Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

Gallup CEO criticizes measurement of unemployment in the US

The CEO of Gallup says the current unemployment rate is “a Big Lie” because of how it is calculated:

None of them will tell you this: If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job — if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking over the past four weeks — the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. That’s right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news — currently 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast “falling” unemployment.There’s another reason why the official rate is misleading. Say you’re an out-of-work engineer or healthcare worker or construction worker or retail manager: If you perform a minimum of one hour of work in a week and are paid at least $20 — maybe someone pays you to mow their lawn — you’re not officially counted as unemployed in the much-reported 5.6%. Few Americans know this.

Yet another figure of importance that doesn’t get much press: those working part time but wanting full-time work. If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find — in other words, you are severely underemployed — the government doesn’t count you in the 5.6%. Few Americans know this…

Gallup defines a good job as 30+ hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck. Right now, the U.S. is delivering at a staggeringly low rate of 44%, which is the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population, 18 years and older. We need that to be 50% and a bare minimum of 10 million new, good jobs to replenish America’s middle class.

How an official statistic is measured may seem mundane but it can be quite consequential, as is noted here. What exactly does it take to get a government agency to measure and report data differently?

This critique may make some interesting political bedfellows. Conservatives might jump on this in order to show that the current administration hasn’t made the kind of economic progress they claim. Liberals might also like this because it suggests a lot of Americans still aren’t doing well even as big corporations and Wall Street seem to have profited. Neither political party really wants to take on Wall Street so they might support these numbers so stocks keep moving up.

Can sociologists be the ones who officially define the middle class?

Defining the middle class is a tricky business with lots of potential implications, as one sociologist notes:

“Middle class” has become a meaningless political term covering everyone who is not on food stamps and does not enjoy big capital gains. Like a sociological magician, I can make the middle class grow, shrink or disappear just by the way I choose to define it.

What is clear and incontestable is the growing inequality in this country over the last three decades. In a 180-degree reversal of the pattern in the decades after World War II, the gains of economic growth flow largely to the people at the top.

I like the idea of a sociological magician but this is an important issue: many Americans may claim to be middle class but their life chances, experiences, and tastes can be quite different. Just look at the recent response to possible changes to the 529 college savings programs. A vast group may help political parties make broad appeals yet it doesn’t help in forming policies. (Just to note: those same political parties make bland and broad appeals even as they work harder than ever to microtarget specific groups for donations and votes.)

Given some recent conversations about the relative lack of influence of sociologists, perhaps this is an important area where they can contribute. Class goes much further than income; you would want to think about income, wealth, educational attainment, the neighborhood in which one lives, cultural tastes and consumption patterns, and more. The categories should clearly differentiate groups while remaining flexible enough to account for combinations of factors as well as changes in American society.

Political campaigns combining big data, ground games

Close elections mean both political parties are combining ground games and big data to try to eke out victories:

Workers like Ms. Wellington and Mr. Noble are, in the end, critical to any ground campaign, no matter how sophisticated data collection and targeting models are, said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”

“The great irony of the modern ground game is it’s this meeting of incredibly modern analytics and data married to very old-fashioned delivery devices,” he said. “It’s people knocking on doors; it’s people making phone calls out of phone banks; but the calculations that are determining which door and which phone are different.”…

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ramped up its commitment, creating the “Bannock Street project,” a multimillion dollar, data-driven effort to persuade, register and turn out voters.

“The easiest way to look at it is our strategy to winning is expanding the voting universe,” said Preston Elliott, Hagan’s campaign manager, in an interview in his Greensboro office. “It’s a little more machineish than just catching a wave and riding momentum.”

Republicans say they are catching up. In Raleigh, campaign workers and volunteers showed off a new smartphone app that helps canvassers target their door knocks. But Republican officials refused to reveal volunteer numbers, paid staff totals, field office locations or a tabulation of voter contacts. Nor would they allow reporters to recount the phone-bank pitch, “the secret sauce,” as they called it.

This is taking new information about voters – something political parties always want – and putting it into real-time (or close) models in order to produce more effective targeted efforts with limited time and efforts before elections.

Two other thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to then see how these new efforts fit with broad appeals politicians make to the public. Does this new kind of information and targeting mean that politicians will spend less time making big claims and instead focus on smaller segments of voters?

2. Americans aren’t always thrilled with the kind of information corporations or tech companies have about them. Are they happy with political parties having more information? Of course, people don’t have to give out this information but this information is going into the hands of political parties who don’t exactly have the highest ratings these days.

