So, it’s been a couple of days since Ted Cruz took the stage at the Trumpaganza, used his speech to decry authoritarianism, refused to endorse Trump and entreated Republicans to vote their conscience.
Here’s a taste of what went down, from Andrew Sullivan’s live blog:
“9:46 p.m. I have to say that, despite Cruz’s shrillness, I find his disquisition on freedom to be reassuring. It feels like the old GOP, not the authoritarian creeps who have now taken over. Yes, Trump can make you miss Cruz”
“9:52 p.m. Cruz actually showing some love for the other side – African Americans, g7-ays – if only rhetorically. Then he puts the knife in: “Vote your conscience” in 7November. Boos; jeers; cheers. And then the crowd shouts back: “We Want Trump! We Want Trump!” This is now coming apart, as the boos and jeers begin to interrupt the last phrases of the speech.”
“9:55 p.m. Now, open war is breaking out, as the crowd is beginning to shout Cruz down. Watching Cruz get booed at this event is quite something. He’s being heckled and jeered – as Trump appears at the side of the stage as if to distract attention. Cruz leaves to a massive wall of hostile noise.”
So, looking past the rhetorical flourishes in there, it’s pretty amazing what went down. Thousands of the Republican Party’s true believers booed and heckled the man who came second in the primary race. They did this live on prime time television. At an event that is ostensibly about showing a unified face to the nation.
My question is why? Why was this, frankly rather tame, opposition such a threat?
So, there are a couple of aspects in this. The first is that Cruz coopted the rallying cry of the stop trump movement. Namely, conscience. Remember, the Trumpaganza began with a protest, as the GOP leadership shut down attempts to lodge opposition to trump. These were people screaming for the right to vote their conscience rather than be bound to Trump.
So, there’s a bunch of subtext in what went down.
But I’m not sure that’s it. I have serious doubts that thousands of delegates were scanning what was said that carefully, extracting meaning that subtle. There’s something else happening.
I’ve been wanting to write something on tribalism for the last couple of months. At least since Ted Cruz started to wane and Trump became inevitable. Because without tribalism it’s just impossible to explain what exactly is happening here. Donald Trump is anathema to so much of what the Republican Party supposedly stands for. Let alone anyone who can think critically.
Modern political parties, especially those in two-party systems, have to cater to a plurality of voters. So it’s hard to exactly nail down what a party is. What it’s for. These parties offer different things to different people. But let’s take the slogan afixed to the GOP website: “The Republican Party is fighting for a freer and stronger America where everyone has the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” Or even look at the list of principles that the party says defines being a Republican; things like upholding the Constitution, protecting communities from Government intrusion, a smaller government.
These are not the values of Donald Trump. Trump wants to target groups based on religion or ethnicity, use the power of the federal government to intimidate the press (somehow?), curtail the Internet (somehow?), force companies to keep economic activity in America (somehow?), expand the military and launch gigantic spending programs like building the border wall and repairing infrastructure. Of course, he’s so awesome that he will (somehow?) accomplish all of this for a pittance. But still, how will any of this lead to a freer country? To a smaller government? To a balanced budget?
I would also question how any of this goes to making America stronger.
Trump talks a big game on this front. Of withdrawing from NATO unless America receives appropriate tribute. Of abandoning Syria to Russia, renegotiating the Iranian Nuclear Deal (somehow?) and blowing off trade deals. This all sounds great, or at least not entirely terrible, on the surface at least. Like they might save some money or rationalise the government’s task. But the second and third order consequences are serious. These proposals underestimate the benefits of a sphere of influence, the cost of allowing Russia and China to expand theirs. It fails to acknowledge how America benefits from its role in the world, and how tied that is with engaging other countries and institutions. Altogether, Trump completely avoids the give-take, cost-benefit questions inherent in geopolitics. Boiling it all down to a series of unserious platitudes.
This unseriousness is the last point I’ll make against. This campaign has been continually and repeatedly marred by carelessness, and all those somehows above are a big reason why. Trump seems to be making most of this up on the fly, and fails to think it all through. To adequately explain how, why and what next. Matt Yglesias has a great take on this, largely chalking it up to intellectual laziness. All this is a big reason we are seeing such a rift form in the party, as many of the more serious minds flee.
So, having said all of that, I am left with the question of why Trump is getting any support at all. Why did he receive 40 percent of the primary vote. Why would the likes of Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, people who still have long careers ahead of them, capitulate to Trump? Why is he offering a challenge to Clinton? The answer is tribalism. Modern politics is less about ideas or ideology, than it is about identity. Political parties are inherently malleable, a weird amalgam of assertions that people attach themselves to. And so, all of Trump’s inadequacies can be overlooked. He is one of the tribe.
