Conservative hard-liner elected as Iran’s next president – what that means for the West and the nuclear deal

Ebrahim Raisi, seen here during a 2017 rally, is expected to win Iran’s presidential election.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Nader Habibi, Brandeis UniversityIran’s conservative rulers’ effort to orchestrate the outcome of the June 18 presidential election triggered a voter boycott – but the result may still bode well for ongoing negotiations over the lapsed 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s Interior Ministry on June 19 announced that the winner is Ebrahim Raisi, chief of Iran’s judiciary and close ally of the supreme leader. He was all but assured of victory after the candidates who could have posed a serious challenge to him – including three reformists – were disqualified and prevented from participating in the election.

The unprecedented disqualifications outraged large groups of liberal and moderate voters, and many boycotted the election. As a result, the turnout was just 49%.

But who is Ebrahim Raisi, and how will his presidency alter Iran’s domestic and foreign policies? As an economist and close observer of Iran, I believe we can start to answer these questions by exploring his past.

Loyal insider

Raisi is a loyal regime insider with a long career in Iran’s judicial branch, which goes back more than four decades.

He was only 19 when the Islamic revolution deposed the shah in 1979. As a young Islamic activist, he caught the attention of several top revolutionary clerics, including Ali Khamenei, who became Iran’s supreme leader a decade later.

Named the general-prosecutor of Kataj – a small city near Tehran – at age 20, Raisi quickly rose to more prominent positions. In 1989, when Khamenei replaced Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, Raisi was promoted to chief prosecutor-general of Tehran.

This promotion reflected the high level of trust that Khamenei had in him. While serving in these positions, Raisi also attended seminary and religious studies under Khamenei and other influential religious leaders.

Executing dissidents and fighting corruption

During the first decade of his career, Raisi convicted a large number of dissidents and political opponents of the Islamic regime and sentenced many of them to death.

Regime critics and his political opponents have condemned his direct role in these executions, particularly the large number of political prisoners who were executed in 1988.

From 1994 to 2004, Raisi served as head of Iran’s general inspector office, which is responsible for preventing abuse of power and corruption in government institutions. It was in this position that he developed a reputation as a crusader against government corruption. Even as he was appointed as the first deputy chief justice in 2004 and finally promoted to chief justice in March 2019, he continued his fight against corruption by prosecuting many government officials.

His critics have argued, however, that his fight against corruption has been highly politicized and selective. They claimed that he targeted individuals who were affiliated with his political rivals such as President Hassan Rouhani.

Raisi first ran for president in 2017 but was defeated by Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani, who after two terms is ineligible to run again.

In this year’s election, Raisi was the favorite candidate of the conservative right wing of the Islamic ruling elite and also enjoys the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has absolute power over all branches of government. Khamenei also directly appoints half of the 12-member Council of Guardians, which oversees all political elections and has the power to disqualify candidates without any public explanation. Khamenei publicly endorsed and defended the disqualifications.

Likely return to the nuclear deal

One of the institutional weaknesses of Iran’s political system since the 1979 Islamic revolution is the potential for tension and disagreement between the elected presidents and the supreme leader.

That is, unlike in the U.S. system of government, the Iranian president’s powers are extremely limited. For example, a reformist president may want to engage more with the West or stay out of a foreign conflict, but the supreme leader could overrule or simply ignore him.

As a protege and close ally of the supreme leader, Raisi is expected to support Khamenei’s policies on both domestic and foreign policy – which means more coordination between the various branches of government. With the Parliament also dominated by Khamenei supporters, it also means that the conservatives will control all three branches of the government once again after eight years.

This harmony means Raisi will be a lot more effective as president because whatever policies he pursues will most likely be supported by the supreme leader.

And perhaps ironically, his victory could pave the way for a more compromising attitude on the side of Iran in the negotiations that are currently underway in Vienna for restoration of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which was derailed by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.

The reason for this unconventional prediction is that both reformist and conservative factions in Iran are fully aware that a new nuclear agreement, which could end the severe economic sanctions imposed on the country, is highly popular. The team that signs the agreement will receive credit for ending the economic hardship the country is currently enduring. For example, inflation is over 50%, exports have plunged due to the sanctions and over 60% of the population is now in poverty, up from 48% just two years ago.

With Raisi president, the conservatives and the supreme leader have greater incentives to reach an agreement with the United States for lifting the sanctions as they can no longer blame a reformist president for the economic hardships.

The success of this strategy, however, is far from guaranteed.

First, if Khamenei, Raisi and their hard-line supporters insist on maintaining Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, it seems unlikely to me that the economic sanctions against Iran will ease. Not all of them are tied directly to the nuclear deal, including sanctions against Raisi himself.

Second, the growing alienation and frustration of large segments of Iran’s population – especially after reformists were banned from running for president – may still lead to mass unrest and political instability.

An Iranian woman holds out her hand, which has the name 'Raisi' on it written in Persian script
An Iranian woman shows her support for Raisi by writing his name, in Persian, on her hand.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Supreme Leader Raisi?

Raisi’s victory may have an even more significant impact on Iran’s politics in the long run because it might pave the way for him to become Iran’s next supreme leader.

Ayatollah Khamenei is in his 80s, and a succession to a new supreme leader is considered probable in the next four years. According to many regime insiders, Raisi became the most likely person to replace Khamenei by winning the presidential election.

If Raisi eventually becomes Iran’s supreme leader, he would have far more powers to shape all types of policies. Based on his background and values, he is likely to resist political and social reforms and try to gain legitimacy for the Islamic regime by focusing on economic development in a similar fashion to the authoritarian regimes in Asia, such as China, by focusing on economic growth while curtailing political and social freedoms.

Raisi – and eventually as the supreme leader – is unlikely to abandon Iran’s anti-Western foreign policy, but he has the potential to lower the tensions to a more manageable level in order to improve Iran’s economy.

In my view, he seems to have recognized that the continuation of current economic hardships poses the largest threat to the Islamic regime in the long run.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Nader Habibi, Henry J. Leir Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Momentum vs underdog status: this time the advantage is with Joe Biden

Lionel Page, University of Technology Sydney

Polls highly favour Joe Biden to win the US presidential election.

