Constitutional Crisis?

The following was a provocative essay published in the NYTimes. Since it touches on the nexus of economics and politics, I deemed it an appropriate topic for this blog.

Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

No. It wasn’t.

But we can never seem to anchor our attention on the true determinants of economic power. The distribution of wealth is tilted toward those who control society’s primary productive resources. In feudal and agrarian societies it is land; in industrial and post industrial societies it is energy and finance capital; in the information society it is information data and finance capital.

The imperative for a liberal democracy is to democratize land, to democratize finance, and, especially in the 21st century, to democratize big data. There are trade-offs implied (especially the necessary democratization of investment risk), but the objective must be liberty and justice, not national wealth, because sustainable wealth is only derived from liberty and justice.

Aside from economic inequality there is a related but different plague upon the body politic these days. That is the anti-democratic ideology of identity politics and multiculturalism. These ideologies probably arose as a response to the frustration of economic inequality and power that demanded a division into victims and victimizers. The victimizers, of course, were corporate, white, and male, while the victims were all other identity groups not so defined: ethnic and racial minorities, women, LBGTs, etc.

But a constitution based on compromise through participation cannot possibly manage identity groups based on biology and genetics.  There is no compromising our biological identity, there are only zero-sum battles with winners and losers. Thus, the rule of the victimizers must be torn down, though it cannot end there. Coalitions of identity groups do not hold together after the common enemy has been vanquished, so they turn on each other until we see the complete Balkanization of democratic polities.

We will need to solve both these problems – economic inequality and identity Balkanization – in order for our democracy to restore itself and guarantee liberty and justice for all. Unfortunately this professor, and most of our political leaders in the oligarchy, don’t really have any promising ideas about how to go about that.

There are other things the Constitution wasn’t written for, of course. The founders didn’t foresee America becoming a global superpower. They didn’t plan for the internet or nuclear weapons. And they certainly couldn’t have imagined a former reality television star president. Commentators wring their hands over all of these transformations — though these days, they tend to focus on whether this country’s founding document can survive the current president.

But there is a different, and far more stubborn, risk that our country faces — and which, arguably, led to the TV star turned president in the first place. Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

From the ancient Greeks to the American founders, statesmen and political philosophers were obsessed with the problem of economic inequality. Unequal societies were subject to constant strife — even revolution. The rich would tyrannize the poor, and the poor would revolt against the rich.

The solution was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, for example, the structure of government balanced lords and commoners. In ancient Rome, there was the patrician Senate for the wealthy, and the Tribune of the Plebeians for everyone else. We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.

What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. This was a radical change in the history of constitutional government.

And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.

At the time, many Americans believed the new nation would not be afflicted by the problems that accompanied economic inequality because there simply wasn’t much inequality within the political community of white men. Today we tend to emphasize how undemocratic the founding era was when judged by our values — its exclusion of women, enslavement of African-Americans, violence against Native Americans. But in doing so, we risk missing something important: Many in the founding generation believed America was exceptional because of the extraordinary degree of economic equality within the political community as they defined it.

Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.

The problem, of course, is that economic inequality has been on the rise for at least the last generation. In 1976 the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 8.5 percent of our national income. Today they take home more than 20 percent. In major sectors of the economy — banking, airlines, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications — economic power is increasingly concentrated in a small number of companies. [Don’t we need to discuss why before we embark on solutions?]

While much of the debate has been on the moral or economic consequences of economic inequality, the more fundamental problem is that our constitutional system might not survive in an unequal economy. Campaign contributions, lobbying, the revolving door of industry insiders working in government, interest group influence over regulators and even think tanks — all of these features of our current political system skew policy making to favor the wealthy and entrenched economic interests. “The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest,” Gouverneur Morris observed in 1787. “They always did. They always will.” An oligarchy — not a republic — is the inevitable result.

As a republic descends into an oligarchy, the people revolt. Populist revolts are rarely anarchic; they require leadership. [See Trump AND Sanders.] Morris predicted that the rich would take advantage of the people’s “passions” and “make these the instruments for oppressing them.” The future Broadway sensation Alexander Hamilton put it more clearly: “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people: commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Starting more than a century ago, amid the first Gilded Age, Americans confronted rising inequality, rapid industrial change, a communications and transportation revolution and the emergence of monopolies. Populists and progressives responded by pushing for reforms that would tame the great concentrations of wealth and power that were corrupting government.

On the economic side, they invented antitrust laws and public utilities regulation, established an income tax, and fought for minimum wages. On the political side, they passed campaign finance regulations and amended the Constitution so the people would get to elect senators directly. They did these things because they knew that our republican form of government could not survive in an economically unequal society. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”

For all its resilience and longevity, our Constitution doesn’t have structural checks built into it to prevent oligarchy or populist demagogues. It was written on the assumption that America would remain relatively equal economically. Even the father of the Constitution understood this. Toward the end of his life, Madison worried that the number of Americans who had only the “bare necessities of life” would one day increase. When it did, he concluded, the institutions and laws of the country would need to be adapted, and that task would require “all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

With economic inequality rising and the middle class collapsing, the deep question we must ask today is whether our generation has wise patriots who, like the progressives a century ago, will adapt the institutions and laws of our country — and save our republic.

Ganesh Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, is the author of “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.”

Advertisements

G–gle Culture

DO NO EVIL

 

These excerpts are from a recent online interview by Stefan Molyneux of the fired Google employee James Damore explaining himself:

Generally, I just really like understanding things,” he said about his reasons for compiling his argument. “And recently, through interactions with people, I have noticed how different political ideologies divide us in many ways. I wanted to understand what was behind all that.”

“I read a lot into Jonathan Haidt’s work, a lot about what exactly is the philosophy behind all of these things. And that led me to the beginning of the document,” he explained. 

He described his crystallizing moment as: “I could see that all of us are really blind to the other side, so in these environments where everyone is in these echo chambers just talking to themselves, they are totally blind to so many things.We really need both sides to be talk to each other about these things and trying to understand each other.” 

