Mass Protests Across China

AP (“China’s Xi faces threat from public anger over ‘zero COVID’“):

Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his “zero COVID” strategy that will soon enter its fourth year.

Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend in cities including Shanghai and Beijing, criticizing the policy, confronting police — and even calling for Xi to step down. Students at some universities also protested.

Widespread demonstrations are unprecedented since the army crushed the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Most protesters focused their anger on restrictions that can confine families to their homes for months and have been criticized as neither scientific nor effective. Some complained the system is failing to respond to their needs.

The cries for the resignation of Xi and the end of the Communist Party that has ruled China for 73 years could be deemed sedition, which is punishable by prison.

In response, police in Shanghai used pepper spray to drive away demonstrators, and dozens were detained in police sweeps and taken away in police vans and buses. China’s vast internal security apparatus is also famed for identifying people it considers troublemakers and picking them up later when few are watching.

The possibility of more protests is unclear. Government censors scrubbed the internet of videos and messages supporting them. And analysts say unless divisions emerge, the Communist Party should be able to contain the dissent.

China’s stringent measures were originally accepted for minimizing deaths while other countries suffered devastating waves of infections, but that consensus has begun to fray in recent weeks.

While the ruling party says anti-coronavirus measures should be “targeted and precise” and cause the least possible disruption to people’s lives, local officials are threatened with losing their jobs or other punishments if outbreaks occur. They have responded by imposing quarantines and other restrictions that protesters say exceed what the central government allows.

Xi’s unelected government doesn’t seem too concerned with the hardships brought by the policy. This spring, millions of Shanghai residents were placed under a strict lockdown that resulted in food shortages, restricted access to medical care and economic pain. Nevertheless, in October, the city’s party secretary, a Xi loyalist, was appointed to the Communist Party’s No. 2 position.

The party has long imposed surveillance and travel restrictions on minorities including Tibetans and Muslim groups such as Uyghurs, more than 1 million of whom have been detained in camps where they are forced to renounce their traditional culture and religion and swear fealty to Xi.

But this weekend’s protests included many members of the educated urban middle class from the ethnic Han majority. The ruling party relies on that group to abide by an unwritten post-Tiananmen agreement to accept autocratic rule in exchange for a better quality of life.

Now, it appears that old arrangement has ended as the party enforces control at the expense of the economy, said Hung Ho-fung of Johns Hopkins University.

“The party and the people are trying to seek a new equilibrium,” he said. “There will be some instability in the process.”

To develop into something on the scale of the 1989 protests would require clear divisions within the leadership that could be leveraged for change, Hung said.

Xi all but eliminated such threats at an October party congress. He broke with tradition and awarded himself a third five-year term as party leader and packed the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists. Two potential rivals were sent into retirement.

“Without the clear signal of party leader divisions … I would expect this kind of protest might not last very long,” Hung said.

It’s “unimaginable” that Xi would back down, and the party is experienced in handling protests, Hung said.

WaPo (“Rare protests against China’s ‘zero covid’ policy erupt across country“) adds:

The immediate trigger for the demonstrations, which were also seen at universities in Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing on Saturday, was a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest on Thursday. Ten people, including three children, died after emergency fire services could not get close enough to an apartment building engulfed in flames. Residents blamed lockdown-related measures for hampering rescue efforts.

Officials on Friday denied that covid restrictions were a factor and said some residents’ “ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” fueling more ridicule and anger that swept across Chinese social media platforms. Residents in Urumqi, one of the most tightly controlled cities in China as a result of a broader security crackdown, turned out to protest Friday. Many waved China’s national flag and called for lockdowns to be fully lifted.

[…]

Such demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where authorities move quickly to stamp out all forms of dissent. Authorities are especially wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that spread across the country and ended in a bloody crackdown and massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

[…]

Across the country, and not just at universities, citizens appear to be reaching a breaking point. In the name of “zero covid,” they have lived through almost three years of unrelenting controls that have left many sealed in their homes, sent to quarantine centers or barred from traveling. Residents must submit to repeated coronavirus tests and surveillance of their movement and health status.

The Urumqi fire followed a bus crash in September that killed 27 people as they were being taken to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai left residents without enough food and prompted online and offline protests. Deaths related to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents were unable to take him to a hospital, have further added to public anger.

Health authorities say this strategy of cutting off covid transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent a surge in severe cases and deaths, which would overwhelm the health-care system. As a result of its low infection rate, China’s population of 1.4 billion has a low level of natural immunity. Those who have been immunized have received domestically made vaccines that have proved less effective against the more infectious omicron variant.

NYT (“After Deadly Blaze, Surge of Defiance Against China’s Covid Policies“) adds:

Protests are relatively rare in China. Especially under Mr. Xi, the party has eliminated most means for organizing people to take on the government. Dissidents have been imprisoned, social media is heavily censored, and independent groups involved in human rights have been banned. The protests that break out in towns and villages often involve workers, farmers or other locals aggrieved by job losses, land disputes, pollution or other issues that usually remain contained.

But the pervasiveness of China’s Covid restrictions has created a focus for anger that transcends class and geography. Migrant workers struggling with food shortages and joblessness during weekslong lockdowns, university students held on campuses, urban professionals chafing at travel restrictions — the roots of their frustrations are the same.

The Communist Party’s greatest fear would be realized if these similar grievances led protesters from disparate backgrounds to cooperate, in an echo of 1989, when students, workers, small traders and residents found some common cause in the protests demanding democratic change that took over Tiananmen Square. So far, that has not occurred.

