Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How can we comprehend the emergence of consciousness?

 


It seems common for consciousness to be viewed either as an inexplicable mystery or as something we will only be able to comprehend if advances in science can explain how thoughts – a rich inner life - can somehow be created from matter. However, the problems we have in comprehending the emergence of consciousness may stem from our habit of thinking in terms of a separation between mind and body.

The idea of mind as separate from body has been part of Western philosophy for a long time, but is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism after René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am”, concluded “I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think … [that] does not depend on any material thing”. These days, not many people believe consciousness to be a substance, but dualism still seems to linger on in much discussion about consciousness.  

Descartes reached his conclusion after going through a process of considering what sources of knowledge could not be doubted, and discovering that he could not doubt that he was thinking. In his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Richard Campbell suggests that Descartes was on the right track in observing that he was unable to doubt that he was thinking:

“If I seriously think that I am not thinking, what I am thinking is pragmatically self-refuting.” (283)

Descartes error arose when he asked himself, “What then am I?” after observing that he could not doubt he was thinking. As Campbell points out, that question “presupposes that he takes himself to be some sort of thing”.

(Campbell’s discussion reminds me of the part of the long speech Ayn Rand had John Galt make in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt proclaims the axiom that “existence exists”, and that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. Galt adds “a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms” (1015). Readers who are allergic to Ayn Rand will be pleased to note that Campbell’s book contains no references to her, or to Objectivism.)


Before going further I should note that Richard Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the ANU. The Metaphysics of Emergence was published in 2015.

Campbell asks what conclusion we can draw from the observation that we cannot doubt we are thinking. His answer:

“Thinking that one is thinking, being aware that one is aware, has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness.

To understand what Campbell is getting at here, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of the general line of argument he develops in his book.

  • In the preface, the author explains that he has come to the view that any satisfactory account of the emergence of complex phenomena has to begin with recognition that “processes underly what seem like stable enduring entities, and therefore should be accorded priority over them”.
  • Campbell argues that everything is fundamentally in process. That line of argument is opposed to the dominant tradition of Western intellectual history (began by Parmenides) which views entities as the norm. The view that everything is a process presents us with the challenge of explaining the emergence and apparent stability of enduring things, whereas under the dominant tradition change requires explanation.
  •  Campbell suggests that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”.
  • The view of stability as the norm led to a focus on particular entities and the “matter” of which they were comprised. Since matter itself seemed to be comprised of entities (atoms and sub-atomic particles) it seemed to follow that everything was composed of entities (countable things). However, advances in physics make that view no longer tenable.  Although sub-atomic particles are often still talked about as though they are well-defined micro-entities, they behave more like processes than entities. Entities can no longer be accorded the role of the primary way of being.
  • Entities, including living things, can be best understood as special cases of generic processes constrained in certain explicable ways. Entities are minimally homomerous – they exist in fixed portions or units. If you cut a cow in two the result is not two smaller cows.
  • Many types of dynamic system retain their distinctive properties even though their constituents are replaced over time. That points to the importance of the constituent processes in maintaining the system.
  • Living creatures perform actions. Interactions between internal and external processes binds them together as cohesive entities and enables them to behave as integral wholes. Their actions are an emergent phenomenon – resulting from the interaction of many processes.
  • As Aristotle recognized, talk of actions carries implications of teleology – actions are directed towards some goal or end. In the case of simple multi-cellular organisms, goal-directedness is directed toward survival, but does not carry any implication of conscious choices or purposes. “The recursive self-maintenance of an organism is what requires the category of action to be predicated of it as an integrated action system and provides the necessary condition for other kinds of action which are directed at ends other than survival.” (176)    
  • As evolution proceeds, living creatures become capable of performing selective actions in response to differences in their environments. In relatively simple organisms, those actions are instinctual rather than choices involving deliberation or calculation. Selection becomes more significant in more complex creatures which need to choose between fighting and fleeing, or whether to search for food or find a mate. Complex organisms can learn by detecting that some action they have performed is in error.
  • The appropriate question regarding motivation is what makes an organism perform one action rather than another, rather than what makes it do something rather than nothing. Living organisms cannot do nothing, or they cease to exist as living beings.
  • When an organism has the ability to learn which kinds of action yields rewards and to select actions on the basis of that learning it seems reasonable to say that it can evaluate the projected outcomes. As organisms become more highly developed, goal-seeking activity becomes increasingly self-directed, more flexible, and more generic (not confined to specific task routines). The behaviors of many species of non-human animals indicates that they have some awareness of their surroundings.
  • The consciousness of humans evolved from the awareness displayed by other animals. Primate awareness includes elaborate event representations in which experience across many sources including bodily feelings are integrated and can be remembered. However, primates seem to lack the “fundamental defining capacities” to develop language skills (unless raised by humans) and do not express any kind of self-description.
  • Human evolution went through several stages: a mimetic culture employing the whole body as an expressive device; the mythic stage in which spoken language evolved (arguably to meet specific cognitive and cultural needs); and the theoretic stage beginning around 5,500 years ago with invention of the first writing systems. The theoretic stage is characterized by “institutionalized paradigmatic thought” – using external symbolic devices to store and retrieve cultural knowledge.
  • One’s sense of oneself is an aspect of consciousness that seems to be distinctively human, although some species of apes and elephants can recognize an image in a mirror as their own. “Our individual self-understandings are informed by our autobiographical memories, whose meaning depends on a shared oral tradition.” (290) Our consciousness of ourselves has been shaped by cultural and institutional factors that influence how our brains develop and function. While we talk metaphorically of the evolution of modern humans, this is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. A child born today differs little genetically from one born 60,000 years ago.
  • The development of human brains is strongly influenced by personal experience. Cultural interactions play an important role in determining the way the brains of children develop. They do not reach their mature architecture until adulthood. 

