Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the "Real" America / Dante Chinni and James Gimpel -- N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2010

During the past ten or twelve years, political pundits often have repeated that the U.S. is "deeply divided" between "red" and "blue" states. It is, of course, an easy and dramatic shorthand that belies the real state of our society. I suspect that most of those same pundits would recognize this, but few people have offered any alternative description of the natural breaks in the body politic, except perhaps to describe congressional districts or counties as "red" or "blue." While offering a more fine grained analysis of the red-blue divide, these descriptions still fall prey to the deficiency of the basic distinction: geographic regions in the U.S. are categorized merely on the outcomes of a two-party, plurality-take-all electoral system. This system ignores nonvoters and voters who vote for losing candidates; furthermore, it lumps heterogeneous local voting coalitions into two heterogeneous national coalitions. Indeed, most often the only fact revealed by the distinction on a national scale is which party won a majority of electoral college votes.

In Our Patchwork Nation, journalist Dante Chinni and political scientist James Gimpel provide a more nuanced portrait of the country. Chinni and Gimpel analysed data for each of the 3,141 counties that make up the country and postulate that the country can be understood to be composed of twelve distinct kinds of communities, calling them boom towns, campus and careers, emptying nests, evangelical epicenters, immigration nation, industrial metropolis, military bastions, minority central, monied burbs, Morman outposts, service worker centers, and tractor country.

Some of these communities fit squarely into "red America" or "blue America," but others are up for grabs and it isn't always clear why this is. In some instances, the economic interests of the community and/or its dominant social values are directly supported by one or another party, but in other instances, the population of the community is not so homogeneous as to place it squarely in the Democratic or Republican column. For example, the hallmark of minority central is a large African American (or Native American) population; however, in most of these counties European Americans still make up a majority of the population. Moreover, any particular county can and will fit more or less well into one or more community categories, sometimes making it difficult to know what the dominant political motive is for that community on election day.

Dividing the country into twelve categories is, no doubt, an improvement over the simple red-blue distinction, but whether Chinni and Gimpel's twelve categories are a good reflection of the population is questionable. Their method for creating these categories is revealed in the book's appendix. The authors collected a large body of data describing specific "socioeconomic and religious indicators" applicable to every U.S. county. By comparing them, the authors discovered common intersections among the indicators that allowed them to reduce these indicators to an underlying structure of twelve "basic factors." These factors defined the twelve communities. Each county could then be scored for how well it embodied each of the twelve basic factors and histograms were created to show which counties scored highest in those twelve factors. Finally, the authors sorted the counties based upon which basic factor a county most embodied. Some counties scored similarly high on more than one basic factor. In those cases, the authors made judgement calls to complete the sorting.

The results of their work is not particularly surprising, if one has a general understanding of the human geography of the country. Mormons live in Utah, the Great Plains are sparsely populated and dominated by agribusiness, major cities are diverse and densely populated, there are large populations of African Americans in the South living very close to European American who are Evangelical Christians, many people retire to Florida, etc. To get a deeper understanding of these communities, one needs to expose their less dominant characteristics and understand how they qualify the dominant character. Unfortunately Our Patchwork Nation does not do this. Presumably because it is meant for a popular audience, the appendix does not give detailed descriptions of the actual data used in sorting the communities.

The validity of the twelve-fold division is said to have been tested against additional data sets, but it's hard to know how valid it really is. The mere fact that the total population of Mormon outposts is less than two million people makes one wonder if this is worthy of a category at all or if it should be folded into evangelical epicenters or divided among the other eleven communities. The answer depends on one's views about comparative religion. Emptying nests poses a different problem: are the Florida retirees sufficiently like the retirees who remain in the Upper Midwest to consider them part of the same community? It is an open question as to how the various socioeconomic and religious indicators should be weighted in determining the basic factors. If one's economic condition is weighted heavily and one's age is weighted less heavily, the retirees in Florida would make up a separate group from those in the Upper Midwest. Chinni and Gimpel give no indication as to how they choose to weight their indicators.

