Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Protecting the Population

The crux of counter insurgency strategy is coaxing the population to support you rather than the insurgency – the winning of hearts and minds. To do this, the counter insurgency force must protect the population; the counter insurgency force must also define itself in opposition to the insurgency: counter insurgents can provide security, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents can provide justice, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents protect the population, insurgents cannot.

On this last point, protecting the population, NATO’s forces in Afghanistan have been dreadful. Instances of ISAF airstrikes killing dozens of Afghan civilians have been abundant over the last eight years. It is to Gen. McChrystal’s credit that in response to the disastrous airstrike in May that he issued an order acknowledging the counter productive nature of airstrikes and heavily restricting their use.

So, one would think, today’s report of 30 Afghan civilians killed when their passenger bus struck a roadside bomb near Kandahar would work to NATO’s favor, beginning to wean the population of Kandahar from the insurgents. However, in today’s bombing, we can see the paradoxes of counter insurgency well illustrated. While the population will turn against NATO for collateral damage emanating from its use of air strikes, a bombing like today’s will not compel the same reaction vis-à-vis the insurgents. Rather, the population will look at today’s bombing and ask, “Why can’t NATO secure the highways, and prevent bombings of passenger busses?” The question is a fair one. NATO cannot secure the highways for many reasons, not least of which is that there are too few NATO troops in Afghanistan generally, and in Kandahar province in particular.

Afghans will not countenance the indiscriminant killing of their brothers and sisters by either NATO or the Pashtu insurgency. But, the technological advantage, the foreign origins, and the transitory nature of the ISAF sets the standard of conduct for NATO much higher – and for the insurgency, much lower. The careful, conscientious use of force by a sufficiently large contingent of NATO troops is the only way forward in Afghanistan.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Generals Kelly and McChrystal

This past Monday, the same day that Gen. McChrystal’s confidential report was leaked, I had the pleasure of speaking with Major General John Kelly, USMC. Gen. Kelly is currently serving as deputy commanding General of Camp Pendleton. Prior to his current posting, he served three tours in Iraq, from the invasion until last year. During his most recent tour, he commanded the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar Province. Effectively, from February 2008 until February 2009 he was running the show in the province where the Sons of Iraq – or Awakening Councils – were born, and where the tide against the nationalist, Sunni insurgency began to break.

Gen. Kelly was remarkably candid throughout his discourse and, when asked whether we can win in Afghanistan, his answer was simultaneously cautious and unequivocal. Gen. Kelly averred at the notion of winning but he stated without equivocation that the ultimate endorsement of COIN strategy in Iraq – the sort of thing I’ve argued for in this space previously – is absolutely reproducible and necessary in Afghanistan. Which, unsurprisingly, is the sort of thing that Gen. McChrystal has argued for and is why the request for additional forces is necessary must be fulfilled. Additional forces are not sufficient, however; they must be tasked with protection of the population not simply hunt-and-kill operations, the commitment must be long-term, and the commitment of more troops must coupled with civil-society and works projects.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Online Polls Redux

Finally, an example of a good online poll question.

CNN Quickvote: What is your favorite dinosaur?

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Brontosaurus
Triceratops
Barney

I'm going with triceratops.

The Equivalency of Death Threats

Joe Klein’s latest article in Time reveals a stunning misunderstanding of counter-insurgency. In a broad attack on NATO’s current strategy in Afghanistan, Klein points to Lt. Col. John Nagl who says the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar, not in neighboring Helmand where the US has concentrated forces since this past spring. Lt. Col. Nagl is probably right that the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar but his analogy to Fallujah is flawed. Unlike the Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, the Pashtu insurgency has strong links to the opium trade and disrupting their ability to collect rents from opium is integral to turning the tide.

