29 November 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 1

There are many ways of looking at a thing. Some are more comprehensive than others, some more pointed. Even among the comprehensive views, there can be competing narratives. And that is the subject of this post.

In my previous posts, Aftermath and Post Mortem: Moral Morass, I've looked at the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election from the points of view of the philosophico-ethical theories driving the two campaigns and of the moral sentiments of the two audiences the two campaigns sought to engage. This post will examine the competing narratives the two campaigns sought to convey to their targeted constituencies—and their relative successes.

A political campaign seeks to tell a story—to present a narrative—about itself (and, of course, its adversary) that will persuade enough voters of the power of its cause. In this most recent election, roughly speaking, the Trump campaign narrative was something like: a smug Pepe the Frog vs. a corrupt, collapsing Meemaw. The Clinton campaign narrative, in broad strokes, was something like: Hermione Granger vs. Amateur Voldemort.

Those of us who write stories understand the power of narrative. But what is a narrative? And how does understanding the nature of narrative help us understand what happened in the 2016 Election?

Simply put, a narrative tells a story. Stories, first and foremost, seek to entertain us. They often provide examples that instruct us as well. Stories serve a further societal purpose—and have done so probably since the earliest peoples sat around fires and recounted their battle with a mastodon or their escape from a saber toothed tiger—they serve to bring people together.

Narratives satisfy at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning. They do this because every story: (a') must have a teller, i.e., a point of view or an authority and (b') carries some message or moral. Thus, stories essentially serve to: (a") salve the psychic wounds from the pervasive anxiety of existential insecurity and (b") reinforce our sense of the order of things. These are, by the way, essentially conservative functions.

A coherent narrative posits that everything is somehow connected and orderly, and that there is some author(-ity) behind this order providing meaning. That is why we turn to stories—on television, at the movies, in books, etc.—for comfort and a retreat from an otherwise indifferent and chaotic world.

I will end the first part of this essay with a quote from David Foster Wallace's essay "The Empty Plenum," his analysis of David Markson's experimental novel Wittgenstein's Mistress, where he puts it, inimitably, like this:
T. Pynchon, who has done in literature for paranoia what Sächer-Masoch did for whips, argues in his Gravity's Rainbow for why the paranoid delusion of complete & malevolent connection, whacko & unpleasant though it be, is preferable at least to its opposite—the conviction that nothing is connected to anything else & that nothing has anything intrinsically to do with you.
Narratives inflate our sense of self. Often falsely. At the same time, they comfort us with the illusion that things are somehow under control, and that it's probably better that they are.

[to be cont'd]

11 November 2016

Post Mortem: A Moral Morass

In my last post, Aftermath, I mentioned what I take to be the two distinct ethical philosophies motivating the two Presidential candidates. I had explored these views in a bit more depth in my post-Convention six-part essay Frameworks, if you're interested. In this post, instead of looking at how the candidates' strategies, tactics, and messages sought to implement their philosophies, I want to look at the intended audiences of those messages—the targets, the voters. How did those philosophies appeal to them? Why did they vote the way the did?

I want to warn you ahead of time, this is an uncomfortable post to write, and I suspect it will be uncomfortable in places to read. It deals with what is a divisive and often taboo subject, to wit: morality.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election saw an electorate divided almost precisely in half. Out of some 120 million votes cast, Hillary Clinton received around 230,000 more votes than Donald Trump—or 47.7% to 47.5% (as of this writing). Trump, of course, won the presidency due to the quirks of the way votes are apportioned by state in the Electoral College. I suggest that this split represents two very distinct views of morality and is, in effect, a war for the very soul of America.

Clinton's campaign sought to mobilize a broad and diverse and inclusive coalition of constituencies, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists, millennials, and academics and urban intelligentsia, among others. Trump's campaign, by contrast, sought to energize a base of predominantly white, rural working class and otherwise disaffected voters. Before the election, it was practically a given that the former campaign approach would prevail—and, in fact, it did by a razor-thin margin that was insufficient to carry the electoral college. As I stated, however: "In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity."