“Covid Zero produced an unintended consequence, which is putting a huge number of people in the same situation,” said Yasheng Huang, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who leads its China Lab. “This is a game changer.”

“The anger has been pent up for a while, but I think the 20th Congress provided an expectation that it would wind down,” he said, referring to the party’s leadership reshuffle in October. “When that did not happen, the frustration quickly boiled over.”

[…]

While many protesters limited their appeals to the loosening of Covid restrictions, some seized the chance to make broader political demands, linking the draconian reach of “zero Covid” to the country’s authoritarian system.

On Sunday, hundreds of students gathered on the campus of Tsinghua University, in northwest Beijing, where they have been largely prohibited from leaving for weeks because of Covid restrictions.

“Democracy and rule of law,” the crowd chanted. “Freedom of expression.”

[…]

Mr. Xi has no easy response to the widespread anger. Censors have moved quickly to scrub photos and video footage of the protests. If Mr. Xi cracks down on demonstrators, he could anger the public further, straining even China’s formidable security apparatus. If he abruptly lifts many restrictions, he risks hurting his image of unassailable authority that he has built in part on his success battling Covid. The ensuing rise in infections, potentially deadly among the vulnerable, may also become another source of discontent.

“The immediate challenge is whether and how they’re going to continue with ‘zero Covid’ when there is so much frustration. This is a decision he has to make in the next, say, 48 to 72 hours,” Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who studies Chinese politics, said in an interview. “You can arrest people and put them in jail, but the virus will still be there. There are simply no easy answers for him, only hard choices.”

William Hurst, the Chong Hua Professor of Chinese Development at Cambridge, has a long Twitter thread on the protests , the upshot of which is that what makes this particular set unusual is that they’re coordinated across regions. The CCP has long tolerated labor protests and those over isolated local issues but is fearful of coordinated actions like this. Further, COVID is a unifying issue, not the actual theme:

What’s happened in the past 24 hours is novel in that protesters have appeared on the streets in multiple cities with apparent knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the country. They’re all mobilising around #Covid, but this is refracted through distinct lenses.

Workers in Zhengzhou and elsewhere are engaged in labour protests, but with #ZeroCovid as a kind of frame for their grievances. Students across dozens of campuses, similarly are mounting familiar kinds of protest, but also framed around Covid.

The protesters in these crowds don’t look to be either workers or students. They appear to have mobilised first around #Covid & urban governance issues – in particular, in reaction to the fire and failed response in Urumqi two days ago. But they’ve morphed beyond that.

By taking up slogans and frames of generalised dissent, as well as at least implicitly signally solidarity with workers’ and students’ mobilisation, these crowds are crossing a boundary and helping merge four of the five strands/repertoires outlined above.

He also has some speculation about where the protests go from here. He’s not hopeful:

[I]f we assume no elite backers, the most likely scenario I can see is that the protests fizzle out (as most such movements do in most countries). Having erupted spontaneously in a short period, they will fade away without reaching any climax or denouement.

A second possibility is some form of comprehensive & decisive repression.

This could take the form of a coordinated and possibly quite violent crackdown (as in 1989) or it could be slower-motion and at least somewhat less bloody (as in HK in 2019-2020).

Either form of repression would be extremely costly for the state, however (both in fiscal and reputational terms). It would not be undertaken lightly, as it would also raise the stakes. It’s thus a decidedly second-best option and not as likely as the protests fizzling.

The government is already taking advantage of Twitter’s collapsing moderation infrastructure and flooding the platform with spam images to help frustrate coordination among the protestors. They are simultaneously easing some rules , while keeping the “Zero COVID” strategy intact. Overall, I’d be pleasantly surprised if the protests amount to much.

Why So Many Die on American Roads

The free high-resolution photo of pedestrian, road, traffic, street, city, new york, cityscape, downtown, taxi, transport, red, nyc, usa, yellow, lane, yellow cab, art, infrastructure, metropolis, urban area , taken with an unknown camera 03/26 2017
CC0 Public Domain image from PxHere

Writing for NYT , Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano explore “The Exceptionally American Problem of Rising Roadway Deaths.” The upshot:

The U.S. has diverged over the past decade from other comparably developed countries, where traffic fatalities have been falling. This American exception became even starker during the pandemic. In 2020, as car travel plummeted around the world, traffic fatalities broadly fell as well. But in the U.S., the opposite happened. Travel declined, and deaths still went up. Preliminary federal data suggests road fatalities rose again in 2021.

[…]

In 2021, nearly 43,000 people died on American roads, the government estimates. And the recent rise in fatalities has been particularly pronounced among those the government classifies as most vulnerable — cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians.

Much of the familiar explanation for America’s road safety record lies with a transportation system primarily designed to move cars quickly, not to move people safely.

“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

It has been thus my whole life, so seems normal. Of course the roads are there for cars, trucks, and buses. Indeed, we’ve institutionalized that:

That culture is baked into state transportation departments that have their roots in the era of Interstate highway construction (and through which most federal transportation dollars flow). And it’s especially apparent in Sun Belt metros like Tampa and Orlando that boomed after widespread adoption of the car — the roads there are among the most dangerous in the country for cyclists and pedestrians.

The cross-country comparisons are revealing, if somewhat misleading:

The fatality trends over the last 25 years, though, aren’t simply explained by America’s history of highway development or dependence on cars. In the 1990s, per capita roadway fatalities across developed countries were significantly higher than today. And they were higher in South Korea, New Zealand and Belgium than in the U.S. Then a revolution in car safety brought more seatbelt usage, standard-issue airbags and safer car frames, said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.