These polls are not just abstract information. By telling prospective voters who is the most likely to win, can they influence the result of the election by playing a role in the voters’ decision? The evidence says yes, and it most likely favours Biden.

In theory, you could imagine two possible effects of polls. First, a momentum effect. Second, an underdog effect.

A momentum effect could benefit the candidate either leading or gaining in the polls. It can motivate their supporters to vote (the bandwagon effect) and demotivate the supporters of the other candidate (the discouragement effect).

CNN’s ‘Poll of Polls’ as October 22 2020.

An underdog effect, on the other hand, could penalise the leading candidate. This is because supporters think it’s a done deal and don’t mobilise to vote (resting on their laurels) or because the supporters of the trailing candidate are motivated by the idea of losing (a back-to-the-wall effect).

These different effects tap into some of our intuitive psychology. It is therefore hard to know the net effect of polls.

Some evidence points to the possibility of an underdog effect when a party is just behind. This was the case in 2016, when Trump edged out Hillary Clinton in key states despite her lead in national polls. But the overwhelming message from the relevant research is that positive polls increase a candidate’s chance of winning.

Momentum effect: it helps to be ahead

In laboratory experiments recreating elections in controlled settings, California Institute of Technology economist Marina Agranov and colleagues found polls “lead to more participation by the expected majority and generate more landslide elections”.

A similar effect has been observed in real elections.

Using polling and voting data from French elections, my colleagues and I have looked at how those yet to vote were influenced by early exit polls giving a fairly precise prediction of the result.

France has the longest election day in the world, due to its overseas territories in the Pacific. When the first exit poll is released at 8pm in Paris, for example, it is just 9am in Tahiti, where people are still to decide if they will vote and for whom.

We found that knowledge of polls pointing to a certain outcome meant voters in such territories were less likely to vote. In particular, they were less likely to vote for the losing candidate. It led to a momentum effect for the leading candidate in mainland France, tending to increase their share of the vote in territories voting later.

A similar momentum effect has been discerned in Britain. Before 1918, general elections were held over a two-week period. The side ahead in the first days of the election tended to benefit from an increasing advantage, which peaked on about the eighth day of voting.

The West Coast effect

In the United States the possibility of such an effect of early information has been discussed as the “West Coast effect”, whereby voters in California and other western US states can be influenced by early results from the east coast, three hours ahead.

This issue became very salient in 1980 when NBC released an early prediction at 8pm New York time that Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would beat Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Ronald Reagan declares victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter on election night, November 5 1980.

The polls were still open in many western states at the time. Research found this early call had a discouraging effect on prospective Democrat voters, making them less likely to vote.

Given this converging evidence, it is no surprise partisan organisations tend to use favourable polls to push a winning narrative to their support base.

As a consequence of polls’ possible strategic effect, polling companies are tightly regulated in modern democracies. Polling companies do not tend to produce polls that skew results for partisan reasons. Whatever errors occur tend to be due to flaws in polling methodology, rather than being deliberate.

Read more:
How might the campaign’s endgame be disrupted? Here are five scenarios, drawn from the history of election polling

Manipulating betting markets

However, people who want to influence the public narrative about who is winning can influence something: betting markets.

These are used to estimate the candidates’ winning chances. On these markets, people can put their money where their mouth is, and bet on the candidate they think will win.

Betting market predictions, October 27 2020
Betting market predictions, October 27 2020.

But what if someone is willing to put a lot of money on a candidate they want to win, in a bid to skew the market predictions?

There is an incentive to manipulate betting markets’ prices, to influence voters by suggesting a candidate’s prospects are better than they actually are.

Research and experiments have shown that, in theory, such markets can be manipulated to move prices in one direction.

To do so in the real world would likely require spending many millions of dollars, But given the huge amounts spent in US campaigns, such expenditure is feasible.

Read more:
Vital Signs: for the best election predictions, look to the betting markets, not the opinion polls

Trump’s chances overrated

In 2020, Trump’s chances have been surprisingly high in betting markets given the polls. What does research say about this fact?

In past research, I have found political betting markets tend to be biased toward 50%. That is, they tend to say the race is closer to 50/50 than it is. This bias is larger than on other types of betting markets (such as sports) – and would be expected if manipulators try to influence the prices.

I estimate the 35% chance these betting markets are giving to a Trump win may be skewing the results by 15 percentage points – meaning Trump more accurately has a 20% chance of victory.

For more accurate predictions, therefore, you are better looking at those from professional forecasters, such as Five Thirty Eight and The Economist. In these forecasts Trump has only 5-12% chance of winning. Importantly, Biden’s advantage appears much firmer than what Clinton had in 2016.

Forecast from The Economist: Winning chances of each candidate.

But even these predictions may be overestimated. As pointed out by one of the best forecasters in the US, Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman, professional forecasters have an interest in hedging their bets to preserve their reputation.

These low forecasts have a striking implication. Putting money on Biden now is a relatively safe bet. It may also help move the betting market predictions in Biden’s favour.The Conversation

Lionel Page, Professor in Economics, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What would a Biden presidency mean for Australia?

Andrew Harnik/AP/AAP

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

American presidential elections do not, as a rule, change the calculus much for Australian foreign policy. Elections come and go, American presidents complete their terms and business continues more or less as normal.

Even Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 due to Watergate caused not much more than a ripple in what had been a difficult relationship between Washington and Canberra during the Whitlam era.

Gough Whitlam and his ministers had criticised US bombing campaigns in Hanoi and the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong.

Importantly from Australia’s perspective, Gerald Ford continued Nixon’s engagement with China. This led to the normalisation of relations under Jimmy Carter in 1978.

While it would be foolish to predict the outcome of presidential elections whose results have confounded pollsters in the recent past, odds favour a change of an administration.

President Donald Trump’s blunders in the management of a pandemic are weighing heavily on both his electoral prospects and those of the Republican Party.

So, with all the caveats attached, it is reasonable to speculate about implications for Australia of a change of administration.

Read more:
Trump can’t delay the election, but he can try to delegitimise it

An end to Trump’s “America First” era and its replacement by a traditionalist American foreign policy under Joe Biden, which emphasises friendships and alliances, will create new opportunities.

Importantly, a less abrasive international environment, in which America seeks to rebuild confidence in its global leadership, should be to Australia’s advantage.

