Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Musings on the US national election, 2012

First, my personal congratulations to the people of the United States in general, and to President Obama in particular. More than any other issue, I'm opposed to the idea of giving anyone who sincerely believes these are "the end times" the power to make his dreams come true. I'd rather "the football" stayed in the hands of someone who actually believes humanity has a future on the planet Earth, and one to be determined by human beings as much as possible.

Obama didn't set the US alight like I hoped he would four years ago. No envy-of-the-world Camelot II sprung up and took root. Maybe I was foolish to think it would, but even I was optimistic. Nevertheless, given the state of things, he did a better job than I believe any Republican of the current crop would have done.

And on that score, what is it with the Republican Party lately, anyway? It seems to me they've spent the last 30 years looking for more and more outrageous candidates, and then daring the people to elect them. Okay, I didn't think John McCain was that bad, but... Sarah Palin? 150 million women in the United States, and that was they best they could come up with? And now Romney and Ryan, who come across more like they should be leading a synod in 6th century than a modern nation state that puts people into space above an Earth that's not flat and isn't orbited by the sun. What's next; the reanimated corpse of David Koresh? 'Cause, y'know, there was a real champion of religious freedom and guy not afraid to take a stand against the evil, evil government, after all. No, seriously; where are the GOP's outer limits these days? What happened to the party of Ike Eisenhower? Hell, even Richard Nixon? And why, oh why, do they keep polling the numbers they are the loonier they get?

Anyway... something that puzzles me about the election is that people put the Democrats back in the White House to run the show, but then gave control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. That's like handing someone a Ferrari to win the race for you, and then welding the gas tank shut. What's the point? Now, I live in one of those several-dozen countries using the Westminster parliamentary system in which no one actually votes for the office of Prime Minister. The PM is just the guy leading the gang with the most guys standing at the end of the electoral street brawl. But at least there's no way he or she won't command at least the largest block of legislators, if not the actual majority. On the other hand, US voters just assured that virtually no initiative emerging from the executive in the next two years at least will get through the lower house of the legislature for fear it'll make the Democrats look good.

The other thing I don't get is why the Electoral College still exists, or ever did. I'm glad Obama won 300-and-whatever votes in it, as opposed to Romney's 200-and-some. But I'm hearing that described as "decisive". What's actually decisive, or ought to be, is that he got roughly a million more votes nationwide than Romney did. But that's no 3-2 split. That's a difference of about 1%. So what is the Electoral College for? It was designed in the 18th century as a democratophobic measure; it has the potential to "elect" the loser, like it did only 12 years ago; it skews the results and negates the voice of any 50-minus-1 group in any state, commandeering them as zombies and making them effectively count against the person they endorsed; and it divorces the American people from the one, single office in the entire country they all hold in common: the Presidency of the United States. That should be a direct relationship. One person, one vote, north to south, sea to shining sea. States and counties should be invisible, shouldn't exist in the contest. It should be organized and run by a body of volunteers across the country, directed by an arms-length office in Washington, by a single set of rules, and a central voters list... not the rules and scruples of Podunk County picking the candidates and deciding whom it does and doesn't think ought to get a vote this time around. I was once told that this is impossible; that no federal republic anywhere on Earth directly elects its president in this fashion. But Austria, a stable, moderate, wealthy First World country—and a federal republic—does. It is possible. Navel-gazers, arise; lift your heads with awe. Other people have ideas, too. Sometimes they're even better than yours.

One other thing that's caught my interest, but seems to be utterly overlooked, is that Puerto Rico has just held yet another referendum on its constitutional relationship to the United States. And for the first time in these never-end-ums, a slim majority has voted against the status quo. Of those who did, and went on to answer the second question, something like 65% voted for statehood, with most of the rest voting for a form of sovereignty-association that would distance Puerto Rico from the US somewhat, and a very small minority in favour of outright independence. Supposedly, this result implies a run-off referendum at some point to work out just which of the alternatives people endorse, since they've finally nixed the status quo. I did the cross-calculation and of those who voted in total, about 35% went on to vote for statehood. So it comes down to what the nearly half of Puerto Ricans who were just fine with things the way they are, but presumably can't have that anymore, will prefer as an alternative: statehood, or an arrangement with more independence for Puerto Rico while maintaining some ties to the United States. To me, this is very exciting. The US might get its first new state in over 60 years; the first new arrangement of stars on its flag in the same period. The prospect of a state where English isn't the norm, and Spanish is. And yet, no one seems to have taken any interest. To me, this is perplexing.

So... my varied, scattered musings in the wake of the US national election.


