Norms in the Age of Trump: Civility, Family Separation and the Supreme Court

The Trump presidency (and campaign) has unleashed an assault on many of the norms that are central to American political life. Norms against literal dick-measuring contests during presidential elections, norms against electing candidates who brag about committing sexual assault, norms that stipulate that candidates release their tax returns, norms against inciting violence against protestors, and so on and so forth.

This has provoked backlash across the ideological spectrum. But some centrists, moderate democrats, and never-Trump conservatives, seem to be uniquely motivated by a concern with Trump’s disregard for the established norms of The Republic —rather than by a rejection of his policies (except insofar as his policies violate established public norms). Indeed, many of these critics, while ostensibly ‘liberal’, appear to be advancing a quintessentially conservative approach to politics: a Burkean insistence on the preservation of the political status quo (which, to be fair, is not necessarily very Burkean in and of itself) and an emphasis on a hyperreal-Sorkinesque notion of how politics “Should Be Done.”

These pundits, observers, and commentators have been awfully quick to unfairly equate Trump’s egregious violations of core democratic and moral norms with calls for nonviolent confrontation of Trump officials (a la Maxine Waters) and for democrats to play political hardball with the Supreme Court. These Very Serious People find the violation of these norms to be inherently appalling.

This is wrongheaded. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” isn’t a political philosophy or a sound strategy. While upholding certain core moral and political norms are imperative for the maintenance of any democratic system, other norms are tied to specific political dynamics—and consequently only properly function in a given set of social circumstances. Upholding these types of norms amidst changing or radically different circumstances is not noble, but foolish and ultimately counterproductive.

Certain violations of norms ought to be quickly repudiated with condemnation and public sanction.  It would have been inane, ridiculous and immoral to abandon the norm against sexual assault when Trump violated it. This line of questioning is relevant because the norms implicated in the debates surrounding Maxine Waters and the Supreme Court are wholly different from the norms against sexual assault in the way they function.

<> Some norms emerge as the crystallization or codification of prior deontological moral commitments or rules. Sexual assault is wrong independent of context. It emerges from prior values or social mores.

<> Other norms promote instrumentally beneficial or prosocial behavior. They are institutions which structure incentive systems or otherwise influence behavior to bring about desired ends. For example, the norm against writing policy without expert-input. Or liberal democratic norms that protect against democratic backsliding and authoritarianism (granted, political theorists are divided as to whether these norms flow from moral principles or are instrumentally beneficial). These norms usually promote behavior which is usually desirable independent of social context.

<>Finally, there are norms that promote instrumentally beneficial cooperative behavior in a certain circumstance or a certain context such as when there are collective action problems (n-person prisoner’s dilemmas, stag hunt games, etc). In the prisoner’s dilemma game, credible norm adherence can help a pareto efficient equilibrium obtain.

This taxonomy is, admittedly, reductive but ultimately illustrative of how, that norms differ in how they operate and how certain norms are reliant on the existence of certain circumstances to properly function. The central claim of this piece is that the norms invoked by the current political debate fall into the third category.

Certain norms are circumstance-dependent. In international treaty law, states can invoke the doctrine of clausula rebus sic stantibus[1], which allows states to terminate treaties if there is a fundamental change in the circumstances that constituted, “an essential basis of the consent of the parties to be bound by the treaty.”[2] Independent of whether you believe that international law is effective or relevant, international law was designed to enforce a system of informal and formal social agreements, making it an apt analog for the enforcement of domestic norms—in the domestic case, mechanisms to hold powerful public figures accountable are rare unless there is widespread social mobilization while, similarly, international law operates against the backdrop of a quasi-anarchic system in which enforcement rests sometimes solely on nations and leaders feeling normatively compelled to comply with international norms and rules. [3]

A core lesson about norm dynamics can be drawn from the way international law has been designed: things that don’t bend, break. Norms must be rigid enough in the short-term to ensure enforcement, but must be able to be flexible enough in long-term to remain effective amidst changing socio-political circumstances. The current outrage over Maxine Waters’ comments and suggestions that Democrats play dirty in the Senate fails to grasp the implication of this lesson. Circumstances, essential to the norm in question, have changed.

Undemocratic behavior or justified strategy. In the United States, many norms govern the legislative process, that, in general, promote win-win cooperative equilibria that make our democracy function better. In particular, norms that govern the selection of Supreme Court justices exist to preserve the legitimacy of the court by excising a degree of partisanship from the nomination process. If you dislike authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, this is generally a good thing. However, this desired outcome only obtains if both parties cooperate.

Adherence to this norm is, or rather was, sustained through electoral accountability and the threat of retaliation, setting an ultimately destructive precedent that will be used against you when you lose political power. In February 2016, Mitch McConnell decided that pursuing conservative objectives was more important than maintaining these principles, choosing to ignore President Obama’s nomination of  Merrick Garland. McConnell and his entourage of Senate Republicans justified their decision on the basis that 2016 an election year and that Obama was a lame-duck president. McConnell, in a stroke of political genius, used a 1992 speech made by Joe Biden, to appeal to an imaginary principle, the ‘Biden rule’ that stipulated that you cannot nominate a Supreme Court Justice in an election year. This, of course, is ridiculous given the historical frequency of  similar late-term Supreme Court nominations. But you’re fooling yourself if you ever believed that McConnell was earnestly committed to principle over politics. Massive demographic change threatened long-term Republican interests and an uncertain general election was beginning to take shape. Rather than concede to Garland and abandon conservative jurisprudential priorities for perhaps several decades, McConnell gambled on the election. And it paid off. While they had to dismantle Senate norms even further by triggering the ‘nuclear option’ on Supreme Court, Gorsuch’s elevation to the highest court on the land ultimately delivered exactly what McConnell had hoped it would.

