I’m both excited and cautious about the participatory potential of the web. The easy accessibility of data makes it possible for anyone to become a researcher. While lowering the transaction costs to information is incredibly exciting, it is also unpredictable. The Washington Post has an article today about Princeton Professor Danielle Allen’s attempts to trace the source of the various Obama smear e-mails that have circulated during the presidential campaign. Allen tracked down one of the threads to a 69 year-old retired software engineer who created a massive anti-Obama website because he “doesn’t play golf.”

What strikes me is the extent to which these potential initiators take on the role of researcher. Form the article:

he built a Web site that features hundreds of pages of material intended to undermine Obama. “If 20 percent of what’s on my Web site is true, this guy is a clear and present danger,” Beckwith said. (He later added, “I try very hard to be accurate.“) But while Beckwith speaks with pride about his research much of which he credits to an unnamed “colleague” in Europe — and to his extensive Obama files, he rejects outright the suggestion that he authored the chain e-mail. “I’ve never been involved with any
e-mailings. Period,” he said.

What drives people to take on the authoritative role of public knowledge creator? Especially when one gets little public recognition for the effort. This identity of “researcher” or “investigator” is powerful if you believe you are uncovering a unexamined and potentially critical truth. In these cases it seems that this impulse is combined with large amounts of “slack resources” in the form of time. This is the main problem Andrew Keen has with participatory culture. It takes a good amount of narcissism (and free time) to take on the role of “citizen protecting America from a “Manchurian Muslim candidate.”

But more importantly, what does this all mean for politics going forward? Allen is dead on in her analysis of the smear e-mail phenomenon:

A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. “No one coordinates the roles,” Allen said. Instead the participants swim toward their goal like a school of fish — moving on their own, but also in unison.

What are the implication of this type of “wildfire” politics? it doesn’t take much to influence low information voters. Can an uncoordinated response be addressed by a coordinated campaign like the Obama campaign is currently attempting? I’m skeptical that any intentional effort can stop this type of uncoordinated effort. It might be the perfect storm of elements has combined to make Obama president, but this is a curious side battle he has to wage.

The state of racial commentary in comedy on television is dire. But, the web is a treasure trove of great racial satire. The mother of all race satire sites is called Black People Love Us. This site is purportedly run by a progressive, up-scale, white couple, who seeks to proclaim to the world their cosmopolitan status. It’s a great commentary on the tendency to confuse paternalism for acceptance. The comments section on this website is particularly fascinating. I don’t know where they got these actors, but I’d love to see them in a sitcom!

Another cool side I’ve come across is Stuff White People Like. Where’s the “Stuff Latinos Like”?

BTW….this is the best hip-hop track I’ve heard in a long time.

Here’s an interesting challenge to the growing view in social science that racial proximity decreases social capital and lowers support for race-based policies. In a good Colorlines article about anti Affirmative-Action initiatives that will appear on a number of state ballots in the fall, the author reports on demographic voting data from Michigan’s 2006 Civil Rights Initiative:

Statewide, Michigan is about 78 percent white, 14 percent Black, 4 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian, with most people of color concentrated in a handful of urban areas. For example, while Wayne County, home of Detroit, is less than 50 percent white, a handful of other counties are nearly 98 percent white. Wayne County was one of only three counties where a majority voted against Proposal 2. The other two, Washtenaw and Ingham, include the state’s two largest universities and have among the state’s most diverse communities. In general, across the rest of Michigan, the whiter the county, the higher the support for the ban.

Interestingly, support for the anti-Affirmative Action measure was not correlated with county unemployment rates, a proxy for income levels.

I’m interested in the impact the Web has on the promotion of in-group ties? Does access to everything make us more cosmopolitan or does it bind us closer to our reference groups? Here’s one argument for viewing things contextually. The process by which Foreign Policy created their list of the top 100 intellectuals reveals a strong desire on the part of many educated Muslims to have public intellectuals that share their faith tradition be recognized as influential. Here’s a brief description of Foreign Policy’s methodology:

No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list. In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters—typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims—were eager to cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.

It seems clear to me that the Web, in this case Foreign Policy’s online poll, taps into the need of a certain subset of a entho-religious group to re-frame the way they are perceived by “the rest” of the world community. Then again, educated, upwardly mobile Muslims might just, on average, be more avid readers of Foreign Policy?

