Friday, April 6, 2018

Campaign Claim-jumping

“Looking at it objectively, one could fear that any candidate with a good enough data mining consortium (Obama used the Washington-based Analyst Institute) could not be stopped from manipulating his way to election. But this distortion of the electoral process will be self-correcting. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s data science unit was one-tenth the size of Obama’s. You can be sure that will not be true of 2016’s Republican nominee.”
—A post on this blog on June 18, 2013
Sometimes I go back and re-read my old posts on this blog. This is not something I do frequently because it is an exercise that mostly makes me cringe. Observations that seemed wise at the time may be seen as hopelessly naive with the benefit of hindsight. A recent survey of past posts, for example, has convinced me that I was too hard on President Obama during his two terms in office. On the other hand, every criticism was motivated by a sincere desire to see him succeed and for the country to be better for it. Given the tumult of the Trump presidency, Obama’s eight years now seem like a blissful period of calm. But only if we forget how bad the economy actually was during much of that time. The financial crisis that coincided with his election was not his fault, but it is fair to criticize him for policies that, for many anyway, starved the recovery and paved the way for a candidacy like Trump’s.

My review of past writings did not always anticipate events flawlessly, although in fairness the trends I tend to highlight are pretty long-term. In some cases, though, I am amazed at my prescience. Almost five years ago in a post titled “No Place to Hide,” I wrote about the data mining of citizens’ personal data on the internet by political campaigns and how it could distort the electoral process. This was spurred by an article I had read in the January/February 2013 issue of MIT Technology Review by Sasha Issenberg. It was called “How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters.” The issue’s cover is now a tad ironic given the current hysteria over Cambridge Analytica and its data mining hijinks with Facebook. The cover features a head shot of rock star Bono (who else?) staring out thoughtfully over the headline “Big Data Will Save Politics.” Further down are subheads like “Bono: Data Can Fight Poverty and Corruption,” “Sasha Issenberg: Data Makes Elections Smarter” and “Joe Trippi: Data Puts the Soul Back into Politics.”

Issenberg’s article described glowingly how the Obama team’s data mining techniques were able to pinpoint citizens’ concerns and thinking right down to the individual level. “[A] Web platform called Dashboard gamified volunteer activity by ranking the most active supporters,” he wrote, “and ‘targeted sharing’ protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade. But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”

In other words, people working on behalf of Obama team were pretty much doing the same thing as people working on behalf of Trump would be doing four years later. And I predicted it, as seen in the quote at the top of this blog post. The funny thing is that, while the data mining done for the Obama campaign was known and discussed at the time, I do not remember anyone raising a concern about Facebook users’ personal information being used for purposes of a political campaign. Compare that with the current hoopla over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. You would think that Mark Zuckerberg had been caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes in precincts across the nation. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in the eyes of Democrats and the Washington press corps anyway, data mining is only now a problem—and was not four years ago—because in 2016 the wrong person won.

To be clear Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms of use which, to be honest, were not being enforced with much vigor. To the extent that anyone actually violated the law, they should certainly be sanctioned, and Facebook needs to answer for the way it has handled its users’ data. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the data mining itself—which happened in 2014 and was not used because even better data was available from other sources—actually changed the outcome of the election. Let us not lose sight of how the data mining is actually used. It is used for advertising. Yes, it is advertising that is extremely targeted and often sneaky, but at the end of the day it is not so much different than advertising has ever been. It’s funny how some people can get so freaked out by creative and new uses of the First Amendment.

The result will probably be that companies like Facebook will have to submit to some sort of regulation—either governmental or, if their lobbyists are earning their money, self-imposed—and that may calm people down—at least until the next new and creative use of technology in a presidential campaign by people whom Democrats and the mass media do not like.

There you go. Another forecast that may or may not come true. I will end this post the same way I ended the one five years ago: “Unfortunately, while these new techniques have now been shown to work with incredible efficacy, there is no sign at all that they contribute in any way to making the successful candidate, once in office, a better leader or president.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Democracy’s Fraying Fabric?

“[T]he difference between Republicans and Democrats? Republicans know they’re right; Democrats entertain the possibility that they might be wrong… And that’s why you see liberals drawn to the arts because it’s more of an open-minded type of thing.”
—Filmmaker/actor Rob Reiner, speaking to Laura Ingraham on her Fox News Channel show, January 21 
“While #Liberals scream about the 50’s blacklist, my #Repub actor friends are terrified of losing their ability to provide for their families”
—Tweet from actor James Woods, August 22
Last June I made an admittedly unlikely comparison between President Trump and former Chilean president Salvador Allende. My point was not that the two men were anything at all alike in their politics or their character. Rather, the similarity was in how, from the moment each came to power, the entrenched political establishments of their respective countries immediately began working to cleanse the system of the unwanted interloper.
How Democracies Die
It turns out that I am not the only one to whom it occurred to draw a parallel between Chile in the early 1970s and the United States in the late 2010s. A couple of months ago a book called How Democracies Die was published. The authors are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of Government at Harvard University. Their tome is clearly meant to be a stark warning. The book’s cover consists entirely of its alarming title in large white letters on an intensely black background. In the introduction they write, “[I]n 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?” So we definitely know at the very outset where the authors are coming from.

