Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is it navel-gazing if others gazed first?

I'm being discussed, which is bizarre enough in itself that I'll respond.

First, indeed, those who comment here tend to disagree with me, which certainly does have something to do with my being at once pro-Israel (and thus, to many online and off, a default Republican) and socially liberal (and thus anti-Palin, and thus to many a default Democrat). This combination of views was--and is!--far from unusual among those of my demographic (i.e. New York Jews), but is seen as inconsistent in contemporary politics. I seem like I might be drawn to either side, thus the anti-Zionist comments to any post on Israel, and the pro-Republican comments to posts on the upcoming elections. So it is.

As for those who comment and feel they've been treated unfairly, what can I say? Responding to these disagreements (some of which are substantive, others of which could be addressed if the commenter simply read the post before responding, still others of which seem to demand that I cite supporting evidence for what are only meant to be off-the-cuff remarks) can get tiring. My job (which is not this blog) is also largely about constructing arguments and having them critiqued. If my responses here at times seem abrupt, it might be because I found a comment troll-ish, but it might also be because I'm overwhelmed by the even more demanding world of 19th century French Jews, not to mention the world in which I indeed do my best to respond to criticism with research and nuance. But another thing to keep in mind is that to be female and young and writing about things other than shoes and clothes and boys is to attract a certain... tone. This is true online and off. Before the phrase 'gender card' appears, let's just say I can't imagine anyone wishing to 'help' Matthew Yglesias or Andrew Sullivan with his blogging. Those who are male and/or older will expect that someone younger and female will be not so confident in her views; responding with confidence means one is defensive, but the other option is basically losing each battle. And again, the optimal third option--responding with a researched, sufficiently-nuanced answer--is rarely doable.

I can't remember when I've pointed this out most clearly, but I know I've mentioned it before, but alas, it seems I need to spell it out: I know that being right-wing for Park Slope or for academia is not necessarily to be right-wing under other circumstances. And I know, as well as anyone else who follows American politics, that Giuliani and Bloomberg are considered not 'real' conservatives by many elsewhere in this country. For several reasons, I do have a bit more experience with the beyond-New-York America (and I don't mean New Jersey) than your typical native New Yorker, but I've never claimed to be anyone other than who I am. I've left for long enough to know how different New York really is. I point this out not to be defensive, but to defend myself from what I believe is an unfair accusation, namely that I think my experience of American politics is representative. How could I think such a thing? I live in Park Slope, where organic arugula sprouts from the crevices between the stones of each brownstone.

What I object to is this wave of discussing New York and academia (my two homes at the moment) as not merely unrepresentative of the rest of the country, but as foreign entities that should have no voice in American politics. That's what gets to me, not so much in blog-comments as in the national discourse on the whole, at least as much of it as I have access to in my unrepresentative grad-student hovel.

15 comments:

Withywindle said...

Dibs on An Arugula Sprouts In Brooklyn as a title for a novel or a blogpost. Also on A Rugelach Sprouts In Brooklyn.

Daniel Larison, who just linked to you, has an old blogpost I've linked to before, but can't find now, about the distressing tendency of people with an ideological conception of America to define people who disagree with them as "un-American"; that the benefit of a more ethnic conception of nationhood is that it explodes the idea that someone who disagrees with you is therefore of a different nation. Larison would quite happily say that the Republican right--not at all what he considers conservative--has succumbed to an ideological temptation here, in defining homo arugulas as unAmerican, as in so much else.

Withywindle said...

The grammar on that last sentence is more than usually confused. Please forgive.

Andrew Stevens said...

We can certainly all agree that people calling New York City residents "un-American" are, shall we say, confused? It's impossible to imagine a more American city. In fairness to that side, though, it is at least as common a position that the rubes and unsophisticates in middle America should have no say in American politics. Particularly if they oppose abortion and favor creationism.

