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….”
“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.
“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.
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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.