American Politics Explained

Reposted from December of 2011 because I think it sums up what just happened on November 6:

We spend a lot of time here and in the arena of politics trying to define each other and to tag people with this or that label. I wrote a post at my old TownHall blog called Words Matter. Definitions are Important, so I do understand the definitional need in a problem solving exercise; however, I also understand root cause analysis and that we must reduce problems and issues to the least common denominator to be able to resolve them.

I appreciate the analysis work done here and there is little that I can find to argue with but in the end, what does it get us that we know, with a degree of precision, the differences between a classical liberal, a libertarian, a conservative, a “progressive”, a socialist, a Marxist or a communist? They are all nothing but labels, descriptions of belief systems and behaviors. Rarely do you find a person who exhibits every single trait of any label, every single minute of the day in every single situation. If you do, they are usually rigid and inflexible and not much fun to be around.

While knowing and naming a political belief does imply some understanding of behavior, it doesn’t change that behavior, nor is it an exacting predictor of future reactions – people change as to perspectives based on new facts and conditions. What works today may not work tomorrow. The ability of the human intellect to adjust to changing situations and environments is the key factor to making us the top of the food chain…and it is what will keep us there.

For me the basics of the equation break down to two things:

  • People
  • Power

It really is as simple as that. How power is exerted over people and their reactions to it establish the basis for all human interaction, both at a personal and an organizational level.

People

While helpful in explaining positions, we are spending a lot of time counting hairs on a gnat’s butt when we really only need to know how many gnats there are flying about. Our analysis is interesting on a political science/political metrics level but for practical purposes, there really are basically three types of people that matter in electoral politics:

  • The Freebirds (with all due credit to Lynyrd Skynyrd): Independent, self-directed, self-confident and comfortable being that way. These are the entrepreneurs, the successful business people and the folks who climb the corporate ladder. Even within the corporate structure, these are the people who make supervisor, middle manager and department head. These are the folks who have their own yard service companies, plumbing companies, run their own consulting companies, etc. They leave it all on the field every day, they take risks. They are the solitary wasps with fast wings and big stingers.
  • The Moderates: these are the people who favor security over advancement, stability over change, fear success to some extent, need validation from other people, more comfortable as part of a group than out front. These are the people who believe that getting involved is a bad thing, that they tallest blade of grass gets cut first. They are the drones, comfortable to work in the hive. They are not necessarily the least educated, they may well be highly educated, went to the “right” schools – for some reason they just lack the drive, the motivation or the desire to do what it takes to excel, to stand out. These are the 9 to 5’ers that put in their 8, bitch about what an idiot their supervisor is – but never do anything about it – and go home.
  • The Collectivists: these are the people who think that the world is inherently unfair, that the world belongs to everybody equally, that there is no such thing as private property and that our only purpose on earth is to work for the glory of the collective. The only reason that everybody doesn’t believe like they do is that the Freebirds are too busy succeeding through greed and the Moderates just don’t appreciate their brilliance – and because of that, people must be controlled, ground to a pulp by the system so that every person can be re-cast into a mold where all are exactly the same size, shape, color and weight. Equality means that we are all alike, even if we have to be forced to be so. To these folks, life is about envy, conformity and compliance  – except for them, of course (think TurboTax Timmy, Maxine Waters, Chris Dodd, Charlie Rangel). I mean somebody has to direct the collective, right? And it should be the smart ones, correct?  Yeah, right. Queen bees…all of them.

The truth is that the Central Limit Theorem applies. The CLT is defined as this:

In probability theory, the central limit theorem (CLT) states conditions under which the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent random variables, each with finite mean and variance, will be approximately normally distributed. The central limit theorem has a number of variants. In its common form, the random variables must be identically distributed. In variants, convergence of the mean to the normal distribution also occurs for non-identical distributions, given that they comply with conditions.

In other words, in a population of people with different beliefs, there will be a tendency for most of the people to be located close to the middle and the distribution of those beliefs will be symmetrical about that mean. As we move farther away from that mean, fewer and fewer people will exhibit singular beliefs and the curve will look like a bell, ergo, the “bell curve”.

