Electoral College - Barokong

Source: Real Clear Politics
The electoral college is back in the news, with Democrats suddenly discovering it's a terrible idea.

I wrote at length in defense of the college in a previous post. I wrote just before the 2012 election so I can credibly claim that my view is not a sudden discovery motivated by partisan feeling.

I don't want to repeat the whole post, though I'm still proud of it and hope I can send some traffic there.

Short version: The electoral college forces candidates to attract geographically dispersed support. Moving a swing state from 45% to 55% is much more important than moving a solid blue or solid red state from 75% to 85%.

This is vital. Our country is already polarized, and that polarization is reflected in geography.  See the map. A set of rules that encourages further polarization would be a disaster. American democracy failed miserably once. 700,000 people died and government of the people, by the people, and for the people nearly did perish from the earth. Things like this don't happen again only when people think they can, and vice versa.

In a pure popular vote contest, after candidates and parties adapt their positions and coalitions of support, we are likely to see whole swaths of the country with 70, 80, 90% or more majorities of one or the other party -- and even greater demonization of the other side. Fill in the gaps what happens next.

The deep point: When you set up rules for anything, there is a tension betweenmeasurementandincentives. Once people show up at the polls on election day, there is a strong case that "each vote should count the same." But if you do that, the incentives, and hence the outcomes will be much worse.

In the end, we care more about a good outcome -- good policy, and politics that keep the country from flying apart. So, swallow hard, measure imperfectly but set up better (slightly less bad) incentives.

This is a point worth repeating. It's the kind of thing that economists really do have to offer to students of politics and the world at large.  Good incentives for politicians, parties, and agendas  matter more than good measurement.

In that view, the important thing about the college is that we add up to the Presidency by winner-take-all over large geographic chunks. Whether we have actual electors is a separate issue. That means the movement by some states to apportion their electors according to the relative votes is a step in exactly the wrong direction, and induces more polarization.

I have learned some deep lessons from this election and especially its aftermath. Like most policy-wonk types I supposed that people care about policies, and about results, and vote accordingly. And are amenable to sensible discussion about policy, and sensible negotiation. If you're reading this blog, you probably fall in the same bubble. Most political analysis I've seen in economics runs the same way - we line voters up by policy preferences and then analyze voting systems.

What has become very clear to me since the election is a fact probably blindingly obvious to real students of politics -- that's not at all how it works. Most people vote by cultural affinity, brand, values, and a sense of personal identity.  To the extent policy matters at all, it's part of the buzzwords, propaganda and tag lines thrown back and forth.  These things are related to where you live and who you interact with on a regular basis, which is why geographic polarization is such a problem -- and why measures like the electoral college, which push our democracy to have more even representation of tribal and partisan alignments and identities are so important.

I live in a little Democratic bubble here in Palo Alto. Since the election, it is just remarkable how universally in public conversation, people assume that it would be impossible for anyone in earshot to sympathize with Republicans, let alone (heavens) actually be one or to have supported Mr. Trump. Going to book events with my wife, for example, the prelude to talking about the latest young adult fiction is moaning and groaning about how terrible this all is. Waiters at restaurants commiserate. These are good, caring people, achingly anxious never to offend anyone -- but it is simply beyond possibility that the person they're talking to, obviously a somewhat normal rational moral and caring person, not wearing a white sheet, could not feel the same way. I have traveled to a few Republican bubbles too, where people speak with similar certitude that there are no dissenting opinions around.

I got a good taste of this yesterday. I was listening yesterday to NPR, as Evan Osnos on the New Yorker Radio hour interviewed Anna Galland, executive director of moveon.org. (There's no transcript here, so forgive small errors of my transcription)

Evan started with the common Democratic complaint that Republicans, naming Mitch McConnell "famously said basically that they would do everything they could to .. try to interfere and to obstruct his [Obama's] presidency. Now we find that on the left there is a similar move to obstruct [Trump's] presidency obstruct Obama." Given the 8 years of complaint that Republican's obstruction was nefarious, reflected racism, or otherwise improper,  this was a good question. "What happened to ... some basis for cooperation?"