He critiques both the left and right for not working together: “The easiest way of understanding the left is: It is very open, it is looking for changes. While the right is more closed, and wants more stability. There are definitely advantages to both of those. Sometimes there are things that need to change, but you actually need a vision for what you want. There is value in tradition, but not all traditions should be how they are.”

“We create biases for ourselves. This is particularly interesting, when we talk about how it relates to reality,” he said.

“Both sides are biased in a way, they have motivated reasoning to see what they want out of a lot of things,” he continued. 

This happens a lot in social science, where it is 95% leaning to the left. And so they only study what they want, and they only see the types of things that they want, and they really aren’t as critical of their own research as much as they should. The popular conception is that the right doesn’t understand science at all, that the right is anti-science. It is true that they often deny evolution and climate science, climate change, but the left also has its own things that it denies. Biological differences between people — in this case, sex differences,” he explained. 

He described the experience of diversity training at Google, which inspired him to write: “I heard things I definitely disagreed with in some of the programs. I had some discussions with people there, but there was a lot of just shaming. ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist, you can’t do this.’ There is so much hypocrisy in a lot things they are saying. I decided to just create the document just to clarify my thoughts.

I have often recommended Jon Haidt’s research presented in his book, The Righteous Mind. It’s worth a read because much of what is happening in social and political discourse these days reflects a psychological pathology that should be completely unnecessary. But getting out of our own way in politics is a difficult challenge.

I find nothing particularly mendacious about Mr. Damore’s document or his intentions to clarify what is basically an empirical puzzle concerning gender differences. Of course, this was all blown way out of proportion because it challenges some unscientific political agenda.

As a scientist, I assume that all empirical phenomena should be open to skepticism and challenges. I’m not sure how we progress intellectually any other way. The attack on Mr. Damore is an attack on science and for me can only reveal an indefensible political agenda. This is sad, if not dangerous, to say the least.

My own approach in this blog has been to suggest analytical frameworks to help understand how human behavior aggregates up into social behavior that defines our civilization; past, present and future (see Common Cent$). The universe is constantly changing, and survival depends on successful adaptation. Unsuccessful adaptation leads to extinction. Thus, the problem for all species is how to successfully adapt.

It seems to me our knowledge-base in the biological and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities can help us humans out here and I can’t understand why anyone who wants to survive would ignore or discount anything we can learn from that wealth of knowledge. Yet, some would choose to ignore anything that might challenge their world-view, even when they know it is false. G–gle seems to have succumbed to that pressure. That’s a shame, but not a path any of us have to accept.

What’s G–gle’s motto again?

 

 

 

 

WTF Happened? Pick Your Poison.

I can agree with the headline of this article, reprinted from the Huffington Post, but the majority of the analysis is plainly inconclusive (see comments). The Big Lesson is: Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

The Big Lesson From 2016 Is That Neither Party Has A Winning Vote Coalition

The Obama coalition turned out to be pretty weak, but Trump’s might be even weaker.

11/25/2016 03:49 pm ET

Donald Trump won the Electoral College by a 306-232 margin, but lost the popular vote by a more than 2 million votes (and still counting) ― more than any previous presidential winner ever has in a split decision. How this happened is a complex story, much more nuanced than most “here’s why Trump won” stories imply. [We don’t seek complexity, but clarity and accuracy.]

Almost all of those stories contain a piece of the puzzle, but in order to see the real story you need to consider all of the explanations combined. Neither party has much reason to celebrate the outcome of the 2016 election. Republicans have a demographics problem, and Democrats have a geography problem compounded by turnout issues. [Fair enough.]

At the state level, the 2016 vote patterns seem to show a sea of red states with blues isolated to the coasts plus Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Illinois. Looking county-by-county, it becomes clear that the divide isn’t just coasts vs. flyover territory; it’s rural-urban. Pockets of blue in the major cities, college towns and a handful of majority-black areas in the South are evident in this view. TheNew York Times’ graphic below shows just how little actual land area went to Hillary Clinton at the county level: She won 15 percent of the land to Trump’s 85 percent.

 

Yet declaring the United States a country divided by population density overlooks several trends that are key to understanding Trump’s success. The urban-rural split is nothing new; perhaps it’s more exaggerated in 2016 than before, but we’ve known for a long time that rural areas are conservative and urban areas are liberal. But if we consider gradations ― not just dividing counties by which candidate a majority of voters selected, but shading by the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters in each county ― the story is far less clear.

If we can’t blame everything on the rural-urban divide, then what happened? There’s not one single reason why Clinton lost several states where majorities voted for President Barack Obama twice: there are several reasons. [Blogger’s Note: Of course there is more than one reason (i.e., variable) that explains this election outcome. The scientific question is what matters most. Again it is the enduring urban-rural divide and how these match up with the parties’ platforms. All these other explanations are anecdotal to this particular election, in other words, not part of a trend. The interesting new trend is the continued weakness of both party coalitions that has been unfolding over the past 25-40 years.]

These Purple States of America

A few, significant, subplots played out in the supposed Democratic “firewall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and the perennial battleground of Ohio. These states have been close recently, but in 2008 and 2012 Democrats were able to generate support among the rural working class to win over majorities of voters in the states.

But there was a sizable shift in 2016. It’s unclear how many people voted for Trump that had voted for Obama, but Trump did pull a larger percentage of the vote in many counties: more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That could be in part different groups of voters turning out in 2016 as compared to 2012, but anecdotal stories and survey data reveal that there were some party switchers.

Turnout is part of the picture, though, particularly in Michigan and Wisconsin. AsHuffPost previously reported, turnout was down in Detroit’s Wayne County, Michigan and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in numbers large enough to swing the election in those states. Clinton received nearly 78,000 fewer votes in Wayne County than Obama did in 2012, and lost Michigan by under 12,000 votes. She underperformed Obama by 39,000 votes in Milwaukee County and lost Wisconsin by just over 27,000 votes.