N.S. Palmer said...

Great post! Too bad for us that you don't live down here in "complaining territory." We could use a lot more smart people to balance all the lunatics and ignorami.

I don't know if Romney believes in "the end times." That's an evangelical Christian belief, and Mormons are Christians only in the sense that Muslims are Christians (they believe Jesus was a Divinely-inspired prophet). I'm not sure that Romney believes in anything except his right to do whatever he wants at other people's expense.

(( Obama didn't set the US alight like I hoped he would four years ago. ))

We're kind of on the same page there. Unlike some people, I never believed that Obama was the secular equivalent of Jesus, but I hoped that he'd be a lot more like Franklin Roosevelt. I can still say that Obama has been a better president than John McCain would have been, but that's setting the bar very low. McCain would have been a better president than He Who Must Not Be Named, but that's setting the bar so low that you can't even see it anymore.

(( What is it with the Republican Party lately, anyway? It seems to me they've spent the last 30 years looking for more and more outrageous candidates ))

A large minority of Americans have always been suspicious of people who "know stuff" and talk about facts. They're one wing of the Republican "base." The other wing is Wall Street. Most of the Republicans' talking points are designed to motivate the ignorami while hiding from them the fact that the party really works for Wall Street against their interests.

(( then gave control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. ))

I believe it was former House Speaker Tip O'Neill who said that "all politics is local." At the House of Representatives level, that's largely true. People don't vote to give the Republicans control of the House: they vote for their Republican candidate, either because (a) he's actually a good legislator, (b) his office solved a problem for them or treated them courteously, (c) the local media support him, or (d) at least he's white, non-Jewish, non-Muslim, or non-whatever.

(( The other thing I don't get is why the Elector College still exists ))

The American founders were suspicious of direct democracy, though they lived in a country almost completely different from the one today. The electoral college is an anachronism in an age when both candidates represent different wings of the same ruling party.

(( One other thing that's caught my interest, but seems to be utterly overlooked, is that Puerto Rico ))

I know almost nothing about Puerto Rico, except that Aubrey Plaza is half-Puerto Rican and I think she's hot.

barefoot hiker said...

Hey, NS. :)

With regard to Romney... I honestly don't know if he believes that either, but I saw an interview with him in which he laid all that out as an article of faith. The Mormons have a "third" testament, that being the Book of Mormon, which purports to put a spin on the nature of creation and to tell the story of what Jesus got up to here in the Americas after his crucifixion. But they also hold to the Bible as more conventional Christians know it (they believe Jesus is divine, the son of God the Father, but that he was conceived by the usual means and that the virgin birth isn't indicated by scripture). The thing is, whether he holds with the Book of Revelation or not, he's beholden to lot of people who do, and I'm no more comfortable with the idea of someone who believes or has to be lip service to the idea that Iron Age visions of locusts, numerology, and multi-headed monsters reliably predicts the future in the Space Age having stewardship of nuclear weapons than I am with the idea of Koran-waving mullahs having it, for exactly the same reason. I imagine, though I don't know, that Barrack Obama believes there's a God of some sort, but I haven't seen anything that indicates he's in any way keyed up to help that god return to an Armageddon-ravaged world to judge the living and the dead.

Most of the Republicans' talking points are designed to motivate the ignorami while hiding from them the fact that the party really works for Wall Street against their interests.

I've long felt this to be the case myself. It was clear to me and my buddies at the end of high school, looking at conservatives like Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney here at home. It really surprises me that the idea of just letting rich people keep all their money would mean they'd hand out more of it in jobs (to little nobodies who don't deserve not to pay taxes, of course) wasn't thoroughly discredited to one and all by the early 1990s. The Tea Party strike me as some of the dumbest people ever to populate a wealthy, educated First World society. Do they all really believe they're going to be "the rich" someday? They stand naked in the forest and cheerfully vote for the black flies and mosquitoes, year after year, election after election. It truly astounds me.

I do understand your point about politics being local. The problem is, congressman is a national office. The US system of separating the executive and legislative opens up the door to this kind of legislative schizophrenia. People in the modern day expect the president to lead and set policy, but the system enables them to deny him the means to do so, for years at a stretch. I really do believe this is a factor in the poor performance of the US in recent years, but that people are so tied to the idea that it's essentially impossible it will ever be amended.

Bridgewater said...

