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Sean Spicer is no Joseph Goebbels

Donald Trump’s first full day in office was marked by an all-out assault on the press. Standing in front of the CIA’s memorial wall, the president called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and made false claims about the size of…um, the crowds at his inauguration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued the theme, telling reporters that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever (not true) while supporting this statement with easily refutable lies about floor coverings and magnetometers on the Mall.

This is all profoundly discouraging, though not especially surprising, given Trump’s behavior at his press conference on January 11 and talk among Trumpists about “closing down the elite press.” But it is also encouraging. Effective propaganda requires mixing enough fact with fiction to keep viewers guessing. Sean Spicer did nothing today but peddle fiction. If this is the best that Trump’s propagandists can do, they will not be persuasive.

It is worth putting this into context. Trump needs to discredit the elite press, as he cannot easily shut them down or replace their management. This is a critical difference between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. When Putin took power, the broadcast media were already substantially state-owned, if not fully under state control. Trump does not have this luxury. Instead, he and his minions need to convince Americans that the press is lying while he is telling the truth. Saying that the sky is green when photos show it to be blue won’t do the trick.

(H/t to Lucan Way, who got this ball rolling on Facebook.)

Update: Saturday Night Live nails it. In last night’s cold open, Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin chides Trump: “Today you went to the C.I.A. and said one million people came to see you in Washington D.C.? If you’re going to lie, don’t make it so obvious. Say you are friends with LeBron James, not that you are LeBron James.”

Lin-Manuel Mayakovsky

Blogging took a back seat over the holidays, but I’m back and ready to talk…Hamilton. I’ve been hooked since hearing the soundtrack for the first time last summer, and earlier this week we saw the show in Chicago. Seeing Hamilton on the stage definitely brought out a few elements not obvious from the cast recording (and man oh man, did Alexander Gemignani as King George steal the show), but there is a reason that kids everywhere are memorizing the lyrics—the songs are the essence of the work.

My wife is a particular fan. Having been raised on Russian poetry, she has never quite understood English-language free verse. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are oddly more familiar. Hip-hop is street verse with a beat, not unlike the work of Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Compare this couplet from one of Mayakovsky’s better-known poems:

Svetit’ vsegda, svetit’ vezde, do dnei poslednikh dontsa,
svetit’—i nikakikh gvozdei! Vot lozung moi—i solntsa!

with this rap from “My Shot”:

Scratch that, this is not the moment, it’s the movement
where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went.

You can snap your fingers in 4/4 time to Mayakovsky as easily as you can to Miranda. In each case, you have a surprising, almost outrageous, street rhyme: “svetit’ vezde” (everywhere) and “nikakikh gvozdei” (no nails, i.e., no questions), “movement” and “prove went.” Not least, there is the attitude: Mayakovsky raps that his slogan is “shine to the last days,” just like the sun; Hamilton will not throw away his shot.

Want to learn more? Get the fabulous book Hamilton: The Revolution by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, which among other gems notes that the “general” / “men are all (lining up)” rhyme in “Right Hand Man” is an improvement on “general” / “mineral” in The Pirates of Penzance. Hamilton is a revolution—but as revolutionary poetry, it echoes an earlier master.

How Propaganda Works, U.S. edition

The New York Times reports that Rush Limbaugh and company have decided to turn the label “fake news” against the mainstream media:

Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.

This may be effective, but it’s not particularly clever. It’s just an old Soviet trick—still used in contemporary Russia, as Konstantin Sonin and I recently described. When Russian media say that U.S. elections are “rigged,” the goal is to debase the term so that allegations of (real) election rigging in Russia seem unexceptional. Similarly, when professional propagandists in the U.S. claim that mainstream media are peddling “fake news,” the aim is not to discredit CNN and the New York Times—that was done years ago—but to convince listeners that any claim of “fake news” is partisan.

Is there a how-to manual that all propagandists read, or does any reasonably competent practitioner just figure out what works through trial and error?

The Illegitimate President

Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election is the stain on Donald Trump’s presidency that will not go away. Trump will emerge from January’s inauguration viewed as an “illegitimate” president by large segments of the American population. But what does it mean to lack legitimacy? And does it matter?

