March 5, 2017

A March for Science Is Actually Long Overdue

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:08 pm

The scientific community is divided about the planned March for Science.  Adherents say that it is necessary to direct the public eye to the plight of scientific enterprise in an administration that apparently (and as many of us predicted) does not value scientific expertise.  Detractors argue that the march would serve to politicize science and “turn scientists into another interest group.”

With all due respect to these views, I submit that science has already been politicized, and it was not the doing of the scientific community.

I’ve had this debate before.  Some on social media like to argue that “advocacy” undermines scientific integrity somehow, or that stating an opinion about policies that are relevant to one’s research is a conflict of interest.  I deeply disagree with both positions, and in fact, I think that the scientific community’s rigid adherence to the idea that “scientists don’t have political opinions” is a part of why we’re in the situation that we’re in.

You see, those in politics who have a problem with science—climate-change deniers, anti-vaccination activists, evolution deniers, anti-NASA advocates, whatever they may be—know very well that science and policy are intertwined.  Scientists who assert that their research into climate change, medicine, etc., has no social policy dimension are saying something that, quite frankly, nobody else finds credible.  It comes across as an attempt at deception, whether of oneself or of the general public, and it does not help the scientist’s case.

I’m going to propose that something like the following is what a layperson hears instead:

“My climate research has found a link between severe drought and global change, but don’t get me wrong—that’s not political!  It’s just pure science.  I’m not saying that any government should attempt to do anything about drought mitigation or emissions reduction; I’m just stating a fact!  Now, more research money from the taxpayers, please?”

Yeah, I wouldn’t be convinced either.

It is true that it does not logically follow that a climate realist must support any given policy prescription.  I’ve argued this before too:  Accepting climate research does not mean that one must accept the entire “green” policy package.  However, it is morally difficult to accept the reality of climate change and not think that something should be done about it.  We can have differences of opinion as to what should be done, or who should do it, but inaction does not really seem morally defensible here (and in fact, some moderate-conservative Republicans are coming around to support carbon taxes, state-level action, and market forces in curbing emissions, such as the “Green Tea Coalition” that is pro-solar).

The layperson knows this.  The (in this case) climate skeptic knows it too.  Inaction is morally indefensible, so a person whofor whatever reason, be it financial conflict of interest, tribal partisan identity, or simple fear of personal disruption such as a coal miner might feeldoesn’t want to act can justify that decision only by denying the science itself.  This particular field of scientific research (and many others) cannot be wholly decoupled from the political dimension, and it is a fruitless effort to attempt to do so.  I don’t think we even convince ourselves of that, let alone anyone else, and as I said, I think we come across as dishonest when we try.

In the absolute best case, asserting that “scientists aren’t political” results in the removal of our voices from the debate about our research, our profession, and our integrity.  If we take our speech out of the picture (and even attack those in our community who do speak out), the opponents of science are the only ones talking.  The public doesn’t note our absence and think, “Oh, the scientific community isn’t speaking, so therefore the interests of scientists aren’t political.”  They just don’t hear our side at all.  It doesn’t take two sides to an issue for that issue to be “politicized.”  It only takes one, and that one has already made scientists’ interests a political issue.  The March for Science won’t do that; it’s already been done to us.  We’ve been paying the price for our own timidity, and the march is a way to change that.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this:  Federal research funding is under grave threat.  Federal researchers fear a chilling of free scientific inquiry in the government.  Young scientists and new graduates are afraid that they won’t even have jobs in the field that they just dedicated years of their lives to studying, and that they’ll be considered “overqualified” to do much of anything else.  This is not “business as usual.”  This is not the normal ebb and flow of policy, Democrat vs. Republican.  This is a profoundly anti-intellectual populist movement that has scientists of all partisan leanings in its crosshairs, Republican scientists not excepted.

Further, I hold a position that the anti-marchers probably won’t like one bit:  Scientists are an interest group.  It’s time we started to act like one.

I don’t think the term “interest group” should be a “dirty word.”  It’s simply an acknowledgment of an important fact in a pluralistic society:  People are different and have different, occasionally competing needs.  Policymaking is partly about balancing the needs of each “interest group” for the common good.  You show me someone who isn’t part of an interest group, and I’ll show you a vacuum.

