoconservatism? It’s a foreign policy doctrine that defines American interests very narrowly as “national security”, but defines the paths to achieving it very expansively. Most succinctly, it is the ideology of forever war, in which the only way to be safe is to constantly involve oneself militarily abroad through offensive actions. Military force is always justified against adversaries, and offensive violence will always deter, and not embolden, adversaries. Thinking in these terms is so common among foreign policy elites (government officials, politicians, journalists, analysts, etc.) that they have largely forgotten how important this specific ideology is in shaping their shared, unspoken assumptions about the menu of available options for American foreign policy. Neoconservatism was never fully repudiated after its biggest failure in Iraq, and even though its biggest proponents in Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bolton no longer hold government office, functionally it has won. American policy has been and will be neoconservative.

I see three indicators of neoconservatism’s influence that can all be observed in regards to the reaction of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. First, violence is always an option against adversaries. Even if there are severely negative consequences resulting from this violence, violence against “bad guys” is legitimate. Second, neoconservatism reduces the debate around military force to one of tactics, demanding that the conversation center around how force should be used, not whether it should be considered in the first place. In this sense it depoliticizes the use of violence, by excluding rejections of violence from rational conversation. Third, neoconservatism is incredibly resistant to being disproved (in the language of social science, it is not falsifiable). Without doing x, we are told, American will be less safe. When x happens and causes negative consequences, we are told that more of x is needed to protect America from them. Despite the absurdity of these arguments, they carry serious intellectual weight in foreign policy circles.

Let’s take each of these in turn. First, the idea that war is always an option against adversaries was readily apparent in how Democrats, including every major Presidential candidate (with the notable exception of Sanders), responded to the Soleimani news. Before condemning the assassination on strategic grounds, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg all stressed just how evil Soleimani was. Even Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who is a Democratic leader in constructing an anti-war foreign policy, began his response in the same manner. Does it matter at all if Soleimani was a bad guy if his assassination leads to a sustained military confrontation and thousands of deaths? Or that Soleimani’s assassination is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on Iran’s military capabilities? Only in a world where using violence against the “bad guys” carries inherent legitimacy are these valid questions. Unfortunately, we live in that world. Tomi Lahren and Democratic politicians do not agree on much, but both accept the premise that Soleimani’s badness means he was a legitimate target of lethal violence.

To push this logic in another direction, it is clear that the harm one has caused is not enough to create a target of legitimate violence. Dick Cheney, Mohammed bin Salman, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have all caused immense suffering, but none of those that accept Soleimani as a legitimate target would do the same for these three. Neoconservatism is not really about the use of violence to punish evil, but rather the use of violence against people that foreign policy elites consider prudent to call America’s adversaries. As an ideology, neoconservatism is fundamentally nationalist, but its veneer is one of universal morality.

Second, I argued above that neoconservatism changes the conversation away from whether using violence abroad is a good idea to how violence should be best employed. Former Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Samanatha Power have largely focused their critiques not on the fact that the United States assassinated a foreign government official, but on the competency of the Trump administration to handle the crisis. George Packer, writing in the Atlantic, concedes that while, “There was a case for killing Major General Qassem Soleimani,” the Trump’s administration’s ploy will backfire for tactical reasons.

Third, neoconservatism feverishly resists discrediting arguments and any consequences for its ideologues. One part of this lies in the belief structure of neoconservatism. Neoconservatives have such an unshakable belief in the efficacy of coercion to achieve policy objectives that all foreign policy problems involving adversaries can be solved through more coercion. Even when all the signs point to the failure of coercion, it must be working. For example, despite polling prior to his assassination that show Soleimani was Iran’s most popular political figure, Alireza Nadar, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (the most prominent neoconservative think tank), is convinced that only regime repression is preventing spontaneous celebrations. Surely, we will be greeted as liberators.

Despite neoconservatism’s dogmatic, frequently calamitous policy recommendations, neoconservatives’ reputations have not suffered following the Iraq War debacle. In the first New York Times article reporting on Soleimani’s assassination, the first non-government official quoted is Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Bush administration officials Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove were on cable news reacting to the Soleimani killing, as was David Brooks. Like Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens both have New York Times columns. Despite Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to the Iraq War, he still ended up hiring one of its primary architects in John Bolton, who got the policy outcome he wanted following his dismissal. Even partially reformed neoconservatives, who have distanced themselves from Trump, remain prominent voices. Journalist Max Boot was on CNN in his role as a network analyst to discuss the assassination, while David Frum, who coined the term “Axis of Evil” is a Senior Editor at the Atlantic. Being wrong about everything for almost two decades hasn’t prevented neoconservatives from maintaining their influential positions in US policy circles.

The concept of hegemony, created by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, is useful for understanding neoconservatism’s influence. Gramsci believed that the fundamental battle of politics was over what was considered common sense or taken for granted. He called this concept hegemony: when ideas are hegemonic, they are accepted as natural or obvious, and alternatives are considered as unnatural or impossible. The degree to which neoconservatism’s basic assumptions are ingrained in the thinking of American foreign policy elites is a prime example of hegemony. A foreign policy predicated on international cooperation, diplomacy, and restrained, time-limited involvement is considered by many in foreign policy circles to be beyond the realm of possibility.