Fatalities fell as a result, in the U.S. and internationally. But as cars grew safer for the people inside them, the U.S. didn’t progress as other countries did to prioritizing the safety of people outside them.

“Other countries started to take seriously pedestrian and cyclist injuries in the 2000s — and started making that a priority in both vehicle design and street design — in a way that has never been committed to in the United States,” Mr. Freemark said.

Other developed countries lowered speed limits and built more protected bike lanes. They moved faster in making standard in-vehicle technology like automatic braking systems that detect pedestrians , and vehicle hoods that are less deadly to them. They designed roundabouts that reduce the danger at intersections, where fatalities disproportionately occur.

Most American cities and essentially all of our suburbs were built after the automobile was in widespread use. That’s not true of our European and Asian counterparts, which therefore have narrower, windier, and thus slower roads. And we have much longer commutes as well, incentivizing driving and higher speeds.

Outside of a handful of older cities, roundabouts (traffic circles) are foreign and most Americans don’t seem to know what to do when they encounter them. That’s a pity, because they’re much more efficient than having 4-way stops at every intersection.

But here’s the bigger issue, I think:

In the U.S. in the past two decades, by contrast, vehicles have grown significantly bigger and thus deadlier  to the people they hit. Many states curb the ability of local governments to set lower speed limits. The five-star federal safety rating that consumers can look for when buying a car today doesn’t take into consideration what that car might do to pedestrians .

These diverging histories mean that while the U.S. and France had similar per capita fatality rates in the 1990s, Americans today are three times as likely to die in a traffic crash, according to Mr. Freemark’s research .

Americans have always loved big cars. We occasionally shift to buying smaller ones when gas prices skyrocket but revert to form once they drop. Europeans and Asians, by contrast, pay much more for fuel than we do and have for decades. That strongly incentivizes smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. And, indeed, the massive SUVs and four-door pickup trucks so common in the USA are essentially nonexistent in most of the world.

Over this time, more people have been traveling by motorcycle and bike in the U.S. Bike-share systems spread around the country, and new modes like electric bikes and scooters have followed, heightening the need to adapt roads — and the way users of all kinds share them — for a world not dominated solely by automobiles.

Cycling advocates said they expected there would be safety in numbers as more people biked and as drivers grew accustomed to sharing the road, reducing deaths. Instead, the opposite has happened.

We simply don’t have the infrastructure for any of this outside our major cities. So, the relative handful of people riding bicycles in suburban areas are on roads with 55 mph speed limits and no dedicated lanes.

There’s a winding 2-1/2 mile two-lane road that leads from out where I live into the nearest suburb. The lanes are thin and there are no curb lanes, much less sidewalks or bike paths. People tend to drive faster than the 30ish mph speed limit and trucks, especially, are prone to cross over into the other lane around curbs. Occasionally, I’ll encounter some poor sod trying to peddle a bike and thus blocking the road. It’s just dangerous all around.

Beyond that, even in major cities, where pedestrians and bicyclists are more common, we simply haven’t adopted a safety culture. Drivers are generally pretty good at stopping for red lights but they think nothing of turning right on red across a pedestrian crosswalk—even when pedestrians have the light. And, as I’ve noted many times over the years, bicyclists tend to make up their own rules, alternating between being in the driving lane but not observing stop signs or lights and jumping onto the sidewalks and suddenly becoming 25mph pedestrians. And the recent rise of rental scooters adds yet another variable.

On empty pandemic roads, it was easy to see exactly what kind of transportation infrastructure the U.S. had built: wide roads, even in city centers, that seemed to invite speeding. By the end of 2020 in New York, traffic fatalities on those roads had surged from prepandemic times.

“We have a system that allows this incredible abuse, if the conditions are ripe for it,” Mr. Freemark said.

And that’s precisely what the conditions were during the pandemic. There was little congestion holding back reckless drivers. Many cities also curtailed enforcement, closed DMV offices and offered reprieves for drivers who had unpaid tickets, expired drivers’ licenses and out-of-state tags.

I made the occasional foray to the hardware or grocery store during our brief semi-lockdown in March-April 2020. It was surreal to be on the road with hardly any other cars. But, yes, the proportion of people driving recklessly was higher. We’re used to traffic being the primary regulator of our speed. That’s even more so in a place like New York, where traffic is otherwise at a near standstill pretty much all the time.

The pandemic made more apparent how much American infrastructure contributes to dangerous conditions, in ways that can’t be easily explained by other factors.

“We are not the only country with alcohol,” said Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. “We’re not the only country with smartphones and distraction. We were not the only country impacted by the worldwide pandemic.”

Rather, she said, other countries have designed transportation systems where human emotion and error are less likely to produce deadly results on roadways.

What the U.S. can do to change this is obvious, advocates say: like outfitting trucks with side underride guards to prevent people from being pulled underneath, or narrowing the roads that cars share with bikes so that drivers intuit they should drive slower.

“We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is,” said Caron Whitaker, deputy executive director at the League of American Bicyclists. “We just don’t have the political will to do it.”

How much of this is societal and how much is political is hard to say. My strong suspicion, though, is that most of the other countries have far more centralized regulatory regimes and ones in which transportation experts simply make the rules without needing much input from politicians. We, on the other hand, have overlapping county, city, state, and federal regulations with interlocking lobbying efforts from the transportation industry and various safety advocacy groups.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year takes modest steps toward changing that. There is more federal money for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. And states will now be required to analyze fatalities and serious injuries among “vulnerable road users” — people outside of cars — to identify the most dangerous traffic corridors and potential ways to fix them.

