Steel City Cowboy

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Explaining Political Deadlock

Several people, both in blogs and to me in person, have remarked about the oddity of the current situation both in our own country and now surfacing in Mexico. It seems that the left and the right are almost exactly equal in proportion, at least when it comes to elections.

I wondered about this after the 2000 Presidential election, and came to the following conclusion: political thought follows a normal distribution. That's a weird notion, because you read it and think to yourself "I'm not a statistic. My political thoughts are my own." But really, you know that they're the sum of everything you've heard about, then accepted, modified or rejected. And you can, unfortunately, assign different but specific knowledge bases to the different socioeconomic groups, both here and abroad.

Given knowledge base A, the final outcomes distribute normally over THIS range. Given B, they distribute over a different one, but still follow the normal pattern.

But wait! I'm an independent thinker! I'm one of a kind! So consider yourself a part of the third standard deviation on one side or the other and grin smugly in your brilliant loneliness.

Well, presupposing that political viewpoints follow the normal distribution, then why are we seeing it come into effect now, as opposed to fifty years ago (or any other time period you choose to... um... choose)? In the last few years, due to the proliferation of the Internet and 24-hour cable news channels, the different classes of socioeconomic groups are more and more frequently sharing essentially the same information base. Yes, some groups pay more attention to events and politics than others, obviously, but I'm not convinced that politics and world relations are deep enough games that concentrating on them obsessively will give you any greater insight than paying light attention to a good set of summaries (I know that's heresy to the political junkies like me and, probably, you, but come on... we do this for fun.).

One could also say that the advent of the Internet, with it's freeform discussion, long screeds, ad hominem attacks, and even, occasionally, some genuinely good writing has taken us back to the early days of the printing press, though amplified, when debate was real and meaningful. People are hearing what others have to say, and refining and sometimes altering their own positions to suit. You can look at it as a process during which political viewpoints are being hashed out ad naseum, helping people resolve to which camps they really belong, thereby hardening the distribution.

You could argue that the information bases have been biased toward the left in recent history, and I would agree with you. The last several years though, again, have seen a significant balancing of that base, leading to a movement of the entire distribution to the right. And now, we see the center of the distribution right at the electoral sweet spot where national elections produce nearly 50/50 results.

There are also notions like the fact that although long term strategy for each party is to shift the entire distribution in their direction, tactical considerations at election time (and that's pronounced: always) dictate that they will attempt to win each contested race with the smallest amount of resources possible. And you do that by only capturing 51% of the vote. With other races to spend on, it's not worth it to try to win with more than that. And you can't do that unless the distribution hangs around 50/50. Do I think the regulars of either party are really smart enough to keep long term strategy in mind while they plan tactics for the next skirmish? Well, if you've read this blog before, you already know my answer to that.

Am I saying I believe this? Not really. I'm no statistician, although a good friend of mine, a Prof. at Cornell who knows more about stats than I ever will, had a long discussion with me about this five years ago, and he didn't completely discount it. Maybe he was just being nice. Twenty years from now, this all may be obvious as nothing more than a statistical blip. Make of it what you will.

If you're going to comment, please try to be more creative in your insults than just calling me an idiot.

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