Strategic Voting and Election Season Polls

I am linking to a paper of mine (‘Knowledge-Theoretic Properties of Strategic Voting’, co-authored with Eric Pacuit and Rohit Parikh) of possible relevance in the context of the just-decided elections and the importance of election season polling. Here is the abstract. (I am traveling and so unable to write a longer comment at this time).

Results in social choice theory such as the Arrow and Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorems constrain the existence of rational collective decision making procedures in groups of agents. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem says that no voting procedure is strategy-proof. That is, there will always be situations in which it is in a voter’s interest to misrepresent its true preferences i.e., vote strategically. We present some properties of strategic voting and then examine – via a bimodal logic utilizing epistemic and strategizing modalities – the knowledge-theoretic properties of voting situations and note that unless the voter knows that it should vote strategically, and how, i.e., knows what the other voters’ preferences are and which alternate preference P′ it should use, the voter will not strategize. Our results suggest that opinion polls in election situations effectively serve as the first n–1 stages in an n stage election.

This is a technical paper and so unlikely to be readable to plenty of folks so I will try to provide a quick summary and discussion next week. The last sentence of the abstract though, should give you some indication of what its implications are and why they should be of interest to voters, politicians and pollsters alike.

A Nation in Identity Crisis?

Just for kicks, I thought it might be interesting, on the day after the 2012 election, to think of the US as a nation undergoing an adolescent identity crisis. I do this in response to some post-election commentary that seems to suggest the demographic shift in the US has engendered one, forcing political parties across the land to respond before their next loss in a national election.

What do we know about identity crises? Well, here are some thoughts from Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase. They sound  especially interesting when the ‘youth’ in question is a nation, and in this case, one with a very particular opinion of itself and its history:

I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be. This sounds dangerously like common sense; like all health, however, it is a matter of course only to those who possess it, and appears as a most complex achievement to those who have tasted its absence. Only in ill health does one realize the intricacy of the body; and only in a crisis, individual or historical, does it become obvious what a sensitive combination of interrelated factors the human personality is a combination of capacities created in the distant past and of opportunities divined in the present; a combination of totally unconscious preconditions developed in individual growth and of social conditions created and recreated in the precarious interplay of generations. In some young people, in some classes, at some periods in history, this crisis will be minimal; in other people, classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” apt to be aggravated either by widespread neuroticisms or by pervasive ideological unrest. Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art. Still others, although suffering and deviating dangerously through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life: the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct, in new ways.

For what it’s worth, I do not think this election, or even the one before it, have triggered anything like an identity crisis. This is not because the US cannot be termed ‘adolescent’; rather, it is because these elections do not seem have induced as fundamental a rupture as indicated above.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962

Tales of Three Morning Afters

The 2004 Presidential election was my first. I had not voted in the 2000 election because my naturalization came a few weeks too late for me to participate; I had observed the election itself from afar, in Brazil, and watched, amazed by the Supreme Court’s intervention, as the final, lame denouement came about. In 2004, I was cautiously optimistic, hoping that somehow, John Kerry would pull it off. He didn’t; Kerry was never a particularly effective candidate and US voters too, remained bizarrely trusting of the spectacularly mendacious and incompetent erstwhile inhabitant of the White House. I went to a election-result-watching get-together at a friend’s place, ordered Chinese food, and sat down, chopsticks and food cartons at hand, to watch the news. Not too long before midnight, it had become clear Bush was headed for a second term. I left, walking a long, cold walk back home, passing a traffic light that could have looked like a surfer’s greeting but, amazingly enough, that night, looked like it was giving me the bird. The next morning, when I awoke to read of four more years for George Bush, I felt a little sick. I felt guilty too, that my ignoring the Kerry’s campaign’s calls for donations, for help with getting out the vote by phone-banking or door-to-door knocking had somehow contributed to the loss. I couldn’t console myself my inactivity had nothing to do with it.

