Data on whether Americans are moving due to politics

NPR reports on Americans moving to new locations because of politics. Here is some of the evidence presented:

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Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas.

More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Most came from Southern California. Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans…

Political scientist Larry Sabato posted an analysis on Thursday that shows how America’s “super landslide” counties have grown over time.

Of the nation’s total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — has jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020…

Bishop’s book explains how Americans sorted themselves by politics, geography, lifestyle and economics over the preceding three decades. Sitting in a Central Texas café, Bishop says that trend has only intensified in the 14 years since the book’s publication.

I have read a lot of similar stories in recent years. All of this data, at face value, seems to make some sense: population flows from one set of states to another, the concentration of politically similar people in certain locations, and an ongoing sorting by politics.

At the same time, I am not completely convinced that it is politics driving moves. How often does a person, family, or business move solely because of politics or politics is the clear #1 reason? Politics might factor in an ultimate decision but I suspect jobs, retirement, and the locations of family are more often prime movers and/or large factors. Plus, the organization or sorting or residents has been going on for decades due to race/ethnicity (see the example of the suburbs) and social class (again, the suburbs). And could we consider how political patterns are related to race and class?

We can always find at least a few people who will describe moves undertaken to be closer to their political allies. I am not sure we are at the point where many are moving primarily or solely because of politics.

Celebrities as symbols for different social and political positions

There is a new cultural history of Johnny Cash out this week and I quickly read several reviews. Reading this review, it struck me that one of the important roles celebrities play in American society is they become symbols for particular causes, positions, and groups. But, what exactly they stand for or represent might be hard to pin down as Johnny Cash exemplified:

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In a sense, the paradox lives to see yet another day in Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, which sets Cash’s contrariness in a new light. Cash, the cultural historian Michael Stewart Foley argues, was not just a country-music icon, but a rare kind of political figure. He was seldom a partisan in any traditional sense, and unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he rarely aligned his music with a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, “Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.”…

Some readers may walk away convinced that Cash was a Whitmanesque giant, containing multitudes. I often found myself wondering if he wasn’t a two-faced equivocator. The book is a welcome corrective to the tendency to treat the man as so internally contrary as to be a complete enigma. But the cost of rescuing Cash from the metaphysical fog has been to turn him into a plaster saint. Neither does justice to the actual extent of his weirdness…

Drawing on his own experience, Cash might have broken up the central falsity of the archipelago of glass and steel known as the New South: its equation of whiteness with self-sufficiency and Blackness with dependency. What did he do instead? He smiled grimly and talked out of both sides of his mouth. When Nixon asked Cash to play the White House, he accepted the invite, but politely refused the White House’s request to cover “Welfare Cadillac,” a racist novelty song…

Thanks in no small part to Rubin, Cash has been a blue-state hero ever since. Citizen Cash pulls, in a salutary way, a reverse Rubin and reminds us that the hipster-acceptable Cash, who hung with Bono and premiered his American Recordings songs at the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, represents less than half the man. But Foley amasses exactly the right facts, only to draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

Who was Johnny Cash? There are multiple ways to approach this but since he was a celebrity, a well-known figure for decades, it may not matter who he really was but rather what the larger public made him to be and continues to make him to be. The celebrities have agency and can make particular decisions but to be famous or well-known means that narrative might be out of their hands. Any new commentary or writing about Cash contributes to an ongoing narrative that could continue to change.

More broadly, celebrities can become representations of particular points of view or experiences. Whether in music, sports, entertainment, politics, or other arenas, the celebrities can have individual experiences – and this is part of why they are intriguing to the celebrity industry and the public as they follow their latest moves – but they also connect to larger patterns of interest in society. Where do celebrities fall in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines? Which celebrities align with which political parties and candidates? What do they think about the latest hot topic?

This often means that celebrities become part of ongoing political and cultural struggles because they represent something. They become proxy figures for larger societal questions. Who was Johnny Cash? We are still figuring that out and the social forces and conditions around the conversation influence our answer to this question.

The United States as “a decentralized nation”

One analysis of the concentration of people and activity in American cities leads to this conclusion about the country today:

The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.

This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.

There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.

Census data suggests that the majority of the American population lives in suburbs. But, population alone cannot explain the importance and persistence of big cities. They will continue to remain powerful and important for multiple reasons. They help anchor broader metropolitan regions. They are centers of finance, innovation, real estate, cultural opportunities, key transportation infrastructure, and other essential activity. They occupy some of the most important and strategic locations. They have long histories.

At the same time, a decentralized landscape means (1) no single city or set of cities may dominate activity and/or (2) residents of the United States may not feel the importance of cities. For example, even with data showing the importance of cities and their regions for economic activity, Americans consistently discuss small businesses and farmers. Or, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. may dominate headlines but many Americans will be more invested in their local regions or communities.

More broadly, it may be safe to describe all of American society as more decentralized than other developed countries. I am thinking of Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy where France is the example of a more centralized state, both in terms of government structure – more power at the state level – and geography – all roads/rails lead to Paris. The United States has had from the beginning a system with distributed powers at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a broad landscape with many kinds of settlements.

