Less Transparency in Politics, Please!

I quit running half-marathons because of my RunKeeper app. During each of my half marathons, the 90’s hip-hop on my phone would be interrupted by a tinny voice reminding me that I was getting farther and farther off my two hour pace. While RunKeeper didn’t make me a sub-par distance runner, its constant quantification of my performance made me a disgruntled runner. When it comes to how fast I was running, I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know.

In my day job as a political scientist, I see parallels between my frustration with “quantified running” and our national frustration with American politics. Our impulse towards knowing without understanding is making us a society of disgruntled citizens. While the Fitbit doesn’t make us hate Congress directly, it serves as a symbol of our society’s insatiable need for information. In my case, my “need to know” resulted in slapping “analytics” onto my running that I really could have done without. In politics it leads to a relentless demand that the system be transparent and accountable at all times, even if we’re not entirely sure what we’re looking for.

What is so bad about transparency in politics or in life? Most Americans would say that we need more accountability and transparency from our political institutions, not less. In March of this past year, C-SPAN, the cable channel that shows Congress, celebrated its 35th year of broadcasting the proceedings of the House of Representatives. Six years later, C-SPAN began televising the Senate. In both cases, there has been little reflection on how these technological intrusions have affected the work of either chamber.

What underlies the public’s call for more cameras is summed up by Justice Louis Brandeis famous quote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But if this were true, why is Congress’ popularity at an all time low? Confidence in institutions has steadily eroded since the 1970’s. According to Gallup, in April of 1986, the last poll taken before C-SPAN began broadcasting the Senate proceedings, 42 percent of Americans approved of Congress. No great number, but in August of 2014, Congress’ approval rating had fallen to 13 percent. A January 2013, Public Policy Polling Survey found Congress to be less popular than, among other things, cockroaches, France and used car salesmen.

To be sure, Congressional approval ebbs and flows, but we’ve seen a steady downward trend in our view of our legislative institutions over the last three decades. While cameras in Congress hasn’t caused the decline in popularity, cameras haven’t helped.

We live in an age where technology promises to help us gain greater access to ourselves. Through apps that track our sleep, mood, fitness, food intake, blood sugar levels, etc., we are promised better living through information. But as we gain more information, do we gain greater understanding? Scientists are taught that data collection should follow from good theory. Theory is what helps us understand what we are looking for when we observe the world. In other words, scientists need a well thought out reason for collecting data, otherwise it’s just noise.

As far as politics are concerned, the majority of the American public would like more noise. A 2009 poll commissioned by C-SPAN found that 65 percent of respondents agreed there should be cameras in the United States Supreme Court. In a chapter for the 1997 book “Covering Congress, C-Span president Brian Lamb noted that 75 percent of the public approved of having cameras in the House and Senate. Lamb noted that one response to the survey suggested that “cameras should be everywhere except bathrooms.” But if we are to gain more information about Congress, are we prepared as citizens to make sense of it?

Americans in general have little interest in making sense of the noise. Political Scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse observed in 2002 that most Americans favored a system of stealth democracy where they were not called upon to participate actively in or know much about in the political process. According to surveys done by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, most Americans were less interested in transparency and more interested in “effective management” of problems like job creation or fighting terrorism.

So why the cameras if we’re really not that interested? The effect of C-SPAN cameras in Congress has been to turn every session and committee hearing into a low-intensity, reality television show. Whether C-SPAN cameras are directly to blame, It is no coincidence that the drop in Congressional approval corresponds with the advent of a 24- hour news cycle that demands to be fed information. By now, we are well aware that personal failings, flubs during speeches or grandstanding efforts like the Ted Cruz filibuster in 2013 are more impactful than the actual product of Congress. In 2014, Florida Representative Joe Garcia(D) was caught on C-SPAN’s cameras picking and eating his own ear wax. Having access to Congress on television might produce hilarity on “The Daily Show,” but at what cost?

In the Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics, UC-Berkeley historian Martin Jay argues that our demands for authenticity in politics has led separate politics from “the political.” We expect our public officials to have the same integrity, honesty and accessibility we demand from our private relationships. He finds this problematic, since “dealmaking” is a vital mechanism for arriving at compromise in American politics.

