Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Bellwethers, Indicators, and Omens: The Rhetorical Impact of Special Elections and Micro-Movements

As I was pulling into the university parking lot today, I realized that my mind was instinctively looking not just for free parking spaces, but also behavioral patterns that might indicate to me whether the other spaces were empty. This made me think about how we, as humans, by nature or nurture think in this way, and how that endows some events or images with profound meaning, or at least meaning beyond the event itself.

Here is the parking situation I face every day:
- If you come to the university between 7 and 8 am, the world is your oister. You can pretty much pick and choose your preferred parking space. The lots closest to the entrances go first (we have just one large building on campus).
- If you come after 9 am you'll be lucky if you don't have to park across the street by the hotel or fitness center.
- If you come between 8 and 9 am you will find a spot, but the best (closest to the entrances) will most likely be taken, though you may get lucky.

This morning I had to drop my daughter off at school, so I arrived between 8 and 9 am. As I entered the parking area I immediately started looking for signs or indicators (as all of you probably do). We know some of the familiar ones:
- If a car enters a parking lot and then exits it, that parking lot is full.
- If the parking lots furthest from the entrance are jam packed, that means those closest to the entrance are all taken. The same goes if some pseudo-lots (could work, but not marked) are taken.

And then there is this peculiar one that I have found at my university:
- If the parking lot in the corner with the greatest chance of getting boxed in or getting a scratch while maneuvering is taken, then the lot is full.
- If that and another space is empty, then there is a good chance for more empty spaces too.

The space I am talking about is this one in the corner, where the black/grey car is parked
The space next to the two birch trees is an indicator for the parking lot capacity
It occurred to me that we use the same kind of thinking in a lot of ways to try to predict the future or make estimates beyond what we have knowledge of at the moment. They are used in politics (often to describe by-elections), economic forecasts, weather forecasts, statistical analyses, and (more anciently) to tell fortunes or predict the success of a battle or war. Hume would claim that all of these are superstitions, but they have proved their value in the past. In either case, whether or not we like it, it seems we as humans are hard-wired or trained to think in these terms.

We have different words for these signs, with some different meanings and implications:

A bellwether (originally meaning a male castrated sheep wearing a bell) has come to mean one that leads or takes initiative, or actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others (a little podcast about the word available here). The parking space in question cannot be a bellwether in this case, since the parking space is not an agent and therefore not able to actively establish a trend or take initiative. However, the first car that abandons the attempt of finding an empty spot in the lot can become a bellwether. If I and five others behind me saw that, we likely won't even try that parking lot. The problem with designating something a bellwether (and talking about signs of the future in general) is that you can only clearly establish the truth of the statement afterwards. It can be factually true that "this proved to be a bellwether of the market," or "this company has often been a bellwether," but "this company is a bellwether" can never be anything but an unsubstantiated claim about the future. I and the cars behind me might now follow the lead of that first car at all.

Everyone wants to be a leader, nobody wants to be a lone wolf or that one weird guy that walked off by himself, but the difference between a bellwether and a freak or anomaly is first determined after the first step has been taken. A leader has to walk alone in the beginning in order to lead, to establish a new direction. Leadership is lonely, at least at first. But if the flock doesn't follow, what then? Then it's suddenly not leadership but egotism or deviant/disobedient/anomalous behavior.

Look at the example of Republican Senator Jeff Flake and his recent powerful speech denouncing Trump and the current administration. The speech makes it clear that he wants to be a leader and he predicts that he will be a bellwether: 

"This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a healthy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith. We must argue our positions fervently, and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man, and always look for the good. Until that days comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does."

Without doubt, this is a call to the flock to follow his lead. It is a speech with the grandeur and visionary statements customary when leaders set out a new course, and it has appeals to emotions, patriotism, and the principles many of the other members of the Senate have mentioned themselves often. But will he prove to be a bellwether, or will he be a lone lost sheep from the Republican fold? It all depends on how many others are willing to follow his lead. As Evan McMullin and others argue here, the difference between the two can depend on very few people bringing it over the tipping point.

However, by calling something or someone a bellwether you may actually influence whether or not a person actually becomes a bellwether. In the clip above, the panelists compare Jeff Flake to those who spake out against Senator McCarthy and finally were able to bring about his downfall. Those people were bellwethers, but many other people who have spoken out against dominant trends ended up just being lone wolves howling to the moon. 

This is what Cicero and later Chaim Perelman called "the argument from definition." As Perelman writes, “Every time an idea can be defined in more than one way, ‘to define’ comes to mean to make a choice” (62). The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is trying to define Senator Flake's words as the exit of a lone wolf ostracized by the flock. If other Republican leaders see the action in that light, then they will be more unlikely to want to follow. After all, who wants to follow a madman into the desert? If, on the other hand, Jeff Flake and other people can define the act as that of a bellwether, a leader, someone who actively establishes a trend which others then follow, then people are also more likely to join the effort, add their voices and influence to boost it, and actively develop the potential trend to make it dominant or at least significant.

The argument works because our mind constantly strives to be ahead of the future in order to safeguard our well-being and that of those around us, and so we are willing to accept unsubstantiated arguments about the future because these are often the best we have. In any case, it is a possible future which we may be able to help bring to pass.

