Found Art! Enter to win in the “Gerryvision 2011” Drawing Contest

Those who would criticize American art as sterile and commercialized have obviously not familiarized themselves with the art of Congressional district boundary drawing which, like certain kinds of locust, flourishes once every decade (sometimes more often in Texas), feeding on census data and political desire.  And this year local Michigan artists have done their state proud with some remarkable work.  The beauty of these creations is often lost in a jumble of shapes and colors when they appear together on the same page:

And so I would like to take this opportunity to present them as separate designs, each beautiful in its own right.  Ladies and gentlemen, the 9th, 11th, 13th and 14th Congressional districts of the state of Michigan:

Draw your own and win!

These shapes are not only remarkable for their raw beauty and complexity but also for the way in which they are open to interpretation.  Indeed perhaps the most exciting part of this American artistic tradition is the degree to which it  invites viewer participation.  And just as commentators compared one of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s 1812 districts as a “salamander” and drew a famous cartoon to illustrate, so all Americans are entitled to offer words and pictures to describe their new districts, so I ask all Pozorblog readers to do the same.   Take District 14 for example.  Look at it from all sides:

Is it a frog?  a giraffe riding a motorcycle? Elvis?  You decide and then send it here so that it can be posted for the world to see.  And if you do it soon, there’s something in it for you (in a sense):

Gerryvision 2011

The process is simple:

  1. Download one or all of the maps below in pdf or jpg format
  2. Look at it long and hard, rotate it, squint at it or do anything else that will help you to divine its true shape.
  3. Mark up the graphic to show what you have in mind.  Feel free to print it out and draw on it
  4. Take a picture or scan it in and send it here: by midnight on Friday, October 21.  Submit as many as you want!

Entries will be judged by an expert jury of experts in electoral rules (i.e. the students of my PS4710 course on “Democracy”) who.  The winner will receive $10 donated in her/his name to the charity of her/his choice.

Here are the maps.  Go ahead and join the American artistic-political tradition!

Click the pictures below for graphic files or click here for a .pdf of all four
The 9th The 11th The 13th The 14th

As they used to say (and maybe still do), you can’t win if you don’t enter.

American Local News Circa 2011

Some might say that I am ill-equipped to judge local news since my experience of it news comes twice a year when my family stays at a particular hotel that insists on keeping it on during breakfast hours. But if lack of experience with politics can become the chief qualification for political candidates, then perhaps lack of experience with TV could improve the quality media analysis.

Normally, the only people to experience the full brunt of my frustration are the hotel staff–who patiently endure my annoying requests to turn off the TV and my occasional passive-aggressive manipulation of the volume button–and my family which has to listen to me complain during the breakfast hour.  This year, however, I had an insight which I feel is worthy enough to annoy the entire readership of this blog.  So quickly to the point:

During half an hour of morning news on January 2, I saw 10 stories.  There were six topics:

  1. Policemen
  2. Firemen
  3. Prisons (on fire)
  4. Airplanes (crashing)
  5. Tornadoes
  6. Football players

From this list of stories (not overwhelmingly different from those found in a rather more rigorous analysis of Chicago-area TV news by scholars at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and another of Los Angeles-area TV news and newspapers by scholars at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism), I wish to formulate a hypothesis based on my own personal experience:

Local news stories are chosen by a panel of 5-year-old boys.

I do have a few doubts about this conclusion, but only because of the relative infrequency of stories about dinosaurs and superheroes, which could be caused either by the presence of some non-five-year-olds on the panel, or by the relative absence on that day of good video footage involving dinosaurs or superheroes.

It is also worthwhile considering an alternative view, which begins from the premise that all of the stories except those about football players involved bad/sad things that are unlikely to happen to most viewers.  From this it is possible to formulate an alternative hypothesis:

Local news stories are chosen on the basis of schadenfreude.

