politics

For a long time, political talk at the “moderate middle” has focused on a common theme that goes something like this: 

There is too much political polarization and conflict. It’s tearing us apart. People aren’t treating each other with compassion. We need to come together, set aside our differences, and really listen to each other.

I have heard countless versions of this argument in my personal life and in public forums. It is hard to disagree with them at first. Who can be against seeking common ground?

But as a political sociologist, I am also skeptical of this argument because we have good research showing how it keeps people and organizations from working through important disagreements. When we try to avoid conflict above all, we often end up avoiding politics altogether. It is easy to confuse common ground with occupied territory — social spaces where legitimate problems and grievances are ignored in the name of some kind of pleasant consensus. 

A really powerful sociological image popped up in my Twitter feed that makes the point beautifully. We actually did find some common ground this week through a trend that united the country across red states and blue states:

It is tempting to focus on protests as a story about conflict alone, and conflict certainly is there. But it is also important to realize that this week’s protests represent a historic level of social consensus. The science of cooperation and social movements reminds us that getting collective action started is hard. And yet, across the country, we see people not only stepping up, but self-organizing groups to handle everything from communication to community safety and cleanup. In this way, the protests also represent a remarkable amount of agreement that the current state of policing in this country is simply neither just nor tenable. 

I was struck by this image because I don’t think nationwide protests are the kind of thing people have in mind when they call for everyone to come together, but right now protesting itself seems like one of the most unifying trends we’ve got. That’s the funny thing about social cohesion and cultural consensus. It is very easy to call for setting aside our differences and working together when you assume everyone will be rallying around your particular way of life. But social cohesion is a group process, one that emerges out of many different interactions, and so none of us ever have that much control over when and where it actually happens.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Can political leaders put partisanship aside to govern in a crisis? The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a crucial test of politicians’ willingness to put state before party. Acting swiftly to slow the spread of a novel virus and cooperating with cross-partisans could mean the difference between life and death for many state residents.

The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was reported in Washington state in January 2020. New cases, including incidents of community spread, continued to be recorded across the country in February. However, federal-level efforts to “flatten the curve” did not begin in force until March. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was among the first governors to openly criticize the Trump administration’s slow response. Her criticism led to an open partisan feud on Twitter between the two leaders.

In the absence of a national
order to limit the virus’ spread within the country, state governors took
action. Leaders in states with some of the earliest-recorded cases – such as
Washington, Illinois, and California – put stay-at-home or shelter-in-place
orders into effect shortly after the US closed its northern and southern borders to non-essential travel. In a matter of weeks,
most states’ residents were under similar orders.

Did governors’ decisions to order their states’ residents to hunker down vary by party? In the figure below, I have plotted the date stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders went into effect (as of April 15, according to the New York Times) by the date of the state’s first reported confirmed case of COVID-19 (according to US News & World Report). States with Democratic governors are labeled in blue and Republican governors are labeled in red. As of April 15, no statewide stay-home orders had been issued in the Republican-governed states labeled in grey on the plot.

Of the 50 states plus
Washington DC and Puerto Rico, a total of 44 governors have issued stay-at-home
or shelter-in-place orders. All Democratic-governed states were under similar
orders after Governor Janet Mills called for Maine’s residents to stay home
beginning April 2. By contrast, just over two-thirds of states led by
Republican executives have mandated residents stay home. Eight states – all led
by Republicans – had not issued such statewide orders as of April 15, 2020.
States without stay-at-home orders have had substantial outbreaks of COVID-19,
including in South Dakota where nearly 450 Smithfield Foods workers were infected in April
causing the plant to close indefinitely.

Republican governors have generally been slower to issue restrictions on residents’ non-essential movement. Democrats and Republicans govern an equal number of states and territories on the above plot (26 each). Fifteen Democratic governors had issued statewide stay-home orders by March 26. The fifteenth Republican governor to mandate state residents stay home did not put this order into effect until April 3. This move came after all states with Democratic governors had announced similar orders and over two weeks after COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in all states.

The median number of days Democratic governors took to mandate their residents to stay home after their state’s first confirmed case was 21 days. By contrast, the median Republican governor took four additional days (25) to restrict residents’ non-essential movement, not accounting for states without stay-home orders as of April 15.