An end to the abrasive, ‘America first’ foreign policy of the Trump administration would benefit Australia.
AAP/AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Not least of the benefits would be an opportunity for Canberra to reset its relations with Beijing. This is a long-overdue project whose fulfilment has been complicated by Australia’s identification with Washington’s erratic policies coupled with Sinophobic attitudes in Canberra.

None of this is to suggest Australia should drop its legitimate criticisms of China: its human rights abuses; its cyber intrusions; its intellectual property theft; its attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics; its flagrant disregard for criticisms of its activities in the South China Sea; its unprincipled reneging on its “one country two systems” agreements on Hong Kong, and a host of other issues.

Read more:
Hopes of an improvement in Australia-China relations dashed as Beijing ups the ante

Indeed, you could argue Canberra needs to be more forthright in its dealings with China in pursuit of a more distinctive foreign policy.

Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed glimmers of promise in this regard. But this proved short-lived.

In an Asialink speech in the lead-up to the 2019 Osaka G20 summit, Morrison sketched out a role for Australia in seeking to defuse tensions in the region and provide some space for itself in its foreign policy. He said:

We should not just sit back and passively await our fate in the wake of a major power contest.

The speech was regarded at the time as promising a nuanced Morrison foreign policy. But since then the Australia has not ventured far from America’s coattails.

Indeed, it might be said to have cleaved even more closely to the US alliance as China’s rise has unsettled the region.

This returns us to implications of a potential Biden administration for Australia.

It would be naive to assume tensions between Washington and Beijing will dissipate under a Biden presidency. Such is the range of issues bedevilling Sino-US relations that some rancour will persist.

Much has changed in the four years since Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama. China is richer, bigger, stronger, more assertive and seemingly more ideological. It is certainly more nationalistic.

In Xi Jinping, it has a leader who is more conspicuously and ruthlessly committed to restoring China’s greatness than his predecessors.

Gone are the days when discussion about China revolved around hopes it would become a responsible international stakeholder willing to accommodate itself to an America-dominated global order. Now the issue is whether China’s assertiveness can be hedged to avoid open conflict.

Read more:
Beware the ‘cauldron of paranoia’ as China and the US slide towards a new kind of cold war

If elected, Biden will need to settle on a new formula for dealing with China that provides certainty for an anxious global community. Whether this proves possible remains to be seen.

It should also be noted that Biden’s foreign policy advisory team includes hawkish elements that will resist yielding ground to China. Biden himself has referred to China’s leader Xi as a “thug”, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy realists are not burdened by an “America First” mindset. His team can be expected to take an expansive view of American foreign policy on issues like climate change, arms control and rebuilding a global trading system battered by years of neglect.

A Democrat administration would re-enter the Paris Agreement on climate change. It could also be expected to review Trump’s decision to disengage from the Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc and it might seek to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.

These would be positive developments from an Australian standpoint.

Unquestionably, re-ordering China policy will be at the top of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, and separate from the absolute domestic imperative of bringing a COVID-19 pandemic under control.

Australia should take advantage of the opportunity to explore possibilities of a less counterproductive relationship with its principal trading partner.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Biden increases lead after debate and Trump’s coronavirus; Labor gains Queensland lead

AAP/Ap/Julio Cortez

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

With four weeks left until the November 3 election, the FiveThirtyEight aggregate of US national polls gives Joe Biden a 9.0% lead over Donald Trump (51.4% to 42.4%). Biden’s lead has increased 1.4% since an October 1 article I wrote for The Poll Bludger.

In the key states, Biden leads by 7.5% in Michigan, 7.0% in Wisconsin, 6.6% in Pennsylvania, 4.3% in Arizona and 3.4% in Florida. If Biden wins the states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, plus Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he wins the election with at least 278 of the 538 Electoral Votes.

Pennsylvania is still the “tipping-point” state that could potentially put either Trump or Biden over the 270 EVs required to win. But it is polling closer to Wisconsin and Michigan than in the recent past. The current difference between Pennsylvania and the national vote is 2.4% in favour of Trump.

There are five states where Biden is either just ahead or just behind: North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio. If Biden won all of them, he would win a blowout victory with over 400 EVs.

In the FiveThirtyEight forecast, Trump still has a 17% chance to win, though only an 8% chance to win the popular vote. Trump’s chances have declined 4% since last week. Still, a 17% chance is the probability of rolling a six on a six-sided die.

Trump’s ratings with all polls in theFiveThirtyEight aggregateare 43.4% approve, 53.0% disapprove (net -9.6%). With polls of likely or registered voters, Trump’s ratings are 43.7% approve, 53.0% disapprove (net -9.3%). His net approval has declined about one point since last week.

The FiveThirtyEight Classic Senate forecast gives Democrats a 70% chance to win, up 2% since last week. The most likely outcome is a narrow 51 to 49 Democratic majority, unchanged from last week. The forecast gives Democrats an 80% chance of holding between 48 and 55 seats after the election.

Trump’s coronavirus

Perhaps there would have been some public sympathy for Trump had his coronavirus appeared to be bad luck. But it is likely Trump and other prominent Republicans’ coronavirus infections occurred at a September 26 event to announce Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The footage shows people sitting close together, without face masks. This created an impression of reckless conduct by Trump and other Republicans in ignoring medical advice.

In a CNN poll taken after Trump’s coronavirus, 60% disapproved and 37% approved of Trump’s handling of coronavirus; his -23 net approval is a record low on that issue. 63% thought Trump had acted irresponsibly and just 33% thought he had been responsible.

An additional problem for Trump is that coronavirus is back in the headlines. As Trump is perceived to have been poor on this issue, that helps Biden. New US daily cases have plateaued between 30,000 and 50,000.

Biden wins first presidential debate

The first presidential debate between Biden and Trump occurred on September 29. A CBS News post-debate scientific poll gave Biden a narrow 48-41 victory, while a CNN poll gave him a far more emphatic 60-28 win. Trump needed a clear win to change the current polling. There will be two more presidential debates on October 15 and 22, and a vice presidential debate Thursday AEDT.

