Thinking More Realistically About Voting

Charles Blow of The New York Times makes an excellent point about voting. It’s a war:

It has long been clear to me that we are teaching the concept of voting wrong, that we are buying into an idea of false hope and optimism that is easily exploited by those who want fewer people to vote and fewer votes to be counted.

The propaganda around voting is that of “one man (or woman), one vote,” “every vote counts,” and “free and fair elections.” That is simply not the case. I understand and appreciate the ideals, but reality is simply not aligned with this.

From the time I was a child and joined teams and clubs, we seemed to be voting on things. From the time we began to elect class officers, politics were part of our education. . . .

But that was direct democracy. Most of the time it was a show of hands in a room. Everyone present could count the votes. It was the ultimate in transparency and accountability and it laid the groundwork for how I would think about voting.

But as I got older and the elections got bigger, ballots began to be necessary. Also, the election of other people who would then vote for things in my stead. Direct democracy gave way to representative democracy and my perspective broadened.

Still, I went to a tiny school (there were 33 people in my graduating class) in the rural South. I could have learned more, been taught more about the long legacy of vote tampering and manipulation, voter intimidation and suppression, but that didn’t happen.

Neither did I learn enough about it in college. . . . I emerged into full adulthood as a political naïf.

Then began my education, my quest to unlearn what little I had been taught and to learn for the first time all the things I hadn’t been taught.

First, I guess, were the widespread and never-ending attempts, with some devastating successes, to disenfranchise people, often Black people. And there was nothing like the sting of reading the words of some of the men who were engaged in this suppression. Nowadays, those who suppress votes disguise their motives, but years ago the motives were well articulated and abundantly clear: to establish white supremacy and disenfranchise the Negro.

Now, only the articulation is absent; the results are the same.

And even beyond voter suppression, there are errors and incompetence.

One thing I will never forget about the . . .  2000 election was something that should have been obvious, but hadn’t been for me: that voting machine errors are well known and some degree of error, if small enough, was considered acceptable.

The idea of an acceptable error rate for voting has stuck with me ever since.

For instance, an NPR analysis last summer found that 550,000 primary absentee ballots were rejected, up from about 319,000 in 2016.

Then there is incompetence, like what we are seeing now in the mayoral primary election in New York City. The result of the tally may well be fine, but the haphazard handling of the vote counting undermines faith in the system.

And that’s the problem with all of this: maintaining that faith. It seems to me that setting expectations too high actually works against that faith, helps to undermine it, because those expectations will collapse under the weight of reality.

It also seems to me that it is much better to think of voting as a nest of ants, a swarm of bees, a brigade of soldiers attacking an enemy: Not everyone will survive, but the point is to achieve victory by overwhelming the enemy. Everyone one that falls in the attempt assists the others in prevailing.

Not everyone who should be able to cast a ballot will be able to. And, not every ballot cast will be properly counted. That is the sad reality of the American electoral system, and conservatives in this country have done their best to maintain or exacerbate it at all costs.

You can bristle at it. You should. I do. And liberal groups can fight back through organizing, legislation and the courts. But at the same time, you also have to realize that even if you win that battle, it won’t stay won. You have to have a new vision of voting, one that factors in the oppression and imposes itself in spite of it.

Voters must be taught that swarming the polls, overwhelming them, may well be the only real shot at winning: a single movement, an irresistible deluge of votes.

Global Warming ➜ Heat Dome

From professor of atmospheric science Michael Mann for The New York Times:

. . . Though we’re only one week into official summer, the characteristically cool Pacific Northwest has turned into a caldron of triple-digit temperatures, with Portland, Ore., and Seattle reaching record highs of 115 and 108 degrees, respectively. That’s unseasonably hot — for Phoenix.

The western United States is currently under the influence of an epic heat dome, an expansive region of high atmospheric pressure characterized by heat, drought and heightened fire danger. It’s being called a once-in-a-millennium event . . .

[However,] all bets are off when one accounts for human-caused warming. It no longer makes sense to talk about a once-in-a-century or once-in-a-millennium event as if we’re just rolling an ordinary pair of dice, because we’ve loaded the dice through fossil fuel burning and other human activities that generate carbon pollution and warm the planet. It’s as if snake eyes, which should occur randomly only once every 36 times you rolled a pair of dice, were coming up once every four times.

Might a heat dome have developed out West this past week without climate change? Sure.

Might it have been as extreme as what we’re witnessing without climate change? Almost surely not.

If we step back a bit, we see a disturbing pattern. With this latest heat wave, Canada observed its hottest day on record: 116 degrees in British Columbia. Less than a year ago, the United States set its own record — the highest temperature reliably recorded on the entire planet, in fact — with a 130 degree reading in Death Valley . . .

