The Politics of the Anthropocene Part 1: the Triggers.

Last week I listed three articles that prompted me to shift my focus from the ongoing 2016 presidential campaigns to the more abstract aspects of politicizing the Anthropocene, but I did not have time to speak about the articles in depth.

First, let’s define politics. I have a broad choice of dictionary definitions. I chose one that is not cyclical, meaning that it doesn’t include the term politics within the definition. I also avoided definitions that focused on getting a position in government because that would imply that those who already have positions in government are no longer engaging in politics. Here is what I came up with, from the Collins Dictionary:

Politics: “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power.”

Now let’s get back to some key paragraphs of those three articles I mentioned.

  1. David Brooks’ “The Danger of a Single Story”:

In 2009 the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a fabulous TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” It was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative: when Africans, for example, are treated solely as pitiable poor, starving victims with flies on their faces.

Her point was that each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity.

American politics has always been prone to single storyism — candidates reducing complex issues to simple fables. This year the problem is acute because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the giants of Single Storyism. They reduce pretty much all issues to the same single story: the alien invader story.

  1. Eduardo Porter’s “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change”:

That may sound like a strange question, particularly to readers of The New York Times. Today conservatives are the ones decidedly blocking any effort by the United States to curb its emissions of greenhouse gases.

And yet even as progressive environmentalists wring their hands at the G.O.P.’s climate change denial, there are biases on the left that stray just as far from the scientific consensus.

“The left is turning anti-science,” Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape who as a venture capitalist has become one of the most prominent thinkers of Silicon Valley, told me not long ago.

He was reflecting broadly about science and technology. His concerns ranged from liberals’ fear of genetically modified organisms to their mistrust of technology’s displacement of workers in some industries. “San Francisco is an interesting case,” he noted. “The left has become reactionary.”

Still, liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.

Only 35 percent of Democrats, compared with 60 percent of Republicans, favor building more nuclear power plants, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.

It is the G.O.P. that is closer to the scientific consensus. According to a separate Pew poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 65 percent of scientists want more nuclear power too.

  1. Frank Bruni’s “No way to Elect a President”:

With Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s victories in New York, we’re one furious contest closer to the end of this spectacle. But we’ve known for a while now where we’re headed, and it isn’t anyplace good.

American voters are displeased with the candidates they’ve been given. They’re disengaged from the process that winnows the field.

And that process disregards the political center, erodes common ground and leaves us with a government that can’t build the necessary consensus for, let alone implement, sensible action in regard to taxes, to infrastructure, to immigration, to guns, to just about anything.

Make America great again? We need to start by making it functional.

Regardless of how our time officially becomes known – be it Anthropocene or some other name, humanity is in control here. There are 7.3 billion people on Earth, with an ever-increasing GDP per person, and impressively efficient methods of global communication. If we want to implement sustainable development within the next 100 years, global coordination is imperative. Related governance in any part of this system requires careful consideration within the global context.

As I understand it, that’s the point that David Brooks is trying to make and I fully agree. I also agree with Brooks’ depiction of both Sanders and Trump as single-issue candidates, although the single issue is much better defined in Sanders’ campaign than within Trump’s.

The real point is that governing has reached a greater complexity than ever before. Governing bodies must consider global issues as well as local. They must set and implement policies that balance society’s safety and that of our physical environment. Such a feat necessitates considering multiple stories, setting priorities, and being aware of long-term consequences. It requires that scientists be involved in governance as well as that politicians be scientifically literate. For that, we need some major changes in our educational system to promote that sort of bilingualism.

As to Eduardo Porter’s piece, Porter does not restrict himself to climate change. He quotes Marc Andreessen, who generally complains that the left is turning anti-science – not only with regards to climate change, but also issues such as genetic engineering and efforts to increase productivity with robotic tools. Porter cites data from the Pew Research Center on scientific opinions of these issues.

Pew Research has extensive information about attitudes to these issues. In fact, I use it as a resource for the graduate course on Physics and Society that I am teaching. However, science is not settled through polls. Nor, aside from certain exceptions, is government policy. The same reasoning applies to both cases – not everybody starts from the same knowledge base on any of these issues, so not everybody is entitled to the same voice on these issues. This is not a call to reinstitute voting restrictions through literacy tests. For the most part, we vote, not on policies themselves but rather on the people that will introduce and implement these policies. We don’t necessarily have to be literate about the individual policies but we have to be well versed in examining the people that we vote for in terms of the values that they hold in setting and enforcing these policies.

Conservatives are well known for blocking effective efforts to mitigate the climate change brought about by the use of fossil fuels as our main source of energy, but Porter claims liberals have their own biases on this issue. He brings up the example of the left’s broad opposition to the use of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in spite of the fact that it is a carbon-free energy source.

Anybody who remembers the Fukushima nuclear disaster or the Chernobyl disaster (now “celebrating” its 30 years anniversary), however,  should not be surprised at the fierce resistance that many have – be they liberals or conservatives, scientists or politicians – to relying on nuclear energy in its present form to be one of our main future energy sources. A broader concern – again, for scientists and nonscientists alike – is the technological proximity between peaceful nuclear energy application and its militarization in the form of bombs. Once again, we must keep in mind multiple stories and how we decide on priorities.

Meanwhile, Frank Bruni’s apparent disgust with the current cycle of the presidential election is based on his perception that everybody is running away from the political center to occupy the fringes on the left and right. We need the “center” to make it a functional government. Well, in a binary system the center is empty unless we have a significant overlap between the two choices. To me, the argument that Hillary Clinton does not represent a central position needs some explanation, unless we are using her gender here – claiming that asking us to vote for a woman as our next president is an extreme position. Here the gender attribute is binary as well – the center is empty (there are no transgender or genderqueer candidates).

I will delve more into the Pew Research trove of data on science and society soon, but will meanwhile keep my eyes out for and my blog open to unanticipated events.

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Assessment: Spring 2016: Earth Day, Birthday(s), and Passover

As I said in Friday’s mini-post, this weekend I got to celebrate Earth Day, Passover, my wife’s birthday, and CCF’s 4 year anniversary – what a culmination of great events! Every year, I take this time to reflect on the last three months, follow up on my winter assessment (December 29, 2015), and contemplate the future.

