There is a strange phenomenon occurring in politics this year, and I was having trouble labeling it. Labels seem more important than they used to be, since so many of us don’t get far enough past the headline or the Twitter feed to understand the reasons for it. That tendency doesn’t apply to my readers. My punchlines are always at the end.
Research served me well this week when I came across a 2012 study in the journal of Current Biology by a group of scientists from the University of London titled “Selfish-herd behavior of sheep under threat.” A conclusion in the study is that sheep band together not out of a sense of community, but because it helps lower their odds of being eaten by predators. Apparently there are two schools of thought here, one named the “many eyes” theory that theorizes that larger groups are better at detecting predators. The other, and the subject of today’s column, is the “selfish herd” theory which suggests that flocking evolved so individuals could simply play the odds. Those odds translate to a predator’s likelihood to attack your neighbor instead of yourself when in a tight group.
Two examples of political leadership recently seem to have evolved using the “selfish herd” theory.
First up is the decision last Fall by Governor Mike Pence to suspend Indiana’s accepting of Syrian refugees following the Paris terrorist attacks. I use the word “decision” instead of “idea” because when moving in a herd, there aren’t many actual ideas happening. Governor Rick Snyder from Michigan was the first to announce his plan to block refugees on November 16. Like a brush fire, that horrible opening move spread through the ranks of Republican Governors over the course of the next few days. Indiana’s move to follow the herd stood out as a mistake since there was a family on their way here when the decision was made. Again though, proper vetting of the decision to block refugees would have likely modified the decision. Ironically, the decision came from a complaint about the federal government’s inadequate vetting.
A ruling from federal district court Judge Tonya Pratt is expected any day as to whether the State of Indiana even had the authority to act in the manner it chose. Judging by the arguments made in defense of its actions, I will be shocked if the state prevails. And keeping with our theme, this is exactly how the “selfish herd” theory is supposed to work: one of the sheep ultimately gets slaughtered. For Governor Snyder and the rest of the nearly 30 governors making up that herd, Indiana kept them safe.
Next up is the recent knee jerk decision by Senator Mitch McConnell to announce immediately after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death that the GOP led Senate would not even consider confirming a nomination to replace him until after the November election. Like the Governors last Fall, the bulk of the remaining members of the Senate Republican Caucus quickly agreed with the first and worst idea. Like it or not, agree with it or not, this move has officially transformed that group from a caucus into a herd. None of the other 53 Republican Senators oppose McConnell’s move? Fascinating.
There is no question that the majority party in the Senate should be rigorous in fulfilling its constitutional role of “advice and consent” regarding a nomination to the high court. And if President Obama wants a nominee confirmed, he should be forced to work with that body to get it done. That’s how the Court ended up with Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1988, an undeniably successful jurist appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
This process, contemplated by our founding fathers, works. Blocking the process today will fuel anecdotal precedent for obstructionism in the future. This process should transcend politics, and I have grown tired of the ridiculous partisan arguments used to debate a simple provision in our founding document.
So have independent voters.
And who do these independent voters symbolically become in today’s edition? Obviously, they are the predators.
Polling data shows that independents are intolerant of Senator McConnell’s leadership on this one. Sticking to his unpopular position may very well cost his herd a seat or two in November. A seat or two in that body could equate to control.
And expect Governor Pence to get bad news from Judge Pratt this week. Afterward, he again gets to choose whether to try and stay with the herd or to become a shepherd.