A Philosopher's Blog

Why did the Democrats Lose?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2016

While asserting “Trump won” or “Hillary lost” might seem to say the same thing, they actual differ in meaningful ways. The view that Trump won is the stance that he achieved victory by overcoming Hillary, presumably by doing the right things. To use a running analogy, this would be like a runner beating another by being able to outkick her at the end.

The view that Hillary lost is the perception that she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by doing the wrong thing and thus she lost. Using a running analogy, this would be like a runner showing off and tripping because he was not paying attention, thus losing the race that he would have otherwise won.

A pragmatic person might say that there is no real difference between winning by winning and winning by the other person losing—the winner still wins. While this pragmatic approach does have appeal, the difference does matter when it comes to sorting out what went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next time. It could also be contended that both approaches are right and wrong: Trump did win by winning but also won by Hillary losing.

Regardless of which view is taken, there is the assumption that there are broad reasons for the results that can be determined and used in planning the next race. While this assumption is probably correct, it is worth considering that elections might be analogous to fads, such as the hottest toy for Christmas or the latest fashion. Trying to find the cause and reproduce it is likely to be a fool’s errand; if this could be done then producing the next fad would be a science rather than a matter of luck. It is also well worth considering that there are a vast number of contributing factors that influenced various voters and that efforts to provide a broad causal explanation must fail because there is no broad causal explanation—just an abundance of individual explanations. Having made these points, I will sweep them aside and speculate about some likely broad causes.

Pundits and experts have already put forth various hypotheses as to why Hillary lost and Trump won. One consistent narrative is that many voters were looking for someone from outside Washington to bring about change. This narrative is supported by the claim that some who had voted for Obama last time switched to Trump this time—these could be regarded as change voters. Another consistent narrative is that Hillary could never stake the email server vampire in the heart; it kept rising from the grave to drain the blood from her campaign.

There are also explanations that rest on the assumption that voters are bad fact-checkers, poor at reasoning and do not operate based on consistent application of principles for decision making. For example, Hillary was condemned as crooked and dishonest by people who praised Trump for telling it like it is, despite the objective fact that Trump was relentless in his untruths and is scheduled to go on trial for Trump University. As another example, Hillary was also attacked for being an elite insider by people who praised Trump for being a man who cares about the working class, despite Trump being part of the elite economic class who has routinely been sued for not sticking to contracts. On this view, Trump won because he is a better deceiver than Hillary. So, the lesson for the next time would be to run the best deceiver that can be found.

There are also explanations that Trump won because of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Even members of his own party condemned many of his remarks as racist and sexist. He has also won the hearts of the Klan, white nationalists and American Nazis. After the 2012 Republican defeat, some of the analysis indicated that the Republicans would need to either expand their appeal to minorities or double down on getting the white vote. Some speculated it would not be possible to win without a broader appeal. Trump, by accident or design, embraced doubling down on the white vote and won. To be fair, he also did surprisingly well beyond the white vote. The question is, of course, how long that strategy will work—the United States is on course to becoming a majority minority nation. I suspect that active voter suppression of minorities and inspired gerrymandering can extend white dominance, but eventually these methods will be overcome by demographic change. That said, white voters will be a critical demographic for a long time and failing to capture the white vote would not bode well for a candidate. There are, of course, alternative explanations to why Trump did so well with white voters (or why Hillary did so poorly).

While some find the racism and xenophobia hypothesis appealing, it can be argued that many white voters were not motivated by race. Pundits like to point out that Obama won many of the same voters that went over to Trump. While it might be naïve of me, I certainly believe most of my fellow Americans are not racist xenophobes, additional explanations are needed.

One reasonable explanation is that the Democrats have made matters of race and gender, such as police treatment of minorities and same-sex marriage, flagship issues. This is not to say that the Democrats have completely ignored issues that are especially important to white voters, just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.

It could be objected that people who take the above view are misguided: whatever problems whites have (especially straight white males) pale in comparison to the woes of non-whites (especially non-straight non-whites). Hence, paying special attention to these groups is justified. In accord with this view, whites, males and straight people are often told to “check their privilege” and called to task for daring to complain about their lot.

This reply does have some appeal. In general, white people are better off than non-white people, men are generally better off than women, and straight folks typically face less woes than non-straight folks. However, there two main concerns here. The first is that while it is true that those in the advantage groups (white, straight, male) do generally have things better, they still face very real problems. As citizens, they have every right to expect these real problems to be taken seriously and addressed. There is also the purely practical matter—it would be irrational for voters to vote for candidates who they think will not act to address their problems.