Ms. Galland's response was fascinating:

"Donald Trump lost the national popular vote.. He has no mandate. He's going to be trying to do the most extreme things in recent memory... It's not just a policy problem.. how are  we going to make it through the next 4 years with our constitutional democracy intact... and civil liberties?"
"The order of the day here is to first stand up and project a clear moral opposition to what he's proposing to do to our country.. make sure people hear and see from people they relate to that I'm standing up."
Mr. Osnos pressed:  "What's the argument against cooperating on shared objectives like a big infrastructure even if you object on values?" Ms. Galland replied that she felt there a moral case against cooperating with Trump on "basically anything."

"you can't play footsie with a white supremacist"
For those of you who still think policy matters, the entire interview contained just one statement about actual policies -- just what the "most extreme things" Trump is going to do are,  and that she felt she would have to support in order to go along with an infrastructure bill:

"trying to deport millions of Americans or block an entire world's religion from entering the United States."
Even on infrastructure -- a bill that has to get through a Congress, pass innumerable laws (Davis-Bacon, minority set-asides, etc.)

"there is no way that an infrastructure bill or any other initiative from Trump is going to advance progressive values... maybe well get three jobs out of it or a few roads repaired.. [we need instead]  a progressive infrastructure bill for the people not for billionaires"
Whatever that means. Describing moveon's many petitions, and why sign them, she said that petitions let people

"connect with communities that share your common values.. moral commitments"
Now, our task today is to listen and think, not to take potshots at the low-hanging fruit. Gross falsehoods, "fake news," rampant hypocrisy? You bet. No, Mr. Trump is not a "white supremacist." (Where are the Facebook false-news raters now?) Since when does popular vote equal "mandate?" (A view I would be curious to see if she would have agreed with had Mrs. Clinton won with similar numbers. "Well, Mrs. Clinton swept the electoral college but didn't win the popular vote. So I really don't think she has the mandate to enact moveon's agenda over Republican's objections. We'll just have to let it wait four years?" Somehow I doubt it !) No, even if he deports millions of undocumented immigrants (something I oppose as strenuously as Ms. Galland), they are not in fact "Americans."  The chance that the Trump Administration will block any muslim from entering the United States is zero. How is this different from birtherism, calling President Obama a socialist or worse, and Republican rejectionism? Of course it isn't. Where was Ms. Galland when the Obama Administration was busy undermining constitutional democracy and civil liberties?

Sure, but leave that alone. It's not the point. And such argument is pointless.  Listen instead. This isn't about actual policy. It's about "values" and "morality." Somehow a highway bill, full of pork, signed by President Obama will advance "progressive values" and the exact same highway bill signed by President Trump will not.

This is not a set of views that rational argument can sway. When morality, values, and identity are at stake you will make no headway with that.

Ms. Galland has obviously never been in a room with a Republican whose opinion she cared a whit about, as you and I care about the good opinion of people we talk to. This is what happens when people live in self-confirming bubbles.

Well, power to her. Her job is to mobilize a base, demonize an opposition, spread around whatever propaganda including outright lies (sorry, that "white supremacist thing" qualifies), monger fears, and cast her tribe as the moral savior of the nation.

But we need a democracy in which a presidential candidate does not find Mrs. Galland's mindset a path to power. We need communities in which people understand that good people of many different values and identities live together (I wish I could call that "diverse" except the word has come to mean its opposite) and are forced by the rules of common decency to listen to each other.

The electoral college does that -- or at least is one small force keeping the trends in the other direction from getting stronger.

(By the way, the New Yorker ratio hour radio makes me listen to an ad proudly announcing that it is supported by Morgan Stanley and New York Life. Lenin was right about capitalists selling you the rope.)

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