The Swiftboating of CNN: “Working the Refs”

 

 

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He’s at it again. Apparently immune to self-humiliation, a certain self-described “citizen journalist” with a long history of producing dishonest and deceptively edited videos has released another one. His previous efforts have gotten him arrested, sued, forced to pay $100,000, and repeatedly debunked and proclaimed a sham even by (some of) his fellow right-wing fanatics. But he still gets plenty of media exposure for being a fraudulent hack, so he still keeps doing it.  And this time he has a target that his fans are particularly eager to pounce on: CNN.

It’s astounding, and slightly amusing in a perverse way, to hear how often people peg CNN as a staunchly “liberal” network, whatever that means. Mention to one of your right-wing friends or relatives what a cesspool Fox “News” is, and chances are the Pavlovian response will be something like “Oh yeah? Well what about CNN?” During the recent presidential campaign it was common for reactionaries to refer to it as the Clinton News Network. And the current White House Occupant himself, who simply parrots brainlessly whatever he hears from the loony fringe media, has declared the network to be “fake news” and barred it from media conferences.

All of which is supremely ironic; CNN is also a frequent target of criticism by Media Matters, which is devoted to exposing “conservative misinformation”.  In fact, almost every day, Media Matters documents at least one instance of right-wing bias at CNN — evidently the highest frequency of any non-Fox media source. Furthermore, CNN has hired two of the White House Occupant’s lackeys as commentators. And lest we forget, it gave us a decade or so of Lou Dobbs, who, while nominally a centrist, railed against President Obama in a manner reminiscent of Father Coughlin railing against FDR, and now has found a home at Fox. CNN also has offered a frequent platform to the likes of George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer, William Bennett, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, and even Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter.

Of course, the network also has its instances of left-wing bias. But that’s just the point. Whatever its shortcomings may be as a journalistic source (and it does indeed have some) it’s rather balanced ideologically.  The Pew Research Center ranked it slightly left of center based on the ideology of the average viewer:

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And bear in mind that such a criterion as viewership probably makes CNN seem more left-leaning that it really is, since progressive (“liberal”) viewers face more limited options — as witness the domination of the media landscape by a rabid Fox,  which sends other networks scrambling to match its strides.

So why would the right-wing punditocracy single out such a relatively middle-of-the-road network to externally brand as the flagship of the legendary (and largely mythical) librulmedia? Simple: precisely because it is relatively middle-of-the-road. Establishing CNN as a benchmark for “liberal bias” by playing up its leftward tilts and ignoring its rightward tilts, the manipulators hope to utterly discredit anything even slightly left of center.

Immediately after the fraudulent anti-CNN video was released, White House spokesbot Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that any media criticizing her president is “fake news” and in almost the same breath urged everyone to watch the video, “whether it’s accurate or not”. The head can’t stop reeling from the bombardment of irony these days.

Meanwhile, the White House exploited the video in a fundraising letter (Fundraising?? Wasn’t the point of electing a pampered billionaire so the president wouldn’t be so dependent on the public’s money?), citing it as proof that CNN is “pushing phony news stories to boost their ratings, rile up their (wait for it) rabid liberal base, and take us down”.

It’s a tactic that Eric Alterman describes nicely in his book What Liberal Media?, which is well summed up in a column at The Nation. (It is Alterman, by the way, from whom I have borrowed the strikingly appropriate term punditocracy.) He quotes then-chair of the GOP Rich Bond:

If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.

Right-wingers have carried this strategy to outrageous extremes. They howl about the “liberal bias” of the media any time there is a news report that does not reinforce their narratives and beliefs. It’s all part of a strategy to work the refs, shift the goalposts and tilt the playing field. And it’s paying off handsomely.

The ultimate objectives in crying wolf over the librulmedia are twofold: first, to bully media outlets into being even more right-leaning than they already are, and second, to have mainstream news outlets branded as radically leftist in the mind of the public; and by comparison, then, an unhinged right-wing outlet like Fox will be perceived as … well, fair and balanced.  And we’ve already traveled very far down that Orwellian road.

 

“Snowflake”: Anatomy of a Slur

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The popularity of “snowflake” as the cutesy insult du jour is both very interesting and rather disturbing. It’s used, of course, by the Cult Of Trumpery to belittle those who refuse to join the cult, but it’s particularly intended to single out them librulz — on the apparent assumption that nobody else possibly could be alarmed by the rise of fascism in America.

