Brave new racist nativist political world

[This was posted on July 27 and then revised on July 29 after Hillary Clinton’s speech]

It’s all harmless political shenanigans until a racist mob murders Vincent Chin.*

It’s amazing how the new figureheads of both major parties are now pretending to oppose globalization, outsourcing, and the corporate “free trade” agenda that they both have spent their professional lives furthering. It wasn’t long ago that I taught in my stratification class that this agenda was the one thing we could be sure both parties and the big money behind them wouldn’t give up. Never say never, but I’m still pretty sure that’s still true.

There are good reasons to oppose this agenda, but most of them aren’t in America. If you want to talk about slave labor, exploitation, and environmental degradation in the new manufacturing centers of the world, then I would be happy to listen to you talk about the harmful effects of those practices “here at home” too. But if you just want to bash China, then you’re a racist, and no thank you.

Case in point, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey at the Democratic National Convention the other day. Here’s his speech, followed by some of the text and my comments:

Casey quoted his father, the former governor:

“The sweat and blood of working men and women who built Pennsylvania forged the industrial revolution in our country, and outproduced the world.”

How touching, attributing the industrial revolution the efforts of the working class. It reminds me of when another brave Pennsylvania governor, Democrat Robert Pattison, reached across the aisle, helping out Republican industrialists by lending them the National Guard to put down the Homestead steelworkers.

I assume today’s Democratic politician will now go on to recognize the working class of today’s manufacturing centers, who, through their sweat and blood are outproducing the world and building the middle class in their countries. Oh right, Casey is American.

What about Donald Trump? Donald trump says he stands for workers, and that he’ll put American first, but that’s not how he’s conducted himself in business. Where are his, quote, tremendous products made? Dress shirts: Bangladesh. Furniture: Turkey. Picture frames: India. Wine glasses: Slovenia. Neckties: China. China! Why would Donald Trump make products in every corner of the world, but not in Altoona, Erie, or here in Philadelphia? Well, this is what he said, quote, outsourcing is not always a terrible thing. Wages in America quote, are too high. And then he complained about companies moving jobs overseas because, quote, we don’t make things anymore. Really? … [examples of stuff made in America]. Donald Trump hasn’t made a thing in his life, except a buck on the backs of working people. If he is a champion of working people, I’m the starting center for the 76ers! The man who wants to make America great, doesn’t make anything in America! If you believe that outsourcing has been good for working people, and has raised incomes for the middle class, then you should vote for Donald Trump. … We need to making good paying jobs for everyone here at home, so that everyone who works hard can get ahead and stay there.

Yes, the great conflict of our time is between “China” and “working people.” Maybe one day we can all link arms and together put down striking Chinese workers to keep the price down on our iPhones and Wal-Mart junk.

The Democratic National Convention was very on-message. In Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech the next day, she said:

If you believe that we should say “no” to unfair trade deals, that we should stand up to China, that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers — join us.

She gave no definition of what it means to “Stand up to China,” though her website says she will insist on trade deals that raise wages and create good-paying jobs (presumably meaning in the US). That’s not important — the important thing communicated to her audience is she’s against China and for American workers. Then she went through the same list of Trump production locations that Casey did, before concluding, “Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again – well, he could start by actually making things in America again.” The current U.S. trade deficit in goods (as opposed to services) is about $62 billion — per month. Virtually all Americans are dependent on imported goods (including, apparently, Clinton, whose Nina McLemore suits are made from European and Asian fabrics). No major politician is seriously against this. Trump hiring U.S. workers to make his ties would make about as much difference as Clinton buying clothes with U.S. fabrics, which is basically none. It’s just symbolism, and the symbolism here is China is bad. Unless you join this kind of talk with explicit concern for the (much greater, obviously) suffering and exploitation of Chinese workers, I think this just feeds American racism.

