The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

Proprietary Software And Our Hackable Elections

Bloomberg reports that:

Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported. In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database….the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states

In Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, Scott Dexter and I wrote:

Oversight of elections, considered by many to be the cornerstone of modern representational democracies, is a governmental function; election commissions are responsible for generating ballots; designing, implementing, and maintaining the voting infrastructure; coordinating the voting process; and generally insuring the integrity and transparency of the election. But modern voting technology, specifically that of the computerized electronic voting machine that utilizes closed software, is not inherently in accord with these norms. In elections supported by these machines, a great mystery takes place. A citizen walks into the booth and “casts a vote.” Later, the machine announces the results. The magical transformation from a sequence of votes to an electoral decision is a process obscure to all but the manufacturers of the software. The technical efficiency of the electronic voting process becomes part of a package that includes opacity and the partial relinquishing of citizens’ autonomy.

This “opacity” has always meant that the software used to, quite literally, keep our democracy running has its quality and operational reliability vetted, not by the people, or their chosen representatives, but only by the vendor selling the code to the government. There is no possibility of say, a fleet of ‘white-hat’ hackers–concerned citizens–putting the voting software through its paces, checking for security vulnerabilities and points of failure. The kinds that hostile ‘black-hat’ hackers, working for a foreign entity like, say, Russia, could exploit. These concerns are not new.

Dexter and I continue:

The plethora of problems attributed to the closed nature of electronic voting machines in the 2004 U.S. presidential election illustrates the ramifications of tolerating such an opaque process. For example, 30 percent of the total votes were cast on machines that lacked ballot-based audit trails, making accurate recounts impossible….these machines are vulnerable to security hacks, as they rely in part on obscurity….Analyses of code very similar to that found in these machines reported that the voting system should not be used in elections as it failed to meet even the most minimal of security standards.

There is a fundamental political problem here:

The opaqueness of these machines’ design is a secret compact between governments and manufacturers of electronic voting machines, who alone are privy to the details of the voting process.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is one that calls for greater transparency; the use of free and open source software–which can be copied, modified, shared, distributed by anyone–emerges as an essential requirement for electronic voting machines.

The voting process and its infrastructure should be a public enterprise, run by a non-partisan Electoral Commission with its operational procedures and functioning transparent to the citizenry. Citizens’ forums demand open code in electoral technology…that vendors “provide election officials with access to their source code.” Access to this source code provides the polity an explanation of how voting results are reached, just as publicly available transcripts of congressional sessions illustrate governmental decision-making. The use of FOSS would ensure that, at minimum, technology is held to the same standards of openness.

So long as our voting machines run secret, proprietary software, our electoral process remains hackable–not just by Russian hackers but also by anyone that wishes to subvert the process to help realize their own political ends.

The United Kingdom Sends Political Driving Directions To The US

Democracy’s biggest problem–without exaggeration–is the contempt politicians feel for those who elect them. The electors, the people, the voters; the heart of electoral democracies. One crystalline manifestation of this attitude occurs during those events that are designed to remind us, by their periodic occurrence, that we live in electoral democracies: elections. Then, the people’s opinions are presumed and assumed–under the guise of ‘interpreting’ their ‘responses’ to ‘surveys and ‘polls,’ all infected with their own methodological biases. They are treated as generic entities, their preferences and passions turned into quantitative assessments that terminate in gnomic pronouncements like, ‘Candidate X is unelectable.’  Or, even worse, much worse, the electors’ minds will be read, and similar presumptions and assumptions are made; these are ignorant and ahistorical and made from isolated and insular positions, infected with their ideological biases, and they result in identical assessments: ‘Candidate X can never win; his or her platform is unworkable and out of step.’ Management consultants and political experts rule the roost, while those who actually wield power–if only they knew it–are systematically ignored.

The disastrous consequences of this attitude were only too clearly on display in the 2016 US elections. The Democratic Party ran a disastrous campaign from start to finish; it ran a candidate deeply unpopular with huge swathes of the electorate; it undermined a candidate who had actually brought ‘new blood’ to the party, and embodied the best chance of maintaining and sustaining a voter coalition that had put a black man with a Muslim middle name into the Oval Office in consecutive elections; it refused to believe that a populist platform that actively sought to roll back economic inequality, which had mobilized millions of new voters, was ‘practical’ or ‘viable.’ The Democratic Party paid for its hubris; but even worse, so did we.

