A Note on Voter Suppression: Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty. Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals; Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.

A Note on Voter Suppression:

Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty.

Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals;

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.


Burton Weltman


The title of this little essay pretty much says it all about the ideological differences that divide the United States today.  At least, that is my contention.  I am writing this on Tuesday, October 30, 2018, a week before a very important mid-term election in this country.  Democrats are busy trying to get out the vote.  Republicans are busy trying to keep down the vote.  What is that about?

(1) Voter Suppression as a Civic Duty: Who are the People?

How can it be that voter suppression is to many Republicans a civic duty, while encouraging all and sundry to vote is a goal of most Democrats?  The difference largely stems from their differing answers to the questions of who gets to be considered part of “the people” – as in “We the People” who constitute the country – and, in turn, what role do “the people” get to play in the affairs of the country.

Alexander Hamilton enunciated what has essentially been the conservative answer to these questions to the present day when he claimed that those who owned the country should get to run it.  “All communities,” he said, “divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born.  The other, the mass of people… The people are turbulent and changing.  They seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”  The role of the people is to defer to the wisest and richest among them.

In this view, the country is essentially like a joint-stock company in which the rich who own most of the stock should get the major say in running things, the middling classes who own some small shares of the stock should get some minor say, and the lower classes who own no stock at all should get no say at all.  By dint of their wealth, the richest have shown they are the wisest.  By dint of their poverty, the masses have demonstrated their incompetence.

This conservative view of the people applies to politics, economics, customs and culture.  In politics, conservatives generally consider voting to be a privilege that needs to be earned, whereas liberals consider voting as the right and duty of every adult citizen.  When the country was founded, property qualifications to vote were widespread.  Consistent with Hamilton’s view of things, people literally had to earn the privilege of voting by accumulating wealth.  This practice did not last long, however.  By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, public pressure by the lower classes, who had the greater numbers albeit not the greater wealth, forced the elimination of these restrictions and made voting a democratic right, at least for white men.

So, conservatives turned to other methods of limiting the political power of the general public and increasing the influence of wealth.  In this effort, they have repeatedly battled liberals who favored greater democracy and championed the interests of people over those of property.  The tide in these matters has ebbed and flowed ever since.

In recent years, property has been winning.  Conservatives have scored notable successes in rulings by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that money spent on political campaigns is speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that corporations are “persons” with the rights of citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.  These ruling are legal nonsense but they are consistent with the view that the rich should have the major say-so in American politics.

Conservative ideology justifies the suppression of lower class and minority voters on the grounds that they don’t have sufficient stake in the country to vote responsibly, and that they will only use their votes to gain governmental benefits for themselves, such as welfare, medical care and so forth.  To conservatives, the lower classes are parasites on the body politic and the economy, and conservatives generally condemn subsidies to the poor favored by liberals as corrupt efforts by liberals to buy the votes of the poor.

Of course, conservatives, at the same time, laud tariffs and subsidies given to rich corporations that give big campaign contributions to conservative politicians as public-spirited efforts to bolster the country’s economy.  In the same vein, conservatives promote the organization of capital into big corporations but, at the same time, oppose the organization of workers into labor unions.  It’s one thing, and not a good thing, for workers to conglomerate for better wages; it’s another for the wealthy to conglomerate for better profits.

The underlying economic difference between conservatives and liberals is largely over the question of whether the country’s prosperity is primarily the result of increasing supply or increasing demand.  That is, should economic policy primarily favor the accumulation of wealth by the rich who will ostensibly invest it in new enterprises that will create jobs and goods for everyone?  Or should policy favor increasing the demand for goods by ordinary people which will stimulate investment and the creation of jobs in order to meet that demand?  In present-day political terms, should there be tax cuts for the rich or for the middle class?

In cultural terms, this conservative view idealizes what supposedly were the values and customs of the white, European Christians who ostensibly founded the country and made it great.  This view, in turn, denigrates the cultures of other peoples who live in the United States and even demonizes those people as undermining the American Way.  Immigrants have repeatedly been attacked in this way throughout American history, albeit with different groups bearing the brunt at different times.

Historically, the role of alien destroyer of the American Way was assigned to German immigrants in the eighteenth century, Irish immigrants during the nineteenth century, Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.  Each of these ethnic groups was subsequently incorporated into the category of white, European Christians that defines the genuine American for most conservatives. Meanwhile, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews have for the most part been categorized as “Other” and have been more or less denigrated and scapegoated, a practice which continues to the present day.

(2) The Irony of Demagoguery: You can make fools of a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Ever since property qualifications for voting were abolished, conservatives have struggled with the necessity of gaining enough people to back their policies so that they can control the government.  Since their policies are geared to favor a small number of the wealthiest people, they have largely practiced a demagogic politics of fear-mongering against ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and other groups that can be safely scapegoated, safely scapegoated because they are, in fact, not a threat.

Southern plantation owners cultivated a fear of blacks and a feeling of superiority toward the slaves among the small white farmers who were being undermined by the slave system.  Northern capitalists imported Eastern and Southern European immigrants to undercut the wages of American-born workers, then denigrated the immigrants for political purposes as dangerous to American ways.  The method is to cultivate a sense of superiority among white, European Christians and a fear of Others who are different, even as conservatives enact policies that hurt their very supporters.

We see that method at work today as the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers, Kochs, and other right-wing billionaires stir up fears of immigrants and minorities, while encouraging a sense of superiority among white, European Christians toward these peoples.  The goal is to energize right-wing supporters to vote for conservative politicians while denigrating and denying the vote to people who do not support conservative policies.  The irony is that the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers et al. feel the same contempt toward their right-wing followers as their followers feel toward their designated enemies.  And the right-wing policies of the conservatives hurt their supporters as much or even more than their opponents.

Malleable, manipulatable and mainly middle-aged or older, most of the supporters of Trump and right-wing policies are only making fools of themselves while making the world worse for us all.  I suppose we can take some solace in Abraham Lincoln’s conclusion that you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.  Let’s hope this is that last time.

B.W.    10/30/18



Three Simple Reasons Why The “Constitutional Originalism” of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Three Simple Reasons Why  the “Constitutional Originalism”

of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and

a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Burton Weltman

Prologue: I am writing this essay on September 25, 2018. Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently in the midst of a furious effort to push through the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh is a self-proclaimed “Constitutional Originalist” which, in his case, means that he thinks the United States Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were understood at the time of its drafting and ratification.  Kavanaugh is currently a federal judge, having been appointed by George W. Bush, but he also has a long history before that as a radical right-wing Republican Party operative.  He claims to be an Originalist but he brings a radical right-wing ideology to his judicial work.

The theory of Constitutional Originalism is a recent development in American history, dating only from the 1970’s.  Its development coincided with the emergence during that same period of the present-day radical right-wing of American politics, the people who brought us the Tea Party and more recently Donald Trump.  Radical right-wingers generally entertain a Social Darwinian approach to society, a libertarian approach to government, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy.  They believe in a dog-eat-dog world in which the rich should rule and the role of the government is to protect the successful rich from the envious poor.  They think of themselves as protectors of freedom against communistic liberals, proponents of excellence against the mediocrity of the masses, and saviors of Western Civilization against the immigrant hordes.

Although right-wingers are often lumped together with conservatives and both are electorally represented by the Republican Party, their ideas and goals are not conservative.  Conservatives tend to support the status quo and accept most of the progressive reforms of the twentieth century.  Right-wingers are radicals who reject the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, and want to incite a counterrevolution that would essentially hurl American society back to the nineteenth century.[1]

Constitutional Originalists represent the judicial side of this radical right-wing movement.  The late Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have been radical right-wing proponents of Originalism on the Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh would ostensibly follow in Scalia’s footsteps.  The purpose of this essay to demonstrate that despite its exposition by supposedly learned members of the high court, Constitutional Originalism is patently nonsense and merely a pseudo-legal cover for the radical right-wing political views of these men.  There are many reasons the Originalist theory is false and even fraudulent.  I will outline three simple reasons that I think are sufficiently conclusive.

Reason #1: There were no American dictionaries in 1780’s and there is no other way of determining the definitive meaning for the Founders of the words in the Constitution.

This is really simple.  Originalists say that we should interpret the language of the Constitution exactly as the Founders who wrote it would have interpreted it.  The problem is that there is no way of knowing exactly what the founders meant by the words they used.  There were no American dictionaries at the time and there is no other way of finding out.  But linguistics and etymology are not the real concerns of the Originalists.

Originalists are more concerned with legal results than with linguistics.  Originalism arose in opposition to the “living document” theory of Constitutional interpretation that has long been held by the majority of judges and legal scholars.  According to the “living document” theory, the provisions and words of the Constitution should be interpreted in conformance with the changing circumstances of American society.  As social institutions and norms change, interpretations should change.  On that basis, the Supreme Court found, for example, a right to privacy in the Constitution during the 1960’s and 1970’s that had not previously been declared and used that right as the basis for finding a Constitutional right to contraception and abortion.  Originalism has largely been motivated by opposition to the Court’s finding that the Constitution guarantees rights to privacy and abortion, as has been the right-wing movement generally.

Originalists object to the “living document” theory on the grounds that it undermines the rationale for having a written Constitution and gives judges the power to change the Constitution at will.  They claim it condemns us to a government of fickle men rather than fixed laws.  In this regard, Originalists argue that the “living document” theory destroys the principle of stare decisis, the principle that once something is decided, you should not revisit and revise the decision.  Stare decisis ensures continuity and peace in the law, and it is one of the key principles of the English Common Law from which American common law and constitutional law has evolved.  Without stare decisis, the law becomes a free-for-all struggle in which might makes right.

In claiming that the “living document” theory abjures stare decisis, Originalists are complaining  that it leaves constitutional principles uncertain and subject to partisan changes every time membership on the Supreme Court changes.  This is the reasoning that Originalists use when, for example, they argue that the death penalty should not be condemned under the “cruel and unusual” punishment clause of the Constitution.  If hanging was good enough for the Founders when they composed that clause, it should be good enough for us today.

There are many flaws in the Originalist argument.  To take an obvious one, the way in which we generally determine the meaning of words is through consulting a dictionary.  Dictionaries were invented as a means of standardizing the meanings and spellings of words so that we can have a reasonable idea of what each person is saying when we communicate with each other.  When Noah Webster issued the first comprehensive dictionary of American words in the early 1800’s, his goal was to eliminate the chaos of meanings and spellings that existed in the country.  There was no American dictionary in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and the fact is that residents of the various states had closer communications and cultural ties with England than with each other.  So, colonists from different states did not necessarily mean the same things with the same words.

The fact that the Founders were able to agree to use the words that are in the Constitution does not mean they held the same views of those words.  And there is no way of finding out because the Founders did not attach an explanatory statement to the Constitution, as most Legislatures do with the laws they enact today.  The Founders seemingly left it to their descendants to decide what the words were going to mean to them.  In this view, words are approached as symbols that need to be reinterpreted as the situations to which they refer change.  Language as well as the law is viewed as living.

With respect to stare decisis, this principle has never been considered absolute and has always been qualified by the facts of changing circumstances.  If the circumstances under which a decision has been made substantially change, then the basis for the original decision may no longer exist, and even the language in which the decision was couched may have changed meanings.  As a result, the decision may need to be revisited and possibly revised, and a new consensus may need to be reached as to the meaning of the words in which the decision is articulated.  The necessity of reinterpreting the law in light of changing circumstances, and the idea that the law is a living and evolving thing, is a basic principle of the common law and of statutory and constitutional interpretation.

And the Founders were fully aware of this principle of changing circumstances when they made the Constitution.  The Revolution had stemmed from the fact that constitutional arrangements between England and the colonies that had been mutually acceptable in prior years were no longer working because the circumstances of both England and the colonies had substantially changed.  And the dispute between England and the colonies focused on the different meanings they were giving to words — words such as “representation,” “taxation,” “domestic trade,” and “foreign trade” — about which they had previously agreed, but did so no longer.

Both the American colonists and the English were citing the same statutes and constitutional principles but using the words in ways that were different from each other and were different from how people had used them in the past.  Meanings had changed with changing circumstances.  Appeals to stare decisis satisfied neither side and did not resolve their differences.  As a consequence, new decisions and new arrangements had to be made.

The Founders knew that meanings change as circumstances change.  As a result, pretending to know what the Founders definitively meant by the words in the Constitution is not only impossible, and essentially a fraud, but runs counter to the Founders’ own intent.  This conclusion leads to Reason #2.

Reason #2: Many of the key phrases and provisions in the Constitution are couched in relativistic terms for which there can be no definitive meaning.

This is simply obvious.  The Constitution is couched in open-ended terms that do not lend themselves to definitive meanings, let alone the definitive meanings of the Founders.  The Founders were not fools, and so they must have known that the Constitution would be subject to competing and changing interpretations.

The Constitution is a remarkably short document, which is probably one of the reasons for its longevity.  It is full of abstract and flexible terms that have to be interpreted and that acquire new meanings as circumstances change.  Many of the most important provisions can have no fixed meaning.  Phrases such as “due process,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “establishment of religion,” and “speedy trial,” among many others, can only be defined pragmatically to fit the times, places, and circumstances in which they are applied.  And the Ninth Amendment, which provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People,” is an open invitation for future generations to discover new Constitutionally protected rights as circumstances change.

The meaning of “due process,” for example, depends upon what process people think is due in a particular time, place, and circumstance.  The flexibility of the term is not, however, infinite.  There is a long history in Anglo-American law as to what sort of process is due in various situations.  Based on the principle of stare decisis and on the importance of precedents generally in American law, any determination as to what is due process in a situation must start with past determinations. Then, any deviation from those past determinations must be justified by facts and reasons as to how changing circumstances require the new interpretation.  The meaning of the phrase “due process” should not, in this way, be subject merely to the whims of fickle men or partisan politics.

In the “living document” approach, the words used by the Founders set the parameters for Constitutional interpretation.  As such, you should not be able to use Orwellian double-speak to contradict the Founders’ words.  “Equal” in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, for instance, should not be construed to mean unequal.  At the same time, the word “equal” does not necessarily mean “the same,” so there is room within the concept of equal protection to come to different and changing interpretations of the phrase, albeit not infinite room.

In Anglo-American law, interpretation has historically been guided and limited by the “reasonable person” standard.  Since we are all products of our times, places and circumstances, and our judgments will be affected thereby, perfect objectivity is impossible and some subjectivity is inevitable.  At the same time, unfettered subjectivity is unacceptable as it would result in the fickleness and partisanship about which the Constitutional Originalists claim to be concerned.  So, the golden mean of interpretation is the reasonable person.  An interpretation is acceptable if it conforms with what a reasonable person in that time, place and circumstance would conclude.  “Reasonable person” is a consensus benchmark, albeit one that is constantly being challenged and revised.  And as consensus on the idea and ideal of the reasonable person evolves, interpretations of the Constitution and other laws can legitimately evolve.

We have historically seen this evolution in cases dealing with public school segregation.  In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided in 1896 that equality under the law did not require integrated schools, and permitted segregated schools so long as they provided reasonably equal opportunities for education.  In the highly charged racial circumstances of that time, in which many white people, especially in the South, did not want to provide any public education at all for blacks, the Court deemed “separate but equal” a reasonable compromise.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court in 1954 decided that segregated schools had not proven to provide equal educational opportunities and, thereby, violated the requirement of equal protection under the law.  The Court also concluded that segregation was by its nature unequal and unreasonable.  Changing circumstances had led reasonable people to a changed interpretation.  The “reasonable person” in 1954 was effectively more knowledgeable and less racist than in 1896.

Along with stare decisis, the idea of a living law, and the reasonable person standard of interpretation, another basic principle of American law has been the presumption that people intend the natural consequences of their actions.  The Founders created a Constitution that requires interpretation and that for the last two hundred thirty years has been treated as a living document subject to changing interpretation as circumstances have changed.  Given the way the Constitution was drafted and filled with abstract and flexible clauses, the Founders seemingly got what they intended, a living and evolving document.  The attempt by Originalists to radically regress Constitutional interpretation back to the 1780’s is at best a hopeless attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, and more likely a fraud in which they themselves don’t really believe.  This conclusion leads to Reason #3.

Reason #3:  Judges claiming to be Originalists regularly violate their supposed Originalism to uphold radical right-wing rulings.  And that’s what definitively makes it a fraud.

This is simply embarrassing.  Justices Scalia and Thomas and would-be Justice Kavanaugh can wax eloquent about Originalism when they are using it as a pretext to strike down some progressive interpretation of the Constitution or some progressive legislation, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to upholding right-wing interpretations and laws.  I will cite only three well-known examples.

The first is the idea that money is speech under the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech permits a person to spend as much money as the person wants on political campaigns and political contributions.  This interpretation makes any serious campaign finance regulations almost impossible and leaves American politics a plaything for the rich.  It is consistent with the Social Darwinian principles of the radical right-wing in America which hold that the rich should rule and those who own the country should run it.

