Sunday, October 28, 2012

Living Colour -- "Cult of Personality" (1988)

I'm the smiling face on your TV
I'm the cult of personality!

"Cult of Personality" was the first single from Living Colour's debut album, Vivid, which was released in 1988.    

Living Colour consisted of African-American musicians, but its music didn't really fit neatly into any of the traditional "black music" genres -- it was more rock than it was funk or soul or hiphop.  (Think of Living Colour as the mirror image of the Beastie Boys and other white rappers.)

There are exceptions, but most young musicians -- black or white -- favor liberal politicians over conservative ones.  

I don't know the politics of Living Colour's members, but this song is strictly neutral.  It understands that successful politicians on the left and politicians on the right have a lot in common.  For one thing, their popular support depends on style more than substance -- on personality more than principles.

It will strike some people as outrageous that the song mentions Mussolini and Kennedy in the same line, seemingly equating the two men -- and then goes on to pair Stalin and Gandhi in another line.  

Mussolini addressing some of his cult members
I agree that Stalin and Mussolini are very different from Kennedy and Gandhi, but all four have one thing in common -- they each were cult figures with a number of followers who absolutely worshipped them and believed they could do no wrong.

Lord Acton, a 19th-century British historian, famously said, "Power tends to corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  I'm sure a lot of political leaders get off on power.  The power of any single American politician is severely limited by our system of checks and balances.

Lord Acton
American office-seekers seem to be less motivated by a desire for power than emotional need -- their egos need the attention and adoration they get from the voters.  That's what motivates them.

Having an audience in your thrall is a heady experience for a needy person, and the more successful a political leader is, the more it goes to his head.  The leader begins to believe his own bullsh*t.  

I exploit you 
Still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three
I'm the cult of personality

When you hear people judging the Presidential debates on body language, or whether a candidate was too passive or too aggressive, or whether the candidates "connected" with the TV viewers -- that's getting into "cult of personality" territory, boys and girls.

As you've no doubt heard, the 2012 Presidential contest is competitive in only about nine states.  In the other 41, the winner has been a foregone conclusion for a long time.

The nine competitive "swing" states
If you live in one of the 41, the candidates aren't coming to your city -- and you're probably not seeing any campaign ads or getting any robocalls.  (Oh happy day!)

If you live in a competitive state, however, you are being drowned in TV ads and telephone calls and knocks on your door and fliers under your windshield wipers.

That all sounds pretty awful.  But those of you in the contested states are better off in one important regard:  your votes are much more meaningful.

In fact, the votes of voters in too-close-to-call states like Florida, Virginia, and Ohio are probably too meaningful.  That's because a candidate who wins 51% of the popular vote in a state gets 100% of that state's Electoral College votes -- and the Electoral College is where the President in actually chosen.

Right now, the polls show that Mitt Romney is likely to win the majority of popular votes, but Barack Obama is likely to win the majority of electoral votes.

I'm sure you remember the line from George Orwell's Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."  Well, the same is true of our votes: all votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others.

In large part, that is because the number of electoral votes any state gets is equal to the number of Congressmen and Senators that state has.  The number of Congressmen a state gets depends on its population.  But all states -- regardless of population -- get two Senators.  So small states get a disproportionate number of Electoral College votes.

Here's what I mean.  Ohio has a population of about 11.5 million people, which gives it 18 electoral votes -- one for each of its 16 Congressmen and two Senators.  That's one electoral vote per 639,000 Ohio residents.

Our six smallest states -- Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming -- have a total population of 4.3 million.  Each of those states has three electoral votes -- each has one Congressman and two Senators -- so they have 18 as a group, the same as Ohio has.  That means citizens in those states get one electoral vote per 238,000 residents.  That's a big difference.

What can we do to fix this problem?  One fix would be to choose the President on the basis of each candidate's total popular votes.

While Richard Nixon had an absolute majority of the electoral votes in the 1968 election, he had only a plurality (43.4%)  of the popular vote.  Third-party candidate George Wallace won 13.5% of the popular vote that year and 46 electoral votes.

If Nixon had failed to win a majority in the Electoral College, the President would have been chosen by the House of Representatives, with each state getting one vote.  That happened in the 1800 and 1824 elections.

After the close call in 1968, the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment that would have provided for direct popular election of the President.  (If no candidate received more than 40% of the popular votes, there would have been a runoff between the top two vote-getters.)  President Nixon supported the amendment, but small-state Senators filibustered and the proposed amendment eventually died.

If that amendment had become part of the Constitution, Al Gore would have won the 2000 election.  And Mitt Romney (not Barack Obama) would be the favorite to win this year.

There seems to be little likelihood of direct popular vote replacing the Electoral College anytime soon.  What are some other alternatives to our current system of choosing a President?

What about keeping the Electoral College, but choosing electors in each of the 435 congressional districts rather than doing it winner-take-all in each state?  That would make the Electoral College vote reflect the popular vote much more closely.