64% of Americans “say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country” – but does this mean individual users will leave?

Pew Research recently released a new report on how Americans view social media’s effects on the country and politics. Here is one of the takeaways from the report:

This chart moves beyond many of the other takeaways which suggest majorities of Americans are skeptical about the intertwining of social media companies and politics. The responses to this particular question suggests the effect of social media is beyond politics: it affects “the way things are going in the country today.”

Since the other questions are about politics and government regulation, it is a little hard to know exactly what this means. Is it bad for young people? Families? Communities? Education? Public spaces? Physical health? It takes up a lot of time? Social media is too powerful compared to other institutions that should be leading the way?

All of these could be very interesting to explore. But, it is also worth examining how this question about social media and the direction of the country is related to the social media use of individual users. Does this mean that more people are not participating in social media? Are accounts being deactivated or deleted? Are people curtailing their time on social media? Is there interest in and movement toward more conversation outside of social media?

One finding of research I have conducted with sociologist Peter Mundey is that young adult social media users can articulate some of the problems with social media. And they modify their social media behavior to try to avoid negative interactions.

But, this does not necessarily mean that they drop out of social media or do not join in the first place. These young adults could also explain the advantages of social media, particularly the ability to maintain connections with people. Some of the connections may not always require effort but they are available. Other connections, say with family and close friends, are worth engaging in through social media. Plus, if they are not on social media, they might be missing out on social connections and events that are hard to access in other ways.

This might lead to a bit of an impasse. Americans think social media and politics is not a good mix. Social media could be bad for the country. But, withdrawing completely from social media might be a lot to ask. In many ways, it could work for individuals, particularly through providing connections to people and information.

Perhaps individual users will continue try to find ways to do both: engage with social media on a limited or focused basis. Or, avoid politics on social media. Maximize the good portions, minimize the negatives. Participate at arm’s length.

Only time will tell. Social media has had a meteoric rise but it is not guaranteed to last. Social media platforms can evolve. New opportunities can arise and social conditions are dynamic. We need to continue to look at how users engage social media. And if we see a steady trend of users leaving social media platforms, that will be worth noting.

Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

Measuring audience reaction: from the applause of crowds to Facebook likes

Megan Garber provides an overview of applause, “the big data of the ancient world.

Scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious — “a remarkably stable facet of human culture.” Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause – as acclamation, and as celebration. (“And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, ‘Long live the king!'”)

But clapping was formalized — in Western culture, at least — in the theater. “Plaudits” (the word comes from the Latin “to strike,” and also “to explode”) were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, “Valete et plaudite!” (“Goodbye and applause!”) — thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world’s first human applause signs…

As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”…

So the subtleties of the Roman arena — the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning — gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: “What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give ’em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?” The lack of applause, on the other hand — the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing — “that I can respond to.”…

Mostly, though, we’ve used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation — and our approval — by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We’re audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs.

Fascinating, from the human tendency across cultures to clap, planting people in the audience to clap and cheer, to the rules that developed around clapping.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there notable moments in history when politicians and others thought the crowd was going one way because of applause but quickly found out that wasn’t the case? Simply going by the loudest noise seems rather limited, particularly with large crowds and outdoors.

2. The translation of clapping into Facebook likes loses the embodied nature of clapping and crowds. Yes, likes allow you to mentally see that you are joining with others. But, there is something about the social energy of a crowd that is completely lost. Durkheim would describe this as collective effervesence and Randall Collins describes the physical nature of “emotional energy” that can be generated when humans are in close physical proximity to each other. Clapping is primarily a group behavior and is difficult to transfer to a more individualistic setting.

3. I have noticed in my lifetime the seemingly increasing prevalence of standing ovations. Pretty much every theater show I have been to in recent years is followed by a standing ovation. My understanding is that at one point such ovations were reserved for truly spectacular performances but now it is simply normal. Thus, the standing ovation now has a very different meaning.

How Americans use “tax talk” to assert their own status

In a timely follow-up to an earlier post, a sociologist further explains a study about “tax talk” in America:

Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called “a sense of group position.” That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies…

The importance of our findings is in how people brought these economic issues to life in everyday discourse. In ordinary talk these matters are not really about balancing budgets and encouraging growth. They are about a moral sense of right and wrong. They are about asserting one’s belief about who should and should not be rewarded by the policies of the federal government, and it’s worth noting here that even though we attempted to engage people in talk about all forms of taxation, people generally only wanted to talk about federal income tax.

Ultimately, our respondents’ discursive use of the income tax – as a symbol of a morally illegitimate, exploitive relationship between hard-working middle-class people, and the rich and poor who exploit them – helps to illuminate why tax talk occupies such a central place in American political discourse. Among other things, it helps to illuminate what American conservatives talk about when they talk about taxes.

Fiscal debates are about more than money; they are also about the meanings people attribute to how that money is collected in the first place. The Tea Party is a vivid example. Although the rhetoric of the Tea Party concerns taxes, this is not the main policy concern of the movement. Instead, Tea Party activists use anti-tax rhetoric to position themselves symbolically as a righteous group burdened by policies they believe only benefit the rich and the poor.

