20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared.

Is American democracy in decline? Should we be worried?

On October 6, some of America’s top political scientists gathered at Yale University to answer these questions. And nearly everyone agreed: American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts — socially, culturally, and economically.

The scholars pointed to breakdowns in social cohesion (meaning citizens are more fragmented than ever), the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion.

No one believed the end is nigh, or that it’s too late to solve America’s many problems. Scholars said that America’s institutions are where democracy has proven most resilient. So far at least, our system of checks and balances is working — the courts are checking the executive branch, the press remains free and vibrant, and Congress is (mostly) fulfilling its role as an equal branch.

But there was a sense that the alarm bells are ringing.

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard University, summed it up well: “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”

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Why Buddhism is true: Robert Wright on the wisdom of mindfulness meditation

Robert Wright, the best-selling author of The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God, has written a new book titled Why Buddhism is True. Don’t be put off by the audacious title, though.

Wright isn’t proselytizing or implying that other religions are false. This is, instead, a light, accessible guide for anyone interested in the practical benefits of meditation. There are no analyses of Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation or supernatural deities; the focus is on what Wright calls Western Buddhism or secular Buddhism, which is less about belief and more about meditation as a therapeutic practice.

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A Princeton sociologist spent 8 years asking rural Americans why they’re so pissed off

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, spent eight years interviewing Americans in small towns across the country. He had one goal: to understand why rural America is so angry with Washington.

Wuthnow’s work resulted in a new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He argues that rural Americans are less concerned about economic issues and more concerned about Washington threatening the social fabric of small towns and causing a “moral decline” in the country as a whole. The problem, though, is that it’s never quite clear what that means or how Washington is responsible for it.

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Cambridge Analytica’s strange, shady role in the 2016 election

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested that a data analytics company called Cambridge Analytica turn over internal documents as part of its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Cambridge Analytica specializes in what’s called “psychographic” profiling, meaning they use data collected online to create personality profiles for voters. They then take that information and target individuals with specifically tailored content (more on this below).

So far there’s been a lot of speculation about the potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and most of the stories have orbited around the financial dealings of the Trump family and people like Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager. But this story is specifically about how team Trump, with the help of this data company, might have facilitated Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election.

So here’s what we know about Cambridge Analytica, its connections to the Trump campaign, and what sorts of things Mueller is likely looking into.
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Richard Rorty’s prescient warnings for the American left

A prescient passage from a forgotten book made the rounds after Donald Trump’s election. It was plucked from a 1998 book titled Achieving our Country. The author is Richard Rorty, a liberal philosopher who died in 2007. The book consists of a series of lectures Rorty gave in 1997 about the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America.

To read the viral passage is to recognize immediately why it caught fire after Trump’s election:

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The alt-right is drunk on bad readings of Nietzsche. The Nazis were too.

“You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche.”

That’s how white nationalist leader Richard Spencer described his intellectual awakening to the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood last June. “Red-pilled” is a common alt-right term for that eureka moment one experiences upon confrontation with some dark and previously buried truth.

For Spencer and other alt-right enthusiasts of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that dark truth goes something like this: All the modern pieties about race, peace, equality, justice, civility, universal suffrage — that’s all bullshit. These are constructs cooked up by human beings and later enshrined as eternal truths.

Nietzsche says the world is in constant flux, that there is no capital-T truth. He hated moral and social conventions because he thought they stifled the individual. In one of his most famous essays, The Genealogy of Morality, which Spencer credits with inspiring his awakening, Nietzsche tears down the intellectual justifications for Christian morality. He calls it a “slave morality” developed by peasants to subdue the strong. The experience of reading this wasshattering,” Spencer told Wood. It upended his “moral universe.”

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