A Socially Distanced Franchise?

While I was phone banking in Texas, Nevada, and other states in months before the 2020 election, I fielded a surprising number of questions of access to absentee ballots and mail-in voting, as well as being assured by many voters that they had refrained from mailing in ballots, and were planning to drop their ballots off directly in polling stations, or brave the lines, to ensure their votes counted. I’d like to think they did. (The woman I reached in Texas who had moved from Nevada and was awaiting an absentee ballot to arrive two days before the election, past the deadline of registering in Texas, may have not.)

Since the election, we have entered into a weirdly protracted attempt to game the electoral map, long after the tallying of votes ceased. A range of recounts, hand-counts, investigations of absentee ballots and even querying of the legitimacy of voting machines have been launched to challenge the representational validity of the electoral map. In querying the functions of the map as representation–by querying the tabulation of votes that comprise the electoral map–Trump has stoked tensions in representational democracy. With a disquieting sort of abandon, Trump stoked national tensions by refusing to acknowledge he did not win the election, and indeed raise eyebrows of Preidential decorum. His deep resistance seems rooted in the exceptionalism of claiming the election not “over,” as if unfamiliar with someone else seting the parameters for television attention, or stunned at a narrative unfolding that shattered his conviction of his inabilty to lose, that “in the end, I always win“–and a deep reluctance to admit losing.

But the almost cognitive resistance also reminds us of the confidence that Trump seemed to have had in the preservation of the red map, a confidence that seemed almost born from his ability tot game the electoral map yet again, and overcome the polls even after they pollsters had tried to recalibrate their predictive strategies and demographic parsing of the body politic. The very close margins voting margins suggest we narrowly escaped an alternative history of a second Trump term, and can explain the tenacious grip that Trump seems to have had on an alternative outcome, an outcome that he has tried to game in multiple ways and strategies that eerily echoes with the strategies of gaming the electoral map that seems to have occurred through the orchestration of telling postal delays, delayed returns of absentee ballots, and the strategic gaming of the distribution of a distanced franchise. It forces us to contemplate the counterfactual history of the far darker reality of a scenario where his expectations came true. Indeed, it should make us consider the closeness of overturning democracy.

It had almost happened. In Trump’s White House, a boisterous watch party was underway, crowded with FOX anchors, watching the big screen that FOX results showed to the audience, anticipating the reality of a second Trump term. But all of a sudden, Trump was so incredulous he refused to admit seeing Arizona called at 11:20 as a Biden victory, shouting to no one in particular, “Get that result changed!” Hoping to calm her triggered boss, who must have been catapulted into alternate scenarios of having to leave the White House where he had expected to encamp, former FOX employee Hope Hicks fretted about the newsfeed. Trump seemed unable to not insist on his ability to manipulate the news, and to stay the center of attention, and was uncertain at what endgame remained.

Trump’s every-ready servile son-in-law, Jared Kushner, hurried to place a direct call to none other than Rupert Murdoch, to rectify the FOX call, promising to send better data to the network directly from Arizona’s COVID-denying governor, Doug Ducey (R), in order to rectify the electoral map. IF Trump recognized the danger a flipped state posed to hopes for another red swath in the maps Trump used to give White House visitors since 2017 to commemorate his victory–before framing a version. Even if if it distorted the popular vote, Trump hoped the red heartland would shimmer in the 2020 electoral map forming on the flatscreen televisions tuned to FOX, to offer a similar illusion of consensus that seems to obscure all dissent.

Trump’s outrage reflected the proprietorial relation Trump long cultivated to Arizona in particular in the 2016 electoral map–Trump had after all only recently boasted to Arizonans of the benefits of two hundred and twenty miles of “wall system” of enhanced surveillance capabilities, spending billions on preventing a flow of immigrants from entering Arizona, the state went blue. To be sure, the polls of possible voters predicted two weeks out from Election Day, in a projection from Josh Putnam that reflected the fissile nature of the State of the Union as Election Day 2020 approached.

With the benefit of hindsight, we would do well to distance our mapping of the results of the election in ways that might better map the State of the Franchise than the State of the Nation as an electoral mosaic: long a fan of the purple map, rather than a sharp contrast between red and blue, The Decolonial Atlas took to social media reminding us how the nation might be better understood not only on isolated counties, but by attending to the ludicrously close margins of the vote.

All the better to dismantle the mediated conceit of “blue” and “red” states, a better map revealed a nation not riven by dissensus but “just a bunch of purple states full of people who don’t know their neighbors.” The map of margins among votes cast reveals not a divide magnified by electoral votes, but the number of voters whose ballots were effectively distanced from the franchise—distanced not by COVID-19, but rather by several”battleground states” where the election was waged in 2020, with margins not only of less than 5% of the electorate, but indeed less than a single percentage point.

This was the landscape in which the votes can be gamed, Trump hoped, and where the absence of consensus could be manipulated and exploited. As the Decolonial Atlas put it blithely in the legend to another map, the dark purple mediated how Trump viewed the electoral map: Trump voters living in a swing state popped out, and needed to be reclaimed in the electoral college: it placed the Trump voters in blue states, who were pragmatically irrelevant, or those Trump voters red states, whose votes could be taken for granted, or anti-American deep blue states, the targeted audience was clear, whose electors needed to be heard: and for all the concerted phone-banking that I had done in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Texas, the map of the Decolonial Atlas, “The Electoral College according to Trump,” suggested that a concerted strategy underlay the quite targeted slew of emails, visits, text alerts, and triggers by which Trump’s campaign had targeted the electoral bounty of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan and Wisconsin–the new “red wall” to defend his sovereignty.

The Electoral College according to Ttrump/Decolonial Atlas (2020)

The first results appeared to be loud and clear, early in Election Night, as non-metro votes seemed to flow in on election night. Before votes were fully tallied in western states, a reassuringly familiarly red landscape seemed to unroll, casting the bulk of the heartlands of narrow margins red–big prizes like Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan, going red. Rudy Giuliani claimed to have turned in for the night, assured to sleep soundly, all but assured of a repeat of 2016, based on initial electoral returns.

First states called in 2020 Election, according to Politico Map/New York Times

Rudy described it as if he had only stayed up later, the results would have been preserved: he more likely prematurely beleived in success, before battleground states tilted blue later that night, as folks in western states were pleased to learn before they turned in for the night–if able to get any needed shut-eye amidst tense electoral tallies.

And if Rudy imagined that he could stop time, to prevent the “stolen” election from occurring later in the night, with the passage of time and a growing tally of votes and absentee ballots not allowed to be tabulated or opened in several of those battleground states until Election Day by law, the alternative newspaper of unclear consensus, The Epoch Times, did him better and tried to turn back the clock, and adding their own symbology to the electoral map as it stood at eleven o’clock Pacific Time, introducing icons that suspended the arrival of information, by adding icons to designate sites of recounts–Wisconsin and Georgia–and contestations yet to occur in court–Michigan; Pennsylvania; Arizona–to blanket the map with uncertainty, and create the unprecedented additional map signs in an electoral map affirming an alternate reality where the red expanse seemed to dominate the country, and Trump have more electoral votes than Biden, to achieve the desired outcome by suspending time, Miss Havisham style, to the better world “before the lying media called it for Biden”: “recount” and “lawsuit” subtracted four states from Biden victories, literally distancing the franchise further than one ever expected mail-in voting would achieve.

Epoch Times, on Facebook, via Politifact

Rather than present the results of the map in a declarative fashion, intended to resolve the protracted Presidential campaign in a new consensus, Trump supporters as Echo Times issued an altered electoral map on Facebook, qualifying the Biden victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that were declared by AP, by introducing a new symbology to the map, suggesting the continued suspension of any set conclusion by both three lawsuits, and two recounts of ballots, that Trump insisted would, once “all the votes are counted,” show the red plurality reassembled.

Trump would of course do his utmost best to generate consensus for a narrative of the “stolen” victory that the Trump team tired to construct alternative narratives about for the next two weeks, entertaining varied strategies to preserve how the map was “stolen” by a media that had ceased to wait on Trump’s word, and weighing the possibilities of refusing to give up his Presidential position..

1. The stubborn resistance to accepting the map led to an attempt to rewrite the electoral distribution from a direct rendering of popular concuss, or at least concensus among the states. The refusal to admit to the electoral map that showed hi with a viewer number of electoral votes to his opponent led him to resist the declarative function long given to the electoral map as a declaration of the victor of the Presidential election. Moreover, the attempts to gloss and qualify the results of the election that were recorded in the electoral map openly threatened to undercut the representational nature of the map: the way that the transparency of the electoral map was undermined by Trump and his circle echoes the belief of the Trump administration to rewrite the census, and indeed the gerrymandered redistricting of many states. The udnermning of the representational function of the electoral map is the subject of this post, which examines how the electoral map was long tried to be gamed, and sees the “frozen” electoral maps as interventions seeking to dislodge the actual vote, delegitimizing this electoral map’s representational function.

The contested nature of the franchise can hardly be seen in the map of how voters’ preferences translated into electoral numbers, or an electoral mosaic salutary in abandoning a national dichotomy of red versus blue.

This was a new narrative in the electoral map, unpredicted in many ways. But it was also a vindication of a representational system, in a sort of teaching moment for the nation, that reaffirmed the representational nature of the electoral map. But the fear of subverting the representational function of the map of the election was so strong, and indeed so tangible for the Trump campaign, that the persuasiveness of the scenario of a “stolen election” incorrectly called by Associated Press seemed all but the logical conclusion of a presidency committed to calling out the Fake News.

