public opinion

Dylan Matthews, blogging in the Washington Post, discusses a very interesting paper that provides evidence showing that politicians seriously underestimate the progressivity of their constituents.

David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, the authors of the paper, “surveyed every candidate for state legislative office in the United States in 2012 [shortly before the November election] and probed candidates’ own positions and their perceptions of their constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage, and federal welfare programs, three of the most publicly salient issues in both national-level and state-level American politics during the past several years.”  They then matched the results with estimates of the actual district- and issue-specific opinions of those residing in the candidates’ districts using a data set of almost 100,000 Americans.

Here is what they found:

Politicians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average… Comparable figures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal office holders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.

The following two charts illustrate this bias when it comes to universal health care and same sex marriage.


As Matthews explain:

The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.

The authors found a similar bias regarding support for welfare programs.  Perhaps even more unsettling, the authors found no correlation between the amount of time candidates spent meeting and talking to people in their districts while campaigning for office and the accuracy of their perceptions of the political positions of those living in their districts.

One consequence of this disconnect is that office holders, even those with progressive views, are reluctant to take progressive positions.  More generally, these results speak to a real breakdown in “the ability of constituencies to control the laws that their representatives make on their behalf.”

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Last month Jet — a magazine marketed to African-American population — featured their first gay male couple in their wedding announcements.  The announcement may be a sign that African-American attitudes towards gay marriage may be turning around.  While the group has typically endorsed gay marriage at lower rates than White Americans, the gap between Blacks and Whites has been narrowing.

The Pew Research Center reports that the percent of Whites opposed to gay marriage dropped from 51% in 2008 to 41% in 2012.  Among Blacks, the percent in opposition dropped from 63% to 49%.  African-Americans and Whites are now separated by eight percentage points instead of twelve.

The data above was collected in April of 2012.  In May, Obama announced that he supported gay marriage.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s modeling of a pro-gay stance will influence the opinions of the African-American community further.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

As politicians negotiated regarding the fiscal cliff, they debated whether to cut social programs aimed at alleviating poverty and deprivation.  Most of us imagine that these programs help a minority of the population.  In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that more than half of the population has received government benefits from one of the six most well-known programs:

This isn’t the so-called 47% that Romney claimed would vote for a Democrat no matter what.  In fact, people who received one of these six benefits were only slightly more likely to vote Democratic:

In fact, receiving benefits is pretty well spread out among the population. Except for people over 65, there seems to be significant consistency in the receipt of at least one benefit:

Notably, these programs also go to help the poor, women (largely because they end up single with young children), and people in rural areas.

Interestingly, many of us who have benefited from targeted government programs (“targeted” because we all benefit from programs like, oh, transportation initiatives and environmental protection and [insert dozens more here]) don’t know that we do.  In a previous post, we showed that large proportions of people who’ve benefited from social programs don’t recognize that they have unless their thinking is sparked by asking them about specific programs.  (It’s kind of like responding “No I don’t do drugs” and then being asked specifically about marijuana and saying, “Oh yeah, well that one I guess!”).

Since it is indeed the majority of Americans who benefit from targeted programs, it shouldn’t be too hard for politicians to find it in their hearts to support these programs.  That 57% of conservatives and 52% of Republicans have used them suggests that the political right is more interested in purporting an ideology than serving its constituency.

Alternatively, they realize that a certain proportion of benefit recipients also believe that the government “does not have the responsibility to care for those who cannot care or themselves.” About a third of people who hold onto this principle have used benefits:

It seems that data like this might be very useful for what we really need: an educational campaign designed to help Americans understand what social programs do and who benefits from them.   Maybe then we could have sensible policy discussions.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Two days after 6 adults and 20 elementary school children were shot and killed in Newtown, CT, the Miami Herald homepage looked like this:

On the left side of this screenshot, the Herald shows images of the dead and notes how “America mourns” their loss. At right, one of their five-or-so rotating advertisements shows a large handgun and links to a website for the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, a company that sells – among other things – strategies to quickly arrange for conceal carry permits in your state.