With the recent resignation of Justice Kennedy, McConnell was granted a unique opportunity to establish conservative dominance over the court for the next couple of decades. Accordingly, McConnell has since announced his intention to confirm a nominee almost immediately in, you guessed it, an election year. In fact, the very fact that it is an election year, means that the President and the Senate Majority Leader can leverage the midterms to coax wishy-washy Republicans and vulnerable Democrats to vote to confirm Trump’s nominee lest they face the electoral consequences in November. McConnell played politics with the Court and won, big time.

Yet, Very Serious People, have urged Democrats to uphold the pretense of nonpartisan respectability in considering Trump’s presumptive nominee. They insist that Democrats uphold a norm in circumstances that no longer merit its adherence. Again, the purpose of this norm, is to ensure a cooperative equilibrium by making it electorally or politically costly to not cooperate. Unilaterally upholding the norm makes no sense for an individual actor as if they cooperated and their counterpart defected, they would lose the Court, as is happening in the status quo). To wit, the fundamental basis of consent in this case is mutual and reciprocal commitment.  A fundamental basis which has clearly changed. Republicans face a long-term political crisis and fear little backlash from feckless rule-worshipping Democrats. They have no need to fear retaliation (nothing to lose), every reason to take advantage of the situation given the changing political environment (and everything to gain). To boot, their electorate seems more interested in “trolling the libs” than caring about legislative norms.


The norm against polluting the Supreme Court nomination process with partisan politics is as dead as the fake ‘Biden rule’ McConnell created in 2016 and killed this year. Democrats need to adopt a tit-for-tat strategy in order to re-establish it (or at least as to not get screwed as much as they are right now). Game theory wise, a tit-for-tat strategy is the best option as it is the most likely to generate long-run cooperative outcomes under conditions of strategic interaction—as Robert Axelrod’s 1984 magnum opus “Evolution of Cooperation” demonstrated. Democrats should not embrace a radical strategy of court-packing (eroding the legitimacy of the court would be bad for preventing authoritarianism and would have dire consequences in terms of adherence to the countless Supreme Court decisions that advance liberal priorities), but they should at least start playing real real dirty like their craftier Republican counterparts.

Incivility or Appropriate Response. Regarding those who cry “incivility!” at Maxine Waters, we see another case of norm-worship gone awry. The social norms that govern tolerance of differing ideas exist to promote the constructive discourse necessary for the existence of a pluralistic polity. Ideas and concepts have been crafted in a crucible of debate and contestation that are formed by social institutions like academia, civil society, and the media. Indeed, if we cannot willingly and freely engage with ideas and opinions that differ from our own, we cannot be certain in the rightness of our beliefs. This does not mean, however that there are no boundaries to legitimate debate.

The norms that govern discourse and how we ought to approach different opinions are premised on the existence of certain circumstances. They hold when participants in a dialogue engage with each other’s ideas in good faith, have a relatively equal ability to participate, advance reasonable positions, and refrain from denying personhood or dignity to others. In the latter case, such ideas and opinions that reject another individual’s standing to participate in a dialogue violate the very norms of discourse and free speech that would be extended to them. How can these norms encourage constructive dialogue if one perspective is inherently inimical to that dialogue?

If these conditions do not hold, it doesn’t mean that offending perspectives should be suppressed, for it might not be prudent to do so. It does mean, however that individuals should be able to reserve the right to not extend those norms of civility in those cases. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies has been butchered and misinterpreted throughout the recent brouhaha over free speech, but the argument he actually makes is quite insightful:

I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. (Note 4, Chapter 7)

Popper agrees with the major principles of international law in emphasizing the importance of the context to which a norm is tied. When those circumstances change, those perspectives are no longer entitled to the privileges of that norm but may be extended them anyway for instrumental reasons. In the case of Trump’s child separation policy (which prompted Waters call for non-violent confrontation), it is clear that the administration’s actions do not deserve our adherence to an ethic of tolerance. There has been a fundamental change in circumstances. The administration and its supporters were never interested in facilitating real dialogue. Policy, especially policy masterminded by Stephen Miller, is more reflective of a strong desire to “troll the libs,” that informed moral policymaking. Circumstances have changed. The social context is different—the injustice being perpetrated in the status quo is a supervening imperative.  It is perverse to maintain performative “civility” in the face of grossly immoral policy. It is a separate question entirely as to whether the confrontation of administration officials is wise or will accomplish the goals it seeks out to achieve, however the core notion that demonstrably immoral policy is not entitled to the full benefits of civility, rings true and clear.[4] For the record, this uncompromising incivil opposition to family-separation, ultimately forced the Trump administration’s hand—and they quickly switched from zealously defending  the policy (see Sessions, see Miller) to blaming Congress for it.


[1] Article 62, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Franck, Thomas M., The Power of Legitimacy among Nations. Oxford University Press, 1990.

[4] Obviously, this does not means all political norms ought to be abandoned.

Mourning In America: What are the roots of Trump’s populist rise?



Any electoral defeat will provoke some sort of unofficial post-mortem self-reflection. With the election of the first orange neophyte as president, the soul-searching (and the soul-crushing feeling of despair) set in. It seems to be a pretty fundamental human instinct. The first thing we do is react. Then we try to find who is responsible. This second part has come in several different forms. Anger is directed at third-party voters, the politically ambivalent, the state of Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton herself, Bernie Sanders, and, obviously, Trump supporters. Insults are exchanged. Tempers flare. Issues and gripes are litigated several times over. But through the madness, the suffering, and the noise—the question persists: how did the Trump phenomenon happen? What is the root of the populist fervor that Trump seized upon?

For the hard left and very progressive this was the failure of the “neoliberal corporate-friendly” policies that enriched the elites at the expense of the poor. This election is thus the failure of the democratic party and establishment “liberal” politicians who were either too accommodating of conservatives, manipulated by corporate interests, or hopelessly wrong. The backlash towards elites and ‘globalism’, a mere expression of economic distress: the symptoms of a post-industrial rural decline wholly driven by the pro-globalization and free trade agenda promulgated by— as The Jacobin’s Luke Savage articulates—”the transactional relationship between moneyed interests, politicians, and party machines [that] produces a rigged economy that serves and enriches a tiny, insular elite at the expense of everyone else.” This positions says strongly: we cannot write this election off as a function of racism and sexism, we ought to examine the underlying economic causes and take robust, if not radical, steps to address economic inequality.