Similar patterns of lower urban turnout were evident in Philadelphia and other cities in the Midwest. The numbers suggest these people didn’t vote for Trump: they just didn’t vote at all. And according to reports, the Clinton campaign didn’t make concerted efforts to get them to the polls. Many of these nonvoters were likely minorities who Democrats assumed would support the party in large numbers ― which they do, when they vote.

An additional subplot involves suburban areas and white women. Democrats hoped to make gains in these areas, particularly among typically-conservative women who might be turned off by Trump’s actions and rhetoric. That hope proved false. Nationally, suburban areas and white women voted for Trump in very similar proportions to their votes for Romney in 2012. Romney received 50 percent of the suburban vote, and Trump garnered 59 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted for Romney, and 52 percent supported Trump. [All exit poll data – see comments below.]

Nationally, as well as in the Rust Belt, Democrats lost support among the least educated groups. According to the exit polls, education didn’t matter much in 2012: Obama won college graduates by 2 points and non-college graduates by 4 points. Clinton won college graduates by 10 points and lost non-college graduates by 7 points. Relative to Obama’s totals, Clinton gained 2 points among college graduates and lost 7 points among non-college graduates.

The difference is even more stark among whites: Trump won white college graduates by 2 points, but he won white non-college graduates by 37 points. The racial breakdown isn’t provided in the 2012 results, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t that sharp of a divide among whites or there would have been a gap in the overall numbers. Among minorities, Clinton won college graduates by 50 points and non-college graduate by 56 points. Once you account for the educational divide, income doesn’t seem to make a difference in vote choice.

Yet despite all these trends that favored Trump, Clinton won the popular vote by a wider margin than several past presidents. Clinton cut the Republican advantage to around 5 points in the red state strongholds of Arizona and Georgia, and Texas dropped from a 16-point Republican advantage in 2012 to a 9 point win for Trump. California is still counting, but it looks like Clinton blew Trump out by nearly 30 points in the state ― substantially more than Obama’s 23-point win over Romney four years ago. [Duh. CA is an outlier in national politics these days.]

These results were likely driven by high support for Clinton among minority populations, particularly among Latinos and Hispanics in the Southwest. And although there’s some dispute over just how strongly that group supported Clinton, the most conservative estimates from the National Exit Polls indicate that Clinton won Latinos by 36 points. Other pre-election polls show even stronger Democratic leanings among the group.

Republicans also struggled with black voters. Trump’s 8 percent support is actually slightly more than Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012, but slightly less than George W. Bush’s support among black voters in 2000 and 2004. Black turnout was slightly lower this year compared to 2012 as well, which helped states like Georgia stay red. An uptick in turnout among a group that so heavily favors Democrats has considerable potential to shift those states. [Hispanics, blacks, women, whites – these group identity variables are all driven by exit poll data, not reality.] 

The problem is that none of these states actually switched directions. Had Clinton won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, she still would have been short of the 270 mark, but it would have compensated for the losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which combine for 26 electoral votes. But neither state appears as close to turning blue as some polls had indicated. So these gains meant nothing for the Electoral College, which is what really matters.

To state the obvious, as long as the Electoral College determines the winner, Democrats can’t rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren’t ready to flip yet. The best strategy for 2020 will be to focus on the very narrow losses in the Rust Belt and win those voters back ― which probably means convincing them that Democrats are a better option for improving their economy than Republicans. Democrats clearly lost that battle this year. [That means a tough economic and social policy reversal for Democrats.]

Meanwhile Republicans will try to hold onto those gains and build their very fragile coalition that won the Electoral College. Whether it survives beyond 2016 is anyone’s guess. The Obama coalition didn’t outlast Obama, but the Trump coalition might not survive Trump.
………………..

A caution: most of the interpretations draw data from exit polls, which usually support the kind of personal narrative desired by media. In other words, the idea that our differences are driven by voter group characteristics is baked in the cake of exit polling. The dominant factor of geography and lifestyle choices is obscured by exit polls. Discount the exit poll inferences accordingly, but then what would journalists write about?

Taken at face value, the argument presented here merely outlines how the Obama era was a one-off and the same may hold true for the Trump regime. (Hillary Clinton could have won and that conclusion would still hold true, as confirmed by down ballot results.) But we have no real indication yet of Trump’s fate and reading the tea-leaves (“might not survive”) is a sign of wishful thinking, not objective analysis. I don’t expect much more from the inherent biases of the Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics

Long-winded, but worthy enough for a reprint (from the WSJ):

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins Tuesday, understanding the psychological causes of our national rift can help us bridge it

By JONATHAN HAIDT and RAVI IYER

Nov. 4, 2016 11:05 a.m. ET

The most-watched made-for-TV movie in American history is “The Day After,” a 1983 portrayal of life in Kansas and Missouri in the days just before and after an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If you’ve had even fleeting thoughts that Tuesday’s election could bring about the end of the world or the destruction of the country, you might want to find “The Day After” on YouTube, scroll to minute 53 and watch the next six minutes. Now that’s an apocalypse.

It’s an absurd comparison, of course, but the absurdity is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, we have a lot to be grateful for. The Soviet Union is gone, and life in America has gotten much better since the 1980s by most objective measures. Crime is way down, prosperity and longevity are way up, and doors are open much more widely for talented people from just about any demographic group. Yes, we have new problems, and the benefits haven’t been spread evenly, but if you look at the big picture, we are making astonishing progress.

Watching “The Day After” also might help Americans to tone down the apocalyptic language that so many have used about the presidential race. On the right, some speak of this as the “Flight 93 election,” meaning that America has been hijacked by treasonous leftists who are trying to crash the plane, so electing Donald Trump to rush the cockpit is the only sane choice. On the left, some think that a Trump victory would lead to a constitutional crisis followed by a military coup, fascism and dictatorship.

Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil. The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets. That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide—disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.

