Author Archives: jose

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.

Is there Such a Thing as a “Tinder for Democracy”?

I have an curiosity about Tinder (strictly academic — I’m happily married), a dating app that lets you find singles (or “singles”) in your immediate vicinity and allows you to quickly zero in on the one you find most attractive.

An article in BetaBeat details how the site works:

You pick a gender (male, female or both), then decide how far or close you want them to be (10 to 100 miles away) and how old (18 to 50+.) It’s like ordering pizza. You can also write a tagline to describe yourself and add a few more photos for people who want to learn more about you(r looks) before making their choice.

Swipe right if you approve of someone’s appearance. Swipe left if you’re not into them. If you reject someone, the poor schmuck won’t be able to contact you. But if you both swipe right, you’ll be able to chat up a storm until you make plans for drinks at a mutually agreeable location.

What fascinates me about Tinder is that it’s a simple, elegant app that does one thing, facilitate hooking up. Across the world, organizations and city governments are engaging in “hackathons” designed to build apps to help solve civic problems. The White house just concluded their National Day of Civic Hacking where programmers/coders in 103 cities set to work on solving civic problems. The coders created an impressive set of apps and sites designed to address pressing local and regional issues. However, none of these projects, as important as they are will have the social impact of a “hookup app.”

I’m afraid our efforts to change political dynamics using social media is still reckoning with a question posted in a tweet by Jeff Jarvis:

Soccer Isn’t Popular in the US Because the Wrong People Watch it

If you listen to traditional media channels, you may be surprised to learn that soccer is actually a pretty big deal in the United States. Take for instance, Stephen Dubner’s usually engaging and informative Freakonomics radio, who trotted out a tired canard about how unpopular soccer is in the United States. The story starts with the ludicrous notion that the World Cup is unpopular because it isn’t American football.

It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final.

I believe this is known as a “straw man” argument. Soccer is not as popular as American football? Nothing is as popular as American football! The 24.3. million people tuned in to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (a 41 percent increase over the 2006 cup, by the Way) is comparable to Game 7 of the 2013 NBA finals which captured 26 million viewers and more than the final game of the 2013 World Series which captured 19.2 million viewers. By contrast, it is much great than the 8.2 million that watched the last game of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. By Dubner’s ludicrous standard, no sport is popular in the United States because it isn’t American football.

Later on, Dubner cites a Harris poll noting that only three percent of Americans cite soccer as their favorite sport compared to 30 percent who cite Pro Football and 11 percent who cite College Football. More straw man. That same poll reports that only 4 percent cite hockey as their favorite sport and 7 percent cite basketball. Not to mention that this was an online poll conducted in English.. but we’ll get to that.

This is why a more interesting conversation about soccer in the United States has shifted from “soccer isn’t popular” to “soccer is only popular every four years.” Political Scientist Andrei Markovitz talks of the Olypianization of soccer, whereby Americans tune in to the big event (World Cup) every four years and ignore the sport in the interim (kinda like American politics.. sorry couldn’t resist). But even that isn’t true… the landscape is shifting rapidly, only it’s a little hard to tell because soccer is so fragmented.

First, soccer is a global game so it’s played all over the world. Second, the way soccer works is that there are really two leagues, one based on clubs and one based on country. The biggest event for countries is this month’s World Cup, but national teams play in tournaments between World Cups. There are regional tournaments aside from qualification for the World Cup itself. In the Central American, Caribbean and North American region — CONCACAF, there’s a tournament called the Gold Cup. In South American it’s called Copa Libertadores America, in Africa it’s the African Cup of Nations, and so on… In the US, these tournaments do pretty well. The CONCACAF gold cup does respectable, if not spectacular, ratings on TV in the United States. In 2013, 4.9 million people watched the final between the US and Panama. The 2012 Euro Cup averaged over 1 million viewers on ESPN, double that of 2008.

