Two Quick Rhetoric and Running Updates

The big part of my life that is neither rhetoric nor running has consumed me recently, and is likely to continue to do so for a while, but I have time for a quick update on both the rhetoric and the running.

The Running: The half marathon is now eighteen days away, and though I was pretty settled into fifty mile weeks and feeling great about the whole process, the world (sickness, travel, family, the fragility of life) decided I would be best served by a zero mile week just three weeks out from the race. Could be worse.  I suppose it may still get worse. Regardless, I’m back on the road as of today, and given my time in a 15k trail run a few weeks back, I’m still aiming for a 7:20/mile pace, or about 1:36 for the whole race.

The Rhetoric: I’m scheduled to present at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in May (actually I’m up on June 1, I think), and while I had hoped to get way more done this break (again, sickness, travel…) I’m basically done with my initial research. It looks like I’m going to be able to suggest that Lakoff’s notion of narrative framing isn’t quite correct, and, though I won’t get into it in the presentation, there may be deeper problems with his understanding of liberals and conservatives. In essence, it seems the same differences Lakoff identifies between the left and right exist between factions of the left. In other words, there are liberals who, at least in some areas, have a “conservative” worldview, but still have very liberal policies. Clearly I’m going to need to get my ducks in a row before I go too far with such claims, though. (The only reason I’m willing to write them here is that I know pretty much no one reads this!)

One other rhetoric note. Lots of people are talking about the need for Democrats to develop policies that will help working class voters. I think this may be good governance, but it’s a stupid electoral strategy. First, basically no one picks a party based on it’s policies. Instead, they tend to pick the policies based on  their party. Political affiliation is far more an identity than a rational choice. Second, to the extent that people do care about policies, they don’t so much care if they are getting enough, but rather they care if someone else is getting too much. Anger about “welfare” or corporate tax breaks or immigration isn’t about people wanting some of those goodies for themselves, but rather being angry that someone else is getting something they don’t deserve. It says nothing good about humanity, but it seems we’re happy to suffer ourselves so long as we can make sure everyone else is suffering along with us. So helping the working class will not win a single vote, I predict. Like too many of us, they want to stick it to someone else, not help themselves.


Stay healthy, be active, enjoy friends and family, work to understand everything generally and a few things really well, and try to leave everything a bit better than you found it.



The Narrative–Political Continuum

narrative & politcal continuum

Liberals are predominantly comic, but there is a significant minority that is essentially melodramatic (the Bernie Sanders element in the latest election). Both narrative elements are represented in liberal media.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are dominated by melodrama, so much so that there is essentially no comic-conservative media. This, I suggest, is the “missing right”–a group that likely exists but lacks media representation, and to a great degree political representation as well.

Beyond Left & Right: Melodramatic or Comic?

Political identity is not merely about the people and policies you support or oppose, but is also about the narrative lens through which you view the world. The two basic narrative world views are described below:

narrative characteristics_2

Examples will follow in later posts, but this is the foundation.

Marx still (mostly) wrong, but not for the reason everyone thinks: Capitalism, Marxism, and Distributed Error

One of the greatest problems with Marxist theory is the failure of central planners to correctly organize an economy. When the supplies at every grocery store are determined not by the owners or managers of each grocery story, but by the central planners, the result was a seemingly random mix of absurd oversupply of some items and crippling scarcity of other items.

One typical justification for this–and one that has become a pillar of one U.S. political party’s thinking–is that the government is simply bad at economic intervention (and, by extension, the private sector is remarkably good at it). This is wrong. I would suggest that both are equally skilled.

Instead, what I believe is happening is simply a statistical issue. If there is only one decision making authority, the errors of that authority are amplified and show up in every store. However, if every store is its own decision maker, then the errors of one store will tend to be cancelled out by another store. If one store incorrectly orders too many boots and not enough flour, its likely that another store will have extra flour, and still another will not have enough boots. With decentralized control, each individual private enterprise need be no better than the central planner for the net effect to be far more positive.

So government is not necessarily worse or better than any other group at such planning (and likely at most everything else). It’s just that, as when rolling dice, more rolls will tend to yield an overall result closer to the statistical average than will fewer rolls.

So Marxism still doesn’t work, but let’s not learn the wrong lessons from this.

Statistical Nonsense: No, Democrats Did Not Lose Support Among Hispanics or Women (probably)

Just a quick comment to point out that all the analysis of how Democrats or Republicans gained or lost among populations in the last election is largely bunk.