An ethical philosophy seeks to explain the way people make decisions. Morality, by contrast, has to do with the way people feel about right and wrong, their judgment of things as good and bad. My view is that, among voters, the clash of two competing and, ultimately, incompatible moralities explains the split among the electorate.

The prevailing morality of Clinton's voters, I would suggest, is rights based. That is good which expands or protects or is sensitive to their vision of fundamental human rights. For example, the political and economic rights of minorities and the oppressed, or the right of a woman to control her reproductive choices, or the right to express one's bodily freedom and to self-identify, or the political right to exercise unfettered speech and assembly (within certain limits having to do with infringement of others' rights), etc. Clinton's voters, I believe, felt their view of morality was ascendant, and the last eight years under President Obama has done nothing to contradict this. Under their moral view, it is wrong or bad to oppose or limit these rights, and people who seek to do so are racist or xenophobic or homophobic or bigoted or misogynistic, for example. Make no mistake, these are terms of moral opprobrium. These are explicitly moral judgments.

This differs from what I take to be the prevailing morality of Trump's voters. In a word, their morality derives from certain traditional codes of behavior and social order. Morally, they see Clinton's voters as degenerates and baby killers. They see the moral order of things under assault. They are offended by open licentiousness in the broader culture and what they view as the heedless slaughter of the innocents. And for at least the last eight years they have felt their moral feelings have been increasingly under siege by the prevailing culture and politics. They resent the ascendancy of Clinton's constituencies and long for a time when what they view as basic moral decency prevailed. They feel hurt and insulted and seek to punish those who have held them in contempt as ignorant and bigoted. And, in a very real and larger sense, when they say they want to "Make America Great Again," they are asserting their own need to retreat to a moral "safe space."

Where Clinton voters woke up on November 9 wondering how they were going to explain to their children that the country elected a racist and sexist bigot as president, Trump's voters have been despairing about how to explain to their own children that a man who leads a sexually perverse lifestyle is the head of the U.S. Army or that a Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlon Gold Medalist considers himself to be a woman or that the Planned Parenthood in their neighborhood gets away with the brutal, heartless murder of precious human lives. Where Clinton's voters see progress being made with respect to the expansion of a diverse set of human rights, Trump's voters see an America sliding into the sort of decadence that doomed the Roman Empire. The left views the right as intolerant; the right sees the left as invasive.

Such moral feelings are not easily assuaged—on either side—precisely because they are feelings. What's more, what one side views as a moral issue may not be shared by the other side. For example, the issue with respect to abortion has been joined: women's right to bodily self-control vs. infanticide. This moral divide seems unbridgeable. Likewise, the issues surrounding LGBTQ people: the rights to self-identify and to love whomever one chooses vs. degeneracy and perversity.

Other issues are not so cleanly defined—at least in the moral realm. For example, where Clinton's constituents may see their opponents as racists, many of Trump's voters feel unfairly libeled. Certainly, the racist right identifies with Trump's brand of politics, but not all of his supporters feel they should be lumped in with the Klan and its allies. Many know and work and socialize with people of color and other ethnicities on a regular basis. Many others live in pockets where, in their day to day lives, they simply do not encounter such difference. Racist motives do not always come into play for many of them. Similarly, much of the anti-immigrant stance of the Trump constituency, while condemned as racist and xenophobic by Clinton's voters, might better be viewed as economically motivated; though, without question, there are necessarily racist and xenophobic elements in the mix.

These differences in how and which issues are joined can be traced back to something I argued in Frameworks and Aftermath. The deontological right judges actions by the intentions and motives of the actors; the consequentialist left, by contrast, looks primarily at the effects of the actions. Thus, if the effect of an anti-immigrant sentiment inequitably targets a minority group, the left rightfully in its view sees this as racist and/or xenophobic whereas the right might legitimately claim its motives were purely economic. (NB: We've seen some shenanigans in some places like North Carolina where admittedly racist voter suppression acts were cloaked in seemingly legitimate motives as a pretext. That is why courts are often called upon to look at the demographic effects of political actions to determine whether they impermissibly violate Constitutionally protected rights.)