As vexing as these problems are, Our Patchwork Nation invites the reader to consider the variegated character of our nation and its communities. One conclusion that easily might be drawn from this is that our two-party system cannot possibly be sufficient to represent the interests of such varied communities and their numerous shadings. A more adequate political system would allow these communities (or more precisely, voters) to gather together in numerous politic parties that could express clearly the voter's primary interests and not be subsumed (and often lost) within a heterogeneous big-tent party. Our "patchwork nation," no matter how you slice it, cries out for a multi-party democracy in which our legislatures represent us proportionally. Were we to adopt such a system, many political question that are currently held hostage to our two party gridlock could be separated from the bi-polar power struggle and resolved to the satisfaction of an issue-specific majority.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate / George Lakoff -- White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2004

In 1996, linguist George Lakoff published Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think in which he presented his theory that American politics is driven by two models of the family: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. These models serve as frames for how conservatives and liberals respectively think, not just about family life, but also politics and other spheres of life. Lakoff argues that conservatives have implicitly recognized that emphasizing the values inherent in the Strict Father Model reinforces voters' tendency to employ these values when thinking about politics. After following this strategy for four decades, conservatives have established in the electorate a way of thinking about politics that prevents voters from accepting (and sometimes even understanding) the policies advanced by liberals.

Following the election of George W. Bush in 2000, a number of liberal activists began taking Lakoff seriously, helping him travel the country to talk about "framing" issues inside a liberal value system. By 2004, Lakoff published Don't Think of an Elephant to serve as "short and informal...practical guide both for citizen activists and for anyone with a serious interest in politics." Lakeoff hoped to equip liberals with an understanding of how to change the way in which political discourse is framed and thereby create a resurgent progressive movement. His book quickly showed up on best seller lists around the country.

On the surface, the basic thesis seems interesting and perhaps reasonable. Furthermore, Lakoff's ability to connect the values he identifies in the two family models to politics and public policy issues deepens his thesis. The values residing in the two family models have strong affinity to values that can be identified in various policy positions and they seem to bring together exactly those issues that constitute the constellations of conservative and liberal views. Finally, it is quite reasonable to think that our upbringing is central to our way of thinking and that specific values about families -- learned at an early age -- will play a dominant role in our thinking. No doubt there is very much to Lakoff's thesis; however, closer examination indicates that he is likely overstating the causative role that the family model plays in determining how Americans vote.

Lakoff's thesis could be tested were we able to replace our two-party system with a multi-party democracy. Currently, our political system nearly ensures that voters will only have two choices on the ballot, particularly because which ever candidate wins a plurality usually is elected to office. Moreover, restrictive ballot access laws frequently prevent independents and third parties from appearing on the ballot at all. This makes voting for anyone but a member of one of two major parties seem fruitless. Under these circumstances, voters, motivated by very different values and ideologies, are forced to join into a heterogeneous coalition to elect the candidate they find least objectionable. If there were more candidates on the ballot and if we had proportional representation in our legislatures, then these forced coalitions would quickly break up and the real factors motivating various voters would be more apparent.

Lakoff does not test his theory with this thought experiment. Instead, he looks at the two political coalitions and constructs a theory that best connects their various ideological elements and then declares that his theory explains the driving force behind the coalitions. It is more likely that the values making up the two family models are a rhetorical intersection views -- a least common denominator that appeals to a large percentage of the disparate members of the conservative or liberal coalitions. Without the need to motivate the disparate elements of the coalitions, these values would not stand out and many of them would be disregarded, if not openly attacked, by the various partners in the coalition as they go their separate ways.

Perhaps the most significant divide within the Republican Party is, of course, between social conservatives and libertarians. The idea that their views grow out of the same set of values is almost preposterous. Within the Democratic Party, the labor elements and the environmentalist elements would hardly seem to be natural partners, except that they both oppose capitalist drive to make large profits for shareholders at the expense of all else. It is much easier to explain the motives of the elements in the two major political coalitions by appealing to more obvious interests that they do not share.

To be fair, the foregoing criticism perhaps assumes that Lakoff's thesis is more ambitious than it is. A more charitable reading of his thesis is not that the values of the two model families explain the current political coalitions, but that given the legal framework ensuring two parties, appealing to values of the model families are the most effective way of mobilizing the coalitions. Certainly Lakoff has recognized a powerful rhetorical tool used by the Republican coalition. The values described in Strict Father Model of the family clearly resonate across many segments of the political right and Lakoff explicitly is calling on liberals to employ similar countervailing tactics. The "guidebook" features of Lakoff's work show striking similarities to memos by Republican framing strategist Frank Luntz.