Yes, the dice have been loaded, and not in our favor. If climate change were a casino, we’d be hemorrhaging cash. Wildfires, heat waves, floods and superstorms, many exacerbated by climate change, collectively cost the United States nearly $100 billion in 2020. As the climate advocate Greta Thunberg so poignantly put it, “Our house is on fire.”

We’ve long known that a warming climate would yield more extremely hot weather. The science is clear on how human-caused climate change is already affecting heat waves: Global warming has caused them to be hotter, larger, longer and more frequent. What were once very rare events are becoming more common.

Heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s — on average at least six times a year in the United States in the 2010s. Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming. And heat waves have become larger, affecting 25 percent more land area in the Northern Hemisphere than they did in 1980; including ocean areas, heat waves grew 50 percent.

These changes matter because extreme heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, causing more deaths on average than hurricanes and floods, combined, over the past 30 years. Recent research projects that heat stress will triple in the Pacific Northwest by 2100 unless aggressive action is taken to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

Some still refuse to acknowledge the dire warning that Mother Nature is sending us. They say the science is too unsettled to take action. But uncertainty, if anything, is a reason for taking even more dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions. Uncertainty is not our friend. And the current heat dome is an excellent example of why.

The heat wave afflicting the Pacific Northwest is characterized by what is known as an omega block pattern, because of the shape the sharply curving jet stream makes, like the Greek letter omega (Ω). This omega curve is part of a pattern of pronounced north-south wiggles made by the jet stream as it traverses the Northern Hemisphere. It is an example of a phenomenon known as wave resonance, which . . . is increasingly favored by the dramatic warming of the Arctic.

By decreasing the contrast in temperature between the cold pole and warm subtropics, the amplified warming of the Arctic causes the jet stream to slow down and, under the right circumstances, like the ones prevailing now, settle into a very wiggly and rather stable configuration. That, in turn, allows very deep high pressure centers, like the current heat dome, to remain locked in place over a region, as it is over the Pacific Northwest.

Those climate models that the critics claim are alarmist do a poor job of reproducing this phenomenon. That means that the models do not account for this critical factor behind many of the persistent and damaging weather extremes we’ve seen in recent years, including the heat dome.

But there is a way out of this nightmare of ever-worsening weather extremes, and it’s one that will serve us well in many other ways, too. A rapid transition to clean energy can stabilize the climate, improve our health, provide good-paying jobs, grow the economy and ensure our children’s future. The choice is ours [i.e. humanity’s].

The Data Priests

On June 15, Matthew Crawford of The New Atlantis testified at a hearing on smart home technology held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights. This is from his opening statement:

I have no expertise in antitrust. I come to you as a student of the history of political thought.

The convenience of the smart home may be worth the price; that’s for each of us to decide. But to do so with open eyes, one has to understand what the price is. After all, you don’t pay a monthly fee for Alexa, or Google Assistant.

The Sleep Number bed is typical of smart home devices, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It comes with an app, of course, which you’ll need to install to get the full benefits. Benefits for whom? Well, to know that you would need to spend some time with the sixteen-page privacy policy that comes with the bed. There you’ll read about third-party sharing, analytics partners, targeted advertising, and much else.

Meanwhile, the user agreement specifies that the company can share or exploit your personal information even “after you deactivate or cancel” your Sleep Number account. You are unilaterally informed that the firm does not honor “Do Not Track” notifications. By the way, its privacy policy once stated that the bed would also transmit “audio in your room.” (I am not making this up.)

The business rationale for the smart home is to bring the intimate patterns of life into the fold of the surveillance economy, which has a one-way mirror quality. Increasingly, every aspect of our lives — our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations and intellectual predilections — are laid bare as data to be collected by companies who, for their own part, guard with military-grade secrecy the algorithms by which they use this information to determine the world that is presented to us, for example when we enter a search term, or in our news feeds. They are also in a position to determine our standing in the reputational economy. The credit rating agencies and insurance companies would like to know us more intimately; I suppose Alexa can help with that.

Allow me to offer a point of reference that comes from outside the tech debates, but can be brought to bear on them. Conservative legal scholars have long criticized a shift of power from Congress to the administrative state, which seeks to bypass legislation and rule by executive fiat, through administrative rulings. The appeal of this move is that it saves one the effort of persuading others, that is, the inconvenience of democratic politics.

All of the arguments that conservatives make about the administrative state apply as well to this new thing, call it algorithmic governance, that operates through artificial intelligence developed in the private sector. It too is a form of power that is not required to give an account of itself, and is therefore insulated from democratic pressures.

