Politics aren’t always scintillating, even if they are important. The AP famously caught even the Vice President dozing off at a public event.
I think I am. Part of the reason involves the usual, nearing-the-finish line fatigue of our once-every-four-years Presidential elections. Another reason for my weariness is that we’ve featured so much political content on the site in recent weeks that it seems like TSP has become the social scientific equivalent of Fox News or MSNBC! “All politics, all the time.” It’s all great stuff, mind you (see for yourself!), and in fact we are in the process of compiling the best of it into a special volume to be published with W.W. Norton, replete with website tie-ins and supplementary teaching and learning content. Nevertheless, I just don’t like to get pigeon-holed or hemmed in—and politics is still far from the only thing we do, or aspire to do.
Still, I think my ennui might go deeper. I guess I’m feeling kind of stuck, moored by a perverse culture of and attitudes about politics in the United States. On the one hand, I’ve got all of these intellectual colleagues, collaborators, and contributors—those I hang out with on campus, meet with at conferences, and work with as contributors to TSP—who are so interested and passionate about politics. On the other, there are many other people in my life—from students and neighborhood friends to parents I see at youth sporting events, those I go to church with, family members, and even my own kids—who have no interest in politics. In this political season, they are kind of fed up with the topic and process altogether, and maybe they’re starting to take me with them! (more…)
by Doug Hartmann and Chris Uggen, Oct 10, 2012, at 01:43 pm
We’ve found a friend! No, really, The Society Pages would like to formally introduce you (assuming you haven’t yet met) to the Scholars Strategy Network.
Let us explain. By now, our readers know a few things about The Society Pages (TSP, as we like to call it; social science that matters and all that):
We ask scholars to share their knowledge in a way that’s publicly accessible, but never dumbed-down
We give away our content for free online
We’re non-partisan and our authors speak for themselves
Well, as it turns out, these are just a few of the things we share with Theda Skocpol’s big new initiative, the Scholars Strategy Network (of course, these are also a few reasons we signed on as SSN members ourselves earlier in the year). (more…)
Alliances between politicians and corporations can serve many functions, from publicity to implicit statements of belief.
Have you been following all of the news about Southern fast-food giant Chick-fil-A lately? First, there was the company’s leader coming out against Barack Obama’s support of same-sex marriage; then, last week, Mike Huckabee (former Arkansas governor and current Fox News host) called for a national Chick-fil-A appreciation day (which apparently led to an unprecedented day of sales and profits, including a particularly high-profile meal purchased by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin). Last weekend in the New York Times, UCLA sociologist Edward Walker wrote a provocative op-ed to put all this into historical and sociological context.
The alliance between business corporations and moral leaders isn’t brand new. Indeed, Walker begins by harkening back to the unholy alliances between Baptists and bootleggers in the days of Prohibition. However, the relationships do seem to be becoming more typical and pronounced. Examples range from Harrah’s (the casino chain) organizing their vendors and employees into a coalition to promote for-profit colleges with Students for Academic Choice, described by Walker as “a seemingly grass-roots organization led by students promoting the benefits of ‘postsecondary career-oriented institutions.’”
As Walker explains:
Today, business interests are involved in many efforts to partner with citizen advocacy groups as a corporate tool beyond conventional lobbying. They hire consultants to help them to organize. I estimate, based on my studies of “grass-roots lobbying firms” since the early 1970s, that this subspecialty of corporate lobbying is now a $1 billion-a-year industry.
One billion dollars. That’s not chump change. Walker goes on to suggest that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies use “grass-roots-mobilization consultants,” some of which are “independent agencies founded by former political campaign professionals,” others being branches of huge public relations firms. He notes, “Businesses hire these consultants most often when facing protest or controversy, and highly regulated industries appear to be some of the heaviest users of their services.”
This is not just about politics or public relations. ”As business has become more politically mobilized and as the field of citizen advocacy organizations has expanded since the 1970s,” Walker explains, “corporations and industry groups have become much more active in financing pro-corporate activists.”
In a time when companies are particularly sensitive to protest groups, threats of boycott and accusations of corporate irresponsibility, corporations need grass-roots support, or at the least the appearance of it, to defend their reputations and ability to make profits.
If Walker highlights the economic side of these corporate practices in this piece, however, there is clearly a huge political aspect as well. In fact, in this election season what may be most interesting and consequential is precisely how politics and economics merge, the lines between them blurring and disappearing. Indeed, in talking with other researchers and practitioners about these developments, I heard a lot about the relationship between buying habits and political views. Apparently, they are so highly correlated that political operatives are now using consumer characteristics strategically to target campaigns and tap potential voters. They do so, it is worth noting, using tools data and methods from the scholarly social sciences—standard Census demographic data and GIS packages—but what they have that academic analysts do not have access to is the market data supplied by private, for-profit firms.
There’s obviously a lot more to be said about all this. For more about Walker’s views, especially those on “Industry-Driven Activism,” listen to the podcast that our great TSP team did with him in July 2010.