For what it's worth, I did cop to being condescending to you in that comment. In my defense, I have, on several occasions, made "helpful" comments to young male bloggers, though not particularly Matthew Yglesias or Andrew Sullivan. One that springs to mind instantly is a young male blogger, also a grad student, and an evangelical Christian conservative. My advice to him is usually along the same lines ("stand up for what you believe," "don't take criticism or disagreement personally," "stop thinking that a Presidential election is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of the country," etc.). If I thought Matthew Yglesias were likely to listen, I'd be happy to advise him as well. Speaking of which, while acknowledging that it is a fair argument to claim that acknowledging any gender difference might be sexism, couldn't we grant that this might be a not terribly negative sexism? People in general (not just men) are more willing to advise women than men because women are perceived to be more likely to take advice. Not pushing this theory, just offering it up for consideration. (I mention this only because when I give advice to young men, I consider more carefully whether they are likely to listen and, therefore, whether it's worth my time to bother. I generally assume that an "angry young woman" can probably be reasoned with, but an "angry young man" probably can't be. If you believe this makes me a hopeless sexist, you might very well have a point.)

responding with confidence means one is defensive, but the other option is basically losing each battle.

This is not at all my point. I at least certainly don't take a confident response to be a defensive response, nor am I referring to your confident responses (e.g. most of this post) when I talk about your defensiveness. I'm talking about the assumptions of sexism and trollery. But, by all means, feel free to ignore whatever comments you like. It's your blog; write about whatever and however you like (not that you need my permission for that). For what it's worth, I do not believe that you have treated any commenter on this blog at all unfairly (certainly not myself), but FLG is not the first person I've seen write on their blog how much they feel like a troll on yours. I don't believe this is because their behavior here is at all trollish. I stand by my comments on why it is I believe they feel this way. (By the way, I actually expect younger people to be much more confident in their views, regardless of gender, than I am in mine.)

My point about your not knowing how unrepresentative your politics are is just because John McCain is very, very far from the "extreme right" which so disturbed you at the Republican convention. Let me tell you about the Committee to Nuke the Whales. . . .

Andrew Stevens said...

By the by, I believe the reason why you see the Republicans openly displaying their contempt for "liberal elites" while you rarely see Democrats openly (key word) display their contempt for rural folks is for the exact same reason that blacks can complain about whites openly, but not vice versa. Power imbalance. When the Democrats beat up on the rubes, hicks, and rednecks, they look like bullies while the Republicans get to look like battling underdogs when they fight the bicoastal elites. But don't mistake this for thinking the contempt doesn't go both ways. In the mainstream media and in the blogging world, the contempt much of the left has for rural America is not all that well hidden. It's just that their politicians don't get to say such things without risking getting punished at the ballot box.

Phoebe said...

OK, I'll respond to the two substantive points--whether or not I'm an "angry young woman" (I don't feel especially angry) seems beside the point.

"My point about your not knowing how unrepresentative your politics are is just because John McCain is very, very far from the 'extreme right' which so disturbed you at the Republican convention."

Two things. One, I don't remember when I called McCain "extreme-right," and two, even though I agree he's far from "extreme," the further his campaign goes to appease those who do want to "nuke the whales" to use your terminology, the more off-putting he is to the Bloomberg-Giuliani-type Republicans.

As for a "power imbalance" akin to that between blacks and whites existing between the rural and the urban, here I just have to say, no. Did city folk in this country ever enslave and inflict Jim Crow laws on the rural? For all the comments I've gotten on this blog about how I apparently see anti-Semitism everywhere, I would not even think for a second that things have been as tough for Jews as for blacks in this country. I don't see the point in making such a comparison, let alone in comparing the situation of white, often middle-class Protestants, in any part of this country, to that of blacks.

What I would say is that in this campaign the Republican party has succeeded remarkably well at painting rural and exurban white Christians as powerless underdogs, that is, at making the press and even lowly bloggers no one reads afraid of saying anything negative about Sarah Palin because to do so would be to insult a powerless group.

Petey said...

"Before the phrase 'gender card' appears, let's just say I can't imagine anyone wishing to 'help' Matthew Yglesias ... with his blogging. "

Your imagination is impoverished.

Petey said...

"the optimal third option--responding with a researched, sufficiently-nuanced answer--is rarely doable."

You obviously need to drink more coffee and/or sleep less.

Will said...

It is worth noting that the “rural voter as underdog” point is very inaccurate when you consider how the US Government is set up. If anything, rural voters are portrayed so positively not because they lack power, but because they have so much of it. That is, its more of a Russian politicians don’t trash Putin then a white people don’t make black jokes thing.