Any discussion of legitimacy begins with Max Weber, of course, and his ideal types of legitimate rule: legal, traditional, and charismatic authority. Legal authority underpins the right to rule in the American system. The perception that the electoral process may have been hijacked by a foreign actor undermines this authority.

So what? Birtherism led many to view Obama’s election as illegitimate, but he was nonetheless able to implement much of an ambitious agenda during two terms in office. The key, it seems to me, is that the “administrative staff” (i.e., the executive branch of government) never viewed Obama as an illegitimate president: they knew that Obama was a natural-born citizen.

The situation with Trump is different. As with any president, Trump needs at least some cooperation by the bureaucracy to get things done. But the bureaucracy will be at least as inclined as the general public to believe that Trump was illegitimately elected. This is especially true of the foreign-intelligence community, through which any evidence of Russian meddling will pass.

Now, the combination of professional socialization and career concerns will ensure that civil servants show up to work and do a good job. For some, however, “good job” may come to be defined as resistance to the agenda of what they view as an illegitimately elected president. Trump will push back, but civil-service protections will limit the coercion that he can apply. He may find that he is pushing on a string.

Watch the Borders (GIS pro tip)

img_0095Speaking of the countryside, Evgeny Finkel, Dmitrii Kofanov (UW grad student), and I are writing a short paper on peasant unrest in 1917 for a special issue of Slavic Review on the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There are limits to what you can do in a 3000-word essay for an interdisciplinary audience—data description, a couple of maps (the figure here illustrates disturbances, March–October 1917, using one Soviet-era data source), and a few statistical comparisons. We’re especially interested in the impact of soil fertility and the legacy of serfdom on unrest in 1917. But there is a lot of unexplained variation, and what we don’t observe is likely spatially correlated—what drives unrest in Tambov, or reports thereof, may be similar to that in Penza. So, spatial regression.

There’s more than one way to run a spatial model. A key choice is the type of weighting matrix to use. One such matrix is a “contiguity” matrix, which assumes similarity among immediate neighbors only: Tambov and Penza but not Tambov and Simbirsk. An easy way to generate such a matrix is to run a GIS shapefile through the appropriate routine in Stata or R. And in our case, the resulting matrix was wrong: for many regions, some but not all neighbors showed up in the matrix. Look at the map: Archangel has two neighbors, only one of which is recognized by Stata.

My best guess is that there is an infinitesimally small “demilitarized zone” that runs between many of the regions in our data. You can’t see it on the map, but it’s messing with the identification of neighbors.

Anybody looking for a class replication project? Take a paper with spatial regressions and reproduce the spatial-weighting matrixes by hand. And let me know if you find anything. My hunch is that this is a common problem.

A Field in Search of a Name

Still catching up after a fun weekend at Harvard for a Political Institutions and Economic Policy conference. By pure coincidence, this year’s papers were all on the political economy of nineteenth-century agricultural societies: my work with Paul Dower, Evgeny Finkel, and Steve Nafziger on peasant unrest and local self-government in Imperial Russia; a paper by Bryan Leonard and Gary Libecap on water rights in the American West; and Avi Acharya, Matt Blackwell, and Maya Sen’s book project (and associated paper) on the political legacy of American slavery.

Renewed interest in history has been one of the great developments in political science and economics in recent years. The papers at this conference represent the two ways that scholars have approached the past: as a setting to investigate important theoretical issues, and as a way of understanding the present. To my eye, we’re seeing more and more of the former, even as work in the latter tradition has really started to go deep in its analysis of institutional legacies.

But there’s one thing that’s still missing: a name for half of the field. When I describe my historical work to economists, I begin by telling them that it is economic history. But that’s not quite right, and I use this shorthand only because we don’t have an analogous term in political science. Americanists have APD, but I’m not sure that quite describes some of the new work in the field. Comparative politics has always had a historical bent, so maybe we don’t need a separate name, but I’d personally prefer a pithy description that cuts across traditional subfields. Ideas, anyone?

