Tag Archives: Democracy

Explaining Why “It Depends”

These days, commenting on public policy and the political environment is a mostly depressing slog through various bigotries, misunderstandings, inadequate communications—in a nutshell (and boy, sometimes it is a “nut” shell!), a hot mess.

When I look for an explanation, a common thread that might shed some light on the place we find ourselves, I keep coming back to the unsettled, fragmented and frequently unreliable sources from which Americans get our information, and the seeming loss of what we used to call the journalism of verification.

Obviously, the information landscape is not wholly responsible for all of our various crises of governance, but it sure is implicated in much of it.

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report on the importance of what it called “explanatory journalism.” After noting the wealth of information now available online, and the fact that the internet has enabled unprecedented access to millions of people who didn’t previously have such access.

The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But that, of course, raises the pertinent question:

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

What citizens know ultimately depends upon the credibility of the information sources they access. If my students are any indication, most of us lack skill in evaluating such credibility–and the opinions of assorted “crazy uncles” and radio shock jocks suggest that  a substantial number of Americans are uninterested in information that contradicts their preferred world views.

The results aren’t pretty. These paragraphs from the report say it better than I could:

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

The question is: what can we do about it?

Economic Despair

More and more, I am reminded of that old adage that “it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”

A recent research paper from the Brookings Institution investigated one of those “things we know,” and came to some disquieting conclusions.

When it comes to staying in school, many economists talk about the “aspirational effects” of income inequality. When students look around them and see a better life, they are incentivized to invest in their own human capital—such as investing in their own education.

But what if that conventional thinking is wrong? What if inequality doesn’t incentivize students at the bottom of the income ladder to work harder, but rather disincentivizes them? This is one of the questions Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine sought to answer in a new paper published as part of the Spring 2016 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Among other things, Kearney and Levine found that low-income children growing up in states that have greater income inequality are dropping out of high school at higher rates than are children living in states with less income inequality.

The authors point to a concept they call “economic despair,” or a feeling that economic success is unlikely because the distance from the bottom to the middle of the ladder is too far to climb. If a student perceives a lower benefit to remaining in school, then he or she will choose to drop out—even if they aren’t struggling academically.

What is particularly interesting about this study is that it focused upon the perceived distance between the bottom and the middle of the income distribution—not the distance between the bottom and the top. The idea is that what they call “lower tail” inequality is a more relevant measure, because—although the top may realistically seem to be out of reach—making it to the middle would seem to be a more manageable goal.

The authors suggest interventions: mentoring programs that connect youth with successful adults, programs focused on establishing high expectations and pathways to graduation, or early-childhood parenting programs to build self-esteem and engender positive behaviors. Although such interventions might help ameliorate the problem, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the effects would be modest, at best.

In fact, this study is one more “data point” in a picture that increasingly points to an inescapable conclusion: the level of inequality in America today is unsustainable and extremely detrimental, not just to the prospects of poor children, but to the nation as a whole.

We are in the midst of an election season that has unleashed a furious and troubling display of social dysfunction, in-your-face bigotry and populist anger. It’s hard not to attribute a significant part of that to economic realities that pit low-wage workers against each other and against a perceived plutocracy that has “rigged the system.”

Social scientists tell us that stable democracies are characterized by distributional equity, and the existence of a large and relatively secure middle class. Economists tell us that economic growth requires robust demand, generated by consumers with discretionary dollars to spend in the market, and a well-educated workforce.

When large numbers of people working 40 hours a week cannot earn enough to cover basic living expenses, when children don’t believe education offers them a path out of subsistence, democracy and the economy both suffer.

It’s past time to revisit some of the economic “facts” we think we know.








Canaries in the Coal Mine

Historically—or so we are told—miners tested the breathability of the air in mines by releasing a canary into the space. If the canary continued to fly and look healthy, the air was safe; if the bird died, it wasn’t.

Recently, Pew Research published findings about the millennials who are, for all intents and purposes, our American canaries. As we older citizens die out, the values, fears and ambitions of the millennial generation will determine the direction of the country.

Pew announced six “key takeaways” about this generation. Some were unsurprising: this is a financially burdened generation, largely as a result of student loan debt; as a result, fewer millennials are married than previous cohorts at the same age. They are also the most racially diverse generation thus far.

Two of the characteristics found by Pew deserve special “canary” status.


Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29% are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

My discussions with students in this age cohort anecdotally support this conclusion—and suggest that the public behaviors and pronouncements of political and religious figures is one significant reason they reject those institutions. My students are repulsed by the use of religious or patriotic language in service of discrimination and generally hateful behaviors; rather than rejecting the specific individuals or organizations guilty of such behaviors, they tend to develop a “pox on all of you” attitude.

But a less obvious finding also casts considerable light on the institutionally detached status of this generation:

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This really troubling absence of trust manifests itself in a number of ways: millennials don’t expect Social Security to be there for them, for example (although, interestingly, they oppose proposals to cut benefits for current recipients). Their lack of trust in a wide variety of social institutions helps explain their rejection of political and religious identification, their pervasive skepticism about media information sources, and their increased reliance on friends and colleagues.

