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Political parties don’t take well to losing. They’re in the business of winning elections because a winner attracts money and attention, money and attention they can use to grow stronger. So in the fallout from this presidential election, one wing of the Republican party is calling for a much needed and long overdue period of self-reflection in which the GOP swings close to the center and becomes much more libertarian but without the borderline anarchist overtones, and another is mourning the death of traditional America thanks to liberal freeloaders and spinning constant conspiracy theories. This reaction is not too dissimilar from what you could see after 2004, when swarms of liberal bloggers sighed heavily about the end of the America they knew to bloodthirsty, Bible-thumping theocrats, and tossed out conspiracy theories about voting machines. But in the conservative blogosphere, a conspiracy theory about voting and technology that doesn’t target voting machines is now trying to get some traction by accusing coders of political sabotage.

Basically, the theory goes as follows. Romney’s campaign created an app called Orca to track the Republican vote and give conservative voters a tool to submit what they saw as obstructions to voting on the spot via their smartphones. One of the companies employed a developer once contracted for some unspecified work with the Gore campaign, and another Orca developer was black and therefore, a likely Obama supporter. And so, they and all their likeminded friends who were working on this project intentionally sabotaged it, making it difficult to really crank up a get out the vote effort and report voting incidents and mishaps in a timely manner; the app was too slow, frustrating too many users, and you can see that in the low turnout for Republicans. That’s a little odd to say the least when you consider that hundreds of millions have been spent on ads, canvassing, robocalls, mass mailings, and every other known effort to get people to vote during the last two years. Being slammed with election talk for a year didn’t get enough Republicans to the polls but a vote-tracking app would’ve made a multi-million vote difference?

Now this is an interesting election conspiracy theory because it’s the first one I’ve heard going after developers and campaign tools rather than the classic allegation that voting machines are being rigged. It’s true that voting machines were rigged in some cities, but they were rigged for Romney and the GOP so that angle wouldn’t have worked. Going after Orca shows that there’s some original thought happening here, even though the original thought is holding a stint more than a decade old against a developer who can easily end up working on a campaign he would rather not support and whose code will be reviewed before being added into the final product, and indulges in playing the race card. The odds that a couple of developers snuck some sort of malicious code into Orca aren’t all that high because delivering a bad product means that you’ll have a black mark on your track record and the developers in question didn’t simply volunteer to work on code for a campaign. They’re employees who were assigned some units of work, not a small team of tech-savvy political activists who volunteered to create Orca for Romney.

But if the developers can’t be held liable without a lot more proof and source code to back it up, why would Orca suddenly fail on election night? The data points to a simple but pressing issue that has little to do with the code: infrastructure. Or rather a lack of it. If you’re going to collect a lot of data in a very short amount of time, you better be ready for it. When just ten servers were hit with 1,200 or so requests per minute and the mobile part of the system was housed on only one server, it was just a question of when the system would either crash or jam so badly that for all intents and purposes it appeared dead to the outside world. If Orca was built with the proper scale in mind, it would’ve lived on a hundred servers and the mobile end would take up half of all that capacity. There would’ve been special agreements with ISPs to get the most throughput on election night. None of that seems to have been done according to reports across the web. And when we pause to consider that Romney staffers could’ve counted the number of servers then ask "are you sure that’s enough?" to catch the issue, calling this sabotage seems hyperbolic.

What seems far more likely is that Romney dropped the ball and those in key positions of all his campaign activities failed to do their research and follow up with the Orca team. Even if it was a perfectly working app, it was unlikely to make all that much of a difference because it could only track who voted and where, not spring into action and get more people to the polls. When at the end of the day we’re talking about a difference of nearly 3.4 million votes, Orca would’ve needed to get more than 1.8 million Republican voters into the booths within several hours. Romney had spent almost a decade campaigning. If all the hundreds of millions he and the GOP spent, along with the barrage of exhortations to vote from talk shows, Fox News, and right wing blogs made little difference, what exactly would a tracking app do? If anything, the campaign did what many techies like me see on a daily basis in the business world. The boss went after a buzzword, then threw a lot of money and effort into a tool he didn’t know quite how to use but which he can show to reporters as something very comparable to something used by his main competitor…