Although the Founders were themselves elitists, the idea that money would be considered the equivalent of speech and that the Constitution would promote unlimited spending in politics was unthinkable to them. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they hoped to keep political campaigning out of America altogether.  The historical record is clear that they hoped the country would naturally choose the best and brightest to hold political office, without political parties or partisan campaigning.  The Electoral College, for example, was originally supposed to be a colloquium of the best people who would choose the President and Vice President based on who they thought would be best for the country.[2]

Moreover, to the Founders speech was people speaking, not money talking.  There is nothing either in the Constitution or in anything the Founders have left us to reach the conclusion that spending money was considered by them to be protected First Amendment speech.  Such a conclusion is not merely faulty Constitutional interpretation and bad public policy, it is a gross departure from any Originalist interpretation.  Self-styled Originalists, such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, have, however, consistently supported such an interpretation.

The second example, which follows from the first, is the idea that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, that they deserve the civil rights protections of persons, and that, in particular, they have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.  This idea is literally nonsense on its face and completely contrary to any intention of the Founders.

It is nonsense because it is universally acknowledged that private corporations are merely legal fictions that are created under state laws and that have no right or reason to exist unless allowed by state laws.  There is nothing in the concept of a corporation that resembles the human beings who are protected as persons in the Constitution.  There is also nothing in the Constitution about corporations and there are no private federal corporations.  When the Constitution was drafted, some states didn’t even allow private corporations.  Those states that allowed them kept them under strict control as to what they could do, how big they could become, and how long they could exist.  Nothing could be farther from the concept of a “person” in the Constitution.

Corporation law developed during the mid-nineteenth century, and the regulations governing them became looser over time.  Today, however, each state still has its own corporate law, so that there are fifty different definitions of a corporation, and a corporation can exist only if a state allows for it.  That is not a person.  That’s a thing or a mechanism.

In any case, the Founders had a deep distrust of corporations and hoped they would be used only for public projects that no individual or group of individuals could otherwise undertake.  The historical record is absolutely clear on this.[3]  As a result, the idea of giving corporations the rights of human persons under the Constitution would have been anathema to the Founders.  Nonetheless, self-proclaimed Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh consistently support this interpretation of the Constitution, a misinterpretation that is consistent with their radical right-wing political views.

The third example is the idea that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to own and keep handguns and rifles in their homes for personal self-protection, and to own and carry handguns and assault weapons in public.  This is nonsense on its face and would have been inconceivable to the Founders.  Among the many reasons, I will cite four simple ones.[4]

The first reason is that guns in those days were muzzle-loading, which meant that you had to pour gunpowder down the gun’s barrel for each shot you took.  This, in turn, meant you had to have a bag of gunpowder handy in order to shoot your gun.  The problem is that gunpowder in those days was extremely volatile.  It might explode with the slightest change in the humidity or barometric pressure.  It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additives were discovered that made gunpowder safe to store.  As a result, few people during the 1780’s were foolish or foolhardy enough to want to keep a bag of gunpowder in their home.  In turn, few people would have had any reason to keep guns in their home.  So, the Founders would not have conceived the Second Amendment as protecting the right to keep a gun in one’s home since almost no one did.

The second reason is that guns in those days were a very inefficient means of self-protection.   Guns had to be reloaded after every shot, and reloading took several minutes – which would be very inconvenient if you missed your attacker with your first shot.  In addition, most guns were smooth-bored muskets that were extremely inaccurate.   To shoot them, lead balls were shoved down the barrel with some gunpowder.  When the gunpowder was ignited with a match, the ball would rattle down the barrel and wobble into the air.  It was almost impossible for even the most practiced gunman to hit anything at which he was aiming if it was more that a few feet away.

Muskets were effective weapons when shot en masse simultaneously by one bunch of people in a line at another bunch of people.  What was in effect a wall of lead would emerge from the group of shooters and would mow down the other group.  It did not matter that no one hit the person at whom he was aiming because as part of the wall of lead, each person’s ball would likely hit someone.  That is why most military attacks in those days consisted of lines of musketeers shooting at each other.  Muskets were good only if you were in a group, such as a militia, not if you were shooting by yourself.

As a result of the inefficiency of guns for personal self-defense, few people, and very few townspeople, owned guns.  They relied, instead, on spears and hatchets for self-defense.  Militias stored guns and gunpowder in armories that were generally a safe distance away from the populace of a town.  That is why British soldiers were marching to Lexington and Concord when the shot that was supposedly heard around the world and that ostensibly signaled the beginning of the American Revolution was fired at them.  The British were aiming to confiscate guns and gunpowder of the local militias that were stored in armories in those towns.

That first shot probably missed its target, as did most of the subsequent shots fired by colonists hiding behind trees as the British marched eighteen miles down the road.  Some four thousand colonists fired almost continuously all day long at around fifteen hundred British soldiers who were in the open and at relatively close range.  As a result, seventy-three soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded.  There could not be a better illustration of the inefficiency of guns in those days, and why people did not carry guns around with them or keep them in their homes.  It is insulting to think that the Founders would have promoted a Constitutional amendment to protect gun rights that nobody wanted.

The third reason, which follows from the first two, is that the wording of the Second Amendment clearly applies the right to bear arms to militias and not to individual persons.  That wording and that meaning clearly follow from the historical facts recited above about guns and gun ownership, facts that any Originalist smart enough to be on the Supreme Court should know.

The fourth reason is that the Founders could have had no idea of the weapons of mass destruction and the mass production of those weapons that exist today and that the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be protected by the Second Amendment.  The Founders could not have anticipated assault weapons.  So, according to an Originalist interpretation, the Constitution could not conceivably protect the right to own them.

Nonetheless, despite the obviousness of these reasons, so-called Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, in a manner that is inconsistent with their Originalism but consistent with their radical right-wing political agendas, support gun ownership rights that the Founders could not have intended and that the words of the Second Amendment could not mean.

Conclusion.  Fraud at the highest levels is the highest level of fraud.  Originalism is just such a fraud.  It is so obviously lame that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so harmful.

[1] I have written a blog post on this website that discusses the development of the differences between conservatives and right-wingers.  It is “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[2]I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #5:Perfecting a Government for an Imperfect Society in the 1780’s-1790’s:Was the Constitution a Mistake?”

[3] I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #8: General Incorporation Laws, 1830’s-1880’s: Was the Corporate Revolution Necessary and Proper?”

[4] I have written a blog post on this issue which is posted on this website.  It is “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”

Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty. Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty.

Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Burton Weltman

Prologue: An Argument on behalf of the Dreamers.

I am writing this in early February, 2018 in the midst of the national debate about what should be done with the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children who were illegally brought to the United States by their parents and who have grown up as Americans.  Depending on how you define Dreamers, there are between some 800,000 and two million of them.  I present herein an argument on their behalf.

Illegal is not Dishonest.

One of the talking points of the xenophobes who are opposed to allowing so-called Dreamers to remain in the United States is that allowing the Dreamers to stay would be giving them and their parents a reward for illegal behavior.  Xenophobes have couched the debate in terms of amnesty versus honesty, denigrating those who support the Dreamers’ right to stay as favoring an ignominious amnesty, and congratulating those who oppose the Dreamers as upholding the principles of honesty.  The debate is portrayed by the xenophobes as dishonest law breakers versus honest law supporters.

I think the xenophobes have got it right that the debate is about honesty versus amnesty.  I just think they have it the wrong way around.  Honesty is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as being fair and straight-forward.  By this definition, the Dreamers are the honest ones.  They have not done anything underhanded or unfair.  The overwhelming majority of them have lived upright and productive lives in the United States.  They may be illegal, but they are not being dishonest.

It is their xenophobic predators who are being dishonest.  And I think the debate is better seen as between faith breakers and faith makers, a matter of honesty is as honesty does.  It’s the Dreamers who are the honest faith makers and their opponents the dishonest and dishonorable faith breakers.  The Dreamers were brought here as children, are in this country on good faith, and are just doing what most good young people here do to be successful.  It is the xenophobes who are breaking faith with the Dreamers.  In turn, I do not think the Dreamers should be seen as needing amnesty.  They just need a fair construction of the law.

Illegal is not a Crime.

There is a fundamental distinction in our legal system, going back to the Middle Ages, between what is termed malum in se and malum prohibitum.  Something that is malum in se is considered evil in itself and is deemed illegal because it is evil.  Something that is malum prohibitum is considered inconsistent with the public welfare or disruptive of the public welfare, and is deemed illegal essentially because it is inconvenient.

There is also a fundamental legal principle going back to the Middle Ages that considers something as your right if you have been doing it continuously and it is not harmful in itself, i.e., is not a malum in se.  That means if something is merely a malum prohibitum, you can gain the right to do that thing if you have been continuously doing it.  Just because something is illegal, that is, it is not authorized by the law, does not necessarily make that thing a crime.  And it may even become legal under the appropriate circumstances.

Trespassing on somebody’s land is the classic example of a malum prohibitum that becomes a legal right if you do it continuously.  If you regularly walk or drive across someone’s land for long enough with at least the implied knowledge and/or acquiescence of the landowner, the landowner will eventually no longer be able to prohibit you from entering and traversing his land.  You have gained the right to cross his land by what is called adverse possession.  It takes years to gain this right, but it is an example of turning something illegal into something lawful.

For most of American history, there were no prohibitions against immigration.  Anyone could come into this land and after a period of years could apply for citizenship.  With the exception of a short and shameful period during the 1790’s when the Alien and Sedition Acts provided for the deportation of immigrants on political grounds, there was virtually no regulation of immigration until the late nineteenth century, and no immigration quotas until the early twentieth century.

Most citizens of the United States today are the descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was either totally or almost completely free.  In the early 1900’s, laws were enacted which changed things, and essentially required you to get authorization from the federal government to immigrate into the United States. These laws made unauthorized entry into the country illegal.

What is called illegal immigration under current law is really two different things: unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States and unlawful entry into the United States.  Unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States is not defined as a crime.  Dreamers who were brought by their parents to this country as children may be present unlawfully, but they did nothing wrong and they have not committed a crime.  Under the law, they can be deported but not otherwise punished.  Their only offense is living, and theirs is a genuinely pro-life defense.

Unlawful entry is a crime.  The Dreamers’ parents may be guilty of unlawful entry and, therefore, guilty of a crime.  But it is only a malum prohibitum.  There is nothing inherently evil about what they did.  And both the unlawful presence of the Dreamers and the illegal entry of their parents are essentially forms of trespassing.  As a consequence, continual residence in the United States especially by the Dreamers, but also by their parents and most other illegal immigrants of longstanding presence in the country, ought to lead to the right to remain here, especially if they have otherwise been lawful residents.  The Dreamers, their parents and most illegal immigrants ought to benefit from the principle of adverse possession.

Honesty should not be a Crime.

Amnesty is for people who have committed crimes.  The Dreamers should not need amnesty because their status is not criminal.  Not a felony, not a misdemeanor, not even an infraction.  The idea that allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States and possibly become citizens is a form of amnesty is contrary to the fundamental principles of our legal system.  It is dishonest to treat them as offenders when they have committed no offense.  Unfortunately, dishonesty is not a crime in this country.  If it was, it is those who oppose the Dreamers who would be the offenders, not the Dreamers.  But if dishonesty is not a crime, honesty should certainly not be considered one. For this reason, the Dreamers should not need amnesty.

It is ironic that most of the people who are objecting to the Dreamers’ presence in the United State are descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was essentially free, and who occupied this country in what could only charitably be called adverse possession against the real owners of the country, the Native Americans.  The occupation of the country by Europeans was actually more like breaking-and-entering with murderous force, a highest level of felony in our criminal code.  But, at this point, the Europeans’ continued appropriation of the land is justified as a so-called fact-on-the-ground, a fait accompli that represents the right of their adverse possession.

The Dreamers have done nothing so egregious as the Europeans who took this country by force and fraud from the Native Americans.  The justification that most European Americans today would give for their right to continue to live here is that European settlers (“settler” being a euphemism for trespasser) and their descendants have been here for so long, it would be unfair to send them back to Europe.  The same reason should apply to most illegal immigrants.

Since this country essentially justifies its existence on the grounds of adverse possession and continues to operate under that principle to the present day, Dreamers and other ostensibly illegal immigrants of longstanding residence in the country should not need a charitable act of amnesty to be able to stay here.  The honest thing to do would be to recognize their continued residence in the United States as a matter of right.

BW 2/6/18


Whatever happened to socialism? Axel Honneth tries to revive the socialist ideal in “The Idea of Socialism.” Is it an idea whose time has come, gone, and maybe come again? Maybe.

Whatever happened to socialism?

Axel Honneth tries to revive the socialist ideal in The Idea of Socialism.

Is it an idea whose time has come, gone, and maybe come again?  Maybe.

Burton Weltman

“We can be together.”

Jefferson Airplane.

Introduction: Whatever happened to socialism?

One of the more perplexing political developments of the last forty years or so has been the disappearance of the idea of socialism from public conversation.  For the previous 150 years, socialism was an idea, ideal and political movement that had to be contended with, whatever one thought of it.  It is no longer.  What happened and what, if anything, can or should be done about it?  And does the recent emergence of socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to prominence (I am writing this in October 2017) signal a revival of the idea of socialism in the United States?

Axel Honneth is a German philosopher and the author of The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.[1]  He contends socialism is the last best hope for mankind, and the alternatives are grim.  He is, thus, heavily committed to reviving socialism.  Honneth thinks he knows why socialism has faded, and how to revive it.  His book is only 120 pages long, but the arguments are dense and intense.  Honneth’s exposition relies heavily on John Dewey, an American philosopher, educational reformer, and social activist who flourished during the first half of the twentieth century.

Dewey is considered one of the founders of pragmatism, along with C.S. Peirce and William James.  Pragmatism is generally considered America’s major contribution to world philosophy, as well as America’s own philosophy, because its emphasis on practicality reflects American culture.  Pragmatism holds that the meaning of a thing is how it works, and the value of a thing is the extent to which it works, that is, how well it fits in with the best available evidence.  Pragmatism is a broad-based philosophy upon which Dewey based his progressive educational reforms and his socialist theories.  Dewey’s idea of socialism is particularly American.  For this reason, I think Honneth’s book has particular relevance for Americans.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the questions raised by Honneth, and his answers.  As a self-styled socialist, I, too, think these are important questions.  My conclusions about Honneth’s book are that his theoretical discussion of socialism, and his proposal that socialists go forward through building on grass roots organizations, are excellent.  But I think his historical argument, that socialism faded because of foolish mistakes made by early socialists that were then foolishly perpetuated by socialists thereafter, is faulty.  And I believe that the prevalence of this historical argument among socialists today is itself a part of the problem with socialism.

Questions: How can that be?

Socialism was an idea and an ideal that animated most American reform movements from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century.  Ideas derived from socialism underlay the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, reforms which became the foundation of America’s social welfare programs, health and safety regulations, economic controls, and environmental protections.  How is it that in the United States today socialism is positively regarded by almost no one?[2]

John Dewey was widely regarded as the most influential thinker in America from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century.  He was “universally acknowledged as his country’s intellectual voice.”[3]  His opinions on almost every social and political issue were regularly reported in the mass media, such that “it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”[4]  How is it that in the United States today Dewey is known by almost no one?[5]

Donald Trump exemplifies most of the worst in American society, and embodies the lowest forms of racism and misogyny, ethnic intolerance and religious bigotry, selfishness and self-centeredness, bullying and cowardice, and nothing of the humanitarian ideas and ideals of John Dewey or the socialists.  How can it be that in the United States today he is the duly elected President?

Scenarios: Socialism in everyday life.

Six people are on a basketball court.  They have not been previously acquainted.  They split into two teams of three people each, and begin a half-court game of basketball.  Within five minutes, the players on each team have bonded with each other.  They are positioning themselves to play to their teammates’ strengths, passing to each other, blocking for each other, compensating for each other’s weaknesses, each finding a role that plays to his/her strengths while helping the team, and each subordinating his/her ego to promote the success of the team.

Six people in a family are sitting around a kitchen table, two parents and four children of various ages.  The family has limited financial resources.  They are discussing how to manage their finances so as to maximize the opportunities of each person and promote the success of the whole family.  All see themselves in the same boat, and each is looking out for the other.

Six workers in a workshop are standing around a machine.  They are discussing how to organize a project so as to complete it most efficiently and effectively.  They dole out assignments based on the relative skills of each worker, so as to play to the strengths of each and promote the success of the group.  The joint project is the center of everyone’s attention.

Six children are playing a game in a schoolyard, with each of them taking a turn, until one of them, the biggest, tries to bully the smallest out of a turn.  The others band together in refusing to let the bully do that, defending the rights of the smallest child and, thereby, upholding the integrity of the game and promoting rapport within the group.

Each of these scenarios exemplifies the socialist maxim of Karl Marx that “the self-development of each is the basis for the development of all,” that is, in the words of The Three Musketeers, it is “one for all, and all for one.”  They are the sorts of scenarios that play out millions of times every day in the United States.  And they represent socialism in practice.  That is, most people, including most Americans, are instinctively socialists.  So, why is it that the idea of socialism is so little accepted here?

