When facts express identity, what happens to democracy?

You can advance two broad arguments in favor of democracy. The first is that it is morally right, either because people naturally deserve a say in what their governments do or because God likes it. The founders made such arguments in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. The other argument is that democracy is the best way to solve problems. Sooner or later, this argument goes, aristocracy or a dictatorship will run into competence problems. With no mechanism to hold them accountable, aristocrats and despots will do a bad job.

I find both these arguments convincing, but the second one is probably more useful. The first one requires us to agree on values—either a supreme being that has ordained democracy as the best system of government, or a compassionate humanism that makes the rights of individuals inalienable. Those values can break down. The idea that we all face collective problems, and that the collective wisdom of the American people can solve them, seems more robust.

But in order for this construction of democracy to work, we have to agree on facts. We can argue about the best way to structure the tax code, but we have to agree that the government needs money and can collect it from people. Some people might argue that the government has no right to tax people at all, but they still agree that taxation is real. Its possibility is a kind of fact. Such agreements often seem so obvious that they are tacit, but it’s also possible for them to break down. Take climate change, for example.

The New York Times published a fascinating story Sunday about the difficulties of teaching biology at a high school in Ohio, where many students regard not believing in climate change as an element of their identiy. Although they don’t know much about many subjects, they know that people like them say global warming isn’t real. As a result, rejecting classroom teaching about how carbon works or what scientists agree on has become an expression of their identities. This poses a problem, not just in high school but in American society.

In order to participate in the democratic approach to solving problems, we have to agree on certain facts, e.g. our behavior is changing the climate. But agreeing with that premise makes some people feel like their democratic agency is being denied. Denying it has become their way of asserting themselves as free citizens.

That’s Republicans’ fault. The GOP has made itself the brand of cultural refusers. Even though it advocates for traditional social values and the economic agenda of the rich, it has come to represent defiance of the mainstream. It’s a reversal of the countercultural politics of the late sixties, and it probably came about because of them. Liberals won the culture war so completely that they made conservatism cool, at least among the people who buy into it. For that bloc, right-wing politics is defiance, and any act of defiance can be right-wing politics.

Call it the politicization of identity. Gun ownership is a political statement. Driving a big truck is a political statement. Working outside or having a goatee is a political statement. In the same way that capitalism steadily commodified the 19th century, turning previously homemade products like clothes and food into consumer goods, democracy has politicized the 21st century. This process is bad, because it’s a force for reification. It makes our problems more difficult to solve, because it makes people resistant to changing their minds.

It’s one thing to change your position on an issue. It’s another to change who you are. While many of us like to imagine ourselves as independents who are at least hypothetically open to changing our minds, nobody wants their identity to be flexible. We can see this phenomenon at work in the classroom from the Times story, where rejecting scientific consensus is not about policy or reasoning but rather a way for those kids to keep it real.

There are two promises of American democracy: that we’ll decide what to do together, and that outside those decisions each of us can do what we want. What happens when believing what we want short-circuits our ability to decide together? Does democracy retain its authority when substantial portions of us simply don’t believe in science? The system has always depended on an informed citizenry. What place can it make for people who define themselves by refusing to learn?

Hoax Watch: Drudge, Limbaugh report ironic tweet as election fraud

If you don't answer, "your" a coward.

If you don’t answer, your [sic] a coward.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of weird Twitter. I do read it occasionally, though. Maybe that’s why I chuckled on Sunday afternoon, when I saw the tweet pictured above. It’s clearly not sincere. For one thing, why would an actual postal worker tweet this? Why would he refer to the town where he works by its first and last name, so to speak? And why would a tweet from someone in Columbus be location-tagged in California, along with almost all other tweets from that account? Even if you don’t recognize the currency of topic and vague irony of tone, these clues are easy to catch. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” reporters say, but you don’t have to be an ace to see through this one. It’s not even a hoax; it’s a joke, with the intentional transparency that jokes employ. But yesterday, conservative outlets including Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh snapped it up and reported it as election fraud.

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Cato, O’Rourke file theoretically funny amicus in defense of “truthiness”

Humorist PJ O'Rourke, who used to be funny, I swear

Humorist PJ O’Rourke, who used to be funny, I swear

The Cato Institute and PJ O’Rourke have filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, arguing that “truthiness” is an essential part of political discourse.  Props to Jacek for the link. Susan B Anthony List is an anti-abortion group that purchased a billboard claiming Ohio congressman Steven Driehaus supported taxpayer-funded abortion because he voted for the Affordable Care Act, which does not provide taxpayer funding for abortions. The claim potentially ran afoul of Ohio’s False Statements Law, which prohibits making false statements about political candidates. There are several reasons why the case is likely to be decided on procedural grounds—not least that Driehaus lost and withdrew his complaint—but Cato and O’Rourke make an interesting point.

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Super-important Ohio contains super-vulnerable voting machines

A tech savvy voter determines the next President of the United States.

If Nate Silver is to be believed—and if he is not, pretty much all is lost—FiveThirtyEight blog is running 40,000 election simulations per day. In 50% of those simulations, the candidate who wins Ohio wins the presidency. Silver makes a compelling case that Romney needs Ohio to complete his (editorial opinion alert) baffling comeback; he can get to the White House by other routes, but each is more tortuous than the last. One major provider of electronic voting machines to Ohio is Hart Intercivic. One major investor in Hart Intercivic is HIG Capital, seven of whose directors are former employees of Bain & Co. Four of HIG’s directors are Romney bundlers, and the company has contributed over $300,000 to the Romney campaign.

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Friday links! Dubious pleasures edition

So much of what makes us feel good makes us feel bad on further consideration. It’s as if we had two selves: one who experiences pleasure in the short term, on a timeline of about three seconds, and one who wants only to live abstemiously in retrospect. It so happens that self #1 is located entirely in the past, and self #2 keep scolding us for associating with him. Today is Friday, and the internet has spent all week delivering us stuff we probably should not like so much. The past is a garden of dubious pleasures.Won’t you wish you hadn’t frolicked in it with me?

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