To use an analogy in medicine, a person with a broken arm could stand in for the problems of white people while a person with multiple serious injuries could stand in for the disadvantaged groups. While it is true that the person with the serious injuries would take precedence under triage and merit more attention, it would be wrong to dismiss the person with the broken arm and fail to give the injury due attention.

It could be objected that the analogy is not accurate and that a better one would be to replace the person with the broken arm with a hypochondriac who thinks he is suffering terribly, but is not really suffering at all. Moving away from the analogy, the idea would be that the advantaged groups are complaining about a loss of unjust advantages and wailing over imagined harms; they are complaining about nothing.

The reasonable reply is that this is true is some cases—many of the most vehement complaints are about the “cruel injustices” of not being able to discriminate or retain unfair advantages. However, even those in the advantaged groups face real problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, depression and so on. As such, perhaps a new analogy is in order involving the person with the broken arm standing in for those with real problems and the hypochondriac standing in for those whining about losing their unfair advantages and license to discriminate.

The second overall concern here is that telling people to “check their privilege” and attacking them in other ways can do more harm than good. For example, such attacks can turn off potential allies. While it is certainly legitimate to call out people who fail to recognize their privilege and to criticize people for discriminating, it is wise to consider the context and consequences of such approaches.  I will use an anecdote to illustrate the problem.

When I was in graduate school, I was living on my meager TA stipend and surviving on a diet of ramen noodles and rice puff cereal. I also got good at sewing my clothes to make them last longer. I was on my own financially, which is something I accepted as part of being an adult. I recall a friend and I being lectured about male privilege by two female students from upper-class families. I vaguely recall that one had been vacationing on the family yacht recently.

As a philosopher, I know that rejecting arguments about male privilege because very privileged women were making them to very unprivileged men would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (to reject a claim or argument because of irrelevant qualities of the person making the claim or argument). However, I certainly resented being lectured in this way. I did, of course, recognize that women in general face more obstacles and injustices than men generally face. However, this did nothing to address my worries about scraping together enough money to pay rent and buy food—there were many times I went hungry so I could pay my other bills. While I did go on to become a professor with a steady income, I remember those times and I am aware that there are many white males who are currently financially insecure. Lecturing them in male privilege or white privilege will not win them over. I suspect that some feel they are being lectured by the elite of the Democratic party and they resent this. Not because they are racist or sexist, but because such lectures are insulting and insensitive. While the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups, they also need to sincerely address the concerns of those in the advantaged groups—especially since many in these groups are extremely disadvantaged relative to the liberal elites.


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The DNC & Fairness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2016

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Thanks to WikiLeaks (and possibly Russia) the Democratic National Committee’s formerly secret emails are now publicly available. As should surprise no one, the emails show that the DNC looked down on Sanders and suggest that the leadership unfairly favored Hillary Clinton. The main fallout from the leak has been the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Shultz. Shultz, who represents my adopted state of Florida, is also facing a challenger to her position—a challenger endorsed by Bernie Sanders. These revelations do raise some important concerns.

While the Democratic and Republican parties are often wrongly seen as being part of the government, they are private organizations. As such, they operate by their own rules. They are also, obviously, political parties and that means that political dealing is what they do. As such, it could be argued that the partisanship and mockery of the DNC, though certainly worthy of condemnation, are well within the bounds of legitimate behavior for such an entity. After all, most of the Republican party leadership was vehemently opposed to Trump and there was extensive maneuvering to stop Trump. It is, however, to the credit of the Republicans that they conducted their opposition in the open and to Trump’s face rather than via electronic whispering in the digital shadows.

While the DNC did not do anything illegal (as far as is known now), the emails do indicate behavior that should be morally condemned. This, of course, rests on the assumption that the party machinery of the DNC should remain professional and neutral during the primary season. This is, in turn, based on the assumption that the primary process should (as Trump and Bernie both contended) be democratic and based on majority rule in selecting the candidate.

This view can be countered by arguing that the DNC (and the RNC) has purpose other than ensuring majority rule. One might be to select the candidate that has the best chance of winning, regardless of how the people vote. Another might be to select the candidate that matches the goals of the party elite. There are, of course, other possibilities.

