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All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ’em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

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Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

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Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

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Winning the Internet? New Media @ the AAR 2013

27 Nov

[Apologies for typos or multiple posts of this blog. WordPress seems to be having a technical issue preventing me from updating it successfully.]

Winning the Internet: Religion and the New Media

In the circles of the New Media, you couldn’t have assembled a bigger set of rock stars than the panel K. Reklis gathered at this year’s American Academy of Religion. Here was the lineup:

Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, The Huffington Post Media Group, New York, NY

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn, NY

Diane Winston, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

The simple by-lines don’t really quite capture the value of this panel. Raushenbush, for instance, built the Huffington Post’s Religion division from the ground up. He’s the senior editor of a unit that gets 250,000 hits a day for topics on religion.

Jonathan VanAntwerpen has been more instrumental than any other figure in facilitating pushing the scholarly dialogue on secularism into the public sphere. The Immanent Frame, the Social Science Research Council’s multi-faceted blog, contains some of the most dynamic thinking on religion anywhere in print or online.

Kathryn Lofton edits one of the affiliates of The Immanent Frame: Seek | frequencies. This is collaboration with unconventional religious webzine Killing the Buddha (whose editor Jeff Sharlet was scheduled to appear but was replaced with Winston) extends the topics to prayer and spirituality. Lofton also has her hands into the editing side of Religion in American History, Religion Dispatches, and once upon a time was a contributor to Patheos.

Diane Winston, perhaps more than any of the previous figures, was on the ground floor of the development of earliest online collaborations between religion scholars and journalists. She is now the head of Religion Dispatches, which has become part of USC’s Annenberg School, and I have a feeling she’ll find a way to make RD an even more critical online magazine for religious studies informed discussions of faith and politics.

These folks are at the heart of the New Media. They are expanding the boundaries of journalism, publishing, academic writing, and religious studies. Of all many issues they raised during the panel, however, one stood out: Paul Raushenbush’s claim that HuffPost Religion’s goal is to “win the internet” by being at the top of the list when people search for religion.

Raushenbush made an excellent case for why it is vital for someone to want to “win.” It is necessary, he said, to preserve the quality and integrity of information. This is the internet as the Wild West. Can a dark stranger ride into town and save the day? Will they bring righteous violent justice? Will they offer tempered lawfulness? In short, will our savior be benevolent?

The issue with HuffPost, as so many colleagues perceive, is not just the danger of a for-profit journalism source funded by tabloid gossip. It is the danger of a consensus by what so often appears to be mob rule or whimsy or click-bait. It changes content—“explainer” pieces are the HuffPost’s most popular—and it changes the kind of people who are entitled to create the content. In some ways, what HuffPost has done for content and creator is radically progressive. They put basic educational content, often by insiders, at the forefront. That has value.

The desire to win, however, strikes me and many others as off-putting. Is religion something we win with? How does that make our scholarship any different than evangelism? Or in less coded language, aren’t we risking putting the popular reception of our work ahead of the work?

Then again, perhaps one of the reasons the humanities is in so much trouble (and the academy generally) is that we haven’t fought to win. [I’m not even sure we all agree that we’re playing the same game.] We’ve been content to pretend that sincere work merits attention on its own, and we have far too often forgotten to frame that work in a way that will attraction attention. This is more than vinegar and flies. Playing to win means taking control of the rules of the game. HuffPost undoubtedly uses meta-tagging and writes its posts to please search engines. Search Engine Optimization is a part of the game that can be rigged and cheated.

Of the rules that the HuffPost has set for its victory, one of the most curious is that its authors and content be relentlessly positive. Don’t disparage other faiths, Raushenbush advises his authors, elevate your own faith. This is not turn the other cheek; it’s pretend you aren’t being slapped. It’s a very significant obstacle to serious journalism. Criticism is necessary. An attempt to identify the truth, to pursue it aggressively, is the hallmark of excellent writing. Being positive is mostly okay. In most circumstance and for many things, we should attempt to elevate the good and not denigrate the bad. (My wife would say I’m terrible at this.)

The problem comes when your desire to be positive limits your ability to be negative when negativity is called for. Sometimes one must call a spade a spade. Homosexuals do not cause climate change. Or, given the recent announcement of the Supreme Court birth control case, one must recognize that scientifically the morning after pill is not an abortifacient.

As a religious studies scholar who specializes in American history, I have a variety of ways of being cautious. I give my subjects the benefit of the doubt. I validate their perspective and write about it honestly. In my work my goal is never to disparage the groups I’m studying. It’s counter-productive. It doesn’t get at the truth of the questions I’m asking.

