Thursday, October 27, 2016

I'm Not Speaking Ro You

So Anita Lynch, a Bernie Sanders delegate to this past summer's Democratic National Convention, tells NPR's Audie Cornish:

I actually met with two strong Hillary people after the convention 'cause I wanted to hear what they had to say. I wanted to hear their perspective. I really wanted to try to understand. And one of the things I said to them was, convince me to vote for Hillary and two things I want you to leave out the conversation - the word Trump and the words Supreme Court. And then tell me why I should vote for Hillary.
When Ms. Cornish asked Ms. Lynch if they'd been able to pull it off, the answer was "Not totally, no."

And so, in the next segment, Ms. Cornish puts the question to one Roz Wyman, a lifelong Democrat and superdelegate who is firmly in the Hillary Clinton camp. Ms. Wyman's answer?
Well, I can certainly be happy not to mention that man's name, but the Supreme Court is obviously very important. And if somebody doesn't care about who's going on the Supreme Court, they're not probably a very good Democrat.
And this leads Ms. Cornish to remark that the potential to name nominees to the Supreme Court is the most important thing for her. Ms. Wyman then says:
Well, it's not the most important thing. I - you know, I balance a lot of things. But the Supreme Court is absolutely important beyond belief. And they're there for, you know, 30, 40 years. And some of the issues - I mean just imagine getting rid of Roe versus Wade. That's one of their prize things. Or we might get Citizens United - get rid of that. The court is absolutely important if you're Democrat in my opinion.
Ms. Wyman's unwillingness to put forth another argument for voting Mrs. Clinton stood out for me. And, yes, I'm saying unwillingness. I'm taking her at her word when she says that the Supreme Court is not the most important thing for her, in spite of the fact that she describes it as "absolutely important beyond belief." And if we take her at her word, she understands that she has other priorities than defeating Donald Trump or being able to seat Supreme Court justices. But when given the opportunity to make the case to someone who might be persuadable, based on those priorities, she refuses to take it, and her response left me with the impression that she considered it thoroughly wrongheaded for anyone to even want to focus on them.

And this is why I consider many everyday Americans to be poor salespeople for the candidates and the policies that they support. Because they can't bring themselves to understand other people's priorities, and instead insist on framing things as a responsibility to their own priorities. Whether one is a very good Democrat or not, a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Hillary Clinton, and if Mrs. Clinton is elected to the White House, she'll be able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court whether that was a given voter's first, second or twenty-fifth reason for voting for her. When given the chance to advance Mrs. Clinton's chances to name justices to the Supreme Court, Ms. Wyman seemed to toss it away because she couldn't bring herself to ignore the lack of ideological purity that such an act would entail. And while it may make some sense to have a litmus test for the people you vote into office, it doesn't make much sense to have a litmus test for the people whose votes you would court on their behalf. Yet, this strikes me as a common habit.

It's often said that politics are a way for people to express their identities as members of a particular ideological community. And people will self-segregate based on those communities. And while it may make sense to not talk to people who are of an opposing community, with whom one has so little in common that it seems difficult to carry on a worthwhile conversation, once the borders of community preclude speaking to potential allies, simply because they live outside the lines, it becomes counter-productive.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Words Will Never Hurt Me

My father could tell stories that would make it hard for you to sleep at night. But then again, he grew up in the Deep South before the Civil Rights movement, when ignoring the mockery of white people could, at times, be a very dangerous thing to do. Not because the jokes that whites told about blacks were themselves dangerous, but because they could be a prelude to violence. To borrow a phrase, "Those who people would attack, they first dehumanize." But here's the thing, to my understanding - it's not a causal relationship. Nor it is an ironclad correlation. In my father's time, or my grandfathers', the fact that a group of white guys was talking among themselves and laughing at you could very well presage violence. Today? Not so much. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but today, it's newsworthy.

But while these things may have happened in the past, many people who remember them are still alive and they passed those memories on to their children and their children's children. After all, when I was a child, my parents had no inkling of what 2016 would look like, and I couldn't even conceptualize a time so far in the future. So they didn't teach me to live in the world of today. The world they taught me to live in was a combination of the one they found themselves in, the one they had grown up in and the one that they had been prepared for by their own parents. And they did this because this is what they understood.

I suspect that many parents end up doing the same. And so a lot of people wind up living with one foot in the past, and fearing that as long as the vestiges of the past are still visible that the other foot may join it. That takes a long time to die. But so too does the past itself. We may think of the bad old days as dead and gone, but its not as if the people who made them that way were suddenly swallowed whole by the Earth. And even if they were, their ideas didn't die with them. There are people younger than myself who would gladly return the United States to a time that I'm not old enough to remember, but have heard enough about to understand that I never want to visit.

