Sunday, July 23, 2017

Donald Trump shows that democracy is working. Alas.

I must confess to indulging in a certain amount of schadenfreude watching Donald Trump squirm.  I have been an unwavering never-Trumper since before he announced he was running for president.  And yet I am mindful of the fact that nearly all of the predictions I have made about Trump's political fortunes have been wrong.  In fact, while researching links for this post I realized that I wrote almost the exact same opening statement a year and a half ago, back when I was smugly confident that Donald Trump and the Republican party would meet their collective downfall Real Soon Now.  I still believe -- or maybe "hope" is a more accurate characterization -- that they will meet their downfall, but I no longer believe it will be Real Soon Now, and I am certainly no longer smugly confident about it.

In science, when your predictions turn out to be wrong that means that your theory is wrong and you must reject it.  My theory, and that of many of my fellow liberals, has been that Donald Trump is plainly a lying, cheating, incompetent, narcissistic poseur, and it is only a matter of time before everyone comes to their senses and realizes this.  And yet this belief flies in the face of the facts: Trump's approval ratings have barely budged in three months, holding steady just under 40%.  Among Republicans, his approval rating is consistently above 80%.  None of the recent Russiagate revelations have made a dent.  The idea that Trump's popularity is plummeting and that he's going down Real Soon Now has about as much empirical support as the idea that Jesus is coming back Real Soon Now.

What liberals don't seem to realize about Trump supporters is the same thing that atheists don't seem to realize about religious people: the reason they believe the things they do is not because they are idiots, it's because they start with fundamentally different assumptions.  (BTW, that link is to an excellent analysis by George Lakoff which should be require reading for all liberals.)  To a liberal, Trump is clearly a corrupt liar trying desperately and not very effectively to cover up an obviously illegal and possibly treasonous collaboration with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.  How do we liberals know this?  Because it's the only theory consistent with the facts.  And how do we know what are the facts?  Because we read the news (though not, of course, Fox News, which is clearly a shill for the Republican party and hence full of lies).

But to a Trump suporter, the world looks very different: the fundamental ground truth is that liberals are conspiring to use government power to indoctrinate people into a secular (a.k.a. Godless) anti-capitalist worldview which undermines the Puritan work ethic that made America the Greatest Country on Earth (tm).  Liberals control both academia and the mainstream media, and so everything originating from either of those two sources is biased in service of this conspiracy and hence untrustworthy.  Fox News is the sole courageous holdout swimming against the liberal tide.

One of the reasons this worldview is so hard to dislodge is that it is actually correct.  There really is a vast left-wing conspiracy, except of course that we who are engaged in it don't think of it that way.  We liberals think of it as fighting for rationality and empirical truth, against superstition and religious demagoguery, for separation of church and state, for advancing the interests of women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged.  But conservatives think of all this as fighting against God Himself, our Creator and hence the ultimate source of all that is good and just.  This is the reason, for example, that gay marriage is such a hot-button issue: it is clear that there is no rational argument that can be advanced against it.  It is equally clear that it is against God's will (and this, of course, is why we need God: because our reason can lead us astray).

The part of this that causes me the most cognitive dissonance is that when I put myself in the opposition's shoes I come to the realization that this is how democracy is supposed to work.  What if the shoe were on the other foot and I were in the numerical minority trying to swim against the demographic tide?  Would I not want there to be some mechanism by which I could advance my interests against those of the tyrannical majority?  If a political savior somehow arose who promised to Make America Rational again, would I not support that person in spite of the lies and smears that the opposition would inevitably level at him, especially if the alternative was total political defeat?  Might I not support that person even if some of those smears turned out to be actually true?  Could I resist the temptation to rationalize by saying that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the ends justify the means?  If the alternative were to see the my country become a Christian theocracy?

Replace "Christian theocracy" with "Godless communist hellhole" and that paragraph could have been written by a conservative.

What keeps me from just being philosophical about this, unfortunately, is that I really do believe that we are on multiple roads to catastrophe.  I really do believe that Donald Trump is mentally unhinged, and that he could cause a Constitutional crisis, or even start a nuclear war out of spite, particularly if he's backed into a corner.  I really do believe that climate change is an existential threat to technological civilization, and that the window of opportunity to prevent this is closing rapidly (if it has not already closed).  (BTW, if you're still skeptical about this, you really should take a look at Randall Munroe's take on it.)

Ironically, Conservatives agree that we are on the road to disaster; our dispute is merely a quibble over details.  The disaster they foresee is a moral one, where we drift away from personal responsibility and become unable to function without bread and circuses provided by the nanny state.  We drift away from God and find ourselves unprepared to face His judgement when the rapture comes (which, of course, like climate change, is going to happen Real Soon Now).  They hold these beliefs with every bit as much passion and sincerity as I hold mine.