But as a public, we are uncomfortable with this idea. We want our elected officials to be beyond reproach, but because we suspect they are not, we want someone to watch them to make sure they are behaving themselves. Hence, the real “watchers” of C-SPAN are interest groups, political parties and think tanks, that are more than happy to look for ways to confirm the public’s suspicions, particularly when it comes to their opponents.

Because members of Congress know this, they seek out spaces to conduct private work. The House leadership, intuitively are aware of this. have kept rigid control over the positioning of the cameras in Congress. On numerous occasions, the House leadership, regardless of party, has ordered the cameras to be turned off or positioned away from part of the chamber. During the contentious 2003 floor vote over the Medicare prescription drug bill, the Republican leadership kept the cameras pointed towards the Democratic side of the aisle for three hours, presumably so the public would be spared the sight of the majority’s relentless arm twisting of its members.

Each emerging technology changes the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed. My run was affected by my constant quantification of its speed. On a run, the synthetic voice would interrupt my mid-nineties hip-hop to tell me that I had run the previous mile in 10:15, when I was shooting for 9:30. By knowing this piece of data, I have put a label on it. By calling it something (a “slow run” in this case) I have in a real sense reduced its value. I could have seen a beautiful sunset on that mile or had a personal insight, but by viewing through the lens of my run tracker, it became a slow mile, and nothing else.

With Congress, our perception of it is impacted by our televising its proceedings. We may not watch CSPAN but most of us like knowing its being televised because “someone will be watching.” Rather than unquestioningly embrace the accumulation of information, we should be asking ourselves, what do we want this information for and how do we intend to use it? and recognize how politics works. We don’t need to get rid of information. Instead, we need a more subtle understanding of the reasons for its collection. To be sure, there is an important place in American politics for a watchdog role. But a good watchdog knows what they are looking for and doesn’t bark at every subtle movement.

How the Internet Scooped Science (and What Science Still Has to Offer)

This week, my manuscript, co-authored by Melissa Lindquist and Julie Arnold, “Million Dollar Maybe? The Effect of Female Presence in Movies on Box Office Returns” was published online by Sociological Inquiry. It will appear in print later this year. Cross-posted at my web site.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for The Society Pages about how Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (at the time, hosted by the New York Times and now by ESPN) was carving out a new “blogger sociology.” As I wrote then, Silver writes for a new technocratic audience and produces posts with “outputs from multivariate regression analyses, resplendent with unstandardized coefficients, standard errors, and R2s.” It might not have quite the rigor of academic papers, but it yields many of the same results. Even more importantly, “Unlike academics, Silver is unburdened by the constraining forces of peer review, turgid and esoteric disciplinary jargon, and the unwieldy format of academic manuscripts. He need not kowtow to past literature, offer exacting descriptions of his methods, or explain in tedious detail how his findings contribute to existing theory.”

That essay proved prescient because on April 1, 2014, Nate Silver scooped me (how cruel to do it on April Fool’s Day!).

Well, it wasn’t exactly Nate Silver. It was Walt Hickey, a writer for FiveThirtyEight. But Hickey’s article essentially yielded that same results as a paper I’d been trying to publish since 2011. In this post, I explain how social science’s dysfunctional system of peer-review and publication inhibits the dissemination of worthwhile findings using my article as a case study. (I also point out some of the value of our system).

For the record, I really like Walt Hickey’s writing and how he has consistently raised issues of sexism in film. I don’t think he stole my idea at all. I’m also proud of the paper I wrote with two undergraduate students. This post isn’t a case of sour grapes so much as a very common backstory that we rarely hear.

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Case Study

In summer of 2010, I had read about the Bechdel Test, a test of gender representation in film conceived of by graphic artist Alison Bechdel. The test asks, “Do two or more named women talk to each other about something other than a man?” I had heard that most movies failed. As I rode my bike to work that day, I wondered whether the underrepresentation of women in film was due to audiences disliking movies featuring women or Hollywood under-funding Bechdel movies. I cooked up the idea to link a content analysis of whether movies pass the Bechdel Test with data on the movies’ box office performance, production budget, and critical appraisal. That fall and winter, two wonderful students, Melissa Lindquist and Julie Arnold, and I collected the data. In short, we found that Bechdel movies earn less at the box office, but it’s because they have smaller production budgets, not because audiences reject them. A simple study, but, I think, an interesting one.

