Purple Nation, Revisited

If you follow any conservatives on social media (and if you’re a liberal you really, really should) you may have come across one of the current talking points relating to the ongoing discussion about the Electoral College: maps. Such blazing red maps! Like this one:


I saw that on Facebook, linking to an article called “What Elections Would Look Like WITHOUT Electoral College” [sic], from a site called The Federalist Papers Project. Oddly—one might even say suspiciously—that article doesn’t actually include that map, though it does include this one:


That’s a map of population density; the most populated counties are in blue. “Now, if the Electoral College did not exist, what would happen to the grey counties?” the author asks. “They would be forgotten, they would not matter. Only the most heavily populated areas would be courted for votes.”

The implication, of course, is that the Electoral College is in place to protect the gray/red counties (read: Real Americans) from the decisions made by those in the blue counties (read: Kale-Munching Freedom-Haters). And there’s really only one problem with this idea:

It’s complete, unadulterated, one-hundred-percent-free-range horseshit.

Of course, the reasons why it’s horseshit are many. First off, let’s deal with the subtext, especially the subtext of that incredibly misleading, Facebook-friendly teaser image. What the article is clearly implying is that the gray counties are actually red, which is to say conservative, while the blue counties are full of true-blue liberals. But unfortunately for the author, reality doesn’t quite agree. Here’s a map of how counties actually voted in 2016, per info available as of November 10:


(Longtime readers may recognize this as being similar to the one in my Purple Nation post from 2008, and it comes from the same source. I strongly encourage you to read that whole page if you want a sense of how the country actually votes.)

Looks an awful lot less red, doesn’t it? That’s because this map uses a gradient from blue to red rather than, say, marking a county that voted 50.001 percent Republican full red and a county that voted 50.001 percent Democrat as full blue. The result? Look at all that purple! And as I said eight years ago, purple is good:

It means we have people of differing political opinions living right next door to each other. When President-elect Obama takes office in January, he should have a mural of this exact map hung in the Oval Office—a constant reminder that he’s not working for one group or another, but for everyone.

(I’d suggest Mr. Trump do the same thing except I’m not certain he knows how to read maps.)

Second, let’s look at another of the Federalist author’s implications: that since there are more non-blue counties than there are blue ones, if the blue counties get their way it’s inherently unfair. The trouble with this idea is that elections aren’t decided by counties; they’re decided by people. And if there are more people in the blue counties than elsewhere, then them getting what they want is exactly fair.

In fact, this author’s defense of the Electoral College has the issue entirely backward. The Electoral College gives those gray-or-red counties an unfair advantage over the blue ones, and here’s why: Electoral College numbers are dictated by the number of senators and representatives assigned to a state. (Plus three for D.C.) A state’s number of representatives is determined by population, but—and this is the important bit—every state gets two senators no matter the population. Therefore, states with very low populations (which tend to be rural, which tend to vote conservative) get an edge in electoral votes in comparison to the population. This is why two of the last five elections have appointed Republican presidents in spite of many, many more people voting for the Democrat. (Secretary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is up to about three times the population of Wyoming as of this writing.)

Population numbers and math can quantify this (see here). When we run the numbers we see that 35 states have a number of electoral votes that outweighs their population (36 if you count Tennessee’s razor’s edge). Twenty of those voted Republican in 2016, bringing in 121 electoral votes for Mr. Trump, or 132 counting Tennessee. The other 15 “outsized” states brought 90 electoral votes to Secretary Clinton.

In other words, to make a very long and mathy story short, it’s the less-populated parts of the country—those gray counties—that have the unfair edge, and if the Electoral College is supposed to prevent such things from happening it’s doing a very bad job.

Finally, let’s talk about the idea, bandied about often in conservative circles and alluded to in the Federalist article, that those blue counties don’t represent “real America.” (Because why else would it be a problem for a greater number of people to have a greater impact in the electoral process?) My response to this idea will be much more succinct, I promise you, because it can be summarized in three words:

Go fuck yourself.

