Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Will nitwits rule us all?

I moved to Minnesota during an election year. I was not particularly thrilled about the results of that particular election on either a nationwide or statewide level. Most of the candidates that I liked lost that year. But since I had not done much work on any candidates' election, I figured that I should not complain about the results given that I had not put any effort for my folks to win.

So, I started getting more involved. I attended my local caucuses, state senate district party meetings, and various levels of party conventions. The result of those experiences was that I came away with a much better understanding of how local party politics work. I also concluded that these political events are sort of like Star Trek conventions without the costumes. Which is to say, the attendees are, um, deeply invested in the event. Maybe so deeply invested that the seem a little off to people who are not as deeply invested.  

Now, it is pretty easy to argue that people being deeply invested in politics is a good thing. One might assume that the more people involved, the more robust the free trade of ideas as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.famously put it. But what if more involvement does not produce better ideas?  

For may years, political scientists have written about how Americans are increasingly segregating themselves into communities of like-minded individuals. This segregation is sometimes called "The Big Sort." If people are segregating themselves into counties, suburbs, or neighborhoods where their neighbors all agree with them, how robust can the competition in marketplace of ideas be?  

Perhaps the answer to this question depends on the definition of robust. An argument can be made that this segregation of viewpoints leads to a rewarding of candidates that are on the farthest fringes of that parties' acceptable political viewpoints. And, as I mentioned above, the way candidates are selected for office requires them to be both deeply invested in politics and also convinced that they can solve whatever local problem or issue is causing them to be deeply invested. Another word for the latter sort of thinking is narcissism.

To put it another way, this self-segregation allows for the selection of candidates farthest to the right for Republicans and to the left for Democrats to the local political office and then, the voters pick the candidate of the prevailing political party in that area. These voters, remember, are the ones who self-segregated themselves from different viewpoints that might act as a moderating influence.  

Want examples of this rewarding of extreme and/or unusual views? In 2012, Republicans in Minnesota nominated a fellow named Kurt Bills to run against incumbent Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Mr. Bills was endorsed by Minnesota Republicans at their statewide convention and then subsequently won a statewide Republican primary to be the GOP nominee for the Senate. Mr. Bills, an admirer of Ron Paul, had some unique views that survived whatever echo chamber proving grounds the Republican caucus and primary season was supposed to provide.As an admirer of Ron Paul, Mr. Bills, of course, believed in a return to the gold standard.  In fact, Mr. Bills wanted Minnesota to issue (or at least study the feasibility of issuing) its own currency. Depending on what our Reader(s)™ might know about economics getting on the gold standard is a terrible idea. In fact, a 2012 survey of 40 leading economists from across the political spectrum revealed that not one economist thought basing monetary value on the price of gold is a good idea. Did I mention that Mr. Bills is a high school economics teacher? Anyway, Mr. Bills's weird ideas about money did not inspire Minnesota voters and he lost to Senator Klobuchar by 30 percentage points.  

Want an election-winning example? Consider Iowa Republican Steve King. Congressperson King represents Northwest Iowa. For the last 30 years or so, Northwest Iowa has been fairly conservative. For example, previous Gillette-Torvik Blog post subject Bob Vander Plaats comes from that part of Iowa. Anyway, I am not going to address every nutty thing Congressman King has said over the years but here is a link to a story on one of his more recent controversial statements. I highly doubt that most of Congressman King's constituents are as concerned about the birth rate of white people. But I am also sure that Congressman King was the most conservative Republican who ran when he first ran for congress.  As an aside, while I am tempted to write that it is hard to imagine a more racist person being elected to Congress, I am afraid that if I do, some congressional district somewhere will say, "hold my beer."

Republicans in Virginia have an opportunity to reject this tendency to nominate extreme candidates. Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart is running to be the GOP nominee for Governor. Mr. Stewart is a native Minnesotan and got his law degree in Minnesota. Not, however, at the same institution Mr. Torvik and I attended.

Mr. Stewart came to my attention this morning when he let lose with a series of tweets about protecting "southern heritage" by stopping the removal of statutes that honor figures that fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Here is one example of Mr. Stewart's tweets.

The "they" to which Mr. Stewart refers is the City of New Orleans, which removed a Civil War memorial that used to talk about the return of "white supremacy" after Reconstruction.  Robert E. Lee, of course, was a Virginia native who led the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The Army of Northern Virginia, of course, is the Confederates. The Confederates were, you know, the folks fighting for their "right" to own black people.  