In August 2011, we presented the paper at the American Sociological Association meeting in Las Vegas. Based on positive feedback from several people who know what they’re talking about, I shot high and sent it to one of our top two journals. Figure 1 summarizes what happened next. Some of the methodological suggestions from Top Two Journal proved helpful and I did some extensive new coding after a re-sample. However, the changes did not substantively alter the findings. Because of the critique that it was not of broad interest in sociology, I reframed it to connect with more macro-level theory about gender and submitted to Gender Journal. Gender Journal rejected it saying it didn’t tell us enough about gender in society as a whole and suggested that I aim for a more niche gender journal. To be fair, I might have done that and published it sooner, but I believed it would be of interest to a general sociology audience. I reframed it to be about larger social processes connected to gender and a gendered division of labor. I sent it to Top Five Journal and it was rejected.

Figure 1. A Brief History of An Article

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At this point, I faced facts that it wasn’t cut out for a top tier journal and that the literature review needed an overhaul. I was probably a bit demoralized, too, and had other projects, not to mention a 3-3 teaching load. So, I worked on the revision here and there and didn’t send it back out until after the school year ended in June 2013. My bad. I sent it to Journal of Regional Association and they sent back a desk R&R asking that I revise it as a Research Note, cutting the length in half. Delighted by the opportunity, I did that work in a month. Despite having to cut it in half, the reject letter said it needed more theory.

At this stage, I felt at a loss for what kind of theory people wanted … or maybe what theory even means. I’m all for theory – sociology shouldn’t be an archipelago of unlinked empircs – and, like others, I worry about the loss of social theory as a subfield. At the same time, every article can’t do everything. Journals should evaluate theory and make sure that data and theory make sense together, but reviewers shouldn’t be selecting on whether their pet theory is used.

In Jan. 2014, I sent it to Sociological Inquiry (once again as a full article) where it would ultimately be published. While it was being reviewed, the Hickey piece came out. One reviewer for Sociological Inquiry recommended acceptance and in the Comments section wrote, “Nothing in particular.” Best. Reviewer. Ever. The two other reviewers were very helpful and suggested using Griswold’s “cultural diamond” and Acker’s “gendered organizations.” I believe that applying these literatures improved the manuscript greatly.

What It Says About Science

My point is not that I was treated badly. Rather, there is nothing abnormal about this story. Every academic has a story to tell like this one. My study wasn’t and isn’t the best one ever and I probably aimed a bit too high initially. But after the Top Two Journal Submission, the critiques were not methodological. All the critiques were about theoretical framing. How many competent empirical studies are being held up as the authors revise to find a framing that suits everybody’s fancy? How many of us get demoralized by the process and dump a worthwhile manuscript in a drawer? How many important findings does the world not know about right now because of a review process where the wheels turn too slowly?

By contrast, from initial data collection to publication took Hickey about a month (Personal Communication). The FiveThirtyEight model is scooping sociology because we’re too damn slow and obsessed with “theoretical framings.” Some efforts like Sociological Science are speeding that process up (30 days guaranteed!). And in the natural sciences, arXiv allows people to post working papers and then vote them up. Meanwhile, our predominant model is broken.

Where Science Wins

No offense to Hickey and FiveThirtyEight, but my paper with Melissa and Julie is better than his post in some ways. Our dataset is not a convenience sample. It is a population of the hundred most widely-distributed films for a decade. Our codings probably have higher reliability than what comes from a crowdsourced web site. And the literature illuminates the social meaning of the findings more fully.

But the findings are the same. On a friend’s comprehensive exams, one of the questions was, “What is one thing we have learned from multi-level modeling that we wouldn’t have known anyway?” There is a good answer to that question, but it’s limited. As a field, we need to consider how much all our fussiness over methods and theory is worth it. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” wrote one of our great theorists. It’s hard to change the world much if many of our empirical findings are still under review.

What do you think? What can we be doing as researchers, peer reviewers, and as a scientific community to address these issues?

