Friday, April 22, 2016

Yes, the primaries are rigged, but they can be rigged better

Swing States, USA
There has been much scuttlebutt this election season about how the primary process isn't democratic enough and how it's "rigged" to benefit establishment figures over insurgents. Here's the hard truth:

Primaries are rigged by design.

They are setup this way because the only objective of a political party is to have their nominee win the national election, full stop. As a result, the major national parties do leverage some democracy to make the process somewhat representative, but ultimately, primaries on both sides are setup to empower state delegates to nominate candidates.

Introducing Swing State Super-Weighting 

Given that the parties' primaries are designed exclusively to find the strongest general election candidate, it is arguable that the political parties should take this to its logical end and further rig the primary process to add additional delegate weight to the electoral college swing states (i.e., FL, NC, VA, OH, etc.). Implementing swing state super-weighting would help ensure that a party's nominee has proven to perform the best in the most important states in the general election.

Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is a Democrat winning Oklahoma over other Democrats in the primary really going to help predict general election performance? 
  • Will a Republican winning a California primary over other Republican candidates show any kind of real general election strength? 
Looking at this through a strictly analytical (and non-democratic) lens, primary performance in "base states" for each respective party seems trivial at best, and a distraction at worst. Case in point: Donald Trump's recent clobbering of his opponents in New York seems to have re-invigorated his campaign, yet practically, Trump will not win New York in the general election, so it should have much less bearing on the Republican nomination process.

Replacing Bad Rigging with Better Rigging

As a result of the historic success of Bernie Sanders' insurgent candidacy, the Democratic Party has been put on the defensive with regards to superdelegates because these insider delegates symbolize the least representative aspect of their primary system. The Democrats would benefit far greater (from both a primary effectiveness and PR perspective) by replacing superdelegates with swing state super-weighting of delegates. Instead of party insiders picking the winner before the primary process even begins, candidates would earn additional party support based on how they actually performed on the most important states in the primary process.

Republicans do not have superdelegates (although it's a safe bet that a lot of party managers wish they had them now!), but they have all sorts of other non-democratic systems to help ensure that their candidate is the most likely to win the general election: winner-takes-all state primaries, state conventions, post-election horse trading, and more. These all reek of thumb-on-the-scale maneuvers that Donald Trump has exploited and as a result has tarnished the Republican party brand. Changing to swing state super-weighting would have the same positive effect it would have for the Democrats: it would better identify the candidate most likely to win the general election while being more transparent and obvious as to why and how the system is undemocratically rigged.

Replacing Rigging with Democracy Introduces New Problems

Another school of thought is that primaries should be more democratic and less driven by party managers tipping the scales in favor of electability. This approach could work as well, but it would require heavy regulations applied to the national parties, ensuring that they play by the same rules so that the process were truly democratic. For example, currently, primaries happen in a sequence, state by state, giving certain states more voting weight than others. This is not democratic at all, yet we accept it because we're used to it, but we've also bought into the idea that limiting voting to a small set of early states helps ensure that candidates of all levels of financial resources can afford to get their message out to the people, and fairly compete with candidates with much larger resources.

Yes, the "free market" system that the political parties enjoy now does favor establishment candidates, but a fair and completely democratic national primary process would have, for example, enabled only Donald Trump and Jeb Bush to be viable Republican candidates, and would have completely shut out a viable Bernie Sanders candidacy. In addition, any kind of regulation applied to political parties may unintentionally lock out new political parties looking to gain a foothold in our body politic.

Repeal and Replace the Rigging

Despite how rigged the current process is, it has some under-appreciated features that many critics take for granted. But that doesn't mean we can't rig it better. Both parties should consider scrapping their existing sloppy and parochial rigging systems and replace them with a more effective, transparent and easier-to-justify system like the swing state super-weighting approach..

There is no perfect system, but a rigged primary system that favors swing state performance will make more sense to voters -- and it will actually work better for political parties -- than the current rigged system. This win/win prescription may be just what the doctor ordered for angry voters and struggling political parties.

