08 September 2016

Gary Johnson and political ignorance

I take it that an interview this morning did not go well for the upstart third party campaign of Johnson-Weld. I have numerous reservations with Johnson's positions on a number of issues as it is, though I still find him broadly preferable to either Trump (who is just awful) and Clinton (who is merely pretty bad). But this kind of event requires some thinking and examination.

To recap. Johnson's "problem" is he has gotten a lot of media coverage this campaign cycle, which means he is getting a broader array of questions than a third party candidate normally gets. He has a habit of deflecting questions he does not understand, whether by brain fart or sheer ignorance, by asking what they are talking about and then formulating some kind of answer. This looks really quite bad when the question is asking about what are deemed to be significant policy details. Such as a city in Syria. I was not happy that he didn't know where Aleppo was.

In voter ignorance terms, most Americans did not know where it was and what significance that question had either. Very few Americans probably knew what that question meant or was in reference to. Had I heard it, as someone who tries to keep abreast of foreign policy and issues in other countries, I would have sought to clarify what they were specifically asking about in regards Aleppo (the fight between Assad's regime and the rebels there? the refugee problem? the general state of affairs in Syria as a whole? the deployment of American special forces there?), suggesting it wasn't a terribly great question anyway. Perhaps the context was helpful and I could have provided a cogent response without seeking clarification, but I am dubious. It is not like "Morning Joe" is likely a space for intelligent commentary and interviews.

As to what that means in political terms.

Probably not very much.

Presidential candidates have gaffes of memory or misspeaking quite often. We have one candidate in particular (Drumpf) who does not seem capable of uttering virtually any factual information correctly whatsoever. I am not happy about it to be sure. Aleppo is, or at least ought to be, pretty well known within discussions about Syria. But it isn't very pertinent to specifically know about it in order to determine overall strategic questions about what should be done in Syria or about Syria by the United States.

It turns out that the media doesn't seem to know where Aleppo is or what it is either. Which is not terribly surprising. Most Americans of all lines of work and persuasion are woefully ill-informed about other countries. Even other countries in which we seem to have a considerable interest in intervening in militarily or diplomatically or are actively doing so. (The old line about "war is god's way of teaching Americans geography", which Bierce or Twain did not ever actually say or write). Getting those kinds of details correct is something Presidential candidates should try very hard do in order to sound well-informed to a public that is usually not well informed. But. Secretary Clinton is nothing if not razor sharp at recalling and reciting facts about policies that might be informative at determining what good policies are and have achieved. This has not generally helped her form what seem to be wise and effective policies where international relations are concerned (see: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Rwanda, Kosovo....). Meanwhile, Donald Trump has more or less gone out of his way to sound uninformed and uninterested in becoming informed on pretty much any policy, in particular international affairs. I would imagine this could leave some room for error in the middle in the minds of many undecided voters.

The current two major party candidates are both pretty unpopular, and American foreign policy is not considered a major issue by many voters. While domestic considerations like terrorism and ISIS are considered important, they're not actually a big deal. I don't think it is automatically disqualifying for how one should vote if one was considering a third party that someone flubs a very specific policy question. Most of his support appears to be from younger voters anyway. Voters who are unlikely to pay much attention to mainstream media coverage and whose main problem would be making sure they might show up to vote in the first place.

This will probably depress Johnson's vote total somewhat, but probably not below the 5% threshold to secure funding and ballot access for the Libertarian party in the future, which is a useful goal for libertarians or libertarian-ish voters to seek out as a means of demonstrating a potential avenue of reform for either political party. If his vote total is subsequently depressed from the current 8-10% nationally in polls to around 6-7% in votes (something I regarded as likely anyway), that will possibly help Clinton in a couple of close states (perhaps Colorado or North Carolina most noticeably). It will also probably keep him from competing as effectively in Utah to try to win any state, something no third party candidate has done for quite a while. And possibly put a damper on his fundraising efforts to some degree in order to run ads or voter registration campaigns in favorable states. But all of that is also unlikely to impact the result of the election simply because the third party vote, while apparently much higher than normal, was pretty unlikely to impact the result of the election already.

I would say that this is a common issue with media and establishment types to deem minor party candidates as "disqualified" by dint of rather minor errors, while writing off rather substantial errors made by the major party figures (see, most everything Trump has done for the last year, as well as his entire public life, for example). That will not help Johnson recover from this blunder. The margin for error is really quite low if one is running an insurgent campaign to garner any public respectability. This was something he should have been aware of. And worked harder to avoid.

For the record: the correct answer on Syria/Aleppo should be something like the following list
1) Take in vastly more than 10000 refugees. Possibly as many as one million. Or basically anyone who wanted to come here. The American refugee system is pretty reliable for both vetting potential refugees to reduce problems of terrorism or criminality or maladjustment, and also for producing high quality immigrants who work hard to assimilate to a new life in a pretty safe and advanced country that took them in from a place of hardship and violent upheaval. Historically it's one of the best weapons we have both against terrorism or violent extremism. And also one of the best faces we can put upon what it means to be "American" is that we will take in people from anywhere and more or less leave them in peace to live their lives once they get here. We should take advantage of that to take in and shelter as many people as we can. This is the most pressing element of the war is the displacement of ordinary people it has created and the vast humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as a result. We should be seeking to do as much as we can to alleviate that by removing people from a position of violence and danger and placing them in the position of trying to build ordinary lives elsewhere.

2) Use diplomatic pressures to try to end the civil war between the Assad forces and various rebel groups who don't like him. This may mean that Assad must step down, the country could be partitioned into autonomous or semi-autonomous states (like the Kurds in Iraq), Russia or Iran would have more influence on the resolution of the situation than is nominally desirable, and so on. I do not mean to suggest that this path is easy, but it seems more likely to have a productive result in ending fighting and violence in Syria than violent intervention and use of force against Assad to remove him militarily, or that the provision of military assistance to forces we might nominally support is likely to guarantee that weapons we provide won't be used against us later, or won't be used internally or regionally for the purposes of brutal repression (as the Saudis have been doing in Yemen and has been mostly ignored).

3) Use diplomatic pressures to try to involve all of the relevant regional parties in suppressing ISIS regional state as a thing that exists within Syria and Iraq and might be of some threat to the outside world, most especially the neighbouring countries and the people within the territories it has control or influence over. This would mean Turkey, Syria/Syrian rebels, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and probably Russia as well.

4) Do not use American foreign policy in the form of bombing campaigns or ground forces to resolve the question of lone wolf style ideologically inspired attacks within the US and the West. That is not how that fight is going to be won. That is a terrible policy formulation. American leaders should take advantage of voter ignorance and indifference on foreign policy to "ignore" problems like that and seek their resolution in other means (intelligence gathering and cooperation with foreign governments, counter-terrorism policies, police investigations, etc).
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