Cynicism Is Killing Our Democracy. Only Political Participation Can Save It.
"Hope" and "change" works both ways, says a former Obama campaign leader. It's time to inspire people who believe their voice doesn't matter before it's too late.
Michael Slaby is a global leader in digital and social media strategy, technology and data analytics, and explores how together they can elevate mission-driven organizations. For Michael, it is not only about developing the necessary technological platform, but understanding what it is that brings people together to take action online, as well as offline. Currently, he is Managing Partner of Timshel—a new company working to help solve social, civic, and humanitarian problems via better technology, engagement capabilities development, and creative capital. Previously he was a Fellow at Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In 2012, when the Obama administration began gearing up for re-election, one of the first calls went to Michael Slaby, who was chief technology officer in 2008—when the historical campaign leveraged the internet and social media to raise funds and organize volunteers in ways that had never been seen before.
Michael helped lead Obama for America as Chief Integration and Innovation Officer in 2012, overseeing the CTO, CIO, and CAO, in order to ensure effective implementation and integration of technology across the entire campaign.
Michael Slaby: I think the 2016 election has been eye-opening for me personally, and there's been a lot of personal reflection around “what does it mean to be involved?” for a lot of people. I think—and I hope—that we take President Trump's victory as a warning of what disengagement can cost us.
And I think our leaders have failed to lead on a lot of different dimensions. I think government has lost a productive culture of public service that makes it hard to participate, it makes it hard to understand the value of engaging in politics. Our first associations with the word “politician” is like, corruption/dishonesty. Public service should be about our highest ideals, it should be about our collective success, it should be about what is best and most ambitious for a group of people working together around a shared sense of purpose.
So I think as people wake up to “Wait a second, how is this possible here?” I think there's a couple of things at work there.
One is: as the country becomes more urban, and urban centers are decidedly more liberal, we have a sense that the country is much more liberal than it actually is. Turns out it's a really big country. It turns out there's a lot of people who still don't live in cities.
It turns out there are a lot of sort of frustrated people who live in cities who believed in Obama because of the promises he made about changing the system that Trump was a much more natural successor to than Secretary Clinton was.
And so I think the concept of someone who is frustrated and anxious seeing President Obama fail to largely change the culture of politics, see Trump as the bull for the china shop and there's a pretty straight line, and this is a lot easier to see in retrospect. I thought Secretary Clinton was going to win, so this is all with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of thought, and a lot of talking to a lot of people in a lot of places that aren't Chicago and aren't downtown New York.
But what I think this has awakened in people is the reality that people have to participate. There's this saying that “history is decided by the people that show up,” there's like nine different versions of that aphorism that are largely true in a participatory democracy. And I think we've gotten a little lazy, and I think President Trump scares a lot of people... and in a way that has been amazing to watch new people engage in politics.
And I think the question, to get back to where the question started, which is: “Okay, where do people begin?” This is where the increased access that technology provides to low barriers to participation are really, really great.
So you can start participating in politics just by being more aware, being more educated, being more plugged in to what is actually happening with leaders, with leadership, with campaigns at a level of just access to that process is so much greater than it's ever been.
But there's a choice and a desire on our side that we have to go and seek out those answers to those questions. And then there are so many ways to start to engage in simple ways: calling congressmen, writing letters, like everything from 5 Calls to Resistbot, and these are all progressive-oriented things but all of the same tactics apply for conservatives, and a lot of what we see with progresses really embracing the power of being face-to-face with elected officials in town halls was something that the Tea Party used to incredible effect ten years ago in the 2010 midterms in terms of particular just post the Obama election.
And so these tools themselves are not particularly partisan, but they've reduced the barrier to participation sufficiently that it makes it easier for sort of first-time activists to get started. And what I would say is that there's a couple of sort of lies at the heart of progressive politics that are super problematic.
One of them is that all politics is local. I would say that when Tip O'Neill said that in the '80s, “local” was meant to be an analog for what matters most to you. The true statement is: all politics is personal, what matters to you is what matters to you and that might be local, or it might not be.
And the thing that I always say to people is to start. Don't wait for... there is no magic way to participate. We live in a republic. We have to win elections to gain power. We don't live in a direct democracy. So like large scale open-source policymaking is interesting as a listening exercise and for understanding communities and for surfacing ideas that we haven't thought of, but we don't live in a direct democracy where open-source policy actually creates policy directly, so we have to participate in all kinds of ways.
I think one of the places where we need more attention is converting this sort of generic resistance participation we see on the left right now into political power.
So in L.A., in the city elections back in March, fewer people voted than turned out for the Women's March on inauguration day. That's maybe just a function of the fact that it wasn't a contested mayoral election and it's sort of off-cycle and not competitive, but an 11-and-a-half percent voter participation turn-out rate should scare all of us.
That's a problem because we do live in a republic, we do need to believe in the value of participating in this process. And this is where leadership matters a lot. This is where reclaiming the sort of joy and optimism and public service about politics and government is something that has to be a coherent priority of the party, of our leaders, of people running for office on both sides, or we're going to be in a place where democracy is a system of faith; and cynicism is extremely dangerous and long-term corrosive.
There's been a lot of talk about the normalization of propaganda and lying since President Trump took office and I think those things are super problematic because the institutions of the system matter a lot more than the personalities. And when personalities start trumping institutions, no pun intended, or pun intended I guess, you start leaning toward autocracy pretty fast and that's nowhere we want to go.
