Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump

Originally written for Formichewhich published an Italian translation.

Americans long held up the quality of their democracy as a standard for the rest of the world to follow. In many political science metrics, other democracies are—literally—measured against American democracy to determine their quality; in theorizing about how “democracy” works, American institutions are routinely adduced as an unproblematic model. One of the supposed strengths of American institutions was that the sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared in other countries were, allegedly, never influential in the United States.

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Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)

Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.

Most people are bad at presenting

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:

  • going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
  • lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
    1. your research question/puzzle,
    2. your answer,
    3. the significance of your answer, and
    4. the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
  • elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
  • failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
  • reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
  • not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
  • disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?

In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.

Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations

This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:

  1. Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
  2. Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
  3. Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.

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Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers?

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

For a long time, the answer was “no”. If you were a male professor and a “star”, your university, discipline, and colleagues would sanction what seems (to me, a relatively young male professor) to be a wholly unimaingable (but creepily, aggressively, violently real) level of sexual predation. For “stars”, you could earn sobriquets like being a “bad boy” or live by excuses like “he’s from an older generation,” but lurking in the background was always the reasoning that, at some level, being a really, really good physicist meant that you could also be a sexual predator. Your scholarship could outweigh–could serve as penance or an indulgence for–your sins.

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Is Democracy Bunk?

Attention conservation notice: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have written a very good book that deserves a wide audience. Their critique of behavioralist and liberal (Manchester not FOX) verities raise real doubts about how political scientists and others study and justify democracy. Their points also matter for prominent IR theories of foreign policy behavior. Their book suffers from a lack of comparative perspective, an overreliance on cross-sectional observational data, and some presentist biases in their history–all of which argue for more, not less, research in their program.


High school civics teachers across the United States preach a happy catechism of the virtues of American democracy. The people form a body of free citizens. Endowed with the power to vote, these citizens choose representatives to advance their interest in lawmaking and enforcing the laws. Those representatives act according to the will of the people, and should they disobey, they will be replaced through the peaceful revolution of the ballot box by a new representative who will serve the people’s bidding. Democracy thereby constitutes a self-correcting machine for the translation of the wishes of the people into the best possible policy.

In Democracy for Realists (2016, Princeton University Press), Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels refute that litany. In place of the happy vision’s individual citizens calculating whether the government of the day has succeeded, they describe a world in which individuals invent facts to justify the positions their group identifications has supplied them with. In place of a citizenry rationally deciding that the government of the day is competent despite setbacks beyond its control, they show that even an exemplary president is apt to lose if some event beyond his or her control causes a spike in prices or joblessness. And instead of a democratic system correcting its errors and improving the policies it produces, they depict instead a myopic Leviathan randomly lurching from policy to policy, reversing itself on a whim, responding only to the tyranny of popular opinion.

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Crude Nation, Raul Gallegos [Review]

One of the punchiest descriptions of the resource curse comes from Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who called oil the devils excrement. Yet the saying obscures more than it reveals. Perez Alfonzo’s pessimism about oil dated to an era before contemporary scholarship admits of an oil curse (the most recent resource-curse literature argues that the curse began in 1980 or so, and Perez Alfonzo’s bon mot dates to 1975). It is also the money from oil, not the properties of petroleum itself, that is said to be the cause of the curse, whether through the knock-on effects on productive sectors competitiveness through the Dutch Disease of currency appreciation or the conversion of productive competition into indolent rent-seeking through the corruption of political institutions by the replacement of taxation.

The biggest problem for Perez Alfonso’s wit, however, is the simple fact that for much of the twentieth century, it was hard to say that Venezuela had been particularly cursed by oil revenues.

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The Gendered Resource Curse

My co-author, Yu-Ming Liou, and I wrote this for the ISQ blog when we published our article on the gendered resource curse, Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse, explaining how oil rents can lead to worse political outcomes for women. But I don’t think ISQ ever used it, so I’m using it now.

Generally, increasing gender equality accompanies economic development. Figure 1 shows this relationship: as GDP per capita increases (rightward along the x-axis), gender inequality tends to decline (downward along the y-axis).

Social scientists and casual observers have long recognized that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia form an important exception to this rule. As Figure 2 demonstrates, autocratic countries that receive more than $1,000 per capita in income from oil and natural gas (shown in red) tend to have greater levels of gender inequality at nearly every level of income.

Why does oil income affect gender equality differently than other sources of wealth? We argue that this discrepancy results from a set of policies that oil-rich autocrats pursue to consolidate their hold in power. As we explain more below (and in the paper), the greater rulers’ dependence on political elites who value ideological fidelity, the more likely rulers are to enact the ideologically-informed policies they demand—even when those policies harm national welfare and make it harder to pay off supporters demanding more traditional forms of patronage.