Across the pond, the British electorate have just shown the Democratic Party the errors of its ways. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, laid out an uncompromisingly populist, democratic socialist platform; they did not attempt triangulation or limp centrism; they spoke to clearly expressed needs; they, in short, listened to their potential voters, they articulated a clear vision, unapologetically; and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, they succeeded at the ballot box, disrupting a supposedly global triumph of rightwing populism. The Tory Party lives on, as does the Theresa May administration, but only just; a no-confidence vote in their hastily cobbled together coalition with the DUP is almost certain.

The Democratic Party, of course, very closely resembles a death cult these days, obsessed with a relentless drive towards rendering itself both irrelevant and politically extinct; the election for the chair of the DNC revealed this quite clearly, as does its refusal to put the Clintons behind it, and pay attention the clamoring voices of the millions of voters it stands to gain if only it would give them what they want: affordable, single-payer healthcare, housing and education for all, clean drinking water and air, a chance for their children to do better than their parents did before them. It should heed the political driving instructions conveyed to it by the British electorate: stop pulling right, turn left.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.

So:

When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.

But:

As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?

Against Political Speeches, For Political Speech

I’m not sure why I dislike political speeches. By ‘political speeches’ I do not mean ‘political speech’: I am in favor of the latter, the more the better, with some caveats having to do with–among others–Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Rather, by ‘political speeches,’ I mean, quite precisely, speeches given by a politician–a party animal, to be exactingly precise–at some political forum: a post-election rally (for victory or concession), a party convention, a campaign rally; these remain resolutely inaccessible to me, a movie show that I can’t sit through. (This definition, should, I hope, make clear that certain species of political speeches in public fora remain impervious to my criticism.)

Along with this dislike goes indifference to political speech hagiography, the admiring dissection of speeches, which elevates them to the level of rhetorical masterpieces. Consider, for instance, Robert Lehrman on Obama’s victory speech on the night of 6th November, comparing it to the 2008 post-election victory speech:

[T]he 2012 model showed all the strengths that Obama and his speechwriters consistently exhibit, producing the best drafts of any president. He used concrete details and repetition (“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college … You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door…”); antithesis and echoes of John F. Kennedy (“America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together”) and stories that have the ring of truth (“And I saw it just the other day in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…”). You also see flashes of wit (“one dog’s probably enough”), and the skillful use of pause, emphasis and variety of tone that makes public speaking teachers like me use him as a model for students. [link in original]

That last sentence reminds me that perhaps the best thing about a ‘good political speech’ these days is that it might serve as a model for those trying to become better public speakers: high-school or college students aspiring to debate club membership, teachers themselves, budding actors, Toastmasters clubs, interviewees, and so on. But I don’t think they shouldn’t copy or emulate everything they see and hear.

Most prominently, because, like almost anyone disillusioned by political speeches in electoral democracies, I see them as heralds of betrayal and disappointment to follow. They are all too often infected by too many promises, too much insincere wheedling. The political speech, now, in this landscape of relentless electioneering, has come to stand for misleading obfuscation, one that serves to obscure the truly political behind a veil of elegant wordsmithing.  This is not necessarily because the speaker–the party political animal, remember–is extraordinarily mendacious, rather it is because he or she is made to appear as a figurehead that misrepresents the forces that are all too often arrayed against those subjected to the speech.

The speech then, comes to serve as beguiling distraction, and not just rallying cry.

Political Conventions Begone

Cometh the political convention and cometh the dreary return of speculative commentary about their usefulness, their substantiveness, their relevance. Cometh too, the sight of perfectly reasonable, sensible folks tuning in to them, wasting their time in the hope of picking up meaningful political lessons. (I’ve been told that some folks tune in for the comedic value of a convention, but I find that hard to believe. Bad comedy is bad first, and comedy much, much later. In the case of  conventions the ‘later’ comes well after the stage props and candidate busts have been put away.)  Somehow, bizarrely, despite seemingly universal agreement among adults with IQ’s north of 120 that conventions are primarily an occasion for the most graphic demonstration of the utter vapidity of the election season, a reassurance that yes, you were right, you have been relentlessly pounded by vacuity, and there are still a few months to go before the referee will ring the bell and put us all out of our misery, the convention is back as subject of media analysis, political punditry and psephological speculation. (Media folks can perhaps be forgiven their obsession with conventions but what is to be done about all the folks that tune in to listen to their babbling?)