Real America is the immigrant with the newly minted citizenship papers as much as it is the weathered plains-state farmer. Real America is the gristly New York punk rocker as much as it is the Mississippi preacher. Real America is the newly married urban lesbians just as much as it is the suburban soccer mom. Real America is the Clinton voter just as much as it is the Trump voter, because there’s no such thing as “real” America—”real” America is America, with all its glories and failures, and you don’t get to decide who is and isn’t a “real” American.

You don’t get to decide. What you do get to do is vote, like we all do. The problem is, this year more than one in a hundred of those votes, 1.5 million and counting out of about 135 million, were ignored thanks to the Electoral College.

One hopes that the red-map-waving Electoral College defenders would feel just as strongly about this issue if they ever found themselves on the other end of this equation. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Evolution: A Dialogue

I love my family.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m the youngest of ten siblings. I have nineteen nieces and nephews, two grand-nephews, and a brand new grand-niece. That being the case, it probably doesn’t surprise you much that we have dramatically different ideals, faiths, and political beliefs. We pretty much cover a large swathe of the spectrum of ideology: we have liberals, conservatives, and libertarians; Democrats and Republicans; Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics — and some of those don’t match up the way you’d expect. Anyway: big group, lots of diversity. No surprise there.

What is surprising is the fact that, on the whole, we all maintain civility and respect for one another. Sure, we’ve pretty much learned that there are times that certain topics must be avoided, but we’ve also learned how to interact when those topics do come up in a gratifyingly adult manner…and to extend love and respect in spite of our disagreements. 

So I was very pleased when my oldest sister, Caroline, responded via e-mail to my previous post. She’s a Christian who holds very different beliefs from mine, and also a very smart lady, so we ended up getting deep into discussion about the validity of evolution and the interplay of science and religion. And though we ended up agreeing to disagree—as so often must be the case—I enjoyed the conversation so much that I asked her permission to share it with you.

So here it is, unedited. Let it never be said that adults cannot disagree civilly about fundamental matters.

Dear Joseph,

I read your blog post this morning, and though I don’t expect to change your mind about anything, I do feel I need to respond. Continue reading “Evolution: A Dialogue”

Dear Republican candidates: This is why we don’t take you seriously

The recent news about a former climate-change denier changing his tune — in a study funded by fossil-fuel interests, no less — got me thinking. Well, that and the seemingly endless series of Republican debates. In watching coverage of the debates, something kept nibbling at the back of my mind, something I couldn’t put my finger on. But I finally figured it out.

In talking about global warming and evolution (and in some cases, both at once!) the Republican candidates tend to fall back on some variant of this phrase:

“It’s just a theory.”

Evolution? Just a theory. Global warming? Just a theory.

Let me back up for a second and lay out some disclosure: I believe that — no, wait a minute; strike “believe.” Evolution is real. We know evolution is real because we see it in action. Ever hear of MRSA? Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus has become a serious problem in hospitals and nursing homes over the past few years. S. aureus is a bacteria that usually lives pretty harmlessly on the human skin. Occasionally, though, it can flare up into relatively serious infections. Historically, these infections have been pretty easily treated with penicillin or other antibiotics. Then came MRSA. This nasty little critter dodges most of what we would normally throw at it, forcing doctors to bring out the big guns. Where did it come from?

Evolution. Wide use of traditional antibiotics killed off, by definition, only those strains of staph susceptible to traditional antibiotics. What was left were the ones that had mutated in such a way that traditional antibiotics didn’t wipe them out. New drugs, hardier bugs. Survival of the fittest. Sound familiar?

(As an aside: I happen to agree with Newt Gingrich that recognizing the truth of evolution doesn’t mean you can’t also believe in a divine Creator. Unless you take the Bible as word-for-word accurate, and believe that the world was created in six twenty-four-hour days — in which case, I’d like to ask you some questions about Genesis 1:27 vis-a-vis Genesis 2:22, among others — there’s nothing in evolution that precludes the idea of a Creator guiding the mutations that result in evolution. In fact, I tend to find that idea more elegant.)

