Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Times, They Are A Changin'

The notion of taking the country back is something that I hear more and more. Being a naturally curious guy I always ask: Where did it go? Who took it? Why did they take it? Will they give it back? Did they actually take the whole country?

Then I scratch my head because I get to the REALLY tough question. Who does the country actually belong to? Frankly, I don't know. I guess it's a natural inclination that the country belongs to the people that live there. That's probably true enough. What about the obvious difficulty that comes from the inherent differences in people? Those are the very things, those differences, that drive our country. (Admittedly when I say “our country” referring to the USA I'm not even sure who I'm including in that. I think its all US citizens/dual citizens, but really it's probably more expansive if I really think on it.)

Lately, it feels like our differences have been highlighted almost as much, and in some cases more, than ever before. As a result we hear confusion, worry, and ultimately anger. People look around and see an unfamiliar landscape. A place of comfort and safety is no more for them. The rules have changed on what is accepted in society, in politics, in business. Hell, we have a black President!

To say this change is new is actually disingenuous. You see, the US, America, our country, (whatever term you like, just not 'Murica) has been doing this since it was born. Our country is literally founded on bucking the status quo in favor of progressive ideals. Yes, compared to today's standards on many things our “founders” (a term I use in derivation because of the connotation it currently contains, it makes me so mad I have fits of accidental alliteration) would be considered conservative. Make no mistake that at the time they lived the men active in the formation of the United States of America were pushing social norms. They were progressive thinkers, men of the enlightenment and well educated.

I think of the USA as an object in space, and Newton's first law is working in full force: An object in motion, stays in motion. It's a simple statement, and in a vacuum is true for objects, but as applied I think it properly describes our country.

We were kicked off by our founders in a new and bold direction. Our countrymen (and women) went forward. They made progress, blazed trails, and forded rivers. The landscape, physically and politically, changed on a near daily basis. A person that was happy in the year 1800 probably thought things were getting out of hand by 1825. I can just imagine an old cranky man complaining about this new generation and their side burns. (I'm looking at you President Van Buren.) Just like a person happy in 1990 may be shocked at the current state of affairs in 2014. I say again: black President! Time marches on, and progress is made.

To help me with this question of what “our country” even means I turned to my personal guide on many things, Mark Twain. As always, his insights of 125 years ago helped me assemble my thoughts. Here is what Twain said about the idea of country:

For in a republic, who is "the Country"? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant- merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is "the Country"? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? Is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in a thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn't.”

I think in the context of those most angry today this idea of “taking the country back” has far more to do with who is in power than anything, and if it swings the other way then maybe the same cry will be made from the other side of the aisle. But I can't help but notice that the cry of “taking the country back” is also heavily tied to ideas of religion, morality, and general social norms. To those people let me make it perfectly clear: The United States of America is a progressive nation. If the country was “taken” by other US Citizens, then what claim do you have that is superior to theirs?

The country is still here. It didn't leave, and no one took it. It's no more “your country” than it is mine, his, hers, theirs, or anyone else that calls the USA home. We are all stewards of something bigger than ourselves, steering it to the future and trying our best to keep it from hitting the rocks. Democracy, by most measures, is one of the great creations of man, and one the US has devoted a great many resources to implement in other nations, wanted or not. Maybe you think we should turn the wheel a different direction, and maybe you're right, but the ultimate direction is still forward. So let's all stop pretending the people that disagree with you are any less worthy to steer. Respect is something we can give for free, and that will pay great dividends. 

-Adam Sommer

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Insects Perspective: Inductive Reasoning and the Tea Party Victory

Eric Cantor was up by as little as 13 and as many as 30 points (depending on which poll you trust, which clearly should be neither) going into the Virginia primary on June 10, 2014. Cantor lost by 11% of the vote. Conservatively, his campaigns best guess was 24 points off. That type of disparity makes the Romney Campaign's polling errors seem like mere margin of error, and they were pretty bad. But this race isn't about polling, or how to run a campaign. Sure there were differences and probably some lessons to be learned in both areas, but they are secondary. This race is about the shock of a virtual unknown knocking down a genuinely established party leader.