Readers might point out that these two hypotheses are not necessarily inconsistent, and I’m afraid they would be right: while most non-German five-year-old boys might have a difficult time pronouncing “schadenfreude my personal experience suggests that five-year-olds are not immune to feelings of satisfaction at the misfortunes of others (especially if the other person is a seven-year-old sibling).

The schadenfreude hypothesis actually needs a bit of qualification, however, because it is not exactly “joy” at the misfortunes of others but rather a heightened sense of self-satisfaction that “something like that” could never happen to me.” Since schadenselbstzufriedenheit does not exactly roll off the tongue, it might be necessary to resort to an alternative formulation offered by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia: karma.

According to Haidt, a significant portion of the American public wants “to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin” (Haidt’s intriguing book proposal is here).

Whether it is five-year-olds or somebody else who is choosing news stories, there is no shortage of bad things happening to (or being done by, or both) other (lesser) people, especially if they involve video clips of something on fire.

To Whom From Whom: Slovakia Electoral Shift Roundup

I had intended to post this tomorrow but SME just published an article on ebb and flow for the new parties SaS and Most-Hid based on a presentation by Olga Gyarfasova of IVO and so this is a good time to talk, if briefly, about where Slovakia’s voters are going and where they have come from.

First credit where it is due: thanks to Tim Haughton for finding and bringing to my attention an article in Pravda that presented data from an MVK about the stability of party electorates.  The graph made a decent point about the stability of party electorates (though I’ve argued above that these are not useful in predicting party results based on polls, making the statistic a rather academic one–not that there’s anything wrong with that) but also contained other data about where “non-stable” voters went that is in many ways more interesting because it helps to tell the story of where parties’ ebbs or flows are coming from.  That data, and the scale of the flows, was unfortunately buried in the graph and extremely hard to read.

So, with typical obsessiveness about graphics and a desire to avoid other work, I transformed this chart (more quickly than I thought I could) into something that told the story in a more complete way:

In this graph, I have roughly standardized the sizes of the images so that each pixel represents roughly the same number of voters.  The point is the same–KDH maintained the most loyalty, SNS the least–but from this (admittedly incomplete) data we begin to see the double flow that I have expected for some time: from former HZDS and SNS voters to Smer and from former Smer voters to SaS.  The graph only shows the data we have and so has lots of big residual categories (all other parties instead of individual parties and “undecided” instead of “will not vote” etc.).  It also fails to provide information on the flows to smaller parties or the share that flows from one party represent in the new electorate of the party to which it flows.

Thanks to Olga Gyarfasova, we now have some of that public for the two new parties, Most-Hid and SaS and here the pattern is again more or less what we would expect: SaS gains heavily from SDKU and new voters and disillusioned former voters; Most-Hid gains heavily from SMK-MKP.  There are a few surprises, however: SaS picks up a significant share of voters from Smer, and Most-Hid picks up voters from parties other than SMK-MKP (almost by definition “Slovak” parties) and from non-voters.

This is by no means the last word and all ebb and flow statistics need to pay closer attention to the degree to which flow is caused by people leaving and entering the electorate.  I hope to have more statistics on this in the near future and to improve the graphs above.  Until then, this will probably suffice.

American Politics in a Nutshell

imagesI am a comparativist by training and so it is not particularly surprising that I am fond of  T. S. Eliot’s famous quatrain from Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And I am therefore extremely grateful to Michal Kovacs of the Introduction to North America class at the Economics University of Bratislava for the chance to reverse the normal equation and talk about my own country using the tools that I usually use to talk about Slovakia.  Thanks, too, to the students who paid close attention and asked excellent questions (but I’m still not telling whom I would vote for if I were a citizen of Slovakia).  For those students who participated and for anyone else odd enough to care, a hasty, non-annotated (and therefore probably incomprehensible) .pdf of the talk is available here:

Since this is in many regards just a highly abbreviated version of lectures in my Citizenship class, the truly foolhardy can find a more extensive treatment at (login:, login: abercrombie)

Obama in SME

Obama in Sme

After months in Slovakia hearing reasons why Americans would not vote for Barack Obama for President (including some from Americans) the question is how President Barack Obama will relate to Slovakia. On Monday I received a series of excellent questions from SME.  Since space considerations dictated the publication of responses to only the most immediately interesting–see (I am still waiting for the day when articles in Slovakia’s newspapers regularly exceed the 500-word mark, something that should be possible in the internet era)– and since I would hate to let my 10 minutes of top-of-the-head responses go unpublished, I post below both the questions and my answers.

