There is a strange phenomenon occurring in politics this year, and I was having trouble labeling it. Many of us don't get far enough past the headline or the Twitter feed to understand the reasons for a label. That tendency doesn't apply to my readers. My punchlines are always at the end.
Research served me well this week when I came across a 2012 study in the journal of Current Biology by a group of scientists from the University of London titled "Selfish-herd behavior of sheep under threat." A conclusion in the study is that sheep band together not out of a sense of community, but because it helps lower their odds of being eaten by predators. There are two schools of thought here, one named the "many eyes" theory that theorizes that larger groups are better at detecting predators. The second is the subject of this column. It is the "selfish herd" theory and it suggests that flocking evolved so individuals could simply play the odds that a predator is more likely to attack your neighbor instead of yourself when in a tight group.
Two examples of political leadership recently seem to have evolved using the "selfish herd" theory.
First up is the decision last fall by Gov. Mike Pence to suspend Indiana's accepting of Syrian refugees following the Paris terrorist attacks. Gov. Rick Snyder from Michigan was the first to announce his plan to block refugees on Nov. 16, before the Flint crisis made him no one to follow. Like a brush fire, that horrible opening move spread through the ranks of Republican governors over the course of the next few days. Indiana's move to follow the herd stood out as a mistake since there was a family on its way here when the decision was made. Again though, proper vetting of the decision to block refugees would have likely modified the decision. Ironically, the decision came from a complaint about the federal government's inadequate vetting.
Last week's ruling from Federal District Court Judge Tonya Pratt granted a temporary injunction against Pence's authority to act in the manner he chose. The ruling was quite predictable. What wasn't predicted was the scolding the State of Indiana took in the 36-page order. Judge Pratt basically ruled that the governor's move here was not just illegal; it also served no public interest. That includes the alleged "keep Hoosiers safe" argument that was so popular three months ago. It didn't actually make us any safer at all.
It is an example of how the "selfish herd" theory works: one of the sheep ultimately gets slaughtered. For Snyder and the rest of the nearly 30 governors making up that herd, Pence kept them safe by being the one who got eaten.
Next up is the recent knee-jerk decision by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to announce immediately after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death that the GOP-led Senate would not even consider confirming a nomination to replace him until after the November election. Like the governors last fall, the bulk of the remaining members of the Senate Republican caucus quickly agreed with the first and worst idea. Agree with it or not, this move has officially transformed that group from a caucus into a herd.
There is no question that the majority party in the Senate should be rigorous in fulfilling its constitutional role of "advise and consent" regarding a nomination to the high court. And if President Obama wants a nominee confirmed, he should be forced to work with that body to get it done. That's how the court ended up with Justice Anthony Kennedy, President Ronald Reagan's 1988 election year appointee.
This process — contemplated by our founding fathers — works. Blocking the process today will fuel anecdotal precedent for obstructionism in the future. The process should transcend politics, and I have grown tired of the ridiculous partisan arguments used to debate a simple provision in our founding document.
So have independent voters.
And who do these independent voters symbolically become in today's edition? Obviously, they are the predators.
Polling data shows that independents are intolerant of McConnell's leadership on this one. Sticking to his unpopular position may very well cost his herd a seat or two in November and control of the Senate.
Like that bad news, Gov. Pence got his from Judge Pratt last week. Instead of appealing it, he should choose to leave the herd this time and be the shepherd.