But Joe Klein makes an even more fundamental error. He writes:
It will resist any suggestion to leave Helmand and redeploy to Kandahar. "That
would be a death sentence for all the people in Helmand who have supported us,"
a military expert told me. It is a compelling argument but, ultimately, a flawed
one; death sentences are being delivered every night in Kandahar.
Klein is wrong. Counter-insurgency demands gaining the local population’s trust. For the local population to work with, let alone trust, NATO forces, it must believe that NATO will stick around – it cannot believe that NATO forces will be transitory, moving into an area, taking advantage of local support, and then leave, abandoning the local population to returning Taliban fighters and exposing it to reprisals. For most of NATO’s 8 year history in Afghanistan, it was undermanned to provide the sort of guarantee of long-term presence and involvement to warrant local support and trust. Only now is NATO beginning to reach areas of the country long controlled by the Taliban – to leave those areas, as Klein suggests, would be to destroy any goodwill earned and reinforce the local population’s belief that NATO is transitory and cooperation is a death sentence. In this way, death threats in Helmand and death threats in Kandahar are not equivalent. NATO should not abandon Helmand. Kandahar should come next, but not at the expense of Helmand and NATO’s ultimate goals.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Society Becoming Less Civil?

Online polls frequently get on my nerves because, instead of asking for pure opinions, they ask people to hazard uneducated guesses on questions that are ultimately empirical. Case in point is a CNN.com Quick Vote poll from earlier today, which asked:

“Is society in general becoming less civil?”

Respondents, who for the purposes of this post I will assume were predominantly American, overwhelmingly answered “yes.” I am skeptical of this assessment. My cynicism about the role of deliberation in liberal democracy aside, situating the current state of American discourse in historical perspective gives us no reason to believe we have become less civil. Certainly the tenor of the health care debate, taken as a whole, is not more contentious than the discourse that characterized the Iraq debate, or even Bill Clinton’s health care plan. Going back two more decades, it may even be safe to say we’ve made serious improvements since the Vietnam controversy and the civil rights debate in the 60s.

Fortunately, we have relatively objective measures of civic attitudes and behavior. The World Values Survey has compiled data on political and social attitudes with hundreds of survey questions to hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries since the early 1980s. I’ve compiled summary data for a few indicators (many of which are commonly employed in political behavior research) of civic attitudes in the US that were available for multiple years. A casual analysis of the results below provides some interesting, if ultimately inconclusive insights about variation in civic attitudes in America. First, interpersonal trust, one of the most widely used indicators of civic-ness in comparative survey research, has stayed remarkably constant since 1995. Second, the proportion of people that identified members of another race as people they would be uncomfortable having as neighbors has stayed relatively constant as well. Third, the proportion of people identifying with their local geographic unit, as opposed to the country as a whole, has not changed significantly. As anomalies, active membership in charitable organizations seems to have decreased, as has the proportion of people that report a high level of life satisfaction (although this effect could be from my aggregation of the responses). In short, although none of these indicators directly measure the vitriol of discourse, they do suggest that political and social behavior in the US has changed little, at least since 1995. I suppose it’s always possible that this particular health care debate brings out the worst in people, but I think that’s a tough case to make. (By way of caveat, I have not performed any statistical tests on these data, and I use “significant” in the colloquial, and not statistical, sense.)


1995

1999

2006

Total Sample

1542

1200

1249

Interpersonal Trust

Most People Can Be Trusted

543(35%)

431(36%)

491(39%)

You Can’t Be Too Careful

968(63%)

757(63%)

750(60%)

Member of charitable/humanitarian organization

Not a member

895(58%)

847(68%)

Inactive member

233(15%)

170(14%)

Active member

399(26%)

198(16%)

Would not like to have as neighbor- members of different race

Mentioned

110(7%)

97(8%)

48(4%)

Not mentioned

1432(93%)

1103(92%)

1192(95%)

Life satisfaction

1-3

68(4%)

38(3%)

51(4%)

4-7

513(33%)

436(36%)

537(43%)

8-10

953(62%)

726(61%)

653(52%)

Geographical identification

locality

486(32%)

384(32%)

region

147(10%)

128(11%)

country

606(39%)

405(34%)


That said, the CNN poll is interesting because it can be used as an indication of people’s perceptions. If relatively objective indicators of civic attitudes have not changed significantly, a really interesting question is why people perceive behavior to have done so. By way of one speculative hypothesis, the internet is a non-costly form of communication that facilitates the distribution of extreme discourse, even if the absolute number of people that harbor those opinions is relatively unchanged. Other thoughts?

The Repudiation of Rep. Joe Wilson

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has introduced a resolution disapproving of Rep. Wilson's outburst during the President's speech to a joint Congressional session last week. The text of the Wilson Resolution reads:
Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of
decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of
the House:

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on September 9, 2009.

