Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Political lessons from Game of Thrones

This is a repost from my Facebook feed.

One of the reasons I love Game of Thrones -- both books and shows -- is because it provides such great examples of how politics often works. I’ve brought that up often to my friends this election season.

There are two separate areas where any candidate can stand or fall. The first thing is that politicians create policy. Ultimately what we should want most from our politicians is that they will enact good policy. During an election season, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re not just talking about a sports competition, where we hate the other team because they’re our rivals, and their wins and losses make us happy and sad just because they’re part of the tribe.

We want to elect good politicians because we want them to do stuff that matters on a large scale. Build infrastructure. Improve the economy. Keep the populace safe. Make sure the justice system is fair. Etc.

But the other angle of politics is being good at winning the “game” of getting elected. That’s an entirely separate skill. You can have the greatest policy ideas in the world but never win an election, because the things you have to do to win are very unlike the things you have to do to craft policy. Politics involves things like fundraising, and making friends with the right people, and creating good campaign ads, and pushing people’s emotional buttons, and undermining your opponent in ways both subtle and blatant.

In Game of Thrones, there are characters who are good at one thing, but not the other. I won’t give any blatant spoilers, for those of you who haven’t yet watched or read the series and still plan to. But the people who have, should know what I’m talking about.

Take Ned Stark. Ned is a good guy, a competent hand of the king, and cares a lot about what’s best for the country. But he’s bad at politics. And that matters a lot. If he’d won, if he’d been a little more careful about making allies of the right people, and working less openly against his enemies, the story might have taken a very different turn early in the series. Ned would probably have made a great ruler, but he didn’t get the opportunity. It’s not for nothing that the “stupid Ned Stark” meme became a thing (google it or follow the link if you don’t care about spoilers).

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Cersei Lannister. She’s pretty bad. Doesn’t care much about peasants, or the kingdom, or the scary rumors about white walkers. Mainly she cares about what serves herself and her family best, and she doesn’t care who she steps on, as long as she wins. But she does win often, and that’s my point; she’s an exceptional politician, and that makes her uniquely dangerous to the kingdom. More dangerous than Joffrey, who is more overtly evil than Cersei, but he’s also an egomaniacal dimwit who is only effective because he relies on others to get and keep his power. ...For a while, anyway.

But there’s this whole other middle category of people, who are pretty good people and also fairly politically savvy. Tyrion Lannister is the foremost example. He’s definitely not AS nice as Ned, his intentions are maybe not as pure, and he’s got a lot of vices. But on the whole, Tyrion would be better and nicer as a ruler than at least 80% of the other major characters. And at the same time, he’s aware of the game and cares about winning.

Other characters in that category: Varys the eunuch is extremely good at politics, although he doesn’t hold positions of power directly, while also clearly caring a lot about doing what’s best for the realm. Littlefinger is a real scumbag, but he’s not as purely evil as Cersei, and one of the shrewdest characters in the series. Sansa starts out as kind of pure and naive like Ned, but thanks to some character development, she’s learned more and more what it takes to get her way. Jon Snow seemed to be following his father as a well intentioned loser, but he seems to have gotten his shit together lately.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes a Tyrion Lannister or a Varys is the best possible character to root for. They may not be the best and nicest person around, but they are nice enough, and also much more likely to actually win in the end. And winning means you get to enact the good policies that you believe in, even if they’re not the perfect policies.

Because the real life work of politics inevitably requires a lot of social navigation, people who are good at politics often risk seeming manipulative and sleazy. Social climbers are unpalatable. Fundraising for ads seems like something con artists would do. But fair or not, that’s often just part of the job, and having those skills matters if you want to get a chance to govern.

And sometimes, other politicians appear to be totally “honest” and “tell it like it is” only because they have gotten so exceptionally good at fooling people that you don’t even notice that they’re even sleazier than everyone else.

I think it's fair to say that everyone who's made it to a position as high as president or governor or Congressman has this skill set. Some are better than others, and some are also better than others at looking like they don't do the things they do.

In the end, you shouldn’t judge your candidates by a gut feeling or by the conventional wisdom about their reputation. You should look at the policies they’ve actually proposed, and look at their history of getting those policies accomplished, and figure out who’s likely in the long run to accomplish most of the good things that you want done.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some ambivalent thoughts about democracy

I've been listening to the 538 election podcast talking about the Brexit vote while I wait for my son's band concert to start. Having some weirdly ambivalent thoughts about democracy.

