The Real Problem with Facebook the Polarization Study Misses

Science recently published a study done by its researchers in collaboration with the Information School at the University of Michigan that finds that Facebook isn’t entirely to blame for political polarization in the United States. It found that its own news feed algorithm has a small but significant effect on filtering out opposing news content for partisan users on Facebook. More importantly for the researchers, the algorithm did not have as strong an effect on filtering opposing news as users themselves. Predictably users on the far right and far left of the political spectrum filter their news content in line with confirmation bias theory.

Zenyep Tufecki already did a takedown of the sampling problems with the study. Here is the description of the sample from Science:

All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale.

A key problem with this study is the standard problem of “selecting on the dependent variable.” By only sampling partisans, you are likely to find people who act in partisan ways when they evaluate news content. But my problem with this study runs deeper than selection bias. The study’s underlying assumption is that Facebook is simply a neutral arbiter of political information and it’s relevance is only applicable to those heavily interested in politics. In my view, Facebook’s influence runs much deeper. It changes the ways in which we relate to each other, and in turn, the ways in which we relate to the public world.

Facebook and related social media have created a seismic shift in human relations. Facebook’s platform takes conversations between friends, once regarded as “private sphere activity,” and transmutes it into what appears to be a public sphere for the purposes of serving the dictates of market capital. Facebook has created unique and powerful tools to allow individuals with the opportunity to more carefully “present themselves” to a hand picked circle of intimates (and semi-intimates). Facebook’s particular logic is connection and disclosure. More often than not, connection happens through expressive communication of feelings (pictures, observations, feelings, humor, daily affirmations, etc.). Facebook encourages us to “present ourselves” to our networks in order to form closer bonds with our friends and loved ones. It’s part of it’s business model. But we are in competition with others to gain the attention of our circle, so we are driven to use expressive discourse that is high-valence (e.g. strong attractive or aversive) content to gain the attention of others.

I argue in my 2012 book, Facebook Democracy, that Facebook constructs an architecture of disclosure that emphasizes this type of high-valence, expressive, performative communication. To Facebook, political content is simply one more set of tools we can use to “present” ourselves. If we want to use politics to connect with others, it needs to be impactful, expressive content that sends clear messages about who we are, not invitations for further conversation or clarification on public issues. This is not to say that people don’t argue on Facebook or have useful deliberative discussion, but I’d argue they do this in spite of Facebook’s goals. Argumentation or deliberation are not typically used to bring one closer to one’s friends and family.

While the personal and emotive is a key way in which we get into politics, staying engaged requires both expressive/connection based discourse and rational/deliberative discourse that encourages “listening” rather than simply “performing.” The notion that a “click through” necessarily means engagement with the ideas presented in “cross-cutting” articles suggest sharing cross-cutting/opposing articles is done in the spirit of deliberative discussion. More likely, cross-cutting articles are intended to reinforce an identity. More useful for Facebook scholars might be to look at instances where partisans are sharing cross-cutting articles and examining how they present the article. Are they presenting it and inviting mockery of it? Or are they inviting their networks into a conversation about it?

This is the key challenge that Facebook poses to democratic life. Rather than ask whether Facebook’s algorithm presents partisans with access to opposing views, we should be asking how we use political content on Facebook to present ourselves to others (and how we can do it in more productive ways). If Facebook and other media encourages expressive discourse over deliberative discourse, we run the risk of becoming a society of citizens that talk without listening.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.