INSIDE THE THIRD RAIL

 

The third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is charged and untouchable to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on this usually results in electrocution, and the use of the term in politics relates to the risk of political death that a politician would face by tackling certain issues.

 

 

Carlos Watson, Emmy® Award-winning journalist and Editor in Chief of OZY.com, will host a new, prime-time, cross-platform debate program, Third Rail with OZY.  Co-produced by WGBH Boston’s Studio Six and OZY Media, and made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and The Pew Charitable Trusts, this seven-part series will broadcast and stream Fridays at 8:30pm ET, starting September 8, 2017 (check local listings).

Intriguing, unexpected and enlightening, Third Rail with OZY promises to present new voices and valuable dialogue for the digital age. In a fresh addition to the PBS line-up, Watson will frame each week’s half-hour show around a single, provocative question. Expert and celebrity guests will debate it in the studio each Friday, moderated by Watson, and informed by the weeklong social media conversation leading up to it. The series’ underlying query in this contentious age is: can dialogue–informed by data–alter people’s points of view?

Third Rail with OZY will be sharp, smart, and–we hope–fun.  WGBH’s partnership with OZY Media creates a rare and important opportunity for Americans to really listen to each other, and engage with a diverse range of viewpoints for a new type of conversation,” says Denise DiIanni, series creator and Senior Executive in Charge for WGBH.

“After the success of Point Taken in 2016, we are excited to welcome Carlos Watson back to PBS stations this fall. Carlos brings a unique combination of smarts and razor-sharp wit to his role as host and moderator, exploring a range of topics that are timely and relevant to the concerns of the American public,” said Marie Nelson, Vice President, News and Public Affairs, PBS.  “While there are many issues that divide our country, there is often common ground to be found. We are proud to continue to serve as a platform for spirited and civil discussion.”

Online and social media voting will be used to assess outcomes of each week’s debate. Viewpoints posted on Facebook and Twitter, and on PBS.org, will be integrated and displayed as part of the program. To frame and inform the televised and digital discourse, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion will conduct advance, exclusive national surveys on each of Third Rail‘s featured questions. The Conversation US, a media outlet aggregating academic and research content, will be an editorial collaborator.

“Third Rail with OZY will be an arena for open and honest conversations about provocative topics, offering a variety of viewpoints and spirited debate on some of the most critical issues facing our society today,” explains Carlos Watson, OZY.com Editor in Chief and host of Third Rail with OZY. “Now more than ever it is important we bring these conversations out of the shadows and into the light, offering people perspective and an opportunity to make their voices heard.”

Digital technologies are making all forms of politics worth having impossible as they privilege our impulses over our intentions and are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own. Distractions produced by digital technologies are much more profound than minor annoyances. Persuasive design is undermining the human will and militating against the possibility of all forms of self-determination. Beginning to assert and defend our freedom of attention is an urgent moral and political task.

The declaration of surrender was touted as a triumph: “Microsoft Loves Linux,” the headline read, but just a decade earlier, the firm’s then CEO, Steve Ballmer, had called Linux a cancer. The all-powerful tech giant had lost and lost badly — to a ragtag band of revolutionaries, no less — but still seemed strangely upbeat.

Overthrows like these are becoming increasingly common and not just in business. We observe the end of power, as institutions of all types, from corporations and governments to traditional churches, charities, and militaries, are being disrupted. Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep.

The truth is that it’s no longer enough to capture the trappings of power, because movements made up of small groups are able to synchronize their actions through networks. So if you want to effect lasting change today, it’s no longer enough to merely command resources, you have to inspire opponents to join your cause. History shows these movements follow a clear pattern.

Some movements succeed and others fail. Occupy, as most people are aware, was a band of young activists who took over Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to protest against social and economic inequality. Otpor was a similar group in Serbia that sought to overthrow the Milošević regime.

Despite their similarities, the results they achieved couldn’t have been more different. In the case of Occupy, the protesters were back home in a few short months, achieving little. Otpor, on the other hand, not only toppled Milošević, it went on to train activists in the Georgian Rose Revolution, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, just to name a few.

One reason for the disparity is that while Otpor had one clear goal, to overthrow Milošević, it was hard to tell what Occupy wanted to be done. The group had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the pseudo-oppressive power of corporations, but never got beyond their own slogans.

