Swimming in Ideology-infested Waters

aka:  Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It? (Part 2)

Imagine the political arena is a vast ocean of ideology.  It’s easy if you try…(oops – apologies to John Lennon).  Every politician, newspaper, radio show, web site, TV talking head, and newsstand book or magazine is a dangled hook with a beckoning worm.  You’re the brave fish.

You can’t stay uncommitted, unaffiliated, undecided forever.  So you pick a juicy worm and swallow.  There’s a jerk on the line – the hook is set. You feel yourself being reeled in. Now, here’s the critical question:

Are you a weak fish or a strong fish?

Will you meekly resign yourself to the pull, and soon join the pile of the daily catch?  Or will you aggressively fight to shake loose the hook and retain your independence to explore other corners of the ocean as you please?

All metaphors aside…when you read or hear about political topics and issues, are you a healthy skeptic of other people’s messages?  Do you question what you’re reading, ESPECIALLY IF YOUR FIRST INSTINCT IS TO AGREE WITH IT?

Let’s explore an example together.  A few days ago I wrote Part 1 of Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It?  If you didn’t read it, please click here before continuing.

When I posted Part 1 with excerpts from the book That Used To Be Us, I honestly hadn’t written or even researched this Part 2 yet.  But in Part 1 I had several hunches that I was being hooked and reeled in, so I ended it with a question to you:  “Is it straight, or is it spun or cherry-picked in any way?”  My hunches were based on:

  • Use of a dual-interpretable word in an opinion poll.
  • Characterizations of redistricting that differed from my own observations in Colorado last year.
  • Use of cherry-picked statistics that support the chain of logic a bit too perfectly.
  • Use of an unsupported assertion as a key point in the logic.
  • Concluding by quoting a politician, potentially out of context.

I’ll now explain each hunch and what I found.  Just as I’m questioning the authors of That Used To Be Us, I encourage you to critically judge me too.  Am I guilty of some spinning or cherry-picking of my own here?

Dual-interpretable words in opinion polls:

Remember the opinion poll?

“…a recent CBS story titled ‘Polarization in America’ report[ed] that 76 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of Independents would like to see elected officials compromise more rather than stick to their principles…”

I contend that some poll participants might have interpreted the word “compromise” to mean something besides “meet in the middle.”  The results could cynically mean that 76 percent of Republicans think that the Democrats should cave in, 87 percent of Democrats think the Republicans should cave in, and 86 percent of Independents are just sick of the whole bickering mess.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.   But here’s an example of  the reason for my hunch, from an August 9, 2011 Gallup poll:

“About one in five U.S. registered voters (21%) say most members of Congress deserve re-election, the lowest percentage Gallup has found in the 20-year history of asking this question….”

Yet, also:

“Voters are [2½ times] more charitable in their evaluations of their own member of Congress, with 54% saying he or she deserves re-election, compared with 57% in May. The electorate has consistently been more likely to say THEIR member of Congress deserves re-election than to say most members do.”

Colorado’s 2011 redistricting battles:

Remember the assertion about the abuses of congressional redistricting?

“With computerized databases and Google maps, gerrymandering has become much more sophisticated.  So effectively can the state legislatures, which draw electoral boundaries, carve out districts so that one party or the other is virtually certain to win, that these days it is said that elected officials are the ones who choose their voters as much as it is the voters…who choose their officials.”

In Colorado late last year, traditionally strong Democratic districts were partially broken up in order to apportion more Democrat voters into formerly-safe Republican districts.  Here’s a summary of the battle.  Although the general consensus is that the Democrats benefited the most from these new district boundaries, it must be acknowledged that their stranglehold on control of CO-1 (Denver) and CO-2 (Boulder) has been relaxed somewhat.  Time will tell whether this was a safe risk for the Democrats to take.  My point is that for every clever new boundary line drawn, there is some previous advantage that had to be traded off.  And those tradeoffs may not always turn out to be a good bet.  Click here and here to read more about the potential for backfires.

If you’re not convinced yet, take a look at this fascinating 2005 paper by Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz entitled Don’t Blame Redistricting for Uncompetitive Elections, to see his research about redistricting and its effect on political polarization.

