Yesterday’s massive protest activity was impressive on its own, but it also serves an important democratic function. In Robert Dahl’s 1972 classic book on Polyarchy, he devised three axioms that propose to predict when regimes will move towards full democracies. In his view, full democracies (polyarchies) both allow dissent (contestation) and give broad sets of people opportunities to get involved in the political process.

Axiom 2: The likelihood that the government will tolerate an opposition increases as the expected costs of suppression increase.

Massive protests like the one held yesterday signal to the regime in power that efforts to stifle dissent will be met with large-scale resistance (hence the costs of implementing tools of repression will be high). This is important for any democratic system, since having to hold off on repression reinforces an open competition for power.

The big challenge for organizers of the women’s march is turning a “show of resistance” to an expansion of inclusiveness in the political system. How many of the marchers yesterday will run for office or remain as activist and organizes over the next 22 months before the 2018 mid-terms. Protest activity can ensure that the system is at least a competitive oligarchy, but it can’t by itself ensure political inclusiveness.. for that protest has to be translated into direct political power. The Tea-Party movement is an effective object lesson.

Techcrunch took a stab at analyzing Trump’s tweets and found that the President Elect’s Twitter activity has grown exponentially since he took office.

A question that keeps rattling around in my head in our new Trump reality is whether social media posts like blogs, Tweets and status updates work like currency? Is there a “law of diminishing marginal returns” to the effectiveness of using Tweets to communicate?

On one hand, if he keeps up this pace, the novelty of a President of the United States taking to twitter to engage in a flame war will soon dissipate. If it does, we’ll discover what happens when the American public gets tired of a social media presidency.

On the other hand, brand marketers say that you need to be consistent on social media to engage your audience. If his goal is to keep his supporters (and detractors paying attention), constant tweeting is a good thing. Once in office, an attentive electorate can be a potentially mobilized electorate.

If you’re an academic, why bother to write a blog post? Here’s why I need to do it. I have to retain a sense of possibility in an era of nihilism. To not “put honest words out there” is to abandon the idea of a public sphere (something many democratic theorists abandoned long ago) or at least to give it over to a politics where ideas don’t matter, only brutal power and interest.

What do I mean by “honest words”? I don’t mean unassailable truth. We don’t have that and cannot presume to have it. But what we do have is a good faith effort. At our core, we are supposed to reject invalid truth claims. I’ll be the first to admit that we often fall short of that goal, but we are guardians of an epistemological way of knowing that needs to be protected.

Since antiquity, we’ve known that episteme isn’t the only way to know things. I’ve been intrigued recently with the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in particular his view in a recent article that some academics and “elites” are what he derisively calls “intellectuals yet idiots” because they fall victim to an evangelical devotion to “scientism” or a naive belief in the inviolability of epistemological truth at the expense of other ways of knowing like experience or tradition.

I think this view gives us in the academy good fodder for reflection. Many of us in the academy and in the journalistic elite do use “science” as a cudgel in arguments. We use this type of knowing without always being entirely certain of the underlying science. We presume to know the unintended consequences of thing we couldn’t possible know. I can admit as a member of the “coastal elite” that we can come off a little entitled and superior when talking about “red America.”

Accepting all these things as true, where does the leave someone who tried to create, synthesize and disseminate knowledge for a living? I think it means to go forward and speak, with humility, about what we know (and what we don’t). But above all, it means that we demand that other make explicit their claims to truth and that we call out insincere discourse laden with hidden agendas. In other words, we need to be vigilant in looking out for bulls**t (HT to Harry Frankfort’s great book).

Soon after the networks declared Donald Trump the winner of the 2016 presidential election, it became apparent that the Democratic party as we know it needs serious reform. Progressive luminaries wasted no time in offering autopsies and solutions for going forward. Bernie Sanders reiterated his claim for a political revolution. Elizabeth Warren reasserted her intention to challenge Wall Street excess. DNC chair hopeful Keith Ellison spoke of voter mobilization and community engagement.

The myriad of responses tend to be tied together by a tried and true Democratic party formula – economic populism. The response from these leaders is to provide a clearer message of standing against corporate capitalism by raising taxes on the wealthy, ensuring a living wage, providing free access to college and other noteworthy policies. These are all important elements of a new Democratic coalition, but how these policies are discussed and which of them are emphasized is an important determinant of their success.

