Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

For a variety of reasons, I do not usually concern myself with politics and heavily political issues. There are some issues in which my opinions are informed by facts and data; in these cases I do not feel the need to proselytize at people who are not as well informed. For example, on the scientific rigor of evolution, whether it is “fact” or “theory,” and whether it should be taught in schools. There are other issues in which I am not very well informed and I do not feel the need to aimlessly postulate policy I know nothing about, nor do I like to simply take other people’s word for it that they are right. For me, this is most prominent on economic issues: I do not know how the existence of labor unions, or higher taxes, or whatever, affect productivity in the modern economic environment, I do not trust the vague anecdotal hand-waiving of politicians and journalists, and I do not find economics interesting enough as a field of study to adequately build the knowledge base I would need to feel comfortable. And, of course, there are the multitude of issues that exist in moral grey areas with no objectively correct solution, with contradictory facts and all sides; typically, these issues are so contentious that even an off-hand reference can lead to two people metaphorically banging their heads against a wall trying to out-shout the other. These issues I try to avoid entirely.

That said, there is another even more over-riding concern for me. You may dismiss it as simple cynicism, and you certainly have that right. But the truth remains that I do not believe that the modern American political system is a worthwhile investiture of time, money, attention, or interest. There is not a single political figure that I like, trust, or would support in an election; only an interminable array of phoney frozen smiles, limp hand-shakes, and pandering. Even in the case of those few issues in which I have informed opinions, there is no correct POLITICAL response. The President and the Supreme Court do not particularly care that “the theory of evolution” is a misleading and meaningless phrase, that it is more properly referred to as “neo-Darwinian synthesis,” that the physical evidence is overwhelming, and that various “anti-evolution” groups have well-documented track records of fabrication and fraud; from a political perspective, facts like this are meaningless. From a political perspective, the most important thing is the perception of these facts; or, more accurately, how the government’s projections of public perception of these facts are shaped by polls and voting numbers. Simply the fact that there are people opposed to evolution is proof enough that it is a position worth supporting politically, regardless of the veracity of the position itself.

(To avoid unnecessarily causing offense, this is not an attack on religion. It is an attack specifically on that segment of people that actively aims to promote ignorance by restricting the teaching of scientific theory in public schools. I do not believe that the existence of evolution as a force in the world is inherently at odds with any religion or spirituality, only that knowledge should always be allowed to be promulgated uncensored)

That political expediency takes priority over pure objectivity is no great revelation. It has been a truism for longer than the United States has existed. It is why Barack Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay, it is why Ford pardoned Nixon, why Abraham Lincoln equivocated over the Emancipation Proclamation, why the British Crown levied taxes on the 13 Colonies, and so on and so forth back through history to ancient Rome (contemporary descriptions from the era of the Republic are remarkably similar to current political discourse). It is an inescapable element of trying to control any sufficiently large group of people: there are too many competing interests and only a modicum of freedom to infringe on any one of these.

“Can we just forget about this whole ‘governing the greatest civilization in the world’ thing and go have an orgy somewhere?” -some Roman senator, at some point, probably

Due to the way the American political system is constructed, the primary priority of any candidate is simply re-election. All policy decisions are made with this in mind. If you think that is an exaggeration, look at the degree to which political decisions are factored into disaster relief: the recent tornado in Oklahoma City, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Ostensibly, this should be one of the few issues that transcends petty partisan squabbling and shady deal-making in the Capitol: according to the social contract, the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” is only allowed to exist insofar that this institutionalization provides a more efficient means of protecting the interests and safety of said people. In and of itself, a government has no right or reason to exist – thousands of years of history have simply shown that a central government (and specifically, one with at least some semblance of democracy) is the best tool for doing what was previously held as the purview of tribal chieftains and warlords,

And, yet, you still see townships and districts not receiving money or supplies after natural disasters (especially when they are poor and full of minorities). You still see local governors redrawing district lines in their states to keep people from voting against them, or states passing laws to prevent university students from voting within their borders, and politicians actively obstructing the machinery of their own government out of spite for the president or the opposing political party.

When a political system is so entirely geared towards the apparatus of its own re-election, a candidate or party seeks to optimize its chances of winning. For most of the history of democratic governance, the keys to this optimization have been spending money, disparaging the competition, and making promises to certain demographic groupings. While it seems disingenuous and shady (and it is), in the end it puts the winner of the election (whether it be mayor or president) in debt (either literally or metaphorically) to his or her constituents. That is, the actual beliefs and interests of the politician or his party were largely irrelevant: if they want to keep their job, they have to honor those debts. If they get elected by promising a higher minimum wage and lower taxes, to some degree that is what is going to be implemented. If they do a bad job, or misrepresent a segment of the populace, it tends to be counteracted in another electoral cycle. Now, obviously the devil here is in the details: the system does not, and did not, always operate perfectly, and checks and balances must exist to prevent the “tyranny of the majority” and perversion of the structure.