The other type of competition in world soccer is league competitions. Here, soccer is gaining ground as well. If you compare the TV ratings of any one soccer league to traditional US sports, they don’t fare well. In the 2012 regular season, the NBA average a rating of 3.3 (roughly between 3-4 million US households). That’s a pretty strong compared to the ratings of our domestic soccer league (Major League Soccer – MLS’s). MLS’s meager ratings of between 100,000 and 300,000 households seems small. But the soccer space in the US is divided between a number of leagues. So to be fair, you add MLS’ 200,000 viewers to the 500,000 to 700,000 that watch the English Premiere League on Saturday mornings and the 800,000 to 1,000,000 that watch the Mexican League (LIGA MX) and soccer on a regular basis begins to approach the NBA in magnitude.

So why the view that the sport is irrelevant, even among people who should know better? The perception that soccer is “small time” in the US sports landscape is driven by two key factors. One, its popularity is fragmented as I’ve already discussed, so there’s not one league to focus on, bur rather a multitude of “foreign” leagues to discuss. But I think the other explanation is more pernicious, its perception comes for society’s sustained marginalization of “foreigners,” particularly Mexican immigrants in the United States. It is a means of drawing boundaries of “Americanness” around sports. Unwittingly, it is a way of identifying based on identity groups that suggest race and ethnic categorization, but do not explicitly state it.

Most telling in the Freakonomics radio piece is this throwaway line where Dubner’s doubts the prospect of soccer becoming as popular as American football.. as if that were the standard:

let’s be honest, it probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the US have some kind of tie to Europe or South America or Africa.

This is intended to suggest that only those with close ties to “foreigners” appreciate the game.. a fallacy that need it’s own unpacking. But let’s take this at face value. Does he realize how many people he is talking about? There are roughly 50 million Latinos in the United States, many of whom “have strong ties” to soccer loving countries, primarily Mexico. I’m sure a smart guy like Dubner knows that Mexico is actually in North America so the exclusion of Mexico must be because it doesn’t fit the narrative they are trying to tell about the unpopularity of the sport.

Here’s the problem: Soccer is enjoyed by people who inhabit the United States, but because many of those people may be first or second generation immigrants, and in many cases many not speak English or have English as a primary language, it’s not culturally relevant to include in debates about the popularity of sport. Close to 5 million people in the US watched the Liga MX (Mexican soccer league) final between Leon and Pachuca, a number that compares favorably with the ratings for MLB playoff games, but it’s irrelevant because either it was watched in Spanish or watched by Spanish-speakers, I’m not sure which.

Sports media constantly refer to a “big four” American sports (Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey). Soccer when mentioned is still talked about as a foreign entity. A few days ago ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon opined that US National Soccer Team coach Jurgen Klinsman to “get the hell out of America” because he suggested Kobe Bryant should not be given a contract extension based on past performance. The inference was that this foreigner shouldn’t be commenting on American games.

YouTube Preview Image

So if a person on US soil watches a game in Spanish, are they a foreigner? Are they tuning in to a sport broadcast in a foreign language and that’s what makes it foreign? This narrative of a “big four” underscores a troubling assumption. A sport is only truly “popular” in the United States if English-speaking, native born people follow it. When they do, then we can call it an “American sport.” I’d argue that there is a deep cultural marginalization going on when the preferred sport of the largest-minority ethnic group in the United States is viewed as marginal because it’s not viewed by “the wrong people.” To say people don’t follow soccer in the United States is a veiled way of saying that it’s not viewed by people that matter.

The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has a great term for what I think is going on: white habitus. This is the idea that the “separate residential and culture life” (103) of Whites creates a:

“racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104)

A habitus that reinforces notions of what cultural norms and tastes are “American” and which are “foreign” is reinforced by this social and cultural isolation. To personally not like the game isn’t evidence of cultural bias, but arguing that the sport isn’t popular even when there is evidence to the contrary, suggests an ignorance derived from cultural isolation. Commentators on traditional media outlets (ESPN and FOX, for instance) as a space of cultural life reinforces the idea that to be American means to follow some sports and not others. Mike Wilbon is paid to “act a fool” for lack of a better term, but that doesn’t mean that he’s being culturally arrogant when he claims to know what constitutes an “American” sport. Things are changing however and I suspect that if four year’s time, when the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, I won’t be compelled to write a post like this.

