Monday, September 22, 2008

Short, Obvious Point

Let me advise against watching too much cabel news. Logical loops like the following will get stuck in your head, you will feel compelled to say something about them, but in the end you'll feel stupid for having brought them up to yourself.
For example, it grates every time I hear an American politician preface every remark, from the profound to the banal, with 'America is the greatest and strongest nation on earth.' 
This is clearly the sort of value judgment that even the hardest-nosed moral realist is going to realize does not have any obvious truth-conditions. Not having truth-conditions, it is not asserted as a claim or belief. It is rather a meat-headed sort of performative, intended (whether consciously or not) to signal tribal identification and standing.

Now, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem, were it treated as the mere formality that it is, on par with a hand-shake or a salute. However, it commonly occurs that if one goes on to a make an actually contentful statement critical of some aspect or other of American society, then this statement is regarded as inconsistent with the previous utterance. The charge is then voiced, 'So you don't believe that America is the greatest and strongest country on Earth?' But this is clearly ridiculous. It is like arguing that I could contradict your policy proposal by voicing a loud belch. Ironically, this is precisely what usually happens: since one can't respond to the charge with further assertions or claims, one can only respond by re-uttering the initial statement more loudly and more often. And thus, we descend to Walrus politics, and the project of deliberative democracy is all the worse for it. I would add finally that, if this analysis were only true to the utterance 'America is the greatest and strongest nation' then it might not be such a big deal after all. But I feel like I am making an obvious point when I say that most of our political discourse--especially as found in the most-consumed media formats like cable news--is much more like Walrus- rather than deliberative politics. 


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  2. I feel your pain Mike! I realise it would be political suicide for a presidential candidate (let's say) to respond to the question, "is America the greatest nation on earth?" with a candid, "well, that all depends on your criterion, Hanity!"

    But then, I think it only takes a modestly clever politician to come up with something both politically palatable and honest, like: "Yes I do...and I also believe my wife is best wife in the world and that my daughter is the best daughter in the world. When we, as Americans, say our country is the greatest in the world, we are simply expressing our love and devotion to our country. But we no more expect individuals of other nationalities to agree with us, than I would expect you to agree with me when I say that my daughter is the greatest on earth. Moreover, my wife would be the first one to tell you that I'm far from perfect. But that does not change the fact that she loves me or thinks I'm the best husband there is!"

  3. Finding logical errors and fallacies in the rhetoric of democratic politicians is about as hard as shooting fish in a barrel. Democratic politicians have to appeal to the median voter, the least likely of all the voters to be logically consistent, the most likely to succumb to silly rhetorical flourishes. Complaining that democratic politicians say stupid things is like complaining that car engines produce exhaust. With democracy comes demagoguery and banalities. You don't get to have one without the other.


  4. Bro, I don't think that as a matter of political reality that campaigns or parties spend a lot of time isolating the median voter and then organizing their message around that person. To say this is like saying that businesses make investment decisions by plotting consumer indifference curves. To use a Habermasian turn of phrase, democratic politics is exercised in the realm of meaning (or 'the space of reasons'). A good democratic politics will center around good reason giving and taking. At its best, democratic politics appeals, not to the median voter, but to the ideal voter. Obviously this doesn't usually happen, but cancel out all the noise, and it sometimes does.

  5. a) “I don't think that as a matter of political reality that campaigns or parties spend a lot of time isolating the median voter”

    Yeah, well, I don't think that as a matter of biological reality plants spend a lot of time thinking about how to design their surface area so as to maximize light energy intake, so screw photosynthesis

    The model is about actions, not psychology, not what is said board rooms.

    b) But you are wrong not just in principle, but also in fact. The median voter model is by far the most persuasive basic model for democratic politics. Its predictions are borne out in nearly every election to a high degree of precision. Why do you think Presidential campaign platforms nearly always converge near election time? Why did both MCcain and Obama flip-flop like mad to get their policies close to the political center?

    c) I’m sorry; I should have clarified that I was talking about democracy in the real world, and not in the realm of meaning, the realm of forms, or Oz. It may be that democracy would work swell if we were all morally perfect, but we’re not. If you ask a bunch of children to vote on how many cookies they should get, you’re probably not going to get the most efficient results. Asserting that you would if the children were perfect is not very helpful.