The GOP has been in flux since 2008, when the McCain campaign opened the Pandora like box on the Tea Party with the pick of Palin as a running mate. Hindsight being 20/20 I don't think anyone on that staff fully appreciated what they were doing, they just wanted to win and needed to do something big. It failed in the moment but in the long game the message that Palin and several others began pushing was popular in certain areas. As self-identifying “conservatives” and NOT Republicans began to voice their displeasure with the new President the Tea Party went from being a few people dressed in the latest in colonial fashion at a few events, to a force of political influence and change. Most likely the Tea Party and their growing membership probably wouldn't like me using that word “change” to describe them, but it's true. Obviously the word alone holds no indication of the type, or what its effect will be when it occurs, but it applies just the same.

Yes, the Tea Party has won another big race. Yes, the Tea Party continues to grow, even if it is at a slower pace. Yes, the Tea Party will have an impact in 2016. Those are the easy questions to answer. The hard question is: Will it actually matter?


Congressional districts are heavily skewed. Most of us have a basic understanding of Gerrymandering, but let's refresh. Gerrymandering is simply drawing the lines around voters on maps to make sure that certain areas always come out one way or the other. There is much more nuance to it, but that is the essence of the issue. States are portioned off into their congressional districts and certain voting blocks are packed into one district (like making sure inner-city populations vote all together), or sometimes are cracked apart (like splitting a city in half) depending on what the line drawing party is trying to achieve. In some instances it creates very safe seats for both parties and can often make it impossible for one party to win in a certain area.

A secondary effect is that the district will likely have more “extreme” members of one party or another. If the area, like in Virginia's congressional race, is already a Republican stronghold (the Democrats didn't even have a primary, it's worthless to them due to the gerrymandered electorate) then the more extreme right is going to have a greater influence. Instead of Liberal v. Conservative it becomes Republican v. Self-identifying “conservatives” and in most current cases, the Tea Party. In practice, it is still a two party race. While the macro picture shows the Tea Party as a sub group of the GOP, the micro version is much different. The Tea Party is not a wing of the GOP. The Tea Party is independent of the GOP, they just agree on one very central point: hating Obama and assuming that all liberals are anti-Americans.

Slide to the left

What happens to the moderate Republican voter? Cantor, by all accounts, is a current moderate. His voters didn't want the Tea Party to win, but will they vote for the R on the ticket in the fall? To answer that question, let's remember the 2012 election. The Tea Party was in its prime, and ready to knock heads. Senate races were supposed to go red on election night, and Romney was neck and neck with Obama for the Presidency. Then the votes came in. The Senate stayed blue, Obama was reelected before midnight on the east coast, and the House picked up a handful of new Tea Party members. The small races that can, and have, been gerrymandered went red while the general U.S. population voted blue. You can't gerrymander the Presidential race, or the Senate races. I suspect this trend will continue in 2016 and 2020.

See the forest

For all the Tea Party vitriol about Obama, the left, the liberal media, and the annihilation of “American” values they seem ill equipped to see the macro. They are not the moral majority, no matter how badly they wish they were. The Tea Party is a minority group with a heavy base of a specific religious sect. Yes, their moral minority is “winning” if you stop the conversation at small, heavily gerrymandered, house races but every step backward reveals a different landscape. This idea that the Tea Party is somehow the only group of people who know (or even could know) what is best for our Country, or that their version of morality is superior for any reason is the very thing clouding their vision. Taking a small sample and applying it to the larger problem is inductive reasoning. It's the equivalent of trying an apple, not liking it, and deciding you don't like fruit.

I see the Tea Party racing around, building its infrastructure, working hard to create a base it can count on and win with. Like an army of ants building their ant hill, digging tunnels and storing away supplies for the future. Then I imagine if an ant could view the world from a human's eye and see that the ant hill, with it's vast and impressive system of tunnels, is so easily demolished. How would it react? Would it begin building a more sound structure, or would it even understand what it's looking at?

-Adam Sommer