Evidence, Please

I have said and written a number of dumb things over the years, but the worst statement of mine to appear in print came after the 2016 primary. I vote early in the morning and, if I remember correctly, voted on my way home from the gym at maybe 7 AM. On the way out, a journalist stopped me to ask for a comment. I growled something about my frustration with the “dangerous rhetoric” on both sides.

This milquetoast comment appeared in the paper the next day.

I stand by the first part of the statement, but regret qualifying it with “both sides.” The tenor of political advertising has reached the point that some of the races in Missouri feature virtually identical attack ads against each candidate, but in the aggregate there is no comparing the political rhetoric being put out by the two major political parties. Both sides use rhetoric; one side is actively undermining the legitimacy of the US government and stoking fear and hatred. And yet, in that moment, I contracted a case of bothsiderism that is rampant in political journalism.

Already as I drove away from the polling location I regretted what I had said. I had been thinking about Trump et al. when I said it and yet I not only softened my specific opinion but also suggested that this was a pervasive problem across the aisle. So why did I equivocate even though I have strong, clear political opinions?

It was early and I was asked for an opinion on the spot, but the explanation goes deeper.

In part, I don’t like painting with too broad a brush. I am not a fan of the Democratic Party as an institution and the nature of regional politics has sometimes resulted in Republican candidates in other parts of the country holding political opinions closer to my own than the Democratic candidates I have on my ballot. Similarly, I am seriously alarmed at the amount and types of money that gets spent in US politics, regardless of party, and am happy to give credit to the handful of Republican office holders more committed to taking the necessary steps during the pandemic than they are to playing partisan politics with it, even if I also think they are elsewhere complicit in enabling an administration run amock.

Just this weekend I read an article about how one of those Republican governors, Mike DeWine, was the target of a conspiracy to effect a citizen’s arrest because he listened to the scientists about public safety measures, making this at least the second plot after the conspiracy against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

Another part, I think, was conditioned behavior. I was talking to a complete stranger who was looking for quotes that he could publish and I didn’t want to give him the sense that I had a bias. Is this not also the opinion I, a normal person, am supposed to have with the political elite—that is, sullen disenchantment with a system that largely doesn’t work for me? Certainly, that is what all of the political advertising around here is telling me.

The third part of this triptych is a learned behavior through years of teaching. It has been a right-wing talking point at least since the 1950s that higher education is filled with liberal professors determined to indoctrinate young people into whatever is the cause of the day. Professors often clap back that they need the students to do the reading before they can make any headway on the indoctrination program.

Jokes aside, a several of things seem to generally hold true:

Teaching is a political act. I make political decisions when determining what content we cover, what order we cover them, and what readings we use in class. In my classes we talk about issues like slavery, colonization, and wealth inequality (to name a few), but I usually moderate my political opinions order to focus on the evidence.

Some of this is practical. I’d rather not end up in a position where students send video of my class to a right-wing Facebook group, particularly while I’m working as a contingent faculty member on semester-by-semester contracts.

But some of this is also philosophical. I see my job as a professor as teaching students how to think historically and critically about the world around them. There are things I will not tolerate in my classroom: ad hominem attacks, for instance, or bigotry of any stripe, but these have nothing to do with whether the opinion being expressed is liberal or conservative (which, note, is not equivalent of Republican or Democratic).

“What is the evidence for this?” is one of the most common comments I make on papers, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the politics of the opinion being expressed. In discussion when I ask questions, students often act like they’re repeating the rote answer they’re supposed to have learned at some point in their lives or that they’re looking for the answer that will please me and end the debate. Those answers get much more difficult when I follow up their statement with “why do you say that?” or “what evidence leads you to that conclusion?”

As I tell my students who often seem like they’re fishing for the specific answer that will please me, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that opinion must be grounded in evidence.

These days this isn’t easy. People are increasingly living in two different media ecosystems, neither of which offers a whole lot in the way of evidence, even if media typically decried as “liberal” does a somewhat better job. When opinion and anecdote substitute for substance, evidence loses out and the result is the sort of gulf in a recent poll between 92% of Democrats believing that African Americans face a lot of discrimination compared to 52% of Republicans who agree with the statement—when asked about whether white people face a lot of discrimination, 13% of Democrats agreed, while 57% of Republicans did. The gulf was similarly striking when asked questions about protests in the abstract versus when the question specifically mentioned African Americans.

Of course, opinion polls are exactly that: opinion. They do not require the respondent to offer evidence or reflect on where that opinion comes from. No one likes to be wrong and having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable; there is comfort in media that confirms what you think you know about the world. (Un)fortunately, there is a whole smorgasbord of options with authoritative-sounding voices or names that will offer you talking points for whatever political position is! Some of them might even be based on evidence after a sort! Consuming these neatly-packaged bites is easy; learning to verify, confirm, and evaluate them is harder because it requires both effort and time.

Four years after I made my original comment, I remain concerned about tone of political rhetoric, but I now see that tone as inseparable from these other issues. This is a country where one imperfect party seems interest in governing for all Americans while the other seems largely interested in ruling for a few with many of their candidates denying science, trading in conspiracy theories, and interpreting the Constitution to suit their purposes regardless of what it actually says. Evidence exists only insofar as they are advantageous.

I recently characterized this political cycle as insulting to my intelligence exactly because of its aversion to evidence. Take Missouri’s Amendment 3. This measure marginally changes the rules about lobbyists, but is primarily an underhanded attempt to hand districting power back to the party in power and un-do a non-partisan measure that passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. Naturally, the advertising in favor of Amendment 3 is mostly scare-mongering about how the (new) regulations handed power to groups outside Missouri.

This past week I encouraged all of my students to vote. I still don’t see it as my place to preach a particular candidate or platform, but suggested that they look beyond the advertising, consider their own values, and learn about the candidates before deciding who to vote for. The most political statement I made was to suggest that they should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants to make it harder for them to participate.

Encouraging people to vote is one thing; endorsing particular political platforms is another. Maybe I’m naive, and certainly I have some privileges that other professors don’t have, but I can’t do my job if I directly engage in politics in the classroom. I am just also keenly aware that I don’t want to repeat my mistake of four years ago of being so carefully moderated that I slip into the sort of misleading talking points not supported by the evidence.

Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Trump campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Trump, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Trump certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Trump is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Trump might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but because they would have benefited him as a political being, not because they ensured high-minded election cycles,