Their approach is to examine failed democracies—notably Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and Latin America in the 1970s—and look for warning signs that can flag dangers to democratic institutions. In the first chapter, they list the four main warning signs—rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. They emphasize the importance of shared understandings among all sides about what is and is not acceptable, calling these understandings “the guardrails of democracy.” They point out that some of “history’s most tragic democratic breakdowns were preceded by the degrading of basic norms,” giving Chile under Allende as an example. After his election, partisan hostility intensified—exacerbated by the fact that Allende had won with only 36 percent of the popular vote and had no majority in Congress. His opponents dug in, in a way that one might call The Resistance, while Allende found inventive ways to implement his policies that did not require legislative votes. Thus Chile’s guardrails of democracy failed, and “the military seized power. Chileans, who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt see a similar situation in Trump’s first year as president. While their thesis is that breakdown occurs because of failure on both sides of a political divide, they mostly find fault with the president. Interestingly, though, their indictment of him relies more heavily on his rhetoric than on his actions. They tend to assume that the president actually means—and would act on—every utterance and tweet. So far, at least in my estimation, his behavior has been much more moderate and conventional than his all-too-numerous off-the-cuff statements and infamous late-night tweets. For example, while Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall is highly provocative, the notion of enhanced border security was entirely mainstream just a few years ago. His aggressiveness on tariffs has economists and journalists in a tizzy, but in the last presidential election no candidate (including Hillary Clinton) was defending major free-trade agreements.

The authors’ solution for reining in the president and saving democracy requires Republicans to hold him in check and for voters in general to withhold support. While Democrats do not escape criticism, it is clear the writers consider Republicans most responsible for the nation’s polarized state. They seem to consider the mere fact of Trump being in office as a democratic failure. But look again at their four warning signs. Weak commitment to democratic rules? President Obama had many executive orders overturned by the courts, suggesting he was not entirely immune to the same temptation to inventiveness as Allende. Trump too has been rebuked by courts, mainly because of his immigrant ban, but to date he has always respected the courts’ rulings. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents? Democrats and the press have been casting doubts on the validity of Trump’s election since November. There has been persistent talk of impeachment and/or declaring the president medically incompetent, sounding not unlike the urging for a coup. Toleration of violence? Curtailing civil liberties of opponents? Of people invited to give a political speeches on campuses these days, the ones more likely to need security—or have their speech canceled due to safety fears—tend to be conservative. Yes, you can find examples on the other side as well, but that is my point—and ostensibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s as well: the democratic breakdown involves all sides, not just one.

In the end, the authors run into the same problem in the academic debate as do participants in the political debate. It is impossible to present yourself as an unassailable authority or a reasonable arbiter when you so clearly identify with one of the sides. And you always wind up putting the onus of responsibility on the other guy.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Take a Memo

“Mueller: ‘Well, We Got The Liar. Probe’s Over’"
—Headline in The Onion, December 1, after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI
Remember back in March when President Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and we all thought he was crazy?

Okay, lots of us still wonder if he is crazy. With the passage of time, though, the above tweet, amazingly, sounds a wee bit slightly less crazy than it did at the time. While there is no reason to believe that President Obama personally ordered Trump’s “wires tapped,” we do now know that the Obama Justice Department and FBI did go to a secret court—one set up over objections of civil libertarians for the purpose of spying on terrorist suspects—to get a warrant to spy on a then-recently departed Trump campaign volunteer.

That information has been confirmed by the Devin Nunes memo. Its release and the way various politicians have carried on over it has caused me to question whether everybody in Washington is not crazy. Some Democrats screamed that the memo would reveal all kinds of national security secrets. It didn’t. Some Republicans echoed the president in saying the memo totally vindicated him. It didn’t. Don’t they know that we can see the same things that they see and we can tell when they make stuff up? Apparently, they all hope enough people aren’t paying attention and are only absorbing the spin.

As is so often the case, the memo ends up raising more questions than it answers. Maybe the next memo with the Democrats’ alternative facts will answer some of them. Or maybe we will eventually get answers from somewhere else. In the meantime, here are some questions that come to my mind.

When the Christopher Steele dossier came to the attention of the FBI, did it occur to anybody that they should investigate why the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid a foreign agent to talk to Russians in an effort to dig up dirt on Donald Trump?

