Friday, May 6, 2016

The institutional logic of modern presidential politics

There's been a whirlwind of interesting and insightful analysis from the commentariat since Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, but the single best thing I've read so far about the race (previously an honor held by this psychoanalysis of Trump) was an article by David Roberts about the institutional ecology of presidential politics. Starting from a position that Trump is radically unqualified for the presidency, he makes two crucial points:

"[T]he US political ecosystem — media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders, the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics — cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is obviously and uncontroversially the superior (if not sole acceptable) choice. The machine is simply not built to handle a race that's over before it's begun."

"It's not a conspiracy; it won't be coordinated. It doesn't need to be. It's just a process of institutions, centers of power and influence, responding to the incentive structure that's evolved around them. The US political ecosystem needs this election to be competitive."

The Schelling vortex

The first quote reveals a very astute and sophisticated understanding of how institutions and psychology shape social phenomena. In presidential politics, there exists a massive and complex institutional nexus whose emergent properties include numerous negative feedback loops and regression-to-the-mean mechanisms. These have the ultimate effect of validating and reinforcing whatever individuals happen to occupy the socially symbolic role of "major party candidate".

Typically, the people who reach this level are minimally-qualified viz. norms like decorum, basic knowledge, language ability, etc. Trump's public identity lacks these basic standards, but for whatever reason he made it in anyways.

But now that he occupies this role, the full might of the institutional forcing mechanisms work to keep him there, enabling him to act out the socially-constructed "presidential campaign" narrative from a position of relative power. This is what Roberts meant when he said, "the machine is simply not built to handle a race that's over before it's begun."

"I am not malevolent... I simply AM"

The second point concerns the perceived agentic status of this social/institutional behemoth. Many writers--Roberts included--anthropomorphize complex emergent systems as a rhetorical shorthand, referencing what systems "need" or what they "know". That's fine; models are really useful for all kinds of reasons. But make no mistake: any teleological description of institutional forces in this election is strictly wrong; the institutional nexus currently progressing through its social narrative is totally valueless and goal-neutral. It doesn't care, because it's merely a high-level description of many lower-level phenomena.

We'll be fine, though

The good news is that even Mr. Trump himself isn't immune to the moulding power of national politics and the rationalizing forces of bureaucracy. If he were elected president, our democratic capitalist regime would be perfectly fine. The very mechanisms that normalize Trump and keep him from being laughed off stage ultimately ensure that his potential damage would be limited.

Trump owes his political survival to the socially-constructed role of the presidency, and its potent ability to coordinate other people's actions. The power of the presidency is ultimately limited (broadly speaking) by the willingness of people to go along with everything--its institutional legitimacy.

Trump could certainly do some wacko stuff and cause a lot of misery via dumb policies and decisions, but if he were to truly push the envelope into apocalyptic territory, it's unlikely our government officials and population would comply. Feel better?

Do read the whole article.

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