On Mike Berkowitz’s 80k Podcast

A few criticisms of Mike Berkowitz’s performance on 80k

On assessing pundits

The core problem here is how to choose which pundits to trust. In most sciences, the response is to check if their statements are provably true or false. Causal inference is really hard in politics and many events are one-off, like Trumps second presidential election. Even worse, if we grade pundits on provable falsehoods we select for pundits that make vague, unfalsifiable predictions. This is even worse.

The alternative is to ask two more subjective questions

  1. Are the persons statements consistent with the causal statements that we can prove?

  2. When asked about an area were we know provably true and important information, does the person share that information?

For example, if you ask a pundit to explain why Obama won the 2008 election by such large margins they might list many plausible conjectures. But we can prove that reductions in real income have a large effect on incumbent vote share, and if the pundit doesn’t mention this fact we should update down on credibility.

Some contextual disagreements

The general disagreement is between people who study democracy globally, called comparativists, and people who study just the USA, called Americanists. Ziblatt and Levitsky wrote a book “How democracies die” which argues that the United States is backlsiding toward autocracy. The problem is that Z&L describe backsliding as an erosion of the local norms of democracy, so the book is very scary to Americanists. But to comparativists, the erosion of any particular US democracy norm is simply movement within the democratic category. Globally democracies have a very diverse internal institutional rules and norms, and the US has highly unusual norms like inter-party cooperation. Since most democracies have no inter-party cooperation comparativists would not view a decline in IPC as backsliding, but Z&L would.

A few examples

  1. Why were Trump voters able to influence the Republican party so much?

In any democratic debate, your prior should be that the wining faction will adopt the position of the median voter. Basically, you need 50% of the voters, so if 51% of the voters prefer some position k on a one-dimensional axis, candidates will adopt position k to win. Berkowitz never mentions that the median voter in most Republican primaries is currently “pro-Trump” so he leaves out the single sentence explanation.

  1. The description of Trumps attempted coup was vague and did not address the critical details that determine coup success and failure; Organization, expectation and coalitions.

Coups require an organized body of people to deter rivals with violence and operate enough of the state to compensate their violence specialists. A coup must either deter or coopt the existing bodies of violence specialists: the federal army and each states armies. Recall that the national guard of Virginia was massing on the DC border within hours of the capital attack. Trump needed an organization to pay and coordinate the violence specialists so at least a few hundred bureaucrats. Bodies with enough organization to launch a coup include: the federal army, either party or a coalition of state governors, the FBI.

In theory you could convince and organize enough non-specialists to keep occupying the capital and being punished until all the above violence specialists are deterred. Usually this requires enough protestors to fill the jails, and regimes respond by first releasing all criminals and eventually executing overflow protestors. This path requires the greatest organizing capacity because the costs on each protestor must be redistributed. You need a lot of bureaucrats if you want people to accept being beaten and jailed for the cause.

No president will ever achieve that without their own party behind them. Individual politicians are often irrational, especially in their lame duck periods. But parties stay rational. We have no evidence that Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy or Governor Abbott of Texas considered joining Trump. Likewise, generals and populists have sharply divergent interests because generals can safely and happily return to the ballots but populists cannot.

“the other thing those bills are doing is shifting power toward more partisan bodies. There is a bill in Georgia punishing Brad Raffesnberger. It also clearly will mean that next time around Trump or someone else trying to overthrow the election they will get much further than Trump.”

The professional politicians of the Republican party were not close to siding with Trump. Will the Republican speaker (elected by the median house Republican) see higher expected value in supporting a coup or rejecting it? The party loses massive membership if they support, and gains defacto political power if they win. But Republicans just want to veto bills, so why transition to a populist regime. It will never be a good choice for the party. The Democrats have had many opportunities to grant themselves more capacity at the price of alienating their bourgeoise by reforming the national labor relations act, but refused.

“People in positions like [Raffensbergers] risked their lives or careers and took on tremendous abuse to ensure politicians they didn’t like got elected”

This is not really true. People like Raffensberger risked those things to ensure their copartisans got reelected.

  1. He is agnostic on electoral reform?

Minute 36:00. He’s like “yeah I don’t understand the problem, but I’ll keep talking”. But I do know that “all these solutions are not silver bullets to these challenges (populism)”.

How can he not understand how electoral reform shapes party behavior, but also know that no electoral reform removes the populist threat? Empirically, there are democratic structures which are robust to populism. Japan and New Zealand have shown that sovereign parliamentary democracies do not manifest even nascent electoral movements.

  1. Why did so many people vote?

Berkowitz argues that Trump drives turnout. But 2016, Trump’s first term, had moderate turnout. 2020 was Trump’s second election, so why is he driving turnout in turn two.

The alternative explanation is the well established phenomenon of policy feedbacks. The more the government affects people’s lives, the more they vote. The pandemic lead the government to actively disemploy millions of Americans while also implicating the government in each Covid-19 death. That effect will get you an 8 percentage point turnout bump; a reality tv star will not. At least Berkowitz should have mentioned Trumps modest 2016 turnout and policy feedbacks.

  1. “Why we didn’t see intimidation on election day is a little hard to say”

People do not take on high personal costs for collective gains without a facilitating organization. Intimidating people on election day is a dangerous move for an individual activist. If you want individual activists to put themselves in harms way you need to convince them that others will do the same thing and the costs will be distributed see example. That requires a strong, on-the-ground organization. Trump did not have that. So intimidation did not occur. Literally exactly what you would expect.