Why is America and American president important for Slovakia? Which American presidents can we consider as very important for Slovakia and Slovak nation?

As the world’s largest economy and largest military the United States has an almost unavoidable efect on every country.  It is unlikely that the new administration will have much practical significance for most citizens of Slovakia, but in symbolic terms this inauguration is one of the most important in the past century, and the excitement among Americans—particularly the college-age students I teach—is unprecedented in my lifetime.  Among those American presidents who have had a deep influence on Slovakia’s development it is difficult to name any except Wilson, who aided the creation of Czechoslovakia, and Roosevelt who pursued a successful course in the Second World War.  Some might cite Reagan, but scholarship suggests that his effect on the collapse of the Soviet Union was marginal at best—a matter of timing rather than outcome.

Let’s look back to the history of Slovak-American relations – how do you see its development from 1993 independent Slovakia until now? What were the turning points?

The turning points in US-Slovakia relations are really the same as the turning points in Slovakia’s own politics.  Relationships between the Clinton administration and the successive Meciar governments cooled very quickly and remained quite cold during the 1990’s, though I never got the sense of any animosity toward Slovakia itself.  The defeat of the HZDS government in 1998 improved relations, both because the new government seemed more firmly committeed to democracy and stability in the region which helped aussuage the long-term concerns of the State Department.  The new government then ingratiated itself further through active cooperation with the Bush administration‘s foreign policy goals, even to the extent of supporting the war in Iraq. Under Fico the government has pulled back from this active cooperation and has offered some sharp criticisms, but it is not clear to me whether this has translated into a relationship that is more conflictual at the operational level, and it is notable that the US has moved ahead with the process of reducing or eliminating visa requrements.

May we expect Obama’s visit to Slovakia or Europe in the next years? When and why?

Unfortunately, I would not expect a visit.  I suspect that Obama’s main goals in the first few years will be domestic and that when he does travel abroad he will work on improving relations with countries where the Bush Administration’s policies did the most damage.  Slovakia is far down that (rather long) list.  I’m afraid, too, that the prominence of the Bush-Putin summit in the relatively recent past will move Slovakia further down the list.  Unless there are compelling reasons, countries that win one of these big events tend to move to the bottom of the list and cycle back to the top very slowly

Don’t you think European countries and leaders are expecting too much from Obama in sense of  „monumental change“ in mutual relations and US foreign policy?

I think almost everybody (except maybe Sarah Palin) is expecting too much from Obama.  I think his policy will certainly differ from that of the Bush Administration, but that administration’s policy stood near the extreme of unilaterialism.  Obama will not transform American diplomacy, and he will not radically reshape relationships with adversaries or allies, but he will bring it back toward the norm under Bill Clinton (and this is no surprise given that Hillary Clinton will be the Secretary of State).  The US under Obama promises to be a country that will make strong efforts at multilaterialism but that will still act unilaterally if it feels that its interests will be otherwise threatened. 

Our last government presented itself more in the light of euro-atlantic cooperation, current government is more ambiguous.  May this play a role in mutual relations in sense of change of American position towards Slovakia after Obama is inaugurated?

I will be interested to see whether the Fico government changes its relationship once the United States has a government closer to the economic left and more prone toward multilateralism.  My sense is that foreign policy stances and foreign policy rhetoric in Slovakia have been driven largely by domestic political considerations.  I do not know whether the relatively more left-of-center positions of the Obama presidency will change those considerations and shift the positions or rhetoric of the Fico government.