Gramsci considered hegemonic ideas to be totalizing, in the sense that all members of society believe in them. Now when it comes to neoconservatism today, this is obviously not true. Dissenters exist. But the crucial point is that the basic assumptions of neoconservatism are not confined to the relatively small group of those that consider themselves neoconservatives. Even foreign policy elites who see themselves as opposed to neoconservatism have adopted some of its ideals.

I see three basic remedies. First, neoconservatives should be sidelined from foreign policy circles. There is no reason to listen to people who are so consistently wrong and who so callously support actions that will kill thousands abroad. As actual neoconservatives are a fairly small group numerically, they rely on others for media exposure, policy influence, and intellectual standing. Don’t give it to them. Second, recognize neoconservative influence on non-neoconservatives and explicitly articulate an opposing vision. Bernie Sanders has done an excellent job of this, and Representative Barbara Lee, long considered an irrelevant, anti-war extremist, is now the arguably the Democratic Party’s standard bearer on foreign policy. Finally, those in foreign policy circles would do well to accept that being opposed to military action by the United States and analyzing foreign policy dynamics are not incompatible. One can simultaneously perform reasoned analysis of the current potential for US-Iran escalation while rejecting the entire premise of militaristic foreign policy. It is of the utmost importance to reclaim the “anti-war” label from lunatics, and transform into a new set of hegemonic ideas.

Two Separate Problems that Sometimes Intersect: Guns and White Nationalism

4 Aug

The El Paso shooting highlighted two distinct problems in America, which occasionally, horrifically intersect. On the one hand there is guns, but that is a problem only rarely manifested in mass shootings (when compared to gun deaths in America as a whole). Mass shootings are of course terrible, but they make the news because they are seemingly random, and could theoretically affect anyone, including the white and wealthy. Most gun violence doesn’t hit that demographic. Gun suicides, homicides, and accidental shootings disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. That’s why measures to address gun violence really need to go beyond banning assault rifles. That of course would be a good thing, but reducing the circulation of handguns would have the biggest impact.

Then there’s the problem of white nationalist terrorism. What happened in El Paso was clearly a political attack, intended to provoke terror among non-white nationalists, and particularly minorities (latinx immigrants were the target in this case). Now this attack, and the one in Dayton, were able to kill so many people because of the easy availability of assault weapons. But because this is inspired by an ideology, one shared and promoted by our President, that gun control, background checks, and improved mental health care won’t solve. We have to accept that white nationalism terrorism is a political threat, and requires political action in opposition, rather than the apolitical language of law enforcement and gun control.

Elizabeth or Bernie, Please

16 Jul

The Democratic primary is well and truly upon us after the first round of debates, and there’s no shortage of candidates to support. How to choose between them? While “electability” is frequently brought up as a reason for why one should support one candidate or another, let me play the political science card for a second: electability it a crap concept that there’s essentially no evidence for. Those who stress the importance of electability tend to lean on the Democratic Party’s need to move right to appeal to swing voters (an imagined category that is almost entirely white). The problem is that “moderates” aren’t actually generally in between the two parties ideologically, but instead hold a variety of extreme views. It also imagines that convincing swing voters, rather than increasing base (i.e. largely minority) turnout, is what matters. When you see the turnout gap among blacks between Clinton and Obama, that’s hard to believe. Plus, early match-up polls show Trump losing against every major Democrat. Instead of voting for who you think the most electable candidate is, please vote for whoever you like the most.

Instead of gazing into a crystal ball and guessing who has the best chance to beat Trump, there are two criteria by which I’m choosing who to support. First, I want someone who is ideologically left, which combines a bunch of positions, from de-criminalizing undocumented immigration to being pro-choice to supporting high taxes on the rich and many more. This immediately cancels out candidates like Biden (maintains a misguided optimism that he could make deals with McConnell), Hickenlooper (cozy with oil companies), Delaney (“Medicare for All will close all hospitals”), Gabbard (Islamophobia), Klobuchar (middle of the road Democrat), and O’Rourke (conservative Democrat).

The second thing I want is not only candidates that hold left-wing positions, but candidates that have enough credibility to actually follow through on those positions once in office. Democrats are chronic cavers, from Obama’s reluctant arming of Syrian rebels to Pelosi’s recent capitulation on immigration funding (aided by moderate Democrats). Avoiding similar future concessions should be a major point of concern for similarly-minded people this election because so many candidates have adopted the label “progressive” and some version of left-wing ideas. But how genuine is this shift to the left among candidates? For reasons I’ll explain more about below, I think we should seriously doubt the left-wing credentials of Booker, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, and Harris.

Ultimately, there are only two candidates remaining that satisfy both of my criteria: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Why only those two? Well, first, I excluded candidates that I think have no chance. I like Julian Castro’s immigration platform, Jay Inslee’s climate change platform, and Mike Gravel’s foreign policy positions and Twitter account. However, none of the three have any appreciable chance of becoming the nominee.