Cherry-picked statistics:

Here’s the example of the negative effects of manipulative gerrymandering used by Friedman and Mandelbaum:

“The state of California provides a vivid example.  The state has fifty-three congressional districts.  In the four elections between 2004 and 2010 – a total of 212 electoral contests – only one district shifted from one party to the other.”

 “Vivid” was an interesting choice of words – in this case it really meant “untypical,” as you’ll now see.

Last weekend my lovely wife and I compiled the full set of nationwide statistics about Congressional Districts (CDs) changing hands, in 17 bi-annual elections all the way back to Carter’s midterm election.  Each row in the chart to the right is a CD, grouped by state. Each column is an election year.  Each orange dot is a change of party control.  The blue-shaded box is California during the 4 elections used as the “vivid example” by the clever authors.

True enough, there really is only one orange dot out of 212 contests (0.47%) in that blue box.  But if they’d gone back just one more election, there were 14 additional orange dots because more than 25% of California’s CDs changed hands in the 2002 election.  The overall percentage would have been 5.7% (15 out of 265 contests).  2002 was obviously not included by the authors because the resulting statistics wouldn’t have so “vividly” supported their assertions.

Further, looking nationwide in those same 4 elections, there were 152 changes – or 3.5%.  That’s 7 times more than the “vivid” California example.

THAT’S cherry-picking, folks.  Do you feel the hook in your mouth?

Unsupported assertion used as a key point:

Ever hear somebody assert that they know with certainty what some group of people is thinking, or what their motives are?  Without some psychic proof, or some research or polling data, how can one person really claim to know what’s in another person’s head or heart?  Here’s the example of uncanny psychic insight that I spotted from Part 1:

“Because the voters in primaries generally must be registered members of the party, and because the ones who vote in primaries tend to be the most ideologically committed members of the party, candidates nearer  the extremes of the political spectrum tend to do better in primaries than those positioned closer to the center.”

Let’s think about the unsupported assertion sandwiched in the middle of that sentence.  I guess superficially it seems like an obvious truth.  But what is meant by “ideologically committed?”  I vote in both primaries and the general elections because of my enthusiasm to be involved.  However, I don’t think my enthusiasm necessarily causes me to vote for a more extreme candidate.  But so what…I realize my opinion of my own motives means zilch to you.

So I looked for documented research in this area, and lo & behold I found yet another paper by Alan Abramowitz from 2008 entitled Don’t Blame Primary Voters for Polarization.  His research finds no actual evidence to support the theory that primary voters are more extreme than general election voters.  He does observe that voters’ views have become quite polarized, but he finds that pattern in both primary and general elections.

Dramatic quote by famous politician, possibly out of context:

Lastly we come to the quote from Evan Bayh that provides the authors’ grand finale:

“In this way, moderate voters elect extreme candidates:  The political system does not offer them moderate choices.  It works so that, as former senator Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat who represented a relatively conservative state, Indiana, told us, ‘It’s the people in the middle – the moderates, the independents – who get turned off and drop out, which only accentuates the power of the two extremes.’  ”

This last item is actually the first quirk that raised an eyebrow for me, and here’s why:  Redistricting only affects CD boundaries, from which U.S Representatives are elected.  Senators are elected on a STATEWIDE basis from an electorate that’s unaffected by CD gerrymandering.  So why would the authors be quoting the former Indiana Senator’s disenchantment with the political arena, already well documented, to punctuate their book’s assertions about the negative effects of CD gerrymandering?  It seems like a partially out-of-context quote to me.

·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·

None of this means I think no significant polarization exists in today’s political parties and political dialogue.  To the contrary:  I do think there’s a huge chasm between the unconstrained and constrained visions.  That’s why I updated the Part 1 article to call your attention to the Political Quotient test, so you could go experience the ideological chasm yourself.

As this article is already double my normal length, I will defer a few additional thoughts for a Part 3.

I’ll wrap up Part 2 by saying:  If we want to understand the reasons for our country’s political polarization, I suggest we as political consumers need to learn how to cut through the spin, bogus assertions, cherry-picked statistics, and ambiguous polling results that are thickly ladled on us by the biased media.  We should strive to form our own opinions based on reality, or at least on multiple diverse sources – not on what professional spin-doctors want us to believe.