In short, the timing of
governors’ decisions to mandate #stayhomesavelives appears to be partisan.
However, there are select cases of governors putting public health before party.
Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has been heralded as one example. He was
the first governor to order all schools to close, an action for which CNN
described DeWine as the “anti-Trump on coronavirus.” These deviations from the norm suggest that
divisive partisanship is not inevitable when governing a crisis.

Morgan C. Matthews is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies gender, partisanship, and U.S. political institutions.

Sociologists spend a lot of time thinking about lives in social context: how the relationships and communities we live in shape the way we understand ourselves and move through the world. It can be tricky to start thinking about this, but one easy way to do it is to start collecting social facts. Start by asking, what’s weird about where you’re from?

I grew up on the western side of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, so my eye naturally drifts to the Great Lakes every time I look at a map of the US. Lately I’ve been picking up on some interesting things I never knew about my old home state. First off, I didn’t realize that, relative to the rest of the country, this region is a hotspot for air pollution from Chicago and surrounding industrial areas.

Second, I was looking at ProPublica’s reporting of a new database of Catholic clergy credibly accused of abuse, and noticed that the two dioceses covering western MI haven’t yet disclosed information about possible accusations. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but as a sociologist who studies religion it is weird to think about the institutional factors that might be keeping this information under wraps.

Third, there’s the general impact of this region on the political and cultural history of the moment. West Michigan happens to be the place that brought you some heavy hitters like Amway (which plays a role in one of my favorite sociological podcasts of last year), the founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), and our current Secretary of Education. In terms of elite political and economic networks, few regions have been as influential in current Republican party politics.

I think about these facts and wonder how much they shaped my own story. Would I have learned to like exercise more if I could have actually caught my breath during the mile run in gym class? Did I get into studying politics and religion because it was baked into all the institutions around me, even the business ventures? It’s hard to say for sure.

What’s weird about where YOU’RE from? Doing this exercise is great for two reasons. First, it helps to get students thinking in terms of the sociological imagination — connecting bigger social and historical factors to their individual experiences. Second, it also helps to highlight an important social research methods point about the ecological fallacy by getting us to think about all the ways that history and social context don’t necessarily force us to turn out a certain way. As more data become public and maps get easier to make, it is important to remember that population correlates with everything!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

I just wrapped up my political sociology class for the semester. We spent a lot of time talking about conflict and polarization, reading research on why people avoid politics, the spread of political outrage, and why exactly liberals drink lattes. When we become polarized, small choices in culture and consumption—even just a cup of coffee—can become signals for political identities. 

After the liberals and lattes piece, one of my students wrote a reflection memo and mentioned a previous instructor telling them which brand of coffee to drink if they wanted to support a certain political party. This caught my attention, because (at least in the student’s recollection) the instructor was completely wrong. This led to a great discussion about corporate political donations, especially how frequent contributions often go bipartisan.

But where does your money go when you buy your morning coffee? Thanks to open-access data on political contributions, we can look at the partisan lean of the top four largest coffee chains in the United States.

Starbucks’ swing to the left is notable here, as is the rightward spike in Dunkin’s donations in the 2014 midterms. While these patterns tend to follow the standard corporate image for each, it is important to remember that even chains that lean one way still mix their donations. In midterm years like 2012 and 2014, about 20% of Starbucks’ donations went to Republicans.

One side effect of political polarization is that corporate politics don’t always follow cultural codes. For another good recent example of this, see Chick-fil-A reconsidering its donation policies.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Tis’ the season for throwing down at dinner. Every year the humor and the horror stories about Thanksgiving hit our social media feeds. This isn’t just about politics, either. Family dinners have a strong symbolic significance. When the stakes are high for a once-a-year gathering, other kinds of social conflicts are primed to play out as well.

Photo Credit: Louish Pixel, Flickr CC

But for all this talk about fighting, one thing I find really interesting as a political sociologist is just how much work people do to avoid conflict. We know from embedded studies of parent organizations and neighborhood groups that people will tie themselves up in knots to avoid talking about political issues. In some cases, people are more likely to confide in near-strangers or acquaintances than close family members. In an increasingly fraught political climate, the answer for many people might be cutting their visits short. According to research published last year Science, there is some evidence for this happening.

