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Perhaps democracy isn't washed up quite yet
I spent a delightful holiday weekend in our nation’s capital hanging with some friends who are more accomplished at this punditry thing than I am. Among other things, I tried to convince them that my preciousness about my own writing is a virtue rather than a defect. I am positive that I failed. I hope I didn’t lower their estimation of me in the process.
In any event, since I was hanging with them, I wasn’t writing. Hence the day’s delay in this weekly wrap.
NYC BOE and RCV
On the week before Independence Day, I suppose it’s appropriate that my two two pieces for The Week were both about democracy—specifically, the New York City mayoral elections.
The first was about the weirdness of ranked-choice voting in this election. In some circumstances, in a ranked-choice election, it can be rational to rank your preferred choice lower than your true second choice. Why? If you prefer A to B and strongly prefer B to C, but B voters tend to prefer C to A while A voters like you tend to prefer B to C, then unless A is running very strong or C very poorly, you should be wary of voting for A since, if B comes in third, C may wind up winning. This is exactly what happened in the NYC mayor’s election, with Maya Wiley as A, Kathryn Garcia as B and Eric Adams as C. So I wrote about that fact, and how it should make people much more cautious about touting ranked-choice voting as a panacea.
That column was written before the Board of Elections announced their colossal screw-up, including fake ballots in the unofficial tallies of the results that they released. So the second column was about that, and the enormous possible damage it might have done to the cause of fighting GOP efforts to take political control of the elections process in some states, inasmuch as it was ready-made fodder for arguments that our elections are tainted and that Democratic cities in particular cannot be trusted.
In regard to that concern, I am much less worried than I was in the immediate aftermath of the BOE’s face-plant. Everyone acknowledged the error forthrightly, both the Adams and Garcia campaigns have put out reassuring statements, and it’s possible that we’ll actually see momentum for cleaning up New York’s elections administration—which is long overdue, and would reinforce the message that Democrats are perfectly capable of cleaning their own house. Let’s see if it actually happens.
As for the first concern, I want to clarify something. It’s not that ranked-choice voting requires voters to be more strategic than first-past-the-post voting, or that the latter is more likely to represent public opinion accurately. Rather, it’s that it’s harder to tell with ranked-choice voting how to vote strategically. If this were a traditional FPTP election, for example, Andrew Yang wouldn’t have said to his voters “rank me first and Garcia second” like he did; he would have dropped out when his chance of winning dwindled to zero, and endorsed Garcia. And Garcia’s polls would have responded. Similarly, I suspect that the Wiley campaign would have labored hard to get the Stringer and Morales campaigns to fold late in the game and endorse her—and she might have succeeded. Then voters debating between Garcia and Wiley would have decided between them partly on their preferences and partly on the sense of who had a better shot of defeating Adams. All that would have been visible in a FPTP election. It is somewhat harder for voters to see in a RCV election.
That having been said, two things should be made clear. Without RCV, Garcia is unlikely to have ever had a real shot at being mayor. On the other hand, without RCV, it’s possible that Wiley—who is very unlikely to win under RCV—could have pulled out an upset victory in an Adams-Yang-Wiley race with a narrow plurality. Given the clear preference for a majority of the electorate for one of the more moderate candidates, that’s a powerful demonstration of the value of of RCV. I just thought that was worth highlighting given that I had spent so much energy explaining how RCV isn’t a panacea.
I wrote two pieces for the Substack this week.
“Nothing Human Is Alien To Me” is my attempt to tackle the problem of alien intelligence, and how it would impact humanity if we ever made contact with it.
“Unknown Knows” is my reflection on the meaning of Donald Rumsfeld’s final stint in public service, and his responsibility for the catastrophic Iraq War, on the occasion of his death.
The World Elsewhere
For a more complete parallax view of Rumsfeld, I recommend reading this piece by Damir Marusic, this piece by Spencer Ackerman, this piece by Damon Linker, and this piece by Dan McCarthy along with my own. If nothing else, the sheer volume of pieces wrestling with his ghost attests to his importance in recent history, for better or worse (most of us think for worse).
Speaking of Damon Linker, this piece of his about the politics of loneliness is very worth a read, and also very sad.
As for democracy and all that, things in NYC seem to have simmered down a bit on the democracy front, nationally the fires were turned up by a Supreme Court decision that predictably (Linker was among the many making the prediction) allowed Arizona’s recently-enacted restrictions on ballot harvesting (for absentees) and provisional balloting (for voters who show up to vote at the wrong precinct) to stand. The delightfully cranky (well, delightful to me) Kevin Drum wrote the definitive piece telling liberals to once and for all calm down about voting restrictions that have a very marginal effect and focus on the far more important question of partisan election interference. Very worth a read. If you want to counter it with a contrary take, you can find one just about anywhere.
As I’ve written before, I’m worried that the more serious problem really doesn’t lend itself to a ready legislative solution. But I’ve also started to worry that I’m missing something. When all the clever pundits are saying “this thing the GOP is doing is far more serious than the one Democrats are talking about,” and then Democrats keep talking about the same thing, I have to wonder why. It seems very unlikely that the reason they aren’t talking about partisan election interference is that they don’t have a good legislative solution. Nor does it make sense to me that voter restrictions are easier to complain about for fundraising purposes—the interference angle is very easy to explain and vastly more alarming. So what is another possible reason? What’s the motivation for the relative silence? I haven’t figured one out yet, but I’m still thinking about it.
Finally, speaking of Kevin Drum, if you really want to see cranky, check out his much-tweeted-about piece on how liberals are to blame for the culture war. I expect to write more about it this week.
After the Fireworks
Two pieces for the holiday that has passed.
I’m going to re-up my piece at The Week called “The Scandal of the Declaration” from last year because I really don’t think I’ll ever exceed it.
I’m going to recommend Megan McArdle’s feature in The Washington Post from this year about just why pie, apple or otherwise, really is a proper synecdoche for America itself, and therefore how important it is that we revive the practice of making them from scratch before the crucial knowledge passes from memory.
As it happens, inspired in part by McArdle’s constant evangelizing on the subject of pie, of which the above piece is only her latest and greatest, I made my first real pie earlier this season, a strawberry-rhubarb number with a lattice and everything. I think it turned out rather well:
Hope your holiday was equally delicious.