For your center-right moderate conservatives, liberals, progressives, weak-tea pro-market egalitarians, center-lefters, and so on—this was the product of racism and nationalist inclinations that Trump seized upon to make his case. This was a struggle over the changing character of America. As our country gets less white, those who see their way of life under attack (and even culture) will lash out. An election “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing,” at least nothing when it comes to the economic roots of the Trumpenproletariat. This is not to say that this view necessarily endorses the idea that Trump supporters do not deserve your empathy or pity. This opinion is actually two. The first is more of a middle ground approach that says that we have a duty to listen to those who supported Trump and we ought to respect them while castigating the racism that accompanied his rise. It goes, “Many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind — in ways that I do not feel and have never felt — can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid.” The second position is nearly indistinguishable from the first, accept for its vitriol and intolerance of perceived racism. The second rejects that your core Trump voters are decent or necessarily sincere people.

The reality of course, is much more complicated.

The instinct to call Trump supporters racist is incorrect, or at the very least, completely unproductive. Furthermore, the broad idea of this explanatory dichotomy between economic anxiety and racism as prime motivators for Trump isn’t academically honest in the slightest. Here’s a wonderful exchange between the influential moderate libertarian economist Tyler Cowen of the Mercatus Center and Ezra Klein of Vox (aka bae) which makes sense of a lot of the scholarship, political science and confusion surrounding this issue.

Cowen: [Robert] Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

COWEN: A bit, but not mainly, I agree.

KLEIN: That said, I think that the way it’s presented is a choice between economic anxiety and racism. And one I don’t think that’s quite right, and two I don’t think that’s a productive way of having that conversation.

COWEN: Why don’t we have that language? Where did it go, or did we ever have it?

KLEIN: I don’t know if we ever had it. We probably did have it. We have properly been working very, very hard in this society to make racism socially intolerable. We have a society that continues to have a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, a lot of bigotry of different kinds. But I do think that as a by-product of that debate and that effort, there isn’t a good way to have people discuss slightly more inchoate feelings of losing power that aren’t necessarily in their view, about taking it away from other people. It’s more about losing it themselves. I think that’s a big difference in this.

KLEIN: Arlie Hochschild talks about in her book that there is this kind of deep story that she found among — she’s a sociologist who spent five years with tea party folks in Louisiana — she talks about this deep story of feeling like they’ve been waiting in line, and now other people are getting in front. It’s not so much that they don’t want those other people to get ahead, it’s that they want to get ahead themselves. They are feeling a loss in a zero-sum competition, and they may actually be correct about that.

There are probably types of advancement in society that is zero-sum, particularly when you begin really trying to open up the floodgates. So I think that’s correct, and I think that we don’t have a good language for it. I don’t know what it would mean to get one, but one thing that has annoyed me this year is I really dislike the use of political correctness as a language for it.

One, it doesn’t explain very much. But two, I think that something that has happened a lot of the time here is people have somewhat either unconsciously — or I think at times cynically — mixed up an elite debate and a non-elite debate.

I generally buy the conclusions of Klein in this case. Demographic anxiety isn’t the same thing as racism. And as a community we should broadly reject this approach that says look: my economic and political prescriptions are actually what is going to solve this trend. And the approach that uncritically accepts stated reasons for the Trump phenomenon and kinda strangely denies that it can be a complex issue, is woefully misguided.

Furthermore, there are several reasons to doubt that economic concerns are the main motivating factors behind the rise of right wing movements. A Gallup study conducted in early July by Jonathan Rothwell concluded that, “Trump’s popularity cannot be neatly linked to economic hardship. Those who do not view Trump favorably appear to have been just as exposed as others, if not more so, to competition with immigrants and foreign workers, and yet are no more likely to say they have a favorable opinion of Trump than others.” Over at 538, Nate Silver brings more analytical weight to bear on this question:

Trump voters’ median income exceeded the overall statewide median in all 23 states, sometimes narrowly (as in New Hampshire or Missouri) but sometimes substantially. In Florida, for instance, the median household income for Trump voters was about $70,000, compared with $48,000 for the state as a whole. The differences are usually larger in states with substantial non-white populations, as black and Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly Democratic and tend to have lower incomes. In South Carolina, for example, the median Trump supporter had a household income of $72,000, while the median for Clinton supporters was $39,000.

These findings are echoed by political scientist Philip Klinker’s Vox analysis of an ANES (American National Election Studies) pilot survey which observed that, “Attitudes about race, religion, and immigration trump (pun intended) economics.” In any case, a lot of recent evidence suggests a plausible disconnect between economic anxiety or loss from trade and support for Trump. The exit polls tell us that 52% of voters cited the economy as the most important issue. But as the Washington Post exit-poll analysis demonstrated, “Among those economy voters, Clinton beat Trump by 10 points.” This trend is additionally reinforced by looking to Scandinavian societies, who have enjoyed robust and equitable growth, but still experienced a similar right-wing populist backlash.

So we are left with this alternative approach that both embraces the economic rationale minimally (while rejecting that is a consequence of the perceived flaws of the center-left economic consensus) and the demographic change rationale far more broadly, which both accepts that the two are related. Michael Tesler, over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, is a invaluable resource in this regard, suggesting:

One reason is that perceptions of the economy are often not objective and depend on people’s political leaning. A large body of research shows that party identification strongly colors people’s beliefs about how the economy is doing. Democrats and Republicans both think that the economy is performing better when one of their own is in the White House.

Partisan identities aren’t the only thing that matters. In my book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, I show that racial attitudes have increasingly structured public opinion about a wide array of positions connected to Barack Obama, including subjective perceptions of objective economic conditions

He continues later on, expanding upon his original concerns:

The results below show that this is precisely what happened.  Racial resentment was not related to whites’ perceptions of the economy in December 2007 after accounting for partisanship and ideology. When these same people were re-interviewed in July 2012, racial resentment was a powerful predictor of economic perceptions. Again, the greater someone’s level of racial resentment, the worse they believed the economy was doing.