You ask what's with the Republican Party--a rhetorical question, I'm sure, since you seem to have a pretty good grasp of what's going on down there. It's obvious that the wealthy are at the top of the heap, both financially and politically; the fact that it now costs so much to be elected means that candidates either have to be independently wealthy or have wealthy backers (to whom they are then beholden) just to make themselves known. Conservatives who are not wealthy apparently still don't realize that they were duped into voting against their own interests through the lies of Karl Rove and Fox News.
There is a kind of conservative mentality, a tendency toward a way of thinking that is probably inherited as part of the personality. In this mindset, the world is seen in as black or white, right or wrong, my way is the right way. Every issue must have a definitive answer. The reality is that most of life is in shades of grey, with pros and cons, and often there is no answer--or no good solution--maybe just the least bad solution. This truth is intolerable for people who must have resolution. The conservative mentality may be fostered by inadequate education; if you don't counter their natural tendency to crystalize their opinions by instilling the habit of questioning, they settle into a pattern of accepting what they are told as fact and then denying any actual fact that contradicts what they believe. The kids in seventh grade who never mastered the term paper--didn't know how to get the thoughts of their sources down on 3-by-5's (OK, that dates me), write a coherent paragraph, or prepare a bibliography--they are the adults who don't know how to find out what others are thinking and why, are hesitant to ask for fear of looking stupid, or really don't want to know for fear of being exposed to something that challenges their basic beliefs and makes them doubt that they are right. So they read their Bible and listen to the likes of Rush and Beck, and Fox is on all day. They aren't necessarily stupid--but they are stunted in that their education was inadequate to the reqirements of good citizenship.
The wealthy convince those people that somebody must be to blame--and it ain't the wealthy--pay no attention to that obscenely rich guy behind the curtain--it must be those welfare queens and druggies, all [N-words], of course, lazy s.o.b.'s siphoning off the hard-earned life savings of those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. And women have gotten 'way too uppity, too--their right to make their own reproductive choices is an affront to beliefs about the role of women, both in fundamentalist religions and in the minds of folks who look back with nostalgia to Mrs. Cleaver and Father Knows Best. And the gays--going to Hell--never mind that Jesus never said Word One about gays; in their minds, Jesus said so. Period, as they like to say. End of story. This isn't so much about Puritan prudery as it is about loss of power and control.
Older white guys are being labelled as Romneyites, but I can tell you from personal knowledge that older white guys are not a Republican voting bloc. Who voted in large numbers for Romney? Older whites with less education for whom the fifties were rosy because they were kids, fer chrissake, with no cares, and Southern whites of all ages with less education who have never gotten over The Recent Unpleasantness. The Rove psychology is clear: use hot-button issues to enrage those who have no power in their personal lives, or who perceive what power they think they do have as slipping away, and demonize and dehumanize the opposition with insinuations and outright lies. Why would anybody vote for a black Muslim Kenyan Communist, an Alien Other who wasn't even born in the U.S.?

Bridgewater said...

With regard to the Electoral College, for all its disadvantages, there are some good reasons to retain it, the most convincing for me being that it forces the wider geographical distribution of popular support for a candidate, not allowing a more populous region to dominate by sheer numbers. Candidates generally select running mates from other parts of the country than their own and ideally campaign all over the country and ally themselves with leaders from all areas as well as paying heed to the concerns of minority groups that could tip the scale, thus tending to unify the electorate and have a kind of geographical consensus rather than promote one region or group over another. A concern of the Founding Fathers was that the public could be too easily swayed by charlatans, distorting the popular vote--and this was a valid concern during the 2012 campaign. Luckily, the hot-button issues the right was pressing to inflame the voters were not so hot after all. Apparently they were pretty much moot for the majority of voters by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, but the party that wanted to Take Back America were Way Back and hadn't heard yet.

As for winning the election and then handing over the reins, Obama is a compromiser, said so from the beginning, and it took him about three years to get it through his head that the Republicans were not going to give a freakin inch. I hope he will let the tax cuts expire, let the wagon start rolling toward the fiscal slope, and let the Republicans take the blame they so richly deserve for voting against big tax increases for the rich and smaller, proportional increases for everybody else that everybody else knows in his heart of hearts must come if the US is to recover and thrive. A big advantage for the Dems will be the fixing of the Senate filibuster rule that has allowed the minority to rule by requiring a supermajority on so many important votes. Both sides have hesitated to fix the rule, wanting to have some power during the years when they are in the minority, but Harry Reid has promised to fix it in January, thus helping to ease the gridlock caused by the Party of No. The House will still be obstructionist because of the bigger problem with the American voting system than the Electoral College, which is the gerrymandering of Congressional districts. There at least the Senate can kill bills that should die aborning. For federal elections, at least, the districts should be drawn by computer and not be redrawn after every census, unless it be to divide a district that has become so much more populous that another representative is needed.

