18 December 2016

Thoughts on the 2016 election

Forty days ago, on November 8, 2016, the US presidential election happened. Tomorrow the electoral college will cast their votes. Here are some ideas that have been on my mind and things I’ve been struggling to reason out.

Fake news & paranoia has been discussed as a huge problem in this election.

Historically there used to be all sorts of pundits spreading doubt about more traditional news organizations. Glenn Beck was a figurehead of this type of paranoia during the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama. With this election he has changed his tune, as shared in a NY Times Magazine talk article “Glenn Beck is Sorry About All That”. He is asking for us all to be reasonable and sit down and talk with each other. He doesn’t want people to make the same mistakes he made. On the topic of the president-elect he said:

I didn’t vote for him. Because if it’s going to get bad, he could bring out the worst in us. I think he could be one of the most dangerous presidents to ever come into the Oval Office. We have to watch him carefully, but also focus on each other and make this work.

A leading conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, who was campaigning against the president-elect has been talking about how the conservative movement lost its way and in this NY Times Op-ed said:

…as we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.

He has brought up how he participated in allowing this delegitimization to happen in this All Things Considered discussion about leaving his job.

The fact that I’m citing many details here from the New York Times and NPR very likely means that many people out there would discount this entire blog post.

These election things stepped beyond the traditional pundit approach to full on fake news. This is not fake news that self-identifies as being fake (like The Onion), but actually trying to fool people into thinking that completely fictitious articles are real.

These articles pushed all sorts of ideas that pushed political conspiracies. This Planet Money podcast titled “the Fake News King” is an interesting look into how easy it is to fool people with the stories. I recommend giving it a listen. Here’s some dialog between one of the hosts and the man they identified as the “fake news king”:

Robert Smith: Justin says, at least in the beginning he was an equal opportunity prankster. He tried to peddle fake news for lefties, he says, making up vile things about Conservatives.

Justin: It just has never worked. It never takes off. People will always say— you know you’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole things fizzles out.

It’s hard to tell what the real motivations were for Justin to do this and what the motivations are for other folks who do it. There is definitely a financial motivation around earning ad revenue by crafting a fake article that will be shared many millions of times. Other motivations could be pushing a political agenda, enjoying trolling, or maybe not caring about the impact and just being happy to make some money.

All of this—the pundit peddled paranoia to the fake news—has allowed a presidential candidate who fed on people's emotions and fears while disregarding facts and even vehemently denying changes in position. Check out the Politifact scorecard for the president-elect and then for comparison take a look at the same for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. This is someone who basically led the birther conspiracy against Barack Obama for 8 years and then bizarrely tried to pin the whole thing on Hillary Clinton, which was reviewed as false (one and two).

All of this is why the Washington Post reported, “Oxford Dictionaries has selected ‘post-truth’ as 2016’s international word of the year.”

The president-elect has taken this all to the next level by being his own version of fake news. A lot of these ideas come out in this This American Life podcast, in which Jake Tapper from CNN said:

What's uncomfortable about this election is that the Trump campaign—not the Republican Party, but the Trump campaign—has made it so when you stand up for facts and things that are true, they act as though those facts are partisan. And that's very uncomfortable because I do not belong to either major political party. I don't think the Democratic Party or the Republican Party have answers to the nation's problems independently.

An interesting term was brought up in this podcast…

Patriotic correctness is the conservative polar opposite of the liberal “political correctness”.

You can read more in this Washington Post article. This all just feels like groups being divisive. I suspect someone who hates political correctness has a caricatured view of a deeply hypocritical person who wants to control someones speech and push a liberal agenda, and in the same way folks on the other side see patriotic correctness as a caricatured view of a mindless, fringe conspiracy crazed, anti-science, racist person.

There is extreme political correctness and separately there is just being a decent person who is respectful to others. Let’s not pretend it’s all-or-nothing. I would expect folks on the other side would prefer to not be labeled as all-or-nothing zombies too.

These labels just help us join groups and hate each other. People love to hate on a label that broadly identifies a group. To use another silly term to make my point, take a look at how much hatred people have had in the past decade for “hipsters”, even though no one can really put their finger on what exactly a hipster is.

What does he stand for? Here are some reasons I can see for someone to have voted for the president-elect.

  1. Supportive of his campaign rhetoric and/or personal actions of bigotry, racism, misogyny, etc.

  2. Actually thought he would bring back jobs for the working class person

    Take a look at the recent Carrier deal where the president-elect intervened to save jobs from going to Mexico, which he labeled as a huge success, but the steel workers union leader said it was not a success and that “he lied his ass off“ (see npr, washington post, and foxnews).

