Monthly Archives: December 2016

Snark! The Heckled Flamer Stings, And Gory Are the Dumbed Down Zings

A Song for a Difficult Holiday Season

Holidays can be hard, and achieving the delicate détente that allows families to come together without serious political incident might be more challenging this year. This is especially true if Uncle Phil is three scotches into his “make America great again” gloat while cousin Moonbeam is blubbering post-election despair into her vegan eggnog.  The Phils of the world are clearly relishing an electorally sanctified post-PC freedom, cheerfully and openly making suggestions that the Moonbeams can stuff their multiculturalism claptrap into their safe spaces and smoke it. The Moonbeams are obviously reconsidering their principles on non-violence. They look like they’re a slug of fair trade amaretto away from shoving Phil’s smug pie hole right into the desert plate. If shared genes and Aunt Petunia’s trifle can’t bridge these gaps, what can? How can we speak to each other when we see each other’s political views as unspeakable?

To tell the truth, I’m damned if I know. I suppose one option is the Voldemort strategy, which basically means avoiding all mention of he-who-must-not-be-named. Given that half the people at the table are umbilically twitter-connected to every random bellicosity crackling across the president-elect’s synapses, I don’t give this much chance of success. Silence is golden, but shooting rhetorical lead across the roast turkey is just too tempting when the divider-in-chief is feeding declamatory dynamite right into your pants pocket.

Another tried but hardly true path to managing family comity is avoiding not just particular personalities, but all mention of religion or politics. Methinks this too is doomed to failure, at least at this time of year. While theology and ideology can be declared off limits by mutual consent in polite company, the Phils and the Moonbeams are in no mood to be cordial, least of all to each other. Besides, pretty much everything is political these days, especially religion, and extra-especially non-religion. It doesn’t even have to be that religious, or even that non-religious, to spark a Defcon Four family event. An offhand “merry Christmas!” rather than a “happy holidays!” (or vice versa) is enough to get people snarling about needlessly exclusive cultural hegemony versus killjoy PC tosh. If someone brings up kwanzaa it’ll be gloves off and flung turkey legs at ten paces.

Traditionally, the most efficacious means of defusing seasonal political conversation bombs is sports. We might disagree on whether the Donald is the right man for the job or a con man doing a right hack job, but surely we can agree that the Dallas Cowboys have a shot at the Super Bowl, even if you can never rule out Tom Brady and his deflated balls of gridiron glory. That might not get Phil and Moonbeam to a platonic but loving peck beneath the mistletoe, but it at least distracts them from shoving provocative auditory nettles into each other’s ears. Unfortunately, there’s little conversational sanctuary in pigskin chit-chat these days. Someone will inevitably mention someone taking a knee during the national anthem and we’re off and running right toward the political chasm we’re so desperately trying to avoid.

So if silence, conversational demilitarized zones, and safe talk spaces won’t work, what will? Well, if we are having such a tough time talking to each other—nationally, not just at the dinner table–here’s a radical idea … maybe we could try to, you know, listen to each other. Near as I can tell, talking politics these days is incredibly popular, but it mostly seems to consists of taking turns to megaphone out a tally of grievances and insults, or to distribute gazettes of righteous indignation.  And don’t get me started (again) on social media’s sorry record of infantilizing political exchange. There’s no room for a thoughtful give and take in 140 character political analysis or Facebook meme shares.

So how can we listen to each other if our primary communication tools are bumper sticker bromides, internet troll tirades, and, on the odd occasion when we do poke our heads above the parapets of our partisan comfort zones, yell fests across no man’s land? Well, how about books. I know it’s old fashioned, that it takes a bit of sustained intellectual engagement, and that there’s no comment section where you can get a good cathartic rant on and anonymously napalm the author’s ideas, morals and dignity. But bear with me here. Amazingly, there are still numbers of grownups on both sides of the political divide trying to thoughtfully deal with partisan differences, and they need more than encouragement. They need a bigger audience.

I’m not talking about the delegates of division, here, the folks who occasionally take time off from their usual agitprop platforms to pack one-sided harangues into print form. I’m talking about people genuinely interested in, and capable of, talking across the political divide. Phil and Moonbeam aren’t getting anywhere shooting eyeball daggers across the yams at the holiday table. But maybe both of them could get to recognize a little bit more of what they have in common if they found a genuine messenger in hardback in the old Christmas stocking. Yes, I know Christmas has come and gone, but if the holiday spirit is still there, maybe it’s worth ringing in the New Year with a belated gift that will encourage dealing with politics on more cerebral and less emotionally raw basis. Allow me to make two suggestions, one from the left and one from the right.

