In a recent poll of registered voters by Pew Research Center, 30% of women, 26% of people of Hispanic descent, and 2% of black people say they’re planning to vote for Donald Trump. In fact, polls consistently find that women and racial minorities favor Hillary Clinton. So, what do we make of the statistics-defying members of those groups who support Trump?

Flickr photo by Johnny Silvercloud; creative commons license.
Flickr photo by Johnny Silvercloud; creative commons license.

For many, this fact is source of cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling of knowingly holding irreconcilable beliefs. How could women, racial minorities, and especially minorities who are women, support a man who so persistently insults and attacks them? The discomfort of dissonance has led some to look for answers, with a few coming to the conclusion that supporting Trump is equivalent to betrayal — an identity-voiding decision (“You’re not true Mexican“) — and that women and racial minorities who support Trump are “hypocritical” and “ought to be ashamed.”

This sense of cognitive dissonance though, the idea that it’s “strange” for women or racial minorities to support Trump, is based on identity politics. Such politics has its strengths, but it also risks reducing complex social beings into one-dimensional labels, with the assumption that the label is the most important thing about them.  In this case, critics of women and racial minorities for Trump find their support of him to be more incomprehensible than that of others, based on identity alone. Thus, the individual blurs into a monolithic group, where each person is expected to be politically identical to the whole, thereby setting up the case for Trump support to be framed as a betrayal.

In fact, people are complex. They carry many intersecting identities at once, sometimes ones with conflicting politics attached, as well as a suite of other personal characteristics and structural situations. People make political choices that seem to contradict some of their identities not because they’re hypocrites, but because most people are themselves a whole host of contradictions. Reality is never so clear cut and finite as a singular label, nor are humans so easily generalized.

Given these realities, the poll numbers with which I began this post makes some sense. Trump has insulted and degraded women and minorities, and he has made policy promises that threaten them, too. Based on these facts, it should be no surprise that he is losing large swaths of those groups to Clinton. But given the complexity of identity, it should also be no surprise that he isn’t losing all of them. People are complicated, and politics is as well.

Paige Miller is a graduate student at the University of New Orleans working on her MA in Sociology. Her research interests include social psychology, new media, gender, and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Most people agree that when this election is over, Trump will have changed American politics. Bigly, perhaps. But one of the more ironic changes may be that he caused the most conservative sectors of the electorate to relax their views on the connection between a politician’s private life and his fitness for public office. (Yes, “his.” Their ideas about the importance of a woman’s private sexual life may not have evolved in a similar way.)

Call it “motivated morality.” That sounds much better than hypocrisy. It’s like “motivated perception” – unconsciously adjusting your perceptions so that the facts fit with your ideology. But with motivated morality, you change your moral judgments.

For religious conservatives, Donald Trump presents quite a challenge. It’s the sex. One of the things that conservatives are conservative about is sex, and Trump’s sexual language and behavior clearly fall on the side of sin. What to do? Conservatives might try for motivated cognition and refuse to believe the women who were the recipients of Trumps kissing, groping, and voyeurism. That’s difficult when Trump himself is on the record claiming to have done all these things, and making those claims using decidedly unChristian language.

Instead, they have changed their judgment about the link between groping and governing. Previously, they had espoused “moral clarity” – a single principle applied unbendingly to all situations. Good is good, evil is evil. If a man is immoral in his private life, he will be immoral or worse as a public official.

Now they favor “situational morality,” the situation in this case being the prospect of a Clinton victory. So rather than condemn Trump absolutely, they say that, although he is out of line, they will vote for him and encourage others to do likewise in order to keep Hillary out of the White House. For example, in a USA Today op-ed, Diann Catlin, a “Bible-thumping etiquette teacher” says:

I like God’s ways. … I also know that he wants discerning believers to take part in government. … God has always used imperfect people for his glory.

God uses people like Trump and like me who are sinners but whose specific issues, such as the life of the unborn child, align with his word.

