31 January 2017

Bucking the trend

Posted by Callan Bentley

It has been a stressful few days for the United States of America.

Our President enacted a ban on people entering the country from several Muslim-majority countries, and it triggered confusion and protests at several international airports. A federal judge imposed a stay on the order, and yet Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles Airport refused to abide, siding with the president instead. As Northern Virginia Representative Don Beyer pointed out, that’s a Constitutional crisis.

While it’s to be expected that Democrats have been vocally opposed to the ban, very few Republicans have given voice to disapproval.

The tweet she links to is this one, a compilation of screenshots from Evan McMullin’s Twitter stream:

I concur with Nussbaum’s opinion, and wonder why there aren’t more Republicans standing up for American mores in the face of an authoritarian within their own party. It seems to me as if they would have a super-strong incentive to stand up and be a leader in repudiating Trump, to be counted on the “right side” of history. Why aren’t they bucking the trend?

I’m reminded of the consensus on climate change. (Bear with me here on this analogy.)

Among scientists who work on global warming, most think that humans are causing it:

Image by John Cook


There’s a very strong incentive in a situation like that to be the lone brilliant genius who shows how wrong everyone else has been. For instance, Galileo is celebrated for overturning the prevailing model of how the solar system was arranged, and Wegener is lauded for being a visionary who brought us evidence for drifting continents before the greater society of scientists would accept such a crazy notion. If you can show decisively that the prevailing view is wrong, the world will hold you in very high regard.

No one has managed that task when it comes to climate change (probably because the consensus view is actually real). Ditto plate tectonics, a heliocentric solar system, the Big Bang, evolution, atomic theory, general and special relativity, etc. But imagine if they did. Imagine a scientist who found the data that disproved relativity or the Big Bang. Imagine the paleontologist that uncovered a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian! Such a person would earn fame in spades, commensurate with whichever trend they bucked, whichever consensus they disproved.

But where does that leave us with the Republican Congress? Their pie chart of who’s looking at their shoes and whistling vs. who’s speaking out in protest would resemble the pie charts for climate science. There’s an astonishing uniformity among GOP Congresspeople in their recalcitrance to address an issue of Constitutional importance. Though we’re talking policy leadership rather than empiricism, who will be bold enough to be their Galileo analogue, their Einstein, their Darwin? Scientists overturn the status quo with facts and logic; Republican politicians will instead have to use ethics and patriotism. Only a few are so far on record with a stance that places America in a higher priority than fealty to the GOP or the President. But I feel like each of them is holding the proverbial fossil rabbit in their hand. They are in a situation where they have a chance to distinguish themselves, and yet they are forgoing that opportunity.

There are a few notable exceptions: Evan McMullin has been a critic of Trump for a long time and willing to fight him on his chosen battleground, Twitter. So has conservative columnist David Frum (if you haven’t read his piece in the Atlantic that was released today, “How to Build an Autocracy,” I recommend it). John McCain and Lindsey Graham, long term senators and literal elder statesmen, have voiced opposition to the ban. Many voiced opposition to the notion of a “Muslim ban” when Trump was campaigning for the White House, including Mike Pence and Paul Ryan. But they’ve been very quiet since Friday afternoon. Some have described their actions as spineless, in creative ways. What’s holding everyone else back?

It looks like it’s about their chances of being reelected:

Image quoted in the New York Times (click for link)


If their constituents support Trump, they feel that they must support Trump also, or else they will lose their job at the next election.

Simple enough equation, I guess, sad as it is to behold. “Ethics and Constitution be damned; it’s what the people of my district want.” But of course they would never be so bold as to actually articulate that stance on the record, where they might be held accountable for it.

It’s an important thing for an elected representative to stand up for the viewpoint of their constituents, and I respect that. But it’s shallow to pander to them, and it seems to me that in this case, the elected representatives have a responsibility to clearly outline where they stand on this issue, including whether they find it Constitutionally acceptable to impose a religious test on those who visit our nation. It would be great if we knew where they stood. It would be great if they were to make an effort at communicating with the public as to their views: they might convince some of them to their way of thinking. Moreover, we’ll be on solid footing in terms of whether history views them as (a) being complicit in advancing unconstitutional policy or (b) patriotic exemplars who value country more than party.

I’m grateful that the leaders of AGU and GSA released a joint statement today about the detrimental effects to geoscience of the ban. Professional societies have an obligation to stand up for their members and for their profession. One will hope that their peers on Capitol Hill will join them soon.