I present my own essay on the dangers of the moment and a strong counterargument against it
I love this new idea and look forward to both reading these paired essays and working on my own thinking as a result. Today's thoughts are both so interesting and well-written. I do think they seem less like counterpoints to each other and more like a "Yes, and..." to each other. As we've learned throughout all the Trump years, both bad outcomes can happen...
I strongly support the idea of "The Counter" as a feature of this newsletter, want to thank Zeynep for including it, and hope to see more of it in the future. In this particular case, there is much Zeynep and Maciej agree on, but there IS strong disagreement on how important Trump's actions contesting the election are. Zeynep is very concerned, and Maciej thinks it is not worth bothering about. For me, this is an area where I am not sure what to think and don't have well-formed opinions. I find Zeynep's arguments (which are echoed in much of the media I consume, at least in a despairing, resigned way) compelling in the way that I find many arguments about important norms being transgressed compelling. I do believe that erosion of these norms is highly detrimental, especially over time. At the same time, I don't find it clear what to do about that. Publicly complaining about it to like-minded people does not seem like it accomplishes much, publicly complaining about it to non-like-minded people also seems unlikely to accomplish much, and doing nothing about it simply allows the erosion to continue. Those obviously aren't the only three options, but I don't have a sense of what would be a good alternative. Maciej, on the other hand, argues that we need to focus on the more pressing emergency of maintaining the ability to win elections under the existing biased structure, and finding ways to govern within a severely damaged system. He lays out a daunting view of the current situation (I love the metaphor of us locked out in our bathrobes, which does a wonderful job of capturing the sense of disorientation and sudden realization of the amount of effort needed to address the situation), but to me this view comes with a much clearer prescription for where to direct energy and attention. He may be wrong that Trump's shenanigans (and Republican's acquiescence to them) are not a big deal, but he may nevertheless be right that the most effective response to them is to move on and focus on other things.
Love this format! Both articles and arguments are well formed. It reminds me of a story I heard from a friend of mine, a Philosophy professor for many years.
"Two grand-daughters had a terrible disagreement. The first took her argument to her wise grandmother. Hearing the 1st grand daughter's well articulated argument the grandmother smiled and said "You know I think you are right."
Learning this from the triumphant 1st grand-daughter, the 2nd grand-daughter was incensed. She took her argument to her grandmother and made a passionate, well reasoned argument, for why she was right and her sister wrong.
The grandmother listened, smiled and said, "You know I think you are right!"
Now both grand-daughters were nearly losing their minds so filled with disbelief. Together they confronted the grand mother exclaiming, look the two sides of our argument are like night and day, they BOTH canNOT be right!
The grandmother smiled warmly at her lovely, intelligent and passionate grand-daughters and said, "You know, I think you are right!"
Love the format. Reminds me of a story friend of mine, a philosophy professor, told me.
Two sisters have a passionate argument. They are both certain they are right. Not being able to reconcile, the first sister visits her wise grandmother and lays out the disagreement, arguing passionately, persuasively for her point of view. The grandmother smiles at her grand-daughter and says, "you know I think you are right."
Hearing this the 2nd sister can't believe it. She too goes to the grandmother and makes a powerful case for why she in fact is correct, and her sister, unfortunately, terribly misguided. The grandmother listens, considers, nods her head at the the 2nd grand daughter, and says, "You know I think you are right."
Now both sisters are about to lose their minds. Together they confront their grandmother exclaiming our two arguments are like night and day, they both cannot be right! The grandmother gazed at her two lovely, intelligent and oh so passionate grand-daughters, looked at them earnestly and said, "You know, I think you are right!"
Thanks to you both for these pieces! I find points to agree with in both, to wit:
- It's clear that there are large parts of the Republican party that will do anything to stay in power, including if necessary a coup. They're definitely trying it.
- Local election officials, even if technically members of parties, are some of the most reliably mission-oriented people in the US. That & the fact that the military was immovable largely saved this election.
- My add: one of the biggest Republican plays of the last 40 years is connecting national political issues to local politics. Sarah Palin, for example, first came to power as a rabidly anti-choice mayor of a suburban town (not traditionally much of a mayoral issue). School boards are another one. My non-expert guess is that they will from here try to elect active partisans into election administration jobs where they can. That will be awful & should be fought along with all the other political battles we need.
