May 7, 2018
The Difficulty of Defending the Humanities

There is a kind of embarrassing silence if one tries to state why philosophy, or the Humanities more generally, have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond the merely instrumental, like getting you into law school. One generally fumbles around in vague generalities that convince no one, speaking of the clarity of analytical thinking, the advantages of critical reflection, or the enjoyments of intellectual thought. But these phrases sound hollow, often even to those who utter them.


October 11, 2017
Collective Competence: Some Initial Thoughts

This post expands on themes from a previous series of blog posts, “The Demands of Political Competence”.

No one person knows how to put someone on the moon, but the brilliant minds at NASA, as a collective, do. Similarly, one might suggest, while no one person is politically competent, the electorate as a whole possesses the necessary competence. If this can be established, one might argue, we should worry less, or not at all, about individuals not knowing much about politics, and not being individually competent to make political decisions. After all, we do not think it surprising or troubling that no individual NASA employee knows how to put someone on the moon; what matters is that NASA as a whole can. This analogy provides us with a comforting and appealing way to think about democracy. But is it true?


May 27, 2017
Some Notes on the Culture Wars

From some perspectives, things are looking bleak for progressive causes. Trump’s presidency, the Brexit campaign, and the various populist right-wing movements across Europe can easily look like an unholy trinity of isolationist nationalism. It seems that politics has taken a sharp turn to the right, however precisely you want to label these changes (the rise of anti-globalism, tribalism, racism, etc.).

I am not going to downplay the importance of these political transformations. There’s little reason to think that these political forces will vanish soon. Indeed, let’s be pessimistic about Trump et al. – assume that various Western democracies will slide into a dysfunctional twilight of continual populist rage for the foreseeable future, and that the political atmosphere will be poisoned by nativist prejudices for perhaps longer than that. Assume that the various “open-minded” political projects – multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, the European Union – are in for a very rough ride, if not totally finished.

Even if this is your outlook for the near political future, I think progressives also have reason for optimism. If you zoom out, historically and socially, I think you will find that while right-wing causes might win various political battles at the moment, the progressives are winning the cultural war – by which I mean the larger social contest for determining the social conventions and evaluative rules by which we’re assessing our society.


April 29, 2017
A Hundred Days of Incompetence

What political movement is Donald Trump heading? After we’ve seen him a hundred days governing, the answer is still unclear. Many call Trump a populist. But there’s no sign of the wall, the immigration ban seems dead for now, China is not called a currency manipulator, Hillary Clinton is not in prison, and it seems NAFTA is here to stay. Neither, it seems, is economic populism on the menu.


February 14, 2017
Three Philosophers on Trump

Bonevac for Trump

We can start with the most straight-forward piece, Daniel Bonevac on why he voted for Trump. (There’s also an earlier piece in the Washington Post, on “what it’s like to be a college professor who supports Trump“.) As Eric Schliesser has previously noted, Bonevac’s Trump is somewhat unrecognizable: Bonevac describes him as a Lockean defender of natural rights and the constitution, an upright supporter of freedom of speech, a fighter for the dispirited and left-behind; claims that Trump peddles racism or crude conspiracy theories, Bonevac suggest, are false or overblown.


February 1, 2017
Various Links

These are some terrifying opinion poll numbers about Trump’s immigration ban: 48% of the population, including 82% of Republicans and 44% of Independents, agree with it, while only 41% oppose it. So while it’s fair to call it a controversial policy, it’s also wrong to call it unpopular. (Support/opposition depends a bit on the wording, but the general tendency is clear.)

If you’re like me, then probably all your friends are horrified by Trump’s executive order. But on the basis of these numbers, don’t be too surprised if Trump’s popularity doesn’t take a long-term hit over it. You should also not expect people like Paul Ryan to speak out: Republican representatives might commit electoral suicide if they opposed the ban too loudly, given these numbers.

That’s the (pessimistic) message. Tribalism/nationalism is simply that powerful, and this is easy to underestimate if you come from the liberal-cosmopolitan bubble.