The Republican’s Latino Problem

Danny Vinik at the New Repubic has an interesting piece that makes the claim that the Republican Party’s problem with Latinos rest less on immigration reform and more on social spending and persistent messaging that is perceived as hostile to Latinos. The problem is more with the party’s base than with the party leadership:

The Brookings/PRRI poll found that 50 percent of Republicans believe immigrants are a burden on the country, compared to just 44 percent who say they strengthen the nation. On the other hand, 73 percent of Democrats say that immigrants strengthen the country.

This statistic highlights a dilemma for the party, appeal to a big chunk of the party base that is hostile to immigrants while attracting those immigrants to begin with. In the past, this dilemma was resolved by parties through patronage. David Roediger’s brilliant book, the Wages of Whiteness, tells of the patronage system as a ladder of opportunity for Irish immigrants, one many found more preferable than partnering with blacks to agitate for better wages. Hence, they chose the “wages of Whiteness” over actual wages. Neither the Republicans or the Democrats have patronage to give. I’m skeptical that an “improvement of manners,” to quote Richard Rorty, would do much to change the political equation.

How Healthy is Your Democracy?

If you’re not busy and are interested in democratic outcomes, you should really read this important piece by Ben Page and Martin Gilens.

The authors test four preeminent theories of democratic influence in which different actors have disproportionate influence in the American political system (average voters, economic elites, general interest groups and business oriented interest groups). Here’s the takeaway:

Economic elite policy preferences strongly correlate with “average” citizen policy preferences, but aggregated interest groups preferences do not. Business interest group influence does not always correlate with economic elite influence (economic elites want all government spending reduced and business interest groups want spending on their areas of influence).

When it comes of policy outcomes, economic elites and interest groups have the most influence…

a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable (see the bottom two panels of Figure 1.)

This is an empirical confirmation of my “NCAA Tournament” view of American politics. The “3 seed” usually beats the “14th seed,” but not always. A good way of measuring democratic health is how often “bracket busters” occur.

Search for a New Journal Editor – Journal of Integrated Social Sciences

The Journal of Integrated Social Sciences (JISS) is searching for a new Political Science editor. The journal is a web-based, peer-reviewed international journal committed to the scholarly investigation of social phenomena.

In particular, JISS aims to predominantly publish work within the following social science disciplines: Psychology, Political Sciences, Sociology, and Gender Studies. A further goal of JISS is to encourage work that unites these disciplines by being either (a) interdisciplinary, (b) holistically oriented, or (c) captive of the transformative (developmental) nature of social phenomena. Aside from the theoretical implications of a particular study, we are also interested in serious reflections upon the specific methodology employed – and its implications on the results. JISS encourages undergraduate and graduate students to submit their best work under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. More details can be found at www.jiss.org.

General responsibilities include:

• The day to day running of the journal political science editorial office, including managing article peer review, liaison with authors, editing of articles, and preparation of editorial copy.
• Contributing to strategic development of the Journal
• Attracting submissions and themed issue proposals to the journal to ensure continued relevance and quality of content
• Promotional activities, including attending conferences

To make an application, you will need to send a statement outlining your reasons for seeking the position, and overall objectives as political science editor of JISS.

To discuss further or submit an application, please contact Dr. Jose Marichal (current Political Science Divisional Editor of JISS) ~ marichal@clunet.edu.

Turning Away from Football

Andrew’s insightful post about the Martin/Incognito issue has prompted me to think more deeply about my personal relationship with football. About three weeks ago, I decided to “quit football.” This is a particularly challenging time to do this since Florida State University, my alma-mater, is having it’s most successful season in recent memory and quite possible might make it to the national championship game.

I haven’t entirely been able to articulate the reasons for my decision. I thought for a time it was the CTE head-injury issues plaguing the league. And while that is a big reason why I’m turning my back on the sport, it’s not the whole reason. To say I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance would flatter me too much. I’m a self-identified feminist that on a regular basis is compelled listen to Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die album (I’m particularly hooked on “The What” and “Unbelievable” at the moment.