From the left I’d recommend Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild is sociologist, and not only a sociologist, but a University of California Berkeley sociologist. In other words, she’s a card-carrying member of the lefty-left. Foreknowledge of her academic background should insure that the mere sound of her approaching Birkenstocks will raise hackles amongst Trumpinistas.

She’s also pretty curious about why people are so politically different from her, curious enough to spend several years hanging out with committed Tea Party types in Louisiana. She finds them to be a pretty likeable bunch and certainly not the two-dimensional yahoos brought up at progressive white wine and cheese condescension confabs. They’re friendly, hardworking, and dealing with some pretty tough social and economic issues. She’s initially baffled by their political reasoning. Some of her subjects are literally being killed by the petrochemical industry—and they are perfectly aware of what’s going on—and yet they are pro-business, anti-government, anti-regulation, and most certainly anti-EPA. She never pretends to agree with her subjects’ politics, yet she ends up making a pretty convincing case about what they are based in. If you’re one of those liberals still shell-shocked by the coming ascension of Trump and wondering what happened, this isn’t going to make things sting any less. But it might help you understand why we are where we are.

From the right, I’d recommend A Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance also has some fancy-pants academic cred—he’s an Ivy League-educated lawyer—but he’s a Republican and a conservative and has a gobsmacking hardscrabble backstory. Socio-demographically speaking, his tribe is the Trump electorate. While his memoir has gotten a lot of (well deserved) attention for being a sensitive portrayal of the white working class, one of things that impressed me about it was how he made good. He went through a top notch public school (Ohio State) before going onto the snoot circuit at Yale Law. Along the way he dealt with who you’d expect to find in such circles, i.e. a lot of lefty-leaning Hochschild types. Not all get a sympathetic portrayal—some clearly don’t deserve it—but plenty do. And plenty go out of their way to help a promising guy get up the ladder. Vance clearly has an open mind and seems less interested in condemning than in connecting.

Would there were more on the left like Hochschild and more on the right like Vance. If you’ve got people like these two in your social circle, consider yourself very lucky (and invite me over for a beer sometime, that’s an interesting crowd). Lacking that, leave the Phils and the Moonbeams to their food fight and check out these books. Reading is a kind of listening, and we could all stand to do a sight more of it.

An Awkward Elevator Moment With Post-Modern Conservatism

One of the reason’s I’m so discombobulated by contemporary conservatism’s embrace of post-modernism is that it is so, well, French. Bluestocking twaddle wholesalers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault have been force-fumigating Gauloise smoke up credulous leftie bum cracks for decades. The political right, though, turned its cheeks at such Francophone hot gas, spurning post-modernism’s tickle-your-fancy fresh philosophical airs. They’ve tended to treat it more like an embarrassing butt squeak ponging up a crowded elevator.

And, at least until now, I’ve generally stood with the forces of traditionalism and conservatism on this one. As an academic I’ve had to read my cod liver oil ration of post-modern writings, which abound with sentences like this: “The dialectical immediacy of transmutable perspectives resolves into a neo-semantic materialism, and though the shadow of Engels falls below the beard of Marx, an ounce of Freud beats a kilo of brussels sprouts any day.” Battalions of artisanal academic guff fabricators churn out reams of this stuff; whole journals are dedicated to it.

I generally try to ignore it all, but on very rare occasions I have to hold my nose and dive in because, and it pains me to admit it, I am a craven lickspittle to the anonymous reviewers who serve as gatekeepers to academic publication. Every once in a while, a fiendish journal editor will slip in a post-modern type reviewer and I’m forced to read stuff like, “This paper needs more attention to the seminal article I wrote on the structural de-structuralism of post-structural pre-structures and its implications for the future structure of structuralism.” The upshot to these sort of missives is an unpleasant hour or two in the library, which inevitably leads to unfortunate undergrads encountering a deranged professor in the stacks waving his arms around and yelling, “What the Foucault are they all prattling about? Are they just having us on?”

Near as anyone can tell, post-modernism is a world view that rejects the idea of an objective reality. Instead it posits that truth is a matter of perspective. So, if I base my notion of truth on verifiable facts and rational, scientific analysis, and you base your truth on a reading of magic beans and the latest bulletin from the lads over at madashatters.com, in post-modern eyes we have equally valid points of view. This makes it very hard to have grown up conversations.

Take the whole who-let-one-go in the elevator scenario as an example. To someone like me—what’s known in the trade as a logical positivist—there are a set of immutable facts about this situation, independent of senses or interpretation. To wit, someone had the ptomaine tacos for lunch, then the gaseous dog got into a confined space with others, let ‘er rip, and now everyone’s eyes are watering. To a post-modernist there are no facts there, only perspectives. The guy in the corner gagging may actually be experiencing attar of roses olfactory bliss, the gendered nature of flatulence clearly implies a latent intra-elevator class power structure, and this in turn is rooted in the unspoken patriarchal dominance that originates in the culinary totalitarianism of toot totin’ tacos.