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Quick Thoughts On Constitutional Amendments I’d Like

It’s clear to everyone-and I mean everyone-that the Constitution badly needs amendments. Here are my thoughts about what those should be with the caveat that I set a timer for 12 minutes to put these down.

Although I often strive to present relatively evidence-based recommendations in areas of my expertise, what follows is more a spur toward better theorizing than a distillation of disciplinary wisdom. But, lets face it, part of never letting a crisis go to waste is acting on our instincts tempered by evidence. The whole point of a crisis, after all, is that matters are unsettled–and when they are unsettled, extrapolations from the past should be radically discounted.

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Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes [Review]

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. One deep story on the Clintonista side was the notion of American progress, an almost cinematic tale of redemption and progress in which Hillary’s narrative would have coincided with a putative feminist triumph. At roughly 8:15 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, progressives found themselves embracing a darker deep story of the farther left: America as an irredeemable bastion of the forces of reaction, in which every victory for progress is temporary and every activist effort ultimately futile because of the enduring power of–well, its hard to say of who, exactly, but ur-Fascism will serve as a label for now.

In Twilight of the ElitesChris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of ethnics, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what theydeserve.

Hayes’s deep story reads like the precise inverse of Hochschild’s deep story, in which rural folks see America as a queue in which Others are getting ahead by stealing their places. For the Elect, how long you’ve served, how loyal you are, how good a parent or a spouse or a neighbor you are–these are irrelevant compared to how good you are, as measured by smarts, earning, or prestige. A member of the Elect would have little sympathy for Hochschild’s line-waiters and their markedly inefficient view of distribution; don’t those at the back of the line understand that they need to retool to compete in the new line economy?

Reading Hayes’s book years after its release is jarring, not least because he was already adducing fake news and insurgent presidential candidates as symptoms of a broken system. He quotes (p. 11) the conservative Utah senator Bob Bennett, unseated in a Tea Party insurrection:

The moral for that story is–if people will read responsible publications and commentators–and they have a sense of respect for institutions and those of us who labor in those institutions, then were OK. But if you get all of your information from the blogs, then you’re just angry because were lying to you.

And Obama’s 2008 campaign sounds downright Trumpian:

Obama only had a fighting chance at the nomination because of the credibility bestowed by his appearance at a 2002 rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, where he referred to the impending invasion as a dumb war. When all the smart people got it wrong, including his many rivals for the nomination, he got it right. He, alone among the leading contenders, was able to see that the emperor had no clothes.

Indeed, despite Trump and Obamas mutual hatred, it is plain to see that Trumps tenor–his, shall I say it, audacitypays the ultimate compliment to Obamas political skills.

Hayes goes beyond politics to discern elite failings in the Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, Enron, and elsewhere. Like many books in this genre, Hayes, I think, goes both too far and not far enough. He goes too far because elites behaving badly isn’t a symptom but a recurrent fact of social life in every society. (Hayes could have stood some historical perspective here: are the elites of the early 21st century really that much worse behaved than the elites who caused the Johnstown Flood or engaged in systematic racial, religious, and gender discrimination?)

He goes insufficiently far because his viewpoint is relentlessly parochial: this is another fable of American exceptionalism in which American failures are analytically incomparable to failures–or successes–in other societies. (Can the American trahison des elites really have been worse than the failures of enarques or Etonians?) And, most profoundly, his analytical framing is deeply nationalist, when, as Chrystia Freeland and others have shown, there really does exist a global super-elite who only perch in the United States when convenient but whose movements and preferences shape US politics more profoundly than do JD Vance’s kin?

But Hayes’s redeeming grace is that he almost squarely recognizes the implications of his diagnosis:

Together, the discrediting of our old sources of authority and the exponential proliferation of new ones has almost completely annihilated our social ability to reach consensus on just what the facts of the matter are. When our most central institutions are no longer trusted, we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal. As some of these encampments build higher and higher fences, walling themselves off from science and empiricism, we approach a terrifying prospect: a society that may no longer be capable of reaching the kind of basic agreement necessary for social progress. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely the single largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on the planet.

A longer and broader perspective on the matter might have led Hayes to the next step: the possibility that the economics of media and culture–of the noosphere itself–have been so fragmented that the possibility of elite consensus governing a vertically integrated society, as more or less all developed and Communist bloc countries had attained ca. 1945-1975, has disappeared. That period was as ephemeral and epiphenomenal as trench warfare or mass aerial bombing raids.

