Control of the Political Medium

Five decades ago, McLuhan opined that the medium is the message. Recognizing some liberties of poesy, he perhaps meant no more than that the medium influences how we perceive the message, sometimes profoundly.

But could the medium totally subsume the message? McLuhan never seems to go there. The closest example is the degenerate case of a light bulb, where there is a simple binary message content, so by definition the medium is the entire message (a lighted space or darkness). But are there non-degenerate examples, where there is expectation of message content, but the content becomes subsumed by the medium? In engineering terms, such a medium would be 100% inefficient as a medium and hence at best useless, and at worst nefarious. No one would build one, unless of course its purpose was to create the illusion of an efficient medium, but one that is designed to do the opposite. Hmmm.

Consider the medium of the American political process from this perspective. Then our expectation is that the message is the total of candidate values held, objectives desired, and plans to meet those objectives. This message contains the most vital information a democracy requires to choose effective leaders. Hence we should be doing continuous quality assurance to ensure this medium is state-of-art efficient. Else at best, we run the risk of  promoting ineffective leaders, and in worst case, ensure ourselves directionless, chaotic, unaccountable leadership. Hmmm.

We perceive no formal QA function operating on our political process, so we should expect inefficiencies have been creeping in, diminishing message integrity. It’s likely time for a tune-up. In order to tune it, let’s first inquire about characteristics of our political medium that would enable it to corrupt the message content, allowing us to concentrate our QA efforts in these areas.

Our ideal political medium distributes its entrusted messages, enabling discussion and argument of content by audiences of voters prior to elections. The objective of argument is persuasion that some candidate is best suited for the job and has the best plan for the job. The candidate whose persuasion is greatest is elected to the job.

However, we have developed a two-party political system to simplify elections (actually to make election outcomes easier to control). The medium is forced into a two-state implementation, similar to the light bulb’s light and dark states. Because of endless squabbles about which side deserves to be called light and which warrants the dark moniker, the two medium states are now called blue and red. In the process, all non-red, non-blue content is purged from the medium.

Now such a two state medium should still be efficient at delivering various shades of red or blue message content. But it was still not sufficiently responsive to outside control. So each channel of the medium was given a pre-election filter called a primary, which purges all but one candidate. Outside controllers, the party apparatchiks and big donors, work together to synthesize a new message that makes them feel good. In the process, all original message content is potentially lost. Each winning primary blue and red candidate is coerced to adopt the synthesized message of matching hue.

Now such a synthesized message might happen to closely correspond to an aggregate view of the original messages, to which the chosen primary candidate would still append her own qualifications and values. So in theory, this still might be an efficient medium. But such an eventuality would still potentially confound attempts to control the ultimate outcome from outside. So the synthetic message and candidate qualifications and values are cached and no longer used. This was the last chance for integrity of the medium and hence the last place where QA would be effective. From now on, the medium operates in light bulb mode. The resulting message is red or blue, depending on which side of the medium produces it.

Now it becomes clear that the medium has totally subsumed the original message content. All of value in that original message is lost to us. The medium is no longer concerned with message at all, other than to seek out and destroy any bits of original message still floating around. It’s now entirely about control and voter manipulation. Now a series of political devices come to play to exercise control and manipulate voters.

Handler Filters: Candidates are carefully scripted by party bureaucracies, forced to tow a specific line. The scripts take the form of a list of talking points and bear no relation to the candidate’s original message. As with bureaucracy everywhere, these points are reduced to vacuous homilies and aphorisms, each designed to provoke a subliminal gut reaction, usually fear and loathing (get them before they get us), or self-aggrandizement (we’re the greatest and they’re not), or righteousness (God is on our side).

Polling (Who’s Up, Who’s Down): Political reporters are fascinated by, and harrangue endlessly about, polling numbers, the briefest of sound bites, akin to body counts to tell who is winning the war. Of course, changing how the questions are framed, and how the sample groups are selected, can change a 20% lead into a 20% deficit, as has happened before. Is there meaningful content in a thumbs-up, thumbs-down poll? Sounds a lot like a light bulb in operation.

Fake News and Red Herrings: Red herrings are boogeymen, hoisted to divert and dissuade. Sometimes, they raise a scary specter of what will happen to the world if the other guy wins. Of course, the herring hoister promises that his guy will never let that boogeyman get you. Red herrings are often used to mitigate an adverse impact from factual news. When factual news is damaging to one’s image, it must always be denied vehemently, never a mea culpa. Then the public’s attention will be directed to another story, a red herring, to drum up fear and loathing in the other side’s candidate, and to cause people to forget about the factual evidence. A classic example occurred when the 2017 Special Prosecutor for Russian interference in the last election issued the first indictments of people close to the President (the factual news part). The President’s major news channel immediately denied the President’s relationship with the indicted people, and instead blamed the candidate he defeated for Russian collusion in our elections. Further, they impugned the character of the special prosecutor, and called up the court of public opinion to determine if the prosecutor was doing his job well, by interviewing a radio station personality who conducted a straw poll in, you guessed it, Louisiana. Thus, real news is tarred as fake news. The day after, the factual news media received comments from staff within the President’s news channel, saying their station’s coverage of the findings sickened them, suggesting the outlet had entirely lost its way as an independent news source. Wonder what took them so long to reach that conclusion?

