So, I wasn’t intending to post anything else until I did another update on the Digital Democracy consultation – but…

I’m a member of The Listserv which defines itself as “This is an e-mail lottery. One person a day wins a chance to write to the growing list of subscribers. It could be you.” Every day one of the roughly 25K subscribers is picked to have the chance to send an email about anything to everyone on the list. Sometimes these are funny, sometimes sad, sometimes genuinely profound and very often banal in a “deep wisdom I got from a self-help book” kind of way.

Well, today’s was from William in Wisconsin (email address withheld although it’s in the original email). William is a “A political science PhD student fed up with reading people (inaccurately) talk about politics on the internet.” Ignoring the specious appeal to authority and the humour of someone being wrong on the internet I still feel I have to address William’s actual points on how politics works in the USA.

Starting with –

“1.      Campaign contributions don’t buy congressional votes.  Yes, there is a positive correlation between contributions and voting patterns, but think about it – if you’re directing the NRA’s Political Action Committee, are you more likely to donate to people you know support you already, or diehard supporters of gun control?  Study after study shows that contributions don’t buy votes.”

I can’t get over how idiotic this statement is. If I was directing the NRAs PAC and I didn’t think campaign contributions bought votes then why on earth would I spend any more at all. I don’t know which studies William is referring to but multiple studies referred to by Lawrence Lessig in sources like Lesterland and Republic, Lost show exactly the opposite.

Quote : “Members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get themselves elected or their party back in power. But they raise that money not from all of us. Instead, they raise that money from the tiniest fraction of the 1%. Less than 1/20th of 1% of America are the “relevant funders” of congressional campaigns.”

If those supplying the money didn’t think it bought influence then they simply wouldn’t do it – especially when they donate to both parties.

“2.      Spending millions of dollars on political campaigns is a good thing.  Well, in some ways – costly campaigns deter some people from getting involved, but political advertising is not inherently evil.  In fact, research shows that the more money is spent on campaigns, the more voters know about the candidates, issues, and the candidates’ position on issues.  Believe it or not, advertisements can actually be informative, and voters actually show the ability to filter out incorrect or misleading information.”

Leaving aside the amalgamation of “voters” into one group it’s certainly true the studies show that buying lots of campaign advertising is very good at getting people to vote for you – that’s why everyone does it. The issue here is not whether doing it works – it’s whether doing it is fair. In a situation those who can spend more money can significantly change voting patterns – those who don’t have that capital at are a crushing disadvantage.

It very much reminds me of a sketch I once saw on Spitting Image which alas I can’t find online. In a great parody of “I know my place“.

President Gorbachev: “Now, in my country anyone can grow up to be a millionaire”
Prime Minister Thatcher : “In my country anyone can grow up to be Prime Minister”
President Regan : “In my country any millionaire can grow up to be President”

“3.      Citizens United, while it may have been a flawed decision, is not as big a deal as people make it out to be.  The Supreme Court never actually said “corporations are people,” and corporations STILL CANNOT DONATE GENERAL TREASURY MONEY TO CANDIDATES OR PARTIES.  All Citizens United did was make it so corporations can now engage in independent expenditures – that is, they can spend money on advertising in favor/against a candidate as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates’ campaigns.”

Ignoring the fact that William has to resort to SHOUTING to get his point over…

Perhaps not specifically in Citizens United but the Supreme Court has validated corporate personhood as back as far as the very early 19th century – and of course “corporations are people my friend“.

The idea that Citizens United is okay because all corporations can do is “spend money on advertising in favor/against a candidate” is again just crazy. See responses to (1) and (2). It gets significantly worse with the invention of super PACs who don’t even need to spend any money but can now threaten candidates they they will fund their opposition unless they do what they want – changing the dynamics of politics without actually having to spend any money.

“4.      The two-party system is not the root of all evil.  Third parties do not lose in American Politics because of the ‘tyranny’ of the two major parties, but rather because of our winner-take-all electoral system (Duverger’s Law).  Anyone who complains that Democrats and Republicans don’t offer ‘real choices’ ignores the dramatic polarization that has occurred between the parties in the last 40 years.  Moreover, complaining that the two-party system offers a ‘lack of choice’ ignores the fact that anyone can run as a third party if they want to — but a more effective strategy is to get involved in primaries and try to change the parties from within.”

Well, I’ve never heard of Mr Duverger before but the existence of a coalition currently here in the UK, with a broadly similar voting system to the US, seems, on the face of it, to disprove his theory.

I would disagree about the “dramatic polarization” of the two main American parties. They may differ on healthcare, abortion, gun control and, up to now, gay rights but in the vast majority of things they are in agreement.

The primary system is a particularly bonkers American system for choosing candidates. Anyone who says otherwise should have it pointed out to them that blocks of voters for one party can simply join the other one at a local level and directly sway their candidate choice. In general it also means that since in many place only a very low number of highly radicalised people turn out for primaries it has meant a number of successful challenges for conventional Republicans from the Tea Party leading, amongst other things, to the recent shut-down of the government.

“5.      Presidents aren’t as important as we think they are.  Yes, Presidents are important and influential – but they can’t work magic.  This is a simple lesson that everyone gets in grade school, yet it seems to be forgotten when people think about politics – the President has to get the agreement of Congress to get anything done.  Peoples’ list of “greatest” Presidents just so happened to be in office when their copartisans controlled the House and Senate (FDR, Lincoln, Washington, etc).  Complaining that nothing gets done and then blaming it on the President for not “leading” is completely nonsensical and betrays a misunderstanding of how government works.”

Well, we can certainly agree about this one. A sitting President facing a record-breakingly obstructionist Congress in a wide variety of ways should be praised for getting anything done at all – never mind a major change to the national health care system.

“6.      Political ‘independents’ are usually not very independent.  Most people who identify as independent actually are closet partisans – they vote and act and think like Republicans or Democrats while refusing to identify as such.  The importance (and estimated total) of independent voters in elections is overblown by observers and pundits.”

If that was true then states that actually swing between different parties wouldn’t do so. There’s a reason vast amounts of time and money are spent micro-targetting a relatively tiny number of floating voters.

“7.      Nate Silver is great, but political scientists have been accurately forecasting elections using statistical evidence at least since the 1970s.”

It’s true that things have got better since “Dewey beats Truman” but most of the political forecasting is still statistically way off base – especially from highly partisan sources a-la Fox News. The reason why Mr Silver’s system works so well is because it cleverly works of an average of other forecasting systems using a record of their previous accuracy. If they were all accurate all the time then why would that be needed?

“8.      Last but not least, political science is not an opinion-based discipline.  Just because people have opinions about politics does not make the field opinion-based.  Political scientists use all the tools of contemporary social science – use of quantitative and statistical evidence is actually the norm.”

I couldn’t say – I had to google “political science” to even find out what it was. I’m sure there are people I know who can much better comment on that statement than me. Feel free to do so in the comments.