This is the reason Cruz’s conscience line was booed. He was illuminating the gap between the idealised Republican form, and the reality. It was an attack on an unspoken assumption – that all these people are gathered around a central set of beliefs or ideas, rather than a vacuous brand. It was an inherent threat to the tribe.
This is an unfortunate reality. But not a necessary one, I think. Our systems are built on the idea of rational choice, of selfishness, even. This may currently take the form of unthinking allegiance to tribes, but it doesn’t need to. What we have now is the outcrop of an incentive structure. Parties are incentivised to create large, unthinking followings. It makes their job easier. We participants are incentivised not to care – we don’t have any voice except for our triennial votes. The rest is just noise.
This is something we need to change. To a point where voting your conscience is rational. Isn’t a notion that gets booed.
I am a big fan of partisan media. Being “objective” is all well and good, and there are some spectacular journalists who walk that line. But there’s really nothing as potent as a journalist with an agenda.
Especially when they’re on offense. When their “opponent” is in power and they have a point to prove. It’s for this reason I was a devoted subscriber to The Australian when Labor was in power.
The paper really took the government to task. Hardly relenting. Analysing anything and everything with thorough scepticism. For someone mistrustful of power, our incentives were aligned.
The problem arises when it’s time to play defense. The Australian with a Liberal government in power is, frankly, more than a little pathetic. Scepticism now is largely relegated to keeping the team in line. They’ve turned sycophant. Scrambling to explain away missteps or misdeeds, bending reality to suit their narrative (of course this happens on offense too, but there’s less flop sweat).
For whatever reason, this appears to be less of a problem over in America. I follow American politics like a sport – my lack of real skin in the game makes it rather enjoyable. And so, I consume a lot of partisan American media too.
But unlike in Australia, America boasts a lot of partisans as concerned with critiquing their side as the “enemy”.
Take Andrew Sullivan, for example. He’s a conservative writer who has long been one of my favourites. The reason – he criticises his own team a lot, and it’s always informative. He initially supported the war in Iraq, for example, but then turned against it. Excoriating his “side” for their stance on torture, same sex marriage, and a host of other issues. Sullivan is a Burkean conservative, and, so, his loyalty is to this set of ideas and principles, not the team that (wrongly, in my opinion) claims to represent them.
Sullivan became so disillusioned with the Republican Party, and their abandonment of their principles, that he endorsed Obama in 08 and 12. Covering this week’s Trumpaganza, he freely vented at the party:
"Just mulling over the events tonight, there’s one obvious stand-out. I didn’t hear any specific policy proposals to tackle clearly stated public problems. It is almost as if governing, for the Republican right, is fundamentally about an attitude, rather than about experience or practicality or reasoning. The degeneracy of conservatism – its descent into literally mindless appeals to tribalism and fear and hatred – was on full display. You might also say the same about the religious right, the members of whom have eagerly embraced a racist, a nativist, a believer in war crimes, and a lover of the tyrants that conservatism once defined itself against. Their movement long lost any claim to a serious Christian conscience. But that they would so readily embrace such an unreconstructed pagan is indeed a revelation.
If you think of the conservative movement as beginning in 1964 and climaxing in the 1990s, then the era we are now in is suffering from a cancer of the mind and the soul. That the GOP has finally found a creature that can personify these urges to purge, a man for whom the word “shameless” could have been invented, a bully and a creep, a liar and cheat, a con man and wannabe tyrant, a dedicated loather of individual liberty, and an opponent of the pricelessly important conventions of liberal democracy is perhaps a fitting end.
This is the gutter, ladies and gentlemen, and it runs into a sewer. May what’s left of conservatism be carried out to sea."
This is a voice we’re missing in Australia. There are plenty of great voices of criticism – Peter Van Onsolen and Waleed Aly among them. But they feign neutrality, and so their punches are pulled, their refrains easily ignored.
The likes of Onsolen and Aly can’t really get away with a screed like the above. Even if they wanted to, their positions wouldn’t allow it. Only an outed true believer can get away with it. Unfortunately, all our true believers appear to have sold out.
We need more writers and journalists with obvious bias, but one that does not include slavish devotion to a team. Rather, to ideas.
Any regular to my blog will know I’m not much a fan of how we do education. I’ve written about it lots (notably here and here); about how we adopted the Prussian assembly-line model and have done little with it.
Luckily, I am now in a position to do something with some of these little aggravations. I recently became the producer and host of Think Digital Futures, a podcast/radio show about how technology is changing us.
So, to begin my new career again on the radio, I took a bit of a dive into education. There’s a whole bunch of technology heading education’s way — virtual reality among them. But there’s one that’s already here — the internet.
