Should you vote today? Only if you want to.

Today is election day in the United States and everywhere I turn I see “get out the vote” ads. Even on Facebook my feed is filled with people urging others to vote. I am fine with these nudges insofar that they are just that – nudges.

I am concerned when I see claims that voting is one’s duty. I am especially concerned when I see claims that, if you don’t vote, you are allowing the evil [socialists/white men/etc] to govern. These claims concern me because they respectively promote worship of the state and tribalism.

There is more to life than being a politico. If Americans at large sacrificed their other activities in order to become fully informed voter-activists, we would be a boring lot. If you enjoy politics, go vote, but you needn’t feel superior over someone who thinks their time would be better spent playing music or grabbing a beer with friends after work. Life is short and should be spent doing what one enjoys.

Likewise, it is perfectly okay to have an opinion on how government should be run. I, and I imagine most NoL readers, have strong policy preferences. It is however beyond arrogance to believe that an educated person can only believe X and only a mustached villain would believe Y. To be clear, I am not saying that truth is relative.

NIMBYist policies lead to housing shortages, that is a fact. I am in favor of revising zoning regulations and ending parking subsidies to mitigate the problem. I don’t think that the family that owns a detached unit in Santa Monica and opposes denser development is evil though. I understand their hesitance to see their neighborhood changed.

If you wish to vote today, please do so but please don’t act like a snob towards those who do not. Express your policy preferences, but leave your holier than thou attitude at home.

Tldr; play nice.

Identity Politics, the Alt-Right, and Empathy in Cultural Discourse

“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.

Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to  the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.

What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?

Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.

The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:

It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.

Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.

More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”

Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.

Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.

It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.

A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:

Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.

There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.

Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.

Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.

Explicando a eleição de Trump para brasileiros

Para qualquer um que acompanhou as notícias pela grande mídia brasileira (leia-se especialmente Globo e Globonews) a eleição de Donald Trump para a presidência dos EUA parece ter sido em primeiro lugar uma surpresa imprevisível e em segundo lugar a maior desgraça que poderia se abater sobre aquele país e o mundo, quando ao mesmo tempo estes perderam a chance de serem agraciados com a primeira mulher presidente dos EUA, a imaculável Hillary Clinton. Para responder a esta avaliação, faço aqui algumas observações a respeito do sistema político e eleitoral dos EUA.

Há basicamente dois partidos políticos nos EUA: Democratas e Republicanos. Diferente de algumas bobagens que vi nos principais canais de notícias, o Partido Democrata não remonta a Thomas Jefferson. Remonta sim a Andrew Jackson, primeiro presidente populista dos EUA e notório assassino de índios. Ao longo do século 19 o Partido Democrata foi o grande defensor da escravidão, e com a abolição desta nefasta instituição tornou-se o grande defensor da segregação. Woodrow Wilson e Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famigerados presidentes democratas, muitas vezes tratados como grandes heróis da democracia, foram grandes expansores do governo federal e enfraquecedores da economia americana. Na década de 1960 o Partido Democrata criou uma versão norte-americana de Welfare State que desde então mais prejudica do que ajuda os mais pobres. Do século 19 ao 21, o Partido Democrata está sempre ao lado dos mais poderosos e contra os mais pobres, não importa se dizem o contrário.

A origem do Partido Republicano é menos antiga. O GOP (grand old party), como é chamado, foi formado pela união de vários movimentos abolicionistas, e seu primeiro presidente foi Abraham Lincoln. Em resposta à eleição de Lincoln, estados escravistas do sul dos EUA romperam com a União, dando início à Guerra Civil. Embora a história do GOP esteja cheia de controvérsias, o fato é que ao longo do tempo este partido foi mais inclinado ao livre mercado, defensor mais forte dos direitos individuais e menos populista do que seu adversário Democrata.