Monday, April 18, 2016

New York Democrats: Why You Should/Shouldn't Vote for Bernie Sanders

source: Donkey Hotey

New York Democrats,

You are in the enviable position to help determine the trajectory of the Democratic nomination process (Trump appears to have the Republican race in NY locked-up, so no drama there). If Bernie wins, he gains significant momentum and energy, even if he still doesn't have the math to technically win enough delegates. But momentum and energy do matter, because with enough of a surge, those undemocratic super-delegates could bow to pressure to switch sides.

Bernie and Hillary represent two different versions of the same Democratic philosophy: economic protectionism combined with social liberalism. As outlined in a prior article, Hillary is a 1990's Democrat (or, New Democrat as they called it back then), which had her starting out her candidacy as a neo-libertarian candidate, combining moderate economic liberalism with moderate social liberalism.

Hillary is a moderate at heart, primarily because she grew up in politics at a time when Democrats were still licking their wounds from the Reagan rout in the 1980's. Bernie is a true Democrat at heart, bringing the verve and moral justice argument back from the dead and showing "New Democrats" that they don't have to continue to bow down to the alter of the Reagan Revolution anymore.

Which version of Democrat makes sense in a post-Reagan, post-Bush, and post-Obama world? Let's break it down into pros and cons for the iconoclastic insurgent Bernie Sanders:

Reasons to vote for Bernie:
  • Authenticity: He truly believes in his message and does not appear to be a traditional, modern politician that bobs and weaves to make voters like him.
  • Problem identification: He has shown an ability to identify problems that people feel need to be addressed urgently.
  • Empathy: He appears to have a lifestyle much more like the average American.
  • Leadership: He does not self-identify as a natural people leader, which could mean he's actually a highly-effective leader.
  • Accessibility: His language and framing of issues speak to citizens of all educational backgrounds.
  • Honesty: Bernie has shown an penchant for straight-talk. Compared to his competition in the race, this provides him with a significant political advantage.
  • Government-based solutions: For people who have lost all trust in non-Government institutions (Wall Street, Corporate America, lobbying firms, SuperPACs), Bernie's prescriptions rely heavily on government to ensure a more fair and equitable environment for citizens from all walks of life. 
Reasons not to vote for Bernie:
  • Problem-solving: He has not shown an ability to define solutions that will work in a non-idealistic political universe. "Breaking up the banks," "Free college tuition," and "Single-payer healthcare" solutions are the policy equivalent to cotton candy as a prescription for the flu. 
  • Navigating complexity: His simplified versions of the problems and solutions speak to a lack of interest in things like differences in opinions and unintended consequences of policy decisions.
  • Integrity: While most Bernie supporters feel he is brimming with integrity, I would suggest that his battle-cry of "How can Hillary take money from Wall Street and not be beholden to Wall Street?" rings hollow. Case in point: President Obama took money from Wall Street in both of his campaigns, and yet he pushed incredibly hard to enable Wall Street reform. If you recall, Dodd-Frank was passed under Obama's leadership, and Dodd-Frank was significantly watered down by Congress. Wall-Street-funded Obama wanted the reforms to go much deeper. 
  • Over-reliance on government: The vast majority of Americans do not think the government is competent enough to manage large programs. To suddenly trust government with even more responsibility may not pass the sniff test for a general electorate if Bernie makes it into the general election. It's a real toss-up, though: plenty of Americans also do not trust non-governmental institutions either. But the benefit of non-government institutions is that there are a diversity of them, and they can change over time. Once the government manages something, it's historically practically unheard of to change ownership to another non-governmental entity. 
Bernie Sanders is an incredibly disciplined candidate. His message discipline enables him to connect with voters who share his concerns about the problems our nation faces. But for every benefit in a candidate, there is usually an equal and opposite drawback.

Knowing this, New York Democrats, you should not base your vote purely on your feelings from the last rally or television commercial -- your vote should take into account the real pros and the true cons of your preferred candidate.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The 2016 election: Why it's so different

The 2016 election cycle in America has been unique, even by American standards. We are all witnessing the fascinating results of this unique political dynamic: a 74-year-old democratic socialist that is killing it with young voters, and a 69-year-old nationalist "billionaire" who poor and under-educated people trust to represent them the best in Washington.

