Friday, February 13, 2015

Inferring from Non-Participation

Imagine that a small democratic body (a town, a county, a college campus, whatever) is holding two referendums. The first concerns whether the institution should build a new road. Out of 10,000 eligible voters, only 10% vote -- they break down 60% in favor, 40% opposed. The referendum passes.

The second referendum asks that the body officially boycott Coke products (a hobby-horse I remember from my own undergraduate days). Again, it turns out that only 1,000 of the 10,000 voters show up at the polls, and of those voting the referendum passes by a 60/40 margin.

In either case, the lack of participation could be thought to have a negative impact of the democratic legitimacy of the referendum -- it might constrain our ability to say "this is what the people want." However, my instincts tell me there is a significant difference between the two cases above.

In the road referendum, I don't have any intuitive thoughts on the views of the non-participants -- which is to say, I have no reason to think that their distribution of views on the road differ from the voting population. That might change if the road was particularly beneficial to a specific subset of the population who was motivated to get to the polls (and it puts aside any issues about differential access to the polls by various social groups, which is no small thing), but otherwise there doesn't seem to be anything in particular that I can infer about the non-participants. And that (to me at least) dissipates a good portion of the democratic legitimacy threat.

In the boycott Coke referendum, by contrast, my intuition strongly suspects that most of the non-voters would (if pressed) vote against. It seems to me (and maybe I'm just wrong here) that if you're the sort of person who supports something like boycotting Coke, then you're the sort of person who will be sufficiently motivated to go to the polls and vote for it. Likewise, of the group who thinks this issue isn't such a big deal (not enough of a motive to go to the polls), it's hard to imagine many of them lean in favor of boycotting Coke. If I'm right, in this case we can infer opposition (albeit not passionately felt opposition) from non-participation. And in that case, the vote tally doesn't necessarily stand in for the "what the people want."

What do we make of this? I'm not sure. It is not even intuitively obvious that it is a bad thing that a passionate minority beat out a largely indifferent majority. Maybe turnout gives us a proxy for preference-intensity that is valuable. If John cares strongly about building a new bridge and Jane doesn't really care but is mildly against it, and that disjuncture causes more John-types than Jane-types to head to the polls, is it bad if the bridge gets built notwithstanding there being more Janes than Johns amongst eligible voters? On the other hand, that is really the positive way of framing special interest capture. You can tell similar stories about why all sorts of small and well-organized groups beat out diffuse majorities, and in many cases the results will feel like democratic failings rather than success stories.

I don't have any big sweeping thoughts about this. I am curious about what circumstances or conditions cause us to believe that non-voters likely would fall on a particular side of a controversy versus those where their views can be assumed to roughly mirror those of the voting population.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Train Has No Brakes

It's been a while since we last checked in on the state of Jews in South Africa. We've seen government officials pull out of an event hosted by the country's umbrella Jewish organization ("Celebrating 20 years of South Africa’s Freedom"), because the BDS movement does not target Jews. We saw another official call for "eye for an eye" retaliation against the Jewish community for deaths in Gaza, because the BDS movement does not target Jews. We saw yet another ANC official not even receive a reprimand for telling Facebook that "Hitler was right", because the BDS movement does not target Jews. And of course, there was the top COSATU official who was sanctioned by the South African Human Rights Commission for hate speech after he said he wished to "convey a message to the Jews in South Africa" and threatening them that it "will be hell", because the BDS movement does not target Jews.

And so it is today that we get another entry it what is becoming an increasingly dangerous pattern: the Student Representative Council at the Durban University of Technology, supported by the Progressive Youth Alliance, has submitted a demand that the University expel all of its Jewish students. Mqondisi Duma, Secretary of the Student Representative Council, was quite blunt: "As the SRC, we had a meeting and analysed international politics. We took the decision that Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle, should deregister." Because the BDS movement does, in fact, target Jews.

There will be no calls to boycott DUT (and there shouldn't be; the University administration has made clear that the demands are "totally unacceptable"). There will be no resolutions in solidarity with the Jewish students targeted for expulsion. There will be no recognition of this as part of a pattern. There most certainly will be someone who complains that the Council is being unfairly maligned; it only wished to criticize Israel.

The train has no brakes. People climb aboard at their (which is to say, our) peril.

UPDATE: If you think you want to see the DUT student council's "apology," trust me, you don't (though I do wonder whether Fatima Hajaig ghost-wrote it). As in most of these "apologi[es] without reservation", there are quite a few reservations, and the amount of time reflecting on how they came to call for the expulsion of Jews qua Jews is nil (the time they spend reiterating their support for the global BDS movement is quite a bit more than nil). "Our campuses will not be breeding grounds for Apartheid" -- some might say "too late."

Birthday: It's the Final Countdown

Happy birthday to me! I turn 29 today, for what I suspect will not be the last time. I have no real desire to experience being 30, I have to say.

But today has gone great so far. Jill got me a t-shirt featuring some of the best sayings of my internet boyfriend. We went out to lunch and I had a delicious breakfast burrito, then went used book shopping (I got two Emil Fackenheim books and one by Patricia Williams). Then we picked up a smoothie and started walking home, and wouldn't you know it if there is a stormtrooper standing outside a local comic book store. There will be some great pictures of me grinning like an idiot on Facebook soon. Tonight is a steak dinner (not the easiest thing to pull off in Berkeley) with friends, and then we'll probably just chill and binge-watch YouTube videos.

Year 29 is off to a pretty good start.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Equal Opportunity Discrimination

An American-residing Israeli woman (with an Israeli passport) is suing Kuwait Airlines after it refused to board her on a flight from New York to London. Kuwaiti law prohibits allowing Israeli citizens to travel on the airline.

The airline's defense rang odd to me:
The airline’s attorney John Maggio told the newspaper that the suit has no merit because the policy is based on citizenship, not religion. He said that a Muslim with an Israeli passport also would not be allowed on the plane.
I mean, okay, but then how is this not just an example of national origin discrimination instead? Am I just missing something obvious?