Thursday, March 24, 2016

The system isn't broken

The other day, I read a comment thread discussing the Republican nomination system.  It's admittedly very complicated, which led some of the commenters to feel that it was secret and being hidden from them.  In particular, they felt the mechanism of the "brokered convention" was unfair.  This is what happens if no candidate gets a majority of delegates.  At the convention, the delegates are "unbound" after the first ballot to vote for other candidates than the one they were originally bound to vote for.  That way, the convention can reach a true majority for a single candidate, as the delegates for less-popular candidates group around one with a better chance for winning.

What this means is that if Donald Trump gets 40% of the delegates, and Cruz and Kasich each get 30%, on subsequent ballots, Kasich's supporters can switch their vote to Cruz (or vice versa) so that the 60% of people who don't want Trump can get not Trump.

Unfortunately, the people in this thread felt that this was a failure of democracy.  It was proof that party insiders could ignore the will of the people (after all, more of them appear to want Trump than any other single candidate) and just pick whoever they want.  It just shows that they weren't paying attention back in 2012, when this very strategy was the hope of Ron Paul supporters to overthrow the establishment.  All they needed was to keep Romney from getting a majority, and then all the delegates would group around Ron Paul.

How could they do that?  Well, by making sure the actual people who went as delegates were Ron Paul supporters, even if bound to some other candidate.  How to be a delegate varies from state to state, but in all cases, these people are chosen by the local members of the party.  All you have to do, then, is register as a GOP member, get the support of other members, and get elected as a delegate.  And you have to be willing to travel to the GOP convention in the summer.  And, most of all, you have to have enough people backing you to get what you want.  That's the real reason Ron Paul failed.  It's not because the system stopped the people from getting what they wanted.  It's that more of the people wanted Romney than anybody else.

When I read this comment thread, I was filled with a sense of sympathy.  I remember feeling that way, feeling like the system was rigged against me, feeling that no matter how hard I tried or what I did, some mysterious group of elites would always do what they wanted anyway.  I felt that the people had no real power, that democracy was just for show.  Sometimes I even wondered if there was a vast conspiracy behind everything -- government in cahoots with economic and cultural elites to seize all the power and money in the country and make sure no ordinary people got any.

But there are things that don't jive with this viewpoint.  For one thing, the economic elites don't usually agree with the cultural elites -- that's why the left demonizes "the 1%" while the right demonizes The New York Times and Harvard.  And of course there are rich mogols on the left (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) and conservatives do have influence on the media and education (Rush Limbaugh, prayer in schools).  If Gates gives a ton of money to the Democratic candidate and Koch gives a bundle to the Republican candidate, don't they wind up canceling out?

Of course, there are some things that do operate like I imagined.  Our food system and the Federal Reserve are two I can think of where certain special interests have a disproportionate level of influence.  In both cases, it's because most people don't know or care what's going on, while those most affected by them (Big Ag, Wall Street) know all about them and spend all the efforts on influencing them.  But in most cases, the government is too incompetent to control everything the way I thought, and most politicians aren't really as clever and evil as on House of Cards.

Then why don't we get what we want?  Well, sometimes we do get what we want.  When everyone in the country agrees on something, it's pretty uncontroversial and it just gets done without fuss.  But on most topics, either we disagree entirely on the end goal (some people want there to be gay marriage, and some don't) or we disagree on the means (we all want to end poverty, but some of us think we can do it with more welfare and some think what we need is lower taxes and less regulation).  In each of these cases, a maximum of one side can get what it wants.  More often, nobody gets what they want.  Some of us wanted socialized healthcare, some wanted free-market healthcare, so we got Obamacare, which we all agree is awful.  Some want to deport all illegal immigrants, others want to give them all amnesty, so we do neither and the problem of millions of undocumented workers, which we all agree is a problem, steadily gets worse.  This problem is compounded when a problem has multiple possible solutions instead of only two.  If there are five different ways to cure poverty, and each is only favored by 20% of people, of course we're not going to make a whole lot of progress.

Now, it's not as bad as all that.  I happen to be of the opinion that America in 2016 is a great place to live.  Sure, it's not perfect, and you all know I have a sentimental attachment to medieval Europe which makes me a little dissatisfied with the modern world.  But crime is falling, even the poor aren't usually starving, we've wiped out smallpox, and we have Wikipedia on our phones.  Unemployment is higher than I'd like, but not Depression-level bad, and it's slowly getting better.  Certainly there's a lot that should be done, but I don't believe that the sky is falling.

And insofar as there are problems, many of them could be solved with a little more effort.  I mean, our founding fathers pledged their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor to change their political situation to one they preferred.  The average modern American thinks he's a hero if he shows up to vote and does nothing else.  I'm not denigrating voting, but voting isn't the only thing or the most effective thing you can do politically.  You could try to influence other people's votes -- that has a surprisingly large effect.  For instance, you could volunteer for a phone bank or to knock on doors for a candidate or ballot measure you support.  Money makes a difference, and it doesn't have to be given by Wall Street.  Sanders is doing quite well fundraising mainly from individuals.  Or you could try to influence your representatives by calling them when an important vote is coming up in the legislature.  I've done that several times, since I found out legislators really do listen to that sort of thing.  Of course that requires you to keep up on what's going on, instead of only paying attention to what the government is doing once every four years.

If you're interested in doing more, you could join a political party.  You then have the chance to push forward that party's goals within the country -- and to push forward your goals within the party.  You can find party members who agree with you on key issues and strategize to bring those issues forward.  You might even run for office.  While there are loads of people who'd like to be president, there are surprisingly few who are willing to do the thankless work of local and state politics, and there are plenty of people who'd like to vote for a trustworthy person if one would ever run.