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It’s always been a common refrain in politics to call one’s opponents or detractors ignorant and we’re all quite aware that ignorance exists across the entire political spectrum, and that people who don’t have a solid grasp of the issues vote on a regular basis. Or as Politico put it bluntly, there are stupid people out there and they’re voting with their gut rather than their minds. Of course, many political news junkies would shout, voters do not understand what really goes on because they don’t pay attention to the news like we do. But there’s absolutely no indication that just paying attention to the news keeps one informed either and those obsessed with soap operas spun on Capitol Hill and in the White House aren’t necessarily all that knowledgeable either. The vast gap between knowing what issues do and don’t exist, and how they can or can’t be handled seems to exist on a much deeper level with voters believing that politicians have power over things out of their control. Just take something as simple as figuring out whether a president can do something about gas prices. For Politico, it’s just one of the numerous examples of how all too many voters are simply not researching issues…

The present furor over gas prices is a case in point: Obama’s job approval dropped 9 points over the last month according to a CBS/New York Times poll, as the cost of fuel has risen abruptly. The survey found that 54 percent of Americans believe that the president could do a lot to combat high gas prices. That’s not really true, but it’s the dynamic that’s shown up in other polls too: 26 percent of respondents told an ABC News/Washington Post poll that they approve of Obama’s handling of gas prices, versus 65 percent who disapprove. […] To reassess a president’s performance in the context of a short-term increase in gas prices is more of a tantrum-like response to a new feeling of discomfort over which the president has relatively little control.

Certainly a president could have a direct effect on gas prices with things like, oh say, military actions in a very volatile and oil rich region, but other than that, he would have to start controlling the international commodities market which can a) infuriate fiscal conservatives around the world, b) trigger dangerous conflicts between oil exporters and consumers that could erupt into paroxysms of military threats, c) disrupt global trade leading to serious market convulsions, or d) all of the above and worse, which is why it will never happen. But the voters still expect him to do something because hey, he’s the president and we elected him to fix things so he better do his job and fix things. Remember the "will this be on the test" culture developed by many Americans? It’s also at play in politics. Understandably, if one wanted to be informed about everything happening in the world today as well as study it’s social and economic context and consequences, reading the news and volumes of books on the relevant subjects would quickly become this person’s predominant occupation. But this isn’t an issue of knowing exactly how trade between the U.S. and Azerbaijan breaks down to the dollar. This is a basic matter of knowing that the president’s power if far from unlimited and gas prices are set by the market, not an edict from one government, no matter how powerful this government is or how much oil it consumes.

The paradoxical thing at play here seems to be that Americans consider voting to be a right and an obligation, and see politicians as people who are chosen to fix problems, but they don’t really want to care about the real scope or nature of the problems, and don’t really want to educate themselves on how likely it is that what their chosen politicians are offering good solutions to current dilemmas. They’ll elect someone to fix Washington’s culture of political stagnation, create jobs, and lower healthcare costs, but woefully underestimate the level of entrenchment in the establishment, won’t realize that no politician can fix decades of mismanagement in both primary and secondary education with no resources and in one term, or change the multi-trillion dollar market for healthcare without insurance companies, lawyers, and medical equipment corporations playing ball for a common good rather than their bottom lines, or change the course of global trade. They don’t even know how much we spend and on what, assuming we devote more than ten times what we do to science and that as much as 25 times more foreign aid is given than actually is. And that’s pretty scary. Too many voters just don’t care, wanting a charismatic someone to solve complex problems while strictly adhering to a partisan dogma many of the most vocal voters take to be nothing short of holy writ, and just skip all the details…

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Ordinarily, science blogs wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time on politics in general. After all, even if any science blogger has a thing for playing pundit, actual science should still make up most of the blog and there are few subjects that take up more bandwidth than political gossip already. But the upcoming election is getting quite a bit of traction across the science blogging world as more and more scientists and science writers see very disturbing patterns between politicians’ attitudes and the quality of scientific education in the U.S., especially when it comes to the state and local level. In an election slated to be dominated by politicians whose scientific education is either severely lacking, or who adamantly promote ridiculous anti-scientific dogmatism, there’s a very reasonable fear for the future of science in a nation which, at least publicly, used to hold is scientists and their work as the engine of its technological and military clout, and economic firepower not so long ago.

Now, anti-intellectualism reigns in the mass media and science that was once considered to be crucial for a global superpower is being dismissed by loud and proud Luddites and religious fundamentalists who lunge towards Tea Party activists, people who are generally angry about anything and everything, incorporating every possible grievance about the modern world into the tsunami of rage they’re trying to fashion into a platform for electoral contests. While according to Matt Taibbi’s much talked about op-ed on the Tea Party, those willing and ready to wrap themselves in a noxious mix of nationalism, pseudo-piety, and contempt, if not outright and broiling hatred, towards anyone in the amorphous entity they call Big Government are just narcissists, there’s more to the Tea Party mindset than that. Certainly this is a crowd that really cares about itself and would really like for you to keep the government out of the Medicare program the same government runs because they like when taxes are being spent on them, but consider having their tax money spent on someone else analogous to being robbed. But they’re also more prone to conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and a general fear of change. Actually, Taibbi partially captures what terrifies them in one paragraph.

