Tag Archives: politics

Space: The Final (Political) Frontier

One of the questions I have wanted to research always seemed to be “un-researchable.” I have been interested in the phenomenon of high-end gated communities, and my question is a fairly obvious one: do people choose to live in these communities in order to separate themselves from “others,” however defined, or if not, how does the experience of residing in such communities affect their political opinions?

There are all kinds of practical problems in researching that question, which is a subset of a larger question that also intrigues me: how does the built environment affect social attitudes? (My husband is an architect, a fact that has undoubtedly piqued my interest in the interaction between environment and attitude.)

There is very little social science research on this question, so I was thrilled to discover this report from CityLab, written by noted urbanist Richard Florida.

We urbanists are obsessed with place. So it may be hard for us to believe that the connection between physical space and urbanization has been neglected by much of social science, outside of urban economics, urban planning, and urban geography. Indeed, place and geography have been notoriously absent from the greater field of political science.

That’s why the research of political scientist Ryan Enos is so interesting. An associate professor at Harvard’s Department of Government, Enos focuses on the geographic or spatial underpinnings of politics. His new book, The Space Between Us, dives deep into how the places we live influence our politics.

Following that lede is a transcription of an interview Florida conducted with Enos, in which Enos points out that geography has historically factored into politics, and not just politics, but other human behaviors. Politics, of course, is ultimately about who gets what–as we’ve seen rather vividly with the GOP’s recent tax bill. That “what” has often been control over land.

On a deeper level, geography is one of the fundamental ways we understand the world: We define locations, good or bad, by who lives there, by asking, “Are they one of us?” We treat places where the people are not like us—cities versus suburbs, red state versus blue—as different than places that are like us. This creates political conflict.

I found the following statement particularly insightful.

The “space between us” is the political space between us, our inability to come together, across groups, in politics to do the things necessary for a successful society, such as cooperating and compromising. The “distance” in political space is a manifestation of the psychological space between groups, how similar or different we think other groups of people are from our own group, and thus how much we think that we should cooperate with them.

This psychological space is influenced by geographic space: When groups are separated on the Earth’s surface—say into different sides of a city—our minds use this geographic separation as a shortcut to believe the groups are different; they become separated in our minds and this then spills over into our behavior, separating us in politics. This separation has consequences. If we cannot cooperate politically, we cannot do the things necessary to have a functioning modern society, such as building infrastructure and caring for the needy.

 As segregation increases, white people in the United States hold more negative attitudes about African Americans and they are also less likely to support black candidates running for office. We can also see that when we create social geography in the lab, in a sense, creating this mosaic we discussed earlier, that the segregation induces non-cooperation between groups.
This may be as close as I get to answering my question about gated communities–not to mention the urban/rural divide.
I need to order the book.

Defining Moderation

New York Times columnist David Brooks is given to periodic meditations triggered by the political environment; recently, he mused at some length over “what moderates believe.” 

I’m not ready to endorse Brooks’ entire definition, which is a bit too formulaic and pietistic for my tastes, but I do think that one sentence describes the fundamental difference between “wingers” and moderates:

Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.

I would probably phrase this differently, but I agree that moderation is an approach, an attitude, an openness to complexity rather than a set of rigid beliefs. A moderate is someone who recognizes the increasing ambiguities of modern life, someone who can make peace with a world where there is less black and white and more shades of gray without feeling disoriented or panicky.

Moderates use terms like “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Moderates reject justifications for the use of violence in service of ideology; they recognize that whether it is the Nazis or the Antifa who oppose them, a resort to the use of force places zealots outside the norms of acceptable political discourse, undermining both the rule of law and fundamental American principles.

The True Believers of both the Right and Left are the enemies of functioning government. These are the judgmental, “my way or the highway” purists who prefer losing to taking half a loaf, who don’t understand that sustainable progress is almost always incremental, who have learned nothing from the history of revolutions.

The GOP has pretty much rid itself of its moderates–it has actually made “moderate” a dirty word– and the party’s current inability to govern despite controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency is a direct result of its radicalization. Once-thoughtful elected officials now pander to the party’s rabid base in order to avoid being primaried–and it’s hard not to wonder if and when they’ll regret trading their souls and the tattered remnants of their integrity for another term in office.

For their part, the Democratic Party’s purists are responsible for that party’s recurring “circular firing squads.” Here in Indiana, several have announced that they won’t support incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly because he is “insufficiently progressive.” Their defection is likely to give Indiana a Republican zealot in his place–hardly an improvement, but evidently satisfying to those for whom ideological purity is more important than retaking the Senate. For the record, I am considerably more progressive than Donnelly, but he will vote against the upcoming attempts to eviscerate the social safety net in order to give huge tax cuts to the 1%, and every Republican running to replace him will enthusiastically vote for those measures. Should the Democrats retake the Senate (something they probably cannot do if Donnelly loses), Donnelly will also be a vote to replace Mitch McConnell–that alone is reason enough to support him.

Politics has been called “the art of the possible.” Moderates acknowledge that reality, and are willing to take something less than perfection if that “something less” is an improvement over the alternative.

Come to think of it, perhaps “moderate” simply means “adult.”

Markets and Inequality

Those of us who believe in the efficacy of markets (a fundamental tenet of capitalism) must be prepared to accept a certain degree of inequality. Your invention of a better mousetrap will cause my older model to lose market share; your admirable work ethic will earn you a higher wage than my preference for taking long weekends.

Theoretically, in a genuinely capitalist system, the market will reward merit more liberally than it will reward mediocrity.

