Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thanksgiving casualty: post election observations


Watching the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump has been instructive.  As Clinton supporters and those who didn't bother to vote react, whether in the streets of our larger cities, campuses, or in the virtual public but privately owned public square known as social media, and the lazy corporate press covers it with over the top headlines, it seems increasingly clear to me that the discourse, that is the written or spoken words used to debate the topics, are also part of the increasing divide in our country.  I suspect that social media will only worsen it with its short and headline like communication style.  Indeed one of my favorite critics reminds me about stuff I post that "it's a lot to read, ....cuz."

In the last week I've watched a lot of liberals turn into bigots, that is, persons who are intolerant toward those holding different opinions.  Bigotry has been something that liberals have stood good against for a long time.  Yet, now, liberals are calling those who voted for Trump, or for a third party, racists, sexists, misogynists, and of low intelligence, among others.  And the bigotry produces a discourse full of prejudice and stereotypes.  (You could see similar kinds of things aimed at Obama voters from conservatives in 08 and 12.).  

I am not sure of the original source but I see this idea working its way into more thoughtful observations about the most essential difference between Trump voters and Clinton voters.  This was not a campaign waged on policies but on the fitness of the respective candidates to serve as president.  Clinton ran not against conservative or populist policies but Trump’s character and called him racist, sexist, crass, crude, a con man, etc.  And he called Clinton “crooked Hillary,” a “nasty woman” and threatened her with prison.  Perhaps the fundamental difference is that Trump supporters took Trump seriously and ignored what he said while Clinton supporters didn't take Trump seriously but took his utterances seriously.

Some of this is American politics.  There are no safe spaces or trigger warnings in politics.  But there is political correctness and it’s rampant on both sides of the divide.  Political correctness is commonly understood as the avoidance of words, phrases, or even ideas that might be offensive to some groups of people, especially people who have a history of being marginalized in society.   It's a laudable effort but when it squelches speech and those who dare or even inadvertently cross the line, are silenced not with arguments but with epithets, it plants the seeds for its own undermining.  Eventually the epithets weaken in their supposed moral superiority and lose their effectiveness, hence,   liberals' incredulity that anyone could support a racist, sexist, crude Trump.  This is not to say the claims are wrong, but they are dealt with by an attempt to label someone. And those labels have lost much of its sting because too few bother to talk or explain what the labels mean any more. 

Conservatives have their own political correctness.  Beware the socialist, communist, or “un-American” label if you even suggest a tax increase, or that America is not the greatest nation and endowed by God to be exceptional.  Don't question tax cuts for the job creators or even consider talking to the opposition.   Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, are ”communism.”  Add abortion to this mix as well.   Liberal political correctness is about marginalized people, conservative political correctness is about ideas that run counter to the interests of the wealthy.     

The extremists on both sides wield the cleaver of what is politically correct as a means of maintaining power.  In wielding it, there is no conversation, no debate any more.  Only ideological purity.  

If white, not- college educated, voters believe they are not doing as well economically and are discriminated against because of civil rights laws, why is that dismissed?  They are largely wrong but calling them racists is wasting an opportunity to recruit them to a better solution to their issues.  Name-calling turns them away from considering those ideas.  It also makes liberals look intolerant, which is what liberals claim not to be. The current liberal policy seems to be to make college more affordable for the not-college educated.  This shows a major misunderstanding  of the rich occupational cultures that make up much of working class reality and identity.  Trump merely  said, “I'll bring those jobs back”  and while he probably can’t they understand his response as "he gets it" and Clinton doesn’t.  Trump won, Clinton lost.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Character assessments change in American politics

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 30 October 2016

A recent Brookings paper, written by William Galston, asks “Has Trump caused white Evangelicals to change their tune on morality?” The article explores recent survey findings that show a dramatic shift in just five years (2011-2016) regarding all Americans but especially white evangelical Protestants’ greater acceptance of politicians’ personal indiscretions.

Agreement to the statement “that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life”, has increased 17 percentage points among all Americans to 61 percent in 2016. Interestingly, at a time of seeming declining importance, private life character is perhaps the primary theme of the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It seems that the candidates are more focused on each other’s character, and even their spouses, than on policy.