In general, it is extremely difficult to accurately compare different elections because you are not looking at the same sample group. So, right off the bat, if you see any comparisons between the party support among demographic groups in 2012 and 2014, ignore them. Apples to oranges. Comparing 2010 to 2014 is better, but still problematic. Consider: Republican support among Latinos went up from 2010 to 2014. So, did some Latinos who supported Democrats in 2010 switch to Republicans in 2014, or did those who supported Democrats in 2010 simply not vote in 2014? Both cases would show up as rising support among this population.

Now consider that turnout for 2014 was the lowest since World War 2. This suggests the second of the possibilities—Democratic voters staying home—is more likely: Republican voters were simply more committed, and so those Republicans in all groups were a larger percentage of the total electorate. So what really happened was not that Republicans gained among Latinos, but that Democrats weren’t motivated enough to vote. In fact, this is largely what happened (in reverse) in 2006, when Republicans stayed home. Regardless, this is a somewhat different issue, and should not be confused with fundamental changes in support. It’s a fundamental change in turnout, likely stemming from a fundamental change in motivation, and while that deserves study, we have to be certain we’re studying the right thing.

(And by the way, I would suggest that motivation comes from having a well-defined enemy more than a well-defined hero, so the out-party will always have an advantage there.)

UPDATE: weighs in, making a similar point. When turnout is high only in Republican states, overall turnout will look very Republican. A turnout problem, then, not a change in support among key demographics.

Do Policies Matter to Voters? Not post-partisan: post policy.

The recent midterms have led to much talk of how even mid-term local elections have become nationalized, leading to a partisan sorting, where there are few red elected officials in blue states, or blue officials in red states. No politics is local now, it seems.

Setting aside the very legitimate question of how much can be drawn from a single midterm election, and one that looks to have the lowest turnout since WW2, I would suggest that a kin to this nationalization is that policies are not foundational elements of voting patterns. (The question of how much they ever were key elements of voting patterns has to be left for someone with more historical knowledge than me.) That is, I argue that politician’s support for or opposition to actual policies has very little effect on voter support. This, of course, raises the issue of why we do vote for anyone in particular.

The most obvious example is that, while voters even in very red states strongly backed raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana, they also strongly backed Republican candidates who were opponents of both these policies. However, one can also look at polling on issues, and find that Democratic policies consistently poll very well and have widespread support even in conservative areas (often more than Republican policies, in fact). So the most obvious conclusion is that policies aren’t the primary basis by which voters select candidates. But let’s be a bit my systematic about the whole thing, and review some possible explanations for these results.

  1.  This election was an anomaly, and the low turnout skewed the electorate. But, for this to explain the whole thing, one would also have to explain why Democrats stayed home. And perhaps the particular policies in question simply didn’t motivate them enough. But there’s surely more here.
  2. Voter ignorance. There is likely something to this. Poll after poll shows voters know far less about candidates, policies, and even current events, than the fanatical followers of politics would imagine. For instance, few people recognize that employment is up and the deficit is down under Obama. (poll about what people thought unemployment rate is)
  3. Candidate “spin.” Candidates are often masters of saying what the audience wants to hear, or at least not saying what it doesn’t want to hear. One clever way to do this is to speak in terms of values rather than policies. The classic example here is the right’s focus on “small government.” Indeed, when asked, most people will say they favor a smaller government. However, when asked which government agencies or functions should be cut, the only one that is consistently on the chopping block is foreign aid (less than 1% of the budget). So voters can like the value, but hate policy that would flow from the value.
  4. Good enemies. I personally suspect politics is not primarily about who you support, but who you oppose. The President is always the face of the party, and being a single person can be easily attacked. Thus attacking Obama is easier than attacking some unknown Republican, and furthermore, in doing so, it feels like one is attacking the whole of the Democratic Party. There is no comparable out-party attack that can be structured. The out-party folks just aren’t sufficiently well known.
  5. Pavlov rings the bell and then gives the dogs food. After a while, the bell alone is enough to make the dogs salivate because they have been conditioned to associate the bell with dinner. It may be that the parties have been sufficiently associated with particular issues that the issues themselves have dropped away. Candidates no longer need to mention the issues very often, and can in fact propose policies that run contrary to the issues and not receive blame or praise. So Obama cuts a trillion dollars from the deficit and presides over the first reduction in the size of the federal workforce since the end of WW2, and Republicans (and many Democrats) still believe he’s increased the deficit and expanded the government. We’ve been trained to think tax & spend Democrat. No need for dinner; we still salivate.

Like any complex situation, there may be a variety of causal factors, and it may likewise be that policies work better with some groups than with others (perhaps Democrats are still receptive to policies, but simply didn’t show up to vote because they didn’t have anyone to vote against, for example). Anyway, enough musing for now.