Decades later, Vincent Chin resonates with me. There is debate about whether racism was the real motivation behind Vincent Chin’s murder, and it wasn’t as simple as a random lynch mob. Despite the legend, it is not the case that the auto workers just killed him because they falsely believed he was Japanese. But a witness at the bar said they blamed him for them being out of work before they fought. She said:

I turned around and I heard Mr. Ebens say something about the ‘little motherfuckers.’ And Vincent said, ‘I’m not a little motherfucker,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’re a big one or a little one.’ Then he said something about, ‘Well, because of y’all motherfuckers we’re out of work.’*

After losing the first round, Ronald Ebins and his stepson, Michael Nitz, hunted Chin down and killed him with a baseball bat, a crime for which they ultimately served no jail time.

My 8-year-old Chinese immigrant daughter, who learns all about how racism and bullying are bad and MLK is great in her neoliberal public American elementary school, is routinely offended and hurt by the China-bashing she hears from Democrats as well as Trump (she supported Bernie but is willing to back Hillary to stop Trump).

Hillary says we should protect our children from having to listen to Trump’s nastiness — she even has ad on that, which I’ve personally witness liberals tearing up over:

So, what about the people making speeches at your convention, spitting out the word China! like it’s a disease? “What example will we set for them?”

If the new normal of politics is both parties bashing foreigners  while they pretend to oppose globalization — and then pursue the same policies anyway, which, face it, you know they will — then what have we gained? It seems to me there is a small chance Clinton will negotiate better trade deals, to the benefit workers (U.S. or Chinese), and a much greater chance her rhetoric will stoke nativism and racism. As Trump’s megaphone has drawn the White supremacists out from under their rocks, the new fake-anti-TPP Hillary has given a bigger platform to this kind of obnoxious chauvinism.

* The 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin, which includes that clip, is worth watching (it’s online here, for now).

More on racist Trump supporters, and My 3Qs

It’s been hard for me to stay out of electoral politics debates lately (follow the elections tag if you’re having the same problem).

The latest is another piece with Sean McElwee in Salon. It again features my analysis of the ANES 2016 pilot survey, with Sean’s write-up, this time focusing on attitudes of White Trump supporters toward Blacks. The short answer is White Trump supporters stereotype Blacks more than other Republican or Democrat Whites, and people with self-described “cold” feelings toward Blacks are most likely to support Trump. The biggest difference was on answers to the question, “How well does the word ‘lazy’ describe most blacks?”

race figures.xlsx

This ANES data has lots of potential for addressing the pressing questions on a breaking-news basis. Whether it holds up (it’s an opt-in online survey) is yet to be seen, but I haven’t seen a reason to think it would be biased toward producing racist Trump supporters. So I think it’s worth doing. (I’ve also discovered that when you criticize Trump on a popular website like Salon, and have a Jewish name, you attract anti-Semitic Twitter.)

My 3 Qs

In other news, I did a short interview with Molly McNulty, the Council on Contemporary Families pubic affairs intern at Framingham State University.  It’s reprinted here from the CCF site on The Society Pages:

TSP readers likely appreciate Philip Cohen for his provocative blog, Family Inequality, which—based on a look at who retweets him—regularly has material valued by undergraduates, senior scholars, data nerds, policy wonks, and journalists alike. Cohen is a Council on Contemporary Families senior scholar and a professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. His research focuses on the sociology of families, social demography, and social inequality. His family textbook, The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, was published in 2014. Cohen gave me these useful answers to my “3q”:

Q: First, a challenge: What’s one single thing you “know” with certainty, after years of research into modern families?

PC: Family inequality is remarkably resilient, but when it changes it does so under the influence of external forces. When women’s opportunities increase (or men’s decrease), when public investment in education increases, when the legal environment changes when technology permits reductions in household labor, when policies lighten (or compensate) the load of caring labor — that’s when inequality within families shifts. There is a dialectic here, and micro-level interactions within families matter, but these external forces are in the historical driver’s seat.

Q: Give us the “Twitter” version of your current research—in 140 characters (give or take), what are you working on now?

PC: This is what I’m working on today, in 140 characters: The culture wars over family politics always return to gender difference itself; it’s what’s at stake when left & right fight over families.