Definitions: Socialism, Capitalism, Individualism, Social Darwinism.

The word “socialism” was first used as a political term around 1830.  Consistent with the usage of those first socialists and most socialists since that time, “socialism” will be defined herein as an ideology which holds that “the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all” (Karl Marx), that one should act according to the maxim of “all for one, and one for all” (The Three Musketeers), and that one should “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Jesus Christ).  It is an ideology that promotes individuality through mutualism and cooperation.  This is the idea of socialism that John Dewey promoted and that Honneth seeks to revive.

Socialism is a pro-social philosophy.  When you add “ism” to a word, you identify an ideology or a cause that promotes what the word represents.  Socialism asserts that individual freedom is a result of social interaction.  Individuality means freely cultivating your talents within a social context, and finding a place in which you can make your unique contribution to society.  Individuality is not merely freedom from the oppression of others, but also freedom to participate equally with others.  It is the idea that my freedom depends on yours, and we are nothing without each other.

Socialism arose in opposition to individualism, a term that first emerged around 1810, and capitalism, a term that emerged in the 1850’s.  Capitalism can be defined as an ideology of individual investment that promotes an economic system based on the presumption that businesses will be privately owned and operated without government interference, unless that presumption is overcome by evidence that government involvement is necessary to preserve the capitalist system.  In a capitalist system, the goal of businesses is to make profits, based on the assumption that maximizing profits will result in maximum benefits to the public.  Capitalism as an economic system is supported by individualism as a social theory.

Individualism is an ideology that promotes a cult of the individual, and that describes the individual as in constant opposition to society.  Individualism asserts “me” and “mine” over “we” and “ours.”  It promotes the individual over society, for fear that society will suppress the individual.  It promotes competition among people rather than cooperation, based on the ideas that competition makes people stronger and more productive, and that competition keeps people isolated from each other so that they cannot form social coalitions that might suppress individuals.  Society is to be mistrusted.

Individualism is, therefore, an ideology of liberation, but also of insecurity.  It encourages people to be themselves, free from the constraints of others, and be all that they can individually be.  But it bases that self-fulfillment on competing for supremacy against others.  In an individualist world, a person can never be sure whether his/her position is strong enough to withstand the whims of lady luck or the winds of change.

Individualism, in turn, can function as an ideological rationalization for the selfish and self-centered bully, who climbs over others in a vain attempt to be king of the hill, vain because there is inevitably someone stronger or smarter coming up that hill.  Individualism reinforces the free enterprise capitalist economic system that has predominated in the United States since the early nineteenth century.  Individualism gradually became the dominant ideology in the country in the nineteenth century and, despite inroads from socialist ideas, has largely reigned as such since.

Unlike individualism, socialism asserts the compatibility and indivisibility of the individual and society.  Socialism claims that individuals and individuality stem from interacting with others and with society.  For socialists, “One for all and all for one” is a fact, not merely an aspiration.  You are nothing without others, and you are what you do with others.  Likewise, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, for socialists, a fact and not merely an aspiration.  If you think well of yourself, you will likely treat others well.  If you treat others poorly, competing to defeat and dominate them, you will likely think poorly of yourself.  Socialism opposes individualism as self-defeating.

Socialism especially opposes the so-called Social Darwinian principle of “each against all, and the winners take all” that has animated most right-wing political and social thinking since the late nineteenth century, including right-wing self-styled Christians who abominate Darwinian evolutionary theories.  I speak of “so-called” Social Darwinism because this principle is a perversion of Darwin’s ideas, and of “self-styled” Christians because Jesus’ defining Golden Rule seldom informs this group’s theories or practices.  Social Darwinism is an ideology of selfish individualism and cutthroat competition.  It promotes the zero-sum idea that if you get more, I will get less, and that the only way for me to get and keep mine is to keep you from getting yours.  It is an ideology that promotes distrust and fear of others.[6]

Although few right-wingers today acknowledge Social Darwinism as a source of their ideology, Social Darwinism is the principle that underscores most of the thinking of Donald Trump and the political right-wing in the United States today.  Unlike conservatives who oppose dramatic social change and big government, but are generally willing to accept small reforms and government programs when necessary to avoid disaster, right-wingers are radicals who want to dramatically change society and virtually eliminate government and the public sector.[7]

Unlike right-wing ideology, socialism is not a radical idea.  By definition, radicals want to get to the roots of what they see as a wicked society, tear up those roots, and plant something entirely new.  Socialism does not reject the foundations of American society.  The idea of socialism builds on the social ideals that most Americans already hold, and on social instincts that most Americans already display.  This was a key to John Dewey’s socialism.  He claimed that socialism was basically democracy taken to the next level, and he did not think that socialists had to start from scratch.  They could build on the democratic institutions and ideas that already exist in capitalist America, and thereby move toward a socialist political, economic, and social system.

A socialist political democracy could be described as a system of majority rule with minority rights, the most important of which is the right of the minority to possibly become the majority someday.  That last clause is the most important in the definition.  Implicit in the definition are freedoms of speech, assembly, and political organization; the rule of law along with due process and equal protection under the law; and all of the other political rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  But the definition also requires social equality and economic equity so that individuals and minority groups can effectively exercise their political rights.  That is where the socialism comes in.  Political democracy can be effective only to the extent that social equality and economic equity prevail.

In economics, the idea of socialism is economic democracy.  The economic goal of most socialists could be summarized as a system based on the presumption of public ownership or control of businesses, unless it is in the public interest for businesses to be privately owned and/or controlled, and with an assumption that small businesses would be privately owned and operated.  A mixed economy of public and private business is the idea of socialism, with government involvement to ensure economic equity.

Implicit in that definition are such things as a public health system along with health and safety regulations, a public insurance system along with a social safety net, minimum and maximum wage regulations along with a progressive income tax, and other provisions to make for a cooperative, stable, and relatively egalitarian economy.  Socialism promotes the public interest in economics, and opposes a capitalism in which everyone and everything is valued in monetary rather than human terms.  It builds on American ideals of fairness and practices of generosity.

In social relations, the idea of socialism is social democracy.  Socialism promotes the dignity of all people, and opposes discrimination against people based on invidious prejudices.  A socialist conception of personal relations could be summarized as support for everyone who respects others, and opposition to anyone to the extent the person disrespects others.  Implicit in that conception is opposition to racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and bigotry in all its forms, and support for diversity coupled with cooperation.  That is the American ideal of E pluribus unum.  

Distinctions: Socialism in the eyes of socialists and anti-socialists.

The idea of socialism held by socialists is very different than that held by opponents of socialism.  As part of their political liturgy, conservatives and right-wingers have tried to make socialism a dirty word, and to represent socialism as the enemy of individuality and freedom.   The success with which anti-socialists were able to tarnish the idea of socialism led John Dewey to sometimes consider abandoning the term.  Dewey was not finicky about what things were called.  He was willing to call his political proposals a “new liberalism” or even “a new individualism,” so long as these terms encompassed the idea of socialism.  In his view, there was no future for liberalism or individuality in modern society without socialism.[8]

The idea of socialism is often mischaracterized by its opponents, even by some self-styled socialists, mostly those who identify as Communists, as promoting government ownership or control over all businesses and, maybe, even over everything else.  The idea of socialism is also misidentified with oppressive Communist regimes that have existed in some countries around the world.  But, neither of these is consistent with the idea of socialism nor what most socialists have believed in.

This misconception has its roots in the claim that socialism reifies society as an entity over-and-above the individual, as an idol to which individuals can be sacrificed.  Reifying society is a core idea of totalitarianism. Some self-styled socialists, mainly those who identify as Communists, hold to this view.  It is anathema to individualists, and is a reason they see society as the enemy of the individual.  But reifying and idolizing society is also contrary to the idea of socialism.  Most socialists see society as an association of individuals which can and should be a vehicle for individuality, and oppose the totalitarianism implied in seeing society as a hegemonic entity.

Socialists are often portrayed as violent revolutionaries, but the overwhelming majority of socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present day have favored peaceful evolution toward socialism.  They have generally tried to establish islands of socialism within the existing capitalist society that would one-by-one gradually move society toward the socialist goal.

Socialists have, for example, established communes, like those of the nineteenth century utopian socialists and the twentieth century hippies, some of which have been successful.  Socialists have also encouraged the establishment of cooperatives, an idea which has been quite successful.  Farming co-ops, housing co-ops, shopping co-ops, and co-ops of all sorts have flourished over the last one hundred years.  The hope is that the cooperative idea will catch on with ever more people, so that communes and co-ops, islands of socialism, will gradually form a new mainland.

Socialists operating within the existing economic and political system have also developed ideas for social reforms and social programs that have been adopted over the years.  Most of the social programs proposed in the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party have, in fact, become law in the United States.  The hope is that by adopting regulations that promote the health and safety of the public, promote economic equity and efficiency, protect the environment, and care for those who need help, the country will gradually become more socialized and socialist.

Most people, liberals, conservatives and socialists alike, would describe these social reforms and programs positively in humanistic terms.  There is, however, a disagreement as to their long-term effect on society.  Many people see the reforms as a means of stabilizing the existing capitalist society, and making it more acceptable.  This includes liberals and conservatives alike.  Right-wingers, however, decry the reforms as “creeping socialism.”  Socialists hope they are right.[9]

John Dewey and the Evolution of Democratic Socialism.

In The Idea of Socialism, Axel Honneth relies substantially on ideas he has adopted from John Dewey, especially Dewey’s The Public and its Problems.  Honneth seems to be coupling his effort to revive the idea of socialism with an effort to revive the social ideas of Dewey.  I think he makes a good case.  American social thinking in general, and socialist thinking in particular, have suffered from the absence of Dewey’s voice in recent years.

Although Dewey’s influence on American social thinking and educational policy during the first half of the twentieth century was unparalleled, right-wingers mounted a sustained attack on him and his ideas after his death in 1952.  In the context of the Cold War Red Scare, during which socialism was equated with Communism and Communism was equated with treason, Dewey’s socialist ideas and progressive educational methods were labeled subversive.  When the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, right-wingers widely and wackily blamed the American school system for putting the United States at peril from the Red Menace.  Dewey and his progressive educational methods were targeted as the cause, thereby putting the cap on the decline and fall of Dewey’s influence.[10]

Although Dewey is generally classified as a pragmatist philosopher, he usually called himself an experimentalist or transactional philosopher.  As an experimentalist, he promoted what he described as the scientific method.  He was not promoting an ideology, but was looking for solutions to problems or, rather, ways of solving problems.  Dewey claimed that the scientific method was the way in which valid conclusions were reached in any field of inquiry and in everyday life, and is not confined merely to the physical sciences to which it is generally attributed.  Dewey identified this method of decision-making with his idea of socialism.  The scientific method, according to Dewey, consists of several steps that can be described as follows:

  • A flaw in some generally held conclusion is found, which presents itself as a problem needing solution.  The problem could be anything big or small, a matter of war and peace, a question about quantum mechanics, the best way to avoid a traffic jam, or anything else that disrupted people’s usual course of reacting.
  • A hypothesis is formed as to what might be the solution to the problem. A hypothesis is a guess based on the best arguments and evidence that are immediately available.
  • Consideration is given to the hypothesis, and evidence and arguments for and against it are sought. It is important that this be an objective search, albeit not impartial.  It is not impartial because you are looking to solve a problem in which you have an interest, but it must objectively seek both to verify and falsify the hypothesis.
  • A conclusion is reached based on the best available arguments and evidence, and the proposed solution is put to the test.
  • The process and the results of the process are made public so that they can be examined and replicated by others. This publication of the proceedings and the results was crucial for Dewey, and was the key to his identifying socialism with the scientific method.  Truth was, for Dewey, a collective process, and nothing could be considered valid unless it was open to verification by the whole of the interested community.[11]

Socialism evolves, according to Dewey, through people collectively solving social problems with social solutions.   A scientific community of scholars, working together to solve problems and get at the truth, was an example of socialism for Dewey.  This was a model that any group of people could follow.  The scientific method was also Dewey’s alternative to class conflict as a means of dealing with social injustice and moving toward socialism.  Dewey acknowledged the existence of antagonistic social classes, but insisted that solving practical social problems was the way in which society would evolve toward socialism.[12]

Solving social problems would entail the establishment of public agencies.  Dewey envisioned the establishment of government agencies that guaranteed the public well-being at the national level, but operated with maximum public participation at the local level.  In this way, democratic social experiments could be conducted, socialism would grow within capitalist society, and it would grow with grass-roots support.[13]  Honneth  adopts Dewey’s method of socialist experimentalism, and I think this is a strength of his book.

Dewey’s description of himself as a transactional philosopher stemmed from his Darwinian belief that all things either were or could be interconnected, and that progress could be best attained through furthering the breadth and depth of transactions among things.  Dewey’s philosophy was deeply imbued with Darwin’s evolutionary theory.  Life, Dewey contended, consists of solving problems through adapting to and transforming one’s circumstances, and successful adaptations and transformations were the result of making connections among things.[14]   In this context, the connection between Darwinian evolution and socialism was, for Dewey, a self-evident conclusion.  His reasoning could be summarized as follows:

  • All things, whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral, survive because they fit in with their environments, including the creatures and things around them, and are not destroyed by them. This is the meaning of the phrase “survival of the fittest” that was misused by the so-called Social Darwinians to claim that the most powerful and richest people in human society, those who defeated their competitors in the battle for supremacy, were the fittest.  In fact, the ability of beings to cooperate, rather than their strength, is a better indicator of fitness for survival.
  • All things constantly strive either to transform their environments so that they better fit those environments or, when their environments change in ways that are disadvantageous to them, they try to adapt to the change. Transformation and adaptation are the keys to survival.
  • Things are more likely to survive and thrive if they can peacefully acclimate, transform, and cooperate with their environments than if they are constantly battling with the things around them. Hostile and repressive relations are inherently unstable, and cooperative arrangements are eminently preferable.  This is especially the case for humans, whose survival as a species has depended on their ability to cooperate.  Core human instincts are inherently social, and even socialist.  The real Social Darwinism is a Socialist Darwinism.

The case for socialism was obvious to Dewey, as it seems to be for Honneth.  The means for achieving it was the problem for Dewey, and this is what he struggled with in The Public and its Problems.  Published in 1929, the book was specifically a response by Dewey to two books by Walter Lippman, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925).[15]  Lippmann had been a democratic socialist in his youth, but had become a technocratic conservative as a result of what he saw as the way in which public opinion was being manufactured and manipulated in the age of modern mass media.  Lippmann claimed that a democratic public was no longer possible.  His attack on the idea of the public and the possibility of a socialist public is the problem that Dewey dealt with in his book.  Dewey’s conclusions were positive, but not optimistic.  A weakness of Honneth’s book is that it does not fully recognize the context of Dewey’s book or the conditional nature of Dewey’s proposals.

Throughout American history, even as the economy went from local to regional to national in orientation during the nineteenth century, the formation of public opinion had largely remained local.  Small towns and big-city neighborhoods had predominated in the formation of public opinion and, in turn, in the nature of politics.  But by the 1920’s, that had changed, largely because of the advent of radio and the invention of modern advertising campaigns.

Lippmann warned that public opinion could now be expertly formed to favor almost anything the powers that controlled the mass media might want.  And the mass media invariably appealed to the lowest common denominator among people, to their prejudices, fears and hatreds.  The media, thereby, reduced people to what Lippmann claimed was a “mass of absolutely illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals,” primed for manipulation.  There was no more genuine public, Lippmann lamented, only a manufactured public opinion.  In addition, Lippmann claimed, the problems of modern society had become too complicated and arcane for ordinary people to understand.  Ordinary people looked for simple and simple-minded solutions to complex problems.[16]

Given the idiocy of public opinion and the complexity of modern-day social problems, Lippmann concluded that the public could not be trusted with the control of society.  Society could be saved from pillaging by plutocrats and demagoguery from politicians only if the public were excluded from policymaking, and the country entrusted to technocratic experts.  Democracy needed to be redefined as a system in which the public was limited merely to rejecting policies that had clearly failed.  Lippmann essentially proposed a combination of a technocracy and a plebiscitary system, without any of the elements of participatory democracy that socialists like Dewey promoted.[17]

In responding to Lippmann, Dewey conceded that public opinion at large was largely manufactured by the mass media, and that many of the problems of modern society were too complex to be solved by appeals to public opinion.  But, Dewey argued, that did not warrant giving up on public participation in a democratic process.  At the very least, within Lippmann’s own proposed system, there needed to be a public with sufficient expertise to understand the experts who would manage the more complex aspects of modern society and evaluate their policies.  This meant an expanded and upgraded public educational system, something which Dewey promoted during his whole career.[18]

But Dewey did not stop there.  Although public opinion at large and in general was at the present time neither independent nor well-informed, and was largely manufactured and manipulated, that did not mean that public opinion writ small and on specific issues was untrustworthy.  In addition, although specialized expertise was necessary to solve many social problems, that did not mean that the knowledge and experience of ordinary people was not necessary and useful.

