The Definition of Madness

Why am I getting so irritated with people earnestly posting about eliminating the electoral college, reducing voter suppression, encouraging more mail-in voting, and so on? Or saying that losing is a result only one small variable (Comey’s dumbass meddling, successful voter suppression, etc.)?

I’m irritated because this is the opposite of organizing and fighting on. This is trying to find a simple, good post-facto story that makes us feel better and that services our need to feel as if we are still in charge, still in power and have some simple, useful thing that we can readily do that will change the situation the next time around. But it is the opposite of organizing at a time of extraordinary danger.

When I was still actively playing tennis, one of the people I played with had an interesting verbal tic where he would instantly reinterpret mistakes he made as properties of the physical universe that were affecting his game. If he was getting tired and missing his shots, the ball was “getting heavier”. If he missed his serve, “the lights were flickering”. It was harmless. (It probably tells you something that my inner, mostly unexpressed narrative was about how much I suck, about how stupid I am for not being more in shape, about the idiocy of thinking I could hit that shot like that.)

It is not harmless, on the other hand, if you have a friend who lights a match to see if there’s a gas leak, there’s an explosion that you both fortunately survive, and they say, “There must have been a spark somewhere down the line” and you realize, “This person might light that match again the next time this happens.” At that point, you can’t be patient: you have to say, “Dammit, that was because you lit a match! Don’t fucking do that again, ever!”

You cannot reform the voting system if you’re not in power. That’s basic. You cannot build a campaign that is 100% proof against a James Comey doing something unprofessional or inappropriate. That’s basic. If that’s what “organizing” means to you, you’re just lighting matches to find gas leaks. The precondition to reforming voting is winning elections without having voting reforms. The Republicans understood that back in the 1990s: that having won due to Clinton’s mid-term unpopularity, they could execute a plan that would make the terms of elections more favorable to them. They’ve gotten more desperate and transparent about that over the years, but they never forgot: you only get to to do this when you have a significant legislative majority, executive power, and some judicial support. (They’ve struggled sometimes with the latter.)

If you’re requiring campaigns that win only if they avoid a single misstep, not a single unpredictable tactical move by either an enemy or by an incompetent bureaucrat, that are less horse races than Swiss-built watches, you’re lighting matches to find gas leaks. You cannot have short, civil, intensely rule-constrained elections (which a few countries actually have!) without first winning elections in the system and culture you actually have.

This applies even to the argument gaining steam on progressive Twitter and FB and elsewhere right now, that it is “just” racism, that it is “just” white supremacy. I don’t think it’s “just” that–there’s useful data out already that complicates this story in many ways–but let’s suppose it is. Then ok: you are in a room with a gas leak. That’s it. That’s all.

It is cause for despair and anger, but it is also the environment we are in. If you are in a plane crash in the Antarctic, you are permitted a few moments of despair and fury at the desperate situation you are in. It’s cold, it’s bleak, it’s a long ways from anything. You can get up and swear if you like. But if I’m in the crash with you, when you start doing stuff like angrily throwing all the food in the wreck out into the snow because you’re frightened, or you start to stomp off in a random direction because you want to get started on the journey to an outpost, I am not just going to say, “Hey, I understand.” Our mutual survival is at stake. We need each other. We need everyone alive on the plane to work together and we need a plan that acknowledges that we are in a crash in the Antarctic.

If you want to win the next election and build a political system that is not every two or four years on the edge of being a plane crash, you have got to start understanding better that you are not in charge of making policies right now except in those lifeboats of blue. Talking constantly about the steak dinner you’re going to eat when the survivors get back to McMurdo Base is not helpful when everybody is eating dehydrated egg powder. What can you do with what you have, right now? What do you need to understand about the properties of cold, of snow, of shelter, of food, of signalling, of navigation? If you get back to McMurdo, then you start asking: how can I avoid ever being in a crash again. Right now you are crashed.

If it’s “just” racism, then that is the cold and the darkness and the barrenness that we are surviving. We figure out a plan that is laser-focused on staying alive–and we keep walking towards that base. That plan does not include “making it less cold in Antarctica” or “planting some seeds and waiting for the crops to grow”. But if it turns out it’s not just racism but many other things, then those are survival tools. We might even find there are other people lost in the wilderness who make our group bigger and stronger–they have supplies, they have a shack. We looked at them through the snowstorm and just thought they were ice or stones. They can help if only we’ll walk to them and ask.

