The good, the bad and the CMV ugly.

This is something I plan to post as a moderator for /r/ChangeMyView. However, I take a personal interest in online curation and content moderation. Therefore I’m posting it here as well.

There’s a topic I’ve been thinking about since the lead-up to the 2016 election¹: does CMV create a safe space for abhorrent views? Do we normalize and reinvigorate conversations already rejected by society? What is our responsibility, as a platform, with respect to each of these issues?

A competing response from CMV users is that we create a platform for some really bad views — the kinds of views traditionally considered shameful — even through the lens of diversified perspectives. Some examples are white supremacy, “biotruths” regarding race and gender, and categorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder. I would personally argue these views are rightly considered shameful. My personal views, however, do not grapple with best practices for moderation.

These are conversations that have been explored copiously, from nearly every angle imaginable and, in some cases, ratified by law only to be turned over by democratic processes or formal adjudication. In this case, one wonders, myself included, if there is any value to be had in relitigating these issues. In fact, there is a heightened concern that creating a space for these conversations allows them back into civil discourse, legitimizing and normalizing them. This, in turn, potentially gives them space to breath and ultimately flourish.

Caning of Sumner
Editorial lithograph depicting the caning of Charles Sumner in the US Legislature, 1856. Image taken from

I will flatly admit that I share this concern, especially in 2018. Political and cultural hostility is a tale as old as time (see also Adams and Franklin phhhbbtt). The reason why Internet platforms have come into the forefront is, I believe, for two main reasons: first, the speed at which we are bombarded with information has dramatically increased, and; second, the barrier to publishing information has significantly diminished, thus creating a wider breadth of comments/claims. The latter is extremely hard to moderate logistically, let alone discretionally. Taken together, this creates a unique manifestation of an otherwise old problem.

We have preliminary data showing some previously shunned views are now emboldened. While polarization is not direct evidence for specific views, they are a useful proxy from which we can make fair extrapolations. Other online forums for political debate are deeply partisan. White people and black people have fundamental disagreements on police brutality. Pew Research indicates Muslims fear intimidation – defined as a reasonable expectation of bodily harm – in numbers surpassing the immediate 9/11 era. Increased hostilities have not been limited to the United States.

None of these flash-points point to egregious views per se, but I’m highlighting them to indicate that, to the extent people have views, they are trending more extreme, and that these extreme views are likewise painting a portrait to others, the culminating effect of which is to make them fearful or, at the least, deeply anxious about their relative placement in society.

Pivoting back to reddit, various other subreddits have been deconstructed with an eye towards low quality and/or highly polarized online discussion. Maintstream outlets have explored the intersection between extremist, often “alt-right” political views and reddit:

(Unfortunately, but topical, the FiveThirtyEight article warns for slurs, as will I.)

And that top five isn’t exactly pretty, though it does support the theory that at least a subset of Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism. The presence of r/fatpeoplehate at the top of the list echoes some of President Trump’s own behavior, including his referring to 1996 Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and insulting Rosie O’Donnell about her weight. The second-closest result, r/TheRedPill, describes itself in its sidebar as a place for “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men”; named after a scene from the “The Matrix,” the group believes that women run the world and men are an oppressed class, and from that belief springs an ideology that has been described as “the heart of modern misogyny.” r/Mr_Trump self-describes as “the #1 Alt-Right, most uncucked subreddit” — referring to a populist white-nationalist movement and an increasingly all-purpose insult meant to denigrate others’ masculinity — and the appallingly named r/coontown is the now-banned but previously central home to unrepentant racism on Reddit. Finally, coming in at No. 5 is r/4chan, a subreddit dedicated to posting screenshots of threads found on 4chan, where many users supported Trump for president and where the /pol/ board in particular has a strongly racist bent.

Emphasis mine.

To CMV’s credit, our media deep dives have been positive², but that’s not self-executing. It takes a lot of introspection about our role, rules, and moderation framework to create the necessary forum – and I do believe it is necessary to have these conversations – where we can talk about all of these tough issues without glorifying the underlying views.

The risk of validating views absolutely exists. I do believe that, as a moderation team, we should be mindful of how our curation impacts the perception of what reddit audiences believe to be fair-minded, critical conversations. I don’t purport to represent the whole of the moderation team in this respect, but I do think it’s safe to say we share an acute awareness of how our impact here grows as our subreddit does.

The place I’ve come to is:  people very rarely want benevolent views changed. CMV could not exist as a place for critical discourse if we tried to create a superficial impression that people only have pedestrian or typical views. On the contrary, we consider it more likely that someone is trolling or looking to push a view (“soapbox”) if they come in with a view most people share. It begs the question why one wants that view changed. I get why a self-identified white supremacist wonders why s/he might be wrong; most people, at least publicly, advocate for equality. That is a clear catalyst for questioning one’s position.