The crucial thing about the New Media, however, is that if it is really attempting to win the internet, then its questions have become the kind that make truth claims possible for authors. We have room to make these as secular citizens writing about religion. It is no longer the domain solely of religious believers to make explicit the faith claims of their analyses. (Sure, ethnographers have been doing this for longer, but religious studies has always had a confessional problem.)

Winning in the new media means asking questions that are winnable. As far as I can tell, those questions aren’t the ones that we’ve been trained to ask. This placed us (religious studies) at a disadvantage. We’re on our way to overcoming it. We’re certainly not there yet, nor do we want to casually let others determine where we end up.

So take this time to consider your participation in the new media’s reconstruction of discourses about religion. No doubt some are exceedingly positive; others have hidden risks that reveal the costs of this new landscape. Explore freely, but tread carefully. And don’t forget to SEO your site.

The AAR’s First THATCamp

25 Nov

The moment was overdue, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. The American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp, spearheaded by Christopher Cantwell (UM-KC), was a resounding success. Of the 90+ registrants, about 70 made it to the day-long pre-conference camp.

THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp. It’s the brainchild of the perennially progressive George Mason University. It is an event for less structured conferencing. There are no papers. Topics are chosen democratically. Leadership consists primarily of facilitation. There are workshops to demonstrate digital techniques, but on the whole THATCamp is built to be an un-conference.

At the AAR in Baltimore, at least the first time around, the ethic, style, and mood of THATCamp may not have been perfectly un-conference-y. The desire to hold on to the structure of performance and leader/audience did not disappear as much as they could have. As folks do with so many things, we were practicing our practice. We played at being dissimilar from conference conventions—and I mean this in all the best ways because it was fun, invigorating, and exciting. Perhaps next year we can do even better and be the even more radical alternative to paper reading that the AAR deserves. Although we did not manifest the ideal, I can say without hesitation that my own experience was first-rate.

I began the day by joining a session on digital collaboration. How do you find the people you need to make your project succeed? At least the conversation started there. After fretting about funding digital projects, finding ways to see technical experts as true collaborators and not contractors, and several other topics, we finally hit a point of true clarity. Sitting next to me, Chris Cantwell had an “a-ha” moment. I was taking notes, which are available publicly as a Google Document, and I had to slow Chris down so I could get it precisely. He said,

“When devising a project, the question is not who do I need to build this project, but what communities do I want this project to connect to? It’s the relationship between the project and its communities that determines who you need to build something.”

The other dozen or so folks appeared to agree. It was a powerful moment because it was a flat rejection of what I had previously believed was the biggest hurdle in advancing my own digital projects—a lack of expertise. If only I could figure out, I thought, what kind of technical challenge I’m wrestling with, then I could finish this project. That was the wrong way of going about things. It is the project’s audience that determines its form. It is the project’s creators that bring their communities with them. If we hire technical contractors, then all of the real problems with a project remain unsolved. We need to work with collaborators that enrich the project and its community—not seek out solutions to technical hurdles.

This assumes, at least in part, that the technical hurdles will still need to be overcome. For me, though, it was a warning that getting stuck on the technical materials had also caused me to get stuck on the conceptual one an fail to use collaboration to advance the project and not just its suite of technical features. That’s a worthwhile takeaway.

In the next sessions I focused on ways that I might be collaborative digitally. First, I went to a session on digital publishing and then to one on blogging and writing online. Nathan Schneider, a former colleague at UCSB and now author of two excellent books, figured prominently in both. I have heard Nathan explain his drift away from the academy before (at an academy session no less). In many ways he was much, much smarter than I was for leaving the program with a master’s degree and heading off into the world. One of the things he learned—and has shared his excellent views on repeatedly—is that scholars reap many different kinds of rewards when they write outside of the academic book culture. More than ever, it is clear that we are no longer beholden to our University Press masters. While they still hold substantial estates—and I’d be the first to hope my book project is welcomed into the inner keep—their livelihoods are endangered by the radical proliferation of publishing alternatives.

These two back-to-back writing sessions convinced me that I had also made an error in setting my own small cottage so far from the other great estates. I don’t mean that A Lively Experiment has been a failure. It has and will continue to serve the purposes I have given it. It is my forum for semi-academic writing for a public audience. I’m doing some of my private thinking in public. I’m not quite an open book, although I’m trying to head more and more in that direction, but I am a book that can be opened. My research is on display before it is “on display.” This alone is a subversion of print culture in the academy. The cynic in me (or the me that tries to think like hiring committees) thinks it has also reduced my professional output. That’s a pitfall to be sure, but it’s a risk I’ve already accepted and which I’m addressing.