Politifact Factcheck, November 12 2020: Trump Does not Have More Electoral Votes than Biden

This was not only a “what if” map of conjectural history but the landscape that was supposed to be. For the map was not supposed to break as it did, given the attention that members of the Trump cabinet had so energetically devoted to shoring up electoral votes of battleground states, and indeed the careful protection that voter turn-out ensure a commanding lead, the night of the election, that allowed the American public to have their president on election night. Trump had of course prioritized border security and cautioned the state about the dangers of an illegal vote: but rather than touching on the question of illegal voters, so central to GOP claims of dangers of election fraud in earlier years, a narrative Trump returned to in tweeting “IF YOU COUNT THE LEGAL VOTES, I EASILY WIN THE ELECTION!” a few days later, he argued the data had been manipulated or was wrong: many wanted to turn back to that world of initial electoral returns showing Trump ahead; Trump seems to reveal his data illiteracy in arguing that late votes were improperly skewed Democratic–an argument that effectively destabilized the tabulation of votes and voting process.

Arizona Called on Fox News with 84% Vote Counted

The relation to Arizona was particularly sensitive for Tump. He promised packed arenas of megachurches in that state he would prioritize hard-line border security, as if to ensure a lynchpin to his electoral strategy. Trump seemed to exercise his proprietary relation to the electoral maps, which had served as props for his rule: after passing out copies of the maps to all visitors to the Oval Office, he displayed the 2016 map in the West Wing, counties he had won shaded to obscure a deep national divide.

Voter Density Distribution in 2016 Electoral Map

The distillation of the electoral map was a sort of alchemy that Trump treasured as confirming what he called a “landslide” drew on fewer votes. But the disinformation around the tallying of votes, their arrival, and the counting that created their tabulation was more than dangerous: they were intentionally nontransparent. Trump’s public comments on the election seem intended to bait his base. But as much as cultivate his audience, in ways that emulated his pre-election “call-ins” to Fox Mondays, they give life to a candidacy at is not over–or “un-dead”–and never has to end, suggesting a means to generate funds and contribution for an ambition for “legal defense,” no matter how immaterial was his actual case for fraud.

The results suggest the fragility of elections and democracy, that effectively push the franchise farther and farther from the election, and the election farther from conclusion. For even weeks after the election, strategies were rolled out to reclaim the electoral map, as if it were the property of Team Trump, and had no business turning blue. How to explain the tenacity of the pursuit of this illusion but that Trump was convinced he had gamed the map fully, as best he could, and that the red states would reassemble at his command, ensuring the second term of a man who looked longingly at the title President for Life, mid-way through his first term, in March 2019, and then made it something of a stock line on social media, after conceding that maybe he’d just stick around for six years?

Trump’s taunts have had a way of revealing dark specters in national politics, and the notion of stepping aside so that the nation would get used to a robotic Vice-President Pence, or give space to Don, Jr., might have had some appeal. But the lust for perpetuity led him to view the map as a bedrock of Trumpets support on which he could surely game a sense of victory. There is a sense that this deep sense of being haunted by dreams for a red expanse turned into the horror film as Rudy Giuliani held it up as a model for the nation, in almost apocalyptic terms, just days before Georgia declared its electoral votes would be for Vice President Biden.

The troubling dissonance between the objective truth of the map, and the map this behind the scenes anecdote of Election Night reveals reveals a deeply dangerous undermining of the difficulty of the objectivity of the map that is the subject of this post. For the declaration of Arizona as a Biden victory must have seemed a deep personal affront–not only as it came from FOX, but he had promoted not only the construction of the “most comprehensive border wall structure anywhere in the world” that June in Phoenix, which Biden excoriated as “expensive, ineffective, and wasteful.”

Trump’s base-baiting speech acts may well reveal a dark political reality–as well as create deep divides. His rejection of the current electoral map, and the victory of Joe Biden, has tried to subvert public trust in the very nature of elections, black-boxing voting machines and the tallies of absentee voters’ ballots, as if they were not translations of a popular will, but vulnerable at several points to the subversion of the voice of Trump voters, dependent on human error, or duplicity, and not accurate tallies but based on machines and multiple vulnerabilities that proliferated in the very indirect routes of voting that seemed exposed by early voting and the rise of absentee voting that was necessitated by COVID-19–tampered ballots; vote harvesting; votes that arrive after the deadline independent of postmarks; votes erased by tampered computer tallies–as the vote was cast as having been undermined by the very practices of health safety. Yet if the summer seemed somewhat quiescent for some in DC, the acceraltion of cases of COVID-19 before the election, after those hot summer months, seemed to bloom–perhaps starting from that North Dakota rally on July 4.

Trump had gained the current electoral map as best he could, loading the dice so the the states might again allign in a sheet of red, it may well be that the spread of COVID-19 infections to which he had so brusquely turned the other cheek disrupted gaming in its the virulence of its contagion, even as its spread wrecked a violence on the political body of the nation.

The pandemic provided a disruption Trump could not game even as he sought to focus attention by gaming of the electoral map again by which he hoped to reproduce the red state-blue state divide. If the distribution was glossed, analyzed and discussed since 2016–and of which this blog was also guilty–to seem permanent in the nation, it could not be recreated. Trump had long gamed the system, but was unable to game the electoral map in the face of massively mismanaged disruptions of the coronavirus, often in formerly red states, even as emissaries form his cabinet tried to assure voters he was managing the economy, energy industry, schools or law and order. As the very counties that afflicted with severe job losses due to coronavirus moved away form the red column, areas with high job loss voted for Biden, the rapid acceleration of rates of unemployment, reshaped the electoral landscape as an act of God.

2. Donald Trump has elected, as if trapped in a broken record, to prolong his attempts to game the situation again over the final days of his Presidency, dedicating himself to distorting the tabulation of votes either to save face or to distort the commanding narrative. By deferring concession and tauntingly entertaining his base with images of an alternate reality of his inauguration for a second term by undermining the direct reporting and consumption of electoral maps. Trump delights repeating the potential for alternative outcomes as if this were the script of a new Reality TV show job uncertain ending, of which he was in charge–unveiling votes subtracted or reassigned in Michigan; destroyed ballots in Georgia; corrupt processing of the ballots in battleground states; rumors harvested off the dark reaches of the internet–as if to suspend election night over multiple days, a week, or even more, as if to raise the specter that the conclusion of the Trump Presidency will never end, creating alternate maps of the election and false claims to victory, and claiming that legally cast ballots should not be counted. His base even charges the deception of voting ballots through offshore servers, as if the vote was distorted by foreign-made machines.

Is it possible that projecting such nefarious errors conceal an even darker scenario in which incorrect tabulation and counting of absentee ballots would serve to game the electoral outcome to Trump’s advantage? Already in April, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, travels of Alex Azar to swing states grew in ways that privileged the campaign above the nation: HHS Secretary notoriously waged a public messaging campaign of “Health versus Health” as he traveled to key battlegrounds of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, at Trump’s request to direct public debate of the issues of managing national health: the theme that overriding focus on the needs to socially distance was creating public health issues across the nation of well-being was similar to Trump’s disconcerting concern for economic fall-out or sacrifices of public liberties: praising Republican governors for reopening, the visits were tantamount to a campaign of public disinformation more than news, a wag the dog paradigm of undermining public health.

Immediately after July 4, more cabinet members fanned out across the nation to the pivotal battleground states of the coming election, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Florida, on the heels of thirty visits from cabinet members from the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to defend local agricultural interests in a global economy, EPA Secretary promised clean-up projects of the Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin to end Harmful Algal Blooms, even as the administration canceled public health priorities in earlier years. We could detect a concerted strategy for massaging local issues to undermine national health in the trips of Trump’s cabinet members on public dime: they reflect careful study of the electoral map to secure the stability of a “red state” terrain, strategically placing visits from administration members who served as advocates across the country.

Not only did cabinet members travel to appear on the base meagaphone of Fox News and Fox Radio–like DNI Director John Ratcliffe appeared on Fox News, as National Economic Counselor Larry Kudlow and Secrtary of Energy Dan Brouillette on Fox Radio. To be sure, the EPA Secretary, Interior Secrtary and Energy Secretary went to conservative talk radio in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida to shore up votes in swing states. But cabinet officials were treated as campaign proxies, as the Interior Secretary jetted to battleground states to tout Trump farm programs in Iowa, the Energy Secretary vouched for local investment in fracking and other projects of infrastructure Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina, or Education Secretary boosted there-opening of schools in Michigan to shore up crucial votes in an electoral map. A different demographic of swing states were addressed as Medicaid Services chief administrator Seema Verma addressed elders in Raleigh NC; Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue traveled to farms in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Florida. Was this not tantamount to a campaign strategy?

If so, it seems to have not served the public good. Trump had long used the members of cabinet for gaming the Presidency, and his political future. As well as crossing ethical lines shamelessly, Trump adopted the imperatives of public messaging on an electoral map to dispense cabinet members emissaries of pro-Trump news in the service of Trump at taxpayers’ cost: provided an alternate storyline to one of a health crisis, and even to paint Trump as providing a needed national infrastructure, touting Trump’s investment in local infrastructure, as the national health infrastructure collapsed and Rome burned. Trump’s Energy Secretary flatteringly compared the President’s qualifications to discuss the infrastructure to Dwight Eisenhower, whose Highway System Trump used as the standard for a Border Wall; the visits of cabinet members to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida asserted an attention to infrastructure to the conceal lack of an infrastructure of testing or public health. As Public Health Secretary Alex Azar put it, “I’m traveling around the country to . . . get the message out that thanks to [Pres.] Donald Trump’s historic response to this crisis and work with our national governors, we need to reopen.” “We haven’t had a President better qualified to talk about infrastructure and the need for investment and problems people have encountered as they’ve tried to invest in communities . . . since Eisenhower created the highways.”

Yet the national highway system and bridges, much as the national readiness for the pandemic, lay in utter disrepair.