Suburban neighbors in the swing state of Pennsylvania have managed to preserve their friendship and sanity throughout a long and bitter election season. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports. Photo: Heather Seidel for The Wall Street Journal

In short, the day after this election is likely to be darker and more foreboding than the day after just about any U.S. election since 1860. Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?

We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. That can be hard to do when emotions run so high. But if we understand better the psychological causes of our current animosity, we can all take some simple steps to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country. Three time-honored quotations can serve as guides.

“Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” —Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. We form teams easily, most likely because we have evolved for violent intergroup conflict. Our minds take to it so readily that we invent myths, games and sports—including war games like paintball—that let us enjoy the pleasures of intergroup conflict without the horrors of actual war.

The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats, as the Bedouin saying indicates. We see such shifts after party primaries, when those who backed a losing candidate swing around to support the nominee. And we saw it happen after the 9/11 attacks, when the country came together to support the president and the military in the invasion of Afghanistan.

But with the exception of the few months after 9/11, cross-partisan animosity has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. This year, for the first time since Pew Research began asking in 1994, majorities in both parties expressed not just “unfavorable” views of the other party but “very unfavorable” views. Those ratings were generally below 20% throughout the 1990s. And more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those numbers are up by about 10% in both parties just since 2014.

So what will happen the next time there is a major terrorist attack? Will we come together again? Or will the attack become a partisan football within hours, as happened after the various lone-wolf attacks of the past year? Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” —Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy. It is a general rule of psychology that “thinking is for doing”: We think with a particular purpose in mind, and often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents.

Psychologists call this process “motivated reasoning.” It is found whenever self-interest is in play. When the interests of a group are added to the mix, this sort of biased, god-awful reasoning becomes positively virtuous—it signals your loyalty to the team. This is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate.

Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways. Social media, hackers and Google searches now help us to find hundreds of specks in our opponents’ eyes, but no technology can force us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

“Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.” —Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. Since the 1980s, Democrats have been packing into the cities while the rural areas and exurbs have been getting more Republican. Institutions that used to bring people together—such as churches—are now splitting apart over culture war issues such as gay marriage.

Ever more of our social life is spent online, in virtual communities or networks that are politically homogeneous. When we do rub up against the other side online, relative anonymity often leads to stunning levels of incivility, including racist and sexist slurs and threats of violence.

So are we doomed? Will the polarizing trends identified by Pew just keep going until the country splits in two? Maybe John Adams was right in 1814 when he wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”

But we have lasted 240 years so far, and both sides agree that America is worth fighting for. We just have to see that the fight isn’t always against each other; it is also a struggle to adapt our democracy and our habits for polarizing times and technologies.

Some of these adaptations will require changes to laws and institutions. Some will come from improving technology as we fine-tune social media to reward productive disagreement while filtering out trolling and intimidation.

And many of the changes must come from each of us, as individuals who have friends, co-workers and cousins who voted for the other side. How will we treat them as customers, employees, students and neighbors? What will we say to them at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research.

First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Political scientists report that since the 1980s, Americans have increasingly voted against the other side’s candidate, rather than voting enthusiastically for their own, and that is especially true this time. So don’t assume that most people on the other side like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears and frustrations that you don’t understand, but if you knew their stories, you might well empathize with them.

Second, step back and think about your goals. In the long run, would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to persuade or otherwise influence people, you should know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing with them. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side. Spend time together, and let the proximity recommended by Cicero strengthen ties. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Research shows that as things or people become familiar, we like them more.

Emotions often drive reasoning, so as our hearts harden, our thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. We are less able to think flexibly and address the social problems that we claim to care about. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter as well as calmer, even if polarization grows worse.

And if you do find a way to have a real conversation with someone on the other side, approach it skillfully. One powerful opener is to point to a log in your own eye—to admit right up front that you or your side were wrong about something. Doing this at the start of a conversation signals that you aren’t in combat mode. If you are open, trusting and generous, your partner is likely to reciprocate.

Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate. After more than 90 minutes of antagonism, a member of the town-hall audience brought the evening to a close with this question: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Mrs. Clinton began with weak praise by saying that she respects Mr. Trump’s children. But then she made it strong and generous by noting how “incredibly able” those children are and how devoted they are to their father, adding, “I think that says a lot about Donald.” Mr. Trump responded in kind: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. I respect that.”

That brief exchange was emotionally powerful—the only uplifting moment of the night for many viewers. Had it been the opening exchange, might the debate have been more elevated, more constructive?

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Dr. Iyer is a social psychologist and data scientist at the website Ranker and the executive director of CivilPolitics.org.

Failed Paradigms

From The American Interest

The problems of a small state college point to the weakness at the heart of liberal society—a weakness that undermines the strength of our republic at home and endangers world peace. And neither political party has the answers.

We’ve All Been Trumped

silver-feautre-trumptroll-1

Regardless of how one feels about Donald Trump and his candidacy, the facts suggest his presidential chances are slim to none. But nevertheless, we can see from this chart and the explanation offered below (by 538’s Nate Silver) why we get a steady daily diet of Trumpisms. Now, a responsible press would prioritize coverage of the likely nominees and focus on Bush, Rubio, and Walker. Instead they pander to celebrity and controversy in an attempt to appeal to the scandal obsessions of their target audience, thereby surviving financially. These days the Fourth Estate does not work as intended and this is partly what drives our dysfunctional electoral politics.

“A troll,” according to one definition, “is a person who sows discord … by starting arguments or upsetting people … with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

The goal of the troll is to provoke a reaction by any means necessary. Trolls thrive in communities that are open and democratic (they wouldn’t be invited into a discussion otherwise) and which operate in presumed good faith (there need to be some standards of decorum to offend). Presidential nomination contests are highly susceptible to trolling, therefore. Access is fairly open: There’s no longer much of a filter between the campaigns, the media and the public. And it’s comically easy to provoke a reaction. How many times between now and next November will we hear that a candidate’s statement is “offensive,” whether or not it really is?

