Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The horrible politics of Recount 2016 scolding

Jill Stein and the Green Party have embarked on an effort, Recount 2016, to recount the Presidential votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As of yesterday, they'd raised more than $6 million in small donations, and are on track to raise about twice what they raised in the campaign itself. And predictably, this effort has been greeted by a wave of scolding. I'll take this article by bmaz as the reference case, although as another example Rich Yeselson tweeted about how the recount effort was a scam or "mass grifting". From the bmaz post: the effort is "folly", "cynical", "a crass vanity project at the last second by a bit player glomming on for self promotion". John Cole is shorter: grifter, idiot, or attention seeking diva.

Before I describe why this is probably the worst possible reaction, I'll clarify a few things: I don't expect the recount effort to find any evidence of hacking, and I don't expect it to change the results of the election in any way. The most likely direct effect is a shift of a few hundred votes, although there is a small chance of a major scandal of some kind which I'll address below. So why is this kind of scolding bad?

1. Democratic Party won't fight for you

It's clear that this recount is being funded by money from Democratic Party small donors, not Green Party ones -- given that the amount raised in the actual election was much smaller. So they want to continue to fight. What is everyone saying about the coming age of Trump and possible neo-fascism? Don't give in, don't preemptively surrender, don't normalize, resist. OK, so why isn't the Democratic Party doing this? They are doing what they always do, which is to preemptively give in. Why aren't they supporting what their base wants to do?

The answer to this is presumably that this is a bad fight because it's doomed to failure. But that's a horrible political lesson even if it's realistic. Resistance to a more powerful opponent (i.e. one with the Presidency, Senate, House and SC) means that you resist whenever and wherever you can. And it isn't doomed to failure: there's a small but significant chance of some kind of scandal that will get turned up, because when people look at American election machinery in depth, it's badly maintained.

The second answer is that we *shouldn't* want this scandal to be turned up -- that we have to defend the legitimacy of American elections. Why? I'm an anarchist so maybe I'm constitutionally incapable of understanding this, but we just had an election won by the popular vote loser, with extensive voter suppression efforts. Maybe people shouldn't be told that they have to believe in the system as it is?

2. Technocratic lectures are just what we need right now

Foolish donor base, wasting your money on efforts that will fail because of complicated election law issues that you can't begin to understand! Don't you know that the experts know better? Get back in your box.

3. Insulting your way into an alliance

Now it's time for all of us to come together against Trump, so you leftists are fools / scammers / grifters / vanity cases. That lecture may have had some success against susceptible people back when you were selling the Democratic Party as the lesser evil, but guess what you lost big. If you're going to lose, you have no value as the lesser evil.

There's a big difference between a scam and a foolish project. One that you haven't observed, so why should people listen to you when you say that Trump is scamming? By the way, it is perfectly fine for the Green Party to promote themselves as political actors through activities like this: they are not your adjunct.

4. Blaming people for their marginalization

It's common knowledge that the Democratic and Republican parties have cooperated to make it very difficult for third parties in the American system. Most of the barriers are unheard of in almost any other advanced democracy. So now that you've helped to ensure that the Green Party is marginal, you're blaming them for not having the best election law experts and not being entirely up to speed on the mechanics involved. OK, why is that? The Democratic Party could have done this if they'd wanted to, with all of the expertise that they have.

5. The left /liberal alliance, redux

What, exactly, do people want this supposed alliance to do? What role is the left supposed to have? However you define the left as opposed to the center-left, it's numerically very small in America. The natural role would seem to be protest leadership and radical resistance in general: as the post below mentions, the tiny number of anarchists in America are encountered by police as 1/3 of their 3-part categorization of protestors.

But protest for what, and resistance for what? If it's to return neoliberalism to power, then no thanks! Serious protest is dangerous under Obama and will remain so or become more so under Trump. Are liberals going to support and defend protestors? Of course not. People can already hear the first rumblings of "they're too impolite, they have to not challenge American institutions".

So the message now is back off, crazy scamming vanity-driven hippies, we've got this. Is that really what you want to go with?


  1. bmaz responded via Twitter, and back off and contempt are exactly the message that he wanted to go with.

  2. I agree that the effort is not likely to yield any change in outcome; at best, it might draw some attention to scandalous deficiency in the mechanics of the electoral process.
    It is worth recalling that a state-wide recount in Florida in 2000 would have made Gore President. The Dems apparently did know enough about the mechanics of Florida vote counting to even suspect this was possible let alone probable, so they fought ineffectually for the wrong things and ended up maneuvered into the U.S. Supreme Court where they lost an argument about whether a selective recount was fair.

    For the wonky, any count, even a count ostensibly of a whole population, is a kind of sampling and subject to a kind of measurement error. In the system in place in many Florida counties, machines are used to count the ballots. The machines reject some ballots as irregular and those votes are not counted ordinarily, but the votes on some those ballots rejected by machine may be legally valid and would be counted in a hand recount. If an election is not close, it is economic to go with the cheap, quick if very slightly dirty machine method. A hand count paid for by newspapers in 2001 showed that ballots rejected for "overvote" -- marking the ballot twice for the same candidate in some way -- would have tipped the outcome of a state-wide hand count to Gore. No one in the Democratic Party while the vote was in dispute understood this well enough to devise an appropriate strategy.

    The deficiency in Dem Party expertise was more moral than technical, imho, though one shortcoming compounded the other. The moral deficiency was the cynical failure to embrace fairness of process. Gore's campaign sought a recall only where it saw its best chance winning by simple chance variation in the count, based on counting only places where Gore's vote was already large.

    I think Democrats in 2016 are showing a similar moral deficiency in their reaction to Stein's quixotic effort. Quixotic efforts are valuable in affirming the "sacredness" of the ideals that prop up institutions. Electoral integrity has to be a principle above Party. I do not it is currently. I do not think most Dems actually care, nor do they recognize that their apathy is both apparent and pathologic.

    Of course, I am part of the minority that thinks the Electoral College did its job. Many Dems think the popular vote winner should win, end of story and the Electoral College is a useless anachronism. Combined with anemic resistance to vote repression and a hostility to the legitimacy of the motivations for Trump's support, the picture of Democrat's political commitment that forms is not pretty.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Bruce. While I understand what you've written about the affirming the "sacredness" of ideals, that ship has long since sailed. I haven't seen anyone, from the uninformed to the highest devotees of the Church of Savvy, able to understand why the Green Party might intervene when they have no chance of winning, or what the Green long-term interests are. They can only see it in terms of some kind of immediate-payoff self-serving maneuver.

    What gets me more is the failure of political loyalty. In the neoliberal era, the Democratic Party demanded whatever upward loyalty it could get, but had no download loyalty at all. This is just elemental politics: if you don't do anything for your base, your party will go away. All of the stuff about grifting and scams is expressed at a primitive level where the concern is ostensibly that the Green Party will raise money for the recount and then keep it. But the reality is that the Democratic base wants something done and their leaders have been completely unwilling to provide anything. All that they can tell them is the usual "there is no alternative". So the source of the "grift" sentiment seems to me to be that the Green Party is poaching, stepping in to present the Democratic donor base with something to do, no matter how futile, rather than the nothing that the experts insist that they be presented with.

  4. Here's one of the things it's about. The Greens are building electoral infrastructure for their party -- training volunteers in each county. *That's* the metaphorical money in the bank that they're keeping. Not actual money.

    And they aren't reinventing a wheel already invented by the Democrats, because if you're not willing to use a wheel, it might as well not exist.