She includes the “we’re all sinners” trope that’s so popular now among the Trump’s Christian supporters (funny how they never mention that when the topic is Bill Clinton’s infidelities or Hillary’s e-mails). More important is the implication that even a sinner can make good governmental decisions. That’s an idea that US conservatives used to dismiss as European amorality. In government, they would insist, “character” is everything.

It’s not just professional conservatives who have crossed over to the view that sex and politics are separate spheres and that a person can be sinful in one and yet virtuous in the other. Ordinary conservatives and Evangelicals have also (to use the word of the hour) pivoted.

Five years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. PRRI asked the same question this year. The Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative.

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The unchurched or “unaffiliated” didn’t change much in five years. But White Catholics and mainline Protestants both became more tolerant of private immorality. And among the most religiously conservative, the White evangelical Protestants, that percentage more than doubled. They went from being the least accepting to being the most accepting.

As with religion, so with political views.
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People of all political stripes became more accepting, but when it came to judging a privately immoral person in public life, Republicans, like White evangelicals, went from least tolerant to most tolerant.

What could have happened?

Flickr photo by Darron Birgenheier.
Flickr photo by Darron Birgenheier.

There’s no absolute proof that it was the Donald that made the difference. But those White evangelicals support him over Hillary by better than four to one. Those who identify as Republicans favor Trump by an even greater margin. There may be some other explanation, but for now, I’ll settle for the idea that in order to vote for Trump, they had to keep their judgment of him as a politician separate from their judgment of his sexual behavior – a separation they would not have made five years ago.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Is Donald Trump undermining the legitimacy of the office of the presidency? He has been at it a while. His “birther” campaign – begun in 2008 and still alive – was aimed specifically at the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Most recently, he has been questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election and by implications all presidential elections.

If he is successful, if the US will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, that’s a serious problem. Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. We agree that the government has the right to levy taxes, punish criminals, enforce contracts, regulate all sorts of activities…  The list is potentially endless.

Legitimacy is to the government what authority is to the police officer – the agreement of those being policed that the officer has the right to enforce the law. So when the cop says, “Move to the other side of the street,” we move. Without that agreement, without the authority of the badge, the cop has only the power of the gun. Similarly, a government that does not have legitimacy must rule by sheer power. Such governments, even if they are democratically elected, use the power of the state to lock up their political opponents, to harass or imprison journalists, and generally to ensure the compliance.

Trump is obviously not alone in his views about legitimacy.  When I see the posters and websites claiming that Obama is a “tyrant” – one who rules by power rather than by legitimate authority; when I see the Trump supporters chanting “Lock Her Up,” I wonder whether it’s all just good political fun and hyperbole or whether the legitimacy of the US government is really at risk.

This morning, I saw this headline at the Washington Post:

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Scary. But the content of the story tells a story that is completely the opposite. The first sentence of the story quotes the Post’s own editorial, which says that Trump, with his claims of rigged elections, “poses an unprecedented threat to the peaceful transition of power.” The second sentence evaluates this threat.

Trump’s October antics may be unprecedented, but his wild allegations about the integrity of the elections might not be having much effect on voter attitudes.

Here’s the key evidence. Surveys of voters in 2012 and 2016 show no increase in fears of a rigged election. In fact, on the whole people in 2016 were more confident that their vote would be fairly counted.

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The graph on the left shows that even among Republicans, the percent who were “very confident” that their vote would be counted was about the same in 2016 as in 2012. (Technically, one point lower, a difference well within the margin of error.)

However, two findings from the research suggest a qualification to the idea that legitimacy has not been threatened. First, only 45% of the voters are “very confident” that their votes will be counted. That’s less than half. The Post does not say what percent were “somewhat confident” (or whatever the other choices were), and surely these would have pushed the confident tally well above 50%.

Second, fears about rigged elections conform to the “elsewhere effect” – the perception that things may be OK where I am, but in the nation at large, things are bad and getting worse. Perceptions of Congressional representatives, race relations, and marriage follow this pattern (see this post). The graph on the left shows that 45% were very confident that their own vote would be counted. In the graph on the right, only 28% were very confident that votes nationwide would get a similarly fair treatment.

