Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s photos of the week:

A short rain shower just before sunset produced a beautiful rainbow stretching across the River Thames and the City of London

A short rain shower just before sunset produced a beautiful rainbow stretching across the River Thames and the City of LondonPicture: Paul Brown/REX Shutterstock




Sympathizing with the terrorists

Okay, so this is just pathetic, a UNC professor teaching a class on “Literature of 9/11” dares to include writings or radical Islamists that blame America.  Obviously, the professor endorses those views and hates America.  Obviously, that is, if you are an intellectually-stunted Fox News conservative.  And you know what else?  Anonymous on-line reviews of the professor say that he only wants to hear his own views parroted back and you better not disagree with him.  (Interestingly, in my experience such angry on-line reviews never consider that low grades stem not from a lack of ideological agreement, but a lack of intellectual performance).  Clearly, this professor is a Jihadi-loving, America-hating threat to our nation’s impressionable college youth.  Oh, and the UNC student who started the whole imbroglio is basing all this simply by looking at the syllabus and not spending a minute reading the material or listening to the professor.  That’s surely highly accurate.  How dare the professor think that students could possibly learn anything by being challenged by the perspective of those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.  Shouldn’t he know that college is simply there to allow students to reinforce their pre-conceived notions of how the world works?

Donald Trump and the Green Lantern presidency

Brendan Nyhan wrote a nice Upshot on this, but I actually prefer Seth Masket’s summary of it in a piece mostly devoted to criticizing Lawrence Lessig:

Americans tend to have a pretty distorted view of the powers of the presidency. And who can blame them? They hear constantly from pundits and candidates who describe a nearly omnipotent president who can pass laws, intimidate countries, and boost the economy by sheer will.

This distortion is really being pushed this year. As Brendan Nyhan recently noted, Donald Trump is currently the embodiment of the “Green Lantern” philosophy of the presidency, the idea that the president has superhuman powers and is limited only by his or her own willpower. By simply being a tough negotiator and being unencumbered by political correctness, Trump argues, he’ll be able to “bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places.” He’ll negotiate tougher deals with Iran, obliterate ISIS, and re-locate our oil that somehow wound up under Middle Eastern sands. He’ll make America great again not through any particular policies or appointments or military strategies, but simply through the force of his personality.

And, just so we’re clear, no matter how much it may excite Trump’s supporters, the presidency does not actually operate this way.  If only more Americans understood how American government actually worked.  Hopefully nobody who’s had my PS 201 falls for this.

What even smart people don’t get about politics

I’ve really been enjoying David Roberts’ work at Vox.  He’s got a really nice piece looking at how even otherwise really smart people who understand a lot of things (i.e., brilliant Silicon Valley tech nerds) have some key misunderstanding about how American politics actually works.  Of course, they are far from alone in these misunderstands (one of the fun parts of teaching American government is redressing so many), but Roberts finds it interesting and notable that some really smart people get it so wrong.  For my purposes, the best part is where Roberts nicely summarizes just what it is they, and so many Americans, do get wrong.  I love this part because, like any good Vox writer, Roberts respects the Political Science (I assume we have editor-in-chief Ezra Klein to thanks for that).  Anyway, here’s some of the good stuff:

I think that these two narratives — disdain toward politics, and the parties as mirror images with rational thinking in the center — are connected. That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.” The independent thinker takes a bit from this party, a bit from that one, as rational thinking dictates…

Let’s start with a few findings in political science that have not yet sunk into common knowledge.

First, independents are not independent. In fact, “independent” may be the second mostmyth-encrusted, poorly understood phenomenon in US politics (the first is coming up). The key thing to understand about independents is that they generally vote like partisans

Second, the most myth-encrusted phenomenon in US politics is the “moderate.” The popular conception of moderates is that they gravitate toward the political center, splitting the difference between the mainstream positions of the two parties.

If that’s a moderate, then America doesn’t have many of those either. In fact, the relative prevalence of moderates in popular polling is almost certainly a statistical artifact. A voter with one extreme conservative opinion (round up and expel all illegal immigrants immediately) and one extreme liberal opinion (institute a 100 percent tax on wealth over a million dollars) will be marked, for the purposes of polling, as a moderate. What’s really being measured is heterogeneity of opinion, not centrism. In fact, most moderates have at least one opinion that is well outside the mainstream of either party.

Moderates also tend to be more disengaged from politics. More engaged voters will tend to follow the lead and adopt the positions of party leaders. People who know little about the landscape of politics or the mechanisms of policy will tend to support positions outside the mainstream, often positions that more experienced political observers will find ludicrous (for good or ill). A voter with deeply informed, mildly center-left positions will code as “more partisan” than a moderate who has ill-informed positions that are all over the map, but that doesn’t mean the moderate is more centrist or more rational…

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the “center” will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The previous three points show that the American political spectrum is not composed of two irrational extremes with calm, independent-thinking moderates in the center. But there’s a deeper problem, which is that the spectrum isn’t composed of two mirror-image sides at all. It turns out the sides are quite different. [emphasis mine]

I’ve written enough about the asymmetry that I’ll spare you an even longer excerpt.  Suffice it to say, that under the guise of a piece about Silicon Valley and politics, this is actually one of the best explanations of how American politics really works that I’ve read in a long time.  So, if that’s something you feel like you could stand to learn something on (and if you read this blog, that damn well better be you), please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

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