Probably not. After all, it is not a crime to talk to Russians. Nor is it a crime to dig up dirt on people. On the other hand, isn’t that precisely what a lot of people are saying is so scandalous about the Trump campaign? I have heard no serious or credible charge that the Russians actually changed the results of the 2016 election. As far as we know, their meddling amounts to hacking communications and submitting content to social media sites. If the Trump campaign cooperated with them on any of that, then that is a crime, but we have yet to see any serious indication that happened.

Why was the Steele dossier the main evidence—the only evidence, if you believe the Nunes memo—given to the FISA judge in order to get a warrant to spy on Carter Page?

The FBI was familiar with Page and his interest in all things Russian as far back as 2013. If they had probable cause to spy on him, then they surely had other evidence they could have presented. Why rely on a dossier that was all about Donald Trump—unless the purpose was to see what they could find out about Donald Trump by listening in on Page? If that was the case, were agents not concerned about the fact that they were essentially teaming up with the opposition research team of one political candidate to spy on another political candidate? To make it worse, the FBI was paying Steele at the same time that he was sharing his dossier with various news outlets. When they realized this, they severed ties with him, yet they continued to use his dossier as a basis to keep extending the Page warrant.

Is any of Robert Mueller’s investigation based on information obtained under the FISA warrant obtained with the Steele dossier?

There is no reason to believe that it is, but we simply don’t know. If it turns out it was, though, then that would be a big boost to those who charge that the Clinton campaign, the DNC and Mueller have all been working in tandem and that the investigation was politicized from the beginning.

Why was there such a flurry of unmasking requests in the Obama Administration (particularly on the authority of Susan Rice and Samantha Power) after the election?

Under the FISA law U.S. citizens who are caught up in surveillance of which they are not the specific target are meant to have their identities protected. Government officials with appropriate security clearance, however, can request to know the identities of such people, and the outgoing Obama crowd asked for a lot of those names. They were perfectly entitled to do this, but it does raise questions. Forget Trump and what you think of him. Doesn’t this demonstrate that the government’s ability to spy on its citizens—combined with the ability of appointees with political loyalties to peek into that information—present a huge temptation for abusing a system meant, after all, to protect the country from external enemies?

What’s in the Steele dossier anyway?

We actually know the answer to this. Because so much of its content was unverifiable, most news organizations would not touch the dossier when Steele shopped it around. A couple did, though. One was Michael Isikoff, who was previously best known for having his scoop on Monica Lewinsky killed by his employers at Newsweek, thereby allowing Matt Drudge to make his name by breaking the story. Isikoff wrote a story for Yahoo News based on Steele’s dossier. This was actually used as evidence in support of—and ostensibly separate from—the Steele dossier in obtaining the FISA warrant for spying on Carter Page.

More to the point, the BuzzFeed web site actually published the dossier itself—prompting a lawsuit from Donald Trump and no small amount of criticism from other news organizations on journalistic ethics grounds. So the good news is that the dossier is currently available to read on the internet. The bad news is it is all assertions without evidence. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe none of it is. It boils down to the following points. Trump was long anxious to do business in Russia. (If that’s a problem, someone should tell Pfizer, Ford, Boeing, Pepsi, GE, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.) The Russians provided Trump with compromising information on Clinton. (This is, of course, according to the compromising information Clinton paid someone to get from the Russians.) The Russians have compromising information on Trump which could be used to blackmail him. (Yes, we know because Clinton paid to get it for us. Really, come on, is there anything left to know about President Trump that could possibly embarrass him or put him under more scrutiny than he already is?) Russians were behind the hacking of the Clinton’s emails in order to help Trump. (Point taken. Russians are bad dudes who have been trying to subvert American democracy. But wasn’t one of your other points that they also had information compromising Trump? So weren’t they actually playing both sides?) Carter Page met with Russian officials. (Okay.) There’s more, but we get the idea. Lots of things can be tied together to concoct a Trump-Russia conspiracy if you’re inclined to see one, but the problem is that conspiracies by their nature are simply hard to prove or to disprove without some really good smoking-gun evidence. (My favorite bit in the memo is where we “learn” that the Kremlin at one point thought about pulling Trump out of the presidential race altogether. Sounds like a Richard Condon novel.)

We have gotten to a really interesting—and kind of scary—place in the whole Trump-Russia drama. There are basically only two places to go from here. If, after all this time, Mueller and his team come up with clear and incontrovertible evidence of subversion of the electoral process, they will justifiably be seen as heroes. If, on the other hand, it turns out that all their time and resources were spent on something inconsequential—or merely trapping a few individuals in “process crimes” that only arose out the investigation itself—while handicapping the first year or so of a duly elected administration, then it will look to many like Mueller and the FBI themselves were participants—witting or otherwise—in the subversion of the electoral process.