While there are dozens of reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss, a lack of economic populism was not one of them. Her policy positions very closely mirrored that of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Clinton’s policy shop painstakingly crafted proposals to help the middle and working class — from a minimum wage increase, to expanding the earned income tax credit, to offering universal pre-kindergarten. All these proposals were designed to help the very working families that turned their back to HRC en-masse.

Why did these policies fail to resonate? Some of the blame falls on poor messaging, or message confusion. But the deeper problem was the belief on the part of enough voters that Hillary Clinton “progressive economics” was just a kindler, gentler, top-down, globalism. Lots of voters surmised that Clinton wasn’t addressing what Ben Page and Martin Gilens found in their influential work on the connections between the wealthy and political elites. Voters on both the right and the left (unfairly) saw Hillary Clinton as a custodian of this system.

If a consensus is slowly building over the need to develop a sharper economic message, what should that message be? The natural response for the Democratic party is to adopt Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist policy framing whole cloth. I think using this language is a bad and unnecessary idea. The party should adopt as a core principle the idea of democratizing capitalism or enacting policies that expand economic control over individual lives.

In many ways this is more a shift in message than in substance. Bernie Sanders’ plans to provide expanded higher education access and guarantees for individual health care are not simply “handouts” but tools that allow citizens to determine their own destines. But how progressives talk about these policies is as important as what they actually contain. Self-reliance and individual initiative are still deeply resonant core values in American society. Framing social welfare spending policy in terms of Democratic socialism primes many voters to view those policies as “handouts” even if they themselves might be key beneficiaries.

More importantly, framing college access or health care as socialist needlessly cedes rhetorical ground to the right. The terms “freedom” and “rights” are contested in political philosophy, but not in actual politics. The British philosopher T.H. Marshall notes that social rights (access to college, health care, etc.) are an essential part of individual human flourishing — true “freedom/liberty.” As a professor, I teach both sides of this coin as alternative visions of “the good life,” but in politics, concepts like freedom, liberty and capitalism are uncontested by Democrats. In our current political discourse, Democrats accede to Republicans the argument that corporatism equals freedom and state intervention equals socialist enslavement.

But language alone is not enough. Democrats need to emphasize policies that promote individual access to capital. One of Bernie Sanders most innovative (but least discussed) proposals was allowing the Post Office to provide banking services, thereby eliminating or significantly curtailing the predatory payday lending business. You can think of this policy as “government intrusion” into a private sector enterprise (payday lending) or as an effort to provide all Americans with easier access to the capital they need to thrive. Many small business owners have to take out credit card to invest in their start-ups because banks can make much more money through credit card rates and late fees. Regulatory schemes taht work to provide more access to voters might be fraught with unintended consequences, but the voting public should at least be given a clear alternative to deregulation and corporate rent-seeking as the only “free” position.

Progressives would be well served to reframe their policy agenda. Instead of calling it “universal health care” why not “health freedom.” Instead of “free college” why not “educational liberty.” Or how about calling the de-regulation of banks “economic tyranny”?

Democratizing capitalism is a message that can resonate with a wide swath of voters. Former Congressman Jack Kemp actually had interesting ideas about giving people in low-income housing projects the ability to purchase their homes. Teddy Roosevelt recognized that both government and corporate power could be tyrannical and destructive to individual freedom and need to be checked. We are in a populist moment. Identity politics and protecting the rights on marginalized groups is a key part of the Democratic party message, but in addition, the Democratic party has an essential role to play in offering a truly democratic alternative to corporatism.

Donald Trump is making a concerted effort to reach out to African American voters. His outreach has been widely criticized as making universalist claims of black poverty and despair. Case in point from a speech last Thursday:

I say to the African-American parent: You have a right to walk down the street of your city without having your child or yourself shot, and that’s what’s happening right now. That’s what’s happening.


It doesn’t do much good to speculate on Trump’s motives. Too much of that happens under the guise of legitimate political analysis. Instead, we should examine him on the evidence. We know is that violent crime is rising after a two decade decline. Whether this is an anomaly or the start of a trend is hard to know. What we can say, however, is that the largest increases in violent crime are in small town/rural areas. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report on crime for the first part of 2015 noted that:

Murders were up 17 percent in areas with fewer than 10,000 residents, while murders were up 12.4 percent in places with between half a million and a million residents and up 10.8 percent in places with more than 1 million residents.

