Zeroes and Ones

The smallest possible bit of information about the world is known as, well, a bit. Computers are based entirely on that fundamental notion – that the entirety of anything we need to do can be built upon a series of yes/no questions and answers. A bit can have one of two values – zero or one. It’s equivalent to on or off, up or down, left or right, pineapple on pizza or no pineapple on pizza (yes I’m going to continue to use that one until far beyond when I should).

Each of the characters in the sentence I am typing is composed of eight bits – eight sets of on/off settings. If you do the math, that leads to 256 possible values, which is more than enough to cover the number of letters and numbers that can be selected in an English language blog post, as well as all the necessary punctuation.

The way we view the world should be at least as expressive, and yet it is not. Imagine if we each had even just eight sets of yes/no questions that defined our political views, the combinations of which would lead to 256 different political “parties”. And yet we only have two such parties, and the answer to that one yes/no question automatically defines the answers to the other seven, whether we like it or not.

As I type this, the impeachment trial is underway for President Trump. But I already know the outcome, as do you and anyone else that pays attention to American politics. The same could be said for the House vote to impeach him in the first place. Everything goes along party lines. The only choices are zeroes and ones. Oh sure, there are exceptions. A few Democrats voted against impeachment, for example. But that was not for some noble cause to broaden our minds. It was because those lawmakers were afraid of the singular opposing party voting them out of office. If any Republicans vote to remove Trump from office, it will ultimately be for the same reason. And the fact that Trump is President at all owes to the same foundation – at the end of the day, people vote for one party or the other.

Look back at every election in recent memory. Both candidates get over 40% of the vote even in a “landslide”. That means a good 90% of the election was decided before the primaries – whoever was going to be the Democrat was going to get 40+% and whoever was going to be the Republican was going to get 40+%. The election itself then gets routinely decided by what we call “battleground” states, whose apparent distinction from the rest of the country is that their truly independent voters can’t get the fence post out of their backsides until the morning of the election.

Think about this for a second. A President who said as a candidate that he could shoot somebody and still get the votes was completely right. There is no threshold beyond which a party-line voter won’t vote for their candidate. And 90% of us are party-line voters. Why do we even have debates? Why is the election cycle so ridiculously long when 90% of it is set in stone? Couldn’t this all be done in the course of a couple of weeks at most? We like to pretend that there is some noble process of confronting the issues of the day and whittling down to the two best choices we can possibly make, but let’s face it – any two people will do for 90% of us.

The other 10% of us are, to be sure, intriguing people. Perhaps they really do try to employ the full eight bits of information and calculate where they stand. But because there are relatively so few of them, the end result of those people’s choices end up looking completely random against the backdrop of the other 90%. And then there are the equivalent of greater than 100% that don’t even vote. Do they view the world in eight bits? And if so, what have they discovered that convinces them they should leave the election to the one-bit voters that pick our President every damned time?

As we careen toward the inevitable conclusion of the impeachment trial and the 2020 election cycle that follows, let’s stop pretending, if only for a moment, that American politics is anything more than zeroes and ones. Who knows, you might find it opens the door to a whole universe of new ways to waste your time.

A listing of the first 45 Presidents of the United States.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)