In anticipation of the Wilson Resolution, RNC Chairman Michael Steele released this statement:

[C]ongressional Democrats are wasting taxpayers’ time and resources . . . so they don’t have to talk about their exceedingly unpopular health care plan . . . .

If we are going to march members down to the well of the House to apologize, Joe Wilson is going to have to get in line behind Nancy Pelosi, who attacked the intelligence community who protects us, Charlie Rangel who cheated on his taxes, Jack Murtha – a walking scandal, and we all know how the Democratic leadership tried to protect William Jefferson.

Steele's statement is of course nonsense. Not only is the healthcare reform not unpopular - it is, as Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, at best a matter of confusion for the American people - none of the individuals he mentioned embarrassed the House of Representatives - and in doing so, violated House rules - with such a grave breech of decorum as Rep. Wilson did last Wednesday. If any of those individuals have violated House rules it is up to the House to punish them, as it is doing with Rep. Wilson, and as it has done in the past.

Monday, September 14, 2009

re: The President's Healthcare Speech

Bret wrote a good post discussing the impact - or lack thereof - of the President's healthcare speech before he delivered it last week. While it is too early to tell what if any impact that speech has in fact had on the healthcare reform debate in Congress, several polls since the speech have measured a notable bump in the President's approval rating, both generally and for healthcare reform specifically. You can find the most recent poll, conducted by CNN/Opinion Research, here.

UPDATE: Shorter Nate Silver: the American people are confused. (h/t Bret)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meet Joe Wilson


Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) hails from the 2nd District of South Carolina. Wilson has served the good people of the 2nd District since winning a special election in 2001 following the death of Congressman Floyd Spence.

Rep. Wilson is also the gentleman who interrupted Pres. Obama during his address to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009. Mr. Obama, while attempting to dispell the myriad lies - yes, lies - propogated by the likes of Chuck Hagel, Sarah Palin, and the Wall Street Journal, noted that his plan would not provide health insurance to illegal immigrants. Rep. Wilson responded by shouting through the gallery, interrupting the President, "You lie!"

Rep. Wilson's outburst is indefensible. Wilson breached protocol by interrupting the President, shouting in the gallery, and labeling the President a liar. Sen. McCain has already called for Rep. Wilson to apologize. But apology is not sufficient. Even the Republican party, which continues to coddle partisans who adhere to such absurdities as denying President Obama's citizenship, must recognize there is no place for such behavior. The President and the Presidency are deserving of respect, at least as much respect as is shown for their colleagues in the House and the Senate, and in those august chambers.

Rep. Wilson should apologize. He should be shunned by his colleagues. He should be censured by the House.

UPDATE: Bret notes in comments that Wilson's outburst has been described as unprecedented -- I certainly have no living memory of anything like this happening. Former Congressman, now Chief of Staff, Emanuel claims it is unprecedented. Sen. Leahy notes that nothing like Wilson's shouts has occurred in his 35 years in the Senate.

Wilson has released a rather weak and, in my view, insufficient apology. As Scherer says, Rep. Wilson has apologized for the tone rather than the substance, and not at all for the incredible disrespect he showed the Presidency.

Rep. Wilson's website has crashed.

Wilson's Democratic opponent for 2010's website has crashed: RobMillerforCongress.com

Why the President's Health Care Speech Doesn't Matter

Ed Homick at CNN tackles the question of whether Obama's speech later today will change the game on the health care debate. John Sides at GW provides a survey of the ample historical evidence that presidential speeches matter very little.

A couple of additional thoughts on why Obama's address is unlikely to affect the healthcare debate:

1) The health care plans in circulation are already incredibly moderate. These are not single-payer, comprehensive national health insurance proposals, and yet the opposition has succeeding as painting them as a radical, slippery slope to government run healthcare. That strategy will continue even if the proposals become even more moderate by including the public option just as a trigger. No matter how Obama frames the proposals, the opposition will continue to insist he is just lying. There is no amount of effective communication when the opposition is this successful at generating mistrust.

2) Relatedly, oppositions don't care about specifics. Their job is to win electoral support by opposing. They will oppose for the sake of opposing, regardless of the content of the proposals or the President's framing of those contents.

