Archive for December, 2000

Radical Son

Sunday, December 31st, 2000

Many people are Conservatives by default. Their parents were of a Conservative bent and they followed along the same path without much thought. Others grow to embrace their ideological heritage after thoughtful consideration.

For some not born to Conservatism, a key event fertilizes Liberal ground and a new Conservative blossoms from an unexpected place. Peggy Noonan, Conservative pundit and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, grew up in a working-class Democratic family in the Northeast. In the 1960’s, she realized that many fellow students who opposed the War in Vietnam did not do so out of love for America, but out of hate. The war was not only a mistake, but also evidence of the fundamental corruptness of America. This clash with her patriotic upbringing was the beginning of her political transformation.

Perhaps no one has journeyed quite as far from the dark side to the side of goodness and light or has as much to tell us about the Left as David Horowitz. Horowitz was a “red-diaper” baby raised in the forties by two committed Communists, Phillip and Blanche Horowitz. His father was a public school teacher who was suspended by the New York school system for refusing to say whether he was a Communist. Phillip was later given a cash settlement to make up for the suspension. The elder Horowitz even traveled to the Soviet Union as part of a political pilgrimage. Young David’s upbringing included Marxist instruction and even involvement in the protest of the Rosenbergs’ execution for espionage. No one could have better Leftist credentials.

Even as a young man, Horowitz was a proficient polemicist who debated from the Left in college. As an adult, he shored up his socialist credentials with six years of research and writing in London and worked for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. When he returned to the United States, he was a charter member of the so-called New Left and a writer and an editor for a flagship of the Left, Ramparts magazine.

In his book Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, Horowitz chronicles his transformation from the New Leftist to a Reagan Republican. Actually, the odyssey began with an unlikely event. After the death of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khruschev came to power. The effort to solidify Khruschev’s hold over the Soviet Union required undermining the legacy of his predecessor. The Khruschev Report documented the cruelty and crimes of Stalin.

It is not remarkable that one totalitarian ruler built his reputation on the bones of another. The reaction of the Marxists in the West, however, is remarkable. With few exceptions and without much self-reflection, the Left embraced Khruschev and the Khruschev Report and its repudiation of Stalin with the same fierce loyalty they one lavished on Stalin.

Young Horowitz perceived this hypocrisy and devoted his early adult years to trying to reconcile the contradiction. In his writings, Horowitz tried unsuccessfully to recast socialism in a way that could avoid the excesses of Stalin. Is there an inherent tendency, he wondered, for Marxist regimes to become destructive of individual rights?

What also bothered Horowitz is that few on the Left even felt a need to address the question. Most were satisfied to just criticize corporate America and the West. Nonetheless, Horowitz worried about this large snag in the political cloth of socialism. This snag was the first flaw that unraveled Horowitz’s Leftist views and would later lead to what he labeled as “second thoughts.”

While at Ramparts, Horowitz became a confidant of Huey Newton of the notorious Black Panthers. To the Left, the Panthers represented the front lines of a coming guerilla war to bring about revolution in the United States.

For a while, Hororwitz overlooked his discomfort with the drugs and petty criminality of the Panthers. Part of the revolutionary doctrine at the time held that flaunting conventional laws was in itself an important revolutionary act.

This all changed when Betty Van Patter was killed while working as a bookkeeper for a community organization run by the Panthers. According to Horowitz, Van Patter asked too many questions and was killed by the Panthers. Horowitz was especially devastated since he had recommended Van Patter for the position.

The Left, many of them friends and acquaintances of Horowitz and Van Patter, turned aside and avoided looking at the obvious complicity of the Panthers. If the Panthers were linked to the murder, it would be a set back to the movement. The consequences for any particular individual could not stand in the way of the revolution. The Left just closed its eyes and forgot about Betty Van Patter.

Horowitz could not forget. Van Patter’s death pulled on the earlier snag of his earlier doubts about the practical consequences of the absolute loyalty required of the Left. Suddenly, the inability of the Left to address or even admit the brutality of the North Vietnamese, Communist China, and Cuba now played out in a very immediate and personal way. In the words of Horowitz:

“How could the Left be reformed, if it refused to confront itself? How could it propose to change the world, if it was unwilling to ask whether it ideas were valid? How could it transform the world if it couldn’t transform itself.”