As an aside: The moral conundrum (for me at least) of this election has to do with Donald Trump as the standard bearer of the right. He is a known philanderer, thrice-married, a womanizer; a litigious, corrupt fraud and gambling magnate; a coarse and vulgar Reality TV entertainer. Thoroughly immoral by either standard. Yet he carried the moralistic right—including evangelicals and other moral scolds—against a woman who is widely reputed to be a good Methodist. It would be easy to chalk this up to hypocrisy, but I do not think that such name-calling is a productive analysis. Rather, I surmise those on the moralistic right saw Clinton as someone who would continue the progressive assault on their heartfelt moral values that they believe has been on-going since at least the time of her husband. They believe that this progress is reversible and that America can be morally great again. And they see Donald Trump as an albeit flawed champion who can halt its spread in the culture. Whether they are deluded remains to be seen.

All that to say that moral issues are tangled and intensely felt. The moral divide I've described does not perfectly explain the 2016 election, but it does go a long way to providing some helpful context for understanding what is happening in our country. And it helps to explain why the campaigns ran the sort of messages (see Frameworks and Aftermath) they did, appealing to these divergent moral sentiments of their perceived bases of support.

As it stands, the country seems about evenly divided between two intractable moral systems, and right now one side holds all the levers of power. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to inculcate their values in the political and legal realms and, what's more, the extent to which these two incompatible moral visions can continue to peaceably coexist.

09 November 2016

Aftermath

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 is over now. Donald J. Trump will be the next President of the United States of America. How did this happen? What does it mean? Where do we go from here? On this morning after, I want to attempt to answer these questions.

Analysis is not prophecy, but a good, accurate analysis can clarify issues and reveal and anticipate underlying truths. Back in August, after the national political conventions, I posted a six-part essay analyzing the ethical underpinnings, the strategies, the tactics, and the messages of the two major political parties' candidates called Frameworks. You can find it here. Now the election's over, and it's time to take stock.

If you follow me on Twitter (@140xLangame) (and I encourage you to do so!), you will be aware of my political sentiments. Neither Frameworks nor this Post Script discuss or debate the merits of specific policy proposals of the candidates—or my political feelings.

Briefly, Frameworks posited that the ethical philosophy the GOP tends to favor is a deontological approach. That's a big word that means they prefer political decisions and actions that follow certain predetermined rules or principles or values without regard to the consequences and who might be affected by them. As a corollary, this favors a strong-man type leader who will pursue the agreed-upon ideology "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" and lead the faithful against all criticism and opposition. The Democratic ethical philosophy favors a more consequentialist approach, asking how a given decision or action will affect its various constituencies. It favors an inclusive leader, sensitive to the demands of the people.

Strategically, Frameworks argued, the GOP and Trump was seeking to excite its base of supporters, exploiting their grievances and resentment and even rage against "the Establishment". The Democrats and Clinton, by contrast, sought to craft a broad, inclusive coalition of diverse constituencies. Tactically, Trump was relying on outrage, seeking to gin up conflicts and feuds and controversies that would generate free media for his message, hoping to translate this into actual votes. In this, he was wildly successful. In Frameworks, I made the observation that Clinton was seeking to implement a tried-and-true, data-driven, micro-targeting approach to get a message out that would please a set diverse constituencies. She was marginally effective in this, but seemed to miss out on and failed to address the concerns of perhaps the largest constituency in the overall electorate: economically disaffected and rural white voters.