Since the last assessment, I have focused on three issues:

  1. I looked at the continued coverage of the December 2015 COP21 meeting in Paris that resulted in a global agreement on mitigating climate change
  2. My January 2016 visit to Cuba sparked a series of 6 blogs about Cuba and the US embargo
  3. The beginning of the 2016 presidential campaigns led me to focus on the fact that close to half of the eligible voters in the US – a number that amounts to close to 100 million people – consistently don’t vote

My next assessment will be in September – after both parties hold their conventions and decide upon their platforms. I will also have just returned from a month-long trip to Europe, which is certain to flavor my outlook. Meanwhile, it seems to me that it’s about time to take a break from the election until August or September, when the list of candidates has narrowed.

I think it will be productive to focus on the interplay between science and politics. There were three recent articles in the New York Times that peaked my interest. One is by Eduardo Porter, who claims that opposition to climate change mitigation is not limited to conservatives. The second one by David Brooks, quotes Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warnings about the danger of limiting explanations of complex issues to a single story or point of view. Finally, I was fascinated by Frank Bruni’s latest piece, where he shares his disgust at the way that we are trying to elect a president.

I am also taking advantage of my school’s week-long spring break, reading Sarah Bakewell’s book, At the Existentialist Café. I’m hoping to gain a more abstract perspective about life around me.

I’d like to share my thoughts as to how we should prepare for the future of our changing world that is so dominated by human beings. As I’ve said, we are currently in the midst of an era called the Anthropocene:

The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy nor the International Union of Geological Sciences has yet officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geological time.

As I wrote before (February 3, 2015):

We are now living in the Anthropocene (May 14, 2013 blog) period. “Officially” we are not there yet, but with 7 billion people (as of October 2012) and growing, the change in designation becomes inevitable and humans will soon officially become the dominant part of the “natural environment.”

Bernie Sanders is calling us to join his “ultimate” revolution, but his version is limited to destroying our current governance system, and does not include a vision of building a new system to reflect our changing world. Naturally, as we are still in the primaries of the election cycle, the changes that he is advocating are mostly local to the US. He is the first one to admit that he doesn’t know too much about the world around us. His election would, however, be a better scenario than a presidency of Donald Trump, the leading candidate on the Republican side, who advocates building a tall wall on our southern border (demanding that Mexico foot the bill) that will isolate us from the rest of the world.

The Anthropocene is an epoch that describes the world; it is not limited to the United States. Nor is it just about human society; it is a term that integrates the physical environment with the human environment. Any governance system of our society necessarily includes our physical environment. To make significant changes to benefit our world, scientists will have to get involved in politics and politicians will have to get involved in science. As I have mentioned, “bilingualism” in talking about social studies and the sciences should be emphasized within the educational system. We can’t leave it to Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin to define what scientists should be. Similarly, we shouldn’t accept Marco Rubio’s excuse of not being a scientist to let him off the hook for dealing with climate change.

In the next few blogs I will try to launch a campaign of my own to politicize the Anthropocene. I want to increase proliferation of this kind of bilingualism between the sciences and social sciences and expand the opportunity pool for those that make the effort to learn the two languages. As a matter of fact, I already have one candidate for such jobs. She is graduating from our Honors College with a double major in Chemistry and Political Science. She wants to dedicate her life to making the world a better place, while also making enough money to support herself. Naturally, she is a bit confused about how to achieve all of this, but such things come with age.

I will be able to watch her efforts as I work to put the political Anthropocene into context within the mainstream consciousness.

Assessment: Since the end of December, on Twitter, I’m up to 348 followers. I also had 14 mentions, 62 retweets and over 43K organic tweet impressions. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page got an additional 96 “likes” and 12K impressions from almost 9K users. On my blog itself, I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 1,362 visits from 881 unique computers. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments. Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, “like” me on Facebook, and tell your friends to do the same. Not only do I post my newest blogs, I also share interesting articles and stories.

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Happy Earth Day: Climate Change Fork Turns 4!

Cupcake 4 candles

Today is Earth Day, which means that it’s been 4 years since I started this blog! Not only that, but it’s my wife’s birthday and Passover too – a triple celebration.

You can check out my first post, where I looked at the links between the Holocaust, climate change denial, and what I think amounts to a global self-inflicted genocide. I’ve come a long way since then and I thank you so much for reading my blog.

Meanwhile, you can follow these links to find out more about Earth Day and things to do:

EPA: Earth Day
Time Out New York: The best Earth Day events in NYC
NYC Parks: Earth Day & Arbor Day

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Climate Change and the Election: What is at Stake?

I started writing this blog on Wednesday, April 13. On that day, 71 years ago, I was liberated by American Army soldiers while on my way from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt (Terezin). This blog will be posted on Tuesday, April 19 – primary election day in my state, New York, where for the first time that I can remember, the results will be crucial in determining the nature of our US government for the next four years.

In my mind the two dates are connected through one word – survivor.

My liberation on April 13, 1945 has unquestionably marked me as Holocaust survivor. In all the meetings in which I participate to thank the soldiers from the American unit that liberated me, I am tagged as a survivor. In the high schools I visit to talk about the Holocaust, I am tagged as a survivor. On April 13, I got an avalanche of emails “congratulating” me and in turn, I sent my own emails to thank the soldiers that had a hand in my becoming a survivor.

My youngest grandson sent me an email asking for the names of my family members that were murdered during the Holocaust for a class activity that they are having to commemorate “Yom Hashoa” (translation – disaster day). When I told him that I needed a day or so to put together the list, relations and circumstances – I was told not to bother. He needed only two names. I gave him my father’s and my uncle’s.

As a result of my background, I have family all over the world, and I try to keep in close contact with them. When we meet, like any other family, political discussions are on the table. Within my family and circle of close friends, people’s views span almost the entire political spectrum – from the far left to the not-so-extreme right. The main reason that the spectrum of opinions is not fully symmetrical is that the far right has moved further to the right and many of the voices that we hear sound – to those of us who have experienced the Holocaust – similar to the ones that were voiced during that awful period. However, even the not-so extreme right does not like immigrants, does not like to pay taxes, often likes a larger role for religion in government and likes small government that only gives them what they want.

The far left of my family also doesn’t like the status quo. They consider it to be unfair and would like to shred it without giving a second thought to what might replace it.

Such a wide spectrum of political thought can be found in the present choices that we have as we embark on selecting our government for the next four years. On the federal level, we will vote for a new President, Vice President and legislative members, to lead us toward the future. Yet, as pointed out in previous blogs, close to half of the eligible voters in the US do not participate in the decision making. More than 60% of the non-voters come from the half of the population below the median income. It shouldn’t be very surprising that their interests are underrepresented.