A number of candidates have adopted left-wing positions, but candidates have to credibly demonstrate they’re trust-worthy. The most obvious and most believable route to do so is to have a long personal track record that accords with one’s current beliefs. Second, a candidate can have plans detailed enough to show they really care. Going back on such plans would incur too big a reputation cost. Sanders and Warren, to slightly varying degrees, do both of these things, and the other candidates do not.

I think it’s been underestimated just how important Bernie Sanders has been in moving the Democratic Party to the left. When he started campaigning, he was a loony nobody from Vermont. It was Hillary Clinton’s party. Liberal incrementalism reigned. Now, four years later, many of his signature ideas (which he’s held for decades) like single-payer health care, free college, and high taxes on the wealthy have been adopted by a number of competitors. Though his belief in these things is genuine, it’s also important to understand they’re not all his. Sanders, like Warren, has done an excellent job in allying with left-wing social movements and advocacy organizations, and championing their positions. Obama’s biggest mistake was to demobilize his supporters after the 2008 campaign, and it seems very unlikely either Sanders or Warren would do the same. Sanders’ talk of a “political revolution” might sound vague or utopian, but I think it grasps a basic truth about a healthy democracy that Obama didn’t: the public interest will be best represented when citizens are mobilized and engaged in the process of government. No matter how well-intentioned a government, this mobilization is a necessary ingredient for a healthy democracy. Especially when American democracy is stricken by a conservative Supreme Court attained by craven means, a deadlocked Congress, and wide-spread gerrymandering and voter suppression, seeking to create external pressure on those in power is a necessary strategy.

Elizabeth Warren, however, is the queen of plans. If Bernie brings the decades of fighting the good fight, Warren brings the wonkishness to implement it. It’s been well-documented just how well thought-out and numerous her plans for a Warren administration are. Anyone suggesting that her long-ago past as a Republican means she’ll move to the center as President hasn’t been paying attention to her creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her voting record in Congress, and her plethora of plans. She even has a fantastic plan to restructure the State Department for God’s sake. A final important point is that she does not present herself merely as a wonk who has some smart policy advisers (we’ve seen that movie before). Her rhetoric about Wall Street, breaking up big tech companies, and Medicare for All positions her as an uncompromising defender of the working and middle classes. It would be quite difficult for someone so strident to move much to the right in a future campaign or administration.

How about the other four candidates I didn’t immediately rule out? Why not them? Cory Booker is good on many issues as he showed during the debate, but he’s a conservative Democrat in many ways. His charter school policies were disastrous for Newark’s public schools, he’s cozy with AIPAC (the far-right Israel lobby that would love war with Iran), Wall Street, and the pharmaceutical industry. The issue with Booker is not so much that he might move right, but that he’s long been on the right or center of the Democratic party. His attempt to portray himself as a progressive champion is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish.

Then there’s Mayor Pete. He’s smart, haven’t you heard? His candidacy has been framed around an incipient cult of personality around his intelligence. I’m not saying he’s not smart, but it’s not necessarily smart politicians that we need. Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher were smart. We need capable politicians imbued with good ideas and surrounded by good people. Mayor Pete has been hesitant to talk about specific policies and has even explicitly defended a lack of focus on policy. I see his point, that voters don’t generally respond well to tightly technocratic details, and prefer broader narratives (in all fairness, I thought his take on the GOP and religion was excellent). However, there are two specific problems. His critique of policy would have sounded pretty good six years, when Democrats, Obama included were failing to put together a narrative of how the Democrats would be the party of the working and middle classes. But since then, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have provided that narrative with strident attacks on economic elites. Second, and referring back to what I said earlier, his lack of specificity on policy makes it incredibly difficult to know that he won’t govern as a conservative Democrat, especially when some of his professed policy views err to the right.

Gillibrand is the candidate I didn’t immediately discard that I know the least about, partially because her campaign has made very limited traction. She’s been excellent on #MeToo, her childcare plans were impressive at the debate, but otherwise made little impression (of course, Elizabeth Warren has also proposed universal child care). My concern with her is that her record was quite conservative for a Democrat as a Representative, then became ultra-left when she became a Senator. One could argue that she was simply a victim of circumstance in her conservative district as a representative, and was freed from this burden as Senator. Alternatively, it could mean that she molds her positions with the changing political winds, which wouldn’t give me much confidence she’d govern as a leftist.

Harris has gained considerable ground after the first debate, likely due to her necessary take-down of Biden’s busing record. However, Harris has repeatedly sought to promote enough ambiguity about her positions to avoid being pinned down or been untruthful about her past record. After raising her hand during the debates saying she’d ban private insurance, she went back on it the next day. After announcing she wouldn’t go to AIPAC’s (right-wing Israel lobby) conference, she met with their leaders the next day. However, what gives me the most pause about her as a candidate is her past as a district attorney. She’s branded herself a “progressive prosecutor” but her record also shows she pushed to keep people who had been proved innocent in prison, supported an anti-truancy program that criminalized parents whose children skipped school, and failed to prosecute Catholic priests accused of child abuse. You can also listen to her here mock protesters agitating for funding for schools and not jails based on fear-mongering logic, which makes less and less sense in an era of falling crime rates. When prosecutors are a huge contributor the American epidemic of mass incarceration, I think we should very wary of someone like Kamala Harris, not only for her record, but her refusal to own up to her past positions.