Keep in mind that the US is not a one man one vote democracy. The senate apportions 2 senators per state regardless of population. I recall reading in what seemed a credible source that less than 10% of the US population would be sufficient to control the senate if you had a slight majority in the 25 least populated states. This political advantage is replicated in the Electoral College (though slightly toned down since that does also include representatives in each state’s count as well as senators).

Rural voters have political power disproportionate to their population and when political power is concentrated in the hands of a small minority those seeking political favors will go out of their way to appeal to that minority.

Petey said...

"Keep in mind that the US is not a one man one vote democracy. The senate apportions 2 senators per state regardless of population. I recall reading in what seemed a credible source that less than 10% of the US population would be sufficient to control the senate if you had a slight majority in the 25 least populated states. This political advantage is replicated in the Electoral College (though slightly toned down since that does also include representatives in each state’s count as well as senators)."

The anti-urban / pro-rural bias is also present in the House, though not to the extent it is in the Senate.

Urban districts tend to concentrate Democratic votes due to the geographical constraints of cities, to the extent of creating many 80/20 Democratic districts, which means that Democratic votes get "wasted".

But rural districts tend to go 60/40 Republican, which means fewer Republican "wasted" votes.

All of the 70%+ Congressional districts in the country are Democratic.

(Also, there is a separate but similar issue of majority-minority Congressional districts in the South which are created to produce African-American House members at the expense of "wasting" even more Democratic votes.)

In short, the Senate heavily undercounts urban votes, but the House moderately undercounts urban votes. Obviously, this means that the electoral college undercounts urban votes somewhere between moderately and heavily.

Stuff like this is why there is a 65% popular majority for real gun control in America, but yet gun control remains a sure political loser at the federal level, or why the federal government heavily subsidizes highways but not mass transit.

Petey said...

To illustrate in the case of the Senate: a resident of Wyoming has 37 times more voting power in the Senate than a resident of New York.

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, I did not actually call you an "angry young woman" and didn't mean to imply that I thought you were. That was simply an illustrative example.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do have to intervene on Petey and Will. There are a few important points here:

A) The small state/large state divide doesn't necessarily have anything to do with rural/urban, though I do not deny that they are probably correlated. Delaware is not particularly rural and has only one electoral vote. If D.C. were admitted as a state, it would be the fourth smallest state (after Wyoming, Alaska, and Vermont) and it's 100% urban. I think most people don't think of Texas as particularly "urban" (though in reality, it is fairly urban, being 80.3% urban), and it's the second biggest state in the Union. The most rural states in the Union are Vermont (32.2% urban), West Virginia (36.1% urban), Maine (44.6% urban), and Mississippi (47.1% urban) not, as you might think, Montana (52.5% urban), Wyoming (65.0% urban), and Alaska (67.5% urban). There are plenty of moderate size states which are fairly rural such as North Carolina (50.4% urban), South Carolina (54.6% urban) and Georgia (63.2% urban). (Figures are from the 1990 Census.)

B) There is something to what Petey says about Democratic votes getting wasted due to how districts are carved up. This is a state-by-state issue and I'm not going to address it. I'm here to defend the Constitution, the writers of which thought a great deal longer and better about this issue than either Will or Petey.

The House of Representatives, despite being apportioned by population, is heavily weighted toward big states. To realize why this is, we can conduct a simple thought experiment. Let us imagine only three states: A, B, and C. A has ten times the population of C and five times the population of B. So we form a legislature and give A 10 votes, B 2 votes, and C 1 vote. See the problem? B and C are entirely disenfranchised. They might as well not send legislators at all since A is always going to outvote them. You can bet that this occurred to the representatives of the Constitutional Convention from New Jersey. It is also obvious that a one state/one vote (or two votes) system is highly unfair to the larger states like Virginia. And so we had the Connecticut Compromise, which also gave us the Electoral College system now used to elect the President.