The latest issue of the Journal of Urban affairs has an article by David Imbroscio arguing against what he calls the dispersal consensus in low-income housing policy. The intent of this set of policies is to spread out the urban poor into middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

I haven’t yet read the article, but it makes sense that the heterogeneity created by a dispersal policy might create some problems. An interesting set of case studies are the Paris suburbs. The article, references French Sociologist Loic Wacquant’s work on, what he calls, anti-ghettos or heterogeneous places that work to reduce the solidarity fostered by ethnic enclaves. Here’s a telling passage from the article discussing anti-ghettos:

the layout of the French suburbs (hinders neighbourly and community relationships that could, for example, encourage religions to develop. They are designed in a way that makes it difficult for immigrant workers to mix and to enjoy leisure time, encouraging them to save in order to become future homeowners.

The recent discussions about suburban poverty suggests that perhaps an anti-ghettoing is occurring in the U.S. as well. I’d be interested in knowing how and why do integrating suburbs avoid this anti-ghettoing process. How do dispersal policies help to ameliorate the loss of bonding social capital that is bound to occur?

James Q. Wilson’s piece in Commentary brings up an interesting point regarding Robert Putnam’s recent work on the relationship between diversity and social capital. In his useful essay, he refutes Putnam’s recent argument in the June 2007 issue of Scandinavian Political Studies that diversity’s beneficial traits in the military, religious and athletic institutions also apply to neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, however, the pertinence of the military, religious, or athletic model to life in neighborhoods is very slight. In those three institutions, authority and discipline can break down native hostilities or force them underground. Military leaders proclaim that bigotry will not be tolerated, and they mean it; preachers invoke the word of God to drive home the lesson that prejudice is a sin; sports teams (as with the old Brooklyn Dodgers) point out that anyone who does not want to play with a black or a Jew is free to seek employment elsewhere.

But what authority or discipline can anyone bring to neighborhoods? They are places where people choose to live, out of either opportunity or necessity. Walk the heterogeneous streets of Chicago or Los Angeles and you will learn about organized gangs and other social risks. Nor are these confined to poor areas: Venice, a small neighborhood in Los Angeles where several movie stars live and many homes sell for well over $1 million, is also a place where, in the Oakwood area, the Shoreline Crips and the V-13 gangs operate.

I agree with Wilson that neighborhoods provide a more vexing challenge that other organizations. But too often, this becomes the end point of the conversation on diversity and neighborhoods. It starts from the baseline assumption that human nature tends towards homophily (the tendency to stick to one’s own) and no amount of social policy can change it. But we wouldn’t accept this line of reasoning for a whole host of issues. It is my four year old’s nature to want five scoops of ice cream instead of one, but we as a society expect her to be socialized out of that innate desire by the time she reaches adulthood.

Wilson has a point in his essay that the state’s efforts to create an integrated society comes with unintended consequences. Social ruptures tend to follow explicit interventionby gove rnment to force groups from different racial, income and/or ethnic groups to share collective goods. The phenomenon of white flight in the 1970’s was accelerated by court ordered desegregation. Individuals are resilient and entrepreneurial in their efforts to carve out the type of existence they want. For large majorities of people, what they want is to live with others like them.

This is not just racial. People pay for security. I live in the suburbs partly because I know that odds are my daughter will grow up free from fear, in a reasonably good school system, with clean air and water. The fact that others want for these goods is an issue of concern for me, even an
area of academic study, but when pressed, I can always fall back on the common refrain “I have to look out for my family.”

But I don’t accept the “either or” proposition that either places are safe and homogeneous or dangerous and diverse. At the risk of sounding like a bad parent, I would be willing to give some ground on safety and education for my child to get some diversity in return. Partly because of the growing literature on diversity that extols its virtues in a number of settings (the military, the workplace, the university, etc.)

Social capital scholars should be looking for communities that have both reasonably high levels of racial, ethnic and class based integration and positive social indicators (low dropouts, low crime rates, etc.). Even if true that hunkering is the default, we should not be content with describing the reality in this instance. We should be using the tools of social science to identify instances where hunkering is overcome. I laid out a methodological agenda for doing this at a paper I presented at the 2008 Western Political Science Association Conference this past year.

The Kiplinger finance web site just released its “best places to live” list for 2008. These types of lists look at conventional measures like housing affordability, amenities, crime rates, etc. These are logical choices for constructing an index of livability. theirs is no different than the dozens of “best places” indexes that come out every year. But should we be looking at places less as consumer choices and more as places to nurture and develop our character?