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11 Responses to The Definition of Madness

  1. Pat says:

    As someone who was ready to move on way before the election, I really appreciate your starting this discussion. I don’t feel I can have it yet in my own circles because people are still hurting too much.
    One advantage the democrats have, if they can bring themselves to take advantage of it, is that a lot of (potential) democrats have been thinking about next steps ever since Bernie lost the nomination. And also, there’s a big bunch of erstwhile democrats who apparently voted for Trump. Who are those people, and what motivated them? I look forward to very interesting research about this.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I really appreciate your blog and tweets and find them full of reason and humanity. I was horrified by the election, but I’d been horrified for months and months. It was almost (almost) a relief when the hideous thing happened because I could stop bracing for it and I guess because now Democrats can regroup and shake off some ineffective and toxic attitudes. That wasn’t going to happen when we thought we had the election in our pocket. (Though I wish we had.) As Pat writes, it’s too soon to talk about this much because people are hurting a lot. I am very worried, based on the reactions of people in my liberal circles that they are going to draw all the wrong lessons from this and double down on the very ideas (which are not 100% untrue, but far from 100 true) that helped get us here: “America hates women!” “America hates black people!” I’ve seen some crazy, ugly stuff on Facebook.
    But it’s early days. I’m hopeful.

  3. NickS says:

    Two thoughts , without a lot of clarity,

    First, you were right and I was wrong. I’ve spent a lot of time linking about your various election posts and, up until Tuesday, I thought you were wrong to emphasize 2016 as a year of rupture as much as you did. I was wrong.

    Secondly, reading this post, I find myself thinking about (Bill) Clinton* in 1992 — that was his pitch, that he was somebody who could win the election.

    There is inevitably some tension between short-term and long-term goals. The thing that was so encouraging about Obama’s relatively easy victories was that it offered the hope that liberal Democrats could spend more time thinking about long-term goals and less on short-term.

    After this defeat, the Democratic party will inevitably change shape — and I think it will change in directions that I like, but I’m not sure. But it will also, as you say, need people who are ambitious and ready to run right now, even if they aren’t completely trustworthy, and I’m not looking forward to that.

    * Side note: at some point during the campaign I saw a comment, “my hope is that Hillary will be good enough as president that people will think of Bill as the ‘other’ Clinton president.” I agreed completely.

  4. Mark S. says:

    I see what you are saying. We need to win by these rules if we want to change the rules (obvious problem you pointed out on twitter – once you win do you really want to change the rules?).


    If we want to make our way through this, don’t we also have to know what the problems are and let those who are amenable to helping (even some trump voters) know that this stuff is going on? Don’t we need to know what we want institutionally? Don’t we need to try and get the media to cover such things?

    So yeah, we need to focus a little on the electoral college and the fact that for the second consecutive time in a presidential year the party that won the popular vote for the House will be behind by 30+ seats. We need to focus on the racial animus and misogyny that scares us so much. So maybe its an excuse as you say but it could also be part of that journey to find shelter and two days after an election we can’t know the difference.

  5. Doug Blank says:

    Good advice on understanding what happened, and what to do next. I tried to write a bit on exploring the same in terms of a higher-level, data, emergent patterns of elections, and how that can effect what kinds of decisions one makes next:

    I think “organize” can include further exploring questions, like those that Pat describes. Much to do!

  6. Justin WA says:

    Said another way, you can’t play the game (tennis match, chess you name it) and then say you didn’t like the rules when you lose, so the game shouldn’t count. You also can’t assume the whole reason you lost was because of one and only one aspect of the game. The ugly truth is that this place called America is the epitome of contradiction and getting the election process just right is not going to resolve that. Hard work ahead.

  7. I can testify that for more than a decade you have “been forecasting a genuine crisis if we could not change some of these directions.” And I can agree that it has “unmistakably arrived.”

    In July of 2004, I reached retirement age, and that milestone caused me to start work on keeping a vow I made in the spring of 1956: to improve our government and economic systems. I started searching the Internet for sites that were doing the same, or had already solved the problem. I did not, and have not, found any. I found your blog in 2005 and was glad to see that you were identifying problems in a way that convinced me that you really meant business. I have come here ever since. At the same time, I found that many other blogs were also identifying problems. So, every morning I would rise at 5:00 and read the posts on my list of favorite sites. The list changed over the years, but yours remained on the top, chiefly because of the initial fire I saw in your posts. But, as the years went by, I found that none of the blogs I followed ever advanced beyond the problem-identification stage—including yours. The same is true today, although some of the fire has returned after a long absence.

    You express your unhappiness with those who are focusing on small points while failing to develop comprehensive solutions. I share your frustration. I have experienced it almost daily now since 2004. Back then it was, or should have been, obvious to the most casual observer that we were headed toward an environmental disaster. I was made aware of this by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” in the early sixties. I have been an avid birder since 1948 and her book hit me hard. And it did not take long to see that our government and economic systems were not designed to deal with that sort of long-term crisis. This became the focus of my design project. I wanted to design systems that could undertake centuries-long projects and sustain them to completion.