States where vulnerable road users make up at least 15 percent of fatalities must spend at least 15 percent of their federal safety funds on improvements prioritizing those vulnerable users. Today, 32 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia face that mandate.

There was essentially no public debate on any of that. My guess is that it was put in there by a subcommittee as a pet project of an influential chairman and passed into law because it didn’t attract any objections. It seems reasonable enough; whether it’ll have a significant impact on safety remains to be seen.

The 2024 Democratic Primary Calendar Debate

Via WaPo: Democrats battle over 2024 nomination calendar as Biden weighs options .

with just days left before Democrats gather on Dec. 1 to decide their presidential nominating order, it remains unclear just how the calendar will sort out. The most important voice in Democratic politics, that of President Biden, has yet to weigh in, and many members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee responsible for deciding the outcome continue to await word from the White House.

The battle appears to be over whether Nevada might leapfrog New Hampshire, with some possibilities that larger states, like Michigan and Minnesota might make a play. Meanwhile, what about South Carolina?

A huge obstacle is that New Hampshire has a law requiring their primary to be seven days earlier than anyone else’s. The article itself makes everyone come across as a bit childish.

The fundamental problems are with the primaries themselves rather than who goes first. Who goes first can certainly matter, although probably not as much many argue, although I have to admit it doesn’t make a ton of representative sense for one of the least diverse states (New Hampshire) in the union to be so pivotal. I also question the logic that small states forcing candidates to engage in diner visits and other “retail politics” activities is the best way to decide who should be a party’s pick to compete for the most powerful office in the world.

The fact that the 2024 Democratic primaries will be uncontested raises the question of whether this is the best or worst year to make a change. It could be the best insofar as it really won’t matter if Biden runs for re-election (which is the most likely outcome), as he will be unopposed and the primaries simply won’t matter. It also means that if NH plays legal leapfrog over whomever the Democrats choose to officially go first there won’t be any actual hard choice for Biden to make in terms of campaigning.

But on the other hand, if the party makes a switch in 2024 would anyone notice? After all, if a tree falls during an uncontested primary, does it make a sound in either Nevada or New Hampshire?

I would love to see a more serious discussion of nomination reform. If we have to stick with primaries I think I would prefer some sort of series of Super Tuesdays rather than the weird notion that tiny states ought to be culling the field, but I do not have especially strong views on exactly what that should look like.

Quite honestly I expect the final result to be a maintenance of the status quo since trying to find a way to overcome New Hampshire’s primary law will be seen as too much trouble.

Monday Morning Tabs

From the start, VMI’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have been derided by some donors and alumni deeply wedded to the school’s traditions and 183-year history. Some have assailed VMI’s first chief diversity officer, Jamica Love, the college’s highest-ranking Black woman, and accused VMI of embracing critical race theory — a suggestion Wins blasted this year as “categorically false.”

If DEI efforts challenge your institution’s traditions, it might be a cause to pause and exam those traditions.

Ticket Splitting in the 2022 Mid-Term

Politico has a piece whose headline is narrative-friendly but buries the lede: Voters who backed GOP governors helped keep the Senate blue . The headline emphasizes a narrative from the mid-terms that a lot of voters split their tickets between gubernatorial candidates and senatorial ones, such as in Georgia where clearly some voters voted for Republican Governor Kemp and then either abstained in the contest of Walker v. Warnock, or actually voted for the Democrat. However, the piece notes that really, ticket-splitting has declined.

Indeed, as the piece notes:

Democrats have ticket-splitters to thank for maintaining their hold on the Senate.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan trampled her Republican rival, even as the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, did the same to his opponent.

In Nevada, voters helped Democrats seal the Senate majority by reelecting Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto even as they tossed out the sitting Democratic governor.

So, all cool for the narrative that focuses (understandably) on some key races. However, the real story as it pertains to national partisan trends is the opposite and reinforces our understanding that the nation is pretty polarized and that existing partisan preferences are the key variable to understanding outcomes:

The results are enough to make it look like this year’s midterms represented a return to the old days of de-polarized statewide politics, when large numbers of voters would support one party’s candidate for Senate and the other party for governor.

But it was actually the opposite. A POLITICO analysis of the results shows that ticket-splitting in those races declined to the lowest point of any midterm since at least 1990.

So, while it is clear that some states did see important splits in partisan voting between governor and US Senate contest, the reality is that the overall trend is clearly to more unified partisan voting.

Two observations.

First, clearly, we are seeing that candidate quality matters, although even that fact is influenced by the partisan context (as we are seeing in Georgia wherein Walker is objectively one of the worst candidates for Senate one could conceive of, and yet has a shot at winning).

Second, I would note that governor is an office that appears to have a bit more influence of localized politics than several others which are more nationalized (which helps explain some of the ticket-splitting in general). For example, in 2019 a Democrat won the Kentucky gubernatorial race (by a very slim margin –49.% to 48.8%) even as the state went heavily for Trump (62.1% to 36.2% ). I have thoughts on why this is the case, but will simply leave this as an observation for now.

At a minimum, these results do suggest that the general trend towards polarized, calcified electorates with nationalized parties continues, even if there are some notable exceptions.

On Spurious Majorities and Other Thoughts on Electoral System Critiques

Note: as with most posts like this that start as a prompted by a comment elsewhere, this is just a chance to say (and, yes, re-say in some cases) things that were already on my mind.