When the Communist Sandanistas threatened to make Nicaragua into another repressive, dictatorial Cuba, Horowitz finally made public the transformation he had been undergoing for a decade and endorsed Ronald Reagan’s anti-Sandanista policies.

Horowitz is now as polemically active on the Right as he was once was on the Left. Not unexpectedly, many of his former allies and friends turned on him with a vengeance, some even suggesting that perhaps he was a CIA agent. In academia and left-leaning cultural circles he was no longer welcome. Horowitz contrasts the viciousness with which he was attacked by the Left for his apostasy with the relative forgiveness granted Gary Wills and Barry Lind whose political journeys were in the exact opposite directions as Horowitz’s.

What Horowitz faced is the inherent flaw in the socialist vision. Socialism views humans as perfectible if only provided with the right political and economic circumstances. Humans, we are told, can look to themselves to solve the problems of greed, envy, pride and the other sins that have burdened mankind. Socialism is always pointing to the vision of a utopian future and thus finds it easier to overlook casualties along the way.

The Conservative intuition is rooted in the past with the notion that the past provides a reliable guide to human nature. Humans have great capacities for both good and evil and governments are instituted to protect us from each other. Indeed, according to James Madison, “Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.” This is a warning that the Left fails to acknowledge.

Madison added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. If men were angels there would be no need for government.”

The Left agrees with the latter statement and argues that the state will ultimately wither away as men become angels. However, in socialist states, people do not become angels and the degree of government management and intrusiveness increases. Madison and the Founders, by contrast, created a government with checks and balances to prevent tyranny. Under the US Constitution, not only was human imperfection conceded it was counted on. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” as a means to protect ourselves from each other.

As a consequence of their view of human nature, Conservatives ironically have proven more willing to forgive than those on the activist Left. What impressed Horowitz in his political odyssey was

“… the tolerance of conservatives I knew for human faults and failings, including my own. Some conservatives were like the flinty puritans of liberal caricature, but most of my new acquaintances and political associates were not. Over time, their tolerance became intelligible to me. What made one conservative was the recognition of the human capacity for evil, for just plain screwing up. That was why the rules were important. Not because conservatives expected no one to break them. But because having rules that were respected made it harder for people to do so. This was a more subtle — in the long run more trustworthy — form of compassion than liberals’ softness of heart.”

Not many people would have the intellectual depth and the emotional courage to make the political journey that David Horowitz did. Conservatives are better off because of it.

The Case for the Electoral College

Sunday, December 24th, 2000

Had the protest and contest of the Florida presidential election results not lasted so long and engendered so much bitterness, we would have had more time to focus on the real uniqueness of this election. Vice-President Al Gore won the popular vote, while Governor George Bush won the vote in the Electoral College and hence the presidency. If we were not obsessing over the dangling chad or the dimpled ballot, national attention might have lingered over the wisdom of the Electoral College.

It is ironic that before the election, Gore partisans were open to the possibility of an Electoral College win and a loss in the popular vote. They anticipated that an extraordinarily large margin in Texas for Bush, might overwhelm narrower victories by Gore in electoral vote-rich states like California and New York. The outcome, of course, was reversed. Bush won in the Electoral College.

There is an easy emotional appeal to the argument that the winner of the popular vote should be the next president. It conforms to our general notions of and sympathies with democracy. While the Founders appreciated the ethical imperative that the government should be based on the ascent of the governed, they also realized that the tyranny of the majority could be just as destructive as the tyranny of the few. That is precisely why they fashioned a limited government constrained by internal checks and balances and specific Constitutional limitations.

For example, the state representation in the House of Representatives is proportional to the population. The Senate, where each state is entitled to two representatives, balances the arrangement of the House. In engineering terms, the Senators with six-year terms sequenced so that a third of the seats are contested every two years, act as a low-pass filter keeping the Representatives, with two-year terms, from responding too rapidly and with insufficient deliberation to the passing whims of the populace. In an important sense, the argument for the Electoral College is the same argument for having a Senate and a House rather than a simple unicameral legislature.