Trolls operate on the principle that negative attention is better than none. In fact, the troll may feed off the negative attention, claiming it makes him a victim and proves that everyone is out to get him.

Sound like any presidential candidates you know?

There’s a notion that Donald Trump’s recent rise in Republican polls is a media-driven creation. That explanation isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s incomplete. It skims over the complex interactions between the media, the public and the candidates, which can produce booms and busts of attention. And it ignores how skilled trolls like Trump can exploit the process to their benefit.

Let’s look at some data. In the chart below, I’ve tracked how media coverage has been divided among the Republican candidates over roughly the past month (the data covers June 14 through July 12), according to article counts on Google News. In turn, I’ve shown the share of Google searches for each candidate over the same period. The data was provided to FiveThirtyEight by Google but should closely match what you’ll get by searching on Google Trends or Google News yourself.

Even before his imbecilic comments about Sen. John McCain this weekend, which came too recently to be included in this data, Trump was receiving far more media attention than any other Republican. Based on Google News, 46 percent of the media coverage of the GOP campaign over the past month was directed toward Trump, more than for Jeb Bush (13 percent), Chris Christie (9 percent), Scott Walker (8 percent), Bobby Jindal (6 percent), Ted Cruz (4 percent) and Marco Rubio (4 percent) combined.

And yet, the public is perhaps even more obsessed with Trump. Among the GOP candidates, he represented 62 percent of the Google search traffic over the past month, having been searched for more than six times as often as second-place Bush.

So if the press were going purely by public demand, there might be even more Trump coverage. Instead, the amount of press coverage that each candidate has received has been modulated by the media’s perception of how likely each is to win the nomination.

The chart I showed you above contained data on each GOP candidate’s chances of winning the nomination, according to the prediction market Betfair.1 Candidates who are perceived as having a credible chance to win the nomination — like Bush, Walker and Rubio — receive proportionally more media attention than public attention. The reverse is true for candidates who are seen by the press as long shots, such as Rand Paul and Ben Carson.2

As is usually the case, however, life gets more complicated when we go from identifying correlations to trying to understand their causes. As we’ve seen, press coverage is highly correlated with the level of public interest in a candidate and the candidate’s perceived chances of winning the nomination. It could be, however, that public attention to a candidate is triggered by media coverage rather than the other way around. Likewise, while the media might be fairly sophisticated at identifying which candidates are more likely to win and provide correspondingly more coverage of them, the media can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being ignored by the media or labeled as a loser can make it hard for a candidate to attract money, endorsements and other resources that might allow them to make a comeback.

We can aspire to determine causality by comparing the timing of Google News and Google search hits for a candidate. If the press drives public interest in the candidates, spikes in Google News should precede spikes in Google searches. If instead the press is reacting to the public, Google News hits will lag search.

Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy to determine. Shifts in public and media attention tend to occur at about the same time — as you can see, for example, in the graphic below, which compares Trump’s Google News and Google search traffic from week to week.

silver-feautre-trumptroll-2

But a regression analysis — you can read the gory details in the footnotes3 — suggests that press attention both leads and lags public attention to the candidates. This makes a lot of sense. The public can take cues from the media about which candidates to pay attention to. But the media also gets a lot of feedback from the public. Or to put it more cynically: If Trump-related stories are piling up lots of pageviews and Trump-related TV segments get good ratings, then guess what? You’re probably going to see more of them.4

This creates the possibility of a feedback loop. Some event sparks a news story about a candidate, which triggers more public attention, which encourages yet more media attention — and so on. It may help to explain why we’ve repeatedly seen the so-called “discovery, scrutiny and decline” cycle in the past two primary campaigns for candidates like Trump, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain — bursts of attention that coincide with spikes in the polls but then fade or even burst after several weeks.

These “bounces” aren’t entirely new. Presidential candidates usually get a temporary bounce in support following their party’s convention, for example. But the polls in the 2012 Republican campaign were far more volatile than those in any previous nomination race. We’re really just getting started in 2016, but it’s been pretty wild as well. Bounces that might have happened once in a cycle now seem to occur all the time.

So if these spikes are media-driven, they seem to be driven by some particularly modern features of the media landscape. Social media allows candidates to make news without the filter of the press. It may also encourage groupthink among and between reporters and readers, however. And access to real-time traffic statistics can mean that everyone is writing the same “takes” and chasing the same eyeballs at once. Is the tyranny of the Twitter mob better or worse than the “Boys on the Bus” model of a group of (mostly white, male, upper-middle-class, left-of-center) reporters deigning to determine what’s news and what isn’t? I don’t know, but it’s certainly different. And it seems to be producing a higher velocity of movement in the polls and in the tenor of media coverage.

Trolls are skilled at taking advantage of this landscape and making the news cycle feed on its own tail, accelerating the feedback loop and producing particularly large bounces and busts in the polls. In 2012, Gingrich’s whole strategy seemed to involve trolling the media, and he went through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles in polls. In 2008, Sarah Palin, though beloved by Republicans, was brilliant at trolling Democrats and the media. She was extremely popular at first, although her popularity was ultimately short-lived.

Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party. Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 or 20 percent of the vote — even if the other 80 or 85 percent of voters hate your guts.

In the long run — as our experience with past trolls shows — Trump’s support will probably fade. Or at least, given his high unfavorable ratings, it will plateau, and other candidates will surpass him as the rest of the field consolidates.

It’s much harder to say what will happen to Trump’s polling in the near term, however. That’s in part because it’s hard to say exactly what was driving his support in the first place. Trump wasn’t doing especially well with tea party voters or with any other identifiable group of Republicans. My guess is that his support reflected a combination of (i) low-information voters who recognized his name and (ii) voters who share Trump’s disdain for the trappings of the political establishment and (iii) voters who were treating him as an inside joke or a protest vote, making him vaguely like an American equivalent of Beppe Grillo. None of them will necessarily be deterred from declaring their support for him because of his comments about McCain. Some of them might even be encouraged.

But what if you want Trump to go away now?

