In the chaos of mis/information nowadays, finding moral reference points can be quite difficult. Everyone wants to get along with their friends, so if one says something that might sound a bit morally awkward, we might shrug it off. I believe some moral premises should be regarded as red flags that warrant further discussion. For instance: the zero-sum-game.
A zero-sum-game is a model of interaction in which any participants gains are balanced out by another’s losses. In other words: there is no scenario in which all players benefit. In order for one to gain, another must lose. As a moral premise, it is necessarily malicious.
As such, I think we should listen for it, especially in social or political discourse.
Listen for it in ideas like:
“I wish we didn’t have to keep bombing the Middle-East to stay safe.”
A much more insidious place this premise hides is in variants of “If we don’t hurt them, they will hurt us” from those who aren’t clear and present danger. As a softer variant, “if I’m not comfortable, they don’t deserve to be comfortable”, or “If I don’t feel safe, they don’t deserve to feel safe”. In application, the context can range from warzones to courtrooms to interpersonal relationships.
Not that people who say these things are evil, but these ideas should be elaborated on and scrutinized. Often this sort of rhetoric is used to support causes that, on the whole, have been good for the world. Despite this, I believe that actions carried out based on these ideas tend to do more harm than good. Do not let friends and loved ones act on the zero-sum-game unchallenged.
I think political discourse among those who disagree are much more fruitful when addressing moral premises, rather than debating the details of recent events.
No amount of research or raw information will affect the actions of the politically polarized, be they Congresspeople or new voters. We have to engage morally, because that’s where the divides must be bridged.
The time for abstract armchair philosophy and detached hypothetical scenarios is over, at least for me and mine. Now is the time to engage and act on however you think you can contribute to your idea of a better world. Find where we agree.
Violent conflicts may be an inevitable feature of human nature, but indifference is a moral blight.
Humanity’s relationship with the basic concept of information has experienced very rapid, jarring changes over the course of history. The first great leap was is attributed to the printing press in the mid-15th century. Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, does an excellent job of describing it’s impact on civilization that I think should be closer to the forefront of everyone’s conscious mind as we live through these chaotic times.
The original revolution in information technology came not with the microchip, but with the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in 1440 made information available to the masses, and the explosion of ideas it produced had unintended consequences and unpredictable effects. It was a spark for the Industrial Revolution in 1775,1 a tipping point in which civilization suddenly went from having made almost no scientific or economic progress for most of its existence to the exponential rates of growth and change that are familiar to us today. It set in motion the events that would produce the European Enlightenment and the founding of the American Republic.
But the printing press would first produce something else: hundreds of years of holy war. As mankind came to believe it could predict its fate and choose its destiny, the bloodiest epoch in human history followed.
With the printing press, one didn’t necessarily need to be in good standing with the church to create and distribute books with ideas that may have conflicted with religious doctrine. While this also spawned the European Renaissance, the chaos that ensued should not be forgotten.
If it’s not obvious why I brought this up: the internet is causing another information revolution. Before the printing press, the basic mechanisms of civilizations were designed around people having no more knowledge than what could be remembered offhand. If few people are literate, how can one distinguish a written lie from a truth?
Today, we’re having another stage of this problem. In the modern world, information has been ubiquitous for centuries. Every public school has a library filled with books that children are taught to reference whenever they seek more information to absorb and convert into knowledge that can be shared or applied infinitely. In fact, for centuries, simply having certain stores of knowledge in one’s head well enough to regurgitate on command was a viable skill; now, even that has changed.
Now, we have the same problem with information as the 15th-18th centuries had: more of it than we know what to do with. Academic institutions still require students to memorize things despite ubiquitous tools that store and regurgitate information for us. Bureaucratic institutions process physical forms at a rate several times longer than what’s needed to Google everything about the process and maybe even design a better one.
In homes, parents don’t know what to tell their children about surfing the internet safely because the internet is so fundamentally different from what it was just ten years ago. There’s no institutional knowledge for how tablets affect toddlers or at what age children are liable to wander into the darker alleys of the internet… or if that’s even correlated with age. What content is good or bad for them? Is that even possible to measure? I remember a time before the internet where ideas backed by information were stronger than ideas that weren’t. Now, every idea can so easily find information to support it, but not all information is equal. Therein lies the problem.
