The Fragility of Institutions

The last couple of weeks have been scary in the United States. Continued rejection of November’s election result, a high stakes election in Georgia with plenty of divisive rhetoric, votes in congress to deny the election result, and then the invasion of the US Capitol building in Washington by a large group of President Trump’s supporters.

This week’s presidential inauguration looks set to take place under heavy guard and the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives that just passed means there will be an ongoing fight about the threat of violence and how the events of the 6th of January arose.

What all of this brings home to me is how fragile human institutions can be, yet how willing people are to attack them for personal gain. It looks like the breaching of the Capitol will not overthrow democratic processes in the United States but they highlight just how many people are willing to risk rocking a foundation without consideration for what they are doing.

Words and actions matter. Adherence to the constitution, functioning elections, certificating those elections, and upholding the law rely on nothing but words. They rely on the individuals in the process honoring those institutions and choosing to abide by them. Once this ceases to happen the institutions crumble and die. That in turn means there is less and less common ground between parties: no framework for debate.

This applies equally to Republicans and Democrats. President Trump’s actions have certainly most visibly been encouraging disregard of institutions and individuals he has no love for. However, on the Democrat side immediate calls to apply a measure such as the 25th Amendment when its applicability is highly dubious, also look like an attempt to use something inappropriate to a partisan end.

Isn’t it just Protest?

One of the arguments made in support of the January 6th Capitol invasion has been that it is a legitimate protest. Protests about the fact that voices were not being heard in the courts regarding the claim that the November 6th election outcome was incorrect.

Peaceful protest certainly looks different to what happened on January 6th. The potential threat to lawmakers was significant and the protestors were effectively attacking several institutions at once:

  • The joint sessions of Congress and Senate then in motion.
  • The processes in the courts which had already heard many of these claims (including the supreme court).
  • The decisions of the states to certify their own votes.

All of these were processes that the protestors were violently dismissing through their actions.

The election result hadn’t been what they’d hoped for (or what they had been told to expect). If there are genuine feelings that the result is wrong, then peaceful protest seems legitimate. The voices should be heard. This is different from breaking into the place of government and stopping the appointed process by intimidation. At the end of the day, there are processes in place for a reason. It is hard to argue that the Trump campaign has not had sufficient opportunity to try to prove the validity of their claim but has failed to so.

By disrupting the process with threats and violence, the protests seek to derail the institution in favor of their minority view.

The Deeper Problem

Whether one thinks what the protesters did was just protesting or something worse, it is particularly worrying when seen as the culmination of a lot of attacks and slights on the institutions of the United States. These didn’t just come from the protestors but from others supporting the “Stop the Steal” message of President Trump.

These statements attack the legitimacy of states, courts, or elected representatives and of the Supreme court. They are cheap politics that can backfire in a major way. The certification of the vote was being carried out by elected officials who presumably could hear peaceful protests and make decisions on the basis of what they thought was right.

The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter in the United States. The court can only function however if it is seen as legitimate by the population and by elected officials. Attacking its rulings and threatening to go against them (even in veiled terms) undermines its authority and incites others to cease believing in authority.

The composition of the Supreme Court has also seen a great deal of political maneuvering over the past 6-7 years. Now to the point that the last 3 appointments have had a strong conservative lean. For Democrats, it is also hard to see past the comparison of Republican delays of their Supreme Court nominee at the end of the Obama administration and the rushing through of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in October

This type of overwhelming influence on an institution can bring significant political benefits, but take too far it can break the legitimacy of an institution.

With actions like these, the risk is that trust in processes that are designed to help government function and make decisions gets eroded on both sides of the political spectrum. Taken to its extreme it means that there may end up being no common ground anymore.

The Unfairness of “Fair” Systems

As a researcher, newly arrived in Spain, I got an interesting introduction to the Spanish process for appointing tenured professors in the University system. I saw this through the annual selection processes my then boss went through each year.

On the surface, the system is designed to be 100% fair. However, in practice, it leads to extremely unfair outcomes.

While it may have changed over the years, at the time, the process worked roughly as follows:

  • Each year, all the public universities in Spain indicate whether they would like to open a tenured professorship that year + how many. Some do, some do not. This produces a count of potentially open positions.
  • The Ministry of education then opens a call for Professors with around 1.3x – 1.5x the number of openings that the count would indicate. These are accreditations of fitness to take a tenure professor role (not actual appointments). Winning one of these accreditations is a requirement to being considered for an open position.
  • The call then leads to a process (called Oposiciones) based on a series of complex criteria that change slightly each year to select the candidates who will be given the accreditation that year. The candidates have a lot to prepare.
  • The selection of the successful candidates is carried out by a jury of 7+ Professors in each area of competency that is randomly selected from those eligible in the whole country. Hence each year sees a different Jury with a different composition.

At first glance this seems like a logical and fair system: a random qualified jury to ensure no ongoing biases and a number of slots based on need.

