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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (6b)—Electoral College

One year ago on Round and Square (4 November 2011)—Prairie Ethnography: Introduction
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Structure, History, and Culture"
[a] Proportional RF

This is one post in a multi-part series on the American Electoral College. Click below for the others.
Electoral 1       Electoral 2        Electoral 3        Vote!                 Clearing        Electoral 4        Electoral 5          
Electoral 6       Electoral 7        Electoral 8        Electoral 9        Electoral 10   Electoral 11      Electoral 12
Electoral 13     Electoral 14
Yesterday, we took a look at Joey's 20-18 Hair Color College victory over Suzy in their contest for the fourth-grade presidency. He lost the popular vote 21-9, but he negotiated the structures of the election process to perfection. We also "saw" the San Diego Chargers defeat the Dallas Cowboys, even though they were outplayed in almost every segment of the game. They too (in that fictional example) negotiated the structures of football rules to near-perfection. We are building to a point, and one that you probably can see coming from many train stations in the distance. Still...
[b] Structured RF

...something tells me that you need one more practical example before we go to college, before we become matriculated (sort of) at the most elite college in the United States of America. Greater than Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Williams, Reed, or Carleton, the Electoral College graduates presidents...every time. It has one "graduate"  (and a helper) every four years, and its structure makes all of the difference in the world. It has brought us Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. First in their classes. It has given us a few "C-" students, too. I will refrain from mentioning their names (but one rhymes with "larding").

Before we leave for college, though, let's review some of our assumptions about structures. We already saw that Joey became class president with only nine out of thirty votes. He negotiated the structures of hair-color politics better than Suzy, who only managed a "mere" two-to-one majority of voters, while losing a close election under the real rules (structures).

Still seem unfair? O.k. Let's look at another set of structures. Let's put you in a biology lab course in a much more common type of college.

You study hard, go to every class (never missing a session), and write regular e-mail messages to your professor telling of your ongoing connections with the subject matter. So far, so good. All of the college guides will tell you that you are doing it just right. You are engaged. We'll even say that you are so meticulous in your lab assignments that they are always in the 90-100 range when you get them back, promptly, every Monday morning in the campus mail. Your professor even writes "Nice Work!" on a few of them.

Good stuff. 
[c] Purple RF

Then something terrible "happens." At the end of the termyour holiday meals bouncing warmly in your relaxed, post-semester stomach (reflecting your ten-pound first-semester weight gain)—you open your grade report. Suddenly, you find that your assumption of an "A" (based on your perception of hard work and keeping in contact with the instructor) was mistaken. 

Quite far from the mark, really. You have a B-.  

Your stomach is no longer bouncing gently, and suddenly you feel slightly dyspeptic and don't like what you see in the mirror (literally and figuratively). At first, you are shocked; soon after, you get angry. As soon as you return to campus, you go to your instructor and tell her that it's just not fair. You did everything right, and you should not be harnessed with a low-B. You worked hard (damnit). Doesn't that count for something?

Uh, no...not really. 

Your instructor is only a little surprised. She had not even begun to think about it in your fashion, but she has had this conversation before. She offers you a box of tissues, as well as some wrapped Brachs candy from the Neanderthal skull jar on her desk. She pauses as you dab your eyes, allowing time for the sugars to begin coursing through your system (remember, she's a biologist). Then she tells you what everyone who understands "rules" routinely tells those who don't. She leaves out the word "moron," (as in "you should have understood this...") in deference to your youth. From her perspective, all of the things you prioritized as central to your coursework were, well, peripheral to her main expectations (and those clearly stated on the syllabus you received on the first day of class, she reminds you, leaving out that word again).

You just held to the margins. You're actually pretty lucky to have a B-.
[d] 270 RF

Of course you were supposed to keep up with your reading, come to class, and maintain contact with the instructor. That was just the baseline in her evaluation of your work. The main events, such as they were, occurred in the two "midterm" examinations and the complexities of the comprehensive final exam. Those accounted for seventy-five percent of the grade, while the things you confidently spoke of as your strengths added up to about twenty-five percent. She listens politely to your concerns, but says something along these lines (but almost always in different words):

You failed to observe the rules and to negotiate the structures in front of you.

Or something like that. 

The American Electoral College has everything to do with this. Everything—and the candidate who fails to understand that 270 means much more than 50.1% will routinely fail at American presidential politics. It is not about the popular vote, any more than course grades are about homework or NFL contests are about ball possession. The way that each of these situations is organized has everything to do with how they are contested, won, and lost.


We may even begin to agree that the structures and their rules of negotiation are flawed. We may insist that no self-respecting electoral system should allow a snot-nosed little punk like Joey to win the class presidency with only one-third of the popular vote. We might well decide that ball possession in football games should count for something (giving a point for every minute controlled, perhaps). We might even convince our professors that they should give class attendance and lab assignments half-weight in our classes. Or more.

Good luck, but keep trying. And just remember that the current winners will work hard to adapt their strategies to the new rules...just like you.
[e] Language RF

Here is the point that sets up our discussion for the next two days, and it starts with the following equation:

538÷2+1=270 (a.k.a. "victory"). 

We can rail against those structures and try to get the powers-that-be to change the rules. We can rant all we want about how unfair it all is, and how it is unthinkable that the winner of the popular vote (or time-of-possession or daily biology class preparation) should still lose in the overall assessment. Dry your eyes, people, and welcome to the real world...the world of (electoral) college. This is the true (and most powerful) school of hard knocks. The Suzys and Sam Tildens of the world (hell, maybe even the Bill Tildens) can weep a small watercourse of tears, but if they really think that they were "cheated," they didn't understand the rules.

our goal is to win the presidency (or get an "A" or win a football game)...we had better understand how to be highly successful structure-negotiating animals.

Now let's put away our high school yearbooks and letter sweaters, and get ready for the next step. We are going to a new place, where the structures are different. It isn't Narnia, but we are about to fall through the electoral looking glass. This isn't your father's electoral process. No, it is your founding fathers' process.

And it really is something to behold.

We will get in the U-Haul van and travel to the Electoral College tomorrow and Tuesday. In the meantime, take a quick look at the introduction to this series. Remember: it isn't about the popular vote...except when it is.

See you tomorrow.

This is one post in a multi-part series on the American Electoral College. Click below for the others.
Electoral 1       Electoral 2        Electoral 3        Vote!                 Clearing        Electoral 4        Electoral 5          
Electoral 6       Electoral 7        Electoral 8        Electoral 9        Electoral 10   Electoral 11      Electoral 12
Electoral 13     Electoral 14

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