Our ability to distinguish valuable, relevant information from noise has not grown proportionally with our access to it. With books, humanity eventually developed filtration methods, primarily in the form of literacy and critical thinking. Rigorously refined ideas were the only ones that warranted the effort to be studied, reproduced, and incorporated into reference texts and archives. Schoolchildren and especially college students are rigorously taught to distinguish good from bad sources, and to cite their assertions.
We don’t quite have that yet for the internet. Digital activity is monetized by clicks, and measured by attention (time spent viewing content), so the economic incentive of any web-based company is to present you, the digital denizen, with information that you react to, which is probably what you like.
If you read something in a newspaper or heard it on a radio or even saw it on T.V., describing it to a friend would require some degree of processing and mental digestion, during which many baseless ideas might get filtered out. Now, with the touch of a screen or click of a mouse, any headline that even for a split second inspires you to share can within seconds be presented to hundreds or thousands of others, many of whom might have a similar reaction and continue the chain. I’ve fallen victim to this mentality many times, and am thankful for friends who hold me accountable and prevent me from harboring false ideas.
I implore you to ask: What is your standard for truth? Specifically in the realm of politics. Whom do you believe, and why? I don’t have a clear answer for this if you ask me, but these are questions I want to think about and discuss with as many people as possible. Given recent events, I think it’s evident that the average American’s understanding of the political climate is, at best, guesswork. Which might be fine if Democracy didn’t depend on us understanding one another. But it does. We’re all on this rock hurtling through space together; let’s at least try to get along, however bleak the task may seem.
And so, I’m going to start this series, primarily as my own outlet for meditation on the goings on of the world.
The next day was rough physically, but very odd mentally. We (me and five other conclave members) spent most of the day setting up a 30′ diameter PVC geodesic dome, which involved ladders that were quite precarious for me, but very easy for my roommate, who happens to have worked as a professional carpenter. He was able to help me steak down my tent to secure it against the wind.
We also set up a scaffold for climbing up to get a view; I took the liberty of photographing the view around our campsite:
On the left, the tents of some of our caravan. On the right, a large geodesic dome that we spent hours setting up in the desert sun.
Setting up that dome was quite a task, and in retrospect, really helped me feel at home. Putting work into building it helped me feel a sense of contribution and belonging that my mind is usually hesitant to accept. It was filled with couches, a massive bean bag, and carpets and rugs on the floor. It served as the central communal space for our 50-person camp.
And that trampoline was also a massive hit with numerous passersby.
The Playa was rather sparse at this point, two days before the festival starts; large holes gaps in the camping lots that were soon to be filled.
At this point, my mental subroutines (check social media, data feeds, daily tasks, etc.) had checked out, and my mind was clear, holding only what I knew was coming… which was, to be honest, nothing. I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, or the day after.
What a strange feeling. I did nothing with respect to tomorrow; I didn’t know what I was going to do, whom I might meet, what I might see, or where I might go… nor did I even think about it. Tomorrow fell, from an amalgam of plans and intentions, back into an arbitrary word for when the sun rises next.
The battlefield? Your mind.
The prize? Your decision.
Disclaimer: this is a non-partisan political post about the 2016 U.S. election.
Have you ever strategically withheld information from specific people so that they behave in a certain way? It need not be malicious; teachers withhold solutions to problems that their students are learning how to solve. You may withhold information about a surprise party you’re throwing for a friend.
The other side of it, however, is in strategic spreading of information. If a friend shares an idea with you, you may choose to share it or not, based on the context in which you received it. The information need not be different; only the context. If a friend tells you “I had apple juice today” in an open, cordial way, and you have no cause to believe it’s a secret, then perhaps you’d mention it to another mutual friend who also had apple juice today. However, if this friend beckons you close and says the exact same thing, but in a hushed tone, you might be reflexively inclined to treat it like a secret. And just like that, your behavior changed, with a gesture and shift in tone.