Districts with 46,100 Structurally Deficient Bridges, 2019
American Road and Transportation Builders’ Association, Bridge Report

The imperatives and logic of the electoral map created new imperatives of public messaging. The cabinet was increasingly complicit in Trump’s gaming of the electoral system. We might well map visits of Trump’s cabinet members who fanned out to swing states as a use of public funds, but tracing the many cabinet members who left Washington over several months would create a multi-colored set of arcs from Washington, DC across the country to conceal the lack of the chief executive to the nation, as his executive functions declined: the many trips to promote Trump were not only in blatant rejection of the Hatch Act, but gamed the electoral map in visits to swing states on which the campaign centered: sixty violations the Hatch Act in October alone show cabinet members benefitting Trump’s campaign at taxpayers’ expense, gaming a system for needed electoral votes

The logic of the electoral map dominated not only the visits of government officials, but the attack on distance voting, this post suggests, following an increasing atomization of the nation with a GIS laser-precision. For in plotting out itineraries of cabinet members over the summer and fall to address local interests with almost tactical military precision, the planning for the electoral victory took a precedence that terrifyingly replaced the true danger of COVID-19 that was facing the nation at the same time, and was downplayed as Trump’s Cabinet members took up the work of surrogates of defending the electoral map, that increasingly eclipsed the map of infections from COVID-19 that was undermining national safety. Although the military as a result carefully integrated best practices to mitigate the spread or contraction of COVID-19, from the initial isolation of all recruits to distancing and mask-wearing, no mandate for wearing masks or distancing was announced in the nation.

Projected Risks of to National Defense of COVID-19 Outbreaks at Military Bases
Govini Risk Assessment to Military Bases in United States, March 2020

Trump downplayed the coronavirus as a national threat: his attention to the electoral map, rather than coronavirus infection rates, is shocking. The Army had developed safer Personal Protective Practices, as the nation did not.

Arianna Drehsler

The disruption of the pathways of a socially distanced franchise by failing to secure needed funds to secure timely mail delivery provided a parallel specter of national disaster, provoked by Trump’s appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General on the eve of the Presidential election. When DeJoy was appointed to run what historian Winifred Gallagher called “the central nervous system of American democracy” and of the new nation-state, by securing the pathways across often contentious colonies that guaranteed each citizen access to the news. If the expansion of the postal system had proved particularly well-suited to th expansion of an information network across the western states after the U.S. Civil War–here the foundation of a post offices from 1865-1882–

Geography of the Post in the Nineteenth Century, Western States of the United States
Cameron Blevins and Jason Hepler, Stanford University

–the communicative network seemed in danger of being undermined by limiting the franchise in a spectacularly selective underhanded way.

While DeJoy was named the successor of Benjamin Franklin presided over the uniform dissemination of uncensored opinions as the basis to guarantee an informed electorate had atrophied with the migration of news online. DeJoy’s appointment in May 2020 was on the basis of expertise in shipping logistics that was argued to streamline the loss of money in what had been originally understood as subsidizing the informing of an electorate to allow the experiment of elections: the fears that the appointment betrayed a single-minded purpose of removing sorting machines that were the central nervous system of the pseudo-network of mail collection threatened to delay arrival of mail-in ballots in ways that would subvert democratic intent. For the delays of mail-in ballots that often were refused to be counted if they arrived after election day appeared unprecedented gaming of the electoral map by adjusting tallies of votes on election night: delaying arrival of Democratic votes disproportionately voted by mail in a socially distanced franchise raised the specter of a historical reversion of the mail system as a “commons” as much as a communication system able to unite regions of the country geographically distant, as the spatial system linking  whose 75,000 local offices across the continent allowed the nation to survive the Civil War as a communicative network, whose spread was greater in expanse than any other democratic nation. If the post defined relations of center and periphery in the post-Civil War period, the fault lines of red and blue states exposed in 2016 threatened to re-emerge in 2020 by a disrupted communications infrastructure to undermine consensus.

The threat of disrupting the very network that allowed the embodiment of the nation in the decennial census, income tax system, and banking system seemed able to disrupt the coherence of voting–and, with it, distort the electoral system that was an already troubled inheritance of democratic consensus. But the marginalization of the postal system as a foundation of a representational government seemed increasingly easy in a nation virtually interlinked, in which the post office seemed a white elephant. DeJoy gained attention in supporting Trump’s suspicious refusal of funds to accomodate the processing of mail-in voting by additional funding of the Postal Service. While included in the Coronavirus Relief Package, DeJoy gained attention by refusing additional funds to prepare for voting by mail–and then disabled sorting machines that may have served to delay mailed by an identical logic of electoral maps.

Might it be possible to engineer a delay in mail to shift the balance in high traces in battleground states? DeJoy’s role must be viewed in the concerted strategy of cabinet members to bolster attention to local issues in an electoral context. Paid trips focussed attention on local issues in local media as the number of swing states intensified: Trump’s strategy of catering to specific interests of red states as much as the body politic metastasized as issues of campaigning distracted from the national coronavirus crisis bay supplanting the absence of testing, protective gear, or hospital support across the nation with base issues: instead, fracking, school vouchers and charters, energy projects and agricultural subsidies replaced a national strategy with a slew of push-button local interests. At the same time as Trump pressured his Attorney General and FBI Director to game the news cycle by announcing investigations of Joe Biden and his son, did he also game the electoral votes by the map was gamed both by visits.

Was it even more clearly gamed in an attempt to delay the arrival of electoral ballots of a distanced franchise? As much as DNI John Ratcliffe promoted fears of hacking by Russians or Chinese or Iranians as salient issues of national security, was the arrival of mail-in ballots of a socially distanced franchise exploited as a vulnerability of the electoral process? As the map was a sort of guarantee of Trump’s victory, the logic of battleground states reflected how visits were prioritized to battleground states in anticipation of the election to defend his victory in “red” states: if his travels on Air Force One spread him thin, the fuel ferrying him to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, his cabinet secretaries followed identical itineraries to play defense on an electoral map at public expense.

President Trump’s Trips to Battleground States, 2020

As the threat of coronavirus grew, and bills for providing economic relief to those affected by work stoppages or protective relief for the infected were stalled in government, the logic of the electoral map, rather than the map of infections, set priorities. If the trips privileged local issues in place of national interests, the national franchise seems to have been undermined by how dedication to strategic dominance of an electoral map seems to have informed an astounding overturning of a universal franchise. While Trump dismissed the role of mail-in voting, and wanted courts to address, was delay of first class mail actually designed to delay–literally distance–the votes that would be tabulated for President in battleground states?

3. Trump hoped the electoral map would serve as something of a confirmation for Trump’s single-minded pursuit of his treasured projects, first and foremost the border wall. Trump avoided discussing the state’s spiking rates of COVID-19, assimilating the rise of the virus’ threat to the arrival of migrants. He conjured fears by charging his opponent for endorsing “open borders” while he boasted to have ended worker visas for the year, conjuring images of illegal voting as he called mail-in ballots “the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” and a “disaster” for democracy. Then democracy caught up–and, more accurately, the disruptions of coronavirus–from job-loss to economic decline to the disruption of daily life–created a pressing reality that the President was failing to address and could not spin.

This election, the narrative turns on the counting of individual ballots, and the preservation of slim margins of a Biden victory after the counting of absentee ballots in a distanced election. With an ever-increasing number of ballots arriving as a result of sweeps of mail facilities, not delivered to the Registrars of Voters before Election Day, the 12,000 votes in suspended animation in states where final votes have not been called for two to five days after Election Day–Nevada; Arizona; Georgia; North Carolina–have led thousands of ballots to be rejected out of hand in Georgia and Arizona, where late ballots were not accepted. And despite the timely arrival of 93.3% absentee ballots processed by USPS, some 7% were not processed in ways that would allow their inclusion, and some 8,000 ballots were not processed on time nationwide. Although some voters who requested ballots may have preferred to vote in person, an astounding–especially astounding given the small margins of victory in many states–existence of 300, 000 ballots for the 2020 Presidential election went missing, scanned as mailed but lacking exit scans, and not processed across much of the lower forty-eight, as they were removed for classified for expedited delivery?

The apparent interruption of the delivery of votes was sufficient to compel a judicial order to sweep sorting stations in twelve processing facilities for missing ballots that was never performed. The numbers are not high given the six million absentee voters in the election, but the suspicious “missing” ballots in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and the Atlanta area, as well as Arizona and central Florida, suggest a potential disruption of the counting of ballots and indeed of the ensuring of unimpeded access to participation in an election of considerable national consequence–and an absence of difficulties with missing ballots in many more less populated “red” states where the election may hang–Pennsylvania, Arizona, the Atlantic area, North Carolina, and Central Florida as well. The “missing ballots” in border areas in California, Arizona, and New Mexico are striking.

The delays that many feared in the arrival of ballots when combined with the close margins of late-tending Biden victories may well make the election have been an even far closer brush with a failure or planned breakdown of democracy in the face of COVID, and a terrifying sense of the fragility of voting practices independently from feared foreign disruptions caused by interrupted power infrastructure, corrupting voting machine tallies, or hacking: the sense of interference with a promise for resumed stability may have come from within, rather, with the subversion of mail-in voting as legitimate, even despite social distancing measure in the Era of COVID-19. So immediate was the worry that mail-in voting was a contingency of possibly determining effect that some that some worried mail in ballots were but a ploy into which Democrats entered into as a trap, destined to be loosened by future litigation–even though mail-in ballots greatly furthered democratic discourse and focus on voter turn out, and created legitimacy of generating a paper record of vote tabulation. Although mail in ballots offered time for reflection on civic duty and encouraged reflection and commitment to voting in a needed public schooling in voting rights, Trump’s sustained attack on mail-in votes terrifyingly dismisses the democratic process.

What were the odds of such tight voting differences in multiple states in the 2020 Presidential election? As ballots counts in North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada seemed far narrower than usual, mail system snags may be invalidating tens of thousands of ballots. While we all recall the assurances of Postmaster DeJoy in assuring the nation with unfounded confidence that the ballots would arrive–unwarranted as he had limited familiarity in mailing practices and USPS pragmatics that were thrown off kilter by the destruction or retirement of mail sorting machines–the rates of delivery in postal districts in ten swing states plunged almost six percentage points below the national average in delivery times, hinting at how much DeJoy seems, more than the courts, an accessory in delaying consensus about the victory of the forty sixth President.