In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity. (In my personal opinion, while Clinton failed to address this constituency, Trump's resort to anti-immigrant and anti-trade scapegoating misses the real root cause of the economic disaffection felt by his base, to wit: the upheavals brought about by rapid technological change on a scale not witnessed since, perhaps, the Guttenberg Revolution. For example, what's going to happen to all the truck drivers, cabbies, Über and Lyft drivers, etc., when self-driving vehicles displace them? Those jobs will not be lost to immigrants or foreign trade agreements. Watch this space for more analysis of the effects of this ongoing technological revolution.)

This is to say nothing of specific policy issues. Trump's main issues seemed to be: immigration reform, infrastructure upgrade, economic populism, and an America first trade and foreign policy. These policies were never developed in any kind of granular detail, and he has been inconsistent in his statements of his feelings about them. I suspect he will leave that for lower level managers to hammer out. And what's more, unlike President Obama, he will not have the enormous disadvantage of an organized, minority party opposition with significant control of any of the levers of power. He will have no excuses—or Democratic scapegoats to blame—if he does not come through for his rabid base.

Though explicitly detailed, Clinton's 'all things to all people' approach to policy—issuing policy prescriptions aiming to please all the people all the time—failed to generate the sort of excitement it takes to win a convincing national electoral majority. (Though, as of this writing, she appears to have won the popular vote). It is not clear whether the Democrats will feel the need to alter their detailed policy prescriptions approach going forward.

The recriminations on the Democratic side, however, will now begin. In no particular order:

  • Did entrenched misogyny play a role in the defeat of Hillary Clinton?
  • Could Sen. Bernie Sanders have won the general election if the DNC hadn't conspired against him (as many of his supporters believe), or, more likely, did the pique of Sanders' passionate supporters and his own lukewarm support for Clinton dampen Democratic turnout in the general election?
  • Was Russia/Wikileaks running an undercover operation against her?
  • Did FBI Director James Comey's meddling affect the process, especially early voting?
  • Did states' voter suppression tactics after the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act lead to disenfranchisement of her natural constituencies?
  • Were third party candidates' vote totals sufficient to make up Clinton's margin of defeat in key battleground states?
  • Was Clinton simply an awful candidate, especially given her health issues?
  • Was Clinton too apparently aligned with neo-Con hawks to sufficiently bring out her base?
  • Was her campaign team too smug and over-confident, too reliant on polls that proved misleading and wrong?
  • Did the media's normalization of Trump's outrages and its constant uncritical airing of GOP anti-Clinton talking points dampen her turnout?
  • Did years of GOP and Congressional Committee coordinated attacks on her trustworthiness and character assassination (Benghazi, emails, etc.) finally take its toll on her ability to get her message of competence across?
  • All of the above?

I suspect there are good arguments, pro and con, on each of these points. Likewise, I don't believe any one of them was sufficient of itself to sway the election—especially given Clinton's popular vote win. Most likely it was some combination of all these factors.

Given these points, I do not know what shape a Democratic minority opposition will take going forward. The GOP has certainly set a template with its obstructionism—from the so-called 'cloakroom conspiracy' back in January, 2008, to its shutting down the government in 2013 and continued threats to do so again, to its blockade of the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court this year. The Democrats will have to continue to reach out to the broadest, most diverse constituencies; it's in their DNA. But the party will also need to address the sense of displacement and disenfranchisement pervasive in the land. And it will have to do so with conviction and emotion—not simply technocratic, wonky policy white papers. (And as I opined above, by getting at the true root causes of this despair: the upheavals due to the massive ongoing technology revolution.)

President-elect Trump will now begin to consolidate his power, figure out what he truly wants to do, assess what he can and cannot get away with, and put assets in place to carry out his plans. There are still rifts in the GOP, and I do not know whether its moderate wing can survive other than as a whimpering, submissive abused puppy. Others, likely a reformed RNC, will take to heart the message that a combination of brash leadership and extremism on the right can excite a very real disaffected base of support sufficient to sustain a national electoral tsunami.