One fascinating thing about this epithet is its astronomical irony. Calling someone a snowflake is meant mainly to suggest that they are fragile, overly sensitive, easily damaged or offended. But the people applying the label are doing so in defense of a petulant toddler who, among many other things, threw a tantrum against Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s merchandise; against the cast of Hamilton for supposedly booing Mike Pence (they didn’t); against Saturday Night Live for lampooning him almost as well as he lampoons himself; and against the media and even the National Park Service for accurately reporting the size of his inauguration crowd (just let that one sink in).

And his fans themselves are often prone to gross overreactions even as they berate other people for being “snowflakes”. Recently there was a viral story about a Massachusetts man who wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper expressing his disgust with a yard sign that said “Hate has no home here”.  A 13-year-old boy penned a response that was absolutely priceless, and gives a person hope that the U.S. may have a future after all. He closes his letter by pointing out the absurdity of someone (supposedly an adult) becoming unhinged over a benevolent yard sign, and then disparaging others for their “snowflake sensitivity”.

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Another characteristic of (literal) snowflakes that may be suggested by this appellation is their uniqueness — it’s become proverbial that no two of them are alike. And there is speculation that the current application of the word was inspired by a line from the 1999 film Fight Club (based on the vastly superior Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name):

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.

And consider the irony of this: if members of the Cult Of Trumpery really are ridiculing dissenters for their supposedly vain perception of personal specialness, they also are tacitly acknowledging that they themselves subscribe to a mindless herd mentality.

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What’s most disturbing about “snowflake”, however, is its white nationalist connotations. It has been widely reported that the term originated in Nazi Germany, where it was applied derisively to Jews because the ash from the crematoriums reminded soldiers of snow falling.

Mind you, there is no solid evidence that this story is true. But then, the Cult Of Trumpery has been more than willing to buy into all manner of unfounded beliefs and rumors: Obama is a Kenyan Muslim; Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi; the Clinton Foundation committed fraud; climate change is a hoax; millions voted illegally; Muslims cheered on 9-11; immigrants pose a threat to the economy and to safety; Obama “apology tour”; death panels; etc., etc., etc., etc. So it’s not very likely that they’ve questioned this myth, either. In other words, it appears that many of them have called people “snowflakes” while believing that the term has its roots in the Third Reich.

Furthermore, there is a troubling etymology that is much more substantially documented. During the Civil War era, it was common for white racists to refer sarcastically to African-Americans as “snowballs” — a usage which already had been around for a century or so — and this later morphed into “snowflakes”. Unlike the Nazi narrative, this one is unquestionably true. (We might note that abolitionists also applied the term to those who supported slavery; but in this usage it was deriding people who perceived themselves as superior rather than deriding people whom the user of the label perceived as inferior.)

So the big question here (aside from why such folks consider it so important to ridicule other people at all) is this: given the widely reported belief that “snowflake” is of Nazi origin, and given its unquestionable racist associations, why do so many people nonetheless embrace it so wholeheartedly?

Protests Against Logical Fallacies

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By any measure, the Women’s March that occurred on Jan. 21 was a resounding success, with an estimated participation in Washington of some 470,000 and an estimated participation worldwide of about 4 million in more than 100 countries. Accordingly, it has come under attack from Trump supporters –even though the event was not specifically geared as an anti-Trump protest — who have summoned a smorgasbord of logical fallacies as justification for their criticism.

Many Internet memes making the rounds suggested that the marchers were just spoiled whiners and sore losers; one compared the circumstances of American women to the plight of women elsewhere in the world, including:

Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive, no rights and must always be covered.
China and India, infantcide (sic) of baby girls.

Afghanistan, unequal education rights.
Democratic Republic of Congo, where rapes are brutal and women are left to die, or HIV infected and left to care for children alone.

Mali, where women can not escape the torture of genital mutilation.

Pakistan, in tribal areas where women are gang raped to pay for men’s crime.

This is an example of the fallacy of relative privation , more colloquially known as the “not as bad as” fallacy. Its premise is that you have no right to complain if other people have it worse than you. By this reasoning, you have no right to seek medical attention for a broken arm because other people are dying of cancer. And ultimately, you have no right to seek redress for anything, because there’s always theoretically someone who has it worse.