The biggest problem of all, IMHO, is the money. This election may have belayed the fears of those who worried that the candidate with the most money would win, but the fact remains that the guys who contributed colossal chunks of cash are going to expect some kind of return on the investment. It's high time to emasculate Citizens United, publicly fund campaigns, ban all gifts of any kind from lobbyists, and make the move from congressman to lobbyist illegal altogether. Congress should be beholden only to the best interests of their constituents.

barefoot hiker said...

Hi, Bridgewater,

What you've said about the mindset and motivation of many Republican voters clears away a lot of the fog for me. It makes sense, it feels applicable and credible, and even lends such people some sympathy. I feel armed with a new way to understand the hows and whys of such elections and the otherwise inexplicable rhetoric of the GOP. You've really twisted the lens and brought it into focus for me.

With regard to the Electoral College, I understand the apprehensions of the Founding Fathers, but it's hard to excuse them when they spoke so often of the wisdom of the common man, worked so hard to empower him with rights to guide his own destiny and that of his country, but then turned around at the last minute and decided the crown was too fine a bauble for them to choose a head for it to rest upon. Be that as it may, it's harder still to understand how the institution persisted in the United States of all countries after about 1920. Once senators were elected, once women were voting and running for office, what need for the strange wall between the people and presidency, stationed with guards by means of which notes are passed? I'm far less concerned with people being sold a bill of goods and voting for it... I mean, let's face it: that's the nature of elections, period... as I am with the idea that 500,000 more people wanted Al Gore to be President of the United States than wanted George Bush, but the loser won. In a direct election, that perversion of the will of the people and the whole point of consulting them on the matter in the first place would not be possible. If they'd voted for Bush fair and square, fine... they asked for it. But the thing is, they didn't. They voted to spare themselves those four years but were given them anyway thanks to the fact that no one has gotten around to overturning the latent class prejudice of the Founding Fathers.

Well... ahem... my 2¢ CDN. :)

Bridgewater said...

I can see why the two most convincing arguments advanced in the matter of the Electoral College might have been construed as an endorsement of the system, since I didn't proceed to demolish those arguments on the spot (a function of limited time and space) with the overwhelming evidence that even these supposed advantages have been distorted by demographic realities. Birds of a feather have flocked together; the fringes are blue and the middle is red. The candidates ignore blue and red--they can count on one and know they've already lost the other--and concentrate on the few purple swing states--so much for seeking consensus countrywide. In their attempt to establish a union from a conglomeration of unruly states with differing economic interests, immigration streams, and cultural philosophies, the Founding Fathers threw sops to the smaller states and the slave states. Giving each state two senators regardless of population was one concession, and the electoral college system was another--both inherently undemocratic, and both giving those states disproportionate power. That the Founding Fathers were skeptical of the ability of the populace to vote responsibly does indeed seem strange, considering the very high literacy rate among American males at that time--until you consider the election just past, in which an astounding 48% of voters fell for the charlatans despite a literacy rate almost as high as in Colonial times--confirming the Founding Fathers' understanding of the appeal to the gut. They were not the deities they've been made out to be; they were good men doing the best they could with the political compromises they had to make.

Bridgewater said...

The Constitution has likewise been deified by those who see it not as a living set of guiding principles but as having been written in stone and thus not subject to interpretation or alteration. ("Those" tend to be the same folks who see a certain other worshipped document in a similarly ossified way.) For this reason, the US is not likely to abolish the Electoral College altogether. But. A work-around is, um, in the works. Since the Constitution stipulates that the states shall decide how their electors are to vote, the question is how their vote might better reflect the popular will. The National Popular Vote (to which I have lent my support) is a movement encouraging states to change their laws to award their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes countrywide. The state from which I vote and eight others have already enacted the plan into law, committing 132 votes to the plan so far. The plan would be realized when there are enough states to bring 270 electoral votes to the table. No Constitutional amendment needed, no national referendum required, no forcing states that don't want to go along. The goal of the plan is that every voter in every state in every presidential election would count. Sounds pretty democratic to me.

Bridgewater said...

Addendum to the comment on the mentality of some conservatives:

Bridgewater said...

Here's another piece on the conservative mindset:

barefoot hiker said...

I'm really at a loss to understand why this is being portrayed as such a big crisis. I don't live in the US, but even I know the voters "did just that" (as per the NYT article) in 1996, and "did just that" in reverse in 1984 and 2004, and I don't remember any of this stuff about the sky falling resulting. Bush I got turfed after one term and there wasn't this kind of shock and wailing.

