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:

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.