Q: How would you encourage a scholar of family life to work to get their research into public life, affecting policy and challenging assumptions about “average families”?

PC: The public loves to argue about families. There are lots of opportunities to get your work out there and make it relevant. Unlike some areas of sociological research, if you’re working on families, almost everything has a potential angle — in fact, one of the challenges is to not oversell the implications of our research. There is also a lot of translational work to do — interpreting and explaining new data and research as it comes out, helping people figure out what to make of the latest findings in the context of what we already know rather than participating in the whipsaw advice machine that thrives on contradicting conventional wisdom. I recommend that junior scholars get involved with the Council on Contemporary Families, which helps organize and transmit new research responsibly and effectively, and to look for opportunities to publish popular pieces in online venues that encourage well-reasoned and empirically-grounding discussion and debate.

Trump supporters don’t like Muslims

Sean McElwee and I have a piece on Salon about the relationship between hating Muslims and supporting Donald Trump. The empirical facts are that people who support Trump hold nasty stereotypes about Muslims, and dislike them, more even than the average Republican.

Sean did most of the writing, and I produced two of the figures. I hope you’ll read it (and check out Sean on Twitter if you like funny leftism). The data, the ANES 2016 Pilot Study, which was collected in January, is available free (with registration) here.  I put my code for these figures here; feel free to use it if you’re interested in the data (lots of good potential there).

Here are the two figures. The first shows the responses to the question of how well the word “violent” describes “most Muslims.” The Trump supporters are in gray, all Republicans are red, and Democrats are Blue.* Trump supporters have by far the nastiest views:

muslim and hispanic figures.xlsx

The second is from models predicting whether respondents support Trump, identifies as Republican, or identifies as Democrat, as a function of their feelings toward Muslims. In the models, hating Muslims increases the odds of being a Trump supporter or Republican, and lowers the odds of being a Democrat. The slopes for Trump and Republican are significantly different, meaning the nasty relationship is strongest for Trump support.

muslim and hispanic figures.xlsx

Here is the conclusion:

The explanation of Trump’s success is simple: The latent racism, xenophobia and other powerful social forces fostered by the right for decades have simply been extended by Trump to their next logical extreme. As racial scholar Ian Haney-Lopezwrites,

“[George W.] Bush was careful to cabin his remarks in terms of extremists and ‘a perverted visions of Islam,’ but the global terms in which he framed his analysis belied such fine distinctions.”

That is, Bush’s language “was operating more in the register of a dog whistle, a way to advance a basically racial message while still maintaining plausible deniability.” Even today, Bush is seen as more moderate on issues related to Islamophobia. But the aggressive domestic surveillance policies he pursued, and the rhetoric of the last few years indicate Islamophobia was ripe on the right. Trump is just the most successful politician to date at picking the fruit.

* We restricted Trump supporters to those who identified as Republican or independent, since everyone was asked to pick their favorite Republican and we didn’t think Democrats were likely to really support Trump.

How the left can win the general election

Of course, I have no idea how anyone can win any election, but that’s what this post is about anyway, and no one ever got clicks by admitting they aren’t sure. This is just a little election nervous energy, dedicated to David Brooks, who says “data driven” campaigns have been a fiasco. (Follow this series at the elections tag.)

With all this talk of political realignment, and the impending fracturing of the Republican Party, I was wondering how the parties might shake out if something serious really did happen. I struck me that the GOP establishment is really upset right now because the beast they have been cultivating (the racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-gay, anti-science beast) is suddenly turning on them in way that threatens the things that really matter: keeping taxes and regulation from impeding their accumulation of wealth. As if what they really want is their mass of gullible voters back from Trump.

Anyway, I looked at the American National Election Studies 2016 pilot data, which asked 1,200 people a lot of attitude questions, as well as how they feel about the candidates. My question was, how are left and right divided now, and what might happen if things broke differently.