So while crime is increasing, it’s not doing so in “inner cities” at a particularly alarming rate as compared to other areas. We can say similar things about drug addiction. A 2015 study on heroin addiction by my colleague, Jane Carlisle Maxwell at UT-Austin, found that drug addiction rates do not follow recent historical patterns. Her findings indicate that whites aged 18-44 had the highest rates of heroin addiction.

Trump’s has repeatedly referred to the inner cities as bastions of poverty and despair. While central city poverty has gone up over the past few years, it has been far exceeded by the increase in poverty in suburban areas, such that there are more suburban poor people than urban poor. A 2011 Brookings Institution found that while central city poverty had increased 29 percent since 2000, suburban poverty had gone up 64 percent during that same time period. And the 2015 American Community Survey found that the rate of rural poverty 18.1 percent exceeded the rate of urban poverty 15.1 percent.

None of this is to say that central cities do not face significant challenges (they have for decades). But the data contextualizes Trump’s claims and challenges the notions of inner cities as being singularly filled with poverty and despair. Why frame the debate this way? Trump’s appeal fits into a time honored narrative of cities being dens of immorality and depravity. In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe. – Letter to James Madison (20 December 1787)

Jefferson’s preference was for a nation of yeoman farmers. This romantic notion of small towns as bastions of wholesome, moral rectitude is being strained by the reality of increasing drug addition and economic stagnation. Highlighting to supporters the challenges facing in small-town rural communities undercuts Trump’s main campaign theme of “Making America Great Again.” Appeals that reinforce the idea of central cities as broken appeals to the vanity of rural and suburban residents who can feel legitimated in their lifestyle. This is particularly true for rural voters convinced that liberals think they are dumb or immoral because of their views towards different groups. Ideally, the press would be challenging appeals on both sides with factual evidence rather than as spectators who are merely covering a horse race (the basis for another blog post).

“Health care is a right!” It’s a familiar refrain on the left. Progressives argue universal human dignity requires that access to care not be restricted to those who can pay. It is a central tenet of what it means to live in a democratic society. British theorist E.G. Marshall noted that health care was one of many “social rights” necessary for humans to flourish and hence be part of a well functioning democracy. As a reaction, many on the left ask government to step in and provide this necessary good.

Is it time for us to think of access to responsible journalism in the same way? The first amendment pays special attention to the freedom of the press because of its central position in challenging those in power. In the era of “over the air” television, the three major networks took seriously the responsibility owed to the public. Watch a broadcast of Face the Nation or the evening news and compare it to today’s news fare.

The advent of cable television, however, eviscerated the quaint notion of the public airwaves (and a corresponding public trust). The result has been a slow descent into covering the spectacle of politics over actual politics itself. To accommodate this new reality, politics has become more spectacular. In particular, this 2016 presidential race is unprecedented for the lack of public policy coverage. It has been almost entirely replaced by low cost “pundits” that analyze easily digestible “optics” or “tactics.” Substantive discussion about critical questions facing the nation have taken a backseat to weeks of argument over whether a major party candidate calling a judge a “Mexican” means the candidate is a racist.

I don’t mean to romanticize the politics of yesteryear. Penny presses were plenty salacious. But in a time and age where issues are increasingly complex, our system requires a sober, thoughtful citizenry capable of making thoughtful decisions (at least thoughtful enough to “do no harm” and not elect demagogues). We need news sources that are not driven by profit motive to cover important affairs of state in a banal way.

Given this, is it time for us to think about demanding the creation of impartial “public news” in the fashion of the BBC. We have something on radio in the US that isn’t directly driven by profit and strives to provide public policy coverage. Would an NPT (National Public Television) akin to our National Public Radio (NPR) give citizens the tools necessary to make informed decisions?

I don’t mean a replacement for PBS. I mean a 24 hour public television news station that was “listener sponsored” and sought to present pressing policy issues and world events in an interesting and compelling way. It would not be bound by ratings in the same way that CNN, Fox or MSNBC are bound. Could you have a television version of “All Things Considered” or “Planet Money” that would take an honest stab at objectivity and would provide those who listened with a better understanding of public challenges?

The parallels with health care are important, if imperfect. Not everyone has the time or inclination to read longform journalism. But most Americans do have a few moments to watch the news. How many people would switch from Fox or CNN if they had an “NPR TV station” as an alternative? Would they be better informed citizens if they did?

