Becoming better informed won’t help. Here’s a small easy step towards political change.

Summary:  You can make a difference by taking small steps towards political reform for America. In a few hundred words this post takes you to a conclusions that might change how you see US politics. I believe you will find it worth the journey.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

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Pouring more water on a rock does not make it wetter.
— Ancient aphorism.

A new paper in 2006 built on a long series of previous social science research, giving us a powerful insight about the origin of our dysfunctional politics: “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy” by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (Professors of Politics, Princeton) — Abstract…

The familiar image of rational electoral choice has voters weighing the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, calculating comparative distances in issue space, and assessing the president’s management of foreign affairs and the national economy. Indeed, once or twice in a lifetime, a national or personal crisis does induce political thought. But most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made.

The implications of this distinction — between genuine thinking and its day-to-day counterfeit — strike at the roots of both positive and normative theories of electoral democracy.

Their conclusions explain an oddity of American politics.

Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled. But in fact, while the voters may be consistent, and while they may be rational in the thin economic sense of the term, they behave in what Lippmann (“Public Opinion“, 1922) referred to as a pseudo-environment only loosely connected to …

“… the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment.”  {Ed. Not Spencer. It was Thomas H. Huxley in “On the Study of Zoology” (1861).}

Intellectuals In Action

For many people, of course, the discomfort of maladjustment never comes, either because they never emerge from the world of political thought and emotion into the world of practical action, or because the concrete consequences of their misperceptions are too indirect for them to apprehend. Are they to be congratulated for living comfortably and efficiently in their pseudo-environments?

This explains the lack of traction provided in our debates by new information. The teams are fixed. New information is just adding a new ball on the field.  Paul Krugman has repeated pointed to this behavior in economics. It dominates the public policy debate about climate science, as documented by Roger Pielke Jr (Prof of Environmental Studies, U CO-Boulder) in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Judith Curry (Prof Atmospheric Science, GA Inst Tech) has frequently written about this at Climate Etc.  I’ve written about our clouded vision and broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop.

Stating this in operational terms

We respond to information by changing our opinions and behavior (however imperfectly) when managing our personal lives, our families, and our careers. Things we care about, things for which we feel responsible. We treat policy debates like baseball. We cheer our team and boo our foes — irrespective of new information about the score and the players — because they are games, and we’re spectators.

Nothing will change in America until this changes.


What should we do?

Look at websites covering politics, Left or Right. Such as the best of breed (imo): FireDogLake or Naked Capitalism. They focus on news and analysis. Change will come when they shift to providing news as bait for readers while their important content becomes stories that stimulate people to act and mobilize them into organizations — discussing methods and tactics, teaching leadership, and developing plans.

The cost will be high for conveying this unpopular message, as we’ve seen on the FM website. It’s anti-clickbait. A large class of Americans love political news — it’s entertainment for the outer party, catharsis for the politically passive. They don’t want to be told they have power and responsibility, which induces cognitive dissonance with their apathy and passivity.

In effect we will all need to build new audiences from those of today. I suspect it will be neither fast nor easy. People seeking to reform America, whether Left or Right, must change their focus to something with at least a small chance of success. The alternative is, as Walter Lippmann said with great understatement, “learning by experience … the discomfort … of a maladjustment.” Probably a long painful maladjustment.

You can make it happen by asking those running the websites you read to make this change. Ask them if more information will change anybody’s minds, spur anyone into action, or make existing reform movements more effective. If not, ask them to try something new. Something offering hope, not just entertainment. Tells us what to do with the news. Discuss actions for citizens, rather than provide entertainment for peons.

Naked Capitalism

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28 thoughts on “Becoming better informed won’t help. Here’s a small easy step towards political change.”

  1. The political campaign of Ron Paul was the last best chance Americans had to throw of the yoke of Zionism. Zionism is the de facto official state religion of the United States. Ron Paul was lucky: he was just marginalized and trivialized. Many others have been ostracized, financially ruined, or even killed. (His son, Rand Paul, has gone out of his way to assure the Zionists that he is a die-hard supporter of Israel.) Dennis Kucinich was, like Ron Paul in the Republican Party, the Democrat’s voice of truth to power. Thanks to district gerrymandering, he was put out to pasture.