The Bell Curve (Normal Distribution)

If you follow the logic, the Freebirds are going to make up the curve above the one standard deviation mark, accounting for roughly 15.9% of the population, the Collectivists on the left – also at 15.9% and the Moderates in the middle at 68.2%.

Power

Power enters the picture when the Freebirds and the Collectivists go to war to get a majority of the Moderates to come over to their respective sides. Power is all about influence. That’s all it is. The Freebirds want everybody who wants what they have to be able to work to have it, the Collectivists want everybody to have what the Freebirds have by taking it from them and giving everybody a share. They also want to harness the Freebirds to the plow to keep the manna from Heaven flowing. They have no interest in how the manna is created, they just want fealty from the Moderates for taking it from the Freebirds and giving it to the Moderates.

In our system, power is obtained and exercised on the field of politics.

The fact of the matter is that the Freebirds and the Collectivists think about politics and power all the time. They do so because they understand that the absence or presence of political power establishes the futures of them and those of the Moderates. We try to skew the distribution to one side or the other, negatively or positively, in order to pick off enough votes to win elections.

Skewed Distributions

Moderates get interested every 4 years or so and usually vote based on 1) promises of policies that allow them to sit back in there recliners and watch TV and fit their “I don’t want to get involved except to bitch” philosophy, 2) fear of the other candidate taking away the largess that they already enjoy – or at least participate in and/or 3) feel so disconnected that they don’t vote, that their vote doesn’t count, that they can’t possibly have any impact. This “moderate” segment – 68.2% of the population, the ± 1 standard deviation (± 1 sigma), contains the bulk of the eligible but non-voting public. There are those in the tails of the curve that don’t vote out of principle but by mathematical definition, these make up a very small percentage of the overall population.

Winning Elections

There is a reason that the CLT describes this particular distribution as “normal” – it is because that “normality” is a statistical reality. As with our postulations on the economy, this curve also can be skewed by outside forces but will always snap back to its approximation of a symmetrical bell shape. This is a statistical fact, so when the electoral forces are applied to skew the curve for election day are removed, it snaps back, the culture goes right back to where it was. The key to winning elections on a consistent and long term basis is to shift the mean, not to change the shape of the curve but to move the entire curve to the right or the left to establish a “new’ normal.

But moving the mean quickly in a culture or a society is very, very difficult (even the term “quickly” is slow because it implies several national election cycles – 12 years or more). Rapid change typically takes a crisis of national significance that can be defined as the responsibility of one side or the other. Examples of this kind long term shift have typically been things like WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These were easy for the Moderate middle to define, there were clear positions on either side but even then, things like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can generate a shift immediately. Change in the mean typically happens over longer terms as cultures and societies rationalize their world and  begin to accept the changes as the status quo. The Iraq war is a prime example of how persistent hammering by the left combined with the fact that the Moderates do not like difficult and dirty situations and tire easily can shift the curve. The Collectivists have been able to move the mood of the country back to where it was before 9/11 – they had to because they couldn’t afford for Americans to be proud, to win, to see what it is like to lead because those feelings breed independence and that is antithetical to the Collectivist’s lifeblood…dependency.

Winning in the Short Term

As stated, the Freebirds and the Collectivists try to influence the Moderates to one side or the other. Why, then does it seem that the political right seems to have such a difficult time in skewing the curve in their favor and the Collectivists a somewhat easier time?

The answer is rooted in power.

There are those who subscribe to the conspiratorial view that there is a de facto one party rule built on a conspiracy to control the country. There is evidence to indicate that when it comes to survival, the political class is amorphous and apolitical, only focused on perpetuating itself. There is no doubt that this is the case. The political class will put its own survival over the good of the people every time but in point of fact, correlation is not causation. Evidence of self-preservation is not necessarily evidence of a “one world government”.

What it is evidence of are the human impulses that come with the vestiges and trappings of power, the feelings of importance, superiority, of being indispensable, of doing “good”, of having and utilizing influence, the ability to change the lives of citizens…and the desire to keep taking the drug of power. As anyone knows who has ever exercised the minimal level of power, it is very addictive.

