Tag: 2016 election

Algorithmic Bias: How the Clinton Campaign May Have Lost the Presidency or Why You Should Care

This post is a co-authored piece:

Heather M. Roff, Jamie Winterton and Nadya Bliss of Arizona State’s Global Security Initiative

We’ve recently been informed that the Clinton campaign relied heavily on an automated decision aid to inform senior campaign leaders about likely scenarios in the election.  This algorithm—known as “Ada”—was a key component, if not “the” component in how senior staffers formulated campaigning strategy.   Unfortunately, we know little about the algorithm itself.  We do not know all of the data that was used in the various simulations that it ran, or what its programming looked like.   Nevertheless, we can be fairly sure that demographic information, prior voting behavior, prior election results, and the like, were a part of the variables as these are stock for any social scientist studying voting behavior.  What is more interesting, however, is that we are fairly sure there were other variables that were less straightforward and ultimately led to Clinton’s inability to see the potential loss in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and almost lose Minnesota.

But to see why “Ada” didn’t live up to her namesake (Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who is the progenitor of computing) is to delve into what an algorithm is, what it does, and how humans interact with its findings. It is an important point to make for many of us trying to understand not merely what happened this election, but also how increasing reliance on algorithms like Ada can fundamentally shift our politics and blind us to the limitations of big data.   Let us begin, then, at the beginning.

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Taking Democracy for Granted

[This is a guest post by Valerie J. Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Chair of International Studies at Cornell University, and Mark R. Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton University. After Aida Hozic shared the essay with me, I asked Valerie and Mark if I could post it at the Duck. They kindly agreed. I think it is one of the clearest—and most succinct—statements of why we should be worried and vigilant about the fate of US institutions.]

How might American democracy end? The United States would not be the first long-lasting government to collapse. Whether they supported communism or not, those who lived under it assumed, in Alexei Yurchak’s words, that communism was forever—until it was no more.   Developments in the United States bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those that fore-shadowed the decline of democracy elsewhere in the world (Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and earlier, Latin America in the 1960s and interwar Europe).

There are three pieces to the puzzle of why and how democracies fail. The first involves public opinion. In Russia, for example, growing public worries about crime and social disorder, economic collapse, and national security paved the way for the rise of a leader who promised political order, economic growth, and strong government—in short, making Russia great again. In many instances of democratic collapse, there was a decline in tolerance, as publics grew more polarized, more locked into their own views and into networks of like-minded people, and more distrustful of and angry at each other and the government. There was a thirst for new styles in politics, flamboyant rhetoric, and a willingness to gamble. Citizens voted for change; they did not vote to end democracy.

The second piece is dysfunctional political institutions. Just as the rise of Victor Orbán in Hungary was preceded by the collapse of the party system, so too was the rise of Hitler and Mussolini foreshadowed by prolonged parliamentary paralysis. In failing democracies, public trust in political institutions declines, and government can no longer fulfill the basic tasks expected of it. In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. Little wonder that trust in Congress has plummeted to the mid-20 percent level since 2010.  Mistrust of government is contagious, poisoning democratic processes. Echoing Trump’s rants about a “rigged system,” nearly a half of all registered voters believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often in the United States, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The final piece of the puzzle is the role of politicians in terminating democracy. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, it is political leaders that end democracy, not angry publics or dysfunctional institutions. But how leaders have taken down democracy has changed over time. During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

The elections that bring these dangerous leaders to power typically feature an electorate composed of large numbers of alienated, floating voters. All of the candidates have unusually high unfavorability ratings (which depresses voter turnout, skewing the representativeness of the electorate), and the choice confronting voters boils down to supporting experienced but compromised establishment politicians or risky outsiders. Outsider-politicians exploit public disgust with politics, attack their opponents in personal rather than policy terms, make grandiose promises, and talk of a return to the good old days by restoring the culture, society, and status of the past.

Most important is their claim to defend the nation. This is a perfect issue for ambitious amateur politicians because it plays so well to public fears about national security, personal security, and cultural diversity. Being for the nation, like being for economic growth and against crime and polio, is a valence issue—there is only one acceptable position. The costs of nationalist tropes for democracy are many. They give candidates a license to avoid talking about policy. They silence the opposition, since it cannot possibly come out against the nation. They sow divisions among the public. But perhaps their greatest danger is that they give rise to the demand for strong leadership—leaders who will do anything to defend the nation from its enemies.

To those who view American politics as exceptional, Trump is an anomaly that is difficult to explain. To us, his politics are disconcertingly familiar.

— Valerie J. Bunce and Mark R. Beissinger


Interventionism and Restraint in Democratic Foreign Policy

At War on the Rocks, Mieke Eoyong intervenes in the Sanders-Clinton foreign-policy debate. Although the case made for Sanders’ foreign policy by those she critiques—including Sean Kay—is much broader, she focuses on three arguments: that “Sanders has superior judgment because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton didn’t; Sanders would exercise restraint in intervention, where Clinton is on record supporting U.S. intervention in a number of cases; [and] Sanders would restrain defense spending.”

I’m going to respond to the first two. I do so as a recovering liberal hawk. In the 1990s, my views on foreign policy were profoundly shaped by the pages of The New Republic. But over the last fifteen years, I’ve moved further and further away from liberal interventionism. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still more of a ‘strong defense’ type than most people on the left. But the problems that I see with Eoyong’s case reflect the reasons for my own evolution.

Indeed, Eoyong’s first argument is that the real test of judgment is learning from mistakes. As she writes:

A candidate’s ability to admit he or she has made a mistake and take corrective action is far more important in the world where imperfect information and changed circumstance may render initial judgments as poor decisions. No one gets it right all the time. How do candidates cope when they get it wrong? What lessons do they learn? What steps do they take to address the problems?

Fair enough. And this is one reason why I don’t worry about a possible Clinton presidency the way that many on the Democratic left do (indeed, if and when Clinton wins the nomination my pocketbook will open up to her campaign and I will do everything I can to support it). But I think it telling that Eoyong has nothing to say about the actual lessons learned by liberal interventionists from Iraq. Continue reading

The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading

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