The future, per definition, is unknown. However, the ramifications of past and present activities can, should, and are being analyzed to determine their probable impact on our future. Climate change is just one of the important examples of such analysis. The issue is complicated and cannot be analyzed in a binary way. It does involve most of the activities that characterize global human civilization. The direct implications of past and present human activities on global climate is followed by analysis of the impact of the global climate change on all of us.

As I discussed in a blog that I wrote a year ago (April 7, 2015), there is a collection of 41 indicators that the World Bank associates with climate change in the following areas:

Energy (access to electricity, Investment in energy CO2 emission, CO2 emission per capita, methane emission, nitrous oxide emission, other greenhouse gases, electric power consumption, energy use, energy use per capita).

Water (agriculture irrigated land, agricultural land, agriculture value added, forest area, investment in water and sanitation, annual fresh water withdrawals, low land area elevations, cereal yield, improved sanitation, improved rural water sources)

Population (population, population growth, population in large urban area, population living in low elevations, urban population, mortality rate)

Governance (CPIA (Country Policy and Institutional Assessments), ease of doing business)

Economy (GDP, GNI per capita, GDP growth, investment in telecom, investment in transport, foreign direct investment)

Income Distribution and Poverty (malnutrition, poverty ratio)

Infrastructure (roads paved)

Education (primary completion rate, ratio of girls and boys in primary and secondary).

As part of that same blog, my students were asked to write comments that justify the inclusion of these indicators in the Climate Change category. Reviewing their very good comments/arguments can be useful before any election, including this one, and they can be found here; be sure to scroll to the end of the blog entry.

Climate Change is an early indicator of a planet that is reaching the Anthropocene age (February 3, 2015 blog), so it is worthwhile to list the publicly stated opinions of the five remaining presidential candidates on this important issue in order to get at least some idea about how each one intends to confront a challenging future. (I’m also including Marco Rubio, even though he has already dropped out of the Presidential race.)

Marco Rubio:

“We’re not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate,” Rubio said.

“America is a lot of things, the greatest country in the world, absolutely. But America is not a planet.” Well, at least he got that last part right.

Ted Cruz:

Sen. Ted Cruz, candidate for the highest office in the land, thinks that climate change — a phenomenon widely accepted by the scientists who study it — is a religious belief. “Climate change is not science. It’s religion,” Cruz told Glenn Beck on Thursday. To back up his claim, Cruz pointed to the way we talk about climate change. “Look at the language, where they call you a denier,” he said. “Denier is not the language of science … Any good scientist is a skeptic; if he’s not, he or she should not be a scientist. But yet the language of the global warming alarmists, ‘denier’ is the language of religion, it’s heretic, you are a blasphemer.”

Donald Trump:

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

John Kasich:

Kasich distanced himself from the Pontiff on economic issues and environmental ones. “I think that man absolutely affects the environment, but as to whether, what the impact is… the overall impact — I think that’s a legitimate debate.” He then added: “We don’t want to destroy people’s jobs, based on some theory that is not proven.”

Bernie Sanders:

Right now, we have an energy policy that is rigged to boost the profits of big oil companies like Exxon, BP, and Shell at the expense of average Americans. CEO’s are raking in record profits while climate change ravages our planet and our people — all because the wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into complacency in the face of climate change. Enough is enough. It’s time for a political revolution that takes on the fossil fuel billionaires, accelerates our transition to clean energy, and finally puts people before the profits of polluters.

— Senator Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton:

In continuation of the Obama Administration policy and approach, Hillary Clinton has called for an “all of the above” energy policy, utilizing the US’s large natural gas reserves to reduce its dependence on coal and imported oil. She has called for the US to become a “clean energy superpower” with the installation of 500 million solar panels by the end of her first term. She has not rejected the use of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas from deposits underground using high-pressure injection of chemicals.

To the contrary, she has a long track record while Secretary of State of helping roll back a fracking ban in Bulgaria, and promoting American fracking technology around the world. Importantly, her focus is on shifting off coal, and her website proposes a $30 billion plan to help coal-dependent workers and communities transition to renewable energy. However Clinton’s “clean power” and “clean energy” phrases leave huge wiggle room, since these terms often do not exclude natural gas extraction and combustion, nuclear power, potentially problematic “big hydro” dams, and even high-temperature coal combustion with carbon capture and storage (CCS). In fact, Clinton’s coal plan includes research funding for CCS, widely seen in the coal industry as their last best hope in the face of climate activism. The campaigning organization created a scorecard that reviewed how Democratic candidates will “keep it in the ground?” (with the “it” being fossil fuels). They judged that the two campaigns shared positions on four issues. These include opposing the Keystone XL pipeline (which Clinton avoided taking a position on for years until a disputed reversal in September), opposing Arctic and offshore Atlantic drilling, and calling for the Department of Justice to investigate Exxon for its suppression of science on climate change.

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s entry is the longest here because she goes into fine details, something that tends to be missing in the other candidates’ entries.

As I read all these entries, it is apparent that all three Republican candidates who are still in the race do not want to deal with this issue because they claim that trying to do something about it will cost jobs. (By the way, there is no evidence that I am aware of which supports this claim and the unemployment level currently is at “full employment” level). Bernie Sanders has put it all on the shoulders of big corporations as he hopes to get rid of the status quo through revolution. Revolutions do not have great historical track record for improving anybody’s wellbeing, and the details are a bit obscure about how this revolution will take place. Looking at all of the various candidate’s positions, there do not seem to be many credible ones from which to choose.

A week after the New York primaries, there will be primaries in 5 Northeastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) with 462 Democratic and 172 Republican delegates at stake. New York State’s voting results will carry a considerable amount of weight and momentum in those elections.

Vote and stay tuned!

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Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 5: Can Psychology Help with a U-Turn?

A week from the posting of this blog, primaries will take place in NY State. It is the first time I can remember when the presidential primary will have such a large impact on both the Democratic and the Republican sides. Up to the time of writing, I was exposed to one TV ad by Bernie Sanders and one ad by Donald Trump against Ted Cruz. I am getting a constant flood of emails from two of the current Republican candidates (Ted Cruz and John Kasich) and I got a barrage of emails from Marco Rubio before he dropped out. Cruz’s email always start with “fellow Conservative.” I am not a conservative. Kasich’s emails and (Rubio’s emails before he ended his campaign) lead with pointing out how well he did in the last primary, as well as claiming that he is the last chance to prevent Trump from getting the nomination. I am not a Republican and I don’t vote in the Republican primaries. Interestingly, I am not getting (as of now – 10 days before the election) any requests for support from the two parties’ leading candidates – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It is obvious that the emails I get are computer-generated and I treat them as spam. To be effective, the senders ought to know the voters well enough to specifically target their pleas. Much more importantly, however, campaigns need to know about the non-voters so they can try to convince them to participate.