The net neutrality argument usually gets wrapped around things like Netflix and cable television and sort of commercial content distribution, that kind of thing.
I think the place where net neutrality is particularly important is around activism and around governments.
If companies can change the way they route packets and prioritize content based on financial decisions they can also do it based on ideological decisions. And you start inching your way toward government-run media, it's not a long jump between that question and government-managed suppression of participation from insurgent or counter opinion ideas. That's not a long leap. I worry less about the commercial problems because I think, look, if Netflix has to pay more for faster pipes they'll figure it out—like they'll figure out how to make money, they'll figure out how to get more episodes of House of Cards. It will work out for them. They will make money.
Activists not being able to use services like Twilio effectively to call Congress because net neutrality has changed the way that people have access to information is potentially catastrophic for people understanding that their participation is valuable.
And one of the things that these tools, like I said when we were thinking about this question of new activism and giving more access to more participation, if people don't believe that that participation will work or it literally won't work, now we're starting to create barriers to participation, and in a participatory democracy no barriers to participation are good.
Whether they're voting, whether it's content, whether it's listening, whether it's being able to hold leaders to account, limits on any of those things are bad.
"History is decided by the people that show up," and about 60 million people — about 1/5th of the country — showed up to vote for a boorish reality TV star with no experience in politics. It shocked just about everyone, namely the news media and coastal liberals who thought that Hilary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency. Michael Slaby—who worked for Obama in the crucial 2012 elections—shows that Trump is part of a direct line from the "hope / change" motif of Barack Obama, albeit on a much darker and aggressive tone. So how do we get back to a level of normality? We engage the majority of America—the 65% of Americans that believe Trump is doing a terrible job—and try and get them to actively participate in politics and show that their voice matters.
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As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.
Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
- A new study says solar and lunar tide impacts led to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
- The scientists show that tides created tidal pools, stranding fish and forcing them to get out of the water.
- The researchers ran computer simulations to get their results.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains the Tides<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9913a65f847775722d7c23d40d78938b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dBwNadry-TU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Most people believe themselves to be less at risk from COVID-19 than others similar to them, according to a recent UCL survey conducted in the U.S.
- A study surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person, regardless of the person's age or gender.
- The most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.
- The dangerous effects of optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, salience bias, and internet echo chambers.
Optimism bias<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTAzNDM0Mn0.vRtlUDOpCnC_ZOdjxZUpRL5J9fnBeITmXXIPOMXOzhg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C2291%2C0%2C1908&height=700" id="abbcf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff0569ffedf799d7a1237068dc1ee72f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="smiley paint on gray ground in front of people" />Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash<p>Most people have a tendency to overestimate the chances of experiencing a positive (like getting a promotion), and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative event (like getting robbed or sick). Typically a benign — even beneficial — human quirk, the "optimism bias" could be contributing to the spread of coronavirus according to behavioral psychologists.</p><p>Experts argue that it has caused people to discount their individual chances of contracting COVID-19, despite being aware of its risk to the rest of the population. A study that was conducted over three phases this year surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person is, regardless of the person's age or gender. </p><p>"This is very typical of what optimism bias is," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/22/why-optimism-bias-could-be-unhelpful-in-a-pandemic-say-psychologists.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told CNBC Make It</a>. "You usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is lower than people like you, and the likelihood of you experiencing positive events is higher than other people like you."</p><p>According to Sharot, optimism bias is a product of our tendency to vividly imagine positive future events and attribute more probability to them happening. </p><p>In certain circumstances, such as in our jobs and relationships, this can be beneficial by encouraging us to behave in ways that may contribute to positive outcomes, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we're in a pandemic, and it's having a concerning impact on our ability to assess risk and react appropriately. As time goes on and COVID-19 cases <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/26/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to rise and spread</a> the threat of the virus is becoming a background hum to everyday life making this bias worse. </p><p>"I think now the risk is greater because we have gotten used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.</p><p>The United States is now reporting the greatest number of cases it's seen to date, with a seven-day average of daily new cases reaching 68,767 on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. </p>
Other menacing biases<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzA1OTMwOX0.f68UAZY--fN5yJ_26v7OjhQG5Ieda_HQx_iDF5NKHJI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C30%2C0%2C31&height=700" id="79c78" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8b155c7f4503e53d756c1451be9874c8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images<p>Optimism bias may be compounded by <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7144592/" target="_blank">confirmation bias</a>, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories while disregarding information that contradicts one's preferred narrative of reality. Salience bias is also at play, leading people to underplay or discount the threat of something they cannot see such as a microscopic virus or sick people in the hospital.</p><p>Additionally, internet echo chambers exacerbate these cognitive biases. When others share our viewpoints, our biases are typically inflated, and it's never been easier to curate our social circles with networks of people who do exactly that. This feeds into the tribalism and polarization that has added to the challenges of getting a majority of the U.S. population to comply with virus safety measures. Think, for example, how the act of <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/face-masks-transmission" target="_blank">wearing a mask has become politicized</a> in the U.S. as a perceived badge as to which group one belongs to, masks often being associated with liberal-leaning people and no masks (<a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/christian-nationalism" target="_blank">anti-maskers</a>) being associated with the far-right. </p>