Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On Being a Cracked Pot

I do not believe that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election.

But what I want to examine in this blog post is why I don't believe that. The answers are not encouraging.

Shortly before the 2004 election, Ron Suskin wrote a New York Times Magazine article in which he quoted an anonymous Bush administration official as follows:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

The phrase "reality-based community" became a sort of rallying cry on the internet among those opposed to Bush, for, I believe three reasons: first of all, it summed up so much of what seemed to be wrong with Bush's policies, namely, that they simply ignored reality (WMDs in Iraq, Massive tax cuts, ignoring science on multiple issues, etc, etc); secondly, since so much of the (internet) opposition to Bush was ideologically heterogeneous -- including libertarians, traditional conservatives who actually cared about what they claimed to care about and simply people disgusted by one aspect or another of Bush's appalling policies as well as liberals and leftists -- "reality-based community" was a point of unity. And finally, of course, it was just so !@#$% crazy that the guy actually said it. So those opposed to Bush pledged themselves to reality. Didn't seem controversial, really.

Of course, we all know how that ended up: in the apt words of Mark Danner, "[Those] who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts." So much for the reality-based community.

But it's still a rallying-cry, of sorts. You'll notice that at the top of this blog I adopt it as my own. And I think it's important: there's been a fair amount of talk on the net about needing to definite, for ourselves and others, what the left believes in with the clarity and simplicity that the right has over the past few decades (a debate I intend to weigh in on when I have the time and energy to spare). But when those principles are defined, I think that basic empiricism will be one such principle. It seems ridiculous that it would need to be -- surely adherence to reality should be bipartisan? -- but the truth is that it's not: the right has been opposing simple facts in issues across the board for years now -- increasingly so. Many of these are scientific issues -- evolution and global warming being two of the most significant examples. (The point here is ignoring the science: one can have legitimate policy disagreements about what to do about global warming or how to approach evolution in public schools, but the scientific facts of those two issues can't be ignored. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion – but not his own facts.") But, of course, it goes beyond science: there's Iraq, not only the WMDs but the administration's assessment of what's going on there, plus their pre-war assessment of what would be needed for the occupation, etc. There's the right's ignoring evidence about the effectiveness of their own programs (e.g. abstinence-only education, programs for "curing" gays, etc.). And there's the general attitude of the right-wing commentators and bloggers in this country, who seem to be able and willing to spin on a dime and adopt whatever new talking points the RNC comes up with, no matter how greatly it contradicts their previously stated positions or principles, like the Stalinists of old. We have always been at war with Eurasia. So I think, when we tally up the principles, empiricism will have a place of pride. We on the left believe in facts -- recognizing them, and adopting our political programs to them.

But I think that a responsibility to facts come with a price, namely, you have to be willing to do it when the facts are against you as well as for you. Fortunately, I think for the most part we are.

But. What about the election?

The truth of the matter seems to be that there is hard evidence that Bush might have stolen it. None of it is conclusive -- but it's enough that (in a country with a functioning press, a vertebrate opposition party and/or politicians with basic allegiance to principles of democracy rather than political party) the issue would have to be investigated, fully and carefully and properly -- by which I mean with subpoenas, forcing the rot into the light.

This first hit home to me when I read this blog post by Paul Velleman, who happened to be a former teacher of mine (I took his intro statistics course in the fall of 1999). He talks about exit polling, and makes the following points (the following is heavily edited; click the link for the full version):

Nationwide, exit polls predicted that Kerry had won by 3%, but the final tally showed Bush ahead by 2.5%. Errors in some key states were even larger. As a statistician, I have been concerned that the errors were unexplained ... All who have considered the problem agree that there are three plausible explanations: 1. Chance error, 2. Bias in the exit polls, and 3. Inaccurate election tallies, or (say it softly) election fraud. Edison/Mitofsky [the firm which conducted the exit polls] and all who have examined the data agree that (1) is not plausible. The errors were so extraordinarily beyond what could occur simply by chance that we can safely exclude this possibility... This analysis of the E/M data makes it clear that the E/M report fails to provide such an explanation. And, of course, if the exit polls were not themselves flawed, that would raise questions about the honesty of the vote itself... if there are biases inherent in the E/M exit polls, we should expect them to follow their own consistent patterns. For example, it isn’t plausible to posit different biases in different places without offering any account of the differences. Such ad hoc explanations are not scientifically or statistically supportable.... States that voted with paper ballots showed only small random errors between exit polls and votes, well within statistical error. States that used automated systems showed large errors fairly consistently biased toward Kerry.... Let me be very clear. I do not assert there was extensive fraud. I would prefer not to think that, and I had hoped the E/M report would reveal a systematic flaw in their methods that accounted for the errors. But it hasn’t, and the issue is still open... E/M have not released precinct-level data, which would be necessary to determine whether voting technology is a factor.