Sharp declines below the respectable national average of 95% in a period when timely deliveries were of national consequence. Was this a political stratagem that was barely forestalled, and whose effects can be seen in the late arrival of ballot counts that transfixed the nation–and world–in what seems an Election Day that lasted over five days, and may be protracted in the courts, as the concession of the one-term President is deferred, even without launching a recognized appeal? President Trump, ever a master manipulator, stoked claims for voter fraud that raised eyebrows, but seems to have been done in concert with the delay of votes’ arrival for a nation he believed would demand immediate results on television: watch to see if I am robbed in the tallies of incoming votes, as new ballots are discovered, Trump alleged the engineering of the election.

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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections

Narratives, Agency, & Electoral Maps

The entry of the data visualizations into the pitched narrative of the Presidential election is not new. If thought to begin in the collective unfolding of the election-night drama on television screens, as the casting of ballots long understood as a collective action of union has prompted a narrative of division, CNN offers a new model to personally intervene on one’s iPhone or android, as if to offer the means to ramp up agency on social media, inviting users to tap on one’s personal screen to build-your-own electoral map, perhaps to assuage one’s heightened anxiety, granting the illusion to allow yourself for entering your own alternative future. Echoing the algorithmic thinking of tallying “pathways to victory” we’d been following to exist the Trump Era with increased desperation, courtesy FiveThirtyEight and others, we imagined scenarios of the electoral constellation that might prepare for the dawning of something like a new age.

We’ve rarely had so divisive a President as Donald Trump, who has sought to divide the country by race, region, religion, and income, and the hopes for emerging with a new vision of the union are slim–making the amount of weight and meaning that rests on the map appear greater than ever. How it would spin out was unclear, but the red block that Trump had pulled to the considerable surprise of all political pundits was promised to be able to be chipped away at in multiple ways, sketched by so many algorithmic story maps as “paths to victory.” The array of paths each candidate faced–though we focussed on Biden’s range of options and winced at those of Trump–could be organized in what seems a rehearsal for the glossing of possible eventualities, as multiple data visualizations that led to alternative futures like so many forking roads out of a dark, dark wood.

The hope to find coherence in the map seems even greater than ever, as if it might finally purge the divides of the last four to six years. There was a grim sense of being defeated by the electoral map during the 2016 and 2020 election, with the skewing of electoral votes to low-density rural states–skewed further by the increasing distance at which those local problems appear from Washington, DC. The configuration of the electors, as the configuration of the federal representative government, are compromised by giving more pull to residents of many rural states and creating a red block that one can only hope to chip away at in the age of coronavirus either by online donations, phone-banking, or, at this late stage, by imagining alternative futures, and playing around with the map to see how the post-election endgame will play.

This election, sequestered behind our walls, often having already cast our ballot, the parlor game of playing with the CNN interactive graphics may come as a relief offering an interactive model for adjusting and tweaking the electoral map, playing out alternative scenarios whose conclusion and potential endgames we can indulge ourselves and to an extent confront our fears in this most anxiety-producing of elections by imagining alternative scenarios playing out, using a tentative set of color choices, more familiar from polls than television, to suggest the possible outcomes of the elections as we try to assemble the final tabulations of the vote, and the disputes that may arrive in each locality about margins of victory this time round, hoping to heal the abrupt chromatic divide still huring from 2016, using polls’ take on “battleground” states to game outcomes of potential electoral maps.

Polls and Potential Electoral Distribution of 2020, CNN

The above (imagined) electoral map would be the narrowest of Democratic victories, but affirm some deep divides across the nation from 2016, but might be arrived at only after recounts and disputes. The fantasy map suggests not only the open-ended nature of the vote this year, where the large number of absentee ballots tabulated during the pandemic poses problem of tabulation exacerbated by local restrictions on when the tally of votes is able to begin.

But cognitively trained as we were over the previous months–conditioned?–to entertain multiple contingencies of electoral paths “to victory” in the ecosystem of data visualizations, schooled by the acumen of considering “paths to victory” entertained by Nate Silver, the CNN maps offered not only a parlor game, but a rehearsal for glossing electoral configurations based that might emerge on November 3, 2020, should we be forced to entertain multiple “pathways to victory” that might emerge–or, as it happened, remain–as the evening proceeded. They cued possible narrative scripts.

In retrospect, of course, we could barely imagine an electoral map that was so delicately balanced on tenterhooks. The dramatic unfolding of multiple “roads to 270” suggested a possibility to reclaim the dominant metaphors from sports, pace Silver, to a narrative of democracy. Although some petulantly suggested that the mail-in ballot was more than a bummer but a trap, presenting more possibilities of limiting votes and discarding ballots, by making us more dependent on mail delivery and USPS, the expectations for vote-counting that were a byproducts of the COVID era may well have furthered democratic discourse, and the focus of the voting drive, as well as affirming the democratic centrality of the mail: as much as provide a route for the current joyless hack of a Postmaster General to intervene in the expression public will, the narrative of tabulating every vote and creating a true paper record was an unexpected reform of the tally of votes and voting process, as tabulation foregrounded political participation as a schooling in votes nowhere more evident than in the unexpected drama of the slowing down of the tabulation of votes and arrival of data into the electoral map provided an unexpected lesson of democracy.

Electoral Map as Ballots Tallied in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania

We expected little conclusiveness in the electoral map on election night, even into the wee hours, unlike the intense drama of earlier years. The election will continue even after the counts are finalized in each state, as it is bound to be contested in perhaps ongoing and painful ways, if it proceeds not only to polling places but up through the federal courts, as new complaints about the validity of votes are posed by the Republican Party. The hope to restrict the franchise in any way possible plays to fears not only of aliens who are exercising a vote, but a new array of restrictions on the franchise.

2020 Electoral Projection of Nate Silver, Election Day 2020

And we could fear an endgame destined to subvert the narrative drama once located only on the electoral map, its narrative unhinged from the map, pursued in cases that debate the ways votes were tallied, compiled, tabulated beyond November 3. Nate Silver’s map as not purely prognostic. If it reinforces the deeply divided nation fractured on broad-based faults of terrifyingly portentous contiguity, it suggests a painful endgame narrative, as court cases were pressed, recounts demanded, and charges of illegal voting launched in the face of attempts to aggregate votes from mail-in ballots in states predicted to “go blue.” The possibility of such “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” was not at all appealing.

Even if static, the alternative electoral maps staged a sort of drama of hypotheticals that anticipated the dangers of deep dissatisfaction across the nation. There is a deep fear that if no souther state “flip blue,” even a truly “tenuous win” might be almost pyrrhic. The narrative is grim, if its end result may have positive elements. Is its biggest impact not in delivering a President–the outcome of the electoral system–but, this year, it is also a map of the painful endgame of litigating the vote, even if the nation is haunted by a Mason-Dixon latitudinal divide among electors which most of the nation valiantly hoped we somehow might soon put behind us.

The narrative is displaced from the election. While Nate Silver notoriously went wrong in prognosticating 2016, he reminds us, in case we forgot, “Trump didn’t win the last election by that much.” This year the true terrifying story may well be the aftermath, and the difficulty to call the election, and what this means for the nation–which is a narrative that one may only gloss from the map, which threatens not to materialize in any trustworthy way until all the votes are counted–and all legal battles around their tabulation are hopefully resolved. But the most despicable sort of battles about VOTER ID, and the deeply divisive questions of the legitimacy of who could cast a ballot, were immersed in the heady waters of debates about immigration, seemed game for inclusion, as eighteen states now require VOTER ID, in ways that pose broad risks for disenfranchisement that local administration of elections threaten to perpetuate, after the refusal to amend the historic Voting Rights Act whose teeth were removed.

As other nations puzzle over the arcane methods for employing an electoral college that dilutes the actual popular vote that is distributed among apparently aristocratic holdovers of electors, but is in fact far closer to an ideal model citizenry of those honorable to place nation first over sectarian interests, the passionate intensity of division made such ideals seem destined for planned obsolescence, for reasons maybe not far removed from media technologies.

The liberating nature we find in designing our own DIY electoral maps on our peripherals offer more than a fun exercise in alternative realities in a national compact; playing with the maps are far more effective and engaged than most other forms of narcotics for assuaging anxiety, and do lower blood pressure. There was some pleasant chutpah to seeing Phillipe Reines put out his own prediction of an overwhelming Biden electoral victory that kept Trump below 200 electors, on November 2 2020, with a prescience reveals that the narrative was indeed there to be unpacked.

https://twitter.com/PhilippeReines/status/1323473321107857408

There was a sense of liberation in the ability to easily enter alternate futures, thanks to CNN graphics team and your smart phone, of greater national harmony–if the possibility of harmony seems in many places pretty illusory or lost, across the red dust bowl of arid lands Great Plains, echoing John Wesley Powell’s “lands of the arid region,” now only starting to be imagined to be rendered other than red, and Appalachia. This alienated “forgotten” American persists even in the DYI electoral map that not based on tabulations of votes. But such a map seems telling: tapping states to flip their votes invest a sense of agency in our ability to make possible predictions, even more important than the vote: we have ingested so many polls in news maps, there is something liberating in playing with the electoral map ourselves, gaming multiple scenarios, fidgeting with the map as an outlet for nervous energy as we wonder how those polls will translate to an electoral map,–

Fantasy Electoral Map, Built on CNN

–and how those states will add up to produce the only numeric legend the will really in the end count.