I'm of the opinion that when it comes to offense, people only have the level of power over us that we have learned to give them. And sometimes the people who taught us those lessons did so with the best of intentions. And while the best thing that we can do for ourselves is un-learn them, that process is neither quick, easy or painless.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Thursday, October 20, 2016


This morning, on the radio, I heard a political analyst make the point that "it's difficult to say that [Donald Trump] he is trying to win." Or, at the very least, his campaign had hit upon a strategy that wasn't likely to work.

Whenever I hear that someone is doing something nonsensical, a reflex kicks in that prompts me to ask under what circumstances it would make sense. And so I started thinking about it. I recalled seeing a headline, somewhere along the way, in which Donald Trump said that about two-thirds of people who backed him were die-hards who would support him no matter what he did or said. Let's say that he honestly believes this to be true. (Now, as a politician and a showman, it's hard to be sure of what Mr. Trump actually believes, and what's part of the act, but let's say, for the sake of argument, that he really does believe this part.)

For all that people may think that Hillary Clinton is the far better candidate of the two, it's unlikely that her level of die-hard support is that high. I pulled a 50% number out of thin air, and when I spoke to a couple of people I knew, they floated the same number, so let's go with that. Using those numbers we can cobble together a chart that looks something like this:

All numbers completely fabricated.
The red bars represent people intending to vote for Donald Trump, and the blue bars for Hillary Clinton, natch. And the size of the bars, when taken together, give Mrs. Clinton about a 6 or so point lead in our imaginary poll, which is in the ballpark of what I've been hearing recently, if perhaps a bit on the low side.

The dark red bar represents our hypothetical die-hard pro-Trump voter. The lighter red bar can be thought of as anti-Clinton voters - people who are voting for Donald Trump as the lesser evil, as it were. And, of course, we can view the blue bars in the same way: Dark blue being strongly pro-Clinton and light blue being less invested anti-Trump voters. To use standard polling-speak, you can contrast the committed voter with the voter who merely leans towards a candidate.

It's often said that Donald Trump is more focused on his die-hard base of support than he is is trying to appeal to voters outside of it. And if you think that the actually electorate looks something like this chart, you can come up with a workable theory as to why. If Mr. Trump can sow enough Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt to get the light blue portion of the voting public to "stay home" on Election Day, he wins, even if that costs him all of the light red portion. (Conversely, Hillary Clinton can carry the day by mobilizing the light blue portion to turn out, even if that means that the light red portion shows up to cast a vote against her.) Everyone in the blue section of the chart (as well as those voters who don't support either one of them strongly enough to show up) are effectively write-offs; the Trump campaign has no interest in inducing them to defect. Hence the negative tone of the campaign; negativity doesn't convert voters, it simply makes them apathetic. And if you're attempting to stage the election between only the die-hards in each camp, apathy is your friend.

Because of the way the Electoral college works, there are really only a few states in which this can, or needs to, work. Blue states are going to vote for Mrs. Clinton, regardless of what strategy Mr. Trump uses, and the Red states are in the bag. So there are only the swing states that Trump needs to influence in this way.

Is this the actual plan? Don't ask me, I came up with it while brushing my teeth this morning. But it strikes me as a framework that one can place Donald Trump's actions into that lends them rationality, rather than randomness. And it's unlikely that someone who can get this close to becoming President of the United States, win or loose, is random.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


No candidate has earned a majority of all potential (regardless of registration) voters, not once in my lifetime. Which means that the people who don't vote, or who vote for a third-party candidate, have an enormous amount of power. Which they waste.
Seth Godin "Ketchup and the third-party problem"
In Mister Godin's post, "waste" was a link, and it lead to "There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote," by Clay Shirky. The piece opens with a simple theory:
In 2016, that system will offer 130 million or so voters just three options:

A. I prefer Donald Trump be President, rather than Hillary Clinton.
B. I prefer Hillary Clinton be President, rather than Donald Trump.
C. Whatever everybody else decides is OK with me.

That’s it. Those are the choices. All strategies other than a preference for Trump over Clinton or vice-versa reduce to Option C.
He then gives three reasons why people make protest votes, the enormous amount of power that Mr. Godin says that they waste. The votes that Mr. Shirky describes as thrown away.