So, as it often the case, a conversation in a comment thread leads me to want to write more than just make a comment, so here we go. In James Joyner’s post on Palin’s loss in her bid to win a House seat in Alaska, commenter Andy noted “you can’t assume vote totals would be the same in an election under a different set of rules” (see the the thread for greater context if desired). The comment was aimed at James, but I was name-checked and noted that, of course, I understood this.

To expand: rather obviously one of the the great impossibilities of political science is that you can’t run experiments the way the natural sciences can. We cannot, for example, run the 2022 election over again with different electoral rules to see how those rules would change outcomes. All of us who study these things clearly know this. But, it is also known via comparative study across space and time is that electoral rules (in the simplest of terms, how votes are translate into offices) profoundly effects voter and politician behavior and that, therefore, it is almost certainly the case that different rules would produce different outcomes.

So, I am supremely confident that while I cannot rerun 2022 under different conditions to prove specific outcomes the way a chemist can combine different compounds in a lab that if the US had a different electoral system, it would have a different party system. Indeed, as a general proposition is it clear that changes in incentive structures as manifested by alterations in rules of games changes behavior (and politics is but a massive, highly consequential game).*

Now, I recognize that things like national political culture and historical development also have an effect. But there is a lot of evidence that has been amassed over the last century-plus of representative democracy worldwide that plainly show that the electoral system is a major variable in shaping party systems and the overall nature of political behavior in a given system. Put another way, I recognize that electoral rules are not the only variable and that this is a complex discussion.**

As such it is is possible to look at a given system, and I primarily look at the US system here at OTB, and make some assessments as to where democratic decencies may lie, even if one cannot know in a controlled experiment kind of way what precise changes that systemic chance would produce.

I will add, in case it is not clear, that changes in rules take time to produce changes. While we do normally see some level of reaction in a party system almost immediately at the margins, existing candidate and voter behaviors take several cycles to fully evolve.***

This leads me back to comment from Andy in the interchange in the linked thread.

@Andy:

Yes, you understand this,**** but still continue to use aggregate vote totals to suggest that partisan disparities in representation are unfair.

This is a reference to an observation I have made that our system can produce outcomes wherein the national vote, in the aggregate, can favor one party and yet the opposite party can win control of the House (for example, Another Example of Our Flawed Democracy ).

As such I point to aggregate vote total to provide evidence that the electoral system does not do an adequate job of reflecting actual public sentiment. Or, depending on the conversation, that such outcomes demonstrate a flaw worthy of consideration and correction. This is not, I would note, suggesting that under a different set of rules all the votes would be cast the same way, quite the contrary, in fact, as under different rules I would expect more parties.

I (and other who’s study these things) would suggest that a spurious majority is a systemic problem wherein the aggregate vote totals show support for Party A, but Party B gets the majority of the seats not because of registered voter preference, but because of some design issue in the system. At a bare minimum, legislative elections ought to give the majority of the seats to the party that has majority support in the population if the goal is national representation, which is the alleged goal of the House of Representatives.

Yes, I realize that part of the reason we get weird results in the US that makes the aggregate vote an imperfect metric is that we have a lot of uncontested elections (which is another sign of an unhealthy system). I also recognize that regionality could influence these outcomes (but not enough to undercut my basic point, although I am open to an evidence-based counter on this topic). But even if regional variation leads to some of the distortions that does not mean that the national legislature shouldn’t reflect those variations as closely as possible unless a state/region was truly 100% blue or red, which is simply not the case.*****

I would note that if we used Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP) such as in Germany and New Zealand the shape of the House would reflect the proportional support of the parties on a national basis while also still having district-level Representatives as well. These things are doable without going to the extremes and electing the whole legislature on a national basis as is the case with the Israeli Knesset. But, of course, even if we elected the House in moderately sized multi-seat districts using open list proportional representation (OLPR) we would get a pretty close fit between the general national preference and the representation in the House.

I am as certain that the existing electorate would produce a different party system under either MMP or OLPR as I am about a host of concrete natural science claims. It would not be immediate, as it takes times to adapt to new rules and incentives, but it is quite clear that human being adapt to new rules and incentives and, moreover, there is vast evidence that changes to the electoral system changes the behavior of politicians and of voters. It has been observed over and over again.

I am not suggesting that such a circumstance would fix all of the pathologies of American politics or forestall the development of new ones. But I am claiming that moving in the direction I (and many others) have suggested would directly address some of problems clearly being created by only having two viable choices at the ballot box as well as the problems the emerge when the majority of the population actually isn’t allowed to govern as a result of the rules (which leads us back to why things like spurious majorities are evidence of a problem, alongside Electoral Vote/Popular Vote inversions and the fact that the Senate allows a distinct minority of the population to have well outsized influence on policy).

I note these things because they matter if we take representative democracy seriously. Representative democracy should, in fact, be broadly representative of the interests of the population (with, of course, fundamental protections of minority rights enshrined).

A different way of thinking about this is simply to ask if we believe that, in fact, the US House of Representatives really is a good and adequate reflection of the interests of the population or not. If one thinks it is, or is close enough, then I suppose all of my writings on this come across as more than a bit loony (or, at least, Academic Yells at Clouds).


But let’s return to Alaskas and Andy’s comments:

In this particular case, to use your logic as I understand it, more people voted for Republican candidates, yet a Democrat won, hence that is a spurious majority.

So, “this particular case” is Alaska’s House race, wherein the first round of voting looked like this:

And the second count looked like this:

The result is not spurious (indeed, quite the contrary) because there was a fair mechanism that allowed voters to register their preferences. I will say that if first round results were a consistent feature of Alaskan politics, i.e., that a majority of voters wanted an R, but a D was consistently elected, then I would say, yes, the system, needs a corrective.

