Monday, March 14, 2016

Apple #729: Political Terminology

Your Apple Lady has been flummoxed.  I've been hard-pressed to find something to talk about that isn't the Presidential primaries.  I have some pretty strong opinions about one of the candidates who is running, but I haven't wanted to turn this blog into my personal soapbox. Much as I want to rail against this particular candidate who I think is an anathema who threatens our entire political system to its very core, I think we've heard enough rants for the time being.  I also think a little information could be a useful thing.

[EDIT:]  Well, I had some more high-falutin' statements here saying that I would try to be even-handed in my choice of terms and how I handled their definitions.  But my biases show through, hard as I tried not to do that.  I didn't want to be accused of being just another member of the liberal left-wing media (see "dog whistle" below), but I guess that's just how it's going to be.

And now, in alphabetical order, I give you the buzzwords of Primaries 2016.


Very clear depiction of what happens in an ad hominem response
(Diagram from Hebrew for Christians)

Actually, this term itself has gone largely unspoken this campaign season.  But we have seen a plethora of examples of it, and more often, a multitude of statements that go beyond ad hominem.  The Latin phrase literally means "concerning the man."  Once considered a hallmark of a weak debater and the sign of a poorly constructed argument, an ad hominem is a tactic in debate which shifts the focus from the matter at hand and instead attacks the character of the person who has presented the argument.
An ad hominem falls just shy of name-calling.  Instead of saying, "I'm not going to bother addressing your point because you're a liar," an ad hominem suggests that the other person is a liar: "You want to know how I would fix our trade agreements? Well, why should I bother answering that, when you said you were going to vote one way on trade but then you later voted another."

The person has given no answer to the question, which was about trade agreements, but instead turned the topic to be about the trustworthiness of the person who asked the question.

This tactic can be effective in derailing a question, but it is actually a weak defense.  Putting this technique in schoolyard terms, it boils down to, "Oh yeah? Your mother!"

The kinds of things we've heard in debates over recent months blow right past ad hominem and go straight to the schoolyard insult.


How actual debates probably should be conducted. As opposed to what's been happening more often in presidential primary debates.
(Image by André de Loba at the New York Times)

There are lots of different kinds of debates.

First, is the classical debate, in which two people or two teams of people take opposing positions on one subject, such as "the right to bear arms is more important than individuals' safety," or "ice cream is a better dessert than cookies." Each side presents their position in a series of timed Q&A and speeches.

In the first round, the affirmative position  (e.g., "yes, the right to bear arms is more important than individuals' safety") delivers a prepared speech outlining the reasons for that position.  Then the negative position (e.g., "no, the right to bear arms is more important than individuals' safety") gets to ask questions of the positive position in an attempt to expose flaws of reasoning in the opponent.

Then they switch and negative is allowed to give its speech, after which affirmative asks questions of negative. Then they each get the opportunity to rebut (argue specifically against) the other side's position.

The judge or judges decide the winner based on the strength of the arguments presented, the method of delivery, and in some cases, the ethical position taken by one side over the other.

Clearly, very different than Presidential debates.

There is also the debate which takes place in the Senate and the House. When members of Congress are considering whether or not to pass a bill, one of the things they do to determine how to vote is to debate the bill's merits or drawbacks. They debate according to all sorts of rules, including:
  • No Senator is allowed to interrupt another Senator without consent.
  • No Senator may speak more than twice upon any one question in the same legislative day without permission from the Senate.
  • All debate has to be germane and confined to the specific question at hand. (Stick to the point; no diversionary tactics.)
  • No Senator may suggest, directly or indirectly, that another Senator engaged in conduct unbecoming of a Senator. (No insults or name-calling allowed.)
  • When a Senator is called to order, he or she must sit down and not talk again until recognized by the Chair. (If you're out of line, you'll be told to sit down & shut up.)
  • No Senator will call attention to any occupant in the galleries (You can't point out anyone in the audience.)
Again, very different than the Presidential debates.
Presidential "debates" -- I'm not sure they should even be called debates, but rather question and answer sessions -- don't adhere to a fixed set of rules.  The rules are established by the moderator or the organization hosting the event, and they may change from one event to the next. The amount of time each person is allowed to speak may vary, and whether someone else is called upon to respond to an assassination on his or her character may vary, and how well the moderator is able to control the proceedings may also vary.  
But all sorts of low-blow tactics and discourtesies are allowed and, judging by audience reactions, even encouraged.  Interrupting, ad hominems and name-calling, expressions of disgust, and so on, which would never be allowed in actual debates are now common practice. Emphasis on "common."  Way to respect the highest office in the land.