The change among white evangelical and white mainline Protestants is largely driving the overall change. It is startling to see a 42 percentage point change among white evangelical Protestants. Five years ago only 30 percent agreed with the above statement; in 2016, 72 percent did. In fact, among the various groups, white evangelical Protestants are now the most “forgiving” of individual indiscretions of immoral acts in their personal lives when just five years earlier they were the least forgiving.

The author of the Brookings article provides little insight into why such a dramatic shift has occurred but the title suggests that it is the specter of Trump, with so many personal and business indiscretions that many voters have adopted an ends justify the means approach to the politicians they decide to support based only on professed ideology. I think this is a superficial argument and fails to take into account significant social changes in the last five years.

Since 2011 at least three issues that relate to personal morality and ones that can and have had disqualifying outcomes for politicians, I contend, account for the change in how a politician’s personal morality is viewed relative to her/his official duties. In no particular order of importance, they are the legalization of same-sex marriage, that at least 14 states have decriminalized marijuana since 2011, and the opioid/prescription pain killer epidemic which has received greater attention since 2011.

Revelations of affairs or of homosexual behavior has ruined a number of politicians on both sides of the political divide. In January 2015, after a string of states legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court ended the debate. For opponents, opposition was based on a moral argument which now no longer has the force of illegality. As a result of the changes in Americans’ views on same-sex marriage, more people have come out, likely to the surprise of many, that offer examples of people who previously may have been viewed as engaging in immoral acts in their private lives but who were and continue to be seen as highly ethical and moral in their public lives.

Since 2011 at least 14 states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana and the possibility of marijuana being as legal and regulated as alcohol is imminent. The change in public attitudes toward the legalization, too, has significantly changed, hence undermining the moral stigma associated with its use, past or present.

Another drug related change is the opioid epidemic with origins in people taking legally prescribed pain medications and becoming dependent on them and the tragedies that have resulted from what is essentially a side effect of the medications. Also, that those who are victims of the epidemic are not members of groups that already carry stigma in our society, such as minorities, poor people, or counter culture types, but instead are largely white working and middle class adults, challenges the simple equation of drug addiction with a lack of moral character or “otherness.”

Sex and drugs have been landmines for American politicians because the American public did not see much of a separation between public and private lives. With so much change in the meaning of and acceptance of gay rights, marijuana, and a humanizing of “addicts” caught in the opioid epidemic, many of the behaviors that constitute immorality have lost its stain. This doesn’t mean that in five years that private “character” won’t count again, but the checklist of character criteria may change. Sex and drugs have served for many years as the hot buttons of private life moral failure. I suspect something else will eventually take their place.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Keep in mind: stereotypes cut both ways


Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 28 August 2016

How would you describe the “typical American?”

Our nearest neighbor and biggest trading partner, Canada, sees Americans as optimistic and hard-working, but intolerant, arrogant, greedy, and violent. Too bad there is no data on our other neighbor, Mexico.

China, a reason Donald Trump offers for why America isn’t great anymore, has a negative view of Americans. Less than half view us as optimistic, less than 40 percent view us as hard-working, less than 30 percent view us as tolerant but 60 percent view us as arrogant, about half view us as greedy, and just over half as violent.

The characteristics of the “typical American” were the subject of a Pew Research Center survey released Dec. 11, 2015 www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/11/patriotic-honest-and-selfish-how-americans-describe-americans/. Pew offered three positive characteristics (patriotic, intelligent and honest) and two negative characteristics (selfish and lazy) that American respondents indicated described the typical American. Go ahead, do your own rating. Then, which of the following additional characteristics do you associate with typical Americans: optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant, greedy and violent? This latter list was part of another Pew Research Center survey of the U.S. and 15 other nations about Americans.

Typical American. Seems like an innocuous term. Is typical African-American or typical Muslim or typical Mexican as innocuous? Are you getting a little nervous when you read “typical African-American” or “typical white person.” What is the difference between asking what is the typical American like than asking what is the typical?

If there are any of my former students reading they might recognize this definition of stereotype: A generalization (idea) about people; a mental image that summarizes what is believed to be typical about a group of people. Like “typical American.”

What is your stereotype of the typical American? If you are like those Pew surveyed chances are you stereotype Americans as patriotic, honest, intelligent, selfish, optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant and greedy. It’s a coin flip whether you see Americans as lazy. And a 4 in 10 chance you see Americans as violent.

