ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BOT TOILS

At this point it is well understood that "bots" – a term I will use generically here for the sake of simplicity to refer both to non-human social media accounts AND human-run accounts paid to fill up comment sections with certain scripts / talking points / etc – are a major component of the social media landscape. What doesn't appear to be as well understood is the fact that literally everyone is doing this.

It is a favorite insult of anti-leftist types to accuse commenters on social media of being "Russian bots" for advocating anything to the left of, say, Zell Miller. There is no doubt that bots, Russian or otherwise, are part of a pot-stirring agenda to create or sow dissension. There is ample documentation of the large amount of money and effort that has been committed to what is essentially a global-scale Operation Chaos. However, the "Russian bot" accusation betrays a telling lack of understanding about the role "bots" play in social media.

I am always tempted to ask people who raise the Russian Bots point: Do you honestly believe that there isn't a massive social media Bot Farm operation run by the mainstream Democratic Party? And the Republican Party? And far-right interests like white nationalist groups? If so, you are being incredibly, willfully naive and falling for the "Bad things are clearly happening, but bad things are what the other side does" line of thinking that undermines an understanding of the problem as it really is.

You could reasonably counter that with "Well of course the Democratic Party does it, they need to fight back against what others are doing" and that would be reasonable. The merits of that point could be debated. But a lot of comments I see seem ignorant – intentionally or otherwise – of the fact that it is being done. And that's just silly.

The major parties can throw vastly more money and manpower at this than fringey groups. There is a positively *massive* Blue Wave / mainstream Democrats bot farm operation. I know people who work in it. I don't object to its existence on either moral or practical grounds. I'm only stunned that there are people – well-intentioned people fundamentally aligned with its ideology and goals – who seem not to understand that it's out there.

There is a large number of people (to say nothing of true "bot" automated activity) out there being paid hourly to fill Facebook comment sections with talking points, retweet / boost favorable media, share links, spread information about campaign resources (how to volunteer, how to donate money, etc), and all the stuff that is a normal part of online discussions and comments about political topics.

All of this is fine. Everyone is doing it. I see no reason whatsoever that any single group should unilaterally disarm in the delusion that playing by certain rules will be rewarded. That would be counterproductive. What I find confusing is the framing of this as something "everyone else" is doing, but not "we / us." Hint: everyone is doing it, and everyone means everyone. That super enthusiastic person on Facebook with the pink hat and blue waves in her profile has every bit as good a chance of being a bot or a paid promoter as the long-haired DSA Marxist dude harping at her for supporting Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon has of being a Russian Bot.

There is, of course, also not only the possibility but the likelihood that both are real human beings talking in sincerity about their disagreements. But if your worldview is one that includes extreme suspicion that one of them is a bot or a paid shill, you really need to recognize that it isn't one of them but both of them that deserve your suspicion.

I'll close with Pew research demonstrating that the most bot-supported political material on social media is generic / mainstream / centrist content – CBS News type stuff. Because not only are bots out there trying to promote a political viewpoint, but a vastly larger number are out there with no goal more noble than jacking up ad revenue.

ONE AND THE SAME

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp – who also happens to be running for governor against the first statewide contender Georgia Democrats have produced for that race since the late 1990s – is using one of the most common tricks in voter suppression to hold up 53,000 voter registration applications. Over 70% of the applications are from African-Americans.

It's called "Exact Matching" and it's one of the least-subtly racist things in election administration. Simply, it is a requirement (found nowhere in law or the relevant constitutions) that a voter registrant's name must match existing state records with a degree of precision that is rarely possible. For example, if the voter registers as Jose Quiñones but he is found in other state records as Jose Quinones, the application is rejected. Similarly, Warren Jones-Jackson and Warren Jones Jackson are, despite sharing a date of birth, address, and all other relevant personal information, treated as two different people.

This is little more than a net used to catch people whose surnames have punctuation marks. It also catches people who have changed their name at some point and failed to update it across all records, but in intent and practice (look at that 70% number again) such voters are considered mere collateral damage in the quest to kick black and Hispanic voters off the rolls.

Many states have tried this or successfully used such exacting "rules" over the years. It isn't new. It's just rarely so brazen, and it happened in a world in which a lot of people will realize in real time that it is happening.