Your mileage might vary of course, but the latter viewpoint is either a careful contextual deconstruction of an assumed reality that reveals a larger social truth or, and I’m using the technical term here, complete bullshit.  I come firmly down on the bovine scatological inference, but then I would, what with being a philistine grubber of facts and admitted practitioner of the dark arts of hypothesis testing.

This was all bad enough when post-modernism was a limited lefty pretension, but lately it seems to have been embraced wholesale by the right. In toddling across the ideological spectrum to get its smooch on with the conservatives, though, post-modernism seems to have lost something in translation. The lefties liked to keep up intellectual appearances, covering post-modernism’s gooey poop-filled center with a thick carapace of near impenetrable prose. There might not be any facts in there, but all the big words caroming around at least seemed to suggest some sort of serious cerebral labor was going on. Who the hell knows if some semblance of a coherent point was tangled up in all the fustian multisyllabic oratory, but lacking full comprehension you could never fully rule out that possibility.

In its embrace of post-modernism, though, the right has dropped any such conceit. There’s no equivalent phalanx of sophists swilling wine and thinking deep thoughts like, “how do we really know that what I call orange others may experience as black? And, if orange is the new black, is there a dense tome about chromatic power imbalances in it?” Nope, conservative post-modern tribunes don’t need prolix academic posers perfuming their manure spreading. No screwing around. They just goose facts straight into the slaughterhouse chute of their Twitter feeds and poleaxe them.

Donald Trump is, of course, the poster boy of the new post-modern right. He’s basically created an entire “post-truth” politics, a real world philosophical achievement that would leave Foucault in awe (at best, Foucault only managed to create a few post-truth faculty lounges). This clearly has more than a little to do with Trump’s powers as a vampire of verity, able to suck truth dry with social media fangs no more than 140 characters long. Reputable fact checking cites rate Trump’s fib rate as off the charts (see here, here, and here for examples). Those sorts of operations, though, are mostly missing the point. They make the assumption that facts and causal logic that can reliably rivet them to each other are what truth is all about. In other words, they think facts matter. They are clearly not post-modernists.

Trump devotees clearly are. As Scottie Nell Hughes, news director at Tea Party News Network put it, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”  Let that sink in. This is someone who purports to be in the news business saying facts don’t matter. As she put it, if Trump tweets something that millions believe, to them that’s truth. If another set of millions see those same tweets as giant whoppers from the burgher king, to them that’s truth. And, well, that’s it. The notion that some things—let alone most things—can be verified as authentic or inauthentic independent of political perspective is no more. No need to engage in any potentially painful review of facts to see if there is any evidentiary basis for whatever brain fart is currently jetting across your social media space. If it gives you a warm fuzzy it’s truth on a stick. If not, it’s a fib on a twig. Either way you’ve got a bit of rhetorical wood to beat the crap out of the other guy with. The notion there might be some way to objectively adjudicate the relative veracity of these positions is summarily coshed and left to expire in the corner. Perspective defines truth. That’s post-modernism.

This doesn’t leave much of a role for actual journalists, academics like me, grown-ups in either political party, or anyone else with a healthy skepticism that their own biases are a sound basis for getting an accurate understanding of the real world. There is no real-world in the post-modern universe, just the one we perceive. So us realpolitik types find ourselves strangely alone. No one seems to care about reality anymore. It’s just too damn inconvenient, stuffed with all those annoying facts that have an irritating habit of contradicting political preferences. What we have left are vast clouds of partisan gas that certainly make for a big stink, but foster little in the way of communication. Somewhere in all that fog are separate tribes greedily inhaling the bias-reinforcing intoxicants of their own myopic miasmas, their feet firmly planted on the fact-free vapor they mistake for earth. Getting these angels of self-deception out of their cloud any time soon seems unlikely, which means meaningful political discourse will continue to get atomized in the fact-free ether. You kind of need reality to have a meaningful conversation, and the market for reality is currently in a Black Monday-level free fall.

The market for post-positivism, though, is clearly booming thanks to its sudden passionate embrace by the right. “Being is. Being is in itself. Being is what it is,” as Sartre said. Know what that means? Me neither, but I think it means the Donald can get away with being who he is just as long as large numbers of citizens refuse to see any world but the one created from their own biased perspectives. It’s all very worrying because, regardless of where our political views lie, we’re all in the elevator of the Republic together and have a communal interest in the guy pushing the buttons. You might perceive him pushing the button that gets us to the penthouse suite of great-again America. You might perceive him yanking the emergency stop that’ll leave all of us swinging ten floors up on a fraying cable. Either way, it doesn’t mean that what you perceive is actually real. But if no one is interested in unzipping fact from fiction because it might sting too much, it’s hard to see where we’re really going at all. If we’re pointing fingers, both sides should be apportioned some blame for this sorry state of affairs. That said, if you’re wondering why your eyes are watering right now, I’m pretty sure the conservative did it.