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, and access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can’t; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

Why did the Tea Party set sit quietly during the Bush years? Yes, political partisanship definitely played a role, but it was also the fact that until the last three years, the economy mostly appeared to be doing ok. Even when the first tremors of the Great Recession began, it looked like a temporary correction, a simple rough patch, an idea played up by the government while it constructed its first wave of bailouts and stimuli. But when the crisis really hit and we discovered that the last three decades loaded the government with unsustainable debt while eroding our economy, and that the future would be very, very different than what we were used to, the once tiny membership of the Tea Party was flooded with new members who wanted to vent their unfocused terror and rage to let everyone around them know that something’s wrong, that something’s desperately broken. And as odd as it may sound, I agree that there are a lot of very broken things around us. When the Great Recession’s shockwave engulfed Wall Street, I was writing about the cons of giving banks money in BusinessWeek as I struggled to think of any potential justification for bailouts to meet the desired debate format.

But here’s the big difference between people like myself, who think the political system we have now is in dire need of major repairs and that we’re not ready for the future, and the Tea Party. Instead of accepting that we’re long past the point of arguing against globalization and multicultural societies united around commerce more than nations and trying to find ways to adjust to this new reality, they want to slam on the breaks and reverse a huge country which still steers global affairs into their idealized, simplified past when they were kings and the world was their oyster. And in their devotion to this dream of reversal, they reject anything and everything that’s in the way of their mission as a conspiracy to stop them or a plot to subjugate them. Rather than saying that a cap and trade agreement isn’t going to help with global warming, they say that the warming itself is a hoax by greedy trillionaire scientists and Al Gore. Instead of realizing that scientists can build our future, they dismiss all scientists as pretentious, elitist know-it-alls and cling to fundamentalism. Instead of considering how we’d have to change American healthcare to save money and deal with the future, they declare that the U.S. has the hands down best healthcare system in the world and any attempt to change it is a communist scam.

Are these the kind of people we want steering the country? Do we really need denialists who instead of trying to deal with real world problems simply deny the problems exist? And should we trust them with setting future policies for the military while we’re at it, with their xenophobic streak and conviction that firepower solves any and all problems if applied enough times? In their zeal to return to the Golden Old Days and their denial of an evolving, changing world where alliances and global power structures have intertwined and grown to be a lot more complex than they once were, they can easily make us even more fragile and diminish our influence in global affairs if we let them call the shots. What’s even worse is what would happen if we let them have a run, then elect their ideological brethren because we’re now even more upset with the state of the nation, since the policies the Tea Party 2.0 will purpose will be just another misguided, fervent quest for yesteryear’s glory.

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Famous atheist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens, managed to find just enough time between chemotherapy and his grueling schedule of debates and public appearances to write a column about why it seems that today’s politicians can’t seem to actually run the U.S. with any degree of competence, being a lot more interested in muckraking and campaigning than actually implementing ideas. His answer has been on the lips of quite a few political scientists and pundits so there’s really nothing shocking about it. But what’s really disconcerting about his column is how well these concerns are known, how often they’ve been raised in books, magazines, and think tank literature, and yet how they’re still waiting to be addressed. Here’s the quick summary: the process is basically broken, rewarding tabloid journalism, mudslinging, and partisan appeals over clear cut accomplishments, and dooming the elected to spend their terms looking for more money.

banker eat banker

With the byzantine rules of any bureaucracy, especially an organization that primarily exists to create, process and review paperwork, it’s hard to get big things done. Earmarks have to be doled out to get others on board, hands need to be greased to ensure that the vote passes with as few objections as possible, the greasing in question taking the form of riders and addendums which tack on potentially unrelated pet projects, spending line items, and sub-programs into a single bill. That’s how seemingly simple sounding laws swiftly balloon to hundreds, if not thousands of pages. And even then, after the bill has finally been debated to death, revised in countless committee meetings, where it had to be watered down and bloated to make enough people happy, voted on, and passed, the burden of implementation now falls on agencies or courts which may not be ready to implement the bill’s provisions. Meanwhile, the lawmakers are on to another bill while their little legislative progeny is often being slowly unrolled with little to no supervision. This is why technocrats who get involved in the implementation and oversight of their project can do what the lawyers and diplomats rarely can and how so many seemingly good laws end up as such mediocre to alarmingly subpar programs.

