When does it make sense to support/oppose political candidates on EA grounds?
(Context: a few days ago, I put up a post on the forum about efforts to support Democrats in the 2020 US election. Within 12 hours, the post had been downvoted almost to zero, and I decided to take it down because of the negative response. It appears in retrospect that I misjudged the current balance of opinion among EA Forum readers about EA’s relationship to party politics, and the structure and tone of my original post reflected that misjudgment. I’ve now divided the original post into two parts: one focuses on the object-level recommendations for intervening in the current election cycle, and this one will address the meta-level discussion about EA and party politics. I look forward to a healthy debate, though I may not be able to participate very actively before mid-November.)
Epistemic status: beliefs strongly held but open to being convinced otherwise
Effective altruism has long had a culture of shying away from explicit engagement in partisan politics. Even so, a number of individual prominent figures within the EA movement, such as Dustin Moskovitz, Cari Tuna, and Rob Wiblin, have been quite active and public in their opposition to the Trump administration, both in the 2016 cycle and today.
Why is this? It would seem that there are, in fact, sound reasons for EAs to oppose Trump on effective altruist grounds. Almost uniquely among leaders of major world powers, Trump is extraordinarily out of alignment with foundational EA values (as listed on the Centre for Effective Altruism website: commitment to others, scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and collaborative spirit). Furthermore, at an object level, the Trump administration has actively and repeatedly undermined several EA priorities:
Pandemic preparedness and biosecurity: The Trump administration consistently sought major cuts to the CDC budget (including elimination of staff assigned to global health security in China), disbanded the national agency responsible for pandemic preparedness in 2018, and terminated the USAID pandemic early warning program in 2019. When COVID-19 began spreading in the United States, the Trump administration ignored the NSC’s existing pandemic response playbook and politicized public health efforts, with predictably disastrous results: Of the top 18 states by highest per-capita COVID-19 incidence to date, 17 voted for Trump in 2016.
Climate change: The Trump administration declared its intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017 and then formally withdrew in 2019, undermining the goals of the agreement itself as well as damaging global confidence in the United States to uphold its commitments to international efforts for the common good. In parallel, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous regulations on air pollution, which will collectively result in 1.8 billion more metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by 2035.
Global public health: Earlier this year, the Trump administration abruptly halted all United States government funding for the World Health Organization. The U.S. had been providing 15% of the WHO’s budget, a significant proportion of which was earmarked for anti-malaria programs and other efforts to fight neglected tropical diseases.
Institutional decision-making: The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to politicize and undermine the work of career civil servants in the federal government, leading to talent drain and hindering the country’s ability to manage risk (including global catastrophic risks) and maintain critical national infrastructure. Although these losses are less immediately visible, they may ultimately turn out to be among the greatest threats to public safety, as documented in Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk.
Safeguarding liberal democracy: The president has taken steps to sabotage the democratic process by sowing distrust in the outcome of the upcoming election, refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and publicly calling for the investigation and imprisonment of political opponents. All of this has had and will continue to have a profound destabilizing effect on the world’s dominant superpower, with experts warning of a steadily increasing risk of political violence.
Similar arguments could be made for a number of other cause areas as well, although I have focused on the ones that I believe are the least ambiguous.
In a recent column for the EA-themed Future Perfect newsletter entitled “A Long-termist’s case for beating Trump,” Vox.com’s Dylan Matthews argued that if effective altruism’s most prominent standard-bearers are investing big in ousting Trump from office, perhaps we should take their cue:
Most rank-and-file effective altruists I’ve met tend to have an instinctive disdain or impatience with partisan politics. And I have a lot of sympathy for that position; I cover politics a lot, and I assure you that many debates are exactly as ridiculous as you think they are.
But when the two of most influential EAs in the world [Moskovitz and Tuna] are sending a strong signal that they think — in a precise, no-bullshit way — that the 2020 election could influence the long-term trajectory of humanity, it’s worth taking that message seriously.
It appears that the above views are squarely in the mainstream of the EA community: in the 2019 EA Survey, less than 1% of respondents identified as right-wing, which I take to be strong evidence that there are very few explicit Trump supporters among EAs (another 18% identify as center right, libertarian, or “other,” but I would expect a minority of these to be pro-Trump). In addition, a recent poll of members of the Effective Altruists Discuss Politics Facebook group identified only one Trump supporter out of 82 who voted. (Not scientific, I know, but it’s what we’ve got.)
The risks of political engagement
In light of these realities, it would seem that there are strong arguments for the EA community to explicitly mobilize against Trump and Trumpism. Yet many effective altruists fear that too heavy a focus on partisan politics could lead to the movement becoming permanently captured by a particular ideology or political party, limit its ultimate potential for impact by reducing credibility among key audiences, or simply lead to internal strife that would tear the movement apart.
I understand these fears, but I also believe the risks associated with them can be managed. And I also believe that not engaging carries significant risks that must be considered in parallel. Below, I explore some common objections I’ve heard to the arguments above and offer some perspectives on them.
It’s not neglected
It’s true: partisan politics, especially in the United States, sucks up an inordinate amount of our society’s money, time, and emotional energy. Regime change through democratic means is expensive, and pouring more money into it just incentivizes an arms race from equally motivated combatants. It’s a bad equilibrium that, in most situations, EA should either be staying away from or actively trying to defuse. But “most” is not the same as “all,” and it’s important to remember that neglectedness is only one of three considerations in the ITN framework. It is easy to make the case that this election cycle is uniquely important for effective altruists thanks to the presence and influence of Trump. Just this year alone, Trump has singlehandedly wrecked heretofore bipartisan consensus on two issues important to EAs: biosecurity and global health. Is there really much doubt that animal welfare and AI safety will join that list eventually if he remains in power?
