Dispatches from the campaign trenches

In the summer of 2016 after finishing his undergrad, Micah Richardson (@richardsonmicah) quit his job and joined a fellowship in the Hillary Clinton Campaign. He was stationed in New Hampshire, working in field operations, where he organized a volunteer organization with regular phone-banks and canvassing.

In this podcast — a tiny dose of modern history — we hear Micah’s story and reflections on the nature of social movements, the politics of media and messaging, and how large groups of people align themselves to ideas and ideals.

We are joined in conversation by Jennifer O’Brien (@JeninLdnont) — a highly respected journalist and reporter in our community.

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Is social media robbing us of our dearest hopes and dreams in life?

James Williams’ talk, Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?, is a must-listen. Riffing on the story of Diogenes and Alexander (with an interpretive lens drawn from Peter Sloterdijk) and Herbert Simon’s definition of an attention economy, Williams posits that there is a massive discrepancy between the design of digital technology and what we, the users, genuinely want for our lives.

What does technology want? It wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates, etc. It wants your attention — as much of it as it can take. And it wants to hold your attention for as long as it can. Your attention is the prize that Facebook wants to win. And keep.

What do we want? Well, presumably our dearest hopes and dreams for our lives go far beyond spending another 20 minutes on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. When you ask most of us what we want, we talk about more time with family, causes we care about, books we want to read (or write), traveling, adventures, experiences, personal achievements, and so on. We don’t tend to define another 20 minutes on social media as a step towards our ideal lives. But we check our phones again, anyway. Hence is the disconnect: technology is designed to hook us into behaviours and activities we don’t want. Williams suggests that it is time to consider the very real possibility that the “industrial-scale persuasion” complex baiting you into your newsfeed might not actually have your personal, human hopes and ambitions in mind.

What if every minute with your newsfeed takes a minute away from what you really want?

Williams says we need to think beyond the daily bait and switch that leads us to ‘accidentally’ getting sucked into Facebook for another 20 minutes. What is ultimately at stake here? Digital media distracts from our personal goals and pursuits in life. 20 minutes at a time, this industrial persuasion apparatus steals attention away from us — attention that might otherwise be invested in activities we feel truly matter. Ergo, the real crisis here is not that we just lost 20 minutes to some mindless activity: the issue that technology is intentionally usurping us from our own lives with “epistemological distractions” that divert us from the goals and activities that we sincerely do care deeply for.

So, should we blame the end user? Williams, a former Google employee himself, disagrees. Every day, millions of dollars and the brightest minds in the world are invested figuring out more effective ways to circumvent our will-power. Surely the answer to this dilemma is not, “Just have more will-power!” These infinitely scrolling newsfeeds are designed to drug us into submission — like “informational slot machines” whose sole purpose is sticking more ads in front of us along the way. Another 20 minutes. We are not only distracted from what we want in life by the promise of another dopamine hit, but we are also distracted from recognizing the opportunity cost of the addiction itself.

As far as Williams is concerned, we need to see “technology design as the ground of first political struggle” moving ahead. The present ‘solutions’ offered by digital technology are not working for us, but corporate interests have successfully usurped our imaginations when it comes to what can happen in 20 minutes of conscience existence on the planet.

Williams, therefore, declares that it is time for collective action to “assert and defend our freedom of attention.”

In an attention economy, your freedom of attention is your freedom. If you do not have the freedom to focus your mind on the things you truly care about, do you really have any freedom at all?

(Interested in getting together with some real live human beings — in an actual room — to critically analyze the prevalence, ubiquity, and power of social media in our lives? Come to Should We Quit Social Media? on Monday, October 16, 2017, 7pm at Central Library, to join the conversation.)

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Does Proportional Representation Curb Populism?

On a recent panel, journalist Joris Luyendijk argues that our conventional assumptions about the relationship between political election systems and populism are backward:

France, Britain, and America have a kind of first-past-the-post district system. And so you can have a candidate who initially only commands 20% of the vote theoretically make it into the presidency. But countries with proportional representation have had “populist” movements for a long time. It has been allowed to play out. It is a yo-yo: it’s going up and down.