Some further explanation can now be given of what Campbell meant by writing that being aware that one is aware has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness. He is suggesting that when he detects something with one of his five senses there is more than one operation going on:

I am actively eliciting and processing those sensory inputs, and at the same time reflectively experiencing the qualities of that awareness. If that is right, then the way many philosophers today pose the issue of experience – how is it that certain complex physical systems are also mental – is misconceived. The situation is not that there is one phenomenon which has two aspects: one physical; one mental. Rather, experiencing is an on-going self-organizing activity which involves two distinct types of process: exploratory sensory activity (which is both bodily and neural); and another higher-level process operating upon the former. Being self-organizing, these interactions essentially involve feedback. That is why humans’ consciousness is reflective, reflexive, and thereby self-aware.” (283-4)

Before concluding, I should make clear that I prepared the above summary to improve my own understanding of the line of argument in Richard Campbell’s book. I hope it is a reasonable summary, but it not a substitute for reading the book. I am publishing this article in the hope of encouraging others to read the book.

I would also like to mention that I was prompted to read The Metaphysics of Emergence by a comment made by Robert L Campbell, a psychologist, in his review (published in JARS) of Harry Binswanger’s book, How We Know. I am pleased that I was given that prompt to read the book because I have a long-standing interest in explanations of consciousness - for example, see my comments on Alva Noё’s book, Out of Our Heads, published on this blog over a decade ago.

Conclusion

We cannot doubt that we think. That seems to me to be a profound observation. We may have reasons to doubt that what we are thinking at any moment is related to reality, but we cannot doubt that we are thinking. We are aware of both the flow of inner experiences – thoughts and feelings – and of our experience of the world in which we live. Thinking about our experience of the world enables us to contemplate the goals we seek, to make choices in pursuit of those goals, and to learn from experience. Our observations of the world tell us that many other animals also engage in similar processes - which imply an awareness of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged/evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Awareness of our own awareness has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?

 


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


 

The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Was Kant a friend of reason and liberty?

I began thinking about this question as I was reading Ronald Beiner’s recent book, Dangerous Minds. Beiner’s main point seems to be that rightwing opponents of liberty are finding inspiration in the
writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger. That should not be surprising. Nietzsche inspired Heidegger, who had strong links to the National Socialists.

The fact that some leftwing opponents of liberty find inspiration in the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger requires more explanation. With the failure of socialism to live up to its promise of ushering in an era of productivity and prosperity, the academic left found in Nietzsche and Heidegger a way to continue to embrace socialism by claiming that logic and evidence are subjective. Stephen Hicks gives that as one of several explanations in his book, Explaining Postmodernism.

When we classify thinkers according to various criteria such as their beliefs about reason and individual liberty, it seems natural to ask how they came to have those beliefs. Nietzsche and Heidegger were irrationalists – they believed that reason is trumped
by claims based on instinct and emotion – and they were both opponents of modernity and classical liberalism. To what extent were they influenced by Immanuel Kant?

