Thursday, July 30, 2015

There's Nothing New Under the Sun... Unless You're Backing Bernie posted an opinion piece July 29 with following title:

As it appears when shared on Facebook, there is beneath that the subtitle:

Bernie Sanders might have a chance if people started believing he has a chance. 

There's a chance if there's a chance!
Can I get a hallelujah?
You don't say! I initially didn't click through, and simply posted back the completely pedestrian (and completely factual) observation that both the headline and the tagline are tautologies (in the logical sense).

Now, what I didn't know at the time, and what makes this interesting now, is that the Facebook friend who posted the link is also the guy who wrote the article. And he doesn't take very well to having his opinion called "unnecessary", particularly when it's unread.

Now, my intent wasn't to personally insult him (remember, I had not read the piece when commenting on the headline), but I did. That's my failing. He's a nice guy, personally, and I like him. The by-line is way at the bottom of the piece, shoved below the prominently illustrated "promoted content" and just above the comments, so I didn't even know he wrote it. But in responding to the article as I would any opinion piece, I came off as something of a dick... which is something I just do. Case in point... I'm not done doing it.

You see, now that I've read it, and I know he wrote it... my observations are the same. I can't honestly change them simply because I stepped on the guy's feelings. And I happened to be right. But here's the stuff he doesn't want to think about. [1]


There are several meanings of the word "tautology". One of them is "redundant", but another is "self-defining": that is, true by its very construction, and this is the sense in which the title is tautological. You can put any name whatsoever on either statement, and it is true. Since it is 100% equally true that my neighbor Ned would have a chance at the Presidency if people started believing he has a chance, this observation carries no information.

Now, there are three levels to this piece, the first of which is the title, which by virtue of being tautological, is uninformative. Then there's the body of the piece; which, taken at face value, is slightly less uninformative, but in a different way. The gist of it is this:
  1. Bernie Sanders represents ideas that have broad support among Liberals.
  2. Liberals aren't supporting Bernie Sanders as much as they should because they don't think he can win.
  3. That's a shame.
Maybe so. I pointed out that this is true in every election. There is always some candidate who has really popular ideas and no serious chance of winning. It's terribly uninteresting to note that they could win if only people supported them. That's determined by the definition of an election.

As Ben clarified, "The article is a simple nod to the fact that Bernie is in an unusual position of having support without the faith of his own supporters."

Now, first of all, I think that Bernie has a very good chance at securing his party's nomination. It's far too early to say that he doesn't have the support he needs. Campaigns exist to gather and direct that support. It would be daunting indeed to count the number of candidates who have come from behind to win a nomination or general election.

However, imagining for the sake of argument that Ben is correct about Bernie's support, it is NOT an unusual position to be in. Not at all. Most Libertarians are intimately familiar with the phenomenon, as the vast majority of Americans respond in libertarian fashion when questioned as to their ideas, but still vote for Democrats or Republicans because they psychologically desire to back a winning candidate. Furthermore, while Ben's observation applies to candidates who are "properly labeled", it is a subset of  a problem that can be extended further, to include people who aren't even considered for their ideas due to party branding, such as John B. Anderson in 1980 or Gary Johnson more recently.

Let's provide some examples:
  • Ron Paul has in past elections had broad support among Libertarians, Republicans and Democrats, and many of those who liked his ideas voted for a candidate that "has a chance of winning".
  • Rand Paul has similar buzz around him today.
  • Ditto for Phil Gramm in the 1992 Republican primary. In his case the entirety of one commentator's (Bill Maher's?) rebuttal of Gramm's platform was "Look at him." There can be no bigger indictment of voter superficiality than this... but even this isn't new. Whether a candidate is "pretty" strongly influences the voter's assessment of their electability.

This is called strategic voting, and it's a feature of our electorate system and our psychology. I'll let Wikipedia explain it.