    The problems were obvious, and I went all over the Internet landscape in an effort to get people interested in discussing solutions—and I have failed. You want to be taken seriously, and so do I. I do take you seriously, I have from the start. But, you have not taken me seriously. This comment is not the first time that I have made this plea, and here it comes again. You want something to be done. I think that you want, though you haven’t really said it, to see a plan that answers four questions: Where do we stand? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we get there from here? I have a plan that answers all of these questions. It is unclear how much time we have to act on my plan, but it is clear that there is a real drop-dead date. If you know of a better plan then jump on it. I will do all I can to help. If you want to try your hand at developing your own plan, then I wish you well, and I will help. But if these two approaches are not available, then please consider my plan. Doing nothing is suicidal.

  8. I’m not happy. But I’m not in new-born despair either. I wouldn’t have been terribly happy over a Clinton victory. Yes, good that a woman won. But a neoliberal war hawk in the pocket of the 0.01%? No joy in Mudville on that one I’m afraid. What resonates is a passage from, of all people, Ross Douthat:

    I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before. But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite.

    Fiddling while Rome burns? Of course, I don’t see that Trump can do much to improve the lives of his core constituents. Does that mean he’ll ratchet up the scapegoating?

    And then there’s an observation I attribute to Scott Alexander (by way of Tyler Cowen): For all we know, the election was decided by noise in this system. The popular vote appears to have been very close, so close that any number of relatively small events could have flipped the electoral count one way or the other. This is STILL the country that elected Barack Obama to two terms.

    Can’t say that I’m terribly happy about that either, but it’s complicated (e.g. his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney may/should go down in history as one of the great political speeches) and I’ve said enough.

  9. Whoops! Should have been “…good that a woman would have won.”

  10. GemmaM says:

    I’m speaking as a New Zealander, albeit one who lived in America until recently, so maybe I’m completely off base, but I really wish there was more public support, in America, for reforming your electoral system, and I honestly don’t think this is a bad time to build that. It never ceases to amaze me that all over the political spectrum, every four years, vast numbers of people begin a sentence with “we want to change the system … ” and end it with ” … so that’s why we need this particular president.” If you hate the system, why not actually change it?

    Right now, it’s possible for every single person in America to vote, notice that they’re voting for the lesser of two evils and that there’s some option they can imagine that they’d like better, and wonder how many others feel the same way. Having power filtered through only two major parties means they’ve got no way of knowing what the public will really is. It leaves room for people to suppose that they have more, or less, support than they actually do. It leaves people feeling disenfranchised and willing to vote for anyone who seems to offer a way for them to be heard.

    We’re pretty worried, over here, about whether Brexit and Trump and Australia’s draconian immigration policies are a sign that there are large numbers of New Zealanders that we, too, are not hearing. But on the other hand, with proportional representation, it’s easy to respond to that with “Yes, they’re here, they’ve been around for a while, they’re called New Zealand First, they get between 4% and 13% of the vote depending on the year, giving them power quite often tanks their support as people realise they don’t really like them all that much, any more questions?”

    I can understand why you’d be frustrated by people talking about changes they want without having any way of implementing them, don’t get me wrong. But it seems like actual system change, in America, doesn’t even have a spokesperson. At this moment in history, with so many people dissatisfied, can you not even get that much? Not one Democrat who holds or ever has held elected office, who would advocate for these changes? Not one Republican, except for of all people Donald Trump, who agrees the electoral college is stupid and thinks he could have won without it? Not even one Green or Libertarian to say, hey, maybe we could break the two party system by changing the system, rather than by electing this one person president?

    Maybe Americans don’t really want to change the system at all. Maybe that’s what it is. If so, far be it from me to tell you how to run your country, but … I don’t get it.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Part of the problem here is that when one of the two major parties wins an election in this system, they suddenly lose most of their desire to change it. Another problem is that much as American voters seem to dislike the system, they know full well that they would struggle to come to any agreement on the alternatives. That’s a part of the Trump vote, in fact: his voters overwhelmingly agreed with the sentiment that the system needs to be changed, and I think it might be fair to say that they actually expect Trump to be an indiscriminate wrecking ball rather than a surgical reformer, because they have come to the conclusion that this is the only way the system will change. It’s one of those wicked problems: everyone wants something different; nobody can agree on what. Even third parties, as you note, lack the patience to try and run a steady campaign to change the system rather than a single candidate who might change it. The academic and activist Lawrence Lessig ran for President this year as a single-issue candidate pledging to change how campaigns are financed, but that fizzled completely for a lot of reasons.

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