Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sticker Shock

The “Wellstone!” bumper sticker is still a common site in the Twin Cities.  Once upon a time, they were advertisements for Paul Wellstone’s political campaigns, for Senate in 1990, 1996, and 2002, and for President in 2000.  But a decade after his death they have become … something else.  To drivers of other cars on the road, this green and white emblem on a vehicle has come to mean:  Warning, lousy driver at the wheel.  Slow, oblivious, imperious, annoying.

For those driving the cars with Wellstone branded bumpers, it means much, much more.  They have no practical purpose any longer, so I’m left to conclude that it is entirely conspicuous partisanship.  They supported the most progressive, controversial, and divisive politician of his generation (Wellstone never exceeded 50% of the vote in Minnesota), and they’re going to tell that to every single person they encounter, every day, to the maximum geographical extent possible.  ‘Attention world, I know you are just trying to get to work on time, but you’re going to have to remove yourself from your own thoughts for a minute because YOU are going to deal with my controversial political preferences!’

During an active campaign, I’ll give a pass to the use of political bumper stickers.  It’s legitimate advertising for a cause or candidate.  But outside of an active campaign, let alone 10 years after that candidate has died, still sporting said bumper sticker is pugnacious.  You’re looking for a fight.  In other words, it’s a jerk move.  If you’re doing it, you’re a jerk, and you’re advertising that fact to everyone.  We might have guessed it from your driving behavior alone (slow, oblivious, imperious, annoying), but now we know for sure. 

You don’t see as many Wellstone bumper stickers as you used to.  For that, I credit not a lessening of the jerk-like ardor of conspicuous partisans.  I blame the practical, tactile difficulties of trying to preserve paper and glue adhered to fiberglass and metal in an outdoor environment.  While it may be feasible to preserve Vladimir Lenin’s body for a century, that type of ingenuity and resource allocation isn’t possible for old Wellstone stickers.  Year by year, day by day, hour by hour, they’re flaking off and blowing in the wind. 

Unfortunately, this has not meant a respite in roadway political hectoring.  Conspicuous partisans have to hector, it’s what they do.  So, Wellstone stickers are incrementally being replaced by fellow travelling candidates.  Over the years, we’ve had our Al Frankens and Barack Obamas and Ford Bells (all conveniently displayed on this Subaru straight from central casting).  But nothing has really galvanized the community organizing community like Wellstone! did. 

That is, until now.

In November of 2012, Minnesota voters were presented with Referendum 1, the Marriage Amendment to the state constitution, which would have enshrined in our foundational document the definition of matrimony as between a man and a woman.  From the opposition arose the ‘Vote No’ sticker, which flocked to the bumpers of Twin Cities’ liberals like so many swallows to Capistrano.   

The Marriage Amendment was defeated.  In Wellstonian fashion, it virtually equally divided the electorate, with 53% opposing and 47% approving.  Then the newly minted Democrat majority in the state legislature took the next step last year by legalizing gay marriage, on virtually a straight party line vote.  And there we have it, a highly controversial issue settled by the barest majorities, with the losers still smarting over the imposition of the brave, new world.  And how did the winners react?  By piling on.  It seems like there are even more “Vote No” stickers out there now than there were during the election of 2012.  They are everywhere on the roadways of the Twin Cities, a badge of honor for all goodthinking Minnesotans. 

Once again, it’s a jerk move of conspicuous partisans.  Minnesota is full of them and we must reconcile to the fact that they will always be with us. 

However, I wonder if this time their antics will come back to bite them?  They have wedded their need for adverse attention not to a candidate or specific cause, but to a commonly used word:  no.  That political sentiment, unhinged from its historical context, and combined with the average citizen’s short attention span, could come to embody anything.  In a political sense, “No” is more conservative than liberal.  To conserve is to maintain the status quo.  The default conservative answer to any new policy prescription would be therefore be, no.  In fact, it’s my theory that the Marriage Amendment failed due to losing a portion of its natural constituency who assumed that voting “no” is the proper response to any request on a ballot. 

Could it be that future ballot requests for progressive hope and change will be rejected, in part, based on the advertising providing by the conspicuous partisans still doing a touchdown dance for defeating the Marriage Amendment?  That answer depends on the theory that most ballot requests are liberal in orientation.  Let’s go to the tape. 

The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library keeps a database of Constitutional Amendments included on the statewide ballot for voter consideration.  From 1858 through 2012, there were a total of 215 Amendments considered, of which data on results is available for 213.  (The other Amendments, both from 1881 and dealing with removing time limitations from sessions of the legislature and regulating compensation of the legislature, have their results listed as “not available”.  I pray these aren’t still embroiled in a dispute over some hanging chads and felons voting from Koochiching County.) 

Of these 213 Amendments, a staggering 86% have been approved by the voters, and only 14% were rejected.  Based on total votes for approve vs. reject across all Amendments, the margin is a somewhat tighter landslide, at 65% approve vs. 35% reject. 

From this we can conclude that the legislators putting these amendments on the ballot have generally been in sync with the people.  But that doesn’t necessarily tell us if the orientation of these amendments were more liberal than conservative, since we cannot assume that the electorate over the past 160 years has been as been consistently oriented toward liberalism as it is today.  So how can we determine that? 

I could laboriously study each of the 213 Amendments, understand the details and the unique political context of each over the past 150 years, and through the use of some advanced analytics develop an index from which I can establish the liberal-conservative orientation of each.  Or I could just breeze through each one and based on the one sentence description provided by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library and make a snap decision on whether I (as the model conservative) would vote to approve or reject each.  

I adopted one of the above strategies for the following conclusion:

Of all 213 Amendments presented to Minnesota voters, 27% were sufficiently conservative and 73% were too liberal in orientation. 

Minnesota Liberals, you’ve been warned.  You sport the “Vote No” sticker at your future peril.  It’s time to take them off before it’s too late.

*For the record, if I did use the snap decision method of analysis, the “when in doubt, reject” strategy would have been in effect.  It sure would make deliberations on the political orientation of Amendments described as, for example, “to authorize levy of water-mains assessments on a frontage basis” a lot easier.  And it may have been remarkably enjoyable to casually dismiss scores of half understood government schemes and plans with a casual, “nah”.  If only reality were so simple.