There was also the corollary of this premise, which we might call the fallacy of relative merit or the “not as good as” fallacy. For example there was this photo:

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With the caption: THESE ARE THE WOMEN REALLY MARCHING FOR YOUR RIGHTS.

The implication is that because the march on Washington didn’t require the kind of courage and risk that attends putting on a uniform and putting your life on the line, it’s not a valid campaign for human rights. Again, we could say that essentially nothing is as worthy an action as something else, and thus nothing ever should be done. Fortunately, when this meme made the rounds on Facebook, at least one person responded in this fashion:

EXCUSE Me!!! I am a Veteran…I wore the uniform for 24 years. The only reason I was able to serve is because at some point in history…someone MARCHED to allow me to serve as a BLACK and as WOMAN!!! I take nothing away from those serving today… So there is NOTHING wrong with marching.

The relative privation narrative above even mentions protesters showing up with a “5 dollar Starbucks” in hand, suggesting that if anyone can afford such indulgences, then they have no cause for complaint. That’s a huge non-sequitur, of course. But even if it were perfectly true, it’s based on the false assumption that each of the marchers is there representing only herself/ himself. Which is hardly the case at all; the march was on behalf of all disadvantaged people all over the world.

Another web virus was a video clip of a man purported to be a veteran (which evidently is supposed to make him an authority on these matters) that actually appears to be a commentary on other protests, but it’s been applied to the Women’s March as well. Upbraiding the “crybabies”, (who, in typical cart-before-the-horse fashion he proclaims are “the exact reason Donald Trump won the election”), he throws in several straw men that have no relevance to the actual grounds for complaint, including “You’re causing all this destruction just because your candidate lost” ; “You don’t always get your way”; “Ain’t nothing free”; and “But you want everything”.

His reference to protesters causing destruction could be considered an instance of the fallacy of composition –.a scant handful of protesters (actually masked interlopers who were not a part of the protest proper) had been destructive, so he’s applying that property to all of them. It’s unclear whether he is presenting himself as a phenomenally gifted psychic or a sociologist who’s actually studied the demographics of the crowd, but in either case he’s horribly inept:

None of you put on a uniform, but you’re quick to disrespect the flag, to not wanna say the Pledge Of Allegiance, not wanna recognize the Bible.

In fact, a great many of these protesters have put on uniforms of various kinds, including (as he evidently was referring to) military uniforms. Veterans are often involved in protests, because they often feel (perhaps justifiably) that they’ve been given the short end of the stick. But what difference does it make how many veterans were there? Does this social critic mean to suggest that nobody has a right to exercise constitutional rights who has not personally defended them in warfare? That has never, ever, been a condition for the rights and privileges of citizenship in the U.S.

Whom did he see “disrespect the flag”? What the hell does the Pledge Of Allegiance have to do with anything, and how would he know how many people in the crowd say it and how many don’t? And the Bible??? Who doesn’t “recognize the Bible” when they see it, and how is it in any way relevant to what is going on here? And how does he presume to know the religious convictions and practices of half a million people? It would be hard to cook up a bigger pot of red herrings.

One valid point he makes is that the demonstrations make people late for work. Or is it so valid? One sermon that the critics keep preaching to demonstrators is “you’re responsible for your own circumstances so quit your bitching.” Which is not only irrelevant, but not quite true — it’s hard to blame people who voted for Hillary Clinton as creators of the Trump presidency. But pretend that we all are one hundred percent responsible for our own circumstances. That means that people who are late for work can’t blame it on activity in the street — particularly when they have the capability of finding out about those activities in advance and planning accordingly.

In fact, sometimes we are tardy for our appointed rounds due to circumstances beyond our control. But that applies to a great many types of events, including not only protests but inaugurations. If we used inconvenience to the general populace as a criterion for prohibiting events, we’d never have any large-scale outdoor functions of any kind.

It’s also common for people to respond to the Resistance by saying, “hey, Trump was elected so let’s give him a chance. Every 4 years, people complain about the outcome of the presidential election. Why can’t we all just forget our differences and work together?”