(Sourced from Prometheus Unbound)

"A leader who gains popularity by appealing to prejudice and basic instincts. Considered manipulative and dangerous" (from the Australian Glossary of Political Terms)

"a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people" or as a verb, "to obscure or distort with emotionalism, prejudice, etc." (from

"the key thing about demagogues, historically, is that they have been people who, by way of their very popularity, threaten the populace. They undermine the stability of a 'by the people' form of government particularly by turning 'the people' against each other. They represent a danger not just to electoral outcomes or political parties, but to democracy itself." (from The Atlantic)

Bad news, in other words.


This particular dog whistle is available from Pet Mountain for $3.20.  But this is not the kind of dog whistle we're talking about here.

Slang. An actual dog whistle, when blown into, emits a sound so high-pitched that people can't hear it, but dogs can. The idea behind the slang is that some trick of language or short-hand buzzword has a particular, often highly-charged, meaning for a sub-group within the larger population, and the intent is that the subgroup will react to the highly-charged unstated meaning.
For example, instead of saying, "You need to be really afraid of black people so we'd better put them in jail," politicians will say instead "We've got to clean up our inner cities."  People who are also afraid of black people will not think, oh, that politician means more street-sweepers and trash pick-up and filling in of potholes, but will understand that putting more black people in jail is what is meant.

Or instead of saying, "I'm scared to death of the legalization of gay marriage, and we have to reverse that at all costs," politicians will say, "We must defend religious freedom."  People who are opposed to gay rights will interpret "religious freedom" to mean not actual freedom for all people regardless of what religion they practice, but rather laws that will uphold the cultural adherence against homosexuality held by Christian conservatives.

Or instead of saying, "I feel really threatened by all these brown-skinned people who are showing up here," politicians will say, "We've got to stop all this illegal immigration." People will read between the lines and assume that the illegal immigrants in question are not coming from Canada or Europe but from Mexico, and that they're all criminals and bad people and terrorists and rapists, and so it's perfectly acceptable and even preferable that we treat them as though they have no rights whatsoever.

Or instead of saying, "The newspaper is publishing some really terrible things about me, and I want you to discount all that, so I'm just going to call the reporters a bunch of liars," politicians and would-be-media bedazzlers will say, "That's just more claptrap from the mainstream media."  People in the know have heard "mainstream media" slammed so many times as being left-wing, biased, and therefore untrustworthy, when they hear "mainstream media" they automatically equate that to "liars."

Certain candidates who proclaim proudly that they are not politicians don't even bother with the dog whistle but rather come right out with the prejudicial, egregious, and inflammatory statement.


A course on Latin American History has posted this photo of the crowd supporting Juan Perón in Argentina as an example of populism in action. Elected in response to an oppressive economic situation, Perón did improve his country's economic and political situation for a while. But the Depression happened, Argentina owed boatloads of war debt, and then Perón started firing and having arrested all sorts of people who disagreed with him -- professors, union leaders, and political figures. Things didn't end well.
(Photo sourced from Hist140 Wiki)

Probably the best definition of this term comes from -- where else? -- the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I have sampled what seem to be the most cogent bits from its definition.

"The term populism can designate either democratic or authoritarian movements. It is a political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by favourable contrast with an elite. Populism usually combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labour parties.

"Populism is typically critical of political representation and anything that mediates the relation between the people and their leader or government. In its most democratic form, populism seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens, through reform rather than revolution.

"In its contemporary understanding, however, populism is most often associated with an authoritarian form of politics. Populist politics, following this definition, revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power."

The definition goes on to refer to Populist politicians who rose to power in Latin America -- Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez, for example -- and who used that power not to be a champion for their people as promised, but rather to line their own pockets, solidify their power, and strangle the voice and the will of the people who elected them.


That donkey could also be an elephant, if you know what I mean.
(Cartoon sourced from St. John's School AP Government Study Guide Website)

This term gets used almost exclusively in reference to the Democratic Party, though the Republican Party also has these.  But before we talk about superdelegates, let's talk about delegates in general.
In Presidential primary elections, states hold either a caucus or a primary.  In a caucus, people physically gather at a meeting-place (a gym, for example), and they physically group together to show their support for a particular candidate.  People can try to persuade each other to leave one group and join another. When time is called, whoever has the most bodies grouped together wins. If you don't have a proportionally high enough number in your group, your candidate is out of the race.

In a primary, people go to the polls to vote.  In a closed primary, you must be a member of the Party to choose with candidate you want to go forward.  In an open primary, you don't have to be a member of the Party to vote.  More states are using primaries rather than caucuses because the vote-counting process is more accurate and verifiable.