As a mid-forties college professor who worked in and for the Clinton Democratic party of the 1990’s, I’m protective of you and your husband and the ways in which your stewardship of the Democratic party has been assailed in the last few months. Progressives have levied an effective critique at the famed “triangulation” strategy in which the party took more centrist positions to protect Southern and rust belt Democrats in Congress.

As an example — Michelle Alexander’s scathing article in the Nation that blames you and your husband for turning your backs on Black voters in the 1990’s through your support of welfare reform and the Crime bill. While I have great respect for Michelle Alexander, her widely cited article misses the political context in which you acted. The Bill Clinton of 1992-1994 passed the Brady Bill, raised marginal tax rates for upper income Americans and sought to achieve universal health care coverage. The result was a Republican tsunami in 1994. As titular head of the party, your husband faced a choice after the Republican’s took over Congress that year — stay left and run the risk of becoming a regional party or move to the center and stay relevant. Because we can’t replay the nineties, we will never know if a more progressive Bill Clinton would have lost the 1996 election if he stayed to the left of the country.

A sharper critique is the one that paints the 1990’s as the era of Wall Street deregulation, reckless free trade agreements and corporate excess. Of course, the reality is more complex. If anyone needs a refresher as to what the Clinton presidency left the Bush administration, they can re-watch this celebratory State of the Union speech from 2000:

In it, you can see him repeatedly taking credit for the passage of both Republican and Democratic ideas. Those who study power know there is a distinction between achieving results through authoritative “power over” a group and achieving results through force or sanctions and a getting things done through a “power to” bring the relevant players to the table to hammer out a solution. I believe you are a transactional politicians who knows that any economic reform would require Wall Street and Corporate America to be at the table. Senator Sanders is a “power over” politician who thinks that Wall Street simply can be chopped down to size through sheer political will.

In a free market democracy, the idea that you can “make Wall Street pay” by regulating and taxing them into oblivion is farcical. A “power over” approach to corporate America assumes they don’t have options like moving more of their activity overseas, cutting the number of workers or simply going out of business. As Paul Starr argues so eloquently in Politico, there is a difference between a liberal and a socialist. Liberal leadership requires both recognizing the essential role that the financial and corporate sectors play in job creation and standing up to these entities so that their pursuit of profit helps, not harms, the polity. Liberals realize that state power sometimes serves as a necessary check upon runaway fiscal/corporate power. Bernie Sanders isn’t offering this vision of leadership. His vision isn’t to work with Wall Street, it is to “bring it to heel” to borrow a Hillary Clinton phrase from another context. In his discussion of his proposals, he seems unconcerned with how his policies would impact the work of the financial and corporate sector. The few questions posted to him on this measure are battered away with a glib call for corporations and Wall Street to “pay their fair share.”

This is why it is equally discouraging is to see someone like Senator Sanders, who is not a Democrat and has not done the hard work of party building, capture the imagination of voters across America, by promising a “revolution.” It’s discouraging because it implies that the problem is with the Democratic party and with liberalism. Rather than running to defend the Democratic party, Sanders sees his shot to push the party left by running against it. Jamelle Bouie in Slate put it succinctly, you are running to be the head of the current Democratic party and he is running to be head of an idealized, pure progressive Democratic party that does not yet exist. But we don’t need a different Democratic party, we need more Democrats in office. We really haven’t had “liberal” leadership for the past eight years because Democrats haven’t had veto proof majorities for the last 7 years. Maybe those “Feeling the Bern” would have been satisfied with liberal governance, but we won’t know because they and others didn’t turn out to elect Democrats to Congress, state legislatures and governorships.

Secretary Clinton, I get what you are doing. As a pragmatic Democrat, you’re trying to run to the left in the primary and the spring back to the middle once you’ve dispensed with the slightly crazy old man and his community radio, Dr. Bronners’ soap, Frankfurt school ways. But here’s the problem. While you probably won’t lose to Bernie Sanders, you run the risk of putting the party in jeopardy by not more effectively advocating for liberal governance. Much like I think the Republican party has been damaged by getting pushed too far to the right, I think the party may be irrevocably damaged if it is pushed to far to the left.

As a Democrat, what I like about you and your husband is that you fight for Democrats. It was discouraging and shameful to watch 2014 Senate candidates sprint so far away from the Obama record that they seemed indistinguishable from Republicans. While your husband may have “triangulated,” you and he could also “throw a punch” and stand your ground against your opposition when necessary. It is time to fight for the soul of the party.