Generally speaking, though, this system has proven effective for all of its flaws. In the mid-1980s, two different book-length studies looked at the presidents of the 20th century and agreed that, by and large, they fulfilled the vast majority of their campaign promises. Furthermore, due to the strange intricacies of human psychology, “attack ads” and other combative campaign strategies actually force us to pay more attention and be more involved politically.

If you lived in Chicago in 1892, this might make sense. Maybe.

In the modern era, however, politicians have discovered new tools for this optimization. Most central to all of this is statistics. Politicians realize that people tend to vote in terms of limited self-interest: that is, what personally affects them and their family, friends, and community. It is an essential facet of human psychology because our brains at a fundamental level do not see the difference between living in a tribe on the Serengeti 5,000 years ago and watching cable news on your couch in a suburb of Cleveland. The information age has begun to blur the lines, however. We are still only interested in ourselves, family, friends and community: but what, now, constitutes a community? It was not that long ago (and, in fact, in many places it is still the case) that your community never constituted anyone you didn’t personally see or interact with. With televisions and computers beaming constant streams of names and pictures into our homes, our psychological community has risen exponentially. When we see somebody, our brain intuitively assumes we are in their presence – it doesn’t understand the principles of broadcasting.

This causes a process of homogenization. Since we see our politicians, now, on a daily basis, we think of them as part of our community, even if they are 3,000 miles away. This serves to make government concrete and present in our every-day lives. There are a number of positive benefits to this, but it also serves to harden partisanship. You no longer focus on abstract conceptual issues of economic theory and social welfare: you see a member of your community, your tribe. And you support any member of your tribe, and know that they are supporting you. The politician knows this and exploits it. They know, statistically, anybody that values certain opinions or watches certain TV networks tends to vote in a particular way. They are turning elections into formulas: “GOOOOOOOOOOLD!” + “No Taxes (or Minorities)” = “vote for Ron Paul”; “Hip artsy posters” + “OH WOW ISN’T TWITTER AWESOME YOU GUYS” = “Obama vote”; etc.

The problem is that the paradigm has not changed. The political system is using their knowledge of demographics and statistics, but applying it to an outdated model. It remains binary: Republican v. Democrat, or Conservative v. Liberal. There is some hand-waiving about independents and moderates and third parties, but it never amounts to much. Each party knows that around 25% of the population is going to vote for each of them, no matter what their policies are (it is simple probability – essentially, if you choose a broad stance, like “war = bad,” there is always going to be a significant chunk of the population that agrees with you, regardless of whether they agree with you on anything else). Neither party cares who it is voting for them, as long as somebody is voting for them; the fact that the parties even have any real distinct ideological platforms is based purely on cultural inertia. In fact, when you actually look at the data, the majority of the American population is moderate, not partisan – they are not polarized based on issues of public policy, but rather polarized in response to the political parties and candidates themselves, which is a very important difference.

Animated gif of American election results from 1960-2004 by proportion of votes for each party. The bluer the county, the more Democratic, the more red the more Republican. If a region is purple, it indicates relatively even voting along party lines. Green indicates a third party. From here

The political system has become a tautology. Republicans are Republicans because they are Republicans, and the same is true for Democrats. Their model of reality implicitly assumes that their party must exist the way it already does. To put it another way: politicians are interested in which voters will support them for what reasons. However, what they are not interested in is how well voters are representing their values. And this is an important distinction. Before the information age, political campaigns were not sophisticated enough to really do anything more than ask people what they want and give it to them. Crude, open to deception and bribery and corruption, but in a properly balanced institutional government quite effective. Now, however, political campaigns say what they want and ask who else wants this, too. The difference between these two approaches is immense.

I’ve already mentioned the tribal way we attach ourselves to political candidates. The way we choose which candidate belongs to our “community” is not very well understood and is immensely complicated and contextual. It varies based on geography, ethnicity, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and the extant political affiliations of parents, friends, teachers, and others. It also varies based on the politicians appearance and charisma. This is the type of information politicians use in their elections. Since the 2004 presidential election, both parties use voter databases that contain every possible piece of information on every registered voter (GOP Data Center for the Republicans, and VoteBuilder for the Democrats).

They search these databases with algorithms. Who goes to church? Who goes to a church with a Hispanic surname? Who paid X in taxes? Who shops at Whole Foods? They know that there is a correlation between these certain traits and certain voting outcomes, trawl the databases for any piece of personal information that implies a certain lifestyle or persuasion, and bombard the community with phone calls, pamphlets, door-to-door visits, and everything else you can imagine in the lead up to an election. At first glance, you might think that this is a good thing. It might seem that it is not only reaching people who might not otherwise vote and expanding the voter pool, but also allowing for more nuanced and specific evaluations of political priorities. However, in reality it is reinforcing a homogenization of the political system and the hardening of partisan divides. As I said, they are not interested in why people are going to church or eating vegan, only that these lifestyles in the past have correlated with favorable voting outcomes.