In truth, I’ve been distancing myself from football for a while. And it’s not because of the Martin/Incognito issue. I’ve seen lots of condemnation about a “hyper-macho” culture in the NFL. But let’s be real, it’s not like the NFL suddenly became hyper-masculine. It has always been this way. What makes it the 800-lb gorilla of sports and culture is it’s projection of an almost unreachable masculinity. An ideal form of masculinity that we can view from a distance.

What’s more, we use it as a currency. We use it to brandish a form of masculine “street-cred” that matters a lot in some places. I grew up outside of Miami in what would be called a “lower-middle class” suburb. There was a whole lot of projection of masculinity. one way to “feel masculine” or to “be masculine” was to throw myself headlong into a love of the Miami Dolphins. That’s not the main reason I threw things across the room when Dan Marino threw a pick or Andra Franklin fumbled on the three yard line, but the fact that a love of football made me “one of the guys” didn’t hurt.

My struggle with turning my back on the sport I worshiped as a kid is likely informed by my place in life. As a middle-aged husband and father of a nine year old girl, I don’t need to tap into the idealized version of masculinity that football presents.

But low testosterone notwithstanding, I think that my decline in interest comes more from the selling of the game than the game itself. The selling of the game has increasingly mirrored they bluster and hyper-masculinity of the game itself. This wasn’t always the case. As an example, watch this CBS’ NFL pre-game show The NFL Today from September 1981.

The presentation seems remarkably muted. But this muted presentation made the game itself the spectacle. But today’s coverage of the NFL almost dwarfs the game itself. ESPN has daily, if not hourly, programming that covers Sunday’s games. The game itself seems to exist simply to provide fodder for the chatter about the game during the week. Check out any “take” by ESPN analysts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. These guys might be outliers of feigned passion and intensity, but they are indicative of a media culture that feels it needs to be as newsworthy as the news they cover. In this way, it seems a lot like standard critiques of the news media’s coverage of American politics.

I’ll always love football. What is appealing about football is the necessity to perform demanding intellectual tasks under intense physical and emotional duress. Reading a coverage, knowing when to ‘break a route” or figuring out who to pick up on a blitz are all the equivalent of brain-teasers happening at 100 miles an hour. Although strength and speed are a must, football is a “smart person’s” game.

But the increasing wall-to-wall coverage, the emphasis on the personalities covering the game rather than the game itself and (most importantly) the increasing evidence that playing football for sustained periods of time can lead to irreversible brain injury, has made the sport feel less mythic, less like an idealized notion of masculinity and more a stylized, exploitative version of its former self. It feels more like a simulacra of masculinity rather than an earnest production of it.

For me, there’s a legitimate societal role for the brand of “toughness” the NFL markets. To often it gets dismissed as a retrograde and archaic view of the world. The problem is not the toughness itself, is the cultural primacy of the toughness and its attachment to specific genders and sexes. As Andrew rightly points out, Brandon Marshall is making an important sociological point about how we talk to boys and girls. We should want them to both cry and “shake it off,” not either/or. But for me, any lesson the NFL could teach boys and girls about toughness is getting muddled by a lack of concern for player safety and an off-putting presentation of the product.

Donkey Kong with a Female Hero

This makes me want to learn code.

Aside from being a jealous parent of a daughter, I’m struck by how powerful it looks to have a childhood staple re-articulated to reflect more egalitarian norms.

HT: Cory Doctrow

This is How the Internet has Redefined Resistance

A Harlem Shake video reportedly in from of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Egypt.

HT: Andrew Sullivan

The Filibuster is Back!

Pet rocks, drive-in theaters, 8-track players and Senate filibusters. One of these four things made a triumphant return to the Senate yesterday. Rand Paul and friends engaged in an ol’ school debate over the Obama administration’s drone policy — for 13 hours!

YouTube Preview Image

Whether you agree with Paul or not, actual Senators using the filibuster to actually deliberate about actual policy is a beautiful thing. You almost get a glimpse of what representative democracy is supposed to be. I’m not getting to used to the idea of Senators actually stepping up and actually debating ideas through the filibuster. I recognize that few people in the Senate want to be on their feet for hours on end to oppose legislation. But for at least one day, we got a look into how the filibuster could be used as a mechanism to draw out policy distinctions and grab the public’s attention as to the seriousness of the issues at hand.