Abraham Lincoln said:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Power provides a platform for enticements, for gifting largess to groups that support a particular belief or position. These groups clearly seek to purchase influence and the members of our political class are only too willing to oblige. Most of our political class fail Lincoln’s test miserably but that is the manner in which we have incentivized the political system, we buy and sell influence with taxpayer dollars.

This all adds up to an advantage to the Collectivists in both skewing the curves and in shifting the mean and the entire distribution to the left.  The promises that they make are those that the Moderates like to hear:

  • Let someone else worry about the dirty parts of governance for you – you really don’t want or need to get involved. We can take care of that nasty business for you.
  • There’s a program for that! We can give your communities money for fun stuff that you like – bike paths, parks, subsidized construction projects…
  • We care about you. Let us plan for your retirement.
  • We LOVE you. Let us level the playing field for you. You don’t have to make and extra effort to succeed, let us guarantee that by “soaking the rich” and penalizing those who have more than you do.
  • Don’t take risks – we got your back. Of course, you will never get the brass ring but you will get to ride the carousel and you won’t fall of the horsie…we promise. That guy with the big house down the street, he only has that because you don’t – never mind that every day all of his money and property are at risk because he used them to finance his business and you have no savings and no business to worry about – but he shouldn’t be doing well when you aren’t – let us take care of it for you. I mean, it is only fair, right?
  • We LOVE LOVE you. Let us be your safety net. You really don’t want to stand out, you just want the warmth and comfort that a big hug from the arms of the collective can give you. There is safety in numbers…but don’t try to be different because that would be unfair to the others in the collective.

What do the Freebirds have to offer to the Moderates? Things that scare the Hell out of them  or that they are simply are uncomfortable with, like:

  • Freedom
  • Self-determination
  • Independence
  • Opportunity
  • Challenge
  • Self-governance
  • Liberty

What to all the above have in common?

  • Risk
  • Uncertainty
  • A requirement to be active, to do something, to get engaged and be involved

Most of the Moderates are very uncomfortable with these and have a hard time seeing where they benefit from what to them are amorphous concepts versus the cash in hand promised by the Collectivists. Things like the metaphorical “social safety nets” of Social Security Insurance and unemployment insurance (neither of which are actually insurance programs – they are both wealth transfer programs) sound good to the Moderates even though they are totally insufficient for what they are designed for. The Freebirds know that these are shell games, Ponzi schemes, the Collectivists do to –the difference is that the Freebirds actually expect them to work or be replaced, the Collectivists know that they are just using them to skew and move the curve. That is why they will never be reformed under a Collectivist government.

Elections are about winning the middle, only the Freebirds and the Collectivists are likely to vote solely based on principle. Given what we know to be true about them, elections are about selling the Moderates on the advantages. In reality, Moderates cast votes for candidates based on the benefit that they represent through their ability to influence and create public policies that benefit them (the Moderates).

Volatile Elections: the Wave of the Future?

Why are contemporary elections so volatile? Why so many recounts, lawsuits and court decisions? If it seems to you that the elections of the recent past seem to be won and lost on razor thin margins, you are right. It sure seems that there are many more elections that are being decided by a very small quantity of votes, many times hundreds of votes out of millions cast.

What has happened is that politics have become significantly more polarized as the right and left ideologies have become more defined, disciplined and hardened in position and instead of a tight distribution illustrating that there are many people who understand and are solid in their beliefs, we have a much flatter distribution indicating that there are many more people unsure of their political leanings or actually hold many beliefs at the same time. As we can see in the curves below, a small amount of skewness in the tall, tight distribution lands many people in one camp or the other – think landslide elections like Reagan versus Mondale. There will be those who argue that Obama’s election was a landslide – but it wasn’t.  Obama beat McCain 52.9% to 45.7% in the popular vote and 365 to 173 in electoral votes; Reagan beat Mondale 58.8% to 40.6% in the popular vote and 525 to 13 in electoral votes. Reagan clearly had an electorate with a tight curve a little movement yielded a massive amount of votes.

