Tag Archives: politics

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

Scottish Independence: Why the Ayes Didn’t Have It.

Photo by PressTV.

Young voters and people living in council areas with high unemployment were more likely to vote in favor of Scottish independence.  Photo by PressTV.

Despite preliminary polls showing the Scottish independence vote as too close to call, last week saw a decisive victory for keeping the nation part of the United Kingdom with a 10.6 percentage point lead. Now that the media has swung from predicting to explaining, The Guardian considers why the early polling was so far off the mark, pointing to early decisions for “no” among voters and anxiety over the economic impacts of independence.

Oxford sociologist Stephen Fisher weighed in on the post-vote analysis and pointed out two trends which help explain the outcome. First, economic concerns were closely related to decision patterns:

“…in all four councils won by Yes Scotland, unemployment rates are higher than the Scottish average… Better Together’s best results were in councils where unemployment rates were below the Scottish average.”

Second, despite widespread national conversation and high intentions to vote, actual turnout among “yes” voters wasn’t quite enough:

“Only in one of the four councils where yes came on top was turnout higher than the countrywide 84.6%. This indicates that the participation among groups that tend to historically vote less (or not at all), such as younger people, the unemployed and those living in more deprived areas, where yes was theoretically strongest, while far higher than normal, was not as high as expected.”

There is plenty more work to be done before we fully understand the outcome, but these preliminary findings remind us that the key challenge for any political movement is getting enough folks to move where and when it really counts.

 

Under God or Over It? New Data on Religion and Politics

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

It’s been a busy time for social facts on religion in American life. First, The Washington Post reported new data from the Pew Forum suggesting that more Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president. While the original report noted that atheism is still a “top negative” for voters—with more respondents saying it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate than drug use, political inexperience, or an extramarital affair—there is still some optimism in the fact that this number has declined by 10% since 2007.

Second, a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans are still over-reporting their church attendance, moreso in phone than in online surveys. The Huffington Posthosted a roundtable on the issue, and a take in The Atlantic emphasized the political implications of this data—liberals are more likely to inflate their church attendance than conservatives, and this may be because of negative stereotypes that liberals are “anti-religion.”

In a journalistic trifecta, all three stories noted research from Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and TSP’s own Doug Hartmann on the continued stigma faced by atheists in American culture. From The Atlantic:

When three University of Minnesota sociologists surveyed American religious attitudes in 2006, they found “not only that atheists are less accepted than other marginalized groups but also that attitudes toward them have not exhibited the marked increase in acceptance that has characterized views of other racial and religious minorities over the past forty years.” Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist.

Edgell also discussed current trends in church attendance on The Huffington Post and updated her 2006 research in The Washington Post:

A 2006 study by University of Minnesota sociologist Penny Edgell found atheists were the most mistrusted minority in the U.S. Edgell said Tuesday that an updated study based on a 2014 online survey would be released soon. Preliminary results show the mistrust meter hasn’t budged.

Despite an inclusive trend in what Americans say they look for in a candidate, religious identities are still an important marker of who can lead the flock(s).

For more on the cultural factors that may be driving these trends, check out this classic TSP feature: The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture.

Economists against the War on Drugs

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

Strong and Stable: Personal and Civic Lives

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.

Election year or not, questions about voting behavior are rarely lacking among political pundits. Face it, they need stuff to talk about. Who will turn out in next year’s mid-term elections? How will the “Obama coalition” break in 2016? Social scientists are also posing questions. For example, why don’t people vote after the death of a spouse?

A study of 5.86 million Californians before and after the 2009-2010 statewide elections showed that “11 percent of people who would have voted if their spouse were alive failed to make it to the polls even a year and a half after the death.” The research found that immediately after the death of a spouse, people were less likely to vote, and while widows and widowers slowly return to the polls over time, they did not vote as often as they did before.

One possible explanation draws upon a central theme of sociology—the interplay of personal and public life. This study suggests that a personal tragedy leads to a withdrawal from public life. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, “If that’s at least somewhat true, that public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it’s also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens?”

The important insights on social life that may come out of extensions of this research into wider elections, different geographic areas, socioeconomic effects, and longer-term studies, may well give the pundits and commentators something to talk about until 2016.

God’s Green Earth

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

On both the left and the right, discussions about the environment can often turn to religion to remind us of our responsibility to take care of the planet. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have reminded us to be “good stewards of the earth,” despite the disagreement on what that really means, and the activism of a range of religious groups on the issue has led pundits and scholars to conclude that Americans’ Christianity has been getting greener over the past few years.

A new report from Michigan State University, however, may challenge this verdant vision. Lansing’s Fox News affiliate station reports that a new study by John Clements, Aaron McCright, and Chenyang Xiao suggests a real divide between between what Christian leaders are saying and congregants are doing. Their work with an environmental attitudes section in the 2010 General Social Survey found that rank-and-file Christians have not shown “a significant increase in pro-environmental attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.” In fact, nonreligious respondents in the survey were more likely to show concern about the environment and more willing to sacrifice to protect it.

The good news from the authors’ article in Organization & Environment is that, among Christians alone, those who were more religious were more likely to engage in “private environmental behaviors” like driving less and recycling. The real question, then, is not which religion gets to claim it cares more about the environment, but rather how to make these beliefs and behaviors more common for everyone.

Predicting Progess

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013 Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim via flickr.com.

