Sunday, March 30, 2008

The US Elections: The Law of Unintended Consequences

In the 1970's, the US government provided the Shah of Iran with presses capable of printing currency of the same quality as American bills.

In 1979, the Shah decided to take a very long vacation; two weeks later, grand ayatollah Khomeini rode in triumph through Persepolis (oh all right, then, Tehran).

And then, some years later, counterfeit $100 bills began to flood the Mideast, eventually spreading around the world. Given the global dependency on American currency, these bills posed a serious problem for international markets. Accusatory fingers were pointed in various directions, but the most likely suspect was obvious: an anti-US Iranian government that possessed the very same printing presses used to create American money.

True or not, this story - which I found here - is a nice example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. This is the law that states, according to a Wikipedia entry, "that for any action one can will, there will always be some unintended consequences that result, that are not intended to be". Or, to put it a more simply: any action aimed at a certain consequence will have unintended consequences as well.

Even better examples of this law, it might be argued, can be found by looking at the various changes the Democrats have made in their presidential nomination process over the last 40 years.

Back in 1968, that nomination process was, to put it mildly, a very undemocratic thing. Yes, there were primaries, and so ordinary Democrats could go out and vote for their candidate of choice - but that choice didn't amount to much. And so, during that year’s disastrous DNC in Chicago, it wasn't the anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy who got the nomination. It was the insider Hubert Humphrey, who hadn't actually campaigned during during the primary season and who, during that campaign, had amassed no more than about 2% of the popular vote. And who, of course, went on to lose the election against Richard Nixon.

With riots having broken out on their very doorstep, the Dems felt it was time for an overhaul of the nomination process. A commission was set up - spearheaded by George McGovern - which resulted in the balance of power being shifted resolutely from the party elite to the voters. In effect, a new rule was added to the Delegate Selection Rules, Rule 11 (H), which stipulated that delegates at the convention were henceforth required to vote for the candidate they had been elected to support.

Unfortunately, though, the Law of Unintended Consequences set in straight away.

McGovern himself won the 1972 nomination on the basis of the new rules, only to lose - in a landslide - to the incumbent Nixon (a defeat due in part to the fact that the Democratic establishment didn't like McGovern at all, leading some of them to actively campaign for Nixon). Four years on, a second surprise materialised in the form of Jimmy Carter, another outsider who astounded the party elite by clinching the nomination. And whilst Carter did, of course, go on to win the White House, it is difficult to this day to find a sentence containing his name that does not also include the words “failed presidency”: by the end of his first term, the aforementioned Khomeini had set up shop in Iran and a resounding defeat to Ronald Reagan was a foregone conclusion.

All in all, the new delegate voting rule had had just about the opposite result it was intended to have. Instead of ensuring that viable and popular candidates were nominated to the delight of radical and moderate Democrats alike, it had effectively strengthened the party’s penchant for internal bickering and the likelihood of bickering's baby - a.k.a. the Democrats' nominee - being The Wrong Guy.

It was, in short, a triumph for the Law.

Not surprisingly, a new change was deemed to be in order. Another commission was set up, led by Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina, which argued - with astonishing success - that a substantial slice of the power to nominate should revert back to the party bosses.

Here's a snippet from what Hunt said at the time:

“We must also give our convention more flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and, in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice. One step in this direction would be to loosen the much-disputed “binding” Rule 11 (H) as it applies to all delegates. An equally important step would be to permit a substantial number of party leader and elected official delegates to be selected without requiring a prior declaration of preference. We would then return a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party and increase the incentive it has to offer elected officials for serious involvement.”

Now, to understand this, one should realise that "loosening" Rule 11 (H) meant that pledged delegates would no longer be compelled to act in accordance with the wishes of the electorate,
but that their votes should still “in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them”. The pledged delegates, in other words, were still bound, even though the rule binding them was deliberately worded vaguely.

More importantly, however, the proposals called for the creation of a new and “substantial” class of delegates who would, by definition, not be bound by the popular vote at all. If you're wondering who belongs to this “substantial" class, don't. You know who they are: they're called superdelegates.

Fast forward to 2008. We still live by these two Hunt tenets. And they are, as everyone knows, the lifeline of the Clinton campaign. Well, one of them, at least: whilst technically it's conceivable some pledged delegates would allow their “good conscience” to ignore the voters’ wishes (something Clinton has recently pointed out) – Clinton's only truly viable option lies with the superdelegates.

But the way that option currently might work out is, again, a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

You see, when Hunt made his proposals, there was understandable opposition from the left of the party. These were basically the people who favoured Edward Kennedy above the more establishment figure of Walter Mondale; and they included, amongst others, the party feminists.

These people weren’t against the “loosening” of Rule 11 (H); in fact, it was Kennedy himself who, during the 1980 DNC, argued that pledged delegates could shift allegiance if they felt like it (Kennedy’s interest in this being that Carter had managed to get more delegates during the primary campaign than he had done). They were, however, very much opposed to the creation of the superdelegate class.

The feminists, in particular, were ready to wage a war on that issue. They felt that the superdelegates would be predominately white and male, and that – even if women made up about half of the total of all delegates – a male-dominated, unpledged superdelegate class amounted to an unacceptable shift in power.

In the end, they didn't manage to land any real blows, though. Unbeknownst to them, a deal was struck between the Kennedy and Mondale camps and the superdelegates were a reality, the compromise being that they didn’t make up 30% of the delegate total (as Hunt had proposed), but only 14%. The feminists were left gnashing their teeth in frustration, as a recent article by Susan Estrich – who spearheaded the feminist front at the time - makes clear.

Back to the current campaign and, indeed, the future. If there is one group supporting Clinton for president, it is the group of Democratic feminists. These are the women who sometimes seem to be having real (and therefore often honest) difficulties in understanding that a Democrat could prefer Obama to Clinton without being driven by suspect and perhaps sexist motives. They are the ones I wrote about – not too seriously - in The Wondrous World of Misogyny.

But they are also the ones whose only hope of a nomination success rests entirely in the hands of the superdelegate class, a class which they must now firmly support and which in their minds must surely see reason and help overturn that horrid pledged delegate count.

And so the Law threatens to strike again. If it were ever true, as the feminists argued, that the superdelegate rule threatened to adversely affect a woman candidate’s chances, then these same feminists are now fervently hoping that the actual consequence of that rule turns out to be the exact opposite.

They are, in effect, banking on the Law to take full effect once again.

And, to be fair, their hope is not without merit: Clinton has led in the superdelegate count right from the word go. And in spite of everything - and, frankly, there have been a few too many everythings lately - she does so still. It is, even now, very possible indeed that the Law might ultimately pull her through.

As for those printing presses in Iran, though, I hold lesser hopes. Frankly, I doubt they’re in much use today. Unless, of course, some bright soul managed to convert 'em to produce Euro bills instead.

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