3) Individual leaders and strategies don't matter.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Assessing Options in Afghanistan

Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane survey US policy options in Afghanistan in the New York Times today. Framing the debate as whether “the United States needs a large and growing ground force in Afghanistan to prevent another major terrorist attack,” Schmitt and Shane hear from Bruce Hoffman that

the argument that terrorism can be prevented essentially by remote control was
“immensely seductive” — and completely wrong. “We tried to contain the
terrorism problem in Afghanistan from a distance before 9/11,” [Hoffman] said.
“Look how well that worked.”
Hoffman continues:

[T]he success of strikes from Predators in killing Qaeda suspects in Pakistan
depended on accurate information on terrorists’ whereabouts from Pakistani
intelligence. In Afghanistan, without such sources, “we’d be flying blind,” he
said.

UPDATE: Peter Bergen weighs in on Afghanistan, noting that
  • More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.
  • One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.
    Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.
  • In 2008, Afghanistan's real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.
  • You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today.
Bergen concludes that Afghanistan is in better shape than it is made out to be.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

More on Stability (A Methodological Detour)

Last month, Foreign Policy released the latest edition of its Failed States Index. Given recent events in Pakistan and Iran, and the renewed discussion of the US national interest in a stable Afghanistan, it is worth doing some thinking about how we measure and explain state failure, using the FSI as a starting point. Despite its grounding in extensive empirical observation and its attempt at methodological sophistication, the FSI is a potentially misleading measure of propensity for failure.

A casual survey of the 2009 index reveals some potential empirical inconsistencies. Do we really believe that North Korea is at roughly the same risk of failure as states like Haiti and Ethiopia? Are China’s communist party and Israel’s democracy really as vulnerable as the regimes in places like Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, or even Russia for that matter? Regional comparisons are also problematic. For example, Uzbekistan, under the control of Islam Karimov’s authoritarian regime since independence, is rated at greater risk of failure than both Tajikstan, which is less than ten years removed from civil war, and Kyrgyzstan, which less than five years removed from the Tulip Revolution, and is arguably characterized by organized crime groups competing for power.

Part of the reason for these discrepancies is that Failed States Index is a bit of a misnomer. I suspect many casual analysts, including myself at times, have used the FSI as an indicator of state strength or weakness. In fact, Foreign Policy argues that the index is a measure of a state’s risk of failure (loosely defined as vulnerability to collapse or conflict). The index is composed of the aggregation of 1-10 rankings on 12 indicators of social, economic, and political cohesion and performance. As such, the FSI is an implied explanation for why states fail, and a poor one at that.

If your aim is to produce an explanation (or prediction) for state failure, social and economic indicators should be analytically separated from the political. Strong political institutions may be able to absorb the demands arising from the economic and social pressures the FSI incorporates. Furthermore, state strength must not be defined in terms of its ability to incorporate these demands. A better way to explain state failure would be to establish independent measures of state capacity or efficacy (say an index including degree of monopoly on force, degree of autonomy/meritocracy of the bureaucracy, quality of public goods provisions, degree of “stateness” problems, etc). The FSI political indicators actually provide a rough approximation of what this measure should look like (arranging the rankings according to these indicators results in some interesting reorderings. Then, having established variation on this index, the degree to which social and economic factors explain this variation is an empirical question. Regressing the political indicators on the social and economic indicators would provide a better idea of the significance and relative weights of these factors’ effects on state failure. An alternate approach would be a survival model using these 12 indicators as independent variables. I’m sure there is no shortage of academic analyses of this type (the State Failure Project/Political Instability Task Force comes to mind), but the inability of social science to make their work accessible to the policy community is another matter.

The way that you conceptualize and explain failed states has real and important implications for policy. For example, the argument that al Qaeda was nourished in an environment of relative state capacity strikes me as revisionism. Going forward, this debate requires the explicit identification of what constitutes a strong state capacity, and the careful identifications of the most important factors that cause variation in capacity. In short, the FSI succeeds in its goal of providing a “starting point for the discussion of why states fail.” However, the uncritical use of these types of indices in policy analysis and decision making is likely to lead to the misallocation of scarce resources to either A) prop up states that don’t need it, or B) correct problems that really have no effect on state failure.