The error I think I’ve made is in not building better roads between my private cottage and the towns that support the manors and estates. Why not be more aggressive in joining these communities? I’ve told myself and even others that part of the problem has been a lack of definition in my public voice. I still write much too fully in the scholarly idiom. (See what I did there?) If I can’t turn myself to the vernacular, I’m going to have trouble setting up a place to stay in some of these communities. So the biggest question of my day, one that was unresolved at the end, was how one cultivates that public voice. This is something religious studies does poorly. Our sister/mother field, theology, does this far better. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there just as there are from standouts like Nathan Schneider, Stephen Prothero, or, and don’t throw stones at me, Reza Aslan.

In the end, my THATCamp experience was thoroughly satisfying. I felt it spoke to my needs and my aspirations and my abilities. It also challenged my ideas about what those needs, aspirations, and abilities should be. That’s an impressive day of work at the academy and I’m so very thankful to have been a part of it. I will certainly have more to say about the experience as I hear from others how their days in the THATCampAAR‘s other sessions. I will share those immediately when I come upon them.

Plotting Religion in Juvenile Animated Series

8 Oct

Batman Beyond

My Netflix queue often suggests interesting animated series for me. I never know quite what I’m getting into. Sometimes I am rewarded, as I was when I discovered Rosario + Vampire (an overtly raunchy monster high school drama that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they understood the context of the sexualization of female characters in anime).

Other times I’m not convinced of the recommendation. Batman Beyond is a good example. While I’m unlikely to turn my back on Batman, I find the series frustratingly incomplete in its portrait of a futuristic Gotham. I’ve always found Batman an intensively spiritual character. While religion is never operating at the surface, Batman’s moral core–especially his principle of not killing enemies–is likely the reason for his enduring appeal. (This is the show’s premise, too: Bruce Wayne’s age makes him unable to uphold this principle.)

While I don’t know that I want to set the boundaries on categories of ethics and religion, it is often the case that shows like Batman Beyond rely almost exclusively on secularly-derived moral principles and not on obvious religiously ones. I should be clear here. I don’t we can easily parse the morals presented in the show and derive them from two categories, secular morals and religious morals. It may even be impossible.

What I mean is that the writers of Batman Beyond have consciously removed the structures of religious belief and practice that might suggest religious origins for the moral cores of the characters. Why does Batman fight crime? He has a personal stake in preventing the kind of crime that took the life of his parents. Why does the youthful Batman fight crime? Because he too has a personal stake in stopping crime. They are both compelled by some hidden moral imperative and orientation to do good. So I say secular-derived moral principles because the show gives me no contextual information that these laudable values have arisen out of religious training or devotion.

Avatar Korra from Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra

Let’s look at a counter-example. The Legend of Korra is a spin-off of Nickelodeon’s seminal series Avatar the Last Airbender. The second season, which started just a few weeks ago and can be watched on Nick.com, is profoundly and explicitly religious. There is a demonstrable religious world, complete with an active and engaging cosmology, ritual practices, and shades of religious belief.

Frankly, I was a bit stunned when I saw the start of this season’s plot arc. The spirit world is out of balance and Avatar Korra, as the bridge between the human and spirit world, must figure out how to repair the damage. Korra’s journey this season, like Aang’s before her in the original series, is one of wrestling with destiny, fulfilling her role as spiritual leader, and defeating those who would upset the balance of the world. (Aang, for instance, had to resolve his principle of not killing anyone with the inevitable to-the-death battle he would have with the warmongering Fire Lord.) Korra will surely face a similar test of her principles this season.

There’s more here than just the overt or covert presence of religion and morality. I believe–and it is just my opinion–that Korra is just a better show than Batman Beyond. The animation, plot, character development, world creation, and so on, they are all superior. This doesn’t mean that I picked Batman Beyond as a straw man. I enjoy the show, despite its defects. And I’m still watching its several seasons, so I haven’t ruled out the possibility that it may pick up its game.

What I think is crucial is that nearly all animated shows (perhaps because they are made for children) fall in a grid plot made by the intersection poles of overt/covert, religious/moral. Batman Beyond is overtly moral but neither overtly or covertly religious. The Legend of Korra is both overtly religious and overtly moral. And so on. Sure, this is simplistic, but it is a start for thinking about the ways that animated television deals with the problem of introducing ethical questions. Moreover, it differentiates between those questions asked in religious terms, “What is the right thing to do as the Avatar,” and those asked in moral ones, “What is the right thing to do?” These aren’t the same.


