Twitter isn’t Real Life

In 1985, media critic Neil Postman wrote, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that the ascendancy of television was destroying public discourse in America. The primary support for this claim was that television is so structurally biased toward entertainment, triviality, and spectacle that it is incapable of fostering serious, sustained, and rational deliberation.

It seems in 2019 that an equally seismic cultural shift occurring, one that is moving us even further away from healthy public dialogue.

Just as the Age of Typography gave way to the Age of Television, the Age of Television is now giving way to the Age of Twitter. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in Donald Trump’s obsessive use of the platform. But Lord Dampnut is far from alone, as the popularity of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed suggests. Given Twitter’s growing centrality in our politics, it seems prudent to highlight the defining traits of this platform and the dangers it poses.

Twitter is defined by three main characteristics: simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility. Thanks to its 280-character limitation, Twitter structurally disallows communication that is sophisticated and complex. While people can say things that are smart and witty on Twitter, they cannot convey complex ideas.

This is significant because the issues and concerns confronting us today, from climate change and healthcare to terrorism and immigration, are exceedingly complex, and talking about them 280 characters at a time ensures that we will never develop workable solutions. You cannot fix a problem that you do not actually understand.

Also, Twitter does not invite serious contemplation and thoughtful consideration. Generally speaking, people do not spend hours carefully crafting 280-character messages. They fire them off in the “heat” in the moment. This is due to the structural properties of the platform, whose simplicity of use invites impulsivity. People can tweet from virtually anywhere at any time. Tweets are, well, tweeted usually with no forethought and reflection. As such, Twitter frequently contributes to misunderstanding and escalates sensitive situations.

While there are positive and civil messages on Twitter, research concerning the platform points to three interrelated findings that privilege incivility.

First, Twitter usage is positively correlated to the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Second, people are more likely to communicate in uncivil ways when the target of their message is not immediately present.

Third, negatively-toned messages travel both farther and faster on Twitter. Consequently, while it is certainly possible to be civil on Twitter, the medium is biased toward incivility. So, is it any wonder that our politics have become so divisive and mean-spirited?

These traits ensure that we are not having thoughtful and civil conversations on Twitter. To be clear, I am not anti-Twitter. The structural biases of any medium make it ill-suited for some types of communication and well suited for others. For example, Twitter may be the most effective emergency alert system ever created. It is ideal for conveying simple messages quickly and widely. But it is exceptionally ineffective at fostering meaningful and mature public deliberation.

Choosing the right tool is essential to successfully performing any task. You would not use a screwdriver to dig a ditch, and you should not use Twitter to conduct national and international politics.

Other social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, do not serve us much better. They overwhelmingly expose us to information we already agree with, leading to confirmation bias. Much of the information they spread is unreliable (and even propagandistic). Also, social media are designed to elicit emotional rather than rational responses from us.

As we enter the 2020 campaign season in earnest, it’s important that we look outside social media for our news and information. We should actively seek out serious and sustained discussions of public issues, and we should remember social media was never designed to inform us or conduct our politics.

It’s Time to Go pt. 2

For the first time in the country’s modern history, the existence of the Electoral College has now become a campaign issue.

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently called for the abolition of the Electoral College, while other Democratic presidential candidates, including former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke and Senator Kamala Harris, have said the Electoral College should be re-evaluated. Whatever that means.

I’ve made my thoughts pretty clear but for the sake of argument; here are four of the most common arguments I’ve noticed, and why they’re wrong.

  1. Electors filter the passions of the people

Some defend the Electoral College by citing its original purpose: to provide a check on the public in case they make a poor choice for president.

Obviously that failed miserably in 2016 and now we have the Childlike Emperor, Lord Dampnut.

Since winner-take-all laws began in the 1820s, electors have rarely acted independently or against the wishes of the party that chose them. A majority of states even have laws requiring the partisan electors to keep their pledges when voting. In presidential elections from 1992 to 2012, over 99 percent of electors kept their pledges to a candidate.

There have been a few scattered faithless electors in past elections, but they’ve never influenced the outcome. Even in 2016, when seven faithless electors broke their pledges, it didn’t move the needle.

  1. It forces candidates to campaign in rural areas

This one’s easy: no it doesn’t.

A popular argument on conservative websites and talk radio is that without the Electoral College, candidates would spend all their time campaigning in big cities and would ignore low-population areas.

In fact, because of the Electoral College, campaigning is generally limited to the urban areas of a handful of states.

Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 57 percent of general election campaign events for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During the general election campaign, 94 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 “battleground” states.

And within these battleground states the candidates focused on campaigning in regions where the most voters lived. In Pennsylvania, for example, 59 percent of Pennsylvania campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of the campaign were to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, with all other campaign visits going to other cities and their suburbs in the state.

Meanwhile, during the entire period after the 2016 national conventions, the four candidates never once campaigned in 24 states, including rural states like South Dakota, Kansas and Wyoming.

Presidential candidates don’t campaign in rural areas no matter what system is used. Even in the swing states where they do campaign, the candidates focus on urban areas where most voters live.