Punctuated Equilibria and Social Media

A seminal book in I read in grad school many, many years ago, was baumgartner and Jones’ Agendas and Instability in American Politics, Second Edition . They offered what seemed a logical and comforting view of the American political system and how/when policy changed occurred. They argued that the underlying dynamics of the system were quite stable and change happened incrementally, but there were periods where vast social and cultural upheaval produced dramatic and systematic policy change. They called their theory “punctuated equlibrium“… a theory borrowed from evolutionary biology to explain why some species had sudden bursts of genetic adaptations after long periods of stasis.

In politics, social “shocks” to the system force the sytsem to adapt by reorient our expectations about what government can and should be able to do.

Here’s a question I’m wrestling with. What role does social media play in the political “adaptation process”? Does it diffuse the pressure that might otherwise be placed on the system to bring about change? Or does it amplify it in ways that will inevitably lead to a much different system than we have today?

You can reasonably make a case for either. In the first instance, you can say that social media produces political “chatter” that isn’t often funneled through formal advocacy or institutional groups that have the capacity to act on emerging themes. As such the “issue attention cycle” never gets past the “discovery” phase into actual attempts at problem solving and the agenda gets set by those with the strong incentives and financial ability to stay engaged.

The other case, maybe the “pro” social media case, is that for a platform like Twitter that has a high degree of sharing between networks, the medium can serve to reinforce norms. of sincerity, fairness and tolerance. This is particularly evident when corporations or celebrities use Twitter or Instagram to “reach out to fans” and instead get “trolled.” These efforts at a form of cultural rectitude may seem like actions at the margin, but as evolutionary biologists point out, those on the margins of a species’ population are often the impetus for systemic change.

Hashtag Politics

I’ve spent the day reading journal articles, both popular and academic, about the political importance of twitter.

Twitter has grown so precipitously in the last few years because it resolves the “problem of voice” in many societies. Put simply, we all want to be heard, but we don’t know how to articulate what we believe, see or experience or we don’t have the megaphone to put those perceptions out to the mass public.

By giving you a medium that, in its architecture, allows you to quickly and effectively proclaim yourself, Twitter provides a way to “talk to the world” by allowing you to follow or be followed by a vast number of people. It is broadcasting in a way that Facebook isn’t, since it is based on social proximity. In addition, Twitter’s 140 character limit forces you to be pithy. The economy of words, as Orwell or Hemmingway would attest, increases the impact of the narrative being presented.

Whereas Blogs or Facebook are roundhouses, Twitter is a quick jab. But as fans of boxing know, the accumulation of jabs can be very effective in setting up the big punch. Hashtags allow a barrage of jabs to breakthrough the attention economy, by allowing the accumulation of voices in one package.

But does this mass expression of voice change anything. The jabs have to be followed up with something more substantial. It requires an organizational infrastructure that can build upon the agenda setting success of a viral hashtag campaign to mobilize voters, raise money or pressure elected officials.

This part of “hashtag activism” is not well understood. How does Twitter modify or subvert the traditional policy making process? Agenda setting has always been a part of this process, but new technology is impacting it in poorly understood ways.

My New Years Resolution

I’m going to spend more time on this blog in 2015.

I’m going to do this with great skepticism and trepidation. I’m 45 and tenured — the quintessential “mid-career professional.” I’m probably not alone among those in my profession wondering to themselves “how do I continue to add value to my profession, my students, my institution, my friends and family, my community and the world.”

After the requisite week of “new years resolution,” I’ve answered this question for myself by committing to redoubling my efforts to build a public voice through this blog and other media. There are numerous other things I could do than try to hastily put out premature ideas to meet some abstract quota. My approach to blogging has been to be pithy and quick. To save the “slow thinking” for book chapters and journal articles. Doing this, I’ve met with marginal response from the “world out there.” Often times I’ve thought that my blogging did more harm than good, believing that it does nothing more than present me and my “ideas in progress” to the world as a “thin intellectual.”

Over time, my post frequency dwindled as my professional and personal duties increased. But if I’m honest, I stopped posting regularly because I felt as if I had less and less to say to fewer and fewer who would listen. This might be the existential crisis of most academics who fear their less that their labor will fall on hostile ears and more that they will fall on no ears at all.