Clarity of purpose is a common theme in successful movements. For example, Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus, because they favored a plan for more comprehensive change, but he saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.

Values are more important than slogans. Building a shared purpose is essential to distributed action. An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness.

Here again, we see a stark contrast between Occupy and Otpor. While both took a non-hierarchical approach, distributing power broadly, Otpor was far more organized and disciplined, creating a training curriculum and holding bootcamps to indoctrinate new members in the principles of nonviolent struggle.

Like clarity of purpose, an emphasis on training is a common attribute of successful movements. We continually underline the importance of training activists. Protests are incredibly stressful and often meet with fierce opposition. Training helps activists maintain discipline.

If you look at pictures or film of the sit-ins and marches of the 1960’s, you’ll see nicely dressed young men and women keeping their composure in the face of snarling dogs and police batons. That was a tactic civil rights protesters intentionally adopted, and it worked. Now compare that to the unkempt protesters at Occupy events. That’s the difference that creating and instilling values makes.

The strength of a movement is not large crowds, but small groups. In small groups, people will conform to a majority opinion. The effect applies not only to people we know well, but that we are also influenced even by second and third degree relationships.

So while we usually notice successful movements after they have begun to attract large crowds and hold massive demonstrations, those are effects, not causes, of successful mobilization. It is when small groups connect — which has become exponentially easier in the digital age — that they gain their power.

The Tea Party movement was largely based in a wide-ranging assortment of groups that met in local cafes and coffee shops. There is not, therefore, a single Tea Party organization or even a well-coordinated network.

That’s why founders of Otpor warn in their training manuals about the dangers of holding large demonstrations too early. Rather, they suggest that protesters focus on building capacity and strategically sequencing their actions to gain support. If you can do that successfully, eventually the large crowds will take care of themselves.

While focusing on building a shared purpose among a network of small groups is an effective way to build ideological continuity, it also presents a danger. Tight-knit groups of likeminded people often forget that many others do not hold the same views. Often, they come to regard dissent as illegitimate.

That’s a real problem, because for any movement to spread and effect change, it needs to overcome steadily increasing thresholds of resistance. If only the views held inside the movement are seen as legitimate, then outsiders come to be seen as targets for attack. That’s why so many movements never create change that lasts, they create enemies that undermine their cause.

Consider, on the other hand, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It spoke not just to the problems of African Americans, but to the founding principles of the nation. It was that approach that grew the movement beyond its core constituency of southern blacks and made inroads to the larger public.

The truth is that movements rarely, if ever create change themselves. Rather, they inspire change through influencing outsiders. Consider that in the end that it was President Lyndon Johnson, a southern white man from Texas, who signed the Civil Rights Act that Martin Luther King, Jr. had championed.

Obama created a powerful movement that swept him to a stunning electoral victory, but inspired such fierce resistance that he had trouble enacting his agenda. Trump now leads a nation that seems, if possible, even more divided. We seem doomed to stay stuck in a cycle of recrimination.

While it is easy to place the blame for this polarization on the politicians themselves, we must also realize that they reflect the movements that brought them to power. All too often, we are content to live in different worlds and shout at our screens. And as long as some feel victimized and others feel demonized, we will remain a country divided.

You can write all the scathing tweets and heartfelt posts you want, but the truth is that rhetoric rarely persuades. The way to change minds is through face-to-face engagement. This is what Obama was talking about when he said he won Iowa in 2008 because he spent 87 days going to every small town, fair, fish fry, and VFW hall. Similarly, progress on LGBT rights in America has not been made just because of eloquent arguments, but because of all the many personal interactions between straight Americans and their gay friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

We can only truly form a national consensus by internalizing the concerns of our fellow citizens and forming a common cause. If we can learn anything from successful movements throughout history, it’s this: lasting change does not come when one side delivers a knockout blow to the other, but when both sides are able to claim the victory as their own.

 

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”— Bertrand Russell

Corruption is pervasive in America. Here are three examples:

Filing taxes is a nightmare. The tax code is incomprehensible. Even a very well-educated citizen cannot be expected to know all of the provisions of the tax code that apply to her. Why can’t Americans file taxes for free with but a text message like citizens of many other countries can? In short, because of lobbying by Intuit, the maker of TurboTax. The company spends millions of dollars annually to prevent the government from developing a tax code and/or a tax filing system that is comprehensible to the citizens. Tom Campbell, a former senator, wrote that he “never saw as clear a case of lobbying power putting private interests first over public benefit.”