Now, neither Sanders or Warren are perfect, and it’s important to admit this to have a sober appraisal of the Democratic Party (or any party really). Even if Bernie gets how class pervades society to a greater degree than any candidate besides Warren, his rhetoric on the intersection of class and race is sometimes awkward. While I think this weakness has been seriously overstated, and is unlikely to actually affect his policies (given his full-throated denunciations of problems faced by minority communities), it can be occasionally grating to listen to. Plus, he’s still quite popular with black voters. Warren’s weakness is less rhetorical, and more concrete. Her stances on foreign (security) policy hew quite close to the Democratic mainstream (I can’t think of another issue where centrist orthodoxy is more wrong than foreign policy), and it’s worrying that she hasn’t sought to define a left foreign policy in the same way as Sanders.

With all that said, there are several specific reasons that Sanders or Warren would be the best nominee. In a world where the global top 1% own almost half of global wealth, where $6 trillion of global wealth is stashed in tax havens by the super-rich (Obermayer and Obermaier 2016, 185), where the top 1% of American families have seen their wealth grow faster than anywhere else, and where the median white family has 50x the wealth of the median black family, we desperately need a President that is committed to reducing economic inequality. This entails not just raising taxes, but taking on the financial industry, major corporations evading taxes (looking at you Bezos), and international money laundering. I see no reason to believe any other candidates would do a better job than Sanders or Warren. The looming threat of climate change makes this focus even more important given the lucrative nature of the fossil fuel industry. Warren and Sanders are two most enthusiastic backers of the Green New Deal, which seeks to both combat climate change and change the economy. On other key issues like immigration, criminal justice reform, health care, and higher education, they’re also progressive leaders. Finally, I am less convinced than some that Sanders and Warren substantively disagree on how to structure the economy. While Bernie describes himself as a socialist and Warren as a capitalist, they both are basically Polanyi disciples: large parts of the economy need government intervention to prevent markets from benefitting the rich and powerful. Therefore, for voters interested in candidates with solidly left positions, I see no reason to look further than Sanders and Warren.


When is a Hunger Strike Appropriate at Yale?: A Response to Amy Hungerford

11 May

Two days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale English Professor and Dean Amy Hungerford published an article titled “Why the Yale Hunger Strike is Misguided”. It is flawed on two counts: that a non-confrontational method of problem-solving exists for unionization at Yale and that a hunger strike is not an appropriate tactic in this circumstance.

Hungerford makes an appeal to dialogue, writing, “The process of respectful disagreement takes those in conflict from listening, to learning, to compromise. We learn to live with differences of opinion about what makes for a good society. The message of the Yale student refusing food in protest is this: Agree with us, or I will do violence to myself.” For this argument to hold weight, there must be an institutional mechanism for change to happen. It is clear that no longer exists. Following decades of organizing and debate, the union did everything by the book: it secured a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and won elections in select departments. Yale is legally obliged to negotiate, and yet the University stalls. This isn’t mere delaying. Yale is banking on a Trump appointee voiding the NLRB’s earlier ruling, which Hungerford fails to mention. There is no virtue in such a tactic.

Returning to the worth of dialogue, it can be simultaneously true that in general, intellectual debate is a cornerstone of academic life, and in specific cases, those in power can deviously deploy the concept of polite disagreement to stymie claim-making. Asking for rational debate here is an example of the latter; just a few months ago, Yale opposed all attempts at graduate student unionization, but now claim to be concerned at how democratic the process is. The hunger strike is not seeking to replace the role of rational debate. It is not seeking to impose a union on those departments that did not vote for one. Rational debate occurred, convincing those in some departments of the value of a union, and now the hunger strikers ask for Yale to follow through on its legally-mandated obligations.

A central part of Hungerford’s critique is the inappropriateness of a hunger strike at Yale. She writes the power of the hunger strike, “…belongs, by right, to the political prisoner, the victim of torture, the hero of an oppressed people in an occupied land.” In the context of Yale, a hunger strike, “…implies a false equivalence between these students at Yale and the millions on whose behalf Mohandas K. Gandhi, César E. Chávez, and others sacrificed their bodies to hunger.”

My question, however, is how does one come to own the hunger strike? A search of the term “hunger strike” in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (which, full disclosure, I contributed about a dozen entries to) returns 143 results. Journalists in Moldova went on hunger strike to protest censorship, students at Columbia used it to demand divestment from Apartheid, and demonstrators in Hong Kong fasted to protest the imposition of a Chinese curriculum in schools. None of these campaigns lived up to Gandhi or Chávez. Most social movements do not. This does not make them illegitimate. If the standard to use a nonviolent tactic is that one must face a situation as serious as Gandhi or Chávez, no movement could ever organize. The charge becomes a fundamentally regressive one: it de-legitimizes organization by judging goals as not worthy of struggle. Few would disagree with Hungerford’s characterization of Yale graduate students as privileged, but for many of the fasters, their grievances are deadly serious: the lack of availability of mental health care and how the University deals with sexual harassment.