In any democratic political system, with the vote at the core of the political mechanism, every election is a battle for those votes. How people make that decision is usually based on the information they have and/or acquire in the time leading up to the election. Consequently, the vast majority of resources during elections go to advertising. In case you’re doubtful, here’s Bloomberg on the current election.
You’re no idiot; you know how elections work. Pro and Anti ads created with the intention of changing votes get targeted to specific demographics across every medium they can reach. It all started with the postal service and newspapers, but they’ve kept up with the advents of communication. Radio and television both are spoke-and-wheel type systems with one-way communication, and phone calls, while being direct and long-distance, aren’t with thousands of people at once. Together, these communication media formed the mechanisms that deliver information payloads, targeted to affect ideas. The battle has never stopped or changed in essence, but the medium now has.
But who are the players? Well, anyone with the resources to share information. The postal service was revolutionary in its time because it dropped the threshold of resources needed for ANY politically recognized citizen to communicate directly (albeit, by today’s standards, slowly) with any other in the country. For the cost of postage, one can mail a letter to everyone in the country if they want to. While those more money could necessarily get their information out more easily than the poor, everyone used the same medium. The television and radio, however, have a much higher threshold of resources needed to actually express ideas, and not just in terms of sheer dollar cost. Sharing an idea on radio or television requires, at the very cheapest end, notoriety. These media have, relative to the postal service, a very, very small number of players. Those who DO play are generally wealthier than those who don’t.
But how is it that so few people can affect so many? Targeting. Find out, based on polls, which areas have the highest proportions of undecided voters and try to sway them by giving them whatever content resonates in whatever context might be most . Use crop fields as background for ads run in rural areas. Make sure anybody speaking has the right dialect and gestures to match the region. Have them say a phrase that’s endemic to an area and makes voters feel like our candidate understands them and their problems in particular.
Where strategy fails, volume of information is often employed. Sheer inundations of information can be enough to sway even the most reasonable people, if more context isn’t accessible to them. Before the internet, if your newspaper, television, and radio all corroborated each others’narratives, what reason would you have to believe otherwise? For ‘battleground ‘areas, campaigns fight to raise funds so they can try and drown out the opposing narrative by sheer volume. For the undecided voter, hearing three times as many Red Team ads on the radio than Blue Team ads might be enough to sway their vote.
The internet, however, is an entirely different medium. The battle for your vote still uses the same tactics, but the internet doesn’t work the same way. For anyone in the U.S. (or any country with an open internet), web content isn’t regional nor is it centralized; it’s global and distributed to everyone with access. Before, you could air a commercial in the city that farmers probably wouldn’t like, and likewise show the farmers something that -might draw the ire of urban voters, and because their information was as segregated as their geography, there was little dissonance. Consequently, the potential pool of ideas that could be ‘safely’ used to campaign was far larger. While that pool has shrank, the volume of information accessible to everyone has exploded beyond anyone’s comprehension. Which brings me to this election.
This is November 6th, 2016. Election day is the 8th, and every couple of weeks, a new information leak or similar breaking story hits about Hillary’s emails or Trumps business practices, her financial ties or his misogyny. The details of this back-and-forth isn’t nearly as relevant as how this is affecting the people.
Pre-internet, finding information that might contend with a unanimous narrative from media channels was far, far more difficult than it is now. If you had a strong dislike for the candidate that your region nearly unanimously supports, finding information to illustrate WHY you dislike that candidate took work, if it was even feasible. Maybe you could get a hold of something in favor of another candidate, but if the margin in the polls is too wide, the opponents won’t waste ad money.
I call this a war is because the people have joined in, expressing their support for one candidate or hatred for the other in droves, using these affiliations to draw social boundaries and boycotting businesses. Anyone on the internet can, in seconds, create content that is globally accessible. Sure, we still gravitate towards like minds and create some degree of ideological echo chambers, but while information that challenges* ANY idea used to take work to find, it’s now a click away.
*Note: I use the word “challenge” very loosely here; it’s not about the validity of the information, nor the political relevance, but the impact of the information on the people sharing it.