A friend of reason?

Kant has influenced the way many people think about external reality by raising important questions about the ability of humans to know the nature of things as they are. Kant’s assertion that reason is impotent to know reality may have inspired Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others to become irrationalists.

However, Kant was in many respects a friend of reason. His philosophy certainly does not lead inevitably to irrationalism. For example, following a neo-Kantian approach, Ludwig von Mises asserted that purposeful human action - the fundamental axiom from which he deduced laws of economics explaining real world behavior - is a category of the human mind.  

Similarly, Friedrich Hayek’s speculations about the workings of the human mind share with the Kantian framework the idea that our minds impose an order on what we experience. However, Hayek suggests that the maps that our minds create are subject to gradual change in response to sensory inputs. His theory implies that we can advance our explanations of the objective physical world, and that as we do that we come to ‘see’ it differently. [Accessible accounts of Hayek’s theory are to be found in Chapter 12 of Bruce Caldwell’s book, Hayek’s Challenge, and in an article by William Butos. Hayek acknowledges in Constitution of Liberty that reason “is undoubtedly man’s most precious possession”. He distinguishes his anti-rationalist position - opposing the abuse of reason in attempts to control society - from irrationalism and appeals to mysticism (69).]

A friend of liberty?

Hayek counted Kant as a classical liberal, along with David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, James Madison, and others who advocated limitations on the powers of government. By contrast, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Condorcet were constructivist rationalists who advocated democracy, with unlimited powers for the majority. [Source: Nishiyama and Leube (eds) The Essence of Hayek, 363-4.]

Hayek admired Kant’s categorical imperative (CI) – “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. He viewed the CI from the perspective of meta-ethics, rather than personal ethics, in suggesting that it “proved of the greatest importance in preparing the ground” for rule of law in Prussia during the latter part of the 18th century. [Constitution of Liberty, 197]

James Buchanan referred favorably to Kant’s CI for similar reasons to Hayek – as an ethical precept supporting norms of behavior that produce superior outcomes in social interaction. Henry Hazlitt and Leland Yeager, rule utilitarians, also see merit in a test of universalizability of social rules, but are critical of the notion of “duty for duty’s sake”. [Hazlitt, Foundations of Morality, Ch 16; Yeager, Ethics as Social Science, Ch 9.]

The fact that Kant advanced reasons why individuals should respect the rights of others counts in his favor to be viewed as a friend of liberty. However, if he had been able to perceive it to be meritorious that individual humans seek to flourish, he could have provided a straight-forward argument for a political/legal order recognizing rights on the basis that it is needed to ensure that the flourishing of different individuals and groups does not conflict. [Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl advanced that view in Norms of Liberty.]

My doubts about whether Kant should be considered a friend of liberty are centered around his collectivism. He was an admirer of Rousseau and advocated similar policies. It is well known that Kant claimed that man is a creature made of “warped wood”. I had thought this was just recognition of human fallibility, but Kant also claimed that if man is “an animal that, if he lives among other members of his species, has need of a master”, a government “to break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will”. Kant presented a vision of a federation of states ultimately living in peace, but that did not prevent him from claiming that, at the present stage of culture, peace would be a moral disaster. He argued: “The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society”.  [Source: Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 99-101.]

Antagonism doesn’t seem to me to be linked to any maxims that a classical liberal would will to become universal.

Conclusions

It seems reasonable to argue that Kant was a friend of reason. I am less sure that he was a friend of liberty. The way the categorical imperative has been used in discussions of universalizability of law has probably promoted liberty. Kant’s more political writings may, however, have given comfort to opponents of liberty.


 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Are you getting sauced?

 




It is about time greater recognition was given to the sterling efforts of Australia’s liquor licensing regulators. While some public health officials have become media superstars during the COVD-19 epidemic, the liquor regulators have gone quietly about their business of protecting us from ourselves.  Lack of public recognition for their efforts must be almost enough to drive them to drink.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission – your ABC (or is it our ABC, or their ABC) – is normally a strong supporter of government regulation, but when was the last time you saw the ABC praise liquor regulators for their efforts? Just about everyone that the ABC interviews says, “Aorta do something about that”, no matter what “that” is. The “A” in aorta is the government, of course. Someone should tell the government Aorta get the ABC to praise the liquor licensing regulators.