    We need more men like Ron Paul in the Republican Party and more men like Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic Party. The only way men like these can progress within their respective parties is to win elections at municipal and county levels first, then congressional elections next. At these levels however, party bosses often control who can even get on the ballot.

    I have worked at local level politics twice for a congressional candidate-always for the “alternate candidate”; but once we won the party’s nomination- and I was an alternate delegate for one of the Republican candidates in a presidential primary a few years ago. I can tell you, from personal experience, that supporting BDS in protest of the Jewish oppression of Palestinians is the equivalent of declaring that you have an incurable infectious disease. I have convulsed nearly to the point of implosion, when an aspiring candidate trying to present his concerns for economic and social problems within his community is asked to explain his position on Israel instead of his proposals to improve the lot of his countrymen.

    My last effort in political activism was to get an interview with my local congresswoman, regarding legislation which I believed to be extremely harmful to our countrymen and in particular for her constituents. I was brushed off. Once I was told a blatant lie as a reason why my request for an appointment or town hall meeting to discuss the issue could not be granted. (She went to Israel; but her staff didn’t want her constituency to know that.) I fired back “Do I have to be a Jew or a Jamaican to get a meeting with her?” (Her mother was born in Jamaica.) That stung her staff so much that I finally got an appointment over the objections of her chief of staff, who just happened to be -well, you know. He called me up and swore to me that I would never be able to keep that appointment. A few days before the appointment, I get a call from a junior staff member that my appointment was cancelled.

    Now, based upon the personal viewpoint and experience that I related here, just exactly how can one change the system?

    1. Is this the same Ron Paul I see at 11:30pm or so in his little infomercial saying that a financial crisis is coming because the Fed is destroying the economy, and to buy gold. He lost any shred of credibility (if he ever had any) after that.

      1. And — Ron Paul speaking at a Southern Historical Conference in Schertz, TX, on 29-30 August 2003:

        [caption id="attachment_44129" align="aligncenter" width="474"]Ron Paul speaking at a Southern Historical Conference in Schertz, TX, on 29-30 August 2003 Ron Paul speaking at a Southern Historical Conference in Schertz, TX, on 29-30 August 2003[/caption]

  2. I read both of the above and many others (and feel I’m wasting time).
    Yes a discussion of tactics would be good. The Consensus model is essentially pathetic- everything can be blocked by one informant or nut. Even more traditional groups suffered from too long meetings. The people that prevailed were ones who could afford or liked long meetings- not usually the best.

    1. SocialBill,

      Yes, I too often have that feeling. For example, Naked Capitalism runs 6+ stories every day on the Greek situation. What do readers get in exchange for their time spent reading this? Of what relevance is this to them, and to their actions? How does this differ from watching Game of Thrones?

      I read sites like NC like panning for gold. Each gives a small yield of useful info, from which I build these posts. Otherwise I can’t imagine their value to the average outer party member.

    2. And a picture of Ron Paul with the Confederate flag behind him is supposed to infer …what? Come on, Fabius! You are better than that. What was Paul saying that day at that time? Or what part of Paul’s political philosophy is supposed to be inferred by that screenshot? If you think him to be a bigot, a racist, or insincere, explain yourself.

      1. Intellectual cowardice, Fabius!! That’s no different than putting a Swastika or Star of David, then suggesting “the picture tells a thousand words.” I conclude that you are part of what Pat Buchanan referred to as “The Amen corner” of the Congress.

  3. What is important is not necessarily the quantity of information but getting the right and accurate information.

    Agreed on the fact that action has a way of ensuing that man is forced to come to grips with reality. And ensues that the information he receives is as accurate as possible and hence come to grips with truth.

    The rule is more that man insulates himself. The more deluded he becomes.

    1. infowarrior,

      I agree, but have a different spin on this. I’m in the info business, but it’s not a priority for most people except in the narrow sense of community, business, and hobby. They don’t have the expertise, time, or interest to manage the info superhighway. Hence they are better off staying in mainstream. Off road travel brings new and powerful sights, but is not a good idea for most people.

      The mainstream media provides more than sufficient info for most people. What they lack is the will to act, the transmission gear between info and the wheels. Neither more or better info will provide that. Achieving political reform requires motivating people to act. Providing more info is by itself a waste of time.