The major headlines from the debate were that it was a shouting match, and Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists. I have said before that the US economy’s fast recovery from the April coronavirus lows is Trump’s best asset for re-election, but he did nothing during the debate to tell a positive story about the economy.

Concerning the Supreme Court fight over Ginsburg’s replacement, a Morning Consult poll found a record 62% supported the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), while 24% were opposed. In March, this was 55-29 support. There is clear danger for Trump and Republicans in appointing a judge who may overturn Obamacare.

US employment growth slows

The September US jobs report was the last before the November 3 election. 661,000 jobs were created, and the unemployment rate dropped 0.5% to 7.9%. This was the first month with fewer than a million jobs added since the April nadir.

The unemployment rate has almost halved from April’s 14.7%. But the gain in September was mainly attributable to a 0.3% slide in the participation rate, to 61.4%. The employment population ratio – the percentage of eligible Americans who are employed – increased just 0.1% to 56.6%. It is 1.6% below where it was at the lowest point of the recovery from the global financial crisis (58.2%).

Trump may have undermined his relative advantage on the economy, compared to other issues, by withdrawing from negotiations with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a new stimulus bill. An article by analyst Nate Silver says stimulus spending was very popular: in a September Siena poll for The New York Times, voters supported a $US 2 trillion stimulus by a 72-23 margin.

Queensland YouGov: 52-48 to Labor

The Queensland election will be held on October 31. A YouGov poll, conducted September 24 to October 1 from a sample of 2,000, gave Labor a 52-48 lead, a four-point gain for Labor since the last such poll in June. A Queensland Newspoll, which is conducted by YouGov, gave the LNP a 51-49 lead in late July.

Primary votes were 37% Labor (up five since the June YouGov), 37% LNP (down one), 12% Greens (steady) and 9% One Nation (down three). Figures are from The Poll Bludger.

The overall shift in this poll is a 1% swing to Labor since the 2017 election. Regional breakdowns gave Labor a 57-43 lead in Brisbane (1% swing to the LNP), the LNP a 54-46 lead on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts (3% swing to Labor) and the LNP a 53-47 lead in regional Queensland (1% swing to the LNP).

57% (up eight) approved of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s performance and 27% (down six) disapproved, for a net approval of +30, up 14 points. Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington had a net approval of -3, up six points. Palaszczuk led as better premier by 48-22 (44-23 in June).

The movement to Labor is likely a result of Queensland’s handling of coronavirus. But polls greatly overstated Labor’s Queensland performance at the 2019 federal election, although they were accurate at the 2017 Queensland state election.

New Zealand: latest poll has Labour short of majority

Last week’s Colmar Brunton New Zealand poll had Labour on 47%, National 33%, ACT 8% and the Greens 7%. If repeated at the October 17 election, Labour would win 59 of the 120 seats, two short of a majority. You can read more at my personal website.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With Trump in hospital, uncertainty reigns. It’s not likely to end any time soon

Daniel Cooper, Griffith University and Brendon O’Connor, University of Sydney

As the 2020 US presidential election draws near, close to 209,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and over 7.3 million have tested positive to the virus, including President Donald Trump.

The announcement of Trump’s positive diagnosis has led to arguably the most extensive case of collective schadenfreude in human history. Taking pleasure in another person being unwell is usually a sign that one has lost one’s moral bearings.

In this case, Trump‘s own cavalier behaviour and attempts to gaslight not just his own nation but the entire world on the dangers posed by COVID-19 (on top of a series of other lies and cruel policies) has led to a widespread lack of sympathy.

In the US, Trump‘s opponents and critics have gone out of their way to publicly wish Trump a speedy recovery.

But globally, the story is more complicated. Trump isn’t everyone’s president, of course, and he is seen by many as a singular threat to humanity and the global environment.

Recent Pew surveys show how deeply unpopular Trump is globally. Normally sanguine commentators have been talking about the death of democracy in the US if Trump steals victory from the jaws of defeat.

Our view is the most preferable way for the Trump presidency to end is for him to recover quickly and be beaten clearly on November 3. However, because people are so invested in this year’s election, there is much interest in what happens if Trump does not recover quickly. There is uncertainty on a number of fronts.

Read more:
Donald Trump has COVID-19. How might this affect his chances of re-election?

Much will depend on how sick Trump becomes

Although receiving the best medical care, at 74, Trump is in a high-risk category. We know that for many people, symptoms appear similar to that of the flu, often quite mild to begin with, but with the potential for things to go downhill quickly, especially if those contracting the illness develop respiratory complications.

There are conflicting reports from Washington about how sick Trump actually is, and much will depend on what happens in the next few days.

So what happens if the president is incapacitated in the coming weeks, or even dies from COVID-19?

First, if the president dies in office, there is a long line of succession starting with the vice president — in this case, Mike Pence. This is hardly unprecedented, as eight American presidents have died in office. The first of these, William Harrison, died of pneumonia after serving just over 30 days in office in 1841.

Following the vice president, there is a host of congressional leaders and cabinet secretaries identified as next in line. This starts with the speaker of house, which in this case would be Nancy Pelosi, the Californian Democrat whose relationship with Trump, to put it mildly, is not good. In other words, if Trump dies, there is a succession plan.

However, what complicates matters is that more people within the Trump circle are testing positive by the day.

Even if Trump does not die, what happens if he has a lengthy illness? What happens if Pence, who has initially tested negative, also contracts the virus in the coming days? If neither of these men are fit to run for the looming election, now less than one month away, how will the process play itself out?

If Trump becomes incapacitated and unable to govern, Vice President Mike Pence will take over.
AAP/AP/ Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

If Trump and Pence were both unable to campaign as a result of contracting the virus, this would truly be unprecedented. Americans have had controversial elections in the past — elections in which neither candidate received the required number of electoral college votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives; those where the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency.

So if both Trump and Pence were incapacitated, the Republican National Committee would have some difficult choices to make — and they would have to make them quick.

The election will likely go ahead on November 3

At this stage, a delay of the election is extremely unlikely. This would require congressional authorisation and the Constitution requires through the 20th Amendment that a president must commence their new term on January 20. Time is the enemy, and advantages Biden. Democrats in the House, where they have a majority, would not countenance changing the election date.

