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.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Does That Star Spangled Place Mat Yet Wave?

I know the flag burning stupidity is over and done, at least for this election cycle, and even though my writing time has been severely lagging behind everything else I'm doing, I thought I'd weigh in, albeit late.

The notion of an anti-flag burning law is, at best, completely untenable. And as a Constitutional Amendment, it's even worse. I don't discuss internecine politics here because it's pretty much always the same old crap, recycled every couple of years, and hardly bears comment, so I won't address the internal political aspects of this issue except to say that when laws (or Amendments) like this are proposed that have such glaring faults, the cause is almost always petty politics. But, it's about protecting our institutions! Or something. Yeah. Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

Let's suppose for a second that there is a Constitutional Amendment allowing the states to enact laws banning the burning of the American flag. Let's say that Pennsylvania enacts such a law.

What if I burn an old-style stars-in-a-circle flag? Illegal? It's not our current flag. What if I burn what looks like an American flag, but actually has little white Care Bear patches on it instead of stars? What if I fashion a stars and bars but use the colors of the Dallas Cowboys and burn that at a Steeler tailgate party? Should those be covered by the law or not?

Well, after crap like that, the lawmakers get pissed that people are circumventing the spirit of the law by burning pseudo flags. So they expand the law. Now, burning these kinds of almost-flags is illegal.

I throw my Fourth of July picnic trash in the burning barrel. One of the disposable place mats had a large image of the American flag on it. My neighbor, whose had a grudge against me ever since I called him a "feckless turd burglar" at the town council meeting, catches it on video. I've just burned an almost-flag. I'm busted.

Okay, say the lawmakers, when my case gets trumpted on the local news. It's all about intent! We'll add an amendment to the law that allows law enforcement and the courts to scrutinize intent. Was the person burning the near-flag intending the act as political speech or simply going about their daily business? That ought to fix it!

So, the only people who would be prosecuted for burning flags or for defacing pseudo flags would be those who did it with the purpose of making a political statement. There. That should... work... oh wait. Crap. We can't do that. Pesky First Amendment.

Roll it back, then, to the point where only burning an actual American flag is against the law. Now, once again, any protester who wants to burn the flag and get on their local news can just burn an extra large flag place mat, or a flag with forty stars, or a flag with slightly wiggly stripes instead of straight ones. And from the viewpoint of most bystanders, including television cameras, what's the difference? Curses, says the legislature. Foiled again!

And that's the basic flaw with this sort of law. Unless it is made untenably broad -- covering all variations and incarnations of the flag -- it becomes desired effect can be easily circumvented. What's the difference between a retired flag being disposed of in the accepted fashion (burning) and a Hamas supporter torching Old Glory in the town square? Clearly, it's the intent of the participant. It's the point they're trying to make. And certain politicians try to say that this isn't about political expression. That's all it's about.

And I thought the Democrats were the jackasses. Well, they are. But.

Here's a thought to turn the mutliculti's weapons back on themselves (note -- this is an ironic theoretical, not a call to action. If you do this, I will not be paying your legal bills. But if you do it, please post the video on the Internet so we can all watch). The next time you see someone burning the flag, punch them in their stupid head. When you get hauled in front of a judge, claim that burning the flag in your presence constituted "hate speech" and that, as it was a form of expression, it was tantamount to "fighting words". And if the local magistrate is a cantankerous American cowboy who isn't familiar with the actual "fighting words" doctrine, he might just give you a wink, take that as legitimate and let you off.