Growing American political divide between urban and rural areas

The urban/rural political divide has grown in the last few decades:

As Democrats have come to dominate U.S. cities, it is Republican strength in rural areas that allows the party to hold control of the House and remain competitive in presidential elections…

The U.S. divide wasn’t always this stark. For decades, rural America was part of the Democratic base, and as recently as 1993, just over half of rural Americans were represented by a House Democrat, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Conservative Democrats often represented rural districts, including Ms. Hartzler’s predecessor, Ike Skelton, who held the seat for 34 years before she ousted him in 2010.

That parity eventually gave way to GOP dominance. In 2013, 77% of rural Americans were represented by a House Republican. But in urban areas—which by the government’s definition includes both cities and suburbs—slightly less than half of residents were represented by congressional Republicans, despite the GOP’s 30-seat majority in the House…

In 1992, Bill Clinton won 60% of the Whole Foods counties and 40% of the Cracker Barrel counties, a 20-point difference. That gap that has widened every year since, and in 2012, Mr. Obama won 77% of Whole Foods counties and 29% of Cracker Barrel Counties, a 48-point difference.

And with this divide between cities and rural areas, the suburbs, particularly ones in the middle between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs, are where politicians fight for votes.

The profiles of a suburban county outside Kansas City and a rural county in Missouri suggests that most people make conscious choices about where they want to live. In other words, everyone in America can live wherever they want and they make these choices based on culture and politics. A common illustration for this is the plight of high school and college age adults and fears of  a rural “brain drain“: they can leave their small town for the big city where they see there is more excitement. To some degree, this is true: Americans are a mobile people yet it is a more complicated process than simply selecting a cultural milieu and parking there for the rest of their lives. On one hand, people can make much more finer-grained decisions than on a county by county basis (particularly in denser areas where there are plenty of communities to choose from) and on the other hand people are pushed and pulled by particular places through race and ethnicity, social networks, economic opportunities, and life changes. The article mentions cultural factors quite a bit but says little about race and ethnicity, a long-standing factor in where people live and evidenced today by continued residential segregation.

Just a note: the second author of this piece is Dante Chinni, also the co-author of Our Patchwork Nation. His analysis could be contrasted with sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s recentl book on small-town America.

Two “cousin” states follow different paths: Minnesota goes Democrat, Wisconsin goes Republican

A look at the twin ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin highlights the political differences between the two states:

In 2013, Wisconsin’s lawmakers cut income taxes. They approved an expansion of school vouchers. They passed a requirement, portions of which are now being contested in court, that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds. They rewrote iron mining rules to ease construction of an open pit in Northern Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, lawmakers sent more money to public schools, raised income taxes on the highest earners, increased the tax on cigarettes and voted to add new business taxes. They allowed some undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition for public universities. They legalized same-sex marriage.

“It’s staggering, really, like night and day,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “You’ve got two states with the same history, the same culture, the same people — it’s kind of like they’re cousins. And now they’re looking across the border and seeing one world, then seeing something else entirely on the other side.”

This sounds like a good natural experiment for social scientists to look at. If the states share similar backgrounds and geography, perhaps the differences in outcomes over the next few years can be attributed to the different political parties in control. Unfortunately, the article is pretty impressionistic thus far and doesn’t offer too many concrete differences in life. Perhaps not enough time has passed – or perhaps the differences in daily life still might not change that much for most residents.

Recent book details the “new swing states” of suburbia

Richard Florida describes the findings from a recent book titled The Political Ecology of the Metropolis that looks at the swing votes available in American suburbs:

Sellers and his colleagues analyze the political characteristics of cities and suburbs across many advanced nations. Sellers’s own chapter covers the U.S., and it includes some eye-opening insights. While most previous research has looked mainly at states and counties, Sellers has developed a detailed data set on the municipalities that make up America’s metro regions. He tracks the political geography of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 elections across twelve U.S. metros with populations of at least 450,000: New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, Cincinnati, Fresno, Birmingham, Syracuse, Wichita, and Kalamazoo.

Democrats have a “decisive” advantage in dense, urban localities and poorer, majority-minority suburbs. In the affluent suburbs, Sellers explains, “Republicans enjoy an analogous, if less dramatic” advantage. He notes that “a pervasive divide separates the Republican low density areas of metropolitan peripheries from the Democratic urban centres and minority suburbs.” At the broad metropolitan level, votes follow the same red/blue, rich/poor pattern identified by Larry Bartels and Andrew Gelman at the state level. Sellers found that municipalities with educated and affluent voters tended to vote with their state’s winners – they voted more Republican in red states and more Democratic in blue states.