Among the nations surveyed, the largest nation on earth does not have a very good view of Americans. One might argue, “well, they are just stereotyping us.” That would be right. And what is the knee jerk response of someone called out for using a stereotype? “There is always a basis of truth in a stereotype.” So, which part is the truth?

How many of you think you are a “typical American?” Describe yourself using these characteristics. Are you “typical?” Who will describe themselves as optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant, greedy, violent, patriotic, honest, intelligent, selfish, and lazy? My guess is that there are far more who see themselves in terms of the positive characteristics than the negative ones. Few people mind being associated with positive stereotypes. Personally, I could not have answered the Pew study. Americans are all those things; just among my friendship network there are optimists and pessimists, hard-workers and lazy types, humbles and arrogants, violents, pacifists, liars and cheats.
We generally associate stereotypes with something negative. Stereotypes are necessary “precursors” to prejudice and racism. A common response of someone confronted with using a stereotype is to object and deny it. Yet, if we harbor stereotypes about ourselves, why then is it hard to accept we harbor stereotypes about others?
How many Chinese people have actually ever met an American? Yet, they seem to share a distinct stereotype of us. What is the basis of that stereotype? Where are they getting that image from? I doubt many Poles have met many Americans either, yet, three times as many Poles view Americans as tolerant as do Chinese? Nearly 70 percent of Greeks view Americans as greedy while only a fifth of Italians do. Why such a stark difference?

Now think about how you think of other groups especially within the U.S., such as Mexicans, African Americans, European-Americans, Asians, Muslims and others. Are you embracing stereotypes? What is the basis of your views? Broad experience with individuals from those groups or snippets of things you read or hear in the media, friends and family members’ remarks?

Keep in mind, 72 percent of Greeks think we are arrogant, 68 percent think we are greedy, and 68 percent of Australians think we are violent. Is that a fair characterization of you? Don’t like that feeling of being stereotyped? Neither do those who you stereotype. That goes for racial and ethnic groups as well as the supporters of our current presidential candidates.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

In a crisis, politicians revert to serving themselves

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 26 June 2016

Earlier this week while reading all the news that’s print to fit on Facebook, I came across this posting from Twitter: “Not convinced either Democrats or Republicans want movement on gun issues. Both think it helps with base mobilization in 2016.” That’s either pretty cynical or an astute observation. Knowing the author of the tweet, and some readers will recognize the name, Kirby Goidel (formerly of the ISU political science department), I leaned toward the astute.
During Presidential elections I sometimes pretend to be an amateur political scientist. I responded to the posting but then two other real political scientists weighed in and I found the discussion fascinating. The discussion was not among partisans but one of far more objective observers, the kind that we desperately need our pundits to be, not partisan mouthpieces for the party or particular causes. Though I suppose it’s not as entertaining which seems now to be the primary currency of virtually any mass media.
I guess I am na├»ve. I think I have an accurate read on anyone who seeks political office beyond a local office. (I believe many people are truly civic minded and real world examples of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”) I still thought that there were enough politicians, when facing dire circumstances, natural disasters, and national tragedies like 9/11, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and now Orlando, who would come together and actually, with good will, try to fix the problem. Of course, there are still the partisan, self-serving, craven politicians, but that “enough” would set aside for a brief moment their allegiance to self, party, ideology, donors, narrow district/state differences and attempt to “fix” it. The fix might prove to be a problem, or not good enough, or an overreach (insert Patriot Act) but “enough” would get on board.
Another quote from the discussion: “… I think that there is probably a basis for a compromise on some of the issues (e.g., terror watch list), but neither side wants to move to common ground and each is content to use the issue to mobilize its base.” (James Garand). So, popular memes on social media among Democrats and their supporters is that Republicans just voted to put guns in the hands of terrorists. If Garand is correct, so did Democrats even by voting for their bills. Talk about craven! Talk about self-serving! My response to the discussion at this point was: “And this kind of calculus is probably why both parties are more negatively viewed by the public than positively and why 39 percent of folks identify as independents.”
Last week’s CNN/ORC poll showed a spike in support for “gun control,” up 9 percentage points to 55 percent. (i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2016/images/06/20/cnn_orc_poll_june_20.pdf) More surprising was the overwhelming support for specific measures. 92 percent support expanded background checks, 87 percent support a ban for felons or people with mental health problems and 85 percent would ban people on federal watch lists from buying guns. 90 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats support preventing people on the terror watch lists from buying guns. Such lopsided numbers are rare in the U.S. where we really do disagree on about everything. One would think that even the most craven politician could read those numbers as a green light. Instead, that overwhelming support is ignored.
Rahm Emanuel, a polarizing political figure if there ever was one, is immortalized on “BrainyQuotes” with this seemingly cynical but also true quote: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This was in response to the dire economic conditions at the outset of the Obama Administration. At least the Obama Administration and Congress actually did something, debate about its effectiveness notwithstanding. In the face of terrorism, domestic or international (the threat of terrorism is having its negative effects on our society), instead of a crisis creating an opportunity to do something, the idea that the parties and individual politicians may only see an opportunity to build themselves, to posture and dither cynically at the greater public’s expense only serves to create more division at rare moments when the public is briefly unified.
Somewhere someone is thinking this: “Just one more mass shooting and we can force a vote on this legislation that won’t pass so we can use it against our rivals.” If our elected officials lost some family members in a mass shooting, would that make any difference?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Probing the bellwether status of Vigo County voters