So, that’s evolution. Global warming? I’ll say I’m not nearly as up on the science here, but I’m willing to take the word of ninety-seven percent of the people whose job it is to know about this stuff. Because the alternative is a laughable global conspiracy with basically no upside for the alleged conspirators. (But you know what? Even if global warming is a complete fabrication, what the hell is wrong with working to reduce waste? That’s the fundamental goal of proponents of global warming, you know: to reduce waste. Fossil fuels are absurdly inefficient, and thus expensive far out of proportion to the benefits they provide. If we can come up with more efficient, less wasteful, less expensive ways of doing things, why wouldn’t we? I don’t know about you, but my parents taught me that waste was bad. But anyway.)

My point of these disclosures is that I recognize that having these views dismissed predisposes me to not take the dismisser seriously. But you know, it’s a big world, it’s a free country, you can feel free to believe what you want to believe, you know?

The problem is when you try to support your beliefs by saying these things are “just theories.” And that’s the point I want to make here. (I know, it took me long enough.) When you say that global warming or evolution is “just a theory,” you’re either displaying 1.) a dismaying level of ignorance about the way science works, or 2.) a cynical willingness to pretend to such ignorance if you think it makes you more electable.

Here’s why I say that: “Theory” in common parlance and “theory” in the context of science are two very different things. Anyone who took a single high school-level science class ought to know this. Outside of science, we use the word “theory” to indicate an untested idea. It’s the start of the process. If you say “I’ve got a theory: It could be bunnies,”  you’re essentially announcing your intention to explore the idea that bunnies could be at the root of your problems.

But in science, that’s called a hypothesis. A theory is what happens when a hypothesis has been rigorously explored. In other words, a hypothesis becomes a theory only after evidence has been gathered.

Now, this isn’t the end of the process by any means. Scientists are always re-evaluating theories to ensure they still hold up. That’s the great thing about science: You have all these really freakin’ smart people constantly checking to make sure everything works the way we think it does, so we don’t have to. And yes, sometimes new evidence arises that disproves a theory, even a long-held one. But that doesn’t change the fact that theories are based on evidence, not just wild speculation.

So dismissing a scientific theory — especially one as well-tested as evolution — as  “just a theory” is simply absurd. It’s like saying Earth is “just a planet.” The Grand Canyon is “just a big hole.” America is “just a country.” (U-S-A! U-S-A!) What I’m saying is that it makes you look ignorant. And then we all laugh at you. Because we’re mean.

If you want to fall back on scientific skepticism, we call all discuss things rationally, like adults. Point out holes in theories and sic the scientists on each other. I have no problem with that. There are plenty of things that well-meaning adults disagree on, and there’s just so much we don’t know. But if you try to pretend that you know more than science does — but use words to do so that betray a fundamental misunderstanding about one of the basic precepts of science — well, it makes it hard for folks who know better to take you seriously. You might as well debate the existence of gravity.

You do believe in gravity, right?


[I have no idea where this came from, and I don’t really know what it is. A poem? The skeleton of a song? Not really sure. But I thought I’d share it anyway.]

Sponge the dryness from these lips.
Sour disinfectant burns
the rips and cracks and tears,
the gnawing fears,
the hollow absolutions.

For they do know what they do,
and no pious platitude
can save the unrepentant thief,
or shake belief in unbelief.

See: the needle-dicks of rich men
prick the temple-cloth
of civilization,
and rend us all.
Three hours of night?
A day? A year? A century?

(Their camels balk
and sweat holier waters.)

And history repeats
raised from the dead
to shamble down fear-shrouded streets
in deathless search of spongy treats.

Who bears a spear with edge enough
to pierce those bullshit-swollen guts
and spill that reeking discharge?

(We will know the unfit candidates:
they’ll be the ones raising their hands.)

Behold the science of our time,
a secular faith whose communion wine
is spiked with Rohypnol:
Its apostles spread the call
to put faith only in one creed:


What’s Amusing Me Today

  • All the staunch Republicans ridiculing or otherwise attacking Obama for not implementing enough “Change” — or not implementing it quickly enough. Um, think about that one for a second. If it still doesn’t strike you as funny, ask yourself: change from what?
  • How comfortable the talking heads on Fox News seem to be with expressing hope that our new president actively hurts the country.
  • That anyone is still taking Rush Limbaugh seriously.

How about you?