This would have been an excellent speech 4 years ago or 8 years ago, when people were indeed raising a ruckus just because they had an irrational hatred of the guy who won. But it’s the most glaring of false equivalences to try to make a similar case now. The resistance to Trump is not just because the protesters’ candidate lost; it’s because Trump has made it very clear, with virtually everything he says and does, that he is grotesquely unfit for office, and a very real danger to the country and the whole world. It isn’t just a matter of ideological differences; and suggesting such is an effort to “normalize” someone who is anything but normal and healthy. “Working together” with him is “working together” with someone who is doing everything he can to prevent us from all working together.

If you pay careful attention to these attacks on anti-Trump protesters, you’re likely to find more species of faulty logic than you can shake an alternative fact at.

Simple Steps to Overcoming Trumpery: an Action Guide

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This time it’s not mere partisan hyperbole. Fascism really has come to America. (If you still have any doubt, look at the role of Steve Bannon.) And it’s not going to be pretty, even if you’re white, Christian and middle class. But you needn’t despair. There are steps you can take that will lessen the damage, and get the country on a healthy course again. It’s possible not only to survive Trumpery, but to “overcomb” it.

People who say that we should “give Trump a chance” are really, really missing something. He’s already been given a multitude of chances, and he’s blown them all to smithereens. All throughout the campaign, he was very consistently an absolutely horrible person. Since the election, he has consistently continued to be an absolutely horrible person. And he immediately began making absolutely the most horrible decisions imaginable. How much damage should we allow him to inflict before we speak up?

Following are 20 points of action. These are steps that just about anyone can take, though some require more time and effort than others. Some are general approaches that you can follow all the time.  Others are specific actions that you should do as often as possible. Only the most dedicated full-time activist would be able to pursue all of these actions; it’s fine if you single out one or two to devote your efforts to. The important thing is to act.

We will begin with the most obvious and progress to the less obvious.

1. Protest

This is the most obvious, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Donald Trump has made it very clear, for his entire life, that he will do absolutely anything he can get away with. We can’t afford to let him forget for one minute that we’re still out here watching his every move. And we must make it as difficult as possible for the media to ignore us. That means that a large crowd of dissenters needs to greet every one of Trump’s public appearances, and respond to every one of his horrendous actions in office.

Bear in mind that if you protest without a permit, you may provoke the displeasure of law enforcement, and may even risk arrest. And it should go without saying that you should be on your best behavior. If there is even one unruly or destructive individual in even the largest group of protesters, it is one hundred percent guaranteed that this person will be singled out as representative of the entire crowd.

Trump supporters are very eager to label dissenters as “whiners”, “crybabies”, “sore losers”, “welfare bums”, etc. etc. Make sure that such labels are absolute bullshit.

2. Bug the hell out of your elected representatives

Yes, it really does work. Even, sometimes,  if the representatives are of the opposition party.  Phoning is more effective than writing, and better still is dropping in at the representative’s local office. In no case will you be able to actually talk to your congressperson or senator, but their staff will pass along your concerns about proposed government moves. Be presentable and be prepared. And let them become well acquainted with you. You can also connect with them at town hall meetings. If nothing else, picket their public appearances with signs conveying a crucial message.

3. Pressure the media

This is perhaps the most crucial step of all, since the media have had, to an ever greater degree, an influence on the public’s beliefs and actions. The media put Donald Trump in the White House in the first place, ignoring his excessive faults and flaws while greatly exaggerating and over-covering false narratives about Hillary Clinton. Since then, he’s been viciously biting the hand that fed him, maneuvering to stifle media scrutiny and dissent. It’s essential that we have their back, and call them out on every single shortcoming.

Monitoring the media can be an enormous task for one person, but you can form teams to divide the responsibility. You can keep track of media missteps via watchdog sites like Media Matters for America, which sometimes even issues action alerts advising you to contact media outlets and urge them to correct their course. Be courteous and precise, letting the media know how they have let the public down, and suggesting an appropriate corrective action. (“Hate mail” is counterproductive.) Specific journalists often list their email addresses to facilitate feedback.

4. Write letters to the editor

Many people read them, and they can have an impact, particularly in newspapers with large circulations like The New York Times or USA Today. Focus on facts rather than opinion; anybody can form an opinion quite easily, but solid facts are often in short supply.