Para além dos partidos, a população dos EUA se divide basicamente em duas correntes políticas: liberais e conservadores. Diferente do que ocorre no Brasil ou na Europa, o termo liberal é utilizado nos EUA para indivíduos de esquerda. O termo liberal passou por uma mudança na virada do século 19 para o 20, sendo adotado por indivíduos do movimento progressivista (notoriamente o já citado presidente Woodrow Wilson), que defendia a expansão dos poderes do estado e menor liberdade de mercado. Eventualmente o termo liberal tornou-se associado aos Democratas.

Conservadores nos EUA são as pessoas que querem conservar o país como este foi fundado no final do século 18. Conservadores são mais constitucionalistas do que os liberais, defendem um governo mais limitado e maior liberdade de mercado. Em outras palavras, conservadores são liberais clássicos, enquanto que liberais deturparam este termo, quando deveriam se chamar de progressivistas (embora seja altamente questionável se sua posição promove algum progresso). Eventualmente conservadores também se tornou um termo ligado a cristãos, embora esta ligação seja menos necessária do que possa parecer. Conservadores estão particularmente ligados ao Partido Republicano.

Evidentemente é impossível que a população de um país grande como os EUA se encaixe perfeitamente em somente dois partidos políticos ou duas tendências ideológicas. Os liberais em geral defendem liberdades sociais (como legalização das drogas e união civil de homossexuais), mas são contra liberdades econômicas (como contratos livres entre trabalhadores e empregados). Conservadores são contra liberdades sociais e favoráveis a liberdades econômicas. Pessoas favoráveis aos dois tipos de liberdade sentem-se pouco representadas nos dois principais partidos, e, embora em geral optem pelo GOP, também tem como opção o Partido Libertário ou o movimento Tea Party (não um partido político formal, mas sim um movimento de protesto contra o crescimento do estado, em favor do retorno aos parâmetros constitucionais). Há também socialistas, ambientalistas, comunistas, e todo o tipo de tendência política nos EUA. O fato é apenas que somente dois partidos possuem uma representatividade nacional.

O fato de que os EUA possuiriam somente dois partidos políticos expressivos foi previsto bastante cedo por James Madison, um dos Pais Fundadores e principal autor da Constituição. No final do século 18, Madison previu que devido ao tamanho do país (ainda pequeno se comparado com as dimensões atuais) e sua diversidade, um partido de projeção nacional precisaria evitar extremismos e se focar em posições moderadas, que pudessem atender à população como um todo. Foi o que aconteceu. Ao longo de toda a sua história os EUA tiveram um sistema bipartidário, variando apenas os partidos que compõem este sistema. Republicanos e Democratas tem sido estes dois partidos desde meados do século 19.

Na primeira metade do século 19 outros partidos compuseram o sistema bipartidário previsto por Madison. Mudanças variadas levaram partidos antigos a perder relevância e serem substituídos por novos. É possível que o mesmo fosse ocorrer com Democratas e Republicanos, mas mudanças na lei eleitoral realizadas especialmente na década de 1970 tornaram mais difícil a entrada de competidores nas eleições. Estas mudanças são em parte responsáveis pela animosidade de grande parte do eleitorado, que não se sente representado por nenhum dos partidos, e consequentemente não se importa em votar. Este quadro é um alerta para pessoas que defendem uma genérica reforma política no Brasil, particularmente uma que limite a entrada de novos partidos.

Há em geral uma grande distância entre o que políticos falam em uma campanha e o que fazem uma vez nos cargos. Isto é particularmente verdade a respeito de Hillary Clinton. Graças à sua vasta experiência em cargos públicos, podemos dizer com segurança que Clinton é uma política profissional que busca angariar votos com argumentos que não necessariamente irão guiar suas ações uma vez no cargo. Trump é um político novato, e assim esta mesma avaliação torna-se impossível de fazer, mas há a impressão de que sua campanha foi conduzida como um dos reality shows de que ele fazia parte anos atrás: trata-se de uma realidade produzida com o objetivo de alcançar audiência, não de realidade real. É bastante provável que Trump presidente seja bem mais moderado do que Trump candidato, para o bem ou para o mal. Simpatizantes de Hillary podem se impressionar, assim como eleitores de Trump podem se sentir traídos.