If I were to draw my schema, as basic as it may be, it would look something like this: 

Overt/Covert & Ethical/ReligiousI suppose that’s a beginning. It also reminds me of the excellent lawful evil/good charts that often appear as memes for popular cultural works. In the world of The Dark Knight, for instance, the Joker is the epitome of chaotic evil. As the saying goes, some folks just want to watch the world burn.  Superman is the perennial contender for lawful good–he’s the pinnacle of justice. (And that’s part of the reason that the story arc of Superman: Red Son, where baby Superman lands in Communist Russia, is so amazing.)

I often have to defend my interest in children’s and young adult anime to friends and colleagues. Graphic novels have attained an air of respectability that comes with multi-million dollar movie franchises. So if you look at those, you’re going to escape some of the criticism. When I was young, in that post-Vietnam era, G. I. Joe and its portrait of American militarism suggested exactly the kind of narrative that emerged in Desert Storm. Similarly, Ducktales highlighted the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that would become essential in the dot com boom.

If today’s youths retreat to Korra and Batman, I sure want to think about what the effects of these shows are going to be. For instance, Batman Beyond and Korra are both terribly suspicious of experimental technology in the hands of aggressive corporate interests. How quickly the lessons of the recession have inflected the moral elements of children’s television! Animated series are cultural mana for young persons and we ignore them at our own peril.

Midterm Mapping

5 Nov

There have been some interesting responses to the midterm election results. I’d post lots of links and summaries, but that would inevitably betray my rather eclectic RSS feed reading habits. (It’s also overwhelming for my little netbook to have all those links open.)  In the main, however, the Republican victories in the House seem to me to follow the basic contours of America’s political geography in ways that are hardly surprising. Urban districts retained their Democratic representatives, while rural areas captured Republican votes. I wondered, as I watched election results roll in earlier this week, what turnover in the House was actually historic (in the short term).  I believe that something rather elementary happened: The voters mobilized to confront Bush in the midterm 2006 election and to elect Obama in 2008 stayed home.

This is when a powerful infographic like that offered by the NY Times comes in very handy. When I taught in the Writing Program at UCSB in 2008 we used this exact chart to explore regional voting for the Presidential race. When you compare district results over the last five elections, we can easily see what was novel about the 2010 elections and what was simply a reversion to pre-2006 demographics.

House of Representatives election 2010

Infographics make election results analysis easier for everyone.

In 2002 the Republicans held 229 seats to the Democrats’ 204. While the Democrats controlled all of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Maine, there were many states represented solely by the Republicans: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Alaska. Several more states had a single or handful of Democratic districts in otherwise solidly Republican territory, such as Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Kentucky, and Iowa.

If we were to correlate these results with major urban center’s we’d find that in many instances, as we would naturally expect, the lone Democratic stronghold in an area was the district for a major city. Kansas City, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Denver, Boulder, and Des Moines all fall into this kind of perspective on voting patterns. It doesn’t hold true for all such districts. Take Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district as an anti-example. But it holds for enough that we can account for many of the oases of difference that consistently appear in our voting geography.

In 2004, very little changed as the Republicans gained 3 seats (winning 8 new districts and losing 5). In 2006, however, the Democrats made significant gains as President Bush’s popularity waned and America questioned its involvement in 2 wars. These gains were further developed in 2008 with the surge of Black, Hispanic, and young voters out to elect President Obama. The result was a swing of 21 votes in favor of the Democrats as they won 26 previously Republican districts, giving them a total of 233 seats and solid control of the House.

What’s neglected in the discussion of the “tidal wave” of Republican success in 2010 is the fact that historically the districts that have been reclaimed were Republican districts and were only won by Democrats in the midterm of Bush’s second term and alongside the Presidential race of 2008. Sure, declarations of a new Liberal era vastly overstated the case (and underestimated the impact the sour economy would have), but this is not a vast reorganization of American politics. Instead it is a return to alignments of the beginning of the Bush Era, which is where the House of Representatives had been for quite some time.

Consider several districts that passed into Democratic hands in either 2006 or 2008 and which returned to Republican control in 2010.

1. Idaho 1: This district was Republican from 2002-2006, but passed into Democratic hands in 2008 by a margin of 1.2% (about 4,000 votes). It was a huge victory for Democrats because of the narrow margin. Why? The Republicans had only won by 5% (about 8,000 votes) in 2006, but in 2004 and 2002 they had won by 117,000 and 40,000 votes respectively. Presidential elections sure do get the vote out, but the blip of Democratic support betrays the solidly Republican character of this district. Thus, the 25,000 vote win for Republicans in 2010 isn’t particularly striking. Indeed, that’s only a 2,000 vote decrease from the voting numbers in 2006 (a non-Presidential year). Same old, same old, it seems to me.