People ask, what can we do about this? The short answers are that if you live in Georgia (or even if you don't), scream about it from now until Election Day and consider donating money to a group with the means and wherewithal to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction against this kind of blatantly racist nonsense.

Oh, and don't worry, Georgia is also using even simpler tricks like closing polling stations in black neighborhoods. It sounds like someone isn't terribly confident of winning his gubernatorial race.

RESPAWN

If you've been reading for a long time you may recall my standard disclaimer from the Early Days: "Be patient, I'm going somewhere with this."

For six-plus years at my current institution I've been taking advantage of a free group fitness class offered twice weekly. It is sort of a hybrid of Jazzercise and Crossfit. I love it because 1) I respond well to the structure of someone telling me what to do and 2) it's hard. The older I get, the harder it is to self-direct in a gym without quickly succumbing to "I'm tired and this is too hard." For me, a class works.

Over time the attendance in this specific class has tailed off. There used to be a core group of undergraduates and older faculty-staff like me, and as people have left the university through attrition many of them have drifted away. Every time new undergraduates come to the class, they come exactly once. I have been watching this dynamic play out for years. It's not some enormous class with 100 people and I never miss a session, so I notice who's a regular and who isn't.

Undergraduates come exactly once for two reasons. One I already mentioned: it's hard. The other is that the class involves a certain "routine" or sequence of actions – choreography? – that is totally baffling the first time you try it. After so many years, I can do the whole thing with my eyes closed from memory. But when it was new to me, it definitely took me a good 3-5 classes to get used to moving from X to Y to Z and so on. You trip over yourself a lot at first.

And if teaching has taught me anything it is that 1) young people will not do anything they absolutely do not have to / want to do, and 2) they quit immediately if something is hard. This has been a subject of interest in the video game industry, which is aimed mostly at the teenage demographic. Old school (80s/90s) video games were hard. They did things like make players go all the way back to the beginning if they "died." Over time video games had to evolve to allow players to respawn wherever they finished their previous try and to make everything easy enough that you can get past it quickly without too much effort. Long challenges or points in the game that are difficult to beat have disappeared in favor of larger "worlds" filled with player-directed tasks that generally aren't real difficult.

This isn't an ideological choice but a practical one. Game companies started to notice that if players couldn't advance past an obstacle immediately or nearly so, they would just stop playing.

I think about that example all the time in my class. It is nothing that a person of any fitness level would be unable to do if they would just try it more than once. Everything can be modified to easier and less demanding movements. The sequence / steps sink in after a few tries. But as sure as the sun sets, these kids show up once and look frustrated and never come back again. They're on the verge of canceling the class because so few of us are attending now. People leave and are never replaced with new regulars.

On occasion I also go to a different fitness class, same university. This class is essentially an hour of lunges and crunches. It requires no learning of any kind. It's always packed, and most people are only loosely following along with what the instructor is doing. They just kind of do whatever, and don't push themselves to do anything beyond what they can do easily. The students *love* this class, if attendance is evidence of anything.

It's anecdotal to be certain, but I feel like this says a lot about my job. I'm not teaching group workouts but it's abundantly clear that some, if not most, students gravitate toward things that they can do easily on the first try and avoid things that require, you know, learning something.

I'll leave it to others to draw broad conclusions from this, but it's hard not to notice. It's a real thing.

JOURNAL-ISM

Maybe thirty years ago there was something clever about doing an "exposé" on academic journals in the, shall we say "softer" disciplines. The Sokal Affair proved its point, a point that varies depending on one's perspective. What purports to blow the lid off of academic research by demonstrating that nonsensical jumbles of buzzwords can be published if they hit the right notes (whatever topics happen to be trendy) is actually illustrating something that every single academic already knows: that there are some journals out there that will publish almost literally anything.

That was in 1996. Why are we still doing this?