These numbers do not seem like a strong vote of confidence (or a strong confidence in voting). Perhaps the best we can say is that if there is any change in the last four years, it is in the direction of legitimacy.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Who among us this election — except perhaps that elusive undecided voter — has not turned to a politically aligned friend and said, from their heart of hearts, “I just can’t understand how anyone could vote for Clinton/Trump”? The sheer mindbogglingness of it, the utter failure of so many Americans to even begin to fathom voting for the other candidate, is one of the most disturbing features of this election. We all seem to be asking: What could the other side be thinking!?

left: flickr photo by Sarah Hina; right: flickr photo by Darron Bergenheier.
left: flickr photo by Sarah Hina; right: flickr photo by Darron Bergenheier

Perhaps what we need is a “sociology of thinking.” And we’ve got one; it’s called cognitive sociology.

One of the foundational texts in the subfield is called Social Mindscapes. In it, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel argues that we think as individuals (we are all alone in our brains) and we think as human beings (with the cognitive processes that humans have inherited from evolution), but we also think as members of social groups. Our thinking, then, is not only idiosyncratic (i.e., “individual”), nor universal (i.e., “human”) — though it is both those things — it’s also social. Our thinking is influenced by the groups to which we belong, what Zerubavel called “thought communities.” These are the people with whom we enjoy a meeting of the minds.

By this, Zerubavel doesn’t simply mean that our social groups shape what information we get and what arguments resonate, though that’s true. He and other cognitive sociologists argue that our thought communities shape cognition itself, that the brains of people in strongly divergent thought communities literally work differently. To Zerubavel, the idea that many Democrats can’t begin to understand Republican thinking — and vice versa — isn’t a surprise, it’s a hypothesis.

Research on sensory perception is fun evidence for their claims. Researchers have shown, for example, that our language categories influence not just how we describe the world we see, but how we see it. The Himba in Namibia, for example — who have one word for blue and some greens and another word for other greens, reds, and browns — are better than English speakers at differentiating one shade of green from another, but worse at differentiating green and blue from each other. Likewise, Russian speakers are better than English speakers at differentiating shades of blue because they have more than one word for the color and English speakers, in turn, are better than Japanese speakers at recognizing the gradations between blue and green, because the Japanese have traditionally used only one word to describe them both.

If our membership in thought communities is powerful enough to shift our very perception of color, then it must be able to influence our thinking in many other ways, too. In Social Mindscapes, Zerubavel shows that what we pay attention to, the categories we use, what we remember, and even our perception of time are all shaped by our thought communities.

Accordingly, cognitive sociology would predict that the rising polarization in politics and the fragmentation of media will make it harder and harder to understand each other, not because we don’t agree on the facts or because we have different political interests, but because our brains are actually working in divergent ways. That is, what we’re experiencing with this election is not just political disagreement, it’s a total breakdown in functional communication, which sounds about right.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why do so many Americans continue to support Donald Trump with such fervor?

Hillary Clinton now leads Donald Trump in presidential polls by double-digits, but Trump’s hardiest supporters have not only stood by him, many have actually increased their commitment. It seems clear that in a little less than a month’s time, tens of millions of Americans will cast a vote for a man who overtly seeks to overthrow basic institutions that preserve the American ideal such as a free pressfreedom of religionuniversal suffragethe right of the accused to legal counsel, and the right of habeas corpus. This is over-and-above his loudly proclaimed bigotry, sexism, boasts of sexual assault, ableism, history of racial and anti-Muslim bias, and other execrable personal characteristics that would have completely destroyed the electoral prospects of past presidential candidates.

Trump is a uniquely odious candidate who is quite likely going to lose, but more than 40% of Americans plan to vote for him. The science of group conflict might help us understand why.

Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

In a powerful 2003 article in the journal American Psychologist, Roy Eidelson and Judy Eidelson foreshadowed Trump’s popularity. Drawing on a close reading of both history and social science literature, they identified five beliefs that — if successfully inculcated in people by a leader — motivate people to initiate group conflict. Trump’s campaign rhetoric deftly mobilizes all five.