So one Minnesotan, Mr. Stewart, says that Robert E. Lee was a hero. On the other hand, 2,500 men from Minnesota, died while serving the in United States' armed forces during the Civil War. That is out of a total of 22,000 men from Minnesota who joined the armed forces to fight the Confederacy. The Minnesotans who fought Mr. Stewart's "hero" include the men featured in one of the most famous books about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg: Richard Moe's Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota VolunteersThe book tells the story of the formation of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers who suffered an 82% casualty rate (the highest ever for an United States Army unit) on the second day of Gettysburg. The guy leading the Confederate forces against the United States Army was, Mr. Stewart's hero, Robert E. Lee. Now most Americans do not refer to a person leading the fight against the United States as being a "hero" but, you know, free trade in ideas.

Another aside, one Minnesotan who joined the army for the United States during the Civil War was
Albert Woolson.  Mr. Woolson was the last surviving Civil War veteran. Mr. Woolson and Mr. Stewart are both from Duluth, Minnesota. Perhaps this unlikely coincidence of birth is a sign that Duluth as an extremely robust marketplace of ideas.

Now I like reading about the Civil War a lot.  I own way more books about the Civil War than a person should.  So I understand that there is a romantic imagery around Robert E. Lee and his much smaller army racking victories against the much larger forces of the United States. But let's not forget that the cause for which Mr. Stewart considers General Lee a hero, was the cause of slavery. Every battle that Robert E. Lee won simply prolonged the enslavement of millions of people. I submit that there is nothing "honorable" about that and that Robert E. Lee is not a hero. I also submit that other than Confederate "heroes," Mr. Stewart would not call people engaged in a war against the United States either honorable or heroic.  

If I were a cynic I would say that Mr. Stewart is using his tweets to send a signal by praising "southern heritage" and confederate generals. That signal is directed at white Virginians who are uncomfortable living in a multi-ethnic world. The signal says that Mr. Stewart thinks like they do and is going to look out for them instead of people who look like the folks for whom "southern heritage" is not something to be fondly recalled. This cynical view leads to the conclusion that Mr. Stewart is either a racist or at least comfortable asking racists to vote for him.

But I do not like being cynical. In this case, not being cynical means to take Mr. Stewart's tweets at face value, i.e., that Mr. Stewart legitimately believes that Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederates were heroes for a southern culture that needs to be remembered and honored.  This leads to the conclusion that Mr. Stewart is either racist or a nitwit for extolling the virtues of racist traitors to their country. I guess a third possibility is that he is both those things.
I hope that Virginia's Republican voters will turn their back on Mr. Stewart's signal (if he is sending one), racism and/or extreme nitwittery. But I am concerned that the Big Sort makes the realization of my hope unlikely.

What do you think Mr. Torvik? Do the selection processes of  the major two parties reward the most extreme candidates?  Are their black people in the south that want to celebrate the "Southern Heritage" that a native of Duluth thinks is so important? What is the word people use to describe someone that takes up arms against their country? Is it hero? Or maybe is it another word that begins with T?


  1. Wow, quite an essay!

    To answer your first question, the one in the post title: yes, of course.

    Next you ask, do selection processes reward the most extreme candidates ... I guess I'm a little less pessimistic about that. There's obviously some truth to what you say, to this "Big Sort" stuff. But I think things are less set in stone than we commonly like to believe. People disagree about stuff, but ultimately I think that people's ideological beliefs fall out on some kind of normal distribution like a bell curve. That means that 85% of actual voters are within one standard deviation of a centrist (whatever that means at a given moment in time. Assuming that's true, our two-party system ensures that neither party can get afford to elect too many wackos, and certainly can't stray to far from the center. That's my theory / hope, anyway.

    Re "Southern Heritage" ... Gah. It's one of those things that sort of makes you feel a little hopeless. The monument in question, according to what I read, actually explicitly honors the 1876 presidential election which ended Reconstruction and "recognized white supremacy in the South." In so many words!

    I actually empathize somewhat with southerners who feel pride of place about their home state and region. These are common emotions, human emotions, but obviously the problem is that the symbols of "heritage" they choose are hateful, vile, and toxic. And clearly politicians like this Doofus from Duluth are stoking reactionary politics, and it sucks. What a strange world that we're still fighting those battles 150 years later.

  2. I empathize with them about the regional pride too. I am proud to have been born in Iowa and also proud to now live in Minnesota. But when one lives in Virginia, how much beyond George Washington do you need to go to express your pride in your state?


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