But why would someone want to change their view on, to use a real example, equality of races? Is it possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so, and while we wouldn’t remove this thread automatically, it would likely deserve higher scrutiny. It is suspicious in the sense that there is an even better probability that this person is posting the opposite of their view in the original post so they can bolster and increase visibility of that opposite view in the comments.

With this heightened likelihood of publicly sharing a “shameful” view, I would rather create a place of deliberate contemplation and critical thinking where this view is exposed to contrary evidence. Our value system ultimately drills down to engendering an ethos of thoughtful critique. We don’t always succeed at this but the moderators do try to be self-critical, regularly step back from our work, and revise our method based on shared learned experiences navigating these waters.

It certainly creates a risk of normalizing these views and creating a “safe” space,  but only if we insulate these users from the civic consequences of their behavior. That is, it is only “safe” if we allow them to share without engagement. Ours is not a safe space for like-minded people in the sense that we advocate the same substantive views. It is a safe space for people to talk candidly and respectfully, to forcefully push-back on ideas so long as one recognizes this is a two-way street of presuming good faith until proven otherwise. It is perhaps our most valued first principle, and it is the compact made between users and moderators each time we participate in CMV.

My view hasn’t changed 180 degrees, but that also captures an element we embed in our delta system: having a good conversation doesn’t require a “gotcha” moment where you lose and your entire worldview is toppled; it simply requires gaining an additional insight that impacts your view. Where I’ve landed is that I am cautiously guarded when I see these threads advocating a “bad” view, but I nevertheless operate by the Principle of Charity: I assume good faith and rationality until a poster gives me a reason not to, and leave it to our users to thoughtfully and creatively critique those views. My responsibility is to curate and cultivate an environment that reinforces an understanding of nuance, but also a willingness to speak up when something is clearly abhorrent and explain why someone should change their mind.

¹ Posting about these thoughts was spurred, in part, by this podcast conversation between Katie Couric and Recode’s Kara Shwisher. It echoes a lamentation I hear frequently about Internet conversations, which is that they lack nuance and fail to appreciate the multi-faceted qualities of just about every human being.

² “Our Best Hope for Civil Discourse Online Is…Reddit” by Virginia Heffernan,; “On the Other Hand” by Tim Adams, The Guardian; Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them” by Nicholas Thompson,

On Democrats and Sexual Harassment

What to do about sexual harassment? I don’t know, but here is my general attempt to reckon with the revelations that have occurred over the past few weeks — longer if you include the allegations against President Trump, and even longer if you tackle the issue of President Clinton, both of which I consider fair game.

The issue is more palpable with Democrats. It shouldn’t be, but ultimately they’re the party which has staked the claim of representing women’s interests broadly and, more acutely, sexual harassment against women.

I, personally, was never under any illusion that the transgression of sexual assault/harassment itself was partisan. I’m well aware, like many (women), that this is an issue that manifests itself across party lines. We can hash out the details about whether it is an issue of power, toxic masculinity, or something else in another post. At this juncture, and with the thoughts forming in my head, I feel as though that is splitting hairs when it comes to government. Men are disproportionately represented in powerful positions, and thus whether it’s power or socialization, we will probably continue seeing men as the perpetrators for the foreseeable future.

This is why I think it’s fair to assess the situation through a gendered lens, but I want to acknowledge beforehand that this issue could, in another universe, show itself through other dynamics. Onwards to Democrats.

The issue: what is the appropriate response by Democrats to Democrats credibly charged with sexual harassment/sexual assault/inappropriate behavior? I envision three scenarios at this juncture:

First option: they resign. I think this is unequivocally the right thing to do, ignoring all institutional motivations otherwise. “Right” here is defined as first and foremost the appropriate response to harming another person, and this is a social harm. Unlike courts of law, where we liberty and life can hang in the balance, being a Senator is both a privilege and a position of trust.

It is fair to say “This person is untrustworthy and has broke the bond he has with fellow Americans.” It is a penalty, but a just one, and as a fan of restorative justice, I think it would behoove them to try and make amends through means outside of public representation. Women are, after all, part of the public, and it’s difficult to square behavior in private lives with public proclamations to help women.

Alternatively, fight the war, not the battle. Roy Moore is accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls from his thirties onward, including his time as District Attorney – yet another position of trust, both as a public official and an officer of the court (i.e., an attorney.) Republicans at large have condemned him, and he’s lost support in the polls, but he nevertheless remains competitive. If this is a litmus test for Republicans and consequential behavior, it doesn’t look as though we will see public ramifications for abuse of authority and sexual assault, at least not with respect to Republicans.