If we once relied on television pundits to explain the translation of the “raw” popular vote and the possibility of a win of electoral victory without a popular vote victory–then a deeply doubted as an eventuality–in describing the contest for “the percentage of the republican vote” as an obscure statistical construct. When even in the 1980 election, pundits bemoaned this “long electoral season,” the “magic map”

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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, electoral maps, interactive maps, Red States/Blue States

Air Quality

The tracking of local air quality is a contemporaneous way to track the effects of the fire seige that initiated clusters of fires across the western seaboard to be ignited at the end of a long, dry summer from August 25. We were not really struck unawares by the dry lightning, but had left forests languishing, not beneath electricity lines–as last year, around this time–but under a hot sun, and high temperatures that we hardly registered as changing the ecosystem and forest floor. This year, the sun turning red like a traffic light in the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to assess the air quality as the blue sky was filled with black carbon plumes from nearby fires that at times left a grittiness in our eyes.

Scott Soriano, September 27 2020
October 1, 2020

Confronted with a red sun through pyrocumulus haze, we followed real-time surveys of air quality with renewed attentiveness as an orange pyrocumulus clouds blanketed usually blue skies of the Bay Area, obscuring the sun’s light, suffusing the atmosphere with a weirdly apocalyptic muted light, that were hardly only incidental casualties of the raging fires that destroyed houses, property, and natural habitat–for they revealed the lack of sustainability of our warming global environment.

EPA/World Air Quality Index/New York Times September 15, 2020

The soot and fog that permeated “clean cities” like Portland and San Francisco came as a sudden spike in relation to the black carbon loads that rose in plumes from the fires, as if the payload of the first bombs set by climate change. The shifting demand for information that evolved as we sought better bearings in the new maps of fires that had become a clearly undeniably part of our landscape was reflected in the skill with which the sites of incidence of dry lighting strikes that hit dried out brush and forest floors, the growing perimiters of fires and evacuation zones across the west coast, and the plumes of atmospheric smoke of black carbon that would leave a permanent trace upon the land, liked to the after-effects of holocausts created by atom bombs by Mike Davis. The measurement of wind carrying airborne smoke emerged as a layer of meaning we were beginning to grasp, a ghostly after-effects of the fields of flams that began from sites of lightning hitting the earth in a Mapbox wildfire map of fields of fire across the states, radiating resonant waves akin to earthquake aftershocks, a lamination on hex bins of the fires that seemed a new aspect indicating their presence in the anthropocene.

The suitably charcoal grey base-map of the state integrates approximate origins of fires, fire spread and greatest intensity of hotspots from satellite imagery courtesy Descartes Labs and NOAA, and air pollution data integrates the fires’ spread across our picture of the state. While human reviewed and sourced, the satellite data embodies the ravages of fire across the state in ways echoed by its black charcoal base map, and reflects the need to develop new visual tools to process their devastation.

Mapbox Wildfire Maps/CalFire Data/OpenStreetMap/Los Angeles Times Sept 28, 2020

While we began to measure air quality to meet new needs to track ground-level ozone, acid rain, air toxins, and ozone depletion at an atmospheric level, the increased tracking of more common air pollutants since 1990 included airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3), we track the effects of wildfire smoke by hourly levels of each at local points, parlaying sensors into newsfeeds as wildfires rage. If stocked with labels of each chromatic layer, are these real-time updates lacking not only legends–but the temporal graph that would clarify the shifting data feeds that lead us to give them the illusion of purchase on the lay of the land we are trying to acknowledge this fire season?

Berekeley, CA October 1, 2020/Clara Brownstein

Watching slightly more long-term shifts in quality of air that we breath in the Bay Area, we can see striking spikes of a maximum just after the lighting siege began on August 19, 2020 across much of the state, as air quality decisively entered into a hazardous zone, tracking PPM2.5 concentrations, but entering the worst fifteen air days since registration four times since 1999, when Bay Area Air Quality Management District began reporting the levels of fire smoke in inhabited areas.

Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Concentrations in Bay Area, August 15-Septmeber 13, 2020/
Bay Area Air Quality Management District

We measure fires by acreage, but the sudden spikes of air quality, while not exceeding the smoke that funneled into the Bay Area during the North Bay Fires in 2017, when the Tubbs and Atlas Fires devastated much of the Wine Country, created a run of high-smoke days, were followed by a set of sudden spikes of the atmospheric presence of particulate matter that we tried to track by isochomes, based on real-time sensor reading, but that emerge in better clarity only in retrospect.

It is true that while the AQI maps that offer snapshots of crisp clarity of unhealthy air might serve as an alarm to close windows, remain indoors, and call off school–

AirNow AQI map in Bay Area after Lightning Fires, August 22, 2020

–as particulate matter spread across the region’s atmosphere. We are used to weather maps and microclimates in the Bay Area, but the real-time map of particulate matter, we immediately feared, did not only describe a condition that would quickly change but marked the start of a fire season.

Not only in recent days did the sustained levels of bad air suggest an apocalyptic layer that blanketed out the sun and sky, that made one feel like one was indeed living on another planet where the sun was masked–a sense heightened by the red suns, piercing through grey smoke-cover that had seamlessly combined with fog. Although the new landscapes of these AQI maps generate immediate existential panic, we should be more panicked that while we call these fires wild, they release unprecedented levels of toxins once imagined to be detected as industrial pollutants. The seemingly sudden ways that black carbon soot blanketed the Bay Area, resting on our car hoods, porches, windowsills and garbage bins were not only an instant record of climate emergency, but the recoil of overly dry woods, parched forests and lands as overdue payback for a far drier than normal winter, months and a contracted rainy season that had long ago pushed the entire state into record territory. The lack of soil moisture has brought a huge increase of wildfire risk, not easily following the maps of previous fire history, and persistence of “abnormally dry” conditions across a third of California, focussed in the Sierra and Central Valley–the areas whose forests’ fuel loads arrive carbonized in particulate form.

Local monitors of air quality suggest the uneven nature of these actual isochromes as maps–they are reconstructions of what can only be sensed locally, and does not exist in any tangible way we can perceive–but presented what we needed to see in a tiler that made differences popped, highlighting what mattered, in ways that left cities fall into the bottom of the new colors that blanketed the state, in which local sensors somehow revealed what really mattered on August 20: if the “map” is only a snapshot of one moment, it showed the state awash in ozone and PPM.

AirNow/August 20, 2020
Air Quality Index

We were in a sort of existential unfolding in relation to these maps, even if we could also read them as reminders of what might be called “deep history”: deep history was introduced by Annalistes to trace climatic shifts, the deep “undersea” shifts of time, on which events lie as flotsam, moved by their deep currents that ripple across the economy in agrarian societies, suggesting changes from which modern society is in some sense free. “Deep History” has to some extent been reborn via neurosciences, as a history of the evolution of the mind, and of cognition, in a sort of master-narrative of the changes of human cognition and perception that makes much else seem epiphenomenal. If the below real-time map was time-stamped, it suggested a deep history of climate of a more specific variety: it was a map of one moment, but was perched atop a year of parched forests, lack of groundwater, and increased surface temperatures across the west: Sacramento had not received rain since February in an extremely dry winter; its inter was 46% drier than normal, and the winder in Fresno was 45% dryer in February. They are, in other words, both real-time and deep maps, and demand that we toggle between these maps as the true “layers” of ecological map on which we might gain purchase.

The levels of dessication of course didn’t follow clear boundaries we trace on maps. But at some existential level, these flows of particulate matter were not only snapshots but presented the culmination and confirmation of deep trends. We have to grasp these trends, to position ourselves in an adequate relation to their content. For the deep picture was grim: most of California had enjoyed barely half of usual precipitation levels after a very dry winter: Sacramento has had barely half of usual rainfall as of August 20 (51%); the Bay Area. 51%; parts of the Sierra, just 24%. And wen we measure smoke, we see the consequences of persistent aridity.

August 28, 2020/AirNow
Air Quality Index

These are the layers, however, that the maps should make visible, And while these shifts of particulate matter that arrived in the Bay Area were invisible to most, they were not imperceivable; however, the waves of smoke that arrived with a local visibility that almost blanketed out the sun. Perhaps there was greater tolerance earlier, tantamount to an ecclipse. Perhaps that seemed almost a breaking point.

For almost a month after the first fires broke, following a sequence of bad air days and spare-the-air alerts marked our collective entrance to a new era of climate and fire seasons, fine soot blanketed the state at hazardous levels, leaving the sense there was nowhere left to go to escape.

September 13, 2020
Air Quality Index

We had of course entered the “Very Unhealthy” zone. If real-time maps condense an immense amount of information, the snapshot like fashion in which they synthesized local readings are somewhat hard to process, unless one reads them with something like a circumscribed objective historical perspective that the levels of PPM5 provides. In maps that are data maps, and not land maps, we need a new legend, as it were, an explanation of the data that is being tracked, lest it be overwhelmed in colors, and muddy the issues, and also a table that will put information on the table, lest the map layers be reduced to eye candy of shock value, and we are left to struggle with the inability to process the new scale of fires, so unprecedented and so different from the past, as we try to gain bearings on our relation to them.

Of course, the real-time manner that we consume the “news” today

militates against that, with feeds dominating over context, and fire maps resembling increasingly weather maps, as if to suggest we all have the skills to read them and they present the most pressing reality of the moment. But while weather maps suggest a record of the present, these are not only of the current moment that they register. Looking at them with regularity, one feels the loss of a lack of incorporating the data trends they depict, and that are really the basis of the point-based maps that we are processed for us to meet the demand for information at the moment, we are stunned at the images’ commanding power of attention to make us look at their fluid bounds, but leave us at sea in regards to our relation to what is traced by the contour lines of those isochrones.

Bay Area Air Quality Management, PM2.5 Concentrations, August 15-September 13, 2020

We can, in the Bay Area, finally breathe. But the larger point re: data visualizations is, perhaps, a symptom of our inflow of newsfeeds, and lies in those very tracking maps–and apps–that focus on foregrounding trends, and does so to the exclusion of deeper trends that underly them, and that–despite all our knowledge otherwise–threatens to take our eyes off of them. When the FOX newscaster Tucker Carlson cunningly elided the spread of wild fires ties to macro-process of climate change, calling them “liberal talking points,” separate from climate change, resonating with recent calls for social justice movements to end systematic racism in the country: although “you can’t see it, but rest assured, its everywhere, it’s deadly. . . . and it’s your fault,” in which climate change morphed to but a “partisan talking point” as akin to “systematic racism in the sky.”