  4. It’s now 11:30 EST. This post has 105 pageviews. By now the average post will have had 200 – 300 pageviews.

    I should have given this a more exciting title. Like “Dollar collapse coming!“. Then it would have been a hit (i.e., 500+ pageviews by now).

    1. Perhaps this topic is not as “interesting” as others, which you have posted, because in general Americans sense how fruitless the talk and efforts made to make a difference will prove to be. I remember a time when I was allowed to express my frustrations about the current stupefication of the American body politic while I was trying my hand at trading at a small firm on Wall Street. When I was finished, the head trader said something to the effect that: “Art, you are right about everything that you said. But it doesn’t make a difference. So, just stop thinking about it because you can’t change a thing.” Good advice which I have never heeded. But evidently the vast majority of Americans have.

      1. Arthur,

        “Americans sense how fruitless the talk and efforts made to make a difference will prove to be.”

        And how do we “sense” this without first trying? Are we Jedi Knights, gaining knowledge via The Force? Or are we just making up excuses for our apathy and passivity?

  5. Good stuff. Cogent assessments. Life is easy here in the USA.

    “For many people, of course, the discomfort of maladjustment never comes, either because they never emerge from the world of political thought and emotion into the world of practical action, or because the concrete consequences of their misperceptions are too indirect for them to apprehend. Are they to be congratulated for living comfortably and efficiently in their pseudo-environments.?”

    Could you devise a more insulated social environment than contemporary US?
    Can you even imagine what sequence of events would need to occur to shake this insularity and lead to an unknowing that is the beginning of critical thinking?


  6. This post reminds one of a constructive criticism of Henry Giroux. Mr. Giroux consistently produces articles of 3-4-5,000 words which accurately convey societal problems, invariably concluding that things need to change, that people must rise up in one form or another. What is frustrating is that Mr. Giroux clearly possesses high-level intellectual skills, but seems to stop short in every single one of his articles from moving ahead and offering specific solutions. Mr. Giroux’s example – always excellent at “problem identification” but completely devoid of “real solutions” for improving the lives of people – points out that activists are falling dreadfully short of the mark in transforming superior ideas (more beneficial for society) into rubber-meets-the-road, implemented reality.For activists hoping to bring about real change, 100% of efforts must focus on proving the benefits of any proposed change(s). Pointing out various negative consequences of the status quo without offering and proving more positive consequences of the change alternative(s) is the same as spinning wheels. Like the Beatles lyric, “there are no problems, only solutions.”

    1. Jerry,

      I was just reading the website of Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley), with the same reaction. His website overflows with brilliant analysis, his own and links to others. But almost nothing pointing to how these insights can be applied by readers.

      Perhaps this results from the outsized role of academics in Smerica. The are paid to do analysis, and this focus carries over to their broader output — and influences the broader communities of the outer party on the Left and Right.

      Just a guess…

    2. Karl Marx was also very good at identifying problems…not so good on the implementation of solutions though.

      1. Scott,

        I understand why you say that, but I think a more generous interpretation is appropriate. His solutions were … not good. But this was early days of the industrial revolution. Think of it as the equivalent of an 1890’s airplane. Those crashed, too.