Did they get it right? Of course not. They'd never even heard of the Shapley-Shubik voting power index or the Banzahaf voting power measure or other sophisticated mathematical tools to analyze these questions that we have today. But their system is definitely superior to both the New Jersey Plan (one state/one vote), which is obvious to everyone, and to the Virginia Plan (apportion by population) that Petey and Will seem to favor.

To briefly justify the Shapley-Shubik system (and to pick one, though both rival systems give similar results for the Electoral College), the "power" of a coalition is measured by the fraction of all possible voting sequences in which that coalition casts the deciding vote, the vote that first guarantees passage or failure. In our three-state example, State A would have an index of 1, meaning that they always win in all possible sequences and States B and C have an index of 0, meaning they always lose. It is this measure of power which should, to be scrupulously fair, be apportioned to population, not the number of votes that a coalition should get. It turns out, if we analyze this with respect to the Electoral College, that in fact they came very close to getting it right. The large states' ability to throw their weight around, it turns out, more than counteracts the proportional advantage given to small states. A voter in California is, in fact, the most powerful voter in the system a priori. (A posteriori, of course, a voter in Ohio or Pennsylvania is probably more powerful since California is going to vote Democratic in any event.) The weakest voters are from Montana (which had the largest voting population of the three-EV states in 2000). A priori, a Califonia voter has more than three times the chance of his vote swinging the election than a voter in Montana. After California, comes Texas, New York, Florida, etc. However, it should be stated that all states other than California are underweighted with respect to the United States average, meaning that California is stealing from everybody.

The Senate and the House are, of course, a much, much more complicated analysis since it's a bicameral system. It is unquestionable that Wyoming voters are the most powerful voters in the Senate. It is also unquestionable that California voters are the most powerful voters in the House (and Wyoming is close to, but not quite, disenfranchised). It is not at all clear which state wins in the final analysis. It might very well be Wyoming, but it won't be a blowout.

Will said...

Andrew,

Just to clarify, I am not saying that a one man one vote system is necessarily better than the system in place now or that I am smarter than the framers and could do better. I was just pointing out that looking at the structure of the government (and implicitly assuming a correlation between less populous states and rural voters) has explanatory power for the observed behavior of politicians catering to rural voters.

Petey said...

"I'm here to defend the Constitution, the writers of which thought a great deal longer and better about this issue than either Will or Petey."

The writers of the Constitution only spent a few years thinking about it. I've actually thought longer about it than they.

"It is also unquestionable that California voters are the most powerful voters in the House"

Well, no.

The voting power of resident of California in the House is actually about 25% less than the voting power of a resident of Wyoming in the House, due to some fairly random artifacting in allocating House delegations by state.

"The small state/large state divide doesn't necessarily have anything to do with rural/urban, though I do not deny that they are probably correlated."

In practice, they are highly correlated.

Multiple decisions taken by the framers, some intentional and some accidental, all conspire to underweight urban voters in the federal government. Multiple decisions taken by legislators after 1789, again some intentional and some accidental, have further acted to underweight urban voters.

These decisions act to underweight urban voters to greater or lesser degrees in the House, Senate, and electoral college, and the sum of this is not trivial.

Our voter weighting system has big policy impacts, such as my example above of why Washington heavily funds highways but not mass transit.

And it has political/cultural impacts, where stuff like Palin-schtick can work even if an actual majority of the country isn't into Palin-schtick, since Palin-schtick is targeted to the most valuable voters.

In short, no matter how you slice it, the average urban voter has considerably less say over what happens in Washington than the average rural voter.

Andrew Stevens said...

Will, actually I didn't mean to be too critical of your claim. I actually think that a small majority of the country is more likely to sympathize with rural folks than urban folks and this is indeed a big part of why it's all right to bash urban folks, but not rural folks. (Just to be crystal clear, I'm opposed to bashing either.)

As for Petey, I obviously lost him around paragraph 2 as he seems to have completely missed my point about voter power analyses.

This:

Well, no.

The voting power of resident of California in the House is actually about 25% less than the voting power of a resident of Wyoming in the House, due to some fairly random artifacting in allocating House delegations by state.


is a complete non-sequitur. Petey is again assuming that a direct apportionment by population is obviously the only fair way to apportion legislators, which I have already falsified. Sorry, Petey, I realize that you were led to believe there would be no math.