Populist movements like to use “interest groups” and “special interests” as bogeymen, turning them into tyrannical minorities and making them “the other” to the group of people that they are inciting to anger, but in reality everyone is part of an “interest group,” usually more than one.  The “white working class” is an interest group.  Fossil fuel labor is an interest group.  Rural voters are an interest group (and all of the above are minorities of the United States population, in fact).  The scientific community shouldn’t buy into the populist idea that being part of an interest group is bad, but instead, should embrace it as a stance against anti-democratic populism.  American policy is at its best when it respectfully considers the interests and rights of all affected groups, instead of playing the deceitful, divisive game of pitting one minority population against another as “enemies.”  (I don’t want to cast stones here, but I’d like to point out that both the Trumpian right and the identity-politics left do this, and it has been very harmful.)

Furthermore, interest groups that acknowledge their situation have done pretty well in policy, on both liberal and conservative sides.  The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten too far if it had ignored the racial minority aspect.  Same for the LGBT community.  Religious groups acknowledge their distinguishing characteristic and openly lobby for favorable policies.  Most recently, and perhaps most applicably to scientists (since it is a career), law enforcement lobbies have gotten legislatures in several states to pass “Blue Lives Matter” bills.  Recognizing and uniting around a dimension of one’s identity turns a collection of disparate voices into a powerful force.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s in scientists’ best interest to band together around policy issues that concern them, get involved more (especially scientists who are Republicansyour voices are sorely needed!), speak out, and support science advocacy groups.  Perhaps some do not want to participate in a March for Science for personal reasons.  That’s fine.  But let’s all recognize certain realities, includingespeciallythe reality that the status quo of scientists’ near non-involvement in policy discussion has materially hurt our profession, while doing nothing to prevent the “politicization” of science in the public mind.  We are an interest group.  Our research is frequently supported with taxpayer monies, and many of us conduct research that has policy implications (or connections, at a minimum).  Like it or not, we’re part of policy and politics.  Pretending these things are not so will not convince anyone to support science.

October 22, 2016

A Trump Presidency Would Be Devastating to Geoscience

Filed under: Politics,Science,Uncategorized — PolitiCalypso @ 6:04 pm

This election campaign has been so disheartening to me as a woman, as a climate scientist, and as a former member of the so-called and much-maligned “political class” that I haven’t even wanted to write about it.  I’ve felt personally targeted by Trump’s misogynistic, anti-intellectual rhetoric, in a way that I never have by previous Republican nominees for president, so I can only imagine what ethnic and religious minorities are feeling.  This campaign has also all but spoiled the satisfaction I would have otherwise felt at casting my first vote for a woman for President of the United States, by infusing that moment of pride and pleasure with a fog of crippling fear and disgust for the alternative, and that is something I find very difficult to forgive.

I’m also not happy in the least that everything I’ve been predicting about this brand of populism for the past 2 years has been proven correct.

That said, I’ve decided to swallow my profound loathing of this campaign to write about something that I haven’t seen in any mainstream outlet thus far:  the effect of a Trump presidency on geosciences, specifically atmospheric science, in the United States.  I do not exaggerate in the slightest when I say that the impacts would be truly catastrophic to this field.

This is not a long post, because it doesn’t need to be.  The facts are out there.  I’m just tying them together.  And my conclusion is that there is no reason for any atmospheric scientist or even amateur weather nerd to vote for this person.  Not even climate-change denier scientists.

Decimating Government Research Jobs and Grants

Trump may or may not be a “drown the government in the bathtub” Republican in his core, but there’s little doubt that he would gladly do the bidding of the Tea Party Republicans in Congress.  The Republican Chair of the House Science Committee is a radical named Lamar Smith, who not only is a climate change denier, but who has abused his power to harass climatologists in NOAA—and in the private nonprofit sector!—and accuse them of committing mass research fraud.  He’s basically been conducting a McCarthy-esque witch hunt against the atmospheric science community because he doesn’t want to believe that climate change is real.

But he isn’t the only danger in Congress.  Every few years since the early 1980s, with the exception of the Clinton years, the far right in Congress has pushed some sort of bill that would privatize the National Weather Service or massively reduce funding for NOAA, NASA, or the National Science Foundation.  In addition to employing research scientists in the government sector, these divisions are the primary source of public grant money for academics.  The privatization bills have so far always been blocked by a president in opposition or (in the case of former Senator Rick Santorum’s 2005 attempt to cripple the NWS) massive organizing on the part of the atmospheric science community.  But in the event of a Trump presidency, the stability of these science agencies would be wholly dependent on the ability of Democrats to keep such bills from reaching the floor and on decent, moderate Republicans to not vote for them.  (It is exceedingly unlikely at the time of this writing, with the orangeman having less than a 10% chance of being elected, but if that should happen, Republicans would hold Congress.)

