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Tuesday, October 12, 2010
The Zebra Effect

If you're a lion, the zebra effect makes it hard to distinguish specific animals in a running herd. In politics, well, stay tuned. I'm about to invent a meaning. NEW: Listen to an audio podcast of this post.


It's as unavoidable as the common cold, I think.

When you're caught up in a political campaign, supporting a candidate or a cause that is important to you, there's a temptation to see things in a distorted light -- especially as Election Day approaches. With apologies to those who use the same term in the fields of economics, time management, astronomy, and even human dating, I'll call this the Zebra Effect.

When the Zebra Effect takes hold, everything on your side looks whiter; everything on the other side looks blacker, and there's less and less gray in your world view. In advanced cases there's no gray at all, and no color, either.

When you're suffering from the Zebra Effect, opponents' words and actions seem unfair, even if they're accurate and just. Anything that threatens to damage your cause or campaign is probably a dark conspiracy. Legitimate criticism of your philosophy and record seems like dirty campaigning. Every journalist is promoting the other side, and every published quotation of someone on your side is a deliberate and malicious misquotation. And if everyone doesn't already know the opposition is violating some sort of campaign law or worse, it's a wonder, because it's obvious to you.

With the Zebra Effect, it's not just about policy any more. It's about pure good and pure evil -- even if it's really not. (I pause to note that good and evil sometimes are involved in political matters, but not every race is so clear-cut, and few if any contests are key to some impending sociopolitical apocalypse.)

Things can get even worse as the ailment advances. Legitimate differences of opinion within the same campaign, among its supporters, start to resolve themselves into the same categories: good or evil, friend or foe. In fully advanced cases, everyone's an enemy, and political death may ensue.

This highly infectious malady occurs in local, state, and national politics -- in family and corporate politics, too, come to think of it -- and it happens to people on every side of an issue or debate. Sensible people with experience in the political realm know to expect this phenomenon and to resist it, but that doesn't mean it's easy for them, and it doesn't mean they never yield. Less reflective or simply politically less experienced people are often at the mercy of this very human frailty long before they realize it.

Perhaps an illustration of the Zebra Effect outside politics will help. When it takes over as you watch your favorite football team, several things are likely to happen. First, every penalty flag against your team is evidence that the officiating crew wants the other team to win. Second, the uncalled fouls against the other team multiply. Third, the other team doesn't make great plays, just unbelievably lucky ones. Fourth, the rules themselves are slanted as part of an ongoing conspiracy against your team.

Fifth, the people watching the game with you seriously consider watching the next game somewhere else.

But back to politics.


Here is a political application. It's hypothetical, for the moment. I'll tell you in advance that this situation is perfectly innocent, but appears scandalous when distorted by the Zebra Effect.

Suppose some people don't like Elected Official A and want to replace him with someone whose views are more like their own. So they put their heads together, do their homework, and decide to persuade Candidate B to run against Elected Official A in the next election. If they're smart, they'll pick a candidate who's not only willing and compatible, but well known, well respected, and articulate. If they're lucky, that person will actually agree to become Candidate B and will run an effective and ultimately successful campaign.

Elected Official A and his partisans would do well to realize what is clear to almost everyone else: This is how the system works. This is how it's supposed to work. It's not an abuse of the system or some dark conspiracy. Wouldn't you agree?

If you wouldn't agree, where do you think candidates come from?


Here's where I have to offer a disclaimer. As I've mentioned once or twice already here at the blog, I'm working on Tim Osborn's campaign for reelection to the Alpine School Board. I'll be happy to tell you why -- I blogged about it before the primary, and my endorsement (among others') is published at his blog -- but that's not really the point here.

The word on the street -- which I happen to believe -- is that some influential people in the local educational establishment want Tim Osborn off the Alpine School Board. One way or another, philosophically, politically, or otherwise, he gets in their way; again, how or why is not relevant to my point at the moment. So they found themselves a candidate to oppose him.

They did well. In John Burton they picked an honorable man, who is well known and well respected in the community; who has in the past suggested that he might like to run for school board someday; and who has a long and impressive resume of service in the Alpine School District, mostly as an administrator at one level or another. No doubt he has helped many people, especially students, over the years. Obviously, he agreed to run, and he did well in the June primary.

Some -- I hope just a few -- Tim Osborn supporters are scandalized. They speak of this recruitment as if it were somehow dishonorable, immoral, or conspiratorial. I disagree.

Let me put that another way. I disagree profoundly.

I think recruiting or being recruited in this manner is honorable and appropriate. It doesn't subvert or corrupt our political system. May I say it again? This is how the system is supposed to work. There is nothing deep, dark, or conspiratorial here. It's how we got some of my favorite candidates, such as Mike Lee and, four years ago, Tim Osborn.

The One Thing We Know

So the education establishment doesn't like Tim. So they found themselves a good candidate in John Burton, whom they do like, and who has a chance of unseating Tim. There's nothing wrong with this picture. All it tells us is whose candidate is whose -- a useful thing to know in an officially nonpartisan election.

I'm not completely immune to the Zebra Effect myself, but I've learned how to resist it. I won't be pointing any paranoid fingers at imagined conspiracies or abuses of the system. I'll just be saying . . .

Game on.

Well, maybe I'll say one more thing, if you'll forgive me for slipping fully into campaign mode here at the end. Given that the local educational establishment is already notoriously reluctant to listen and respond to the people, who are supposed to be in charge of the public schools, does it make a lot of sense to you to put a hand-picked establishment insider on the school board, to oversee the work of the establishment?

Me neither.

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