Three attention-seeking trolls with apparently nothing better to do (like real research) decided to do this again twenty-plus years after it was sufficiently demonstrated, but with the added benefit (to the authors) of an explosion of pseudo-journals in pseudo-disciplines over that time period. Pay-to-publish is a thing now ("Open Access," although there are certainly some Open Access journals that have high standards and publish excellent work) and the cost of starting a "journal" in the post-paper world is next to nothing. There are *tons* of journals, and many of them are…well, let's just say the bar isn't real high. In my own field, and being at a university where anything peer reviewed Counts (i.e., is good enough in the eyes of the administration in tenure and promotion decisions) I've searched around and found some real garbage out there – things anyone could get a paper published in, but that pride precludes us from submitting to.

I've seen some things on other CVs that sent me Googling to see if they were in fact real journals. Some of these journals are nothing more than randomly uploaded Microsoft Word documents. They can't even be troubled to convert to PDF. And the thing is, a person within academia knows what these journals are upon seeing them. If I publish in the "Iowa Review of Political Science" and it doesn't even have a functioning website, a fellow academic will see that on my CV and conclude that not only does that not Count as a real publication, but also that I have very questionable skills for publishing in such a place. We know what the good journals are and we know the tiers. There are elite journals, good journals, and the lower end of acceptable (journals considered legitimate but not high in prestige). If you have a job at an elite institution you need the elite journals. For most of us, that lower end is "fine" – our institutions just want to see us publishing regularly. It doesn't have to be world-changing, especially considering that people at elite schools have enormous advantages (money, time, resources) over us.

A clearer example is the daily dozen solicitations we receive to submit papers to "international conferences" in random foreign countries where, amazingly, every submission is accepted provided one pays the registration fee. Everyone knows what this is – it's a way to get one's university to reimburse travel expenses for what amounts to a vacation to someplace nice and exotic.

What these attention-seekers prove – and academics immediately grasp this in a way that non-academics may not – is that "Journal of Poetry Therapy" and "Porn Studies" will publish anything. And note that porn studies isn't necessarily a useless topic, but this (apparently) isn't a serious journal for research about it. This game of "find a topic that sounds funny to non-academics and find the worst journal about it" is not challenging and it's not interesting. This is a well-worn trick that, in 2018, only impresses idiots and people who have predetermined that every academic field except physics is "fake."

I'M NOT ELITE, YOU'RE ELITE

Daniel Drezner's latest in the Washington Post is uncommonly good. It makes a useful distinction between Old Money type elites – Kennedys, Bushes, Astors, Rockefellers, etc. – who recognized their own elite status. This is important in the United States since we don't formally christen Old Money elites in the way that, for example, the UK system of titles does. Our informality allows anyone to either claim or deny elite status, regardless of whether that claim has any merit. Neither Drezner (nor I) argue that this makes Bushes good people, but merely that they are unwilling or unable to pretend that they are not the elite dynasty they are.

More often, though, we have ultra-elites going to extremes to deny that they are elites. We all do this to some extent – everyone clinging to and showering one another with tales of our middle- or working-class identification. In politics this goes to comical extremes, with multimillionaire sons and daughters of Congressmen and presidents claiming that something about them makes them normal folks just like us. But it isn't limited to that. It permeates every aspect of our society and especially our professions. Academia is riddled with this kind of thinking; the children of Ivy League professors magically end up as Ivy League professors themselves, yet are curiously unwilling to admit to any sort of privilege or elite status in favor of clinging to the myth of meritocracy. I'm sure other fields experience little different.

More importantly, he identifies where the elite impulse to band together comes from. Early in the Kavanaugh process we all marveled at the number of purported liberals willing to gush over him because, his barbarian politics aside, he was one of them – a fellow Preppie and Yalie. And those ties run deeper than political ones. And, worst of all, the little people were trying to hurl accusations at Kavanaugh. People who are nobodies, from families that don't matter and aren't important to elites. The impulse to accuse Kavanaugh's accusers of lying comes less from a sincere belief that they are liars than from the Blue Blood tendency to pull rank; how dare you speak to one of us that way. You are nobody and you come from nobodies. And to people who think that way, maintaining the social expectations that plebes will speak to their betters only in certain tones and with no pretense of social equality is extremely important. So important that, by any objective standard, they will debase their reputations defending one another to protect it.

An important read.