I think one of the most pressing problems in any society is making sure that minorities don't get stripped of their rights. This is a non trivial issue to solve. Appointed rulers (i.e. kings) tend to care about disempowered people very little. Entrenched ruling groups, like an established board of directors for a company, tend to empower people that they like personally, and in practice bring in more people who look and think like them.

But then again, mobs of people don't necessarily make informed decisions, and then they can STILL be indifferent to minority rights when voting. So for example, we have the 1964 civil rights act, which prevents anyone in the entire country from discriminating in various arenas. If it was put to a state by state vote, many states might explicitly give preferential treatment to straight white males. But we prevent them from doing that on purpose, because you shouldn't be able to vote away some people's rights.

I'm not British, so I don't have the most thorough understanding of Brexit. But the sense I get is that those who voted "Leave" are most generally the UK equivalent of Trump supporters -- i.e., cranky xenophobic nationalists. This is probably an oversimplification of both countries, but it's the rule of thumb I'm going with for now. I'm hearing that many Brits are experiencing buyer's remorse, having made a "protest vote" without really understanding the impact of the decision, and having ridiculed and dismissed "experts" such as economists, who universally said this vote would be bad news. In the US it seems like a popular stance to oppose "career politicians" and vote for outsiders who haven't held office before. Donald Trump is like the end game of this strategy.

In politics, as in other areas like science and medicine, I think there is definitely something to be said for weighting the input of experts differently than other people. Sure, power corrupts. But also, it would be great if judgement on a law was made more by people who have had time to study the law and understand the issue better.

But on the other hand, we go back to appointed rulers having likely biases against "commoners." So it's a tough thing to figure out a fair system.

Monday, March 07, 2016

State of the Democratic primary, part 2: Hillary Clinton on LGBT rights

As I said in my previous post, I like Bernie Sanders, and I like Hillary Clinton, and I'd enthusiastically support either of them in their run for president against Donald Trump (the likely Republican front runner at this moment). I also think that Hillary Clinton is probably going to win the nomination, and that's fine with me.

I have heard a lot of people dismiss Hillary Clinton as "pretty good... for a Republican" or say that she's not a real liberal. I totally disagree, and in my next few posts I hope to make a convincing case that Clinton is, for liberals, a pretty good liberal ally, and vastly superior to Donald Trump. (Which, admittedly, is a low bar for me.)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

State of the Democratic primary, part 1: Post Super Tuesday evaluation

Here are a few brief comments about what I think of the state of the Democratic primary so far.

  1. Bernie Sanders is a fine candidate who would make a good president.
  2. Hillary Clinton is a fine candidate who would make a good president.
  3. Neither candidate is perfect. They both have strengths and weaknesses.
  4. They are, however, both miles better in almost every way than Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee.
  5. With a few exceptions, both candidates have run generally positive campaigns, and most likely the losing candidate will be gracious and endorse the winner.
  6. Hillary Clinton has moved to a better and more openly liberal platform due to Bernie Sanders' involvement in the race. Whether Sanders wins the nomination or not, he has been an extremely good influence overall and I appreciate that.
  7. Looking at the Super Tuesday results, and the polling of upcoming states, I think there is a very strong likelihood that Clinton will be the nominee. It's not a sure thing, but I give it good odds.
  8. ...And that's just fine.

I know I have many liberal friends who will disagree with me on several of those points. No problem.

I have a lot of concrete reasons for thinking that Hillary Clinton is a decent candidate, and my fellow Democrats should be proud to support her in the general election. I also know that many reasonable Bernie Sanders have not yet conceded my point #7, so I'm a little wary of making them defensive by posting them right now. The question will probably be resolved one way or the other in the next few weeks, or by July 25th at the latest, and I've already voted. So while I do think Clinton will be the nominee, I don't feel strongly about arguing for it right now.

Regardless, I've heard a few Bernie Sanders supporters say they feel very depressed when they contemplate their candidate possibly losing the primary. I understand this disappointment, but I don't share the feeling that Sanders is the one and only candidate who can do the right thing in office for the next four to eight years.