I know it is just another in a teeming ecosystem of voices and it may land imperceptibly on indifferent ears, but I’m willing to try it again with more fervor. I come back to Camus’ call to make meaning of humanity’s absurdity. If we are all like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it fall back down over an over again, then I’ll put my tendonits-plagued shoulder to the task in the hope that it makes a marginal difference.

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me A Map…A 2016 Electoral Map

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US Electoral Maps 1952-2012

There’s a long road to the 2016 election, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Much is being said about changing state demographics and psychographics and how it will affect the electoral map. Chris Ladd sounded the alarm in his post-2014 analysis, noting the electorally rich Blue Wall and the electorally sparse Red Fortress. Many argue that leadership can cause blue states to turn over, but the swing state math means putting a diverse set of states into play. This would mean states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico from the West; Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio from the Midwest; Virginia; and Florida.

The ideological rhetorics in #hashtaggable quips have solidified over the years to create meanings for ideological clusters. Perhaps the thorniest issue for both parties will be the size and scope of the government. Pew has been developing political typologies for about 25 years and the latest highlights political fragmentation:

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The GOP is faced with two factions that want different things. The Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives differ on social issues and immigration. There isn’t a core, but 2 cores that are distinct. The populist aspect of the Steadfast Conservatives can make Business Conservatives uneasy when there’s talk of going after crony capitalism and use of rhetoric like Codevilla’s “country class” versus “ruling class” dichotomy. Republicans could court Young Outsiders, but would need to moderate on social issues. The Faith & Family Left are religious and have concerns about the country’s morality, but are proponents of the social safety net, as are the Hard-Pressed Skeptics. Democrat core typologies also create factions of Solid Liberals, Next Generation Left, and the Faith & Family Left.

I think we’re guaranteed to see the Obama Administration systematically lobbing issues at the right to create tensions between Steadfast and Business Conservatives. I would surmise that part of the strategy is to get Republicans to despise their own opposing faction and set up a particularly brutal primary season with the tagline of Who Is Most Conservative? Already, the Twittersphere and punditsphere are calling into question Chris Christie or Jeb Bush’s qualifications as true conservatives. In the power struggle, it’s not as if either side will defect from the GOP (both came out or Romney in 2012 & Republican Congressional candidates in 2014). The danger is turning off the other political typologies. While Republicans made inroads with the 2014 election with respect to all of the typologies, it was without a center ring battle of what the party represents and its platform:

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The Democrats might have a few more degrees of freedom with respect to strategizing in the next 20 months. They can never be a “small” or “anti” government party, but they could articulate being a “smart” government party knowing full well that they will never convince their detractors. This would allow inroads in swing states into the Next Generation Left, the Hard-Pressed Skeptics, and the Young Outsiders. Of course, a shift could occur and these political typologies might morph or dissolve with new ones forming.

It will be interesting how things shape up in 2015.

 

Methinks the Grinches Doth Protest Too Much

In this week’s NYT Sunday Review, Arthur C. Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) cites Pew polls figures showing that Americans are bothered by the commercialization and consumerism of the Christmas season. Brooks explains it away saying, “The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of the year is not an objection to the abundance … [but rather] a healthy hunger for nonattachment.” Like any self-respecting enlightened capitalist, he makes a superficial nod toward Eastern philosophy and tells us to “collect experiences, not things” (easy when you have nice things like groceries). Good advice, but it’s lost in the mix when he forgives all capitalist excesses because they allow for poverty amelioration: “This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty…” The whole op-ed is fairly nonsensical but the sort of the thing you’d expect from the President of AEI. You might hope that the NYT would choose a better lead story for their Sunday Review on the week that saw the release of the Congressional report on the use of torture, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, and a massive Justice for All March in D.C.

I do wonder what it means that a nation of such avid consumers is so horribly troubled by consumption during the Christmas season. Jean Baudrillard once argued that Disneyland exists so that Americans can identify it as fake, allowing us to avoid facing the overwhelming unreality of life in America as a whole. Do our critiques of consumerism around Christmas serve the same function? Perhaps we condemn consumerism within the sacred space of December as a way of making consumerism during the eleven profane months more acceptable. The only thing that makes Zen master Brooks different is that he revels in our “abundance” (that’s enlightened capitalist code for buying shiny crapola) all year. He’s all too happy to spread the profane.