Iowa was the first state to cast its stakes in this election cycle, leading the primary season with both the Democratic and Republican caucuses. Ted Cruz was one of the 12 contenders to be selected by the Iowa Republicans as presidential candidates. He used what have since been labeled “shaming emails” to convince participants that he believed to be friendly to him to participate:

“You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record.  Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well.  CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well.  A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”

The strategy was controversial but apparently effective – he won the Iowa caucus, overturning Trump’s predicted win, and is now one of his party’s three contenders left. Furthermore, he’s considered one of the two with a real chance at being the party’s nominee. I have no idea how many psychologists Cruz is employing in his campaign.

We have a better idea of the workings behind President Obama’s successful 2012 presidential campaign due to a piece published in a blog associated with “Psychology Today,” a widely-read bi-monthly magazine:

The New York Times reported that the Obama campaign sought the assistance of a “dream team” of behavioral scientists to help them win the U.S. Presidential campaign. Included in the consortium of advisors were social psychologists Robert Cialdini and Susan Fiske, along with other psychologists from business schools, behavioral economists, and political scientists.Drawing on research from social psychology, persuasion, and decision making, the dream team consortium contributed ideas for the Obama team. For example, Dr. Fiske emphasized that a successful candidate has to convey both competence and warmth in order to have appeal to voters. Using the idea of “commitment and consistency” (based on cognitive dissonance theory), it was suggested that the Obama campaign volunteers not just ask about intentions to vote for Obama, but encouraged them to make a specific plan on how to get to the polls, and designate a specific time.

In dealing with the right wing claim that Obama was a Muslim, it was suggested that an affirming, competing message would be more effective than simply denying the claim. The Obama campaign apparently took this advice to heart and repeatedly emphasized that Obama is a Christian.

As the article notes, it is interesting that for decades political campaigns have used advertising and sales professionals, but rarely sought the assistance of psychologists and social scientists. It is reported that the Romney campaign did not show interest in behavioral scientists’ assistance – not surprising given the Republican emphasis on reducing funding for scientific research generally, and social science in particular.

The following look at registered nonvoters was also posted on the “Psychology Today” blog:

These days, some of the very best data on voter participation in the US come from the US Census Bureau.  For the past few decades, the Census Bureau has mounted a large-scale survey during each federal election, both midterm and presidential races.  The Census Bureau’s surveys are relatively straightforward in their design, but as they have very large samples they provide a rich resource for researchers.

In recent years, our team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (link is external) has made use of a surprisingly simple question in the recent Census Bureau voting surveys.  The Census Bureau has asked registered nonvoters to simply state why it is that they don’t vote.  And the answers to this simple question are very telling about why Americans who are otherwise registered do not vote.

In the 2008 Census Bureau voting survey, topping the list of reasons for not voting is a lack of interest (13%) or a dislike of the candidates or issues (13%).  More than a quarter of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn’t vote because they weren’t interested or didn’t like their choices.

Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters.  Others were too busy, or had conflicting schedules (17%).  That’s about a third of the registered nonvoters.

Of the remainder, many had some logistical problem with the process:  6% had problems with their voter registration, 3% did not have convenient polling places, and another 3% had some sort of transportation problem.  And 0.2% reported that bad weather conditions kept them from the polls on election day.

What does this tell us about why not all of those who are registered actually cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election?  According to the Census Bureau data, 131 million people participated in that election, of 146 million registered voters, and of 206 million citizens who are of voting age.  Those who are registered and otherwise eligible to vote, but who don’t, are tuned out or turned off; they are sick or too busy; or they have something procedural that prevents them from voting.

It’s difficult to say how our presidential elections could be changed so that so many weren’t tuned out or turned off.  No doubt the negativity of campaigns, which I’ve written about recently, has something to do with that.  But changing that will be difficult, if not impossible, given how political speech is constitutionally protected in the US.

But the other issues can be resolved; many states have been working to make the voting process more convenient, and less burdensome, for voters.  However, these reforms have recently come under attack throughout the nation, which may mean that more voters in 2012 will find it difficult and inconvenient to cast their ballot.

The focus of the work that Alvarez describes is registered voters that don’t vote. Of course, his piece predates the results from the Pew Research Survey that I discussed in part 1 of this series (March 15, 2016). As we saw there, compared to other countries, our rates of registered voters who vote are not bad at all. The area where we are lagging badly is among eligible voters that have not registered.

As I mentioned last week, I think that Political Psychology can tell us a lot about participation in the political process:

Political psychology is an interdisciplinary academic field dedicated to understanding politics, politicians and political behavior from a psychological perspective. The relationship between politics and psychology is considered bi-directional, with psychology being used as a lens for understanding politics and politics being used as a lens for understanding psychology. As an interdisciplinary field, political psychology borrows from a wide range of other disciplines, including: anthropology, sociology, international relations, economics, philosophy, media, journalism and history.

Unfortunately, it does not seem like the discipline is particularly directed at increasing voting participation.

Here is a somewhat more colorful description of what one political psychologist thinks about the voting process and the choices we face:

Imagine that this coming Saturday, you’re going out to the movies with a friend; to be nice, you’ve decided to let your friend pick the movie you’ll see.  Who would you rather the friend be: (1) someone who shares your taste in movies but doesn’t read movie reviews and knows nothing about which movies in the theaters now are dogs, (2) someone who reads lots of movie reviews but doesn’t like all the things you like, or (3) someone who once picked out a movie for you to see that you liked?  In other words, should you choose someone who shares your preferences, has expertise, or has a small track record of success in the past?That’s the sort of decision all Americans face every time they have to vote in a presidential election.  Should we endorse the candidate who agrees with us most about what government should do (Keep abortion legal or outlaw it?  Make it harder to buy a handgun in America, or make it easier?)?  Or should we endorse the candidate who knows the most about solving the nation’s problems?  Or should we throw our support to a candidate whose party has proven to be the most successful in running the country in the recent past?

Rarely do we find all these desirable qualities in one candidate, so we have to decide how to decide – which criterion should rule the day this time around?

Again, the emphasis here is whom to vote for, rather than a feeling of obligation to participate in the process. Next week I will conclude this series with an attempt to describe what is at stake here.