In the article, political scientists matched anonymous smartphone location data from over 10 million Americans to precinct-level voting data from 2016. By doing this, they could see who traveled for Thanksgiving that year and how long they stayed at dinner. People who ate in an opposing political district spent less time at dinner, about 30-50 minutes less on average. The pattern was stronger for people coming from Republican districts to dine among Democrats—they split about 50 to 70 minutes sooner. The authors also find that increased local political advertising was also associated with cut-down dinner time.

Sure, these people could be storming out before that second helping. But I think one of the less-appreciated trends in political life is that many of us are just clamming up and cutting out early to spend time elsewhere. There are many perfectly valid reasons to do this, especially if people are made to feel unwelcome or unsafe. These results suggest we could all do a little more to think about keeping people at the table.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

For feminists, liking Barbie is tough.  This top selling American toy has long been criticized for fueling sexist stereotypes, because women are not actually focused on dream houses, dream dates, beauty, and unbridled consumption. 

And yet Mattel has made attempts to refashion the doll as women’s positions in society have changed.  By the 1990s Barbie had careers as a firefighter, police officer, and in the military.  She had also been a racecar driver, a pilot, and a presidential candidate.  However, the 90s also gave us the infamous Teen Talk Barbie whose voice box had been programmed to say, “Math class is tough.”

The Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) switched Teen Talk Barbie’s voice box with that of talking G.I. Joe, and put the altered dolls back into their original packages and back onto store shelves.  They released videotapes to major television news outlets explaining their action and calling attention to Mattel’s outdated gender ideology.  With G.I. Joe saying, “Let’s sing with the band tonight” or “Wanna go shopping?” and Barbie saying, “Dead men tell no tales” the B.L.O.’s media-savvy culture jam threw our gendered expectations into sharp relief.   

In addition to the B.L.O., women’s groups expressed concern that Barbie’s math-anxious statement would discourage girls from pursuing math and math-related fields, and so Mattel removed the offending remark from Barbie’s voice box.

Inspired by the B.L.O. and other culture jammers, for Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009 I initiated a “Barbies We Would Like to See” exhibition on my campus.  The exhibition included Muslim Girl Barbie (made from a 1960s Skipper doll), Stay-At-Home-Dad Ken, Public Breastfeeding Barbie, and Lesbian Wedding Barbie—to name a few.

Public Breastfeeding Barbie and Lesbian Wedding Barbie (Photos by Martha McCaughey)

And now, as Barbie turns 60, we can see how participatory social media has made it possible for anyone with a dream for Barbie to share it instantaneously and widely.  For example, Black Moses Barbie videos on YouTube use Barbie dolls to depict imagined moments in history with Harriet Tubman, and photographer Mariel Clayton creates elaborate scenes with Barbies—sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, sometimes both—which she photographs and shares on her public Facebook page.  There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to depictions of Barbie and social critiques made through Barbie, for instance Sociality Barbie, the anonymous Instagram feed with over 800,000 followers that depicts Barbie as a Portland, Oregon hipster.  In our documentary video on Barbie in the age of digital reproduction (produced by Martha McCaughey and Beth Davison, linked above), we see how these artists and Barbie hackers go much farther than Mattel to re-imagine gender and pop culture.  Indeed, they make curvy Barbie, released in 2016, and the gender-neutral Creative WorldTM dolls, released this year, look pretty conventional.

In line with Rentschler and Thrift’s (2015) argument that feminist meme propagators do feminist cultural production, Barbie artists and activists sharing their altered dolls on social media are doing feminist cultural production and creating “feminist community-building media” (Rentschler 2019).  In this age of digital reproduction Mattel can neither thwart nor ignore what people want to do with their dolls.  Indeed, the changes Mattel has been making to their dolls can be seen as a direct result of the willingness of artists, activists, and fans to playfully engage with—rather than simply criticize—their dolls. 