In fact, multiple studies, using several different surveys, have shown that overall levels of racial resentment were virtually unchanged by the economic crash of 2008. Some data even suggests that racial prejudice slightly declined during the height of economic collapse in the fall of 2008. The evidence is pretty clear, then, that economic concerns are not driving racial resentment in the Obama Era.

The causality, seems to be primarily one way. It is not economic nor material issues that are necessarily driving anxiety over demographic change, but the former and latter both play a role in engendering the feeling of neglect and being left-behind that Trump seems to have seized upon. And while demographic change appears to be a more powerful factor, its important we do not overlook those who have disproportionately lost from trade or the symptoms of post-industrial decline even if they are unrelated to the populist phenomenon that is, was, and will unfortunately continue to be, Donald Trump.

Some phenomenal sources and further reading on this question:





Glimpse Talks Trends: a (handwoven) Cornucopia of Deplorables

I sat down two weeks ago with Luke Philips at Glimpse From The Globe to talk about liberal internationalism, charges of globalism, international trade and the TTP, climate change and collective action problems, the proliferation of far right populist movements, and the motivating factors behind Trump’s rise and support.

Please find the podcast here:

I hope you enjoy!

-Spencer Slagowitz

A Conversation with Kourosh Ziabari

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Kourosh Ziabari, a correspondent at Fair Observer, Iran Review, Middle East Eye, Your Middle East, and other outlets. Ziabari has won several awards and fellowships for his work, including the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism, the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship, and the Iranian National Press Festival’s first prize for political journalism. In July 2015, Ziabari was awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to pursue his master’s study in the UK. The scholarship is granted to gifted students with leadership potential from more than 140 countries around the world. Currently, Kourosh is a MA International Multimedia Journalism student at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, Medway Campus.

By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 30, 2016

Popular Discourse: The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed over a year ago, and the future of the US-Iran relationship is a topic of discussion and disagreement in both countries. How do you envision the future of this relationship? Do you think it is likely to improve?

Kourosh Ziabari: If we look at the troubled history of Iran-U.S. relations and grasp the delicacy of their mutual engagement over the course of the past 40 years, it turns out that what was achieved in July 2015 was an extraordinary  step forward. Whereas for a period of four decades, even the lowest-ranking officials and diplomats of the two countries would hysterically evade each other in public, and rush to deny the rumors that they had accidentally run into each other, met each other, shook hands or simply exchanged a few words of greetings – even when those rumors were true – one can dare call it a revolution that the presidents of the two countries had a 15-minute phone conversation back in September 2013, and the two foreign ministers became the most intimate friends that would simply call each other on first name basis. Some reports even went so far as to claim that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spent more time together in 2014 and 2015 than any other two foreign ministers in the world! So, even though such a development appears to be symbolic and unsubstantial, it carries a lot of weight after four decades of absolutely non-existent mutual relations between the two countries on any political and diplomatic front. You may want to call it a jump!

The nuclear agreement, as the officials of both countries have emphasized, was not meant to solve all the differences keeping Iran and the U.S. apart. That’s true. But I think everybody agrees the two adversaries should have started from a certain point to ease the tensions. It’s really impossible, impractical and unrealistic to expect this huge bulk of misunderstandings, animosity and grievances accumulated between the two nations during such a long period to go away in a jiffy. And moreover, the differences between the two nations have been so entrenched and extensive that they either remain there forever, or are simply settled through dialog and a sustained commitment to realize constructive dialog.

I’m hopeful about the future of Iran-U.S. relations, because history has proven that animosity won’t last forever, even if it’s so deep-rooted. Countries are practicing how to talk to each other even when they don’t agree on everything. Even sometimes, they totally differ in terms of ideology, nature and ideals, but they have come to terms with each other, and it means the limits of international relations are defined in accordance with facts on the ground, neither fantasies, nor vague mottos.

Take, for example, Saudi Arabia. The UK firms have sold around £5.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2010. Saudis do not resemble any of the values that the British society characterizes. They’re each literally standing on the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. Even the UK Home Office considers the Saudi Arabian students as “high-risk students” needing to register with the police within 7 days of arriving in the UK to study there. But you can see they’re getting along quite well, enjoying a mutually benefiting relationship, and at times, maintaining their differences and arguing over them. This is how international relations work – which is putting national interests above anything else, and I really hope Tehran and Washington will learn to practice some tolerance and pragmatism and understand that even the closest, most loyal allies have their differences at times, and just try to minimize or conceal them. Again, look at the U.S. and Israel, think of their affectionate, special relationship and consider how much conflict they’ve had in the recent 3-4 years. So, here we go! Iran and the United States should not expect themselves to embrace each other as true lovers after forty year of unremitting enmity. They have to take the steps one by one, and I’m confident they’ll move to the stage of full normalization one day. Maybe that day will happen 100 years later. I don’t know. But could anybody imagine President Obama paying an official trip to Havana and taking those fancy photos with President Raul Castro after half a century?


PD: Iran’s next presidential election will occur in 2017. What issues do you think will be most important in this election?

KZ: The most important development affecting the next year’s election, which has just been unfolded, is the strong warning by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against the ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a well-known demagogue and hardliner, dissuading him from running for president. Ahmadinejad, who ruled Iran from 2005 until 2013 for two consecutive terms, had ambitiously planned to try his chance for a third time – after losing the chance to do so immediately due to constitutional limits, and had been going on lecture tours across the country apparently for no good reason, and while the campaign season has not officially kicked off yet. The Leader recognized that another term for Ahmadinejad in office would be tantamount to the aggravation and enlargement of national splits and divisions, renewed tensions with the outside world after the breathtaking efforts by President Rouhani and his team to get the nuclear controversy settled, and a new shock to domestic economy now that relative stability has started to rule Iran’s troubled market. Ahmadinejad’s record during his eight years in office was one of mismanagement and cluelessness on domestic and foreign policy.