However, even if Trump only develops a mild version of the illness, it has shaken up the campaign. Information on Trump’s condition is conflicting. Some reports suggest he is improving and in good spirits, others suggest he has already required a dose of supplemental oxygen.

The presidential debates are unlikely to go ahead and Trump will not be campaigning anytime soon. In the short term, Trump’s presence in his campaign will be virtual. If any Republican is to spend time in key swing states, it will be Pence.

If Trump recovers, he will want to project an image of strength — the “warrior” president who battled and defeated COVID-19. This might seem far-fetched, but creating an image of manly vigour has been central to the Trump presidency. Trump does not like images of weakness.

In Geoffrey Goldberg’s controversial article, he argues Trump fails to comprehend the notion of heroism, concluding the president, while “fixated on staging military parades”, does not like to include wounded veterans in such parades.

Uncomfortable with deformity, endlessly mocking those he considers weak and inferior, the president, if he recovers, could reappear late in the election cycle with a renewed swagger, boasting about his personal exploits against what he calls the “China plague”. His base would relish such images.

And what about Joe Biden?

However, it is difficult to see how this situation will not advantage Biden.

As long as Biden, who is 77, stays healthy, he has quite a bit of latitude in terms of how and where he campaigns. He will continue to express his perfunctory well wishes to the president and first lady, but given Biden has spoken incessantly about the president’s failures to combat COVID-19, the disease will be the dominant issue of this election — and so it should.

Trump’s illness will likely be of benefit to Democrat Joe Biden in the election campaign.
AAP/AP/Andrew Harnik

With more than 200,000 Americans dead, most of whom, unlike the president, never had personal physicians, were not rushed to Walter Reed medical centre, and were not given drugs such as the anti-viral remdesivir to shorten their hospital stays, it is hard to resist the notion Biden will not consolidate his lead.

Read more:
Coalition regains Newspoll lead; time running out for Trump

Without the debates, Biden can avoid tricky questions about what he will do to the Supreme Court if Republicans insist on a vote for Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, will do everything in their power to make sure this vote goes forward to consolidate the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. However, with three Republican Senators recently contracting the virus, a vote before the election is not guaranteed. Again, the longer the uncertainty lasts, and the more Senators who become infected, Biden may secure the advantage of a delayed vote, if indeed the vote takes place at all.

But as Trump recently said to journalist Bob Woodward in Rage, the controversial book in which the president admitted to knowing how serious this virus was despite publicly downplaying its threat to the American people, when “you’re running a country it’s full of surprises. There’s dynamite behind every door”.

The same can be said for the 2020 presidential election.The Conversation

Daniel Cooper, Lecturer at Griffith University, Griffith University and Brendon O’Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The first US presidential debate was pure chaos. Here’s what our experts thought


Timothy J. Lynch, University of Melbourne; Jared Mondschein, University of Sydney, and Sarah John, Flinders University

After nearly an hour of bickering — at times shouting — between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor moderating the first US presidential debate, finally lost his patience.

“I hate to raise my voice, but why should I be any different from the two of you,” he admonished the candidates, though he was probably speaking more to Trump, who interrupted both Wallace and Biden repeatedly during the debate.

Amid the chaos, Trump and Biden did address some key questions in the presidential race on issues like COVID-19, racial justice, the economy, public safety, the Supreme Court, climate change and, of course, Trump’s taxes.

The Conversation’s experts were watching the debate in Australia and the US. Here’s what they thought of the night.

Jared Mondschein, Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

In the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many conventional analysts — as well as Clinton supporters — said it was clear the former secretary of state had won each one of their debates.

Clinton, they posited, provided strong data points and policy analysis that made clear she was more presidential and appropriate for the job.

Trump supporters, on the other hand, argued it was undeniable he had, in fact, won the debates because he ridiculed and mocked Clinton in a way that she deserved.

The Clinton-Trump debates in 2016 were like Rorschach tests — your perception of them depended on your opinion of the candidates.

Four years later, there appears to be more consensus about the clear winner of the first debate between Trump and Biden: chaos.

With countless interruptions, personal attacks and name calling, some have already called it the worst debate they’ve ever seen.

But the debate, in many ways, mirrors where America is right now: this is perhaps the worst political climate the country has seen in modern history. People are angry and using raised voices while refusing to agree upon a basic set of facts.

The ultimate question, however, is whether this will change any opinions of US voters. Nearly 90% of voters came into the debate saying their minds were already made up about who they will be voting for. Many voters have, in fact, already submitted their ballots.

But given Trump’s 2016 victory was ultimately reliant on a margin of fewer than 80,000 votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even the smallest of advantages could prove critical in the election.

Initial polling conducted after the debate indicated Biden may have won a slim advantage over Trump. What is much clearer, however, is who lost: US voters.

Trump was combative during the debate, continually interrupting Biden — and the moderator.

Read more:
No mail-in votes, proof of citizenship: the long history of preventing minorities from voting in the US

Timothy J. Lynch, Associate Professor in American Politics, University of Melbourne

The debate reminded me of the absurd denouement to Rocky II. After a bruising encounter, both men are floored. The fighter that gets up first is the winner.

Except with the debate in Cleveland today, neither Trump nor Biden rose from the canvas. Each spent 90 minutes trying to drag the other down.

There were moments when Biden staggered to his feet, looked down the camera lens and called for a return to normalcy. But he kept being pulled back into the scrap by Trump, who was determined to play to his base.

Neither won. Neither lost. On that basis, Biden had the slightly better result. He did not live down to Trump’s caricature of him as a doddering, old man. We know what Trump is — love him or hate him — and saw that again tonight.

Biden’s job was to present a sane alternative. He only partly succeeded.

Ponder how remarkable a scene this was: the most divisive and controversial president in modern American history, who has presided over the deaths of 200,000 Americans from COVID-19 and the eruption of several cities into violent protests, and the only politician deemed capable by the Democrats of removing him is Joe Biden.

The debate reminds us how blessed Trump has been by his opponents. He was facing not a man at the peak of his powers, but a compromise candidate of a deeply divided Democratic party.

Trump scored points by hammering away at the “radical left socialists” that would, he claimed, run the Biden administration. Biden had no killer response to this line of attack.