One corrective might be a run-off (as we are seeing in Georgia). Another would be RCV, which is what Alaska has chosen to do. In this case, it is clear that while more voters (49.08%) preferred Republicans in the first round, when given the chance to indicate their ranked preference, they really wanted the Democrat.

(And as we would expect in a run-off situation, a candidate that scored that close to 50% in the first round with the second-place finisher so far behind, that the winner of the first round wins the second).

Still, the Alaska election is making my basic point: the rules matter as a mechanism for translating mass preferences via voting into office-holders. A different set of rules with the same voters (to one of Andy’s points) would likely have produced a different outcome. The goal should be construing the rules in a way that best reflects voter preferences at a mass level.

On a micro-level, this is what I am stating should be a normative preference: that a mechanism is needed to allow majority preference to be reflected in government and that the rules ought to be oriented in that direction.

I would stress that the way this is accomplished in a single-seat race and the way this is accomplished nationally are two different things. One seat cannot be sub-divided in a proportional manner, while 435 seats can be.

The problem with a spurious majority as it pertain the a whole legislature is that it is evidence that the public is not being adequately represented because what it wants in the aggregate is not being translated into specific seat outcomes. Spurious majorities are a sign that that system may be flawed from a democratic theory point of view, especially if that outcome becomes regularized.

Aggregate vote totals on a national scale should matter because they are an empirical measure of the preferences of the population. And while I am not advocating for a simplistic majoritarianism, I am saying that it holds to a reasonable theory of democracy that the legislative body that is supposed to represent the people should reflect the preferences of those people as much as possible.

Let me close by quoting Henry Droop from 1869 on his preference for proportional representation over the US’ single-seat district system:

It will, I believe, hardly be disputed, that the claim of a representative assembly to have the decisions of a majority of its members accepted as the decision of the whole country, depends upon the theory that these decisions do in general correspond to what the majority of the whole body of electors in the country would decide, if they had leisure sufficiently to investigate each of the questions to be decided, and an opportunity to vote upon it.

[…]

…a representative assembly in which all parties and sections of parties and all diversities of opinions are represented proportionally, will be much easier to deal with, than an assembly in which the particular differences of opinion upon which the division into two parties is founded, are represented to an exaggerated degree, while subordinate divisions of parties and the various opinions existing upon other questions are only represented by the chance opinions of individual members, and not by members authorised to speak upon these points in the name of their constituents.

On the two party system, the following from that essay is quite prescient given our current polarized times:

As every representative is elected to represent one of these two parties, the nation, as represented in the assembly, appears to consist only of these two parties, each bent on carrying out its own programme. But, in fact, a large proportion of the electors who vote for the candidates of the one party or the other really care much more about the country being honestly and wisely governed than about the particular points at issue between the two parties; and if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

Emphasis mine.

I am sure that doesn’t sound familiar at all.

The link is from an essay about Droop’s though by my friend and co-author on several occasions, Matthew Shugart’s blog, Fruits and Votes . I would note that Matthew is one of the most preeminent scholars of comparative electoral systems and his blog (and academic writings) are worth exploring for those who are interested in the topic.

To conclude: I believe in representative democracy as the best option human beings have to govern themselves.****** I think this is true both normatively and empirically.******* And I think that there are multiple signs that US institutions are under-performing in this arena, owing largely to relying on antiquated institutions (something that Henry Droop recognized in 1869!). And while I understand that change would not produce nirvana, it would improve our government and therefore it would be worthwhile.

And yes, I know it would be hard to accomplish (if not impossible). Still, I will press on to try and convince as many people as possible that the status quo can be changed and should be by pointing out broader issues (as per the above) or simply pointing out that the House is too small .

And now back to your regularly scheduled blogging, already in progress.


*For example, the NFL is a more pass-focused league than it used to be as a result of rules changes as to what defenses can, or cannot, do. The evolution of defensive pass interference rules and roughing the passer rules, to name two, have changed behavior in the game.

**Allow me a moment of footnoted cantankerousness to note that I am engaging in a lot of these caveated asides (here and in other posts), like acknowledging that yes, things are complex, and yes change is hard, because a lot of the time the objections I get in these discussion is along these lines rather than to the broader substance.

***For example, Colombia’s electoral reform in 1991 did not immediately derail the Liberal Party from its dominant position. This took several cycles and now the Liberals are far smaller as the new rules incentivized, and rewarded, new party formation. (And further reforms in 2003 were relevant to that transformation as well).

****”This” meaning “you can’t assume vote totals would be the same in an election under a different set of rules.”

*****I mean, sure, CA is heavily Democratic, but there are still millions of Republicans there as well.

******I do think ascribe to the quote attributed to Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government there is except for all the others that have been tried.” In may ways, the whole of political philosophy going back to Plato is about this question.

*******I think that the values (the normative side) of valuing individuals and promoting rights and liberties in the context of power being governed by the vote is superior to other kinds of power. And empirically, it is factually the case the human flourishing is better in democratic rather than non-democratic systems. (And gosh, yes, the multiple asterisk system of footnotes gets a bit silly after a while).

Why Biden Won’t Be Primaried

White House photo

Jonathan Martin reports for POLITICO Magazine Newsom Told the White House He Won’t Challenge Biden.” After several paragraphs of the California governor repeating such assurances, we get to the larger story:

[W]alking through Sacramento back toward the mansion it was hard not to think of the difference between him and the last two California governors who chose to live in the three-story Victorian.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president, Gerald Ford, and four years later Jerry Brown did the same against Jimmy Carter. Both incumbents would lose the general election, as would George H.W. Bush in 1992, the last year a president would face a remotely serious primary.

