Both parties treat the President as too powerful and important

One of my takeaways from the long 2016 election season: both political parties put too much effort into electing a President who only has limited powers. The President is certainly an important symbol and they have a bully pulpit – and both parties in recent decades seem to be interested in increased executive powers, even if they want to exercise those powers in different areas – but they are only one part of the government. Voting for the right President is not a do or die affair: it is great for the media (and while they may not have liked Trump, they liked the attention he drew and the controversy around him) and perhaps more interesting to the public but I’m skeptical that a single good or bad leader can make all the difference.

I’d rather we view the American government as a complex system. Certain actors, like the President, may be more visible or powerful than others but they can rarely act unilaterally.

Dreaming of pres. candidates competing in other TV formats

As the presidential candidate debates continue, I thought of some other TV formats that might be both entertaining and tell us more than the repeated talking points. Americans like the drama of multiple candidates and they like TV so why not try some other options?

  1. A game show format. Want to see who is smarter? Jeopardy. How well they know Americans based on survey results? Family Feud. Want to see them all live together and who can form alliances? Big Brother or Survivor. Want to see some physical competitions? American Ninja Warrior. In any game show, we would see their competitive side and a particular ability.
  2. A reality TV format. How would they each get along with the Dance Moms? Or on The Biggest Catch? Or tracking down online personas in Catfish? Or looking for homes on a HGTV show? Though the show has particular setup, the candidates could act “natural.”
  3. A hidden camera show. The show could try to catch candidates in situations that push them to respond – like What Would You Do? – or it could be more of a comedy like Candid Camera. This could give viewers some idea of how candidates would react in particular situations.
  4. Some sort of presidential simulation. Lock them in a sound stage that mimics the White House or some other government facility. What would they do after two or three nights with little sleep in reaction to a military threat against the United States? How would they act toward a set of Congressional leaders who are tough negotiators? How would they treat their staff after weeks of tension?

I get why most candidates would be very hesitant about many of these. At the same time, debates where the candidates stand around talk/interrupt/respond to questions aren’t necessarily favorable to everyone. Additionally, we know what debates can tell us but these other TV options could offer very interesting (and entertaining) insights into the candidates. These don’t have to be a joke if they are well-designed and the candidates take them seriously.

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…

Santorum claims college pushes people away from religion, experts push back

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently suggested that going to college pushes people away from the church and faith. Those who study the subject disagree:

Santorum told talk show host Glenn Beck on Thursday that “62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”

Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, a Nashville evangelical research and marketing agency, said, “There is no statistical difference in the dropout rate among those who attended college and those that did not attend college. Going to college doesn’t make you a religious drop out.”…

The real causes [of leaving the faith]: lack of “a robust faith,” strongly committed parents and an essential church connection, Rainer said.

“Higher education is not the villain,” said sociologist William D’Antonio of Catholic University of America. Since 1986, D’Antonio’s surveys of American Catholics have asked about Mass attendance, whether they rate their religion as very important in their life, and whether they have considered leaving Catholicism. The percentage of Catholics who scored low on all three points hovers between 18% in 1993 and 14% in 2011. But the percentage of people who are highly committed fell from 27% to 19%.

Recent research also disputes this: several 2011 studies found that those with education are actually more religious than those with less education.

So what was Santorum getting at with his statement? Three thoughts:

1. Conservative Christians commonly cite alarmist statistics to show that the church needs to redouble its efforts or to demonstrate that the church is under attack. See this classic article “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” a good article titled “Curing Christians’ Stats Abuse,” and the book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…

2. He is hitting back against “elitist academia,” responding to but also feeding the perception college classrooms are filled with atheists and agnostics who want to disabuse students of their faith. Of course, there are many people of faith in academia. This is a larger battle over a perceived liberal, atheist elite versus a faith-filled “average America.”

2a. If Santorum were correct, does this mean that people of faith should not send their kids to college? Or alternatively, do these ideas continue to boost attendance at religious colleges?

3. To compound matters, Santorum was talking to Glenn Beck and this argument was aimed at Beck’s audience. At the same time, it appears Santorum made this a more general argument on the campaign trail:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said Saturday at a campaign stop in Troy, Mich. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that [tries] to indoctrinate them.”

In the end, this seems like another plank in a moral argument, rather than a political or social argument, for Republicans.