I tend the other way. It doesn’t bother me that Christmas cranks consumerism up to 11. It would be fine if we went on a sweater-buying frenzy for a month out of the year if we didn’t drive gas-guzzling cars and live in giant houses and get trapped in a work-spend cycle the rest of the year. What concerns me is that we keep Christmas consumerism in our hearts all the year round. In other words, many of our concerns about Christmas consumerism are misplaced, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about consumption in general. Now, back to my Christmas shopping …

The Political Genius of Obama’s Immigration Action

I may be off base here, but President Obama’s executive order to defer action on deportation to roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants is a political masterstroke (whether or not it’s good governance or constitutional is a separate issue).

It’s brilliant because it gives millions of US citizen children with undocumented parents a strong reason to register and vote in 2016. Further it gives the US citizen relatives of undocumented parents a reason to register. It gives resident aliens connected to undocumented parents a reason to apply for citizenship and finally, it gives undocumented people the impetus to knock on doors and make phone calls for Democratic candidates in 2016.

It does this because it’s a temporary reprise from the threat of deportation. The political success of this strategy hinges on the inability of Republicans to act on immigration reform. If Congress can’t pass immigration reform legislation, then the status of 5 million undocumented immigrants hinges on the continuation of an executive branch policy that defers action on their status. This would be a strong motivator for a Democratic presidential candidate to pledge to continue the president’s deferred action policy.

If the strategy relies on Republicans inaction then so far, so good. Mitch McConell wasn’t wrong when he said the president’s action would make immigration reform more difficult to pass in Congress. Case in point, a Quinnipiac University poll that shows Republican support for a “path to citizenship” has fallen precipitously since Obama’s executive action last week.

This Republican disapproval is exactly what the administration needed for this action to work politically. It’s a clever form of political ju-jitzu from President Obama — use the opposition party’s abject hatred for you to drive down Republican support for Congressional action thereby making it impossible for the Republican majority to pass a bill and therefore locking the Democrats in as the “Immigration party.” With a favorable electoral map in 2016, this can only boost the chances of Latinos turning out to vote for Democrats. While it might create counter mobilization on the other sidde, nothing is a powerful a motivator as “go vote, or tia and tio will get deported.

The Democratic Wilderness

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts on last Tuesday’s mid-terms. It was a profound defeat for the Democrats, not simply because of the loss in the Senate and the gains in the House (the largest Republican margin since 1929), but because of decisive victories in state legislatures and governorships.

From an objective policy perspective, the Democrats don’t deserve this type of treatment. It took a costly, ill-advised war in Iraq and the biggest financial meltdown in a century for voters to sour on the Republican party. By contrast, the list of Democratic party sins seem tiny in comparison (a health care plan that has produced mixed results, a mixed economic picture and an unsteady yet uneventful foreign policy). Stepping back, it’s hard to understand why voters are so angry that a vast majority want the Republicans back in charge.

What I keep circling back to is branding. The biggest failing of the current Democratic president is his inability to help his party build a strong, consistent message about what the Democrats believe in. Ronald Reagan was singularly effective at building the Republican party brand as small government/strong defense. It was such an effective packaging that Bill Clinton sought to borrow elements of it to repackage the Democrats as the party of “smart government.”

President Obama has been much less effective in helping cultivate a party brand by turning his legislative accomplishments into a digestable package. To the extent he was successful in his re-election efforts, he was able to reinforce the Clinton-era brand for the party as the party of “smart government.” He even seemed to be pinning back the Republicans in the wake of the government shutdown fight. That is until the Obamacare website fiasco created an opening for Republicans to paint the administration as incompetent.

The subsequent dip in the polls and the bad Senate map led the party to run en-masse away from the president and his record. In it stead, the party fielded or defended a set of candidates with muddled, inconsistent messages for voters. The strategy was to allow individual candidates to run as themselves rather than under their party brand. This approach might have won 20 years ago when parties weren’t “perfectly sorted” by ideology, but the impact of a candidate-centered approach is to further confuse your brand and make it more difficult for turnout operations to work because their party fervor isn’t backed by the candidate.