  1. It prohibits a couple of states or cities from picking the winner

Some claim that the Electoral College prevents one state or prohibits a few cities from determining the winner of the presidential election.

With states, again the truth is the opposite.

Under the current Electoral College system, one state by itself determined the winner of the last presidential election. Without all of Texas’ 38 electoral votes, Trump would have lost the 2016 election. The same thing happened with Florida in 2000. Without its 25 electoral votes, George W. Bush would have lost the election.

Well, he did lose the election but you know what I mean…

Meanwhile, the combined populations of the three largest U.S. cities, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, account for less than 5 percent of the country’s population. Their combined metro area populations, including suburbs, are about 13 percent of the U.S. population. It’s not clear how 5 or 13 percent of the population would outvote the rest of the country in a national vote, and that’s assuming every voter in these metro areas votes the same way.

  1. It prevents the chaos of a contested election

Some, including the late historian Theodore H. White, cite the Electoral College as a way to prevent political chaos.

After the 1960 presidential election, John Kennedy’s nationwide share of the popular vote was only 0.17 percentage points higher than Richard Nixon’s share. If there had been the need for a nationwide recount, there could have been weeks or months of political deadlock. Kennedy’s clearer margin of victory in the Electoral College, 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219, prevented that.

Fair enough. However, during the 2000 presidential election, the opposite occurred. While Al Gore’s nationwide popular vote victory margin was clear, the number of votes separating Gore from George W. Bush in Florida was minuscule. And because of the Electoral College system, the outcome in Florida became the deciding factor.

After a month of court challenges, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ordered the statewide recount be stopped and handed the presidency to Bush. The Electoral College was actually the cause of the chaotic and controversial outcome.

Campaigning on fixing the Electoral College is one thing. But how could it actually be abolished or amended?

Abolishing the Electoral College entirely would require a constitutional amendment involving two-thirds approval from both houses of Congress and 38 states. Given that a Republican has only won the national popular vote one time since the 1988 election, that’s unlikely to succeed. The Republican Party needs the Electoral College, as well as a healthy helpings of voter suppression and gerrymandering, to stay relevant as a national party.

Some advocate that all 50 states adopt Maine and Nebraska’s system of dividing up electoral votes by congressional district. But giving congressional districts a bigger role could lead to an even greater loss of voter confidence, especially in heavily gerrymandered states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

And of course, there’s my preferred solution; The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which  advocates passing legislation at the state level to award electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state popular vote.

Unfortunately, political self-interest seems to be the biggest roadblock to reform. Look no further than Donald Trump. Back in 2012, he tweeted that the Electoral College was “a disaster for democracy.”

By November 2016, after winning the presidential election despite losing the nationwide popular vote to Hillary Clinton, he’d changed his tune.

“The Electoral College,” he tweeted, “is actually genius.”

It’s Time To Go

I used to be a believer in the wisdom of the Electoral College. I thought the intent of the Constitution’s framers was a good one, specifically Alexander Hamilton’s intent to build a procedural roadblock in the path of would-be villains.

Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68 that the Electoral College was intended to obstruct presidential candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” a pair of traits that should sound familiar to anyone who has followed Donald Trump’s rise to power.

However, the Electoral College utterly failed to live up to this mandate in 2016, allowing Trump to ooze through the cracks despite his obvious lies and criminality, not to mention the fact that he lost the national popular vote by nearly three million votes.

Consequently, I’ve changed my mind. It’s time for the Electoral College to go, and a growing list of states are busily trying to kill it.

The latest state to join the process of killing the Electoral College is Delaware, where the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” passed the state legislature and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

This legislation would create an end-around that won’t require amending the Constitution. It would assign each state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, diminishing the existing role of the Electoral College without officially disbanding it. Electors will still pick the president, but electoral votes will be distributed based on the national popular vote rather than each individual state’s popular vote.

The compact will also scramble the way candidates campaign. Contrary to what supporters of the Electoral College might claim, the existing process does not serve to drag the candidates into every state. For example, in 2012, Mitt Romney only campaigned in 10 states.

By granting electoral votes based on the national popular vote, candidates would have to reconsider states that have been otherwise ignored in recent decades. Candidates will be encouraged to campaign in more populated areas that also happen to feature greater demographic variety, encouraging more diversity.

At this point, 13 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the compact, adding up to a total of 181 electoral votes. Once enough additional states pass the compact to get past the 270 threshold, it will go into effect in all the states where it was passed.

At present, another 16 states worth another 155 electoral votes are considering the compact in committee, or have passed it through at least one chamber of their state legislatures. It’s worth noting though, that none of the states that have fully passed the compact are “red states,” likely because Republican presidential candidates have only won the popular vote once since 1988.

That said, nine states that Trump carried in 2016 are among those where the compact is making its way through the legislative process: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.

It’s unlikely Trump knows about the popular vote compact, or is even capable of understanding it. If he did, he’d undoubtedly explode in a series of tweets, rants, and maybe even some white supremacist propaganda, lashing out at Democrats who he would insist are rigging the election against him. You know, by winning more votes.