2. South Dakota: This single district state became a Republican victory in 2010. South Dakota, as I noted above, had been Democratic since 2004 when it was a 8pt, 29,000 vote win that was preserved in 2006 and 2008 by even wider margins. The Democrat’s loss in SD was a 2 point or 7,000 vote defeat. In light of the impressive 2008 win (when nearly 100,000 more Democrats turned out than in this year’s race), this can feel like a pretty significant swing. The results say, however, that 2010 saw nearly 20,000 voters go Independent rather than Republican–a decline in their numbers that reduced their margin of victory from 8% to 3% (over their victory in 2004). Yet, what’s remarkable about the outcome is that it isn’t much different than 2002. A 10pt swing isn’t much in a state where you’re only talking about 20,000 voters in a year with poor turn out. Non-voting seems to have decided this race more than anything else. Where were the 100,000 extra Democrats from 2008? Did they suddenly vote Republican or Independent? No, they stayed home.

3. New Mexico 2: Bolstered by the presidential race in 2008, New Mexico’s 2nd District went Democrat by 28,000 votes (12%). The total number of voters that came out was 230,000, which is 66,000 more than voted in 2010 and 56,000 more than voted in 2006. In Bush’s 2nd midterm election, however, the Republicans won by 19 points! This was a less impressive victory than they’d had in 2004 (21%, a presidential year), but it strongly resembles the midterm election of 2002. In that race a paltry 140,000 folk showed up to give the GOP a 13pt win. Moral of the story? Again the traditional voting numbers and party affiliation were restored.

I take away from this the following hypotheses that would merit further looks with more data:

Facebook shows voting turn out by age

First, Obama versus McCain in 2008 was historic not simply for the outcome but because the corresponding interest led to enormous voter turn out and thus Democratic victories in traditionally Republican districts. This has been vastly undersold by news agencies trying to explain the GOP’s success this year. We’re failing to acknowledge how unique that election was and how aberrant its voting population was in relation to other recent elections.

Second, the midterm elections in 2010 failed to mobilize those same democratic voters that turned out in 2008. It’s one thing to poll those that went to vote and then make wild claims about political shifts in America, it would be something else altogether to contact those that voted in 2006 or 2008 and ask them why they didn’t show up. For all I know they might have stayed home because they were angry and Obama wasn’t “the one we were looking for.” I have a suspicion that’s not the case and that a better get out the vote campaign would have meant a different outcome. [I’m looking at you, Comedy Central and MTV.]

Finally, the overwhelming Republic victory in the House is not overwhelming in terms of how many Republicans are in office. 10 more seats (9 races are still undecided as I am writing this) in 2010 (239) than they had in 2002 (229) seems like a over-adjustment to the Republican side similar to that we saw to the Democratic side in 2008. And it is noticeably less than the 255 the Democrats just squandered because they didn’t energize their supporters to get out and vote.

It’s a fickle flip-flop that seems poised to go one of two ways in 2012. If the Democrats can successfully mobilize their supporters then we’ll see another big swing and a Democratic presidential victory. This will be even likelier if recent positive signs about economic recovery beginning turn out to be more than hot air. The struggle will be for Democrats to claim that it was their original policies and not the 2010 midterm election that instigated these changes. On the other hand, if the voters don’t turn out (for either party) then the election will be as close as those in 2000 and 2004 and likely result in a marginal gain for Democrats in the House to offset the abnormally large gains by Republicans in 2010. In that instance, if the economy is still stagnant and the Dems haven’t found a way to blame a lack of progress on legislative obstructionism and the Republicans find a compelling fiscal conservative to rally behind, then we may see a change in the White House. We can argue about message and exit poll opinions till we’re out of breath, but if the voters don’t show up like they did in 2006 and 2008, we’ll get the same results we saw in 2002 and 2004. If you didn’t vote and you don’t like the outcome, you’re to blame. Local organizers should be licking their wounds and getting to the business of making sure their constituents get to the polls in 2012.

[I’m interested in all of this not simply because I study many of the groups central to the Religious Right and at the heart of the Culture Wars, but because I was too young to appreciate the complexity of the situation that President Clinton had in 1994. As a student of American history with an emphasis on the 20th century, I’m sure this is going to be a fascinating two years for members of any political party. Check back in two years to see how I did!]