Two post-election gripes

Donald Trump has been elected the next President of the United States, so I’ve been channeling my disappointment into irritation that people are responding negatively in ways that I don’t quite approve of. Two complaints follow.

1. The Electoral College

The calls to have electoral college delegates select Clinton because she won the popular vote set off a lot of alarm bells for me.

First, if you are advocating for this but wouldn’t make the same appeal in the event that Clinton won the EC while losing the popular vote, then your position is not principled; it’s just some thin excuse to win despite the clear rules of our democratic process. We had a fair election under conditions that everyone knew applied from the beginning. If your policy is to deny the outcome in the event that you don’t like it, then I honestly wish you would just come out and say so.

If you do believe that the delegates should choose the popular vote winner in any case, then the main point I would make is that the election isn’t a poll of public opinion happening in a vacuum. Both campaigns plan stump speeches, allocate advertising money, and craft their messages based on the electoral college. The campaigns do their best to win based on the rules, and the distribution of votes would not be the same if they valued each vote equally. We can’t just treat the ballots on November 8th as a survey of the popular will after each side had the chance to give their broadest pitches. They didn’t have the chance because they were funneling most of their resources toward winning according to the rules. For that matter, we don’t know how many dissenting voters just stayed home in states that were obviously in the bag for one party.

Whether the electoral college SHOULD be the system we use is another question. If I were writing the Constitution today, without considering the political reality of 1787 America, then I would do something else. But honestly, the electoral college doesn’t offend me that much.

The founders were terrified of a tyranny of the majority. Smaller states get more delegates in part so that rural citizens, who have less economic influence and would otherwise have less political power, receive a voice on par with those in metropolitan centers. To that extent, the EC did exactly the job it’s supposed to do this year.

The delegates were also supposed to be selected by state governments so that the candidates for the highest office in the country would be vetted by people more politically active and knowledgeable than average citizens — a provision that has been, perhaps unfortunately, done away with for all practical purposes and will never come back. If I’m not mistaken, the fact that state governments select delegates was also intended to help keep the power of the federal government in check, because it would be in the states’ interests not to elect an autocrat who would seize power from more local levels of government. Obviously, we’ve moved away from this federalist model in many ways.

(One of the reasons I’m such a stickler about federalism is the same reason so many people are afraid of Republicans controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, and soon the Supreme Court. If you insist that people shouldn’t decide matters on the most local level of government where it’s reasonable to do so, then sooner or later you’ll be represented at the more global levels by people who are antithetical to your values. But neither party seems to respect this very much when it’s their turn to take power, so I’m not sure where to turn for a defense of federalism in practice.)

The point of all this is, I’m not so sure the EC is outrageous. If anything, it’s probably the deviations from its original vision that allowed Trump to become President-elect as much as the College itself. Political elites would never have put him in office; while I’m not sure that selection by elites would produce a better average President, I do suspect that it would produce a higher competency floor than popular election.

The primary remaining function of the Electoral College is to give disproportionate influence to people who are basically not represented in the economic and cultural powerhouses of the country (prestigious newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, universities like Harvard and Stanford, economic centers like New York City and Silicon Valley, etc.). If there’s one thing that I think can’t be contested about this election, it’s that the people who speak for op-ed writers and established politicians are not the people who speak for the ~50% of Americans living in the majority of the country’s geographic expanse. While our system doesn’t do enough to give a voice to others, such as the large population of urban poor, this attempt to level the playing field is not entirely without merit.

Finally, the “will of the people” is not such an easy thing to clearly identify. Should we really assume that third party voters are utterly indifferent between the major candidates? Maybe we should have a runoff election? Problems with constructing “fair” election rules multiply like the heads of Hydra, and at the end of the day all we can really do is pick a system and stick by it.

2. The American Physical Society

The American Physical Society issued a press release congratulating Trump on his election, which included the text:

“APS urges President-elect Trump to incorporate the necessary policies that will enable our great nation to reclaim its scientific leadership, which it has lost during the past decade. APS believes that such policies will help the Trump administration achieve its goal captured by its slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’

According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States ranks just 10th overall in innovation, ‘largely because its innovation-supporting policies, such as funding scientific research, are lower than those of other countries.'”

Predictably, there was outrage and the APS retracted the statement. Nothing was issued in its place except an apology.

Is the American Physical Society supposed to pretend like Trump isn’t going to be the President? Should it also pretend that Republicans aren’t going to control both houses of Congress?

Science funding in the years to come is not going to be dirtied by Trump’s signature to the federal budget; it will be payed for by taxes as it always has been. Nor is it virtuous to shut out lines of communication with people on whom the continued existence of scientific progress depends (whether we like that or not).