In practice it leads to at least two significant pathologies:

  1. Many universities do not declare they will open a position because they are unsure preferred candidates will be accredited. Since they do not want to be stuck appointing someone they do not want, instead, they wait to see if candidates they are already in contact with are accredited that year or not. If those candidates do win accreditation only then do they open a position and appoint the candidate. The more this happens the greater the risk that those Universities that opened a position are not able to fill it since many of the accredited professors end up taking previously undeclared positions.
  2. The randomness of the jury means that any single particular combination of a jury is extremely unlikely to occur again in the future. So if a set of colleagues from one University, from one school of thought, or some other grouping are selected for the jury in a given year, this combination is highly unlikely ever to occur again. As a result, they are highly incentivized to support candidates that they have a positive view of rather than being entirely objective. They may not always do this, but the reason for the incentive is clear: given the lucky combination of that year there is pressure to “use this opportunity”. In any other given year another alignment of interests will likely also be under pressure to take advantage of their good fortune., so if they do not act now they are simply losing out.

Of course in many cases, good decisions are still made, but strikingly poor decisions are also made. One might imagine that in the long run “things even out” since everybody gets their turn. However, this is to misunderstand randomness. As humans, we often think of randomness quickly cycling through all the likely results but in reality, randomness looks a lot less random than we think it ought to.

Here for example are the first three strings of 1s and 0s I just generated on a random number generator (there are many such as this and this):

Showing these to a human likely would generate the response that these are not random, yet they are! The point here is that it can take a long time for conditions to “even out” and they in fact technically never do (flipping 4 heads on a coin toss does not increase the probability that the toss throw will result in a tail). A single academic career also has a time limit in human years from when a person reaches the level where they might apply for a tenured position to when they retire.

What was the point of this divergence into Spanish University procedure?

The point here is that systems that seem fair: a group is selected, then another and another… to run things can seem fair but end up with pathological results.

This also applies to politics.

The system is designed to be “fair” in how people are elected, but elected officials are also keenly aware that when elected, the particular coalition of parties in power, the political climate, and many other factors are unique to that time. This means there is a strong incentive to aim at short term beneficial outcomes for themselves and their supporters without care for what comes later.

This gets particularly bad when…

… one of the things that is in the power of the elected group is influence over the future outcome of elections or decisions beyond their term.

In the Spanish professorial system the damage from unfairness is localized to each year (if it happens at all). In systems where the incumbent party can affect the process itself though, damage can be done that spans the ages. In the United States this includes:

  • Court appointments (lower courts and the supreme courts)
  • Redistricting of voting districts
  • Voter registration requirement changes
  • Statehood discussions such as those for Washington DC and Puerto Rico
  • Electoral College rule changes

These are all powerful tools to affect the institutions of government directly. There are also many indirect effects (many of which have been practiced in the past four years):

  • Attacks on the validity of voting processes
  • Attacks on judges
  • Violation of unwritten rules of ethics

Each of these weakens authority and trust. They are actions that lessen the status of institutions. They create an increasing risk that some individuals or groups will simply begin to disregard certain institutions wholesale.

Within a given margin this usually provides some tactical advantage to one group or another, but taken too far it may simply break the institution completely. In extreme cases this could lead to increasing violence, boycotts of votes, to even more extreme redistricting, and so on.

Hopefully, the new United States administration will take the view that respecting institutions and healing their integrity is more important than trying to generate some short term gain. Hopefully, the Republican opposition will recognize that the common ground they represent is something they also need.

Changing Institutions?

If changing institutions is dangerous are they always stuck in the past and can never change? No, but change has to happen in the right way.

At their core institutions are an agreed mechanism for coordination of individuals/groups for a common purpose.

In the case of US government institutions, the purpose is the government of the United States for the benefit of its citizens.

The mechanism is a thin sliver of agreed process that all parties need to respect, so changing it is hard. It can be done, but really for change to work, it would need to be done with the agreement of all parties participating in the mechanism. Without this, the back and forth between parties in power will simply create an ever greater wrenching back and forth. Changing an institution with a partisan only vote will likely mean that the other party will simply reject the change, fight against it, and seek to overturn it next time around.

  • One would hope for example that BOTH Democrats and Republicans are invested to shore up trust in the voting system.
  • That they are also both invested in having a strong judicial process to resolve election vote challenges that is beyond reproach

It seems less likely that Republicans will want to address the fact that the electoral college consistently deviates from the popular vote or that redistricting has been extremely strongly in their favor in some states. In these areas, Democrats will need to find a good way to seek common cause to get the kind of changes they probably want.

Changing the rules of the game needs to involve all the players. Hard to do but necessary.

In any case, institutions are just words and shared agreement. US government institutions have survived some dangerous attacks in the past weeks and months. Hopefully, both parties will prioritize strengthening them rather than putting them at further risk!

I think it’s important to add. Yes, I’m an armchair pundit on this topic and I can’t even vote in the US. On the other hand, I do live here, and if an insight happens to resonate perhaps that helps in some small way!

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash. (Palacio de Cristal, Madrid Spain)

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