Tuesday, August 28, 2018

It seems there still is a lot of faith in the election process. Should there be?

Who is still pissed off about hanging chads?

Yesterday somebody knocked on my front door.  The person was campaigning for County Clerk, which I soon learned is responsible for the accuracy in the vote totals from Champaign County.  This person pointed out that the current County Clerk is on the ballot for a different office and has endorsed somebody else for the County Clerk.  You would think under the circumstances that would be grounds for recusal, but apparently not.

There has been much written about various attempts at voter suppression, invariably by the Republicans, plus the gerrymandering which gives the Republicans an unfair advantage, and of course the Citizen's United decision which means a huge amount of negative ads will be put into play by individuals, errr, corporations.  Why do we take all that as a given and yet assume actual vote totals will be reported accurately?  Let's note that now the Republicans control the vast majority of state governments.  The process of voting itself is determined at that level.

This, of course, says nothing about the possibility of external hacking, nor of efforts to deter that.  It seems that threat is real.  How likely it is, I couldn't say.  But should we be confident that it won't happen at all?

I'm writing this having just read Michelle Goldberg's latest column.   She links to this prediction from FiveThityEight, that Democrats have a 5/7 chance of taking back the House.  (Where have I heard predictions like that before?)  Goldberg then does her analysis of what will likely happen in the House, should the Democrats retake control there - investigations, not impeachment.  The investigations will include a real look into Trump's tax returns.

It's a nice thought, but certain people clearly don't want that outcome to happen.  What steps will they go to so as to preserve the current Republican majority.   And if there is cheating about reporting vote totals, but that is only uncovered after the new Congress has been seated, what then?

Earlier today, I read Paul Krugman's latest column, which argues that we could be turning into Hungary or Poland, and that will happen if the Republicans keep control of the House.  What if we're already there?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What of Trump Supporters Now and in the Future?

For the first time in quite a while, I watched the NewsHour yesterday.  They had an interesting segment about reactions to the Cohen and Manafort charges.  While much of what was shown featured Senators giving their views, at around the 2:37 mark there are some brief interviews with a couple of Trump supporters who were at an event in support of Trump.  Watching the news, you never know if such interviews typify the views of everyone else in that audience or not.  But I'm going to assume they do.  In the rest of this piece I'm going to try to make sense of what I heard from them.

I want to begin with a couple of non-political contexts, each that I believe provide a useful parallel.  The first of these was my experience serving on a jury back in April.  The trial was about spousal violence.  There actually was very little evidence presented.  The wife testified.  The husband testified.  And a police officer who visited the wife after the fact also testified.  That was pretty much it.  The testimonies of the wife and husband were mutually contradictory.  Our job as jurors was to determine which testimony was credible.

The whole process happened in one day, which was different from my prior jury experience. Jury selection occurred in the morning, then the trial itself, then jury deliberation and verdict.  If memory serves, we finished before 6 PM.  The judge came into the jury room after the trial to thank us for our service.  He told us the husband was facing other charges, so there would be a different trial.  And then he said he'd be sending a letter to us asking us about how to improve the process.  (Jury service is now one week.  When I previously served it was two weeks.  That change is the sort of improvement the judge was asking about.)

I had been on juries twice before, once in the 1980s, then again in the 1990s.  I found it quite an emotional experience.  This time was no exception.  Partly to purge those thoughts from my system, I wrote a long letter to the judge to critique the jury deliberation process.  I got a very nice letter in response, a couple of weeks later.  Below is the paragraph of my letter that I think most relevant here.  It is about cognitive bias in making jury decisions.

A second matter is what I would term voting for guilty reluctance, which I also experienced in my prior jury service. From some side conversations I had while we were chatting but not deliberating, I know that at least a couple of jurors were quite concerned with the regret they’d feel afterward, in case the jury had made an error in its verdict and that subsequently became evident. The potential regret is asymmetric. There is far more concern about finding an innocent person guilty than there is in finding a guilty person innocent. This influences the standard of proof for such individuals. Beyond a reasonable doubt becomes needing a smoking gun to conclude guilt. In deliberations we discussed what beyond a reasonable doubt means and I explained that it doesn’t mean 100% sure of guilty, which the others I believe understood. Nevertheless, the reluctance to vote for guilty impacted the way some jurors considered counter narratives, which if possibly true contributed to reasonable doubt. Here I think all the members of the jury, other than me, are quite unclear about the difference between possibility and probability. A long list of essentially zero probability events taken together still doesn’t make for reasonable doubt, but I don’t believe the other members of the jury understood this. If you could offer a counter narrative (and I did a bit of this during our deliberation near the end) that in itself made reasonable doubt appear more likely to jury members.

