Category Archives: Education / Youth

Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.

The Appeal Of Fascism

A comment to a recent blog post reminded us of the overwhelming–albeit under-appreciated–power of culture. The famous banner in Bill Clinton’s war room was wrong. It isn’t “the economy, stupid”; that message should be edited to read “it’s the culture, stupid!”

The problem is, in today’s United States, there are two very different cultures. (Actually, there are many permutations within those two “mega” cultures.)

As a recent essay at the Brookings Institution site put it, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by an enormous margin (more than five million votes and counting) the size of Donald Trump’s vote is a “stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America.”

The essay from the usually circumspect Brookings didn’t mince words; it compared Trump’s core appeal to the appeal of fascism,

the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.

Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.

The rest of the article discussed the very real costs of divided government, in the event the Georgia run-offs do not deliver slim control of the Senate to the Democrats.  Those costs are clearly obvious to the people who read and comment on this blog–divided government, whatever its merits at other junctures of our national history, will make it impossible to address the structural issues that have entrenched government power in a minority party unresponsive to and contemptuous of the needs of a majority of Americans.

So what does this have to do with culture?

In the quoted language, I was most struck by the definition of “Trumpism” as a rearguard action focused on preserving white privilege. White privilege is the essence of the alt-right movement–it is clearest in the pronouncements of the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, and the Klan remnants who see themselves as the protectors of “White Culture,” but it isn’t limited to those fringe movements.

We can see “white culture” in the urban/rural divide, in the sneering dismissals of “cosmopolitanism,” in the denunciations of coastal and global “elites,” and in the efforts to protect Confederate monuments as exemplars of Southern culture rather than reminders of American willingness to enslave dark people. Etc.

I was never a huge fan of John Edwards, whose Presidential campaign dissolved for a number of reasons, including his infidelity (remember when infidelity actually harmed a candidacy? talk about the “good old days”!), but he was onto something with his highlighting of the existence of “two Americas.”

Cultural change is inevitable, but it is also difficult and slow, and it creates understandable and unfortunate resentments. It will take time–and changes in both the media and social media platforms– for those resentments to abate.

Pious exhortations to more progressive Americans to “reach out” to those resisting social change aren’t just embarrassingly one-sided (no one is telling the alt-right to try to understand those dark-skinned or Jewish or Muslim “libruls”); they also have a distressing tendency to be either naive or condescending– or both.

I don’t know whether the gulf between America’s very different cultures can be narrowed or bridged. I have no suggested magic wand, but at least a part of the longer-term solution needs to be a new appreciation for the importance of public education in public schools–education that emphasizes what we diverse Americans presumably have in common: allegiance to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Enlightenment approach to empiricism upon which they were constructed.

An in-depth civics education would at the very least be an inoculation against the appeal of fascism.

 

 

 

 

And (Most of) The Children Will Lead Us….

As Americans were hanging on every update of the vote counting, Inside Higher Education posted a fascinating–and overall encouraging–graphic.

 

The embedded image shows the election results we would have gotten had we counted only the votes cast by those under 30. In a real sense, it also is a snapshot of each state’s “political future.” Overall, the map is comforting–results range from light to dark blue in large areas of the country, confirming my often-stated belief that the younger generation overall is more inclusive, more community-minded and “with it” than my own.

Voters under age 30 leaned heavily Democratic, favoring Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a wide margin (61 versus 36 percent) in the recently-called presidential election, but there were key differences among young voters across gender, racial and state lines, according to an analysis of exit polling data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Massachusetts

That said, there are some disappointing elements to the analysis. For one thing, young white men supported Trump by a six-point margin (51 versus 45 percent).( I am happy to report that young white women favored former vice president Biden by 13 percentage points (55 to 42 percent)).

Even more disquieting for my family of Hoosiers, Indiana remained red amid the varying shades of blue. Young people in Indiana will evidently carry on the state’s tradition of minimal, largely ineffective government and widespread racial antagonism. As my son recently pointed out, higher-education levels are low in the state, and young Hoosiers who graduate from college leave Indiana at a high rate.