Third Parties, Fifth Wheels And Second Place

Third parties are the fifth wheels of American politics. They are the electoral hangers-on, the legislative lagniappe, the governmental gooseberries, the boobies on the commonweal’s boar hog. Their chances of winning any significant electoral office are roughly equal to the probability of me winning the heart of Jennifer Anniston.

While third parties are perennial losers, though, it doesn’t mean they have no say in who wins. As history shows, they most decidedly do. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party cost William Howard Taft a second term and put Woodrow Wilson in the White House. H. Ross Perot vacuumed just enough votes from George H.W. Bush to tip the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. A bunch of yahoos and Jim Crow suckups bolted the Democratic Party in 1948 and as the Dixiecrats nearly cost Harry Truman the election.

The all-time, hall of fame presidential election spoiler, though, has to be the Green Party, an agglomeration of save the whales do-gooders that, electorally speaking, is best described as a gun club using its own feet for target practice.  This is because not only has it twice in the past 16 years played an outsized role in determining the chief executive — both times it helped install a president antagonistic to its central policy aims. Indeed, in terms of national political campaigns, the Green Party has single-handedly done more to undermine environmental causes than all the daft, delirious and devious fib shippers currently trafficking in global warming conspiracy markets.

The Green’s policy agenda has a heavy focus on polar bear rescue squads and ensuring every breath is a snootful of oxygenated pleasure free of particulate pestilence. So how does it end up doing so much damage to environmental causes? Easy. It runs wackadoodle candidates for president who have no chance of winning, but an outstanding chance of attracting just enough disaffected liberals to torpedo the Democratic nominee. Greens are basically lefties too busy staring into their organic bong residue to grasp that they are actually supporting the fossil fuel mother frackers they profess to oppose.

Think about it. In 2000 the Green Party almost certainly kept Al Gore out of the White House. Gore was, hands down, the biggest treehugger to ever become a major party presidential nominee.  He won the popular vote which, as we know all too well these days, isn’t enough to get you the key code to the Oval Office. The reason we never had a President Gore was because he fell 537 votes short of George W. Bush in the critical state of Florida, a margin thinner than Dubya’s hold on proper syntax. Roughly six million votes were cast in Florida that year, and there’s even a defensible case that Gore would have actually won that state if the votes were accurately counted. But here’s the crucial electoral math of the 2000 election: the Greens got nearly 100,000 votes in Florida. Remove the Green Party from that ballot and the idea that Gore couldn’t scrounge up enough votes to gain 538 on Bush is laughable. Those 100,000 eco-commandos did more to put Bush in the White House than the RNC.

No matter, in 2000 all the electoral accounting forensics were mooted by a bunch of state’s rights advocates on the US Supreme Court who ruled that Florida should just shut its trap and declare Bush the winner. Big whoop said Ralph Nader, national scold, consumer safety personage, and the Green Party’s 2000 presidential candidate. He famously rejected any responsibility for Gore’s defeat, and basically said he didn’t care anyway because there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. Both the Dems and the GOP thought that was hilarious, though only the Republicans ended up laughing. They went on a decade-long deregulation binge. This was partially responsible for the drill-baby-drill BP “we don’t need no stinkin’ regulations” blowout that pranged the Deepwater Horizon and bathed the southern coast of the United States in crude oil in 2010. While all that was happening Gore went on to become one of the most prominent climate change activists on the planet and scored a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Yeah, if you think the environment is one of the big issues of our age, sure wouldn’t want that guy in office. Dodged a bullet there.

And then there’s the most recent Green Party act of electoral hari-kari, to wit, playing an outsize role in getting Donald Trump the presidency. Trump is a big popular vote loser, millions short of what his opponent hauled in. The key story of the 2016 election is a handful of “blue wall” — presumed solidly Democratic — states that made the critical difference to Trump’s Electoral College victory. The most crucial of these were Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three by razor-thin margins — only two-tenths of a percent of the vote in Michigan, eight-tenths in Wisconsin, and 1.2 percent in Pennsylvania. The Greens almost certainly cost Clinton Michigan (Trump won by roughly 10,000, the Greens picked up just north of 50,000), arguably Wisconsin, and at a minimum sure didn’t do the Democratic nominee much good in Pennsylvania.