Nowhere else, though, is corruption as prolific as in the US healthcare system. The US spends approximately 50% more on healthcare per person than any other developed country and 3 times more than the UK does. And yet, the US healthcare system is poor to average as far as developed countries go — a recent Bloomberg study ranked the American healthcare system 50th best out of 55 countries assessed. The reason for that is aggressive lobbying by everybody involved in the industry. Drug companies can charge whatever they want, and Medicare cannot negotiate prices. The reimbursement system at hospitals can lead to them charging patients $25 for a single aspirin. Doctors in the US are paid more than just about anywhere else in the world. Insurance companies capture 250 billion dollars a year. All of this is due to powerful lobbying groups successfully maximizing how much their sponsors get paid.

A common argument is that lobbying is not corruption because it is legal. That is both false and dangerous. Private actors paying lawmakers to extract benefit from the public is corruption. Everybody knows this. Silicon Valley legend Bill Gurley might describe it as “regulatory capture”, while many more people would call it “the game being rigged” — but everybody understands the nature of the problem.

Some problems can exist in perpetuity, but corruption will have to be addressed in our lifetime. It is mathematically impossible to continue with our current level of healthcare spending. Government entitlements (largely Medicare and Medicaid) went from under 30% of the budget in the 60s to about 70% today. Because healthcare is most expensive for seniors and the ratio of working age people to those over 65 is going to fall from 4.5 today to under 3 by 2030, there will be no way for the country to maintain the present healthcare system and its levels of spending. While the public dispute focuses on single payer versus private insurance, the real issue is that costs are going to have to be cut. And they are going to have to be cut right out of the slice of the pie captured by special interests — pharma companies, insurance companies, hospitals and doctors. There is nowhere else to cut.

The current corrupt political system has not shown itself capable to take on special interests. Bernie Sanders promised to repeal Citizens United. Donald Trump famously promised to “drain the swamp” and has so far banned administration officials from taking on lobbying jobs for five years after they end their employment after leaving the administration. I posit that neither approach would succeed because they fail to address the root of the issue, which is this: Representative democracy breeds corruption.

As long as only a small number of people write, approve and modify laws, special interests can corrupt these people to extract value from the public. That corruption can take the form of donations to Super PACs, direct bribes, job offers after public office, internships for children, etc., etc. Trying to legislate the means of corruption is like fighting a Hydra — you cut off one head only to have two new heads grow in its place.

Representative democracy was a necessity in the 18th century. It was impossible to have every citizen vote on every law because the cost of voting was weeks of travel by horse. Today, the cost of voting is zero, seeing as smartphones can be voting devices. Now it is possible to have direct democracy — to have citizens voting on bills directly instead of choosing representatives to vote for them.

Eliminating corruption is not the only benefit of direct democracy. It also addresses the current political polarization. Having two parties in America led people to picking a side. That led to a lot of them hating the other side and blaming it for all the country’s problems. However, if you give people the ability to vote on every issue, they will discover that each of them has a unique set of views. They will talk and argue about specific issues, agreeing on some and disagreeing on others, but the notion of “you are either on my side or my enemy” will go away because there will simply be no sides to pick.

The establishment’s argument against direct democracy is invariably some form of this: leaders make better decisions than crowds; people are not educated enough to vote on laws; the masses are stupid; people can’t make hard decisions. Right now, people are encouraged to not think and leave the thinking to the politicians. They have the least amount of choice possible — once every few years between alternatives that are equally corrupt. Encourage people to think, make their decisions matter, give them control and their wisdom will amaze you. The argument that crowds are stupid was the aristocracy’s argument against democracy. In hindsight, we can see that it was wrong then; it is equally wrong now.

Assuming you are willing to entertain the possibility that direct democracy is desirable, here is a short description of what it might look like:

People vote on bills on their smartphone or any other Internet connected device. There are no elected representatives. Bills can be written on open collaborative platforms like Google Docs or Github or in private. When the bill is ready, the authors submit it to a signature gathering system where it needs a certain number of signatures to get it on the ballot. When a bill is on the ballot, a deadline for voting is set and people vote on the bill. Bills have to get both a majority of the vote and some meaningful number of votes to pass. There are “tiers” of bills — some small corrections require only a simple majority to pass, while constitutional reforms require a much higher percentage to be enacted.