You can see that for the the same relative amount of movement of the mean in each chart will yield far fewer votes in (b) than in (a).

Flat vs. Tall Distributions

There just simply aren’t enough people today who know what they believe and are willing to be consistent for us to see great separation in national elections Until there are, we are going to see tight races where every vote counts (that is why prevention of vote fraud is so critical).

Winning in the Long Term

Winning in the long term requires a cultural and societal shift. We have to move the mean, so to speak. Skewing the curve wins in the short term and that has been shown how that works mathematically and how the Collectivists use that to win election. While skewing wins in the short term, the concept of the central limit theorem does have statistical validity and can show how the curves will “snap back” to a normal shape once the external or situational influences are removed.

Understanding these simple concepts show why classical liberals can’t become isolationist voters in the mold of Glenn Beck or Ron Paul (keep in mind that I like both of them but they are trending toward a position that fewer people will agree with them). It sounds and feels great to stand on solely on principle and take a “I’m going to vote my convictions and the rest of the country will just have to catch up to me” position. Maybe it is just me but to believe that is just as arrogant as we believe the Collectivists are.

We also have to realize that when we are in these close knit political camps we are way out past the 2 sigma limits. We are running with the 3.2% of the electorate who share your views or perhaps are even more hardened than we are.

Winning elections isn’t about locking down the Ron Paul vote, that’s already done. It isn’t about bringing the Beck followers into the fold. They aren’t going anywhere. it is about convincing the mushy middle, the Moderate 68.2%, that what we have to offer is better than what the Collectivist Utopia is offering.

This also isn’t about philosophical purity; it isn’t some sort of political penis measuring contest. It is about winning elections and displaying classical liberalism beliefs in governance to show the Moderates how that benefits them. Only then will we move the mean to win long term.

If we want to play the political purity game with a curve as flat as what we see today, we will lose. We will not only lose but do so badly and with great frequency.

Right or wrong, that’s my take.

What say ye?

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13 thoughts on “American Politics Explained

  1. I initially wrote an essay in reply, but I deleted it in favor of asking how you propose to do this:

    “Winning elections isn’t about locking down the Ron Paul vote, that’s already done. It isn’t about bringing the Beck followers into the fold. They aren’t going anywhere. it is about convincing the mushy middle, the Moderate 68.2%, that what we have to offer is better than what the Collectivist Utopia is offering.”

    When you just admitted those Classic Liberals are:

    We also have to realize that when we are in these close knit political camps we are way out past the 2 sigma limits. We are running with the 3.2% of the electorate who share your views or perhaps are even more hardened than we are.

    Or are you now telling me it is a tenant of the Classic Liberal to impose liberty through the force of government?

    • If I were able to edit the comment above, I would have bolded the lines about classic liberalism and the 3.2%. I believe your mistake is in assuming you stand with a larger group than you do. You can either be a “conservative” or a “classic liberal,” but you cannot be both. Hence the need to understand what they mean and – IN GENERAL TERMS – what they believe (and why).

      The conservative has no issue with using government force to achieve it’s goals.

      The classic liberal can never countenance the imposition of his belief upon another.

  2. “There are those who subscribe to the conspiratorial view that there is a de facto one party rule built on a conspiracy to control the country. There is evidence to indicate that when it comes to survival, the political class is amorphous and apolitical, only focused on perpetuating itself. There is no doubt that this is the case. The political class will put its own survival over the good of the people every time but in point of fact, correlation is not causation. Evidence of self-preservation is not necessarily evidence of a “one world government”.

    No, it isn’t, but the graph of political trending over the last 40+ years IS! If the left/right paradigm you describe were reality, that graph would show an oscillation. It doesn’t.

    Now, rather than attack an ally, I’ll simply ask you to explain this objective evidence to me in terms of the model you just described. I’m a rational being, and I just can’t see how actual observation supports your model (any more than actual evidence supports Darwin’s theory of evolution).