Expertise was not something abstract and impartial for Dewey.  Expertise was invariably specific, because it was developed out of the experience of solving specific problems.  Expertise was also inherently biased, because it was developed to solve problems in which people had an interest.  Experts could connect the solution of one problem to another — that is the way knowledge developed — but problems were always specific and always involved the disruption of things in which people were interested.

In turn, solving problems inevitably furthered some people’s interests, and slighted, ignored or abandoned other people’s interests.  Problem-solving should, therefore, take into consideration the ideas and interests of all those who were affected by a problem and its solution.  That was only fair, and was the most effective way to resolve a problem.  As such, solving social problems and making social policy required grass roots communications and consultations, because they were key to both democracy and the scientific method.   Honneth buys into this idea completely, and is very effective in conveying his arguments on its behalf.  I think it is the biggest and best strength of his book.

Dewey also was not ready to write-off the role of small towns and urban neighborhoods, especially given their historical role in American life.  “Democracy must begin at home,” he argued, “and its home is the neighborly community.”[19]  Dewey was an evolutionist who wanted to build on the past, not reject it and try to start all over from scratch.  Dewey essentially applied his ideas about the evolutionary process of adaptation and transformation to the problem of the public.  Honneth does not buy into this idea, and I think it is the weakest aspect of the book.

Just as Dewey had adapted the terms “individualism” and “liberalism” to the new reality of modern society, and transformed them into the idea of socialism, so he attempted to adapt the idea of the neighborly community to the changing conditions of modern society, and thereby to resurrect an idea of the public that Lippmann had buried.  Dewey’s method was to define a public as those people who were significantly affected by something.  He then argued that it was possible to form a large-scale public through connecting together many smaller-scale publics, and to democratically solve large-scale and complex social problems in this way.[20]

The question was how to arrange this.  Dewey was not very specific about this in The Public and its Problems.  His answer was a combination of education, grass-roots organizing, and the scientific method.  Dewey was himself involved with a number of grass-roots socialist political groups.  He was also a founding member of the NAACP and the ACLU, organizations that fought for civil rights and civil liberties, predominantly at the local grass-roots level.  Dewey was involved in teachers’ unions, and promoted labor unions for all workers.[21]  Schools were, however, Dewey’s favorite grass-roots organizations.

Much of Dewey’s career was spent developing and promoting progressive educational methods in which teaching and learning revolved around solving social, economic, political, and personal problems.  Learning, according to Dewey, was a process of intellectual adaptation and transformation by students toward the goal of adapting to and transforming the world in which they lived.  Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, progressive educational methods became “the conventional wisdom” among educators and schools of education.[22]  The methods involved a mixture of cooperative learning and social problem-solving.  These methods were not always practiced in school classrooms, but studies from the 1920’s to the present day have shown that pedagogy of this sort makes for the best results with students, whether on standardized tests or real-life tasks.  The methods also taught students the benefits of cooperation which, it was hoped, they would transfer to life outside of school.

For Dewey the school should be a cooperative community, a model of democracy in which the scientific method and collegial relations would appertain.  Dewey particularly liked the seminar model of teaching, which he promoted for students of all ages.  In this model, students and teachers interacted like master craftspeople and their apprentices, striving to learn the skill of whatever subjects and problems they were studying.  This was Dewey’s response to Lippmann’s assertion that experts alone must rule the world.  Experts were master-craftspeople in complex problems, but ordinary people could always be at least apprentices who had sufficient knowledge and experience of the problems to participate cooperatively in the solutions.[23]

Dewey also promoted the school as a community center for adult education, community health and welfare services, and local political activities.  Schools should, and in some localities, they did and still do, function as centers for social services, cultural and political activities, adult education programs, and, even, employment agencies.  Schools would, thereby, function as agents of socialization.  They would, in effect, be socialist colonies, reaching out to the future through the education of young people and to the present through working with parents and other adults in the school district.

Dewey did not consider his methods to be an improper politicization of the schools, or a devious means of propagandizing of students and their parents.  Rather, he viewed schools as merely adapting to the best methods of teaching students and to the needs of the adults in their area.  It just so happened that socialism was the best way.  It was all a matter of fitting in with evolution, and surviving because you are fit.  Evolution was about solving problems collectively, and social change was the same.  The education that enabled students to do best in school and in their lives thereafter was serendipitously the education that prepared them to make cooperative social change. [24]

Dewey’s hope for the future stemmed from his underlying belief that most people are socialists most of the time, even if they don’t know it.  It is that evolutionary fact that socialists needed to build upon.  The method of progressive education was to start where students were and go from there, encouraging them to go further.  Similarly, Dewey’s political strategy was to start with whatever collectivities and socialization people already had, and build on them.  As part of this strategy, socialists should focus on people’s actions, not their professed ideologies, but should also invest their actions with ideal implications.  That was Dewey’s idea of socialism.[25]

Axel Honneth: Socialism as Social Freedom.

The presenting problem in Axel Honneth’s book is the fact that socialism has lost its place in the world and, along with that, its vision.  Honneth claims that from the early nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, it had been assumed by one and all, both socialists and their opponents, that “the intellectual challenge socialism represented would permanently accompany capitalism.”  Much to Honneth’s chagrin, that is no longer the case.

The result, Honneth laments, is that most people in the world are bereft of any ideas about what might be an ideal society.  They are adrift in a world of more, with only the scantiest idea of better and no idea of best.  Without ideas of better and best, which used to be embodied in the idea and ideal of socialism, people have no basis on which to come together, and they fall easy prey to demagogues of fear, hate, and division.[26]

Honneth’s goals in his book are twofold.  First, he wants to recreate a socialist vision, to “extract its core idea,” and, thereby help provide a positive “sense of direction” for the discontent that he sees as permeating Western societies in the present day.  Second, he wants to present a history of the development of socialism that would explain its demise.  I think he substantially succeeds with his first goal, but not with the second goal, and that failure undermines the first.[27]

The idea and ideal of socialism, says Honneth, is that people “not only act with each other; but also for each other.”  People should not merely supplement each other, like workers on an assembly line, but act with each other, like players on a team.  In a socialist society, people would not only be treated fairly and equally, but would cooperate with each other.  In socialism, the individual does not get swallowed up by the collective, but is helped toward the “realization of individual freedom,” or what Honneth calls “social freedom.”[28]

Following Dewey, Honneth claims that social freedom requires small communities in which people can know each other, but also can personally care for people they don’t know.  He cites Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace as examples of the sorts of organizations that he has in mind.  They are organizations that have national and international reach, but that operate largely at the local level.

Citing Dewey, Honneth calls for making connections among people, and removing the barriers to communication between groups of people.  Like Dewey, he takes an evolutionary view of social development, and claims that socialism is not merely an ideal but an historical tendency.  Evolution is a process of wider and deeper associations, and socialism is the next step that humans should logically and realistically take in that process.[29]

Toward this end, Honneth says, socialists must build upon social changes, not on social movements.  It is not who you are with, but what you are doing that counts.  Citing Dewey, Honneth argues that socialists should look for paths of social change, not for agents of social change.  Whoever is with you is with you, whether they be industrial workers or industrial capitalists.  He rejects the idea that socialism is only for the so-called working class.

Honneth insists in this regard that socialists should envision economics, politics, and personal relations as separate, albeit often overlapping, spheres.  The fact that you may oppose someone in the economic sphere does not mean you cannot work with that person for change within the spheres of politics and personal relations.  A capitalist may oppose racism and sexism even though he/she opposes labor unions.

Working toward socialism, Honneth explains, means solving social problems and making changes where you can with whoever is with you.  It means working to “uncover potentials for stronger cooperation concealed in the existing social order.”  And, like Dewey, Honneth calls for an experimental method of trying different forms of socialistic organization and operation, seeing what works best and what does not.[30]

In his historical analysis of why socialism has faded, Honneth focuses on what he calls the “three birth defects of the socialist project.”  The first defect, he claims, was seeing all social problems as a function of capitalist economics, so that sexism, racism, civil rights and civil liberties did not have to be specifically addressed, and would simply disappear when capitalism was overthrown.  The second was believing that industrial workers were naturally and inevitably opposed to capitalism and in favor of socialism, if only they could be shown the truth.  And the third was believing that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct, and that the workers would then automatically take over and create socialism.[31]

Honneth repeatedly berates socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present-day for ostensibly being unwilling or unable to overcome these defects.  He is especially critical of what he claims was the indifference of early socialists to political organizing, and it “remains a theoretical mystery,” he says, that this was the case.  “For reasons that are hard to understand,” he complains, “early socialists simply ignored the entire sphere of political deliberation,” and that has crippled socialists ever since.[32]

Honneth claims that early socialists believed that politics was merely an extension of the economic system, and that capitalists would inevitably control the political system in a capitalist society for their own ends.  In turn, they believed that if you gained control of the corporations, you thereby gained control of the government. So, socialists focused on organizing labor unions that would contest the power of the capitalists, and take over the management of society after capitalism inevitably collapsed.[33]

Socialists, Honneth charges, have continuously demonstrated a “characteristic blindness to the importance of political rights,” and “failed to grasp” the importance of civil rights as differentiated from economic power.  In the same vein, he complains, socialists were “blind” to family issues, and failed to pursue women’s rights even though, he asserts, “It would have been easy” to do so.[34]

The bottom line for Honneth is that socialists will seemingly have to start almost from scratch if they are to renew socialism.  History provides little to work from in his opinion.  Pretty much all that socialists can seemingly learn from history is what not to do.  And, apparently, the best that socialists can do with the theories and practices of their forbears is to throw them into the dust bin of history.  I don’t agree and neither, I think, would Dewey.

Socialist History as People Making Choices.

The Idea of Socialism has received mixed reviews, with some reviewers concerned that it is too radical in its proposals, others that it is too conservative.  As an example of the former, Martin Jay rejects Honneth’s call to restore the idea of socialism as the ideal of progressives. He thinks the idea of socialism is too off-putting to too many people.  Seemingly spooked by the ascension of Donald Trump and the right-wing Republicans, Jay wants progressives to pull in their horns in an effort to save the welfare state and social programs in the United States.[35]

On the other side of the political spectrum, Peter Schwarz, in an article entitled “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort,” which pretty much sums up Schwarz’s assessment of the book, decries Honneth’s rejection of class conflict, Marxist scientific socialism, and the proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change.  He sees Honneth as effectively an agent of the capitalist enemy.[36]

Taking a position in between, Tomas Stolen and Jacob Hanburger in their respective reviews of the book complain that Honneth’s proposals are vague and impractical.  “His is a philosopher’s socialism,” Hanburger complains of Honneth, which seems like an unnecessary complaint since Honneth is admittedly a philosopher.  Stolen complains that Honneth is a Frankfurt School advocate of “Critical Theory,” which is all theory and no practice.  I think there is some merit to that complaint.[37]

Honneth has, I think, outlined a vision of socialism as an idea and an ideal that is valuable for erstwhile socialists, even if they aren’t philosophers.  He has, however, misunderstood the history of socialism in a way that contradicts his own evolutionary theory of social development and socialist change.  In focusing almost solely on socialist theories and theoreticians, his critique of past socialism has something of an armchair and Ivory Tower perspective, and misses most of what ordinary socialists were doing.  I don’t think Dewey would approve.

Historically, socialists of the next generation have always tended to completely reject the efforts of the last generation, and proclaimed the necessity of starting over.  Their rationale has generally been that since the previous generation did not succeed in completely socializing society, they were failures and something completely new must be tried.  This tendency has been as endemic in evolutionary socialists, such as Honneth, as in revolutionary socialists.  It is a tendency and an intention that an evolutionist such as Honneth should be able to see as false.  In fact, whatever their intentions, the new generation does not start de novo.  No one can.  People always build on the past, whether they like it or not.  And the extent to which they repudiate the reforms and the efforts of the past, they almost invariably hinder their own efforts in the present.

Honneth’s history of socialism begins in the early nineteenth century when the word “socialism” was first used in its modern way.  From that fact, he claims that “The idea of socialism is an intellectual product of capitalist industrialization.”[38]  This is where, I think, he first goes wrong.  The roots of socialism go back at least to the first millennium BCE, and the roots of modern socialism derive from the urban guilds and rural peasant villages of the European Middle Ages.

Guilds were associations of master craftsmen and merchants that regulated the various trades in medieval cities.  They were in the nature of a trade union for the masters who, in turn, took in apprentice workers that could learn the trade, and possibly aspire to full membership as a master.  Medieval cities essentially existed as places in which the guilds could function.  And the guilds essentially ran the government of the cities, choosing government officials from their members.  The guilds also provided the social life of the cities, organizing religious and cultural events.

In sum, there was no separation in medieval cities of econo3mic organization and activities from political activities and personal relations.  There were no separate spheres of politics and social relations of the sort that Honneth wants socialists to recognize.  The idea of socialism that derived from the medieval cities was essentially an egalitarian guild without masters.  This was the model that most socialists in the nineteenth century initially adopted as a form of guild socialism, and that persists to the present day in the form of syndicalism.

An alternative model for socialism was provided by peasant villages.  Medieval peasant villages essentially operated like farming cooperatives run by the village elders, a clergyman, and/or a representative of the nobleman whose land the peasants farmed.  Villages were essentially an economic organization to support the nobleman’s social and military functions.  Land was generally allocated among the peasants each year on an equitable basis, with each peasant getting a chance at the best land.  A portion of the peasants’ time and produce went to the noblemen.

There were no separate realms of politics and social relations in these villages.  All of life, from birth to death to the hereafter, was dealt with within the economic organization of the village.  The idea of socialism that derived from these villages was a farming cooperative without the nobleman.  This was the model that was adopted in the early nineteenth century by most of the so-called utopian socialists, including the followers of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, and that has persisted to the present day in the form of the cooperative movement.

Contrary to Honneth’s repeated statements of surprise and chagrin that early nineteenth century socialists did not recognize and organize around separate economic, political, and social spheres, it would have been a surprise if they had.  This is especially the case since politics as a separate sphere of activity arose during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries essentially as a movement of capitalists and the middle classes against the authority of the kings and noblemen.  The goal was to carve out a political realm for themselves.  Workers and peasants might have naturally seen this movement as alien and possibly even hostile to their interests.  They might have reasonably preferred their guilds and villages, albeit shorn of the rulers who oppressed them.

Organizing society around socialist guilds and farming villages was not implausible in the early nineteenth century.  In most of Europe and the United States, the population overwhelmingly lived and worked in small towns, even long after the industrial revolution began. Small-scale socialist farming and manufacturing communities were common in America from the early 1600’s through the early twentieth century, and still exist today.  They were taken seriously in the early nineteenth century as an option for American development.  When Robert Owen visited the country in 1824 and 1825 to promote his utopian socialist vision and establish a socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, he was well-received personally by President John Quincy Adams and former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and he twice addressed Congress promoting his ideas.[39]

Industrialization in America began in small New England towns, and could conceivably have continued on a small-town basis.  There was no economic reason for industrialization to have spawned the massive cities that it did, other than for the advantage of the capitalist businessmen who promoted it.  Industrialists repeatedly found during the nineteenth century that in a contest between workers and bosses, the populace of a small town was likely to back the workers.  That was much less likely to happen in a big city, in which workers in any given factory would be spread around into different neighborhoods, and in which scab workers to replace striking workers would be more conveniently available.  Smaller scale production in smaller towns was actually more cost efficient to society, but less convenient for business owners.[40]

In sum, the commitment of early socialists to models of socialism based on guilds and villages, and their failure to envision politics and personal relations as separate spheres from economics, was neither surprising nor foolish as Honneth insists it was.  Nor did early socialists ignore politics and personal relations in their guilds, communes, and labor unions, which were more than just economic units.  They were also political and social organizations, providing social services, cultural events and educational opportunities for their members.

Honneth also is not accurate in claiming that early socialists did not pursue political and civil rights.  Marx proclaimed winning “the battle of democracy” as the first priority of socialists in The Communist Manifesto, and he vehemently supported movements for civil liberties, freedoms of speech, and the rights to vote and politically organize.   “Early socialism,” Michael Harrington noted, “was concerned with morality, community, and feminism.”  Socialists in America and Europe were continuously engaged in battles for democratic suffrage, civil rights, and the rights of women.  Socialist leaders also regularly worked in coalitions with people who were not members of the working classes.[41]

The point of my argument with Honneth’s take on socialist history is to suggest that a revival of socialism does not have to begin from scratch, and that there is a historical record of struggle and success on which socialists can build.  That is the evolutionary method that Dewey advocated.  There are lots of reasons why socialism has faded.  Among other reasons is the fact that the opposition has powerful social, economic and political positions.  They also have powerful emotional weapons.[42]

That the idea of socialism has faded from the public’s consciousness does not mean that socialists have somehow failed.  One can do the right things and still get the wrong result.   Sometimes the other guys are just too strong for you.  Socialists deal mainly in hope.  Right-wingers deal in fear.  Unless the proponents of hope are very well organized and well positioned, fear will usually trump hope.