No matter how sophisticated the big-data infused micro-targeting techniques, party politics is still about motivating people. Even if you can get the “true believers” to knock on doors, they have to have something meaningful to say. More likely, bushels of dark money can be used to pay people to knock on doors. But what they say has to resonate. As Rasmus Klein Nielsen points out in Ground Wars, a useful book about the 2008 campaign, face-to-face communication has become increasingly prevalent in the microtargeting era. Increasingly, people are delivering political messages in elections. This corresponds with the growing body of political science literature that identifies this type of personal contact as most effective in political campaigns. Nielsen notes how much commitment is required of a get out the vote effort:

Contacting approximately 100 million people across the nation, as the numerous campaign assemblages that faced off at various levels during the 2008 elections did, takes about 33 million hours of work.

What gets 33 million hours of work done? Money? Absolutely. But the money doesn’t buy the commitment or the message. This mid-term election, when a Republican volunteer knocked on a door, they could deliver the 1-2 punch of their brand strength (small government, pro business) and the failure of the Democrats to live up to their brand (not-so-smart government). When a Democratic volunteer knocked on the door, they had nothing impactful they could say to their voters.

This isn’t because the Democrats don’t have a list of accomplishments. It’s because they still lack a language to articulate what they have accomplished. Politics are still at their base about ideas. Republicans have ideas about the role of government that are clearly understandable to the public. They skillfully downplayed the social conservative aspects of their party’s beliefs to capture middle-ground voters who are more concerned about job-growth. Democrats have ideas too. But President Obama’s skill as a public speaker hasn’t translated into a skill as a communicator. What has resulted is a party that provides tepid at best and non-existent at worst defense of an activist government. The era of candidate-centered politics is over. Democrats have little time to figure out who they are or they might be in the political wilderness for a generation.

What I Learned in the Midwest

Six years ago, my wife and I moved to Fargo, North Dakota for my job at Concordia College across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, my view of the country looked a lot like the famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
New Yorker's View of the World

As a kid, a friend’s father tried to convince us that North Dakota didn’t exist (a take on the Bielefeld Conspiracy gag) and it seemed somewhat plausible. Even as I prepared to move, most of my understanding of Minnesota was informed by The Mighty Ducks and, like most people, what little I knew about North Dakota came from the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo. In other words, I was profoundly ignorant about the people, the culture, and the geography of our new home.

Six years later, in early June of this year, my wife and I packed up and moved back east to Saratoga Springs, NY for my new position at Skidmore College. In that time, I have had the pleasure of teaching many remarkable students and working alongside some wonderful colleagues. We have made lifelong friendships with people who are smart, progressive, and cosmopolitan, and who violate nearly all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners (except for calling soda “pop” — that’s actually real).

I’ve learned an incredible amount during these years and have come away with some perspective that I don’t think I would’ve had if I’d never left the East Coast. Here are four important things I’ve learned from living in the Midwest:

1. There is no Midwest. Ohio is different from Michigan, which is different from Minnesota. But Grand Rapids, MN in the Iron Range is also different from Minneapolis. Indeed, some of the identity of being an Iron Ranger is constructed in opposition to the culture of people from “The Cities.” While most Minnesotans and North Dakotans I know identify as Midwestern, evidence shows the percentages identifying as Midwestern are lower than for people living in Indiana. In my experience, North Dakotans especially are more likely to specify that they’re from the “Upper Midwest.”

But when it comes to understanding “the culture of the Midwest,” the divides of urban and rural, major city and small city are far more profound than the differences between Midwest and East Coast. The cultural difference between Chicago and NYC is smaller than the cultural distance from Minot, ND and St. Paul, MN. The caveat I would offer is that many urban dwellers in the Midwest are only a generation or two removed from a farm and tend to have greater familiarity with rural life than I have encountered in the East.

An important lesson to an ignorant East Coaster like myself is that “The Midwest” is far from monolithic.