The media isn’t going to stop paying attention to Trump. Nor should it, really: His candidacy is a political story and not just “entertainment.”5

Republicans are another matter, however. They might rightly be concerned that Trump is tarnishing their brand image or at least meddling with their already-challenging task of choosing a candidate. Other Republicans should resist the temptation to extend the news cycle by firing back at him, however — even when what he says is genuinely offensive.6

After 12 years of writing on the Internet, I’ve learned that the old adage is true. Don’t feed the troll. The only way to kill a troll like Trump is to deprive him of attention.

Footnotes

  1. The data was taken from PredictWise as of early Sunday afternoon. I’d quibble with some of Betfair’s probabilities: I don’t think there should be such a large gap between Bush (who Betfair has at 39 percent to win the nomination) and the next two candidates, Walker and Rubio. And giving Trump a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination seems extremely generous. But Betfair data reflects market prices and is therefore a pretty good approximation of the consensus view about the viability of each candidate. ^
  2. For better or worse, the press doesn’t necessarily give a lot of coverage to candidates who poll well if they aren’t otherwise seen as viable nominees. Carson and Paul get little coverage despite polling better than a lot of their competitors, for instance. You could argue that this is sophisticated behavior on the media’s part since early polls of the primaries are often inaccurate and tend to predict the nominee less well than other factors like endorsements. ^
  3. In the regression, I sought to explain Google News hits as a function of (i) Google search traffic in the previous week and (ii) Google search traffic in the subsequent week. The idea is that if press coverage lags public attention, Google search traffic from the previous week would be more predictive of press coverage, while the reverse would be true if media coverage leads public interest instead. It turned out, however, that Google searches from both the previous and subsequent week had a positive and statistically significant relationship with press coverage. ^
  4. For the record, the three previous stories that FiveThirtyEight published on Trump averaged about 100,000 pageviews. That’s a decent but not exceptional number relative to how our campaign-related stories have been doing. As you probably know if you’re reading this footnote, however, we have a pretty weird audience. ^
  5. The Huffington Post political desk is now labeling articles about Trump as “entertainment” rather than “politics.” I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s a gimmick. On the one hand, Trump is still getting plenty of attention at the Huffington Post. (Perhaps even more, since they’re now crossposting Trump stories between politics and entertainment.) On the other hand, even if Trump isn’t a “serious” candidate or has no shot at the nomination, his candidacy will reverberate on the rest of the Republican field. Where is his 15 percent of the vote coming from, and where might it go if he fades? How is Trump affecting things like the RNC’s rules for debates, and who is he keeping off the stage? What, if anything, does he tell us about the mood of Republican voters? We’ve been skeptical of Trump from the outset at FiveThirtyEight, but we’re going to keep covering his campaign for these reasons. ^
  6. Whether to allow Trump to participate in the debates is a more difficult question. If he’s included, he’ll use the floor to be as disruptive as possible. If he’s excluded, he’ll scream and shout that the party is out to get him. The best approach might be to invite him but structure the debates such that there’s less opportunity for freewheeling interactions between the candidates. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Gerrymandering Our Demise

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

The graphic above is an historically famous newspaper illustration of the first application of redistricting based upon choosing voters likely to vote for one party over the other, thereby assuring the election of a favored candidate. The map is of Massachusetts’ counties in 1812 and how they were cobbled together by redistricting to elect congressional candidates favored by Governor Elbridge Gerry. Newspaper wags thought the result looked like a salamander and dubbed the creature a “gerrymander.”

A recent exchange I had with a Political Science colleague over some electoral studies we’ve conducted separately illuminated for me how redistricting, or gerrymandering, is contributing greatly to our national political polarization and governing dysfunction.

After the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 I became quite curious about the red state-blue state narrative promoted by the media to explain the election results. The narrative keyed on subcultural stereotypes across America that served to define political preferences. Most of us are familiar with such stereotypes (guns and religion vs. Priuses and lattes), but it struck me then that the differences had to be  more correlated with geography than cultural identity. After all, red-blue was a geographic pattern, so it had to incorporate a geographic explanation. I conducted an empirical study of those elections that compared county voting with county census demographics. The results revealed that the most significant factors determining party preferences were population density and household formation. Other census characteristics–such as race, gender, age, income–added no explanatory power. (In 2005, I published an op-ed explanation here.)

To bring us up to date, I read another study last week (titled, The 2014 House Elections: Political Analysis and The Enduring Importance of Demographics) that analyzed the 2008, -10, -12, -14 elections in the same manner, comparing census demographic data with congressional district results. The author found that the two most important factors were population density and race/ethnicity of minority vs. white voters. At first I wondered why our results differed, as I suspected nothing much had changed in the electorate beyond a presidential candidate who was the first African American in US history. After some discussions I realized the differences between counties and Congressional districts (CDs) is because county lines, like state lines, are not redrawn to influence electoral outcomes while CDs are deliberately redrawn to favor those outcomes.

Below are some examples of tortuously drawn CDs that are intended to bind racial and ethnic communities together to elect racial and ethnic representatives in a white majority nation.

Worst GerryMandered districts

It didn’t take long to figure out that the difference between the results of the two studies can be traced to the unit of analysis: counties vs. congressional districts. Counties reflect a cross-section of lifestyle preferences based upon geography and demographics versus congressional districts that are carved out to achieve a desired electoral outcome based solely on race or ethnicity.

Underlying this policy objective is the assumption that only a racial or ethnic minority candidate can adequately represent a racial or ethnic community. We can debate whether this assumption holds true or not, but the unfortunate result is that gerrymandering reinforces the bias. In other words, if we’re looking for racial bias and then organize our electoral system to reinforce racial and ethnic divisions, is it any wonder that we then find a correlation between race and political outcomes?