While the deep nature of the underlying mechanics by which climate change has prepared for a drier and more combustable terrain in California is hard to map onto to the spread of fires on satellite maps, When climate denialism is twinned with calls for reparations of social injustice or gun control as self-serving narratives to pursue agendas of greater governmental controls to circumscribe liberties, befitting a rant of nationalist rage: the explanations on “our” lifestyles and increased carbon emissions, only pretenses to restrict choices we are entitled to make, Carlson was right about the depths at which both climate change and systematic racism offer liberal “lies”–especially if we squint at tracking maps at a remove from deep histories, and cast them as concealing sinister political interests and agendas, the truly dark forces of the sinister aims of governmental over-reach in local affairs.

“Structural racism” is indeed akin to the deep structure of climate change if the cunning analogy Tucker Carlson powerfully crafted for viewers did not capture the extent of their similarities. For if both manifest deep casualties created by our society, both depart from normalcy and both stand to hurt the very whites who see them as most offensive. The extent of inequalities of systematic racism as present in our day-to-day life as is the drying out landscape. And the scope of climate change is able to be most clearly registered by the evident in trends of diminished precipitation, groundwater reserves or temperature change that create environmental inequalities, too often obscured by the events of local air quality or maps of social protests that respond to deep lying trends.

To be sure, the tracking of environmental pollutants underlay the national Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and led to a number of executive orders that were aimed to set standards for environmental justice among minority communities who long bore the brunt of industrial pollutants, from lead paint to polluted waters to hazardous waste incinerators. And, as we are surrounded by racial inequalities that are visible in systematic inequalities before the law, and have lowered life expectancies of non-whites in America by 3.5 years, increasing rates of hypertension, cancer, and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks–these extensive inequalities hurt whites, and hurt society. As Ibrahim X. Kendi perceptively noted, White Supremacists affirm the very policies that benefit racist policies even when they undercut interests of White people; they “claim to be pro-White but refuse to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit.” Is there a degree of self-hatred that among Carlson’s viewers that informs Carlson’s frontal attack on climate change and structural racism as myths, more content to blame non-Whites for structural inequalities.

But these inequalities are evident in the differences in air quality that climate change creates. For if the AQI maps tell us anything, it is the absence of any preparedness for the interconnections of fire, smoke, and large dry stretches of a long story of low precipitation that have created abnormally dry conditions–indeed, drought–across the state.

California Drought Monitor, Sept. 17, 2020/Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The intensity of severe drought across the conifer-dense range Sierras raises pressing questions of federal management of lands: the moderate to severe drought of forested lands intersect with the USDA Forest Service manage and the over 15 million acres of public lands managed by the federal government manages or serves as a steward.

–that crosses many of the dried out wildland and rangeland forested with conifers and dense brush, a majority of which are managed by federal agencies–19 million acres, or 57%– but with climate change are increasingly drier and drier, which only 9 million are privately owned.

Ownerships of California Forests and Rangeland
USDA Forest Service Management (Purple), National Parks (Lavender), Bureau of Land Management (Orange)

Yet the reduction of Wildland Fire management by 43.98% from FY2020 to FY2021 in President Trump’s budget continued the systematic erosion of funding for the United States Forest Services. As California weathered longer and longer fire seasons under Donald Trump’s watch, Trump made budget cuts $948 million to the Forest Service for fiscal year 2020, after defunding of US Forest Services by reducing mitigating fire risk by $300 million from FY 2017 to FY2019, cutting $20.7 minion from wildlife habitat management, and $18 million from vegetation management–a rampage beginning with cutting USFS research funding by 10% and Wildland Fire Management by 12% in FY 2018! While blaming states for not clearing brush in forests, sustained hampering of managing federal lands rendered the West far less prepared for climate change. As the costs of containing wildfires rise, the reduction of the Forest Service budget has provoked panic by zeroing out funding for Land and Water conservation–alleged goals of the Trump Presidency–and cuts grants to state wildfire plans by a sixth as fire suppression looms ever larger.

By defunding of forest management, rangeland research, and habitat management, such budgetary measures pose pressing questions of our preparedness for the growing fire seasons of future years; stars that denote public land management might be targets for future dry lightning.

Ecosystems of California (2016)

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, fires

To Levitate an Elephant

The red elephant unveiled as an emblem of the Republican Party during the 2020 Republican Convention marked a new sense the party was now Trump as if Trump embodied the party. For the representation of red states that enshrined an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur. And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, Trump mined a rich iconographic mine in speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party. If this was the “second coming” of Trump, in a newly Trumpified party, what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant Ising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space. If cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the new rogue Republican President, the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold.

The leaping elephant was no doubt shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention whose design loosely planned as a live event, before the shift to television that led the President to reach out to a former producer of Celebrity Apprentice, former producers of his Reality TV show, hired by the GOP over $130,000 at Trump’s personal insistance to oversee video production with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trump realized that the stakes were greater than he had previously imagined, as messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope stars would again align to create a red-state electoral map stretching from Arizona to Maine, reaching down to Florida, may be subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rooting the red elephant of the Republican Party in the heart of the Old South.

And the very ancient Neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.

The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.

It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.

Dominick Reuter/AFP

The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.

The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?

The prominent product placement of the revised Republican mascot of an elephant was less widely remarked, but provided a subliminal message of the sort that had no doubt been honed and debated before it was unveiled. The updated symbol for the convention was on prominent display on the Convention marquis in a mascot redesigned to serve the Party of Trump. While the new emblem seemed a break from the past, however, the history of the elephant as a strongly radicalized creature that as P.T. Barnum had expanded transatlantic importation of range of new elephants from Africa and Burma as a popular entertainment, seemed channeled in ways more apt than Trump’s stage managers may have realized in the leaping elephant that reached its red trunk to the heavens, bedecked by stars.

It was, perhaps, no surprise that cartoonists like Graeme Mackay picked up on the Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expanding cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant that subliminally affirmed the party’s future progress. It seemed a surprise to many that Cancel Culture, violent crime, and gun rights seemed had a far greater place in the Convention than anything related to COVID-19.

The puzzling new identity of the elephant seemed a landshift in the party’s coherence as a collective, and the triumphal procession of an elephant was, for McKay, a change in the spirit of the dour, conservative animal to an animated beast with the head of the sitting President–a different political animal to be sure.

The animating of the old pachyderm unveiled for the Charlotte convention was an exulting circus animal. The convention’s length was cut short short by COVID-19, but the new icon of the party so proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function was presented by Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, robed in red, emblazoned with five stars.

D.T. Foster/Charlotte Observer

What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity? The new elephant suggests the transformation of the Presidency to a Reality-TV show not rooted in governing or dignity but preening, and self-promotion.

Were cartoonist like MacKay sensitive to the cartooning legacy to which the icon of Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle and pure pretension: while the animal logo was hardly adopted by the party, and the pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm, the reborn elephant makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength. By enlisting a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, the beast raising its sleek trunk in celebration or benediction mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal:

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Wall Street Journal

For it seemed, during the convention, that other interests were not in need of being representation than the cities of the Deep South, the fans of football player Hershel Walker, who as a surrogate to denounce Black Lives Matter ran defense for a President accused of being racist, attacking it as in fact organized by “trained Marxists,” and a subversive to the nation. The former running back ran defense as spokesperson in South Carolina and Georgia to testify to his character, mocking social justice protests as a slur on Trump’s character, using pro football metaphors and slogans of patriotism, he echoed how the pachyderm emblem erased racial divisions of the nation in many of the endorsements featured at the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. While the convention lacked any platform–the nominal reason for meeting to nominate a President from the turn of the century, exemplified in the New Deal in 1932 or inclusion of civil rights in the Democratic Party’s platform from 1948, and the War on Poverty of 1965–the absence of a platform concealed the trust in a red map, as the Democrat Joe Biden threatened to “stretch the map” by curtailing the continuity of red states in the Presidential election–as Pennsylvania seemed desired to become the lynchpin of the Presidency.

In the hot summer of ostensible racial unrest and social justice protest and a reclaiming of public space, after police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery convulsed the nation by evidence of persistent racial disparities of race before law enforcement, the Republican Convention was determined to defer divisions by race, assembling beneath the advancing red elephant, star-studded and before a crown, a months in a sign of purity and fealty that was echoed attempts to weed out anti-Trump Republicans by grooming the convention as a weeklong infomercial featuring attestations to Donald Trump’s absence of racism oddly before a red elephant, echoing the circus animals brought on ships from Africa to perform in circuses from the eighteenth century, and later by P.T. Barnum.

RNC committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and RNC President Marcia Lee Kelley
Unveil Logo of 2020 Republican Convention/Melissa Key
David Foster III

It was ironic the the red elephant before which he had thundered about American greatness was as embedded in the determining role race played in the emergence of the elephant as an emblem of the party, long before it was cast as pure “red.” For Nast first employed an elephant as able to outlast the divisions of the party in Reconstruction, in ways that tacitly addressed the popular fascination with the stability of skin-color as a key to racial identity, and a way of questioning the continuity of black-white dichotomies as an indicator of race. The purity of the “Sacred Elephant” of white skin color that P.T. Barnum displayed in 1884 led the image of the pachyderm, already used in Nast’s prolific cartooning on occasions but with limited public embrace by a party or currency, with the purity of white elephants ostensibly more docile and civilized that circuses juxtaposed to African ones for audiences to feed fascination with race. The “white” skinned elephants not from Africa, but Burma, stood in the popular press as a dignified an icon of partisan purity distanced from political corruption, able to sustain the new electoral maps of 1880 in an image of concensus.