Ahmadinejad is literally obsessed with power and has been long fancying running for the upcoming presidential election in 2017, launching a controversial campaign, winning the vote even with a narrow margin by every possible means and then starting to entertain the same experiences that exceptionally boosted his confidence to the point that he never apologized to his constituency, even once, for the grave mistakes he committed, including drowning the country in an erosive conflict with the entire world over the nuclear issue and virtually leaving Iran’s economy in ruins. Nothing could have stopped him from running, because it’s not the Iranian people or the future of Iran he cares about. It’s his power greed and publicity lust that keeps him stuck to the nation’s political panorama, even four years after his retirement. Only the Supreme Leader could have prevented him from seeking a comeback. And when he got that stern public caution, he didn’t comply out of affection for the Supreme Leader or obedience to him – what Ahmadinejad’s fans falsely believe, or simply pretend to believe he characterizes perfectly, that is unconditional submission to the Supreme Leader. He wrote a reluctant letter of homage addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, saying that he doesn’t have plans for the next year’s polls. He didn’t mention anything about the future elections, nor did he make any reference to his possible withdrawal from politics. Perhaps he just felt compelled to oblige, or he would have faced a crisis in his fan base.

However, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being cast out of the race, I don’t think of any major rival challenging Rouhani seriously, even though I cannot guarantee he will be able to secure an unproblematic reelection. Rouhani’s disappointing performance on a number of issues the people wanted him to fix quite quickly after coming to office, and his inability to fix them even while he’s nearing the end of his first term, has proven to be a challenge for the moderate cleric, and a disillusionment for his supporters. However, I’m confident the next year’ election will be a competitive, vibrant and exciting race, regardless of the outcome.

PD: As a journalist, you have had the opportunity to travel the world and cover key figures and events in various countries. What is the most important lesson you have learned from this international perspective? 

KZ: Thankfully, since I finished my undergraduate studies, I’ve been able to travel to quite a few places across the globe and gain new experiences. The most important thing these trips have taught me is that a good journalist cannot be confined to his newsroom and expect to become a trained, seasoned and proficient media personality all of a sudden. One has to interact with people of diverse, different backgrounds, grasp the nuances of various cultures that at times appear to be inconsistent and totally dissimilar, learn about what matters to people here and there, and understand the delicacy of global civilizations. I cannot really claim that traveling to a dozen of countries has made me such an erudite and progressive journalist, but I know it’s essential that thriving journos break the barriers that segregate them from the outside world and make them unable to establish long-lasting ties and explore new universes.

Sometimes, journalists are stuck in their preconceptions, and it prevents them from giving a realistic and fair coverage to the current affairs, as well as issues of historical nature that still matter to the public. Again, it’s almost impossible to say journalists do not take sides or are absolutely impartial, because it’s not really the responsibility of the journalists to be totally unbiased – but it’s their responsibility to be honest and adhere to integrity. When they produce stories that are consistent and predicated on honesty, then it’s quite inevitable that the level of impartiality in their coverage will ascend accordingly.

I’ve been contributing to international media organizations since 2008, and I’ve been learning and practicing fresh methods all the time, trying to acquire new knowledge to embellish and uplift my work of journalism. I aspire to become a leading, distinguished media personality respected worldwide – actually it’s my long-term plan, or maybe wishful thinking, and I’m sure these trips have given me a better picture of how the world works, even though with over 200 countries and territories distributed in five continents and some 7.4 billion people living across these regions, it’s almost impossible for any journalist to be able to “completely” discern and understand the subtleties of the entire world. However, we can try and move in the direction of becoming more comprehensive and more understanding media people and narrow down our ignorance. Being able to understand the differences between people and accommodate them is what distinguishes successful and failed journalists, I think.

Making Tunisia Safe Again (Minus the Donald)

Matthew Herskowitz || September 8, 2016

The Arab Spring redefined the meaning of a revolution in the 21st Century. In 2011, a crescendo of demonstrations and protests ranging from the subtlety of picket signs to the severity of mass killings plunged 16 nations into near chaos and social upheaval. All of them have been considered failures. Except one.

Tunisia underwent its formal “Arab Spring” in December of 2010, when demonstrations and popular instability threatened to destroy the regime of’ Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali, the country’s president. After scuffling to churn out as many false promises to his people as possible, Ben Ali fled the country with his family. This marked the first popular uprising and successful overthrow since Iran’s Jasmine Revolution in 1979. It’s been hailed as a powerful democratizing move. Although popular and widely touted as the Arab Spring’s sole success, how successful is Tunisia 5 years removed?

The answer is complex. Foreign Policy writes that the nation is democratizing in an unprecedented way. “Tunisians have chosen parliaments and presidents in three rounds of national elections and adopted a new constitution that guarantees citizens a broad array of rights and freedoms. They’ve exulted in the newfound freedom to organize, agitate, and express opinions, and basked in the attention accompanying a Nobel Peace Prize.” So, Tunisia seems legit, right? Obviously, the second a country holds an election it automatically attains democratic immortality and everyone holds hands and sings Kumbaya.

Well, this is how us “Westerners” often paint democracy. When we read that a country has “democratized” as you might often see or read in your daily news cycle, you imagine that the government immediately recognizes individual freedoms and becomes as transparent as glass. I argue that this is an ignorant and dangerous way to look at the state of Tunisia’s deceptively fragile society. We overlook the fine print: the fact that police are bribed by drug cartels for practical immunity while honest work is nearly impossible to come by.