On Oct. 22, Trump, who has infamously tweeted that he thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax, also announced that he would freeze federal hiring across the board.  This would affect young scientists the most of anyone.  Postdoctoral scientists typically are not federal employees, but are instead funded by research grants that pay for their salaries—but most of the time, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship, a scientist will seek to be fully and officially employed at the agency that sponsored them or a closely collaborating one.  That wouldn’t happen with Trump’s plan.  This would mean that these postdocs would either “age out” of their jobs, or that the sponsoring agencies would avoid taking on new postdocs because they were loyal to their current ones and did not want to throw them to the wolves.  The next generation of science graduates, people with Ph. D.s, the most highly educated workers in the country, would find themselves unemployed and with limited opportunities in their field.  So much for job creation and America as a global leader.  This might even make part of Trump’s ignorant tweet about China true:  If American climate science is decimated, as it would be, somebody would fill the void.

The War on Advocacy and Policy Wonkery

Trump also proposed “reforming” lobbying, redefining it to include many activities that are currently not defined as such, and imposing an even longer ban on former members of Congress and Congressional staff from engaging in it.  This is the clearest shot yet in the ongoing anti-intellectual war on policy experts.  This sort of proposal would disproportionately hurt the nonprofit sector and issue advocacy, because corporate lobbyists can always come from within corporations.  It is incomprehensible to me why so many people want to prevent the most knowledgeable and informed people in a subject—legislation and advocacy, in this case—from doing it.  The reason we’re in this state is because of a glaring disregard for knowledgeable people.

Trump has also displayed a tendency to want to sue anyone who criticizes him, and the aforementioned Rep. Lamar Smith has abused his power in the House of Representatives to issue subpoenas to environmental advocacy groups with whom he has political disagreements.  Taken as a whole, this sort of climate would be profoundly chilling to scientists who wish to be involved in policy.  I think there should be more scientists involved in policy, not fewer, and a Trump administration would take us back even further.  This would be far worse than the days of the Bush administration in which scientists were pressured politically on climate change research.

You Don’t Have To Like Her

Many environmentalists, I’ve learned, have a profound dislike and distrust of Hillary Clinton for her comparatively moderate-liberal positions, a distrust which has only been reinforced by WikiLeaks documents.  Honestly, I’m more inclined toward Hillary’s moderate pragmatic liberalism myself than I am towards more leftist approaches to policy problems, so I may not be the best person to speak about this.  However, that said, there can be no choice for climate scientists and geoscientists in general this election.  One major party candidate would decimate the field.  The other, you might not agree with or trust on some environmental causes, but she won’t put you out of a job.  She might consider some environmentalists counterproductive radicals, but she won’t harass anyone over the content of their research.

This election is not a choice between the lesser of two evils, because Hillary Clinton is not evil, and it baffles me that anyone on the left side of center could think she is.  You don’t have to agree with her on everything, and no one with a mic is saying that you should.  But disagreement on policy details or tactics does not make her evil.  Hillary Clinton probably isn’t going to be your personal friend, either, but that is also beside the point:  Most of us can be friends with people and still not agree with them about every single detail of politics.  (And if you really think you can’t be friends with someone unless you and that person agree 100% about everything, then the problem is you, not them.) The bottom line is that of the major party candidates in this election, the people who stand a measurable chance of becoming president, one of them is a declared enemy of atmospheric science who would set this country’s research leadership back immeasurably, and the other is a friend (or at a bare minimum, an ally) who would Keep American Science Great.  There is no choice here.

June 7, 2016

The Conduct of the House Science Committee Chair Should Horrify Climate Scientists

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:25 pm

It should be apparent that I’m an independent thinker and that, as a scientist, I stick up for the interests of scientists when they are being shamed and harassed by political leaders and activists.  That is why I called out progressive groups that are uninvolved in (and, I suspect, uninformed of) the extreme difficulties of acquiring funding for research and conferences when they attacked the American Geophysical Union for accepting a small amount of ExxonMobil money to help pay for its annual conference.  There undoubtedly are instances for which ExxonMobil, and others in the fossil fuel industry, can be attacked—for actually influencing research in an improper fashion—but that is not one of them.