In the Electoral College, each state is represented by the number of representatives plus two, the number of Senators. Although populace states are entitled to more electors, rural and low population states are represented in higher proportion than their relative population. This arrangement has several important advantages.

The primary advantage is that the Electoral College insures that a president must have broad support over many regions of the country as opposed to popularity in a relatively few heavily-populated states. If presidents appeared to be solely regional candidates, it would tend to undermine the cohesiveness of the country. Given the current Electoral College, no person could become president without both the support of a substantial portion of the population and broad support over different regions of the country.

The Bush-Gore presidential election was incredibly close. Whoever would have ultimately been the victor, would have had popular appeal over a broad number of states. If the election had been based only on the popular vote, both would have engaged in a different campaign strategy. Bush would have concentrated his efforts in Texas and some populace midwestern states where he might have accumulated even larger majorities. Likewise, Gore would have focused in the Northeast trying to generate enough votes to offset Bush’s advantages elsewhere. Bush would have had to tack further to the right of the political spectrum, while Gore would have fled to the left. Both candidates would have had less incentive to appeal to the middle.

The Electoral College arrangement forced both candidates to contest states where both had a chance for victory. This forced Bush and Gore to hone their messages for more moderate and mainstream voters. In the end, both the candidates and the country would have been more polarized with a direct popular vote. Less polarization may displease strong-minded advocates, however reducing polarization enhances political stability.

Second, the Electoral College insures that the voices of important minorities will be heard. The voice of a minority might be drowned out in a national popular election. Minorities, both ethnic and economic, would likely be very important in some states. The effort to win the electors from these states compels candidates to address the concerns of minorities.

Third, the Electoral College, particularly with the winner-take-all in each state feature, strengthens broad consensus-building parties while diminishing the extreme voices of small radical parties. Essentially small parties do not participate at all in the Electoral College unless they can win a majority in a single state. The winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College keeps small parties from becoming king-makers in close elections, swinging their votes in the Electoral College in exchange for political concessions. If small political parties could acquire electoral votes in proportion to their popular vote, temporary coalitions of parties could pick a president who could not generate a large plurality of the vote alone. The effect of small parties pulling the larger parties towards the extremes causes political instability in parliamentary democracies around the world.

Some have argued that we could still have an Electoral College, but that electors should be elected on a district-by-district basis with two electors chosen state-wide in each state. We are told that such an arrangement would make it less possible for a person who won fewer votes to win the electoral vote.

Ironically this would likely not have been the case in this last election. Given the closeness of the popular vote, it is likely that Bush and Gore would have won roughly equal numbers of district-by-district electors. However, Bush won a large number of relatively less populace states. With additional statewide electoral votes, I suspect that such a scheme would have given Bush a larger margin in the Electoral College. Gore’s Electoral College total could have been additionally reduced if Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had managed to win the electors from a few districts. It is hard to draw these conclusions strongly since under a different scheme for picking electors, both candidates would have employed different campaign strategies.

Finally, the Electoral College isolates potential problem elections to either a few states or a single state. If the popular vote winner won the presidency, in a close election like the last one, voting irregularities in every state, indeed in every precinct grow in importance. Dangling chads in Illinois, the illegally extended voting hours in Saint Louis, the suspiciously high voter turnouts in some precincts would have all been the subject of the same intensive scrutiny lavished on Florida. Imagine not only the US Supreme Court and the Florida courts issuing sometimes-conflicting opinions, but large numbers of different states’ courts burying the country in a blizzard of rulings.

The United States is the longest currently operating Constitutional republic in the world. Structural changes to a system that demonstrated such resilience and robustness should be undertaken with great care and deliberation. The results of the last presidential election confirm the wisdom of the Electoral College arrangement. Perhaps the only salutary substantive change would be to eliminate the actual electors and replace them with an automatic count. The actions of a handful of “faithless” electors in the last election would have added instability to an already stressful situation.