Over the course of the past year, Theda Skocpol, Harvard social scientist and a great friend of TSP, has been working to create a network of publicly minded social scientists to help bring scholarly research and expertise to bear on issues of public importance and political significance. She calls it the Scholars Strategy Network, or SSN for short. Given our commitment to public engagement and with a regional branch here in the Twin Cities, we’ve been following this initiative closely and indeed trying to contribute in our own small ways. Not even a year old, the SSN now boasts over 100 members and has eight regional chapters. And perhaps most notable of all (at least from our web-centric view), this week marks the launch of the Network’s new website: http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org.
Over the next few days, Skocpol and other members of the network will be in Washington, introducing the site and a few of the research briefs that are its most useful and impressive feature to representatives of the 100 or so organizations that attend the weekly Common Purpose meetings. They also plan to make an appearance at Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s supper seminar for House members and staffers, and present to the White House Outreach Office. ”So,” as Skocpol puts it, “the word will be getting around fast. People will be looking at our site, downloading our briefs, and getting a sense of who and what we have to offer.”
We invite you to take a quick sneak peak for yourselves. You’ll see that more than a few friends of and contributors to TSP are involved, including Minnesota’s own Larry Jacobs, one of the four featured scholars for the inaugural month of June. You should also be able to scroll through SSN’s brand new collection of original research briefs. These short, accessibly written briefs summarize key research findings, present basic facts on timely topics, and spell out policy options on issues of immediate public and political concern. Written by a stellar cast of leading scholars, these are really great and useful pieces. There are almost 90 available on topics ranging from jobs creation and economic growth to health and education reform, to immigration policy, elections, and the environment.
To help promote and disseminate this work, our plan here at TSP is to use our “Reading List” feature to highlight some of the best and most relevant of these briefs over the summer months. We hope you find these pieces as interesting, informative, and accessible as we do. You can also check the Network out on Twitter: @SSNScholars.
Obama's high school basketball team. Photo via senorglory, flickr.com.
In response to the sport and politics white paper Kyle Green and I recently wrote for this site, ThickCulture writer and loyal friend of TSP Andrew Linder emailed to suggest that although Barack Obama is obviously not the first “sports president,” he may be the first “ESPN President” or “SportsCenter President.” Andrew’s point (now up on ThickCulture as a more fleshed out post—jinx!) was that, although ESPN had become a cultural fixture under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama represented the core network demographic in its first two decades of its existence and it seems to have been formative for him. To the extent that ESPN has transformed sporting culture, then, Obama is the first President to be fully fashioned in and through that new culture.
This seemed plausible enough—and was definitely borne out in a recent interview the President gave to the star sportswriter/reporter Bill Simmons. At least two things about the interview should be pointed out. The first is why Obama chose this particular venue and reporter: “Simmons,” as one report put it, “is revered by the under-30 crowd” and “has more than 1 million—1,642, 522 to be exact—Twitter followers.” Indeed, his “B.S. Report” podcast, on which the Obama interview originally appeared, is said to be one of the most downloaded podcasts on the web. The second point is how this interview and exchange reveals what a great fan of sports and sports talk our President actually is.
Not only is his obsession with ESPN’s SportsCenter evident, Obama shows himself to be an extremely knowledgeable sports fan, gifted in the arts of sports talk and debate. Talking with Simmons, the President riffs on Linsanity (claiming to have been on the bandwagon early) and the joys and challenges of coaching his daughters, argues about the best NBA teams and players of all time (MJ and the Bulls figure prominently), revisits his vision for a college football playoff, and waxes poetic about his philosophies on sportsmanship and scoring in golf. Obama even brags a bit about the “solid” crossover move he threw on NBA All-Star point guard Chris Paul in a summer scrimmage. All this is to say, Obama doesn’t just talk about sports, he’s really talking sports.
Entertaining (and impressive) as I found all of this, I was even more intrigued by a follow-up Washington Post post that explained why the President would take time out of his unbelievably busy schedule to do this interview (as well as other sports related activities such as his sit-down with Matt Lauer during the Superbowl pre-game show in February or his annual NCAA/march madness picks). ”Sports,” according to the WSJ, “is a universal language that can bridge ideological, cultural, and socio-economic gaps …you are much more inclined to like people who share that fandom regardless of whether you have anything else in common with them. You feel some sort of connection to them. They speak your (sports) language.”
The piece goes on to speculate that sport may be particularly a particularly important medium (and media outlet) for Obama “whose background—biracial parents, childhood in Hawaii, Harvard Law School, etc.—is somewhat unfamiliar to many of the voters he needs to convince to back him if he wants to win a second term in November.” While talking with sportswriters “isn’t going to convince on-the-fence voters that Obama is one of them,” the writer says, we shouldn’t “forget the connective power that sports holds in the world of politics.” The article concludes: “Obama’s ability to speak the language of sports is a major political plus for him.”