This fear of wounding your own president and only ensuring his defeat in the fall is partly the reason why primaries against incumbents have faded, and it’s certainly top of mind for younger challengers who don’t want to hurt their future prospects within the party.

Yet there’s something else at work now that was lacking when Reagan and Brown mounted their challenges. Today’s intense polarization and the contempt the two parties have for one another has fostered an internal cohesion within the two coalitions that, far more than ideological unity, acts as a retardant against insurgencies.

Put another way, there’s a perceived penalty for confronting one’s own leaders because to weaken them would risk the unthinkable — helping the opposition.

Understandably, then, the only forcing mechanism that can alter this dynamic is if remaining loyal to a leader poses the greater risk of aiding and abetting the other party. That’s why some Republicans believe (or at least hope strongly) that their mediocre midterm performance may finally free them from the grip of Donald Trump — because while GOP voters are willing to tolerate a great deal from Trump they can’t abide him ensuring Democratic success.

It’s also Trump who explains why a Democratic Party that spans lapsed Bush Republicans to devout social democrats is now operationally closer to the House of Windsor than the pirate ship it once resembled. Look no further than the orderly succession by which, in a period of mere hours and with barely a whisper of dissent, they effectively swapped in three new House Democratic leaders to replace three Octogenarians — 50 years and a world away from George McGovern giving his acceptance speech in the middle of the nightafter the unraveling of the party’s 1972 convention.

Stopping Trump’s comeback is priority one for the party and anything else is a dangerous distraction, including any open discussion, at least for now, about whether it’s in the best interest of Democrats to renominate the oldest president in American history. (Trump is no spring chicken, either, one can already hear party activists yelling at their screen, as they read this.)

I fully expect that, if he remains healthy, Biden will run again. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, he’s already running.

Partly, that’s because he’s an ambitious politician who has spent his whole adult life wanting to be President. Nobody willingly gives that up after a single term if they think there’s any chance at all of winning re-election. Partly, it’s because he thinks he’s the Democratic Party’s best chance of keeping the White House away from Trump or a Trump-like figure.

But, yes, while I’m old enough to have vague memories of Reagan’s attempt to primary Ford (who, it must be remembered, was never elected President to begin with) and Kennedy’s attempt to replace Carter—and more clear memories of Buchanan’s run against Bush the Elder—the last of those was three decades ago. I just don’t see it happening in our current political climate.

The Qatar World Cup and Broad Drawing Conclusions From Unique Events

Hollywood Reporter had a story headlined “Controversy around the Qatar World Cup hasn’t hurt ratings in the US, Canada, France, Japan, and the UK; Fox’s viewership is up 78% from 2018” but renamed it “Is Critical Coverage Hurting World Cup Ratings?” Alas, we’re comparing apples to walnuts.

Controversy has swirled around this year’s soccer World Cup in Qatar. From accusations of bribery and fraud in granting the tournament to the tiny, wealthy Mid-East nation, to criticism of Qatar’s persecution of its LGBTQ+ community and its treatment of migrant workers.

This is true.

But, judging by viewership figures after the first week of matches, the critical coverage hasn’t hurt the ratings much.

And, really, why would it?

I happen to believe we shouldn’t host international sporting events in countries with poor human rights records. But autocratic countries are often willing to overpay for the privilege of losing money to host an Olympics or World Cut to bask in the prestige and the governing bodies of those events are notoriously corrupt.

But here’s the thing: Fox has already paid for the rights to broadcast the World Cup, just as NBC has for the last several Olympic Games. My boycotting watching them on television—even if it were replicated en masse by others—would punish the broadcasters, not the host country. Refusing to travel to Qatar to watch the games, on the other hand, sends a powerful, impactful message.

In the U.S., broadcasters Fox Sports and Telemundo, who are carrying the tournament in English and Spanish, respectively, have got off to a strong start. Sunday’s opening match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador was watched live by an average of around 7 million people across both networks. An average of 4 million tuned in to Spanish-language broadcasts on Telemundo, Peacock and Telemundo Deportes’ digital platforms, a 164 percent increase on the 2018 World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia. English-language viewership on Fox was up 78 percent on the 2018, with a peak of 3.5 million catching the match, compared to 1.7 million who watched the opening game in 2018.

The problem with this, though, is that it’s not obvious how apt the comparisons are, much less how we would disaggregate the effects of disdain for Qatar’s horrible human rights record compared to those of 2018 host (checks notes) . . . Russia and its horrible human rights record.

For one thing, the United States team failed to make the tournament last go-around. That almost diminished interest in the United States; I know I didn’t watch any of it.

And, frankly, if you’re someone who cares both about soccer and human rights in Qatar, tuning in to watch the host team—which only got in because it automatically qualifies—get their asses kicked in the opener might be too hard to pass up.

But things really took off when the United States played Monday. Nearly 12 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo caught the 1-1 draw with Wales, with an average of 8.3 million watching on Fox across its broadcast and digital platforms and 3.4 million on the Spanish-language service.

I have no idea what the comparison is but, offhand, that seems really good for a game played at 2 o’clock Eastern on a Monday.

Fox has been careful to avoid any criticism of host nation Qatar, with on-air hosts ignoring any and all controversial topics. Fox has a sponsorship agreement with sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways and several Visit Qatar tourism spots have run during the channel’s World Cup coverage, but Fox has denied its sponsorship deals are influencing its coverage.