Richard Florida has created a cottage industry out of the idea of creative cities. A better word for these cities might be controlled chaos cities. Cities that succeed at attracting knowledge workers are those that are generally able to maintain a sense of playfulness and creativity while eliminating the less savory aspects of difference. I was at the Solstice parade in Santa Barbara this past weekend and struck by the balance maintained between colorful zaniness and complete order. The parade had all of the trappings of sixties rebellion and dissent, but little of the danger and uncertainty that accompanied those movements.

This is a victory for the city of Santa Barbara. Cities realizes that escapism and play is essential to the human condition. Critical to that sense of play is difference, novelty, uniqueness. Being able to play that out in public spaces with throngs of others is good for places that want to stay competitive and is good for the soul too. That sense of play, becomes threatened by any encroachment of despair so cities try desperately to keep much of that despair out.

It would be interested to, instead of having a livability, or best places to live, index. There was something of a “mature citizen” index that tried to examine the extent to which a city’s residents engage with diversity to its fullest extent. Where are the places that are most likley to encourage the creation of mature human beings?

Flyvbjerg (2007) makes the case that social science should be engaged in the practice of helping citizens develop phronesis, the Aristotelian term for wisdom. Flyvbjerg argues that this widsom only comes from individual engagement in a varying range of situations. Individuals who have acquired a high level of phronesis are able to act appropriately in a wide range of situations. He likens it to the musical virtuoso knows when to apply the rules and when to be flexible enough to work outside of the rules. This to me is the central case for diversity. Only through heterogeneity of experience is someone able to engage this.

Any ideas on creating a “moral cities” index?

A post on the blog 11D suggests that Barack Obama’s difficulty with white voters who make under $50,000 a year is less about white racism or retrospective economic voting more about a state’s political culture. In the 1960’s Daniel Elazar laid out three main political traditions in American politics. A moralistic tradition of high civic ideas and good government, an individualistic tradition of white ethnic inter-group competition where government and politics is seen as a means for personal and group advancement, and a traditionalistic tradition developed out of the Southern plantation lifestyle where government and politics serves to reinforce existing class and racial heirarchies.

While Elazar’s three political cultures are a vast oversimplification (which even he admits to), there is something to a political culture approach. For one thing, it might explain why Obama won in Maine today, a moralistic state, despite there being a large number of downscale whites. Yes, it was a caucus and not a primary, but having lived in Maine for two years, I get the sense that the real reason for the Maine victory is that Mainers are more likely to resonate with Obama’s message of civic engagement over Clinton’s message of “fighting for you.”

Obama’s message is the classic Democratic insurgent pitch to the better angels of our nature. His Super Tuesday speech where he claims that “the person you’ve been waiting for is you” is an eloquent appeal for citizens to engage directly in political life. This resonates well in moralistic places where citizen engagement and participation is part of the fabric of the culture. In individualistic places, it is seen as pollyana and in traditionalistic places, it seems uppity, to put it politely.

The question going forward it seems is whether the large chunks of delegates are in moralistic, traditionalistic or individualistic places. I say places and not states because the truth is that states have multiple political cultures. You could say that in California, the Bay Area is moralistic and Southern California has both traditionalistic (Orange County) and individualistic (Los Angeles County) strains. Rodney Hero claims that all of this is really about the racial and ethnic composition of places, what he calls “social diversity.” He claims places that are homogeneous are moralistic, places with whites and one other racial/ethnic group are traditionalistic (Black/White or Latino/White), and places that have multiple racial and ethnic groups vying for resources are individualistic.

The question going forward is whether pockets of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas will resonate with a moralistic message. I think Obama will win Wisconsin because it is generally moralistic, but I’m not so sure about the rest. After Wisconsin and Obama’s home state of Hawaii, the question becomes whether voters want someone who is going to inspire them to engage in the political process or do they want and advocate who is going to defend their interets? If they want the first, then it’s Obama v. McCain. If they want the second, it’s Clinton v. McCain. My sympathies lie with the first, my hunch as a political scientist lies with the second.

The media has currently made a big deal out of recent South Carolina polls that suggest Barack Obama is losing white voter support in South Carolina. If this trend persists, it very likely means the end of his campaign on February 5th.

The standard explanation by the chattering classes is that the Clinton’s have been effective at making Obama the “black candidate.” Through the strategic use of code words like “cocaine” and “slumlord,” the Clintons have been able to remind voters of race and thereby make him a marginal figure. This explanation is wrong.

To buy this, you would have to assume that voters have just come to realize that Obama was African-American. He was just as Black in Iowa as he is in South Carolina. While race is powerful as a predictor of vote choice, I think the media is over blowing its significance in this campaign. A simpler explanation for Obama’s drop in the polls among various groups is that the Clinton’s are winning the framing war.