- I'm not sure if a more competent authoritarian is the biggest risk, or a closer election, or simply the fact that the people who voted for Jesse The Body and Arnold Schwarzenegger are always happy to take a flier on a celebrity (I'm in California, so the memory of the recall of a next-in-line establishment democrat to get the Governator into power resonated all over the 2016 election for me), & there are a lot of them.
- I'm still scared of what this Lame Duck Information War in the courts and the disconnected media ecosystems is going to do to 2022 & 2024, but I take heart in the idea that we need to do the same long-term things to both win elections and prevent coups: pay attention to elections all up & down the ballot, and show people that government can actually help us.
I think trying to discern which of these two viewpoints is more correct should *not* be the place we get stuck on.
When there are two valid interpretations or proposed actions involving an outcome whose consequences are extremely important, but ultimately impossible to predict with accuracy, the question should be:
Start by assuming we can't know this with certainty.
What is the cost/harm of being wrong if we went with A, compared to the cost of being wrong if we went with B?
In decades of technical assistance to non-profit organizations, public health campaigns, and assisting in medical decision-making, I have often found this approach to be something of an Occam's Razor. It starts with accepting that perfect prediction is impossible. It maps closely to the risk vs benefit of medical decision making. Conversely, once someone frames the problem we should address as "which of this is right?", almost limitless effort tends to get stuck there.
BTW, Zeynep, your idea of publicly and respectfully addressing counter-arguments is just wonderful. This is applying the scientific method. This kind of inquiry is what moves knowledge forward instead of creating further attachment to one's prior interpretations.
I don't know enough about any of this to pick out the significant areas of disagreement, but it seems to me that Maciej's points end up building the case for why it's possible for your essay to be correct. (I realize that thinking is very tangled; I guess like other commenters I find that the essays "yes, and" each other more than they disagree.) As many have written elsewhere, the seeds of fascism have always been strong in the U.S., but it's also the structures that permit and entrench minority rule that can -- and seem to be -- give the minority the means and the will to stage a coup (or whatever word we want to use) when they feel that democracy no longer serves them.
The fact that Dems lost so badly down the ballot seems to me to be the result of this cycle feeding on itself. I live in Montana and, while it's usually characterized as a red state, it's been purple most of my life (I was born here in 1976) and I have never until this year seen it swing so firmly to the right. There are a lot of factors that have led to that, but I think a disconnect from physical reality is a big one. Covid, for example, didn't start killing and hospitalizing large numbers of people until after the election, so R's failures to deal with it on a national level seemed less important to many than what they perceived as overreach by our D governor being reflective of D overreach in general.
What I'm curious about is how climate change will shift a lot of demographics. When people start moving out of hurricane- and fire-prone areas to places they deem more "safe," and where they can work remotely, will "big squares of nothing" like Wyoming start representing a larger proportion of the population than they (or we, since one could characterize Montana similarly) currently do? And will the realities of climate change finally hit science-deniers over the head? Or will it enable further entrenchment of conspiracy theories and eagerness for hardline evangelical Christianity (for example) with its simple answers?
Maciej Cegłowski is certainly astute about the role inertia has always played in U.S. politics, but I also think that he's almost literally whistling past the graveyard of America's unresolved historical conflicts. What the 3/5 rule of the Constitution and the Missouri Compromise attempted to finesse, and the Civil War failed to resolve, is as much a festering engine of resentment today as any of the other newly virulent animosities in the rest of the world, including those between Sunni and Shi'a in the Middle East, or Greek and Turk in the Eastern Mediterranean.
With all due respect to both of your arguments, I can't see anything on the political horizon at present that offers any legitimate hope of reconciliation between our two estranged halves. We may not be facing a second civil war, as Zeynep seems to fear, but neither will the inertia that appears to offer some comfort to Maciej keep us from each other's throats forever. There's just too much external pressure on the entire political/social/economic edifice for us to rely on something that mindless for our salvation.
FWIW, here's my own take on the significance to this conflict of Trump as demagogue in chief, written before the election. I think it holds up pretty well, at least about Trump personally.
"Regardless of the outcome of the elections in November, the political class is unlikely to return unchallenged to the kind of neoliberal centrism touted by the DNC or Atlantic magazine. It seems far more likely that an ever-capricious Donald Trump will offer urban cops, white supremacist biker gangs, rural sheriff’s departments, Oath Keeper and Proud Boy militias, Christian Dominionists, and the rest of his proud deplorables whatever cover they need to attack people living happily in circumstances that their peculiar subcultures find unendurable.