2. If the American Dream is alive anywhere, it’s in the Midwest. With a little help from a 577 page surprise bestseller by a French economist with a name we’re stilling learning to pronounce correctly, we’re in the midst of a national conversation about inequality. It is now well-established that income and wealth inequalities are as great as they have been since the Gilded Age and that the extent of inequality is far greater in the U.S. than in Europe. Likewise (or perhaps consequently), the United States has much lower social mobility than Europe or Canada. Many social scientists and political figures alike fear that the toxic combination of high inequality and low social mobility seriously jeopardizes the dual promises of meritocracy and middle class prosperity that make up the American Dream.

But social scientists have also shown the United States is not uniformly unequal. As the Equality of Opportunity Project has shown, the states of the western Midwest (WI, MN, ND, SD, NE, IA, MT) are among the most equal and socially mobile in the country (see figure).
Social Mobility

Though I grew up with it, when I go back to New York or New Jersey now, I’m stunned by both the concentrated poverty and the extreme wealth. Fargo, a city of almost 200,000, has a booming economy and one of the largest Microsoft campuses and still can’t support a Banana Republic. Meanwhile, nine of the forty-five Gucci stores in America are within 20 miles of each other in the New York area. Of course, major Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, have greater wealth and poverty, but they simply cannot compare to the intergenerational durability of wealth and permanence of poverty in either the Northeast or, especially, the South. If the American Dream of hard work and upward mobility is alive anywhere today, it’s in the Midwest (actually, it’s in Denmark or Norway where social mobility is much greater).

3. The Midwest has a deserved chip on its shoulder. The nation’s centers of power are on the coasts. The economy and the press are in New York. The government and military are in D.C. The culture industry is in L.A. And over half the nation’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast (39% live in coastal counties representing less than 10% of the country’s land (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/population.html)). As a result, the Midwest (especially the Upper Midwest) is too often neglected. A snowflake falls in Midtown Manhattan and CNN flies into crisis mode. It takes serious devastation (or an absolutely massive oil boom) for the Coastal press to take notice of little ol’ North Dakota.

One of the more cringe-inducing experiences in Fargo is seeing a visiting band or comedian take the stage and make a hackneyed joke along the lines of “Wow. I’m in Fargo. It sure is cold!” And here’s the thing: the crowd eats it up! Because it’s a form of recognition. All that talk about the “real America” from the likes of Sarah Palin? Those are desperate cries that “hey, we count, too!” Especially in places like Fargo, what I’d call “place entrepreneurs” engage in active PR campaigns to show that life isn’t as bad as you think way out here (e.g., the #ilovefargo hashtag on Twitter started by a local urban promoter).

There’s a defensiveness in the region that stems from a real neglect and a feeling of disempowerment. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that feeling of disempowerment is somewhat counteracted by the highly disproportional representation that these largely low population areas have in Congress (Obamacare’s “public option,” for example, was taken out of the bill by seven Senators representing 3.6% of the U.S. population).

4. It is a Christian country in the Upper Midwest. An acquaintance, a mother of two small children, told me a story about her move from Connecticut to Fargo. She enrolled her kids in a non-religiously-affiliated day care in Fargo and when she picked them up during the middle of the day, she found that they were saying a prayer before snack time. None of the parents seemed to have a problem with it. She pointed out that in CT, the parents would have flipped out. Now, it’s not because everybody in North Dakota is a pious Christian, but because Christianity is so assumed as a part of everyday life that having a quick prayer shouldn’t bother anybody. The level of diversity in CT makes that unthinkable. As one of the chaplains at Concordia College once told me, “this is Christendom.” It does not operate at the level of aggressive evangelism (in fact, most people I knew are progressive Lutherans). Rather, Christian is taken to be the default category.

The two facts that define New York and New Jersey where I grew up are incredible diversity and extreme inequality. I grew up with a lot of secular Jews and, during the December holiday season, the schools took great pains to have as many menorahs as Santas. Like the rest of the country, all parts of the Midwest are becoming more racially and religiously diverse. So, Christendom is in decline even the Upper Midwest, but there is not the public secularity of the East or the West coasts.


To many Midwesterners, these points may be blindingly obvious, but they are things I couldn’t see as an East Coaster. From my conversations with other coastal folk, I’m not alone. So, thank you to my Midwestern friends who put up with a loudmouthed New Jerseyan and taught me more about my country. To my East Coast friends and family, let’s try to reject that New Yorker cover vision of America.