Who Believes Fake News? A Bayesian Perspective, and a Lesson from Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a minefield, but I’ve always enjoyed discussing the world with friends and family gathered around the holiday table. This year was no exception. One of my friends—let’s call him Dan—is a keen observer of human behavior. We were talking about fake news and why so many people believe it. Dan said that the problem was not that such people were idiots, but that so much of the news media was reputable for so long. For those raised on Walter Cronkite, it’s hard to believe that something that looks like news is actually baloney.

Let’s try to understand this by adopting a Bayesian perspective. (For more along these lines, see my work with Konstantin Sonin on “Government Control of the Media” and my review article with Sonin and Milan Svolik on “Formal Models of Nondemocratic Politics.”) Suppose a state of the world (think the color of the sky) can take two values, blue or green. Citizens do not directly observe the state but instead receive a signal—”blue” or “green”—generated by a news outlet (interpreted liberally: YouTube, etc.). The news outlet always sends the signal “green” when the state is green, but with probability B it also sends the signal “green” when the state is in fact blue. The parameter B measures the \emph{bias} of the news outlet.

Consider a citizen with prior belief that the state is green with probability P. By Bayes’ rule, this citizen’s posterior belief that the state is green, conditional on having observed the signal “green,” is P / [P + (1 – P)*B]. (If she receives the signal “blue,” she knows that the state is blue.)

The posterior belief is increasing in the prior P. Thus, holding media bias B constant, the citizens who are most likely to believe that the state is green when in fact it is blue—that is, most likely to believe fake news—are those who were already inclined to believe that the state is green. Put differently, we may find it infuriating that so many of our fellow citizens believe fake news, but those who do may not be the swing voters who decide elections.

But let’s push on this a little harder. Look around, and you realize that citizens have very different understandings of the bias of media outlets. We could model this properly, but for our purposes it’s sufficient to note that the posterior belief is decreasing in the (perceived) bias B of the news outlet. Thus, citizens who are more inclined to think that the news outlet is unbiased are more inclined to believe fake news.

And here’s the point of the conversation with my friend Dan: Many of our fellow citizens have never learned to distinguish between a legitimate and an illegitimate news outlet. Back in the day, the only time you would see a video report was on the ABC, NBC, or CBS evening news. Now your friend sends you a link to a YouTube video that is as polished as anything the networks ever broadcast. It looks like news, and many treat it as such.

From a Bayesian perspective, this is the danger of fake news—that those who believe some crazy story are not the cranks who were already inclined to believe it, but the well-intentioned folks who can’t tell the Denver Post (a real news outlet) from a fake news site like the Denver Guardian.

I’ve always felt like one of my most important functions as an undergraduate instructor is to help my students become better newspaper readers. I now understand that there is an even more fundamental mission: to help my students understand what a newspaper is.

Abroad in Trump’s America

Nothing like seeing the inauguration stands go up in front of the White House to bring home the reality of a Trump presidency. I’m at the Slavic meetings at the Marriott Wardman Park in DC. Last time I was here, for the APSA meetings in 2014, hundreds of political scientists and their families wound up on the sidewalk at 1:00 in the morning after some happy prankster set a series of fires in the hotel stairwells. Oddly enough, the next few hours were a moment of high productivity, as Tim Frye and I used the time to sketch out some list experiments intended to reveal if Russians are telling the truth when they say they support Vladimir Putin. (They are.Kyle Marquardt and John Reuter joined the project soon thereafter.

Josh Tucker helped to get the word out about our research, and his post was picked up by…Donald Trump, who apparently had us in mind when told Meet the Press that “[Putin]’s got an 80 percent approval rating done by pollsters from, I understand, this country.” An hour later came an inquiry from a reporter at PolitFact, who emailed to say that Donald Trump seemed to be citing our work. What could I say? “What Trump said is consistent with what we found.” It was the first Trump statement rated True by PolitFact. That finding is still posted on Trump’s campaign website.