Of course, a genuinely capitalist system will not be rigged to benefit the powerful and/or well-connected at the expense of others. America has long since morphed from capitalism to corporatism, a system in which lobbyists for powerful interests are able to ensure that government regulations favor their well-heeled clients.

In capitalist systems, the theory is that the promise of greater rewards is an incentive for innovation and diligence; advocates justify the resulting inequalities by pointing out that everyone benefits from the resulting entrepreneurship. A rising tide, we are told, lifts all boats.

When capitalism devolves into corporatism, only the boats of the powerful and well-connected get lifted, and it becomes much more difficult to sustain the pretense of meritocracy.

In capitalist/corporatist systems, rampant inequality poses challenges that ideology cannot satisfactorily address. Social scientists and historians tell us that when the gap between rich and poor widens too much, there are very negative consequences for social and political stability. In order to manage the size of the disparities, most first-world countries today have “mixed” economies; governments socialize the services that markets cannot provide (public safety, environmental protection, healthcare, etc.) and—importantly—recognize the existence of an obligation to citizens who for one reason or another, cannot earn a living wage.

In the United States, we have a number of elected officials—in Congress, certainly, but also in statehouses around the country—who reject the logic of mixed economies, and refuse to recognize the threat that extreme inequality poses to social stability and national cohesion. Paul Ryan’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s brutal (kick ‘em when they’re down) budget proposals, the persistent efforts to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide critical medical care to the needy, are assaults that strike many of us as indefensible—especially since they are almost always accompanied by tax giveaways to the rich.

Those arguing on behalf of these measures insist that their purpose is to defend market economics. Most of them know better; the rhetoric is an effort to divert attention from the fact that government is doing the bidding of powerful, rich and very greedy special interests.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this assault on the poor is the not-so-subtle characterizing of needy Americans as “Other.” “They” are immigrants, living off the sweat of “real” Americans; “they” are lazy people of color. If “they” are female, they’re immoral sluts popping out babies in order to qualify for the public dole. It doesn’t matter that none of these characterizations are remotely factual; the dog-whistle references and dishonest descriptions find a willing audience among people who see themselves as part of an America that is rapidly losing cultural hegemony.

The “Other” is the shiny object that distracts attention from corporatist wheeling and dealing.

If current levels of material inequality are bad for America—and they are—this cynical effort to distract our attention by widening our social divisions is even worse.

Pastoral versus Ideological Church and State

Speaking of religion, as we did yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a column by E.J. Dionne that I read a couple of weeks ago, because I think it has application to what I will (somewhat grandiosely) call the human condition.

Dionne is a Catholic, and he was examining the differences between the approach to that religion of two other Catholics–the Pope, and Steve Bannon.

Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

What’s the Weather Like on Your World?

I don’t know whether anyone reading this remembers it, but there used to be a popular song titled “Two Different Worlds.” Clearly, Americans are now living in different worlds—albeit not the benign ones referred to in the song. Indeed, we seem to occupy different universes.

Consider:

Franklin (son of Billy) Graham says that there is only one election left to “save America” from godless secularism.

The secularists, he claimed, want to prevent people from praying anywhere other than inside a church, so that “having a service like this in a few years could be illegal.”

A pastor named Bickle has endorsed Ted Cruz, because he is confident that Cruz will “hunt down” Jews who refuse to accept the “grace” of Christ.

Recently, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign proudly announced the endorsement of Mike Bickle, the head of the controversial International House of Prayer and an extremist pastor who believes, among other things, that Oprah Winfrey is a forerunner to the Antichrist. Among Bickle’s more radical views is his prophecy that as the End Times approach, all Jews will be given a chance to accept Jesus, warning that if they do not accept “the grace” of Christ, God will then “raise up a hunter” who will kill two-thirds of them “and the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler.”

A certain Rick Wiles, identified as an “End Times Radio Host,” says Obama had Scalia killed.

Wiles said that the assassins who killed the conservative justice “deliberately left the pillow on his face as a message to everybody else: ‘Don’t mess with us, we can murder a justice and get away with it.’ And I assure you, there’s a lot of frightened officials in Washington today, deep down they know, the regime murdered a justice…. This is the way a dictatorial, fascist, police state regime takes control of a nation.”
It’s reasonable to assume that few people are as disconnected from reality as these and similarly-disturbed folks. I take comfort in the belief that there have always been unstable, frightened and angry people blaming all the world’s ills on some group or other— that we just didn’t hear about them as often before the Internet.
But how rooted in reality are the rest of us?
A recent article from the Washington Post suggests that the Right and Left see each other as very different countries—and that what both see is wildly inaccurate. Republicans think that 46% of the Democratic party is African-American; double the actual percentage of 24. They estimated the percentage of Democratic atheists at 36%–the actual percentage is 9. And they were equally off-base estimating the percentages of union members (44%) and LGBT voters (38%); those actual percentages are 11 and 6, respectively.
For their part, Democrats think that 44% of Republicans earn over 250,000/year, although the actual number is 2%.  They estimate the percentage of Republicans over the age of 65 at 44%; the actual number is 21%. They came closer with their estimates of the percentages of Southerners (44%, actually 36%) and Evangelicals (estimated 44%, actual 43%).
The remainder of the article describes the very different worldviews and reactions of voters listening to President Obama’s State of the Union Speech. It was hard to believe they were listening to the same words.
All of this leads to some pretty sobering questions.
What produces such gaps in the polity’s understanding of the world we inhabit? And more importantly, how do people who occupy such dramatically different worlds live together?