For those people, I will be posting a follow up to this post in the near future, discussing my thoughts on Clinton as the nominee. Should Sanders turn the tide in the meantime, that's fine too; my arguments will not be needed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

2016 predictions

Yesterday was election day for a lot of things that didn't matter much. That means we're one year from picking a new president. I have some expectations for that election. This is almost certainly unwise, you should never put out a record of predicting the future in a way where you can be proven wrong later. But I think it's fun, and I think I have a pretty good track record for broad predictions in the last two presidential races. So here comes my prophecy for 2016. Succeed or fail, you can expect me to link back to this post one year from now.

This post is probably going to make some of my friends angry, so please bear in mind that (1) this is what I EXPECT will happen, not necessarily what I HOPE will happen; and (2) This is far from certain, and I am open to admitting how wrong I was, but I do have enough arrogance to say "I told you so" if I am right. Arguing in the comments will probably not be educational to me or any other participant, but I predict it will happen anyway. :)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be the only candidates in the race very soon. The national polls today show Clinton ahead of Sanders by roughly a factor of 2:1. That gap will shift around a little, he may get as close as 3:2 at some times, but after the day when a bunch of Southern states vote, it will be fairly clear he's not going to win. He will remain in the primary race until at least half the states have voted, but not much longer.

Sanders will accept defeat with relative grace, and will announce that he supports Clinton (with clearly stated reservations). He will probably be offered a cabinet position or even the VP spot. He won't necessarily accept. Many Sanders fans, on the other hand, will be very angry. They will declare that the system is rigged, and threaten not to vote for Clinton or anyone. Some of them will definitely follow through on this threat, although if Sanders does join the ticket then all bets are off.

Donald Trump will continue grabbing headlines for a while. He still be in the news all the damn time six months from now, because he's hilarious to talk about, but he won't be the candidate. After the first few states vote, there will be one or two very obvious choices for the most viable "anti-Trump candidate." Many other Republicans will finally start to drop out, and the remaining primary voters will coalesce around the anti-Trump. I have no idea who this candidate is right now, but I don't think it's Ben Carson. Wild guess: Marco Rubio has a shot. Don't hold me to that one.

Trump will call the eventual anti-Trump a loser in public many, many times, before that person becomes the official GOP candidate. Trump's concession speech will be incredibly petty. The Republican candidate will be more moderate than most of the candidates running today, and Republican voters in general will be really tepid in their support for him, but they'll grumble and go along with it anyway and pretend to like him.

Not-Trump nominee will try to fire up the base by saying and doing things that will alienate a lot of voters who aren't Republicans. He will especially be a complete dick to women, racial minorities, and non-Christians.

Clinton will have a lot of Barack Obama's campaign team on her staff. They will make very careful plans about which states they need to focus on in order to guarantee victory, and they will ask a lot of volunteers to help keep Democrats interested in the race. Republicans will constantly repeat that most people agree with them on all the issues, and that the polls which say otherwise are just the liberal media lying as usual.

Hillary will win the popular vote by a relatively small margin, but her strategists will ensure that she wins the electoral vote by a ridiculous number that is an obvious landslide. Republicans will say the election was stolen, and they'll also focus on the popular vote to say that Clinton has no mandate.

Gerrymandered districts will guarantee that Republicans keep the house, but it's a toss-up whether they keep the Senate. They will immediately begin discussing how to impeach Clinton before her term starts.

I have spoken. You are hereby invited to bookmark this post and dredge it up so you can make fun of me once I am proven wrong.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Trumpmania! and a grand unified theory of the Republican party

Well... it's been two years since I posted here. This blog is in a weird area of my attention, because these days I do so much small scale writing on Facebook and Twitter that I don't feel a strong need to write blogs very often; and when I do, The Atheist Experience blog gets most of my attention. But ya know, political season is almost upon us, and writing about politics is one niche that I think this blog definitely still fills.

Ed Brayton​ posted the following on Facebook:

"I will win is the Hispanic vote … I’ll create jobs, and I’ll get the Hispanic vote … the Hispanics love me." -- Donald Trump 
New poll: 81% of Hispanics have an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 13% with a favorable view. 
Yep Don, they love you. Absolutely love you. That's what happens when you view the world through gaudy gold-plated glasses.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, revisited

Lynnea and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind last night. The only other time I've seen it was in its theater release in 2004. It's weird to think how different everything was back then. Ben was two years old, I hadn't started grad school yet, and my first marriage still seemed more or less stable. Hard to believe, but it was nine years ago. I remembered very well that the movie was a good mind screw, but I hadn't remembered all the details, so really I went through the surprises all over again. Lynnea had not seen it before at all.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!