Those three states make the difference between a President Clinton and a President Trump and that difference is in no small part the Green Party. What’s truly astonishing is that they managed to pull off this outsized influence on the Republic’s future with such a piffling trifle of the electorate. Total ballots cast for Green Party nominee Jill Stein across all three states is something like 160,000 out of roughly 13 million cast. Trump won those three states, combined, by a total of roughly 85,000 votes. Hillary gets half the Green votes distributed just so across just those three states and she wins.

Instead, what the Greens did by attracting only one percent of the vote in those states is help bring about this: Trump administration nominees that include a climate change denying head of the EPA, the head of ExxonMobil as Secretary of State, and a Department of Energy secretary who not only is a fossil fuel booster, but once campaigned to eliminate the Energy Department even though he couldn’t remember what it was. Oh, and talking about the DOE, Team Trump is currently compiling lists of its scientists who attended climate meetings, and no one thinks being on that list is likely to be big career booster.  How’s that whole “we Greens run because there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans” working out for your old policy goals, eh?

Just to put the forehead smacking coda on the Green Party’s 2016 contribution to keeping climate change on the coal-fired back burner, Stein recently spearheaded a vote recount effort in all three of the states I just mentioned. This was baffling on its face.  It’s not like state election officials were going to find a cache of enchanted Green ballots that would magically start adding zeros to Stein’s vote totals. The official justification from Stein was to insure the integrity of the process and to make sure there was no fraud, Russian hacking of voting machines or, I dunno, Pandas voting illegally or something. In short, the Green Party started channeling Trump’s “massive” electoral fraud speciousness through its sacred crystal of knowledge. The only lucid reason I can fathom for the Green Party recount effort is some sort of a forlorn hope that election officials would somehow find a reason to toss out all the votes for Stein and thus push Clinton’s electoral vote count higher. That at least would nudge the cosmic policy possibilities a smidge in the Greens’ direction. If that’s the actual intent, though, it means someone in the Green Party can count, which kind of makes you wonder where that guy was when the whole quixotic let’s-put-on-a-presidential-campaign-and-really-show-folks-something scheme was first hatched.

Regardless, the post-election discount doublecheck got the Greens and Stein a lot of attention but zilch in terms of political gains. The recount in Wisconsin was duly conducted at a cost of mere millions, and the upshot was to add 131 more votes to Trump’s victory margin. The Michigan recount was stopped because, as the adults pointed out, Stein had zippo probability of benefiting from a recount so she didn’t have much standing to ask for one. A federal judge put the kibosh on the Pennsylvania recount before it really got underway, calling it “borderline irrational.” Truer words were never spoken. But then, voting for Stein in the first place turns out to have been borderline irrational. Especially if you care about the environment.

 

Harry Potter and the Electoral College

Okay everybody, stand back. I’m going to attempt to explain the history, purpose and contemporary political implications of the Electoral College. My legal team insists I issue a disclaimer before doing so. So, fair warning, this is being done on a closed course with an expert driver. Do not attempt at home.

In technical terms, the Electoral College is an over-engineered doohickey connecting the people to the president based on a blueprint found in the “Where’s Waldo?” section of the Constitution.  The result rattles along more or less unnoticed by the masses in an average election cycle because when you fire that sucker up it generally picks the candidate with the most votes. And if the cool POTUS swag goes to the candidate with the preponderance at the polls, well, the electoral accounting seems reasonably kosher even if you don’t get all that electoral vote jazz.  Why bother sweeping back the curtain to investigate the grinder that makes this democratic sausage? The operating manual gives grown lawyers headaches and, besides, that thing is scary.

Every now and then, though, the machine spits out a president that the people clearly did not slide2want. He (it’s always been a he) gets the keys to the Oval Office and the nuclear codes, while the loser consoles themselves with the knowledge that, democratically speaking, they won.  Hillary Clinton got (at least) a couple million more votes than Donald Trump. And lost. This leaves a lot of Americans—a lot of non-Americans too—going, “WTF?” It also prompts much dusting off of hazy memories of a long ago civics course where the Electoral College was discussed as the sleeping giant of the SEC. Or maybe the Big 10. Or something like that. Pretty sure it was one of the major college conferences.

If Google or Wikipedia or that guy on Facebook doesn’t beat us to the punch, that curiosity offers humble folk such as myself that rarest of teaching moments, a miraculous alignment of opportunity, interest, and ignorance where people actually want some of that arcane knowledge we’ve spent careers stuffing into our brains. I intend to take full advantage of this ephemeral attention to matters institutional before everyone goes back to cat videos and fake news. Stand by for Electoral College 101.

