Tag Archives: elections

An Uninformed Public

This TED talk from David Puttnum was on the front page this week, and being the inquisitive one I took a look. It is about the media, and potentially how it should be managed to help create a more informed populace. Worth a watch.

I certainly sympathize with some of the problems with the contemporary media. It certainly is prone to focus on the wrong things, the minor problems, or the inflammatory issues. The media exaggerates the truth, picks stories to sell papers (or ads), and in some sense does lead to a more polarized and divided public. There is also doubt that a cornerstone of democracy is an informed and deliberative public, that can evaluate and consider the points of a debate and make educated choices about government. However, one of the comments said it best though (paraphrasing) – “why should we assume that it is wrong for folks to be disenchanted with government, politicians, and the overall political process?” Should we make a change to how we treat reporters and the media because of these problems?

I tend to disagree with his prescription for these ills. “Reasonable” standards always activate my skepticism. Who is a judge to say what “reasonably” might cause harm here? We’ve long had standards for speech that was protected and that which was not because it was harmful – from Oliver Wendell Holmes – “the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” If it does not lead to a clear and present danger, but instead only causes potential disillusionment with government, I see no reason or justification for silencing it. Releasing Ed Snowden’s information could clearly under such a standard be “reasonably” foreseen to cause harm under this type of standard, and something a judge could potentially clearly claim, to our detriment.¬†Who would watch the watchers in this case? To be an effective watchdog, the press needs the freedom that also enables its excess at times.

I tend to think that the freedom of the press is one of the most important freedoms we have (J.S. Mill), and putting another check on it that is adjudicated by government seems more foolish than wise. There are other ways to create a more civically minded public that don’t have the potential to degrade our freedom and enable potential abuses of power.



I saw this article recently and it definitely gave me pause.

It is now common knowledge that polarization is at some of its highest levels in recent decades. Each party has largely been scrubbed of those that do not tow the overall party line, which has led to more homogenous parties. Naturally, this has also pushed the parties more to the extremes. Primaries do not help – as all candidates have to pass through a trial by fire from a narrower political spectrum compared to the past. (For a great visual of this, see XKCD – GREAT.) There seems to a natural ebb and flow to polarization, but we are at an extreme.

I have to admit that I was surprised. I do not think I had ever really encountered an article that took a data centric view at whether gerrymandering has actually changed elections. It is oddly reassuring to have that point asserted.

Gerrymandering is one of those points that is so infuriating no matter what side of the political spectrum one falls on. Districts such as Louise Slaughters’ “earmuffs” between Buffalo and Rochester are case in point. Who would come to the conclusion that this makes sense to represent a certain population effectively? District lines are arbitrary, and when the power to make them is given to individuals, especially state legislatures, the tendency to use that power for self-benefit is overwhelming. Incumbents love to have their seats manipulated to be more safe.

Without doing enough research to know precisely what options and policies I would support in this area, I do know that I would support a more rules based approach. On what criteria? I am not sure. Some limit on the ratio of the border length to the area of the district (to prevent massively concave and ridiculous geometry) would be one potential idea. We could easily create an automated system of manipulating districts that would be more fair and less under the control of party bosses. Whether or not we could ever agree on what that system should optimize for is another question all together.