But correlation does not imply causation. This may seem like playing semantics, but there is a recent prominent example of how dangerous and deadly this misunderstanding can be. You have probably heard something about the controversy over the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine: even if you are not familiar with MMR specifically, you have undoubtedly heard about parents refusing vaccines because they think their children will develop autism. This belief was based off of a correlation: that is, onset of autism in a small sample of children after being administered the MMR vaccine (in a 1997 study). This sparked a continuing controversy over the vaccine by terrified parents (spurred by Jenny McCarthy among others). However, correlation does not imply causation: every scientific study since performed demonstrate that the vaccines do NOT have ANY links to autism or related disorders. The impact of this misunderstanding was very real and very tragic: without these vaccinations, there have been measles and mumps outbreaks and hundreds of preventable deaths (the exact figures are difficult to pin down, but this site records over one thousand preventable deaths since 2007; the prevalence rates of these diseases as of 2006 were an order of magnitude greater than before the controversy). For reference, before the controversy, there had not been a single fatal case of the disease in almost a decade.

People are capable of complex thought and having multiple interests. There are environmentalists who hunt and oppose gun control. There are fiscal conservatives that are socially liberal. In fact, most people if you ask them to fully describe their beliefs will not fall into any one clean category. This is because, as I mentioned, people vote in terms of limited self-interest. The proof for this is in the huge gap between local and national politics; many states will send Democrats to Congress and Republicans to the gubernatorial chambers, or vice versa. My home state is Rhode Island, one of the most reliably and staunchly blue states in every presidential race, yet has a political scene dominated primarily by Republicans. People, communities, states, and nations are not homogenous entities. Different policies will have different impacts in different places at different levels of governance; however, voting patterns will not reflect these subtleties when the only statistic of interest is the binary probability of a vote for a D versus an R.

Further more, there is a vast array of subtle ways that voting is influenced, completely independent of politics and voter personality, confounding the data. Female politicians have to be attractive to have a chance (per this study), but male politicians are, surprisingly, better off fat (per this). This effect holds true cultural background. However, this isn’t as surprising as studies that show, for example, that voting outcomes are affected by the location of the polling place itself, the outcome of sporting events before voting, whether or not a natural disaster occurred (and, in fact, weather conditions in general), the order the candidates’ names are listed on the ballot, or the balance and function of certain neurotransmitters in your brain.

I, for one, always vote for the lizard people.

The end effect of this is that voters fail to accurately reflect their self-interest. Studies have been done that show how easy it is to trick people into voting against their own self-interest and how imprecise and “noisy” the measures used by voting databases truly are (e.g.this, this, this, and this; if you want something discussing the issue that isn’t so dry and academic, look for more news stories like this). Essentially, when you actually try to find a relationship between the values a particular individual finds important and their voting patterns with regards to the major political parties, it is often completely random – that is, voting is not predictive or indicative. The political apparatus is working backwards – they are looking at voting patterns and trying to tease out of that data what the voters want, then telling them that is what they want, and that if they vote a particular way they will get what they want. This reinforces the tautological nature of our system.

This is because voting has become a social function, not a logical or intellectual exercise. Humans evaluate voting as a descriptor of relative social status and standing as opposed to a referendum on belief. Political campaigns have become carnivals or sideshows. When a politician gives a speech, they never speak of facts or objective truths, they appeal broadly to emotions and vague notions of morality. The legislature has become a theater of the absurd where it isn’t at all considered strange, inappropriate, counterproductive, or borderline treasonous for a man to read out of a phone book to deliberately prevent his government from banning racial segregation (yes, I’m talking about you, Strom Thurmond, you miserable bastard). And, yes, that was 56 years ago, yet filibusters are still considered to be legitimate and legal and neither party has made any effort to put a stop to them (already this year Rand Paul of Kentucky has filibustered twice, once for almost 13 hours).

Now, for a second, forget entirely about politics and think about a different scenario entirely. Think about when you log into Facebook, or your e-mail, and see all those targeted advertisements that pop up these days. The ones that are based off of search algorithms that look through your virtual history and make implicit assumptions about what you want, what you are interested in, and who you are and shove them into your face in perpetuity. How often do these advertisements truly reflect you as a human being, intellectual and morally? If you are anything like me, about 75% of the time they are nonsense, and the rest of the time they are vaguely connected to something you remember searching for or asking about. This is exactly how the political system now operates; this is exactly the type of algorithm those voter databases use to determine your political position. And remember the way ads work: they don’t care if you think the ad is annoying or stupid, all they care about is that you are aware of it. In the minds of advertisers, awareness is the crucial ingredient; simply being aware of a product will make you more likely to buy it, subconsciously. Think about the brands you pick up when you are shopping: how many are not ones you have seen advertised? Advertisers understand certain aspects of human psychology that they can exploit to get you to spend money in certain ways to their benefit, without actually providing you with a superior product or at all taking into account your real interests. This is exactly what the political system has turned into, with voting as the currency.

Neither the politicians, nor the advertisers, actually understand who you are, what you want, or why you do what you do. They only understand the formula that gets you to spend money for them or vote for them. Don’t fall for it.

(In case you are curious about the title of this article, it comes from a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”)

One response to “Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

  1. “OH WOW ISN’T TWITTER AWESOME YOU GUYS” sounds like something Cartman would say.

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