That said, I also have mixed feelings about the large legal case that involves ExxonMobil potentially defrauding its investors and the public about climate change, because it also involves atmospheric scientists at certain institutions who are climate skeptics and have apparently been funded by the fossil fuel industry.  In the first place, as a scientist, there’s a part of me that is troubled by the thought of the legal system being involved in matters of scientific misconduct rather than the scientific peer process.  I realize that this case involves much more than that, and that ExxonMobil is the party actually in the hot seat, but this is a visceral “do not like” moment nonetheless.

I also don’t like the implication that any scientific researcher who takes money from certain industry sources is automatically suspect.  I was funded by the fossil fuel industry.  While working on my Master’s degree, I did a side project that was funded by money from BP in the Gulf oil spill aftermath.  The purpose was to determine the atmospheric impact, if any, of the oil spill along the coastal wetlands.  I was unable to find an effect.  I suspect now that the reason for this is that the dataset we had available was grossly insufficient for the purpose, and that we simply didn’t have enough money to set up a new, high-resolution network of sensors along the wetland areas.  Detecting atmospheric boundary layer changes in a small area is virtually impossible without a high-resolution sensor network, not that I knew that as a beginning Master’s student.  The work was “put in the file drawer.”  Is it possible that BP knew that we wouldn’t be able to find anything without that superior sensor network that we didn’t have?  I suppose it is, in retrospect.  However, if such a thing is the case, that does not implicate me or any other person working on the project.  I had no correspondence from anyone in BP and no pressure from anybody to find a negative result.  It is possible for someone to have funding from a “suspect” source and come up with negative outcomes and yet for no research fraud whatsoever to have taken place.

If I hadn’t had the BP money, I wouldn’t have been able to get my Master’s degree—or begin a doctorate.  (Although it didn’t fund any part of my doctoral research, without an existing degree, I wouldn’t have been eligible for the Ph. D. program.)  This is the part that, I think, many political activists don’t get.  Funding is hard to come by and we take it where it is to be found.  The overwhelming majority of atmospheric scientists do not allow their funding source to hurt their integrity.

So this is why I have misgivings about political figures questioning scientists about scientific research outcomes that they don’t care for, even when the scientists being questioned are diametrically opposed to me on an important research and policy issue.  I’m not going to comment on the substance of this court case, because I trust that the court can handle it, but if I didn’t have a visceral concern about a court case that involves climate-skeptic atmospheric scientists, I would have to consider myself the worst sort of hypocrite to object to what is being done to non-skeptic climate scientists by the Republican majority of the House Subcommittee on Science.

And that is the actual topic of this piece.

Atmospheric scientists who are not aware of what is going on should be, because it is chilling and could very easily involve them at some point.  There aren’t that many places that will employ atmospheric scientists to work in their actual field of study, but NOAA is one of them.  And the Chairman of the House Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), has been doing nothing short of libeling the agency, threatening its employees, and impugning the scientific integrity of every climate scientist who works for it.  That is not an exaggeration.

Last year, Smith sent threatening letters to NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.  He has also gone to right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and claimed that NOAA climatologists tampered with temperature data, presumably at Dr. Sullivan’s behest, to advance the Obama administration’s, quote, “extreme climate agenda” (his words).  Scientists have all sorts of valid reasons to revise early data, especially from sources such as satellites.  Satellite data calibration is literally an entire sub-field of meteorology, not that Smith understands or cares to understand that.  Needless to say, this despicable assertion places him in the category of climate skeptic that I can have no respect for whatever:  those who think that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to commit research fraud.  Like most making this baseless, slanderous assertion, Smith seems to either have no concept of the gravity of his accusation (proven research fraud is a career-ender in science), or he simply doesn’t care.

I suspect it’s the latter.  Extreme climate-change deniers actually do want to put every scientist who disagrees with them out of a job and destroy them personally.  It’s gotten to that point.

Smith has also seen fit to insert himself into the aforementioned court case involving ExxonMobil, which is a state-level matter and over which the House has no jurisdiction.  He has demanded communications from state attorneys general that consulted with environmental and climate-realist nonprofit organizations (as if it’s somehow unusual or corrupt for political figures to talk to nonprofits), as well as from employees at the nonprofits themselves.  He has demanded communication from climate scientists.  For two years he has been conducting his own little version of the Benghazi Committee’s unending witch-hunt, but instead of it being about an event in which a United States ambassador was killed, he has been abusing his position to harass climate scientists—most of whom have had no involvement whatever in policymaking (not that that is an indicator of lack of integrity)—who produced research that has a conclusion he and some of his Committee majority don’t care for.