Four years later, my reactions were very different. I felt I had to contribute somehow–financially or with my time–to blocking any possibility of an extension of the idiocy that had ruled the White House for eight years. The memory of that November 2004 morning was still too strong. I worried I might wake up the day after, convinced I had enabled a John McCain-Sarah Palin White House. I did my bit–sent in money, knocked on doors etc–and after election night, awoke feeling much better than I had four years before.

This election season, I didn’t contribute money to the Obama campaign and I didn’t participate in voter turnout. I did though, fear the same outcomes as I had worried about in the previous two elections. The dissonance in my beliefs about the political monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, my hopes for a third-party alternative, and my disappointment with Obama’s first four years, had by the end of the evening crystallized into a fairly simple desire: that Obama win, that though no matter how Tweedledum and Tweedledee I considered the two parties, I knew one of the two possible outcomes would upset me much, much more. So by the end of the night, I cheered for an Obama victory and when I went to bed, I did so knowing I would not wake up with a repeat of the 2004 hangover.

Obama’s victory is cause for relief, not exultation. Substantive progressive legislation still looks doubtful because, well, there is a Republican Party and a Democratic Party to deal with. And besides, there’s Obama himself, and the question of how he wants to run his second term. In the end, I’m sobered by the fact that fifty million Americans found an incoherent platform good enough to vote for, the election was as close as it was, and that so much political change still remains necessary.

Quick, I See Political Furore, Pass Me the ‘Healing Balm’

Kevin M. Kruse‘s Op-Ed in today’s New York Times opens thus:

Steven Spielberg, whose “Lincoln” biopic opens Friday, recently said he hoped the film would have a “soothing or even healing effect” on a nation exhausted after yet another bitter and polarizing election. [link in original]

I have heard that line, or variants of it before. Many times. Nothing quite animates some folks in the political domain like the urge to be balm-appliers, all the while muttering an ostensibly soothing refrain, much like one might calm down a crying or upset child: there, there, it’ll be better, chill out, take a seat; stop getting so worked up. What seems to happen all too frequently, somehow, is that a nation in which political activism, dissent and disruption–outside the froth, fuming, grandstanding and obstruction on Capitol Hill–is generally imperceptible and only rises to interesting levels in relatively confined pockets–as in the 2011 Wisconsin protests–is all too frequently described as being ‘exhausted’, ‘worn out’ by too much politics.

I have news for Spielberg. If the ‘nation’ is ‘exhausted’, it is made so by content-free political discourse, by inane political commentary, by non-stop vapidity on television, which mistakes analysis for entertainment and force-feeds the polity a warmed-over  mix of political pablum. This is not a nation worn out by politics; it is worn out by an absence of politics, by the constant attempts to make politics and its daily intersections with our lived lives invisible. It is worn out by being fed too much of the tranquilizing, lassitude-inducing fluff that Spielberg and his ilk would have us consume on a daily basis. All so that we can have our attention diverted from what goes on outside our windows. (These so-called ‘bitter and polarizing elections’ have, as yet, not resulted in any substantial change in the political cartel of the Republican and Democratic Parties, which continue to take turns sharing the reins.)

As I noted in my post on Sunday, it is all too common for a curious mule-breed class of politicians and media folks to harp on how the nation must get back to calm acceptance of the status quo. Nothing quite animates this class to issue its warnings–as it did, breathlessly and  frenetically, in the aftermath of the 2000 election–like the possibility that political fluff like presidential electioneering might actually spark a closer look beneath the hood, that  a volatile, street-home-school-workplace level of political organizing and activity might somehow be sustained. But that would mean a disruption. Hence, a need for medication, for balms for the irritated, and Cassandra-like warnings about the evils of instability and of a nation ‘at odds with itself’, of too much ‘bitterness’. The language of ‘soothing’ or ‘healing’ is not accidental: we soothe the agitated back to inertia, we heal the wound that might fester or spread its infection.