From my perspective, Trump’s thirst for conflict, disdain for EA values, ability to shape the opinions of hundreds of millions of people, hold on power in the world’s most powerful country, and willingness to subvert the democratic process is an extraordinarily bad combination that makes him orders of magnitude more dangerous to our movement than a generic conservative leader. It means that the upcoming election is almost unimaginably consequential; the “hinge of history” may well be this exact moment. Moreover, the election is not just important, it is highly tractable: preventing another four years (or more) of this disastrous leadership is well within our reach, and there are evidence-based interventions available to any of us that can help reduce the already-dwindling chances of that terrible outcome even further.
It will reduce EA’s long-term impact
I have to confess I’ve never really understood this argument. I can think of numerous examples of social movements that have been both highly politicized and tremendously impactful, including the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the gun rights movement to name a few. In addition, raising this objection ignores the risks to the movement of not being political in this moment, given that Trump is a major driver of increased polarization and polarization is antithetical to EA goals. Strange as it may seem, I believe that fierce partisanship in the short term is the best pathway toward reduced partisanship in the long term.
It will tear the movement apart
Not if the movement is already pretty much on the same page about this. As discussed above, support for Trump or right-wing politics in general appears to be very rare within EA. There are, of course, good arguments for fostering ideological diversity within a movement such as this one, but if the right wing under Trump’s influence continues to align itself against institutions, science, and global empathy, at a certain point there will not be much daylight anymore between alignment with Trumpism and fundamental misalignment with EA.
What about the left?
Judging from the comments I’ve seen on the forum, many of those who push back against political engagement in EA see the left, and particularly the social justice movement, as some kind of scary juggernaut seeking world domination by mind control. I happen to believe this is misguided, but first I want to point out the irony in believing that politicization makes a movement less effective and yet fearing the awesome power of the social justice warriors.
I readily concede that the left has some problems of its own. There is an anti-science strain in some corners that is quite worrisome; people occasionally lose their jobs or suffer reputation harm for stupid reasons; and there is of course lots and lots of motivated reasoning and susceptibility to disinformation among the most committed activists. These will be important things to monitor and mitigate against in the years ahead.
In the context of United States politics, however, the extreme left has not been anywhere near as successful at capturing the Democratic Party as the far right has been at capturing its counterpart, as any actual leftist will be happy to complain to you about. None of the current most powerful figures in the Democratic establishment are identified with the extreme left wing of the party (which isn’t even that extreme by international standards), nor is there any public figure whose cult-leader-like hold on the progressive base is anything like Trump’s influence on the right. To the extent there is problematic thinking and behavior on the left, I do not believe it is a problem that will be worsened by having Democrats in power.
A possible way forward
The reality is that there is substantial precedent for effective altruism and politics getting mixed up with each other. From the Center for Election Science’s advocacy for approval voting to the Effective Altruism Foundation’s ballot initiative increasing aid for effective charities in Switzerland to effective altruists running for office, EAs are already engaging very directly and publicly in electoral politics under the effective altruism banner.
While the the values and priorities that are important to effective altruists are not partisan per se, it is not a big leap to go from saying that EAs should support those priorities to saying that EAs should support politicians who support those priorities. That is exactly the path that numerous issue advocacy groups in the United States have taken, seemingly in many instances without losing power or influence. (As one case study, the nonpartisan American Civil Liberties Union’s reach and budget has vastly increased since the organization came out strongly against Trump in the days following the 2016 election.) As discussed above, however, given the EA movement’s interest in fostering an epistemically healthy environment, there are risks to engaging in any debate that has the potential to be politicized and manipulated by partisan actors. One way to address such risks is never to take them on at all, no matter how strongly aligned or misaligned a candidate or political opportunity might be with EA values and priorities. A better way, in my opinion, would be to have some kind of formal system to weigh the risks against the opportunities on a case-by-case basis, as well as the risks of not engaging.
Such a formal process could look a lot like the processes to determine grant awards to EA-aligned organizations. Some independent group or panel that has the implicit or explicit blessing of movement leaders could regularly review candidates, ballot initiatives, and other political opportunities around the world and analyze when organized support or opposition from the EA movement would be, on net, helpful for achieving movement goals. Criteria could include the degree of alignment with EA priority areas, the difference between the counterfactual worlds in which the campaign succeeds or doesn’t succeed, the potential for backfire effects and harm to the movement, and the quality of available mechanisms to help. If there were appetite for it, there could perhaps even be a democratic component to the process, as the vetting group could put nominated candidates or campaigns up for community approval or veto by vote.
I believe a process like this one would lead to much higher-quality decisions about things like whether to mobilize organized engagement in the US elections than unstructured debate on the EA Forum and other venues. In the absence of such a system, however, we are left to our individual judgments about such questions. For my part, I believe that political independence and political disengagement are not the same thing. A movement can reserve its highest loyalty for its own aims as well as the right to act when a moment of political transition has immense potential consequences for those aims. Respectfully, I do believe we find ourselves in one of those moments.
Thanks to Ka-Ping Yee and Jascha Hoffman for their assistance with an earlier draft of this article.