Thomas Nast, “The Republican Animal Will Carry It” (1879)

The elephant was here a sturdy party beast, able to sustain the fragile union of “our country” as it tried to heal from the divisions of slavery and Civil War. But the roots of the elephant as a popular circus performer were not far beneath the tough skin of the emblem of the party, and, by 1881, the role of the political performer in balancing on the back of the elephant seemed for Nast openly akin to a circus performance, with a national jester, as the performance of the political who mounted the party pachyderm had to balance votes of endorsements as with the growing scale of debts the he hoped would not break the party’s back.

But the circus elephant popular in the popular press was a bid to tweak party dignity against partisan corruption during the turbulence of post-Reconstruction politics. Although later purged of the racial connotations with which the beast was freighted by the postwar period, the pure red elephant whose uniform color defined a new form of belonging,–much as the President had himself–may have unconsciously recuperated the connotations of the purity of the white elephant as a the bedrock of dignified values on which Nast in 1884 insisted the party was based, when he included himself in a popular cartoon to indicate the sacred values that he believed would carry the candidate who mounted its regal chair to the White House–using the newly exhibited beast as a model incarnating the values the nominee might adopt, with the calm and upright demeanor of the newly poplar image of a “white” elephant. Nast, a promoter of the new image who showed himself as if Barnum, advertising the virtues of the party that was bound by a commitment to Civil Service and Probity, used the whiteness of the circus animal as a testament to the party’s commitment to honesty that it would do well to follow to win the coming election.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant” (Harpers, 1884)

The signification of the skin color was muted in the Harpers cartoon, but reflected the fascination of a new elephant, unlike the African elephants shipped the United States by circus men from Africa, whose new demeanor suggested nothing less than a new race of animal–understood and so appreciated by eager circus-goers as a new animal, extending the categories of racial difference into the animal kingdom that provided odd if welcome confirmation for the purity of races as distinct species, with different patterns of sociability, different habitats, and distinct customs–

The purity of the White Elephant was by 1884, at the end of Reconstruction, an image of continuity and virtue as racial barriers of segregation rose, a reminder of the traditions of the Party and its values that tacitly addressed race as central to party. The iconic elephant endured as an icon of the party, linked to a promised prosperity of the extension of “westward empire” in America, enduring to the twentieth century in the public imagination, scarcely removed from the circus animal.

The preservation of values was recalled by tacit prominence of race for the pure-red pachyderm of 2020. Although the red skin color of the pachyderm was not natural, it may as well have masked attention to race–long submerged in the party logo–if many political positions seemed to be exhumed in the new red beast of burden, whose hue reflected the championing of President Trump as “the most pro-life President ever,” and defender of White America. The heightened redness of the elephant reflected an increasing national polarization of hot button issues across this Presidential race, which has introduced the distinction between “Republican” and “Democrat” judges, in ways that suggest an openly partisan divide of the nation and its courts. nd when the Susan B. Anthony List championed the pure-red loyalty Trump gained in the office of President, apart from his personal failings, “red” values served to galvanize support and demonize Democrats, cast as the “Party of Death” as if their platform was a disruption of values and law: t he pure-red President, in other words, gained the pure-red logo he demanded, in a new episode of the complex genealogy of political iconography.

If the unity of the Republican Party was emphasized by the purity of red, race remained close to the surface, threatening to disrupt order, if not the tacit subtext the stage-managed 2020 Convention, that seemed to subsume the very memory of racial discord among the many flags across its stage as Trump spoke and accepted the nomination, as if convinced he would ride this red elephant back to White House once more.

@MikePence/Twitter

For Trump boasted his personal reconfiguration of the Republican Party after the social justice protests that occurred across the country in the summer of 2020, which were cast as a disruptive event that ran against his calls for law and order that was promoted at the Convention by the invitation both of dark warnings about the ominous future of the nation overseen by Joe Biden, and featuring Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple charged with felonies for drawing their guns in a threatening manner against non-violent Black Lives Matters protestors who marked past their home in New Orleans. A month before the Convention, Trump championed a “Garden of Heroes” and prosecution of those who vandalized public statues: the Garden that placed nineteenth century abolitionists beside Republican Presidents, army generals, and astronauts and pioneers glorified a homogenized image of the past.

But a month later, Trump foregrounded his commitment to history as a battle for the nation’s conscience, in a racially divisive event that exploited the National Archives to stage a “White House Conference of American History” to enshrine a vision of the “most exceptional nation in the history of the world” refusing to engage in the deeply racist past that he called an assault on the “nobility of America’s character,” as if only African Americans bore what Langston Hughes called “slavery’s scar”–even thought the often omitted third stanza of the national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” celebrated how “No refuge could be save the hireling or slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” for the former slaves fighting with the British in 1812, beneath the star-spangled banner waving o’er the land of the free and home of the brave. Trump described race as a distorting lens to view American’s freedom, calling critical race theory an “ideological poison that threatened the very civic bonds that unite us together” failing to promote America’s exceptionalism, lest students confront the the role of enslavement in the shaping the nation. If Trump famously watched the recent musical about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, in a rare White House screening, the role of Barnum’s exhibition of elephants in the emergence of the emblem of Republicans offers a perfect instance of the broad discursive role of race and racial identity in America, after Reconstruction. Did a selective amnesia not underpin the unveiling of this streamline red elephant, now died in the wool red, removed from any ideological or racial divide, and the remove of the elephant from its African origins? If Trump has quite condescendingly addressed black Americans in his 2016 campaign, asking them “What have you got to lose?” by giving him their support, the platitudes of black entertainers and athletes who endorsed Trump at the Convention or Mar a Lago who never held a political position may indeed suggest the remove at which saw race from the nation.

The unveiling of a new icon of party may have been, consciously or unconsciously, a revision of the history of the Party that erased its own fetishizing of the elephant, alternatively cast as a formidable memory or a respectable party. In replacing an elephant logo that was inclusively red-white-and-blue, the 2020 Convention offered a new icon of partisan unity for 2020 nominee, unlike the red, white and blue tricolor elephant of the GOP of years past, strikingly monochrome of a pure red hue,–

–the new icon seemed semantically indeterminate, if not quite hackneyed and stiffly generic and stripped of all sense of its history, but seemed a purified red elephant, unlike the earlier icon of once-stolid conservative values, that double as a patriotic icon of party and capacious container for states’ rights as well as a custodian of tradition.

For a pure-red elephant seemed to be demanded by candidate who identified himself with “red” states alone, rewriting the patriotic coloration of the once-stolid conservatism the quadruped had embodied–

–less tolerant or capacious but exulting in the identity of its pure red skin. If purged of any racial connotations with which it was historically freighted, this elephant promised a sense of belonging to the party responded to departure of many from a party recast as “Party of Trump” –and increasingly even branded as such to make the point, leading to the broad reinvention of the party’s symbol and its iconography with the odd choice of five white stars that seemed an astrological sign of victory.

The departure of some older Republicans, less content with this redirection, may have bode badly for the election.

Washington Post

But the rearing quadruped unveiled at the Republican 2020 Convention reanimated as an icon of national unity, even as the nation struggled against the weight of COVID-19 that was sinking the nation, and increased social inequalities made evident in economic insecurity and compromised health care. In the midst of a convention that became a political circus of all things Trump, filled with affidavits and testimonials of the President’s magnanimity more than an actual platform, it seemed important to remember that the iconography of the elephant of the Republican Party derived from the first arrival of captured African elephants that arrived in American circuses, and the theatrical amusements that they offered at a time America struggled with racial divides, and the elephant became a curiosity for a nation that was beginning to solidify segregation as a dividing line of race, in a precursor to modern racial divides.

When Trump was channeling his inner Barnum in promoting his party at the Convention, he may have not known that the adoption of an elephant as a partisan symbol was consolidated by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, soon after the heralded arrival of the first Burmese elephant, Toung Taloung, bought from a dealer by P.T. Barnum was paraded through the streets of New York in a white costume at the institution of widespread segregation, by a circus promoter who sought to attract audiences by extending a color line into the animal kingdom, among different breeds of elephants: the curiosity of the Burmese elephant P.T. Barnum successfully promoted as a “white elephant” was intended to be exhibited beside the African elephants already in Barnum’s circus, long captured from the wild to be exhibited to crowds for popular entertainment–in a global trade only banned in 2019, if the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus only ended a hundred and forty-five “family tradition” of the ferrying elephants to be exhibited across the country in 2016, when the transport of the quadrupeds ceased.

The memory of the exhibition of elephants, long tokens that demonstrated the Greatest Show on Earth indeed warranted its name, often exhibiting elephants as sights of terror or fascination, if developing handling methods that were more humane, their public exhibition, older than baseball or Coca Cola, as a popular entertainment rooted firmly in an American grain.

And if the 2020 Convention was an opportunity to map Trump’s party as a unity of “red” states, and to embody it around nationalist values, the oddly undressed elephant in the chambers of the convention went unaddressed, in ways that seemed to echo how racial divides were suppressed in the original selection of the elephant as party emblem. Did the new emblem seek to demonstrate the American nature of the new Grand Old Party, as unrecognizable as it had become as the Party of Trump, striving to offer evidence of its continued American-ness, even as its ties to white supremacy and racial divides were increasingly painfully evident?

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Earth, Wind, and Fire

We think of earth, wind and fire as elements. Or we used to. For the possibility of separating them is called into question in the Bay Area, as wind sweeps the smoke of five to seven fires, or fire complexes, across the skies, we are increasingly likely to see them as layers, which interact in a puzzle we have trouble figuring out. Indeed, the weirdly haunting
map of air quality to map the atmospheric presence of particulate matter by isochrones brought late summer blues to the Bay Area. Blue skies of the Bay Area were colored grey, burnt orange, and grey again as cartoon plumes of soot flooded the skies in a new sort of pyrocumulus clouds that turned the sun red, offering a disembodied traffic sign telling us to stop.