Challenging (in the same sense as above) any idea is easier than it’s ever been, and more people have pitched their ideas into this election than, from my experience in political discourse, is completely unprecedented. People whom I’ve known to be loudly politically apathetic have suddenly engaged this year, often with near religious fervor. For far too many, whom they support in this election is the premise for their trust. They defend this premise, armed with as much information as they can Google to validate themselves. Well-researched, sound, cohesive arguments that may exist in favor of any candidate are preemptively invalidated by the opposition, simply by being against them. The context of your information, for them, erases any meaning the content may have had.
Good ideas are sifted from bad ones through argument and discourse… but that’s not happening anymore. Civil discourse requires at least some common context; you have to agree on what the problems are if you want any semblance of useful solutions. That common ground is, as far I can tell, nonexistent for this election. The result is people reflexively challenging whatever they see online that is against their candidate or in favor of their opponent.
Post something anti-Hillary. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Trump.
Post something anti-Trump. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Hillary.
For the most part, people seem to have given up even trying to find that common context necessary for meaningful, constructive discourse. And of course, with retweets, likes, etc., people on each side validate one another. Without discourse, any good ideas that the other side might have are indistinguishable from the noise. Even engaging with your own side about what you might think is a good idea from the other side is liable to cause dissonance.
This fog of information war… It worries me, more because of the likely spread to state and local elections than the presidential. I’m not looking forward to state legislators being elected simply for being on the ‘right side’, and potentially implementing policies that are never rigorously discussed or scrutinized.
Though this fog has some silver lining, from what I see; it’s now blatantly evident, hopefully to many more than just me, that the partisan gridlock that’s clogged the U.S. Congress for so long is in fact not just about political strategy, but about basic political philosophy.
It’s been weeks since my return, and I still haven’t really expressed much on cyberspace about Burning Man… a stark contrast to my posting about FireDrums and UFG almost immediately upon arrival. Though for Burning Man, I can’t really preemptively structure a response. I have so much to express and I know my words will fail me, but now I’ve finally brought myself to just put my fingers to the keyboard and start typing about Burning Man and see what comes out, so here goes.
Once a day, every week, for the past several months, I’ve been attending meetings of the Hellfire Society conclave group of ~50 people. Together, we performed a 15-minute choreographed fire performance based on The Phantom of the Opera, and sent an audition video to the Burning Man Fire Council. Here’s the video if you’d like to watch it. We were selected to perform at 5:26, straddling front-and-center with Radiant Heat from Vancouver, Canada, in front of the man on Burn Night, right before the man burns (Saturday).
Here is a video of our performance in front of The Man:
So that was the core premise of the trip, logistically speaking. But I’ve wanted to go since I first heard about the festival in 2011. Oh, and our camp was placed in the center of Fire Village at 6:15 and G; basically the center of Black Rock City.
My roommate, landlord, and conclave friend drove me up as part of a 4-car caravan, led by a cargo truck with a 30-foot cargo trailer; we’re the early set-up crew for the Hellfire Society Camp, planning to show up on Thursday night and spend the next 3 days building things and preparing for the festival. We drove into a local campground at around 3:00 AM and crashed for the night before departing at around 8 AM the following morning.
This entire time, the hype is building around me, and it’s contagious. Everyone is behaving more… gently. Loosely. Every social interaction feels smother, at least with those traveling with me, all of whom have come to Burning Man before.
We stop by Reno for supplies and find the stores to be filled with people who are clearly going to burning man, based on their attire or vehicle, some of which are large cargo trucks adorned with camp logos, while others are hauling around trailers with art cars of various sizes.
I recognized some flow artists, but was too busy stocking up on supplies to socialize.
We reach the dust and it immediately begins pervading. Maybe two minutes of driving on the playa and dust is visibly gathering behind the truck’s dials. I sense a slight shift in the atmosphere, but my car-companions seem noticeably different, having smelled something far more distinct to them than anything I had picked up. “We’re back!” they cheer together.
I have no idea what I’m in for.