Professor Velleman notes, in his conclusion, that America "cite[s] discrepancies between exit polls and votes in elections in other countries as evidence of problems." He doesn't point out that the U.S. government -- i.e. the Bush administration itself -- did so a few weeks after our own election in calling into question the vote in Ukraine.

So far as I can determine, these questions have yet to be answered in any satisfactory way.

So. We have exit polls saying that Kerry won by 3% (note, by the way, that these are not the early exit polls that were misleading people throughout election day, but the final set of poll results); we have states which used paper ballots not showing such discrepancies, while those with electronic machines showing them.

Before the election, a lot of people loudly and repeatedly worried about the electronic voting machines. They noted that the executives of the companies which made them were largely Bush partisans. They noted that the security on the machines was a joke; that there was no paper trail, so that the accuracy of the vote was unverifiable, and if there was fraud there would be no way to know. This was fairly widely discussed, at least in the left-wing blogosophere.

And all this aside from numerous other problems, such as "standard" American discrimination by income and race (better machines at richer districts, long lines at poorer ones), reports of harassment of African American voters, and the like. (There's a good summary here, with links to lots of other information. (via))

So why weren't more people convinced that Bush stole the election (or stole another election, if you're of that view)? Put aside the right wing and Bush supporters for a moment. Why weren't more people in the reality-based community concerned about it? Why weren't die-hard Kerry partisans suspicious?

Why wasn't I?

Right after the election -- in the day or two, the week or two after -- I think the answer was sheer exhaustion and numb dread. There was the sheer exhaustion of the most intense, important election campaign of (most of) our lifetime's. And there was the numb dread of another Florida -- of another bitter, protracted dispute. An important factor in this was that, at least at first, it seemed that if the vote was to be challenged, it would be challenged in Ohio alone -- in other words, we would be fighting to show that Kerry won the electoral vote and not the popular vote. Given the 2000 fight -- when so much of the legitimacy of Gore's struggle rested in the fact that he had won the popular vote -- it seemed like we couldn't push it. Some combination of commitment to principle and commitment to previous positions stopped us.

(Not that that would have stopped the right in similar positions: recall that, in the week before the 2000 election, the right-wing noise machine was explicitly gearing up to challenge the legitimacy of the election if Gore won the electoral vote but not the popular vote (as many thought possible at the time): a challenge that they would have maintained, it seems clear, throughout Gore's term if he had prevailed in such a circumstance. (Hell, they challenged Clinton's simply due to his being elected in a three-way race!) These arguments and principles were, of course, dropped immediately upon the real situation presenting itself, and the right made the counter-argument with a straight face. But never mind: we stick to our principles. That's what they're for. That's who we are.)

Add to this the attitude of the media -- always powerful, no how much we may believe that they are a bunch of lemming-like echoes of the right -- that anyone who questioned the result was a crackpot, and it became impossible. (Of course, they media had been immeasurably important in securing Bush the presidency in 2000 by presenting the issue as if he was the legitimate winner and Gore the one trying to overturn the election, rather than the other way around or simply that it was flat-out undecided -- a stance whose roots were, in large part, the result of Fox news' calling Florida for Bush (a decision made -- I kid you not! -- by Bush's own first cousin.))

But this whole election-poll results thing was new. This put the issue in a different light -- not that Kerry might have had a TKO stolen from him, but that Bush might have flat-out stolen the election. And not stolen it in the quaint, old-fashioned way he stole 2000 (illegally disenfranchising African Americans (in this case, with wildly inaccurate "felon" lists in Florida drawn up under the supervision of Bush's brother and Florida campaign manager); nor stealing it in the stylish new way of getting the Supreme Court to intervene on your behalf. No, this would be theft in what seems the worst way (emotionally, though for rational reasons I can't see why it is): flat-out rigging the vote, like LBJ in 1948.