All laws have an expiration date and need extension votes to be renewed. Thomas Jefferson argued for this, but that feature didn’t end up making it into the Constitution. It is unfair that people are governed by laws that they have not — nor will they ever have — the opportunity to vote on. The same goes for the executive branch. Agencies and departments have expiration dates and renewal votes to reduce the self-proliferation of bureaucracy. Heads of agencies and departments are voted on directly and not appointed. I am not at all certain that a chief executive is needed for the executive branch at all times.

The people are the legislative branch. Everybody’s voting record is public. This leads to better legislative outcomes. It is no secret that people behave better in public than they do in private. Domestic violence, for example, rarely occurs in public. With a public voting record, people are more likely to vote for the public benefit, rather than for their own private benefit.

The primary role of the judicial branch in direct democracy is identifying inconsistencies in different laws. Then, if judges find two laws to be in conflict, rather than judging one law to be superior to another, they will put the issue directly on the ballot for a public vote.

Note that this essay is very preliminary. It makes judgments on some contentious issues, like public voting records, but does not address others, like which election methods are used for heads of agencies and judges. It is likely that some of my ideas are suboptimal or just plain wrong. I do not claim to have all other answers — I just present hypotheses that will need to be tested.

US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. This can be extended even beyond states — cities and counties can experiment with new forms of government.

In the case of direct democracy, such experiments are necessary. We don’t know which election methods work best. We don’t know what pitfalls direct democracy will have and how to fix them. We need to test and refine the concept on smaller scales before we arrive at a system that will be desirable and effective for the whole country. Moreover, unseating a corrupt elite cannot be democratically accomplished from the top. It must be done from the ground up. Nearly every progressive cause in the US — from abolishing slavery to allowing women to vote — started at local and state levels. So must direct democracy. It is up to you, my reader, to push for direct democracy in your city and in your state. If you want to do it, but dont know how to start — shoot me an email to s dot alexashenko at gmail dot com and I will be glad to help.

The explosive growth of the regulatory state together with the accompanying undemocratic and antidemocratic increase of the role and power of political elites has become – gradually and almost silently – the defining characteristics of our times.

This change has been connected with the replacement of freedom with rights, with the apotheoses of equality and non-discrimination, with the attacks on family and natural, traditional human behavior, with the NGO revolution, with the strengthening of social engineering. To support these tendencies became a mainstream way of thinking, a conventional wisdom.

It is everywhere now. The adherents of these ideas can be found in the editorial offices of the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; among the politicians and global business leaders who gather at Davos; among human rights activists and NGOs; among the leadership of almost all EU, UN and international organizations; and among the Sixty-Eighters, the aging politicians who cut their activist teeth in the protest of the 1960s.

It is tragic that the rational or irrational, sophisticated or easily understandable, academically formulated or in simple words expressed criticism of such approaches and of the arrogance of the anointed is so often mistaken for populism. I consider this a wrong ambition, similar to the misdirected fighting of terrorism. It is possible to fight terrorists and to oppose ideas which motivate them, but we can´t fight terrorism. It is neither a person, nor an “ism”.

We see frustrated, in the current politically correct media setting powerless people who try to oppose the arrogant European or American political elites. The current rebelión de las masas is a real one. The people are beginning to open their eyes, to look around, to speak out, to express their dissatisfaction with the brave new world without freedom and democracy, with the world heralding relativism, with the suppression of old values, traditions, customs and habits, with the world of new aristocracies, with the world of nanny states and freely distributed social benefits. This revolt is a social movement and its arguments and slogans cannot be formulated in an academically sophisticated form. They must be as simple, clear, straight-forward as possible. They shouldn´t deceive us but we should resist to accept the highbrow approach of political and intellectual elites who dismiss them as populism.

We disagree with a growing panic about populism, with hysterical reactions from political, corporate, bureaucratic and academic establishments. The establishments denigrate these outsiders as troublesome populists and it would be wrong to belittle the current swing in the zeitgeist as mere populism. We should be very explicit about it.

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