With these bases locked down, the key political footballs – the new “swing states,” so to speak – are the swelling ranks of economically distressed suburbs, where poverty has been growing and where the economic crisis hit especially hard. There are now more poor people living in America’s suburbs than its center cities, and as a recent Brookings Institution report found, both Republican and Democratic districts have been affected by this reality…

America’s new metropolitan geography is overlaid by one additional factor: voter participation. Turnout levels have ranged between 52 and 62 percent over the past several national elections. Even though Democrats have the clear advantage in raw numbers, Republicans dominate the kinds of communities where people are more likely to actually vote. Turnout, Sellers finds, tends to be higher in GOP strongholds – the more affluent, highly educated suburbs and low-density rural and exurban areas, all places with higher levels of home-ownership.

See earlier posts on Joel Kotkin’s analysis of swing votes in the suburbs. The candidates should know this as well and we should see a lot of visits in the future to such suburbs.

These economically distressed suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs adjacent to big cities but also more far-flung places that are more working class and not as dependent on white-collar and professional work, may hold more than just the political key to metropolitan regions. While wealthier residents batten down the hatches in nicer suburbs and trendy urban neighborhoods, what happens to the majority of residents who face fewer prospects?

Continuing political battles over Census data

Megan McArdle provides a reminder of the political nature of the Census:

If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census.  Arguably, you’re already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses.  The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.

As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking.  There are the courts, of course: we’re now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating.  Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny.  And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.

Before you say it, no, this isn’t just Republicans.  But it’s not good on either side.  As the legislature has ceased being able to legislate, both parties almost have to resort to more undemocratic methods to achieve their goals.  The casualties, like judicial impartiality and good data for policymaking, are vastly more important than the causes for which this war is allegedly being fought.

To see more details of the recent Republican defunding attempt, see here.

Data is rarely impartial: the processes of by which it is collected, interpreted, and then used in policy can be quite political. That doesn’t mean that is has to be. Much of the grounding for social science is the idea that data can be more objectively collected and analyzed. Yet, within the realms of politics where data is often a means to victory, having a good handle on data can go a long way, as we saw in the 2012 presidential election or currently in debates among Republicans about how to handle voter data.

In the end, it will be fascinating to see how big data, from the Census to Facebook, does or does not become political. There are a couple of fault lines in this debate. First, there are people who will argue that having such data is in itself political and dangerous while the opposite side will argue that having such data is necessary to have more efficient and business government and business. This could be a debate between libertarians and others: should there even be big data in the first place? Second, there is a good number of people who like the idea of collecting and using big data but debate who should be able to benefit from the data. Can the data be used for political ends? If government should have its hands on big data, perhaps it is okay for businesses? Should individual consumers have more power or control over their contributions and participation in big data?

h/t Instapundit

The real question after the 2012 presidential election: who gets Obama’s database?

President Obama has plenty to deal with in his second term but plenty of people want an answer to this question: who will be given access to the campaign’s database?

Democrats are now pressing to expand and redeploy the most sophisticated voter list in American political history, beginning with next year’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and extending to campaigns for years to come. The prospect already has some Republicans worried…

The database consists of voting records and political donation histories bolstered by vast amounts of personal but publicly available consumer data, say campaign officials and others familiar with the operation, which was capable of recording hundreds of fields for each voter.

Campaign workers added far more detail through a broad range of voter contacts — in person, on the phone, over e-mail or through visits to the campaign’s Web site. Those who used its Facebook app, for example, had their files updated with lists of their Facebook friends along with scores measuring the intensity of those relationships and whether they lived in swing states. If their last names seemed Hispanic, a key target group for the campaign, the database recorded that, too…

To maintain their advantage, Democrats say they must guard against the propensity of political data to deteriorate in off years, when funding and attention dwindles, while navigating the inevitable intra-party squabbles over who gets access now that the unifying forces of a billion-dollar presidential campaign are gone.

The Obama campaign spent countless hours developing this database and will not let it go lightly. I imagine this could become a more common legacy for winning politicians than getting things done while in office: passing on valuable data about voters and supporters to other candidates. If a winning candidate had good information, others will want to build on the same information. I don’t see much mention of one way to solve this issue: let political candidates or campaigns pay for the information!

What about the flip side: will anyone use or want the information collected by the Romney campaign? Would new candidates prefer to start over or are there important pieces of data that can be salvaged from a losing campaign?