At least for the juries I have been on, I believe that it is easier for jurors to vote for innocence, irrespective of the evidence.  I also believe this is independent of political disposition.  If it is accurate as a general impression, it is something to keep in mind.

Let me turn to the other example, which is from teaching and learning.   I wrote about this in a blog post called Is reason taking a beating?  The paragraphs below are from the end of that post.

In the book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain teaches us that students don't know what to do when they confront evidence that contradicts their prior held world view.  Perhaps it is surprising to learn that the initial student reaction is to deny the evidence.  The world view has sanctity and deep down the student wants to preserve it.  The excellent teacher understands the tension the student is under.  With patience and persistence, the instructor nudges the student to reconsider his position.  It would be good for that position to account for the evidence that is observed.  Of course, in this case Bain is referring to an academic matter.  When looking at circular motion the students are apt to have an Aristotelian view.  A Newtonian perspective appears unnatural.  There is a getting used to period necessary to take on the new perspective.  There is leadership in helping students make the transition.

One might hope that having had such a lesson in college adults would then be open to the possibility that their perspective needs to change when the evidence implies a contradiction with a prior held view.  Instead, it seems, for many of us our beliefs harden and evidence to the contrary gets ignored.   Leadership has taken a holiday.  Pandering becomes the order of the day.

* * * * *

Let's now consider that video segment. My interpretation is that those two Trump supporters who were interviewed are living in a bubble of false belief.  The recent news has put pressure on the skin of that bubble, no doubt.  But the bubble hasn't burst yet and I doubt it will burst anytime soon.  What will happen if and when it does burst?  Alternatively, might it be possible to relieve some of the pressure gradually, rather than in one big burst?  If so, would that make the adjustment to what comes next much easier?

I'm going to switch perspective now to consider my own feelings and that of my friends who post about these things in Facebook.  There is a lot of anger.  There is contempt for Trump as well as for the Republicans in Congress who have enabled him.  We have already convinced ourselves that he is guilty.  To paraphrase from that song in Marat / Sade, we want our impeachment now!  Further, there is contempt for Trump supporters, since their votes ultimately enabled this outcome.  For example, Charles Blow's column this morning first exhibits a good deal of vitriol against this triumvirate, after which he asks, out of frustration, whether Republicans in Congress will finally stand up.  This, it seems to me, is the normal response from people of my ilk.

Yet, expressions of such feelings to Trump supporters quite likely will cause an opposite reaction - they will harden in their support for him.

There was a clip during the NewsHour show of a quick interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who cautioned against this rush for impeachment. (I couldn't find the segment in my brief search, so I'm doing this from memory.)  I'm going to try to make sense of that observation, which I found odd when I first heard it but upon reflection seems sensible to me.

The process that leads to impeachment needs to seem fair and impartial.  Letting the Mueller investigation conclude first is absolutely necessary.   Of course, resignation is an alternative to impeachment and it might be preferable, because it is an admission of guilt. On the other hand, if there isn't a two thirds majority in the Senate for impeachment, then there is the possibility that Trump simply holds on.  In this case, wouldn't die-hard Trump supporters continue to remain in their bubble?

It is human nature to rush to judgment.  It takes quite a lot of training to do otherwise and be patient enough to let the process conclude first.  On the politics of the thing, my sense is that upscale Republican voters who live in the suburbs are more likely to conclude that impeachment is necessary now than their working class and/or rural brethren.  If in large numbers those suburban voters either don't vote at all in the midterms or vote Democratic, evidently the support of Trump within Congress will begin to wither.  Two more years of essentially the same thing will start to look like doom and gloom for the Republicans. 

It would be far better for an impartial process if some Republican leaders in Congress openly distanced themselves from the President.  We haven't seen this yet.  But it may be coming based on the changing reality, with Trump's guilt increasingly evident.  This is an argument to move slowly on impeachment, but it makes the most sense if the underlying politics does have some of Trump's base waver.

