Turning Over the Rocks?

In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “

The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.

Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?

I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions.  The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)

There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.

The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?

Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?

I don’t know. But I worry….


Have Americans Gerrymandered Ourselves?

On Tuesday, I attended the “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. It was a lively and informative panel. One exchange that really struck me was a brief discussion of redistricting.

Everyone on the panel–Republican, Democrat and Statehouse reporter Ed Feigenbaum (who was officially neither)–agreed that noncompetitive elections are bad for democracy, that they pull parties to the extremes, encourage lazy legislators and reduce electoral participation.

The question was, what can be done about it?

The Democrat on the panel endorsed nonpartisan redistricting; the Republican on the panel (I should be better about names!) disagreed. He pointed out that Americans have been “sorting” ourselves into Red and Blue enclaves–voting with our feet to live in places where our neighbors agree with us about values and priorities. True enough–anyone who’s read Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort would recognize the accuracy of his observation.

His second argument against nonpartisan redistricting was less persuasive. Basically, he pooh-poohed the notion that we can really take partisan politics out of the process. The success of nonpartisan processes in Iowa and elsewhere suggest otherwise.

The truth–as is so often the case–is likely somewhere in the middle: eliminating partisan gamesmanship and gerrymandering will not solve the problem of underrepresentation of people living in overwhelmingly blue cities in red and purple states. But it would be measurably fairer than the current system, in which representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that fairness would ameliorate at least some of the cynicism and apathy that depresses voter turnout. And it would increase the numbers of competitive districts–perhaps not as much as advocates hope, but certainly more than the panelist conceded.

Common Cause, which has made redistricting reform a high priority, has announced a contest that highlights one of the reasons that challenges to highly gerrymandered districts have failed: the Supreme Court has consistently declined to get involved unless the districts can be shown to have been drawn to disenfranchise minorities. The Court has said that partisan districts (districts drawn to unfairly benefit a political party) are “justiciable”–that is, that such challenges will be heard by the courts–but they have routinely declined to overturn political decision-making unless racially discriminatory motives can be demonstrated.

Common Cause has invited lawyers and political scientists to propose a new definition of partisan gerrymandering that might allow citizens to win such challenges, promising money prizes, publication of the winning paper and a trip to Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see what that contest produces.

Hope springs eternal…..




Can We Spell “Short-Sighted and Stupid”?

In Indiana, we seem well along the way to achieving Grover Norquist’s wet dream of a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

The IBJ recently reported:

The State Board of Accounts no longer is auditing the financial records of Indiana libraries, conservancy districts, some public school accounts, and small towns and townships, its leader says.

The agency doesn’t have enough money or staff to perform those audits, State Examiner Paul Joyce told The Herald Bulletin for a story Sunday. Instead, it will concentrate on local governments with bonding authority or federal grants worth at least $500,000.

“I only have so many people to do a job. It’s not that I don’t want to do them,” Joyce said of the audits. “I have places that have not been reviewed in five years.”

If the Indianapolis Star noticed this, I missed it.

So let’s see….we don’t have enough money in our “low tax” state to police units of government. Will we have enough money to prosecute the people who see this as an invitation to siphon off funds for their personal use? Will we have enough money to replace the funds that get “misplaced”?

Governor Pence has been praised by law-and-order Republicans for amassing a 2 Billion Dollar “surplus.” I can run a surplus at my house, too, if I just decide not to pay for mowing the yard or repairing the roof…..

This is pathetic.

Hard To Argue

Sometimes, snark hits the nail on the head.

A couple of days ago, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton made a snarky and audacious claim: After noting those aspects of Sharia Law that are most frequently criticized as being inconsistent with American values, he pointed out that today’s GOP holds those same beliefs:

  • Government is to be based upon religious doctrine
  • Women should have fewer rights than men
  • Homosexuality is to be outlawed
  • Religious doctrine trumps science
  • There is no separation of church and state
  • Religion is taught in government schools
  • Abortion should be illegal

All of these positions are proudly held both by extremist Muslims and the extremists who control  today’s Republican party.

Brayton’s conclusion: if you don’t want Sharia law, don’t vote Republican.

I hadn’t planned to share this–it seemed unnecessarily partisan–but Sunday evening I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The panel was hosted by Broadway United Methodist Church, and candidates for the Indiana legislature (both incumbents and challengers) were invited to participate. Five accepted: four Democrats and one Republican.

I was initially impressed that a Republican would be willing to defend the party’s current platform to a group that was unlikely to agree with much of it, but it immediately became clear that the Republican had not the foggiest notion what AU stood for, or for that matter, how church and state differ. Her answers to the questions were rambling, incoherent and  filled with personal anecdotes and biblical quotes. (Although she seemed totally unaware of the operation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, she did at one point offer the opinion that Jefferson “lied” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.)

When a question was asked about recognition of same-sex marriage, she responded that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (I kid you not.) She offered her support for pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions and merchants who refuse to provide services to gay customers, because “liberty,” and when asked whether those same merchants should also be able to refuse service to African-American patrons, she at first said she didn’t understand the question, but when pressed, said yes.

There was much, much more–including a closing statement in which she shared with the audience the information that God had asked her to run for office.

I know this woman is not representative of all Republican candidates. (As one appalled attendee noted afterward, she was a “stereotype on steroids.”) But the party was willing to have her run under its label. She somehow made it through slating.

In the course of the evening, she took every position on Brayton’s list (indeed, she went well beyond the list).

I’d be interested in knowing which of those positions today’s GOP–aka the American Taliban–would disown.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

A friend from Wisconsin sometimes sends me clippings from his local papers that he thinks I will find interesting. The most recent was a perfect example of so much that’s wrong with our policymaking today: it told of a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who had been studying strains of the Ebola virus.

Just as his research was beginning to show promise–just as he and his team had created a potential vaccine– his funding was terminated. As the paper reported

The experiments demonstrated the vaccine, when administered in two doses, is effective even against the most deadly Ebola strains. That’s when the money ran out…Kawaoka could not proceed with tests to determine whether the vaccine regimen might work with humans.

I’m sure that those parceling out the ever-shrinking resources available for such studies figured Ebola was too abstract an issue–that scarce funds needed to be directed to research with more immediate application.


Researchers in all areas, including but certainly not limited to the sciences, have raised concerns over the dwindling of government resources for research and development. This lack of concern for investing in our continued progress, like our disinclination to maintain and improve our basic infrastructure, signals a country on the decline.

Who was it who said “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit”? Whether that is the meaning of individual lives may be up for debate–but concern for the long term and the willingness to invest in it absolutely must be a central precept for any nation that wishes to be–or remain–great.