This was not a traditional Conservative/Liberal election, though. That much is clear. Nor was it precisely a Class Warfare referendum, the GOP being traditionally the party of the "haves". The divides, rather, seem to lie more on the fault lines of educated/uneducated, urban/rural, majority (white-straight)/minority, Southern + Rust Belt/coastal schisms. Though, given the propensities of the GOP, there does seem to be a good chance they will interpret this victory as somehow a vindication of Randian policies—again, missing the point entirely. Whether Trump allows them to revert to this typical knee-jerk reaction or whether the powers that be bring him to heel, however, remains to be seen.

04 November 2016

J-tree Silhouettes

Thumbing through the tons of photographs I took on my trip to Joshua Tree National Park this week, I noticed an interesting theme emerging: Silhouettes. It's a place you must see! It has a pre-historic feel. Here's a selection of my snaps (as always, click a pic to embiggen a slideshow; right click to download)(all, by the way, taken with my iPhone 6—Wisdoc kept her good camera to/for herself):




















26 October 2016

In the Shadows

In 1989 Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, published the following comic book: Shadowplay: The Secret Team. (He also published a companion piece which will follow shortly here.)

For those of you too young to remember, this concerns a so-called Shadow Government being run out of the "basement" of the Reagan White House that engaged in illegal deals with the Iranian revolutionary government, drug smuggling, and arms running—and included elements of the CIA and the National Security Council. If you think there are shenanigans going on in the current election cycle, this was a genuine conspiracy—no theory here. Pres. Reagan admitted it on national television. There were actual convictions (subsequently overturned on technicalities having to do with prior Congressional grants of immunity). This was ugly. People died.

Sometimes a dark comic book can be the best way of bringing home the reality of that era. Nothing about it, however, is funny.



[If the above embedded comic book is not fully functional, you can find the web archive here and even download it for free.]

21 October 2016

This Week in Water

I apologize for not posting regularly. I've been distracted by clamorous U.S. politics, the glimmer at the end of the tunnel of my second novel, Twitter, October baseball, inter alia. However, our home planet's most precious resource is still in peril and should lay claim to our attention.

Plastic pollution, virtually indestructible, is choking oceanic ecosystems and threatening coastal economies.

The presence of trillions of pieces of plastic garbage in Earth's oceans is a chief component of evidence for the argument by scientists that the planet has entered a new epoch, the Antropocene, defined by human meddling and spoilage. The Smithsonian looks at the global water shortages to identify truly stressed areas in the Anthropocene.

Tropical fish collectors in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are killing the coral reefs with cyanide and bleach used to stun the colorful aquarium dwellers.

High salt and arsenic concentrations are threatening one of the world's largest freshwater aquifers in South Asia which supplies some three-quarters of a billion people.

Unified Native American and First Nations tribal groups continue to protest a Dakota Access Pipeline on reservation land near Standing Rock, North Dakota, that will endanger freshwater sources. Keep up with the news here.

Flint, Michigan's drinking water crisis continues. News here.

Water has become a luxury for the people of the Indian state of Punjab, much of it shipped in from elsewhere as the drought there continues.

A large sinkhole sent contaminated water and fertilizer plant waste into Florida's main drinking-water aquifer.

An unknown but substantial amount of coal ash was discharged from Duke Energy storage ponds into the Neuse River as a result of flooding from Hurricane Matthew in Eastern North Carolina.

The largest recorded earthquake in East Texas was triggered by hydrofracking, the high-volume injection of wastewater from oil and gas activities deep underground.

The world is unprepared for the "truly staggering" effects of a warming ocean.

Iran's salty Lake Urmia turned from a deep green to blood red due to algae and bacteria blooms caused by drought, heat, and demand for irrigation water.

Greenland's ice is melting even faster than scientists previously calculated.

The island nation of Kiribati is doomed by rising seas and will soon be completely underwater.