Perhaps. I definitely agree with the points about sport having tremendous connective potential and potential political value. Indeed many of them accord with the piece Kyle and I wrote. However, there is one subtler nuance or contingency that continues to pester me. It goes back to our American cultural conviction of the separation of sports and politics—that these are two domains that, for different reasons depending upon who you are talking to or the context within which they are posed, are believed to be separate (and separate for good reason).
In my research and reading, the political power of sport works best—perhaps even only works at all—when this cultural line or prohibition isn’t violated or disturbed. When it is somehow compromised, the political power and import of sport can not only go out the window, it can backfire terribly, being seen to bring politics in where it doesn’t belong. Thus, the trick and challenge for Obama—or really any politician hoping to capitalize on connections to sport—is to be seen as both an authentic and informed sports fan, but not deliberately, strategically, or intentionally political in his engagement with sporting culture.
To be clear: I think Obama’s interest in sport is genuine, and he generally does a great job of keeping his sports talk separate from his political agenda. (Look back through the transcript of that Simmons if you’re not convinced). But it’s a fine line to walk, there are plenty of folks not inclined to be sympathetic, and the more clearly the political uses and implications of his sports obsessions are made, the less effective and more dangerous I think they become. Thus, the irony of a sporting president (not to mention of any scholarly analysis of the political power of sport).
So, I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the controversy that has emerged over Newt Gingrich’s repeated use of the line that Barack Obama is the “greatest food stamp President.” If not, the main question is whether the phrase is racially motivated—that is, if it is a racial code designed to play upon white fears and resentments about African Americans in general and the President in particular. (Clearly, some of the invective hurled against the President has to do with his social difference—not just his race, but the fact that he is believed (incorrectly of course) to be an immigrant, a Muslim, and an egghead, as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson report in their new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservativism.) You can read more about the current kerfuffle is a Sociological Images post by guest blogger Jason Eastman called “Newt Racism.”
Still, as this is something you’re likely to hear more about in the wake of Gringrich’s victory in the South Carolina primaries this weekend and it’s something that I do research on, it seems like a good time for me to bring a little social scientific research and perspective to bear.
First, some basic facts about food stamps and welfare from this weekend’s Chicago Tribune. One: more whites than blacks receive food stamps (34 percent white, 22 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic, according to the Agriculture Department). Two: the racial breakdown for public assistance more generally is about 1/3 African American, 1/3 white, and 1/3 Hispanic. Three: funding for foodstamps actually started to rise under George W. Bush’s presidency, though it has increased under the current administration. And four: the percent of Americans receiving public assistance has declined dramatically since the welfare reform act of 1996 which imposed strict work requirements and a 5 year lifetime cap on benefits.
What the Tribune story didn’t say that is crucial is all of this is that welfare has long been and continues to be associated with race and with African Americans in particular. See Martin Gilens’s book Why Americans Hate Welfare. This perception is actually a key piece of information in itself—perhaps the key fact about welfare. It is, in short, racially coded. So even if Gingrich doesn’t intend it, this is how such references are likely to be understood by the majority of Americans. It may not be the only reason Gingrich continues to reference and discuss food stamps, but it is obviously part of the conversation.
The real question, of course, is not intent but effect. Do such racially coded messages matter? Do they impact politics, policies, and campaigns? According to Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card, one of the most meticulously researched studies of the phenomenon, they do. Racially coded words and phrases play upon white fears about and resentment against African Americans in order to implicitly or explicity shift public opinion on and support for various candidates, campaigns, regimes, and policy initiatives.
Mendelberg, whose initial research was occasioned by the Willie Horton ad that appeared during the 1988 Presidential campaign, based her work on a wide variety of techniques and data including simulated television news experiments, national surveys, content analyses of campaign coverage, and archival cases. Key to Mendelberg’s explanation for the phenomenon is that, in a post-civil rights era there are strong norms (of equality, fairness, individualism) that prevent overt radicalized and racist images to be referenced and mobilized; however, anti-black stereotypes and perceptions remain in place—and can be mobilized in subtle, coded ways to powerful political effect. It reminds me of the old line by Malcolm X. “Racism,” he used to say, “is like a Cadillac: they make a new one every year.” In a country that is supposedly colorblind and race neutral, driven by individual opportunity and meritocracy, it can be almost no other way.
Mendelberg’s message has one ray of hope for those interested in combating radicalized political messages coded or otherwise, though: implicitly racial messages tend to lose their appeal when their content is exposed. We shall see if this is the case in the days to come as the charges and defenses are waged.
Finally, there is another point I want to highlight: race cards don’t always work and it is not just Republicans who play them. Democrats do too, though often to different effect and for different purposes. Indeed, my own work on midnight basketball and the 1994 crime bill debates with Darren Wheelock revealed that “the race card” as it pertained to midnight basketball was not played first or even most self-consciously by Republicans. Rather, that would be left to the Democrats under the leadership of Bill Clinton during the 1994 crime bill debates. And that wasn’t exactly a winner—indeed, Republicans kind of turned that against the Democrats, and it wasn’t long before Gingrich himself unveiled the “Contract” that made him famous.