Think about that.  A Member of Congress who heads up a committee has been summoning scientists to testify and provide him with e-mail correspondence, simply because his committee oversees NOAA and he doesn’t like the conclusions that researchers within NOAA have been finding.  He apparently believes that his role includes making sure that NOAA produces data that the current Congressional majority likes.

If that doesn’t horrify you, it should.  And he is not the only politician to conduct himself like this and abuse his authority.  The former Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, did the same thing to climatologists at the University of Virginia while he was in office.

It’s pretty apparent why climate-change deniers don’t talk about the sun anymore, and don’t usually talk much about nebulous and undefined “natural cycles,” but instead accuse climatologists of producing fraudulent data to further a political agenda.  The thought process, such as it is, seems to go like this:

  1. Scientists receive salary and/or research funding from the government.
  2. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, which is in the executive branch.
  3. The President accepts the science of climate change and has promoted emissions reduction and clean energy throughout his term of office.
  4. Therefore, all climate science conducted by governmental agencies must be done expressly and exclusively to promote the President’s policy agenda.
    1. Corollary: Therefore, the only reason the scientists could possibly have to revise early data must be political pressure.

Obviously, the fallacy is in drawing a link between a source of funding and the outcome of a scientific research project (or, for that matter, its purpose).  This is why I don’t like it when activists from any side go after scientists’ integrity because of who pays their expenses.  If it seems that I go after my own side harder than I do my opponents, that is because I am more disappointed when my own side engages in shaming, and also because I know that people who already think my field is fraudulent aren’t going to listen to anything I say in defense of it.  Those who are indeed defending scientists from people like Lamar Smith might be willing to hear a scientist’s perspective.

Not all scientists are going to have the stomach for jumping into the maelstrom of politics.  I get that.  I get that viscerally.  It’s actually been a source of—not alienation, exactly, but something close to it, between me and many fellow doctoral students in my department.  They’re pure researchers who don’t want anything to do with politics or policy, while I am not.  But there is another class of scientists out there, scientists who do have an interest in the policy implications of their work, but who think that somehow it undermines their integrity as scientists—or that it presents a conflict of interest—to jump into the fray.

It doesn’t.  An opinion is not a conflict of interest (or if it is, then everyone has one), and an actual conflict of interest does not mean fraud.  Climate scientists who do want to have a say in this sort of thing need to stand up and be heard.  Their 3% of colleagues who are climate-change skeptics may largely be polite and respectful (or passive-aggressive, at worst—and scientists of all stripes have refined that into a fine art).  They may propose some combination of natural climatic cycles that partially account for one source of temperature data, while not really attempting to challenge the enormous mass of data supporting anthropogenic climate change.  But their adversaries in politics are not going to play nice.

They are going to disgrace the dignity of their offices by going to racist conspiracy-theorist media outlets, and baselessly accuse entire governmental agencies—and every scientist in them—of making up data, the very worst thing one could say about a scientist in the professional sphere.

They are going to demand private correspondence from government scientists for open-ended witch-hunts.

They are going to inject themselves into legal cases over which they have no jurisdiction and demand private correspondence from attorneys general and nonprofit organizations.

They are going to call scientists up to Congress and harass them for hours about their research findings.

And sitting back and hoping that they won’t touch you because you’re a pure researcher, not involved in policy, no “conflict of interest”—so very good—won’t stop them from doing it.  It just tells them you won’t fight back.

April 19, 2016

A Response to Progressives About Corporate Funding

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 4:53 pm

Or, How’s the View from That High Horse?

So a week or so ago, the progressive blogosphere declared that meteorologists are partly responsible for public climate change denial because about a third of TV meteorologists are skeptics and don’t go on air making attributions of specific weather events.  Never mind that their markets may include a majority of viewers who are also skeptics and they don’t want to lose their jobs by costing the station viewers.  Never mind that they may not want to make speculations on the air that they cannot prove.  Never mind that it has been statistically shown that partisan political ID is the only demographic factor that correlates significantly with climate change denial, indicating that it wouldn’t even matter if TV weather people did this.