Swing voters know what Trump is. But doubts about the ideological momentum of a Biden White House endure. The small number of undecided voters may well back the devil they know. If they do, Trump wins.

Read more:
The US presidential election might be closer than the polls suggest (if we can trust them this time)

The Biden camp is pinning much on the growing exasperation with Trump — and a basic human desire to feel normal again — to get them over the line.

That strategy just about held together in the first debate. Offered every opportunity to be statesmanlike, Trump kept aiming low. He maintained his notorious authenticity by doing so.

But Americans have had nearly four years of this act. Biden did, imperfectly, make clear there is an alternative style of political discourse on offer. He’s no Rocky Balboa. But, like Rocky, he will get to fight another day.

One of Biden’s strongest moments came when he attacked Trump’s comments about dead US soldiers.

Sarah John, Adjunct Professor, College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University; Project Manager, University of Virginia

After an awkward entrance, devoid of the usual handshake thanks to COVID-19, the first question — about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett — launched both candidates into a competition of who could talk loudest over the other.

Trump won and continued to interject so frequently that the few uninterrupted sentences of Biden or Wallace stood out conspicuously.

While the messiness of the debate and the frequent inability of the moderator to control the participants were extreme, they were expected given our experience with Trump in the 2016 debates.

Read more:
This is why the fight over the Supreme Court could make the US presidential election even nastier

Less expected was a full 15 minutes dedicated to the legitimacy of the vote count. Because elections in the US are very decentralised, with over 3,000 counties administering a single presidential election, systematic fraud at a national level is unlikely.

In the past, few have questioned certified presidential election results — even in 2000 (and other years) when the popular vote and Electoral College result conflicted.

Trump has turned that on its head.

Perhaps predictably, Biden took the high road: urging people to vote, downplaying concerns about fraud and pledging to accept the result, whatever it may be.

Biden made clear that voting by mail is nothing new, dating back the Civil War. (Indeed, overseas voters have used the federal write-in absentee ballot successfully for decades.)

Trump, on the other hand, raised his grievances about the “crooked” 2016 election, before turning to his favoured line about mail-in ballots.

As is so often the case, Trump’s comments mangled real issues relating to mail-in voting and jumbled it with a lot of speculation and confusion about ballots in creeks or wastepaper baskets.

Trump has repeatedly taken aim at mail-in ballots during the campaign.
Nati Harnik/AP

Among the jumble of words, he made reference to one of the issues that does threaten to loom large. In 2016, 1% of absentee ballots that were otherwise correctly marked were rejected for technical reasons, most often because the signature on file with the election administration was not a match with the one on the ballot, or the ballot arrived too late.

In 2020, with a host of first-time vote-by-mail voters, this rate could be higher and even exceed the vote margin between the candidates in some key states. Lawsuits will no doubt follow.

Although Trump’s utterances about a “rigged” election and cheating are worrying, they are unlikely to shift public opinion. So much of what we saw on display today we have heard before, in an even more alarming form, at Trump’s recent rallies.

While we hope for a decisive outcome one way or the other, election officials are bracing themselves.The Conversation

Timothy J. Lynch, Associate Professor in American Politics, University of Melbourne; Jared Mondschein, Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and Sarah John, College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This is why the fight over the Supreme Court could make the US presidential election even nastier

Evan Vucci/AP

Jared Mondschein, University of Sydney

As the two sides in US politics begin jockeying for position following the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the similarities to the 2016 presidential election are striking.

That year, the fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was made all the more contentious because the Republican-controlled Senate refused to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who had died in February.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged instead to “let the American people decide” the fate of the Supreme Court vacancy. His gambit worked. Trump won the election and successfully appointed a conservative justice to the court, some 14 months after Scalia’s death.

In recent days, however, McConnell is saying something altogether different. He’s made clear the Trump administration will decide who Ginsburg’s replacement will be — not the American people on election day.

Protesters began gathering outside McConnell’s house in Kentucky soon after Ginsburg’s death.
Timothy D. Easley/AP

And Trump has also already announced he will nominate a woman to the court — signalling his intention to move quickly to replace Ginsburg, with just over 40 days left before the vote.

The impending fight guarantees an already rancorous race will become even more acrimonious, with long-lasting implications.

Read more:
Can Trump and McConnell get through the 4 steps to seat a Supreme Court justice in just 6 weeks?

Why the Supreme Court is so important

As the third branch of government in the US, the Supreme Court not only keeps the powers of the other two branches (the legislative and executive) in check, it makes landmark decisions that can fundamentally transform the country, such as its 1954 ruling that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

With the Supreme Court now featuring three judges appointed by Democratic presidents and five appointments by Republicans, the potential replacement of the progressive Ginsburg by a conservative judge could have generational implications for issues like affordable health care and access to abortion.

The Supreme Court has even settled contested presidential elections in the past, and with legal challenges to the 2020 election already mounting, there’s every likelihood this could happen again.

Why Republicans are passionate about conservative judges

Unlike American politicians, who are subject to the ballot box and term limits, federal judges — including Supreme Court justices — serve lifetime appointments.

The importance of such judicial appointments to Republicans cannot be understated. Few, if any, issues are more sacrosanct to them.

A key reason for this is that demographics are not on the side of the Republicans. The US is gradually becoming more urban and non-white — two trends that favour the Democratic Party more than Republicans.

This could explain why McConnell, whose memoir is called The Long Game, has prioritised the appointments of conservative judges to federal benches. These judges would certainly outlast the seemingly inevitable decline of conservative political power.

McConnell has said his motto for the year is ‘leave no [judicial] vacancy behind’.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

Before Trump was elected in 2016, many Republicans questioned just how conservative he would be. In response, the Trump campaign made the unusual move of releasing a list of its intended candidates for the Supreme Court.

The list of established conservatives effectively quelled conservative concerns about the Trump candidacy. Indeed, exit polling in 2016 indicated 26% of Trump voters said Supreme Court nominees were the single most important factor in their decision to vote for him — compared to 18% of Clinton voters.

With Trump’s victory reliant on a combined margin of just under 80,000 votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even the smallest of advantages — in this case, those deciding who to vote for based on the Supreme Court — could have had outsized importance.