Two points that bear repeating

  1. We could have elected Hitler and it wouldn’t have turned out significantly worse than if Clinton had won.
  2. The left and right aren’t speaking the same language, and whoever fails to take the first step (which is to not blame the other side) shares the larger share of the blame.

I just listened to the post election episode of the excellent series, The United States of Anxiety. Two interviews stand out: the Trump supporter who fails (I think) to understand the genuine (albeit overblown) fear of a black teenager, and the Trump opponent who fails to understand that trump supporter. (There was also a notably boring interview with another Trump opponent, some hand wringing by the hosts, and some genuinely insightful commentary from Chris Arnade stuffed into the back corner of the episode.)

Maybe I’m in a privileged position because I used to see myself as part of the right and now see myself as part of the left (what’s left of it). Many people on the left are being sore losers about this election and they’re making things worse. I’m talking about humans, not (necessarily) politicians. That’s what’s really disappointing.

To be fair, it’s a common pool problem. We each get social capital brownie points for being angry (“10 reasons you should be angry” gets more Internet points than “difficult social science that requires you to do things you don’t like“), and we don’t get the same rewards for sober reflection (or maybe NOL is a sensible echo chamber? Agree with me in the comments.).

The fact remains that in-group signalling trumps ideological inclusion. The result could mean wild swings of power between the right and the left with due process (and the blessings of civilization… like tolerance, economic growth, freedom, and social mobility) being steamrolled in the process.

It’s fun to blame Facebook, the media, politicians, or anyone else but ourselves. The truth is, consumer sovereignty is far stronger a force than is commonly accepted. We aren’t the victims, we’re the perpetrators. It feels good to have an ideologically tight-knit Internet cocoon and so we spend more time listening to our podcasts (talk radio) while driving our Priuses (pickups) past the coast (vast ocean of farms).

And we’ll always have some of that, but we’ve got important disagreements that we have to resolve… not permanently, but for the next generation or so. All sides (libertarians have to participate too; I don’t think we’re to blame, but some people do) have to eat some humble pie and try to genuinely understand what the others are talking about. They aren’t all morons (and we aren’t all geniuses).

What really struck me in those interviews (mostly the second, longer, better quality one by the well spoken liberal academic) was that they weren’t speaking as though they were really trying to convince their intellectual opponents. Patty (Trump supporter) was happy and felt like she was finally part of the decision making process in DC (whether that’s true is another issue). He was speaking to a liberal

Both sides need to try to adopt the language of the other side. You should be trying to convince them! Why should you expect any degree of success when you say shit like “just look at the evidence [you big dummy!]” as though they don’t think they’ve been looking at legitimate evidence. You’re both falling for confirmation bias.

The way forward is intellectual humility. Will that happen? Not a chance, but that’s all the more reason for me to shout into the void. Culture changes slowly.

People will always disagree, and always should. Ideologies have blind spots and need to depend on critics from the other ideologies to account for them. The policy we get reflects the desires of those who might do something about it. Even dictators have to walk a thin line to stay in power. What seems to be at issue here is meta-policy (Buchananian constitutional issues… not the literal constitution, but informal shared understandings about how government wields power). Right now the position from the two big camps is “to the victor go the spoils.” That’s happening because each camp has closed themselves off to the other. It’s similar to what Bastiat said; when we don’t get gains from ideological trade and cooperation, we get political strife.

Everything will be fine

Eight years ago I identified more with the right. Obama represented a charismatic leader with scary ideologies and an uncertain background. (McCain represented a very old man who didn’t seem to care much about freedom.) Obama had a cult of personality and looked ready to dismantle society.