While I think that working within a party is probably your most effective route to pursue change, if you don't like those, there are also political advocacy groups you could join.  Sure, Monsanto has a big lobby, but real food also has lobbying groups.  In order to compete with the corporate lobbies, these groups need money and volunteers.  If you haven't given them any money and you haven't volunteered, you can't expect them to get results for you.

These are just a few of the ways you can make a difference beyond just voting.  I list them because they are things most people don't do, which you can have a disproportionate level of influence if you do.  No one is stopping you from having a say in how the country is run -- except you.

Of course it's a heck of a lot easier to say "the system is broken," because then you're completely absolved from getting off your butt and doing something.  If the system is broken, you can whine about it in internet comboxes and fantasize about the government coming to get you or the coming apocalypse.  I know how that feels because I've been there.  The reality is more mundane: the machine works, but you're asleep at the wheel.  You go and vote, and then if you don't get what you want, you whine that the system is rigged against you and you never could have won.  But what if you could have won, if you'd done more?

There is no system for organizing human beings that runs smoothly with no effort from anyone.  Democracy is no exception.  Left to itself, it tends toward either oligarchy or demagogues.  But it doesn't have to be left to itself.  It can be influenced by the hard work of individuals like you.  Or, if you do nothing, it will be influenced by people looking for money or power who are willing to harm the rest of us to get it.  It's a free country -- the choice is up to you.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Everybody's different

The first big revelation I ever had in my life was that other people are like me.  When I was little, of course, I thought in terms of two spheres, inside me and outside me.  Everyone outside me was a part of my life, a character in my story.  I didn't really think of their internal states much, except insofar as they affected me. 

Gradually I started realizing that they saw themselves just as I saw myself -- that their feelings were as intense, their interests as important, their troubles as devastating as mine were to me.  And to them, I was simply a character in their drama -- they weren't obsessing over me either positively or negatively, because most of the time they weren't thinking about me at all.  It follows that, just as their interior experience was equal to mine, their importance was equal to mine.  I shouldn't be too quick to make myself the center of things or lay claim to things I want, because other people's desire for these things is as strong as mine and their claim just as valid.

In short, I learned that other people are just like me -- that, just as Mr. Rogers always used to say, we may look different on the outside, but inside we're all the same.  I suppose every person has to have this revelation as a part of growing up, or remain selfish and emotionally immature. 

But this past year or two, I've been having another revelation, slowly becoming more explicit as I see more and more proof of it: other people are, in fact, not so much like me at all.

Oh, I was right in thinking that other people have feelings the way I do, of course.  But in empathizing, trying to put myself in other people's shoes, I've had a habit of projecting a little too much.  I imagine what I would do in their situation, but they go and do something entirely different from what I would have done.  They reveal thoughts that I would never have thought, or have feelings I would never have expected.

For instance, I tend to assume that other people tell the truth, because I never lie.  Most of us never lie, not substantially.  But some people lie all the time, and it always throws me when I discover it.  Urban legends have to be made up by somebody, and the reason they spread is because people who hear them assume that no one would just lie.  But some people do.  There are people who aren't shy, or who don't care who people think of them.  I can't imagine what it would be like to be one of those people.

I'm not talking about differing opinions, so much.  It's unsurprising to find that people are wrong about things; I've been wrong about lots of things.  I tend to assume that more information and argument will change either my mind or theirs.  And yet, that often doesn't happen, because other people don't always disagree with me for rational reasons.  Sometimes, they just want different things to begin with.  I can talk them back to, "But if we did this, we'd have no liberty!" and their answer is, "So?"  It's one of those core values you can't argue about because they're part of someone's nature, what they're drawn to, what they are and aren't repelled by.

And the differences only get greater when I move outside my immediate social networks, when I talk to people from a different region, class, political persuasion, or nation.  I'm constantly being startled to find that, for instance, my brother-in-law thinks being brainy is a bad thing; or that liberals think Hillary Clinton is far too apt to compromise with Republicans; or that Italians think Americans are weird for standing in line.  Things I take for granted, things I think are obviously true, turn out to be simply a part of my culture, and I didn't know it because my friends have the same assumptions I have.

The Trump phenomenon drives this home more than anything.  I can't wrap my head around why a person would listen to ten minutes of Trumpian verbal diarrhea and think, "Huh, that sounds like someone I'd like running the country."  What would that feel like?  What thoughts are going through that person's head?  And why don't they feel all the feelings I feel?  I'm incapable of putting myself in that person's shoes, because you can psychoanalyze all day long and explain to me their motivations, and I still won't understand because I'm not that sort of person.

I read a lot of books and I imagine that I'm really inside the head of the characters, that I'm getting a peek at what it's like to be someone else.  But in reality, I can never know.  There's so much a person thinks and feels in just a single day, life experiences that have marked them, ideas they have, things I know that they don't and things they know that I don't.  Their actions seem obvious, instinctive to them, even when I shut the book and say, "No one would really act like that."

They say that our visual experience of color is so ineffable that it is impossible to say if we all see the same color when we look at something red.  I've always been of the opinion that human brains are similar enough that we're probably all seeing something we'd agree is red.  But more and more it's occurring to me that it might not be that simple.  There is huge variation in how people think and feel, and I'm never going to understand what it's like to be even one other person, let alone all the other people.

I guess it's one of those lifelong lessons, finding out what parts of my experience are common human things and which are specific to myself.  It would be a much shorter job if I could do what I've always dreamed of doing, and hop behind someone else's eyes for five minutes.  What would I see?
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