The company’s tagline: “Knowledge is your best weapon. Preparation is your best defense.” Apparently, to a segment of the population this visual coupling advertisement read something like, “Mourn for now. Lock and load for next time.”

That such a provocative advertisement would appear in close proximity to a sensitive news story is unlikely to be accidental. News outlets are quite smart about what they post – and where – both in terms of news products and paid content.

But this juxtaposition of weaponry and those who have died from such products represents more than a short-term economic choice. Instead, it reflects the fact that we live in a culture that strongly supports gun ownership and loose gun control laws.  Had the newspaper thought that such an advertisement — published at this particular time and in this particular way — would ostracize their audience or advertisers, they wouldn’t have run it.

Some call the media the “fourth estate” – an institution that, alongside the courts, the oval office, and congress, keeps our country in balance. The juxtaposition in that screenshot, however, calls into question this role for the traditional media. Instead, they are simply reflecting the status quo, one largely controlled by those who are already in power. If this is the case, we can’t count on the media to check the power elite.  Any real change, then, is going to come from collective action and alternative media.


Robert Gutsche Jr. is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. His research deals with the sociology of news and news as a cultural artifact.

Ezra Klein at Wonkblog has put together an impressive collection of statistics on guns and mass shootings, including this data on public opinion on gun control.

To begin, people seem generally less interested in owning guns.  The percent of households with guns has been steadily decreasing for decades:

But, perhaps counter-intuitively, support for gun control has waned:

We might expect a tragedy like this week’s shooting to raise the overall level of support for gun control, but it probably won’t.  Previous shootings have not had much of an impact on opinion:

Still, there is more support for some forms of gun control than others:

For what it’s worth, gun-related deaths are lower in states with stronger gun control.  Economist Richard Florida found “substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48)”:

It’s hard to know, however, whether this is correlation or causation.  Florida did not find correlations between gun deaths and other factors that we might expect to be correlated, including dense populations, high rates of stress, high numbers of immigrants, and mental illness.

Klein thinks that now is the time to talk about the role of gun control in preventing tragedies like the one in Newtown.  He suggests we go ahead and politicize the shooting, since silencing a discussion is just another form of politicization. He writes:

If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. “Too soon,” howl supporters of loose gun laws. But as others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

I agree that now is a good time to talk about gun control. And, we should do it with as many facts as possible, no matter where they lead us.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.”  While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”

The main source of distortion has been the mass media.  Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa.  In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:

Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.

People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one.  The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.

Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation.

Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses.  In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation.  The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora.  While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.

Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.

Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…”  This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.

Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”

News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women.  The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”

Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.

Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).

FGCs are not an “African practice.”

The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):

Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures.  These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching.  While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.

Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.

It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.  Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful.  The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.

In sum, it’s high time Americans adopt a more balanced view of female genital cutting practices.  Reading The Hastings Center Report is a good start.  You might also pick up Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood by Stanlie James and Claire Robertson.  Full text links to my papers on the topic, including a discourse analysis of 30 years of the academic conversation, can be found here.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College.  She frequently delivers public lectures about female genital cutting. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

For whatever reason, there has been a real slump in the number of people typing “obama gun” (will he take our guns away?), “obama muslim” (the idea used to run at about 20%), “obama socialist” (the republic “hangs in the balance“), and “obama citizen” (thank you, Snopes) into the Google search box since the 2008 election.

Here’s the Google trend (and the search link):

We don’t know how much these fears, versus other concerns, will affect votes against him this year, although there have been some good efforts to track the effects of anti-Black racism on his vote tally.

Naturally, not everyone who Googles these things believes the underlying stories or myths. But it seems likely they either believe them, are considering them, heard someone repeat them, or are arguing with someone who believes them, etc. So I’m guessing – just guessing – that these trends track those beliefs.

But maybe four years of Obama as an actual president has softened up the hard-line hatred in some quarters. What do you think?

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

A BBC poll of almost 22,000 people in 21 countries found that, on average, they preferred Obama to Romney more than five to one.  Only one country, Pakistan, would elect Romney.

Results ranked by support for Obama:

Results ranked by support for Romney:

What does it mean that this is such a close race here?

Via The Grumpy Sociologist.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.