Fox News is Killing the Republican Party… And America. Orwell, Fox, and the End of Reality-Based Reporting.

The catastrophic effect of the right-wing media machine on the nation is old news, but I’d argue that it’s catastrophic for the Republican Party as well.

Of course it has supercharged the conservative base, but like a dose of meth, it’s killing them at the same time, because it’s allowing them to operate—for a while—without grounding in reality.

Let me explain.

Orwell’s dystopia 1984 featured a world in which war lost its one redeeming quality: proving physical facts could not be ignored. And the description he offers might with very few changes be talking about Republicans in the age of Fox:

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency… Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four… Moreover, to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past, which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past. Newspapers and history books were, of course, always coloured and biased, but falsification of the kind that is practised today would have been impossible.

I don’t agree about the role of war, but I would argue that this is precisely the role of a robust free press, which does serve as one of the best reality-checks in any society. Charlatans and fools are shockingly popular throughout history, but they only truly thrive when not subject to tenacious, rigorous, and skeptical reporters with a wide audience. A critical free press is one of the great filters of our society.

So what happens when a political party begins to operate in a closed and blindly supportive media sphere? What happens when Republicans only get news about Republicans from outlets that never criticize Republicans?

The filter is lost; fools rise and charlatans prosper.

The conservative mediascape has long lost touch with reality as concerns coverage of Republican policies. It has never truly mattered to conservative media whether tax cuts supercharge the economy or whether they pay for themselves (they don’t and they don’t). But now, the entire Republican party has also lost its ability to identify idiots. There is literally no act of lunacy or indecency that would drive Fox News to condemn Trump. It will never happen. And the same is true about whoever comes next. Whoever it is, whatever they’ve done, however they speak, whoever they persecute, Fox News will be behind them.

There is no remaining reality-self-check for the right.

The only question is whether this destroys the Republican Party before it destroys the United States. My guess: it’s a coin toss. At best.

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How Appadurai & Burke Explain Evangelicals & Trump. Or, Why Evangelicals Are Now a Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of the Republican Party.

 

Image of Michelle Bachman, arms outstretched, with text reading "I have never seen a more biblican president than I have seen in Donald Trump... He is highly biblical and we will in all likelihood never see a more godly, biblical president again in our lifetime."

A quick bit of theory that’s kind of obvious, but useful I think.

The notion of Burkean identification would suggest Evangelicals and Republicans are two groups bound into a larger community via consubstantiality—a sharing of substance, or more specifically for Burke, an acting-together.

One might argue the extent to which this sharing is driven by positive identification with people or policies, or through identification-by-antithesis (the shared hatred of “liberals” for example), or even through a shared narrative form (my pet theory), but regardless, the idea is that these two separate groups operate together and so function as a community. In fact, it’s likely the case that every big community is a conglomeration of many such smaller groups.

People have long used this view to argue that Evangelicals and Republicans are a poor match (that they don’t really share much substance), or that there must come some eventual split. Surely, they suggest, Evangelicals will never support a serial adulterer porn-star payer whose public nods to religion do little more than reveal his complete lack of religious understanding.

But remember Appadurai. If we look at political communities through the lens of culture, we would then recall Appadurai’s idea of cultural communities of various scales existing in tension with one another, each trying to absorb or undermine the other. So Republicans and Evangelicals are not merely allied groups, they are each trying to own the other, transforming its way of acting into theirs.

And it seems to me we have witnessed the end-stage of this process in politics. Evangelical support of Trump seems only to increase with every scandal. So what are we to think? Appadurai has the answer: Evangelicals have been absorbed. They are no longer a religious community, but merely a political one, and voting Republican is now their only true sacrament.

 

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Pretty Vaporfly for an Old Guy. Or, My $250 Nike Midlife Crisis

In what may be a runner’s equivalent of a midlife crisis—a less expensive version of the balding man with a ponytail buying a Porsche—I’ve decided to celebrate my 50th (!) birthday by dropping $250 on a pair of Nike Vaporfly 4%.

Vaporfly

Watch out Eliud Kipchoge.

So after one training run, here are my thoughts:

  1. These are the strangest shoes I’ve ever worn. All running shoes feel a bit different from each other, but these feel fundamentally different. Different how? First, freakishly cushioned (and I run in Hoka’s normally). Second, they have a sudden propulsive rock onto the toes as you go into the pushoff phase of the stride. I suppose this is the carbon fiber plate, or something like that, but it’s odd. Fast odd, though.
  2. They like to go fast. Plodding through a slow warmup they didn’t feel like $250 shoes. Then I did some mile repeats, and they seemed better. But when I really started moving (by my standards, at least), hitting just over six minutes per mile, the shoes suddenly flew; I fell into a mid-foot strike and my legs felt smooth and silky quick. The rest of me was still tired, but my legs were outrunning my lungs. Nice feeling.
  3. Save them for the races. After seven total miles on pavement I could see significant wear on the outer edge of the heel (the problem area given my funky/bad stride).