  7. When I read Brad deLong’s website, or websites like Daily Kos or Naked Capitalism or TomDispatch or FireDoglake or Digby’s Hullabaloo, the distinct impression is that these people are all focussed on scoring points against their ideological opponents. The key ‘graf in one of these sites’ articles involves some kind of “Gotcha!” moment where deLong or some other analyst identifies some key hypocrisy or self-contradiction in an opponent’s position. Viz., Nobel laureate economist Lucas contradicts in an op-ed for the New York Times what he wrote in an economics textbook. Gotcha! Or (to take another example) the website features a post showing that the convict to whose case Antonin Scalia pointed as the example of why we need a death penalty was just pardoned and released after being exonerated by new DNA evidence. Gotcha!
    All this point-scoring makes liberals feel great. Gotcha! Gotcha! Gotcha! Look how stupid those conservatives are! Look how often those idiot Republicans contradict themselves! A smug sheen of swaggering self-satisfaction runs through all these kinds of liberal screeds.
    And yet…as FM oints out, liberals keep pointing out the stupidities and self-contradictions and incoherences of conservative statements and conservative policies…yet the conservatives keep winning and winning and winning.
    Not one of these liberal websites appears to offer any substantive prescriptions for changing the status quo. Instead, they aggressively tell us that we must vote for Hillary “because [gotcha! Fill in the blank with some example of idiocy or self-contracdiction by a conservative]!”
    In particular, technocrats like Brad deLong seem entirely satisfied with the status quo — they merely object to trhe unattractive publicity created by the crazy statements of conservatives. But people like deLong seem entirely enamoured of the neoliberal worldview — namely, that we need to privatize and deregulate, and downsize government to let the “magic of the market” take over tasks like K-12 schooling or providing internet.
    Well, America has been privatizing and deregulating and letting the “magic of the market” work for 30 years now, and the result has been a disaster. The Invisible Hand is not working to provide better internet service or to end financial corruption in the TBTF banks or to make K0-12 schools any better. Just the opposite. What the Invisible Hand does, when unleashed, is to punish poor black kids for the crime of living in poor school districts, to reward rich white corrupt ivy leagues for the virtue of being born to the right parents, and to create enormous grossly corrupt and inefficient monopolies that rape their customers for every dime they can extort.
    I don’t believe people like Brad deLong have written one single word about restoring federal usury laws (gutted after the 1978 Supreme Court Marquette decision) and ending the atrocity of 35% credit card interest rates in a 2% inflation environment.
    I don’t believe people like Brad deLong have ever uttered a peep suggesting that we need to unleash antitrust laws and shut down predatory monpolies like Wal-Mart and the big banks and big pharma and Comcast and WestLaw and JSTOR and hedge funds like Harvard which happen to have a minor sideline in education.
    In short, the real reason people like deLong don’t offer prescriptions for meaningful change in our disastrously monopolistic corrupt graft-ridden society is that they don’t actually want it.

    1. Thomas,

      (1) “When I read Brad deLong’s website, or websites like Daily Kos or Naked Capitalism or TomDispatch or FireDoglake or Digby’s Hullabaloo, the distinct impression is that these people are all focussed on scoring points against their ideological opponents.”

      I agree. I’d spin this more strongly: they are cheerleaders for their fans. The chorus of “boos” and “yea’s” are the end product (with exceptions; e.g., much of DeLong’s website is professional-level economics).

      More broadly, I see no difference from the Left on Right about this.

      (2) “not one appears to offer any substantive prescriptions”

      I strongly disagree. Left and Right overflow with fascinating ideas. They just don’t discuss how to make them happen. Conceptually they’re the equivalent of singing “If I were a wealthy man…”.

      (3) “people like DeLong … we need to privatize and deregulate”

      I have read him for decades. That is quite incorrect. Backwards, in fact. It’s even more so for NC and FDL. Can you provide some supporting cites?

  8. Fabius Maximus,

    This is currently on nakedcapitalism’s website:

    “TPP has entered the frantic, sausage-making phase. The situation very dynamic, and there will be leaks after Water Cooler closes at 2:00PM. So while I’ve tried to summarize the state of play, things will certainly change, and hourly. Here again is The Hill’s whip list; please be sure to srcoll down for updates. Give your Congress Critter a call!”

    They’ve also had contact info for certain members of Congress before regarding this issue. Isn’t this what you’re calling for? Could this be a matter of finding the right mix of motivation and information?

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      No. Calling your congressperson is one step — a large step — below voting in effectiveness. It is equivalent to telling the waiter you don’t like the veal. But it suits our modern American view of citizens as consumers of government.

      We need to get off our butts and go into the kitchen. Organize — contributing money and effort in the many ways to influence public opinion and elections.

      Citizens are crew of the Republic, not passengers.

      You must certainly see this.

    2. I think when you call your congressman you’re supposed to threaten to never vote for him again unless he does X. That’s what I do anyway. No clue if it helps :-)

      1. peteybee,

        Many people who have worked for representatives have explained how calls-letters-emails are treated. They are coded by interns using a very simple schema: subject, pro-con, etc. What you say is disregarded.

        They’re treated as a free and simple real-time public opinion poll.

  9. Reblogged this on Spread An Idea and commented:
    Now here’s a neat idea!

    This article on the Fabius Maximus website suggests bugging publishers/authors/editors of existing websites with reform-minded readership, to alter their format, and go beyond providing information / analysis / criticism, and take steps to organize or motivate their readership for action (like assign tasks???)

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