I WANT YOU TO WANT ME

Freelance writing is not lucrative, generally. There are some publications that pay well – particularly if the piece runs in actual print – but overall a person trying to make a living on freelancing is going to have to piece together a whole bunch of $500-and-under checks. Big name writers probably don't have to worry as much, but nobody freelancing is ever truly financially secure. Imagine you're getting $2000 per piece – which, trust me, would be very rare – and you'd still have to crank out nearly two dozen pieces to hit the median household income for one year. That's a lot of pieces. That's not going to happen.

It is universally true, then, that freelancers live with financial stress. This is especially true of the vast number who, for a combination of professional and personal reasons, live in places like NY or DC. Just hitting the rent every month can be challenging. It is not hard to envision situations in which freelancers need money urgently. Let's just say that one checks the mailbox more aggressively than people who get a regular paycheck.

So it stands to reason that publications that drag their feet in paying freelancers develop very bad reputations very quickly. "Don't submit to X, it won't send your check until next year" gets around. In a lame stab at fairness, it's worth noting that this is usually (but not always) because said publication is on the brink of financial collapse. Nonetheless, people deserve to be paid for the work they do in the amount agreed upon. If the magazine is so hard-up that it can't honor commitments to its labor force then it needs to figure out a different business model or go under.

Given that freelancers are not paid much and often find themselves "a little tight" as the saying used to go, media companies are increasingly turning to services that turn getting paid into a payday loan scenario. You can have the money (which, to emphasize, is money the contributor has already earned by providing the agreed-upon service) now, but only if you give Shady PayCo a huge cut of it – 10 or 15 percent, minimum. From what I've read, not direct experience obviously, I understand that such arrangements are not uncommon in industries where people do day labor like construction.

Of course Shady PayCo argues that there is nothing predatory about this because the freelancer can wait to receive the full amount in 60 or 90 days. In fact it is a textbook example of the predatory practices of the financial industry. One publication I've submitted to used to handle its own accounts payable, and never, not once, did it take them longer than 30 days to pay me. Some publications like Dissent or The Baffler pay essentially immediately upon receipt of the invoice. But the financial appeal of having Shady PayCo handle it (which incidentally probably cost someone at the publication their job) saves a few bucks on the balance sheet.

But let's not kid ourselves, Shady PayCo isn't waiting to receive the money from X. It has the money and it's just holding it hostage for 60 days. To see if you, the contributor, are desperate enough to let them keep 15% of your payment to access it now. So we've come to the "Pay someone a decent chunk of the money you've earned for completing work in order to let you actually have the money" stage of capitalism. Here's your paycheck, but you gotta pay us before you can have it.

Since I still hold a regularly-paid job for a few more months, I can wait it out. Once that's not the case, it isn't difficult to see scenarios in which I, or anyone else, needs that money urgently enough that they're going to get that 15%.

This system clearly is working well and is indefinitely sustainable.

PUMP THE BRAKES

(Editor's Note: While the expression in the title is common, we remind you not to take it literally. If your car was made after, say, 1995 it has anti-lock brakes and they should not be "pumped" as older brake systems required to avoid seizing in emergencies. Just press your brake pedal. Also don't read this while driving.)

The president is too stupid to get out of his own way once again. Reports indicate that Mitch McConnell advised him against Kavanaugh for reasons of "baggage," so certainly people inside the GOP knew this was coming. And now he appears ready to stubbornly insist on sticking with him even though every day nearer to the election reduces the likelihood of this vote happening.

It would be easier to withdraw Kavanaugh and replace him with an equally awful human being and end up with the same outcomes ten years from now. If he sticks with him it only helps the Democrats – though it's worth pointing out that Schumer has not even put up a pretense of trying to delay this vote yet, so it's no sure thing he will ever start. It seems like there are some Republicans who are looking for a way out of voting for this guy. Starting over with another new nominee allows another week or two to run off the clock. If this goes into October, the odds that anyone 1) wants to be in DC and 2) wants to cast this vote 4 weeks before the election are both very slim.

A lot of this involves straw-grasping and speculation, but it's the first scenario I can see that plausibly (although not probably) ends with Kavanaugh not being confirmed. In the end, cynicism born of experience leads me to believe everyone calling for hearings is going to end up voting for him anyway. If there is any positive outcome to be found here, it will depend on Trump being too dumb to back down until it's too late.