Other states show evidence of evolution, albeit with that same disquieting racial breakdown:

In Georgia and North Carolina, 90 percent or more of young Black voters chose Biden, while more than half of young white voters (54 percent in North Carolina and 63 percent in Georgia) favored Trump.

In Texas, Latinx voters supported Biden over Trump by a nearly 50-percentage-point margin (73 versus 25 percent), while a majority of young white voters preferred Trump (51 versus 45 percent for Biden).

My son pointed to the analysis as justification for his advice to his teenage children–“find a better place to live; don’t come back to Indiana; we’ll follow you.” That advice was more anecdotal evidence supporting Bill Bishop’s Big Sort assertion that Americans are voting with our feet, and “sorting” geographically into locations where our neighbors share our political convictions.

None of this bodes well for Indiana. The past couple of decades have seen small towns continue to empty out. Children born in those towns, and the rural areas that surround them, have migrated either to metropolitan areas within the state, or left Indiana entirely. The super-majority of Republicans dominating our state’s legislature  has waged war on public education, creating a voucher program that sends already scarce education dollars to (almost always religious) private schools, several of which teach creationism in lieu of science.

Indiana’s legislature has also defunded higher education, resulting in Indiana’s finest colleges admitting ever more out-of-state students who tend to leave after graduation.

The low levels of education and the relatively low levels of diversity around the state contribute to a situation that’s exacerbated by the “winner take all” law that is the worst aspect of the Electoral College. Even if 49.5% of Hoosiers somehow voted for a Democrat, the state’s Eleven Electoral Votes would be awarded to a Republican who received 50.5%, a situation that encourages the legislature to ignore dissenting voices. That’s not a situation likely to bring talented people to Indiana, or to keep those we manage to raise.

People move to livable communities. Strike one against Indiana’s creation of such communities is our neglect of infrastructure. Strike two is inadequate funding of education. Strike three, as displayed on the embedded map, is the fact that Indiana voters — today and evidently into the future — can be counted on to support know-nothings and White Supremacists up and down the ballot.

Indiana–the Mississippi of the North….

The Case For Expertise

Michael Gerson is a political conservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. He has also been a consistent “never Trumper.” He recently made the conservative case for Joe Biden, in a Washington Post column.

Gerson began by reciting some of the reasons conservatives should reject not just Donald J. Trump but the Republicans running with him, in order to crush the current iteration of the GOP.

Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, it is not enough for him to lose. He must lose in a fashion that constitutes repudiation. For the voter, this means that staying home on Election Day, or writing in Mitt Romney’s name, is not enough. She or he needs to vote in a manner that encourages a decisive Biden win. This theory also requires voting against all the elected Republicans who have enabled Trump (which is nearly all elected Republicans). A comprehensive Republican loss is the only way to hasten party reform. Those who love the GOP must (temporarily) leave it and ensure it is thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Gerson then moved to the positive reasons to support Joe Biden, and in doing so made a point that is far too often ignored. As he reminds readers, the restoration of our governing institutions  requires the knowledge and skills of an insider. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”

As readers of this blog know, I teach in a school of public affairs. We teach students who are planning to go into government the specialized “knowledge and skills” that they will need in such positions. Those skills differ from the skills imparted in the business school; they include everything from public budgeting to the important differences between the private, public and nonprofit sectors, to political philosophy, to constitutional ethics.

I am so over the facile assertion that success in business (and yes, I know Trump wasn’t successful) will easily translate into the ability to run a government agency or  administration. The job of a businessperson is to make a profit; the job of government is to serve the public good. People who do not understand that distinction–and the very different approaches that distinction requires– don’t belong in public positions.

Gerson makes another important point: the complexity of today’s government requires administrators who actually understand how it all works.

There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.