Another major obstacle to getting things done is the shelf life of the average politician. Imagine a hypothetical, average politician we’ll call Jane Lawmaker. After navigating months and months of media obsessions with a prime time news story about everything she ever said or did, prying into her personal finances, putting up with nasty slander composed primarily of half-baked accusatory fallacies from her opponent, then dishing out her version of the exact same thing, doing her best to appease the party organizers and the rabid ideologues who desperately want to dictate her party’s dogma, she finally got elected. Good for her. Now where is she going to get the roughly $2 million she needs to secure another victory? Better start making time for luncheons, social events to schmoose with donors, and organize fundraisers while coordinating with party bigwigs. There’s no time to waste because the attack ads start in roughly 16 to 18 months, depending on just how competitive her district is seen by pollsters and how much mud her opponents can dig up on her in the meanwhile. If you tell me what someone for whom fundraising and granting donor requests in the form of pork barrels, earmarks, and riders is job one can honestly sit down and focus on long-term accomplishments, forgive me if I express some skepticism. And besides, how many major agendas can someone push through in two years?

This is where Hitchens comes in with his main argument. Anyone who actually wants to do this job, endure a media crap storm over every single word and every single picture ever taken of him or her, and come another election decides to do it again, is inherently too insane for the post and will by default be unable to affect any major changes on a national scale. And I would partially agree with Hitchens here. I say partially, because we all know that under duress, the government can get things done and get them done quickly. But usually, most of the stimuli and legal edicts tend to lack the necessary follow through on implementation, and only makes it back into the spotlight when something goes very wrong and someone absolutely has to fix it. And the fix is all too often just another bill which is again sent off for implementation with little oversight. So our politicians, the ones that don’t dominate the headlines for saying crazy or ridiculous things on a daily basis, but the ones who make it into office after verbally slathering each other in muck and ad hominems, and with their two, four, or a somewhat more generous six year with biannual upheaval, shelf life, try to navigate the current system we’ve allowed to flourish on Capitol Hill, are just doing the best they can. The real problem is that this system rarely does much more than move paperwork and produce political theater rather than real changes.

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Here’s a suggestion to those who want governments to obey their religious dogmas rather than draw on their accumulated legal traditions. Take a long, hard look at what’s going on in Iran today. Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory which required very unusual circumstances to be legitimate and was immediately endorsed by the man who actually runs the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, isn’t just a case of a corrupt, hardline government ignoring the voice of its people. It’s actually a very revealing glimpse into how a theocracy works in the the real world. Iran’s appointed councils not only dismiss the people’s real opinions and feel free to rig elections, but they believe they have divine right to impose their will on the public with legal machinations and an iron fist.

iran election

After decades of willful isolation from the public, the heads of the various appointed councils and committees which control the nation are deaf to the needs of the people. They don’t care what Iranians who disagree with them have to say. They never had to. By this point, they’re so far removed from the world around them, if reality knocked on their doors and delivered a kick to their groins after a running start, it would take them decades to figure out what happened. That’s the real nature of governments that serve their own goals and desires rather than the needs of people who have to live under them. And things get even worse when religion gets dragged into the equation because these self-serving governments simply wrap themselves in a divine legitimacy and justify their resentment of the public it rules by invoking a deity. If you question them, you question the wisdom of God. Or at least this is how they will twist any criticism and doubt in their abilities to govern.

This is why Ahmadinejad’s quote that Iranian elections were “real and free” should be added to the very large collection of his inane and ridiculous remarks. Rather than being actually picked by the people, candidates in the country’s elections are vetted by the Council of Guardians before they’re allowed to be on the ballot. Since half of the Council’s members are nominated by the supreme ruler and the other half come from people who were screened for their ideological adherence to Khamenei and his inner circle, a truly reform candidate able to bring about real change would get shot down before anyone could ever vote for him. Imagine if instead of a popular vote on candidates who had enough public support to get on the ballot, the Supreme Court of the U.S. randomly threw out candidates it didn’t think it could control and allowed people to vote on only those deemed pliant enough to be allowed even a modicum of power. How could that possibly be a fair election when it was rigged before it even started?