First, how exactly the heck does this thing work? I’ll skip all the technical jargon here and just provide highlights of the process that will soon traslide1nsmute Trump into poo-bah of the body politic. During the first full moon in December, when Jupiter is in Mars, 538 electors will gather at the Republic’s sacred Hall of Requirement and bring out the sorting hat. As soon this piece of headgear gets within five meters of the orange Horcrux topping the president-elect’s noggin it’ll yell “Slytherin!” and head for floo network. Canada-bound most likely. We’ll probably have to fish it out of the secret chamber in Justin Trudeau’s sock drawer when we next need it. Anyway, once that formality is out of the way, Chief Supreme Court Justice Snape will administer the oath of office, give the ceremonial order of “ten points from Gryffindor!,” and congressional Dementors can start sucking the life out of Obamacare.

Okay, I can’t back any of that up and J.K. Rowling probably already has the copyright lawyers off the leash. The point is that to the average voter the Electoral College is all flap and fluster, an ancient bit of obfuscation that seems as mystical and magical as Hogwarts. Tell my tall tale at most dinner tables and the most skeptical comment you’ll get is something like, “Fancy that, I never knew the Canadian prime minister had a secret chamber in his sock drawer. Bet it’s something to do with hockey.” The Electoral College is the confundus charm of our democracy.

So why do we have it? In other democracies, national leaders are either chosen directly by popular vote, or by the party with the most seats in the legislature. Why do we alone use this baffling hunk of electoral jiggery-pokery? The answer lies in a disagreement among the Founding Fathers. Half of them didn’t trust the people to pick the president. Too easily fooled that lot, the argument went, they’ll end up getting their clocks cleaned by some tin-pot dictator. The other half didn’t trust Congress to pick the president. Given a chance that gaggle of Machiavellian power trollops will have the executive cleaning out the legislature’s chamber pots.

If the two obvious selection mechanisms were out, though, how to choose a president? Lottery? Seniority? The Supreme Court playing a game of nekkid Twister? Alexander Hamilton pondered this very question in Federalist 68, and as a bona fide Founding Daddy Dude, he’s got as good an answer as any. Hamilton argued that the “sense of the people” should be reflected in the choice of a president, but no way should the scruffy masses be trusted to do the job themselves. Better to have the most powerful office holder elected by men “capable of analyzing the qualities adopted to the station,” who could come up with a “judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” Yeah, that sounds like Hamilton alright. Power to the people, but big decisions should be left to the grownups.

Anyway, the basic pitch was to have each of the states select a number of wise heads equal to the count of their congressional delegation, and these chosen few would do the actual electing after giving the matter due thought and consideration. The original idea of the Electoral College really did seem to be as a sort of deliberative super-group of prez pickers. At least according to Hamilton this process would weed out unworthy presidential aspirants, the sort of aggrandizing power grubbers with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” but little else to recommend them. Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way (see recent presidential election).

This whole indirect selection machine tends to throw a sprocket for two reasons. The first is the ever-present possibility that a popular vote winner will be an electoral loser. In simple terms, there’s a mild gerrymander baked into the system. Smaller states get to punch above their weight because they are guaranteed two Senators. That means nearly a fifth of the electoral votes are apportioned on the basis of state equality, not population. So California gets one elector for about every 700,000 voters. Wyoming can lay its hands on an electoral vote for less than 200,000 voters. On a population adjusted basis, then, Wyoming voters are way more influential. The upshot is that the electoral vote can seriously distort the popular vote, especially with the right popular vote differences across states.

This tends to be the thing that gets democratic do-gooders all undies-bunched and crying for reform. Yet it seems reasonable that the designers of the system understood this, at least in concept, and saw it as acceptable tradeoff in the indirect election/will of the people/states are sovereigns too calculations of their republican algebra. If the best and brightest political minds in the land converge on a worthy Cincinnatus who can’t snag the popular vote, so be it. The Founders, or at least Hamilton, are down.

It’s really another problem that stops the Electoral College from working as planned. The original merry band of commonwealth creators never really anticipated that states would jettison the whole idea of choosing electors based on political acumen and sagacity, or at least on some modest sense of political independence and commitment to the commonweal.  States have turned selection over to political parties, which didn’t exist at the time of the constitutional convention, and the voters, whom the delegates were dubious about to begin with. Electors these days are not carefully chosen political minds. They are party apparatchiks who can be counted on to vote as a slate for their partisan pin-up boy if he (or she) acquires a popular plurality in their state. And if you want to get the latter, exercising the little arts of popularity isn’t a bad idea.

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter. The presidential selection contrivance fires its parliamentary thingamabobs and engages its procedural whirligigs and the candidate with the most votes starts measuring drapes for the White House. Except sometimes not.  Political parties prize craven fealty to whatever merry-andrew bears their electoral escutcheon, not the will of the people, and certainly not any idealistic commitment to getting the best person for the job. Combine that with party selected electors, asymmetric voting patterns and state influence in the Electoral College and, shazam, you can get a president of arguable talents and democratic legitimacy.   There is no group of father-knows-best grownups to prevent this sort of thing as Hamilton once optimistically promised. With the arguable exception of George Washington’s election, there never was.

