I was in a miserable mood for weeks—regular readers will know that, for whatever reason, I go through these moods from time to time—and, strangely enough, a key to getting out of it seems to have been watching the Democratic convention and reading Obama’s two books. I’m not saying this ought to have helped, only that it did. Why? Well, I can think of three possible reasons:
Firstly, it’s a truism that the cure for misery is to find something greater than yourself to worry about. (Quantum complexity research used to fill that role for me, and will hopefully do so again in the near future.) For someone who’s spent so much of his life inside his own head, it’s fascinating to watch people actually going out and doing something that while often corny and cringe-inducing also bears some recognizable relation to the public good. What a strange, novel idea! What’s even stranger, they might even succeed this year. Of course, there’s a paradox at the heart of this philosophy: if you only worry about something greater than yourself because it distracts you from the tragedy of your own existence, then are you really worried about it in the first place? But this is no more paradoxical than so much else about the human condition. The hope is that caring about something greater than yourself will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Secondly, there’s the fact that a man whose writing demonstrates a finely-developed capacity for introspection, self-criticism, and doubt might become the Leader of the Free World in two months. Reading Obama’s books, this introspectiveness—which is difficult to fake, and which probably doesn’t help him with most voters anyway—struck me as his most endearing quality. (Of course, Obama also possesses a finely-developed capacity to suppress his capacity for introspection. If he didn’t, then he’d still be an obscure instructor at the University of Chicago rather than a rock-star messiah.) I’ll freely confess to bias in this matter. I’m sure part of the reason why I’ve never been able to identify with the Republican Right, the Chomskyan Far Left, or the Libertarian Outwards—besides my actual disagreement with those philosophies—has been the serene confidence of those philosophies’ major proponents. Any worldview that isn’t wracked by self-doubt and confusion over its own identity is not a worldview for me.
Thirdly, seeing President Clinton in his stride always cheers me up a little.
Given the above, I’d like propose the following question: what non-obvious things can nerds who are so inclined do to help the Democrats win in November? I’m not talking about voting, donating money, licking envelopes, or standing on street corners “Baracking the vote”: the first two are easy and obvious while the second two are unsuitable for nerds. The sorts of ideas I’m looking for are ones that (1) exploit nerds’ nerdiness, (2) go outside the normal channels of influence, (3) increase nerds’ effective voting power by several orders of magnitude, (4) are legal, (5) target critical swing states, and (6) can be done as a hobby.
Do such ideas exist? Well, the prototype for such an idea is Nadertrading, which I was involved with in the 2000 election cycle (see here). Before the main Nadertrading sites were shut down by Republican state attorneys-general (on doubtful legal grounds), we Nadertraders had convinced several hundred Nader supporters in Florida to commit to voting for Gore, in exchange for Gore supporters in safe states voting for Nader on their behalf. Had Nadertrading been allowed to continue just a couple weeks longer, it might have prevented Bush from taking power and thereby changed the history of the world. I’m looking for the Nadertrading of 2008, and I haven’t found it yet.
A few possibilities:
- Nadertrading Redux. Ralph is running again, and it might be worthwhile to try and reduce his influence in swing states once more. The trouble is that, after 2000, anyone who would still vote for Nader is likely beyond the reach of any outcomes-based consideration.
- Lobbyists for McCain. In 2004, I participated in a Billionaires for Bush march in NYC, and can testify that it was a blast. It seems the 2008 analogue is Lobbyists for McCain. Downsides: (1) this joke has been done before, and (2) it’s not clear to me that satire, even when amusing and well-executed, actually changes anyone’s mind about anything.
- Publicize and correct voting machine flaws. Researchers have demonstrated that a voting machine virus would be almost trivial to install and could go completely undetected by poll workers. And while some might find such a scenario implausible, it does seem likely that more mundane voting machine problems—system crashes, dropped and lost votes, confusing interfaces, etc.—will determine the outcome this year, exactly as they did in 2000 and possibly in 2004. These irregularities have, for whatever reasons, been far more likely to favor Republicans than Democrats. To their credit, computer scientists have been at the forefront of studying and publicizing these voting machine flaws, and have even succeeded in improving election procedures in California. The downsides? Firstly, it’s probably already too late to do much before November; secondly, computer scientists have been screaming about these problems for years and yet depressingly little has changed in the swing states.
- Build a database and/or statistical model for identifying “problem precincts”. Wouldn’t it have been helpful if, before the 2000 election, prominent Democrats had known about Theresa LePore, and the possibility that her butterfly ballots flapping their wings in Florida would cause the destruction of New Orleans five years later? Or if before the 2004 election, they’d known to concentrate their monitoring efforts on particular counties in Ohio? (A side note: improving the Democrats’ ability to challenge results after the election is over strikes me as a complete waste of time. Whoever the networks announce as the presumptive winner on election eve, that’s who the winner is going to be.) I don’t know how to predict 2008’s likely trouble zones, and even if I did, I don’t know what I would do about them. But this still strikes me as the most promising of the four listed directions.