As for the race… My goal was a sub-20 5k, which I did about 18 months ago. After that, it seemed I couldn’t string together two uninjured or unsick months, and I hardly bothered to race knowing how it would turn out. Plus, I gained about ten pounds and have only managed to lose about three of that back. But at last I did manage eight good weeks of training. Not enough, really, but maybe with the shoes…?

Almost. The course was a little short, but with some math to fill in for the missing .13 miles, I calculate I would have hit 20:06. Pretty freaking decent for being slightly undertrained and slightly oversized.

Did they net me 4%? Probably.

Were they worth the $250?   Yeah.  Oh yeah.  I’m an old fish in a small pond; I get that. But still, it sure was nice to cruise past those 20-somethings.

Now on to a sub-19:00?  Eliud, I’m coming for you…

race

 

(and yes, I’m slightly ashamed about the title of this post)

Why Bernie is toward the bottom of my 2020 list

Let me first note that if he wins the nomination I will vote for him without hesitation. I generally agree with most of his policies, and I think he might actually have a rather good shot at winning the general election. More importantly, casting a vote is not about satisfying your every ideal, but is instead about deciding between available options. Those who get mad about choosing the “lesser of two evils” have clearly never had to choose between medications, all of which may or may not work, and all of which have side effects. Weigh the options. Make a choice. Move on with your life.

That said, let me explain why I’m only a soft supporter of Bernie.

It boils down to this. Republicans have become dangerous as a party because they have completely embraced a melodramatic worldview, and have developed an array of media that unquestioningly support them. And Bernie is a step in that direction.

Bernie’s policies are a world apart from those of most Republicans, as are the groups and institutions through which he defines himself, but like Republicans, his narrative worldview is profoundly melodramatic, and I believe this is ultimately toxic to democracy.

And just to clarify, I don’t think Bernie will ever be the “Trump of the left.” Again, his goals are different, and he is profoundly different, near as I can tell. Plus, Trump himself is the product of at least forty years of Republican media melodrama. In fact, I’d suggest he is the inevitable result of the Republican mediascape. The left has nothing comparable, and I hope they never do. Still, I don’t want to take even a single step in that direction.

So what is melodrama? Why do I dislike and fear it so much? It can be characterized in different ways (theorists are still fighting over this), but let me offer my own[1] summary:

  • Problems are caused by villains
    • Problems in the world are seen to be caused by villains, not by the fundamental structure of society, or just bad luck. If there’s a problem, there must be someone to blame. Conversely, if there’s no one to blame, there can’t be a problem.
  • The world can be divided into strong & good heroes, innocent victims, and evil & strong + corrupt & weak villains
    • People, groups, or even things (like guns) are assigned a category, and there are few (no?) marginal cases.
  • All “characters” are pure: purely good, or purely evil
    • People (institutions, groups, even things) are seen as purely good or purely bad. For example, if the police are “good,” it is impossible for them to do bad things. Therefore, if a police officer shoots an unarmed black man, that unarmed man must have had it coming. Similarly, guns are good, so restrictions on guns are always bad. Simple.
  • The solution is almost always the destruction of the villain(s), end of story.
    • This flows from the agent-driven nature of the problem. If a problem is caused by the villain, just get rid of the villain and you’ve eliminated the problem & paradise ensues. Likewise, if you focus on doing things like helping the victims, that will never work because the problem will just happen again.
      • Consider how killing Saddam Hussein was seen as the solution to Iraq; the fact that it might be very difficult to build a pluralistic democracy in a society with deep religious, social, and class divides, never seems to have crossed the minds of those in charge. Instead their thinking was basically: “Kill the evil Saddam” –> Democracy!”

Currently, right-wing melodrama is become focused on opposition to Muslims and to immigrants (with a general fear of minorities and women tossed in for good measure). Yes, they still want to cut taxes and rules for businesses, but their campaign is fear of and anger toward these groups, and so the policies they campaign on are border walls and travel bans. For Bernie, it’s focused on “corporations.” Different villain. Different policies. But the same kind of story.

I see the lure of melodrama. It offers simple answers to difficult questions, and puts a face on our problems. But these draws are also its dangers. I don’t believe our problems are simple, I don’t believe any one group, from immigrants to corporations, are the source of our problems, and I don’t believe we need a revolution. Instead, I think we have to muddle along, tweaking the system, making it better and better one change at a time. Journeys happen by steps, not leaps.

[1] For those who care, I’m getting this from a combination of folks: Heilman, Desilet, Burke, Appel, Anker, Brooks, and many others.

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Hillary, Bernie, Trump, and …? Political Affiliation as Policies, People… AND Stories. (Or, What, Who… AND How)

Here’s my attempt at the elevator talk version of the article I’m currently writing. Okay, I’m assuming it’s a really tall building, but anyway…

 

Currrent View

The popular view of political affiliation is that it is driven by policies. People, it is assumed, pick  candidates based on the policies they support, or the policies they oppose. The standard corollary of this understanding is a lot of teeth-gnashing as people support candidates who favor policies that seem to be disadvantageous to their voters.