Wilkinson looks at some of the data of who voted for Trump, and he tries to locate this in a wider sociological narrative about cultural change, and a growing economic and cultural divide between American cities and the American countryside. Even if you distrust the broad-brush cultural labels Wilkinson uses to classify different value schemes, he manages to tell a worrying story about the growing divide. Wilkinson’s piece is also full of useful nuggets of information, like this one:

The growing gap in economic output between big cities and the rest of America implies that Republican-leaning counties account for a dwindling share of the national product. According to Muro and Lui, in the 2000 election, which also featured a split in the popular and electoral votes, Bush won 2397 counties, accounting for 46% of GDP, while Gore won 659 counties accounting for 54% of GDP. In the 2016 election, the general pattern repeats: the Republican candidate wins many many more counties responsible for a smaller share of American economic output, but the asymmetry has become even crazier. Clinton took just 472 counties, which account for 64% of GDP, while Trump took 2584, which account for just 36% of GDP.  That’s amazing.

Amazing indeed.

A short piece in which Horwitz suggests that libertarians should pay more attention to the badness of Trump, and the structural damage he is likely to cause to the American constitutional system.

Frum’s argument is long and full of insights, so I won’t summarise it. But here’s one particularly challenging passage:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.

“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.

Frum suggests that gradually “backsliding democracies” like Hungary and Venezuela provide a good comparative model to predict a possible American future (rather than somewhat hyperbolic comparisons with fascism). On this scenario, we won’t see the outright abandonment of the American institutional system—e.g., separation of powers, a free press—but rather a successive hollowing-out of the conventions that underlie the system. If this is true, then some of the main damage Trump could do might have already occurred,  by crossing many of the invisible conventions that buttress a healthy democracy—e.g., transparency in one’s financial dealings, a broad commitment to the truth, and openness to media criticism. Highly recommended reading.

A no-nonsense summary of how Russian propaganda works, supported by observations from psychology of common weaknesses in information processing. The application to Trump-style “alternative facts” propaganda isn’t raised in the piece, but should be obvious. Paul and Matthews explain many less obvious characteristics of propaganda—e.g., that propagandists don’t seem to care about contradicting themselves, and why propaganda emphasises quantity and repetition.

January 15, 2017
Scattered Thoughts on Trump

I’m not sure how much more amateur political analysis the internet needs, given how much has been written on Trump already. Still, here are some scattered thoughts on Trump:


December 26, 2016
Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press 2016.

Many books will be written trying to explain Trump’s electoral success. But perhaps the best book about Trump has already been written, based on research just prior to the election. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has spent five years living with supporters of the Tea Party in rural Louisiana. Trump isn’t a political force for the first two thirds of her book; he starts to cast his shadow only in the last third as a candidate in the Republican primaries, quickly gaining in prominence. It’s to the great credit of Hochschild’s book that Trump doesn’t feel like a surprise at this point, but rather as a natural conclusion to what she has found.


July 14, 2016
Review: Should Ruth Bader Ginsburg have abstained from making comments about Donald Trump?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has recently made the headlines by commenting on Donald Trump’s run for president. Her first comments seemed somewhat reluctant and unplanned:

I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president […] For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.

Later comments were much more direct:

He is a faker […] He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. … How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that.

Trump’s response was somewhat expectable—he called her “incompetent”, her comments “dumb”, and for good measure added that she should resign. But Ginsburg didn’t merely draw Trump’s disapproval. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published op-eds calling Ginsburg’s comments inappropriate. The Washington Post argued:

Politicization, real or perceived, undermines public faith in the impartiality of the courts. […] As journalists, we generally favor more openness and disclosure from public figures rather than less. Yet Justice Ginsburg’s off-the-cuff remarks about the campaign fall into that limited category of candor that we can’t admire, because it’s inconsistent with her function in our democratic system.

The New York Times added that

[It is] baffling that Justice Ginsburg would choose to descend toward [Trump’s] level and call her own commitment to impartiality into question. Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit.

The basic idea behind both op-eds is that judges should stay neutral on political matters. But is there such a duty? And what could justify it? This is clearly an interesting issue to which one would expect philosophers to contribute something. My hopes are a bit more moderate: to provide a brief review of what others have written about Ginsburg’s comments, and to order some of the comments made in a philosophically interesting way.