Further, while Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump certainly have their differences, there are a few similarities that are so important to voters that, when in open primaries, many voters were deciding between these two candidates, regardless of party affiliation.

Since nobody paying attention could ever confuse Bernie with The Donald, this dynamic needs to be unpacked.

We've been led to believe that our two main national parties -- Democrats and Republicans -- create political platforms, and run and support candidates that they believe best represent their specific constituency of voters in the nation. In broad strokes, the Democrats have traditionally run on a platform of social liberalism and economic protectionism and the Republicans have run on social protectionism and economic liberalism.

These at-odds platforms, in theory, should cover most voters enough to suffice and ensure a representative governing body, right?

Wrong, of course.

In math class, I learned about something called combinatorics. It sounds fancy, but it's pretty straight-forward: it's a branch of mathematics focusing on countable discrete structures. In layman's terms, it's about figuring out how many variations can exist in a given system. Who would have thunk that combinatorics of all things can help us see what's missing in our mainstream political discourse?

Well, it can.

If we look at the existing two-party political system, we have, in broad strokes:
  • Economic liberalism & social protectionism (Republicans)
  • Economic protectionism & social liberalism (Democrats)
Based on a combinatorics calculation, the combination of 2 items in a group of size 2, there are 4 possible permutations**. As a result, there are 2 combinations that are not addressed by existing political containers:
  • Economic liberalism & social liberalism (Libertarians)
  • Economic protectionism & social protectionism (Populists)
** For the sake of brevity and focus, we can't explore all the 16 permutations there would be if "moderate" was added as a dimension for each political dimension.

Now, let's map these political systems to the remaining candidates in the race:
  • Hillary Clinton is, at heart, an 80's/90's Democrat, which is defined as a moderate economic liberal & social liberal ("Libertarian-lite"), but has been coerced (by Bernie's success) to run as an economic protectionist and social liberal -- a traditional Democrat.
  • Bernie Sanders is an economic protectionist & social liberal - placing him straight in the Democratic party camp.
  • Ted Cruz and John Kasich are economic liberals & social protectionists, placing both of them clearly in the Republicans camp.
  • Donald Trump is, at heart, a deal-maker with very little political "true north." However, as a practical matter, he is officially running as an economic protectionist & social protectionist -- a Populist. 
Looking at this mapping, we have some seriously bizarre dynamics at play: 
  • We have three distinct political systems in the race: Democrat, Populist and Republican. 
  • Both leading candidates -- Donald and Hillary -- are running on platforms that they aren't truly aligned with in their hearts, despite the fact that one of them is considered to be a "straight shooter." 
  • The leading candidates aren't a Democrat and a Republican; rather, they are an unwillfully coerced Democrat and a willfully-coerced Populist. 
  • Bernie, the self-described "Democratic Socialist" in the race, is actually running on a traditional Democratic platform, which shows you just how moderate mainstream Democrats have become since the 1980's, forced into moderation largely by the political tide of Reagan.
This helps explain what makes this race so unique: Officially, we have two parties running against each other, but in reality, we have three distinct parties competing with each other (and if Rand Paul were still in the race, then we'd have all four political combinatoric parties in the race!).

Trump and Sanders have become iconoclastic and share so many swing voters because they are both representing economic protectionism in their platforms. This tells us that there is a real hunger for economic protectionism, which, interestingly, is not where either the modern Democrat or Republican party is right now at the national level. This represents a crisis for the political elite who believe that long-term gain in free trade and unfettered capitalism outstrips the short-term pain. 

The Trump and Sanders parallel phenomenons point to the reality that our major national parties aren't offering up enough diversity to satiate a significant proportion of the electorate. Bernie and Trump are live-action lessons for a free democracy: Where there's a political itch, a candidate will eventually come along to scratch it. And if that candidate wins, it can bring the party with them.