Barbie has always been malleable.  Thanks to feminist media, perhaps Mattel can now acknowledge what Barbie hackers have long known: that gender, like the doll itself, is plastic.  

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State.  She is the author of The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, and Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.She blogs on sexual assault prevention at See Jane Fight Back.

Works Cited

Rentschler, Carrie, 2019.  “Making Culture and Doing Feminism.” Pp. 127-147 in Routledge International
Handbook on Contemporary Feminism
Ed. by Tasha Oren and Andrea Press.

Rentschler,
Carrie and Samantha Thrift, 2015. “Doing Feminism in the Network: Networked
Laughter and the Binders Full of Women Meme” Feminist Theory 16:3:329–359.

As the primary season heats up, the spotlight is back on political advertising and social media. Recent controversies over “fake” ads on Facebook raises questions about the ethics of campaign strategies that target voters with misinformation. It doesn’t help that many of these tech companies are not exactly transparent about processes for addressing biased or misleading content on their platforms.

But now we can take little peak behind the digital curtain, because these sites are providing more information about who buys political ads. For example, Snapchat releases a public, full data file on their political advertising. Kudos to them! I took a look at the 2019 data to see where campaigns sit among the top fifty Snapchat spenders:

Some of the results are surprising. What on earth is General Mills doing buying political ads? It turns out they were part of a charity campaign partnership with groups like HRC. Other top spenders include public service announcements from advocacy groups like truth and Every Town for Gun Safety.

It looks like the Trump campaign has spent the most on Snapchat this year across two organizations: the MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President. Among the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren sits at the top, followed by Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and way down at the #50 spot, Joe Biden.

I also looked at how these ads break down for each of the major campaign groups. Snapchat provides the number of impressions each ad got, as well as how much it cost. Dividing the two lets us measure “virality” by looking at how many views each campaign gets for every dollar they spend on the platform.

These patterns follow the conventional wisdom that the Trump campaign gets a lot of “free” media for stirring the pot, because strong emotions (both positive and negative) drive higher attention. Lots of research in political sociology on the media shows why this happens. The patterns among Democrats also tell us a lot about who is investing in new media and targeting a younger audience through new platforms, as well as who is actually turning that investment into attention.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The ‘power elite’ as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order to grasp the personal and social basis of the power elite’s unity, we have first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, and style of life of each of the types of circle whose members compose the power elite.

— C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press

President John F. Kennedy addresses the Prayer Breakfast in 1961. Wikimedia Commons.

A big question in political sociology is “what keeps leaders working together?” The drive to stay in public office and common business interests can encourage elites to cooperate, but politics is still messy. Different constituent groups and social movements demand that representatives support their interests, and the U.S. political system was originally designed to use this big, diverse set of factions to keep any single person or party from becoming too powerful.

Sociologists know that shared culture, or what Mills calls a “style of life,” is really important among elites. One of my favorite profiles of a style of life is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, a look at how one religious fellowship has a big influence on the networks behind political power in the modern world. The book is a gripping case of embedded reporting that shows how this elite culture works. It also has a new documentary series:

When we talk about the religious right in politics, it is easy to jump to images of loud, pro-life protests and controversial speakers. What interests me about the Family is how the group has worked so hard to avoid this contentious approach. Instead, everything is geared toward simply getting newcomers to think of themselves as elites, bringing leaders together, and keeping them connected. A major theme in the first episode of the series is just how simple the theology is (“Jesus plus nothing”) and how quiet the group is, even drawing comparisons to the mafia.

Vipassana Meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Matteo, Flickr CC.

Sociologists see similar trends in other elite networks. In research on how mindfulness and meditation caught on in the corporate world, Jaime Kucinskas calls this “unobtrusive organizing.” Both the Family and the mindfulness movement show how leaders draw on core theological ideas in Christianity and Buddhism, but also modify those ideas to support their relationships in business and government. Rather than challenging those institutions, adapting and modifying these traditions creates new opportunities for elites to meet, mingle, and coordinate their work.

When we study politics and culture, it is easy to assume that core beliefs make people do things by giving them an agenda to follow. These cases are important because they show how that’s not always the point; sometimes core beliefs just shape how people do things in the halls of power.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.