Hundreds of vehicles of every street-legal size are waiting at the entrance to Black Rock City, stopped as the ticketing and vehicle searching process bottle-necked the traffic to the point of vehicles stopping completely for roughly five minutes at a time, so many people, myself included, exited their vehicles to stretch their legs and walk around a bit.
We checked back in with our caravan and found some familiar faces among the nearby early set-up crews, and even made some new friends while the cars slowly crawled forward. It took about 5 hours total to pick up our tickets from will call, get the vehicle searched, and drive to the proper front gate where we were greeted, handed maps and information, and allowed into the city.
We drove to our campsite and set up our personal tents as well as a 15-foot diameter trampoline.
We all shared a beer and slept, though the night was a bit nippy. I had to wear two pairs of socks.
My mind was in a very strange place. The anticipation gave way to a strange calming mood… this was the most adventurous thing I’ve done so far in my adult life, and I was well aware of it, though that was really all I knew for certain so far.
RB: Hi All! So as aforementioned, we’ve started a travel section to the blog. Our first entry is not a long one.
We went to FireDrums 2016, which was located at the Blue Mountain Event Center in Wilseyville, CA. The event took place from June 2-5, 2016.
We personally drove up to a friend’s house through Tuesday night, slept there Wednesday and were off for the location on Thursday morning! What is FireDrums, you may ask? For that, we should ask our fellow author, inspyred!
inspyred: Deep in the woods of Northern California, a mix of casual hobbyists, professional performers, students,and teachers gather to shed the standard mechanics of their normal lives, dust off the parts of our mind that we were told should be put away after childhood is over, and come out to play.
FireDrums is one of the biggest fire festivals on the U.S. West Coast, hosted by the Flow Arts Institute; 2016’s festival was from June 2nd to the 5th, and it was my fourth in a row. The primary focus of the festival is the learning, teaching, sharing, and celebration of Flow Arts. The flow arts which I personally practice are primarily ball and club juggling, poi, rope dart, and have recently assembled a pair of fire fans that are much harder to use than I had expected.
The daylight hours of the festival are filled with workshops featuring a huge variety of topics, from specific genres of prop manipulation to discussions of culture to group meditation sessions. I enjoy attending whatever prop manipulation workshops pique my fancy, though many people simply wander around sharing circus tricks, socializing, reading, writing, drawing, swimming in a nearby stream, exploring the forest, or whatever they may feel inclined to do at the moment. There are also a host of vendors of props for manipulation, as well as food, clothing, and various artistic creations. For me personally, the biggest draw of the event is the radically free social atmosphere.
At night, however, the main attraction shifts to the fire circle which is set up in a large clearing, surrounded by fire pits and volunteer fire-safeties holding fire blankets (a duvetyne cloth treated with fire retardant) focused on keeping everyone safe. The festival is largely free-spirited in terms of how you wish to enjoy it, but fire safety is one of few things taken extremely seriously. Any open fire outside of the designated areas are explicitly forbidden, and this policy is rigorously enforced, with the fuel dump of the fire circle being brightly illuminated and very plainly distinguished from the surroundings with bright orange partitions. Once their props are dipped, each spinner takes to the fire circle and joins in the collective celebration of fire, everyone deliberately dancing with the deep, primal instinct of aversion to fire, to the sound of various electronic music artists (as well as the Humboldt Drummers) played out of speakers with the bass often heavy enough to reverberate in my chest from anywhere in the campground.
Here’s a video taken of Nicky Evers (a.k.a. DJ Nevers) in the fire circle while Kevin Axtell announced the closing of the fuel depot on the final morning of this year’s Fire Drums. Many (myself included) stay up until sunrise on Saturday night.
I have found that, as much as I could develop my prop manipulation skills on that night with so many other incredibly skilled people (though I did spin some fire), my favorite way to spend it was walking around and simply striking up conversations with people, as well as keeping a notebook with me and writing whenever inspiration strikes… which tends to happen at fire festivals.