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7 February 2016


Two weeks ago I posted a link to an Internet poll for Vigo County voters’ presidential preferences. As promised, here are the results. Thank you to those of you who participated.


This poll cannot be used to make any claims about Vigo County because the sample size is too small and it’s not representative of Vigo voters. Below I discuss the small sample, who responded, and speculate on results.


First, only 42 registered Vigo voters took the survey. This leads to the only significant finding: few people read this column.


After 24 hours I began trying to get the link out to more venues but that didn’t increase the sample size much. There are 19 zip codes in Vigo County, but poll responders only came from nine. The zip codes responders came from were from Terre Haute and its metro area and from West Terre Haute.


The results also suggest that significantly more Democrat voters responded than Republican voters. Once I saw this trend, I tried to get the poll in front of more likely Republican voters, without much success.


Thirty-three of the 42 responders indicated they were likely or very likely primary voters. Among them, when asked who they would vote for if the election were today, I gave a list of almost all Republican and all Democrat candidates. Those 33 voted this way: Sanders 14 (42 percent); Clinton 7 (21 percent; Trump 4 (12 percent); Rubio 3 (9 percent); Paul 2 (6 percent); Cruz 2 (6 percent); and Carson 1 (3 percent). The lineup doesn’t change when we look at those 36 voters who indicated they were likely or very likely to vote in November. The rank order stays the same.


Other (better) polls tell us that Sanders has the youth vote. I asked Vigo voters if they had voted in the last four elections in Vigo. Thirty-four said yes, so that means these are not new voters and would at least be 34 years of age. The lineup is the same, Sanders, Clinton, Trump, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Carson. Among the six voters who did not vote in each of the last four elections, the lineup is Sanders (4), Clinton (2). If the other polls are accurate, this means there are a lot of “white progressives” responding to my poll. There are many “white progressives” among the professoriate.


I asked who Vigo voters voted for in the last four elections. Among the nine consistent Republican voters (meaning they voted Bush, Bush, McCain, Romney), if the election were held today they voted Trump 4, Rubio 3, Cruz 1, Carson 1. Among the 15 consistent Democrat voters, it was Sanders 8, Clinton 7.


I hoped to identify “bellwether” voters which is why I asked about who Vigo voters voted for in the last four elections. Among the 42 eligible possible bellwether voters, there was only one. And the single bellwether Vigo voter indicated if the election were held today, s/he would vote for Sanders.


Can we learn anything from this too small, unrepresentative poll? No. We can still speculate, however. Given that the Iowa caucuses were last Monday, this small sample of consistent Republican Vigo voters do not like Ted Cruz as much as Iowa Republicans nor as much as the polls suggest New Hampshiricans do. This sample likes Trump and Rubio. Iowa Democrats were split between Clinton and Sanders and so is the small sample of Vigo Democrat voters only they slightly like Sanders more than Clinton. The polls suggest New Hampshirecrats like Sanders far more than they do Clinton. So, the bellwether is pointing in the general direction on the Democrat side, and is pointing more toward Trump and Rubio (who finished in a tight 2, 3 finish, just as they are a tight 1, 2 finish among the small Vigo sample). New Hampshire votes Tuesday. Polls suggest that Trump will win big, followed by Cruz and Rubio and that Sanders trounces Clinton.