Breaking away

The results are all in the figures below. To make these I used Stata’s cluster kmeans command, which breaks a sample into the number of clusters you specify according to the distribution of means on the variables you list. Using math. This is nice for politics because it forces each person to choose a cluster, just like voting for a party. I used the feelings and issues you see in the top part of the figure to create the clusters, and then checked to see how the members of each cluster feel about the candidates. I ignored voter demographics, just taking into account their opinions. I used Excel’s conditional formatting to color-code from green to red (but check the coding because left and right don’t run the same way for each question — note if the item is “oppose” on a scale of 1-7, then 3 or less is “favor”).

The first figure is a two-cluster scheme. Every potential voter has to pick a party. In the two-party scheme a few major differences stand out. The left feels much better about scientists, gays and lesbians, and feminists. They are more interested in action on climate change, paid leave, equal pay for women, and big government generally. They favor affirmative action at universities and raising the minimum wage. They think legal immigration is good. Issues that don’t divide left and right so much are feelings about the police, free trade, and crime. The death penalty is not huge. The left’s favorite person is Sanders, but they like Clinton, too. They hate Trump. Here’s the first figure (click to enlarge):

The left here is only 45% of potential voters, so come November they need to raid the right somewhere – but where? To answer that I specified four clusters instead of two. This gives the left and right two center categories to fight over. Now the two left parties together sum to 45%, so for the left to win, I figure they need to find issues they can use to pull people away from the right, so I’m especially looking for big differences between the right and center-right. The good news for the left here is that the right is only 22%, so there is a lot of potential for poaching the center-right. In this figure, I highlighted a few key left-right divisions arbitrarily. Here’s the figure, with my comment below (click to enlarge):

Fortunately for the left, the right is blinded by their hatred of gays and lesbians and feminists. The center-right is much more tolerant, especially of gays and lesbians. So that seems like a good wedge. I say “tolerant” because the center-left isn’t really crazy about gays and lesbians or feminists, so going all the way to awesome in that area might be a turnoff to them.

The other good ones for the left are equal pay for women and legal immigration. The right hates them but everyone else is positive. Science is also good for the left, as the right doesn’t like scientists much, and the center-right is very into vaccination.

On the other hand, the center-right is very pro-police, so that may not be a winner for the left. The anti-police right isn’t coming all the way over, so it doesn’t help that they’re not pro-police. Also, affirmative action and the minimum wage aren’t good for pulling out the center-right. In general, the Chamber of Commerce type issues — climate change action, free trade, and big government, don’t help the left split the right much.

One caution is that the center left doesn’t like Clinton much — no better than they like Rubio, in fact. They are more positive about Sanders.

Obviously, how to work this into a campaign — with all the other issues that entails — is way beyond me. That’s why this is free.

Looks like racist Southern Whites like Trump

We’ve been given lots of reasons people support Trump, like authoritarian attitudes and “the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken.” But it’s also racism, I’m pretty sure. Or at least racists.

It’s hard to measure racism – or even define exactly what we mean by racism. One way to approach it is racial salience, which is closely related to racism, and we can measure that with the proportion of the local population that is Black. (I reviewed a bunch of this research here.)

It’s also usually hard to get measures of just White behavior, which makes a Southern Republican primary perfect — they’re basically all White. This is also good because we’re trying to figure out what’s driving the Trump thing. In South Carolina, it looks like it was driven by the presence of Blacks and people born in South Carolina, and less urban populations.

In counties with less than 40% of the population born out of South Carolina — 33 of the 46 countries — there is a strong positive relationship between Trump vote share and population proportion Black. Here is the plot, with the high local-born counties in red:

Those red dots are the classic percent-Black racism pattern. Whites are more racist where there are more Blacks. Interesting in the case of Trump, because most of his overt racism is directed at immigrants and Muslims. But the regular anti-Black racists have been very apparent in his crowds, and in his endorsements.

I looked at the out-of-state share because of the outliers. That’s Horry County in the top left (site of Myrtle Beach) and Richland County at the bottom right (site of Columbia), two places with less of an old-school (i.e., rural slave plantation) feel. The rural thing is important, too, as larger counties voted less for Trump.

I’d love to see someone do this for the Super Tuesday states. The other variables you could use would be slave populations in 1850, or post-bellum lynchings.