Al Gore at the Bat

Sunday, December 17th, 2000

With Apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer

It looked extremely rocky for the Democrats that day.
Al Gore was really loosing and it was Election Day.
So, when the first count failed and the second one did the same,
A pallor wreathed the brows of those in the election game.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest,
With that hope that springs eternal from within the human breast.
For they thought, if only Boies could get a whack at it.
They’d bet even money if Demos read each ballot.

But there were courts to keep them from each and every dimple,
And certainly Katherine Harris would not make things so simple.
So, on that stricken multitude a death-like silence rested,
For it seemed Albert Gore’s minions would likely soon be bested.

But courts allowed those dimples, to the wonderment of all.
And three Democratic counties could determine it all.
And when the dust had settled and they saw what had occurred,
Democrats could read ballots, no matter how absurd.

Then from that gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell.
It bounded from the mountaintop and rattled in the dell.
It struck upon the hillside and rebounded on the flat —
For Democrats saw dimples on each and every ballot.

There was ease in the lawyers’ manner as they stepped into place.
There was pride in manipulation of the election race.
And then, responding to the cheers, they lightly doffed their hats,
My goodness they even kept out military ballots.

Liberals still worried. Votes came in at too slow a rate.
No need to fret. Just extend the certifying date.
And when the new votes did not the election tip,
Defiance glanced from Gore’s eyes, a sneer curled Gore’s lip.

And now Judge Sauls’ verdict declared what was fair.
There will be no more votes pulled out of thin air.
To the Florida Supreme Court Gore’s lawyers sped.
By seven Democrats this Supreme Court was led.

“Fraud!” cried the maddened Liberals, and the echo answered, “Fraud.”
But in one frightful decision the populace was awed.
The Florida Supreme Court was Al Gore’s best friend.
The Demos knew the court would start the count again.

The sneer was gone from Al Gore’s lip. His teeth were clenched in hate
As the US Supremes decide to judge the court of state.
And now the grand lawyers make the case to the mighty nine.
The air is tense with the question, “What will the judges find?”

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.
But there is no joy for Liberals. Al Gore has lost out.

The Kangaroo Court Jumps Again

Saturday, December 9th, 2000

“Importantly to me, I have a deep and abiding concern that the prolonging of judicial process in this counting contest propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis. I have to conclude that there is a real and present likelihood that this constitutional crisis will do substantial damage to our country, our state, and to this Court as an institution.” — Chief Justice C. J. Wells of the Florida Supreme Court, December 8, 2000.

On the fourth of December the US Supreme Court fired unanimous warning shots over the heads of the Florida Supreme Court justices for acting like a kangaroo court. Rather than publicly embarrassing their Florida colleagues, the US Supreme Court simply asked for clarification of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, while at the same time vacating the Florida court’s decision to order recounts. Apparently four of the seven justices have no shame and decided to hop blindly into yet another ill-advised decision that the Florida chief justice said “has no foundation in the law of Florida as it existed on November 7.”

At times courts are required to make unpopular decisions as they defend the rights of individuals. By definition, unpopular people or causes are the ones that require the most protection from majorities. Since judges sometimes stand against the popular will, deference to judicial authority rests upon a common acceptance of judicial temperance. When judges overreach, when they extend their decisions beyond what is minimally necessary to protect rights or adjudicate between rights, they usurp legislative and executive power. It is not an issue of whether judicial policy is wise or foolish. Rather, by capriciously circumventing the duly elected branches, zealous judges, who yield to the temptation of the law, bring into real question whether there is indeed the rule by the consent of the governed. Do this too often and the due deference to the authority of the courts will wither and we will no longer be afforded the necessary protections of the courts.

Judicial activism invariably leads to additional animosity and acrimony. If the Florida Supreme Court had not prevented the Secretary of State of Florida from certifying the presidential election on November 14, it is likely that Gore would have been under intense political pressure to concede. However, the extension granted by Florida’s Supreme Court for manual recounts gave time for positions to harden making it more and more difficult to ultimately accept either George Bush or Al Gore as the next president. Even if Gore had proceeded with a contest after certification, there would have been more time available for trial and due consideration of various potential remedies.