Maine and Nebraska already do this.  In 2008, a majority of the voters in two of Nebraska's three Congressional districts voted for John McCain.  A majority of voters in the other district voted for Barack Obama.  So Nebraska's electoral votes were split between the two candidates.

Nebraska's three Congressional districts
Pennsylvania came fairly close to joining Nebraska in 2011.  

Obama won 55% of the popular vote in Pennsylvania in 2008, but won 100% of the state's 21 electoral votes (one for each of its 19 Congressman and two Senators).  But McCain had the majority of votes in 10 of the state's Congressional districts.  So if the proposal that was floated in 2011 had been implemented prior to 2008, McCain would have gotten 10 of Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes instead of zero.  Since McCain won about 45% of the popular vote, giving him 10 of 21 -- or 47% -- of the electoral votes would have been much fairer and more democratic.

Despite the fact that Obama carried Pennsylvania in 2008, the Republicans controlled the state house of representatives, the state senate, and the governor's office a couple of years later.  So why wouldn't they use their power in the state government to change the rules so the Republican candidate would be assured of his or her fair share of electoral votes?

One reason is that you never know for sure who will be helped and who will be hurt by this method of divvying up electoral votes in the future.  If you assume that your candidate will lose, you make this change in a heartbeat.  But if you think your candidate will win, going to Congressional district voting takes away some of his electoral votes.  

Let's say Pennsylvania changed the law only to see Romney win the popular vote in Pennsylvania in 2012 by a narrow margin.  He might only get 11 or 12 of the state's 20 electoral votes instead of all 20.  (Pennsylvania lost one congressional district as a result of the 2010 census.)  Talk about being hoist by your own petard.

So Congressional district voting would likely be implemented only in a state where one party controls all the branches of the state government but expects to lose the Presidential vote.  There aren't that many states like that.  

Republicans would love to see such a system implemented in California, while Democrats in Texas would be all for it as well.  But the dominant party in one-party states like those usually win the winner-take-all Presidential vote as well, so they have no reason to support such a change.

Elbridge Gerry, the father of gerrymandering
Here's one other problem.  Congressional district voting for electors might encourage gerrymandering in order to maximize the number of districts a candidate might win with any particular number of popular votes.  We have enough pro-gerrymandering incentives already.  

I live in the People's Republic of Maryland, where the eight Congressional seats were evenly split between Republicans and Democrats as recently as 2002.  But the Maryland state legislature -- which is in charge of setting the boundaries for Congressional districts -- is dominated by Democrats.  They managed to redraw the boundaries in such a way that two of those Republican districts were transformed into relatively safe Democratic seats.  And this year, one of the two remaining Republicans is expected to lose to a Democrat because his old district was dramatically redrawn.

Maryland can be proud of the fact that it has the least compact (i.e., most gerrymandered) Congressional districts in the whole country.  According to the Washington Post,

The map of Maryland 3rd Congressional District, as redrawn by Democrats . . . is nothing if not cartoonish.  Comically gerrymandered, it slices and dices counties, communities and neighborhoods.  Splattered east, west, north and south of Baltimore, it also takes pains to hack the city itself into pieces. As a case study in majority-party abuse, Maryland’s 3rd District has few peers nationally.

The new 3rd Congressional District (Maryland)
In fact, Maryland itself now counts as the most — read: worst — gerrymandered state in America.   Maryland’s 3rd District . . . is not only the state’s most extreme example of cartographical shenanigans; it also ranks as the third-least-compact district in the country. But Maryland’s 6th, 2nd and 1st Districts aren’t far behind; each is among the 25 worst nationally.
Driven by the prospect of adding a seventh seat to the six their party controls in the eight-member House delegation, Democratic Party leaders went overboard in carving up territory so that Democratic votes would be deployed to maximum advantage, even if it meant stitching them into districts resembling violently spilled coffee.
A few states give the power to determine district boundaries to an independent commission rather than to the state legislature.  Not surprisingly, those states have more compact districts.  (For example, the districts in California -- a commission state -- were described as "dramatically more compact" than Maryland's by one expert.)

In Maryland, we elect all county and state officials in the off-year elections -- 2010, 2014, etc. -- not in the years when the White House is up for grabs.  So the Maryland ballot is going to be pretty short this year.  Given that Maryland is not a competitive state in this year's Presidential election (Obama will win by a wide margin), there's not much reason for me to bother voting next Tuesday.  But I probably will anyway.  

Don't ask me why.

Here's "Cult of Personality":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Bob Davis (Bobby Boy's OCS)October 29, 2012 at 9:39 PM

    Or, how about the proposals to redraw the state lines to conform to demographic and metropolitan realities, rather than arbitrary lines drawn when most of the country was the proverbial "howling wilderness"? One scheme would reduce the number of states from 50 to 38, with, for example, the northwest corner of Indiana being in the same state as Chicago. It would be, as Mr. Spock would say, "Highly logical", but getting 12 legislatures and bureaucracies to agree to go away makes the idea unpalatable to most Earthlings.