Wednesday, September 07, 2022

It's Not Cheating for Republicans To Lose: Ranked-Choice Voting Edition

I know it's not worth it to engage in Republican histrionics about how ranked choice voting is anti-majoritarian after Democrats won an Alaska House seat last week. The actual objection, as Republicans have made manifestly clear in their behavior over the past few years, is to "Democrats winning elections", and there's nothing deeper than that going on under the surface.

But the arguments they're making about how ranked choice systems are anti-democratic because "60% of the voters in Alaska voted for the Republican agenda" are so transparently ridiculous, and are being repeated with such vigor, that they need to be addressed.

Of course, it is a misnomer off the bat to say that a majority of Alaskans voted for "the Republican agenda". Voters don't vote for "agendas", they vote for candidates. And leave aside the notion that Republicans suddenly care about majoritarianism in a electoral system riddled with anti-democratic elements ranging from gerrymandering to the Senate to the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, it is the case that something feels off when more voters choose candidates from party X but, because they're divided, a single candidate from party Y prevails with a plurality. This can afflict Democrats as well as Republicans (witness worries about Democratic "lock outs" in California's top-two primary system). And it's worth noting that this circumstance is actually very common in a multi-candidate field with first-past-the-post rules. Indeed, Mary Peltola won a plurality of first-choice votes -- she would have won the election without a ranked-choice run-off! (Peltola had 41% of the initial vote, with Palin receiving 31% and Begich 28%).

But here's the thing: when we see voting patterns where 40% of the electorate backs a Democrat, 35% back Republican A, and 25% back Republican B, the reason we think it's unfair that the Democrat wins is that we assume if we asked the supporters of Republican B "if you had to choose, would you back Democrat or Republican A", they'd pick the latter. It's a reasonable enough assumption in a party system, to be sure, and in many occasions I suspect it's an assumption that'd be borne out. But all ranked choice voting does is actually ask the question rather than assume its answer. And it turns out that in Alaska, enough supporters of "Republican B" (Begich) did not prefer Republican A (Palin) over Democrat (Peltola). So the Democrat won, for the simple democratic reason that most Alaska voters preferred her over the most popular Republican competitor. That's not cheating, that's an election!

Put simply, if a majority of Alaska voters' preference was to elect a Republican -- any Republican -- over a Democrat, the voting system in Alaska gave them ample opportunity to make that choice. They chose otherwise, because it turns out that their preferences weren't that simple. And ultimately, that's what's driving Republican rage here: they think the voters' preferences were wrong, and so it is cheating for their will to have prevailed. Hard to think of a pithier summary of contemporary GOP attitudes towards democracy.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

MESA Objects to the Most Milquetoast Possible Manner of Addressing Member's Conspiracy-Mongering

Shortly after the attempted assassination of Salmon Rushdie, a Denver University professor went on a podcast to opine on the assailant's possible motivations. The professor, Nader Hashemi, suggested that it was "more likely" that the attacker was duped into his conduct by the Mossad as a backdoor means of scuttling nascent talks to reenter the Iran deal. This unfounded conspiratorial assertion was, in turn, roundly blasted by the Jewish community.

Of course, it is the case that members of an academic community have the right to forward unfounded conspiratorial assertions. Perhaps cognizant of that right, Denver University issued an extremely mild and tepid response to the controversy. Here's what they wrote:

Professor Hashemi spoke as an individual faculty member and does not speak for the university. While we wholeheartedly respect academic freedom and freedom of speech, his comments do not reflect the point of view of the university, nor are we aware of any facts that support his view. The safety of every speaker and every student on our campus, and all campuses, is critical to our society. We condemn the stabbing of Salman Rushdie. And it goes without saying that we remain committed to assuring that the experience of our Jewish students, faculty and staff is safe, supportive, respectful and welcoming.

