Tag Archives: politics

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.





Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.


Allergic To Religion?

Remember that old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

Boy, do we ever!

I can’t help wondering what people living  40-50 years hence will think about this fraught time in America. (Actually, wondering about that is an exercise in optimism–it assumes climate change hasn’t eradicated what we call civilization…)

The multiple offenses of Donald Trump will of course receive treatment by historians, but I wonder how those future scholars will connect the various “dots” that led to his “election” and especially how they will view what may be the roots of a newly secular, evidence-based age. (Okay, I said I was an optimist…)

A month or so ago, FiveThirtyEight–Nate Silver’s blog–reported that Christian fundamentalists were driving more liberal people–especially young people– away from all religion, and as a consequence, away from the GOP.

A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”

This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.

A number of surveys, including those by Pew (the “gold standard” in survey research) have found the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans increasing substantially over the past few years . The reasons for that shift are complicated, but as the article notes, politics has been an important contributor.

“Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”

Nearly one in four Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 40 percent of liberals are, and that’s an increase of 12 percent since 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. The number of self-identified conservatives and moderates who are unaffiliated has also risen, but less dramatically.

Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are. Even now, the idea that partisanship could shape something as personal and profound as our relationship with God might seem radical, or maybe even a little offensive.

But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.

Subsequent research confirmed the thesis. The newly political Christian right energized religious voters, but Christian conservatives’ social agenda prompted other people to opt out of religion entirely. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

Campbell also warned that increasing secularism is reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together–something that, theoretically at least, helps to break down partisan barriers.

Add this social shift to the other massive social changes we are experiencing, and the ability of those future historians to make sense of it all looks pretty daunting.


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.