So what happens if Democrats hold their fellow Democrats accountable? They resign. Maybe they are replaced by another Democrat, maybe not. Meanwhile, Republicans condemn in word but maintain their numbers. Democrats have a demonstrable recent history that they are interested in legal reform for sexual assault cases in both Congress and on campuses. So if we diminish their numbers, sure they remain the high ground and credibility, but they lose their ability to meaningfully change outcomes. Thus it’s arguable that the credibility coming with resignation is marginal, but the impact that comes with no resignation is significant.

The other (third) option is for the Senate to deal with this as an institution: refuse to seat Moore; Franken and Conyers resign. At the same time, create a template response for upcoming allegations, of which there will be many, and determine what the Senate response is to credible allegations prior to any others made. This has a non-partisan appearance (and, in my mind, satisfies more due process than the discretionary route of resignation/non-resignation we’re taking now.) McConnell doesn’t want Moore in the Senate anyway, and Democrats maintain credibility.

Credit where it’s due: the majority of the public figures clamoring for reform regarding allegations in Congress and elsewhere are women on both sides. My other, cheeky response was to simply defer to women in the Senate but, like I said, it’s cheeky.

So where do I land? This is hard. I have no belief that Republicans care about this issue; they were more than willing to condemn President Trump in words after the Access Hollywood video, then rally behind him in practice. Democrats don’t get a gold star but they (a) have moved the needle on this conversation far more, and; (b) have more women represented overall. I genuinely believe they can achieve a better outcome.

However, it definitely feels like a historical moment – the kind of time someone 100 years from now would look back and – appropriately – judge harshly. I want badly to win this war, but I feel it’s more important to take a stand on how men in power treat women. Republicans are justifying a Moore election on the basis that an (R) beats a (D) on significant votes. I won’t do the same for Franken and Conyers. They should resign, and ideally younger, more representative (i.e., minority) candidates assume the mantle of reform and take their place.

A plea to my friends: be political.

I’m done with the posts on my Facebook feed apologizing for being political. I tire of the lamentations about how many political posts there are.

Over the past few weeks – almost three! – we’ve heard so much about the importance of checks and balances. Yes! This is completely true! And let’s not forget to pepper this blog post with some important Founding Father quotes, who bequeathed this concept (enshrined in our form of government) to us. Let’s begin with James Madison in Federalist No. 51:

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.

But I want to note the important point in the following paragraph:

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

That word: auxiliary. “Auxiliary”  means “additional; supplementary; reserve.” It does not mean “primary, foundational, first, chief, principal.”

Our inheritance is therefore not simply that of checks and balances. it is the intellectual tradition of being an active representative in good government.

Institutions are merely conglomerates of people. Checks and balances are not self-executing. Checks and balances are designed to work alongside a galvanized and informed citizenry. There’s no basis for believing that checks and balances will magic themselves into responsiveness. The only way checks and balances work as an auxiliary is if the primary bulwark against tyranny does its job first, and that bulwark is us: the American people.

Likewise, it requires people to act. Acting can be anything: reading, writing, listening, speaking up, going to a rally, running for office, whatever. I’m writing this as a plea, not an argument. Being apolitical is to remain indifferent to the health and status democracy. To stand aloof to the problems facing government – and there will always be problems – is to either say that you don’t care, or that it doesn’t concern you. If you read this and think “That’s not me; I care,” then the next time a political thought enters your mind, fear of alienating your Facebook feed should not be part of your decision tree.

Our country’s philosophical tenets were fundamentally active. They require movement and participation. They require education, and not just schooling, but the commitment of a literate population to understand and think about the issues surrounding them.

I’m sure I’m a bother on my Facebook page, but I frankly don’t care at this juncture. My goal is not to go out there and change everyone’s mind. My goal is to remain engaged and to surround myself with other engaged people. I want people who associate with me to take this role of citizen seriously and understand the gravity of maintaining the integrity of our republican form of government.

I gave up a long time ago on this kind of language because it sounded to romantic, lofty and idealistic. I’ve since begun embracing it again. Too often I hear people speak in platitudes about American political identity. I really want to emphasize that we should strive to breath meaning back into this foundational concepts. Freedom and liberty are not self-defining any more than our checks and balances are self-executing. It’s going to require this generation of Americans to add contours to those principles. We’ll do this by maintaining our own library of thoughts and democratic experiments, but that’s only possible if can get past this notion that to be political is to be uncouth. Being political is a feature, not a bug, of living in a democracy.

Anatomy of a lie.

President Trump claims millions of people committed voter fraud. We’ve been told he plans to launch an investigation into this alleged fraud. Here’s what we know: this is false. There is no proof. No one has corroborated this investigation.

(Maybe I should say few people have corroborated; a golfer friend of President Trump’s is the origin of the claim.)

Under normal circumstances, this is a lie. Journalists understandably have to take a more cautionary approach. There’s risk in publishing something so strongly worded. For starters, it’s so concrete a statement and rooted as a factual allegation that it would trigger libel concerns. No worries in this specific situation because a defense to libel is truth and the bar for a public figure is malice, but it’s still part of a publication’s calculus.