Migrants seeking refuge in Europe continue to die in unprecedented numbers in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted evidence of water vapor plumes on Europa, one of Jupiter's moon. Meanwhile, NASA's Cassini space probe has found evidence of a global ocean beneath the icy crust of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons.

22 September 2016

This Week in Water

Lots to report on this week. It's easy to focus on the depredations of flood, drought, overheating and rising seas, pollution, &c, with respect to our world's most precious resource. However, as promised last time, this post will focus on some positive and interesting aspects on this always timely subject.

Spending time in, on, around, and under the ocean reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases the feel-good hormones—serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine—in humans. [And you wonder why scuba diving is one of my favorite things in the world!]

President Obama has quadrupled the size of the world's largest natural marine sanctuary, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

Wondering what we can do to preserve our oceans and other international bodies of water? Here's one look at the subject.

Dolphins use complex language and sentences to chat with each other much the same way humans do. We have yet to crack their code or effectively translate.

Deep water desalination from Monterey Bay may resolve environmental problems posed by seawater intakes from shallower, closer in sources.

One of the driest countries on Earth, Israel, now makes more freshwater than it needs.

Scientists are improving desalination technologies throughout the Middle East, reducing both (a) excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the region's oil and natural gas extrusion industries and (b) excess briny salt waste from desalination.

Engineers from Georgia Tech and Nanjing University have developed a new solar desalination process based on self-assembling nanoparticle membranes using low-cost, abundant, stable materials.

After raising some 1.5 billion Euros, a 21-year old whom we've reported on before is set to test his technological solution for ridding the ocean of plastic.

Harvard scientists have created an artificial photosynthesis system—a bionic leaf—that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels—which may obviate someday the need for drilling for fossil fuels.

Nanotechnology may save the Cascajo wetlands an endangered and contaminated lake near Lima, Peru.

NASA plans to map coral reefs from the air to further demonstrate the impact of climate change and ocean warming.

NASA's Dawn space probe has found signs of water on dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered evidence of volcanoes erupting under ice sheets on the Red Planet billions of years ago.

NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft discovered a distinct water-ice signature on the surface of Pluto's outermost moon, Hydra.

NOAA scientists discovered a new form of jellyfish that lights up like a children's toy.

Physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered a new state of water molecule—beyond gas, liquid, and solid.

Good stuff!

06 September 2016

Baby Blue

I used to do more of this—themed DJ-ing, that is. Got a wild hair this Labor Day weekend and decided to publish a playlist of songs from my iTunes with "Baby Blue" in the title (at least the ones I could find on YouTube). And, still, the greatest use of a power pop tune by a television show or movie has to be the Badfinger version in the final scene of Breaking Bad. Simply. Perfect.



















(P.S. There's a terrific song by Evelyn Forever which I cannot find on-line. It's from their album 'Lost in the Supermarket'.)

26 August 2016

This Week in Water

Still playing a bit of catch-up here. Lots to report, so let's dig in:

In the U.S., the state of Louisiana experienced unprecedented rainfall and widespread destructive flooding.

The historic drought in Southern California has caused a spate of catastrophic fires in and around the Los Angeles area.

Algae blooms in U.S. bodies of water are becoming all too common.

Farm fertilizer runoff is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of the state of Connecticut.

Permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes is thawing as a result of increasingly warmer winters.

Arctic sea ice may be reaching its lowest-ever levels and could become ice-free for the first time in 100,000 years.

In Syria, amid the on-going civil war and devastation, the embattled city of Aleppo has no running water.

In Iran, Lake Urmia has turned from a deep green to blood red due to algae and bacteria blooms.

In Africa, Lake Tanganyika fisheries are declining from overfishing and the effects of global warming.

Historic flooding in Paris threatened artworks in the Louvre and Orsay museums.

Let's leave it off here. Next time we'll look at some positive developments in the world of our planet's most precious resource.