Read more:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped shape the modern era of women’s rights – even before she went on the Supreme Court

Why Democrats are more passionate than ever

Some have posited a Supreme Court vacancy may help Trump’s chances in this year’s election because it shifts the focus of the race away from the president’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and the poor economy.

But this ignores how much the issue could also energise the left. Indeed, in the hour after the announcement of Ginsburg’s passing, Democrats raised US$6.2 million on the Democratic digital fundraising platform ActBlue — more money in a single hour than the website had ever seen. This record was broken the next hour when donors gave over $100,000 a minute on average to total $6.3 million.

Altogether, some $42 million was raised in less than a day by Democratic online donors.

In 2016, many Republicans said they held their noses and voted for Trump because they were worried about the Supreme Court. Four years later, unenthusiastic Democrats may do the same with Joe Biden.

Biden’s campaign will likely turn the Supreme Court nomination fight into a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

‘Nothing is off the table’

Constitutionally, McConnell and Trump face few barriers in their mission to confirm a conservative justice to take Ginsburg’s place. Even a “blue wave” on election day — in which Democrats take control of the Senate and the White House — couldn’t stop them because the winners are not sworn into office until January. This would ostensibly provide enough time for the Republican-led Senate to confirm a Trump nominee.

There is no doubt what McConnell and Trump are planning to do. The more pertinent question is whether 49 Republicans in the Senate will go along with them.

Even the most anti-Trump Republicans — like Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year — have supported the president’s previous picks for the Supreme Court. (Only one Republican chose not to support Brett Kavanaugh following his contentious confirmation hearing.)

Read more:
Republicans have used a ‘law and order’ message to win elections before. This is why Trump could do it again

But amid deep political polarisation, the likes of which America has not seen for generations, some Republicans are asking themselves about the long-term impact of rushing through a Supreme Court justice — most notably, what doors this opens for Democrats if they gain power.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said “nothing is off the table” if Republicans try to fill Ginsburg’s seat before the outcome of the election.

Crowds gathered at the Supreme Court in the hours after Ginsburg’s passing.
Alex Brandon/AP

Some Democrats, already frustrated by Republicans having nominated 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices despite Republicans having lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, have already pledged to make fundamental shifts to the country if they win the power to do so.

This could include giving statehood to Democratic-leaning Puerto Rico and Washington, DC — thereby almost assuredly giving the Democrats four more senators.

Some Democrats have also proposed expanding the Supreme Court to dilute the conservative votes — an idea Biden has explicitly criticised in the past.

Regardless of the electoral outcome, the death of Ginsburg only further raises the stakes and the likelihood of unrest in an already contentious election. There is no winner in such an outcome.The Conversation

Jared Mondschein, Senior Fellow & Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coalition regains Newspoll lead; time running out for Trump

AAP/Dean Lewins

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

This week’s Newspoll, conducted September 16-19 from a sample of 2,068, gave the Coalition a 51-49 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since the previous Newspoll, three weeks ago.

Primary votes were 43% Coalition (up two), 34% Labor (down two), 12% Greens (up one) and 3% One Nation (steady) – all figures from The Poll Bludger.

65% were satisfied with Scott Morrison’s performance (up one), and 31% were dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of +34. Anthony Albanese’s ratings fell into negative territory: his net approval was -1, down three points. Morrison led Albanese as better PM by 59-27 (58-29 last time).

The last Newspoll had the Coalition’s lead dropping from 52-48 to a 50-50 tie, while Morrison’s net approval was down seven points. This Newspoll implies movements in the previous Newspoll may have been exaggerated.

It is also possible the federal Coalition is benefiting from restrictions to fight coronavirus becoming less popular in Victoria. A Morgan Victorian state poll (see below) gave Labor a narrow lead, but that lead was well down on the November 2018 election result. In other state polls, there was a clear surge to the incumbent government.

Australian state polls: Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania

A Victorian SMS Morgan poll, conducted September 15-17 from a sample of 1,150, gave Labor a 51.5-48.5 lead over the Coalition, a six-point gain for the Coalition since the November 2018 state election. Primary votes were 38.5% Coalition, 37% Labor and 12% Greens. Morgan’s SMS polls have been unreliable in the past.

A South Australian YouGov poll, conducted September 10-16 from a sample of 810, gave the Liberals a 53-47 lead over Labor, a six-point gain for the Liberals since March, likely due to the state’s handling of coronavirus. Primary votes were 46% Liberals (up seven), 35% Labor (down three) and 10% Greens (down one).

Liberal Premier Steven Marshall had a massive surge in net approval, to +52 from -4 in March. Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas had a +22 net approval.

A Tasmanian EMRS poll, conducted August 18-24 from a sample of 1,000, gave the Liberals 54% (up 11 since the last publicly released EMRS poll in March), Labor 24% (down ten) and the Greens 12% (steady). Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein led Opposition Leader Rebecca White by 70-23 as better premier (41-39 to White in March).

Time running out for Trump

This section is an updated version of an article I had published for The Poll Bludger last Thursday.

Six weeks before the November 3 election, FiveThirtyEight’s national aggregate gives Joe Biden a 6.8% lead over Donald Trump (50.3% to 43.5%). This is an improvement for Trump from three weeks ago, when he trailed by 8.2%. In the key states, Biden leads by 7.6% in Michigan, 6.6% in Wisconsin, 4.6% in Pennsylvania, 4.5% in Arizona and 2.0% in Florida.

In my article three weeks ago, the difference in Trump’s favour between the Electoral College tipping-point state and the national vote had widened to three points, but this difference has fallen back to about two points, with Arizona and Pennsylvania currently two points more favourable to Trump than national polls.

If Biden wins all the states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, plus Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, he gets exactly 269 Electoral Votes, one short of the 270 required for a majority. Maine and Nebraska award one EV to the winner of each of their Congressional Districts, and two to the statewide winner. All other states award their EVs winner-takes-all.

Under this scenario, Biden would need one of either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second CDs for the 270 EVs required to win the Electoral College. Nebraska’s second is a more likely win for Biden as it is an urban district.

The US economy has rebounded strongly from the coronavirus nadir in April. Owing to this, the FiveThirtyEight forecast expects some narrowing as the election approaches. Every day that passes without evidence of narrowing in the tipping-point states is bad news for Trump. Biden’s chances of winning in the forecast have increased from a low of 67% on August 31 to 77% now.