As of now, your attacks on your opponent have tried to paint his as a disingenuous progressive — a supporter of the minutemen, an opponent of the auto bailout and a an NRA fanboy. These weird critiques have little impact because they do not reinforce people’s pre-existing notions of Bernie Sanders. Nobody who has payed any attention would believe that he opposes the auto-bailout… it would be completely anathema to his core identity to do so.

A serious concern I have is that you present as a candidate that has an uncomfortable relationship with power and hence is uncomfortable with yourself. Your reluctance to admit that you might have Wall Street connections and may (god forbid) have said a few nice things about Goldman Sachs at a speech, can’t be dismissed. You need to explain why you have a relationship with banks and I think it’s because as much as we may not like it, we need to work with them. The impression of you can only be overcome by not just admitting that you talk to and take money from banks because we need Wall Street for the national and global economy to function, but that it’s a strength that Wall Street with work with you. You need to find messaging that is consistent with the idea that a global economy is not perfect but it is better for Americans than 17th century mercantilism, or whatever Sanders proposes as an alternative to our current economic system.

We are in a social media age that values the presentation of authenticity above all else. You very well may be the more authentic candidate, but your opponent has mastered the art of not appearing rehearsed. If you want to make any dent with youth voters, you need to drop the rehearsed lines. The “no bank to big to fail and no executive too powerful to jail” verse would have sounded great coming out of Jesse Jackson’s mouth in 1988, but it is cringe-worthy coming out of your mouth in 2016. It sounds like an infomercial pitch and millenials are too finely tuned-in to “scripts” to resonate with anything that sounds packaged. Note that Bernie Sanders is just as packaged, but his packaging “seems authentic.” Ask Bernie Sanders a question on a tough vote and watch him equivocate and parse like the best “flip flopper.”

You have no other choice. If you aren’t frank about your belief in transactional, “power to” politics, voters will think you are hiding something. Your appeals will seem trite and insincere. This is why when you tell young people that “they may not be for you, but you are for them,” it sounds to them like you’re doing a late night infomercial, selling Snuggies or Sham Wow’s. Maybe this is why one millenial in the Fox News town hall crowd couldn’t restrain herself from outwardly showing her disdain for you on national TV.

I’m still with you, but I hope you begin to stand up for your version of the Democratic party and not try to “out Bernie” your Democratic Socialist opponent.

During the 2012 campaign, I made the prediction that Newt Gingrich would become the Republican party nominee over Newt Gingrich because he was more adept at what I called “high valence” politics, or the ability to remain relevant in the attention economy by saying outrageous, emotion laden, things that would attract the media’s attention. I was wrong.

It appears I was off by four years.

Whether Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for the presidency is almost secondary to the fact that he has mastered the art of agenda control in the new media age. A citizenry that has been trained to demand quick hits of rapid fire novelty by their smart phones has little patience with long, involved political debate that produces little emotional payoff. The dopamine effect of an easily digestible outrageous statement is infinitely more powerful than the slow burn of a well crafted argument. Saying that “we’re going to win so much you’ll be tired of winning” is clear, concise and charged with optimistic positivity. If you noticed from the video below, Donald Trump speaks in tweets. Our politicians are speaking in Tweets.

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Even Bernie Sanders, to whom I have more affinity, is engaging in a form of high valence politics by tapping into citizen anger towards Wall Street. While justifiable, his notion that all of society’s ills reside with hedge fund managers is presenting a simplified view of reality that is bound to disappoint. For better or worse, we need Wall Street, unless we intend to radically change the global political economy which would have its own unpredictable, unintended consequences.

This idea of high valence politics is with us to stay. Rather than pine for a return to a more deliberative and rational way of doing politics, we instead need to figure out a way to make reasoned arguments compete in the new attention economy. The trick is making complex, nuanced views of political reality emotion laden and digestable.

Science recently published a study done by its researchers in collaboration with the Information School at the University of Michigan that finds that Facebook isn’t entirely to blame for political polarization in the United States. It found that its own news feed algorithm has a small but significant effect on filtering out opposing news content for partisan users on Facebook. More importantly for the researchers, the algorithm did not have as strong an effect on filtering opposing news as users themselves. Predictably users on the far right and far left of the political spectrum filter their news content in line with confirmation bias theory.

Zenyep Tufecki already did a takedown of the sampling problems with the study. Here is the description of the sample from Science:

All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale.