My most prominent response when watching a convention of any sort–I indict Republican and Democratic conventions equally in this regard–is disbelief that any mature adult could not see through the utter silliness of it all. Does the audience, all those shrieking, silly-hat-wearing-flag-waving folks on the floor, really buy it? Of course they do. That’s why they are there. At moments like these, it occurs to me that the only sensible way to watch a convention telecast–if forced to at gunpoint–would be to be riproaringly drunk or under the influence of hallucinogens. (I’m optimistically presuming my tormentors have a decent streak to them and will supply me with these.) The colors might be more palatable and perhaps the visual perspective afforded from my vantage position on the living room rug would make the idiot box’s showcasing of idiocy a little more reasonable.

Perhaps the most dreary trope associated with conventions is that they feature ‘soaring speeches,’ stirring oratorical masterpieces, which catapult the nation’s future leaders into the political spotlight, and portend dramatic political change. What surprises me most about this is the idea that reasonable adults in this day and age could honestly get turned on by a party animal’s speech. I have responded favorably to precisely one convention speech myself: back in 1984, to Mario Cuomo‘s keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Pretty stirring stuff, sure. But I was seventeen then. I’ve grown up. And come to realize that speeches at political conventions appear to fall into two categories: off-the-wall, offensive barrages of falsehoods and posturing (best done by Republicans) and grand, pretentious, faux populist litanies packed with promises soon to be broken (best done by Democrats).

Turn off the television, folks. And don’t switch it on for the Democrats either.

Note: This year, a tropical storm threatened the Republican Convention; it was almost enough to make a believer out of me. You know:

From a distance

God is watching us

And she sure as hell can’t take this crap any more.

Must One Vote for President to Be Political?

I concluded yesterday’s post by saying:

There is a far more fundamental problem…it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities.

I should have been more specific above. I have acquired a profound dislike of presidential elections: the campaigning by candidates, the so-called ‘debates,’ the insincere campaign promises. I consider presidential elections the worst part of American democracy: for the opportunities for pandering and demagoguery they provide, for their choking off of reasoned discourse, and especially in the US, the inordinate amount of time, energy and money they consume. The Republican primaries began last year, or at least, it felt like they did. That’s a full year before the elections. Really, US polity, really? A year-long election season?

I dislike too, the elevation of the presidential election to the center-piece of American democracy–that somehow casting my vote for the president is the most important political act I can commit. This often results in guilt-mongering:  If you don’t vote for a presidential candidate, you’ve committed a grievous abdication of political responsibility. The propagandizing and resource consumption associated with presidential elections is especially insidious; their prioritization cripples a great deal of engagement with the political process; it denudes political activism of energy, purpose and resources by drawing too much attention to itself.

The privileging of these elections has meant all too many US citizens imagine that presidential elections are all there is to their democracy;’ that to participate in their polity, one need only show up once in four years to vote, followed by rapid disengagement. Presidential candidates, like Barack Obama, are guilty of the precise converse; they imagine that having won the election, there is no need anymore to engage with those that brought them to power. A fraction of the passion spent in engaging with the ‘base’ during the election season, had it been deployed during the last few years, might have earned Obama considerably more legislative victories, and not cost him the support of his ‘base.’ (It didn’t help, either, that the option chosen, instead, was denigration of the ‘base.’)

I’ve come to think of the presidential election as the deployment of a vast machinery of systematic obfuscation. The disappointed voter is a cliché now, precisely because he imagined that voting was all there was to it; better to ignore elections and do politics somewhere other than the presidential polling station. The real action lies elsewhere; in local elections where one might, for instance, vote for judges who can rule on important decisions affecting families and groups: divorce or bankruptcy proceedings for example.

A citizen can be political in many ways. I can be political by resisting the policies that my nation’s rulers seek to impose:  sometimes by writing here, sometimes by my daily utterances, sometimes in my teaching, sometimes in the lifestyle I adopt, and in those I encourage. My politics resides in my daily actions, in the many little decisions I make on a daily basis. The political process operates on many levels; it can be poked, prodded, and interacted with via a multiplicity of processes; voting for the president is but one of them.