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Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 4: Money of the Few Can Be Balanced By the Will of the Many

I am back here with the title that started this series (March 15); this time, I’ll attempt to emphasize the second part of the phrase: how to reverse direction from the constant march toward oligarchy back to a constitutional democracy that we can all be proud of. The US Supreme Court has made its position clear: money is a form of a constitutional free speech and since most of it is held by an elite few they are able to spend it as they wish to influence public policy around them. The counteraction that is embedded in most democratic systems is to empower the much larger group with fewer resources to balance the smaller group’s influence through participation in the voting process. In practice, this has generally failed in the US, given that the less affluent tend not to vote as much as their richer peers. Taking the 2012 presidential election as an example, 57 million eligible voters earning below the median household income failed to vote. In comparison, the corresponding number among those with household incomes above the median was a mere 25 million eligible voters that did not participate.

It is true that the Citizens United decision could be overturned with changes in the composition of the Supreme Court, but, as we can see, the appointment of the next justice is a fraught political decision that will strongly depend on the election results, meaning that our votes are even more essential.

I strongly believe, however, that the influence of money on the election process will slowly start to decline regardless of the future fate of Citizens United or the makeup of the Supreme Court. The main reason is the recent advances in the distribution of communication technologies through social media. About 80% of the US population uses social media in one form or another – the number of users exceeds the number of eligible voters. Money, at least up to now, and as described in the Supreme Court resolutions that preceded Citizens United, is key to spreading the message. The most expensive part of doing so has traditionally been purchasing television advertisement. Now with the much lower-cost, and likely more effective outlet of social media, the central role that money has played in the process is bound to decrease.

That leaves us with the other aspect in our U-turn back to democracy – the necessary increase in voter participation. How can we convince eligible voters to participate in the election process? I thought I’d use some basic psychology. If we can perceive the reasons for the low turnout, maybe we can look at how to counter them. After all, it is an individual’s decision whether or not to vote, and psychology tells us a lot about how we make (or influence) such decisions.

My wife is a professor of psychology in the same school where I teach. I am not trying to find her a job. She has her hands full with the current tenured position that she holds. But the first question that I asked her was if Psychology has a sub-discipline of Political Psychology. Not surprisingly, her answer was yes, although it is not one of the 54 subdivisions of the APA (American Psychological Society). On continuing the conversation about the role of psychology in voting participation she warned me that it is an old issue and that a considerable amount of research has already been done. I interpreted that as a caution that the role of psychology in voting participation will take more than half a blog to cover. So this blog is dedicated to a description of the issues and next week’s blog will be focused on how I see the role of psychology in facilitating the U-turn.

Here is how Wikipedia describes the reasons for the low voter turnout:

Reasons for voting

In any large families of twenty the chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low. Some studies show that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the Electoral College in the United States has an even lower chance of determining the outcome.[2] Other studies claim that the Electoral College actually increases voting power.[3] Studies using game theory, which takes into account the ability of voters to interact, have also found that the expected turnout for any large election should be zero.[4]

The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote, on the questionable assumption that people act completely rationally, is[5]


  • P is the probability that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of an election,
  • B is the perceived benefit that would be received if that person’s favored political party or candidate were elected,
  • D originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting, and
  • C is the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting.

Since P is virtually zero in most elections, PB is also near zero, and D is thus the most important element in motivating people to vote. For a person to vote, these factors must outweigh C. Experimental political science has found that even when P is likely greater than zero, this term has no effect on voter turnout. Enos and Fowler (2014) conducted a field experiment that exploits the rare opportunity of a tied election for major political office. Informing citizens that the special election to break the tie will be close (meaning a high P term) has little mobilizing effect on voter turnout.[6]

Riker and Ordeshook developed the modern understanding of D. They listed five major forms of gratification that people receive for voting: complying with the social obligation to vote; affirming one’s allegiance to the political system; affirming a partisan preference (also known as expressive voting, or voting for a candidate to express support, not to achieve any outcome); affirming one’s importance to the political system; and, for those who find politics interesting and entertaining, researching and making a decision.[7] Other political scientists have since added other motivators and questioned some of Riker and Ordeshook’s assumptions.[citation needed] All of these concepts are inherently imprecise, making it difficult to discover exactly why people choose to vote.

Recently, several scholars have considered the possibility that B includes not only a personal interest in the outcome, but also a concern for the welfare of others in the society (or at least other members of one’s favorite group or party).[8][9] In particular, experiments in which subject altruism was measured using a dictator game showed that concern for the well-being of others is a major factor in predicting turnout[10] and political participation.[11][12] Note that this motivation is distinct from D, because voters must think others benefit from the outcome of the election, not their act of voting in and of itself.

The original references can be found on the site.

Not surprisingly, it’s complicated, but the essence of it, as I understand it, boils down to a personal impact analysis. It’s a competition between the three terms in the inequality above: the perceived balance between the individual vote’s impact (P), the social obligation to vote (D), and the effort it takes to do so (C). Since P is by its nature negligibly small, the competition is focused between the abstract D term and the very concrete C term.

There are countries and regions that enforce voting (compulsory voting) and there are others that encourage voting through other means such as declaration of a national holiday for Election Day. The United States does neither and furthermore requires voters to register – an extra burden that adds to the C term in the inequality.

Of course, this inequality can be applied to other areas in life, where we must choose whether doing something is “worth it.” The ultimate “conflict” between the three terms comes in an army service where often you are being ask to give your life for your country. I will mention two historic examples – one from Israel and one from the US.

I grew up in Israel, so I naturally studied the early history of the Jewish settlement in what used to be Palestine. One of the great heroes of that period was Joseph Trumpeldor. Mortally wounded defending a Jewish settlement (Tel – Hai) he was heard to say, “It is good to die for our country.” As usual, the exact circumstances of his death and the famous final words are in dispute. Nevertheless, while at that time there was no “our country” (it was part of the Turkish Empire), the sentiment was there. There was no compulsory army service but people were willing to give their life. The defense of Tel-Hai, by today’s standards, was a small skirmish (small P term – not that important in the scheme of things).

I live happily now in the US and my wife was born in Connecticut. Visiting my wife’s birthplace, one cannot escape the name of Nathan Hale. He was an American soldier and spy for the Continental Army that was captured by the British and executed. His last words are known to be, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” I doubt that Trumpeldor ever heard of Hale but the spirit of their last words conveys the same message (overwhelmingly dominant D term). Both viewed it to be an honor to die for their country, even though neither country was yet a sovereign nation.

Any soldier, no matter where he is or whether his service is volunteered or compulsory, is fully aware of the prospect of getting killed in case of a military conflict. By the time a soldier is enlisted, however (whether voluntarily or not), the balance between the collective good and personal sacrifice has already been decided, meaning that the issue is (or should be) moot during individual skirmishes.

I went through a much less extreme but more relevant choice between P, D and C in my application for my American citizenship. Both myself and my wife at that time worked as professionals in the research departments of two American corporations. We lived in a suburb of NYC, both as legal immigrants with green-cards. Our son was in his early school years. In the particular suburb where we lived, there was one large retirement home with a few hundred retirees. Almost any school budget that came up for a vote got turned down –mainly due to the votes of the retirees that didn’t have any children in the school district. We obviously had the option to change residence but we decided that the more productive step would be to apply for citizenship, allowing us to add our own votes to the tally – Democracy at its best. We knew full well that our two votes would not counter the much larger number from the retirement home but felt it was the right thing to do and would put us in a better position to influence our neighbors to vote as well.

All told, it is not an easy job to make D overcome C and “justify” one’s actions.

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Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 3: Who Shows Up?

(March 22, 2016):

Close to half of the country – mostly that in the low income end of the financial spectrum – does not participate in choosing our government. The courts have amplified this inequality by allowing an unlimited use of money in campaign contributions. Two billionaire brothers announced that they were planning to spend close to a billion dollars on the 2016 election. We are quickly moving from the democracy we prize to the embodiment of oligarchy.

There are other factors not directly associated with economic status that affect our collective participation in the nature of government that we have. These include gender, race, age and education. I’ll look at those next week.

Here are the data taken mostly from the “United States Election Project” site:

Voter Turnout Race Ethnicity Presidential Midterm Elections

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the trend based on race and ethnicity. The pattern is almost consistent since 1986: a low turnout throughout, with a major difference (around 20%) in attendance between presidential and midterm elections. Over that time period, we see a small but noticeable increase in the turnout of Non-Hispanic Whites but a relatively large increase in that of the Non-Hispanic Black population. The turnout of the latter group now looks identical to that of Whites while participation in the Hispanic community remains consistently low.

Race White Voter Turnout Elections

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the relative decline of the Non-Hispanic White share of voter turnout.

Voter Participation Age Election Old Young

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows the voting trends by age group: respectable participation by old folks, diminishing to very low turnout by younger voters. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has said that he strongly attracts young voters and brings new voters to the table in his battle against Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. That claim is likely true but we will have to wait until after the 2016 elections to see all of the numbers.

Voter Turnout Education College High School Participation Election

Figure 4

Figure 4 shows the trend as a function of education. Again, we see a hierarchy of turnout, with the highly educated participating far more than those with less than a high-school education and an even more prominent difference between the four groups. Many claim that Donald Trump can attribute his recent rise in popularity to his draw among Whites with less than a high-school education. Like Sanders, he asserts (probably correctly) that he is tapping a large group of new potential voters. Again, we will have to wait until the end of the present election cycle to see how many of them actually show up.

Voters overwhelmingly look for and hope for a savior of sorts – a prince on his white horse to rescue the country from everything that ails it. That some have gathered behind Trump, casting him in this role, is unsurprising, but we must remember it is not a new phenomenon.

Figures 1 – 4 show the sectorial trends from 1986. To get a better picture of the disparity between voter turnout at midterm and presidential elections, figure 5 goes all the way back to 1948 – shortly after the end of WWII. The difference in participation rates is consistent throughout this period.

Voting Midterm vs Presidential Election 1948-2012

  Figure 5

Next week I will start to analyze the consequences of the low turnout, some proposed remedies, and the implications of these trends on the US’ ability to lead global efforts to mitigate climate change and other man-made world perils.

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Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 2: Which People Vote?

Last week (March 15) we looked at three key findings:

  1. From the Pew Research survey of voters cast in OECD countries, the United States (ranked 4th from the bottom in the voters participation survey (2012 presidential elections) records about 55% of voters participation as percent of the voting age population and about 85% as percent of registered voters. The only country with compared discrepancy between registration and actual voting is Luxemburg. The obvious main culprit of low voter turnout seems to be low voter registration.
  1. Distribution of voter attendance by income (2008 elections) shows an average turnout of 59.7%, but participation by low income voters is considerably smaller than that by high income voters:

41.3% participation by those earning less than $10,000

Turnout doesn’t increase much until voter income reaches $20,000 rising from there monotonically in accordance with income (no outliers).

78.1% by those earning above $150,000

  1. The distribution of annual household income in the United States (2012) allows us to estimate how many voters do not participate in the US election and which economic class they represent.

The median household income in the US is around $51,000. There are around 134 million households in the country, with an average of 2.6 occupants each. In order to translate this information we need to evaluate the structure of US households. The total US population in 2012 was reported to be 314 million – a 10% discrepancy with the calculations from above.

Focusing on the 2012 data, here is the breakdown in terms of potential voters:

Percentage of US population Description Potential voters
19.6 Married couples with children under 18 2
29.1 Married couples without children 2
17.8 Other family households 2
12.3 Men living alone 1
15.2 Women living alone 1
6.1 Other non-family households 1

For 100 households, the total number of potential voters comes out to be 167. Taking 10% of this number to be ineligible voters I arrive at 150 eligible voters per 100 households.

household type census married single family 1970 2012

Figure 1Evolution of household structures from 1970 to 2012

Now we can go back to last week’s info to analyze the voter turnout by income, together with the distribution of household income to come out with the number of votes that we miss in two economic categories: household income above and below the country’s median income.

The number of eligible voters below the median income is calculated to be 54.5% (per definition a median should divide at exactly 50%; the difference came as a combination of both the histogram’s resolution of the dividing line and my own choice of where to put the line). If we use our count of 150 eligible voters per 100 households from earlier, we come out with 109 million eligible voters below the median household income. The average turnout for this group comes out to a mere 48%. This leaves 57 million eligible voters with income below the median that did not participate in the 2012 presidential election. The corresponding number of above median income non-participants was less than half of that: 25 million.

Let’s look at the second important issue raised by the Pew Research Survey shown in last week’s blog. If we go by percentage of possible voters who are registered or take part in elections, we are 4th from the bottom in the list of the OECD countries. If, on the other hand, we look in terms of participation as a percentage of registered voters, we are at a very respectable 85%. Clearly, our problem is our system of voter registration.

An easy target to blame for this is the growing list of legislation making registration more difficult for voters that the state authorities perceive to be unfriendly to the party in power. Southern states, largely controlled by Republican administrations, are infamous for these kinds of regulations. However, Figures 2 and 3 indicate that as despicable as these practices are, their effect seems minor and limited in its scope – at least within the given time period.

Figure 3 shows the distribution of voter turnout across the United States. The turnout in southern states like Texas and Oklahoma that are known for gaming the system with restrictive regulations is low but that is also the case for New York and California, neither of which has instituted such practices.

voter restriction laws USFigure 2Restrictive voter provisions

2012 voter turnout state US

Figure 3 – Voter participation (2012) by state

One definition of democracy we have cited before is: an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, our highest authority on the Constitution has decided that money and speech are equivalent and both are constitutionally protected. Here is what I wrote:

In 2008, $5.3 billion were spent on the federal elections – $2.4 billion on the presidential elections alone. In 2012 super-PACs (Political Action Committees) were created to spend more than $350 million on political campaigns; 60% of that money came from a mere 100 donors. These committees were created as a product of two judicial decisions that essentially defended campaign contributions as free speech protected by the first amendment of the constitution. The Supreme Court approved the divisive Citizens United case in a 5:4 decision. As a result, super-PACs are forbidden from being directly connected with or giving money to a specific candidate. They can, however, spend unlimited money on advertising issues that play to a chosen candidate’s strengths. It turns out gaming the system is not a very demanding sport (even within a “full democracy”).

Close to half of the country – mostly that in the low income end of the financial spectrum – does not participate in choosing our government. The courts have amplified this inequality by allowing an unlimited use of money in campaign contributions. Two billionaire brothers announced that they were planning to spend close to a billion dollars on the 2016 election. We are quickly moving from the democracy we prize to the embodiment of oligarchy.

There are other factors not directly associated with economic status that affect our collective participation in the nature of government that we have. These include gender, race, age and education. I’ll look at those next week.

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Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 1: The Money of the Few Can Be Balanced by the Will of the Many

I have mentioned before that according to the Democracy Index compiled by The Economist, the US comes in last (#20) among the “full democracies.” Its score on this index is 8.05, compared to Norway (#1) which gets 9.93. One of the factors that enters in this index is the level of political participation. The US gets 7.22/10 on this metric, its lowest score within the 5 categories that constitute this index (although other “full democracies” rank lower in this particular category). I will try to explore some of the reasoning behind the low score and what can and should be done to rectify it. This also brings up a valid question as to the nature of our governments. Indeed, one of the manifestations of a “flawed democracy,” the next category down in the Economist index, is oligarchy.

Let’s go back to the Merriam Webster definition of democracy that we used earlier this month (March 1) and add to that the definition of Oligarchy from the same source:

Simple Definition of democracy

1 :  a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting


2 :  a country ruled by democracy


3 :  an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights

Simple Definition of oligarchy

1 :  A country, business, etc., that is controlled by a small group of people

2 :  The people that control a country, business, etc.

3 :  Government or control by a small group of people

Wikipedia uses two examples in its description of oligarchy: the Russian Federation and the US:

Russian Federation

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have, in the view of some analysts, led to the rise of Russian oligarchs.[citation needed]

United States

Further information: Income inequality in the United States § Impact on democracy and society

Some contemporary authors have characterized current conditions in the United States as oligarchic in nature.[8][9] Simon Johnson wrote that “the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent,” a structure which he delineated as being the “most advanced” in the world.[10] Jeffrey A. Winters wrote that “oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay.”[11] Bernie Sanders, opined in a 2010 The Nation article that an “upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class … In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.”[12] The top 1% in 2007 had a larger share of total income than at any time since 1928.[13] In 2011, according to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 wealthiest Americans “have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.”[14][15][16][17]

French economist Thomas Piketty states in his 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that “the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed.”[18]

I explained our largely money-based electoral system:

Elections in the US are the longest and most expensive in the world.

In 2008, $5.3 billion were spent on the federal elections – $2.4 billion on the presidential elections alone. In 2012 super-PACs (Political Action Committees) were created to spend more than $350 million on political campaigns; 60% of that money came from a mere 100 donors. These committees were created as a product of two judicial decisions that essentially defended campaign contributions as free speech protected by the first amendment of the constitution. The Supreme Court approved the divisive Citizens United case in a 5:4 decision. As a result, super-PACs are forbidden from being directly connected with or giving money to a specific candidate. They can, however, spend unlimited money on advertising issues that play to a chosen candidate’s strengths. It turns out gaming the system is not a very demanding sport (even within a “full democracy”).

One of the most obvious manifestations of political participation is how many citizens vote. Here are recent data from the Pew Research survey on this issue:


And the distribution of voter turnout by income:

Figure2_VoterTurnoutByIncomeThe income distribution in the US is almost a mirror image of the voter’s turnout:


I will let the data speak for themselves for now and invite comments. Next week I will share my take on the data and what can be done to try to swing us back from oligarchy to democracy and the ideas that the Founding Fathers tried to frame in the American Constitution.

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Decision Time: What Will the Election Mean For the US and Abroad?

I am starting to write this blog two days after Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump came out way ahead of their competition as the leading candidates for the Democratic and Republican Party nominations for November’s election of the President of the United States. I promised to switch gears from Cuba to our upcoming presidential election, given how big of a role it will play in our immediate future. I have made a similar promise to my climate change class, where I am always trying to balance basic science with current events. In this case, much of that latter will revolve around the preliminary stages of the American presidential elections.

Up to now, climate change has hardly been mentioned in the election campaigns, but the terrain is very clear: both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, believe it to be a human-caused threat that requires major global mitigation efforts. They agree that these should be led by the US and have promised to continue and amplify President Obama’s work in this area. Meanwhile, the leading Republican candidates, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, refuse to believe any of this and have vowed to overturn present policies and renege on international commitments to mitigate the impact. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, came back with the often-heard “I am not a scientist” argument, claiming that he is not qualified to determine the truth of climate change or whether mitigation efforts will cost American jobs. I took the opportunity to listen to the 11th Republican debate (Thursday, March 3, 2016) to find out if this assessment of the collective opinion is still valid; it is.