Fast forward to last night, when Tim, Josh, and I had dinner on the roof of Perry’s in Adams Morgan. (Great service, by the way.) My guess is that we were the only people in this culturally diverse neighborhood to have been used as rhetorical defense by the Trump campaign. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable by that, but this is what should occasionally happen if we are doing our jobs. Our role as social scientists is to pose interesting questions that can be answered with the right tools, and then let the chips fall where they may. And here’s the thing: Trump’s presidency is going to raise lots of interesting questions—in some cases, about topics that are more the domain of comparative than American politics. Recognizing these questions may require a bit of analytical distance, as if looking on a foreign country. For those working through the emotions of Trump’s election, such distance can be difficult to find, but therapeutic upon having found it. Trust me, I’ve seen it before: Russians who avoid despair by treating Putin’s Russia as an area of intellectual inquiry. Off the clock, it’s going to be a hard four years for many of us. But on the clock, it may be one of the most consequential times to be a social scientist.

The Rise of the Bullies

So, it’s looking like the establishment will have its revenge on Trump. Trump is no Hitler in an important respect: he has no party of his own, just the one that he seized during the election, and so he is reliant on Republican regulars to staff the federal government. That’s not a happy outcome for progressives—it is important to emphasize that today’s Republican Party is far to the right of where it was a few decades ago—but it’s not that different from what would have happened with any Republican president.

But Trump’s victory carries the stench of the 1930s in another sense: the increase in hate crimes since the election. This is what happens when a political candidate runs a hate-filled campaign and wins. The bullies feel liberated to say and do what they have been told for years that they cannot. Now, I’ll be the first to argue that many Trump voters are well-intentioned and generally good folk who voted for the GOP candidate only because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, but that’s probably not the way that the guys painting swastikas on dorm-room doors see it. Their candidate won, and that justifies removing the shackles that society has placed on them.

In one important sense—that they have been shackled—the bullies are right. One of the functions of political and social institutions is to keep the bullies from exercising the same behavior as adults as they did as children. Biff Tannen may be the terror of the high-school cafeteria, but thirty years later he is just a cog in the machine. He chafes at his loss of power, but “political correctness” demands that he not act on his instincts.

Every once in awhile, these institutions break down. I saw it in Russia in the 1990s, when economic power was exercised by poorly-educated men with guns. The deeply irreverent expatriate newspaper The eXile provided restaurant ratings that, among other criteria, told you how likely you were to run into a “flathead,” that is, a violent man with a crewcut who earned more in a week than most Russians did in a year. As the Russian sociologist Vadim Volkov brilliantly documented, the emergence of this social class had much to do with the disappearance of the sports clubs that kept these men otherwise occupied, at the very moment that the norms of Soviet society were also melting away.

For November 2016 not to be remembered as such a moment, the bullies must be firmly reminded of the rules of American society. I have little hope that Trump himself will deliver this message, so it is going to have to come from others. That is the real test of the Republican establishment that looks ready to help Trump govern.

Update: To my surprise, Trump told the bullies to knock it off: “I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.” Words are important, and these are the right words. But so are actions, and none speak louder than the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist to the president.

Trump’s Win, Putin’s Loss

Nice catch by Max Trudolyubov, who notes that the Kremlin may have mixed feelings about Donald Trump’s victory. As Konstantin Sonin and I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Trump’s campaign rhetoric of a rigged system played right into Putin’s hands. The goal of Kremlin propaganda is not to convince Russians that their elections are free and fair—they know that they are not. It is to convince them that elections everywhere are rigged. That’s just how democracy works.

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-9-55-05-pmNow Trump has won. What inference should the Russian public draw from this surprising turn of events? That elections in the U.S. are not so rigged after all? But then if the Russian media were lying about U.S. politics, maybe they are lying about other matters as well. Or that it is possible to seize power even in a rigged system? That seems even more dangerous to the Kremlin.

Funny thing is, we’ve been here before. I remember when many Russians assumed that there was no way that a former community organizer—an African-American, to boot—could win the presidency. Barack Obama proved them wrong, and made American democracy look better in the process. Imagine if the election of America’s birther-in-chief had the same effect.