It is not mistaken to ask whether a hunger strike is an appropriate tactic in this case. But I would counter that this is the moment for extreme tactics: if Yale succeeds in achieving an underhanded victory via a Trump nominee to the NLRB, the chances for redressing the union’s grievances vanish. In this specific instance, dialogue is a shield behind which to hide Yale’s dirty laundry. Therefore, it is not fasters attacking the “very foundation of…intellectual commitments”, but the University, in its cynical attempt to de-legitimize protests.

Is Coordinated Action Possible?: The Women’s March and What Comes After

23 Jan

The experience of marching in Boston on Saturday was extraordinary. It was the most hopeful I’ve felt in months. Millions demonstrated across the country and historically, having one percent of a country’s population demonstrate is pretty rare. Despite packed venues and overwhelmed organizers, the attitude that I observed was both positive and defiant. On one’s own, recent events can make it easy to believe that Democracy is falling apart. When surrounded by more than 100,000 people protesting however, it’s more difficult. The question though is whether this was a one-off event that will ultimately fizzle or the start of something even bigger.

Both going into and coming out of the march, there are two main problems faced by those on the left. The first is who gets to participate and who gets to lead. Due to the value-laden notions of power and representation among leftists, achieving a balance between unity, which allows movements to achieve victory, and diversity, which allows movements to gain members, is the Fundamental Dilemma of the left. Now such a Dilemma provides both dangers and opportunities. As was evidenced by the array of signs yesterday, the number of issues taken up by leftists is dizzying. It is very difficult to adjudicate between competing demands, especially when many of demands are essentialized to a particular identity (whites want this, blacks want this, etc.). But there is, and I’m looking at you Donald, strength in diversity. It keeps disparate groups engaged and leads to knowledge sharing from different histories of struggle. For those who decry all forms of identity politics, remember that if they didn’t exist, social movements would have minuscule participation and be led by straight, rich white men.

How was this Dilemma handled on Saturday? One thing we saw is that feminism now serves as a rallying cry for a huge percentage of the left, only a little less than half of whom are not women. I’m not sure the same could’ve been said 20 years ago, and such progress should be applauded. However, one of the criticisms I’ve seen on social media is that the march was primarily an expression of white feminism and therefore not sufficiently intersectional. It’s probably true that the marches were disproportionately white. What is interesting here is that the fear before the march was that the highly intersectional platform would drive whites away, but it didn’t. Indeed, many of those present seemed to be first-time protesters (which logically makes sense given the turnout). It should therefore be encouraging that hundreds of thousands of whites without die-hard histories of activism weren’t turned off by intersectional demands.

What I think is concerning, however, is that such a platform failed to attract a large racial minority presence, just as Hillary Clinton failed to prompt sufficient minority turnout during the election. I have no definitive answer to what’s going on. Perhaps it was simply an issue of money; whites are wealthier and could therefore afford to travel to the protest. Perhaps ideology is not a major mobilizer but rather leadership, and the march was perceived as being led by white women. Perhaps the feminist label isn’t pushing the right buttons. Whatever the answer, I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that the more intersectional a political activity is meant to be, the more likely it is to achieve minority support.

Even though it will be hard to sustain the energy of the women’s march, there were plenty of positives from Saturday. Countless people became more comfortable participating in political activity and found out there were millions others like them. But to really capitalize, an emerging movement needs clear goals and ways to achieve them (this can take the form of a new movement that seeks to resist Trump or a strengthened coalition of feminist groups, Black Lives Matter, pro-immigration groups, and others that draws on newly-mobilized Americans). However, given the Fundamental Dilemma, it will be exceedingly difficult to generate such goals. It may take an unprecedented breach of normalcy by the Trump administration to do so, but post-hoc activism is inherently less effective.

However, there is still hope. I’m most excited by a new initiative created by Bernie Sanders-alums called Knock Every Door, which seeks to engage every American in a face-to-face conversation about politics. It’s not part of any particular campaign, but rather a more general attempt to re-energize left politics. Not only does this hold immense promise in terms of political engagement, but the political science literature strongly suggests such conversations are extremely effective in achieving turnout (good for Democrats), and perhaps also changing minds. Such a strategy can provide exactly what was missing from the Clinton campaign: deep grassroots. We’ll need them to defeat the Trumpist lawnmower.

A Requiem for Those We’ll Lose

20 Jan

There is much we don’t know about the events of the next four years, but we do know many people will suffer, and indeed, many won’t make it. We’ll lose the black man just trying to get on with his day. We’ll lose the dehydrated immigrant running from border guards and drug cartels in Arizona’s desert. We’ll lose the former factory worker whose job is never coming back and decides life is no longer worth living. We’ll lose the refugee trying to make a better life for her children that drowns in the Mediterranean. We’ll lose the minority attacked on the street by newly-emboldened bigots. We’ll lose the old woman and the young child whose caregivers can no longer afford their medicine. We’ll lose the veteran whose PTSD is too much to handle and the Syrian whose house the veteran destroyed. We’ll lose brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends, lovers, and dreamers. May their memories be a blessing, and may we do our utmost to prevent further tragedy.