In machine learning, an array of variables are fed into deeply layered “neural nets” that simulate the binary, fire/don’t-fire synaptic connections of an animal brain. Vast amounts of data are used in a massively iterated (and, in some versions, unsupervised) training regimen. Because the strength of connections between logical nodes is highly plastic, just like neural pathways, the machine gets trained by trial and error and is able to arrive at something resembling knowledge of the world. The logic by which an AI reaches its conclusions is impossible to reconstruct even for those who built the underlying algorithms. We need to consider the significance of this in the light of our political traditions.

When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. He grounds the decision in law, precedent, common sense, and principles that he feels obliged to articulate and defend. This is what transforms the decision from mere fiat into something that is politically legitimate, capable of securing the assent of a free people. It makes the difference between simple power and authority. One distinguishing feature of a modern, liberal society is that authority is supposed to have this rational quality to it — rather than appealing to, say, a special talent for priestly divination. This is our Enlightenment inheritance. It appears to be in a fragile state. With the inscrutable arcana of data science, a new priesthood peers into a hidden layer of reality that is revealed only by a self-taught AI program — the logic of which is beyond human knowing.

The feeling that one is ruled by a class of experts who cannot be addressed, who cannot be held to account, has surely contributed to populist anger. From the perspective of ordinary citizens, the usual distinction between government and “the private sector” starts to sound like a joke, given how the tech firms order our lives in far-reaching ways.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have established portals that people feel they have to pass through to conduct the business of life, and to participate in the common life of the nation. Such bottlenecks are a natural consequence of “the network effect.” It was early innovations that allowed these firms to take up their positions. But it is not innovation that accounts for the unprecedented rents they are able to collect, it is these established positions, and the ongoing control of the data it allows them to gather, as in a classic infrastructure monopoly. If those profits measure anything at all, it is the reach of a grid of surveillance that continues to spread and deepen. It is this grid’s basic lack of intelligibility that renders it politically unaccountable. Yet accountability is the very essence of representative government.

Mr. Zuckerberg has said frankly that “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” If we take the man at his word, it would seem to raise the question: Can the United States government tolerate the existence of a rival government within its territory?

In 1776, we answered that question with a resounding “No!” and then fought a revolutionary war to make it so. The slogan of that war was “Don’t tread on me.” This spirited insistence on self-rule expresses the psychic core of republicanism. As Senator Klobuchar points out in her book Antitrust, the slogan was directed in particular at the British Crown’s grant of monopoly charters to corporations that controlled trade with the colonies. Today, the platform firms appear to many as an imperial power. The fundamental question “Who rules?” is pressed upon this body once again.

It’s Right/Left But Also Fantasy/Reality

This is a somewhat edited Twitter thread from Steve Schmidt, a political strategist who used to work for Republicans. His comments were precipitated by a CNN podcast (referenced at the bottom of this post):

The debate is around how to think and talk about Fox News. What is it? [CNN journalist] Brian Stelter thinks about this directionally and ideologically: describing Fox as moving further right. He is correct, as is [journalism professor] Jay Rosen, who evaluates Fox News along a different axis. For him, it is the drift into fantasy and the unreal.

The authoritarian movement in America is real, powerful and present. All authoritarian movements are nourished by an ecosystem that includes three powerful components:

A. The Financiers. “No Bucks, no Buck Rogers” said the PR man to the disdainful test pilots who were to become America’s Mercury astronauts in one of the all time great movies “The Right Stuff”. There is no autocratic movement without money and they have a lot.

B. CYNICAL ELITES.  Rep. Elise Stefanik, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Mitch McConnell are but a few examples of people who have tried to manage the toxic reverberations from [the former president’s] cult by manipulating it for power, self interest and vanity. They have aligned with the fringe and venomous ideas.

C. PROPAGANDISTS. All authoritarian movements rely on propaganda sustained by a particular type of lie. THE LIE OF AUTHORITY requires the abandonment of belief, truth, ethics, values and intellectual agency. It demands submission to the lies of the Leader/Party.

. . . Right-Left, in the tradition of American politics, has long been explicable with a two dimensional rendering, specifically, a horizontal line. It doesn’t work any more. When [Brian Stelter] talks about Fox and moving “Right”, it is important to pause and look at the [system of measurement].

Trying to explain the metastasized conservative media by marking a point on a line [that could be] used to measure ideological distance between [Republican moderate] Christie Whitman and [Republican conservative] Orrin Hatch [fails to capture reality].

The “Right” we are talking about here is a very specific variant, that no matter how easily identifiable, seems to induce a blindness in people who should see it clearly and an allergy towards confronting it by the people who have the most at stake in the fight.

We are talking, of course, about an authoritarian Right that is steeped in fantasy, delusion, hate, scapegoating, scientific racial theory, menace, violence and coercion.