Labels are misleading, Tunisia’s road to democracy is so long and winding that many will starve or perish on the way, or worse: leave to fight in Syria. Since 2013, Tunisia has had the largest export of foreign fighters to the Islamic State and has scores of disenfranchised and restless inhabitants joining other groups like the Al-Nusra front, Hamas, and even Libyan militants. The problem lies in corruption that has crippled Tunisia’s economy. Low wages due to instability pushed the unemployment rate to 15.3%. That doesn’t sound like much, but to put it in perspective, that’s a 50% increase since the Arab Spring. The problem is that communities in remote parts of the country with low funding become hotbeds for terrorism, and the war on terror is fostering anti-Western hatred among the youth in much of Tunisia. The problem is that rather than trying to incorporate young Muslims in the workforce, the Tunis government is cracking down on their Muslim population in a brutal and counter-productive way, mass arresting scores of people with “rudimentary” intelligence.

The key to progression in Tunisia starts with national security. Tourism is dead due to growing radicalism and instability; specifically, the devastating Bardo Museum attacks that left scores dead in 2015. From 2011-2015, the government has done little with its vast wealth from agriculture and tourism to invest in protective measures like border security and policing. Corruption probes are a long shot due to powerful drug cartels that keep politicians placated with money. The time is now for the Tunisian government to act as they teeter on the brink of another anarchical social upheaval. One promising political progression that can lead to economic action is the decrease in political gridlock. The Tunis parliament must start to pass crucial reforms that would increase funding to intelligence agencies instead simply demonizing the country’s Muslim populace, while enfranchising impoverished communities where people don’t have to pick between joining a cartel, fleeing to Syria, starving, or being killed. This economic stimulus, specifically investing in education and infrastructure projects that would create jobs, would bring back stability in an unstable land. It would also bring back Tunisia’s third largest industry: tourism.

The fact that many deem Tunisia to be the Arab Spring’s “success” shows us that many believe that countries in the Middle East and North Africa are somehow hopeless, and any sign of progress is unbelievable. Yet, Tunisia, with all it has overcame as a nation, faces the same obstacles that every country has faced in its formation. With a new constitution, many are hopeful of Tunisia return to the similar prosperity it had in the 80s. Foreign policy experts and history buffs are right about one thing: If Tunisia, with the help of the international community, agrees to crack down on corruption as a prerequisite to further reform, they will truly become the Arab Spring’s sole “success”.

Monday, August 22, 2016: “Taste Makers”

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Solving time: 11:37, marking the first time that I’ve surpassed 10 minutes on a Monday puzzle in a long time. Hard for a Monday.

Puzzle quality:


Theme: The first word in each of the theme answers (or, in the case of 39A, the first half of the first word) is a type of taste, resulting in the revealer TASTE MAKERS (61A: Influential sorts … or a hint to the starts of 17-, 23-, 39-, and 50-Across). Theme answers include:

  • BITTER ENEMY (17A: Archfoe)
  • SALTY LANGUAGE (23A: Profanity)
  • SWEETHEART DEALS (39A: Golden parachutes, e.g.)
  • SOUR PATCH KIDS (50A: Popular movie theater candy)

Welcome to the last-ever Popular Discourse blogpost on the daily New York Times crossword puzzle, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s been a pleasure serving all of the zero average daily readers of our crossword blog.

I actually wasn’t familiar with the phrase in one of the theme clues, specifically 39A. Apparently, a “golden parachute,” which I’ve never heard of before, is “an agreement between a company and an employee (usually upper executive) specifying that the employee will receive certain significant benefits if employment is terminated,” according to Mr. Wikipedia. I didn’t know of the phrase SWEETHEART DEALS either, which are “abnormally favorable contractual agreements.” Mr. Wikipedia actually gives a golden parachute as an example of a SWEETHEART DEAL, so the theme answer is clearly very fitting for the clue.

While I have definitely heard of the phrase SALTY LANGUAGE before, it took me a long time to get that answer from the clue 23A: Profanity, even when I had the letters SALT filled in and a couple of the letters in LANGUAGE filled in as well. I also had SOUR PATCH but was missing the last four letters, until it finally hit me that there’s a specific type of the candy called SOUR PATCH KIDS. My struggles in getting the theme answers were probably the primary cause of my above-average solving time today.

On top of that, there were some rather outdated non-theme answers, including ALL WET (35A: Completely wrong), which I couldn’t seem to get right (hah!) until I had all but one of the letters filled in from the surrounding downs. I’m used to seeing ELIA in crossword grids, but typically paired with the clue “Director Kazan” or something else referring to ELIA Kazan. This time, the clue came in the form of 37D: Charles Lamb’s “Essays of __,” which is apparently a collection of – you guessed it – essays that I’m unacquainted with. Apparently “Put up your DUKES!” is a phrase? If somebody told me to do that, I’d be like what? I’ve heard “duke it out” before, meaning to exchange fists, and apparently “putting up your dukes” has a similar definition of putting up your fists.


Having LEAK instead of DRIP for 44A: Faucet problem and forgetting the word GELD (26D: Neuter, as a stud) didn’t help my time either.

Resigning from the post,
Kenneth, eternally lowly serf of Crossworld

Sunday, August 21, 2016: “Wonder-Ful!”


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Solving time: 55:34, under-average but with the help of several Internet cheats. Medium-ish.

Puzzle quality:



Theme: This puzzle commemorates the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service. It includes several landmarks from the US National Parks, which are represented in circled letters that have the same shape as the landmark itself. For example,

  • Denali is in the shape of a mountain, I suppose … except the left side of the mountain is longer than the right one because the first letter, D, hangs outward.
  • Old Faithful literally erupts upwards through YELLOWSTONE at 32A.
  • Half-Dome is shaped like … a half-dome. Actually, not really. Compare the shape of the crossword’s circled letters to that of the actual Half-Dome in Yosemite, and you will soon realize that the crossword has the image flipped vertically. Anyway, among the landmarks, we have:
  • Arches National Park is represented here in the shape of, you guessed it, arches!
  • And the Grand Canyon looks like a… basket.

Not much time today, and also the Internet was super slow so I didn’t even finish the crossword until much later than usual.

The reason why the “puzzle quality” image is that of Half-Dome is not just because Half-Dome is one of the puzzle’s circled phrases and not because this puzzle is anywhere near as beautiful or majestic as that natural landmark, but instead because this puzzle was “half” of what I thought it could be. I did appreciate the overall bear-like image of the grid, but virtually everything else about this crossword was mediocre; see above for my problems with the circled “theme” phrases.