The cure for this ‘exhaustion’ is not too curious: a movie about a venerated figure from the past. The frame thus is set. Disputation is to be replaced: perhaps by common adoration, perhaps by a familiar hagiography directed at ‘our ancestors’.  Better to return to quiet, adoring contemplation, the holy scriptures in hand: Behold the Great Constitution; Behold the Fathers of the Nation; fall on your knees, you chattering, talkative, irritable, querulous ones.

We are healed.

Election Fiascos: Unlikely, and Unlikely to Provoke Serious Protest

John Heilemann at New York Magazine suggests four ways in which the election on Tuesday, November 6, could be headed for a nightmare of narrow ‘illegitimate’ wins or deadlocks. I don’t think any of these apocalypses are likely. They are based on the assumption that the election outcomes talked about will result in widespread protests. In doing so, they reveal a common misunderstanding of American political life: that it features so much partisan wrangling, so much political disputation that a narrow or ‘illegitimate’ election will plunge the nation into crisis. Au contraire, political life in the US is more quiet quiescence, more calm acceptance of political shenanigans than anything else. As you read below, remember that the 2000 election handover to George W. Bush, engineered by the US Supreme Court, could have sparked similar protests but any chance of that was shouted down by both parties, eager to get back to business as usual.

Here are Heilemann’s scenarios.

1. The Romney Squeaker Scenario

[I]t’s perfectly possible for Romney to end up with a bit north of 50 percent of the popular vote. Then proceed to the electoral vote, where the GOP nominee has always faced a difficult path to 270. But imagine that Romney achieves the first step of carrying the three southern swing states—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia—which he may well do. And then either (a) takes Ohio plus Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin; or (b) falls short in Ohio but wins both Colorado and Wisconsin as well as Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada; or (c) conquers Colorado or Wisconsin plus all three of the smaller swing states. In any of these eventualities, Romney would win the White House with 271 to 276 electoral votes. This would amount to the narrowest possible victory—and one that would all but certainly provoke the left into a howling fit.

My call: unlikely to happen. Not the squeaker itself but the ‘howling fit’ part. A little huffing and puffing, and then, back to the usual programming.

2. The Reverse Gore Scenario

[I]t’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which Romney wins the popular vote narrowly, as Gore did then—but Obama winds up playing the role of Bush….Obama’s national popular-vote weakness is to no small extent a result of his staggering weakness in the South and Appalachia, where he trails Romney in many states by 20 or 30 points—far more than his advantage in the deep-blue West and Northeast…despite the tightness of the race nationally, the margins of advantage he holds with Latinos, African-Americans, young voters, and college-educated white women, and their concentrations in the battleground states, are what gives him many more routes to 270 than Romney has. How would the right react to seeing Obama reclaim the presidency after he lost the popular vote? In much the same way the left would respond to scenario No. 1: with wailing, gnashing, and a dudgeon so high that if you reached the top of it, you’d be able to touch Pluto.

Again: unlikely. Would the opposition that Obama would face be any worse than he already has in the past four years?

3. The Recount (or Recounts) Scenario

This campaign has already featured extended legal wrangling in several states over those voter-I.D. laws—which means both sides have litigation-ready boots on the ground and are raring to engage already. Given just how corset-tight the polls are in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida itself, a Florida Redux scenario might be more likely than anyone imagines—and could even, perish the thought, play out in more than one state simultaneously. Remember how bad 2000 was? This would be much worse. And not simply because the level of partisan vitriol heading into the fracas is so much higher, but also because the disruption in terms of governing would be so much greater….in the aftermath of the election, the federal government will be staring into the abyss of the so-called fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the sequester, and another fight over the debt ceiling. Now consider the prospect of two or more months of 2000-style paralysis in the face of that challenge.

What 2000-style paralysis is Heilemann talking about? That business got settled pretty quick. Remember all the calls for putting the election behind us?

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

 Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes….all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire….The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

 To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder.

Indeed, of all the scenarios listed by Heilemann, this strikes me as one that has the makings of a genuine disaster. It would not ‘rend the nation asunder,’ but it would force a closer look at the Constitution, which might be interesting for a while, before everyone decides that it’s better leave it alone. If it were to happen, which according to most polls, seems unlikely.

