Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper a few years back on political media bias in American print newspapers. It was the kind of study that told you something you already knew but couldn’t prove before the dawn of the digital age. Continue reading
The Fourth Estate
The first Saturday after the 2016 election, I sat down with my kids to eat breakfast at our kitchen table. Cheerios and bacon. It was a Saturday morning dad breakfast if ever there was one. I did my best to engage them in conversation but I was a distracted. The election was on my mind. I had a few thoughts I wanted to put down and post on my then small but growing political blog. So, after they cleaned up their plates and wandered off, I opened up my laptop and took about thirty minutes to cobble together a few paragraphs that captured how I felt about the previous few days. I did a too brief once over to proof read it, hit the publish button, closed my laptop and went about my day. Continue reading
Of Men and Ideas
Listen to the people in your world that vigorously disagree with you. Don’t try to change their mind. Don’t argue with them. Not yet. Not until you’ve listened. Just listen and seek to understand.
It’s a rare and difficult principle to maintain. I do try to get outside the echo chambers that agree with me as much as I can. But sometimes, I don’t know I’m in one until it’s too late. Recently, around October 8th maybe, I realized that I’d been in one for quite a while. It was one that told me that Donald Trump was personally too despicable to be president of the United States of America. Clearly I was wrong. Because I didn’t do that thing I just said to do. I didn’t seek to understand. I saw the man. And I dismissed him, with good cause to be fair. But I never dug down deep into understanding Trump-ism. I fought the man, never the idea. And that’s a problem.
So what is Trump-ism?
You can find the answer wedged somewhere between Scott Baio and Jerry Fallwell Jr. telling Yo Mama jokes at the Republican National Convention this year. A man named Peter Thiel spoke. Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley businessman who is one of the few men in the world who have founded multiple billion dollar corporations. He sits on the board of directors for Facebook. He counts people like Elon Musk as his partners and peers. And if there’s a Mount Rushmore of the modern “dot com” business ecosystem, Thiel is on it. You could write ten thousand words on what’s right and wrong with Thiel and still not be done. You could write another ten thousand on why he doesn’t fit any molds that we like to put people in. I’m not going to do that here. But I’m familiar with him. And as someone who works in the tech world and moves in the Silicon Valley circles, I can get you pretty far with a few sentences.
Peter Thiel has had success listening to what everyone is saying and doing, and going and finding something else, building it before anyone else does and winning before there is competition. He asks aloud in his books and speeches, and urges us to ask ourselves, what truth do you believe, that almost no one else does? It’s a hell of a question, especially in business. He is, after all, Silicon Valley’s contrarian. If you want to know more about him, Google him. There’s loads of stuff, much of it ugly and negative. But as far as this discussion goes, that stuff, is noise. Because it’s fighting the man again, not the idea. His ideas, though, are at the emotional center of Trump-ism, whether or not he ever intended them to be. They can be summed up in two Peter Thiel quotes:
“For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form.” Thiel is the anti-bubble.
People incorrectly believe that “If you don’t conform (to diversity), then you don’t count as diverse. No matter what your background”
I love it.
When I read those quotes as a business leader and someone who has worked on my own start-up, I get pretty fired up. It evokes emotion. It stimulates me. They are powerful words that speak directly to the psyche of change makers-people who want to drive to a better tomorrow. And when I posted those quotes and his name on my Facebook page without commentary, I got a very heavy dose of feedback about Thiel being a white nationalist and an anti-semite and a rape apologist and an opponent of the free press. All of which may be true. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the same room with the man. But none of the dissenting commentary addressed the ideas he had. Because in a vacuum, they are ideas that are nearly impossible to discredit.
We don’t live in a vacuum though. And right now, those words are being spoken in the Trump-ist echo chamber with great excitement.
So what exactly is that truth Trump-ists believe that no one else does? Except all other Tump-ists of course. Steve Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News and recently appointed chief strategist of Donald Trump’s administration can help explain it. Now, it’s possible that hearing the words Steve Bannon evokes a blinding rage in you and a need to spout out a laundry list of grievances about white supremacy, misogyny and maybe even a twenty year old arrest report for domestic violence. And that’s fine. But realize, you’re doing it again. That’s the man. The man is easy to beat. The idea, well, that’s another thing all together.
So here’s the idea in his words.
America is in “a crisis both of capitalism and the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.”
Bannon says that crony capitalism and globalization have eroded the stability of our country and weakened us to the point of crisis. Whether or not he believes it matters far less then what it means. Thiel and Bannon are Trump-ism. They form a combination of contrarian, anti-elite non-conformists, conforming together behind the belief that the key to restoring righteous capitalism is a focus on the return to a Judeo-Christian led world.
If not…it’s going to be China for a hundred years…
That’s the idea. And it comes in the form or a red hat, and a slogan.
It’s powerful idea. And it represents one side of the modern political argument in America today. You couldn’t have sent a worse champion than Hillary Clinton to strike it down if you tried. She was perfect if you were fighting the man. But she wasn’t fighting the man. She was fighting the idea. And she was powerless against it. Perhaps if we had taken the time to understand the idea, we may have thought differently. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic National Committee is in ruins, when most of us thought that it was the Republicans on the edge of oblivion.