Now the progressive blogosphere is in the process of declaring war on the American Geophysical Union for accepting $35,000 in sponsorship money from ExxonMobil to put on their annual convention.

Do they realize that the American Meteorological Society accepts sponsorship money for its convention from the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and AccuWeather (which donated $50,000 to push for a bill to emasculate the National Weather Service)?  …Or did I just open them up to attack by “exposing” this?

I would like to point out that sponsors DO NOT have input into which abstracts are accepted for publication in conferences or any of the organization’s scientific journals.  They do not apply pressure to distort the science.  This is not about research fraud.  If ExxonMobil offered me $35,000 with no strings attached, I’d take it.  I would not take it if they offered me money to publish “research” showing what they wanted to see, but that’s not what this is about.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Alleging a conflict of interest does not discredit research.  And accepting money for matters that are not even about conducting research doesn’t discredit anything.  It’s simply pragmatic.

I realize that people like this (on the left and the right) like to sit in their ivory towers and pass judgment, but the contributions of sponsors to professional organizations help lower the cost of conference fees to the scientists, observers, and students who attend them.  This makes it possible for attendance to be higher and therefore for more people to be aware of the scientific research that is being presented.

I am aware that there are a number of climate scientists who object to the ExxonMobil money because of the company’s history promoting climate change skepticism.  I understand and respect their concerns, and I don’t think that they are coming at this from a partisan political standpoint, but rather, out of concern for scientific integrity.  But again, corporate sponsors don’t get to influence which research is accepted for conferences or publication.  And as someone who is both a scientist and has a history in politics, I am able to see the pragmatic reason for accepting the money.

Also, there is more than one way to destroy an enemy.  You can either annihilate them, or you can turn them.  Perhaps the high-horse political activists prefer annihilation, but the more reasonable thing to do is to change corporate culture.  Blacklisting a company from a major geoscience conference when the company—like it or not—employs certain geoscience specializations is not going to change anything.  It’s just removing the opportunity for new blood.

If progressives really don’t want professional organizations to have to accept corporate money, they should make an effort to push for massive increases in public funding of science.  NOAA, NASA, the USGS, and other such governmental agencies are also sponsors of professional conferences, and if they had more money allocated for such purposes, perhaps the professional organizations wouldn’t need to look to corporate funding as much?

I do not want to have to consider fellow liberals as enemies, and I don’t.  This is not liberalism as a whole; it is a very specific subset of progressive writers who promote the concept of ideological purity testing even when it is not feasible in the real world.  But I am not going to accept any part of collective responsibility for climate change skepticism in the general public, nor will I accept unrealistic purist attacks upon professional organizations in my field for simply doing what they have to do in an era in which science funding is so hard to come by.  Progressive bloggers are more than happy to use our research to promote their economic and environmental policies, and I accept that that’s just part of the game.  As long as the research is not being cited for conclusions that it does not actually support, I don’t mind that.  It’s politics.  But the sort of behavior that’s been going on lately is starting to look a lot like bullying, and they ought to keep in mind that no one likes to be taken for granted.

March 2, 2016

The Republican Party Can’t Stop Trump

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:13 pm

Those who have been reading this blog for a long time are well aware of my stance on most populist movements and my concern over the dual trends of toxic populism and political polarization. Since I’ve been watching populist sentiment for some time, I am therefore not wholly surprised that Donald Trump has become the Republican front-runner.  I have followed the rise of Trump with alarm (and cynical non-surprise, quite honestly), and I believe that a Trump presidency would be utterly disastrous to the nation.

However, there is a selfish part of me that is feeling extremely smug about the Trump phenomenon, I freely admit.  Two years ago I said that if it was “elitist” to believe that people in charge of policymaking should know what they’re talking about and respect the system that works, then I’ll wear the scarlet “E” with pride.  I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness by actively defending a system of governance that was being called “archaic” by social media activists of the right and left, and derided as corrupt both by grassroots activists and popular media such as the Netflix show House of Cards.

I’m not going to pick on entertainment, because it is an artistic expression, but the types of entertainment that are popular at a given moment obviously can reveal the zeitgeist of the culture at that moment.  And it has been clear to me, at least, that we have indeed been in an “anti-establishment” stage for several years, on both sides.  Those aforementioned grassroots activists were (are) angry because they believed themselves to be shut out of the process due to a bias in favor of “special interests” and against “the people,” but in reality they were mostly shut out because they were unwilling to compromise their views to get anything done.  And that goes for both sides, though admittedly more so for the political right.