I can’t remember anything the ABC has done over the last 18 months or so to recognize the sterling efforts of liquor regulators. Liquor licensing regulators have to make contributions that are a long way beyond the call of duty before the ABC recognizes them.

The sterling efforts of the acting director-general of licensing of the Northern Territory (NT) were reluctantly acknowledged by Katrina Beavan and Steward Brash in an item published on 30 July 2019. The headline of the article gives an indication of the perceptiveness and courage of the acting director-general: “NT liquor licensing laws affect sale of household cooking products, vendors warned”.

The acting director-general deserves to be highly honored for making such a magnificent contribution to the welfare of citizens of the NT. Most liquor regulators would be inclined to turn a blind eye to the fact that some household cooking products contain alcohol. After all, regulators are human, and just about as lazy as the rest of us. Regulators could be expected to be particularly reluctant to rock the boat by upsetting food retailers and their customers.

However, the acting director-general wrote a letter to food retailers telling them that if they want to sell any product over 50 ml that contains 1.15 per cent ethyl alcohol or more, they require a liquor licence. Licensing inspectors followed up by visiting a range of stores in Darwin and Alice Springs, insisting that owners take offending items off the shelves.

Some of you might think that the acting director-general was being excessively zealous, particularly since the legislation specifically referred to “beverages”.  I can almost hear some of you saying that soy sauce is not a beverage. You wouldn’t drink it!

Well, you obviously haven’t heard of a “bloody geisha”? As cocktails go, a bloody geisha isn’t too bad in my view. It is more flavorsome than straight sake. I imagine that if you use enough soy sauce, you could reduce the amount of sake, and still get a kick out of it. Some people may even omit the tomato juice.

In my view, a strong case can be made that the acting director-general didn’t go far enough. Why not also specify that methylated spirits and turps must also be sold through liquor stores? You might point out to me that regulations to protect government revenue from sale of alcoholic beverages require metho to be adulterated to contain enough poisonous stuff (methanol) to make people go blind and to kill them. You probably think that the fact that metho kills people is a strong enough deterrent to stop nearly everyone from drinking it. However, that is odd argument. It implies that human nature is such that if you leave people to make choices for themselves, they will nearly always choose to stay alive.

You probably also want to tell me that when you say someone is “on the turps” that is just a figure of speech. You claim to know that mineral turpentine contains no alcohol. If I object, you will tell me that is a scientific fact.

Struth! You probably still think there is a real world out there and that we all tend to have common perceptions of reality. One day you will understand that we live in a post-truth world. Everyone has their own truth. Perceptions are everything. If you have any interest at all in protecting people from themselves, you will agree with me that to discourage people from “going on the turps”, mineral turpentine should only be sold in licensed liquor stores.

How does this story end? From what I can gather, the NT Licensing authorities subsequently backtracked on efforts to ensure soy sauce could only be sold in licensed liquor outlets. Nevertheless, the acting director-general deserves a medal for assiduous efforts in trying to protect NT people from themselves!


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Is Trumpism coming to Australia?

 


Over the last few decades, Australian politics seems to have become more like that of the United States. Politics in this country was once several degrees to the left of America, with the Labor party advocating socialism – and proposing extensive government ownership of business enterprises. However, in both countries the progressive side of politics is now focused on an environmental and affirmative action agenda, while the conservative side seeks to moderate those tendencies. Both sides seek to appeal, in different ways, to aspirations of people for higher material standards of living.

That was how it was before Trumpism came to America. Viewed from this side of the Pacific, American politics seems to have taken a bizarre twist. Given that Australians tend to follow social and political trends in America, does that mean we are also destined to experience Trumpism?

Before attempting to answer that question, it seems important to clarify the nature of Trumpism.

Trumpism

Salvatore Babones, an American sociologist now living in Australia, published a book a couple of years ago which sheds light on the nature of Trumpism. In his book, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of ExpertsSalvatore argues that Trump is a populist rather than an authoritarian leader and that Americans have more to fear from the tyranny of experts. He suggests that twenty-first-century democracy is endangered by the tendency of the expert class to dismiss the moral right of less-educated people to have opinions that conflict with their own.

Salvatore makes the point that populism and authoritarianism are polar opposite strategies for political legitimation:

“Populists appeal to the innate common sense of ordinary people, while authoritarians appeal to tradition and the prestige of established institutions”.

