political commentary

Politicians and Network Theory

Why do politicians say such dumb things? A little-known branch of engineering known as network theory has the answer.
by T.J. Nelson

political commentary

H ere is Jeb Bush on illegal aliens: “Frankly, it's more related to Asian people coming into our country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship.”

Here's Hillary Clinton on wiping her server: “Like with a cloth or something?”

Why do politicians say such dumb things? Biology, which specializes in the study of lower forms of life like bacteria, slugs, and politicians, may provide a few clues. But surprisingly, it is a little-known branch of computer science known as network theory that answers the question.

We might suppose that when politicians realize their campaign is going down the drain, they get the urge to escape. According to this theory, politicians are exhibiting self-destructive behavior.

Psychologists often talk about self-destructive behavior in three conditions: (1) borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality; (2) unresolved grief or mourning; and (3) schizophrenia and dissociative disorder.

But this theory doesn't really work: even candidates who seem immune to self-destructive behavior do it. Last week in Iowa, Donald Trump held up a copy of his book, The Art of the Deal, saying it was only his second-favorite book, his favorite being the Bible. The general feeling among his supporters was as it was difficult to imagine Trump reading the Bible, and thus he was pandering, something very politician-like: a faux pas for a candidate whose principal message is that he's not a politician.

On the other hand, he didn't say which parts of the Bible he was reading. There are many instances of the word ‘gold’ and other riches in the Bible that Trump might find appealing.

Whatever the truth, for politicians, many of whom are neither psychotic nor psychopathic, it seems more likely that the real reason is that campaigning for office is an exhausting nightmare and they just want it to be over. So they say something that's designed to convince people they're guilty of something ... anything ... to make the nightmare end.

That may be what happened to poor old Hillary, whose server is being investigated by the FBI for stealing top secret documents, removing the markings, and illegally putting them in its filesystem. Perhaps she, like her computer, now has a wish for simplicity: for the server a nice reformat with DOS 6.22; for its owner a nice room with a view of the Caribbean.

Network Theory

The “computer made a mistake” defense hasn't been convincing in quite a while. But computers are the key. We can draw a good analogy for political campaigns from computer network theory.

Before a person starts an arduous task, they see only the goal and ignore the obstacles. When unforeseen obstacles become overwhelming, the aspirant tries new ad hoc strategies—almost always a mistake—to smooth over the problem. Finding a path toward the goal is what network theory is all about. Politicians would benefit from studying it.

According to this idea, the candidate is trying to establish an effective communication channel to the voters while maintaining his or her initial state. For the candidate we call that initial state a platform. For a computer we call it a route.

There are three obstacles that threaten the initial state: connectivity, unpredictability, and resource contention.[1] In politics, resource contention occurs when two or more candidates are competing for the same office. Network theory says that uncertainty determines how long the initial state remains useful. Unlike computers, when a candidate changes their initial state to overcome an obstacle, it jeopardizes connectivity because the voters defect.

Republicans face the additional problem that the news media try to jam the communications channel. To account for this, we have to talk about signal jamming theory (which can get mathematically very complicated, but we'll skip that part). The Republicans have adopted a spread spectrum approach to get their message across. At last count they're using 17 different channels. This provides them with something that engineers call a “processing gain” which helps get the message across.

As R.A. Poisel says: “No jamming technique works well until the inherent processing gain in DSSS [direct sequence spread spectrum] is overcome.”[2] In other words, as long as the Republicans keep a large number of candidates, the enemy will not be able to jam their signal. To make sure their message gets through, they should avoid narrowing the field for as long as possible.

Of course, with 17 packets contending for the same port, resource contention will eventually be a problem. In engineering, just as in politics, there is always a trade-off. Unlike what the politicians promise us, there is, alas, no free lunch.


[1] Victoria Manfredi, Mark Crovella, and Jim Kurose (2011). MobiCom'11 September 19–23. http://www.cs.bu.edu/fac/crovella/paper-archive/mobic11-adhoc.pdf

[2] Richard A. Poisel (2004). Modern Communications Jamming Principles and Techniques, Artech House, p.346.

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