The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Coastal elites among middle America = “Margaret Mead among Samoans”

The quasi-anthropological quest of liberals to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump continues:

Third Way’s researchers are far from the only Americans inspired to undertake anthropological journeys in the past year. Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s election shocked the prognosticators, ivory-tower types are still sifting through the wreckage. Group after group of befuddled elites has crisscrossed America to poke and prod and try to figure out what they missed—“Margaret Meads among the Samoans,” one prominent strategist remarked to me.

HuffPo embarked on a 23-city bus tour to get to know places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg undertook a series of carefully choreographed interactions with factory workers and people on tractors. The liberal pollster Stan Greenberg appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his findings from a series of focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters in Macomb County, Michigan. A new group of Democratic elected officials hosted a “Winning Back the Heartland” strategy conference in Des Moines this month. The title of yet another research project, a bipartisan study underwritten by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, encapsulates the sentiment: “Stranger in My Own Country.”…

The other groups of anthropologists roaming Middle America face the same quandary. Having gotten the country drastically wrong, they have set out on well-meaning missions to bring the country together by increasing mutual understanding. They share Third Way’s basic assumption that mutual understanding is something Americans can agree to find desirable. But as hard as they try to open their minds to new perspectives, are they ready to have that basic assumption challenged?

The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see.

Theoretically, academic ethnographic fieldwork should be different than some of the approaches described here which primarily seem to be concerned with finding support or reassurance that liberal perspectives or approaches resonate to some degree throughout the United States. An academic approach could better disentangle personal political views from those of the group who is being studied, or at least clearly demarcate when the personal subjectivity of the researcher influences the interpretation of the group under study. Such academic studies already exist – such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in a Strange Land which she summarizes here – and surely more are to come. What will the academic consensus be within ten or twenty years and how will it sit beside more partisan interpretations of the 2016 elections?

In related matters, Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans holding a combination of conservative and liberal viewpoints has decreased. Thus, the growing need for the two sides to embark on safaris to interact with and try to understand fellow citizens (who do not even necessarily live that far away if we look at Democrat-Republican splits between big cities and outer suburbs).

Count sociologists among the most liberal Americans – at least for one humorist

Imagining the exodus of Americans for Canada, here is who one humorist depicted as most distraught over the recent presidential election results:

Canadian border farmers say it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, global warming activists, and “green” energy proponents crossing their fields at night.

“I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,” said Southern Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota . “The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.  He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn’t have any, he left before I even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?”

Given all the academic content the 2016 election is likely to generate in the years to come, someone has to examine which groups had the strongest negative emotions about the results as well as which groups felt this pain the longest. Would sociologists rank up there?

Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

“The deepest causes of inequality…are entirely out of the reach of city governments.”

At the end of a long essay against the actions of liberals in American cities comes this summary:

Liberal mayors seem utterly unaware of how poorly positioned cities are to address income disparities. The deepest causes of inequality, such as globalization and cultural disparities, are entirely out of the reach of city governments. They are seduced by mission creep. Progressive politicians are unwilling to stick to their real work of improving the core functions of municipal government, namely K–12 public education and public safety, and maintaining the basic infrastructure and services—parks, libraries, and the like. The rise of 21st-century urban progressivism points toward a future characterized by shoddy local services, increased regulation of city economies, and the consolidation of inequality.

I suspect this author would argue that liberals also don’t know how to correctly address social issues at the national or global level. Setting that aside, is the argument correct that cities can’t truly address inequality?

On one side, cities sit within a larger social system. Even the biggest cities – New York City, London, Hong Kong, etc. – operate within a global economic, political, and cultural system that they may influence strongly but don’t control completely. Global capitalism is influential everywhere and affects flows of capital and jobs.

On the other side, major cities are large economic engines in their own right – see several rankings here – and have significant budgets to utilize with millions of residents. Even as there is a global system, the decisions cities make as well as the unique resources they can draw upon can lead to disparate outcomes. Can they individually completely eliminate inequality? Probably not but they can use the means at their disposal to shape life in their borders.

Maybe this issue should be put another way: if inequality is not addressed at the municipal level, who is going to address these issues? At whatever level it happens, certain actions by city governments could help.

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

More sociologists and other scholars advocating for marriage?

There isn’t much data here presented to defend a trend but here is a brief look at recent research that highlights the benefits of marriage in the United States:

The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”

The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy…

It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college…

Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.

As the article notes, scholars on different sides of the political spectrum disagree on what policies to enact to promote marriage and have different definitions of what marriage should be. But, could the two sides ever come together to promote a middle policy or in order to broker a compromise? If anything, it might be the pressure within each academic discipline that keeps the sides apart.