Institutional Distrust

25 Jan

It is sometimes assumed that high levels of institutional distrust in America are peculiar to it. So much so that a variety of theories have been offered to ‘explain’ this peculiarity including, but not limited to, elite polarization, income inequality, polarized media, etc. Empirical support for the ‘American exceptionalism’ however is somewhat less clear – across some major Western democracies (outside of the perennially ‘sunny’ Danes; one may talk about Scandinavian Exceptionalism perhaps), percent who ‘tend not to trust’ [pay attention to the y-axis] national government, national parliament, and political parties is alarmingly high. These high levels raise concerns about the legitimacy of the system.

Affectively Polarized? – Partisan polarization among the masses

9 Jan

Shooting of Representative Giffords has once again sparked intense debate about the extent of partisan polarization among the mass public. Some political scientists have answered the question by evaluating data on whether policy positions among the mass public have ‘polarized’ over the years, and the data are clear on the question – no, not really. The ideological condition of the mass public is muddled (‘sor(di)d’ not ‘sorted’).

However, lack of actual differences, hasn’t always meant lack of perceived differences. Nor has it meant lack of negative affect. Affective dislike, conditional on similarity, is unsurprising and typical, as history of racial and ethnic hatred will attest to; reasons for existence of such dynamics at the level of partisanship obvious to any casual viewer of “cabal” news.

A representative sample of Americans was asked whether they thought certain listed traits described Republicans and Democrats. Of these 18 traits (selfish, generous, close-minded, honest, etc.), a latent score was created (ICC here. Here’s a plot of latent affect by partisan self-identification.

The Unscientific Republican

16 Dec

Only 6% of scientists in a random sample of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) identify themselves as Republicans, according to a Pew 2009 Study. Assuming AAAS is not tremendously unrepresentative of scientists as a whole, what explains under-representation of Republicans in science?

While Republicans are under-represented among people with advanced degrees more generally, I here limit myself to offering some possible hypotheses for explaining under-representation of Republicans in science, refraining from any attempt to analyze their validity.

Science education or practice causes liberalism:

  1. Brainwashing: Science is taught by liberals, who brainwash their students into believing their preferred ideology.
  2. Diversity: Upper echelon of science today is racially and culturally? diverse. Interacting with a diverse set of people causes people to become liberal.
  3. Cynical: Science is funded by the government, and people in the field, like elsewhere, love the hand that feeds them.
  4. People practicing science come to see the value of policy guided by science. On some major issues – like climate change and evolution, Republican Party has taken ‘anti-science’ stances.
  5. Science causes people to question religious dogma, become atheists or even anti-theists, etc. causing them to choose a party less aligned with religion.


  1. Intelligence: Intelligence causes liberalism (Kanazawa). Intelligence is one of the things that affect the choice of the discipline, and the number of years a person chooses to study. Intelligence is the confounding variable that predicts both.

Liberals select into science, and Republicans select out of it.

  1. Conservatives “have a need for cognitive closure” which is not amenable to open questions and scientific inquiry (Jost).
  2. Concept of “conservatism” is one of maintaining the status quo.
  3. Social dominance orientation: Republicans prefer going into status quo enhancing occupations like economics, business, police; Democrats less so (Sidanius).
  4. Religious people don’t go into science, which they see as anti-religion.

Glimpse into the results from the 2008 US presidential elections

13 Nov
McCain share of white vote by state, and by region

McCain share of white vote by state, and by region; Source: Exit Poll Data by Edison Mitofsky

Obama's vote share among people with a postgraduate degree by state

Obama's vote share among people with a postgraduate degree by state


“Here in Alabama, where Mr. McCain won 60.4 percent of the vote in his best Southern showing, he had the support of nearly 9 in 10 whites, according to exit polls, a figure comparable to other Southern states.”

“Mr. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of 410 counties that runs from New York to Mississippi.”

“Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and whiter, a statistical analysis by The New York Times shows.”