Framing is a term used by social scientists to talk about the ways in which people interpret events. Good politicians understand that the meaning attached to an event is more important than the event itself. It is becoming a tired cliché that political persuasion is more about emotion than about reason, more about language than about argument. Each news cycle presents a new way to tap into voter emotions. The Clinton campaign has won the framing war in four distinct ways.

Hard Working Mature Woman Getting a Raw Deal (As Usual): Hillary Clinton’s “welling up” moment in New Hampshire has been viewed as the key turning point in the campaign for her. The standard explanation is that it showed her human side. But what made this event important is not simply that it made her human, but that it tapped into a distinct frame of the earnest, hard-working, mature woman in a struggle to get what’s rightfully hers against a younger, male, up-start with fewer experience or qualifications. I suspect her overwhelming support among women over 45 years of age come, at least in part, from tapping into a common narrative: older women have had to work much harder in the workplace to get ahead and have likely had to compete against cocky, under qualified, men who waltz in and get all the rewards. This narrative gets reinforced by the Clinton’s skillful framing of Obama as young and inexperienced.

Dedicated Husband Getting Grief for Defending His Wife: The second narrative that is working against Obama is his ongoing feud with Bill Clinton. While some party insiders view Bill Clinton’s virulent attacks sympathetically for Obama, the public uses its own frame. The vast majority of married women, and probably men, simply see a husband fighting aggressively to defend his wife. Who wouldn’t want their husbands to “stick up” for them if they were being challenged by another male? What husband wouldn’t see Bill Clinton’s behavior and say “I’d do the same thing if it was my wife.”

Of course, Bill Clinton is a virtuoso at this, claiming that his hatchet man routine emerges from a deep love for his wife. But his narrative makes more sense than Obama’s. Obama’s complaint that he’s running against two people, while true, falls flat as a framing. Who in their own personal experience can relate to being ganged up on by a husband and wife team? Complaining about the rules is typically a poor frame.

Arrogant Hotshot Who Thinks He’s Better Than Me: The third narrative working against him is Obama’s own personality. In debates, he can go at times go from likable and affable to cocky and arrogant. When he says in response to a question on interracial tension between Blacks and Hispanics “all the Hispanics in Illinois voted for me” he gives the impression of being too cocksure for his own good. Obama’s resume plays into a giant “you think you’re better than me” chip on the shoulder of many working-class Democratic males. A “cocky, slick-talkin’, Harvard guy” is not how Obama wants to be painted. But the Clintons again have been masterful at tapping into class resentment. The Clinton quip that “he gives a great speech, but will he get his fingernails dirty like me” must have made Karl Rove shed a tear. This class resentment, more than race, is what accounts for his drop in the polls.

Disloyal Party Ingrate who Won’t Fight for Me: The fourth narrative favoring the Clinton’s emerged from Obama’s remarks about Ronald Reagan to the Reno Gazette Journal Editorial Board. The Clinton’s relentless hammering of the “party of ideas” theme looks to party insiders and intellectuals as Clintonian disingenuousness. But to rank and file Democrats it is a visceral example of a candidate who won’t be in the trenches fighting. If you are strongly identified as a Democrat, you see the invocation of Reagan as an example of someone who is too willing to compromise. No amount of explanation on Obama’s part as to what he really meant will move the frame. Calling the Clinton’s liars for misrepresenting the remark doesn’t shift the frame because for most democratic rank and file voters, lying in politics is not as heinous a crime as not defending their interests.

So what’s Obama to do? The question for the Obama campaign is how he steers the narratives back in his favor? How does the campaign move from Obama as a young-hot shot, who is inexperienced, disloyal to his party and is criticizing someone for the very human act of sticking up for his wife. Let’s take each framing step-by-step.

Struggling Middle-Aged Joe: First, he needs to change the narrative from being young and inexperienced to being mid-career and middle-aged. Every chance he gets, he needs to emphasize his “middle agedness” by talking about all the indignities that come with middle-age: flabby muscles, gaining weight, kids, mortgages, etc. He should share his middle-life concerns with his audiences. For example, he should talk about his struggle with balancing work-life and being a parent. In policy discourse, he needs to talk about the concerns of people in the 35-55 year age group. Obama should stress that he can speak to the concerns of this group because his is a working parent himself. He should thank Hillary Clinton’s generation for being instrumental in the Civil Rights and Women’s rights movement but that his generation faces new challenges.