There are other pernicious effects of redistricting along racial and ethnic demographics. First, it reduces electoral competition, and this works equally well for both parties. As non-whites get carved out of white districts, the remaining districts are more purely white. In effect, we are sectioning our electorate into white and non-white political entities. This goes against our long-running public battle to integrate communities, but reducing electoral competition also means parties and candidates can become less responsive to voters’ demands and not suffer for it. This translates into democratic governance that is anything but “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Second, democracy is founded on the process of compromise, but how does a political group defined by biological identity compromise? It becomes impossible to compromise one’s racial, ethnic or sexual identity, so we get much less compromise on issues that go beyond biology. This inability to compromise has greatly hampered our democratic governance. We have basically yielded our politics to a class of elites who are highly motivated to secure and wield power and wealth in their favor: the 99% governed by the 1%.

Taken in total, regardless of the political benefits, what gerrymandering and redistricting has done is weaken our commitment to one of the founding tenets of the American experiment, expressed in the Latin words, e pluribus unum: Out of One, Many.

Instead we’ve allowed ourselves to  become too easily divided and conquered.

 

 

The Politics of Polarization

tugofwar

I watched an interesting debate aired by PBS over political polarization in American politics. The debate actually focused solely on the partisan/ideological divide as it pitted “right against left” in its panels and choice of participants. You can view the debate here.

I found some truths and falsehoods presented on this issue. First, I would agree with George Will that partisan opposition is fundamental to the design of the US electoral and governing system. We have two parties so that issues can be reduced to simple dichotomous choices where the choice that prevails can be said to represent a majority of the nation’s citizens and thereby claim a mandate, whether that be weak or strong. Polarization today is evenly matched in a 50-50 nation, which makes elections highly contentious and volatile. It also makes it hard to claim a mandate, and rightly so.

The left-liberal argument seems to be that electoral polarization causes government dysfunction, but this is exactly the purpose: to challenge one side’s view of “good” government by forcing majorities and supermajorities in elections and governance. One discussant claimed that gridlock did not express the “will of the people” because of large scale disenfranchisement of minority groups. Whether disenfranchisement is salient or not, this is not what the data show to be driving polarization. In fact, if one controls for race, for instance measuring only white people, we find the same polarization patterns exist.

Matt Kibbe argues that the system is experiencing upheaval due to information technology that opens the political process in many ways that challenge the old guard. In other words, the political and media elites no longer control the show and are understandably upset with their loss of hegemony. This paints our political dysfunction as an insider-outsider, populist-elite conflict that has tilted toward the outsiders. I’m not sure it has, beyond informing the outsiders just how outside the process they are. The apparent result has been widespread dissatisfaction with the governing status quo, but that doesn’t drive polarization as much as blame-gaming.

But the debate focused on the narrow ideological differences between left and right, whereas most of the polity does not adopt pure ideological or partisan identities. The fastest growing group of voters identify as independent and non-affiliated. So, we are still left with the question of what is driving polarization and we need to answer that question before we have a chance of understanding it. One problem is that the proffered answers usually support one’s political agenda rather than truth.

One need only to look at the correct maps of election results to understand that polarization exists and it is largely a geographic phenomenon. 2004countymap-final2The Red State-Blue State narrative is not quite accurate as the real divide is obviously urban-rural, as illustrated by county election maps. This is confirmed with robust statistical results from recent presidential elections. As one moves from the urban core to the rural periphery, the share of the vote by county moves monotonically from Democrat to Republican. This fact has given rise to those bizarre and amusing subcultural characteristics of opposing voting groups: Republicans own guns, go to church, drive pick-up trucks, and listen to country western, while Democrats drink lattes at Starbucks, drive hybrids, and listen to rap and hip hop. There’s some truth to these stereotypes that feed our amusement, but these lifestyle choices do not drive political preferences, they coincide with political preferences. There’s a big difference, because when identity drives politics, there is little room for compromise.

This coincidence has become salient because both parties have tailored their party platforms to appeal to rural or urban voters. In other words, the parties have created political identities, not voters. We can observe the reality in the suburbs, where cultural caricatures are harder to apply. The true divisions in American politics these days are pretty much the same as those divisions that have existed over the past two hundred plus years: rural regions have different policy preferences than urban, metropolitan regions. The data show that these preferences also correlate with household and family formation, specifically marriage vs. singles and single heads of household. Population density of the county along with the share of married and female heads of households explains roughly two-thirds of party voting preferences in elections today. These differences in preferences have existed in societies throughout history and across countries, so they don’t present any different challenge to our democracy today. The real problem lies in the final third of the explanation for polarization, which is ideology or political philosophy.

Unfortunately, this conflict is usually misrepresented by self-interested parties. So the real challenge we face are the myths promoted by those elites who study and propagandize politics. This would include both parties, the political class, and most of the mainstream media elites. It would also include self-interested parties that exert great influence over the funding of politics, such as major corporations, the banking system, and public unions. This PBS debate exposes the tendency of experts to perpetuate these myths for reasons best known to them.

Mr. Will is correct that the driving force of the polarization we speak of today is ideology over the proper role of government in democratic society. I would have to say that the burden of proof on this rests with the pro-government advocates on the left, as the status quo ante for the US has been limited government that is constitutionally proscribed. The burden of small government proponents has been to meet the demands of democratic society without shifting the sphere of private life to the public sector. One cannot merely say such demands are illegitimate because legitimacy is a function of what a democratic polity demands within the constraints of constitutionalism. If voters demand economic security, the task is to help meet that demand in the most efficient and just manner possible, which usually doesn’t mean creating another universal entitlement program. An old Chinese proverb illustrates this perfectly: better to teach a hungry man to fish than give him a fish to eat.

Eric Liu seems to understand this, though he also appears too willing to fall back on the default of government-driven solutions by expanding public goods. Instead of really addressing the issue Mr. Will presents, the opposing discussants resort to claiming the question of bigger or smaller government is a false dichotomy. Intellectually, perhaps, but practically it seems to be the simple dichotomy that our political system was designed to distill and resolve. The petty and personal nature of our political conflict is merely a manifestation of this inability to reconcile these opposing positions. Personally, I am convinced it can be done, but it starts with understanding the true nature of our politics that puts to the test many of the belief systems we hold so dear.