That doesn’t mean Trump-ism is right though. In fact I believe it’s quite wrong. But it took a little digging and understanding to get there for me. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to divorce the ideas from the men saying them, especially since some of those men are only saying those ideas because they know they are the ideas that work right now. Because the ideas are not wrong because of the men saying them. The ideas, by themselves, on their own merit are wrong. Dangerously so. And we need to start screaming from the mountain tops why.
First, intended or not, the core argument of Trump-ism, Judeo-Christian leadership of the world, is a substantial part of the argument that white supremacist groups use to further their message. Trump-ism left off the part about racial superiority. Those groups gladly add it back in. And when you deliver the Trump-ism message, and you are willing to accept anyone who believes it, without strong condemnation of those specific groups that add racial superiority to it, it provides oxygen for them to grow and breed and start to normalize and call themselves things like “Alt Right”. And then they form groups that sound snappy like The National Policy Institute. Make no mistake about it.The National Policy Institute is a white supremacy organization. If you can’t get a couple hundred of your members in a room without a bunch of them throwing out Nazi salutes or yelling sieg heil, and the first Op-Ed on your pretty web page is about the folly of desegregation in schools, then you are a white supremacy group.
You can call yourself something else. And you can ooze into the room with lots of other dis-enfranchised people and tell them you are the same. But you aren’t. And unless the leadership of the new Republican Party denounces it and cast it out of their numbers, a dangerous political discussion is on the horizon. Because whether or not to denounce and eliminate from prominence groups that further white supremacist ideology cannot become a political debate.
Secondly, because frighteningly the first part isn’t enough, if the “Judeo-Christian” portion of your message really is the whole message, than that’s a problem. Because that’s not American. America, imperfect in her ways, has been defined by relative inclusivity. Our strength has come from differing people coming to us from places with their ideas and their drive to build something. And my opposition to Trump-ism is grounded on the belief that I’m not willing to give on that. Not because I’m full of love and togetherness and because I’m naive to those out there that want to do us harm. I’ve fought them all over the world in places you’ve probably never seen doing things you’ll probably never do. I’m not willing to give on that relative inclusivity because turning inward makes you weak. And ignoring the skills and ideas that others have, and forcing them to seek other places to have them, makes others stronger. My message of dissent is about making and keeping us strong.
It pretty simple for me. If that big idea that you have that no one else agrees with, that Peter Thiel disruptive change the world for the better idea, is that the words penned in our Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights are wrong, that all men aren’t created equal and that only some are born with liberties and the freedom to pursue their faiths, then fine, let’s have that debate. And let’s have it in earnest. The fact that middle America, my strong patriotic brothers and sisters that took up arms with me to fight Islamic fundamentalism and other ideologies that threatened our way of life appear willing to have it, hurts me. It hurts me down to my soul. Because I believed, and I still need to believe that we are better than that. And that the principles that I swore to defend with my very life didn’t only apply to me and people like me. They applied to everyone.
So let the debate begin.
During three weeks in October of 2002, Army veteran John Allen Muhammad and seventeen-year old Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 random people in random parking lots in the Washington D.C. area from the trunk of their car. Ten of them died. For 23 days, the nation’s capital and the nation at large was in the grips of fear. It would have lasted longer had Malvo not dropped a rifle magazine with his finger prints on it at the scene of one of the shootings. He did though. And they were caught, tried and convicted. In 2009, Muhammad was executed. Malvo is presently serving six consecutive life sentences in Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.
At the time, my parents lived in the D.C. area. Those events impacted their lives daily. They talked about parking their cars differently in parking lots. They thought about using gas stations that had limited access. And in talking to them about it, something occurred to me. We were a year past 9/11. And we were still recovering from those spectacularly horrific attacks. We were unified though, all focused on preventing the next big sucker punch. As a result we had sweeping authorities for surveillance and travel security in place already. All were aimed at combating international terrorist organizations. I quietly wondered though, what if the real threat were different than the one we knew? What if it wasn’t a massive plot that involved years of planning, flight school and an international network of support? What if it just took a gun? And some people willing to do it. Maybe even American citizens. If that happened, we might be in trouble.
That’s a really hard problem to fix.
But it didn’t happen. And I forgot about it. Until a handful of gunmen walked into a few places in Paris and killed over a hundred people with guns 13 years later. They tried to kill some with bombs. But that’s hard to do. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a bomb and even when you don’t get caught, or blow yourself up, bombs are sloppy, inefficient weapons. It was the guns that did the trick. And then I remembered that sinking feeling from the past. Perhaps, they’d finally figured it out. And then San Bernardino three months later. And then Orlando. Without question, we’ve entered a new phase of the threat.
The hard problem is here.
There’s a sobering truth to countering domestic terrorist activities in America. And yes, someone born and raised in Queens shooting people in the name of their religion is the definition of domestic terrorism. Even if the religion isn’t Christianity. Because the important characteristic that separates domestic terrorism from other types are the liberties that the offenders are born with. Which results in the following troubling circumstance: Currently, there is no legal preventative measures that would stop an American citizen, with no criminal record, who has not been observed to be committing a crime, from practicing his religion, purchasing a fire arm and walking into a nightclub and shooting people. And though we might like to think that there is, there isn’t.
It’s a hard problem. One that currently has no solution. And though the issue of the moment is Orlando and the fiery debates that it has brought about, it’s simply one of many hard issues that we Americans face in the 21st century world that currently have no solution. Like a lack of funding for entitlements, a changing economy that has eroded the middle class quality of life and crippling urban societal decay. These issues need a solution. But right now we can’t get one. Because solutions require us to go a few steps past blame. And we just can’t right now.
That’s a really bad problem. Not a hard one. But a bad one.
Blame is the standard you are satisfied with when the outcome doesn’t matter to you. Blame is really not where you want to put your energy in circumstances where the current situation has no existing solution when one is needed. Blame doesn’t stop the bleeding. Action can. Blame won’t. Even intentional appropriate inaction can. But we can’t do either right now. Because as a nation, we’re walking hand and hand down the path that was the intent of our enemies 15 years ago when this war started. It’s been a slow boil. But it’s hit a fever pitch and the result isn’t good.
Let’s try this thought experiment. What was the first thing that popped into your mind when you heard about the shooting in Orlando? If you told me it wasn’t, “Was the shooter a Muslim?” then you are in the minority. There’s actually nothing wrong with that question, in as much as there can be something wrong with any group of words. But the reason for asking it is really the problem. Were you hoping for an outcome? Were you hoping it was? So that you could be “right”. Were you hoping it wasn’t? So they could be wrong. Honest answers to that question highlight a deep problem that we have. It was a question we cared less about the answer to 14 years ago. And it tells us something about where we are now relative to then.
Fourteen years ago, the prospective presidential nominee for our strong conservative conscience would not have gloated about its answer by the way.
Why not? Because we are a weaker nation today then we were in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when John Muhammad and Lee Malvo did basically the same thing that Omar Mateen did. It’s not because of our military or the economy or even the government. Though they’re weaker too, but only because they are a reflection of us. We’re weaker because we are a house horribly divided.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in the Illinois State capital upon his acceptance of the Republican nomination for his state’s upcoming Senate race, delivered the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
Lincoln spoke of the scourge of slavery. And he was right, though he lost the election. In doing so, he developed the national voice that would win him the presidency two years later. The nation would split over our perspectives on slavery and suffer through a gauntlet of death and economic catastrophe not since duplicated. But we saved the union. And as painful as it was, it was possible because we were split over a tangible issue. One that had a clear point and counterpoint, a solution and an outcome. Very little time was spent on who was to blame for the bondage. Today, though, division is actually the point. It’s independent of issue. So the debate stops with blame.
Over the last twenty years, the boom in information and human connectivity has allowed people to exist, like they never have before, in the consciousness of other people. We have a constant stream of perspectives that gets beamed, literally, into our hands, every day. And what that’s resulted in is unprecedented exposure to information and opinion. And one thing that we humans don’t like to do is sit through an opinion that is counter to ours without the opportunity to weigh in. So we’ve chosen to put our consciousness in the spaces where we’re less likely to encounter those opinions. And we have limitless ways to pick and choose them. From the sites we like on Facebook, to the cable news channels we watch to the Twitter feed we construct through our choices, we are shaping the info we receive and the opinions we are forced to tolerate. Which means we’re dividing first, then exploring our issues second. We are foundationally divided. And like Lincoln said, it’s not good.
So when an issue like an American born, Muslim man, legally purchasing a weapon and shooting 100 or so people in a gay night club after pledging allegiance to a nonsensically misaligned bunch of Islamic extremist groups comes up, we can’t handle it. Instead of a unifying debate about how to solve that type of issue, you have people shouting back and forth at each other the importance of their favorite liberty-specifically, which Constitutional Amendment is more important and which one is only conditionally so.
We actually have a group of people who are responsible for doing that on our behalf though. It’s called our government. If you’re looking for a startlingly clear example of the fruits of our poisoned tree of division, start there-our three floundering branches of government.
We have a congress that votes only with their own party at a historically unprecedented level. Which means that nothing ever gets done because nothing ever gets agreed on. The result is a lack of ability to facilitate basic responsibilities like selecting Supreme Court justices. Or passing a budget without threat of shut down. Then engine is bogged down. And it spreads to the other branches.
We have eight Supreme Court justices ruling on important issues right now. There’s supposed to be nine. Because you can’t really have a vote with eight. It’s like having a best of six games World Series. It doesn’t work. Just today, as I wrote this, they came to a four-four tie in ruling on the President’s executive orders on immigration. And they had to defer their decision to a lesser court. That’s not the intent of our founders or our people.
And lastly, but by no means least, we have one of the most disheartening presidential elections in the history of our country, where for the first time, we couldn’t muster two suitable candidates to run. It’s bad.
Our government has actually stopped working. And not the way that we used to just joke about because sometimes they did things that we disagreed with. In a literal sense, it no longer facilitates even basic effective outcomes. And that’s where we are in trouble. Because when we get a real live hard problem, like what to do about the rise of domestic, religiously motivated, firearms perpetrated terrorism, we have no hope. The energy pulls all the thinking into the extreme fringes of the debate leaving the majority of us voiceless and defenseless. Again, this problem wasn’t there fourteen years ago, at least not the way it is now.
Which takes us to the truly sad outcome of our division. We’re losing this war. Our enemy is a faceless amorphous body with no resources and no state. We can kill them off. We have, just about all of them. And they come back in different forms. Because they have the one thing that we don’t-unity of purpose. It’s horrible. But simple. And they all agree. They want to hurt the western way of life. We, on the other hand, care more about our specific brands of outrage then anything else. Which is why fifteen years into this war, we are worse. They are the same. That’s the definition of losing.
The conflict that Lincoln led us through was resolved just as much through legal and legislative action as it was through blood on the battlefield. We simply can’t do those types of things any more. And it’s entirely our fault. The people of America-all of us.
So what do we do? Perhaps we should put our outrage in one spot. Outrage that we, as Americans, do not have the ability to do the things we used to, as a civic entity. Which should be in service to upholding and sustaining the American way of life. Which means relative safety, prosperity and preservation of liberties-all of them, in as much as they can be preserved and still maintain the other two mandates-life and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t be outraged at people. Don’t be outraged at opinions. Be outraged at a lack of solutions, not the solution.
If you think that eliminating guns are the answer to reducing domestic terrorism, and your congressmen wasn’t sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, then pick up the phone and complain, and vote differently in November. If you think that healthcare reform has gone horribly wrong and you’re not happy with the outcomes and your congressmen hasn’t been proactive at forwarding an acceptable alternative, then pick up the phone and complain. And vote differently in November. That’s what outcomes based civic responsibility looks like. It’s not pissing and moaning about how awful the humans involved in the process are. That doesn’t do anything. And doing is the point.
Democracy is a winning strategy when its participants are unified in their desired outcomes. It’s not, when they can’t be. We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do have to agree that good, sustainable outcomes for Americans, even the ones not like us, are the goal. It’s time to stop rooting for or against politicians and start rooting for outcomes. This problem is ours to solve. Because what we have right now, is what losing looks like. But being behind isn’t the same as losing. Staying that way is. Five months, until election day. And we’re all on the clock. You can it get wrong. And we will lose.
Everything you see on this screen is a manifestation of billions of 1’s and 0’s. It is truly one of the great discoveries of mankind. If you create a large enough pool of binary inputs, and push those inputs down far enough into the most minute detailed elements of an environment, you can create complex computer programs that can do things. They can store massive amounts of information. They can talk. They can control airplanes and operate nuclear power plants. They can monitor our health. They can connect us to other humans. We can make programs so complex, they actually start to mimic human intelligence. But at their basic forms, they are still, 1’s and o’s. Entirely at the mercy of our design. Because we, as humans, have consciousness and the capacity for original thought. Unlike the programs we create, we are not binary by nature. We are not forced into a variable of 1 or 0 by our designer. We are unlimited in our capacity to explore and wonder. Our thoughts are limitless. If you looked at my social media stream right now though, you wouldn’t know it.
Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings two weeks ago, threads started to appear on my Twitter feed advocating for stricter gun control laws. As soon as Syed Farook’s name was released as the shooter, the Muslim-o-phobia thread took over. Within 48 hours we had a burning debate about what was to blame. Was it guns? Or was it Muslims? When you really think about it, it’s kind of an odd point-counterpoint. It’s like choosing between walking to school or taking your lunch. It’s not really a choice. But it’s how the dialogue went, and still is going weeks later. Like we have with so many other complex issues, we’ve boiled it down to a binary debate. Pick a side: Minorities or cops. Health care or liberty. Regulation or economic growth. Abortion or privacy….you get the point. It’s a thing that we do. But why do we do it, when clearly we are capable of so much more?
Why so binary?
There’s a lot that goes into why we do this. It’s actually not because most of us really feel this way. There are forces at work here. Let’s start with what it’s actually not though; our politicians. Our politicians aren’t causing the problem. They’re not helping. But they’re not why it’s happening. For the most part, they’re stuck in a somewhat binary loop themselves that they can’t escape from as a function of who they are and what they are charged with doing. They can either be for something, or against it. They can’t be both. We may desire to try to squeeze moderation into the mix. But moderation doesn’t work right now. Again, it’s not their fault. There’s massive headwinds to being reasonable in politics. And it’s not the political machine. It starts somewhere else.
Look no further than our $285 Billion media market. You will hear over and over again that the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court in 2010 is ruining our democratic process by opening up campaign fundraising to corporations and other donors that are eliminating the voice of the people. It’s become a “boogie man” for all things that are wrong with our political process. Don’t bite that hook. It’s a red herring. I’m not saying we don’t need campaign finance reform. I’m simply saying that campaign finance processes aren’t doing what we tend to say that they are doing. Campaign finance money tends to exist in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Which sounds like a lot to you and me. In a vacuum it is. When it comes to moving the needle of national consciousness though, it’s nothing.
Here’s something to consider. The National Rifle Association, that massive evil empire and ultimate antagonist to democracy, spent $28.2M on campaign contributions in 2014. It sounds like a ton of money. In media land though, it’s nothing. It’s $1.8M less than the cast of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory made during the same time frame. It’s a million dollars less than the Washington Nationals paid their bullpen in 2015. Which means that more money gets spent on relief pitching in Washington then gets spent on the gun lobby. And the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs. If you’re going to get the attention of the media market, you don’t do it by throwing $28M at it. You do it by doing things that American people can’t stop paying attention to. You do it by driving clicks and ratings. Because that’s what makes the media work. And it’s not new. But it is bigger than any other force in our political system and producing content at a scale never seen before. And it’s sucking the oxygen out of every reasonable political thought we may have. So they die. And we’re left with what’s left. Point and counter-point. A 1 and a 0. We’re being programmed.
The Human Binary…
We are addicted to outrage and conflict. That part isn’t new. Just like computer programs, outrage and conflict work best when you can focus them on the least amount of variables. Clearly, you can’t have outrage and conflict with one perspective. You need at least two. And more than two is really hard to package. It’s why team sports work so well. It’s why we have “pairings” for pro golf tournaments on the final day. It’s why the main good guy has to kill the main bad guy in the end. It doesn’t work if the villain dies in an unfortunate cycling accident en route to the gun fight. There’s no drama in that. Conflict is delivered and consumed easiest in twos. One against the other. Good and evil…right and wrong. Conservative and liberal…It’s what we’ll watch. It’s what we’ll click on.
Here’s the problem with that. These issues we’re debating aren’t sports and entertainment. The media serves them up like they are, but they’re not. People’s lives are impacted by them. These things matter but we’re not entirely sure how to differentiate them from entertainment. We don’t have to settle for it though. In fact, this stuff is too important to settle for it. We need to demand more of ourselves.
We’ve evolved past our basic nature in many ways. When our urge for conflict was harder to feed, before the information age, when you had to go find someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about in order to engage in debate, we did this better. As a result, our political machine was less polarized and more effective. There’s good news here though. We did this once. And we can do it again. Because doing it is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is break the binary code. Break the programming.
What we have to be willing to do better to be better at what we need to be better at?
You can do that with the most powerful thing that we have, that computers don’t; good old fashioned human curiosity. The greatest force the world has ever seen is our ability to wonder about something. Wondering leads to questions. Questions are most useful when we ask them to inform what we want to know instead of consume answers to other questions that are fed to us before we ask them. When it comes to critical societal issues, there’s one great question you can ask to break the binary code. One basic infinitely powerful question.
What outcome do you seek for this issue?
If you can try to refrain from jumping to what you believe is right and what is wrong, what you identify with and what you can’t, who is agreeing with you and who isn’t and answer that first magical question to identify the outcome you want for an issue, you’re on your way. If we paused and did this in aftermath of San Bernardino, we would be two weeks into a much more productive debate. Here’s what it might look like.
What do we want out of a resolution to the issue of radical Islamic terrorism? I believe that the answer is that we want Americans to be safe. Not just from Islamic terrorists. We want Americans to be safe…period. Which means we have to spend a little time on defining safe. One question leads to the next important one here. Are we safe? Relatively?
We would have to lose 15,000 people this year to radical Islamic terrorist attacks or gun violence to match the per-capita murder rate in 1992. That’s how far violent crime has dropped in the last 25 years. That’s about five more 9/11 attacks, this year. Or, three San Bernardino attacks every day, for the whole year. Just to get to 1992. I remember 1992. It wasn’t that horrible. That’s not to say that this isn’t a problem. Or that we should be satisfied with backsliding to relatively more violent times. Every single person who has lost someone will grieve forever at the individual tragedy they’ve suffered. Nothing I can say can help that. But if what we want is for Americans to be safe, it helps to understand how close we are to that goal. The truth is, we’re kind of there already. No matter what the media tells us. The facts are clear. We’ve never been safer.
We’ve broken the code. Our curious minds have taken us outside of the boundaries of the scripted debate. Once you do it, you may never go back. Because it becomes painfully clear that most of what we hear is just binary code programmed into our daily focus to drive a behavior that benefits those that provide it to us. It’s not designed for an outcome. In fact, it’s designed to keep the debate alive. It’s designed for clicks and ratings. You can choose to be a machine and follow it blindly. Or be a human being and ask your own questions. When you get to that point where you can decide what you want from something, try to remember that there are a lot principles that we Americans hold dear as a part of our culture. Not every one holds the same importance for every person. When you are standing on a burning platform of outrage, it’s important to understand if it’s actually on fire or not. Otherwise you’re doing things like trampling on religious tolerance or threatening Constitutional rights because someone coded the debate for you ahead of time. And we can be better than that.
The Three Dimensions of Useful Political Thought
Five days before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April of 1865 and ten days before his own assassination, Abraham Lincoln considered a request by the Virginia State Legislature to assemble for the first time since Union troops had occupied her capital in Richmond three days earlier. Though his cabinet was in violent opposition to the notion of an occupied enemy legislature assembling, Lincoln believed it was necessary. He noted “there must be courts, and law, and order or society would be broken up, the disbanded armies would turn into robber bands and guerillas.” He believed that the best course was to allow, “the prominent and influential men of their respective counties…come together and undo their own work.” After four years of war and over a half a million people killed, America was in need of healing, not punishment. And in order to get there, he needed the leaders of the South to lead their people through it. In April of 1865, the singular political question of consequence in America was how to deal with the reunification and reconstruction of the 11 states that seceded from the Union four years earlier. Lincoln, as usual was thinking about the problem in three dimensions.
Three Dimensional Thinking
Lincoln was a man of deep principle. He formed his policies on the belief that a nation founded on the ideals of liberty and equality was equal parts worth preserving and incompatible with the institution of slavery. His willingness to hold to that principle at great cost is likely his most significant contribution to the preservation of our Union as it exists today. But what made Lincoln so special was that he didn’t stop with principle. He had the compassion to consider all that the Southern people had been through and the pragmatism include even the chief architects of their secession in the solution to their ills. Like an object needs length, width and depth to be an object, political ideas need principle, compassion and pragmatism to work. And by work we mean make people’s lives sustainably better. Our great leaders, the one’s that have built and sustained our society, think in three dimensions when others do not.
Less Than Three Dimensions
Principles are dangerous things without compassion. Believing that your role as a government is to create the greatest nation on earth is a fine principle. But if you decide to exterminate members of your society that you believe are holding you back from that goal and conquer and subjugate your neighbors to prove it, you’ve got Nazi Germany. It’s an extreme case, I know, but one that effectively shows what happens when principle is devoid of compassion. Principle tempered by compassion is a truly powerful thing. But it’s still not enough.
For a policy, movement or activity to be effective, it actually has to be possible. Let’s explore an example. If you have a principle that says that Americans have a God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and temper that principle with the compassion to include those whose basic medical needs cannot be met by their own employment or economic circumstances, you may come to the belief that healthcare reform is required. But if you decide that you want to do that through a single payer system where the government pays for all of it without raising taxes, you don’t really have a policy. You’ve got something else. Thankfully, we didn’t decide to do that. Contrary to popular belief, the Affordable Care Act is not socialized medicine. It is, however, based on the same principles and compassion that would lead you in that direction. It diverges from it though with the critical pragmatism of privately provided health insurance. The Affordable Care Act is actually three dimensional. Much of its criticism is not. Which is why it actually appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do. Get more people health insurance at a reasonable cost to our society.
The Two Dimensional Era
So what’s happening today? We appear to be stuck in a two dimensional loop. We either stop once we’ve devised a principle and try to form an opinion based solely on that, or we do something equally ineffective. We cry out in compassionate outrage against the unfair suffering of others independent of principle. Which has created a binary ongoing discussion that never actually gets completed with the pragmatism that is required to fix anything. But it does get lots of attention and passion. So it continues.
Let’s look at the Black Lives Matter –v- All Lives Matter debate (the silliness of how that actually looks in print is not lost on me). We either have an almost mature formation of a movement if we do it three dimensionally, or an unhelpful toxic unformed argument that will yield nothing but division if we don’t. In three dimensions we’re leading with the principles that no one is excluded from the protection or enforcement of an effective criminal justice system, including those we depend on to enforce it. That principle is informed by the compassion that we feel towards those who are subjected to the violent reality of life in our urban poor areas, again, including those with the impossible task of policing them. And finally, we start to talk pragmatically about what to do about the root cause of the issue, which is a massive segregated divide between our urban minority neighborhoods and the rest of America. So in three dimensions, we are circling in on a mature, potentially successful discussion on how to address the issue. But we’re not doing that. Like most of our debates today, we’re doing something else.
Right now our society is broadly locked in the death grip of arguing principle versus compassion, which is like engaging in an argument over whether a car is fast or blue. Neither side is wrong. They’re just arguing incomplete thoughts. Which is actually impossible. Just because it’s not possible, doesn’t mean we won’t try to do it every chance we get though. We’ve got a two dimensional, $280 billion dollar media market getting fat on the industry of conflict and outrage and our political discussions have been infected by it. But that doesn’t mean you have to. And it’s really not that hard to keep yourself three dimensional, even when all around you are flat. It takes a little introspection though. Turning to memes, tweets and soundbites won’t get you where you need to go. They’re one dimensional at best. So instead, next time you’ve gotten yourself worked up about a societal problem, ask yourself a few questions. What principle of yours does this societal problem upset? Second, how does this societal problem impact the people it involves; all the people, not just the ones exactly like you. Lastly, ask yourself what you’d have to do to fix the problem. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, you may need to ask yourself if you’re really interested in fixing the problem or if you’ve become addicted to the glorious outrage of its existence. Which is another problem all together. One for another time.
The American Discourse and the Impact of Citizen’s United
A few weeks ago I read a tweet with a link from author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s appearance on the Daily Show. In it she said, “I think if I were young now, the thing I would do more than anything is to fight for an amendment to undo citizens united.”
Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who has written on FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys and others. About 13 of the 900 or so pages of her book Team of Rivals was turned into the movie Lincoln by Steven Spielberg. She is unquestionably considered one of the foremost American historians of our time. Which means when she talks about great American causes I tend to listen. But what about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling from 2010 has drawn the attention of Kearns and many others as the great risk to democracy of our time? To answer that, you have to do some digging on how we got here and understand where “here” actually is.
Campaign financing regulation actually predates our country. There’s a funny story of how George Washington won an election in the 1750’s to the house of Burgess because he handed out alcohol and food at the poles. It was actually pretty normal at the time. Virginia passed a law shortly after outlawing the practice. By the middle of the 19th Century, America began to pass laws that prohibited politicians from demanding contributions from civil service workers and then appointing them to positions based on the heartiness of their contribution. Hard to imagine it took 75 years or so to figure that out but you have to remember, we were 1st market movers when it comes to world powers and democracy. We had some things to figure out. Around the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt drove legislation that curbed corporate and private participation in the same type of patronage actions. By the middle of the 20thcentury we got around to getting organized unions out of mobilizing their workers to fund campaigns as a prerequisite for membership. So by the 1970’s we had mostly eliminated the affronts to democracy that lesser developed nations still suffer from. From there, it got a little more complicated.
The Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974 (FECA) formed the basis for much of the current federal campaign laws. It included limits on contributions to federal candidates and political parties, a system for disclosure and voluntary public financing for presidential candidates. The Act tried to impose campaign spending limits but the Supreme Court threw it out 2 years later. It also created a governing body, the Federal Election Committee. So by the 70’s, there were limits on contributions, transparency on those contributions and a governing body to enforce the rules. There were still no limits on campaign spending either by a candidate or corporation for support of a candidate’s party or cause though.
In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act was signed into law. This act materially accomplished two things. It eliminated “soft money” from party finance. Soft money is a term used for political party general purposes like party building “activities” that weren’t subject to regulation. The second thing that McCain-Feingold did, and this is actually what Citizens United overturned, was eliminate corporate funding of issue advocacy ads; those ads which name an actual candidate within 30 or 60 days of an election. Corporations could still fund ads that advocated for conservative or progressive causes all they wanted through third party groups like the Koch Bros, American’s for Prosperity. But as a corporation or union, you couldn’t “pick your guy” and bank roll him. And though the spirit wasn’t to advocate for a specific group, you could fund groups that said or even called themselves “Hillary is destroying America”. Which happened, regularly and legally. Which means that prior to 2010, corporations and private organizations could and did already contribute massive amounts of money to finance political actions.
So if it didn’t create corporate participation in politics, what did the Supreme Court actually do in 2010? Well it can get complicated but, materially, it did two specific things. It removed the ban on independently funded adds 30-60 days before an election and opened up direct funding for corporations and unions for express advocacy ads. It had some second order effects on the characteristics of the groups that could organize to raise funds for an election but the important part is that it streamlined the process for corporate and union participation in funding. Which has triggered the outcry. But there’s a lot of noise in the outrage, and as a result, there’s a chance to miss the signal in the noise. Because when you look at the data, something doesn’t match up here.
There has been, without question a massive increase in campaign spending since Citizens United in 2010. But if you look closer at the data behind campaign finance, we see it actually predates 2010, substantially. In 1996, we spent about $21 million on federal elections, through regulated channels. By 2004, that amount rose to $340M. That’s a 1500% increase within the cycle of two presidential elections. But that actually doesn’t tell the full story. If you count the “soft money” explosion that led to McCain-Feingold, spending in the 96 election rose to almost $300M, several times more than any other year. Though McCain Feingold eliminated that “flavor” of spending, it appears that we couldn’t un-ring that dinner bell. By the following presidential election in 2004, outside spending for federal elections had increased 900 percent. That’s 900 percent in four years, six years before Citizens United.
So when you actually look at the path of historical spending above, and also take into consideration that the “soft money” from the mid 90’s isn’t accounted for in that data, we see something very clearly. And it didn’t happen in 2010. Something very different happened about 20 years ago, and the impact has been an explosion in spending on elections. And as big as the increase has been since Citizens United, it’s actually nowhere near the jump we saw between 1996 and 2004. So what happened in 1996? Quite a bit actually.
The day I enrolled at the United States Naval Academy in the summer of 1995, I was issued a computer. That computer was different than all the computers that the Naval Academy had issued in the previous decades to its thousands of students in one very important way. It connected to the internet. At the same time, the digital cable revolution was crossing America increasing the average channels of cable offering from dozens to hundreds. Fox News and MSNBC launched the next summer. So about the time when our campaign spending began to explode, something else was exploding too; the amount and methods for which we began to consume information.
Here’s some data. In 1996, the average American spent about 500 hours watching cable TV a year. By 2010, that number had more than doubled to about 1100 hours a year. We also watched network TV, where “mature” information lives, about 300 hours less. You can also add in 200 hours a year on the internet that didn’t exist at all prior to 1996. And here’s the kicker, according to a study by the mobile measurements and platform company Flurry, you can add another 800 hours a year on smartphones. Which means that we spend more than twice the time consuming information today then we did 20 years ago. Which means one thing. There’s a lot more money to be made off of the American attention span than there used to be. And there’s a lot more competition to get it.
Taking a breath, a calm step backward and an objective look at the data, and we start to see what’s at work here: economics. In order for a market to exist, there has to be demand. Prior to 1996, the demand for information, political or otherwise was relatively small. We had newspapers, magazines and a handful of television channels. Over the past 30 years though, technology has changed that opportunity. And as a result, investment in the media world has also changed. Prior to 1985, corporate investment in media kept pace with the general economy. After 1985, that changed. By 1995, communications industry spending grew at 150% of the pace of the economy. By 2014, growth in media spending had nearly doubled our economic growth rate. And we were off to the races.
If you look at the type of spending that has blown up, it’s what is referred to as independent expenditures. In lay terms, it’s money that comes from somewhere other than the candidates or parties directly like wealthy individuals, corporations or Political Action Committees (PACs). Independent expenditures actually account for over 90% of the increase in spending. And again, it started almost a decade before Citizens United with a 1000% increase from 2000 to 2004. If you pair that finding with the advent of the information consumption age it leads you to one very strong conclusion. Massive amounts of money have flowed into the federal campaign system over the last twenty years for one very good reason. There’s actually something to spend it on that works.
Ask yourself, what in the world would you have been able to spend $1 billion of advertising money on in 1980? How many network TV ads or mailers could you send? How many people could you compel to go knock on doors? Not that many. Which brings us to as close to a smoking gun as you’re going to get for the cause of our massive increase in campaign spending. Which leads us back to the question of Citizens United and what to do about it.
The exercise with McCain Feingold has taught us a fairly valuable lesson. Now that there’s a mature market for profiting off of political expression, efforts to close it down through finance reform serve mostly to change the flavor of money flowing in. We can squeeze the balloon, but unless you pop it, it’s still going to hang around. Which leads us to the next logical question. How do we pop the balloon? Well, we actually can’t. If there is demand, and it is legal, there will be money to invest. Even further, the billion dollars we spent on the election directly in 2012, is merely a fraction of the total media market that is, in some part being fueled by the content of political discourse. Which means that even if we found a way to completely abolish political spending altogether, it wouldn’t put out the fire. The 24-hour news cycle, social media markets and talk radio are a hell of a lot bigger than the $1 billion industry. The six biggest media companies in the country, GE, Viacom, Disney, Newscorp, CBS and Time Warner had just under $280 billion in revenue in 2010. The money being raised for campaign financing isn’t driving our media and how they choose to market and display content. Because it’s not the campaign money that they’re after. It’s our attention. And as long as we humans are susceptible to focusing on things that affirm our beliefs or outrage us, then the current dialogue isn’t going anywhere and neither is the media market it fuels.
So if it’s not the money, what is the great evil that we’re trying to shout down right now? What is the Doris Kearns Goodwin advocating for in the form of a Constitutional Amendment? Remember, Constitutional Amendments are big deals. They do things like outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, allow women to vote, ban drinking, allow drinking, let us speak freely, have due process, carry assault rifles. When we amend the Constitution, it needs to yield an outcome. Which is why it’s not easy to do. As for the issue of campaign finance, I think we can all agree that there’s something that feels unclean about the combination of large sums of money and the democratic process. But it’s still fairly regulated and we’re not actually accusing anyone of outright fraud of corruption here. So what is the problem? It’s actually a pretty big one and it’s been happening for a few decades.
The problem isn’t that we’re buying our candidates. The problem is that we’re subjugating them, and not with the will of the people as they ought to be. And the result is the polarization of our two political parties. Over the last 40 years, democrats and republicans have increasingly voted only democratic and only republican more and more. In 1970 if you were in the United States Senate, the majority of a party voted the same way on legislation 27% of the time. Which was good, because when you wanted to get things passed, you had the opportunity to convince reasonable people in both sides of the party to agree. In 2014, the majority of a party voted the same way 70% of the time. Which means, quantitatively we’re 250% more polarized now than we were 40 years ago. Which is a problem. Because it means our politicians used to put a lot more thought and a lot more consideration into their positions
If it’s not campaign financing that they’re afraid of, then what exactly is it that’s driving our politicians to take so few risks? That one’s pretty clear. It’s fear. Fear of a media market that has long since outgrown the need for campaign spending and has since moved on to the more fruitful harvest of outrage, conflict and dissent. If you think that’s an overstatement, consider this. The first Republican Presidential Primary debate in the 2016 election was the highest viewed cable program in the history of cable television. There’s blood in the water now and if you step out of line against the base, someone is going to market the outrage immediately and on an inescapable scale. So you don’t, because you want to keep your job, which unfortunately isn’t the goal of our government. A politician wanting to keep his job isn’t a new phenomenon though. It’s as old as the institution of democracy. What is new, is the scope and scale of the information engine capable of taking it from them.
So do we mobilize and advocate for a Constitutional Amendment as Goodwin said? While it’s likely that eliminating some level of the spending in campaigns won’t hurt, I think it’s also fair to say it won’t solve the problem. There’s a wild fire burning and though the Supreme Court poured gas on it in 2010, it didn’t light the fire. And it’s only a matter of time before that fire doesn’t need the fuel of campaign finance at all and provides us with candidates who draw eyeballs instead of money.
Donald Trump anyone?