A key problem with this study is the standard problem of “selecting on the dependent variable.” By only sampling partisans, you are likely to find people who act in partisan ways when they evaluate news content. But my problem with this study runs deeper than selection bias. The study’s underlying assumption is that Facebook is simply a neutral arbiter of political information and it’s relevance is only applicable to those heavily interested in politics. In my view, Facebook’s influence runs much deeper. It changes the ways in which we relate to each other, and in turn, the ways in which we relate to the public world.

Facebook and related social media have created a seismic shift in human relations. Facebook’s platform takes conversations between friends, once regarded as “private sphere activity,” and transmutes it into what appears to be a public sphere for the purposes of serving the dictates of market capital. Facebook has created unique and powerful tools to allow individuals with the opportunity to more carefully “present themselves” to a hand picked circle of intimates (and semi-intimates). Facebook’s particular logic is connection and disclosure. More often than not, connection happens through expressive communication of feelings (pictures, observations, feelings, humor, daily affirmations, etc.). Facebook encourages us to “present ourselves” to our networks in order to form closer bonds with our friends and loved ones. It’s part of it’s business model. But we are in competition with others to gain the attention of our circle, so we are driven to use expressive discourse that is high-valence (e.g. strong attractive or aversive) content to gain the attention of others.

I argue in my 2012 book, Facebook Democracy, that Facebook constructs an architecture of disclosure that emphasizes this type of high-valence, expressive, performative communication. To Facebook, political content is simply one more set of tools we can use to “present” ourselves. If we want to use politics to connect with others, it needs to be impactful, expressive content that sends clear messages about who we are, not invitations for further conversation or clarification on public issues. This is not to say that people don’t argue on Facebook or have useful deliberative discussion, but I’d argue they do this in spite of Facebook’s goals. Argumentation or deliberation are not typically used to bring one closer to one’s friends and family.

While the personal and emotive is a key way in which we get into politics, staying engaged requires both expressive/connection based discourse and rational/deliberative discourse that encourages “listening” rather than simply “performing.” The notion that a “click through” necessarily means engagement with the ideas presented in “cross-cutting” articles suggest sharing cross-cutting/opposing articles is done in the spirit of deliberative discussion. More likely, cross-cutting articles are intended to reinforce an identity. More useful for Facebook scholars might be to look at instances where partisans are sharing cross-cutting articles and examining how they present the article. Are they presenting it and inviting mockery of it? Or are they inviting their networks into a conversation about it?

This is the key challenge that Facebook poses to democratic life. Rather than ask whether Facebook’s algorithm presents partisans with access to opposing views, we should be asking how we use political content on Facebook to present ourselves to others (and how we can do it in more productive ways). If Facebook and other media encourages expressive discourse over deliberative discourse, we run the risk of becoming a society of citizens that talk without listening.

I quit running half-marathons because of my RunKeeper app. During each of my half marathons, the 90’s hip-hop on my phone would be interrupted by a tinny voice reminding me that I was getting farther and farther off my two hour pace. While RunKeeper didn’t make me a sub-par distance runner, its constant quantification of my performance made me a disgruntled runner. When it comes to how fast I was running, I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know.

In my day job as a political scientist, I see parallels between my frustration with “quantified running” and our national frustration with American politics. Our impulse towards knowing without understanding is making us a society of disgruntled citizens. While the Fitbit doesn’t make us hate Congress directly, it serves as a symbol of our society’s insatiable need for information. In my case, my “need to know” resulted in slapping “analytics” onto my running that I really could have done without. In politics it leads to a relentless demand that the system be transparent and accountable at all times, even if we’re not entirely sure what we’re looking for.

What is so bad about transparency in politics or in life? Most Americans would say that we need more accountability and transparency from our political institutions, not less. In March of this past year, C-SPAN, the cable channel that shows Congress, celebrated its 35th year of broadcasting the proceedings of the House of Representatives. Six years later, C-SPAN began televising the Senate. In both cases, there has been little reflection on how these technological intrusions have affected the work of either chamber.

What underlies the public’s call for more cameras is summed up by Justice Louis Brandeis famous quote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But if this were true, why is Congress’ popularity at an all time low? Confidence in institutions has steadily eroded since the 1970’s. According to Gallup, in April of 1986, the last poll taken before C-SPAN began broadcasting the Senate proceedings, 42 percent of Americans approved of Congress. No great number, but in August of 2014, Congress’ approval rating had fallen to 13 percent. A January 2013, Public Policy Polling Survey found Congress to be less popular than, among other things, cockroaches, France and used car salesmen.