Because the Florida Supreme Court truncated the contest time period, we now face the prospect of election officials racing willy-nilly trying to interpret unclear ballots with no meaningful guidance from the Florida Supreme Court as the clock rapidly ticks away toward the December 12 deadline. The Florida justices are now required to act quickly because they acted too hastily and precipitously before. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court has belatedly realized the political danger inherent in the behavior of four of his fellow justices. He rightly worries that the recent Florida decision “will do substantial damage to our country, our state, and to this Court as an institution.”

Mismeasure of the Vote

Sunday, December 3rd, 2000

Thesis: The subjective evaluation of ballots in the recount conducted in selected counties in Florida is apt to inadvertently comply with the prejudices of those who perform the evaluation. The consequence is the “mismeasure of the vote.”

One myth used to sustain the stature of scientists is that scientists are impeccably objective and this objectivity is employed in the relentless and unbiased pursuit of the truth. It turns out that, at best, such a noble disinterest remains an honest aspiration, not an accomplished fact. Even the best scientist graced with the best intentions can, if not very careful, be fooled by the unconscious drafting of data to the service of their own preconceived notions and prejudices.

In his seminal work, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould documents how the implicit assumptions of nineteenth century scientists about the intellectual superiority of whites permitted them to use quantitative measurements to “prove” their notions on the ranking of human intelligence.

Extrapolating from the rough interspecies association between relative brain size and intelligence, nineteenth century scientists like Samuel George Morton used brain size as an intraspecies measure of human intelligence. As a substitute for actual brain measurements, cranial capacities were measured by filling skulls with seeds or beads. Results were correlated with race. The experiment lent itself to self-deception.

As skulls were filled, these scientists could jiggle a dishearteningly small skull from a white person to fit in a few more beads. A conspicuously small skull from a white person might be discarded because of uncertainty in the skull’s origin. Similarly, a suspiciously large skull from a black person might be put aside on similar grounds. In addition, the normalizations of skull size base on age and sex from non-representative data samples allowed room for further fudging. To no one’s surprise, the results “scientifically” ranked whites at the top of the intelligence scale, blacks at the bottom, and others in between.

Deliberate skewing of results by mean-spirited racists might be expected, but Gould concludes upon examination of the original data, that the errors in analysis were largely inadvertent. Their own preconceived ideas fooled scientists as they “directed … tabulations along pre-established lines.”

Scientists, like other humans, will never be perfect. Even aware of the possibility of self-deception, they can still fail to see beyond the blinders of their own expectations. They must be vigilant and employ techniques like “double-blind” studies to shield themselves from unintentional bias.

One method to avoid self-deception is to establish specific rules before hand for data interpretation and culling anomalous data, and to decide upon criteria for the classification of results.

The recent hand recount schemes employed in the Florida elections fall dangerously close to the fallacy of possible self-deception. Despite known imprecision in punch card ballots, the possibility of confused voters, and dangling chads, both Democrats and Republicans agreed to the machine tabulation of ballots. If hand counts were necessary, Palm Beach County had a written policy to ignore “dimpled” chads as inconclusive. Although it is possible in some cases to make a reasonable guess as to “voter intent,” machine counts and rigorous rules for ballot acceptance retain the virtue of impartiality and hence fairness and credibility.

From a distance, it appears that some Florida counties have jettisoned objective and repeatable methodology for manual counts in the service of manufacturing votes for Al Gore. Palm Beach resorted to inferring presidential choices from dimpled ballots despite a pre-election policy to the contrary. Gadsdsen County produced Gore votes by an unknown procedure hidden from public view in violation of law.

Broward County election officials were the most creative. There they judged dimpled ballots on the basis of the votes for other candidates on the same ballot, as if “ticket splitting” were not an American tradition.

Like the nineteenth century scientist using a thumb to force as many beads into a white skull as possible, Broward election officials examined and re-examined ballots in the hopes of harvesting barely discernable indentations into Gore votes. Even if we grant honest intentions, such a situation is fraught with subjectivity. The Florida recount has descended into the “mismeasure of the vote.”