Grateful Mid-Career Inheritor of the Party Mantle: Second, Obama has to position the Clintons as the party of the glorious past. He has to change the narrative from that of an ungrateful, young, hot-shot candidate to one of a mid-career professional with better ideas who is being held back by older bosses who can’t let go of power. He can’t do this brazenly but rather with heavy doses of flattery (the way all us middle aged professionals do). Hearken back to the glorious past of the 1990’s Democratic Party. He should use terminology that suggests the party should give Bill and Hillary a gold watch, not the reigns of power. This means allowing Hillary her dubious “experience” claim. This allows Obama to thank her for her long years of service to the Democratic Party. He should talk about them in the same breath as he does the “party elders” and how they’ve done so much to build the Democratic Party to the position it is now in and then stress how the party needs to go in a new direction. This recasts the narrative as “old and tired” vs. “new and vital.”

Avenger for Mistreatment of Clintons: Third, Obama needs to go from being a disloyal Democrat to one that chides the behavior of the Republicans in the 1990’s. He should immediately apologize for the Reagan comment (even though he has no reason to) and say that the real “old way of doing things” is the way the Republicans distracted the nation by ceaselessly attacking the Clinton’s on personal issues during the 1990’s. Talk about how wrong Gingrich and the Republicans were to waste taxpayers money investigating travel gate, Vince Foster’s suicide, the selling of the Lincoln bedroom, etc.. Talk about how the impeachment scandal was the greatest example of the old politics and how the new politics is about ridding that type of politics from Washington. This moves the frame off of Obama’s loyalty and on to the more seamy side of the Clinton years.

Strong (and Faithful) Family Man: Finally, Obama needs to switch the narrative from criticizing Bill for defending his wife on the campaign trail to applauding him for his vigorous defense of his wife. This allows him to stress the importance of strong, committed marriages. He should talk about his own marriage and how his wife makes him a better man and a better president. Obama should go on Oprah, Tyra, whomever, and talk about how much he’s grown from his strong stable marriage. More importantly, he should talk about his own marriage challenges. In one of these couch interviews; he should casually say that he admires the Clintons for keeping their marriage together. He should say that it couldn’t have been easy for Hillary and Bill to go through their marital problems public ally. This moves the frame from Bill Clinton as defender of his wife to someone who harmed his wife emotionally.

All of this framing is ugly business. But to win requires understanding how to play the game. Obama has less than 10 days to change the dynamic of the race. If he can’t change the way voters are interpreting events, his place in the pantheon of losing Democratic Party insurgents will be etched, right between Gary Hart and Bill Bradley.

Paul Burka’s January 12th op-ed in the New York Times makes the case that consensus oriented candidates like Barack Obama cannot sustain their message of unity if elected because politics is essentially rooted in conflict. In his view of the American political system:

the imperative of the majority is to hold power and the imperative of the minority is to seize power for itself. It may serve the minority’s interest to cooperate from time to time, but in principle it can advance itself only by opposing the majority.

This view might be true as a theory of securing legislative or executive control, but it is not a good theory of effective governance. Ours is a consensus based system. As our current political stalemate teaches us, capturing control of power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for realizing an agenda. Slim majorities are neither filibuster nor veto proof.

To affect significant change requires expanding your power base. In a country that remains ideologically divided, it seems implausible that either party can effectively govern for long by simply appealing to their base support and either ignoring or vilifying the opposition. This has a devastating effect on the public’s perception of government and their willingness to engage with it to solve common problems.

This is why electing Hillary Clinton would likely result in the same politics we currently have. If recent head-to-head polls are any indication, her victory margins in a general election would be in the low 50’s. No poll has her garnering more than 56% of the vote in a head to head with any Republican candidate. Given the dislike for the Clinton’s among conservative voters, it’s unlikely that she’d have much of a coattail effect for congressional candidates.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has the potential to be a transformational figure in American politics. His recent reference to Ronald Reagan in a recent interview with a Nevada newspaper, while no doubt upsetting the base of his party, suggests that he understands the fundamental nature of consensus based systems. You need to create super-majorities to realize a legislative agenda. Otherwise, your legislative accomplishments become marginal. Take for example Bill Clinton. What was Bill Clinton’s greatest legislative accomplishment? Maybe the Earned Income Tax Credit? Welfare reform?

Obama might not become this transformational figure that can build a sustainable center-left progressive majority in this country, but if you’re interested in making real headway on our impending social issues, then he seems to me the only choice.