Here it is in regression terms, with the 46 counties (ask me for the data and code):

trump-sc-black-gop-reg

Objection addendum:

This is just a descriptive analysis. And I probably only presented it because it fits so well with my prior assumptions – so that’s good or bad on my part, I guess. That said, I did it and posted it so I own it.

Someone on Facebook objected that I am obscuring the positive slope in the high out-of-state counties. In fact, if you exclude Horry County, you see a positive slope in those counties as well. As you would if you included all the counties together. That black line is not good because it’s so skewed by the outlier. However, the regression didn’t use the categorical breakdown of out-of-state population. There you can see the positive effect of proportion Black in all counties, but at high levels of out-of-state the model says proportion Black would turn negative – which is because of the Horry County outlier.

In fact, if you just drop Horry County, the interaction and out-of-state effects are no longer significant, it’s just proportion Black and population size! So, you could rephrase the conclusion as: more Trump votes where there is more Black population, and in smaller-population counties, and ignore the out-of-state thing. But I don’t know enough about South Carolina to know whether it’s justifiable to exclude Horry County that way. It’s one of the most populous counties (6% of the total).

Here is the chart with all the counties, dropping the out-of-state distinction. Still a nice positive relationship and a good racism story, but weaker:

trump-sc-black-gop2

And just to show how extreme the effect of the outlier is, here are just the high out-of-state counties, with and without Horry:

horry

The vast majority of small campaign donors

In a February debate, Hillary Clinton said,  “I’m very proud of the fact that we have more than 750,000 donors, and the vast majority of them are giving small contributions.” This bugged me, because it’s misleading, like saying we don’t have a lot of inequality because only a tiny percentage of our people are filthy rich. But the opposite of that. You know what I mean.

I illustrate this with some data.

Please take this just as an illustration, not a definitive contribution analysis. I got the campaign contributor data for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from the Federal Election Commission. I’m sure it’s all much more complicated than I understand, but this is a simple description. The files include individual donations, along with some details about each donor. From what I understand, the maximum personal contribution is $2700, and the minimum reporting requirement is $200. These files have people who gave less than $200 and more than $2700, but I deleted them since they’re not comprehensive. (First I combined the multiple contributions from single individuals.) This means I’m missing a huge amount of contributions, especially to Bernie, who is reported to have raised 72% of his money from people giving $200 or less (compared with 16% for Hillary), as of January. And of course this ignores the whole PAC issue, which is also huge. Even with those two factors hugely biased against what I’m showing, the distribution point here is obvious.

Here is the distribution of donors according to how much they gave. From this, Hillary can say most of her donors are small (though not nearly as much as Bernie’s). Click to enlarge:

Here is the distribution of contributions, according to how much the people who make them gave. From this Hillary must admit that the vast majority of her contributions come from people who gave the maximum allowed. Here Bernie’s small donors still manage to give 31%, even though they’re up against people giving 10-times as much.

Here’s the rundown of mean, median mode, for donations within this range:

Hillary: mean: $1355; median: $1000, mode: $2700

Bernie: mean: $535, median: $350, mode: $250

I prefer actual honesty, not literal honesty.

Anyway, while I’m in there, I may as well tabulate the most common occupations listed for donors to each candidate (again, in the $200-$2700 range only). These are the 25 most common for each, with the frequency. I combined a few obvious ones (like programmer and computer programmer), but otherwise didn’t do much to clean this up. I set the titles in italics when an occupation appears on one list but not the other. Click to enlarge:

Others do lots more with this stuff, obviously.

When is the target a community?

11753775833_677870e53e_z
“LGBT Community Meeting” / Flickr Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/iUDb4t

I credit Hillary Clinton for sticking up for the LGBT community. But I always get stuck on the way she puts it. The other day she said:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”

(It’s funny that the audience in that sentence has race, ethnicity, and union status, but not gender or sexuality. But anyway.) At the debate last week she said:

I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it’s poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it’s the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that is what I want to take on.