Bosses Call For Mass Harakiri In Event of Obama Victory

In what some election observers are terming an ‘extreme, possibly misguided–and certainly un-American in its excessive Japaneseness–response’ to the US Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision freeing companies from restrictions on using corporate funds to endorse and campaign for political candidates, several large American employers have called for mass, public harakiri in the event that Barack Obama wins the US presidential election on November 6th.

Major companies–including Fox News, Coors Breweries, and various NASCAR sponsors–have sent detailed letters and information packets to their employees explicitly recommending that employees, as one letter put it, ‘not just off themselves but do it in a way that sends a message to future generations.’ Some employers have rejected criticisms of these letters as ‘unfair and imbalanced.’ A senior executive at Fox News said:

If Barack wins, the economy will crash, new taxes will be levied, our children will be forced into labor camps, we will be forced to grow beards and memorize the Koran. Life as we know it will be over and certainly not worth living anymore. Our employees have a choice between being forced into humiliating subjugation, or doing what a true warrior would do under the circumstances, namely, kill themselves before Death Panels decimate them and their families. We intend to facilitate and encourage such behavior. There is no coercion here.

A letter sent by Fox News to their employees included explicit instructions:

In event of Barack Obama being elected on November 6th, we call on our employees to gather in the company parking lot on the morning of November 7th (Pearl Harbor Day Minus Thirty) and disembowel themselves with stainless steel katana swords supplied by management. We will pair off employees–into samurai and kaishakunin–based on lots drawn by their group managers. After the ‘samurai’ has disemboweled himself, his kaishakunin will carry out the decapitation. The kaishakunins will be dispatched by special Corporate Disposition Matrix Squads. The parking lot will be cleaned up by groups of Hyatt Hotel housekeepers prior to their deportation.

While some employees found the call for mass seppuku ‘a little over the top’ and an ‘over-reaction,’ others were entirely unsurprised. A foreman at Coors Breweries said, ‘They get our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and FourSquare passwords before hiring, make us piss in bottles and take hair samples to test for drugs, scan our emails, search our hard drives, regulate our toilet and meal breaks, tell us what clothes to wear, make us attend–and bring our children to–company picnics, specify when we have to come in to work, when we can leave, and how long we have to work on weekends and national holidays, so it makes eminent sense that they should be able to tell us when our time on this planet is up, when our lives aren’t worth living. A job  is a cradle to grave kind of thing, and the bosses knows best. People who don’t like it always have the option to exit the labor market.’

Gary Johnson, the US Libertarian Party candidate for president, said he was pleased the US government had not attempted to intervene in ‘what is essentially a workplace issue.’

Respecting the President and ‘The Ideology of Kingship’

In reporting on the second presidential debate, Charles Blow writes:

There is a fine line between feistiness and testiness. Romney has never negotiated that line well in debates and last night he fell over it again. At one point he scolded the president — the president of the United States! — “you’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

Regardless of how it may have felt in the hall and how his base may have received his abrasive behavior, to most others watching it was déclassé and indecorous. When you’re challenging a sitting president for his job, you have to respect the office, even if you don’t respect the man.

So Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

This semester the readings for my Political Philosophy class–centered on the French, American and Haitian revolutions–include Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Walzer’s introductory essay includes a section on ‘The Ideology of Kingship.’ More than one student has noticed the parallels between the components of that view of kings and the powers claimed by our modern executive branch of government. They have then gone on to draw uncomfortable parallels between the ‘inviolability’ of the king that arises from such an ideology and the legal immunity claimed by modern-day presidents. (They have noticed too, that a central revolutionary claim was equality before the law, one that seems to have been forgotten in the rush to forgive and forget the war criminals of the previous administration.) The inviolability of the king spoken of in Walzer’s essay might narrowly be interpreted as a a legal one but it easily becomes one of deference too: do not disagree with the king; do not talk back; speak only when spoken to; do not interrupt the king.

Among the other revolutionary documents we have read is Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, which includes the following line:

The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king.

‘Nuff said.