If 2012 was the year of the dragon, 2008 was the year of the coin. The film that won the Oscar for best picture, No Country for Old Men, and the most celebrated film of the year, The Dark Knight, both featured villains who flipped coins to determine the outcomes of matters of life and death. The gestures served different rhetorical purposes in each: Showcasing Harvey Dent’s transition from cleverness to reckless insanity in the latter and exhibiting Chigurh’s obsession with suspense and intolerance for those who won’t play his games in the former. These coin tosses were pregnant with meaning and symbolism, but other more unsung flips that happened off-screen the same year had even deeper implications.
During the primaries of the 2008 election, a precinct in the Iowa caucuses reached the end of its vote-counting process to find that the group was split: Half Obama, half Clinton. In these caucuses, voters are really picking the county delegates whose votes will be counted to determine the number of state delegates who will pledge their support for a candidate. The problem, however, was that this precinct was supposed to pick an odd number of county delegates. In other words, even though the votes of citizens were split evenly, they couldn’t just award Obama with half the delegates and Clinton with the other half. There would be one left. So how did they decide who to give this final delegate?
They flipped a coin.
Surprisingly, this wouldn’t be the only time caucus results would be partially left up to chance. The same thing happened a handful of times in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
When we hear this, we cringe at the thought that some aspect of our political system was decided merely by coins and coincidences, but really much, if not most of the process works that way.
As members of a generation awash with support for and dedication to progressivism, it’s easy to assume that we are pieces of a lasting movement; that the general trend towards the political ideals we support is evidence of a never-ending American journey onwards and upwards. The truth, though, is that our political system is more unpredictable than that. Its strings of coincidences sprinkled with conscious action that cause policy revisions, and the public only retrospectively declares that these changes sprung from hordes of people changing their minds. When affirmative action was upheld by the Supreme Court, for example, it wasn’t because the country believed it was the best decision, but because the right presidents were elected in the right order for them to be able to appoint judges who would make such a decision.
The elections of these presidents were largely determined by chance as well. Sure, 70 percent of the voting population can be predicted to vote as their parents did, but those in the remaining 30 percent pick candidates for a variety of reasons, some of which are entirely coincidental. In 2004, for example, unexpected hurricanes across the U.S. gave President George W. Bush the opportunity to dispense relief money that would improve his reputation amongst citizens in the states affected. Researchers suggest that this helped him win Florida in the election that year, which was a vastly important swing state.
Apart from whatever determines to whom a person plans give their vote, a number of factors determine whether or not they actually leave the house to do it. Weather, cultural norms and weekly schedules can discourage voters from getting to the polls, and this fact can have far-reaching effects on the election and the political atmosphere of the time. This is why American history is full of upsets and surprises. It operates in a realm beyond prediction and intuition; it’s a chamber of chance — each election a long, suspenseful coin flip.
My aim in this argument, however, isn’t to advocate for political complacency. I actually hope to encourage the opposite. If elections and decisions are mostly left up to chance, we still have a duty to evidently and thoroughly act on behalf of what we support to correct for the coincidences that we know will occur. The sliver of political activity that reflects the general desires of the people rather than a heads-or-tails outcome still exists and must be utilized effectively. If you like the current trend of millennial progressivism, let it be known in the polls and in the public. If you don’t like it, you have a responsibility to do the same. The fact of the matter is that we don’t really know where the world is headed, and unless we dedicate ourselves to determining its direction on our own, we’ll have to once again leave it to mere chance.
“The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
-Carla Jean Moss, No Country for Old Men
Paul Russell is a sophomore in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.