Finally, some mainstream media outlets are saying what I’ve been crying for years.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time – The New York Times

The Great Money-In-Politics Myth – Vox

There are others, but the point is clear.  Media outlets are finally starting to get it.

Typically, some players have failed to see exactly what is driving Trump’s candidacy (and, to a lesser extent, that of Bernie Sanders, although he is not a dangerous candidate and I consider it unfair for him to be compared to Trump).  The multiculturalist left has decided that the culprit behind Trump is systemic racism of lower-class whites.  The economic left has decided that Trump and Sanders, in different ways, are speaking to voters who have been left behind by globalism and big money.  (The right wing seems to be collectively shaking its head over shots of hard liquor.)  I think these issues may be contributors, but I think the real appeal of Trump actually is his “political outsider” shtick.

Of course, Trump has been involved in politics as a big-money insider for years.  But somehow this man has turned that to his advantage.  “Yes, I know all about how the process works, and it really is corrupt and these people really are evil and bought out by people like me,” is the subtext of his message.  “Everything you believe about it is correct.  And I’m sick of it too, and now I’m going to work on your behalf.”  It’s just like House of Cards’ appeal, I think:  a seeming confirmation of what people want to believe about “the system.”  Except instead of being a piece of popular entertainment, Trump is actually running for the highest office in the land.

For decades, the right wing has pushed a populist message that “insiders” with political experience are somehow inherently corrupt, and that “regular people” are exemplars of homespun virtue and purity.  Indeed, this anti-intellectual message has been extended well past politicians.  This “expert = evil” message has been applied by the hard right to science, academia, and national media, among others.  In my post in which I endorsed Hillary Clinton, I pointed this out.  Do keep in mind that I wrote the following in April of 2015, well before Trump ascended to the top of the GOP polls:

I have come to see the value of expertise in any skilled profession.  Being a “regular Joe outsider” with no experience in policy or governing is not an intrinsic virtue, and we are seeing that play out in Washington and in state governments now, with a crop of new representatives who ran on a “Main Street” populist campaign platform that presented experience as equivalent to “corruption” or “being part of the problem.”  They have strong opinions, but they don’t understand how things get done and don’t care to learn, because they are the virtuous non-politicians (who now hold political office) and they know best.  This is why we have gridlock in Congress and an increase in stupid, blatantly unconstitutional bills introduced in state legislatures.  It’s a destructive, anti-intellectual mindset.  Character and skill (at a profession that isn’t inherently immoral) are completely distinct and unrelated qualities, and people need to start seeing expertise and “insider” status as a good thing again.

Anyone who has been ripped off by a local business or had bad dealings with a neighbor can see the fallacy.  Some people are all right and some are prone to corruption, and it is something that can rear its ugly head in literally any context.  But because many “regular people” simply don’t know any politicians, policymakers, or experts in general, they can readily dehumanize them.

Trump has ascended to be the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination because for thirty years, GOP-aligned media outlets (talk radio, Internet) have cultivated this “folk wisdom” about the purity and goodness of those who disrespect the political process and the inherent evil of those who want to work within it.  He is impervious to the attacks of the Republican establishment because they are coming from the Republican establishment.  Everything an establishment figure says against him affirms his message that “the system” is out to screw the regular guy over.

The Republicans have cultivated this anti-intellectualism for years, and they are powerless to stop it now.  Even if they manage, somehow, to stop Trump himself, it will at this point probably be by the quintessential “crooked insider” shenanigan of denying him the party nomination in a brokered convention.  That would only fuel the firestorm even more.

The Democratic nominee can stop Trump, of course, and quell “Trumpism” for a while.  This is especially true if Trump actually ends up fracturing the race into a three-person contest, which he very well might.  If Trump gets a clean nomination (by earning a majority of delegates), there are quite a few mainstream Republican figures who say that they would vote for Hillary Clinton simply to repudiate Trump.  A resounding vote seemingly in favor of “the system” (and she represents it in spades) and against Trump’s anti-intellectual populism might shut it down for a while.  This is what I hope happens, a new respect given to “the process” after having to face, collectively, what destroying “the process” actually looks like.  But the GOP cultivated this for a long time, and it will take a long time for it to truly cease to be a political force.

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