My view, which could be quite wrong, is that the DNC and RNC should serve as neutral organizers for the decision making process on the part of the voters. That is, they should (in this very specific context) function in a way analogous to the state run election process and ensure a fair and accurate vote. This is the approach that most matches the democratic ideal.

The emails seem to indicate that the DNC did not take a neutral stance. However, it is not clear if this expressed bias had a significant impact on the outcome. That is, that Sanders would have been the candidate but for the shenanigans of the DNC. On the one hand, it can be argued that Hillary beat Bernie by such a wide margin that the alleged machinations of the DNC were not significant. On the other hand, it could be argued that Bernie was close enough to Hillary that he could have won but for these alleged machinations. If the DNC’s bias did keep Bernie from the nomination, then it could be argued that they interfered with the will of the people, thus potentially making Hillary an illegitimate candidate. This could be countered by arguing that even if the DNC sided with Hillary, the voters still picked her—thus making her legitimate, albeit a bit shady.

Even if the DNC’s alleged bias did not change the outcome (that is, Hillary would have been nominated under the auspices of a neutral DNC), such bias is still problematic. This can be illustrated by using two analogies. First, imagine a hiring committee that has been tasked with selecting a philosophy professor. Even if a biased committee selects the same candidate that a neutral committee would have selected, professional ethics requires that the committee be neutral. Second, consider a football game. Even if biased refereeing still results in a victory by the team that would have won under neutral refereeing, the bias on the part of the referees would still be morally unacceptable.

These analogies can certainly be countered—after all, hiring committees and referees are supposed to be neutral parties while the DNC can be regarded as an interested participant in the process (this takes the matter back to the purpose of the DNC in regards to primaries). If the DNC is looked at as being analogous to a coach rather than a referee, its job would be to get the best players in the game to go up against the opposing team rather than being concerned with neutrality and fairness. So, it comes down to the proper purpose of the DNC (and RNC).

As a closing point, the relevant people in DNC made two classic mistakes. The first was engaging in what seems to be reprehensible and unprofessional behavior. This is a moral flaw. The second was to engage in this behavior via email. This is a flaw in intelligence: using email is like sending a postcard—whatever is on it can be read. Also, they should have known that any target worth hacking will be hacked. If one wants to be shady and smart, then do not write down the evil plans. Better yet, don’t be shady.


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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2016

The Iowa caucuses brought some surprises: Trump lost to Cruz, Rubio took third and Sanders almost tied Clinton. While Trump was the predicted winner and leading in the polls, his defeat seems easy enough to explain. While Trump is a master reality show star and showman, Cruz is an experienced politician who knows how to operate effectively within the political system. While getting votes is dependent on political popularity, it is also a matter of ensuring that people vote and Cruz seems have done a better job at this task. As such, while Trump was probably more popular, he was not more popular among those who voted. Trump is, interestingly enough, now threatening to sue Cruz for cheating in Iowa. Assuming that Cruz did not cheat and assuming that he won through superior political organization, then Trump will need to match Cruz in this regard or face the very real risk of losing the nomination. That said, it has been claimed that Cruz’s appeal to the evangelicals lead him to a victory over Trump–something that Cruz cannot count on across the country.

What is perhaps most interesting is that the pundits are claiming Rubio also had a victory on the grounds that he moved into a very close third. Rubio is the clear establishment candidate at this point and he seems well-positioned to pick up the supporters of the doomed establishment candidates, such as Jeb Bush. With the backing of the Republican party machinery, Rubio could come out ahead of Trump and Cruz. That said, the anti-establishment sentiment should not be dismissed: if Cruz can maintain the appearance of being a political outsider while using the skill set he has developed as a career politician, he stands an excellent chance of having the best of both worlds.

While Sanders is a long-time senator, he is regarded as an authentic outsider. This is in strong contrast with Hillary Clinton. She has a well-established reputation as a supreme insider and is certainly not known for her authenticity. The challenge for Sanders is maintaining enthusiasm in the face of the Clinton political machine. Fortunately for Bernie, we have seen that the Clinton machine can be defeated and Hillary is no doubt worried that 2016 might look like  a repeat of 2008. Only with an old white socialist rather than a young black moderate in the starring role.

We might see Rubio going up against Sanders in the general election. If so, I would predict Rubio by a slight margin. Clinton would probably beat Rubio. Cruz and Trump, I think, would lose to either Clinton or Sanders. But, my predictions are probably wrong-much is up in the air, which makes matters interesting.