February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around. This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit. In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness. When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist. The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.
Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work. And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California. We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander. But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too. But, without question, Republicans do it more often. Anyway, look at these two congressional districts. One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th. One was Republican, one was Democratic. Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.
The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power. That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter. The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.
That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry. Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans. The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:
The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander. It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’ More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’ And there we go.
For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy. The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson. His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today. The other branch eventually became the Whigs. Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.
The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada. To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year. So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans. But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week. In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many. I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad. There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.
My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called. Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked. I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling. Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US). It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.
The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results. For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare. So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA. Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA. They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA. It worked.
But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA. Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA? Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA? How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue? Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.
But this was only one part of the problem. I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys. We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word. We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously. More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor. But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls. There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room. And 125 individuals were not robots. Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices. Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.
When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded. One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different. But sometimes it could. Another guy had a weird valley girl accent. The result was the same as the Serbian’s. And some people just liked to mess with the system. It was easy to do. They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.
Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data. There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy. Or support for candidates. And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.
But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data. And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.
May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec. The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year. And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.
But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote. The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec). They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States. They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.
From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec. The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government. They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor. And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.
In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement. I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837. The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec. The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day. This is not, obviously, an actual translation. The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population. The results are more of the same. And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?” This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.
This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes. And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background. And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally. I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists. When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing. I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.
Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec. That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States. Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West. O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table. Both were Irishmen. Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest). The Griffintown Irish were radicals. They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.
And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred. They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement. Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November. This was the battle the Patriotes won. Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized. He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly. Both Nelsons survived the rebellions. Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.
Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city. In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided. It was class that cleaved the city. Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals. And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical. Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals. The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks. It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.
It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes. While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not. They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions. Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown. Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.
November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday. How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question. Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.
Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back. The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years. They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life. Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday. And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant. They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts. They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time. And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money. Got married, had kids, raised them. Eventually, you retired. Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company. But that’s all gone. Deindustrialization. And free trade.
What happened when the jobs dried up? People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages. Alcoholism and addiction became more common. Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers. Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry. But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills. Then there’s health insurance and benefits. With GE, those were all taken care of. Waffle House doesn’t take care of them. Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans. But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things. And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.
And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner). Think about TV and the movies. Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA. Now? Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous. And besides, it’s set in Chicago. Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city. America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore. There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane. Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA. For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.
The United States has long been a deeply divided nation. We like to think it’s North-South. It’s not. It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory? No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class. And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred) And then Trumpism occurs.
Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back. I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization. My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988. My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border. And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone. He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder. And my mom was university-educated. But. We lost. And so many others. Their anger is visceral. Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.
But Trump cannot deliver on his promises. If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s. Those factory jobs aren’t coming back. Automation, people. The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation. More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did. He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.
So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again? When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there. But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more. Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified. Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader. Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc. I don’t feel optimistic either way.
September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments
I spent late last week laid up with the flu. This means I read. A lot. I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey. And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen. While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia. On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common. The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.
But both point to a golden era past. In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its dystopic future setting. And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.
In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California. In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday. The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie. The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV. The people of Vacaville love and worship them. All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class. But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes. And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck. Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children. She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.
Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:
We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.
See the similarities?
August 26, 2016 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote of some vile tweets about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the wake of the Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston lat Saturday night. It turns out this was hardly the worst.
I read this article on The Walrus’ site last night. This is disgusting. There are people on Facebook blatantly calling for Trudeau’s assassination. Others, riffing on the Conservative Party of Canada’s pathetic milk carton ad, have descended to hoping the Prime Minister dies in an avalanche like his younger brother, Michel did in British Columbia in 1998.
I got into a discussion with an old friend on Facebook in the wake of Monday’s post. He was of the opinion that this animus against Trudeau was really nothing new, recalling the Mulroney era. I argued otherwise. That this IS new, it is the Americanisation of our political discourse.
I also wonder where the hell the RCMP is in all of this? Should it not be investigating calls to assassinate the Prime Minister?