The three reasons, the theoretical frameworks that Mr. Shirky ascribes to protest voters (or non-voters) are:
  1. Boycotting the election in the hope of delegitimizing it.
  2. Defecting from one of the major parties in the hope that they will come courting later.
  3. Hoping their candidate will somehow win.
The argument against delegitimizing an election through boycotting is fairly simple: In the United States, people don't have to vote, and in most (if not all) elections to seat people into offices, there is no minimum threshold, below which the vote becomes void. And a lot of people don't bother to vote. Enough so that in Presidential elections "none of the above" (didn't vote) tends to be the single largest block of voters. And it's difficult to impossible to make a statement by not voting when so many other people are doing the same, with little regard to message.

The argument against defection is also simple: the political parties don't tend to work to align themselves with voters they didn't capture in the last election. Remember all of the talk about how the Republican party needed to show itself as more friendly to Hispanic voters after the drubbing Mitt Romney took in 2012? Yeah, that lasted about all of a half-hour, didn't it? And if the parties aren't going to chase your vote, then withholding it does little good.

The argument against victory is perhaps the simplest: It never happens. Even a wildly-popular ex-president like Theodore Roosevelt couldn't manage it. And despite spending literally years denouncing the Democrats, Bernie Sanders ran for their nomination, rather than as a third-party candidate because he knew that as a true "outsider," he stood no chance. In this light, voting for a minor-party candidate thinking they'll actually win is delusional.

All points well taken. But. If you don't find either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton compelling; that is to say that between the two of them you have no preference, is your vote any less wasted or thrown away by giving it to either one of them?

While Mr. Godin sees "an enormous amount of power" in those disaffected with options A or B, that power only exists in the aggregate - and in the aggregate they could deny both of the major parties the Presidency. As individuals, however, what are those votes worth? While it's not a majority, or maybe even a plurality of voters, the number of people who vote for the major party candidates is large - and in that pool of active support, the passive support of "not wasting a vote" is not going to make a difference - after all, it's not like the people who simply didn't bother to vote is small. A few more votes here or there are unlikely to sway the outcome without a concerted effort to coordinate all of the would-be protest (non)voters - if they break down roughly the way the rest of the populace does, the final tallies are a little higher than they would have been otherwise, but that's it.

And, for that every same reason, "un-defecting" is unlikely to make a difference. Political parties are no more responsive to small groups of people who simply hand over their votes than they are to small groups of defectors. Otherwise, it could be argued that the Democratic party would have made a fairly hard and youth-driven turn to the left over the past eight years. And if you live in a state that's strongly Red or Blue, a few more voters here and there are significantly easier to ignore.

That leaves the final consideration: being on the winning team. But if there isn't going to be a payoff, in terms of policies one supports, what good does having picked the winning side do? Sure, the winners may pat you on the head for having done what they understand is your duty, but what has the would-be protest voter won? Nothing.

Given that the arguments against protest voting aren't really reasons to not protest vote, is it really accurate to describe those votes as "wasted" or "thrown away?" They're not really a resource for anything; at least from the point of view of the voter.

In the end, Messrs. Shirky and Godin were both making points about engagement. Mr. Shirky was making the point that loudly proclaiming one's protest vote was simply a form of posturing, and Mr. Godin was pointing out that the work of shaping democracy is mostly done well way from the polls. And those are very good points. Putting a check next to the name of the person you want to be savior-in-chief and then walking away rarely produces results. While it is certainly very true that "The system is set up so that every choice other than 'R' or 'D' boils down to 'I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens'," that doesn't mean that 'R' and 'D' are automagically non-deferments.

For the person who doesn't see their desires, ambitions and intentions reflected in the major-party candidates for office, there is no way for them to not waste their vote. It's thrown away by definition, because simply picking one or the other crowd to follow gets them nothing more than writing in Mickey Mouse or setting fire to their ballot in the driveway. Rubbing their noses in this fact doesn't get us anywhere. Democracy is full of compromises; it's part of gaining the consent of the losers. We can have them in the electoral process, in the governing process or both. Picking a random side of a compromise that you find deplorable in all of its facets isn't any better or worse than not participating in it at all. There are some 220,000,000 adults in the United States who are eligible to vote. Of those, some 145,000,000 are registered. The fact that the political system, any political system, is going to serve some number of them poorly, and some number not at all is a given. Sure, we can give those people shit about wanting the system to be on their side, when they simply don't have the resources to make it worth anyone's while. But I don't know what we get out of that. Pointing out that they're spending a lot of energy to get nothing for it doesn't help them get anything for it. And it doesn't tell them how to better spend their energy.