This view is largely wrong, or at least hugely incomplete. Most voters are much more likely to change their policy preferences to match their party’s candidate than they are to change their party to match their policy preferences.

The newer and better understanding is that political affiliation is an identity. People support parties that identify with people/groups/communities with whom they personally identify, or that identify against people/groups/communities they oppose. For example the Republican party identifies with “Christian,” and so those individuals who see themselves as Christian tend to identify as Republicans. Similarly, Republicans identify against (define themselves in opposition to) “big cities” and “urban” people (wink wink, nudge nudge). So individuals who also don’t like big cities and “urban” people tend to identify as Republican. And, of course, there are tons of these identity groups, and lots of them overlap (but as Mason points out, there are fewer and fewer that overlap with both the left and the right).

The corollary here is that changing people’s minds is really hard, because politics isn’t so much about what you believe, but rather about who you are.

My Addition

I am arguing that we need to also consider narrative; after all, you can tell very different kinds of stories with the same sets of characters. So, political affiliation is not only about policies. It’s not only about who people identify with or against. It’s also about how they view the conflict between the people who represent the self and those who represent the other. Or, phrased differently, politics is not just about what and who you support and oppose, but HOW you support and oppose.

So a chart of political identity would be something like this:

Identify with…

Identify against…

Policies Policies
People/Groups/Communities People/Groups/Communities
Narrative forms Narrative forms

Now it’s easy to fill in the first two rows—the policies and the people. We all know what kind of things to list there. Democrats identify with raising the minimum wage and the LGBTQ community, for instance, and they identify against a border wall and Big Banks. Republicans identify with tax cuts and gun owners, and they identify against environmental protections and Black Lives Matter. We could go on.

But what kind of narratives are there? What do we put in the third box.

Basically, I’m going to suggest that the big distinction is between melodrama and comedy. (I’ll do another post on the characteristics of each, as it isn’t intuitive.)

However, there’s a huge catch. While the policies and people of the left and right are quite distinct, the narratives are not. What I’ve found is that both melodrama and comedy are used by the left, and in fact this is one major point of contention between the Hillary and Bernie camps. On the right… lots of melodrama. Tons. Almost nothing but melodrama in the media and in the Trump presidency. But surely there are some comic Republicans out there? Right? I haven’t looked closely yet, but I will.

So anyway, here we are at the end of that long elevator ride, and the summary is this:

If you want to understand someone’s politics:

Policies matter

People matter

But how you describe the conflict between people matters too. A lot.

Tempo Runs Are The Worst… And I Clearly Need To Do Them More Often

It’s official: I hate tempo runs like I hate no other kind of run.

Long runs are, well… long, but not intensely uncomfortable. Put on an audiobook, take a turn through some unexplored neighborhoods, and all is good.

Intervals ARE intensely uncomfortable. Brutal, lung-busting, leg quivering. But they’re so so short. You may have a bunch to do, but by the time you start really hurting on any given interval, it’s almost over.

But tempo run? Speed up to the level of solid discomfort, and then stay there. Keep it at that pace. And no, you’re not almost done; you have miles to go.

Horrible.

But good practice for races, I guess. And for life.

Delayed Persuasion: Saving Rhetoric from The Backfire Effect?

Just a quick post about a project that’s been lurking on my “get to this someday” list for a few years now, and may just stay there forever.

There’s been a fair amount of research on the failure of facts to persuade, particularly when targeting strong elements of identity, such as political partisans. Nyhan & Reifler, (2006? – sorry I don’t have this handy) even suggest factual correction backfires at times, leaving people with a stronger incorrect belief. (I would add here that I know there’s been a lot of follow up research on this, and honestly I haven’t kept up on it, so I may be quite out of date.)

But, one thing that occurs to me is that while studies tend to measure “instant” persuasion (quite understandably), looking for an immediate turnabout in belief, I haven’t seen any that looked for delayed persuasion. Burke suggests that persuasion is only completed by the act of self-persuasion; others can show us the path, but we must walk it ourselves, so to speak. And this takes time–maybe even months or years.

It also makes sense from a schematic perspective. When our schema is challenged, our first response is to fight back. Only later, I suspect, when those raised hackles have subsided, can we really internalize the message of those who challenged us.

So I would offer a hypothesis that factual corrections (done well) might work pretty well after all, but “working” might take quite a long time. I’m not sure how you’d set up such a study, and it would obviously take a very long time to conduct (years?), and exposure to continuing corrections or “substantiations” people would inevitably get in the meantime might obscure any results, but it seems worth conducting.

Maybe persuasion, even of strong partisans, is more possible than we think. Maybe we just haven’t given it enough time?