FREE Lunch!

IGWT-Kindle-Cover

Who said there’s no such thing as a FREE lunch?

FREE eBook download for *Two Days* only. This weekend, April 12&13, download a FREE copy of In God We Trust: A Novel of American Politics from Amazon.com (a $10 value):

Okay, so it won’t feed your belly, but maybe it’ll satisfy your soul…

Click here or the book cover to go to Amazon…

A chronicle of our times based on real events, In God We Trust is a story of political intrigue, religious and Freemason conspiracies, and the corruption of money. It’s the story of Dante Jefferson Washington, a young, black, religious conservative and Deputy Chief of Staff to South Carolina Senator Winston J. Sinclair. Dante’s ambitions for public service soon become entangled in the unholy alliance of money, politics, and religion that define our national political dysfunction. His journey echoes that of his Italian namesake in The Divine Comedy.

Dante pursues his Beatrice in a former college classmate, a beautiful immigrant medical student caught between her British Christian and Pakistani Muslim heritage. Their lives and those of their two closest friends are torn apart by the disaster of 9/11 and the war that follows.

——-

The author is a prize-winning political scientist and economist. The political narrative is informed by recent research into national partisan polarization that challenges and dispels some of the popular myths and ideological stereotypes promoted by both party extremes.

What is this book about?
On the plot level it’s about our current political dysfunction seen through the eyes of a “coming-of-age, loss of innocence” protagonist. It is also a mystery of conspiracies of Freemasons, religious orders, and backroom politics. On a timeless, philosophical level it’s about whether the social order should be derived from the laws of a higher power or from the laws established by man’s reason. Even if one rejects the idea of a higher power, the religions of the Book then reflect the wisdom of the ages, so the question is to what extent man’s enlightenment improves or supplants that wisdom of the ages. The answer is unclear and worth contemplating…

 

Town vs. Gown = Rural vs. Urban

For those still confused or misled by partisanship polarization in Red-Blue America, this article may help. Yes. The split is between rural vs. urban lifestyles, with the suburbs caught in between. University towns are merely pockets of urbanism sprinkled across the rural landscape. But students pick up and move on.

This is from The Economist a couple of days ago. They voted. The recall “gown” crowd lost.

Polarization in the People’s Republic of Madison

WISCONSIN is voting today to decide whether Scott Walker, the Republican governor, will be recalled. Lorrie Moore, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and fiction writer of note, reports that the acrimonious recall campaign has set brother against brother from Eau Claire to Kenosha:

Despite the assertion by journalist David Brooks (and others) that Americans live in more like-minded communities than ever before and are therefore cut off from values and opinions at variance with their own, more than a year later Wisconsin’s recall of its Governor and several legislators is now said to have pitted neighbor against neighbor. It is being called “a civil war,” and as in our American Civil War some family members are not talking to other family members. Despite a history of bipartisanship, people have chosen sides (as midwesterners tend to do in divorce; not for them the pseudo-sophisticated friends-with-all approach). Tales of confrontation abound: A driver with a “Recall Walker” bumper sticker might be tailed on the highway then passed in the adjacent lane by someone holding up a “Fuck the Recall” sign.

This Iowan isn’t a bit surprised to hear that Wisconsin’s cordiality is so friable, but it’s sad all the same. Trust and a convincing imitation of geniality keep the public institutions of the upper Midwest running relatively smoothly. One hopes the discord brought upon the Badger State by moneyed outsiders bent on proving partisan points dies down after the vote is in, but I’m afraid this sort of fight will become increasingly common in so-called “swing states” as Americans continue to polarise along partisan lines.

The Pew Research Center’s “2012 American Values Survey” finds that Americans have never been more polarized, at least not since polarization has been measured. Here’s a picture of the extent of the partisan divide:

Here one can see the size of the chasm between left and right on key issues:

Actually, David Brooks (following the lead of Bill Bishop) is right that Americans are now more than ever segregated according to ideology. But Ms Moore is right that the so-called “big sort” is far from complete, and in the course of her essay, she references what may be the greatest force preventing more thorough self-segregation: the American university system. “Wisconsin has long been considered a collective of liberal college communities connected by interstates crisscrossing the farmland”, Ms Moore writes. “But especially with the rise of suburban sprawl, it has become much more unpredictable than that.”

America is dotted with hundreds of islands of concentrated liberalism, thanks to its largely publicly-funded university system. In Wisconsin, for example, it is not at all unusual to hear the state capital called “the People’s Republic of Madison”, on account of the university and its attendant politics. The role of universities in the story of American polarization seems to me under-appreciated. America’s college towns facilitate within-state sorting according to political affinity by offering temperamentally liberal Wisconsinites or Georgians or Texans attractive places to live among fellow bleeding hearts, but without having to go too far from home. Big state universities also act as magnets drawing “foreign”, out-of-state academics, artists and their wannabe students away from their natural habitats on the coasts, counteracting to some degree the polarward drift of right-leaning states. That’s why my extremely temperamentally liberal partner and I moved to Iowa City from Washington, DC. That’s why Lorrie Moore lives in Madison and not Manhattan.

Now, as partisan polarization increases nationwide, the town-gown divide inevitably grows more stark and hostile. The denizens of our nation’s inland archipelago of people’s republics grow politically further and further from the surrounding citizenry, whose taxes and tuition keep college-town bookstores in Bataille. Indeed, I would conjecture that last year’s demonstrations in support of Wisconsin’s embattled public-sector unions would have been feeble or nonexistent, and that today’s recall vote never would have come about, if not for the teeming schools of colorful liberals attracted to the local collegiate reef. That is to say, if Madison weren’t a “people’s republic”, weren’t a college town, then Ms Moore would not have experienced the bitter incivility she laments, because Ms Moore and her progressive ilk would live elsewhere, and Wisconsin’s unionized public employees wouldn’t have stood a chance.