5. Use social media — but use discretion

Facebook, Twitter, etc. are excellent vehicles for keeping people informed and mobilized. Unfortunately, they’re also awash with misinformation and useless prattle. Many users are suffering from political burnout, and may just unfriend you or tune you out if you overdo it. Post only the most relevant and crucial material, and intersperse it with more lighthearted fare, so people don’t come to think of you as a gloomy Jeremiah.

(continued on next page)

Fake Fake News, Real Fake News and Fake Real News

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On a day in December, a would-be hero from North Carolina left his home and drove all the way to New York, where he fearlessly strode into a pizza parlor amid a barrage of pepperoni, pulled a gun and confronted the management. He was there to rescue the children, you see. The children who were being exploited in a sex trafficking ring by Hillary Clinton and her evil accomplices. He knew it was happening because he’d read it on social media. He’d no doubt even read about how the placement of symbols on the pizza joint’s menu was really an elaborate code for pedophilia practices.

The story sounds like it might have been scripted by writers at Saturday Night Live or maybe by the Coen brothers on acid. Yet it nearly led to violence because this fellow believed it totally. And he’s not alone. Millions of people out there buy into fake news stories. Facebook has finally taken measures to reduce the fake news traffic on its highways, but it’s too little too late, for it already hath wrought the election of Donald Trump.

Not surprising, then, that Trump’s cheerleaders, upon hearing complaints about fake news, shifted into gear with their defense of the phenomenon — which included ridiculing the complaints, redefining fake news and denying that it even exists. They’ve brushed it off with the glib comment that “fake news is a fake story”, and have even suggested that even if it exists, it’s harmless because most Americans recognize it when they see it.

Which does not jibe at all with the statistics: about a fifth of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, most think he has raised their taxes, about 40 percent believe in “death panels”, about 25 percent think evolution is a false belief,  about half think Saddam was behind 9-11, and 52 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote.

An ever-dependable, perennially flatulent AM talk show host characterized fake news as “satire and parody that liberals don’t understand”. Which brings up two questions: (1) Is he really so stupid that he can’t distinguish a Saturday Night Live skit from a supposedly serious report about “Pizzagate”? (2) Is he really so stupid as to think it was “liberals” who were taken in by all the phony (and often bizarre) stories about Clinton and Obama?

Like many other right-wing fanatics, he wants you to believe that the real fake news is actually the real real news — you know, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, etc. etc. He even offers some examples of fake news stories:

[Quoting someone else: “You want to hear fake news?  Fake news is every story you read reporting Obama said you keep your doctor if you like your doctor. You get to keep your plan if you like your insurance plan. Your premiums are coming down $2,500 average, every year, under Obamacare.”]  That was fake news, and that’s exactly right.

Yes, you heard that right. Accurately reporting what someone said — at least if that someone happens to be someone you loathe — is what he and his kind consider fake news. Another example he cites of his brand of fake news is the Obama administration saying that a video helped inspire the attack in Benghazi — which in fact is quite true; but since it doesn’t support the right-wing narrative, it must be fake anyway. Got it?

He does the same thing for the “hands up” narrative. It’s fake news, he says, because an investigation later appeared to contradict the witnesses who had said Michael Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot by a cop. (He doesn’t mention that the investigation also found there were strained relations between Ferguson police and the African-American community, the real point of the “hands up” meme.) Even though the media accurately reported what witnesses had said, it was fake news, just because he says so.

Media Matters reports on this habit of turning reality on its head:

Other conservatives are even using fake news to describe reporting from credible news outlets with which they disagree. Fringe right-wing conspiracy site Infowars.com declared that “The mainstream media is the primary source of the most harmful, most inaccurate news ever,” and included outlets such as The New York Times,The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, and Politico (and Media Matters, for good measure) on their “full list of fake news outlets.” Fox contributor Newt Gingrich lamented the Times’ reporting on the fake news phenomenon, arguing,“The idea of The New York Times being worried about fake news is really weird.The New York Times is fake news.” Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham — a contender for Trump’s press secretary — lashed out at CNN while appearing on Fox News’ Hannity, stating “the folks over at CNN” and “the kind of little games they’re playing are so transparent … they’re the fake news organizations.”

