Secession, revisited!

My November 13 post about secession is long overdue for an update, so here goes.

A few days after I posted I was invited to go on a radio talk show to give my expert opinion about secession movements in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. I agreed, and spent a pretty fun 40 minutes or so on Crossfire Radio with Ed Baswell. Unfortunately I had to go before the call-in portion of the show — I’m sure that would have been interesting as well. I made some basic points on the show: that the online petitions are not good indicators of anything besides a general frustration; that secession would, as a practical matter, be extremely difficult; and that most countries that have broken up or spawned independence movements have done so because the people living in the region concerned have a long-standing (or perceive that they do) common identity based on a characteristic such as ethnicity, language, or religion that cuts across other kinds of political preferences. Although it’s true that the US is polarized,  nowhere do we have a state where a large majority perceives itself this way, in part because we move around all the time. In most of the South the political divisions are 55/45, or sometimes 60/40 (at least judging by party support and voting behavior). In other states such as California, the Northwest, or most of the Northeast, it’s reversed. 40% or 45% is a very large minority, and would pose an enormously difficult barrier to the formation of any kind of new collective (national) identity, let alone an actual secession.

Since then the secession story has been picked up by many news services, newspapers, and magazines, most recently on November 28 in the Economist. Almost all these stories say the same things — the administration’s “We the People” website is not an election, signers of these petitions come from all over and make up tiny proportions of the populations of the states in question, secession isn’t the goal of any significant political leaders or organizations, and anyway it would be very complicated to work out. In other words, there isn’t much new news on this story and it’s not that big a story to begin with, slightly more significant that a trend in facebook “likes,” but not much more so.

I’m a little smug that when I made notes to myself the night before my radio appearance on this topic, I covered pretty much everything there was to cover. But it’s also frustrating, although not surprising, that this story has gotten so much play. Secession is obviously a topic with a lot of symbolic resonance, like comparing someone to Hitler, and gets a lot of readers and clicks because of this. But so many stories, with such a small amount of information in them aside from a few anecdotes and quotes, aren’t necessary.

I wish journalists and commentators would look for other ways to investigate the polarization and frustration we do have in the US, and to describe and explain it in ways that did more than push buttons. My guess is that they would find it’s not as clear-cut as the regional, or religious, or white/minority models suggest. This is what some social scientists have found. Secession stories do, however, fit into some preconceived narratives that we often use to interpret the world. On one level they’re just tools to help us simplify and understand the world, but they also can feed on themselves and generate polarization and disaffection. When people not only vote for different candidates, but also can’t understand how anyone else could support the other candidate, that’s a problem.

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Future Mars Exploration, Investigation

A BBC article here explains that two international Mars exploration projects, which had been threatened by the US canceling its participation, are now scheduled to continue with Russian cooperation. One project is an orbiter to look for methane, among other things, and the other is a new surface rover, to land in 2018.

This is one piece of good news (assuming it all happens, which is not necessarily certain at this point) among several interesting stories about the solar system. Even though they’re not Martian stories they’re worth promoting:

There are spectacular photos of Saturn being sent back by the Cassini Solstice mission. I highly recommend taking a look. A good place to read some discussion of them is Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog on His blog has also included good stories on water on Mercury, and water on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

I don’t have much commentary to offer on these stories, except to recommend them. The photos of Saturn did remind me of a conversation I had when I was doing research in Germany back in 1999. The Cassini rocket was making a close flyby of Earth on its way to Saturn (it was launched in 1997). A friend of mine who was a staunch environmentalist told me that NASA and the ESA had estimated a very small (I can’t remember the exact number, perhaps 0.25%?) chance that the rocket would veer too far into our atmosphere and break up, dispersing radioactive materials. He was concerned about this, and surprised that more people weren’t. I remember shrugging it off at the time with a response like, “there is a lot of radioactive material in orbit, too much to worry about.”

My response was probably too glib because I thought (and still think) that such projects are important (and cool), even if a little risky. At the same time, it’s worth paying attention to risks like these, and even more so to less well-regulated projects like this one, when a Californian dumped 100 tons of iron dust into the Pacific to generate plankton growth. This particular experiment doesn’t sound like it will do significant damage to anything, but it sounds much too much like the beginning of a science fiction story for comfort.

Online Petitions: Secession and Pot

I recently read that many people have started petitions for individual states to secede from the United States. I was ready to dismiss this as yet another example of news services trying to squeeze as many clicks as possible out of last week’s election. That’s what it is, in fact, but it’s also more interesting than your average vague reporting on “a growing trend.”

You can go to We the People, the government’s website that practically cries out for citizens to submit their crackpot ideas, and see these petitions yourself. I recommend taking a look. You’ll notice that the petition to allow Louisiana to peacefully secede has more signatures than any other state (at least when I last checked), but also that many of the signatures are not from Louisiana residents. You’ll see that there are petitions for more than half the states now (I’m sure there will be one for every state soon.) You’ll also notice that the several different petitions to legalized pot all have quite large numbers of signatures as well.

If a petition receives more than 25,000 signatures the government is obligated to respond. I read some of the responses, including one asking that Rush Limbaugh’s show be removed from broadcast on the taxpayer-funded Armed Forces Network. The response, by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, quite reasonably explains that the AFN broadcasts popular shows, and doesn’t much care what the content is. (Also, the fact that there’s a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs suggests that there may be an assistant, or adjunct Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. I (twice) came pretty close to joining the State Department – could this have been me? Writing online responses to online petitions about Rush Limbaugh?)