To be sure, Congressional approval ebbs and flows, but we’ve seen a steady downward trend in our view of our legislative institutions over the last three decades. While cameras in Congress hasn’t caused the decline in popularity, cameras haven’t helped.

We live in an age where technology promises to help us gain greater access to ourselves. Through apps that track our sleep, mood, fitness, food intake, blood sugar levels, etc., we are promised better living through information. But as we gain more information, do we gain greater understanding? Scientists are taught that data collection should follow from good theory. Theory is what helps us understand what we are looking for when we observe the world. In other words, scientists need a well thought out reason for collecting data, otherwise it’s just noise.

As far as politics are concerned, the majority of the American public would like more noise. A 2009 poll commissioned by C-SPAN found that 65 percent of respondents agreed there should be cameras in the United States Supreme Court. In a chapter for the 1997 book “Covering Congress, C-Span president Brian Lamb noted that 75 percent of the public approved of having cameras in the House and Senate. Lamb noted that one response to the survey suggested that “cameras should be everywhere except bathrooms.” But if we are to gain more information about Congress, are we prepared as citizens to make sense of it?

Americans in general have little interest in making sense of the noise. Political Scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse observed in 2002 that most Americans favored a system of stealth democracy where they were not called upon to participate actively in or know much about in the political process. According to surveys done by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, most Americans were less interested in transparency and more interested in “effective management” of problems like job creation or fighting terrorism.

So why the cameras if we’re really not that interested? The effect of C-SPAN cameras in Congress has been to turn every session and committee hearing into a low-intensity, reality television show. Whether C-SPAN cameras are directly to blame, It is no coincidence that the drop in Congressional approval corresponds with the advent of a 24- hour news cycle that demands to be fed information. By now, we are well aware that personal failings, flubs during speeches or grandstanding efforts like the Ted Cruz filibuster in 2013 are more impactful than the actual product of Congress. In 2014, Florida Representative Joe Garcia(D) was caught on C-SPAN’s cameras picking and eating his own ear wax. Having access to Congress on television might produce hilarity on “The Daily Show,” but at what cost?

In the Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics, UC-Berkeley historian Martin Jay argues that our demands for authenticity in politics has led separate politics from “the political.” We expect our public officials to have the same integrity, honesty and accessibility we demand from our private relationships. He finds this problematic, since “dealmaking” is a vital mechanism for arriving at compromise in American politics.

But as a public, we are uncomfortable with this idea. We want our elected officials to be beyond reproach, but because we suspect they are not, we want someone to watch them to make sure they are behaving themselves. Hence, the real “watchers” of C-SPAN are interest groups, political parties and think tanks, that are more than happy to look for ways to confirm the public’s suspicions, particularly when it comes to their opponents.

Because members of Congress know this, they seek out spaces to conduct private work. The House leadership, intuitively are aware of this. have kept rigid control over the positioning of the cameras in Congress. On numerous occasions, the House leadership, regardless of party, has ordered the cameras to be turned off or positioned away from part of the chamber. During the contentious 2003 floor vote over the Medicare prescription drug bill, the Republican leadership kept the cameras pointed towards the Democratic side of the aisle for three hours, presumably so the public would be spared the sight of the majority’s relentless arm twisting of its members.

Each emerging technology changes the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed. My run was affected by my constant quantification of its speed. On a run, the synthetic voice would interrupt my mid-nineties hip-hop to tell me that I had run the previous mile in 10:15, when I was shooting for 9:30. By knowing this piece of data, I have put a label on it. By calling it something (a “slow run” in this case) I have in a real sense reduced its value. I could have seen a beautiful sunset on that mile or had a personal insight, but by viewing through the lens of my run tracker, it became a slow mile, and nothing else.

With Congress, our perception of it is impacted by our televising its proceedings. We may not watch CSPAN but most of us like knowing its being televised because “someone will be watching.” Rather than unquestioningly embrace the accumulation of information, we should be asking ourselves, what do we want this information for and how do we intend to use it? and recognize how politics works. We don’t need to get rid of information. Instead, we need a more subtle understanding of the reasons for its collection. To be sure, there is an important place in American politics for a watchdog role. But a good watchdog knows what they are looking for and doesn’t bark at every subtle movement.