The populist candidates, Trump and Sanders, are the most popular among the respective parties in this sample.


This poll uncovered one bellwether voter. That is 2.3 percent of the valid sample. At least this is an estimate of how many bellwether voters there might be, 2.3 percent. There are 70,000 registered Vigo voters, so that would be 1,610 bellwether voters. If half vote but all bellwethers do, that doubles their proportion. Is 4.6 percent of presidential Vigo voters who are bellwether voters enough to decide the election? Seems too small to me. What do you think?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Does Vigo's bellwether voting status really mean much?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 24 January 2016


For the last four presidential elections, I’ve been a sought-out “expert” on Vigo County’s bellwether status. Should you be unfamiliar with this phenomenon, Vigo County has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1952 missing only twice since 1888.


Initially, reporters sought me and Professor Kirby Goidel because we had polled during the 2000 and 2004 elections. We were the first, as far as we knew, to ever poll Vigo voters’ presidential preferences Since then, I am not aware of any scientific polling of the county’s preferences. Nevertheless, journalists continue to contact me for interviews.

                                               

This year, attention to Vigo’s bellwether phenomenon is receiving increased and early attention. A documentary production company, Three Blind Men Productions, has taken up residence in Vigo to document the bellwether effect. Filmmaker Don Campbell will have lived in Terre Haute for a year. I’ve been consulting (unpaid) with Don since the beginning of the project. Politico ran an article consisting of little more than a reporter stopping by a Pie and Politics meeting, the Republicans there were for Trump, and the article declares the bellhether is going for Trump. WFIU did a story on the Politico story and contacted me for a response to the article. Last Saturday, my living room was transformed into a television studio as Bob Abeshouse of Al Jazeera English interviewed me for two hours for an early March news documentary.



Whether political bellwethers exist is not much of a controversy among political scientists. As far as I can tell, the answer is “no.” Nevertheless, Vigo County’s record is impressive and makes for a good story and a different hook on the glut of presidential campaign news. I expect there to be more reporters and all variety of political storytellers showing up because of Vigo’s bellwether status.                                                  
                                                                                                                                           
Questions posed to me tend to be similar: “What accounts for Vigo’s amazing record in ‘getting it right’?” My answer:  I do not know why Vigo County has such a record of voting for the presidential winner and I don’t think anyone does.       
                                                                                                                                                                                        
Then I speculate on reasons why Vigo has such a remarkable record and respond to reasons posited to me by the journalist. A common one that is wrong, at least now and for the last couple of decades, is that Vigo is a microcosm of the United States. It is not. Vigo is poorer, more poverty stricken, whiter, older, fewer immigrants, less educated (despite four institutions of higher education residing here), more people with disabilities, more people without health insurance, higher unemployment rate, more reliant on manufacturing jobs, local ownership of business is more male, less minority, and Vigo is less urban than the U.S. is as a whole. According to information provided to me this weekend, Vigo also has more nonaligned voters than does the U.S. as a whole. Vigo County is not a microcosm of the United States and I doubt it ever was. 
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Another posited explanation is that issues of America are the issues of Vigo County. This one is hard to address because one would need to know what the issues were in the campaigns and what the local issues were. I’ve voted in six presidential elections in Vigo County and based on past polling, the most important local issue has been “jobs,” pretty much swamping all others. When is a presidential campaign not about jobs? Maybe the candidate that mentions jobs the most is who Vigo votes for. This might make for an interesting undergraduate research project. 
                                                                                                                                                                                              
My current “most sociologically best guess” points to the relative stability of the population in Vigo County. By stability, I mean there is neither a lot of out-migration nor a lot of in-migration. Being born here is almost the sole means of entry and dying here is almost the sole means of exit; thus, the social barriers and forces that separate us into like- minded “echo chambers,” jobs, religions, race, and social class, are muted when people first meet each other in school.     
                                                                                                                                                                                          
For example, four people become good friends in the second grade and remain adult friends despite one becoming a union carpenter, one a physical therapist, one chronically unemployed, and the other a local business owner. The four, I submit, may influence each other with their different points of view. By being friends, they gain a better appreciation of each other’s views, in a respectful manner and, perhaps, as they decide who to vote for, all those influences come to bear on their choice.


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