On Stability

Colin has repeatedly suggested that the United States should abandon Afghanistan. He believes that the costs of occupying Afghanistan are greater than the potential benefits. He does not, however, identify potential costs and he seems to suggest that stability is not a worthy goal. Indeed, he has questioned whether instability is a bona fide threat to US national security.

Let me begin by noting that I do not agree with every aspect of the United States strategy in Afghanistan. As I have noted in previous posts, there are facets of US strategy that need great reform, particularly the US approach to poppy growth and opium production. I am also in agreement with Colin in so far as I question whether that is an achievable goal. Colin and I – so far as I can tell – diverge on the question of what US goals ought to be and whether those goals are achievable. As I have written previously, I do not believe that western style democracy is in the offing in Afghanistan but I do believe that stability there is achievable and that it is worthwhile goal for the United States from a national security perspective.

States are best able to deal with other states. It is unsurprising that after several hundred years of a state-centric international (or at least, western international order), states are predisposed to develop and effectuate policies with a view towards other states. The international system is likewise designed to account for interactions between and among states. This system provides a convenient hierarchy for decision making – it is a heuristic that allows decision makers to contextualize events and place them in appropriate bins: international organization, state or individual; interstate or intrastate.

Stability within and among states is thus convenient and, to some extent, necessary for states to craft responses. But stability for its own sake is not a sufficient reason for the United States to be involved in Afghanistan. Indeed, creating instability has, at times, been a useful tool for the United States and an appropriate goal for the United States. For example, the United States fueled the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan because creating a quagmire in Afghanistan for the Soviet army allowed the United States to inflict non-trivial damage on the Soviet Union for little cost. Instability there, and at that time, was an appropriate goal.

However, persistent instability, once a policy goal has been achieved – in the case of Afghanistan, depleting Soviet resources, driving the Red Army out of Afghanistan, and contributing to the collapse of the U.S.S.R – serves no positive foreign policy objective and can become a source of insecurity.

Afghanistan is frequently depicted as having been chaos under the Taliban. That was not in fact the case. While the Taliban were a backwards and despicable regime, they did provide some semblance of order. There writ was weak and the extent of their control territorial speaking was limited. Within this limited control, Al Qaeda was able to carve out what amounted to a fiefdom in Afghanistan – an area of the country, nominally under Taliban control, run by Al Qaeda. Within that space, Al Qaeda was able to conduct its operations, culminating with the September 11, 2001 attacks.

So, non-state threats to the United States are not necessarily born from chaos. But a weak state allows non-state threats to operate with impunity. When those non-state threats are given access to infrastructure that facilitates a global reach – airports, say – through porous borders, then the ability of that non-state organization to act with impunity within a putative state is a threat to the national security of the United States.

Additionally, a weak state affording the non-state actor safe haven (potentially unknowingly or unwillingly) presents the United States with a policy dilemma. How does the United States address the non-state threat? Traditionally, the United States could demand the state to turn over member of the non-state organization, or demand that the state cease facilitating the non-state organization under threat of some sort of state-driven reprisal. But this presumes that the state is sufficiently cohesive to comply with US wishes, or sufficiently cohesive for the United States’ state-driven reprisals to have effect. The United States might pressure the non-state actor directly and by-pass the putative state. Or, the United States might attack both the sheltering state and the non-state actor simultaneously – as it did in Afghanistan in 2001.

This is not to say, however, that instability does not present a threat to the United States as well. First, it would be hard to imagine a state that is sufficiently chaotic in which a cohesive non-state actor would not be able to setup a fiefdom like Al Qaeda managed to do in Afghanistan before 2001. Even in Somalia, the preeminent example of a collapsed state in chaos, features areas of either incredible stability (Somalialand) or areas that have been pacified by a non-state actor to facilitate the non-state actor’s goal (see Islamic Courts Union). Second, the net effect of one state’s instability on US national security must be examined on a case-by-case basis: Has there been spillover? If so, what are the consequences of the spill-over? How do those consequences impact US national security? This is not a linear system and its effects may not be immediately nor readily identifiable.

In Afghanistan, spill-over has been obvious. The Pashtu-based insurgency that rose up in the wake of the US invasion in 2001 has traditional cross-border links. The porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistan border and the relatively weak control Pakistan exerts over its border areas provided the Pashtu insurgency with safe haven – another, though slightly removed, example of instability threatening US national security. This, in turn, has fueled a Pashtu-based insurgency in Pakistan, attacking the state. Disruption of Pakistan is a threat to the national security of the United States – that is self-evident.