  • Confidence in one’s superiority: Trump constantly broadcasts a message that he and his followers are superior to other Americans, whereas those who oppose him are “stupid” and deserve to be punched in the face. His own followers’ violent acts are excused as emanating from “tremendous love and passion for the country.”
  • Claims of unjust treatment: Trump is obsessed with the concept of fairness, but only when it goes his way. Given his presumed superiority, it naturally follows that the only way he and his supporters could fail is if injustice occurs.
  • Fears of vulnerability: Accordingly, Trump has overtly stated that he believes the presidential election will be rigged. His supporters believe him. In one recent poll, only 16 percent of North Carolina Trump supporters agreed that if Clinton wins it would be because she got more votes.
  • Distrust of the other: Trump and his supporters routinely claim that the mediagovernmenteducational institutions, and other established entities are overtly undermining Trump, his supporters, and their values. To many Trump supporters, merely being published or broadcast by a major news outlet is evidence that a fact is not credible, given the certainty they have that media professionals are conspiring against Trump.
  • A sense of helplessness: When Trump allows that it’s possible that he might lose the election because of fraud, conspiracy, or disloyalty, he taps into his followers’ sense of helplessness. No matter how superior he and his followers truly are, no matter how unjustly they are treated, there is little that they can do in the face of a nation-wide plot against him. Accordingly, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters will see the impending rejection of their candidate not as a corrective experience to lead them to reconsider their beliefs, but as further evidence that they are helpless in the face of a larger, untrustworthy outgroup.

By ably nurturing these five beliefs, Trump has gained power far beyond the level most could have dreamed prior to the present election cycle.

It seems clear that, if and when Trump loses, he won’t be going anywhere. He has a constituency, stoked by effective rhetorics shown to propel people to group conflict, one some of his supporters are already preparing for. And, since he has convinced so many of his supporters that he alone can bring the changes they desire, it is a surety that he will use their mandate for his own future purposes.

Sean Ransom, PhD is an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans. He received his PhD in clinical psychology at the University of South Florida.

Originally posted at Racism Review.

The photos capture a woman lying serenely on a pebble beach. She is unaware of the four men as they approach. They wear guns and bulletproof vests, and demand the woman remove her shirt. They watch as she complies. This scene was reported in recent weeks by news outlets across the globe. More than twenty coastal towns and cities in France imposed bans on the burkini, the full body swimsuit favored by religious Muslim women.

Flickr photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño
Flickr photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

French politicians have falsely linked the burkini with religious fundamentalism. They have employed both blatant and subtly racist language to express indignation at the sight of a non-white, non-Western female body in a public space designated as “white.” Like many, I have been transfixed by the images of brazen discrimination and shaming. Although the woman in the photographs, identified only as Siam, was not wearing a burkini, her body was targeted by a racist institution, the State.

Olivier Majewicz, the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plage, a town on the northern coast of France, described a Muslim woman on the beach as appearing “a bit wild, close to nature.” Her attire, he said, was not “what one normally expects from a beachgoer… we are in a small town and the beach is a small, family friendly place.” France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, utilized more direct language, stating that the burkini enslaved women and that the “nation must defend itself.” Similarly blunt, Thierry Migoule, an official with the municipal services in Cannes, said the burkini “conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”

These quotes reflect the pernicious limitations of the white gaze. When I look at the photos of Siam, I see a woman, a mother, being forced to undress before a crowd of strangers. I can hear her children, terrified, crying nearby. Siam’s encounter was a scene of trauma, and as Henri Rossi, the vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, said “this trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun.”