What happens when Tim Pawlenty comes to your sociology class

Courtesy of modern technology, you could have been following a live Twitter stream chronicling what happens when former Minnesota governor and former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty visits a sociology class at the University of Kansas:

“23 minutes later and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” tweeted Ray. “Freedom, drugs, a kickass pool, meatpacking, MLK.”

It sounded interesting, so I called Ray for an after-action report. The room, he said, was somewhat full and somewhat interested.

“A few hundred students are enrolled in class,” he said, “but maybe a hundred show up. I figure that a lot of the people in the class are freshmen who are just taking it to take it. They probably know Romney, they know Santorum, but Pawlenty dropped out so early that they might not know him.”

But what did the great man say? “Somebody asked him what he thought about Santorum’s victories yesterday,” remembered Gray. “He congratulated him, but he brought up the fact that John McCain lost 19 states and still won the nomination.” Gray paused. “It sounded like a backhanded compliment. And he referred to Minnesota as one of the smaller states, in terms of political power.”

A few quick thoughts:

1. Should we trust a single student’s report in a large 100-level lecture class where roughly half the students don’t attend? I always find it interesting to hear what students remember or find noteworthy.

2. Politicians are now tracked at almost every turn.

3. What exactly does Tim Pawlenty know about sociology? The class is titled “American Identity”…was Pawlenty talking about what he thinks this identity is? I would be really curious to hear (1) what Pawlenty thinks sociology is and (2) whether he thinks sociology has any value.

4. It sounds like Pawlenty was on campus to talk about how the still-to-be determined candidate for President will run a campaign and govern.

Newt Gingrich: visionary professor? Historian who would be a “superior president”?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting profile of Newt Gingrich’s days as a professor at West Georgia College. Two quick thoughts: he sounds quite ambitious as a young professor (applying to be college president during his first year) and it doesn’t sound like he followed social conventions (“brusque treatment” of his department chair, etc.).

I still find it interesting that Gingrich is using his academic credentials in his campaign:

Mr. Gingrich often says his experience as a historian would make him a superior president. During Monday’s GOP debate, he lectured “as a historian” on “a fact-based model” for revamping Social Security, citing the success of programs in Galveston, Texas, and Chile.

This could lead to some questions:

1. I thought Republicans/conservatives were more suspicious of academics who they often paint as elitist and liberal. So it isn’t actually the job or career itself that is the problem or the knowledge one has to acquire to become a professor – it is what political views the academic has?

2. What would be the best academic discipline from which to choose a President who was formerly an academic? Law seems to get a lot of attention but is this the best perspective or training to start with?

(This follow an earlier post in which I contrasted a potential presidential election between the two academics Obama and Gingrich.)

Santorum (and other Republicans) to stop using the term “middle class”?

Here is an interesting observation: Rick Santorum and possibly other Republicans don’t like using the term “middle class.”

In American politics, praising the middle class is generally uncontroversial. But over the weekend Rick Santorum chided his GOP primary competitors, and Mitt Romney specifically, for using the formulation. Here’s his complaint:

I don’t think Governor Romney’s plan is particularly bold, it — or is particularly focused on where the problems are in this country. And the governor used a term earlier that I shrink from. It’s one that I don’t think we should be using as Republicans, “middle class.” There are no classes in America. We are a country that don’t allow for titles. We don’t put people in classes. There may be middle-income people, but the idea that somehow or another we’re going to buy into the class-warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That’s their job — divide, separate, put one group against another. That’s not the language that I’ll use as president. I’ll use the language of bringing people together.

He has previously attacked President Obama with the same talking point. “You’ll never hear the word ‘class’ come out of my mouth,” he said. “Classes? We specifically rejected that. Look in the Constitution.”

The Constitution talks about social class?

On one hand, this is not terribly surprising: Republicans have argued that even talking about class is “class warfare,” trying to pit the interests of one class against another. Talk about class invokes conversation about people like Karl Marx, who is generally anathema to conservatives. On the other hand, to act like the category “middle class” doesn’t exist is silly. This is not simply a term made up by academics; there is plenty of research to show that Americans have certain perceptions about class and that your class standing (made up by things like income and education levels) does influence individual lives (see a recent example from elementary school classrooms here). It would be interesting to hear Santorum talk about the differences between “middle-income people” and “middle-class people” if he does indeed prefer the first term.

This reminds me of something I have thought for several years: Republicans have to find better ways to engage with ideas like social class and race instead of simply acting like the issues or terms don’t matter. Even if Republicans don’t think they matter, enough voters do and they need to find ways to connect with those voters.