All I can think of is that it's dawning this might be the passing of an era, when Republicans like Reagan are past their Best Before date, and pragmatists like Eisenhower and, dare I say it, Lincoln are the kind of GOP candidates they're going to have to run to get elected. That W was the last of the unordained priests the United States en masse cares to elect. If it's true, I can't say I'm sorry to see it go.

I know it probably doesn't really mean anything dire (at least in the short term), but the sudden vogue for petitions to allow this state or that state to peacefully secede have me wondering. It might just be that the US really is two different nations sharing a country, and there's just not enough elbow room for them both in a single government. The idea both terrifies and fascinates me.

barefoot hiker said...

It took me a while to figure out what this National Popular Vote thing actually entails, but I've got it now. So long as states totalling the minimum requisite number to elect the president are on-board, it's in effect, since it no longer matter what the balance of states are pledged to do. Actually, it's a pretty slick use of a loophole--that the states decide how to apportion their votes themselves--to deke around the apparatus of the Elector College.

My own concern is that what the states advance today they could retract tomorrow, so I'd still prefer to see an actual amendment. But, then, hey, it's not my country, is it? :) So I'm just sayin'.

Bridgewater said...

"All I can think of is that it's dawning this might be the passing of an era..."
Demographics are the reality behind this election. The country has gone from largely rural/small town to urban, from mostly mainstream Christian to Christian crazies vs. alien others, from majority white to largest minority, from white men in power to not so much, in a dizzyingly brief time, compared to the rate of change in general throughout most of human history. My father remembered Kitty Hawk, and he thrilled to see that one small step, that giant leap--from Tom Swift to the Moon in less than a lifetime--and social change has been equally dramatic in much less than a lifetime. For people who are not particularly open to change, recent developments in the US have been downright threatening, not only to their understanding of the country, what it is and should be, but also to their assumptions about their place in the heirarchy. If the only "news" sources you listen to are telling you that the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation; if they imply that the current leader of the country is a secret Muslim coming after your guns and Bibles; if they paint "urban" dwellers as lazy takers and you as the virtuous makers; if you believe that Romney will take back the country, wrest the reins from the hands of the undeserving and illegitimate, and restore your beliefs and "values" as the law of the land; and if you're told that the polls show Romney winning handily--if you believe the scurrilous lies of Rush and Glenn and Fox, in other words--of course you're going to be gobsmacked. The big difference between this election and the earlier ones you mention is the success of Karl Rove and his minions in creating the alternate reality in which the "real Americans" have been living. John Dean of Watergate fame has written an insightful book entitled Conservatives Without Conscience that describes how this revolt'n' state of affairs came to be. Aside from its interest as political analysis, the book is a revealing psychological study.

Bridgewater said...

About the National Popular Vote--yes--the states could change their minds--but the demographics are against the reversion you're worried about, and all indications are that many states will come on board, with more than the minimum number of 270 electoral votes amassed, probably before the next presidential election. Then, once the Electoral College has been effectively irrelevant for a period of time, with no obvious disadvantages or unexpected consequences, a Constitutional amendment might actually be considered.

barefoot hiker said...

Seems appropriate that John Dean would write about Conservatives Without Conscience. :) I've always admired the stand he took during the Watergate hearings. Seems a shame that he had to do time and Nixon didn't do any at all, but such is the prestige of the office he held, I suppose. Even I don't relish the idea of a former US president in prison. Anyway, I'll have to look that book up. I hope when you say it's "a revealing psychological study", you mean that in the way Dean intended. :)

It's strange that I feel some sympathy for the folks stunned by the loss of the election, but I suppose I do. Personally, I'm opposed to a lot of what they stand for and want for the US (and as such, "would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of friends all over the civilized world"). But I understand the idea that things you find safe and love about home are disappearing can shake you to the core. But maybe they have to change. Southern whites had to change not too long ago, and by and large, they're altogether better off for leaving 1860 behind. Though I have to admit, reading about how that woman volunteering for Romney had "Victory Day" written on her calendar angered me with its hubris, and she needed to be taken down a peg or two in her presumption of stewardship.

Everything you say about the NPV strikes me as sound. You're right; the public will keep it from rolling back, and there's still plenty of time to pick up states to sign on (and the map I saw suggests that's well under way), and I suppose once it's a fait accompli there will be a lot less in the way of formalizing an actual amendment, eventually. Ah, but I keep thinking how close the ERA came, over and over again... :)