To meet the requirements of the grid, there’s a ridiculous number of three-letter answers, which inevitably results in tons of ugly crosswordese, including two words which literally just consist of one letter repeated three times – AAA (58A: Highly rated Bond) and OOO (28D: It’s as good as XXX). Seriously, OOO? The clue was a good attempt at a raunchy pun, but when your options are so constrained that even a skilled crossword constructor like Jeff Chen has to resort to OOO, that’s when you know that the proverbial sh*t may have hit the fan.

There’s also a ton – and I mean a ton – of arcana peppered throughout the puzzle. W. BOSON (102A: Subatomic particle named for the weak force) is really esoteric scientific knowledge, even for the standards of the New York Times crossword. I doubt that anyone who isn’t a quantum physicist will be able to get that answer from reading the clue alone. Who on God’s green earth is SLOCUM (14D: Henry W. __, Union major general during the Civil War)?? Here’s a good test: search “Henry W. Union major general” on Google and you will literally find the last name of a different general for the entirety of the first page.

With the exception of LADY PALMS (48D: Indoor plants popular in waiting rooms) and VEGAN DIET (84D: Regimen adopted by Bill Clinton in 2010), not a single answer was memorable enough for me to write about here, nor were any of the clues punny or witty enough to make me laugh. It’s possible that I’m just being too harsh, but when you’ve got a grid filled with ERITU VII SEI NIH it’s hard to be creative.

Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Saturday, August 20, 2016: “Watertight Azalea Tree”

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Solving time: 39:25, nearly 40 minutes under average with relatively few cheats. Fácil.

Puzzle quality:



AMES (41A: Hawkeye State city) is one of the entries in today’s puzzle. But besides a space-grant research university and the birth-site of the world’s first electronic computer, this college town boasts relatively little. Oh, it’s also home to the largest federal animal disease center in the US. But besides that, there’s really nothing that spectacular about this town; its downtown main street carries that same brand of dreary charm as any other in the country. It’s a convenient crossword answer, much like some of the answers in today’s puzzle feel like they belong in a crossword more than they do in a real-life context. There are some landmarks here and there, but other than that, the grid is just a passing attraction.

By landmarks, I mean AZALEA TREE (15A: Colorful ornamental with a trunk), which is obscure but in a delightful way and sounds like just about the prettiest thing that anybody could ever have in his garden.


I want that.

Reading Rex Parker’s blogpost on today’s puzzle, I was once again struck by the arbitrary nature of his evaluations; what qualifies a certain answer to be “clever” or “enjoyable,” given that only a clue and not an answer can ever possibly be a pun? Does such an answer have to have lots of “high-value” letters – in other words, letters like “X” and “Z” that score you more points on Scrabble? Rex mentioned that he thought there were too many “adjective-noun” combinations in today’s long answers; METAL STAMP (12D: Imprinting tool) and RUMBLE SEAT (57A: Old-fashioned auto feature) satisfy that pattern, for example. But what’s wrong with adjective-noun two-word phrases? It seems totally groundless to discriminate against them. I think that answers with bounce or spice consist of rare-but-common words. What do I mean by that?  SMOKY TOPAZ has some nice bite to it because of the cool sound of the phrase in general and the rare-but-common nature of the word “topaz”; in other words, the word topaz hardly comes up in our day-to-day lives, but it sounds familiar to all of us because we’ve definitely seen it before somewhere. It sounds exotic, but imminently accessible. That rare-but-common vibe should characterize all the long answers in themeless puzzles, in my opinion. Phrases like ART BOARD (20A: Backing for a cartoonist) because both of the words inside them are too ordinary. Sure, if you juxtapose them together, they might result in a semi-obscure combination, but the sum of the parts isn’t worth much more than the parts themselves in this case.

What else? 1A: Like a Navy seal (WATERTIGHT) was a funny pun; notice how the letters in “seal” aren’t capitalized, meaning that the word isn’t referring to the special operations force but instead any type of substance that binds two things together. That clue, coupled with its adjacent across – 11A: Tall tale producer (IMAX, whose screens are really tall) – resulted in a fairly humorous top row. But DTEN (18A: Battleship guess) was arbitrary af, given that it’s just a random spot on the “Battleship” board, and references to ANSON Williams (22A: __ Williams, Potsie player on “Happy Days”) and ’50s cowboy character HONDO (42A: John Wayne title role) reminded me that Will Shortz and his crossword constructors are from the STONE AGE (50A: Primitive). OK, maybe not the STONE AGE, but at least several generations ago.

It’s only been six days since the last mention of MERINO (31A: Quality wool source) and nine days since that of Edmond DANTES (43D: Edmond __, the Count of Monte Cristo). Where’s the originality??

Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Friday, August 19, 2016: “Bring It On, It’s Go Time”

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Solving time: 36:10. Well under average – about 20 minutes or so – although I closed the puzzle for quite a long time after attempting to solve it the first time, rather than trying to solve the grid in one go. Anyway, breezy.

Puzzle quality:



As evidenced by the fact that this blogpost probably won’t be published until after midnight, I’m low on time today, so this one will be a quickie. Actually, maybe I can indeed publish this before the clock strikes 12. Let’s try.

The NE corner of this puzzle vanished very quickly – in under 2 minutes, actually. I knew the answer to 14D: Nonactor with cameos in 20 Marvel movies (STAN LEE) as soon as I saw it, and a clue similar to 18A: “Bleeding Love” singer Lewis (LEONA) appeared in a fairly recent puzzle (can’t remember which one). On top of that, a three-letter clue about an art medium – 25A: Medium for many 13-Down – is bound to be OIL; I mean, what else could it possibly be?