Another hurdle is the integrity of reporting. There’s always the usual concern over due diligence and corroboration, but there’s the additional risk of political reporting where truth exists on a spectrum. By this I mean not every statement exists on a binary scale where we can measure its validity and determine in an absolute sense if something is exactly true or exactly false.

There’s virtually no argument over the falsity of this Trump’s claim. Rather, the hand-wringing that has occurred is the severity of language publications should use. The New York Times decided to use the word “lie.” NPR used “falsehood.” NPR justifies its use by way of the dictionary, which requires intent and, they argue, they cannot know what goes on in the president’s mind:

“A false statement made with intent to deceive,” Kelly says. “Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.”

I disagree. Now, they’re journalists, and I’m a lawyer, so our problem-solving mechanisms are likely quite different. Plausible deniability is something with which us law-folk are quite familiar. Many people like to believe the law is read so literally that you can be vindicated under the most technical reading of the law.

Not so. People do not act literally; we do not bind ourselves to linear readings of behavior. We speak casually and we contort. Sometimes we act deliberately, but nonetheless rashly. The law captures this and, when determining liability or culpability, will frequently impute knowledge and intent. Thus the standard for “intent” is would a reasonably prudent person or should a reasonably prudent person have known X, where “X” is an act that would happen.

I think that should be the standard here. No, I’m not arguing for legal culpability or anything of that sort. I do want to argue that this is a useful framework, especially when writing about someone who is potentially very well-practiced in deception (“truthful hyperbole.”)

If President Trump did not already know that his claim was false, he should have known. This information is readily available. As president, he has ample resources at his disposal to uncover the truth. The bare minimum of due diligence on his part would have revealed that voter fraud is sparse, let alone rising to the threshold of millions of people.

Moreover, this standard can ramp up. A reasonable person – human buzzkill, the kind of person who always looks both ways, runs against traffic, and uses his blinkers – could have accomplished the above. President Trump is President of the United States. Our bar for the presidency is high regardless of our thoughts on the outcome of the election. No one would claim that idiocy is the standard by design, all joking aside. In a car accident, I would be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent person because I’m an average driving adult. A professional driver, in contrast, would be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent professional driver, complete with his or her entire sophisticated and practiced driving skill set. President Trump should be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent President.

Likewise, when it comes to public claims made to the American people and have shocking implications about the state and integrity of American democracy, the President is not held to the standard of the average twitter user. He should be held to the standard of the Commander and Chief of the United States – doubly so when he requires his press secretary, official representative of the White House, to evangelize these claims.

Finally, this is a pattern. Trump’s claims predate his inauguration. People, including presidents, make mistakes, speak quickly, and sometimes casually. Even if we were to be forgiving about the above standard and argue this was a passing comment, that is contravened by the fact that he has repeated this argument. There is no ambiguity in his intent to spread what is frankly disinformation.

I understand the hesitancy. A peril of political reporting is that politicians make spurious statements all the time. One also doesn’t want the potency of “lie” to be entirely loss. Tossing strong language around is a way to completely undermine the power of those words, and thus we want it reserved for the most egregious acts.

By way of contrast, President Trump’s claim that Mexico will pay for the wall is specious at best. The proposed 20% tariff will foreseeably land on the American consumer. However, it’s not false. Mexico will pay that tariff. We can argue that Mexico’s decision to pass that along to the consumer is independent and out of the hands of the administration, and that they’ve fulfilled their obligation by attempting to hold Mexico to account. It’s dubious and arguable, but it’s precisely because it occupies such a gray area that we need to provide some benefit of the doubt to politicians operating in an imperfect world with fallible human institutions.

That’s not the case here. The repetitious nature of President Trump’s claims, coupled with his utter lack of due diligence and failure to corroborate or otherwise provide some prima facie (face value) case for his claim has every indication that he knows he’s wrong. Even if he’s completely bubbled, he absolutely should know and it’s fair for publications to impute that intent on him for the aforementioned reasons – namely that he had ample opportunity and resource to uncover the veracity of his claim and either didn’t or chose to act contrary to it.

I’m frankly not sure of any other situation where “lie” might appropriately be used. Publications presumably think that the word is acceptable in some circumstances or else we wouldn’t be having this debate at all. The mind reader standard completely precludes this ever happening, though. Short of walking out on stage and prefacing his statement with “Okay, I’m going to lie now,” we’ll never know the inner motivations of President Trump or any other human beings. We do not possess the capacity to meet NPR’s hurdle.

To conclude, the Prudent President standard illustrates the level of disregard for proof that is palpable and within the realm of actual human faculties, and therefore this is one of those rare occasions where a judicious use of “lie” is wholly appropriate.

The Women’s March and that time the Pope tried to shut down a bunch of BAMF nuns.

I have so many thoughts swirling through my brain regarding the Women’s March!

One of the big themes (or critiques, maybe) was intersectionality of feminism. I want to recommend the recent Politics and Prose on women’s rights teach-in. There’s a major unpacking of all of these elements. Some points I want to pluck out:

  • Many movements are minority movements. The feminist movement is a majority movement. There are a lot of women – half the population – so by definition you’re dealing with a broad group of people who identify both as women and then many other things (race, ethnicity, profession, class, etc.)
  • Acknowledging the above is an important strength. A dominant strain of oppression is divide and conquer. It’s important to focus on the divisions in order to isolate the problem and resolve them. But it’s just as pivotal that the narrative not be defined by the natural distinctions between all groups participating because it’s a characteristic means by which to ensure in-fighting rather than focusing on the external hurdles the group is attempting to fight.

One of the divisions was the pro-life and pro-choice movement. How do we approach this wrinkle? Reproductive rights have been under massive, targeted assault. It’s entirely fair, in my view, for a women’s movement to hone in on this reality.

The origins of this movement were progressive. Historically, a dividing line between progressives and conservatives has been abortion. I think I want to modify this line. I am extremely pro-choice but I am also a big coalition builder, sometimes to a fault, which is why I’m publishing this. I want to throw some ideas out there but I also want some pushback if I’m not being hardline enough, as is often my tendency.

I want to set the table by focusing on the intersection of what we typically consider “women’s issues” and abortion.

I went to a Catholic high school, so my perspective is informed largely by a very liberal, social justice oriented, approach to issues. I’m not religious, but naturally the Sisters of Mercy viewed their mandates through the lens of the Catholic faith, and many pro-life groups are also informed by a wide assortment of religious or otherwise faith-based concerns. I’m going to admit at the outset that this colors my perception of pro-life movements and groups led by women. My experience has been positive. I know this isn’t true everywhere.

Nevertheless, in the majority of this experience, and with a lot of pro-life groups run by women, the tone, direction, and policy aims of the groups are vastly different from US policy makers. The pro-life agenda is expansive in that it focuses on women at risk, generally, as well as children. This agenda includes, but is not limited to: dealing with domestic abuse, providing food and shelter, education, healthcare (preventative and reactive), as well as a myriad of programs aimed at supporting children.

These are not issues that only affect women, but American political discourse trends towards packaging family economic issues as synonymous with women’s issues, presumably because a lot of that vulnerability syncs up with the single mother demographic. That’s a significant but separate conversation.

The tone is distinct. The emphasis is by and large on bettering the quality of life these women experience, thus minimizing the extent to which they are “at risk,” whether for violence or exploitation or for being put in a position where they would have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. The trade-offs emphasize a net benefit of reduction in abortion via a quality-of-life or access-focused agenda.

This is in stark contrast to the pro-life policy agenda of lawmakers (note: not the pro-life movement at large), who focus far more on restricting access to all sorts of information and healthcare that would allow women to make informed reproductive decisions. If a policy, such as prenatal care, has a net benefit for the health and welfare of mothers and babies, it will nonetheless end up on the chopping block if one iota of it can be framed as preventing abortions (in this case, lawmakers argue that the knowledge provided in these check-ups could potentially lead parents to choose aborting babies at high risk for defects, etc.) The trade-offs are thus: any whiff of abortion requires limitation or prohibition. It’s an exercise in degraded political signaling, packaging any and all punitive and restrictive measures as a pro-life victory regardless of outcome.

I think many of these pro-life groups do line up with is the same progressive policy agenda of most women’s rights movements. It aligns considerably with the platform outlines of the Women’s March and the initiatives previously asserted by Hillary Clinton, save for the specific act of getting an abortion. Access to preventative and prenatal healthcare, paid parental leave, support for caretakers, elder abuse and support laws, children’s welfare, etc etc. These are all major overlaps in a huge policy Venn Diagram.

There’s some precedent for this:

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.


Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

The group was also accused of being too radically feminist (PDF):

Radical Feminism. The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

It might seem silly to some to focus on women’s groups and women’s leadership. I used to believe this myself, but as I’ve extended my professional life, I’ve found increasingly that diverse groups beget creative solutions. Moreover, they add feedback that never would have entered my mind. In December, an Ohio lawmaker stated that he “never thought about” why a woman might get an abortion. I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that every woman in the pro-life groups seeking entry to the Women’s March has considered that question, probably deeply. The next time any law regarding women’s reproductive rights is discussed, I at least want those people in the room.

The rough building blocks for building a coalition are there. I think the traditional paradigm of pro-lifers and pro-choicers in constant opposition needs to pause. I’m under no illusion that, at some point, or on some issues, they will clash directly and won’t be able to accommodate one another. This isn’t a call for a ra ra kumbaya. As I said above, there is a heightened assault on reproductive rights today and the legislative and executive – potentially judicial – branches are poised to undercut any and all gains. But I think by aligning with these pro-life groups on other essential policies we accomplish a few things:

  1. We create a major voting bloc in opposition to the Trump Administration, generally;
  2. We change the conversation from using abortion as a punitive signaling measure to a quality of life assessment resulting in a net loss of women at risk and unplanned/unwanted pregnancies.
  3. We increase the probability that the policies directly affecting that quality of life assessment are passed, e.g., parental leave, domestic abuse reporting, childcare availability, etc.
  4. One marker of this campaign was both explicit and coded misogyny, ranging from a video explicitly condoning sexual assault and degrading language, to the coded lampooning of Hillary Clinton’s supposed lack of SSSSSSStamina. I think this was a catalyst event allowing women to identify as women who experience unique and targeted disparagements. Pro-life women experience this too.

I don’t begrudge the leaders of the Women’s March for their judgment call on exclusion of pro-life groups. I think it was a combination of having the march grow beyond anticipation coupled with a lack of resources to respond to competing demands in any truly deliberate way. As the protest transitions – hopefully – to policy agendas and coalition building, I would definitely like to see them explore this alliance further, since I think it guts one of the last few bastions of the Culture War on which the right tends to thrive.

Let the right go back to basics instead. Let them focus on liberalized trade and deconstructing the Road to Serfdom Donald Trump has led them on. I, for one, would welcome such a return as a fan of the above myself. Until then, I’m quite happy to take a practical step with the Democratic Party and help them internalize more progressive policy, ideally (and this is my own bias) in a constructive format rather than over-learning the lesson of economic populism, but I digress.

Contrasting Empathy.

I want to have a conversation on how we frame our post-mortem of the election. All of the talk about empathy is swell, but I think that’s a two-way street, and what bothers me can only seemingly be broken down into contrasts:

1. Empathy vis-a-vis gender.

The first draws on two thoughts: 1) men in their prime are out of work in at an all time high, and; 2) the jobs that are available are service sector jobs and commonly referred to as “pink collar” jobs since they rely on skills commonly viewed as feminine (e.g., caretaker roles.)

For the former, “prime” is the key word. It’s a lot harder for anyone with a significant long-term investment in a skillset to drop it and grab a new one. This often requires retraining if not new education. That’s a time investment in its own right, and even if you get hired and can start tomorrow, your applicancy is competing against younger counterparts who will gain experience over a longer period of time. They do not have to incorporate concerns about looming retirement or sending their kids to school or maybe even supporting a family at all into wage negotiations. This group I’m segmenting off, and so do those numbers, for a reason.

With respect to the latter, there’s an understanding that a psychic element exists with employment. We accept for traditional white collar professions that these are a calling and part of our identity. Less so with “low skill” jobs (a term that’s debatable.) I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that people who derive enjoyment from their work are not only better workers, but more ambitious, more likely to take reasonable/calculating risks, and generally more likely to make the economic pie grow on top of other positive externalities.

But as Cathy O’Neil points out in the podcast, being paid something is being better than being paid nothing. Or is it? Because as is later discussed, plenty of men are opting out of work in lieu of social welfare programs, so the relevant calculation is weighed against those benefits rather than 0.

So this has me thinking about a few things. The first is how empathetic do we need to be towards people who dislike their position not necessarily because they value working with their hands or have a skillset that is no longer necessary; rather, they simply do not like the idea of doing something womanly? Do we indulge that?

Similarly, On the Media had an excellent deep dive into poverty in America. One revelation was the extent to which poor people, most of whom were single mothers, often had to choose between having a job and feeding their family. This is because having a job would result in losing social welfare benefits that paid for necessities like food, and the available job was low paid. One could either take the job and be unable to make ends meet, or make ends meet by ensuring they remained impoverished and therefore qualified for welfare benefits.

In the American narrative, people who can work but don’t are demonized. We have a name for them – a gendered one: welfare queens. Thus we have this subset of young men who either won’t work or work sporadically but cannot hold a job down who are taking advantage of social programs and our takeaway from this is to empathize with them and try to solve the problem. In contrast, for decades, we’ve had poor people who are predominantly female have similar tough choices to make, and we’ve cast them in this unforgivably lazy and parasitic light. Again, I feel I have to ask to what extent does our empathy apply? Or maybe to whom? In being empathetic, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we’ve been too unfair or judgmental with respect to all people and not just the white (male) working class?

2. Empathy vis-a-vis race.

This one is simple to state: there is an opioid epidemic running rampant in the same disaffected parts of a America suffering from loss of manufacturing jobs. With light shed on this, there have been several calls in editorials and from organizations to combat this phenomenon and the destructive impact it has had on communities and families, to say nothing of the clearly sad lethality of drug abuse.

But when drugs impact black communities, our response is far less empathetic. It’s severe. Family breakdown is attributed to diminished morality; our solution to combating drug abuse has been to incarcerate people, and; we have this general understanding that people who enter this cycle of drug abuse (and often poverty) are bad and suffering moral failings that need to be harshly corrected.

I’m not sure if the change is wholly due to race. We have a more sophisticated and generally empathetic approach to drug abuse now in contrast to the early days of the War on Drugs. Still, it begs the question: why is it we turn our eyes towards sensitivity and problem solving for this demographic and not others?

3. Empathy vis-a-vis generation.

This is the one I struggle with the most. I spent a year looking for work after law school. I worked the year in between undergrad and law school. The prevalent narrative for my generation – who was searching for work during the peaks of the Great Recession – was that:

1. Life isn’t easy;
2. You’re not entitled to a job;
3. You need to work harder.

But when middle aged and older Americans struggle to find work, someone stole their job and trade deals are unfair to Americans.

I suppose I want to know when being an American stamped your name on a job — when it gave you a property right in employment such that someone could wrongfully take it from you. I’m an American. I was born here. Where was my job with my name on it when baby boomers were calling me entitled?

I want to know when suddenly market forces had to be harnessed in a way that was fair to a specific group’s interest at the expense of a greater net economic benefit. I want to know when the correlation between working hard and getting a job disappeared. The disparity between gains for older folks and my generation still loom and in a way that goes above and beyond their simply having had more time to accumulate wealth.

Finally, when I was looking for a job and couldn’t find one, the basic assumption was that I felt I was too good for certain kinds of work, like service sector work (I applied to these jobs, for the record.) I was told that my generation was entitled for “assuming” (we didn’t) work would be there. If I wasn’t employed, there was causation between this failing and my work ethic, or lack thereof.

Clearly this is the spot where I have the biggest chip on my shoulder. When I talk about it in terms of solving problems, I agree that these are problems to be solved and these people deserve my empathy. However, I won’t pretend that I haven’t been considering why – here and now – we as an American society have suddenly decided that this is the problem to be solved. My suspicion is that it still has a lot to do with the fact that the litmus test for a free/wealthy/just society is how we treat older white males, since this is our traditional normative conception of “the people.”

It bothers me that even the most well-intentioned of critics and policy makers fail to consider this and, to the contrary, this is viewed as a focus on “just issues” rather than identity politics, when identity seemingly has a lot, if not everything, to do with why these concerns have jumped the line.

This is hard – Obama on Healthcare.

Healthcare policy is such a curiosity, but the political landscape of it is downright fascinating. Over the past few months, with a meaningful ability of the Republican Party to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), we’ve all been reviewing two things: first, the successes and failures of the ACA, and; second, what happens after any repeal.

This has forced me to review our approach to this debate and how its metrics have changed over time. How do we measure success of the ACA? Is it that more people are covered? Or is it by how expensive coverage is? Further, we have poll numbers about favorability of the ACA, but how do we break that down between people who do not like government dabbling at all, people who think the ACA did not go far enough (i.e., people who originally wanted a single payer system and still do), and those who do not like the ACA as it has been portrayed by politicians, but nonetheless like the benefits they’ve derived by its implementation.

If I can recommend two good listens, they would each be Vox podcasts. The first is The Weeds episode where Sarah Kliff interviews folks in Kentucky about why they voted to Trump relative to their thoughts on the ACA. There are a lot of interesting revelations here. Primarily:

  • There are a lot of people who like the benefits they’ve received from state expansion of Medicaid as a result of the ACA, but it is coined by a different state-specific name, and therefore do not associate their likes with the ACA.
  • There are a lot of people who do make that connection but are hedging their bets against Trump, i.e., they think that Trump either will not be able/try to repeal the ACA or that, if he does, it will be better.
  • Most interestingly (in my opinion), was the woman, Kathy, who has been signing people up for the ACA and is disappointed in the fact that it’s so difficult to navigate and so much more expensive when it comes to the working poor — those who make enough money not to qualify for poverty-based programs for Medicaid but don’t have the dollars on hand to eat the cost of increased premiums, nor the time to navigate the requirements of the ACA. Essentially she feels it’s wrong the people who do not work have access to an easier single payer system (though she doesn’t call it that) but those who are working and struggling have to deal with this additional bureaucratic stressor.

I think I really took for granted in my own wonkish bubble just how much Republican market arguments didn’t resonate with many of their voters. This splits in a few ways.