  6. Bro...right, so, per a: look, I think that it depends upon how one makes sense of democratic deliberation. One one model, voters have preferences, and politicians then try to converge their policy proposals towards those sets of preferences that are most likely to sway 50%+1 of the votes. On this model, voters are not expected to reflect upon or critique their preferences, and politicians are not expected to try to persuade them. On the second model, the institutions of deliberate democracy are intended to function somewhat like peer-review in academic publishing, where the 'peers' are every voter, but more realistically, their proxies among the chattering class. In this second case, it's neither about psychology nor actions, but about reasons (the 'space of reasons'--more in just a moment). Your plant analogy pertains if we're talking about the first, but not the second model.

    about b): I think you're confusing models that explain campaign behavior and success, with the beliefs and decisions of the agents in campaigns themselves. Now of course, basically by definition, the campaign that wins is the one that is successful at convincing the median voter, so it's no wonder that voter models end up confirming this. But as for the agents within campaigns themselves, they are worried about securing the base, about not committing themselves to positions they can't deliver upon, to articulating a vision or direction....all of these extra considerations severely dilute any laser-like attention that campaigns maybe ought to pay towards the median voter....if a campaign succeeds in getting that median voter, it's almost by accident....somewhat in the way that a military commander will assume that he is facing the the most dangerous, sophisticated enemy, and by in Iraq the US planned for harsh urban combat against chemical and biological weapons.....

    about c): appeal to this 'space of reasons' is not appealing to Oz. I think you're neglecting the fact that we don't live in a direct democracy, and that campaign appeals are not oriented directly at the voter. I don't just mean here our representative system, I more mean the functions of the chattering class. The chattering class keeps politicians, sometimes, and ideally, from saying totally crazy things just to appeal to the median voter. However imperfect it may be, this chattering class functions as a sort of rationality filter, so that much of the time crazy, obviously stupid appeals aimed at the median voter never make it to him or her. In short, maybe the median voter is incurably boneheaded, but before a politician ever gets to that voter, they need to make it through the press' reason filter. This is why a functioning press is important, not as 'media,' but as critical ballast. So the children example just misses the point.

  7. I’m asserting that median voter models explain the platforms and statements of politicians in winner-take-all elections better than any other model, by far. The reason they are called “median” voter models is that they posit political differences along a single dimension, which predicts that politicians’ platforms converge to that of the median voter’s. It’s the convergence that’s the key. If there were more than 1 relevant political dimension, there’s little theoretical reason to think that platforms would converge.

    From basic extensions of median voter models we know that if a politician can increase turnout among his base, he can shift the median voter. As well, we know that lies and demagoguery can often increase turnout in elections. From this I infer that such is the main reason for politician’s using lies and demagoguery in their campaigns. They excite the base.

    I don’t deny that it’s possible for the press to improve the truth content of public discourse in elections, but I see little theoretical or empirical reason to think that this will often be the case, or that the effect will be large. It’s not clear to me if you are saying something like “the press improves the accuracy of discourse from politicians in a democracy on average” or that you think it would if everyone were perfect. I find the former implausible. The press is subject to a host of incentive problems, too. A few of them: they need customers, and people tend to prefer sensationalism and bias to truth; they need access to politicians, and so have an incentive to not be as hard as they should be on them, fearing denial of access; if a press is a monopoly with some market power, it’s likely that journalists will use their power to slant coverage toward their own biases; conflict sells better than agreement…

    Most people would agree that paying a money manager a fixed fee to manage your funds is not the best incentive method. No matter what happens to your money, the manager gets the same amount, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see managers paid in such a way perform poorly. If all managers were perfect, maybe it wouldn’t be a problem, but they’re not. Likewise, we shouldn’t be surprised by lies from politicians. They have every incentive to lie. Really, this all seems pretty obvious to me.