While Trump has improved slightly in national polls, some state polls have been very good for Biden. Recently, Biden has had leads of 16 points in Minnesota, 21 points in Maine, 10 in Wisconsin and 10 in Arizona.

Trump’s ratings with all polls in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate are currently 43.2% approve, 52.7% disapprove (net -9.5%). With polls of likely or registered voters, his ratings are 44.0% approve, 52.8% disapprove (net -8.8%). In the last three weeks, Trump has gained about two points on net approval, continuing a recovery from July lows.

The RealClearPolitics Senate map has 47 expected Republican seats, 46 Democratic seats and seven toss-ups. If toss-ups are assigned to the current leader, Democrats lead by 51-49, unchanged from three weeks ago.

Coronavirus and the US economy

The US has just passed the grim milestone of over 200,000 deaths attributable to coronavirus. However, daily new cases have dropped into the 30,000 to 50,000 range from a peak of over 70,000 in July. Less media attention on the coronavirus crisis assists Trump.

In the US August jobs report, 1.4 million jobs were created and the unemployment rate fell 1.8% to 8.4%. The unemployment rate has greatly improved from its April high of 14.7%.

The headline jobs gained or lost are from the establishment survey, while the household survey is used for the unemployment rate. In August, the household survey numbers were much better than the establishment survey, with almost 3.8 million jobs added.

It is probably fortunate for Biden that the September jobs report, to be released in early October, will be the last voters see before the election. The October report will be released November 6, three days after the election.

I believe Trump should focus on the surging economy in the lead-up to the election, and ignore other issues like the Kenosha violence and culture war issues. Particularly given the Supreme Court vacancy, Biden should focus on Trump and Republicans’ plans to gut Obamacare.

Implications of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death

On Friday, left-wing US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. While Democrats control the House of Representatives, only the Senate gets a vote on judicial appointments, and Republicans control that chamber by 53-47.

Even if Democrats were to win control of both the Senate and presidency at the November 3 election, the Senate transition is not until January 3, with the presidential transition on January 20.

There is plenty of time for Trump to nominate a right-wing replacement for Ginsburg, and for the Senate to approve that choice. That will give conservative appointees a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Science is political’: Scientific American has endorsed Joe Biden over Trump for president. Australia should take note

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

In an unprecedented step, prestigious science publication Scientific American has launched a scathing attack on President Donald Trump and endorsed his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, in the upcoming US election. It’s the first presidential endorsement in the magazine’s 175-year history.

To this, we say: about bloody time! As we’ve noted before:

Science is political. The science we do is inherently shaped by the funding landscape of government and the problems and issues of society. This means that to have any influence on how science is organised and funded in Australia (or the US or any other country), we as scientists and science communicators must act in ways that matter in the arena of politics.

It’s now more critical than ever, as the editors at Scientific American clearly lay out, that the people who are actually knowledgeable about the world’s crises speak out and represent that knowledge (or “collective wisdom”) in public, out loud and with their names attached.

Under Trump, science isn’t just ignored. It is lampooned and directly attacked, especially on issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. This actively threatens the lives (and livelihoods) of not just millions of Americans, but countless others around the world.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has shown blatant disregard for scientific recommendations and has actively peddled misinformation, such as when he suggested UV light could be used to treat patients.

Respect the messenger

In the past, it has been suggested scientists who comment beyond their specific, narrow sphere of reach by delving into politics are tainting their credibility – perhaps even behaving unethically.

But as we now stare down the barrel of an ongoing global pandemic (and relentless climate change continuing in the background), to remain quiet on the politics is not just unethical, but actively dangerous.

Read more:
5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus

The argument that science is somehow tainted by offering policy or political opinions is an idea whose time has long gone.

Who is better placed to add valuable weight to public debates about the key problems we’re facing, than those who represent the voice of evidence, reason and debate (such as Scientific American)?

As one of us has previously argued, in Australia we should encourage scientists and science communicators to:

Become more active in challenging the status quo, or to help support those who wish to by engendering a professional environment that encourages risk-taking and speaking out in public about critical social issues.

It’s the principle, not the votes

Scientific American is not entirely alone in pushing for the involvement of scientists in public policy and action. Other reputable publications have taken similar stances in the past.

In 2017, Nature argued “debates over climate change and genome editing present the need for researchers to venture beyond their comfort zones to engage with citizens”. Earlier in 2012, Nature explicitly endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

In Australia, our news publications have a tradition of endorsing political parties at federal elections, but our science publishing landscape has typically remained agnostic.

Peak bodies such as the Australian Academy of Science, and Science and Technology Australia, have commented on the political decision-making process, but have rarely been so forthright as the Scientific American’s recent editorial.

Not only should scientists take a stand, they should also be encouraged and professionally acknowledged for it.

Scientists as citizens have the right to advocate for political positions and figures that support the best possible evidence. In fact, when it comes to matters as serious as COVID-19 and climate change, we believe they have an obligation to.

Scientific American’s intervention may not impact votes, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s crucial for people who believe in knowledge and expertise to stand up and call out misinformation for what it is. To do less is to accept the current state.

Editor in Chief of Scientific American Laura Helmuth speaking to an audience.
Laura Helmuth is the ninth and current Editor in Chief of the Scientific American magazine. She was appointed to the role in April this year.

Australia’s work in progress

Nonetheless, many scientists in Australia rely on government funding. This can make it difficult to speak up when legitimate evidence clashes with the orientation of the government of the day. Confronted with the possible loss of funding, what can a scientist do?

There’s no perfect solution. Many may feel the risks of speaking are too great. For many, they will be.

In such cases, scientists could perhaps look for intermediaries to make their case on their behalf – whether these are trustworthy journalists, or publicly visible academics like us.

Read more:
Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced

In the long term, defending those who have gone out of their way to act responsibly will help. The more this becomes normal, the more likely it will become the norm. But it’s also an unfortunate reality that change rarely occurs without discomfort.

When it comes to truly world-shaking crises like COVID-19 and climate change, scientists are political citizens like everyone else. And just like everyone else, they need to weigh the price of action against the price of inaction.

Speaking out can’t always be someone else’s job.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.