The combination of the omnipresent human drive for levelling and of broadly disseminated access to the means of producing ideas will not prove fertile ground for persuasion over the desirability of re-submitting ourselves to elites who are–and let us be honest–worn out and barely competent at best. Re-forming the conditions for unified governance will likely require the same sorts of fundamental ordering as the Second World War provided globally and the Civil War provided domestically.

How difficult should course readings be?

A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign best-of-breed articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?

There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:

  • How big is the gulf between students preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
  • How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?

Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students ability to get something out of the classbesides, that is, the sheen of knowingness that good students are adept at performing.

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White Rage, Carol Anderson [Review]

Like many people, my reaction to the 2016 election centered around shock and awe–awe, that is, in the sense of being present at some force that overwhelmed my senses. Over the past month, I have worked hard to divide my response into answering three questions:

  1. Why did Hillary Clinton lose?
  2. Why did Donald Trump enjoy so much support?
  3. What will a Trump presidency mean for international order and U.S. foreign policy?

The answer to #3 is my day job, and I don’t have much to say–yet–in this space. The answer to #1 is complicated, and the war over campaign strategy and tactics is being waged through leaks, analyses, and Twitter pot-shots. But #2 turns out to be something that many thinkers were well-positioned to deal with.

Carol Anderson’s White Rage is, with Arlie Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Kathy Cramer’s Politics of Resentment, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (my mixed review is here) , one of the books Ive read to answer #2. And note that #2 and #1 are really different questions: even had Trump only received 200 electoral votes and 45 percent of the popular vote share, that would still, I think, pose a puzzle.

Anderson’s book, written before Trumps election, nevertheless provides a deep story to explain why Trump could be appealing for many. The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement, she writes:

It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. Its the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition.

This is, in many ways, a much more successful book than Isenberg’s White Trash, mostly because Anderson has a more focused and polemical goal. Anderson’s history begins with Reconstruction and progresses to the present day (one has the feeling that she would have loved to have the manuscript for an additional month or even day to chronicle the unfolding spectacle of the 2016 campaign, which vindicated many of her claims).

She is on by far her strongest ground when she details how the institutions of American governance, from Southern school boards to the US Supreme Court, have crafted and enforced racial policies that made climbing the economic and social ladder all but impossible for African-Americans between approximately 1875 and 1965. As she notes, these barriers were not merely Southern phenomena, although she is on solid ground when discussing how deeply racist Southern institutions were; some school districts were simply closed for years rather than comply with Brown vs. Board of Education, for instance. Instead, even when African-Americans left the South to seek better jobs and lives in the North, they quickly encountered what Van Jones calls whitelash. African-Americans were forced into segregated neighborhoods and economies that were, although more congenial than the crypto-slavery of sharecropping, nevertheless a distinctly separate and unequal existence.

Anderson documents how eminently respectable Supreme Court jurists, federal officials, and ordinary White people participated in erecting these legal barriers–sometimes out of expedience (letting Southern Whites erect an Apartheid state was easier than prolonging Reconstruction) and sometimes out of racialized fears (George Wallace voters weren’t just Southern rednecks but Detroit factory workers). One reads the first three-quarters of the book with the mounting realization from concrete details of just how extensive American racism was–and how dangerously ignorant and naive it is to claim, as many yet do, that if Blacks had just worked harder they would have avoided their dismal fate. Not only did many try, but when they did, they faced vengeful officials and vigilantes who could reverse all their gains in an evening.

Anderson’s last few chapters are less successful. First, the dismantling of much overt racist institutions means that structural racism is harder to detect and harder to categorize than it was in the pre-Civil Rights era. Second, I suspect that she is more credulous when dealing with allegations that the CIA brokered the drug war than the sources warrant; as Michelle Alexanders The New Jim Crow and other texts have documented, the case against the carceral state is strong enough without engaging in relatively thinly sourced allegations. (The footnotes do not help substantiate Anderson’s case, certainly not  in the same way that the chapters on Reconstruction or education policy do.)

More generally, her focus lingers perhaps too much on the named players of national politics and not enough on the biggest puzzle: why does the cycle of Black progress and White resentment keep persisting in ways that other ethnic backlashes don’t? In other words, is there something special about how Whites perceive Blacks (and vice versa) compared to other minority groups? (There doesn’t seem to be much of a market these days for a book about Straight Rage, for instance.)  I don’t know–this isn’t my area!–and thats a question for a different book, anyhow.

This is a better, shorter, more pointed book than White Trash. If you buy only one of the pair, buy this one.