MYSTERY SOLVED!

In the three weeks since its publication I've lost count of the number of legitimate journalists who have heaped praise on "The Mystery of Tucker Carlson" by Lyz Lenz for Columbia Journalism Review.

It is indeed a well written and thorough profile of the lil' guy's career. That said, its fundamental premise makes no sense.

To catch you up if you don't want to read a rather lengthy thing about Tucker Carlson, the argument is that a once "good" conservative pundit whose tone was Serious has turned into a shrieking, conspiracy-peddling white supremacist.

The first part of that argument is undermined by the fact that "good" conservative pundits – you know, the ones who can come on the shows without embarrassing everyone by braying like the Fox & Friends crew or Rush Limbaugh – are almost entirely a creation of the centrist media. Chuck Todd. Tim Russert. Chris Cillizza. You know, the Meet the Press types. They've been running out of Good conservatives lately, though. It's part of the reason they were so crushed when McCain died. There are very few Republicans they can bring on the show without ending up feeling bad about themselves.

So they anointed Carlson long ago as one of the Good ones on the basis of, I guess the fact that he wears a bowtie and has prep school manners. They did this with Jonah Goldberg too. But the thing is, both of them are actually very stupid people making much the same arguments – more politely and with bigger words – as Glenn Beck, Hannity, etc. Carlson is now and always has been a hack. He just played the George Will card; hacky arguments delivered through that leather-patches-on-elbows persona.

There is no doubt, though, that Carlson has gone off the deep end since he was hired by Fox News to replace O'Reilly in all but name. Rather than seeing this as a mystery, it underscores the more likely explanation: he is a grifter who will wear any metaphorical hat that enables him to cash in. When the non-Fox networks wanted George Will Jr., he dressed up like the biggest twerp on campus and got paid to do that. Now that times have changed – not to mention now that the juggernaut of right-wing media came calling – he's more than happy to change his tune.

Despite making a living off of what appear to be strongly held opinions, I'm convinced that most of these people will sing any song to any audience if it pays and elevates their profile. These aren't artists with an acoustic guitar and a story to tell; they're session musicians and frankly they don't give a shit what you ask them to play.

MONEY PIT

The role of money in campaigns is greatly overstated in the minds of most Americans who pay attention to politics. There is a threshold, an amount of money that candidates need to raise to be competitive in a given race. Money raised beyond that amount can be spent strategically, up to a point of diminishing returns. And beyond that point, additional spending doesn't bolster the candidate's chances. A simpler way to think of it is that once a candidate has spent money on all the "right" things that a successful campaign should spend money on, all additional spending is just blown on advertising. Buying more ads is what you do when you have money and can't think of anything more productive to do with it (this is, of course, assuming that quite a bit of spending on advertising has already been done).

We saw a great example of this in 2008 when the Obama campaign had so much cash on hand that they were, in the case of swing states like Ohio, buying every single ad spot in a 30 minute program. Believe it or not, once a viewer has seen an ad a dozen times, showing them the same ad several hundred more times has no additional benefits. It's just overkill at some point.

Nonetheless, there are useful ways to spend a million dollars in any competitive race in the country right now. So it isn't entirely clear why the Democratic Party is spending that million bucks trying to help an unpopular and by any measure (other than their favorite, "she's better than a Republican") a very bad incumbent win a primary. I refer to the Rhode Island gubernatorial race, which is one of those statewide races Democrats have to go out of their way to find a way to lose.

I don't expect that party organizations maintain neutrality during primaries. Parties endorse candidates and have always done things to help those favored by the party to win. I simply do not understand why at this very moment, anyone could look at the races happening across this country and conclude that "Let's give Raimondo a million bucks to maybe fend off a primary challenger, because seriously how bad do you have to be in a deep blue state to not be able to win your primary as the incumbent governor."

Could that not be more productively spent in, say, the Florida gubernatorial race in which a competitive Democrat has the potential to break 20 consecutive years of GOP control of that office? Maybe spend that money on ground teams to pound doors, drag voters to polling places, and so on? Which does the Democratic Party have a deeper interest in: protecting an incumbent from another Democrat who very likely would hold the office anyway, or taking back something the GOP has held for two decades?