Two issues. First, she’s got no ism-word to use for this, because I guess she doesn’t want to use heterosexism, which I understand. But I don’t really like using “community” this way. Because I think discrimination against people for their sexual identity, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a problem even if they’re not part of that community, or any community, actually. Second, racism and sexism are more than discrimination on the basis of race or sex. So the problem is also that discrimination is too narrow. (The ACLU also has “a long history of defending the LGBT community,” but the discrimination is often against individuals.)

Of course, a marginalized group has a different sense of community than a dominant group. For example, in Google page hits, “LGBT people” outnumbers “LGBT community” about 5-to-1, and it’s the same for “Black people” versus “Black community.” But the ratio of “White people” to “White community” is almost 50-to-1. Maybe dominant-group members are safe enough on their own. Anyway, community is good.

If you’re being very narrow or legal, you could (not to make this a campaign issue) do like the FeelTheBern page on LGBTQ rights, which refers to “the abolishment of all discriminatory laws pertaining to sexuality.” Bernie also likes to say “people have a right to love who they want, regardless of their gender,” but that’s just narrow in a different way.

It’s not simple, and the statement is important anyway, but I’m not voting for Hillary’s usage here.

Note: If this kind of thing interests you, I’m still happy to talk about homogamy.

A party like it’s 2014 (marriage equality edition)

My question for Marco Rubio is, what are you going to do about this gay marriage you are still so against?

In his closing statement at last night’s debate, Marco Rubio said,

Our culture’s in trouble. Wrong is now considered right, and right is considered wrong. All the things that once held our families together are under constant assault. … If you elect me president we are going to re-embrace free enterprise, so that everyone can go as far as their talent and their work will take them. We are going to be a country that says that life begins at conception, and life is worthy of the protection of our laws. We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Here it is:

This wrong-right thing is not exactly specified, but in context it clearly refers to abortion and gay marriage — so wrong, but not “considered right.”

What does it mean to say, “We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and woman”? What does a country say? Does anyone really listen to what these people say?

Yes, they do. Because as of the morning of yesterday’s debate Rubio has a Marriage & Family Advisory Board to make sure that his words have meaning, and that right returns to right, while wrong is again returned to its proper place: hidden, shamed, and reviled.

Here’s the charge of the board:

This morning, the Marco Rubio for President campaign is excited to announce the formation of Marco Rubio’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board. Marco believes the family is the most important institution in society. He understands that in a vibrant culture of marriage and family everyone benefits, but in a culture where the importance of families is neglected all sorts of problems result. You cannot have a strong nation without strong people, and you cannot have strong people without strong values. Right and wrong. Good and bad. That is learned from your values instilled in you in the family. It is irreplaceable.

Strong statements for strong times. (In fact, you cannot have strong times without strong statements.) These are the board’s members:

  • Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
  • Joseph Backholm, Executive Director, Family Policy Institute of Washington
  • Ambassador Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow, Family Research Council
  • David S. Dockery, President, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
  • Sherif Girgis, J.D./Ph.D. candidate, Yale Law & Princeton
  • Alan Hawkins, Ph.D., Professor, Brigham Young University
  • Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow, Manhattan Institute
  • Jonathan Keller, CEO, California Family Council
  • Caitlin La Ruffa, Executive Director, Love and Fidelity Network
  • Robert Lerman, Emeritus Professor of Economics, American University
  • Everett Piper, Ph.D., President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University\
  • Bill Wichterman, former special assistant to President George W. Bush
  • Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies & Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

I wish the Republicans would debate this a little more seriously. Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional amendment, Jeb Bush and John Kasich have complained about marriage equality but not argued for overturning it, Trump says he opposes marriage equality but doesn’t really care. So what’s Rubio’s plan. Either you think it can be reversed, which is dumb, or you’re just attacking gays and lesbians as “wrong,” which is mean.