One cannot get more milquetoast than that. That's not necessarily a criticism -- there are, again, academic freedom concerns in play here that militate against a more robust response. In any event, all this statement does is (a) affirm Hashemi didn't speak for the university (true), (b) he has academic freedom (true), (c) there is no factual foundation to his unsupported musing about Mossad involvement (true), (d) the stabbing of Rushdie is bad (true), and they are committed to maintaining a respectful, supportive, welcoming, and safe experience for Jewish students on campus (hopefully true). That is utterly unremarkable.

It was also far too much for the Middle Eastern Studies Association, which wrote a seven paragraph letter to the President of the University demanding the statement be retracted and an apology rendered to Prof. Hashemi.

What's especially stunning about the MESA letter is it seems to admit that Hashemi's "speculations" are entirely foundationless and lacking in evidence, yet takes that fact as an argument for why Hashemi should be immune from even the most tepid of critical response. The scenarios Prof. Hashemi spun out, the letter concedes, "were all obviously entirely speculative, as to our knowledge no evidence has thus far emerged about the attacker’s motivation or connections." But precisely because Hashemi's arguments were pure unfounded speculation, the university should not have "publicly distanced itself from one of its own faculty members for having engaged in legitimate speculation about the politics surrounding the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie."

It's not actually the case that no evidence has emerged about the attacker's motivations -- putting aside the fact that Iran had put a hit out on Rushdie, the attacker had made social media posts sympathetic to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and reportedly had a fake driver's license featuring the name of an Iran-backed Hezbollah commander -- but the argument is staggering on its own terms: "Hashemi knew absolutely nothing, so any wild speculations he might have engaged in are therefore legitimate." Mossad did it -- legitimate. George Soros did it -- legitimate. Antifa did it -- legitimate. Lizard people did it -- legitimate. A secret underground network of American Mosques plotted simultaneously to help do it -- legitimate. It's speculation! Who can say what's true or not?

To state this is to refute it. And of course, it is fanciful to think that these other "speculations" would be treated so sanguinely by MESA. The reason why utterly unfounded speculations about the Mossad is considered fair game, while utterly unfounded speculations about, say, antifa is not, is because for some Israel is at least on the suspect list for any evil that occurs in the world until proven otherwise. This is why lack of evidence makes it legitimate to "speculate" about Israel's involvement. No matter how seemingly distant or fanciful, Israel is always guilty till proven innocent. In a world where we know nothing, Israel is responsible for everything.

On that note, MESA is clearly most upset that the university statement even gestured sideways at the prospect of antisemitism by committing to provide a supportive environment for Jewish students, since antisemitism allegations "as we know all too well have not infrequently been weaponized by organizations and media outlets seeking to suppress the expression of opinions with which they disagree" (paging JILV!). Even the indirect promise of supporting Jews served to "validate the attacks to which Professor Hashemi has been subjected while also compromising his academic freedom."

On the latter part: the attacks do not compromise Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom, because Prof. Hashemi has no academic freedom entitlement to be free of criticism -- including criticism that contains the dreaded "antisemitism" allegation -- for engaging in completely unfounded conspiratorial allegations about the Mossad. On the former, MESA's statement fails because there is nothing wrong with "validating" the notion that completely unfounded "speculation" about the Mossad being behind unrelated acts of evil in the world is potentially antisemitic. It's antisemitic for the same reason "the Mossad was behind 9/11" is antisemitic, and I defy MESA to offer a principle that distinguishes the former from the latter. Even the JDA suggests that "grossly exaggerating [Israel's] actual influence can be a coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews" -- surely, a clause which encompasses screeching "it's a Mossad plot!" any time something bad happens in the world.

Ultimately, one can criticize the Denver University statement for being too mild, or you can think it struck the right tone in recognizing Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom while appropriately distancing the university from his ramblings and promising to support those hurt by them. MESA's argument that the statement goes too far is absurd on its face, and speaks to the profound lack of seriousness with which that organization takes matters of antisemitism and Jewish equity.