The fading of socialism from the public consciousness also does not mean that socialism has disappeared from public life, or that right-wingers will inevitably win.  Dewey’s underlying point is that humans are essentially socialist beings, most of whom practice socialism even when they theoretically reject it.  The goal of socialists is to appeal to the socialist underpinnings of human society, and advance the cause of socialism on that basis.  This cannot be accomplished by merely holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but it is possible to successfully appeal to people’s better natures.

It has, for example, been the case over the last one hundred years, ever since the invention of public opinion polling, that when Americans are asked concrete and practical questions about whether specific individuals or groups of people should be afforded help from the government, or whether specific economic or environmental practices should be regulated, at least two-thirds of the public responds with a “Yes.”

But when Americans are asked abstract and ideological questions about the desirability of welfare programs, environmental regulations, or economic controls, some two-thirds say “No.”  Americans seem, as such, instinctively to be a generous, cooperative, and socially conscious people, who have been called “socialists of the heart,” even though ideologically they have been taught opposite.  The question is how to appeal to their socialist side with an idea of socialism.

A Socialist Appeal: Renewal and Revival.

Given that most Americans seem instinctively to practice socialism in their daily lives, and to opt for socialistic remedies when people are harmed, how can the idea of socialism be conveyed to people who ideologically reject it?  Like Honneth, I believe that future of American society, and much of the world, depends on whether people come to see idea of socialism as their ideal.  “Keep hope alive,” Jesse Jackson has intoned over the years.

But it is hard to ward off the fear-mongering and misanthropy of the Trumps and other right-wingers, and to keep hope alive, if you don’t have a vision of where hope might lead.  Socialism could and should be that vision.  But how to help people see that?  Not by starting from scratch, as Honneth would have us do, but through building on our common history of cooperative theories and practices, as Dewey encouraged.

After working for many decades as a lawyer and a professor, I can testify that you can almost never change anyone’s mind by arguing with the person.  That is especially the case when you are arguing about ideology.  What you can do, however, is gain agreement with the person on specific, practical matters.  If these practical agreements pragmatically work, you may be able to broaden your agreement to ideology and find a common vision.  There are many possible bases for a socialist appeal.

For the religious, there are the socialist implications of the Golden Rule, which was the mantra of a significant Christian Socialist movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  For the scientific, there are the cooperative implications of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is consistent with the Golden Rule and, notwithstanding the vocal and influential opposition from some religious fundamentalists, has been accepted by the Catholic Church and most other religions ever since Darwin first proposed it.

For the domestic, there are the socialist implications of the human family, which has historically been a pillar of most religions and a key to human evolution.  For the practical, there is the cooperative nature of everyday work and life, which has been a key to human survival.  For the philosophical, there is Dewey’s pragmatism, which combines the Golden Rule, evolutionary theory, domesticity, and the work-a-day world, and essentially demonstrates that no one is free unless everyone is free and equal.  That is the idea of socialism.

Finally, for the patriotic, there is the Declaration of Independence, which effectively enshrines socialism as part and parcel of who we are as a nation.  This is a claim that should (but won’t) especially appeal to right-wingers who insist on an “originalist” interpretation of the founding documents of the United States, that is, reading the Declaration and the Constitution as they were originally meant by their authors.  The key to this claim is the Declaration’s proclamation that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right of humankind.

That phrase was invented by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as a counterpoint to John Locke’s claim that “life, liberty, and property” were man’s natural rights.  Locke claimed that the ownership of property is what enables men to fulfill themselves.  Hutcheson disagreed.  He held that people are most happy when they are helping others.  It is in helping others that we pursue our own happiness.  That is, as Marx later said, the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was an intellectual descendent of Hutcheson, having been educated by a student of Hutcheson.  In using Hutcheson’s phrase in the Declaration, rather than Locke’s, Jefferson explicitly made a choice in favor of mutualism over individualism, and implicitly made socialism a founding principle of the United States.

Can socialism make a comeback?  For most people, it never really went away, as they work, play and live together cooperatively, even if the idea of socialism has not been in their minds or part of the public conversation.  For some people, of course, that may not be the case.  Donald Trump, for example, apparently approaches every human relationship and personal encounter as a battle for supremacy and domination.

Trump’s world is a zero-sum game in which he is continually struggling to beat everyone around him.  He represents individualism taken to its logically illogical extreme.  He cannot stand being dependent or even co-dependent with others.  He is so pathetically insecure that he even destroys his own supporters.  His life must be a living hell, and I would feel sorry for him if he was not doing so much harm to others.  So, we must not let the Trumps of the world get us down and out.  There is no better argument for socialism than people like them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       B.W.            October 2017.


[1] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017.

[2] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.

[3] Alan Ryan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.19.

[4] Henry Steele Commager. Quoted in John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.XV.

[5] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. p.542.

[6] Richard Hoftstadter.  Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

[7] For a discussion of the evolution of conservatism and right-wing Social Darwinism in America, I have an essay on this historyaschoice blog entitled “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump and the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[8] John Dewey. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935. pp.62, 74, 80, 85, 88.    John Dewey. “The Meaning of Liberalism.” The Social Frontier, Vol.II, #3.1935. pp.74, 76.  Merle Curti. The Social Ideas of American Educators. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1959. pp.507-519.

[9] George Lichtheim. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Praeger, 1969.

[10]  Alan Ryan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.22..

[11] John Dewey. How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath, 1933.

[12] John Dewey. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, pp.74, 80.

[13] John Dewey. Individualism Old and New. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962. pp.81, 154.

[14] John Dewey. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1965. pp.10-11, 19.

[15] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.178, 182.

[16] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion.  New York: The Free Press, 1922. p. 48.

[17] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion.  New York: The Free Press, 1922. pp.34, 138, 148.   Walter Lippmann. The Phantom Public. New York: MacMillan & Co., 1925. p.190.

[18] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.208-209.

[19] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. p.213.

[20] John Dewey. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.12-16.

[21] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. pp.167, 278.

[22] Lawrence Cremin. The Transformation of the School. New York: Vintage Books, 1961. p.328.

[23] John Dewey. “Can Education Share in Social Reconstruction?” The Social Frontier, Vol. I, #1. 1934. p.12.    Merle Curti. The Social Ideas of American Educators. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1959. pp.512, 523, 535.

[24] John Dewey. “Toward Administrative Statesmanship.” The Social Frontier, Vol. I, #6. 1935. p.10.

[25] Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. pp.306, 312.

[26] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.

[27] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p. 14.

[28] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p. 25, 38, 65-66.

[29] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.39, 65, 68-69, 99.

[30] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.63, 74, 78, 91, 100, 102.

[31] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.34, 81.

[32] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.29.

[33] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp.33-34.

[34] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. pp. 30, 42, 81, 84, 86, 88

[35] Martin Jay. “Positive Freedom.” The Nation, 6/28/17.

[36] Peter Schwarz. “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort.” World Socialist Web Site, 7/11/16.

[37] Thomas Stolen. “Die Idee des Sozialismus.” Marx & Philosophy, 9/6/16.  Jacob Hanburger. “Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris.” Journal of History of Ideas Blog.

[38] Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal.  Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.19.

[39] Arthur Bestor, Jr. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.     Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Religious Communities, 1732-2000. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2003.   Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824-2000. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2004.

[40] Ralph Borsodi. Prosperity and Security.  New York: Harper & Row, 1938. pp.168, 218.  Harry Braverman. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974. p.275.

[41] Michael Harrington. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Little Brown & Co.,1989. pp6, 29, 32, 45, 7, 48.  George Lichtheim. The Origins of Socialism. New York: Praeger, 1969.    David Shannon. The Socialist Party in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1955.

[42] Eric Foner. “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” in Who Owns History. New York: Hill & Wang, 2002. pp.11-145.

Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project and History as Choice: Taking Control of Your Mind through Listening to Others.

Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project and History as Choice:

Taking Control of Your Mind through Listening to Others.

Burton Weltman

If historians can explain the past as logical,

and the present as inevitable, why can’t they predict the future?


The Undoing Project and Intellectual Bias: Conventional Wisdom Undone.

“Conventional wisdom [consists of] ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” (emphasis added) John Kenneth Galbraith.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis[1], is the story of two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who wrought a Copernican revolution in the way we think about thinking.  Their experiments and findings on how people evaluate evidence, reach conclusions, and make decisions forced experts in a wide variety of fields to change their assumptions and methods of doing business.  The effect on the field of economics was so great that Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, despite having no special knowledge of economics.  He later summarized his and Tversky’s findings in the book Thinking Fast and Slow.[2]  This essay applies their findings to the study of history, and suggests that they support an approach that makes history a study of people making choices, as opposed to the conventional textbook approach that makes history into a chain of causation.[3]

The conventional wisdom among both scholars and policymakers during the post-World War II era was that people are basically rational thinkers, subject to distortions in their thinking and cognitive disorders that can result from the influence and interference of their emotions.  That is, people are rational unless they are led astray by their emotions, and the key to rational thinking is, therefore, to control one’s emotions.  The conclusion was that if one controls one’s emotions, one can rely on one’s reasoning abilities.  Policymakers can, in turn, either assume that people will control their emotions and think rationally, or can factor into their policies a variable that compensates for people’s emotions.  This assumption of rationality was especially influential in the field of economics.  Mainstream economics was constructed around the so-called economic man who ostensibly made decisions based solely on rational cost-benefit analyses.

Tversky and Kahneman upended this conventional wisdom.  They conclusively demonstrated that humans are programmed intellectually with a host of thinking biases and shortcuts that short-circuit rational decision-making.  We are hardwired to respond instinctively and immediately to problematic situations.  In the evolutionary scheme of things, these biases and shortcuts may have been useful when our ancestors were reptiles and, later, mini-mammals who had to make instantaneous life-and-death decisions in the primordial swamps and pampas.  But these instinctive reactions are not consistent with logical reasoning or cost-benefit analyses, and they can lead us humans to wrongheaded and harmful conclusions in our civilized societies.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, emotional distortion is not the source of these thinking disorders.  These are not emotional biases or biases that stem from emotions, albeit they may at times be connected to emotion.  They are purely intellectual biases that operate with or without emotions.  We instinctively resort to them, usually without knowing it, and usually without being able on our own to avoid it.  We think we are having a brilliant intuition, but it is really an instinctive bias, and probably wrong.  Left to our own devices, we will almost invariably fall into these biases.  For better and mainly for worse, they are part and parcel of the way we think.  They are our inherited conventional wisdom.  And although they affect our thinking about almost everything, they especially affect the way we think about the past, that is, our memories and our history.

The moral of the story of The Undoing Project is that we must find ways to pull back from many of our intuitive reactions.  We must find ways of forestalling our instinctive fast thinking, and force ourselves to engage more frequently in reflective slow thinking.  We must undo our first thoughts to arrive at better second thoughts.  Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow exemplifies this message.  Kahneman is a good writer, and the book is genially written.  But it is long and repetitive.  This is because Kahneman is very generous in attributing the origins and the sources of his findings to predecessors and colleagues.  He also meticulously describes the history of their various researches, the ways in which they discovered and undid the biases they brought to their own research, and the processes of reflection through which they came to their conclusions.

The premise of this essay is that most historians bring to their work the intellectual biases described by Kahneman and Tversky.  A consequence of this is that the conventional wisdom about history is often unhistorical and not very useful.  The argument of this essay is that approaching history as people making choices is a way to undo the intellectual biases we bring to the study of the past.  We can, thereby, achieve a more rational and useful history.

The Revenge of the Reptiles: Prehistoric Thoughts in our Brain Stems.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”   Pogo[4]

The human brain is the product of eons of evolutionary development.  Having assembled itself in stages, our present-day brains incorporate different capabilities, traits, and parts that emerged at different times over the years.  For better and for worse, most of the older parts are still intact inside our heads, and these older parts sometimes cooperate and sometimes conflict with newer parts.  The oldest operating part is the brain stem, the core of which we inherited from our reptilian forefathers.  This reptilian core operates largely on a “fright, then fight or flight” basis, an unthinking instinctive reaction to danger that was a successful strategy for our relatively small forebears who had to survive among much larger and voracious carnivores.[5]

The brain stem is also the repository of most of the intellectual biases that Tversky and Kahneman describe.  These biases were developed in our humanoid progenitors, who had a greater ability to think than our reptilian ancestors, but still needed to think quickly.  They combined the “fright, then fight or flight” reflex, that was already programmed into their brain stems, with intellectual shortcuts, that also became hardwired.  The combination helped them to survive and thrive among their slower-thinking competitors.  Our human ancestors later inherited both the reptilian reflex and the humanoid shortcuts, which are experienced by us as forms of intuition.  But what worked for our humanoid predecessors does not always work for us humans.

Reflecting the more complex world in which they lived, our human ancestors developed the intellectual ability to reflect on problems, rather than merely react to them.  This ability resides in our cerebral cortex. It has historically been the pride of the human race, and our excuse for lording it over other creatures. [6] The embarrassing fact that Tversky and Kahneman uncovered is that we all-too-rarely take advantage of our higher intellectual capabilities, and persist in reacting to problems like reptiles and humanoids when we should be reflecting on them like humans.

Reflective thinking is hard, and it takes considerable time and effort to mobilize the cerebral cortex to think deeply about things.  It is much easier and quicker to just react.  It is also the case that it would be impossible for us to get much done if we tried to reflectively think about everything we do.  So, we don’t.  The problem is that we are not very good at distinguishing between decisions that we can safely make instinctively, and decisions that we need to think through more thoroughly, and think about with the help of others.  Making that distinction itself requires reflective thinking.  So, we are often caught in a vicious circle of thinking too quickly.

The goal of Tvervsky’s and Kahneman’s “undoing project,” and of Kahneman’s admonition that we should think more slowly, is essentially to substitute reflective judgments, derived in the cerebral cortex, for instinctive reactions, emerging from the brain stem, on important matters.

Instinctive Biases: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us.

“I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at.”  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes four main biases that distort our thinking, and that are particularly relevant to the study of history.  They are the “aversion bias,” the “planning fallacy,” the “outcome bias,” and the “availability bias.”  The aversion bias and the planning fallacy distort the ways in which we process information.  The outcome bias and the availability bias distort our access to information and to our memories.

1. The Aversion Bias. Probably the most persistent and powerful bias with which we are plagued is what Tversky and Kahneman call the “aversion bias,” or what I think could be called a “sky is falling” reaction to adversity.  We humans are programmed to react quickly and drastically to potential adversity.  It is what helped our hapless ancestors to survive among bigger, stronger, and faster adversaries.  The aversion bias, however, leads people to overweigh and overreact to small possibilities of loss, so that our “worry [about a threat] is not proportional to the possibility of the threat.”[7]  We are instinctive worrywarts, and that can be worrisome.

When faced with almost any adversity, people tend to react as though the sky is falling.  Unless forestalled by others’ better judgments or by their own reflective second thoughts, people will frequently make short-sighted panicky decisions based on little evidence.  Making quick judgments based on little evidence was not an unreasonable operating procedure for our pre-human ancestors.  The threats to them tended to be direct and simple, and a successful reaction to those threats could also be direct and simple.  They had to decide quickly whether to fight or flee, and they had to do it fast before their adversaries got in a first and fatal blow.  This do-or-die reaction is the core of the aversion bias.  It is a reaction that was seemingly helpful to pre-humans, but is often unhelpful in the more complex world in which we humans live.

The aversion bias takes two main forms that are logically inconsistent, but that make sense together as sky-is-falling reactions to adversity.  In the first form, when people are faced with a choice between keeping a tolerable status quo, or opting for a change that will most likely make things better but might make them slightly worse, most people will choose to stay with the status quo.  Reflecting the conventional wisdom that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, people are generally unwilling to risk upsetting a tolerable status quo, even when the probabilities of a successful change are great, and a cost-benefit analysis clearly favors the proposed change.  We are, Kahneman claims, innately conservative creatures, and this interferes with rational thinking.

Any loss is unacceptable to most people most of the time, and is seen by them as a sky-is-falling outcome.  A consequence of this inherent conservatism is that many people remain in situations in which they are unhappy, while forgoing favorable opportunities to be happier.  The aversion bias has social and political ramifications as well.  Conservative politicians routinely appeal to the aversion bias as part of their campaigns.  Be afraid of change, they preach.  The aversion bias also has historical implications.  Did, for example, American Tories fall prey to the aversion bias when they refused to join in criticizing the British government during the 1770’s, and did their aversion to any change help incite radicals to make a revolutionary change?

In the second form of the aversion bias, when people are given the choice between either accepting a manageable loss, or risking a disaster on the small chance of avoiding any loss, most people go for broke and risk everything to avoid what would have been a manageable loss.  They do this even when the odds and a cost-benefit analysis favor going with the manageable loss.  This willingness to act radically to avoid small losses, even at the risk of suffering disastrously large losses, seems inconsistent with the first form of the aversion bias, in which people act conservatively to avoid small losses even at the expense of forgoing gains.  But it isn’t.  The common core of both forms of the aversion bias is that people see any loss as a sky-is-falling result and, in turn, are generally unable to distinguish between a small loss and a disastrous loss.