At this point, while the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies have separate goals, they clearly contribute to each other. It is highly unlikely that in leaving Afghanistan, the insurgency in Pakistan will burn-out. Leaving Afghanistan, however, will remove whatever ability the United States has had to prevent the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency from using Afghanistan as a safe haven in its war against the Pakistani state. That the Afghan state is currently too weak to provide a similar role is apparent, and the likelihood that an abandoned Afghanistan would give the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency strategic depth militates against the United States leaving. Further, there is little reason to believe that, should the United States abandon Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda or some other non-state actor would not be able to carve out yet another fiefdom where it could enjoy operational freedom, engendering an additional threat to the United States.

Building a stable Afghan state with a government able to exercise its writ sufficiently to prevent the development of a new non-state fiefdom is no easy trick. That said, abandoning the Afghan project is the only way to guarantee failure with regard to that strategic objective. Yes, leaving would stem American expense of blood and treasure in the short-term. It is likely that in the medium and long term, however, quitting Afghanistan at this stage, will only cost the United States greater expenditures of both. Failure of long-term policy thinking and engagement during and following the last Afghan war contributed directly to the attacks of September 11, 2001. These failures are hallmarks of US foreign policy making in the post-War era. But making the same mistake, in the same place, twice is not just bad policy, it’s criminal. Simply abandoning Afghanistan would be just that.

UPDATE: Ahmed Rashid writes in today's Washington Post:
Many dissenters in Washington, such as columnist George Will, insist that the Afghans are incapable of learning and unwilling to build a modern state. Others, including former British diplomat Rory Stewart, argue that Afghan society should be left alone. But the dissenters do not sufficiently acknowledge the past failures of the Bush administration that led us to this impasse. What's worse, they offer no solutions.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Media, Deliberation, and General Silliness in the Healthcare debate

In a blog entry for Newsweek, Jenny Hontz discusses the influence of Facebook on healthcare reform, and spuriously concludes that it has some. In contrast to some other shameless glorifications of technology in the media, Hontz at least provides some evidence for her inference: one advertising cliche, one B-list celebrity, and 7 or 8 anecdotes/off the cuff comments from "experts." The reality is that there is no evidence to support the idea that Facebook status updates have ever affected major policy decisions, and no reason to believe they ever will.

Hontz's reference to social networks as "the real town halls" leads to me to believe the root of this general silliness in the media lies in a popular, and fundamental, misunderstanding of the nature of democratic politics. Much animosity and general frustration generated by the healthcare debate would be ameliorated if we just dispensed with the myth that American democracy is somehow deliberative. Over 50 years ago, Joseph Schumpeter conceived of democracy as a marketplace in which political entrepreneurs compete for customers in the form of voters in elections. Democracy is not a process by which reasonable people come together to discuss differences and arrive at a common good, which becomes policy. Politicians make policy, or don't, because of their calculations about what will win them elections, not by getting together in the Senate chamber and changing each others' minds about what serves the best interests of society.

Viewed in this sense, the healthcare debate looks less passionate and more rational. The idea that town halls are deliberative is silly. Elected representatives in opposition are in the privileged position of not having to make policy. Instead the opposition just does what it does best- oppose. Not with specific alternatives or reasoned debate, but with misinformation, name calling, and general populist rhetoric. Of course they have no incentive to reign in this type of rhetoric at town halls, because town halls are primarily a mechanism for the transmission of voters' intentions, not for deliberation.

Analogously, there are two mechanisms by which online social networks might affect policy. The first is that they facilitate deliberation, which Hontz argues is occurring on healthcare, a proposition for which there is absolutely no evidence. Second, networks may facilitate the transmission voter intentions. This mechanism is certainly more plausible, but the evidence that representatives respond to these intentions is thus far scant. As Hontz rightfully notes, updating your Facebook status is cheap talk, and may not be a credible signal of your intention to support. In any case, a more careful consideration of the democratic process, and more accumulation of serious evidence is necessary before we start declaring that "Facebook Revolts" are shaping policy making.