I wonder if this scares them as much as it scares me.  I'm guessing it does.

20 comments:

ash said...

"""I really do believe that climate change is an existential threat to technological civilization, and that the window of opportunity to prevent this is closing rapidly (if it has not already closed). (BTW, if you're still skeptical about this, you really should take a look at Randall Munroe's take on it.)"""

No, xkcd doesn't help:

1. It's just a comic sketch.
2. It doesn't go far enough. Major ice age cycle period is more than 100 thousand years. Randall's graph goes only to 20 thousand years back.
3. Randall's graph has a disclaimer: "Limits of this data: Short warming or cooling spikes might be “smoothed out” by these reconstructions but only if they’re small or brief enough."

Finally, even major "alarmist" like Michael Mann disagrees with NYMag article you've linked to:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/doomsday-scenarios-are-as-harmful-as-climate-change-denial/2017/07/12/880ed002-6714-11e7-a1d7-9a32c91c6f40_story.html

More responses:

https://climatefeedback.org/evaluation/scientists-explain-what-new-york-magazine-article-on-the-uninhabitable-earth-gets-wrong-david-wallace-wells/

I'm still skeptical, sorry.

Ron said...

@Ash:

> It's just a comic sketch.

That's true. But it is nonetheless an accurate summary of the data. Just because it's presented as a cartoon doesn't mean it's wrong.

> It doesn't go far enough. Major ice age cycle period is more than 100 thousand years. Randall's graph goes only to 20 thousand years back.

So what? Human civilization (which is what I care about) only goes back 5-10 thousand years. Munroe's graph covers the period of time during which human civilization arose. The fact that there may have been more dramatic climate change further in the past tells us nothing about how resilient civilization will be in the face of such changes. To the contrary, the fact that civilization did not arise until the climate stabilized is a strong indication that it is not very robust in the face of changing climate (which is to be expected, because the hallmark of civilization is building geographically fixed infrastructure like farms and cities).

> Randall's graph has a disclaimer: "Limits of this data: Short warming or cooling spikes might be “smoothed out” by these reconstructions but only if they’re small or brief enough."

Again, so what? What is there in the data that the graph omits that you think is relevant?

ash said...

Berkley Earth link has data only for the last 250 years. Randall's graph goes much further. I don't understand why you've posted this link.

I didn't claim that that graph omits any data. It's well done and transparent ("Limits of this data" quote). Randall even switches from dotted line to solid line when he goes from proxy to instrumental data. And that is the main problem with the graph. Proxy data resolution is on the 1000-years scale. Most of the recent temperate change would be smoothed out if we apply the same processing to the recent years (via).

Ron said...

> I don't understand why you've posted this link.

Sorry, I thought the BE dataset included the proxy data. My mistake.

> I didn't claim that that graph omits any data. It's well done and transparent

OK, then this is a moot point.

> Proxy data resolution is on the 1000-years scale.

That's not quite right. The resolution is better than that, but the uncertainty makes it so that *variability* can only be accurately reconstructed at 1000-2000 year time scales. But so what? Munroe's graph covers 20,000 years, so we can say with very high confidence that if there were large temperature excursions over that time period we would see them. Actually, there *were* large temperature excursions, and we *do* see them. But they were slow, and had mostly settled down by 9000 BCE when human civilization began to arise.

It is true that the graph would look different if you discarded data from the modern data set. It's true that you can't directly compare direct data with proxy data. But so what? It's tautological that if you discard data or add levels of indirection to your measurements that your results will change. But the conclusion does not change. Anchukaitis himself says so:

"Temperatures HAVE increase[d] rapidly over the industrial era, however, which we know from instrumental observations"

"Does any of this mean the planet isn't warming rapidly because of anthropogenic GHGs? No, it definitely is."

And from the NPR article you linked to:

"Still, at the end of the day, the conclusion about climate change is the same, Anchukaitis says: 'We are taking the planet into a fundamentally different state.'"

We have very good bounds on how fast the climate has changed in the past, and an even better bounds on atmospheric carbon concentrations. See e.g.:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene–Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

So despite the fact that we can't directly compare modern data with historical data (simply because the modern data is better) we *can* know with very high confidence that we are moving into climatologically uncharted territory.

Peter Donis said...

> I really do believe that climate change is an existential threat to technological civilization

We've had this argument before and I don't want to rehash it, but I would point out that in one previous discussion in a comment thread of yours on this point, you raised a concern that, IMO, is a much better basis for discussion with those who (like me) are skeptical of the claim as you state it above: even if climate change, by itself, is not an existential threat, because we could adapt to it, the process of adaptation itself could cause enough political upheaval to cause serious problems. That argument doesn't depend on the alarmist view of climate change being correct, only on the fact that any change causes political upheaval, and the greater the change the greater the upheaval--which is a much easier case to make to a skeptic.

Peter Donis said...

> an excellent analysis by George Lakoff

Unfortunately, Lakoff's article linked to a quote from his book, Moral Politics, which killed his argument for me, because I have read that book and my immediate reaction was that he has things backwards. The only two models of government he considers are the Strict Father (conservative) and the Nurturant Parent (liberal). He claims that the US was originally based on the Nurturant Parent model (that's the quote his article links to). This would have come as a huge surprise to the Founders, because their whole point was that *the government is not the parent*. Lakoff has the whole relationship between citizen and government backwards, at least as far as the US is concerned.

Luke said...

I'm curious; to what extent is that Lakoff article scientific? I'm curious about what in it has passed peer review, what the various responses to it have been, what it predicts, and whether those predictions have been corroborated or falsified.

I am also curious about whether the "liberals" that article references can be shown to teach their constituents how politics really works. That is, are they "nurturing" their constituents to fully participate in political life (not just cast votes)? Because if in fact democracy is merely a giant façade for the exercise of power by the few over the many, then "Nurturant Parent" would appear to be a propagandistic lie. In fact, the real purpose of the State would be to enforce crypto-"Strict Father" conditions.

Ron said...

> to what extent is that Lakoff article scientific?

I don't know because I don't have a copy of the book from which is it excerpted so I can't look at the references. But based on what I know I'd call it, at the very least, a plausible hypothesis worthy of discussion and further investigation.

Luke said...

Well, I'd certainly love to see whether the following is really being put into action—

>> Here are two statements you will almost certainly agree with if you’re a progressive:
>>
>> 1. In Lincoln’s words, the American government should be a government of, by and for the people.
>> (The Answers to Two Big Questions About Trump and the GOP That Keep Befuddling Progressives)

—or whether some nice things are being provided for those in need, while keeping the bulk of political power firmly in the hands of the few.

Web Guy said...

You've got the religion angle all wrong. From a theocratic perspective, both Clinton and Trump are exceedingly non-kosher. This was so obvious to the Mormons that they ran their own guy--knowing that he did not have a snowball's chance in hell--just to keep their hands clean!

If fundamentalism is at the foundation of your theory, that is probably why it is breaking. Don't beat yourself up about it though. You're a science guy. Religion is one of the usual suspects when you're a science guy.

As someone who is in the middle of Trump country, I'm going to throw these out there to see if it helps us reach a better theory. I personally know four categories of voter who are all-in Trump. Here are their motivations, none of which are theological:

Old people do not like change and are more fearful as a group. It sounds like a stereotype, but there is a lot of science behind it. Even if you were formerly a flower child, odds are that trannies, muslims, and tatooed hipsters are going to push all the wrong buttons when you're 65. Words cannot describe how tired I am of hearing dried-up assholes bitch about millenials, muslims, and "job stealing Mexicans". Clinton was endorsed by a "gay muslim communist", while Trump is more like them. Who are they going to vote for? Bernie would have done better with them on curmudgeon points alone.

People with money generally have a warped perspective on the ease of earning money, and strongly understate the effects of capital and relationships on success. Self-made or not, they are all self-made in their own minds. "Why won't those poors just stop whining and get a job?!"

They *really* hated Bernie Sanders, and saw his supporters as a bunch of latter-day communists out to steal their "hard-earned" cash, but I think they at least appreciated the fact he was out in the open about it. Hillary was just a variation on the theme to them, and a "crook". Flaming communists we can handle. Crypto-communists... not so much.

Full-disclosure: I think if you take any money from Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan, you shouldn't be allowed anywhere near an elected office, regulatory agency, children, or decent human beings. I believe the Amish call this "shunning," but I'm not sure.

Alt-right young college-educated males of the ethnicites that get points deducted instead of points added. The Milo watchers. The Damore lovers. The Peterson followers. Pure reaction to the diversity crew. Many were teenage gamers when Sarkeesian crashed their party. They *really* do not like the SJWs. I would worry the most about this demographic going forward. Why? A) their reaction is literally being baked-into their brains (due to their youth), and B) is so strong that they are re-opening all of the old Francis Galton stuff that the Holocaust (temporarily) put a lid on.

MOST IMPORTANT GROUP CONTINUED IN NEXT COMMENT...

Web Guy said...

Last, but most importantly, the red-state proletariat wants the world to conform to the clear-cut boundaries and value-systems they have been indoctrinated with by movies, television, grade school, advertisements, and pop-music (none of which are remotely religious). Needless to say, this makes life hard. This is the demographic DJT plays to the hardest with his public shenanigans.

If you are a liberal, this is the group you need to build a bridge to, and you need to do it fast.

A few vignettes:

In the land of the open road, the personal odds are rather high for vehicular death and disfigurement, but do they fear cars? Hell no! They fear Muslims and dirty bombs because of all the horseshit on TV like "24", "NCIS", and "Blacklist". But liberal showbiz people live in an unreality where you *can* have your cake and eat it too, so there will continue to be horseshit-a-plenty for the rest of us.

Or what about gays and transgenders? WTF?! Everyone knows love is supposed to be about a boy, a girl, and a truck. Women are liberated now, so it *could* be her truck. On the bright side Willie made a gay song a few years back, and porn has saturated the entire western world, so next gen will probably be cool with alternative sexualities. I've got a country-western tranny-love song locked-and-loaded, so watch out Blake Shelton!

They are constantly lectured by the media about global warming while their entire livelyhoods are intertwined with gasoline and diesel powered engines. The media elite is really bad about this. It's like, "You're a trucker, but we have global warming, so you need to go along with this carbon credits thing we're proposing--even though we don't understand it ourselves--and add even more risk and uncertainty to your already tenuous existence. Hey, it's not my fault you aren't pretty and didn't go to Columbia so you can make several mil a year reading a teleprompter!"

I hope this helps. When I share this stuff with most liberal friends, they just get pissed at me, but you seem like a smart guy who can run with it.

Ron said...

@Web Guy:

> From a theocratic perspective, both Clinton and Trump are exceedingly non-kosher.

That is obviously true from the point of view of any rational person. But the fact remains that self-identified evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported Trump, and still overwhelmingly support him even today.

But I think the rest of your analysis is dead-nuts on target.

Web Guy said...

That is probably social desirability bias mixed with muddled terminology on behalf of the respondents.

If you are only vaguely familiar with Christianity, and you don't really adhere to *any* of its (greatly reduced) requirements in a coherent way, are you really a Christian?

I think this is a case of last generation's secular indoctrination outliving its usefulness. The left confuses this with Christian fundamentalism and sets their sights on the wrong target. I'll concede that we're still in the realm of religion, but it's not the one with Moses and Jesus.

Ron said...

> If you are only vaguely familiar with Christianity, and you don't really adhere to *any* of its (greatly reduced) requirements in a coherent way, are you really a Christian?

I don't like to quibble over terminology. If someone tells me they're a Christian, I take them at their word. That's why I usually make it a point to qualify with "self-identified". In fact, I do this so often that I will sometimes just abbreviate it to SI-Christians.

If you want to argue that there is a lot of hypocrisy among SI-Christians, I will not dispute you.

Web Guy said...

What I'm getting at, which I may not have expressed very well--or at all--is that you can pull just as many left-wing arguments from the bible as right-wing ones. People who can quote chapter and verse, of which there are many, are very much in play.

When our side lumps these diverse perspectives into the same expression and dismisses them, we become philosophically inbred and failure-prone.

Ron said...

> you can pull just as many left-wing arguments from the bible as right-wing ones

Yes, of course. What did I say that made you think I would disagree with that?

I guess I'm confused now about what you meant when you wrote, "You've got the religion angle all wrong."

Web Guy said...

In the middle of the post you attribute a lot of the right wing perspective to God and religion. My contention is that as religious as the verbiage may seem, the underlying thoughts and feelings are anything but.

Ron said...

> In the middle of the post you attribute a lot of the right wing perspective to God and religion.

I think you misinterpreted what I said. I was drawing an analogy between how Trump supporters are being *misunderstood* by the left, and how religious people are often misunderstood by the secular community, particularly hard-core atheists. I don't think I ever said that religion per se plays a large role in Trump's support. It is true, as I said, that evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump, but I think that has a lot more to do with misogyny and homophobia than it does with Jesus.

Web Guy said...

My reading comprehension is A-OK here. Just re-read your last paragraph. You're casting a lot of their outlook in a religious light. Moral disaster, His judgement, rapture...

That might have been the case in another place and another time, but from where I'm sitting, in 2017, those things are largely non-issues to the people who put DJT in office.

Luke said...

@Ron:

> It is true, as I said, that evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump, but I think that has a lot more to do with misogyny and homophobia than it does with Jesus.

Do you have scientific support for that? What I'm primarily thinking is a source other than the news media, which I think we both know cares more about maximizing profits than representatively sampling. For example, you could consult Arlie Russell Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist who wrote Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. One of her results is exactly what you portrayed strongly when you role-played a fundamentalist over dinner with me: they want to be able to hold down respectable jobs which allows them to feel like they're doing something productive while bringing home the bacon.