In either a caucus or a primary, though people have voted for a candidate, what happens more immediately is that delegates get assigned.  Delegates are party officials who go to the party convention where the party's final candidate for the Presidency is announced.  These delegates are acting on behalf of the regular joes who voted in the primaries.  So how the delegates get assigned is a bit crucial.

Democrats assign delegates proportionally.  Let's say the state of Alafornowa gets 20 delegates to go to the Democratic convention, and there are 3 candidates for the Democratic nominee.
  • Candidate 1 got 50% of the vote
  • Candidate 2 got 30% of the vote
  • Candidate 3 got 20% of the vote 
Delegates would be assigned proportionally: 
  • Candidate 1 gets 50% of the delegates or 10 people
  • Candidate 2 gets 30% of the delegates or 6 people
  • Candidate 3 gets 20% of the delegates  or 4 people

The Republican Party allows states to choose how they will assign their delegates.  Some states are winner-take-all, meaning whichever candidate wins the majority of the popular vote gets all the delegates from that state.  Other states assign delegates proportionally.

Now to this picture we add superdelegates.  Superdelegates were created in 1982 when the Democratic National Committee decided that a new group of experienced Party members would go to the 1984 convention "uncommitted" -- that is, not having announced their decision to vote for any particular Party candidate.  These Superdelegates would represent about 14% of the Party vote at the convention.  The thinking was that these more experienced Democrats would be more moderate and would keep the more passionate, swing-like members from putting forth a candidate that might have a harder time winning the general election.  In 1984, what this meant was that the party nominated Walter Mondale as opposed to Jesse Jackson or Gary Hart.

The superdelegates go to the convention in addition to the delegates that have already been assigned proportionally based on the votes that were cast in the primaries or caucuses.  The number of superdelegates today is equal to 20% of the number of delegates that will attend the convention.

While the Republican Party does not have superdelegates (or at least, they don't use that term), it does send delegates to the convention in addition to those that were assigned based on primaries and caucuses.
  • A few are "complete free agents" as the NYT puts it, and are chosen RNC officials or leaders -- very like the DNC's superdelegates.  But some will announce their preference before the convention. 
  • Some delegates are selected by the RNC, unconnected with the popular vote.  They are officially not assigned to a particular candidate, but they have been chosen to be a delegate probably because the Party expects them to vote for one candidate in particular.  
  • Some caucuses also choose delegates in addition to and separate from the presidential candidates.  These people are also allowed to vote however they like, but in practice they are chosen by the caucus-goers for a known preference for one candidate.  
  • Some primary states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, conduct "loophole primaries" in which voters choose the Presidential candidate and also a group of delegates who are known to support one of those candidates.  Same as the caucus-voted-delegates, the loophole primary delegates are chosen by popular vote and are often similar to the way the popular vote goes.  These delegates are also not required to vote a certain way, but they tend to vote according to what they've telegraphed before the primary.
I'm not too clear on how many Republican extra delegates there are.  In 2012, the RNC had 2,286 total delegates.  Of those, 680 were officially unassigned -- about 30% of the total --  and the rest were assigned based on popular votes for candidates. I don't know if the numbers will be exactly the same in 2016, but it's likely they will be. 

If all 30% actually voted any mysterious way they wanted, the RNC could have more superdelegates in play than the Democrats. But it's likely that, since most of the unassigned delegates indicate how they will vote before the convention, there won't be as many delegates whose votes will be unknown beforehand.

For both the Democratic and Republican Parties, these superdelegates or candidate-unasssigned delegates may play a crucial role in the conventions of both parties.  The Republican National Convention is July 18-21 in Cleveland, and the Democratic National Convention is July 25-28 in Philadelphia.  I think it's going to be crazy times until then, and probably after then too.

MIT, Lincoln/Douglas Debate Format
Todd Hering, Minnesota Debate Teachers Association, Learning Classic Debate
United States Senate, Committee on Rules & Administration, Rules of the Senate, Debate
Democracy (Australia), Glossary of Political Terms
Urban Dictionary, dog whistle
The Root, 8 Sneaky Racial Code Words and Why Politicians Love Them, March 15, 2014
Encyclopedia Britannica, Populism
CNN, All Politics, Chicago 1996, Democratic Rules
Council on Foreign Relations, The U.S. Nominating Process
Vote Smart, Government 101: United States Presidential Primary
Howstuffworks, What are superdelegates?

Nate Silver, The G.O.P.'s Fuzzy Delegate Math, The New York Times, February 25, 2012

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