Gerson characterizes this election as a choice between an arsonist and an institutionalist, and points to the assets of the institutionalist. I agree, but I also understand that some fires are set accidentally. Trump is, of course, an intentional arsonist, but his monumental ignorance has also done incredible–often inadvertent– harm to our governing institutions.

During his embarrassing Town Hall on NBC,  Trump defended his re-tweet of a conspiracy theory, prompting Savannah Guthrie to remind him that he is President, not “someone’s crazy uncle.” But really, electing a President with absolutely no understanding of government, the constitution, checks and balances or the way public administration actually works has turned out to be pretty much the same thing as putting someone’s crazy uncle in charge.

Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.

 

And Speaking Of White Nationalism…

Tom Cotton. (Even his name is white…)

As Alternet, among other media sources, has reported:

Tom Cotton, a Republican U.S. Senator representing Arkansas, has filed a bill that would withhold federal funding to any schools that teach “The 1619 Project,” a Pulitzer-prize winning piece of in-depth journalism from The New York Times published in 2019 that explores the United States’s legacy of slavery.

Cotton’s so-called Saving American History Act of 2020 would punish schools that teach lessons based on “The 1619 Project” by making them ineligible for federal professional development grants.

 “The New York Times’s 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded,” Cotton wrote. “Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

Calling the meticulously researched reporting “Neo-Marxist garbage,” Cotton has staked out his political territory. He has advocated the use of U.S. military force against racial justice protesters, and accused journalists who had written an article detailing a classified government program monitoring terrorists’ finances of violating the Espionage Act. (He actually proposed prosecuting the reporters under that act, which at its extreme, allows people guilty of violations to be put to death.)

According to Business Insider, during an interview in which he was defending his attack on the Times project, Cotton referred to slavery as a “necessary evil.”

Cotton disputed the premise of the project, which he said argued “that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable.”

He went on to describe the US as “a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal.” He continued: “We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it.”

Later, he said: “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

Several historians have questioned whether any Founding Father expressed the opinion that slavery was a “necessary evil.” (What some did express was the belief that allowing the South to continue slaveholding was a “necessary evil” if the Constitution was to be ratified.)

Nikole Hannah-Jones was the journalist who came up with the idea for the project, and her   introductory essay won a Pulitzer Prize.  She responded to Cotton’s characterizations in a tweet.

“If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a ‘necessary evil’ as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” she wrote.

According to Wikipedia, Cotton has written essays calling Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “race-hustling charlatans” and has said that race relations “would almost certainly improve if we stopped emphasizing race in our public life.” He has rejected assertions that America’s justice system “over incarcerates, saying “If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem” Cotton said that reduced sentencing for felons would “destabilize the United States.

Not all of Cotton’s policy preferences are rooted in racism, of course. He’s wrong on multiple other fronts as well.

He opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens (okay, that one probably is racist), and voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill to ban abortions occurring 20 or more weeks after fertilization.

Cotton has an A rating from the NRA and In response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, stated that he did not believe any new gun control legislation would have prevented it.

He was one of thirty-one Republican senators to cosponsor the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, a bill introduced by John Cornyn and Ted Cruz that would grant individuals with concealed carry privileges in their home state the right to exercise this right in any other state with concealed carry laws while concurrently abiding by that state’s laws.

You will also not be surprised to find that Cotton opposes the Affordable Care Act; he has characterized it as “offensive to a free society and a free people.” Cotton was among the 38 Republican signatories to an amicus curiae supporting a legal challenge to the ACA. (Okay, maybe this one is rooted in racism too; he probably doesn’t want to give “those people” free access to medical care…)

I should give Andy Borowitz the last word:“Rand Paul thanks Tom Cotton for replacing him as the most hated man in the Senate…Cotton beat out a daunting field of competitors for Senator Paul’s crown, including Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, and Ted Cruz.”

In short, Cotton is a perfect representative of today’s Republican Party.