Why would he not? There’s surely nothing more perfectly suited to Trump’s ego-driven triumphalism than starting a civil war, especially one that his very stable genius can’t imagine losing. The only thing stopping him, the only thing keeping his malignant meddling from turning a disorganized rabble of volunteer culture warriors into a full-blown fascist movement, is his own lack of character.
Whatever actually motivates him, Trump is clearly a narcissist, not an ideologue, a Perón rather than a Hitler. His followers are good at resenting anything they can’t understand, and threatening people who can’t defend themselves, but they’re not much good at anything else apart from bootlicking and delusional aphorisms. This might not matter if they had a halfway committed leader, but Trump himself is far too lazy and far too incompetent to take personal charge of forging their resentments into a set of principles robust enough to govern a country of 330 million people.
For those of us sane enough to want out of this whole demeaning Todestanz, the absence of anyone in Trumps’s entourage actually competent enough to seize state power might offer us exactly what we need, namely a little more time to get our affairs in order before the real apocalypse — climate change, famines, mass migrations, collapsing global economic interdependencies and real wars, with real armies — is upon us in earnest. We can only hope."
I'm in the UK (Scotland, even, where momentous change may be afoot) but as we barrel toward a pointless and disastrous Brexit, which is probably only desired by 30-40% of the population, we have similar issues.
The common thread to both your arguments - the differences which seem more a matter of which horrors to emphasise - and to our problems here, is surely the nature of 'right-wing' politics, essentially competitive, against that of 'left-wing' or 'progressive' politics, which is essentially co-operative. With a competitive world-view essentially anything goes if it brings a 'win', and if you can't better yourself making things worse for others works too. Reaching out to those with this approach to life, as Maciej and many on the British left argue for, is ultimately necessary for a co-operative polity, but faces extraordinary barriers that only seem to be becoming higher.
We have to argue for some common basic principles, and live them too. This will be a long game and short-run electoral success may be elusive, but otherwise a slide to misery and cruelty seems inevitable.
As an attorney, I see this issue in part in legal terms. Trump and his cohorts are violating the Treason, Sedition and Subversive Activities Act- They need to be arrested and tried. Without doing so, we have conveniently turned a blind eye to what is clearly an attempted coup.
USC .S. Code § 2383.Rebellion or insurrection applies to:
"Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto..."
18 U.S. Code § 2384.Seditious conspiracy applies to:
"If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof..."
18 U.S. Code § 2385.Advocating overthrow of Government applies to:
"Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government; or
Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so...
'Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof...
"As used in this section, the terms “organizes” and “organize”, with respect to any society, group, or assembly of persons, include the recruiting of new members, the forming of new units, and the regrouping or expansion of existing clubs, classes, and other units of such society, group, or assembly of persons."
Yglesias' 2015 post about the problems with presidential democracies is relevant here: https://www.vox.com/2015/3/2/8120063/american-democracy-doomed
I also think it is worth noting that, post-Reagan, republicans are playing from a wining position. If no legislation ever passes ever again, they are fine with that. They wouldn't complain about more tax cuts or deregulation, but there is nothing essential. Presidential democracies are very gridlock-prone, and there is a party that 'wins' by causing gridlocks.
As the writer suggests, the silence of the Republican establishment is a sign of parallel, non-intersecting information environments. Were they not to remain silent, the backlash from their base would be swift and strong. The possibility to manipulate language surrounding our "norms and institutions" is a large part of our dilemma. Slow work and patience are our main avenues now.
How can the core values we associate with the left be inculcated in those on the right? Take belief in science versus science denial. The cost of Trump's and Trumpers' denial of the seriousness of COVID-19 is now being felt nationwide, in rural as well as urban America. Healthcare workers are busy dealing with victims of the disease at present, but when the pandemic has passed, these workers will share a deep understanding of the importance of science -- and they will be present everywhere in the country, rural and urban. Surely they will be committed to promoting the value of science in their own communities long-term. Also, healthcare workers span the economic spectrum, from high-paid doctors and administrators to nurses to maintenance workers, so their support for science will transcend class differences.