Salvatore is not particularly flattering to former President Trump. He refers to Trump as a narcissist, in making the point that “you can’t be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself”. He also refers to Trump as “a paranoid populist with a persecution complex”.

Salvatore claimed, “Trump will never be a hero to anyone but himself”. That assessment now seems to have been wide of the mark in the light of the extent of ongoing support for Trump, despite his unwillingness to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election. Trump now commands a sizeable support base of people who love him, view him as a source of truth and wisdom, and seek to please him. Trumpism seems to have developed into a personality cult, in some respects like Peronism.

It is important to remember that, like members of other cults, Trumpists are guided by moral impulses. They may be misguided, but most of them are good people.

The development of the Trump cult seems to be partly attributable to echo chambers in the social media (discussed here) but I think it is more strongly attributable to demonization of Trump within mainstream media. Trump attracted populist support by attacking the consensus wisdom of the expert class and disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. His opponents responded in kind by suggesting he is as an ignorant buffoon, bully, and admirer of tyrants. Trump’s strongest supporters have come to love him because they think he is unfairly maligned for expressing views they endorse.

The strength of the Trump cult is evident in its impact on the behavior of many conservative politicians. Until recently, American conservatives have had a well-deserved reputation of being principled supporters of the U.S. Constitution and the federal system of government. Nevertheless, many leading conservatives, who have hitherto been opponents of judicial activism, supported the unsuccessful efforts of Texas to have the Supreme Court overturn the presidential election results of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, on the grounds of procedural irregularities.

If those efforts had succeeded, the implications would have been far-reaching. John Yoo, an American legal scholar, has noted that “under Texas’s theory, any state could have sued any other in any presidential or federal midterm election over irregular procedures”. If the Supreme Court justices had been inclined to put political loyalties above legal principle, they would have undermined the federalism that is integral to the process of electing American presidents.

The strength of the Trump cult is also evident in the efforts of some conservative politicians in challenging the Electoral College votes when they were formally opened before a joint session of both housed of Congress on January 6. Those antics had no chance of succeeding. They only make sense in terms of pandering to Trump and his support base.

It is evident that Trump’s bizarre behavior following the election has opened up a deep rift within the Republican party between those who have regard to the Constitution and the conventions associated with orderly transfer of power following elections, and those who set no limit to the lengths they would go in pandering to the Trump cult. At the forefront of the first category is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, but recognized Joe Biden as President-elect after the Electoral College confirmed that he had won the election. The latter category includes Senator Ted Cruz, who apparently still has presidential aspirations.

Looking ahead, an association with Trump and his support base is likely to be an ongoing electoral liability for the Republican party. Trump’s ability to get his supporters to cast a vote is more than offset by his apparent inability to avoid provoking other people to vote against him. Conservative politicians who oppose Trump will continue to be punished by the Trump cult.

The electoral future for the Republicans seems no more promising even if Trump leaves to form his own Patriots party. His electoral support is likely to be great enough to enable him to split the conservative vote and enable Democrats to win more contests.

Could a conservative populist wreak havoc in Australian politics?

I don’t think it would make sense to argue that Australians differ from Americans in fundamental ways that would make it impossible for something like Trumpism to happen here. I don’t have data on this, but it would not surprise me if the proportion of the population who think expert policy advisors ad career politicians have too much influence on government is as high in Australia as it is in America.

Over the years, a substantial number of Australian politicians have advanced their careers by thumbing their noses at the “ruling class” of politicians and expert policy advisors. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility for a person with such views to become prime minister of Australia. As I noted several years ago, former prime minister, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class of policy advisors in Canberra. However, Howard was a career politician and could not be described as a populist.

The important point to note is that if a Trump-like populist was elected prime minister of Australia, she or he would not last more than a few months with popularity ratings as low as those of Donald Trump throughout most of his presidency. Australian prime ministers are elected by parliamentarians, and do not last long if they appear incapable of winning the next election. It is a desirable attribute of the conservative side of Australian politics that parliamentarians are able to change their leader as frequently as they wish, until they find one that voters think might be worthy of the role of prime minister for more than a few months.

Bottom line

Australia is fairly safe from Trumpism unless it becomes a republic, with an elected presidency like that in the United States. Recent events in the United States have convinced me that Australians would be wise to vote against any proposal to become a republic with an elected head of state.