Hit Pieces (Ad Hominem Attacks, a vicious form of Fake News): Issue direct attacks on the other candidate’s integrity, causing voters to forget any of the other side’s talking points that may have resonated previously, filling the void with fear about the candidate’s worthiness as a human being. Example, the catch phrases from 2016: Crooked Hillary and Throw Her in Jail. Not only is the candidate’s original message lost, but also the synthetic talking point message of her handler. Even more effective is to delay the hit piece until the last moment prior to an election, to avoid rebuttal. Recall 2016, when the FBI chief (nominally Red) suggested just before the election that the FBI had not cleared the Blue candidate of illegal activity regarding email accounts. Then after the Blue candidate lost, he reversed and said no culpability was found after all.

Debates (talking point harangues, aka loser filters): Debates are simply a row of inquisitors interrogating a bank of candidates. For every query thrown by the row, someone in the bank bats it back using a talking point. Sometimes, a dim bulb candidate gets stuck deciding what point to bat back, so he will just repeat the same talking point over and over in response to any query. This is a profoundly sick game in which not even the illusion of content materializes. Yet because the media framed it as a debate, the audience believes it received  its fill of valuable insight. The media decide who won and trumpet the news, but usually, there are no winners, only conspicuous losers.

Sound Bites: The audience is continually being groomed to respond solely to bite-sized kernels of message. Any attempt to coherently associate these bites into a meaningful message are undone by the smallness of the bites themselves, and the time limits imposed by the media in this day of bling-bling communications. Any message consists of a box of puzzle pieces, with no time to assemble them. Which is good, because the puzzle pieces are entirely random; no finished message could ever result. Yet we still attempt to imagine a finished puzzle, an illusion of content.

Noise Tunnels (talking point repeaters, the new yellow journalism): Talking heads review one side’s talking points ad nauseum. Good news is mapped into own side’s talking points, bad news to other side’s talking points. Interviews ‘analyze and discuss’ talking points, quoting sound-bite statistics that purport to support their talking points. An opposition strawman is battered into helplessness by the sting of the talking points. Books of talking points are promoted. Comedians have fun with the opposition’s talking points. The newly politicized clergy point out that our gal’s talking points are more Godly than the other guy’s. Again, these exercises are designed to confuse and confound, while creating the illusion of content.

Gerrymandering (Voter Suppression): If all attempts to game the process via the political medium so far have failed, there is still opportunity for control, via enabling your side’s voters and disenfranchising the other side’s. Voter districts are redrawn to favor one side over another. In-state political boundaries are now often drawn by politically polarized groups to favor their own side, by cracking, packing, hijacking, and kidnapping:

cracking

Divide a district’s majority, sending the pieces into surrounding districts as minority players.

packing

Merge party voting blocks into the same district, offsetting that one win by setting up opposite party wins in the surrounding districts.

hijacking

Force two strong incumbents to face off against each other in a newly drawn district (a variant of packing).

kidnapping

To get rid of a strong opponent, redraw his district to fragment his voting block (a variant of cracking).

In 2014, Stephanopoulos/McGhee developed and published a metric for determining partisan symmetry that could assist in court analyses of gerrymandering suits. From the abstract: “We introduce a new measure of partisan symmetry: the efficiency gap (EG). It represents the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast. It captures, in a single tidy number, all of the packing and cracking decisions that go into a district plan. It also is superior to the metric of gerrymandering, partisan bias, that litigants and scholars have used until now. Partisan bias can be calculated only by shifting votes to simulate a hypothetical tied election. The efficiency gap eliminates the need for such counterfactual analysis.”

The Supreme Court, in Gill v. Whitford, may be deciding the fate of gerrymandering going forward, in a first case based on the EG. Yet the current Supremes, all Ivy League, are troubled/bored/baffled by the statistical argument. It is a legal field that is neglected in the Court’s usual feeder schools. Partly due to their discomfort with statistics, the judges deprecate empiricism/analysis in favor of continuing tradition/precedent, to our increasing detriment. Oliver Wendell Holmes, prescient regarding this future liability, delivered a famous speech at Boston University, advocating for empiricism over traditionalism: “For the rational study of the law … the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics. It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.”

The race is on. Will the courts smarten up in time to save democracy from partisan ruination? We see the problem graphically when a map of electoral voting districts colors the entire USA red, except for the coastal strips. Yet the blue candidate actually won the election of votes cast, the popular vote, by a margin of over 2 million votes.

Voter IDs (Voter Suppression): Artificial restrictions are thrown up to control who can vote. Many voters would then have to spend significant time and energy jumping through hoops to acquire a formal picture ID, with the vary poorest and most handicapped people disproportionately disenfranchised in the process.

The new message is clear. Big money and political insiders get their political way through mass deception and manipulation, choosing for you, the voter, whether you can vote, and if so, what to believe, and hence how to vote. Yet their control need not be absolute or permanent. It may be possible to get the people to reject the new message, once they perceive and understand it. So our QA process had best focus all initial effort on the shedding of light on the various tricks used to manipulate and control, simultaneous with requiring remedial education in elementary statistics for our hide-bound justices. They need to be acquainted and comfortable with the tools needed to combat the advanced tools employed by the manipulators in their quest for absolute power.

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