Thursday, March 15, 2018

Responsibility for the 2016 Presidential Election

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President in 2016?

In my previous post, I presented an account of practical causality. It states that the cause of something is the type of thing that we can we can influence to bring bout a type of state that we desire or prevent a type of state to which we are adverse.

At least, that is the cause we have reason to care about. There is another, broader type of causation - but that alternative type includes a lot of things we do not care about (excluding a very small number of scholars and a few others).

So, I want to look at this account of practical causation with respect to a real-world causal problem.

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President?

The first thing to note is that, even though we look for "the cause", it is often not the case that there is one and only one cause. The only time that there is one and only one cause is if there is one and only thing of a type that we could have changed to have prevented the realization of a state of affairs in which Trump became President.

Many people use this linguistic convention as a rhetorical trick to avoid moral responsibility. In conditions where more than one wrong action contributes to an avoidable bad state of affairs, each person who contributed to realizing that which ought not have been realized points a finger at the other causes and cries, "It's their fault!" The embedded assumption that there is one and only one cause then allows the individual to draw the false conclusion, "If they are the cause, then I cannot be the cause."

However, in the real world, it is often the case that there is more than one cause. Each cause is a type of event that we can influence which, if we influence that type of event in the right way, will prevent the realization of types of states of affairs such as Trump becoming President.

As it turns out, anything that would have brought about a shift of 6,000 votes in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 11,000 votes in Wisconsin and was morally culpable can be listed as being "to blame" for Trump winning the 2016 election.

Of course, there is a large obvious set of candidates of who is to blame - including Trump, the Republican National Committee, and those who rallied behind, worked for, and contributed to the Trump campaign. But, let's look a bit beyond the obvious into some of the potentially controversial causes.

Sexism - particularly implicit bias: This was certainly to blame for the election results. A person suffering from implicit bias did not vote against Clinton because she was a woman. Instead, this voter found some other excuse to vote against Clinton. One likely source is that the thought of voting for a woman gave the voter a general feeling of uneasiness. Without realizing that their uneasiness resulted from sexism, they interpreted their sentiments as, "I don't trust her" or "I just don't like her" or in attributing certain wrongs to her where they would not have drawn the same conclusion about a male candidate based on the same evidence. In short, they used make-believe or exaggerated reasons other than sexism to reject a candidate that sexism made them feel uneasy about.

Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie Sanders is to blame for Clinton's defeat. It is not just that he weakened her as a candidate. A greater harm came from his "us" versus "them" tribal rhetoric. Humans are built to respond to this way of thinking with increased polarization and hatred - even intolerance - of "the other". Tribal thinking, once it is established, closes the mind to reason and evidence. This is why you find groups (tribes) with such absurd beliefs - this is tribalism dominating reason. It does not matter that Sanders endorsed Clinton later. He created a tribe whose members simply took his later endorsement as a betrayal of the tribe. Sanders' tribalism had another effect - it worked hand-in-hand with the Russian campaign to tip the election in favor of Trump. Sanders plowed the ground and planted the seeds. The Russians tended the crops and harvested its fruit.

The Russian meddling. Russia selected America's president. Putin looked at the candidates, pointed to Trump, and said, "I want that one," then invested several million dollars in a campaign of mostly illegal activity to get his preferred candidate elected. Saying that Putin selected the US President is to be interpreted as simply restating this causal relationship. Putin's contributions to the Trump campaign likely flipped more than 40,000 voters in the states listed above, which gave the election to Trump.

Of course, sexism itself worked with Putin and Sanders to give the election to Trump. Implicit bias made people more willing to embrace Sanders' tribal rhetoric and more eager to see merit in what has since been shown to be Putin's campaign rhetoric.

Post-Fact Thinking: Many people simply do not care whether their political rhetoric is true or false. The speed at which false claims spread on social media is proof of this. People share false and misleading information at the drop of a tweet. If it supports a conclusion that they like - they accept it, they share it, and they endorse it. While there is no condemnation given to those who spread misinformation, those who attempt to correct misinformation are attacked. A greater general aversion to false beliefs and deception would have meant less misinformation on social media, and more people basing their votes on the facts.

This lack of interest in the truth was, of course, also useful to Putin and his team. Their campaign largely consisted in filling social media with lies and distortions that those who have no interest in the truth were more than eager to share on social media, freely helping the Russians to harm America and its interests and its people.

Let me return to the purpose of this post - to give a practical application to the practical theory of causation. These are all causes in the practical causation sense in that they represent the types of things that are under our control that we can change to prevent the types of harms that we have suffered from happening in the future.

The things we can do to make things better in the future:

(1) Recognize and work on eliminating or correcting for - or at least preventing the worst outcomes of - our implicit biases.

(2) Shunning and shutting down "us" versus "them" tribal political rhetoric.

(3) Setting up defenses against Russian style political meddling - at the very least warning others what to expect and how to fight back. (Something the Trump administration and leaders in the current legislature seem quite unwilling to do.)

(4) Worry a lot more about whether the claims that we are spreading on social media are true - or whether we just want them to be true because they fit our political narrative.

This represents how to put the theory of practical causation to practical use.

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