What do I think now? I think he’s handled his position gracefully (though I haven’t been following too closely… gov’t is ~1/5 of the economy and I intend to keep it <1/5 of my life), and he’s done a good deal of harm (further entrenching the role of insurance in health care finance, drone strikes, etc.). But I don’t think he did any more harm than a Republican candidate in his position. The world didn’t end, and despite a big recession, freedom ultimately proved to be a hearty weed rather than a delicate flower.

I think Trump will follow a similar trajectory. He’ll make things worse, but the outcome won’t be dramatically different (overall) than if Clinton had won. Different special interests will be rewarded, and different special interest groups will suffer. But overall, four years from now we’ll be a little less free, a bit more rich (though probably going through a recession… that would have happened under either candidate), and ready for some more political change.

Bill Burr’s got it right: nothing’s going to change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Lifehacks: How to use Facebook better

Despite disagreeing with many (most?) of my friends on political issues I don’t think I’ve lost any Facebook friends this election. Let me share my secrets.

Step 1: Empathize. Life is hard, and few of us are trained for political life.

Step 2: Listen. We all have the same goal… getting other people to agree with us. You’re not going to be successful by telling people their stupid. You’ll get lots of Internet points… but only from people who already agree with you. You’re actually making things worse because fewer people will listen to people who are apparently incapable of treating them like a decent human being (and most people outside the Beltway are, in fact, decent and human).

Step 3: Filter. (This is the big one.) You’re not going to convince everyone. For good or ill, morality isn’t about rationality for most people. So click that little “V” in the top right of your idiot friend’s post and tell Facebook to hide it.

Step 4: Relax. This stuff works by osmosis. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind over night (certainly not anyone over the age of 25). Be like the Colorado river. You don’t get a Grand Canyon of tolerance by refusing to trickle over land that doesn’t already agree with you.

Step 5: Step back. The government is about 20% of the economy. Try not to let it be more than 20% of your life. Your attention is scarce. Political life matters, but don’t let it get out of proportion. The Internet isn’t just for getting angry, it’s also for adorable gifs and pictures of pigs wearing boots.

Meta-intolerance doesn’t work. Take the worst case scenario: you’re Facebook friends with actual Hitler. You’ve got three options: A) Argue with him constantly. B) Unfriend him. C) Ignore his hateful posts and like his posts about his art. Which will do the most good for the world? Alright, potential employers and friends would probably prefer to avoid Hitler’s friends. But they’ll be more tolerant of your crazy uncle Rudy and you’ll do more good by being an occasional voice of reason in his feed than by stepping out of his Internet bubble entirely.

Most people are basically good even if they’ve got silly opinions about how to be good. And communication is hard. We speak different languages when we talk about politics and few of us have the tools to properly express ourselves. When people support politicians or policies you dislike, it might just be that they think that’s the lesser of two evils. (I’ve got opinions on why it’s sad that people think they’re “wasting” their vote by voting with their conscience, but I can hardly be mad at them for learning the fallacious reasoning that’s been foisted on them since high school civics. Let me add that if Vermonters had voted Stein and New Hampshirtonians had voted Johnson, then maybe next cycle we’ll get better options and we might push out of this two party system so many people dislike.)

I promised you Facebook lifehacks. They all boil down to this: tend your Internet bubble. You can do this with three easy steps:

  1. Like more non-controversial stuff than controversial stuff.
  2. Ignore and hide infuriating posts from people you’d rather respect (and imagine that you live in a world of respectable but flawed people instead of a world of evil charlatans).
  3. excellent

The US elections: good, bad, and ugly


Media will finally start doing its job after 8 years of hanging all over Obama’s nuts.


The GOP has control of the executive branch and both houses of Congress.


The ugly part is over. Trump won’t be as bad as the Left wants him to be (the Left might even like his protectionism), but he’ll still be plenty bad by libertarian standards. We’ve got a lot of work to do, if we’re to make his job as president as hard as possible.

Have a good day!