And don’t forget – one of those hooks dangling in the ocean of ideology is mine.  So keep a discriminating eye on me too.


About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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5 Responses to Swimming in Ideology-infested Waters

  1. BradsDrift says:

    Good research, Jeff! I got to thinking about the California CD example and thought about it in a bit different way than you did…Because the authors are commenting on gerrymandering, I thought that there may have been a redistricting effort in 2002. According to SmartVoter.org (link – http://www.smartvoter.org/2002/11/05/ca/state/whatsnew_redistrict.html) the 2002 Election advice has:

    “You may be in new districts in this election…
    All legislative districts, that is, the State Assembly, State Senate, and Congressional districts, have new boundary lines. This means that you may or may not be in the same district as you were in the last election. Many counties have also redrawn district boundaries.”

    That may explain the apparent cherry picked stats and would be even better in making the author’s point. If the other years that you researched had not gone through redistricting then it looks like it was more competitive…after the 2002 redistricting – not so much.

    The rest of this is just my wonderings from my own opinion. It seems to me the typical political game is to win a debate… provide enough “detail” and “facts” and string them together with some logical argument to win the debate… the audience only remembers the “win”. The unfortunate part for a discerning political consumer is that it seems the candidate in the “game” all are preparing for a debate and not for the long term, so it seems that all twist facts, cherry pick and “lie”. That leaves the frustration of not having a candidate to vote FOR – and only voting AGAINST someone… I am searching for candidates to vote FOR!


    • Thanks Brad. Good comment. You’re right, the 2002 election was based on new districts from the 2000 census. Of the 14 California CDs that changed hands in the 2002 election, seven went from D–>R and seven went from R–>D. Of course there’s no way to know how many CDs would have changed hands without the redistricting that year. So your suggestion is valid that the authors chose not to use the 2002 election for that reason.

      Therefore, let me replace that weakened plank of my case with a new one.

      While control of California’s CDs remained stagnant during the 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections, here’s what happened to the overall composition of the U.S. House of Representatives:

      ( 2002 starting baseline: 205 Dems, 229 Repubs, 1 Other)

      2004: 202 Dems, 231 Repubs, 1 Other (not much change)

      2006: 233 Dems, 198 Repubs (Dems earn 31 seats, take control)

      2008: 256 Dems, 178 Repubs (Dems earn 23 more seats)

      2010: 193 Dems, 242 Repubs (Repubs earn 64 seats, take control)

      2006/2008/2010 were big swings. The 2010 swing was the biggest since 1948. Yet the authors’ “vivid” example tried to paint a picture of stagnation due to uncompetitive districts.

      – Jeff


      • BradsDrift says:

        That is a big swing in 2010! I think of gerrymandering kind of like “home field advantage” in sports. Just ’cause you play at “home” doesn’t mean you will win – it just may be a bit of an advantage. I don’t see any proof from the data that it is THE most important factor…


  2. bullright says:

    Jeff, You did scads of research. Hat tip for that. I’m not sure, but this sounds eerily like something Arlen Spector was suggesting, after he was ousted. And Evan Bayh seemed to have the same view. Spector has quite the chip on his shoulder. We may be more polarized today, but like you, voting in the primary does not necessarily make one an extremist. I also think the way we got a lot of these Rhino types or moderates etc was via primaries. After that there was no chance to change them — one was compelled to support them. So maybe someone has just woken up the other side of the equation. Well, nothing that I’ve really researched like you have here, just my gut reaction. That is worth no more than a guess. And surely other factors like support from the party (establishment) matters too. BTW: I heard a funny comment call on CSPAN. It was an Independent who said he was waiting to see where the crowd goes(across the country) and who people support. He said he would follow the crowd. He repeated it twice. I chuckled, never actually heard someone come out and say that. But their initial analysis, in part 1, sounded reasonable to me at first.


    • Bull,

      The “That Used To Be Us” authors sounded convincing to me at first too, at least in this passage. That’s why I bookmarked it (the old fashioned way, with a gum wrapper stuck in the book) until I could re-read it later.

      I have just finished this series of articles, with Part 3 posted. You might want to check it out.

      – Jeff


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