This puts the Democrats in Congress in something of a bind.  As the minority party, normal push back against the majority is to be expected. But I believe there needs to be some asymmetry in approach.  The Republicans have pursued an ends justifies the means approach and have been quite rigid about their goals - cutting taxes on the rich, selecting conservative judges. They have otherwise shown little to no leadership in not pushing back against Trump until now. In contrast, the Democrats need to work to end the divide in the country that might come about in a post-Trump world.  So, as a long term proposition, they actually should care about Trump supporters, some of whom might vote Democratic in the future, if such voters were nurtured properly along the way.

The above makes it seem that the message is what matters, while the messenger can be ignored.  I'm pretty confident that most of us don't believe that.  These days I get most of my news online, primarily from The New York Times and The New Yorker.  Once in a while I will go to the CNN site to see if it says similar things.  For the most part, it seems that way to me, though I definitely haven't done exhaustive checking on this.  Yesterday and today, for the first time, I visited the Fox News site.   Certainly, it is different from the others. Yesterday, it seemed to be  soft pedaling on the Cohen and Manafort charges.  Today it was taking them on more squarely but from a different angle.

The featured article this morning (I couldn't find it on the homepage in the afternoon) was about an interview given by a juror on the Manafort trial, a die-hard Trump supporter.  I found that surprising in itself.  I would have thought that jury selection would dismiss candidate jurors who had very strong feelings for or against Trump, as you might consider that prejudicial in considering the evidence.  I also learned from the piece that this woman was the sole holdout on those ten counts for which there ended up being a hung jury.  She reported that the experience was combative and highly emotional.  She claimed to focus solely on the evidence, except she entirely dismissed the testimony of Rick Gates, the primary witness in the case.  You might concur with her that Gates is a very slimy fellow, yet you might still work through his testimony to see if pieces of it were credible.

This essay about the holdout juror demonstrated a few things for me apart from how Fox News elevated its importance.   First, in spite of my little bit about Ken Bain's book above, we need to recognize that not everyone will change a prior held view that is inconsistent with evidence, though some might.  Next, a jury room is almost surely not the right place for getting people to reconsider their own world view, especially if the deliberations are combative.  (The movie 12 Angry Men is good entertainment, but I think totally unrealistic in this respect.)  Then too, I believe it takes much longer, for a person to come to a different set of beliefs than what jury deliberation allows  One takes a certain comfort from believing that one's world view is accurate.  It is unsettling when you challenge your own views, especially if you haven't had prior practice doing just that.  Working through that period of discomfort takes time, a lot of time.  Finally, the jury deliberation may not bring up many of the relevant questions one needs to encounter to change ones beliefs.

For example, Trump had now turned on Michael Cohen.  But previously, Trump had chosen Cohen as his lawyer and the two had a relationship this way for quite some time.  How does one reconcile both of these facts?  Did Trump understand Cohen well then?  Or was Trump deceived only to learn the truth later?   I'm belaboring this some just to show the type of questions a Trump supporter needs to work through.  I'm guessing that will not happen unless somebody else guides the Trump supporter through those questions.   But in real conversations of this sort that I've participated in, on academic subject matter rather than politics, the discussions are always far ranging an not linear at all.  Other factors are brought in that bring a richness to the discussion and raise additional questions that weren't contemplated at the outset.  These lines of thinking need to be allowed to play out.  Indeed, doing so is critical for the participants to relax and be open.

I wrote about this a year ago in a post called Gentle Conversations.   I wonder if in the future our politics can change along the lines sketched in that post, so rather than pronouncements from Washington that are mediated by one of the news organizations, there are people who do outreach on location and engage in repeated conversation with the locals.  There might be a bit of proselytizing to it, but more importantly there would be mutual learning about each other, where people's beliefs come from and why.  You might consider it a kind of therapy, done over coffee in a small group setting.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this conception parallels many of my thoughts about undergraduate learning.  (For example, see my series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning.)

I find it not difficult at all to write off the Republican leadership in Congress, as well as outside lobbying groups that exert far too much influence on what Congress actually does.  But I find myself, quite unlike Charles Blow, wanting to be empathetic with normal voters who strongly support Trump.  I don't want to write them off at all.  I want us to come together.   Near term that seems impossible.  I wonder if longer term, it might happen. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Short Story About Our National Politics

This is best view by first going to full screen and then sizing it to your own comfort.