So, to get to the big question, can the Electoral College varsity really pull the old last play fumblerooski and keep Trump out of the White House? Well, technically, yes, though parties and states have done their damnedest to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Political parties choose electors explicitly for partisan loyalty and lots of states have passed laws legally requiring electors to vote for the winner of the state-wide popular vote. There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires any such thing, though, and the Supreme Court has never weighed in on the legal liabilities of faithless electors. For all we know, electors really could perform the office anticipated by Hamilton.

Indeed, in this weird and wonderful political epoch we actually have a bone fide example of someone doing exactly this. Christopher Suprun, Republican elector of Texas, has offered a reasoned case for why he’s not voting for Trump that you can read here. Suprun even seems to have read Federalist 68. Yet I wouldn’t hold out much hope of a last minute surprise based on reasoned and informed debate amongst electors. Just look at what this current bunch is up to. One elector quit because Trump wasn’t “biblically qualified,” several Clinton-pledged electors have outed themselves as Bernie Bros and are mounting a Hail Mary lobbying campaign, and another set of Clinton electors are now saying they won’t vote for Hillary because, well, I dunno. They want to create a safe space with trigger warnings on the Electoral College campus or something. Lefty logic can be hard to follow.

This is all good sport and it probably merits a posthumous “Jesus H. Christ, what were we thinking?” from Hamilton. But it almost certainly won’t amount to diddly in terms of who ends up president. There’s one Chris Suprun, a handful of well-meaning but mostly politically pie eyed lefties, and a whole bunch of electors who are going to do exactly what their party is counting on them to do. The electoral math favors Trump any way you slice it.

Well, maybe we could/should change the whole process of selecting a president to insure that, you know, the person with most votes wins. Can we do that? Again, technically yes, but practically almost certainly not. Formally changing the Electoral College requires amendment level Constitutional hacks and/or state governments acting in harmony, comity and common sense. So no relief foreseeable on the old legal front. Pretty much the only realistic option is to hang on and wait to turn the key on this bucket of bolts next cycle. Not to worry, though, it’ll get the job done just fine next time. Probably.

Clinton Plans to Deny Trump Presidency in Electoral College Coup Plot

A key member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team has revealed a sophisticated plan, codenamed “Failsafe,” aimed at denying Donald Trump the presidency and securing the Democratic nominee a surprise post-election victory. While the scheme’s details are not fully known, its three basic objectives are: (1) Support recount efforts in key states. (2) Use these to spread doubt about the legitimacy of Trump’s election victory. (3) Pressure and coerce members of the Electoral College—including by using bribery and blackmail—into casting ballots for Clinton.

Find that hard to believe? Yeah, me too. Especially as I made it all up. It’s all falsehood and fabrication, fib and fable cut whole from the fact-smothering cloth of my devious imagination. And if you got fish-hooked in by the clickbait headline’s implied promise of warm tingles in your political bits, first, shame on you, and second, no apologies. That was the plan. Now I’ve got your attention, I want a word.

As you probably know, recently there’s been a good deal of handwringing about fake news and its impact on the political process. The whole interminable 2016 presidential muckfest and massacree was embarrassing enough on its own odious merits, but we somehow managed to make it worse. By now it’s clear that lots of us are willing to add literal insults to our collective political injury, to take rhetorical acid distilled by the lowest of fabulists and fling it undiluted into the face of the republic. It is depressingly easy to make mischief and money by feeding ersatz political bulletins to credulous voters. Indeed, fake news consumers seem only too eager to help peddle gratuitous prevarication across social media if it promotes their partisan jollies. And when I say easy, I mean really easy.

The basic steps seem to be these: (1) Throw up a website that sort of looks like a respectable news organization (any 12-year-old can do that in 30 minutes these days). (2) Make up stuff. It’s not a bad idea to season it with a soupcon of veracity, but generally any perjury or libel will do as long as it’s something outrageous that people want to believe (see first paragraph). (3) Chum Facebook and Twitter feeds with this stink bait. (4) Wait for thrashing schools of gullible Gomers to strike at the shiny lure of bias confirmation, and watch them repost, retweet, and generally retreat from verifiable reality. Voila. Post-truth politics achieved. Hillary really is a frigid, sex crazed, dominatrix of the Illuminati, and her deleted e-mails prove she was directing squads of shadowy Benghazi-style cover up artists and hitmen, all while plotting world domination with the Elders of Zion. This is the gold-plated 411 because, you know, it’s on the internet.