The material in Don't Think of an Elephant appears in a more expanded form on the Web site of Lakoff's think tank, the Rockridge Institute; however, while still maintaining the Web site, Rockridge has folded for lack of funding. This is very telling. Lakoff's argues that framing issues in a progressive way is essential to a liberal renaissance in politics and while he recognizes the advantage that rich funding sources give to conservatives, he doesn't seem to acknowledge their overwhelming importance. This, along with is failure to recognize the true motivating forces behind the conservative and liberal agendas shows that his perspective on politics is overly ideological. A more accurate analysis will explore the material and economic forces at work in American politics.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America / Thomas Frank -- N.Y.: Henry Holt, 2004

It's been seven years since Thomas Frank published What's the Matter with Kansas?, so the media frenzy -- if you can call it that -- is over, but the basic political relations described in the book remain; indeed, they may have become more pronounced. Frank provides us with a careful examination of conservative politics in Kansas and he suggests that it reflects -- in an exaggerated way -- conservative politics throughout the U.S. Roughly stated, Frank's thesis is that the working class population of Kansas has become hopelessly distracted by hot button social issues and have been fooled into voting for politicians who are undermining their economic interests. The thesis is not without merit; however, Frank's working class Kansans may not be so unaware as he suggests.

What's the Matter with Kansas describes the peculiarities of the state's politics starting from its founding in the 1850s up through the progressive era, but only as background for a description of how it changed from the 1970s to the present. According to Frank the critical juncture was in the early 1990s, when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) took over the national Democratic Party. The DLC abandoned any pretense of acting on behalf of the working class and openly sought support from business. At the same time, conservatives pundits began a relentless attack on liberals through print and radio broadcasts, portraying them as effete snobs who hated the working class and sought to destroy everything that is good about America. Furthermore, capitalizing on a population already disposed in favor of the pro-life movement, Operation Rescue selected Wichita as the epicenter of its protests against legal abortions. Operation Rescue mounted an extremely effective grassroots organizing campaign in Wichita and through out the state. All of this sparked a massive wave of political activity inside the Kansas Republican party, sweeping out the more moderate business class Republicans and installing a new generation of conservative Republicans in political posts from Senator on down to the lowest Republican party offices.

The political struggle, however, was not really between conservative Republicans and Democrats, but between conservative Republicans (the "Cons") and more moderate republics (the "Mods"). Frank describes at length the hostility that the Cons had toward the Mods, but is amazed by the Cons' inability to recognize that the policies that they were endorsing increased the economic strength of the Mods and were economically disastrous for the Cons. Frank's amazement is the weakest element of his analysis. While he makes occasional gestures toward explaining the Cons' disregard for their economic situation, he more often simply finds the Cons' behavior foolish and irrational. Despite growing up in Kansas, Frank seems unable to genuinely think about politics from within the world view of the Cons. This may be due to his own upbringing in a Mod suburb of Kansas City or simply to his inability to think sympathetically about with the people he is describing. He makes very little effort to consider the Cons as rational people acting on principles that he does not share.

Republican doctrine has long opposed taxes and regulation. They are seen as alien impositions on the main business of America which is, of course, business. Taxes and regulations are merely ways by which the productive elements of society are made to support and defend the politically powerful, but unproductive, elements. If one sees the main activity of life as making a living within the constraints of a system of fair rules, then such a point of view is reasonable. Surely, many if not most working class people in Kansas find making a living an all consuming activity, this is particularly true of people who are self-employed or sell their labor job to job. For them, taxes (no matter how progressive) are an obstacle to getting ahead and regulations limit the kind of economic activity that they find necessary to remain employed or in business.

In addition to this, the ideology of individualism and fair play trump any appeal that government assistance for the disadvantaged might hold. Material well-being may certainly be an important value for the conservative working class, but if earning what you acquire is a greater value, then taxation, regulation, and social programs are likely to be seen as undermining that more important value. What may be missing in this analysis is the importance of equal opportunity and in the case of Kansas working class, they may feel that the degree of inequality of opportunity is not so great as to justify liberal programs like affirmative action, housing assistance, and food stamps.

There is quite a lot in What's the Matter with Kansas that deserves careful attention, but working class Kansans deserve a more sympathetic and deeper analysis of their behavior.