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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Nothing Has Changed in Politics in Over 100 Years

When You Get to the Roots of U.S. Politics, it Becomes Weirdly Simple

One recent estimate pegged the amount spent on the 2012 elections as $6 Billion.  That's an awful lot of yard signs.  What was the result of all that money sent floating over the airwaves and polluting the atmosphere with jet exhaust from candidates jetting here, there and everywhere?

A lot less than you might think.  Here's why.

We pride ourselves on being self-determined individuals.  "Every vote is precious," you know the drill.  "You, alone, may make a difference!"  "Casting your ballot is your sacred duty to preserve Democracy!"

All of that is perfectly right.  You should vote, that's how things get decided.  If you don't vote, you can't complain, and someone else will be running things.

But here's the kicker: in the aggregate, our votes - ALL of our votes - haven't changed the basic political landscape at all within any of our lifetimes.

"What!" you cry.  "We had the New Deal, the Fair Deal, even the Square Deal.  The Great Society came and went, as did a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.  Richard Nixon got thrown out, and we elected our first African-American.  How can you possibly claim that nothing in politics has changed?"

I don't have to claim it - I can show it.  And it is surprisingly easy to show.  Note that I'm not talking about the "March of Progress," the natural evolution of civil rights, the gradual relaxation of restrictons on people in general, the movement of population centers from the Northeast to the Southwest, or individual issues at all, which become just buttons for manipulators to push to advance themselves and their own agendas.

My claim is restricted to who actually rules the United States, and who perpetually challenges that rule.  Mine is a regional argument, which conveniently also breaks down into a geographical argument.

The beauty of the proof is that it is visual.  You don't have to take my word for a thing, you just have to look and think and draw your own conclusion.  It consists of two maps, or more if you want to get elaborate, but two is all you need.

Let's look at the first map.  It shows the results of the 2012 election, in which President Obama was re-elected by a thin but clear margin:

election results 2012 map of red and blue states
Electoral map of the 2012 US national election

There is nothing particularly striking about this map if you have been following the news.  The Northeast, West Coast and Great Lakes voters went for one party, as usual, while the heartland in between mostly went the other way.  You probably recognize the pattern, it was similar in 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Now, let me show you another map:

election map, with red and blue states


Why, isn't that the map from, oh, 2004 or something?

No.  That isn't the map from 2004.  It also isn't the map from 2000, or 2008, or 1996 or anything like that.

Let's summarize THIS map.  The Northeast, West Coast and Great Lakes voters went for one party while the heartland in between mostly went the other way.  It looks like there were a couple of renegades here and there, but that about sums it up.  The red states here won, meaning the Northeast, West Coast and Great Lakes. Florida is a notorious toss-up state and has been throughout its life as a State, and outright chicanery there decided the 1876 election for sure and possibly... well, let's not go there.

Clearly, comparing both maps, you can see that the exact same regions voted exactly the same way in both maps, with Florida never really making up its mind in which camp it lies. There are states along the edges that flip and flop and decide things, like an accountant summing down to the final cent. I will tell you that whoever lived in the Northeast, West Coast and Great Lakes Regions won both elections, though they were "fairly close."

Have you figured it out yet?  Here's the second map, with a little more information:


elction of 1896, map with blue and red states
Electoral map of the 1896 US national election

Here's a question for you: without turning to Google. Do you even know who ran in 1896?  Do you know what the main issue was?  Do you know who won? Do you think it matters?

The answers are: William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (who ran for President three times and lost three times); the main issue was the gold standard, the winning side liked it (and sure doesn't like it now); and McKinley won, though he was shot by a lunatic a few years later (sound familiar?), leading to Theodore Roosevelt getting his bespectacled mug on Mount Rushmore; and, no, it really didn't matter that much then and really doesn't now, either. But the results reveal a sliver of something deeper, a foundation truth.

I am not making any sweeping claims about what people thought in 1896 versus 2012, or what kind of people they were, or whether any of them were good or bad. Good, bad, that's for theologians, not voters. I also do not claim that this political statism is either good or bad. It simply is. And, regardless of any argument you wish to make or proof to the contrary you wish to assemble or how horrible and perhaps even hateful you think it is, it endures.

What I am claiming is that, while political labels come and go, and political fads rise and fall, and people are lumped into "good" parties and "bad" parties by their compatriots and competitors, there is one simple truth:

Regionally, absolutely nothing has changed politically in the United States in well over 100 years.  People vote in packs, similar to tribes, based on how their parents and friends and neighbors and pastors and leaders voted and vote, and the underlying "issues" don't matter at all. In fact, the parties completely flipped in the hundred-plus years between the two elections, with the Democrats later calling themselves Republicans, and the Republicans turning into Democrats. However, trivia like that is meaningless, those are empty labels.  In terms of raw power and voting patterns, nothing has changed whatsoever, and probably never will. Absolutely nothing.

You agonize over your vote, as you should. You care deeply about the issues. It is so, so important who wins. You get informed. You influence others. You hope and pray and donate so that the right party will win. And all along, there are larger forces controlling it all, like the tectonic plates moving the continents. You are just stumbling down a well-worn path, no actual thinking involved, your fate determined by regional blocs, your heart-felt issues a matter of ephemeral ephemera for the regional power blocs to adopt, toss aside when convenient, and perhaps later take exactly the opposite side when it suits their purposes so that their influence remains intact. The shifting tides of nothingness alter the political landscape with winners and losers hurled out of the bowels of infernos burning beneath two separate societies that always have competed for temporary "ascendancy" that means nothing, and always will.

The descendants of the same elites still fight for control in 2012 and beyond as they did in 1896, against the exact same opponents. The descendants of their opponents still oppose them, as did their parents and great-grandparents. Only the names and faces have changed.

I'm not cynical. I'm a realist. I look at the facts, and so can you. You may think this analysis simplistic. Maybe so, but sometimes the greatest truths are the simplest. Perhaps I've made you think just a bit. If so, I'm glad.

And the world spins on.