Some sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, explored the relationships between the white gaze and the black body, specifically in France and its colonies. In the age of the burkini ban, Fanon’s observations ring poignant and true. He writes: “…we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.” Fanon’s words could serve as the soundtrack to Siam’s encounter with the police. She was robbed of her share, her body negated and deemed a public threat by the white gaze.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France, politicians have capitalized on the politics of fear in order to renegotiate the boundaries of institutional racism as expressed in the public sphere. In Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes quote Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard (Sexism, Racism and Oppression) about the ever-changing “terms of oppression.” Brittan and Maynard write:

the terms of oppression are not only dictated by history, culture, and the sexual and social division of labor. They are also profoundly shaped at the site of the oppression, and by the way in which oppressors and oppressed continuously have to renegotiate, reconstruct, and re-establish their relative positions in respect to benefits and power.

As the burkini affords Muslim women the benefit to participate in different arenas of public space, the state recalibrates its boundaries to create new or revive previous sites of oppression. In the case of the burkini, the sites of oppression are both public beaches and women’s bodies – common sites of attempted domination, not only in France, but also the US.

Fanon, Feagin and Sikes all point to institutional racism as an engine that fuels white supremacy and its policies of discrimination. As Feagin and Sikes observe, these:

recurring encounters with white racism can be viewed as a series of “life crises,” often similar to other serious life crises, such as the death of a loved one, that disturb an individual’s life trajectory.

The photos of Siam capture the unfolding of life crisis and illustrate the power of institutional racism to inflict both individual and collective traumas.

Julia Lipkins is an archivist and MA candidate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. 

Modern journalism is reliant on the idea of objectivity. Even when truth is elusive, if journalists write a balanced story, they can be said to have done a good job.

But what if a story doesn’t have two sides? Sometimes journalists continue to write as if they do, as they did in regards to human caused climate change for a decade. Other times they do so wholly disingenuously, counterposing authoritative voices against ones they know carry no weight with their audience, as they did and still do with coverage of female genital cutting. At still other times, they abandon objectivity altogether, counting on a national consensus so strong that no one could possibly accuse them of being biased, as many did after 9/11.

I think this is the source of some of the discomfort with the media coverage of this election.

What does a journalist do when the editorial board of the Washington Post calls one candidate a “unique threat to American democracy”; the New York Timescalls him a “poisonous messenger” appealing to “people’s worst instincts”; the Houston Chronicle’s calls him “dangerous to the nation and the world,” a man that should “make every American shudder”; and the far-right National Review’s calls him a “menace”? What does a journalist do when conservative newspapers like the Dallas Morning News call him “horrify[ing]” and endorse a Democrat for president for the first time in almost 100 years? Is this still the right time to be objective? Is this a 9/11 moment?

I suspect that journalists themselves do not know what to do, and so we are seeing all of the strategies playing out. Some are trying hard to hew to the traditional version of balance, but covering asymmetrical candidates symmetrically makes for some odd outcomes, hence accusations of false equivalence and misinforming the public. Some are counting on a consensus, at least on some issues, assuming that things like constitutional rights and anti-bigotry are widespread enough values that they can criticize Trump on these issues without seeming partisan, but it doesn’t always work. Still others are aiming down the middle, offering an imbalanced balance, as when journalists reference the support of David Duke and other white supremacists as their own kind of dog-whistle politics.

Meanwhile, readers each have our own ideas about whether this election deserves “balanced” coverage and what that might look like. And so do, of course, the thousands of pundits, none of whom are accountable to journalistic norms, and the millions of us on social media, sharing our own points of view.

It’s no wonder the election is giving us vertigo. It is itself out of balance, making it impossible for the country to agree on what objectivity looks like. Even the journalists, who are better at it than anyone, are failing. The election has revealed what is always true: that objectivity is a precarious performance, more an art than a science, and one that gains validity only in relation to the socially constructed realities in which we live.

It’s just that our socially constructed reality is suddenly in shambles. Post-truth politics doesn’t give us a leg to stand on, none of us can get a foothold anymore. Internet-era economic realities have replaced the news anchor with free-floating infotainment. Political polarization has ripped the country apart and the edifices we’ve clung to for stability—like the Republican Party—are suddenly themselves on shaky ground. The rise of Trump has made all of this dizzyingly clear.

We’re hanging on for dear life. I fear that journalists can do little to help us now.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

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So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College.