This sounds like boundary making, to put it into terms used in the sociology of culture. One way groups can differentiate between themselves is to draw strong symbolic and moral boundaries. In this case, paying taxes is seen as this moral boundary. Hard-working Americans pay their “fair share” while those above and below them find ways to shirk their civic duty. This is a clear value judgment that is then used to back or undergird political action.

Given the current political situation, we need a follow-up study that then looks at how taxes are talked about in social groups beyond this limited sample. As I noted in the earlier post, this ethnographic study had a targeted sample: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” How do other Americans wield taxes as a symbolic and moral boundary in their own actions and politics? President Obama has clearly used another moral boundary, suggesting those with more income and wealth should be paying more in taxes. This is a different kind of “fair share” but it might also give these higher-income Americans their own moral boost.

Biden and Ryan redefine working class for their own purposes

Both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions featured efforts to portray their leaders as having blue-collar roots. However, as this analysis points out, these testimonies were working with altered definitions of what it means to be blue-collar.

Merriam Webster’s defines blue-collar labor as “of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing.” But the Washington definition of blue-collar is different. From an analysis of punditry, the qualities that define blue collar are being white, being male, being religious — especially Catholic — being from the interior, and having mainstream cultural interests totally unrelated to social class, such as “liking hockey” or “liking 1970s rock music.”…

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: “My dad never wore a blue collar,” Biden said in June. “Barack makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory.”…

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Worn Chambray. “This campaign, Biden — with his blue collar background — is focusing on helping Obama where the president tends to be weak: in appealing to blue collar and swing state voters,” the Associated Press reported Friday. “One of the weapons used by Obama to court white men is Vice President Joe Biden, who has a kinship with blue-collar voters, particularly in critical battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan,” The Dallas Morning News said Thursday…

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Ryan is Catholic, and from a state where there are farms. Ryan likes Led Zeppelin, which is somehow blue collar despite inspiring countless blacklight posters in dorms nationwide. He has other hobbies that require equipment you buy in malls. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting,” Ryan said on August 12. “I got a new chainsaw… It was nice. It’s a Stihl.” Homeowner Stihl chainsaws run between $179.95 and $359.95 at the local Janesville Stihl dealer. “He is very grounded in roots that weren’t so glamorous coming up in life,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told PBS before the Republican National Convention.  “And the American people will hear his story tonight, hear how he lost his father and had to work hard and assume hourly wage jobs when he was young.” Yes, friends, Ryan’s Dickinsian youth involved a part-time job at McDonalds. (In fairness, it does not appear that anyone in Washington has ever claimed Eric Cantor has “blue collar appeal.”)

This helps illustrate several points about social class in the United States:

1. Categories of social class can often be quite fuzzy. Often, income is used to mark off different classes but social scientists and the public themselves have difficulty deciding where exactly these boundaries should be drawn. For example, we could also look at how Romney and Obama talk about and promote middle-class values yet neither are currently living middle-class lives according to their income.

2. Social class is not just about having a certain level of income; there is also a cultural dimension, certain behaviors and tastes associated with different classes (a la Bourdieu). For both Biden and Ryan, it sounds like they want to claim some of these cultural markers which plenty of Americans might also share.

3. I wonder how much the media and American voters want to discuss such claims from politicians about social class. Compared to some other countries, Americans are more reluctant to talk about class and sometimes talk and act like it doesn’t even exist. For example, Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail that he didn’t even want to use the term middle-class because it is divisive.

Could Condoleezza Rice run for president…as a single women?

After her speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, some suggested Condoleezza Rice could make good presidential material. Some factors might not be in her favor: she is a woman (we have elected a black president but not a woman) and she has an interesting background that includes being a professor, provost, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State (not exactly a traditional path to the White House). However, I wondered about another factor: could a single person become President?

While more Americans are living alone and marriage might be pursued by some people more than others, Americans seem to prefer national leaders who are married and have families. Many might ask: how could a single president understand the plight of families? If the single candidate didn’t have children, what would they know about raising children?

Since at least the late 1930s, Gallup has asked about what kind of president Americans would be willing to vote for. A few of the results:

The results are based on a June 7-10 Gallup poll, updating a question Gallup first asked in 1937 in reference to a female, Jewish, or Catholic candidate and has asked periodically since then, with additional candidate characteristics added to the list. The question has taken on added relevance in recent years as a more diverse group of candidates has run for president. This year, Mitt Romney is poised to become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. However, Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon has changed little in 45 years.

Notwithstanding the Mormon trend, Gallup’s history on this question shows growing acceptance for all other types of candidates over time. That includes atheists, whose acceptability as candidates surpassed 50% for the first time last summer but have typically ranked at the bottom of the list whenever the question has been asked.

In 1937, less than half of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish or female presidential candidate; now 90% or more would. The same applies to voting for a black candidate compared with 1958. Over time, Americans’ acceptance of blacks and women as candidates has increased the most…

Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is gay, Muslim, or an atheist. Republicans, in turn, are more likely to say they would vote for a Mormon.

As far as this page suggests, Gallup has not asked about whether candidates should be married or have a family.

It would be interesting to see this play out…