Trump might even use the compact as a pretext to try to invalidate the election if he loses in 2020. That would almost certainly fail, but if Michael Cohen is correct, and I suspect he is, Trump will not allow a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. I don’t think Trump will win in 2020 anyway, his popular support hasn’t been above 45 percent since January of 2017 and his disapproval hovers in the mid-50s. Likely he would us the compact as one of his many justifications for an “unfair” loss in 2020 and he’ll have to be forcefully removed by the Secret Service, or the FBI, or the Sargent at Arms, or whoever it is that would have to do that.

Should be a fun show at least.

Anyway, he’s going to claim that the 2020 election is rigged no matter how the actual electoral votes are allocated. But these reforms aren’t only about him. They’re about sealing the breach before the next Trump (probably Ivanka) steps through it and we start spraying our crops with Brawndo.

Trump is Not OK

If over the weekend you saw a rambling madman give a frighteningly incoherent, sweaty, two-hour shoutfest of a speech at a right-wing summit while a crowd of feces-flinging howler monkeys wildly applauded, then you viewed the president coming unhinged on national television in a way that has probably never been seen before in United States history.

That is extraordinary cause for alarm.

If, instead, you saw nothing more than a “fiery” Donald Trump give a “zigzagging,” “wide-ranging,” “campaign-like” address where the Republican really “let loose,” then you likely work for the mainstream media, which once again swung and missed when it came to detailing the escalating threat that Donald Trump represents to the country.

From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, there has been legitimate concern that the mainstream media, with its focus on seeming “neutral”, was not up to the task of adequately conveying Trump’s bizarre, authoritarian madness to their audiences. Their response to his CPAC appearance shows that those concerns were well-founded.

There’s no way to accurately describe Trump’s behavior without sounding hysterical or, heaven forbid, “biased.” So most media outlets resorted to euphemistic language or focused on technically true observations (it is accurate that Trump criticized Robert Mueller) while sliding past the more relevant detail, the fact that the president of the United States was babbling like a lunatic who hasn’t slept in days.

Newsrooms nearly uniformly refuse to address the mounting, obvious signs that Trump is a deeply unstable man as the CPAC meltdown demonstrated. Most reporters simply do not want to mention it. As the Daily Beast put it: “In most ways, it was just another campaign rally for the president, in flavor, content, and punchlines.”

Nothing to see here, folks.

But what’s with the hesitation among the press to cover Trump’s speech as a flashing neon-red sign of a man teetering on the edge? Why won’t the media discuss Trump’s, at this point, obvious mental instability?

It’s the same reason large news organizations, to this day, won’t call Trump a liar. Logically it makes no sense, but news outlets don’t want to take heat from conservatives and from the administration for calling Trump a liar. So even though they’ve documented that he lies all the time, reporters opt for timid words like “falsehoods” to soften the blow.

The same is true with regard to Trump’s unstable behavior. There’s not one working member of mainstream media who watched Trump’s unsettling CPAC meltdown and thought, “He’s seems stable. I have no questions about his mental capacity.” They know it’s a pressing issue. But newsrooms don’t want to suffer the backlash, the shouts of “Liberal media bias!” that would rain down on journalists who tackle the story, even though it’s obvious and newsworthy.

After the debacle that was the 2016 election, many hoped that the mainstream media would learn its lesson about favoring “neutrality” over the old-fashioned journalistic concern for truth. It was an election cycle where Hillary Clinton’s (not insignificant) flaws were exaggerated while Trump’s outrageous behavior and obvious unfitness for the office were underplayed. All out of their misplaced sense of fairness.

And when you’re neutral in the face of sanity and insanity, you inherently serve the maniac’s purpose.

It’s probably true that most in the mainstream media didn’t expect Trump to end up winning the election. The surprise outcome however, should have been a wake-up call. It seems that the lesson was not learned.

There is long-established hesitancy on the part of specialists to try to diagnose somebody if they’re not a direct patient. But even on that front, more and more experts are speaking out. This comes from a petition signed by 70,000 mental health professionals:

“We, the undersigned mental health professionals, believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”

The president is not well, and that puts everyone in serious danger. And that’s a helluva news story if the media will just tell it.

Bern Notice

Shocking almost no one, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is going to take another crack at the White House. He announced this morning on Vermont Public Radio that he will run for president again in 2020.

“I wanted to let the people of the state of Vermont know about this first,” Sanders told VPR.

“Together, you and I and our 2016 campaign began the political revolution. Now, it is time to complete that revolution and implement the vision that we fought for,” he wrote in an email to his supporters.

Sanders has long been the most progressive member of the Senate. A self-described democratic socialist, his platform calls for “Medicare for all” college education, and a $15 minimum wage. He also advocates for free tuition at public colleges and universities, lowering the costs of prescription drugs, and aggressively combating climate change.

Sanders also fired some shots at Donald Trump, saying that he was an embarrassment to the US.

“I think the current occupant of the White House is an embarrassment to our country,” Sanders said. “I think he is a pathological liar… I also think he is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, somebody who is gaining cheap political points by trying to pick on minorities, often undocumented immigrants.”

Polls show that Sanders is the most popular active politician in the country. Poll results from both January and December placed him among the three most favored political figures in the US, just behind former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is also eyeing a presidential run.