Radical politicians of both the revolutionary Left and the fascistic Right have made appeals to this go-for-broke form of the aversion bias a standard part of their operating procedures.  In American history, for example, did the Sons of Liberty in the 1770’s fall prey to the aversion bias, or prey upon the aversion bias, when they vehemently rejected British proposals to increase taxation?  The increases were small and the British intended to spend the taxes on protecting the American colonies from foreign attacks.  The Sons of Liberty claimed, however, that accepting any taxes, no matter how small, would lead to total oppression.  Was this a reasonable reaction?

Appeals to both forms of the aversion bias could be seen in the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election, particularly in the ways Trump denied the evidence on global warming, gun control, and immigration, and played on people’s fears of change.  With respect to global warming, the evidence is overwhelming that human activities are the main cause of rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns.  There is also a consensus among environmental scientists that global warming will adversely affect human life.  And there is a consensus among economists that ameliorating global warming by going green would generate jobs and economic growth, which would greatly benefit the public as well as the environment.

Nonetheless, Trump, along with the oil and coal billionaires who support him, and those who speak and act on their behalf, such as the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have been able to generate widespread fear that if the government acts on global warming, people might have to give up their SUV’s and pickup trucks.  This is seemingly an instance of people choosing to forgo a significant benefit out of fear of a small loss, the first form of the aversion bias.

Likewise, with respect to gun control, the evidence is overwhelming that we are safer both individually and as a society without guns in the hands of private individuals.  If you own a gun, there is virtually no chance that you will ever use it to thwart an attack on yourself or someone else.  In fact, if you own a gun, your chances of being shot increase several-fold, and it will most likely be with your own gun.  Significant measures of gun control would be in the best interests of almost everyone.  Nonetheless, Trump, along with a handful of gun fanatics, and the fascists who run the NRA, such as Wayne LaPierre, have stirred up fears that gun control will make people less safe because people won’t be able to defend themselves with their own guns.  Again, this is an example of people forgoing a significant benefit out of fear of a small potential loss.

Trump’s rantings against immigrants and immigration, fed by racists such as his top advisor Steve Bannon, exemplify go-for-broke politics, the second form of the aversion bias.  The demographic facts are that the United States is going to have a population within the next twenty-five years in which over fifty percent of the people will be minorities.  The historical facts are that immigrants have always been, and still are, the backbone of economic and cultural advancement in our country.  Trump, nonetheless, won the election in large part by stirring up fears among white European-Americans that they might lose their top dog status in our society, and might have to share prestige and power with other ethnic groups.  Instead of recognizing the possibility of this minor loss of status as a small price to pay for positive social change, Trump and his supporters have chosen to wage an all-out pejorative campaign against immigrants, minorities, and foreigners.  It is a reckless policy that portends potential disaster for the country.

2. The Planning Fallacy. The aversion bias is a powerful motivating force.  Fear of loss will usually trump hope of gain because, as Kahneman claims, “Losses are weighted about twice as much as gains” in our instinctive thinking.[8]  But the aversion bias is not all-powerful.  Hope can sometimes triumph, and hope is our only hope in defeating fear mongers who would rule us through our aversion bias.  Hope, however, also has its pitfalls.  When hope becomes optimism, overweening optimism can lead us astray.  The problem is that optimists almost inevitably fall prey to what Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy,” or what I think could be diagnosed as a “narcissistic intellectual disorder.”

If the aversion bias leads us to be overly pessimistic about what is happening to us, the planning fallacy leads us to be overly optimistic about what we are doing about it.  When we decide to do something, whether it be to stick with the status quo, go for broke, or do otherwise, we almost inevitably overestimate the likelihood for success of the things we plan to do.  We become enamored of our plans, and overconfidence often leads to the failure of our enterprise.

Narcissism plays a big part in this mistake because when we decide to do things, we tend to focus solely on our own abilities, our own actions, and how well we have prepared to do them.  We fail to pay sufficient attention to what others are doing, or what bad luck could befall us, that might foil our plans.  We focus on what we are putting into the project, but fail to focus on the context in which we are operating.  Optimism is one of the main reasons that entrepreneurs start so many new small businesses every year, but overweening optimism is one of the main reasons that some eighty percent of them fail within the first year and a half.[9]

The planning fallacy and the narcissism bias produce miscalculations on the part of political actors as well as businessmen, and reckless and regrettable behavior can be the result.  Did the American revolutionaries, for example, fall prey to the planning fallacy when they started a war with Britain which they expected to win quickly and easily, but which went on for over seven bloody years?  Is it an instance of the narcissism bias, taken to a seemingly pathological extreme, when despite four bankruptcies and three marriages, among other bungled enterprises, Donald Trump claims to be able to do anything, to have been successful at everything, and is unable to acknowledge any sort of mistake or failure?

3. Memory Tricks: The Availability Bias. Biases affect not only the way we process information, but the way we store information.  Our memories are the storehouses of the information we use to reach conclusions and make decisions.  But our memories play deceptive tricks on us.  One of these is what Kahneman calls the “availability bias,” which could be described as a “last in, first out mind set.”  People give more weight to recent events than they reasonably should, especially if the events are dramatic.  The last thing we have experienced becomes the first thing we think about when evaluating a situation and reaching a decision.  The evidence that is most readily available, that is, the last evidence to be stored in our memories, is the first and most influential evidence that we consider, even if it is not the best evidence.

People are also short-sighted.  They tend to see things within a narrow and short-term frame of reference.  They give too much weight to small pieces of anecdotal evidence, and too little consideration to the big picture and the long-term.  “We are by nature narrow framers,” Kahneman claims.   People also tend to be enchanted by melodramatic stories, and turned off by statistics and abstract arguments.  It is easier to access and process small pieces of simple information than to retrieve and reflect on complex conglomerations of evidence.  As a result, we often fail to put events into a big picture or see them in long-run terms.  We give too much weight to either bad news or good news, and tend to overreact either pessimistically or optimistically to situations because we fail to consider the weight of all the best evidence.[10]

The availability bias has historical and political implications.  Did, for example, the American revolutionaries overreact to the actions of King George III based on narrowly framing what he was doing?  The revolutionaries claimed that because the King was working actively with Parliament, he was trying to become a dictator when, in fact, the King and Parliament were working toward the parliamentary government that still prevails in England today.  Was Donald Trump also guilty of narrow framing in the recent election when he harped on a few isolated stories of harm caused by immigrants, while failing to acknowledge the bigger picture of the good things immigrants have contributed and continue to contribute to our country?

4. The Outcome Bias. In addition to the availability bias, our memories are also subject to what Kahneman calls an “outcome bias,” which could be characterized as an “all’s well that ends well mindset” and a “winners get to write the history syndrome.”  Kahneman reports that if the outcome of a decision is good, people do not generally care how the result was achieved.  And they generally remember the process of having decided to do the thing, and the way the thing was done, as having been good, even if that wasn’t the case.

The outcome bias can lead to dangerously false conclusions about a person’s perspicacity.  “A few lucky gambles,” Kahneman claims, “can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience and boldness.”[11]  Winners get to write the history, even if it is wrong.  This bias can also lead to dangerously false conclusions about the successfulness of aggressive ways of acting.  We tend, for example, to forget the death and destruction of a war if our side won.  We almost completely ignore questions of whether the war was necessary, let alone worth it.  And we avoid questions of whether the same or better results could have been achieved without the war, and without the death and destruction.  In our memories, all’s well that ends well, even if it really wasn’t.

All’s well that ends well is the conventional wisdom promoted in most history textbooks.  This approach is especially the case with American history, which is conventionally portrayed as an inexorable march of progress, freedom, and goodness.  As applied to the American Revolution, for example, since the Revolutionaries won, and the country grew bigger and better thereafter, the Revolution must have been a good thing.  All you need to know, in the conventional view, is that we have made it to the present, and the present is pleasant.  So why question whether there were better alternatives to the ways in which we got here?  This conventional wisdom is rebuffed by an approach to history as people making choices.  In that approach, questions need to be asked about whether there were alternatives to the way we got here, and voices other than those of the winners need to be heard, if we are to learn from the past and prepare for the future.

Donald Trump’s reaction to the recent presidential election is an example of the outcome bias, and why we need to listen to multiple voices.  Trump is outraged that people might be concerned with how he won the election, and whether his campaign colluded with Russian intelligence agents to undermine his opponent.  As far as he is concerned, the election is over.  He won.  And the winners get to write the history.  Trump thinks people should remember the election as one in which his qualifications and strategies prevailed over his opponent’s, and that all is well that has ended well.  That is how most people usually remember things and that, Trump insists, is how people should think about his election.  But maybe not this time.[12]

Undoing the Past and Learning from the Losers: Reflection as Collective Thinking.

“The greatest of faults is to be aware of none.” Thomas Carlyle.

Tversky and Kahneman are skeptical, but not pessimistic, about the possibilities that people can think rationally and make reasonable decisions.  The best way to approach almost any problem, they contend, is with other people, so that you can identify and critique each other’s biases.  Even if you share the same biases with your colleagues, it is easier to recognize and reject biases in the thinking of others than in your own thinking.  So, we can give each other a lift.  “Organizations,” Kahneman claims, “are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures” on how conclusions are reached and decisions are made.[13]  In his description in The Undoing Project of the ways in which Tversky and Kahneman, worked together and critiqued each other, Michael Lewis essentially describes the underlying message of their findings, that we need critical input from others and cooperative effort with them, to be able to overcome the biases that are built into our thinking processes.

Kahneman goes on to suggest that if you cannot work with others, and are faced with a problem on your own, you should note your first intuition or instinct as to how to solve the problem, and then reject it.  You should then force yourself to reflect on the problem and on your first response to it, explore alternative options for a solution, and select the one that seems to be based on the best evidence and arguments.  In so doing, you should listen to the voices in your head of people whose judgments you generally respect and trust, and you should subject your memories and your ideas to vicarious critique by those significant others.

Reflection is primarily a process of listening to competing voices in our heads.  It is a symposium of influential books we have read, convincing speakers we have heard, and significant people whose points of view we have incorporated into our internal dialogues.  Through listening to these voices, we can conjure up memories we might otherwise miss, and consider arguments we might otherwise ignore.  Reflection can, thereby, help keep us from instinctively reaching wrongheaded conclusions.  Once we have reflected on a problem, and given ourselves the best chance of thinking rationally, we should decide on how to deal with it.  This is the method that I promote in approaching history as people making choices.

Approaching history as a study of people making choices treats the subject as a collective enterprise in which people from the past and the present participate.  The method can help us see whether the people we are studying fell prey to the intellectual biases identified by Tversky and Kahneman, and whether and to what extent we ourselves are prone to those biases in studying the history of those people.  Tversky and Kahneman teach us that the subjects of our historical studies probably should not have followed their first instincts, and may have been mistaken in their decisions if they did.  The same goes for us as students of history.

Approaching history in this way requires us to examine our historical subjects’ reactions to the problems they faced, see if they made reflective decisions or instinctively reacted, and speculate on whether they could have made better decisions than the ones they made.  In studying the American Revolution, for example, this means looking at what was said by those Americans who opposed the Revolution, who were the losers in the debate over whether to revolt, and to decide in retrospect who had the better of the argument.

Reconsidering past decisions in this way is sometimes disparaged as twenty-twenty hindsight, and a cheap shot at the past.  But that is neither fair nor accurate.  We humans are inveterate second-guessers, and we routinely evaluate our own decisions, so why not similarly evaluate the decisions of our predecessors?  Whether we are businesspeople having made a deal, soldiers having fought a battle, or Little League baseball managers having called for a squeeze play, we invariably look back at what we did, revisit the alternatives we had, and speculate on what might have happened if we had made a different choice.  And this is not a waste of time and effort.  Evaluating our past decisions helps prepare us for our next decision.  It is the same with history.

The point of historically studying people’s choices is to understand why and how they got things right and got things wrong.  It is not to condemn or demean them.  The goal is to learn from their successes and mistakes, just as we try to learn from our own successes and mistakes.  It is not, for example, a condemnation of the Founding Fathers if we were to conclude that the American Revolution was a mistake, and that things might have been better if Americans had achieved independence gradually and peacefully, as did Britain’s other English-speaking colonies.

It is, in turn, no disloyalty on our part to the Founders or to the United States that we want to try to get a past decision right retrospectively as an aid to getting our next decisions right prospectively.  It is, I would contend, a patriotic act.  While moral turpitude may attach to an ill-intentioned decision by an ill-meaning person, there is no moral turpitude attached to a well-intentioned and well-meaning decision that turns out to be a mistake because of an unwitting bias.  That is one of the differences between Donald Trump and George Washington.

The Method of Approaching History as People Making Choices. 

“There are always choices…Our responsibility as historians is as much to show that there were paths not taken as it is to explain the ones that were.” (emphasis in original) John Lewis Gaddis.

The method of approaching history as people making choices can be outlined in six main steps.  First, we must decide what historical event we want to study.  History is virtually infinite in scope, and there are an almost infinite number of events we could choose to study.  So, we need to make a choice and, in order to avoid falling prey to an availability bias, we need to reflect on the reasons we are choosing to study a particular event.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we invariably study problems in the past, and ask questions about them, that relate to issues in which we are interested in the present.  It is almost inevitable that an event we choose to study is somehow related to a current social issue.  That connection is not a problem so long as we are aware of it, and do not let our predilections toward the current issue lead us to predetermine our response to the historical problem.  The purpose of studying history is to let our conclusions about past events help inform our judgements of present issues.  That educational purpose is foiled if we merely judge past events based on our current biases.

Social issues change, and so do the list of historical events in which we are interested and the questions we ask about those events.  This is the main reason history books are continually being rewritten, and the history of subjects being revised.  New history books are rarely a result of significant new evidence but are, instead, usually the result of changing interests.[14]  During the 1940’s, for example, social conformity and political apathy were issues of concern.  Historians, in turn, looked at the American Revolution as a case study of how masses of people might be motivated to act.[15]  During the turbulent 1960’s, historians looked at the Revolution as a case study of how masses of people might directed toward constructive ends.[16]  Historians today, in the wake of the recent election, may be choosing to focus on the Revolution as a study of ways and means of countering a potentially tyrannical ruler.

Having chosen the subject of study, the second step is to delineate the plausible options that people had in deciding what to do about the problem they were facing.  We need to resurrect and understand the arguments that different groups of people made in support of various options.  Since history is generally written by and on behalf of the winners, we will likely need to recover and listen to some lost voices in this process.  What, for example, were the arguments of the Tories during the American Revolution?  How do their arguments look in retrospect?

As the third step, we need to examine why and how the winning argument prevailed, and a choice was made.  How did the winners win, and what happened to the losers in the debate?  What happened, for example, to those who initially opposed the Revolution?  Why and how did some opponents turn to supporting it, while others did not?  And what happened to these people?

In the fourth step, we need to examine the consequences of the choice that prevailed.  How did the prevailing choice affect people then and afterwards, and how does it affect us now?  Since conventional history is generally written as all’s well that ends well, we need to distinguish between current circumstances that are a consequence of that choice, and things that might have come to pass even without that choice.

For example, the United States is today a relatively prosperous and free country.  Conventional histories generally attribute our current circumstances to our having undertaken and won the American Revolution.  But is that so?  The other English-speaking former British colonies, i.e. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, gained their independence gradually and generally peacefully during the nineteenth century.  They did not suffer the death and destruction of a violent revolution.  And they are today at least as prosperous and free as the United States.  Comparing their histories to ours raises questions of whether the success of the United States can be attributed to the Revolution, and whether we could not have done as well or better without it.

This leads to the fifth step, which is that we need to speculate as to what might have happened if a different choice had been made.  This is the second-guessing part of the project, to which many historians object, but which I think is crucial to getting beyond an outcome bias that all is well that ends well.

As the sixth step, we should apply what we have concluded about the historical event to the present-day issue that led us to study that event in the first place.  The premise of studying history as people making choices is that things might have been different, for better or for worse, if different choices had been made, and that exploring those past possibilities might help us make better choices in the present.  Maybe the losers in the debate over the American Revolution were right.  Or maybe they weren’t.  It is enlightening to consider the possibilities.[17]

Saving History from the Post Hoc Fallacy: Choice versus Causation.

“The supposition that the future resembles the past is not founded on any arguments, but is derived entirely from habit.”  David Hume.

History is story.  Like other stories, history starts with a “Once upon a time” scenario.  This starting scenario is a dynamic situation from which a narrative unfolds, and from which events pass in time from “Once upon a time.”  But time can take on very different meanings depending on the narrative form of a story, and whether events are portrayed as flowing randomly as a function of chance, predetermined as a result of causation, or determined freely as a consequence of people’s choices.  History can take the form of chance, causation, or choice.

Chance is luck, something that happens unpredictably without discernable human intention or observable cause, so that history as chance is a story of happenstance that people can neither predict nor control.  History as chance is seemingly arbitrary and unfathomable.  And dangerous.  It is the world of small children baffled and intimidated by adults, and by the host of things they do not understand and cannot control, many of which might hurt them.  It is also the world of our reptilian ancestors, and a realm in which the instinctive “fright, then fight or flight” response of our prehistoric brain stems would seem appropriate.