Will the internet banish the linear, lecture-driven, on-campus mode of education? Has it already? I took a look:
A couple of days ago I was sitting in the office of an industrial relations expert, conducting an interview for my new radio show. I was trying to draw a closer connection between research and reality, and, so, I was hypothesising one. To my wonderment, she prefaced her answer with; “you know, I might write something on this”.
The key here: she has a blog.
The Internet has done a lot of things to many aspects of our society, but perhaps nothing more profound than removing the middle. In segment after segment, the Internet is creating clear winners and losers, superstars separate from the morass. A gigantic gap looms between.
This is possibly most clear when it comes to musicians – there is a massive gap between the few who generate large sums through streaming and concerts and those who don’t. But unbundling the album not only removed the business model of many artists in the middle, it made it harder to break through. It’s harder to become a superstar by creating a small cult following, living off and building that. It’s more binary.
But this is happening in journalism as well.
It used to be that journalists were the gatekeepers. Armed with the practical skills to tell stories, some knowledge of their beat and some sources, they could scale the ivory towers and get to the experts. Think of it like a funnel – you pour in all that information and get something manageable at the other end.
But journalists no longer have exclusive access to these sources. They aren’t the gatekeepers anymore. My industrial relations expert is perfectly capable of reaching a sizeable audience entirely by herself. She isn’t alone – there’s now a well established ecosystem of economists with blogs and huge Twitter followings. Further, many are perfectly happy contributing their thoughts to mainstream publications, without pay. And this isn’t the only profession breaking free. The experts have escaped the tower.
The ability to tell stories isn’t in shortage either, anymore. Sure, as with anything, some are better than others. But we’ve now seen billions of people spend years on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram; working across media and with the same goal as any journalist – communicate, engage, grow audience. Some are very good, and many don’t want or need to be paid.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I cast around for new opportunities. There’s no middle left in journalism. There’s a clear bottom – newsrooms seemed to be filled with jobs requiring little thought, centred around ripping “reactions” from social media or rewriting press releases. There’s also a clear superstar rank – the top journalists get paid handsomely for their talents, are given the opportunity to show off their brains and ideas.
But, just as with music, there’s very little middle. There’s little for those that are “too smart” or want to do more than repackage tweets. There’s little room left for those who are just starting out, who may have some skills but still need polishing, for whom speaking to experts was a good way to build standing to reach the top.
As with music, there are still journalists who catapult to superstar status. But the path is vague and ever changing, several of the rungs missing. The question is, how do you work your way up an industry with no middle?
I opened up my mailbox this morning to a wonderful surprise. A friend who recently passed through Boston sent me a souvenir, the jersey of one of my favourite basketball players, Jae Crowder. But as I figure out how, whether and where I should mount this new treasure, I’ve been thinking about why Crowder captured my attention, why I bother watching basketball at all.
Taking a step back, I can’t help but wonder why I have such an interest in sports. Despite its prevalence in our societies – especially Australia – it just feels like an odd thing to do. I have no skin in the game here. These aren’t fights over grand principle or with that much of importance at stake – despite the incredible legacy building going on. I play basketball only occasionally, and have no hope of achieving the level of skill, athleticism or team-play of my heroes. Further, most professional sports are very Groundhog Daysian – the same players and teams, competing in the same venues. Year after year.
So, on the surface, it’s not like I’m learning much. At least other tv spectacles have a tenuous claim that they expand my horizons.
But if I take a closer look at Crowder, why he can count me as a fan, something else emerges. He’s not the flashiest player. Even on his own team. Although the numbers he puts up are nothing to snort at, they don’t place him even close to the league’s upper echelons. And while there have been some fantastic moments in his short career, that isn’t it either. The reason Celtics home games are filled with Crowder jerseys is about more than easily referenced stats or highlights.
Crowder is one of those players that you love when he’s on your team, hate when he’s not. His style of play is characterised by hustle. He isn’t necessarily the most talented or skilled, but there’s no one that outworks him on the court. You see him everywhere. Chasing everything. Guarding everyone.
It’s grit. Crowder equals grit. And it’s something I admire and want to emulate as much as possible.
I’ll give you a more concrete example. Until he was traded to the Celtics a year and a half ago, Crowder was languishing on the bench. The same guy. The same grit. Completely under-appreciated. He wasn’t getting much playing time, wasn’t contributing anything spectacular. But a new team, a system that works with and appreciates him, and he has blossomed.
It’s these human stories that really make sports for me. It’s Adam Gilchrist in the 2007 World Cup Final. Mark Webber winning the 2009 German Grand Prix. These are stories of talented, determined guys rising to the occasion when given a real opportunity. I know I’ve felt like Crowder before. Many times in fact. Stuck on the bench. On the wrong team. Crowder gives me hope I can make my mark. I just have to keep plugging til that time comes.
This is why you watch sport.