Most others seem to either alternate between spinning fire and watching everyone else spinning fire, or just simply hanging around, socializing, some painting, some writing, others simply dancing to the music… everyone so clearly happy to be there, in a very contagious way. I look forward to next time… hopefully next year for us.
RB: So over the duration of the trip, while inspyred was doing his workshops, I was exploring the area and lounging about with my book! Here are some photos:
By the time Day 3 (Saturday) came around, we were burned out (a good pun by the way), and decided to do some exploring! We went off the campsite, and hiked to a river, where we ended up jumping in with our clothes on! The water was frigid, but it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so the cold was welcome. We explored the bugs in the area, learned about different kinds of larvae (dragonfly and mosquito), and then headed back to the campsite! All in all, a beautiful trip!
I’ll get straight to the point: this article is about the U.S. Presidential Primary process, especially in the context of the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Primary Election that took place on February 9th, 2016. As much as I’m tempted to delve into the actual politics of the event, what I want to discuss here is the role of the electoral system in this context.
There does seem to be a general, if not common, perception that the mechanics of primary presidential elections necessarily reflect the premises of the democratic system of the U.S.; this is mostly true, but it also has a moderate mix of the premises of privatization. Horray for the privatization of the political process! And what’s more: this is all actually quite new! Superdelegates weren’t introduced into the electoral system until after 1968 (Source)
But they really haven’t been too relevant in the political process until the 1984 election in particular (Source), and then
Check out the Twelfth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Source)
The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;–The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice…. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President to the United States.
And also, Article II, Section 1:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.
Parsing the speech is a bit tricky for me, but in terms of relevance to this article, I gathered this:
- Number of Delegates for a Given State = Number of Senators (2) + Number of House Representatives (variable by state).
- The state legislatures are responsible for their own delegate selection.
- The votes of the electors are the ones that are directly counted to determine the president.
- The Vice-President is supposed to be elected separately from President (I actually didn’t know this tidbit until researching this article)
So those “Presidential Tickets” with the President and VP bundled up together? That’s purely a construct of the political parties. It would be quite inconvenient for a president to have a VP that might be from the opposing party.
Now, I’ve heard MANY different renditions of how “voting is completely useless because the Electoral College is what decides the president and votes have no control over that”, but a closer look at the way electors are decided on a state-by-state basis reveals that electors are almost entirely beholden to the voters they are supposed to be representing.
The purpose for the Electoral College is clear in historical context: in the late 18th Century, information traveled much more slowly. While the postal service did enable more efficient communication than ever before, it still couldn’t be carried across large distances any faster than a horse’s gallop. The electoral college was designed to consolidate voting results and send them over to wherever the president was to cast their vote on behalf of the people they represent. Electors are pledged to vote for a certain candidate, though ‘Unpledged Electors’ were allowed up until the 1964 election, after which NO state has filed a slate for any unpledged electors, though these delegates were allowed to vote for any candidate they chose on election day, much like superdelegates… but I’ll get to that later.
In the past, there HAVE been ‘Faithless Electors’ who pledged to vote for a certain candidate, only to actually cast a vote for a different candidate. The most recent instance of a faithless elector was in Minnesota in 2004 (Source), and have never had a decisive impact on any presidential election. since the late 19th century.
So that’s the electoral college in a nutshell, and also why some states (like Maine and Nebraska for the first time in 2008) split their electoral votes, while others are all-or-nothing as far as how delegates are allocated for each presidential candidate.
But how does this relate to superdelegates?
Well, one important point that is worth bolding in text: the presidential primary system as we know it in the United States has absolutely zero explicit ties to the Constitutional electoral system. They’re similar and closely related, and the former is specifically designed to feed directly into the latter, but the primaries are not a part of the government; they are purely constructed by political parties.
The Democrats and Republicans have both designed their primary systems very deliberately similar to the Constitutional electoral system. After all, the whole point is for their nominee to head right into the actual presidential election, so the best way to prepare them for that race is to emulate it within their own. The primaries not only enable the party to narrow down exactly who they want running, but also allows them to probe for strategies in the national election; public reactions to primary debate questions can give hints on how a candidate might handle that issue in the general election.
