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.