When War Does Not Make the State: the Case of the Central African Republic

11 Jan

I spent a large portion of this semester puzzling over the implications of Charles Tilly’s famous phrase, “war made states and states made war”. Tilly’s analysis of European state-building is obviously brilliant, but what of his claim in Coercion, Capital, and European States that the positive relationship between war and state capacity holds throughout much of human history? How might this apply to the Central African Republic, a country with a history of coups, and over the last 20 years, numerous rebellions, but where the state ranks among the world’s weakest?

To briefly recap the essence of Tilly’s theory, he’s trying to understand the formation of modern administrative states in Europe. He argues that rulers facing the prospect of increasingly destructive wars with rivals sought ways to pay for larger armies and protect their fiefdoms. A combination of borrowing and taxation occurred, and the by-product of the two (particularly the latter) was state bureaucracies, which eventually began to provide public goods. Tilly acknowledges that state-building processes look very different outside of Europe, but still that in general, war produces state capacity.

In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst constructs a Tilly-inspired theory of state-building for Africa. Herbst argues that Tilly’s central premise applies, but that low population densities across Africa made territorial competition largely unnecessary. Post-independence, a strong norm against altering colonial borders furthered this dynamic. Because Africa didn’t have the same threat environment as Europe, states were not built to the same extent.

Neither of these theories hold up in the Central African Republic. Since independence, there have been three coups and two insurgencies that resulted in the toppling of governments, outnumbering peaceful transitions of power. More often than not, external actors sponsored the ascendant opposition. Even though CAR’s borders haven’t changed, there’s still the puzzle: why do leaders facing violent overthrow not build up a violent capacity capable of protecting their throne? Why have they largely avoided taxing their citizens in a standardized manner to fund the armed forces?

My answer to these questions is that the relative dominance of international actors in the CAR means that Central African leaders can never expect to maintain power through force alone. Instead of investing in strengthening state violent capacity, it makes more sense to build alliances with external powers. These alliances are what give Central African leaders the financial and military means to stay in power. In short, if enough foreign powers no longer support a Central African President, they will likely be overthrown sooner or later.

(If you’d like an explanation of how I evaluated my hypothesis and why I believe certain counterarguments are insufficient, please see the paragraphs below the page break)

I am not implying that we should, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “give war a chance” (which Herbst would probably agree with). Foreign powers will not cease their involvement in Central African politics anytime soon, and even if they did, it’s unlikely a well-functioning state would suddenly appear. Even if it were not the dominance of foreign powers that prevented war from building the state, some other dynamic might. Therefore, I am much more convinced by theories such as Miguel Centeno, in which violence can lead to state-building, but only in the presence of certain scope conditions, which have not been present in many times and places. For this reason, I don’t believe the CAR to be unique in terms of the lack of relationship between violence and state-building. Finally, I think it’s also worth considering whether there is something unique about the history of African governance or central African governance that breaks the link between violence and state-building, but that’s beyond the scope of this project for now.

For my hypothesis to be correct, three things have to be true: that foreign powers are dominant in the CAR’s politics, that Central African leaders rely on external military force, and that Central African leaders do not invest in strengthening violent capacity because they are unable to compete militarily with international actors. The first claim is not so hard to prove. The CAR has had perhaps the most peacekeeping missions of any country in the world, and is therefore, as Louisa Lombard titles one of her chapters, the “world champion of peacekeeping”. Major decisions for the country are made by foreigners outside the country’s borders (nice example via Wikileaks), and without the involvement of international institutions, the Central African state would cease to exist in its current incarnation.

The second claim, that Central African leaders rely on external military actors, is also fairly obvious. For the first 35 years post-independence, the French were ever-present, playing a decisive role in three of the five changes of power during this time and an important role in a fourth. Libya also played a large if intermittent role since the 1970’s, sending both troops and desperately needed funds to prop up embattled Presidents. In the last two decades, Chad, often in conjunction with other regional powers, has played a large role in country’s politics. Chadian President Deby has both sent troops to support Central African leaders and contributed directly to their downfall.

The final claim, that Central African leaders do not seek to invest in domestic armed capacity because they can’t expect to maintain power through force alone is slightly more difficult to demonstrate because there is not, as far as my research has found, a smoking gun. However, a quick review of the travails of past Presidents would seem to confirm the claim. David Dacko twice came to power with French support, and the second time he was flown into the country by French paratroopers. Much-maligned President Jean-Bedel Bokassa came to power without much foreign help, and attempted to state-build. Even after 13 years in power, during which he proclaimed the Central African Empire with a lavish coronation ceremony, he was overthrown easily by the French. Andre Kolingba, who came to power following Dacko’s resignation, was forced into holding free elections in 1993 by France even though he knew he’d lose. Ange-Felix Patasse won the election, and attempted to diversify his international supporters, getting close to Qaddafi and Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba. However, his allies slowly deserted him, and he is eventually forced to beg France for support, but it never comes. A largely Chadian force led by Francois Bozize overthrew him. Ten years later, history repeats itself, and Seleka overthrows Bozize, leading to an internationally-managed transition. Due to the frequency with which foreign powers assisted in overthrowing Central African leaders (despite attempts to state-build or diversify military backers), it would follow that Central African leaders realize the futility of investing in violent capacity.