    Please understand, M, I am being sincere in my questioning. I understand your objection to Quigley. But I also understand his model accounts for actual observation (it’s descriptive) while also predicting future events (it’s predictive). Your model is essentially the same thing Limbaugh has been preaching for more than 2 decades, and it is neither descriptive nor predictive, it just appears to be. So, from the pure position of reason, how do you manage to justify this apparent contradiction? If you would explain that, it might help move closer to your position.

    • I’ll have Part II up in the next 48 hours called “The Politics of Mean: How We Shift the Curve” that will answer most, if not all of your questions – keep in mind that this is only my opinion based on my observations…I’m no political expert.

      As far as Quigs, I don’t disagree that what he claims about the “one party rule” is true, we just differ on how we got here. Where he sees a vast conspiracy, I see a bunch of buffoons legislating in their own personal interests without any rhyme or reason other than self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.

      Sort of a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters eventually cranking out the works of Shakespeare thing.
      monkeys

      If it was simply a conspiracy, it could be discovered and broken but what we have today is asymmetrical idiocy on parade.

      • “If it was simply a conspiracy, it could be discovered and broken but what we have today is asymmetrical idiocy on parade.”

        I know you must have missed this in your attempt to answer my question, but the negation of your assertion here is painfully obvious. In three words: “Tragedy and Hope.”

        I have a philosophical objection to your monkey analogy: if the objective observations and empirical data all indicate a steady and sustained trend in one direction, how does one ascribe that to the effect of random actions?

        If a “conservative” politician were to fear for his/her position, wouldn’t your paradigm argue they would run harder right, toward the people who elected them? yet they continuously run left. However, if they run left to the middle you describe, then how do they A – become identified as “principled” (a necessity to be declared classic liberal) and B- how do they ever get elected? Finally, if what you say is true, then why bother with the political approach: all is lost now that politicians buy votes through the public coffers. Your reasoning would seem to leave you with only two choices: surrender or revolution.

  3. I can’t discount Paul. Obama was on the fringe of the bell curve and he’s now the president.
    Still wondering about Cain…… if his name is on the ballot, we can still vote for him. Wasted vote? Could be, but in my humble opinion, anyone will beat Obama.
    Nice article, M.

    • I even have charts…and math…and theorems! How can you argue with theorems?

      My son sent me a picture of a tee shirt that said: “Math, I’m not a therapist. Go solve your own problems.”

  4. But do you have logarithms?

    I need your son’s shirt. Math teachers were always attempting to strangle me for some unknown and perplexing reason……..except that math teacher at my son’s dance :)

  5. Utah said of Quigley:
    “Where he sees a vast conspiracy, I see a bunch of buffoons legislating in their own personal interests without any rhyme or reason other than self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.”

    I could not agree more on this point. Of course, that may not be a totally bad thing, as we are (Still) the greatest nation on Earth.
    But maybe it’s time to take stock, and figure out how to encourage thinking beyond the short term. How can we reward politicians for NOT bringing money to their district? That, as has been said, is the rub.

  6. Utah,

    As evidenced above, we clashed over this post the first time you put it up. I am wondering, do you still stand by this?

    If we want to play the political purity game with a curve as flat as what we see today, we will lose. We will not only lose but do so badly and with great frequency.

    Right or wrong, that’s my take.

    What say ye?

    If so, might I inquire as to whether or not you have given any consideration to the possibility that the flat curve you mentioned is due to the fact that no one holds to anything that can be called ideologically pure? I believe you’ll understand when I say that I believe the flat line is a result of post modernism being accepted by the majority of society: if everyone’s opinion is equal, then the line is going to be flat. That only leaves one way to win: promise more to the FSA than the other guy.

    Now, if the goal is to simply win, then I suppose that’s fine: promise 2 times more than Obama and you’ll get elected — but you will be the person you and I claim to oppose. So what does that get you if you gain the world but sell your soul in the process? I’m not interested in rehashing this argument. I just don’t see how political pandering solves the problems. All it can do is push BOTH Parties ever further to the Left, and the edge of the cliff lies in that direction.

    Also, just out of curiosity, have you read this yet?

    A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

    It provides a different perspective on the political divide that actually incorporates the blending of Left and Right, Democrat and Republican labeling.

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