17 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 6

Let's see if we can bring this unruly essay full circle. We began with a general ethical framework for looking at the two major U.S. political parties. Republican candidates, we asserted, tend to be 'deontological' in orientation, and Democrats tend to be 'consquentialist' in their choice of candidates.

That's a couple of pretty big terms. Don't let that turn you off. Let's try to unpack them. Deontological ethics, which has its origins in religious texts and moral codes, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by whether it adheres to a given set of rules or, generously, principles. It looks at the character of the act itself, and in certain political iterations at the virtuous intentions of the actor to adhere to those rules. Shorthand version: rule-following is good; purity of intentions is better.

Consequentialist ethics, which is a by-product of the rationalist Enlightenment, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by the effects it seeks to bring about. Utilitarianism (see, e.g., Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill) is a species of consequentialism which states that a given political action should produce the greatest amount of pleasure (or good or happiness—however defined) for the greatest number. Consequentialism tends to favor a certain pragmatism in action, but is more concerned with the effects a given action causes. Shorthand: what's good is what's good for the greatest number; what's best is what's good for all.

These, of necessity, are very cursory definitions of these two approaches to gauging political actions, but for purposes of this blog essay, they will suffice.

Generations of philosophy students will be familiar with the old hypothetical thought experiment of being thrust into a situation in a remote village where you are forced to make a decision either (a) to personally execute one innocent member of a group of hostages, or else (b) to do nothing, in which case the hostage-takers will murder the entire village. If you are a confirmed rule-follower who operates under a "thou shall not kill" ethos—that is to say a deontologist—then you will likely choose as a matter personal morality not to kill the innocent hostage. If you are a consequentialist, on the other hand, you might decide that it is better to swallow your pride and sacrifice your integrity and kill an innocent person in the hopes of saving the rest of the village.

Neither choice is particularly savory, obviously. But political decisions, I suspect, can often be like that. Bright-line rules don't always apply. Principles crumple in the face of unforeseen circumstances. I do believe that this type of analysis can help to understand the two major presidential candidates this year.

Within this ethical framework, we've looked at the candidacy of Donald Trump as projecting the image of a strong individual whose every action as President will inculcate a certain set of rules and principles (specifically conservative ones)—regardless of outcome and effect on, for example, the economy or international relations or entire classes of people. Hillary Clinton's image, by contrast, is that of a competent and experienced political actor whose actions seek the input of the broadest manageable coalition of her constituents and therefore will redound to the benefit the greatest number of people—beholden to no hard and fast particular ideological set of rules or principles (right or left).

Philosophically, this is how I see the choice this year. This has been my look at how I believe the candidates propose to govern, not what their specific policies or promises might be. I believe this is an incredibly important analysis because, frankly, no one can predict what sorts of issues or changed circumstances the next president will have to face. Promises are promises and often fall by the wayside in the face of obstruction and opposition or changed circumstances. Likewise, policies are policies, but unreasoning or even forced application of a given set of policies to different situations could have unforeseeable and potentially disastrous results.

[As a footnote, a quick analysis of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, on this framework might look something like this: like Trump, she appears to be a deontologist, but unlike Trump her operant rules and principles are doctrinaire leftist in orientation. Her intentions might be pure (as, for example, an environmentalist)—and that is her strong allure—but she doesn't have the coalition of constituencies necessary at the outset to be able to gauge what would be the best sort of particular actions to bring about a desired set of results in any given situation. Even a pure leftist cannot rule by fiat in a democratic society.

Gary Johnson, by contrast, looks to me like a consequentialist of sorts, but a wrongheaded one. His policies are libertarian in orientation. He seeks to cut government out of nearly every aspect of life. The inevitable, direct result of radically cutting government regulation and taxes will be increased inequality—whether this is intentional or unintentional is unknown. His actions will directly benefit those few already in a position to maintain or even advance their economic and political interests on their own. It will directly remove protections for the most vulnerable. He seems to believe that such a move will indirectly and at some future point in time benefit the majority—though that can never be guaranteed.]