Aside: I think the terminology for “general election” and “primary election” subtly suggests that the two are somehow two phases of the same process. That’s how the pattern has been, and ‘the way things work’ of course, but I want to really emphasize how the “primary election” is not even on the same plane of necessity as the “general election” in terms of how a president is elected.
So the parties have, instead of electors, delegates, which are invariably elected officials (usually from Congress) that are not only members of, but are very closely tied to, the political party. The individual delegates and even their numbers are decided by the parties on a state-by-state basis. Mind you, pretty much everything about this whole process is simply decided by the party, though they tend to prefer methods that don’t stray too far from Constitutional design and also keep them somewhat grounded in their constituencies. According to the Associated Press, the Democrats have 4,763 delegates and the Republicans have 2,472. These numbers (and their relative proportions of superdelegates) changes between elections. Mind you: the primary election is won by winning a majority of the delegates, regardless of how those delegates are distributed.
These superdelegates are unpledged: they don’t have to explicitly pledge to a candidate up until decision day. In fact, the 2008 Democratic Primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised quite a few concerns about superdelegates; the election started with Hillary having more endorsements from superdelegates, but that shifted later in the primary process, presumably to match popular opinion. Indeed, the race was close enough that the superdelegates could have swung it. Ultimately, enough of them voted for Obama to win him the nomination. (Source)(Source)
Why the superdelegates? Well, remember, the political parties do their best to resemble the Constitutional system, but they are not a governmental entity. While the courts can act on the legality of their actions in the context of the constitution, political parties are not bound to do exactly what the people say… and doing so has bitten them in the past. The Superdelegates were introduced into the Democratic Primary system after 1968, when (Vice President at the time) Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democratic Party… and not by the primary votes. While the primary system was based on the Constitutional election system, it was, in practice, largely ceremonial. The Democratic National Convention, when convening to decide who to officially nominate for the Presidential race, were not bound to select whomever won the primaries… in fact, they didn’t even need to select a nominee from those who ran in the primaries. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey was selected as the Democratic nominee despite not having run in a single primary. The party’s leadership completely disregarded the will of the voters that was expressed in the primaries and selected one their influential leaders. The Democratic voters did not vote for Humphrey in the primaries and frankly felt betrayed by their own party leadership. Consequently, Humphrey was smashed by Nixon in the election, 301 to 191 electoral votes. (Source)
After that, the Democratic Party members decided they needed a way to prevent something like that from happening. The party’s nominees would necessarily need to reflect the desires of their constituency… though not entirely. The party leadership was not about to cede ALL power of nomination to the voters. Enter the Superdelegate.
So how are they relevant now? Well, the New Hampshire Democratic Primary on February 9th of 2015 between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (and also technically Martin O’Malley) yielded very interesting results from news sources.
Across the board, Bernie Sanders won the popular vote by a margin of over 20%.
Yet… many news agencies also reported a 15-15 split in delegates between Sanders and Clinton. Why? You guessed it: Superdelegates. They flocked to support Hillary.
Here are some graphics on the state of two candidates shortly after the N.H. primary:
Disclaimer: While I also believe that CNN has a clear bias towards the establishment manifested in very selective reporting, I have yet to see them flat-out lie. They may neglect to show numbers that don’t support their preferred narrative, but I don’t think they’d outright lie about them.
Source: http://www.cnn.com/election/primaries/candidates/hillary-clinton as of 2/10/2016
Source: http://www.cnn.com/election/primaries/candidates/bernie-sanders as of 2/10/2016
Remember: pledged delegates are committed to the candidate their constituencies vote for immediately once the results are settled. Superdelegates can change their vote all the way up until decision day, so those numbers ARE subject to change, but regardless, the disparity is glaring.
Again, this article isn’t about supporting one candidate over another, but to draw attention to the sharp disparity between democratic ideals and reality. It can be easy to conflate the primary elections with the actual Constitutional electoral process. The parties are in it for themselves, and cater to their constituents at least as much as they need to in order to retain their votes. While they have yet to take any drastic strategic measures with Superdelegates, their effect on the election is palpable.