Assuming these findings continue to hold, what does this “canary” generation tell us about America’s future?

One the one hand, greater diversity and tolerance—together with rejection of dogma and partisanship—bodes well. This generation is likely to reject racism and address the glaring flaws in the criminal justice system, likely to welcome immigrants, likely to scorn anti-LGBT bias.

On the other hand, participation in a democratic polity requires at least a minimal level of trust—trust that the information one receives is credible, trust that the operations of government are mostly fair and ethical, trust that one’s fellow citizens are basically well-intentioned. Without that trust, without social capital, societies cannot function.

The canary isn’t dead. But it’s coughing a lot.

How Long Can This Continue?

I teach an undergraduate course in Media and Public Affairs. It’s a challenging course to teach, because every year, the definition of “media” changes, and the erosion of the part of the profession called “journalism” becomes more pronounced.

In a recent New York Times column, written in the aftermath of the uprising at the University of Missouri (and the indefensible conduct of a journalism school adjunct professor during that uprising), Timothy Egan addressed the current environment:

I’d like to believe that this video snippet was just another absurdity of campus life, where the politics are so vicious, as they say, because the stakes are so small. But it goes to a more troubling trend — the diminishment of a healthy, professionally trained free press.

For some time now, it’s been open season on this beaten-down trade, from the left and the right. Into that vacuum have emerged powerful partisan voices, injecting rumors and outright lies into the public arena, with no consequence. At the same time, it’s become extremely difficult for reporters who adhere to higher standards to make a living. Poverty-level wages have become the norm at many a town’s lone nonpartisan media outlet.

More than 20,000 newsroom jobs have been lost in this country since 2001 — a work force drop of about 42 percent. The mean salary of reporters in 2013 was $44,360; journalists now earn less than the national average for all United States workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With the loss of the traditional business model, a new media has emerged–providing celebrity gossip and “infotainment,” pandering to partisan loyalties and pre-existing prejudices, and–rather than competing to tell us what we need to know about our government and society– vying to see what words and phrases will trigger the most “clicks.”

As I told my students at the outset of the current semester, it is no longer possible to teach this course in the conventional way–a professor introducing students to a body of agreed-upon scholarship. Instead, the class has become a joint expedition into a wild and wooly information environment that is evolving on a weekly basis– and a joint exploration of the ways in which the loss of that quaint thing we used to call “journalism” is affecting our ability to engage with each other in a democratic system.

How long can this continue before we no longer share a common vocabulary–or reality?


Democracy, Inequality and Voice

Most of us have heard the old adage “politics is war without the guns.” It’s shorthand for a basic premise of democratic theory: when people have an opportunity to express their preferences and argue for their point of view in a fair fight, they are less likely to shoot each other and far more likely to abide by the results, albeit grudgingly, if they lose the fight.

There’s a substantial amount of history supporting that thesis. What we sometimes forget, however, is that the fight must be fair. Not only that, participants must view it as fair. At the end of a public debate, if the combatants have been able to express their positions, articulate their concerns–if they’ve had what sociologists sometimes refer to as voice–they generally can live with adverse results.

Lawyers often see this same psychology; clients who would be well-advised to settle a case often insist on having their “day in court,” even when that decision entails considerable risk, because they want the opportunity to make their case in a public forum.

Humans want to be heard. We want our points of view acknowledged. When we feel our arguments have been dismissed without proper consideration–when we feel “dissed”– we get belligerent.

One of the reasons that inequality is so corrosive to democratic systems is that people without money are almost always people without voice. A healthy democratic system doesn’t require a population where everyone has comparable resources, but it does require a population where everyone who wants to participate–who wants to be heard–has sufficient resources to do so.

Anyone who has been part of a legislative body–as an elected official, a paid lobbyist or a citizen activist–will confirm that the voices of poor people are rarely if ever heard in the corridors of power. When policymakers move to cut food stamps or drug test welfare recipients, they rarely hear testimony from people who will actually be affected by those actions. They hear disproportionately from business and taxpayer groups. With the exception of social welfare nonprofits (most of which have their own resource issues), no one is there to lobby for the poorest American citizens.

And the poor sure aren’t contributing to political campaigns.

When poor people have virtually no voice, even in the decisions that most directly affect them, that hurts democracies in two ways.

When legislators make decisions based on partial information, even the best-intentioned among them will opt for policies that have by definition been inadequately vetted. They will pass laws with unintended (and often unfortunate) consequences.

Worse, the people who had no voice–the people who are affected by rules they had no part in creating and no opportunity to debate–tend to be the people with the most legitimate grievances and the fewest outlets for expressing those grievances. When a society includes a large number of people who have effectively been disenfranchised–people who, thanks to their poverty, have little to lose– history tells us they will eventually take to the streets.

That’s not only bad for democracy and rational policymaking–it’s bad for business. Civil unrest is certainly not in the best interests of the privileged and well-to-do, who would be better served by sharing some reasonable measure of their power and wealth.

There’s another old adage that comes to mind: pigs get fed. Hogs get slaughtered.