There are a few alternative explanations that could explain the puzzle presented in my research question. It could be that the existence of strong international norms of sovereignty in Africa and the decline in inter-state competition resulting in territorial conquest decreases incentives for leaders to build states, as argued by Herbst and Tilly. However, this does not fully make sense, because even if other countries are unlikely to gobble up portions of the CAR’s territory, the frequency with which leaders are overthrown violently provides significant incentives to invest in violent capacity. Another potential explanation is that leaders fail to strengthen the armed forces because of the threat of coups. However, other leaders before have faced the same risk and still managed to build states. And again, in the context of violent threats to leaders’ rule, failure to build armed forces due to coup fears will only happen if the leader can count on external forces to protect them from rebellions.

A third potential alternative explanation comes from Miguel Centeno, who argues that wars only build states if there is a certain existing level of organizational capacity that can capitalize on warfare. This view is strengthened by the fact that the CAR had very few citizens with educational degrees in 1960. However, there were French advisers in every ministry at independence, and many have remained. There are about 20,000 civil servants as well as 10,000 individuals employed by the security sector, which does not speak to an overall lack of potential capacity.

Scattered Thoughts on a Tragedy

14 Nov

A Trump Administration
The unthinkable happened. I don’t really know what a Donald Trump administration looks like. Anyone who says they do is full of it. I think the best we can hope for is that he’s more interested in personal adulation than actually governing, outsources decisions to advisers (who aren’t Steven Bannon), and what we get is an ineffective, vanilla Republican administration. It’s hard to know what the worst possible scenario is, but given that Trump will have support from both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court will lean conservative, it’s hard to think of what he couldn’t do if he tried. I’m not sure I can imagine what it feels like to be an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, someone without good private health insurance, or so many other categories of people today.

The Electoral College
The first thing that seems obvious to me is the dire need to abolish the Electoral College. Looks like Hillary will end up with hundreds of thousands more popular votes (though obviously the race would’ve looked different if campaigns had been working toward securing the popular rather than Electoral College votes). This is not how democracy is supposed to work. It’s happened twice in the last two decades, and Democrats needs to take it seriously next time they’re in power. But let’s not be silly and treat this somehow as an illegitimate outcome. The Electoral College sucks, but everyone knew and agreed on the rules ahead of time.

Resisting Trump in Washington
I’m torn on how government employees should resist Trump. There are plenty of liberals out there today calling for people of conscience in elected and unelected office to obstruct a Trump administration at every move. I understand the impulse, but that’s not really “going high” is it? Polarization is already at extreme levels, and if the losing side’s response is always to do their best to ensure that governance doesn’t occur, I have little faith in the government’s long-term prospects. We also shouldn’t forget that frustration with Washington’s gridlock is a central reason we ended up with Trump. But perhaps there’s not a way around it. The political system we have encourages obstructionism by the minority in Congress, and there are certainly some things that Trump might do, like attempting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, that I hope will be resisted by federal employees, even if it is not strictly democratic. Democracy is not always a substitute for a conscience.

Trump’s a Creation of the GOP
If there is anyone today who I hope is having a long, hard look at themselves, it’s current and former Republican elites. When you spend decades spreading coded racism, assailing the notion of facts, pursuing disastrous economic policy, obstructing governance, and opposing the most basic social reforms, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an enthusiastic audience is waiting for a man that abandons the dog whistle.

Hillary and the Left
The Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame. Democrats were up against the worst Presidential nominee of a major party perhaps ever, and still managed to lose. Despite her sky-high name recognition, abundant funds, and large organization, Hillary lost. There were certainly other contributing factors, such as widespread sexism, but simply, she was a shockingly bad candidate, especially unsuited for today’s political climate. Not only did her campaign fail to understand the nature of Trump’s appeal and how to counter it, but her campaign was clueless as to where she was weak. She didn’t visit Wisconsin once during the campaign, and in the days leading up to the election her campaign suggested phone bankers call places like Iowa and Utah, where Hillary lost by 30 points even with Evan McMullin getting 20%.

It would be comforting to think that the problem is limited to Hillary or her campaign, but it’s not. This is a problem with the Democratic party and with the Left in America. Too many people don’t think government it working for them and that elites have their best interests in mind. Proposing incrementalist policies, modest social protections, and proclaiming that “America is already great” is no longer good enough. It doesn’t answer the more fundamental concerns of too many. And therefore, if this election presents one lesson, it is the need to do away with technocratic (neo)liberalism that speaks of small, wonkish reforms and is spoken by those that share little in common with the average voter. Additionally, those leading the Democratic party must avoid the perception that they’re a small, distant, self-interested elite, forever trading jobs and favors with each other. This means no more Clinton Foundation scandals, private email servers, and secret Wall Street speeches. If future Democrats want to avoid another Trump, they need to tell powerful stories about what’s happening in this country, who’s to blame (certain elites, but crucially not minorities), and articulate a bold vision of what the future can bring. The Left in general needs bigger ideas, whether that’s a universal basic income or something else, that address the worries Americans have about their futures.