Luydenijk goes on to reference longitudinal German research from the 1950s thru the 1980s suggesting that about 15-20% of the population is susceptible to politically motivated racist rhetoric at any given time. Many nations have established majority-system election structures that effectively restrict this segment of the population from meaningful participation: no platform, no political parties, no newspapers. One of the principal ‘intentions’ of first-past-the-post is to amputate fringe ideologies or extreme elements from political power. But Luydenijk is one of many voices pointing out the serious unintended consequences of this strategy:

I used to study political science, and there was always a sense that proportional representation was more risky in terms of bringing the neo-Nazis back to power: “just look at these awful parties.” But now it seems like proportional representation is actually a better absorber… In first-past-the-post you have this thing simmering under the radar…

In essence, proportional representation takes a strategic gamble: it bets that surrendering representational power to interests with, say, racial superiority or anti-establishment agendas plays a mitigating role against full-out populist uprisings in the long run. By democratically allowing all ideologies into the political equation, the influence of fringe elements becomes tempered by the same bureaucracies, bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and disillusionment as all the others. But more importantly, first-past-the-post risks becoming an incubator for the anger of those who feel structurally unrepresented by it. The danger here is evident: when a critical percentage of voters in a first-past-the-post system get angry enough, the logic of majority systems for suppressing populism completely falls apart.

Cas Mudde, recently quoted in The Atlantic, puts this far more coherently:

For a long time, received wisdom was that majority systems prevented populist parties from gaining success, whereas proportional systems—particularly without a high threshold like the Netherlands—make it much easier for them to get in parliament and build from there. The problem is, of course, that while you normally only win a part of the cake in proportional systems, you win everything in majoritarian systems.

When ridiculed for breaking his campaign promise to implement electoral reform, Justin Trudeau said that “an augmentation of extremist voices in this House…is not what is in the best interests of Canada.” Evidently, the Liberals feel that the fear of populism and “extremist voices” in government provides adequate political currency for defending the status quo. But does this remain a rational, coherent argument in today’s world? (All it takes is one would-be messianic figure crossing the finish line first to demonstrate that the contrived arrangement of the finish line is insufficient to bar demagogues from winning the race.)

The logic of majority systems — where power is usually an all-or-nothing, zero-sum-game — only makes sense if you assume that marginalized ideas will obediently shrivel and die for lack of oxygen. I reckon this hypothesis has proven invalid. Looking around the world, we might also think of first-past-the-post as a landmine, just waiting for a perfect storm of discontentment to roll in and trip the wire. Electoral systems that deny extremist, fringe voices a viable avenue to participate only entrench disenfranchisement at the margins.

The fundamental assumption of democracy — the sovereignty of the people — is that self-governance is a more attractive option than living under a fascist or autocratic regime. For this premise to work, a critically vast majority of people need to feel like they have some semblance of representation. But demagogues feel like godsends when you feel unheard. Democracy is only more attractive than its alternatives to the extent that engaging in the political process actually means something.

Therefore, the systemic benefit of an election framework that ‘accepts’ hateful, unsavory ideologues is that the entire populace remains engaged in the political process. If the world has taught us anything over the past few years, it is that disengagement seeds resentment, which in turn fuels desperation. In the long run, perhaps the only way to nurture a legitimate, so-called ‘political centre’ is to give the voters at all poles of the ideological compass a voice in their government.

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Your Nation is Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Democracy is riddled with paradoxes.

The more confident we are in the stability of our state, the less attention we pay to our stability.

We demand our leaders persuade us with coherent argument, but we are ruthlessly critical of leaders who sound persuasive.

Even the strongest democracy is only as strong as its collective ability to ignore the next would-be demagogue.

If you visit any democracy on the planet, at any point in history, you will notice another permanent feature of self-sovereign state rule: disparagement of the ruling order. Autocrats and tyrants have the luxury of actively suppressing dissident voices, but democracies are institutions of dissidence: the only way to achieve power in a democracy is to convince enough voters that you would be a more competent leader than the present clown in office.

Criticism is a hardwired, permanent feature of democracy.

No one runs for political office on the platform that the incumbent government has superior practices and policies. Every bid for power is an inherent criticism of those who hold it. Ergo, democracies are cynical places. They have to be. There can be no democracy without skepticism and ridicule. We can’t rule ourselves without being critical of one another.

Think about it for a moment: in a democracy, there will always be someone trying to convince you that the currently elected leaders are ignoring your interests or treating you like crap.

Even at the height of prosperity and peace, you can be guaranteed that there will be someone insisting that your country is being mismanaged, led into decline, or disintegrating into a mire of corruption. You will always hear a voice of protest. As long as someone else wants power, someone is crying foul.

A curriculum for democratic literacy, then, must include a critical piece of training: how do you determine whether or not your nation is really going to hell in a hand basket? Rest assured: for as long as you live in a democracy, no matter what side of the ‘political spectrum’ you setup your tent, you will live amidst people who have strong ulterior motives for convincing you the end is nigh.

Perhaps this is yet another great paradox of democracy: the more citizens, by percentage, who can be persuaded of an impending calamity through a groundless, reproachful lampooning of the present government, the closer calamity itself inches.

Be critical of the critical, too.

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