There’s a Beach Boys song called “California Feelin,'” which idealizes the Southern California landscape and weather. It has a line in it about how you have to remember sunny California when it’s cold and gray in New York. With that East Coast-West Coast contrast in mind, I was able to fill in I LOVE LA astonishingly quickly for 38D: Song that starts “Hate New York City / It’s cold and it’s damp.” I also saw through the pun in 37A: Person with a lot on his plate? and immediately knew that it had to be BIG EATER, even though that’s a phrase that I don’t use particularly often (though it is quite common, I suppose).

The UL corner had me guessing for quite a while, since I only had STEM (19A: Non-humanities acronym) in that section of the grid after my first couple go-arounds. But once I figured out WHAT’S THAT (1A: “Come again?”), it disappeared pretty fast. I don’t have enough time to check now, but I’m almost certain that ESTATE TAX (17A: Trust issue?) has been recycled from an older puzzle. I sorta frown upon that, since phrases longer than four or five characters really shouldn’t turn into banal crosswordese. There are enough permutations of vowels and consonants once you pass the threshold of five characters that you shouldn’t have to reuse particular words over and over again.

A couple of tricky clues:

  • Mostly because my family was never the type to use boxed food mixes, this was the first time that I heard of RICE-A-RONI (15A: Brand whose first commercial featured a cable car) which is apparently “pilaf-like” and “consists of rice, vermicelli, pasta, and seasonings” (Mr. Wikipedia).
  • Is it just me, or do I keep seeing references to “All My Children”? I swear that this is my fourth or fifth time this summer that the TV show has appeared in a grid, this time with ERICA (26A: Emmy-winning Susan Lucci role).
  • I thought that diner lingo in the clue [28A: “On the hoof,” in diner lingo] was referring to the answer and not the phrase “On the hoof” itself. Whatever. Anyway, “on the hoof” means “any kind of meat cooked rare,” according to this website.
  • I didn’t understand the reference in 27D: Batman? (CASEY) until I looked up the words “casey” and “bat” together. Apparently, there’s a poem called “Casey at the Bat” about baseball. I’m assuming it’s famous.
  • I don’t think anyone who doesn’t do crosswords regularly would know that a “rush” doesn’t just mean a hurry, but rather a “marsh or waterside plant with slender stemlike pith-filled leaves.” Like, do you expect me to be a plantologist, Will Shortz? What’s the actual word for plantologist? Oh right, botany. Anyway, that’s why REED is the answer to 46A: Rush, e.g.
  • I was almost certain that 8D: “On end, to Donne” was one of those foreign language clues where the constructor is asking you what a word means in the language of the person whose name is in the clue. I thought Donne might be a French name, which left me hopeless since I don’t know any phrases in French. But no! This clue was asking us to examine the relationship between “on end” and “Donne” – the two words are ANAGRAMs of each other! Bruh.
  • 56D: Beatles title girl with a “little white book” is a reference to “Lovely Rita.” I would post a link, but the song isn’t on YouTube?? Copyright issues???

Lovely Rita, meter maid…
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Thursday, August 18, 2016: “Temperamentally Noncommunicable Reconsideration”

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Solving time: 46:09. Under average but also with a little bit of help, if you know what I mean *nudge nudge wink wink.* Medium.

Puzzle quality: 

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Theme: Each of the three grid-spanning theme answers is one word that consists of three smaller words, clued by a pun that defines all three sub-words literally. Here’s what I mean:

  • RECONSIDERATION (17A: Not the main food allotment for one on an intel mission?) = RECON (intel mission) + SIDE (not the main) + RATION (food allotment).
  • 1401306296tempe1 + SlowCooker-Pork-Ramen_0 + tallymarksTEMPERAMENTALLY (36A: Noodle count in one of Arizona’s largest cities?)
  • NONCOMMUNICABLE (53A: Sarge’s “Sell my city bonds!” telegram?) = NONCOM (sarge) + MUNI (city bond) + CABLE (telegram). This theme answer was probably the most difficult one to get, especially if you didn’t know that noncom was actually an abbreviation for noncommissioned officer (and not noncommercial) and that muni is short for municipal bond.

There are the types of crossword solvers who will hate today’s puzzle, and there are the types of solver who will find it funny and then move on with their lives. I think I’m in the latter boat. I certainly get why there are people in the first camp; all you see is three different 15-letter words that have no thematic coherence (in other words, there’s no inherent relationship between the words RECONSIDERATIONTEMPERAMENTALLY, and NONCOMMUNICABLE other than their equivalent length) and were taken literally by their sub-parts. I imagine, however, that it’s fairly difficult to find 15-letter words that can be divided into three intelligible words that are actually defined in the dictionary. And, on top of that, the clues were great examples of the wacky nonsense that the NYTimes crossword frequently engages in, so utterly bizarre that they proved rather enjoyable. NONCOMMUNICABLE was a bit of a stretch with its two abbreviated sub-parts, but still took a long time to figure out with a rather pleasing payoff at the end.

The top third of the grid offered little to no resistance, with gimmes like 5A: __ Elba and 14A: Kind of flute. It wasn’t until the middle that I started to groan a little, especially when today’s pair of constructors, Parker Lewis and Jeff Chen, threw a curveball with 31A: Pianist Rubinstein. I don’t think anyone knows him as ARTUR. Everyone, even my classical music nerd friends, call him ARTHUR Rubinstein. The Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention this alternate spelling of his name in its introductory paragraph. Seeing that there were only five spaces in the answer rather than six, I filled in ANTON for the clue, another famous pianist who happens to share the same last name as ARTUR. That cost me some time. Tricky tricky!

In a moment of late-Wednesday-night idiocy, I forgot what upholstery was, so 25D: Upholstery’s stock had me like:


Double references to culinary delicacies, with 22A: Like the cinnamon in babka and 25A: Ingredient in Christmas pudding, and double references to religious “mounts,” with 39A: Mount in Greek myth and 27D: Biblical mount, had me like:


And then ROSHAMBO (37D: Rock-paper-scissors, by another name) was just like…


“Am I a rock in this alternate universe? Or a paper?”

See you tomorrow,
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld