Saturday, November 17, 2012

Term Limits are a Terrible Idea

We start with first principles. Just as "politicians are single-minded seekers of reelection", or "Business will attempt to maximize profit"...

the American Electorate is inattentive and apathetic

The average American voter can not tell you the name of their Congressman. They cannot tell you the name of more than one of their Senators. They cannot tell you what bills Congress has passed, nor what bills Congress is working on. And if they have any inkling of the legislative process, it's because they watched Schoolhouse Rock when they were a kid.

However, each of the failings I list above only involve one kind of memory.  That guy who sells the awesome pastries in front of Stamoolis may not be able to RECALL the name of  his congressman, but he can probably RECOGNIZE it, from a list. You know, like a ballot.

Congressman spend inordinate time and effort getting their name in front of their public. They send you mail detailing their legislative achievements and stick the Postal Service with the cost. The mention of a politician's name in the local paper will inspire a round of high fives in their DC office and each of their constituent offices. A mention on the evening news will provoke a round(s) of drinks, especially if a lobbyist can be found to pick up the tab. Members of Congress attend Town Halls, and send congratulatory emails, and walk in parades in an indefatigable effort to pound their name through a dense wall of public indifference, year after year after year...

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons
It works eventually. Most voters will never have much data on their representatives, but confronted with a choice between two names, most will tend to pick the familiar one, even if it's one they hear just before changing the channel or heading to the bathroom. (Interestingly, some people always pick the name on top.)

Incumbent success rates rise sharply after their first reelection, and more gradually with each successive election. This reflects the progressive effect of candidate self-promotion, term after term, on a disinterested constituency.

I should note here that there are other theories which purport to explain the incumbency effect. And they publish in more prestigious venues than blogspot.

People look at the incumbency effect and think it's a problem. If a Congressman has no statistical risk of losing an election, why would they bother to listen to their constituents? How will new ideas ever get a fair hearing in chambers dominated by aging, electorally invincible old men, committed to the status quo? Congressional approval is at historically low levels, but we can't seem to fire the buffoons we hold in such contempt.

To solve this problem, some people advocate Term LimitsTerm Limits would limit members of Congress to a certain number of terms in office, after which they would be prohibited from running again. This would end the incumbency effect by law.

Term Limits were a popular idea in the 90's. I get the impression (perhaps unfair) that Term Limits advocates don't realize that. A number of state legislatures imposed term limits on their state's DC delegation. These were struck down as unconstitutional; Article I makes each chamber the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. A Constitutional Amendment was started in the House, but it went nowhere. A number of candidates ran for Congress on a promise to term limit themselves...

and most of them promptly reneged on that pledge, once they were in office. 

But it's just as well. In a decade full of bad ideas, Term Limits stand out as particularly dysfunctional.

Image of Beatles tribute band Oasis from Wikimedia Commons.
Consider our system of representative government. Each Senator is elected by a state. Each Congressman is elected by a regional Congressional district. The whole idea is based on geographical representation. People who live in a particular area will choose one of their fellow residents to represent their area's interests in Congress. If you Term Limit their choice, you are exercising influence on the representation of a community TO WHICH YOU DON'T BELONG. 

This has serious implications for democratic governance. Sure, everyone hates Congress, but they keep electing THEIR Congressmen and Senators, at a 90% clip. Term Limits are about telling voters, "You can't have that guy you want, because I think he's been there too long."

There are also reasons to oppose Term Limits that are less theoretical. The single biggest problem faced by our political system is the domination of the mechanisms of government by monied interests. Our regulators are people desperately hoping to end their careers working for the very sectors they regulate. The quality of legal representation available to litigants is a function of that litigant's wealth. And our elected representatives...

are bombarded, every second of the day and night, by lobbyists who want highly technical, obscure, enormously lucrative tweaks to legislation.

The situation is and has always been almost completely outside the public's awareness. This is both because of public inattention and the highly complex nature of the issues involved. Will the economy grow by 3.5 % next year, or 3.2%? Should the Post Office over fund their pension plan? Which proposed depreciation rate will maximize purchases of corporate durable goods in the short term?

The lobbyists are very happy to provide answers to all of these questions, and they hand out free booze every night at parties they throw 7 nights a week. These answers, offered so helpfully and enjoyably, MUST BE CRITICALLY EVALUATED. Someone new to the issues isn't in a position to do that. They don't know the right questions to ask. They haven't learned the nuances of the issues. They lack expertise.

Over the years, as they watch legislation being written, hear testimony in committee, get staff briefings and yes, deal with the unending parade of lobbyists, Congressmen become experts in their fields. They are more savvy, and harder to influence. They figure out who is a bullshit artist, and who is sincerely advocating a position.

Tax Policy expert and former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. I think he's out of jail, now.
The process is slower in the Senate, where the number of committee assignments makes a member more of a generalist. But it works the same way.

Imposing a Term Limit on an elected representative who continues to enjoy the trust of his constituents deprives those constituents, and the country as a whole, of that person's hard-won expertise. Term Limits guarantee that legislators will be even more dependent upon lobbyists for information and expertise than they already are. Term Limits make the prospect of a long legislative career impossible, and make public service little more than a job interview for the special interest groups. Term Limits take the country farther in the direction of replacing constituent interest with the interests of those who can afford a lobbyist.

Term limits are a terrible idea.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Electoral College has got to go.

Americans take a great deal of pride in the peculiarity of our political institutions. The history and form of those institutions have become fetishized in our political culture. The image of the Founding Fathers, gathered in Philadelphia to write the Constitution is one of the most powerful national symbols we have.

All Images from Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, we're encouraged to an unwarranted smugness about our system. Examples are the supposed advantages we have over a parliamentary system, or the superiority of a two party system over a multi-party system.

And in fact, there are some advantages to doing things in our idiosyncratic way. A parliamentary system usually eliminates the checks and balances inherent in separation of powers. A two-party system is inherently more stable than a multi-party system, which typically forces the formation of fragile, hard to sustain coalitions. And elections focused on a candidate rather than on his party may theoretically provide better representation at the constituency level.

But there are disadvantages to the way we do things, too. No doubt some will occur to you now, at the climax of a Presidential election. The gerrymandered district is an abomination. Campaign finance is more corrupt than at any time since Watergate. And don't even get me started on the filibuster...

Senate Majority Leader John C. Calhoun
But of all the eccentric, dysfunctional disadvantages we Americans tolerate, the one farthest up my nose is the Electoral College.

I get why it's there. I used to teach American government, and so I get impatient with all the citizen experts that look at me with pity and explain, as though to a small child...

"It's a republic, not a democracy".

First of all, republics are a type of democracy. But thanks for establishing your complete unfamiliarity with basic Political Science..

More importantly, let me remind you; the Founding Fathers were steeped in Livy, and Thucydides, Machiavelli and Plato. Their education consisted largely of reading authors whose idea of democracy was drawn entirely from observing the worst excesses of Athenian direct democracy, and contrasting it to the best moments of the Roman Republic.

In the time of the Founders, only 1/2 to 3/4 of the American populace could read (it varied with urbanization). The logistics of a national election were completely different. The Founding Fathers' greatest fear was that the unruly and uneducated mass of the people were going to rise up and equalize property, probably after appointing a dictator. Until the election of Andrew Jackson, in most states you HAD TO OWN PROPERTY before they'd let you vote.

You couldn't even vote for your Senator. State Legislatures elected the Senate until 1913, with the passage of the 17th Amendment. Willard Romney's anxieties about the 47% of takers who think they're entitled to food and healthcare were  an important part of the Founder's political paradigm.

I'd like to think we've made some progress since then. Democracy has expanded to include women. Democracy has expanded (fitfully) to include people of color. Hell, you don't even have to own property to vote anymore, although (incredibly) some Tea Party authoritarians advocate a return to just such a tyrannical measure. Chris Hayes nails it in his "Forward" spot on MSNBC, "it (democratization) is the defining feature of the moments we now view with the greatest pride."

The Electoral College was devised as a measure to weaken the influence of the people on the selection of the President. The Framers believed that the selection of the nation's Chief Executive was best discussed in quiet rooms, away from an angry rabble that might demand some of the good things to which refined gentlemen were entitled.

On that basis alone the Electoral College needs to be replaced with direct popular election of the President. Democratization and progress are exactly synonymous.

But the effect of the Electoral College on American politics is less abstract, and much more pathological than it's anachronistic elitism. There are practical political consequences that go beyond mere considerations of Political Theory.

The Electoral College systematically gives greater political power and influence to rural citizens, to the detriment of urban citizens. All men may be created equal, but if you live in North Dakota, your vote counts for more than if you live in California. This is because of the way in which Electors are apportioned to the College. Each state sends a number of Electors to the college equal to the state's entire congressional delegation; that's congressmen + senators. Not all congressional districts are the same size. Montana has a single Congressman representing 905,000. Wyoming's single Congressman represents 560,000.

That's not even the biggest inequity. Wyoming has exactly the same number of senators as California, and that magnifies it's power in the Electoral College. A presidential voter in Wyoming is about 3 times as influential as one in California. One can find people who staunchly defend the importance of giving rural voters a disproportionate say in who should run the country...

just look in rural areas.

I should also point out that there is no constitutional requirement for an Elector to vote for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote in their state. About half the states DO have laws requiring Electors to vote for the candidate who wins their state, but 24 states do not. It's generally not a problem, but "faithless electors" do sometimes pop up.

Finally, the Electoral College is not guaranteed to elect the candidate who won the popular vote. This has profound and disturbing implications for the health of our democracy. In 2000, George W. Bush did not win the popular vote. The President who took us into the Iraq War, who squandered the surplus, who threw us into the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression...

had fewer votes than the other guy. In fairness, my countrymen DID vote him in the 2nd time. That's the kind of democratic outcome that wakes me up in a cold sweat, some nights.

Getting rid of the Electoral College by amending the Constitution is probably impossible. It would require 3/4 of all the state legislatures to ratify the amendment...

states like Wyoming and Montana. Hell, we couldn't get 3/4 of the states to ratify the ERA

A better shot is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. That's an easier lift than a Constitutional Amendment, but still awfully dicey. As long as one party sees an advantage for itself in the current system, they'll oppose the compact. But we SHOULD get rid of the 
Electoral College. It would be good public policy, and good governance. It would be more democratic. It would be progress.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


By now, I'm sure you're as sick of debate dissection as I am. The tedium is made worse for me, because at this point I've seen a few of them. I've watched every Presidential debate since Ford told Carter that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination. Believe me citizens...

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

these debates aren't as important as you think they are.

Every four years I watch the media obsess over these things. Every 4 years I watch political junkies like myself consume every word, from every pundit, considering every nuance of  every potential ramification of every moment of each debate. It's like watching the leaves turn colors.

And every four years, the debates turn out not to have actually exerted any discernible outcome on the election.

Among the many (many, many) things discussed in the past week is the widespread dismay among political progressives at the president's performance. The best example of this was the reaction of MSNBC's Chris Mathews and Ed Schultz. Histrionic is not too strong a word to use for their reaction. It is particularly hard for me to grasp Mathews' hysteria; he understands politics as well as anyone in the country. You could even say he wrote the book about it.

Schultz moderated his rhetoric the next day. He did a very funny opening bit on his show where he spoofed the whole thing as a post-loss sports coach meeting with the press. Mathews is still defensive; he snapped at Dee Dee Myers on his show last night.

More generally, the media narratives have been "What was wrong with the President?", and "How badly has this hurt his chances for re-election", and "What does he have to do to come back from this loss." The narrative "Will Romney get away with his breath-taking dishonesty" went away after the first day.

The reaction in the progressive community has largely mirrored these narratives. There's been some disappointment and even some anger over the President's performance. There's been a lot of poll watching. (I note with some amusement the poll truthers don't seem interested in re-weighting THESE polls) And people are putting a whole lot of pressure on poor Joe Biden to have a big night.

Photo from just after the hair plugs grew in
The other current in progressive debate post-mortems is the one that really interests me, though. It's the people who insist that the President somehow "won" the debate.

It'd be easy to dismiss these people as simply being in denial. It would also be unfair. People who insist the President "won" the debate are wrong. But they have very specific, even defensible reasons for believing that. 

The President was correct on the facts. And so he was.  Mitt Romney flatly lied through his teeth during the debate. He lied about every aspect of his tax plan. He lied about his intentions on health care policy. He lied about his regulatory policy. David Corn likened the performance to Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch in it's blatant denial of easily verified objective reality.

Romney didn't abide by the debate rules. This is also accurate. He consistently spoke out of turn, spoke longer than his allotted time, and interrupted the President. He also took a long, satisfying piss on Jim Lehrer's shoes. Okay, not really. But he might as well have. We will ignore the incorrect assertion that Romney actually brought debate notes to the podium.

Both of these observations, though correct, are absolutely unrelated to the question of who won the debate.

I sometimes run into people who insist that the United States "won" the war in Vietnam. They point out that the Vietnamese nationalists never won a fixed battle with US forces. They point to casualty lists demonstrating that more than a million Vietnamese combatants died compared to only 58k US combatants. These people have never read Clausewitz; "War is the continuation of politics by other means." Warfare has a political purpose. The political purpose of American involvement in the Vietnam War was not realized. The political purpose of the Vietnamese nationalists WAS realized. The United States lost that war.

Similarly, the debate had a POLITICAL objective. For each candidate, the purpose of the debate was to convince voters to choose him in the election. It doesn't matter if the rules were followed, it doesn't matter if a candidate's statements were accurate...

it only matters which candidate convinced the most voters to choose him for President.

By that measure, it seems likely that Romney "won". Probably, more people who watched the debate were convinced to vote for him than were convinced to vote for the President. And this should provide disconsolate progressives with some perspective on the extent of what was indisputably a "loss" for our guy.

How MANY people do you think watched that debate and reached a decision about their selection on the basis of what they saw?

67 million people watched. Do you think 1% of them reached a decision? That seems high to me. We can't use the polls to tell us; those polls are still volatile. Remember, we're interested in people who will now vote for Romney who would not otherwise have voted for him. THAT'S the measure of his success.

And this returns us to my original point. These debates just aren't that important. They never have been. Romney has earned a trivial, almost negligible victory.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Brief Self-Indulgence.

My cat died at the beginning of last month.

This was Tinkerbell. She was the second of a pair that Kathy and I got shortly after we moved in together. It's okay if you want to mock her name...

This was Hook. I didn't want any cats. My ex-wife and I had cats, and when I lost them, I didn't want to get attached again. Kathy had never had cats though, and she wanted them. So one day I came home and we had this guy. He was 7 months old, and a stray. A friend of Kathy's used to put cat food out on her back porch for the neighborhood strays. As a scrawny, under-nourished wimp, the only way Hook ever got any of it was if Karen stood guard over the bowl while he ate. She used to pet him while he frantically gobbled. This had long-term consequences for the neurotic little guy...

when Kathy brought him home, she thought the single black eye marking made him look like a pirate. So she asked me for some good pirate names.

Naturally, I had dozens. I started into a long-winded exposition about Edward Teach, and Francis Drake, and Henry Morgan, and their various accomplishments, and the difference between pirates and privateers...

and she cut me off by telling me, "I know! We'll call him Captain Hook." This was a huge hit with my kids, who at that age were watching "Hook" every 3rd day.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Hook was a cute little guy, but scarred by his traumatic kittenhood on the mean streets of Wilkinsburg. It was nearly a week before the poor dimwit twigged to the fact that there was cat food in his bowl even when Kathy and I were out. He used to go tearing into the kitchen the second we arrived, purring like a Vulcan cannon. Even after he made the discovery that food existed in our absence, he wanted you in there, petting him while he ate. Hook's happiest moments were eating, while I sat on the kitchen floor and stroked his fur, telling him over and over what a good kitty he was.

This led to some... complications. In a bid to keep us home, he began snagging Kathy's pantyhose, because when she was putting those on, it meant we were leaving. And there was an unfortunate incident one night where Kathy got home before me. Hook was fed, (well fed. He never stopped gorging) and in Kathy's lap, and purring...

and I got home, and he promptly climbed out of her lap, and into mine. He loved Kathy, but I was his. We used to spoon, with the waterbed heater set to 100 degrees.

(pretty sure Kathy'll make me delete this pic of her spooning with Hook. But I like to show her off, too.)

So Kathy decided he needed a playmate to keep him from being so lonely during the day. Her decision had nothing to do with jealousy.

We went to a shelter, and Kathy saw Tinkerbell, and never looked at another cat. She insists that the reason Tinkerbell preferred her to me was because Tinkerbell remembered my voice saying, "What about this one? Come look over here!"

It didn't work out like we'd envisioned. Hook took one look at Tinkerbell, hissed and spent the next week under the bed, sulking. Except to over-eat, of course. He wasn't THAT angry. Tinkerbell did her best to make friends with him...

But he wasn't having it. If he was asleep, she could sleep close to him, as long as she didn't touch him. Any attempt to touch him resulted in a savage bathing, which quickly devolved into him chewing on her while she wailed her distress.

Eventually, she came to loathe him, too. He hated having her use his litter box, so we got several. She used to go to each one, pee just enough to annoy him, and then move to the next one and do it again. After he got too fat to jump well, she used to sit above him and smack his head with her tail.

She had some other hardships, too. My son is... well he's my son. So despite being explicitly and repeatedly told not to, he used to stalk Tinkerbell like Elmer Fudd, with his Nerf Bow, or my belt ("It's my lasso!") or even the straw from a juice box, which he felt looked vaguely like a gun. She never forgave him. Nearly 20 years later, Tinkerbell would use him as furniture, but he was NOT allowed to pet her.

We lost Hook in the Spring of 2011. By that point he was 22 pounds. He looked like a panda bear. We'd tried limiting his food intake, but his food neuroses meant that if there was no food in his bowl, he lost his mind. We tried putting him on diet cat food, but it made Tinkerbell really sick and feeble. He was 19 when his organs failed, and I'd been carrying him to bed with me for probably a month before that. He was a happy boy right up until his last week.

I will spare you the details of having him put down, except to note that when you're an old man, carrying an empty cat carrier down the street, openly weeping, you draw some second looks.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Kathy and I were crushed by Hook's absence. Tinkerbell on the other hand...

Tinkerbell blosomed. It only took her a few hours to realize he was missing, and she changed from a meek, low-profile somewhat furtive cat to the Queen of the Castle. The first thing she did was go to each of his favorite spots to sleep, and take a long, luxurious nap. She became preemptory in her demands for attention. And since we were still grieving for Hook, we indulged her. She started getting fed off our plates; in fact she had her own "plate", that used to be a coaster.

She used to show up at the same time every day to be brushed. If I didn't drop what I was doing, she would remind me. And in the mornings, you could practically hear her form the words...

"Are we having English muffins? How lovely!" Well actually, she would just chirp, like a bird. But I knew what she meant.

We had been calling her our kitten for 19 years, but of course she was actually a delicate old lady. And unlike Hook, she kept getting thinner. As her appetite declined, we switched her to an all wet food diet. As she lost interest in that, I started mixing a spoonful of Gerber's baby food in with her food. But eventually, she started finding obscure places to hide, and spent all her time sleeping. When she stopped purring for us, we knew it was time.

I have a theory that cats lucky enough to be adopted by Kathy have hit some sort of karmic lottery. I think they must be the reincarnations of Buddhist saints, because no owner could be more loving, and more attentive, and more sensitive to a pet than Kathy is.

Hook and Tinkerbell had long, happy, pampered lives, and when they stopped enjoying that life, we let them go without forcing them to continue an existence which had lost its joy.

It was hard. It's still hard; I'm a lot more comfortable in the rational, analytical part of my head. The various stages of grief are best compressed into a nice prescription for Prozac, to my way of thinking. I'm told that's an unhealthy perspective.

And in any case, there are other kitties out there waiting to win the karmic lottery.

The one on the left is Ellen Ripley. The one on the right is Sarah Conner. You can mock their names too, but they were actually Kathy's idea. She was trying to prevent their being saddled with something horribly obscure dredged from my ancient history reading. I apologize for the blurriness of this, but they are NEVER still. We've had them for two weeks, and they're just starting to get the idea that maybe they don't have to sleep with us the entire night. If they can get a few hours in snuggled up to us in a way that forces us to contort our bodies into an unnatural posture, and another few hours under my chin or on top of Kathy's head, that's plenty till the next day's naps...

naps which have to be spent with me holding one of them in my arms, while the other occupies my lap. I typed most of this entry with one hand, although by cleverly constructing soft kitty beds on my desk, next to the keyboard, I've given myself the use of both hands, again.

Sarah is bigger than Ripley, and perhaps more active, although they're both off the hook. Ripley has a disturbing need to bathe us. It's kind of sweet, in a disgusting and unhygienic way.

And... I spoke too soon.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Subjectivity, Objectivity, Authority and the Nature of Truth

It occurs to me that my last post may have been more depressing than I intended. I do believe that people care more about who's telling them something than how true those statements are. I also believe that this trait manifests itself in post-hoc evaluations of the truth value of statements; if a member of a community with which you identify tells you Reaganomics was a big success, you're likely to believe it was a big success. This is true even when that something was objectively a freaking disaster

Just ask a conservative if the war in Iraq was a good idea.

(image from the Orange County Register)

But this is not the same thing as subjectivism. There IS (in my subjective judgement) an objective reality within which we exist. To the extent our subjective views vary from objective reality, we're liable to be corrected, sometimes very sharply.

A good example of this is seen in Marxism-Leninism, from the last century. Marxists believed that they had discovered objective laws of history describing social change over time. This shared ideology, in the process described by the minimal group paradigm, gave birth to a community. That community, in the process described by group dynamics divided into elite and mass members. The mass members (as in every community) looked to elites to articulate the group's values, to prescribe group action, AND TO INTERPRET THE OUTCOME OF THOSE ACTIONS.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

This is an almost completely self-contained subjective reality; a good example from this century might be the Tea Party movement. Only their leaders will tell them the truth, those leaders tell them what they should do, and those leaders assure them THAT THOSE ACTIONS WERE SUCCESSFUL. And of course, that the actions of others failed.

But objective reality "always bats last". The "sharp correction" experienced by the few remaining Marxists of the last century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, in complete contradiction to what they believed were immutable laws of history. There was simply no credible way for elites within the Marxist community to spin the demise of a political entity they had previously asserted to be the inevitable next step for all human societies.

So objective reality serves as a long-term check on the subjective realities created by the groups with which we identify. But as Keynes observed, "in the long run, we're all dead." Waiting for catastrophic policy failure seems like a dangerous way in which to evaluate the merit of an idea.

Fortunately, there is a quicker and less risky way in which to evaluate the policy assertions of elites, both those with whom we agree and those who in-group bias tell us are lying charlatans.

It's called the scientific method.

Elites who are telling us something need to be forced to predict what will happen next. If their model of reality is relatively accurate, those predictions will be correct. If their model of reality is inaccurate, their predictions will be incorrect...

and the elite in question will immediately start offering excuses about why their predictions were wrong. Or why being wrong doesn't undermine their model. Or torturing the data so as to demonstrate that like Obi wan Kenobi, what they said was true, "from a certain perspective".

(image from wookieepedia)

Hence, when forcing elites to generate falsifiable predictions about what happens next, it's critical to also force them to agree to specific metrics. It's not enough to to get them to say "that will create jobs". One must force them to tell us HOW many jobs, by when.

This does NOT mean that whenever someone is wrong in their predictions, they should be dismissed. Sometimes (usually) people are wrong. There's no shame in presenting an erroneous hypothesis, and a critical part of the scientific method is correcting one's hypotheses to account for new data.

But group elites who are consistently, wildly wrong in their predictions, and who habitually change the metrics in order to make those predictions appear accurate...

CAN be dismissed. Looking at you, supply-siders.

(image from

Friday, August 31, 2012

Playing the Race Card

I have spoke at tedious length about identity, here. For those of you who don't want to slog through my prose again, let me review for you. 

  1. Humans reflexively identify themselves as members of groups. 
  2. Any collection of individuals can be the basis of an identity group, no matter how arbitrary or trivial the basis of membership in the group. This is known as The Minimal Group Paradigm.
  3. For every group with which an individual identifies, there is also an implied "out-group", of individuals who are not seen as members.
  4. Members of the group are always "preferred" to non-members by the individual. They are seen more positively than non-members in any given dimension. This is known as In-Group Bias.
  5. We all have multiple groups with which we identify. But generally, only one of these identities is salient at a time. The salient identity is determined by the social context we're in at any given moment.
And now, for something completely different...

The practice of democracy has as its ethical basis Utilitarianism. Democracy's advocates claim that it is the political arrangement that results in the greatest "good" for the greatest number of people. The assertion groans under the weight of all its unspoken assumptions but we will treat it as true for now. And in fact, I believe it to be true.

Democracy is supposed to let everyone protect and promote their personal interests. Everybody gets to say what they want the group to do. The group then does what most of its members wanted. And there you have it, the greatest good for the greatest number of members.

Now, about those assumptions...

let's start with "personal interests". What is in your interest? Shall I sit and tell you what YOUR interests are? How do I know? Wouldn't it be a bit authoritarian for me to tell you what those interests are? What if I get it wrong?

Roger Zelazny said it well. "When people start doing things for my own good, I reach for my gun." (Also, he had a black belt in judo.)

(Image from Wikipedia)

In a Democracy, people get to make their own call about what their interests are. They get to decide what public policies are going to advance those interests. People perceive those interests on the basis of the salient identity. People define their interests on the basis of the group with which they identify at the moment.

Another assumption...

democracy assumes rationality. It assumes that individuals are capable of discerning what their interests are. But humans AREN'T rational. We take cognitive shortcuts. We don't sit down and make a list of every public policy alternative, and calculate it's cost-benefit profile to us in the short, medium and long term. Unless we're professional actuaries.

Instead, we look to elites from the salient group to tell us what our interests are, and which public policies will advance them. There's more to it than that; in-group bias guarantees that you will think fellow members of the salient group are nicer, more honest people than non-members.

(Images from wikimedia commons)

This has profound (and somewhat subversive) implications for Democratic Theory, particularly Pluralism. Much more importantly, it has profound implications for the PRACTICE of democracy, in the United States, in 2012.

Elections are not won on the basis of good policy. They're not won on the basis of past policy performance or anticipated policy innovations. Elections, God help us, are not decided on the basis of policy outcomes.

That last point deserves some elaboration. It is more accurate to say that elections are not TYPICALLY decided on the basis of policy outcomes. The actual outcome of most public policies is usually obscure. It changes from year to year. And remember, people's identity is contextual; their own perception of their self-interest fluctuates with whatever identity they're wearing at the moment. Their belief about the effect of a public policy is equally unstable. (Incidentally, this is the basis of public opinion volatility)

The outcome/effectiveness/desirability of a particular public policy is usually defined by salient group elites. If we're discussing gun policy, a salient identity group is "gun-owners" and a salient group elite is the NRA. Which is why gun-fetishists think concealed-carry is a better public policy response to mass shootings than gun control.

(image from Wikipedia)

There are numerous bases for an identity group. Gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, region, sports fandom, sexual preference, fashion, musical preference... any noun that can be applied to a person is a potential basis for identity, thanks to the Minimal Group Paradigm. In the context of a presidential election, typically salient identities are partisan and ideological.

Consequently, elections ARE won on the basis of identity politics. Most voters don't know what happened. Most voters have no idea what might happen if either party, or any particular candidate gets their way. What voters do know is which side they're on. Because their side is right, and good and serves the national interest, and the other side is wrong, and evil, and is only interested in gaining power for its own selfish ends.

And all of this is made manifest in the tactical decisions of both campaigns in the 2012 presidential election.

Partisanship is an increasingly salient identity for many voters. It's important for candidates to stoke that identity in those who hold it. This is why the in-boxes of so many of us are stuffed full right now, packed with dire warnings about the nefarious designs of the other party. (In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I believe with all my heart that the Republicans harbor nefarious designs).

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But there aren't enough partisans out there to get you to 51% of the electorate. You can expand your coalition a little bit more by activating ideological identity; there's lots of overlap with partisanship, but they're not congruent. But that still doesn't get you to 51%.

Religious identity is another marginal expansion of your vote count, at least in 2012. Appealing to the religious identity of conservative Christians has realigned American politics from '78 to the present day. But that very success has created sufficient overlap with political and ideological identity to have reached a point of diminishing returns. There just aren't that many extra votes to be had there, particularly for a Mormon candidate.

And remember, for every in-group, there's an out-group. The  incestuous little three-way between the GOP, Conservatives and the Religious Right has begun to make Women uncomfortable as their reproductive rights, legal protections and maternity benefits have all come under attack.

Hispanics are looking at the blatant appeals to ethnic identity disguised as conservative immigration policy and becoming Democratic voters. Homosexuals have had their sexual identity made salient to their politics around the issue of gay marriage.

There are fewer and fewer identities to be activated by the Republicans. This is indicative of a party in decline; the Republican Party just doesn't LOOK like America in the early 21st century. 

But, at least this year, there remains an identity which can be activated which might wring enough votes out to push them across that magical 51% threshold.

I'm talking about race, obviously.

And so we've seen the Romney campaign activate the race issue with a shamelessness that has taken the tame Beltway media by surprise. Willard Romney has intentionally trolled the NAACP, hoping for (and getting) footage of himself being booed. He has deliberately and with calculation made a Birther joke. He has refused to acknowledge the complete falsity of his claims regarding the welfare to work requirement, despite having been universally condemned even by the tame Beltway press.

If Romney can get you to think of yourself as "white", instead of as "middle-class", he knows that in-group bias will take over and you'll assume his sincerity and good intentions, while simultaneously becoming more suspicious of Barack Obama.

It is a despicable ploy, and manipulative, and one which undermines the public policy debate which would be at the center of a RATIONAL political process.

And, it might work.