And the truth is, for about twenty-four hours I walked around in the world thinking that this was true. Kerry had really, unquestionably won: won the popular vote, been the choice of the American people, who were not so foolish as it had seemed. And the forces of Mordor had stolen it away.

It was a weird experience, to tell you the truth. It's one I've had a few times: walking around the world, seeing it in fundamentally different light -- most recently, I walked around looking at industrial civilization as if it was about to end due to the effects of Peak Oil (a belief I set aside for reasons similar to the present issue, actually). The artistic experience that most closely captures this feeling is one that occurs frequently in fantasy (and also, if less frequently, in SF): it's the experience of the person who has just found out, in the strongest possible way, that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- like the kids in the Narnia books after the get out of the wardrobe, or E. C. Gordon in the final pages (save the last) of Heinlein's Glory Road wondering if it was all a dream. The feeling that is captured in these words from one of the finest fantasy writers out there:

If it was true... Then nothing makes any sense. If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think is a life. It means the world's about as solid and reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don't even want to think about.... It means that we're just dolls. We don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives while a paper's thickness away things that would drive us mad if we thought about them for too long play with us, and move us around from room to room, and put us away at night when they're tired, or bored. (Sandman 16, "Lost Hearts")

So it's a weird feeling. I felt it; I thought these things. -- And then, after about twenty-four hours, I gave it up. Bush won. I believed that. I beleive it now.


Not because of any facts or analyses that would convince me. But just because it was too weird not to.

Part of this is because everyone else believed the contrary; and to believe that Bush stole, flat-out stole, the election makes one a crackpot -- like a scientologist or a believer in new-age auras or someone who thinks that the freemasons control history. It doesn't matter that, in this case, there are facts and reasons to believe it; it doesn't matter that one might believe it based on the preponderance of the evidence, willing to listen to counter-arguments (just so long as they are reality-based), rather hoping it wasn't true but brought there by the evidence at hand. You'd still be a crackpot -- and listened to, or not listened to, as such. People wouldn't take what you'd said seriously -- not on this topic, maybe not on other topics. So you -- I -- drop it. Move on. Don't believe it.

It is a victory of group-think over empiricism, of believing what everyone else thinks because everyone else thinks it. It's not being reality-based, but community-based, with all which that implies.

But there's another part of it, too. (I mean, why does everyone else think it?) And that's the part captured in the lines that "...we don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives...". If Bush stole the election, then U.S. democracy is over -- basically. I mean, U.S. democracy has taken a lot of hits recently, from the acceptance of the idea that people can be locked up without trial forever ("enemy combatants") to the notion that wars can be based on lies and nobody cares to, yes, the Supreme Court ending vote counting. But if the rot is serious, it's not terminal. I mean, it can be repaired, right? We can still win, reform, rebuild. The foundations are solid, however weak the new construction.

But if Bush stole the election... How can we win our country back? Oh, maybe the forces wouldn't stay solid for the next round: maybe it was a one-time thing, the Bush family machine and not a broader Republican machine. Or maybe the Republican machine wouldn't hold in the face of internal divisions, or in the face of a sufficiently overwhelming victory by the other side -- one that would be harder to hide.

Still, if the election was stolen, if Kerry really won and the government is illegitimate... It's just hard to go there. I mean, we know that the Republican congress has been arranging spending like they're a banana republic, but elections are something else. Our sense of this country -- not as always good (uh, slavery?) but as fundamentally sound -- is too strong. Bad may prevail for a while but it can't last -- can't win out in the open like that. So we don't believe it. I don't believe it. And then, because no one does, no one can -- the peer pressure is too strong. Too strong to even seriously consider it. So we don't look at the evidence -- don't even say 'Maybe it's true, maybe not, we need more information and an investigation'. We simply proceed with our lives, as if it's not true. Because it makes us too uncomfortable to think that it might be true. I think this is part of what Goebbels meant by "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." Some things are simply too big to be disbelieved.

No one wants to be a crackpot.

So did Bush steal the election? No. I don't believe it. I really don't. Bush won -- fair and square. Maybe he shouldn't have been reelected, but he was. We lost. I'm a little teapot, short and stout: not a crack anywhere. Don't toss me out.

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