Appealing to common interests does not denote an endorsement of Trump’s statements about climate change or vaccines. The mission of the Trump administration need not be antithetical to the mission of the scientific community down to every last detail.

The APS is nominally a non-partisan organization. That doesn’t mean it should look the other way about things that harm science, scientists, or the broader society. It does mean that it should put political grandstanding aside when that does not advance its advocacy.

I hope the APS issues statements about Trump’s science advisor, his public comments about scientific issues, his proposals to immigration reform as they might significantly impact researchers, and so on. I don’t want them to pander, because then they couldn’t do any good! At the same time, in order to fill the important role of positive advocacy (rather than condemnations only), they have to be committed to finding some common goals with the people who control 75% of science funding. (Note that “control 75% of science funding” ~ “control 75% of science.” We may not be happy about it, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t show up for work if I didn’t get payed and couldn’t buy equipment, and I bet my colleagues wouldn’t, either.)

The common thread

What riles me up about these two cases is seeing people whom I would like to be allied with giving up on basic principles in favor of denial and anger. To suggest changing the rules of a fair election after the fact is horrifying, as many on the left observed when Trump was the one talking about it. And to silence ourselves in order to avoid addressing Republicans will only allow them to achieve their most wrong-headed goals without compromise. We can neither bypass nor ignore the system. There is no better world; there’s only a better version of the one we’ve got.

2 thoughts on “Two post-election gripes

  1. e says:

    I think you are unusually attached to a sort of high-level ideological consistency, the idea of deriving your object-level opinions from more meta-level principles. Whereas most of us are more like Trump: “I like this thing, so I’m going to try to get it.” Principles are obstacles and/or weapons in the fight for what I want.
    Of course, that’s what they are for you, too, right? The principle that we should respect the outcome of fair elections is aesthetically pleasing, sure, but at the end of the day it’s mostly of instrumental value. If you were very certain that Trump would literally end humankind and Clinton would not, you would advocate upending the republic or whatever it took to stop him. But within an even remotely normal range of circumstances, you’d prefer to preserve democratic norms. That’s all based on your belief that these norms are important and their preservation increases expected utility more than stopping Trump’s rise to the presidency while trampling on them.
    Others may disagree with that belief, and it’s not clear to me that they’re crazy to do so. Principles (like morals) are tools to get us collectively to advance our values better than we would by making ad hoc decisions (or letting everyone do whatever they felt like without social pressure). It’s clear from this election and other events that blunter tools that smash principles to bits are often more effective in the short run.

    Or maybe it’s just that other people have different biases about which principles are valuable. The purist tendency among social justice advocates like those who got upset about the APS letter can also be seen as a sort of adherence to principle. The right principles to accomplish their goals? I don’t know.

    And it’s intractable to be sure of the right principles (even if we’re sure of our final values), so it’s not surprising when we fall back on the usual tactic of choosing the principle that implies the position we already have, for emotional reasons or whatever.
    So, in conclusion, I think I’m trying to say thank you for reminding us that that heuristic is often a terrible one.

    • JR says:

      “If you were very certain that Trump would literally end humankind and Clinton would not, you would advocate upending the republic or whatever it took to stop him.”

      If our priors on “society actually destroyed given that someone (even myself!) claims that politician will destroy society” weren’t low at the dawn of time, then they certainly ought to have been updated in that direction by now.

      Of course, if I were really sure that someone would destroy society, then I would want to fight them. I suppose that if I decided the best way to do that was to drag democratic principles through the mud then that’s what I’d do, but I’d much rather make the direct argument that “the stakes are too high to respect democratic principles in this case” instead of lying about what the “really democratic” procedure is.

      And indeed, I do think democratic norms are important. I suspect they constitute the cultural machinery most directly responsible for the greatest improvement in human life since the invention of civilization. I say that without intending hyperbole. And if that judgment is reasonable, let alone correct, then the burden to discard democratic norms ought to be exceedingly high.

      If you admit even one exception to the democratic process, then you don’t have a democracy. And what do you have, then? Well, something better than literally destroying the world, but probably still pretty awful.

      I do admit that the purism in the APS situation is plausibly defensible on some sort of ill-considered philosophical grounds, but I think it’s awful strategy and an irresponsible attempt to represent the APS membership (some of which are Republicans). An advocacy organization shouldn’t take a stand against sending a non-partisan open letter to the President-elect because some of its members are upset by him. So although they’re entitled to that stand, I stand by my stand to be annoyed by it.

      Also, I should get myself notified when someone comments! I didn’t realize you wrote this a week ago.

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