An indicator is a word commonly used in science and technology, and it does not have the same requirement as a bellwether of active involvement. The car in the space by the two birches is an indicator that the parking lot is full. An indicator is something which indicates. To indicate is either to point out or show, or to suggest something as a desirable or necessary course of action. It originally comes from Latin "indicare," meaning to point out or show something with your finger. In chemistry, it means "a compound which changes colour at a specific pH value or in the presence of a particular substance." The compound points to or shows that a specific pH value has been reached or that a specific substance is present in the mixture.

A bellwether actually has to do something, but indicators can often simply be events or objects which point to or show us something else. A beating pulse is a key indicator of life, your breath turning to steam is an indication of minus degrees (Celsius) temperatures, and a surprising defeat in a by-election may indicate that popular sentiment is turning against your party. 

Of course, not all things called indicators have a necessary correlation with what they are intended or purported to show or point to. And one can also choose which indicators to focus on or view as significant. Is the popular vote or the electoral college the best way to indicate which candidate had the most support (or was least disliked)? What are the best indicators for popular sentiment or wealth distribution? At the fringes, indicators become any potential sign of future intentions or actions, and people search words for hidden meanings, weightings, or indications of what else is to come. Again, this may be done unconsciously or consciously in order to support your ideological narrative. 

The Left in America claim the future belongs to them, because students vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but this has also been the case for many years and has not significantly changed the balance in American politics. Yet after every election lost by the Democrats one sees articles and posts about this same "ray of hope." I have read them ever since Al Gore's defeat in 2000, and they were repeated with Kerry's defeat in 2004. They were turned to exultations about the future when Obama won in 2008, and were offered again as solace when Clinton lost in 2016. There is a saying that "A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart. If he remains one after 25 he has no head." Whether or not that is the case, it seems to be a prevalent trend that the radical youth vote turns into the considerably more conservative adult vote and most conservative senior vote. But what do these facts indicate? What do they point to or show? And can they give us any meaningful data or hunches about the future?

Well, some indicators are seen as more meaningful than others, so a lot of attention flocks to them. And that makes it important for certain groups to create indicators even when they don't occur naturally. This is where by-elections or special elections come in. These are elections held outside the normal campaign season, and are for that reason given disproportionate attention and endowed with disproportionate importance. Opinion polls are all well and good, but the only way to understand how people will actually vote is to actually have them make a vote that counts. Special elections are given lofty titles such as "a referendum on the President" and huge amounts of money are poured into a race that, in terms of actual political influence, has very little effect overall. In Georgia's sixth district special election, over 50 million dollars were spent to convince the roughly 250,000 voters, totaling about 250 dollars per vote.

Why did they do this? It was because both sides hoped this election could have a signal effect and become an indicator to their supporters as to which side was winning and would be winning in 2018 and 2020. For the next year, whenever the Democrats claimed they were winning the Republicans would be able to say "look at the Georgia sixth district election." Even though the huge amounts of money spent made the indicator really an unreliable and artificial one, both sides still saw enough value in securing it for their side to spend over 25 million dollars each. This huge symbol effect connected to a single event brings us close to the next point, the omen.

An omen can be any event or object that is believed to foretell the future, and often signifies the advent of change. It is a slippery slope argument to say that "the factory in town closed down, a recession must be coming" and yet we all at times feel gloom gathering or think "the writing is on the wall" for some momentous future event. "People in the ancient times believed that omens lie with a divine message from their gods." We may claim in the modern world to have put such feelings and notions behind us, but they pop up in all kinds of predictions about the future, from election forecasts to sport outcomes. Here is a star Norwegian coach who towards the end of two defining matches (one to avoid relegation and the other to become league champions) said he got the feeling "it's not meant to be." 

The inauguration refers to the old Roman role of the augurs, who were supposed to read the guts of animals in order to determine what the likely outcome of a policy would be. In that role, they were searching for omens of the favor or disfavor of the gods. Moments and images in politics and history have been seen as omens or ominous: the soldier jumping over the nearly completed Berlin wall,

for example, symbolizing a last escape from what was to become the Iron Curtain encompassing half of Europe. Another famous "omen" is the explosion of the first atomic bomb with the following quote going through Robert Oppenheimer's mind: "I am now become Death, the destroyer of worlds." 

Of course, from its very inception the omen and the augur were also tools of persuasion. Cicero often used the augur's office to delay the decrees of Marcus Antonius, and magazines and political campaigns like to stage "omens" to appeal to the potential people have to be convinced by these.

In America, financial or electoral success are often heralded as signs or omens of divine approval. After Donald Trump's election, Representative Michelle Bachmann stated “God raised up, I believe, Donald Trump,” and Rev. Franklin Graham said of the victory “God showed up.” The Economy (written that way on purpose) is also often seen nowadays as signs of divine approval or disapproval. Thus, the slow economic recovery for many years during the Obama presidency was God's rebuke.

How useful are bellwethers, indications, or omens when we reason about the future? Well, they are obviously faulty, some less so and others more, but any estimate of the future is bound to be uncertain. We have these frames of mind, I believe, because they have shown their usefulness and validity in the past, and because they really have nothing or very little to compete with when it comes to knowledge or purported knowledge of the future. In either case, we can hopefully sharpen our intuition and discerning ability by questioning to which extent we listen to those who would take advantage of our predisposition to be thus persuaded, and learn to question whether we are here dealing with hard indicators, bellwethers, or purported omens of the future. That may also form and inform the future we help to create.