On Rubio’s board, Wilcox, Lerman, Hawkins, and Hymowitz are Family Inequality regulars. Of course he doesn’t really need policy advice at this point in the campaign, so this is just about signaling — it’s Rubio showing donors the direction he’s taking, and it’s these people deciding to put their names on his campaign. (Somehow, though, I’m sure they will also still be able to describe themselves as “non-partisan,” because wrong is now right.) It’s also the first time I know of that Wilcox has publicly opposed marriage equality, which is a promising turn in his maturation as a partisan hack.

Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)
Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)
The first thing that bugged me about this blog post by Jay Ulfelder at Five Thirty Eight was not the most important thing. The first thing I reacted to was that Ulfelder opened by asking whether “economic inequality causes political turmoil,” and then chastising, “Just because a belief is widely held, however, does not make it true,” before offering only evidence from economics studies. So I tweeted this obnoxious thing:

It was obnoxious, and I apologize. That response was part of my routine, defensive, complaining about how complex sociological work is neglected in favor of glib economics (e.g., here, here, here). But I do substantively object to the piece. If I had taken the time to figure out what really bugged me about it I could have sent a more constructive Tweet. Oh well, you never get a second chance to make a first snarky response.

What really bugged me is that the piece reduced this question of world-historic importance to a matter of microdata quality and measurement:

In fact, it’s still hard to establish with confidence whether and how economic inequality shapes political turmoil around the world. That’s largely because of the difficulty in measuring inequality…

Despite the slipperiness of “whether and how,”* Ulfelder’s point is definitely that we are “not there yet” on the question of “the belief that inequality causes political crises.” Still, maybe this is a case of trying to sell a narrow empirical piece as something bigger than it is — in which case it’s also a lesson in how people overreact when you do that.

I have to examine my own motives here, because this is one of those times when someone’s empirical claims threaten something that I don’t routinely subject to empirical testing. If there is an actual article of faith in my sociological worldview — and I would not really use the word faith to describe it, it’s more like a foundational understanding — it’s that inequality causes conflict, which causes social change. Ulfelder notes this is attributed partly to Marx, which is one reason why I and so many other sociologists hold it dear, but it’s also because it’s actually true. But that depends on what you mean by true, and here I think I disagree with Ulfelder, who writes:

With such incomplete and blurry information about the crucial quantities, why are so many of us so sure that economic inequality is a principal cause of political turmoil? Careful observation is one answer. Aristotle and Marx drew inferences about the destabilizing effects of inequality from their deep knowledge of the societies around them.

He never explains why this isn’t good enough, instead wandering into a critique of contemporary activist claims, based in part on an argument that “the seminal economic study” on the question is methodologically flawed (I’m sure it is).

This reducing of the question is too reductionist. I would be very interested to know whether within-country economic inequality, measured at the national level, if accurately measured, could help predict which countries would experience political turmoil, if that could be measured with a single indicator. But that’s not answering the question of whether inequality causes political turmoil — it’s one very narrow slice of that giant historical question, for which we have many sources of data and many affirmative answers.

Use a little of Marx’s “deep knowledge of societies” to consider, for example, the anti-colonial revolutions in many countries after 1945. Do you need to test a within-country economic inequality measure to know that such “turmoil” was one consequence of inequality? Of course, the timing and nature of those revolts is an interesting question to be addressed through research, but is such research asking whether inequality causes conflict?

What about slave revolts? What if someone found that harsher slavery regimes were not more likely to explode in revolt than those in which the slaves had enough food and water — would that tell you that inequality does not “cause” conflict? (Inequality causes conflict; that’s why they’re called slave revolts.)

Even, what about the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement, or Black Lives Matter?

Does inequality cause conflict? Yes. Of course the relationship is not necessarily linear or simplistically univariate, which is the subject of lots of great sociology (and probably some minor work in other disciplines). But this is the kind of complex issue that data journalism nowadays loves to turn into yes-or-no, show-me-the-scatterplot short blog posts. I’ve done some of that myself, of course — and if I do it with something that’s a vital part of your analytical worldview, feel free to send me a snarky tweet about it.

* Nothing against this expression in general, it’s just slippery in this case because it might or might not be moving the goalposts from the opening question. 

University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today
USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.