For the Democrats, the primary selection results so far have been a confirmation of the expected: victory for Hillary Clinton. As for the Republicans, the proceedings have come across as a disaster, with serious ramifications as to the future viability of the party in its present form. In the beginning of this process, during the first debate between more than 10 aspiring Republican candidates, the first question was a request for confirmation that each candidate was willing sign a pledge to support any Republican candidate if he (or she at the time) won the party’s nomination. The only candidate that refused to commit himself was Donald Trump. He later relented and signed a pledge to do so. In the last debate all three of his remaining opponents reaffirmed that promise.

But the campaign chair of one of the candidates has announced that he will not support Trump if elected. Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, and John McCain, the 2008 nominee, are urging all Republicans not to vote for Trump. Important party voices are calling for the creation of a third partyName calling at the intellectual level of elementary school bullies is prevalent. It is certainly a show. Right now, this show has no direct impact on policy, but that could change radically in November.

United States residents are not the only ones alarmed. The European press is fully covering the turmoil with great apprehension. As many US publications have noticed, however, the Europeans shouldn’t be surprised. Donald Trump actually fits in very well within recent political trends in Europe.

Political figures like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi have many similarities to Donald Trump. Not only was he a candidate for high political office but he actually served as Prime Minister four times. Meanwhile, Victor Orban, the President of Hungary, is very busy building fences to block the refugees that are seeking security in Europe. Jean-Marie Le Pen and his much more media-savvy daughter Marine Le Pen also fit into this category. The memorable French presidential election of 2002 saw the National Front candidate win the first round against the serving socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin only to then be defeated by the Conservative Jacques Chirac 82% – 18% because almost everybody in France was truly alarmed by Le Pen’s policies. In fact, just a few days ago, neo-Nazis were elected to the Slovakian parliament for the first time.

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist (February 27, 2016) came with a Trump caricature that reads “Donald Trump is unfit to lead a great political party.” This is a bit less ambitious than Mitt Romney’s outright declaration that Donald Trump is unfit to be the President of the United States.

The question immediately arises – who decides about a candidate’s fitness to be President (or leader of a party)? There are no exams and the only constitutional restrictions I know of for running for the office are age and “natural born citizenship”:

Age and Citizenship requirements – US Constitution, Article II, Section 1

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States

Based on this text, Trump certainly seems more eligible than Canadian-born Ted Cruz, though both meet the age requirement. Ultimately, it will be up to the voters to make a decision; they are also the ones that must live with the consequences.

An extreme example of the mentality that is trying to raise Donald Trump into the American presidency can be traced (at least in my eyes) to 1933 Germany. The consequences of the decisions by the German electorate cost me my childhood and the murder of most of my family. Furthermore, it cost Europe and the world the lives of tens of millions of victims. Democracy is not yet very efficient at guarding against repetition.

One often-discussed way to guard against candidates like Donald Trump is to censor candidates. There are huge pitfalls in establishing such a process that can be easily gamed. Two countries come to mind – Cuba and Iran. As we discussed last week, under The Economist’s Democracy Index, both countries’ governments are termed authoritarian. Iran comes in at 156th place on the list, with a democratic index of of 2.16, and Cuba is number 129 on the list, with a score of 3.52. The main components that drive both of them down are Electoral Process and Pluralism; that said, they do not rate well in the other criteria either. Guest blogger Jake Levin described the situation in Cuba (February 16, 2016):

Still, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the average Cuban election sees more than 95% participation. These are non-mandatory, and there is little evidence that there are repercussions for citizens who choose not to vote. The process is conducted in a town-hall nominating format, with municipal candidates presenting their credentials to their constituents and voters approving or denying them in nominating assemblies. Provincial candidates go through multiple vetting rounds at the local level. Political scientists and philosophers have debated the democratic or non-democratic nature of the political process for decades – while likely not a system of which John Dewey would approve, it is a form of democracy.

A few days ago, elections were held in Iran. Here are some of the highlights:

There were 54,915,024 registered voters (in Iran, the voting age is 18). More than 12,000 people filed to run for office.[5] Nomination of 5,200 of candidates, mostly Reformists,[6] were rejected by the Guardian Council and 612 individuals withdrew.

Electoral system

The 290-seat Islamic Consultative Assembly has 285 directly elected members and five seats reserved for the Zoroastrians, Jews, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians and Armenians (one for Armenians in the north of Iran and one for Armenians in the south).[7]

The 285 directly elected seats are elected from 196 constituencies, which are a mix of single and multi-member. In single-member constituencies candidates must receive at least one-third of the votes in the first round. If no candidate passes this threshold, a second round is held with the two highest-vote candidates. In multi-member constituencies, voters cast as many votes as there are seats available; candidates must receive votes from at least one-third of the voters to be elected; if not all the seats are filled in the first round of voting, a second round is held with twice the number of candidates as there are seats to be filled (or all the original candidates if there are fewer than double the number of seats).[7]

Voters must be Iranian citizens aged 18 or over, and shall not have been declared insane.


According to Iranian law, in order to qualify as a candidate one must:[7]

  • Be an Iranian citizen
  • Have a master’s degree (unless being an incumbent)
  • Be a supporter of the Islamic Republic, pledging loyalty to constitution
  • Be a practicing Muslim (unless running to represent one of the religious minorities in Iran)
  • Not have a “notorious reputation”
  • Be in good health, between the ages of 30 and 75.

A candidate will be disqualified if he/she is found to be mentally impaired, actively supporting the Shah or supporting political parties and organizations deemed illegal or been charged with anti-government activity, converted to another faith or has otherwise renounced the Islamic faith, have been found guilty of corruption, treason, fraud, bribery, is an addict or trafficker or have been found guilty of violating Sharia law.[7] Also, candidates must be literate; candidates cannot have played a role in the pre-1979 government, be large landowners, drug addicts or have convictions relating to actions against the state or apostasy. Government ministers, members of the Guardian Council and High Judicial Council are banned from running for office, as is the Head of the Administrative Court of Justice, the Head of General Inspection, some civil servants and religious leaders and any member of the armed forces.[7]

The final results are not yet in because a second round is still needed for few of the assembly seats, but the overall assessment is that the reformists did very well. Laura Secor provided a detailed description of the outcome in the New York Times (March 5, 2016).

I’m sure we are not about to directly emulate Iran or Cuba’s practices, but discussions are certainly in order to talk about mechanisms to control the kind of candidates that are applying for our trust. We are currently placed at the bottom (#20) of the Democracy Index’s “full democracy” section. Any candidate-vetting process will obviously reduce our score in “pluralism,” moving us down to the “flawed democracy” category. We’ll need to decide whether sparing ourselves the votes on disastrous candidates such as Donald Trump is worth such a downgrade.

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