With ouster after ouster, Egypt has undergone constant changes in leadership in recent years. The situation may look like utter chaos, but political scientist Mark Abdollahian and his team of researchers believe they have a good idea of how the events will play out: They wrote a program. In a piece for CNN, Tara Kangarlou describes their work:

Abdollahian’s team used complex computer algorithm logic games that measure how people interact with one another to draw different scenarios of how segments of Egyptian society, power brokers, religious sectors and other sociopolitical variables would affect the outcome of the transition.

Abdollahian had earlier predicted that the Egyptian military would take an important role in watching over the restructuring of the nation and would serve as an important safety net in keeping good relations with the U.S. and its allies like Israel—important because of the massive amounts of American aid the Egyptian military relies on.

These researchers and others saw Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood as the best answer during the “Arab Spring,” but even at the time, they predicted that the Egyptian people would expect change within a year. Since true change is extremely difficult to achieve in such a short span, the team predicted Morsy’s rejection.

Asked what they think might unfold now, Abdollahian and his colleagues predict that the military will support elections and a revamping of the constitution. But first, they believe there’s a strong possibility of continued violence in which “regular Egyptians are the casualties.”

Demography is Democrats’ Destiny?

Photo by Nevele Otseog via flickr.com

Photo by Nevele Otseog via flickr.com

The shifting ethnic and racial composition of the United States has social scientists and political strategists busy calculating the “new electoral math”. By 2040, Latinos will surpass 30% of the population, while whites will be a minority. A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests this could spell serious trouble for the GOP—children of Latino immigrants are more likely to lean Democrat than their parents.

Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociologist at USC, believes that the data is correct: Latino voters are going blue. She pushes back against the notion that the Latino vote will eventually break toward the Republicans due to “traditional values,” instead arguing that Republican policies like Arizona’s controversial SB1070 will continue to drive Latino voters to the left. She puts it bluntly:

Latinos are presently not attracted to the Republican party and there is no reason to think that Latinos will become Republicans just because a few Republicans support immigration reform.

Immigration reform figured prominently in both President Obama’s State of the Union address and Senator Marco Rubio’s GOP response. As the debate heats up in Congress, the increasing voting power of Latinos will certainly factor into how both major parties draw up their positions.

Real Talk on Immigration

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.

We all appreciate some theoretical noodling now and again, but it is important to remember that social science research can still bring key information into national debates. When major policy issues are at stake, academics don’t necessarily want to build walls of complex verbiage between their research and public understanding.

Nancy Foner gives us a refreshing dose of plain language with three short bullet points on immigration reform in the National Journal’s series on demography and public policy issues. In under 300 words, Foner breaks down our understanding of the U.S.–Mexican Border, changes the conversation about immigrants’ work ethics, and gives data a reality check. Her clincher is that policymakers radically underestimate the number of children with U.S. citizenship who face instability because their parents are undocumented immigrants.

This piece is a striking example of the how researchers with a handful of key facts and a targeted understanding of where the policy talk needs to change can break down the barriers between research and practice.

War of Word-Craft

With states such as Minnesota and Maryland voting on same-sex marriage amendments in this year’s election, a surprising group is taking on the issue (and free speech): NFL players. In one early example, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly supported gay marriage in 2009. He was met with some shock and backlash, but remains outspoken on the issue. So much so that an elected official sat up and took notice this fall, leading to a rather public war of words.

Rep. Burns’s controversial letter to Ravens owner Scott Bisciotti.

Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” In the letter, released by a local television station and republished by Yahoo! Sports, Burns goes on to state that “many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide,” and assert that he had no knowledge of any other players taking similar stances. Burns turned to familiar ideas about sport, saying Ayanbedejo had no place in the same-sex marriage debate because such political issues have no place “in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.”

Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe did not take kindly to Burns’s request for censorship. He went on to write an open, colorful, scathing, and, many would argue, entertaining response (in clean—but hilarious—and uncensored versions) to the Maryland delegate. In his letter, originally published by Gawker Media’s sport site Deadspin, Kluwe condemns Burns’s attempts to quiet Ayanbedejo, saying that not only do politics hold an important place in sport (as evidenced by athletes’ successful work to end segregation in their sports), free speech is a protected right, and, even further, stating simply “that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life.” He closed by refuting the politician’s note that players haven’t been talking about gay marriage: “I’ve been vocal as hell about [it.]”

Other players took to the papers and airwaves to respond to Burns, too. Ayanbedejo’s teammate (who has played with Kluwe in the past), Ravens Center Matt Birk wrote for the Star Tribune, defending his teammate’s right to free speech. Instead of backing Ayanbedejo’s beliefs, however, Birk articulately and respectfully voiced his opposition, stating that marriage should remain between a man and a woman because same-sex marriage would negatively affect the welfare of children. This time, Kluwe, too, responded in the Star Tribune, armed with facts rather than expletives. He delineated the problems he saw in Birk’s argument one by one, providing many well-honed arguments and citing various social facts, statistics, and a meta-study showing no difference between children of heterosexual and GLBT families as borne out by 17 social scientific studies.

In the end, all of these players demonstrated the power of free speech, showing they had every right to be on the field of public discourse. Why should they be forced to the sidelines when they can bring their opinions and even well researched arguments to an often heated and controversial public debate—simply because they play a game for a living? It’s certainly not news that politicians (from Emmett C. Burns, Jr. to Barack Obama and everyone in between) have used sport to their advantage for many years.

To follow the unfolding debates, you can find Brendon Ayanbadejo (@brendon310) and Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarCraft) on Twitter, Maryland State Representative Emmett C. Burns, Jr. at his official state website, and information about Matt Birk (including headlines) at his official NFL player page