Parties as organizations make decisions that are not always outwardly logical because people in the party are not all equally influential. If you're in the clurb, the party may do things to help you even when it's not strictly rational. The favor will be expected to be repaid later. That said, it seems so clear that more benefit is derived from bolstering a race against a Republican than from trying to sway a primary where a very bad Democratic incumbent is in danger of losing because of her own actions and nothing more.

POST-HOC

At the moment when Anthony Kennedy retired, I wrote a piece for The Week with a title that largely saves you the time of reading it: "Democrats cannot win the fight to replace Justice Kennedy. They can only prepare for the next battle." Now that Kavanaugh's confirmation process has begun, everyone has that familiar, desperate "Oh shit" feeling that prompts a search for a last second heroic solution. There isn't one. Gumming up the works in the Senate won't stop one nomination (although it certainly could have helped, if only Schumer had a spine, push back the timeline on some lower court nominations who were instead fast-tracked for no reason whatsoever).

This highlights a problem with our political culture that I think about more and more lately; everything is very short-term oriented and nobody is playing an effective long game. Instead of focusing on some miracle scenario in which Kavanaugh isn't confirmed (spoiler: he will be) why would Democrats not focus on preventing some of the lower court nominations by dragging their procedural feet? Well, part of the problem is that the current leadership simply doesn't know how to fight, has internalized losing, and accepts anything the majority chooses to give it as a victory. The current state of Democratic leadership is not dissimilar to the sad state of GOP leadership in the decade prior to Newt Gingrich's takeover (think people like Bob Michel). Rank and file Republicans of that time complained constantly that their leadership was content to be the minority, to finish second, and to accept table scraps from the Democratic majority. They received in return lectures about how they should be thankful for the scraps and proud of the leadership for "winning" them.

Now the parties have reversed roles. And losing to Mitch McConnell is so deeply branded into the psyche of this current generation of Democratic leaders that I think we're going to have to wait until everyone involved is dead before any progress can be made.

Whether or not he succeeded, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would do absolutely anything – without limit from scruple or law – to stop the nomination process. Minority Leader Schumer doesn't have the same spirit. More importantly, McConnell has always had his eyes on prizes down the road in a way that the Democratic Party in Congress doesn't seem to have right now. Those lower court judges who just got fast tracked – perhaps one or two of whom could have been blocked with great effort – will bear fruit for Republicans down the road with the decisions they make. It would have been better strategically – and boy do Democratic insiders love them some strategizing 11th-degree chess – to recognize that Kavanaugh is a foregone conclusion and try to pave a better road in the future. Instead, they get nothing in the short term or the long term. Nothing is gained.

They seem, at the highest and therefore most self-destructive level, unable to let go of the 2004-era belief that voters will reward Democrats for playing nice. Reach across the aisle. Be the bigger people. They go low, we go high. And Schumer in particular keeps trying to wring moral victories out of caving to the GOP and hoping they'll do something nice in return. They won't. They never do.

Politics is, for people who say Decorum and Bipartisanship are important, entertainment. It is not. It is a blood sport, and people's lives are literally on the line. If you don't want Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, you have to stop that from happening at the beginning of a long process, not at its culmination. If you don't want kids in cages, you can't wait until the kids are in cages to figure out a solution. All the groundwork to getting kids in cages and a right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court was laid over the past 15 to 20 years.

There's just not a lot that can be done to fight the cancer once it has metastasized. We are now reaping the rewards of poor choices made during three decades of Democratic strategy focused on moving to the right to win people in the center while the GOP just kept moving farther, farther, and farther right, and the equally misguided strategy of assuming that in the name of honor and decorum there are certain depths to which conservatives would not sink (hint: there aren't). The best phrasing I've ever heard for their miscalculation is: The Democrats are pointing at the rule book screaming "A dog isn't allowed to play basketball!" while a dog dunks on them over and over again and the crowd goes wild. American voters don't give a shit about decorum, procedure, rules, and bipartisanship. If they did, Democrats wouldn't be the minority at almost every turn across the country right now.

If there is any hope for the future, it is in laying a better groundwork today and in the next decade to bear some fruit in the late 2020s and beyond. It's too late to stop what's happening in real time.