Every time you hear a Christian fundamentalist declare that the United States should make its laws based on his religious ideology or his interpretation of the Bible, what he’s really advocating is a government much like Iran’s. Rather than at least pretend to serve the public, our lawmakers would instead be serving whatever set of religious groups or committees would vet their actions. The voice of the people no longer has to be heard, sweeping elections wouldn’t be allowed to take place and all would obey the religious principles adopted by a staff of people who never have to deal with the consequences of their actions, isolated in ivory towers, living in total assurance that everything they do is right because they’re backed by God on every decision they make. In their world, they would not only be allowed to rig elections to strike down progressive candidates they hate so much, their actions would have to be seen as divine intervention. And this is why theocracy is so dangerous. It allows self-righteous ideologues to bend nations to their whims with impunity, even when people are dying in the streets to protest their terrible decisions.

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how low can you go?

November 5, 2008

In every major election postmortem, there’s always a mention of how negative the campaigns were. Political historians consider 2004 to be one of the nastiest elections ever. In 2006, the attack ads were amazingly brutal. And in this election, the RNC and its affiliate groups pulled out all the stops to paint Obama as the worst thing to happen to this world since Cthulhu walked the land and made war with the Elder Things.

attack ads cartoon

With the dust finally settling down and Obama emerging with what can only be called a decisive victory of 349 electoral votes and 52% of the popular vote, the question is how low can you go until the negative campaign tactics start backfiring? Was Obama’s win a side effect of the GOP’s negativity and obsessive focus on trying to demonize him and his supporters? If you checked John McCain’s site during the campaign, usually three of the four front page stories were a shot at Obama. Let’s not forget Sarah Palin’s insulting speech in which she divided the nation into real America and fake America. (For those curious, I’m not a real American because I don’t live in a small town.) By focusing the whole election on whether or not people like Barack Obama, could the Republicans have shot themselves in the foot? Did they try to tear down a charismatic opponent and were so aggressive, they muted their own candidate and offered nothing in exchange?

But in retrospect, this election wasn’t the most negative ever fought. That dubious distinction goes to the 1800 campaign in which John Adams openly called Thomas Jefferson an ugly hermaphrodite who slept with his slaves and was in return labeled with a string of racial slurs that questioned his character, upbringing and family. Compared to the vicious exchanges of the early to mid 19th century laden with racism, sexism and snobbery, today’s campaigns are almost docile. If anything, we’ve gotten far more respectful and civil over the last 150 years.

So while toxic attack ads on TV seem incessant and bookstore shelves are littered with political hatchet jobs or promotional fluff pieces, we’ve been getting better at how far we take our public discourse. This should be good news if you lament the venom and bitterness in politics today. The future might get a lot less nasty. Though you should probably be prepared to wait another century or so…

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the electoral meme machine

October 31, 2008

Ryan Grim at the Politico recently wrote an article about the “bandwagon effect,” a well known phenomena at election time in which voters will decide to vote for the winning candidate just because the candidate is winning. Some political pundits (amateur and professional) say that the very idea is demeaning to voters who travel to the polls to vote their heart and soul. Grim acknowledges the criticism and offers a reference to academia:

Pollster John Zogby is skeptical of the bandwagon theory and says voters always say it’s someone else who votes that way. “‘No, no, no, not me,'” he said they say. “‘It’s the stupid people across the street.'” But it’s not quite that simple.

Academics who have spent years researching the nexus of polling and voter behavior say that it takes a change in poll numbers to get voters jumping on board – or at least thinking about it. If the tide turns toward a candidate, persuadable – but previously unpersuaded – voters begin to ask what they’ve been missing.

So is there any solid science behind the bandwagon effect? Actually yes. As all social mammals, humans jump on bandwagons all the time. Even though we’re organized into nations, cultures and sub-cultures, we still follow strong memes, or social cues. We have bestselling books and blockbusters that everyone seems to have seen, hit TV shows, religions and fashion styles. We look to social groups around us and generally try to fit in, one of the basic behaviors of social creatures according to evolutionary biology. Going by memes allows them to work together to find food, build shelters, defend each other or attack their enemies. The same behaviors allow us to work as societies.

It makes perfect sense that when a candidate seems to be gaining plenty of ground and a tidal wave of support behind him, people consider following the meme and do what so many others seem to be doing. It’s the evolutionary drive to try and fit in. Of course with us, it’s a little more complicated than that. We might have a different meme from our friends, family and the other people around us. But overall, the drive to do what others do is still deeply embedded in us and it’s logical that it will manifest itself in politics, one of the biggest exercises in social memes we have.

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