North of the border, Canada’s opening match against Belgium drew an average 3.7 million viewers on sports  channel TSN, the main CTV network and the French-language RDS channel.

TSN-parent Bell Media says that audience made the game the most-watched World Cup group stage match on record, citing overnight data from Numeris (Canada’s Nielsen). Last time Canada appeared in World Cup was in 1988. The opener was the second-most-watched sports broadcast of the year in Canada, behind only Super Bowl LVI.

Overall, the match reached 8.9 million viewers, or around one-in-four Canadians watching some or all of the live broadcast, which ended with a 1-0 victory for Belgium.

Even if you really care about human rights in Qatar, if you’re a Canadian sports fan, it would be hard to pass up watching the national team play in the most important tournament in the world after a 34-year absence. And, again, boycotting it would have no impact at all on Qatar—they got paid for licensing the rights, not a cut of the advertising revenue.

All-sports network TSN avoided discussion of human rights in Qatar and other controversies, but the CTV News anchor Omar Sachedina was on the ground in Doha to report on political stories, including around migrant workers and restrictions on visiting soccer fans, CTV’s W5 news magazine show on Nov. 26 will feature a segment that explores the World Cup’s host country, including discrimination and abuse concerns in oil-rich Qatar, leading up to the tournament.

In Britain, the BBC has taken a stronger stance on issues in Qatar, shifting coverage of Sunday’s opening ceremonies off its main channel in favour of a human rights message presented by host Gary Lineker.

But that position hasn’t appeared to dampen the British appetite for World Cup soccer. A peak of 8 million tuned into the BBC to watch England hammer Iran 6-2 in its first match of the competition on Monday. While significantly down on the ratings for team’s opening game against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia — which peaked at 18.6 million — it should be noted that that game was played in the evening, while the Iran match was at the broadcast well outside primetime at 1 pm in the U.K.. The BBC said a further 8 million people streamed Monday’s match on iPlayer.

With a primetime slot of 7 p.m. on Friday and up against their centuries-old foe, England’s match against the U.S. should prove be a much bigger draw, although the overall figure could be unknown due to large numbers expected to watch in pubs.

Again, none of this is surprising. England literally invented soccer. It’s the world sport but it’s especially theirs. The Three Lions are considered among the favorites to win it all . Of course there’s going to be heavy interest in the quadrennial tournament. But, yes, since the 2018 tournament was hosted in Eurasia and this year’s in the Middle East, the time zones are less favorable this go-around.

Ah, but there’s a countervailing example!

In Germany, however, where official World Cup broadcasters ARD and ZDF have reported extensively on human rights abuses in Qatar and on calls to boycott the tournament, viewership so far has been sharply down on previous World Cups. 

The German team’s surprise 1-2 defeat to Japan on Wednesday drew just 9.2 million viewers on ARD, although the early kick-off time —2 PM in Germany —may have also played a role. The audience was a fraction of the nearly 26 million that watched Germany’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia (which also the Mannschaft go down in defeat, 0-1, to Mexico). 

Sunday’s opening match, which hosts Qatar lost 0-2 to Ecuador, drew just 6.2 million German viewers on ZDF. To compare: more than 10 million Germans watched the Russia vs. Saudia Arabia opening match in World Cup 2018. 

In the team photo ahead of the match, Germany’s players covered their mouths in a silent protest against soccer governing body FIFA, which had threatened to sanction players if they wore a rainbow-colored “OneLove” armband as part of campaign to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ rights. Consensual relations between members of the same sex are illegal in Qatar. FIFA claims the armband violates its ban on “political symbols.” 

“Even without the armband, our position stands,” read the official tweet from the German Soccer Association (DFB), with a picture of the players covering their mouths. “We wanted to set an example for values that we live in the national team: diversity and mutual respect. To raise our voices together with other nations. This is not about a political message: human rights are non-negotiable.”

While German players didn’t don the OneLove armband, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser proudly wore hers as she watched the match, sitting next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

The OneLove controversy has already cost Germany: one of the national team’s sponsors, the supermarket chain Rewe, cancelled their deal with the German Soccer Association after the team bowed to FIFA’s demands to drop the armband. 

“We stand for diversity and soccer is also diverse,” said Rewe boss Lionel Souque, in a statement. “FIFA’s scandalous behavior is for me, as a CEO of a diverse company and also a soccer fan, completely unacceptable.”

After Germany’s loss to Japan, some in the local media blamed the debate around the OneLove armband and the team’s pre-game protest.

“There was too much drama in the build-up, too many issues that were more important than football, much like four years ago [when Germany went out in the first round], opined former Germany captain and 1990 World Cup champion Lothar Matthäus in the tabloid Bild. “That sort of thing disturbs your concentration, it distracts – and thus means you may lack the crucial five or 10 per cent.”

I honestly have no idea whether the team’s minor political activities were a distraction. But it’s hardly surprising that the host nation cracked down on pro-LGBTQ protests and that FIFA heavily enforced its policies against politicizing the event, given how much Qatar paid for a monthlong sportswashing.

I strongly suspect that the average German soccer fan wasn’t going to be dissuaded from rooting for the national team—a lesser favorite than England but a historical power in the sport. Regardless, one can’t easily compare a game in the middle of the workday to a prime time game four years apart.

There are more examples from other countries in the report. The same analysis applies: we really need more than simple 2018 vs 2022 ratings to assess what impact, if any, Qatar being a slightly more repressive country in some ways than Russia had on fan enthusiasm.