 

These comments exhibit two tactics you will see reactionary propagandists exercising over and over and over again: projecting their own sins onto someone they want to demonize, and redefining terms to suit their purposes. “Fake news”, like any other word or expression, comes to mean whatever they want it to mean.

But despite such attempts by the punditocracy to muddy the waters, the complaint from “liberals” about fake news has never been about bias. Most “liberals” (and even a lot of “conservatives”) realize that news is always biased in some manner and to some degree. Nor is it a matter of accuracy; accuracy is certainly important, but errors invariably creep in from time to time, even in the most conscientious journalism. And fake news quite often is constructed at least partially with actual facts.

We previously mentioned an internet story claiming that President Obama took a separate plane along on his vacation just for his dog. Part of the story was true: the president did take two planes, and the dog flew on a separate plane from the family. But the plane was not deployed just for the dog; it was carrying crucial personnel and the dog just hitched a ride.

Fake news is determined neither by bias nor error; it is determined by a false narrative that serves as the spine to which bias and error  are so often attached, along with real facts. The “War On Christmas” narrative is a good example of fake news because it uses a phony narrative supported both by lies (President Obama, contrary to Fox claims, wished Americans a Merry Christmas on numerous occasions) and facts (some people really do say “happy holidays” instead).

It may not always be easy to classify a story as fake news. Should every false rumor be tossed into that bin? Sometimes false rumors begin with an honest misunderstanding of the facts. One likely specimen is the rumor that only 5 (or 6) percent of the Clinton Foundation’s proceeds actually go to charity. This probably stems from ignorance about what kind of organization the Clinton Foundation actually is. Despite its rather misleading name, it’s not really a foundation at all, but a public charity. That means, among other things, that it performs its own charitable services rather than acting as a conduit for funds (as a foundation would do). And 89 percent of its proceeds go toward that function. Additionally, the organization donates 6 (or 5) percent of its proceeds to other charities. Some people just assume that’s all it does, because that’s what they want to assume. (Incidentally, contrary to additional rumors, the Clintons don’t make a dime from it.)

It may be questionable whether that story should be classified as fake news or merely a false report. In many other cases, however, there is no doubt. These occur when the perpetrator either deliberately creates a false narrative or creates a narrative without due regard to whether it is true or not. This applies to all of the manipulative videos distributed by James O’Keefe. It also applies to a story recently posted at Breitbart about a mob of Muslims attacking a German church.

Breitbart is uquestionably one of the prime purveyors of real fake news.  And its chairman, Steve Bannon, is going to have a special role in Trump’s administration. Which is altogether appropriate, since the election of Trump is the culmination of the work that fake news and distorted news outlets have been doing for some three decades. They have created an alternate universe for their fans. And now the rest of us must live in it as well.

(The good news is, there may be a way to fight it.)

The “War On Christmas” in 4 Minutes

I regret that I didn’t discover it until Christmas Day, but Jesse Dollemore has a nifty little video that addresses the silly “War On Christmas” narrative that surfaces every year around November.

Dollemore shows a clip of Donald Trump proclaiming to an adoring throng that “we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” (Does that mean he’s going to issue an imperial proclamation that everyone must say it?) And clips of the talking heads at Fox “News” reacting in a manner that (honest to Pete) brings to mind teenage girls screaming over The Beatles.

They declare that their War On Christmas has been won now that Trump is elected, and because of him people are starting to say “Merry Christmas” again (as if they’d been prohibited from doing so up until now), and even ask “When was the last time you heard a politician say” the taboo magic phrase.

Then, after presenting a few actual facts on the matter, Dollemore serves up a clip of President Obama wishing Americans a Merry Christmas 16 times — and Michelle Obama twice.

When was the last time you heard a politician say “Merry Christmas”? Depends on how much you’ve been paying attention.

 

The Big Misconception About the Electoral College

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The Electoral College has been very much in the news lately, with many people passionately calling for its eradication or staunchly defending it — usually depending on whether their candidate won or lost. There’s certainly room for debate on this matter, but what’s annoying is how frequently supporters of the institution defend it with the same misconception: the EC, they so often say, was designed to provide “balance” in the electoral process. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Electoral College, in fact, was designed to promote imbalance — i.e., to give some states disproportionate representation in relation to other states. Specifically, it was designed to give more clout to slave-holders and to advance the interests of wealthy landowners in general. And although slavery has subsequently been abolished, the EC still is doing an excellent job of keeping certain sectors of the populace “in their place” and skewing elections in favor of agrarian communities as opposed to urban communities, and in favor of wealthy white men over everyone else.