Once respect for science in general is more widespread across the country, other scientific consensuses, such as human-caused global warming, will have more credibility. Slowly a shared understanding of the world can be rebuilt, arising from the horrors that we are currently experiencing across the country.
The Counter - a wonderful idea! As one would hope, I believe the composition of your argument, Zeynep, with Ceglowski's Counter is more illuminating than the sum of the parts.
First: the idea that what we're seeing is "ordinary"... that's absurd, and dangerous. It might be barely possible to understand such complacency if the issue were Trump attempting (and presumably failing) to break a norm. But calling him a norm-breaker is just a kind of shorthand. More enlightening is to see his very existence as a demonstration of the extent to which norms have already been removed from the arena. This will not change even in the (unlikely) event that he fades away. The degree to which he's receiving overt and tacit permission to make this flagrant attempt, to make millions on it, to inflame his followers with it, to use it to consolidate his grip on the Republican Party, to launch his 2024 campaign with it... What this reveals is more about us than him, and it should alarm everyone, regardless of whether we think he has any chance of remaining in the White House next year.
So thus far I think Ceglowski is flat wrong. But second: I also think it's very, very important, existentially important, to hear what he's saying about our ongoing political defeat being the more immediate and more urgent issue. The left is very gifted at being correct while failing, and it's easy to conceive of a response that correctly attacks Trump's latest outrages while causing unacceptable collateral damage politically.
The response to this will be, "We can't let that concern us in the face of these abuses." But that's incorrect. It must concern us - in fact, it is quite literally the most important thing in the world. We need a response that correctly attacks Trump's latest outrages while also *advancing* our cause politically.
There's no a priori reason to think that's impossible. I submit that there's a model for it in the way we're taught to deal with internet trolls: you're speaking to the troll, but your audience is everyone else. In this case, your real audience is the electorate. Not the overt racists or the MAGA diehards - they are lost causes - but the millions who think of themselves as Trump supporters but voted for Obama, anti-gerrymandering, minimum wage laws, Florida's Amendment 4, ranked-choice voting.
While political pros of all stripes practice pure power politics, voters have shown time and again that they value fair play. The attempted coup must be denounced, and everything about how this is done must be addressed to a jury that is the electorate. It would be great to reach them all, but 5% would be more than enough.
As it happens, we've just elected a President who understands this in the marrow of his bones. His elevation of restoring social norms to a headline position in his platform has largely earned ridicule from political, media, and cultural leaders across the map. This is unacceptable. We must demand that thought leaders on the left recognize this as a gating issue for everything else we're trying to do, because polarization and power politics inherently favor our opponents.
There are many, especially among the professionals on all sides, who will be unmoved by any defense of norms. But there are also many who will. They can be hard to see and hear, but they are the only ones who matter.
Congratulations on Insight and The Counter, Zeynep. You are off to a great start!
This is cool. I've worked on software teams where we instituted a rule for "Big Architectural/Tech Type Arguments" between members:
You have to be able to explain the opposing point of view in the strongest, least straw man form possible.
I'm only getting to this now, but there is a value of some time passed since these ideas. I think the notion that this has been an ordinary election seems off given the litany of lawsuits that have occurred since then and the planned protest by many House and Senate Republicans next week. They won't change the outcome but these are also not the behaviors of a normal election process. From my own experience, I voted in Harris County via drive-through "booth." It was in response to the pandemic and it was planned and reviewed by various state officials and the Texas Secretary of State, mostly Republicans. And then as a whiff of Texas possibly going blue or at least flipping the Texas House blue, lawsuits started pouring in to throw out the 100,000's of votes done via drive through and Republican officials who previously gave the ok become silent. For the first time in my 20+ years of voting, I didn't know if my vote would be counted (a far cry from the more egregious voter suppression going on, but a first for me). So to call an ordinary election seems off the mark from my own experience.
Ultimately, I think both of these dynamics are happening in parallel. The outright winning of elections, particularly by gerrymandering and a non-democratic Senate, is represented by Mitch McConnell and the authoritarian takeover by Trump. The former has used the latter as a tool hoping to contain it but we're seeing that relationship going in a new direction. Republicans continuing to win elections won't preclude a newer, savvier Trump from emerging. You can see the divisions forming now. I suppose what Trump and his allies do in the next 2 and 4 years will be what we need to keep our eyes on.