The first is that a lot of people who voted for Trump – who might not actually be historically Republican voters – don’t give a lick about free markets or government power abuses, and really just resent the encumbrance and preserved unfairness of their new healthcare decision-making tree. This is the more populist faction found primarily in rural, southern areas (Robert Leonard has an excellent article detailing how the south has a more determinative populist streak than anything.)

The second is we have a lot of people who have crafted an identity around this Republican orthodoxy in that they want to identify Republican and have internalized the arguments around freer markets and freer people (a sentiment I still largely agree with, though have lightened up on, especially with healthcare, but I digress.) However, on daily terms, their desires translate to the opposite:  like Kathy, they practically want the ease of access and lower costs provided by programs like Medicaid, but philosophically oppose the underlying proposition that this requires turning healthcare into a single-payer public good.

This is in stark contrast to the narrative that Republicans have crafted in the past. Only time will tell if this will harm them, since all voters seemingly have short memories (I’m not immune to this, myself.) I do think it’s going to be a difficult balancing act to reconcile their Constitutional arguments against the ACA – the principled attack that this is an unconstitutional extension of government power regardless of what the Supreme Court says – with their newfound vigor in repealing the ACA but then committing to replace it with something else. That’s government involvement by any name; the question is whether they name it something that sells better to the bloc committed to this narrative.

Similarly, on top of the above, the question remains what the replacement will be. Let’s set aside the repeal-and-delay tactic for the moment. If we have an entire bloc of people that traditionally vote Republican on principled grounds, the Republicans presumably want to keep them. That requires some adherence to a narrative that presents a limited government, fiscally responsible, constitutionally-ordained approach.

The wrinkle is the folks who generally like the benefits received by single-payer, Medicaid-esque options. If you want to replace the ACA with something that gives them those benefits, you need to wrap that up in a narrative that is couched in the above precepts for both the true believers and those who find it important to identify as Republican regardless of actual policy.

Here is where I’d like to insert my second suggestion, which is yet another Weeds podcast, this time an interview with President Obama and his reflections on the ACA as well as his long-term expectations for Republicans. We actually get to hear from Kathy, who asks Obama directly about the concerns mentioned in the original Weeds Podcast. I think this is an excellent deep dive. If anything, the implementation of the ACA let us see a lot of the incentives at play both as a market and politically. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it, especially for those who are wonkish and intent on mulling over solutions to its failures.

Moving on, you have this this populist group that is very outcome-oriented. The kicker for them will be whether or not their lives feel better in the short term. This is probably the largest hurdle:

  • Short term results in policy initiatives is difficult;
  • This is especially true with healthcare policy, at least good healthcare policy, because you’re often dabbling in a long game;
  • As the Democrats have learned, success is heavily dependent on people making the tie between your policy and their sense of a better quality of life. Democrats hedged the ACA on the understanding that people, once covered, would accept the ACA because of the improvement in their lives. This proved untrue not just because, for many people, the increased sense of unfairness overwhelmed any real benefits, but also because the tangled web of the ACA made it difficult to tie even those real benefits back to the ACA.

In short, the Republicans did a really good job of taking the burdens of the healthcare industry and thrusting them wholly on the ACA. There’s just a lot of tough nuts to crack in healthcare, and the ACA has its failings for sure, but Republicans were able to take all hurdles and frame them as Democratic failures. In contrast, Democrats did a really bad job of distinguishing between what was actually caused by the ACA, and illuminating the ways in which the ACA specifically caused better healthcare coverage.

I think the salient point here is that most Americans implicitly view healthcare as a public good. It would be vastly unpopular and politically impossible to get rid of Medicaid and Medicare. The latter is exceptionally popular, and is basically single payer for retirees. It doesn’t suffer from the same image problems of Medicaid because we don’t view seniors as people who should be working.

Medicaid might not be visually popular, but we know getting rid of it would have political backlash once broad swaths of impoverished people no longer had access to that safety net. States in particular are likely to fight back against this, even Republican-majority ones, because at best the cost would be need to be covered by states. More likely, you’d just have a lot of folks experiencing true burns, not hypothetical ones, and feeling galvanized to push back. As we saw this election, that threat can be real.

Likewise, it’s clear based on our post-mortem of the Obama presidency that even conservative-leaning, or at least Republican-identifying, Americans, as well as Trump voters, desire access to a Medicaid-esque system that has lower barriers to entry and lower costs than the ACA scheme they’ve just been thrust into. It will be interesting to see if Republicans actually try to manage these competing demands, and if this means recasting their position in a frugal-yet-involved light or simply repealing and hoping to delay the political implications until later elections, thus spreading the political cost to Democrats as ACA failures.

It could also be a long-term attempt to defeat the narrative that government healthcare is at all helpful, allowing the establishment to recoup and recover after populist usurpation (slight editorial comment on my part.) If everything fails just right and at just the right time, more orthodox Republicans could see a new opening for bona fide privatization.