Another common phrase you hear from defenders of the EC is that it protects the country from being dominated by California and New York. So does it make more sense to have the country dominated by Oklahoma and Nebraska? Because that’s exactly what’s happening. Under the present system, many states that depend mostly on agriculture are valued far more highly than some states that thrive on agriculture plus the tech industry, publishing and media, banking, insurance, science and medicine. As an extreme example, a vote in Wyoming carries more than three and a half times as much weight as a vote in California.

And it’s getting even more lopsided. Twenty years ago, it probably would have been unthinkable for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote by nearly 3 million, yet still lose the electoral vote. But as more and more people move into cities, their votes for president will count less and less. If the trend continues, the president ultimately may be selected by a mere handful of voters. (Although technically there’s no limit to the number of votes a state can acquire, there’s a practical limit because the total must be 538.) Among other things, this means it’s going to be increasingly difficult for a Democrat to get elected — which is precisely why the system will never change: the last thing Republicans want is a level playing field. (See mandering, gerry.)

Supporters of the present system — or of the candidates most likely to benefit from it — also like to tout maps of electoral results like the one reproduced above.  This, they declare, is proof that the country overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, even though most of the voters rejected him. Makes perfect sense, eh?

Sometimes they’ll get even cuter by breaking down the electoral map into counties, resulting in a sea of red with only a few little islands of blue. Where the hell are all the libruls lurking?

2016 election results map

Such maps are bad models because they depict geographic boundaries rather than demographic density.  What we are perfectly capable of producing, and yet you seldom see, is a 3-D map revealing that “blue” voters tend to live in more densely populated areas, and often even in high-rise buildings.

election-map-3d-by-county

The two-dimensional maps are meant to reassure us that the right guy won, because he’s representing more of the country. But what they actually do is betray the big flaw of the Electoral College: the president is elected by land mass more than by the citizens who live on it. Donald Trump was not the choice of the people, but he had the overwhelming support of cows, coyotes and cacti.

Defenders of the system are fond of comparing the Electoral College to the World Series. Specifically, they often cite the 1960 match, in which the highly favored New York Yankees outscored the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates 55 to 27, and yet the Pirates still won the series — thanks to the storybook finish of a home run by a mediocre hitter in the bottom of the 9th inning of game 7. We accept and even relish this kind of unexpected drama in sports; so why not in elections?

Well, because even though the presidential election has developed into a spectacle in its own right, with its catty debates and October surprises, it was never designed to be entertainment the way baseball was. It was designed to be a way to pick the leader of the nation; and that objective is better filled by honoring what the people want and need rather than honoring where they live. Furthermore, determining a baseball champion with a series of games rather than a single game helps minimize the element of chance; but breaking up a national election into state elections actually heightens the role of chance. In 2000, for instance, the fluke of a confusing “butterfly ballot” was enough to flip the entire state of Florida — which in turn was enough to flip the entire election.

Consider a hypothetical race between 3 candidates. In state A, candidate Jones receives 5 million votes, Smith receives 4 million and Brown 1 million. In State B, Brown receives 5 million, Smith 4 million and Jones 1 million. The totals for these two states then are: Smith 8 million, Jones 6 million and Brown 6 million.  So Smith, the candidate with the most votes, is awarded no electoral votes at all. Repeating this 25 and a half times, we see that it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote, and yet receive ZERO electoral votes for her trouble.

Does this mean the EC should be abolished? Not necessarily. Because there seems to have been another, more honorable purpose for its existence: to serve as a last line of defense against tyranny. The founders explicitly stated that the institution should be composed of individuals better qualified than the general public for selecting a national leader; and should help ensure that dangerous, unqualified demagogues should not sneak into office just because they happen to hoodwink the voters.

But obviously, the system has failed us big time. The Electoral College has become little more than a rubber stamp; some states even have made it illegal for electors to contradict the choice of the voters in that state.

So perhaps it should be abolished after all. Just don’t hold your breath.