Even the people who do this sort of thing are agog it works so well. And I’m not just talking about the alt-right twaddle merchants so in thrall to their ideological phantasmagoria they’ve disappeared up their own click holes. No, I’m talking about people like 22-year-old Beq Latsabidze, a computer science student in Georgia—the former Soviet satellite, not the peach, pecan and peanut juggernaut of the American south—and John Egan, a Canadian giggle-monger. The latter has a news sort-of satire website (The Burrard Street Journal). The former had a Trump suck-up site so laughably void of verisimilitude it should have triggered a functioning BS detector in anyone with a modicum of political sentience. Both pumped out reams of fake news during the election and Americans in their millions spooned down piles of these fabricated dispatches and eagerly sought out seconds.

Want to see what one of these fake news operations looks like? Well, Latasbidze’s main site went dark after The New York Times, in typical lamestream media fashion, started asking some pointed questions about the factual provenance of this “news” source. No worries, there’s plenty more of these low rent rhubarb factories out there. Here’s one:  https://newsbreakshere.com/. This was put up by Nika Kurdadze, a college buddy of Latasabitze. It’s all guff and flapdoodle, of course, but Americans can’t get enough of the stuff.

slide2Why are Canucks and youthful code jockeys in Caucasia so into American presidential politics? Short answer is they’re not, not really. What they are interested in is eyeballs they can sell to the cyber admen. And there’s a lot of eyeballs—gullible, just the way the admen like them—in the US electorate. The faux media entrepreneurs mentioned above don’t seem to have any particular political agenda. They tested the fib and fable market for both candidates and went with what worked. What’s fascinating is that what worked is Trump. More specifically what sells big on the bald-ass lie exchange are exaggerations and outright falsehoods portraying his Trumpness in a positive light, or at least put his opponents in a negative one. Whoppers that put a halo on Hillary tanked, so they just more or less gave up on them (here’s an example of what didn’t work: walkwithher.com. Note that this site basically went dormant in July 2016, i.e. when its owners figured out there was no dough in piffle puffing Clinton).

The real question isn’t why people are motivated to put up these sorts of sites, its why so many people readily give them the same sort of credence granted Moses and his stone tablets. Millions of click heads were treating these dodgy repositories of cyber-bunkum as augurs of truth, even though they were easily, demonstrably, mugging facts with fiction. Given what worked it seems a strong possibility that people, or at least certain groups of people, really, really needed to hear/believe that Clinton was the anti-Christ and/or that Trump was absolutely not what his four or five decades in the public spotlight suggested he was. They needed this so badly they didn’t care if it involved cudgeling fact, evidence and truth into a whimpering pile of blubber afraid to come out from under Wolf Blitzer’s desk. They willingly battened down the hatches of their echo chambers and somehow convinced themselves the rising sewage inside was the pure oxygen of truth and breathed deep. Confirmation bias is a human universal but, honestly, this is taking things a bit far.

The techno-priests at Google, Facebook and Twitter are (albeit kind of sulkily) allowing it might have been a tad unwise to let their platforms be used as gargantuan political manure spreaders, and the mainstream media are pondering how to, you know, convince mass audiences that facts are, um, facts. The blame here, though, lies less with the media and more with the mass. Fake news needs a fake news audience and, embarrassingly, we’ve got a big one. If you want a depressing read on just how a ludicrous fact free  brain fart can go from one chucklehead’s twitter account to stinking up an entire news cycle you can do so here.

The cure for the corrosive effect of contrived falsehoods on the political process is not tightening the filters on your batty uncle’s Facebook page or having The New York Times point out that a big fat lie is a big fat lie. The real antidote is having a smaller market for big fat lies, which means having a lot fewer people eagerly looking for porcine mendacities to shill out to their entire contact lists. Real news isn’t hard to find, just read a daily newspaper for chrissakes. But what if you’re one of those people who just can’t trust the mainstream media because its professional journalists and fact checkers keep telling you things you’d rather not hear? Well first, you should probably know you’re about two steps away from an aluminum foil hat. Second, just do the rest of us a favor, and stop pretending that whopper shops and internet memes have anything to do with reality.

If you’re actually wondering if your fave news source is a fib factory you can click here to find a list compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a comm studies scholar, that tries to catalog “news” sites of dubious provenance. Keep in mind, though, this is a moving target and is not going to be complete. If you want some pro tips on how to analyze any news source and figure out if it’s on the up and up you can click here to find a handy how-to Zimdars put together.

If you not willing to do any of this, if you are simply not interested in the veracity of the information you feed your political predilections as long it has the right partisan flavor, then gawd help the rest of us. This problem ultimately isn’t about spotting fake news, or figuring out how to tell good journalism from counterfeit crapola. That’s easy. The real problem, at least in terms of the impact on politics, is getting people to want, favor and value the former over the latter. The dispiriting democratic reality is I’m not sure they do.