Why, specifically did Hillary lose this election? Or in other words, what made this election different from 2008 and 2012? Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan were critical, even if Hillary under-performed pretty much across the board. The data is incomplete, but with what we have it seems to be some combination of white voters who voted for Obama switching to Trump, higher turnout among working class whites voting for Trump which represented one of the biggest demographic swings this election, and lower turnout/support for Hillary among minorities. How could she have turned this around? As for minorities, she was never going to get the turnout Obama produced, so basically she needed to do better among whites in the Rust Belt.

Why didn’t she? It’s too early to say definitively, but pre-election descriptive work suggests a few interconnected explanations. The first is that many Rust Belt whites feel government no longer looks after their interests, and is run by Washington elites with whom they have little in common with. They probably took the “Basket of Deplorables” comment personally as representative of the disdain with which politicians view them, and thus voted for the anti-politician. The second is that these are people who have either seen their economic circumstances decline recently as jobs move overseas or at least live in areas where this is true. They feel the American Dream is slipping away. This isn’t in their imaginations. The working class of developing countries has had the smallest relative gains in the last few decades, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise this group lacked enthusiasm for the candidate most associated with free trade. It’s possible the effect existed across racial lines, as lower turnout among minorities, many of whom are working class, may have been the product of economic dissatisfaction.

Race is of course the elephant the room when it comes to explaining Donald Trump’s support. It unquestionably played a central role in his victory, and is linked the two explanations above. But this isn’t a monocausal story. Many of the crucial voters that delivered the election to Trump probably voted for Obama in 2012 based on county-level data. What seems much more likely to me, is that in addition to a hardcore racist element among Trump supporters, plenty of Trump supporters were willing to vote for a racial answer to social and economic questions when they didn’t see an alternative on the Left.

Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, what can be done to address the specifically racial aspect of Trump’s support? First, there is a desperate need to understand and take seriously the grievances of Trump supporters. This isn’t some hippy-dippy peace and love response; this is cold hard pragmatism. Some Trump voters need to vote for Democratic candidates in the future, and they need to be persuaded to do so. Shaming them for racism isn’t working. Tragically, going forward the barrier to multi-racial coalitions constructed by whites may present a dilemma between focusing on issues relevant to minorities and whites. And if absent minority turnout inspired by someone like Obama, focusing on whites might be the most electorally prudent, at least in the short-term. I honestly don’t know what this would look like, and morally, don’t know how to evaluate such a strategy.

On Quantitative Social Science
There are perhaps reasons to think the backlash against people like Nate Silver is too harsh. They’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and are honest that their estimates are probabilistic. Just because Trump wins when he had a projected 30% chance of winning doesn’t make 538 wrong.

However, I think there are a lot of reasons for pessimism. The overwhelming consensus by all major pollsters that Clinton would win, perhaps in a landslide, is fairly galling. The major failure of polls this time was in the Midwest, but it’s not as if pollsters hadn’t been warned. During the primary, Hillary was projected to easily win Michigan, but Bernie pulled off a surprise upset. He also won Wisconsin and Minnesota. Should this have not produced a major update of forecasting models?

It looks even worse when you put the American election in comparative perspective. The phone polls for Brexit suggested it would fail, which turned out to heavily underestimate voter turnout by discontented whites outside of urban centers. Pollsters didn’t learn here either.

The American Presidential Election is the political event in the world for which we have the most data. If even an aggregate of various forecasting models can’t predict with any certainty what’s going to happen in this case, we need to question the approach. It’s not that good forecasting/modeling is impossible. But there’s a serious need to critically evaluate the assumptions present in the data. Reflective of the technocratic approach, all of us spent far too much time checking 538 and not enough trying to understand the nature of Trumpism. I know I did. We need good description before we can even begin to predict outcomes. And sometimes, we’re never going to be able to predict with any certainly. I think most social scientists know this in theory, but too many did not act accordingly. I don’t share the opinion of some that those that got it wrong are irredeemable, but what I do want to plea for is introspection and the recognition of our own ignorance. May it help us see the light.

On Activism
Prior to this election, I was fairly comfortable with my life choices. Academia is what I’ve always enjoyed most and been good at. Especially given my frustration in the policy and activism spheres, it seemed like an obvious choice. I had long imagined that years of academic study would turn me into a better person, a more thoughtful person who could reliably decipher right from wrong and propose realistic solutions to social ills. That once I got to a certain level of education, I’d be able to effectively engage in progressive social change. But a man that repudiates everything I believe in was just elected to the most powerful position in the world. If the analysis of so many others can’t prevent it, how effective can academic analysis be? Will the world be in a place where positive change is achievable by the time I feel I’ve become a sufficiently thoughtful person? Will that day ever come? I am no longer so certain.