Friday, December 15, 2017

Annals of Derp: Man to Mann

Image by shooteradolf/deviantart.

David Brooks, in spite of his faith in "the glory of democracy" ("The Glory of Democracy"), fears that democracy is on its way out:

Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies, especially in our own country. The Congress barely functions. We have a president who ignores facts and violates basic decency. On college campuses, according to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be violently crushed.
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that 50% of college students believe "offensive" speech should be shouted down and 20% that it should be violently crushed?

Answer: In principle, yes, but (according to Lois Beckett's report at the Guardian, which it took Dr. Google less than two minutes to locate)

  • first of all that survey, from September, the first public opinion survey ever conducted by John Villasenor, who teaches electrical engineering at UCLA, wasn't administered to a probability sample of college students nationwide but to "an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students" with no controls to establish whether or not they actually represented anybody or even were in fact college students, or, in the words of Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, "not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond," and "malpractice" and "junk science";
  • second of all, it was conducted explicitly not to find out what the situation is but to provide evidence for the author's previously announced opinion, that there is a troubling atmosphere on campuses in which "freedom of speech is deeply imperiled", because of the “increasing trend towards censorship on college campuses in recent years”, including “self-censorship” (which seems not to have been studied in the survey), with funding from the Charles Koch Foundation; and
  • third of all, it hasn't been published as a peer-reviewed paper, with an explanation of the survey methodology, but as a kind of blog post at the Brookings website.
It really has no substance at all!

And are tribalism and authoritarianism truly on the march while the number of democracies declines? There's some opinion that says yes, for instance, the 2015 annual report of Freedom House:
For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.
But the Dart-Throwing Chimp Jay Ulfelder, looking at Freedom House's own data, found the conclusions belied:

(What was happening in their statistics, the Chimp decided, was that things were getting worse in many authoritarian states, like Russia and the Central Asian states and so on, skewing the overall indexes.)

There's really not a whole lot of change occurring since 2011 or so,  except, according to the Democracy Index, for one country:
In 2016, the United States was downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy; its score, which had been experiencing a persistent downward trend, crossed the threshold from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016. The report states that this was not due to the election of Donald Trump, but was caused by the same factors — dating back to the late 1960s[8] — that led to his election.[9]

Via Wikimedia Commons. When you think in terms of numbers of people rather than numbers of states, it looks like the anocracies, "featuring inherent qualities of political instability and ineffectiveness, as well as an 'incoherent mix of democratic and autocratic traits and practices'", that are on the march, if anything, while authoritarianism is diminishing faster than democracy, but time will tell.

Brooks's purpose today isn't to see how much derp he can stick into a single paragraph, but to inaugurate a series:

over the next few months I’m going to use this column, from time to time, to go back to first principles, to go over the canon of liberal democracy — the thinkers who explained our system and why it is great.
I’m going to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” Mann, possibly the greatest novelist of his era, fled the Nazis and came to America. In 1938, he gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and the America Firsters....
There's something pretty infantile in that "why it is great", but I think the most hilarious thing is how if you click his link to the Mann text it lands you on a page urging the necessity—the necessity, for the Allies, that "liberal democracy will develop into social democracy, from the economic as well as the spiritual point of view." Reassured by the sparkling of the word "conservative" across the spread (though it's applied to Franklin Roosevelt), he has no idea that he's fallen into a text advocating radical redistributionism.

(A redistribution that took place, of course, after the war, among all the major combatants including, to a relatively limited extent the United States, but has been largely reversed since 1980 or so, a phenomenon I think just might be connected to the decline of our democracy.)

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