If history is the result of chance, there is little reason to study it, and little to be learned from studying it, other than the worldly wisdom of stoic resignation.  History as chance is a rationale for an aversion bias.  If history is chance, then aversion would seem to be the proper response to any potential change in a tolerable status quo, no matter what the promised benefits of the change.  For in a world dominated by chance, who knows what might come next?  Better the devil you know than the one you don’t, as the stoic saying goes.

Unlike chance, causation is inexorable, with consequences flowing inevitably from circumstances, so that history approached as causation appears to be the product of forces and factors that control events behind our backs and despite our intentions.  Causation is the form in which most conventional history is presented.  Most of us remember, for example, having to memorize in school the six or eight or ten so-called “causes” of the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and other important historical events.  In this approach, history is portrayed as a chain of causes and effects that we can understand but cannot control.

However, if history is a chain of causation in which one thing follows logically from another, then the future ought to be predictable from the past, and the study of history ought to make us fortune tellers.  But, it doesn’t.  Causation history exemplifies the outcome and availability biases described by Tversky and Kahneman, and it is an instance of the logical fallacy known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc.  In approaching history as causation, one assumes that because something came after something else, the first thing must have caused the second thing.  But, this is not logical, or even empirical.  And it leaves us with nothing to do but contemplate our navels as we watch events unfold.

History as causation takes the current state of the world, and then outlines the stream of events that led to it.  It delineates the events in a chain of causes and effects that can look like an inevitable path from the past to the present.  But, it leaves out all the paths not taken, all the plausible options not chosen, and all the real-life contingencies faced by people in the past and by us today.  It is an abstraction that is neither interesting nor useful.  Like history as chance, history as causation can serve as a rationale for quietism and political passivity.[18]

Unlike chance and causation, choice is deliberate, so that history as choice is a story of people making decisions in the face of circumstances they may not be able entirely to predict or control, but with the belief that they can freely choose among plausible options and reasonably predict what might be the consequences of their actions.  History as people making choices is realistic and seemingly reasonable.  It is the way we experience life, as people debating and choosing among options within prescribed circumstances.  If history is a matter of choices, then time is a medium of opportunity and not futility, and life is not merely a matter of waiting for arbitrary or inevitable things to happen.  History as choice is a rationale for social and political activism.

Approaching history as people making choices allows us to relate consequences from the past to circumstances in the present without falling into an outcome bias.  The method makes connections between the past and the present debatable rather than inevitable.  The same events that are conventionally presented as a chain of causes and effects can be reconceived as a series of circumstances, choices and consequences.  This is a narrative distinction that makes a big difference in the meaning and moral of a history.[19]  With respect to the American Revolution, instead of seeing the Revolution as an inevitable result of causation, we can approach it as a series of debates about who should govern, and how government should operate.  These debates, in turn, helped form subsequent debates about government and democracy that have permeated American history from then to now.  That is a much more useful history.

In sum, approaching history as people making choices is a method of studying how and why people think the way they do, and make the choices that they do.  Historical events are approached essentially the way those events were approached by the people who experienced them, and the way we approach situations in our own lives, as contingencies that could go different ways depending on the choices that are made.  Past decisions are, in turn, related to problems and choices facing us in the present day.  Studied in this way, history becomes an important life skill, and an education in avoiding the intellectual pitfalls described by Tversky and Kahneman.

Postscript: For Further Reading…

The purpose of this essay has been to introduce the findings of Tversky and Kahneman, and promote the method of approaching history as people making choices.  Although conventional history textbooks do not reflect it, most of the best scholarly historians have either explicitly or implicitly approached history as people making choices.  If you are interested in seeing how this method works, I have written a book that is based on my reading of some of the best historical works of the past fifty years, and that exemplifies the method.  It is titled Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).

The book describes ways of teaching American history as people making choices, and includes a thematic history of the United States that exemplifies the method.  The book examines thirteen turning points in American history from the early 1600’s through the late 1900’s.  It focuses on the decision-making processes of the people involved, uncovers many of their biases, explores debates among historians about those turning points, and debates the conclusions of historians.  The book is intended as an encouragement for readers to explore historical events for themselves, debate their own and others’ ideas, and arrive at their own considered conclusions about history.

[1] Michael Lewis.  The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. New York: W.W.Norton, 2016.

[2] Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.

[3] For a discussion of how one might teach history as people making choices, and a thematic history of the United States using that method, see my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice.  Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013.

[4] See the Walt Kelley cartoon at http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm (1953) After a long, arduous and comic search for the source of the world’s problems, and the enemy that is plaguing us, Pogo Possum concludes that we are the source of our problems, and that we must start to think differently in order to resolve them.

[5] David Sloan Wilson. Evolution for Everybody. New York: Delacorte Press, 2007. p.285.

[6] Jared Diamond. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. pp.220-221.

[7] Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. pp.320-322, 329.

[8] Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.  p.364.

[9] Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.  pp.339, 341-342.

[10] Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. pp.12, 350.

[11]  Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. pp.212-213.

[12] This is being written in early March, 2017 when the ways and means of the election are still a considerable source of controversy.

[13]  Daniel Kahneman.  Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. p.436.

[14] Ronald Dworkin. Justice for Hedgehogs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. p.127.

[15] Richard Hofstadter. The American Political Tradition. New York: Random House, 1948. pp.3-17.

[16] Staughton Lynd. Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. New York: Random House, 1968.

[17] John Lewis Gaddes. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. p.9.

[18] Isaiah Berlin. Historical Inevitability. London: Oxford University Press, 1954. pp.3, 20-21,68.

[19] I have an extended discussion of this narrative distinction in my blog post “What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story.”

Distrust in the Hinterlands: Bozo the Clown Promotes Fear and Hate, and It Ain’t Funny.

Distrust in the Hinterlands:

Bozo the Clown Promotes Fear and Hate, and It Ain’t Funny.

Burton Weltman

“I won’t close my eyes, I can’t close my eyes, I never close my eyes.

See, they’re always there, with that funny hair.  Oh, I’m so scared.”

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me.

Alice Cooper.

Prologue:  Here’s Johnny!

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters”

Albert Einstein.

“You can always tell when Donald Trump is lying.  He says ‘Believe me'”

Jon Stewart

“Who Do You Trust” was an ungrammatically named television game show emceed by Johnny Carson and announced by Ed McMahon during the 1950’s, before they went on to “Tonight Show” fame.  The show tested the trust in each other of husbands and wives.  In focusing on trust, the game exemplified a key theme in modern American culture.  Although we live in a culture based on an individualistic ideology, and we are bombarded with the mantra that each of us should think for him or herself, no one, not even Einstein, could know everything and think about everything for him or herself.  It is a fact of life that we inevitably must depend on others for most things, including our ideas.  Most of our ideas, judgments, and decisions are derived from others.  In this context, “Whom do you trust?” is probably the most important question that people must answer in their lives.

Each of us resides psychologically in what could be called a community of trust, which includes those family members, friends and other significant others whose ideas we absorb, and upon whom we rely for guidance when we make judgments and decisions.  We live, however, in a society in which face-to-face relationships have been increasingly replaced by long-distance and electronic contacts.  Increasingly, we must rely on people we do not know and will never see.  Experts, reporters, government officials, manufacturers, scientists – the list of people in whose hands we routinely place our lives is almost endless.  That can be discomfiting for people raised on the idea of self-reliance, and it raises the stakes on the question of whom one can trust.

It is the importance of trust in our lives that makes the election of Donald Trump as President so perplexing to many people, including me.  Trump is a chronic and seemingly compulsive liar.  He has repeatedly cheated on his several wives, and repeatedly violated contracts with people working for him.  He is a narcissist who seemingly cares for nothing but massaging his own ego.  Trump is also a vulgar person, who regularly behaves in repulsive ways, insulting anyone who disagrees with him, including the Pope, and sexually abusing women and then bragging about it.

With his ever-present smirk and phony orange hair, Trump was widely the butt of late night jokes long before “Saturday Night Live” recently got on his case.  In a monologue in 1992, for example, Johnny Carson deadpanned on “The Tonight Show” that Jennifer Flowers, who claimed to have been Bill Clinton’s mistress and had recently been fired as a receptionist, had just been hired by Trump as his backup mistress in case his current mistress was unavailable.

Donald Trump is a man who has clearly shown that he cannot be trusted in matters either small or great.  That this clownish character is now the President is keeping a lot of people up at night, scared and unable to sleep.  Nonetheless, enough Americans decided he could be relied upon to be their President so that he was elected.  How can that be?

Bozo the Clown becomes President: Trump trumps trust with fear.

“Bozo the Clown.  Do we really need ‘the Clown?’  Are we going to confuse him with Bozo the Tax Attorney?  Bozo the Pope?”

Jerry Seinfeld.

“How about Bozo the President of the United States?”


It has been said that the Republican Party could run Bozo the Clown as its candidate for President and still get the support of the 33% of the voters who make up the hard core Republican base.  Bozo would get the troglodytes who fantasize about returning to the laissez-faire ways they think prevailed in the United States during the nineteenth century, but really didn’t, and to whom Republicans have historically appealed with a mantra of free enterprise.

Bozo would also get the racists who still cannot accept the end of segregation, let alone that we have had a black President, and to whom Republicans have been appealing through coded racist messages since the mid-1960’s.  And he would get opponents of abortion who think abortion is mass murder, and therefore have no moral choice but to vote for an anti-abortion Republican, no matter how offensive he or she might otherwise be.  So, even Bozo would have a base vote of some 33%.

The problem for Democrats is that the Republicans actually did run Bozo the Clown in the recent Presidential election, and he got 46% of the popular vote.  His total was significantly less than the percentage of the popular vote received by his opponent, but still enough to gain a victory in the Electoral College, thereby defying almost everyone’s expectations, seemingly including those of Bozo himself.

In past elections, victorious Republican candidates have succeeded by tacking toward the ideological middle after they are nominated, and making a rational and hopeful appeal to the broader electorate beyond the Republican base. In the recent election, the Republican candidate did no such thing.  His campaign was extremist, ridiculous and scandalous from beginning to end.  A truly Bozo production.  Yet, to the astonishment of many, and the dismay of most, he won.  So, how did Bozo pick up that extra 13% of the vote that he needed to win?  More particularly, how did he sway voters in the so-called swing states in the American hinterlands (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin) that he needed to take an Electoral College victory?

To be clear, this was a very close election in which any number of things could have been the proximate cause that tipped it toward Trump.  Putin’s enmity, Comey’s infamy, Clinton’s overconfidence, and voters’ apathy at what was supposed to be a Clinton landslide, are just a few of the things.  We should not jump to broad conclusions from this election about the irrationality of American voters, or about some sort of growing fascist sentiment in the country.

Some ninety years ago, the great American cynic H.L. Mencken predicted that “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”  Many disgruntled liberals have resurrected that prediction as an epitaph for Trump’s election victory, along with various dystopian literary fantasies about the demise of democracy and the rise of fascism in America that have been published over the last century.

But that response seems a gross overreaction.  After all, Clinton got more votes than Trump.  And she won virtually all the major cities and the most productive states.  Likewise, as of this writing in mid-February, Trump’s post-election approval ratings have been the lowest for any President in history, and dropping, with a majority of Americans disapproving of him and a majority wishing Obama was still President.  The reaction of most Americans to most of Trump’s early actions as President have also been generally negative.

Trump’s electoral success cannot, however, be dismissed as a fluke.  Trump seems to have triumphed through an appeal to the fears of a great swath of so-called middle Americans who are afraid they are being left out and left behind by forces beyond their control.  And his election seems to reflect a longstanding cultural gap in American society between those who are willing to entertain new theories and practices in the arts, religion, science, and public policies, and are willing to embrace diversity in our population, and those who want to maintain what they see as tried and true traditional practices, and white European homogeneity in our population.  It is a split that could be described as between progressives and traditionalists.  Trump’s extra 13% of the electorate seems to have come from traditionalists who voted to protect their entrenched vision of the world, fearing for its demise, along with what they saw as their self-interests.

Many Americans, especially those in the so-called rust belt, coal belt, Bible belt, and farm belt, are afraid of the wider world and what they do not know about it.  Most importantly, they do not trust scientists, experts, intellectuals, government officials, and immigrants whose ideas derive from involvement in the wider world, and whom they never see or see only occasionally on national news programs.  This is, I think, a key to our political situation.  Many Americans do not trust the messengers of modern science and progressive government and, so, they reject the message.

They do not trust scientists, so they refuse to believe in climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is real and that it would hurt people like them most.  Likewise, they do not trust foreigners, so they reject international trade agreements, despite the evidence that these agreements work to most of their advantage. For the same reason, they do not trust international organizations, such as NATO and the UN, even though these organizations have overwhelmingly supported American initiatives over the years.  And they don’t speak Spanish or any language other than English, so they fear and reject immigrants, even though immigrants are a key component of our country’s success and their own well-being.

They do not trust faceless bureaucrats in Washington DC, so they hate the federal government and government programs, despite the fact most of them depend on all sorts of federal government programs to survive.  “Keep the government’s hands off of my Medicare” is a common demand among people who regularly proclaim their fear and hatred of the federal government.  I have heard it from people I know.  Similarly, there are many people from these areas who want to get rid of Obamacare but not the Affordable Care Act.

Fear rather than facts seems to drive this group of people.  The reality is that Red states receive more money in aid from the federal government than they pay in taxes.  If the Republicans follow through on their proclaimed goals of cutting back on federal programs and cutting down on economic and environmental regulations, it will be Red states and Republican voters that are hurt the most.  Many red states also depend heavily on immigrant labor, so that Trump’s promised crackdown on immigrants will harm the very people who voted for him.  Distrust was, however, Trump’s trump card, and much to the amazement of most Democrats, many middle American voters distrusted Hillary Clinton more than Trump.

It would be hard to find another person in America who less represents what these people stand for than Trump.  He is a dissolute libertine, who has been married three times to trophy wives, conducted numerous extramarital affairs, routinely assaulted women sexually, and then bragged about it.  He is a draft dodger who inherited his wealth from his father, and used it to engage in financial manipulations and to build high end hotels, golf courses and other amenities for the very wealthy.  He has spent his life cavorting with the rich and famous.  But, as the saying goes, the enemy of my enemies is my friend, and Trump savagely disparaged the people whom many middle Americans most fear.  And they believed him in that.

Trump persistently appealed to the fears of these people by attacking scientists, bureaucrats and foreigners, who he contended were bent on destroying the traditionalists’ vision of America.  He persistently proclaimed that Clinton was untrustworthy, and that she represented the forces and the people that traditionalists believe are wrecking their world.  Clinton was unable to convince these traditionalists that scientists, bureaucrats and foreigners need not be feared, and that they and she could be trusted and included within their community of trust.

Instead of trying to counter the fears of traditionalists, Democrats emphasized their fears of Trump, and trumpeted the ways in which a Bozo presidency might harm the country.  Democrats, thereby, countered Trump’s fear mongering with their own fear mongering.  But fear mongering is a game that conservatives generally win.  And they did so once again in this election.  In the struggle between fear and trust, fear was the consensus winner, trust the loser.  But this is nothing new, and Democrats should have known better and done better.

The Public and Its Problems: Dewey and Lippmann Debate Democracy.

“The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses.  They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers.  But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan.

“And what if Bozo thinks he is a genius, then what?”


The election of Donald Trump is symptomatic of splits between cultural progressives and traditionalists, and between social progressives and conservatives, that almost all societies have faced since the rise of the first civilizations, and that have plagued the United States since the early twentieth century.  Progressives look to the wider world for ideas, and look forward to social and cultural change.  Traditionalists look inward to their local communities, and backward to their traditions.  They have usually occupied middle to lower-middle positions in society.  Conservatives look to maintain the position and power of the social elite.  While most progressives have historically been members of the social elite, they have generally sought social and cultural change at the risk of some loss of position and power.

A literacy gap between those who could and could not read and write was the foundation of cultural divisions in most societies for most of history which, in turn, mirrored social, economic and political differences.  Most societies were made up of literate city dwellers and illiterate rural peasants, with the city dwellers ruling over and looking down on their rural brethren.  Literacy provided a sharp and obvious dividing line between those in the know and in power, and those not.  Illiteracy and poverty were also obvious reasons why traditionalists could not reach out to the wider world, and may not even have known that a wider world existed.

In ancient Greece, for example, Athenian philosophers looked to Egypt and Sumeria for new ideas.  During the Renaissance, European intellectuals looked to India and the Ottoman Caliphate.  Even during the Middle Ages in Europe, which used to be called the Dark Ages because cultural conservatism was the order of the day, intellectuals in the Catholic Church looked to ancient Greece and Rome for ideas.  Meanwhile, peasants in most societies around the world inhabited cultures that changed so slowly that most people did not notice the changes at all.