Other petitions cover releasing people (presumably Americans) from foreign custody, ceasing the Western campaign of harassment against North Korea, and supporting the Polish Nation in seeking an international investigation of a Polish air crash near Smolensk in 2010. This crash killed the Polish President and many other high officials, and has been the source of conspiracy theories and suspicions ever since. It was the source of a warming of Polish-Russian relations that was only temporary. This petition has more than 30,000 signatures, so I’m a little curious to see what the response will be. Since Poland and Russia have already investigated this crash thoroughly, there is not much possibility of a new investigation after two years.

I’m pretty sure I know what the response will be to the secession petitions.

While We’re Thinking About Elections…

I hope that the election tomorrow will be decided quickly, without lengthy legal battles and revelations of buggy tabulation software, but I am not too confident about it.

While we’re all thinking about elections, here’s a proposal I have been floating in classes and discussions for about ten years: Instead of Election Day, we have Election Week. From Monday through Sunday (or any 7 days) we have in-person and mail-in voting. Polling places deliver ballots to the central counting offices as they do now, counting begins immediately, and is reported immediately. So by the end of each election day, or by the next morning, we have actual elections returns so far. People can wait until the last minute or vote early according to their preferences, and the media can discuss & analyze the partial returns all week long. Races that seem close (or closer than expected) could encourage some non-voters to participate. Campaigns can see how things are going and adjust strategies, push for more turnout in lagging districts, etc. Then at the end of the week the final votes are counted and a winner announced — although in some cases the result may be all but known in advance.

Sure, there are some bugs to work out of this system. How could polling places stay open all week? Maybe not all of them would be open every day, but all would have to be open on the final day. Maybe open locations would rotate. Wouldn’t this allow for all kinds of shenanigans to take place? Maybe, but I’m not sure it would lead to more shenanigans than take place now. The main difference would be lowering the stakes of that single day when most people vote, and allowing for problems like insufficient ballots/long lines/broken voting machines to be corrected. Wouldn’t reporting election returns day-by-day be just as bad as if we reported returns starting at 10am on election day? Maybe, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing to do. We get all kinds of speculation and guessing (based on polls or not) before election day, and I can’t see how giving people real information (about partial returns) and letting them act on that would be a negative for freedom, participation, legitimacy, or any other good thing. After all, if people really want to vote in a state of ignorance, they can vote on day one, and if they want to wait for all possible information to come in, they can wait until the final day.

Don’t we basically do this now in many states, with early voting or vote by mail? Yes, to some degree. The main differences I’m proposing are to count and report the results as we go, and to have a standardized system (for national elections) across the whole country. It is absurd that each state (and sometimes counties) decides how to structure and run elections, when these local decisions will ultimately be judged by state courts or, in the most important cases, the Supreme Court.

There’s surely almost no chance that this proposal will come to fruition. But it does look like states, gradually, are adopting longer voting periods. And maybe after a few more national elections and major legal controversies, the advantages of a standard set of electoral rules passed by Congress will become clear.

Solidarity / High Noon

A campaign poster for Solidarity, the main non-communist party in Poland’s first semi-open election, 1989. It is based on a poster of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952, dir. Fred Zinnemann), replacing his pistol with a paper reading “elections” and the western backdrop with the iconic logo of Solidarity.

This was the first competitive election as Communist Party rule was collapsing in Poland and soon the rest of Eastern Europe, but it was not entirely free. About one-third of the seats in Poland’s lower house of parliament (Sejm) were competitive, the rest being reserved for the CP and its associates. Poland’s less powerful upper house (Senat) was entirely open. This was a transitional bargain between the CP and Solidarity, meant to ease Poland into a liberalization gradually and peacefully.

Solidarity won all but one of the competitive seats, resulting in a parliament where the Communist Party had a majority but no legitimacy.  Within a few months the power-sharing arrangement had been replaced by a largely Solidarity-run government, and by December 1990 Solidarity’s leader Lech Wałęsa was elected President. In 1991 Poland had an entirely open parliamentary election and one important stage of the transition was complete, with all its leaders having a democratic mandate.

These elections were important for Poland, but by no means the only important step it took toward consolidating its new democracy. We saw in Eastern Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the Middle East that getting the authoritarian regime to accept open elections (or organizing such elections after the old regime had been ousted) was important and sometimes tricky. But we also saw, and are seeing, that the real test a new democracy faces is when organized political groups face each other within a framework of democratic rules. Will they follow those rules or try to undermine them for their short-term gain? Will they treat other groups as legitimate players in political contestation or treat them like enemies? Will all the groups with significant political power decide that complying with the democratic structure is in their medium- and long-term interests? And will the inevitable problems with transparency, negotiation, and rule enforcement be ironed out, or become triggers for more serious conflict?

However polarized and sometimes crazy our own elections seem, the US has answered almost all of these questions. To me the most worrying development in recent years is the tendency on all sides to accumulate reasons (maybe potential reasons) to consider the outcomes of democratic procedures to be illegitimate. Elections are fixed, voting machines are fixed, the courts fixed the outcomes, corporations control the government, political leaders aren’t real Americans, there is no public interest, only private gain, etc. However many of these claims might sometimes be true, their aggregate effect on politics has been, I fear, to make it easier for people to dismiss rival leaders and constituencies without consideration, empathy, or dialog.

This isn’t a particularly new observation, but it’s one worth thinking about as we obsessively check for new polls from a few important swing states. After this election is over the same problems we have faced for last four years will remain, and we’ll probably face them with almost the same constellations of power in Washington.

Inaugural post

Welcome to Politics on Mars!

Read about me and the blog by following the About link above.

I will soon be posting about an election held 23 years ago in Poland, and perhaps about our own upcoming election as well. I plan on posting every few days, but I’m sure that posts will be sporadic as I get up to speed on how to run the blog, use wordpress, and reign in my verbosity.