    Also, take a look at the casino he bankrupted in Atlantic City or the workers he hasn’t paid for jobs. There’s also Trump University, which was quietly settled outside of court for $25 million to over 6,000 victims for it being a fraudulent university.

  3. Realized he will likely support the shareholder needs of their business interests

    This won’t help middle-class people. Unfortunately, when Clinton brought this up in a debate (1) I’d imagine most people watching the debate don’t know what trickle down economics is and (2) she tried to making a funny jab calling it “trumped up, trickle down economics”, which just sounded silly and fell flat (despite the very reasonable and important meaning behind it). See the video here.

  4. Just votes Republican regardless of who it is

  5. Votes for whoever promises the most change

  6. Really hated Hillary

I can’t pretend to know what the president-elect really thinks about anything, but if I had to guess I would assume his main goals are to have more power and to make more money. These are not attractive reasons to have someone as head of state. Furthermore, given everything else that was said leading up to and during the election, I am very fearful for all the divisive, hateful, fringe ideas that were promoted and what it’s doing to both supporters and non-supporters.

The electoral vote is tomorrow.

Many issues have been brought up by different folks around the president-elect’s conflicts of interest with his business, constitutional issues with the emoluments clause, a violation of the principle of one person one vote, the truth that the popular vote was actually lost by the president-elect by over 2.8 million votes, issues with demeanor and temperament, strange cabinet picks that seem to either have conflicts of interest or seem opposite to the appointment, potential ties with Russia, etc.

I am not optimistic about our president-elect. If there were just some political issues to debate here, that would be one thing, but the level of fear mongering, denial of truth, open hatred, and disrespect for other people is terrifying. On top of that it’s hard for me to not believe this is primarily a quest for personal wealth and power at the expense of the country.

Folks on the far right are in glee seeing liberals upset about the results of the election. They are loving hearing liberals get outraged about seemingly crazy cabinet appointments. It feels like a catch-22 to say it’s different this time that this really is an unfit president. The biggest points I can’t stop thinking about though are hate, fear, and misinformation. These are scary things that you generally only see from really bad historical world leaders. All politicians have their issues and can flip-flop or have other shortcomings, but this is just another level.

Political ideas that I like…

I would love to see our next wave of politicians thinking about these two ideas that are foundational to a healthy, functioning representative democracy:

  1. Campaign finance reform - take big money out of politics. It should be clear how money is making its way into the financing of a campaign. Given how hard it is to run a campaign, it’s easy for someone with big pockets to end up with extremely more representation in our democracy than the common person. I have supported MayDay.us, which is trying to make a difference (along with other folks and organizations) on this front.

  2. Gerrymandering reform - with redistricting after the 2010 census we have seen voting districts drawn in such a way that the house of representatives is no longer representative. For example as stated in this article on gerrymandering:

    In 2012, the first congressional election after the last round of gerrymandering, Democratic House candidates won 50.59 percent of the vote — or 1.37 million more votes than Republican candidates — yet secured only 201 seats in Congress, compared to 234 seats for Republicans. The House of Representatives, the “people’s house,” no longer requires the most votes for power.

    This is a complex problem and is hard to solve, but worth solving and politicians shouldn’t be the ones drawing the lines.

These are specific issues and not hand-waving “drain the swamp” rhetoric.

Separately, I fear that the folks who thought the president-elect would bring back their jobs and change how the tides of globalization and technological progress are affecting things will not see improvements in the next four years. That issue will require much more thoughtful dialogue than the current political discussion from this past campaign.

Edit: some additional ideas I like on this topic are:

  1. increased voting rights—the most pro-democracy thing you can do is to allow everyone equal access to voting, but this is not currently the case (maybe national automatic-registration for eligible citizens, allow felons who finished serving their time to vote—it’s interesting that voters in a Florida election voted to overturn this restriction on felons, but also continued to vote for the types of politicians who put these laws in place—remove targeted purges, something smarter around absentee ballots)—get involved by taking a look at the Election Protection project
  2. voting reform (ranked voting or score or approval voting)
  3. voting machine improvement (machines backed by paper ballots; also what about open source machines with which the tech can be publicly scrutinized and it would be a national honor to find and share vulnerabilities)

Some other reading:

That’s all I have for now. It seems like so much has happened that is just not normal and confounding that it’s hard to remember what to care about. I haven’t even really mentioned anything about human rights, the environment, or countless other things. I am very lucky that I live in a country where it is OK to express dissatisfaction with a leader. I hope we can listen to Glenn Beck and start listening to each other (EDIT: oops, this was naive of me, Glenn is back to peddling conspiracy theories for profit).

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Peter Coles

Peter Coles

is a software engineer living in NYC who is building Superset 💪 and also created GoFullPage 📸
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