With the rise of literacy in most parts of the world over the last century and a half, literacy was no longer a major dividing line in society or defining point in culture.  By the early twentieth century, literacy was almost universal in the United States, and almost all Americans had access to the wider world of culture, if they wanted it.  Nonetheless, a culture gap persisted between progressives who looked outward for cues and forward toward change, and traditionalists who looked inward and backward.  A new way of defining this culture gap was needed, especially by conservatives who resisted the egalitarian implications of universal literacy, and wanted to maintain their elite status.  They came up with a distinction between highbrows and lowbrows.

Highbrows were described as people involved in the fine arts and engaged in challenging intellectual pursuits.  Lowbrows were people involved in popular culture and parochial pursuits.  Highbrows were ostensibly highly intelligent, their thinking was complex, and they were connected to a wide world of culture.  Lowbrows were supposedly unintelligent, their thinking was simple and simplistic, and they were narrowly confined to their local culture.  Highbrows, who were almost invariably members of the upper classes in America, were ostensibly the natural leaders of the country.  Lowbrows were natural followers, if they only knew it.

This distinction between highbrows and lowbrows had significant political implications.  Highbrows were supposedly capable of understanding and dealing with the complexities of modern twentieth century society, including the intellectual challenges of an ongoing technological revolution, the social problems of mass immigration and urbanization, and the managerial conundrums of large-scale industries and other organizations.  Lowbrows were supposedly stuck in the obsolete theories and practices of the small towns, the family farms, and the local businesses of the nineteenth century.  They looked for simplistic solutions to complex problems, and could not be trusted with the management of the country.

The question that faced political leaders in America in the early twentieth century was how to deal with what most saw as an ignorant majority of lowbrows in an ostensibly democratic society.  It is a question that persists to the present day.  Although the names have changed over time, the essence of the distinction between highbrows and lowbrows has remained the same.  The euphemism “high information voter” versus “low information voter” is widely used today.  But a lowbrow by any other name is still a person being demeaned and degraded, and a problem for those who think of themselves as at a higher intellectual and cultural level.  For both conservatives and progressives, the solution to the problem has lain in education and the mass media, but with very different approaches to both.

Conservatives have tended toward Mencken’s belief that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”  They have complained that democracy inevitably panders to the lowest common denominator among people, and that left unchecked would produce idiotic leaders and moronic public policies.  Mitt Romney’s claim during the 2012 election that forty-nine percent of Americans essentially want to live on welfare benefits, and vote Democratic for that reason, is only a recent example of that sentiment.  So, conservatives developed during the 1920’s a scare tactic to appeal to erstwhile lowbrow traditionalists, and pander to their ignorance and fears.  This approach was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator among the masses through scaring them into following the lead of their betters.  This approach would put a check on egalitarian policies and democratizing politics through melodramatizing the need for plutocratic policies and authoritarian politics

Demonizing ostensibly dangerous immigrants, violent blacks, anarchistic terrorists, traitorous Communists, arrogant liberals, effete intellectuals, and atheistic scientists became the stock-in-trade of most Republicans from that time to the present.  And they have worked.  Republican policies have invariably favored the rich and powerful, and have never been in the best interests of most of the people who have voted Republican.  The policies of Democrats have almost always been in their better interests.  Republican scare tactics have, nonetheless, historically worked with alienated groups of distrustful and fearful Americans, and this largely explains how it is that Republicans have been able to win elections.  Donald Trump merely represents an extreme version of the brand.

The effectiveness of Republican scare tactics is exemplified by the ability of even Trump to win with them.  He personally represents anything but the traditional theories and practices of the middle Americans who voted for him.  But many of those people seemed willing to suspend their disbelief in his villainy because they distrusted even more the people he disparaged.  In turn, the willingness of Trump to adopt Republican scare tactics also demonstrates the shallowness and hollowness of the distinction between so-called highbrows and lowbrows.

Trump was born and bred a New Yorker, and has spent his whole life consorting with so-called highbrows in that city.  But none of their supposed intellectualism or culturalism has seemed to rub off on him.  He thinks he is a genius, and constantly says so, but he is actually a cultural boor, and an extremely ignorant and inarticulate person.  He may have been in, but he was not of the highbrow class.  If anything, he fits the definition of a lowbrow, which is why he has been able to campaign so sincerely as an anti-intellectual who scorns science, facts, and truth.  With Trump, there is not much there, there.  What Trump has, however, is an amazing natural talent for promoting himself and fostering a cult of his person and personality.

Cultivating Trust in the Hinterlands: Policies versus Personalities.

“You’re gonna like this.”

Bozo the Clown.

“Naw, I don’t think so.”


Trump’s success in this election, and his ability to foster a cult of his personality among middle Americans, who had every good reason to shun him, seems to demonstrate the need for progressives to develop a better strategy if they are going to consistently thwart Republican scare tactics in the future.  The middle Americans who put Trump over the top, the 13% who made the difference, did not vote for Trump because they were enamored of him.  They voted for Trump because they were afraid of Clinton more than of him.  They did not trust her and the cast of characters she represented.  How then should progressives reach out to middle Americans?

This is a question that liberals have been debating since at least the 1920’s, when Walter Lippmann and John Dewey engaged in a famous debate on the future of democracy in a mass society.  It is a debate that pits those who could be called technocratic progressives against those who could be called participatory democratic progressives.

In Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann described what he saw as the implications for public opinion and politics of recent insights in behavioral psychology and psychoanalysis, and recent developments in the technology of the mass media, particularly radio and the motion pictures.  He claimed that modern psychology had demonstrated ways in which public opinion could easily be manipulated, and modern mass media provided the means for doing so.  He noted that these ways and means had already been successfully deployed by advertisers who used them to manipulate people into buying their clients’ products.  Lippmann applied these psychological insights and technological developments to politics.

Lippmann was a technocrat who derided the idea that public policy could be made by the public or in public.  He claimed that the public invariably wanted simple answers to complex questions, and inevitably chose leaders based on the personalities these leaders projected rather than the effectiveness of their policy proposals.  This desire of the masses for simplistic answers had been aggravated by the ever-increasing complexity of modern society.  Their focus on celebrities and personalities had been encouraged by the pervasive mass entertainment industry.  Lippmann concluded that the American public had been reduced to a “mass of absolutely illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals.”[1]

Lippmann claimed that public policy must first be made by experts and technocrats, and then sold to the public through advertising techniques.  The public’s role in public policy should be merely plebiscitary.  That is, the people could reject leaders and policies through elections.  The way to gain support for liberal policies was, in turn, to cultivate the public’s trust in celebrity liberal leaders, who would then be able to sell their policies to the people the way advertisers sold their products through the endorsement of entertainment celebrities.  Lippmann warned, however, that public opinion would invariably be molded by whoever was in control of the media. The battle for the future would be fought over control of the mass media.

John Dewey was what we might call a participatory democratic progressive.  In The Public and Its Problems (1927) and in Individualism, Old and New (1929), he agreed with Lippmann that public opinion was often shallow and transitory, and that the complex problems of modern society required experts to solve them.  But while he acknowledged the problems that Lippmann described, Dewey claimed the solution was through more public participation, not less.

Dewey rejected the idea that ordinary people were feeble-minded or irrational lowbrows.  The underlying problem, he contended, was the isolation of local communities from each other, and from the broader national and international communities.  Isolation, he claimed, leads to distrust which leads to fear.  His idea was to cultivate local communities, and then connect them to each other and to the wider world through their consideration of common problems and solutions.[2]

The culture gap for participatory democrats such as Dewey is not a difference in intelligence, but a difference in whom people trust.  Most people, whether highbrow or lowbrow, make most of their choices based on who and what they trust.  No one understands everything he or she accepts as valid.  We all must accept the validity of things we do not understand, which is most things, on trust.  Most progressives reside intellectually within a community of trust that includes scientists, scholars, public officials, experts, politicians, and public institutions of various sorts.  This community is essentially a web of trust based on people personally trusting people who trust other people who trust other people and so on.  It is a web that expands to many degrees of separation between people, but all of whom reside within the realm of trust.  The question for progressives is how to gain the trust of people so that they choose to inhabit a community of trust that is similar to ours and that overlaps with ours.

The answer for Dewey was education.  Rather than selling liberal policies through a top-down advertising program, and gaining the public’s support for liberal policies by promoting liberal celebrities, Dewey wanted to use newly developed progressive educational methods to gain public support for policies which could then be transferred to support for liberal leaders.  His was a bottom-up method of political organizing.  “Democracy must begin at home,” Dewey claimed, “and its home is the neighborly community.” [3]

Dewey acknowledged the educational power of the mass media, but the fact that public opinion was susceptible of control by the rich and powerful people who own the mass media led him to reject a reliance on the media as a means of educating people.  He thought, instead, that public schools could be the primary vehicles for organizing people locally, and then connecting them to national and international institutions.  Public schools are run by local people, but they teach students about the wider world of social science, physical science and public policy.  School teachers are local people, but through their advanced educations, their professional organizations, and the subjects they teach, teachers are connected to the most advanced learning in the world.  Schools could help children, and maybe their parents as well, expand what I have called their community of trust to include the scientists and other thinkers who best understand the world.

The proposals and predictions of both Lippmann and Dewey have proved partially correct over time.  Since 1960, for example, with the rise of television as a principle means of campaigning, the mass media has become the major terrain on which political battles have been fought.  As a consequence, political parties, which had historically been a means of bringing together disparate communities in the country, have declined.  Television has trumped political organization.

In the recent election, Bernie Sanders, who was not a Democrat, ran in the Democratic primary and almost won.  Donald Trump, who was not a member of the Republican Party, essentially ran against the party in the Republican primary, yet won the party’s nomination.  He then ran in the general election with almost no support the from the party, and won.  With his Bozo the Clown act, Trump received an extraordinary amount of free publicity from the mass media.  Then, with his own money and money from wealthy donors, he was able to buy more media time.  A media star to begin with, Trump parlayed that status to the election.  Lippmann was correct in predicting this sort of thing.

But Dewey was also correct in predicting the progressive educational effect of public schools.  The fact is that most Americans trust modern science and scientists.  Most accept, for example, the fact of global climate change and the effect that human activities have on that change.  Most accept racial equality, gender equality, and gay rights.  We have, after all, twice elected a black intellectual as President, something that would have seemed impossible in Dewey’s day.  These enlightened developments in public opinion did not come from nowhere.

Science classes and social studies classes in the public schools were major factors in developing enlightened public opinion in recent years.  Schools are where children have learned how science works, how government works, and how people are people, no matter their race, religion, or gender.  From that knowledge, they have also learned that it is possible for scientists and government officials to be trustworthy, and how to know whether and when they are.  Local schools run by local school boards, and staffed by local teachers who are connected intellectually to scholars and scholarship worldwide, made the difference.  This is the bottom-up, participatory democratic change that Dewey promoted.

At the same time, while most Americans are connected to the wider world, there are pockets of isolated people who essentially constitute communities of distrust of the wider world.  In these communities, local control of schools and the media has worked to the disadvantage of progressive education and enlightened thinking.  There are, for example, many states and localities in which school boards openly forbid or subtly discourage teaching about climate change and social justice issues.

These communities are often caught within vicious cycles of self-reinforcing distrust of modern science, scientists, federal officials, and foreigners.  Modern technology reinforces this vicious cycle by enabling people in these communities to connect with television news channels and websites that reinforce their narrow opinions, without any contact with alternative views.  The ability of Republicans to control these states and to control Congress through gerrymandering depends on these communities of distrust.  As did Trump in his presidential campaign.

The debate between technocratic progressives and participatory democratic progressives on how best to counter conservatives has gone on for close to one hundred years.  In recent years, the debate has included Bill and Hillary Clinton on the technocratic side, with their famous focus on triangulating public policy and public opinion, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the participatory democratic side.  The long-term goals of these two groups of progressives are not that different, but their short-term goals and methods are.  Should liberals focus on the cult of personality or the cultivation of policy?  Should liberals pursue a top-down media-driven political strategy, or a bottom-up grass roots organizing strategy?

The cult of personality is at best a fifty-fifty proposition.  For every magnetic liberal personality such as Bill Clinton, you get a non-magnetic liberal personality such as Hillary Clinton.  The cult of personality also leaves you liable to the libeling of personality, as with the ridiculing of Jimmy Carter in 1980, the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004, and the vilifying of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which saddled us respectively with Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.

In this last election, the technocrat Hillary Clinton may have been the most qualified presidential candidate in American history.  The clownish Donald Trump may have been the most unqualified presidential candidate in American history.  Basing his campaign on appealing to communities of distrust in the United States, the clown raged his way to victory.  There are many things that Democrats could have done during this election that might have tipped things their way.  Trump’s election, nonetheless, highlights many things that are wrong in our system of elections.  These include the inordinate influence of private money on elections, the disproportionate attention from the mass media that a flamboyant candidate gets, and the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College.  These things ought to be fixed, but almost certainly won’t be.

But reaching out to disaffected groups who either voted for Trump or didn’t vote, especially those in the hinterlands, and bringing them into a progressive community of trust, is something that could be done.  That means developing a grass roots participatory democratic strategy for penetrating communities of distrust, and encouraging trust in progressive policies that can translate into electing progressive politicians.  Maybe we can reach the 13% of the electorate that put Trump over the top, and work on the Republican base of 33% as well.  That might help keep thoughts of the scary clown at bay, so that maybe we can all get some sleep at night.

[1] Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion. New York: The Free Press, 1922. p..48.

[2] John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp. 169, 178, 208-209.

[3] John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1980. pp.213, 216.

The Election of Donald Trump and the Law of Small Numbers: A Statistical Note on the Choice of Incompetent Presidents.

The Election of Donald Trump and the Law of Small Numbers:

A Statistical Note on the Choice of Incompetent Presidents.

Burton Weltman

Making too much out of too little.

Statisticians have long warned us not to violate what they call the Law of Small Numbers, which is the mistake of making too much out of too little, and drawing big conclusions from a small sample of evidence.  At the same time, psychologists have told us that we are hardwired to do just that, and are programmed to reach hasty conclusions that would not survive reasoned reflection.  Without someone or something to make us stop and think, we all too often make decisions that we later regret.  And all of this, they tell us, is a result of evolution.

The tendency to reach hasty conclusions was, in fact, an evolutionary advantage for our puny ancestors, little rat-like mammals scurrying around trying to avoid being eaten by large predators.  For them, for example, seeing a potential predator in a given place more than once was probably a good reason to avoid that place forever more.  Taking extra precautions such as this was a key to survival for them.  But, the fact of the matter was that the appearance and reappearance of that predator in that place was often more likely a matter of chance than a pattern of behavior.  There was probably nothing to fear, but better safe than sorry was the order of the day.  The extra precaution was wise, albeit it was not statistically necessary.

We humans today are still operating under that primitive imperative of better safe than sorry, and we almost inevitably jump to broad conclusions based on limited data.  But what was a wise thing for our ancestors to do may be unwise for us.  Concluding, for example, that since your buddy was able to pick five winners in five horse races, you should place your life’s savings on his sixth tip, is probably unwise.  The sample of five winners in five races is just too small to reach a reasonable conclusion that your buddy knows what he is doing.  Unless, of course, you know that he has inside information and that the fix is in for the sixth race.

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So, what does that have to do with the presidential election of Donald Trump?  Just this.  If you look at our system of electing Presidents in the United States, and read what commentators have been saying about it since the adoption of our Constitution, it is hard not to conclude that it is an extremely inefficient process.  At its best, the process has not worked at least since the first quarter of the nineteenth century to select the best and most qualified people to be our Presidents.  And with the degeneration of our political parties in recent years, and their declining influence, and with the increasing influence of big money and the mass media in the election of our Presidents, the process has gotten even worse in recent decades.  It is, at best, a random process, giving us maybe a fifty-fifty chance of having a decent or a disastrous President.

Under these circumstances, we have actually been very lucky in this country that we have had so few disastrous Presidents in our history.  Yet, we are surprised when someone as disastrous as Donald Trump gets elected.  We should not be surprised.  Our surprise is a function of our being fooled by the Law of Small Numbers.  Since a good majority of our Presidents have been at least decent, with disastrous Presidents seemingly as exceptions rather than the rule, we think we have a system of elections that works reasonably well.  Well, we don’t.  And it has once again been proven to us in spades.

There are many specific reasons why Trump was elected.  It was seemingly a perfect storm of things that went wrong or went against Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and went right or in favor of Trump’s.  But there are also many things wrong with our system of electing Presidents which contributed to his victory, from the undemocratic Electoral College to the extraordinary length of our election campaigns.

Some of these things will likely never be fixed, including the Electoral College, but some things can.  In particular, we need strong political parties that are organized from the bottom on up, and a strong program of public financing of election campaigns.  For information and ideas about public campaign financing, you can consult the website of Democracy Matters, a grass roots organization dedicated to taking big money out of our politics.  With stronger political parties and public financing, we can minimize the influence of demagoguery through the mass media of the sort that Trump successfully engaged in during the last election, and we can minimize the undemocratic influence of billionaires and big corporations on our elections.

These things are doable.  And we should, at least, learn from this last election not to trust in the illusion of conclusions that violate the Law of Small Numbers.  Given the nature of our electoral system, and the odds of the game, something like Trump was to be expected.  We can do better.