Now, upon first reading Ben's piece, I took it to be a sincere, albeit uninspired, observation of the phenomenon of strategic voting (without being identified as such), and if you read it, you would probably walk away with the same conclusion. So I responded with an identification of the phenomenon, and at least one way in which it can be eliminated:

Instant runoff voting allows voters to vote their conscience, knowing that if they're backing a loser, their vote will fail over to an acceptable alternate candidate. With this system, while many voters will not get the candidate their first preference, they will inevitably get the candidate that represents the largest possible consensus of the electorate. It is truly a solution to the problem of strategic voting. However, as I pointed out to Ben,
Whether you see this phenomenon [strategic voting] as tautological or a travesty often depends on the strength of your own support for the candidate. But quickly you realize that there is an aspect of gameplay to electioneering, and the rules are not structured to ensure the most representative candidate. Rather, there's a strong bias for a certain presentation, party backing, and the perception of electability. And those who actually make the election rules aren't terribly motivated to change them because they're not playing the same game you and I are.
Let's amend that to say they're not playing the same game I am. And we do have a Catch-22 here. In order to change the system in order to encourage voters to vote their actual preference, then you need lawmakers who are inclined to set up election rules that enable it. But all of those in office are beneficiaries of the existing tilted system. So it is definitely an uphill climb, and one in which minority influence will have to be brought to bear to effect change.

Now, keep in mind that IRV is a permanent solution to the problem that is the superficial message of Ben's piece. Now, I would not have expected Ben to come up with that solution. But I most certainly would have expected him to be open to discussion of it in a conversation about the problem. Nevertheless, this was the response:
And I really don't care about your runoff idea. It's not part of the article. I don't care if you think the article shows why it's important, that's not the point. The point is, the grassroots internet movement of this particular candidate (yes similar to Ron Paul, but not entirely) is bigger than it's ever been; but those supporters are still pragmatic. And that's a new thing. Because the internet is new. It is having a larger and larger affect over elections as the years go on, and it's bigger now than ever before.
First of all, to ignore history and declare that pragmatic supporters are a new thing just because we now have an Internet is historically inaccurate. This phenomenon didn't just pop into being when millennials were born. That the Internet has a larger impact due to social media is true, but it ignores that the likely effect is to ameliorate strategic voting because people, having a direct connection to larger groups, will feel more support for their outlying opinions. In other words, he still got it backwards: the evidence supports my contention that it's too early in the race to decry Bernie's imagined lack of support.

But the part that is astonishing here is the evident desire to completely ignore an idea that's not already expressed in the article. Conversation does not exist to re-state and express vapid agreement with whatever was just stated. It exists to carry ideas forward. The opinion expressed in the article occupies "heavily cultivated territory"; I'd like to carry it outside the fence, away from the manicured grounds.

Here a problem is presented; a potential solution is offered; and "I don't care" is the response. And although a pronouncement that something is redundant or uninteresting is clearly a personal opinion, to be taken as such in any conversation; and while saying something is redundant or old news is hell and gone from claiming that no one should talk about it; and although I plainly said "it's new to YOU, so enjoy"; and although we had just spent 70+ messages talking about it, Ben decided to repeatedly attack a straw man of his own construction and design.
And you still haven't explained why you think we shouldn't talk about it, even if it has happened before.
That's because I make it a point never to "explain" statements somebody else made up for me. As I had told Ben earlier, " commentary must be unnecessary, because all I have to do is wait for you to make up something on my behalf... which is far more entertaining for me, since it's nothing like I would have said for myself." Sadly, the sarcasm fell into the sar-chasm, and was lost, disturbing a small army of strawmen who sprang up from the abyss.

It was this disproportionate outburst that led me to the third level to the piece, which I had initially ignored, but which underlies everything else. It was disguised as an analysis with a headline so boring as to put me off from reading it until cajoled into it. And it's possible that Ben's not even consciously aware of this level. Certainly my conversation with him leads me to entertain that possibility. The real underlying message, which having been ignored, caused so much pain, is this:

"Vote for Bernie".


Election reform isn't interesting and doesn't address the 'problem' because the 'problem' is that people don't plan to vote for Bernie. So the "real" solution is to vote for Bernie.

That's even less interesting than the superficial message. It almost makes me glad I hurt his feelings. Told you I was a dick.

Photo of Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license. 

[1] Portions of the conversation are reproduced here by virtue of the fact that the conversation in which they appeared was shared with the Public.


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