This American Right is cousin to the noxious movements that have long been built on a fetid marsh of lies, grievance, scapegoating, hate, menace, fear and fantasy nostalgia for a world once pure. That fallen world, is the nucleus of a powerful and evil fantasy at the core of a terrible and dangerous mythology. The mythology is fear-based and architected around the imagined birthright of one group to feel superior to others.

It always leads to subjugation under the power and boot of the state for the purpose of preserving the power of the few and the fabulously corrupt over the common good of the great many.

Fox News is moving in a new direction and has been for some time. . . It is getting worse and more extreme every day. . . . The [metastasizing] ideological drift and the demand for submission to fantasies is at the core of understanding what all of this is. I hope enough people can see the totality of it all before we lose it all.

Unquote.

The CNN podcast is called Reliable Sources. From the description of this episode:

Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and authors the PressThink blog, discusses the devolution of Fox News; the difficulty of describing a “shifted political universe” in the United States; and the need for news outlets to be “much more explicitly and aggressively pro-democracy.”

He says “Fox is becoming in some way more demand-driven” because “its audience is in the driver’s seat in a way that’s more extreme than when Roger Ailes ran the network.” For example, Rosen comments, “Do you want January 6 to be the fault of Antifa? You can have that. Do you want [somebody else] to have won the 2020 election? You can have that.”

Rosen explains that “these kinds of maneuvers are attempting to sever people from reality so that you can do what you want with them… to just sort of de-anchor people from anything that they have in common with their fellow citizens so that they can be manipulated further. And that’s why it’s so insidious.” 

A Significant Minority of Our Fellow Americans

It looks like we’ve reached the Crazy Times that science fiction writers of the 1950s and other distant decades set in the 21st century. From The New York Times:

It’s not just the notion that the election was stolen that has caught on with the former president’s supporters. QAnon, an outlandish and ever-evolving conspiracy theory spread by some of X’s most ardent followers, has significant traction with a segment of the public — particularly Republicans and Americans who consume news from far-right sources.

Those are the findings of a poll released today by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, which found that 15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, a core belief of QAnon supporters. The same share said it was true that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order.

And fully 20 percent of respondents said that they thought a biblical-scale storm would soon sweep away these evil elites and “restore the rightful leaders.”

“These are words I never thought I would write into a poll question, or have the need to, but here we are,” Robby Jones, the founder of P.R.R.I., said in an interview.

The teams behind the poll determined that 14 percent of Americans fall into the category of “QAnon believers,” composed of those who agreed with the statements in all three questions. Among Republicans only, that rises to roughly one in four. (Twelve percent of independents and 7 percent of Democrats were categorized as QAnon believers.)

But the analysts went a level further: They created a category labeled “QAnon doubters” to include respondents who had said they “mostly disagreed” with the outlandish statements, but didn’t reject them outright. Another 55 percent of Republicans fell into this more ambivalent category.

Which means that just one in five Republicans fully rejected the premises of the QAnon conspiracy theory. For Democrats, 58 percent were flat-out QAnon rejecters.

Mr. Jones said he was struck by the prevalence of QAnon’s adherents. Overlaying the share of poll respondents who expressed belief in its core principles over the country’s total population, “that’s more than 30 million people,” he said.

“Thinking about QAnon, if it were a religion, it would be as big as all white evangelical Protestants, or all white mainline Protestants,” he added. “So it lines up there with a major religious group.”

He also noted the correlation between belief in QAnon’s fictions and the conviction that armed conflict would be necessary. “It’s one thing to say that most Americans laugh off these outlandish beliefs, but when you take into consideration that these beliefs are linked to a kind of apocalyptic thinking and violence, then it becomes something quite different,” he said.

The Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found a strong correlation between where people get their news and how much they believe in QAnon’s ideas. Among those who said they most trusted far-right news outlets, such as One America News Network and Newsmax, two in five qualified as full-on QAnon believers. Fully 48 percent of these news consumers said they expected a storm to wipe away the elites soon.

That puts these news consumers far out of alignment with the rest of the country — even fans of the conservative-leaning Fox News. Among respondents who preferred Fox News above other sources, 18 percent were QAnon believers. . . .

Those who expressed belief in QAnon’s premises were also far more likely than others to say they believe in other conspiracy theories, the poll found. Four in 10 said they thought that “the Covid-19 vaccine contains a surveillance microchip that is the sign of the beast in biblical prophecy.”

Unquote.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the former president wanted the Department of Justice to ask the Supreme Court to nullify the presidential election and order a new one. The government lawyers ignored that directive. However, a new poll says 50% of Republicans believe reviews of certain state election results will show that their candidate won, while an earlier poll indicated that 30% of them think he’ll be “reinstated”, perhaps via the little-known and rarely-used procedure set forth in the “Oops Clause” of the Constitution.