Clara Brownstein/October 1, 2020

Fire season began by remapping the town in terrifying red that registered “unhealthful,” but almost verging on the “hazardous” level of brown, based on local sensors monitoring of ozone, but is also registering a deeper history defined by an absence of rain, the lack of groundwater, the hotter temperatures of the region and the dry air. The map is both existential, and ephemeral, but also the substrate of deep climate trends.

AQI Chart on Saturday, August 22, 2020/AirNow (EPA)

Is fire an element we had never before tracked so attentively in maps? We did not think it could travel, or had feet. But wildfire smoke had blanketed the region, in ways that were not nearly as visible as it would be, but that the real-time map registers at the sort of pace we have become accustomed in real-time fire maps that we consult with regularity to track the containment and perimeters of fires that are now spreading faster and faster than they ever have in previous years. And soon after we worried increasingly about risks of airborne transmission of COVID-19, this fire season the intensity of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere contributed intense panic to the tangibility of mapping the pyrocumulus plumes that made their way over the Bay Area in late August. As the danger of droplets four micrometers in diameter remaining airborne seemed a factor of large-scale clusters, the waves of black carbon mapped in the Bay Area became a second sort of airborne pathogen made acutely material in layers of real-time Air Quality charts.

The boundaries of fire risk charts and indeed fire perimeters seemed suddenly far more fluid than we had been accustomed. When we make our fire maps with clear edges, however, it is striking that almost we stop registering the built environment, or inhabited world. As if by the magic of cartographical selectivity, we bracket the city–the sprawling agglomeration of the Bay Area–from the maps tracking the destructiveness and progress we call advancing wildfires, and from the isochronal variations of air quality that we can watch reflecting wind patterns and air movements in accelerated animated maps, showing the bad air that migrates and pool over the area I life. The even more ephemeral nature of these maps–they record but one instant, but are outdated as they are produced, in ways that fit the ecoystem of the Internet if also the extremes of the new ecosystem of global warming–the isochrones seem somewhat fatalistic, as they are both removed from human agency–as we found out in the weeks after the Lightning Siege of 2020–if they are the result of the extra urban expansion that has pushed houses to the borders of forests we haven’t ever faced the problem of maintaining and clearing in weather this dry: as a result, we are now burning underbrush that has lain like kindling, on the boundaries of the raging fire complexes, hoping to create fire lines and new perimeters able to forestall the advance of major fires, even as the smoke escapes from them and travels across the nation, far beyond the Bay Area.

While watching the movement of fires that them in inhabited areas like shifting jigsaw pieces that destroy the landscape across which they move. These marked the start of megafires, that spread across state boundaries and counties, but tried to be parsed by state authorities and jurisdictions, even if, as Jay Inslee noted, this is a multi-state crisis of climate change that has rendered the forests as fuel by 2017–for combined drought and higher temperatures set “bombs, waiting to go off” in our forests, in ways unable to be measured by fire risk that continues to be assessed in pointillist terms by “fuel load” and past history of fires known as the “fire rotation frequency.” When these bombs go off, it is hard to say what state boundary lines mean.

Fire Threat Risk Assessment Map, 2007

If San Francisco famously lies close to natural beauty, the Bay Area, where I live, lies amidst of a high risk zone, where daily updates on fire risk is displayed prominent and with regularity in all regional parks. These maps made over a decade ago setfire standards for building construction in a time of massive extra-urban expansion. But risk has recently been something we struggled to calculate as we followed the real-time updates of the spread of fires, smoke, and ash on tenterhooks and with readiness and high sense of contingency, anxiety already elevated by rates of coronaviurs that depended on good numbers: fire risk was seen as an objective calculation fifteen years ago, but was now not easy to determine or two rank so crisply by three different shades.

Fire Risk Map, 2007

When thunderstorms from mid-August brought the meteorological curiosity of nearly 12,000 dry lightening dry strikes from mid to late August 2020, they hit desiccated forests with a shock. The strikes became as siege as they set over three hundred and fifty-seven fires across the state, that rapidly were communicated into expansive “complexes” of brush fires.

We map these fires by state jurisdictions, and have cast them as such in policy, by borders or the perimeters we hope to contain barely grasp the consequences of how three quarters of a million acres burned up suddenly, and smoke from the cluster of fires rose in columns that spread across state boundary lines as far as Nebraska, and how fire complexes that spread across three million acres that would soon create a layer of soot across the west, eerily materialized in layers of GIS ESRI maps of environmental pollutants, while toxic particulate mater released in plumes of black carbon by the fires cover the state, rendering the sun opaque where I live, in the Bay Area, now Pompeii by the Bay as smoke at toxic levels blanketed much of the state.

They even more serious map, to be sure, was of fire spread: but the maps of air quality set the entire western seaboard apart from the nation, as if threatening to have it fall into the ocean and split off from the United States,–even if the burning of its open lands was more of a portent of things to come, they were a historical anomaly, lying outside the record of fire burns or air quality, if the poor air quality traced the origin of black carbon columns of smoke that would rise into the nation’s atmosphere.

Wilfire Today, AQI Map/Sept-15, 2020
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President of Some?

Donald Trump has presented a new notion of the Presidency to the United States: the open claim to be President of only some of the nation, and to have that model of Presidential rule become the standard for political decisions. This policy was not Trump’s own decision: the retreat from any interest in bipartisan governance that had been the basis for American politics for two hundred years began in the pitched nature of pointed acrimony in the U.S. Senate that erased the decorum and respect among different interests in a model of collective action for over two centuries.

Already by 2011, the nation divided into spectral schema suggesting slight chance of local bipartisan governance, disguising often narrow margins of political victory, despite eighteen states where Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in 2011, some eighteen were split.

Republican States, 2011

While the pitched fervor of some of our national divisions bears the imprint of faith-based movements, they are replicated in the pointillistic logic of the electoral plans of REDMAP–a concerted attempt of regional redistricting. For the reconfiguration of electoral districts has staked out a problem of governance as a strategy of victory that would erode the project of governance, by privileging “states” as an amassing of electoral votes,– rather than positing the coherence of the interests of the nation as a whole. The concept of governance seems fragmented, bolstered by regionalism, states rights discourse, and the cruel new isolationism of go-it-aloneism. In ways recast in the 2020 election as a choice between “darkness” and “light” of truly terrifyingly Manichean proportions, evoking near-apocalyptic scenarios to recast public debate as issues of identitarian self-interest. The divide of states on the 2000 electoral map, which didn’t change much over eight years, enshrined a blue versus red state logic, dovetailing with a deeper plan of retaining electoral control. This was the map was parsed in the seventh season of The West Wing, in 2006, at a time when the television newscasters needed to remind their audience states shaded blue sent electors to vote for Democrat Matt Santos (modeled in 2004 on then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who just delivered the nominating speech at another convention), red ones for his Republic opponent, Arnie Vinick–as Campaign Director colored a dry erase board red and blue as results were announced.

The West Wing, “Election Night” (April 2006)

Obama provided a model for Santos as a candidate not defined by race, pivoting from race to underlying unity among red and blue states, but the restate-blue state divide was militarized. And when Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republican state legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio adopted the idea of ensuring Republican victories by rigging the Electoral College according to the congressional districts that they had redesigned, rather than in bulk, in the hopes to skew the distribution of electors by the congressional districts they had guaranteed would be firmly red, having designed districts that even in what were considered “blue” states had “red” legislatures. m so that districts would be assured that they would not be “outvoted” by urban metro areas would dictate a future.

This gave rise to the logic that asserted the “rural” non-metro regions should reclaim a place at the table by recrafting representational politics to give new meaning to those who increasingly feared–or felt–that their vote just didn’t count but felt that their futures on the line. By redrawing districts, legislatures magnify rural interests outside large metro areas, offering a logic magnifying their political representation through congressional districts as power bases and political divides: not by blue and red states, but by a red republic, in need of its voice. The plan to separate electoral votes from the popular vote can only work by recasting electoral districts on party-skewed lines, independent of any geographic shape save benefitting one party, at the expense of another, at violence to the republic. It was echoed in a tactic of political obstructionism that provided the logic for “red” areas to be increasingly opposed to current governmental policy in the Obama administration.

Republican-Majority Electoral Districts of America, 2013

The reduction of debate between parties may have begun on a local level, but metastasized nationally in legislative maps. The rationale of legislative bodies has shifted on local levels from a representational logic of governance to a pitched battle–as only one party wields legislative power in all but one state in the union.

The Current Partisan Power Play (2019)

The disorienting nature of an overdetermined power play means that there is not much discussion or debate in the local states, or legislative bodies, but a sectarian consolidation of demographic identity as destiny.

The division of parties cast “red” and “blue” as forms of governance that essentialize the color-choices made in news maps as almost existential terms. Indeed, the increased casting of the 2020 Presidential election as a battle between “light” and “dark” was gained distinctly pocalyptic undertones fit for the age of the Coronavirus, mapping the current elections as a referendum of the “future of American democracy” or, for President Trump, a “bright future” and “dark future” whose oppositional terms echo a religious eschatology. Was it any coincidence that the separatist blood-stained banner of the Confederacy reappeared at Trump campaign rallies in 2016, jumping the logic of a chromatic divide into opposing visions that could be understood as a nation divided in war?

Brandon Partin, of Deland, Fla., at 2016 Trump rally in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As candidates proclaim themselves to constituents as an “ally of light, not darkness,” the choice of the election has turned on the complexion of the nation’s political future in ways that concretize the removal of maps of support of political parties as an existential struggle for the nation’s soul, removed from questions of political representation. The eery blocks of political division were apparent in the long led-up to the election, as the fracture lines in the nation were only less apparent because of increasing tension as to which way the highly colored states in play would slide, and how the electoral prism would mediate the popular vote.

The notion that a specter of socialism haunts America, to be promoted by the Democratic Party, is the conclusion to a logic of deeply sectarian politics of belonging.

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