New York Times

Andrew Gelman’s take on the 2008 results

“As with previous Republican candidates, McCain did better among the rich than the poor,.. but the pattern has changed among the highest-income categories…”

Reliving some of the high points of the 2008 presidential campaign

13 Nov

November 10, 2007: One of the first scandals to break out during the campaign was about planted questions in Hillary’s townhall meetings. “They asked me if I would ask the senator a question. I said, ‘Sure, you know,'” Gallo-Chasanoff told CNN. “He showed me in his binder, he had a piece of paper that had typed out questions on it. And the top one was planned specifically for a college student. It said ‘college student.'” ‘A video on MSNBC shows Gallo-Chasanoff reading the question word for word, and then winking when she was done.’ ABC News

November 10, 2007: “I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives. Wait a second. Let me clarify that. They each have one.” Mitt Romney (Economist gave this quip the title – Best Freudian slip;

December 12, 2007: In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.”
From: Clinton campaign’s press-release.

December 13, 2007: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'” Shaheen on Obama
Bill Shaheen (husband of NH Senator-elect Jeanne Shaheen; national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign at that point)

February 24, 2008: Bill Clinton speaking about Hillary’s inability to win caucus states – “the caucuses aren’t good for her. They disproportionately favor upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” Audacity of Hopelessness by Frank Rich

March 8, 2008: “She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,” Samantha Power; Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

March 10, 2008: Hillary Clinton chief spokesman Howard Wolfson declared Monday that Clinton does not consider Obama qualified to be vice president.

March 11, 2008: “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white. Geraldine Ferraro

“If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?”
From John McCain’s attack ad on Romney

“The Clintons will be there when they need you,” said a Carter friend. (Maureen Dowd, NY Times)

May 3, 2008: When asked, at the Republican presidential primary debate at Simi Valley, whether any of the candidates did not believe in evolution , three candidates – Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee – raised their hands.

May 9, 2008: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.” (Hillary Clinton, Interview with USA Today)

Google News - Clinton Accuses Obama

Google News Archives timeline graph of citations of 'Clinton Accuses Obama' between August 2007 and August 2008

August 21, 2008: “I think – I’ll have my staff get to you. It’s condominiums where – I’ll have them get to you.” (John McCain unsure about the number of houses he owns.)

A special tribute to Palin:

September 24, 2008: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. (Interview with Katie Couric, CBS News)

In defense of Palin, she never said that she could see Russia from her house. (Time)

September 25, 2008: Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Palin: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Couric: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too.
CBS News

October 1, 2008: “Well, let’s see. There’s — of course — in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.” Sarah Palin (When asked by Couric to name a Supreme Court decision, other than Roe vs. Wade, that she disagreed with; CBS News)

Graphical analyses of news coverage of Sarah Palin

12 Nov
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden

News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden

Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden

Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden

Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL

Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL

Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden

Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden

Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox

Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox

A brief history of presidential debates

7 Nov

Presidential debates occupy a unique place in the American political process. Debates trace their meritorious ancestry to Lincoln –Douglas debates of 1858, which were actually between Senators, and focused mostly on the issue of slavery. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were long, often boring, and if voting returns from Illinois counties, where debates were held, are anything to go by – Douglass won, by a rather significant margin. Douglass won the Senate race as well. (Senators were elected by state legislatures at that point of time, and the decision of Lincoln and Douglas to publicly debate, controversial.)

The era of televised debates started with Senator Kennedy debating Vice-President Nixon in 1960. The debates came about at the suggestion of Adlai Stevenson – whose influential column in ‘The Week’ first proposed the idea. The debates made history, with footage of Nixon, wiping sweat of this brow, looking unshaven and snappish, firmly embedded in the presidential campaign folklore. But the televised debates of 1960 almost didn’t come off.

In 1959, FCC received a complaint from the colorful perennial candidate Lar Daly who was running against the powerful mayor, Richard Daley. Lars complained that television was covering Richard Daley on issues unrelated to campaign –if there’s such a thing, and argued, as the law – Section 315(a) of Communications Act of 1934 – mandated then, ‘equal time’. FCC decline Lars’ request, but also asked Congress to take action. To address such issues, Congress created four exemptions to equal time law. It ruled that ‘Bona fide candidates’ may appear in Bona fide newscasts, Bona fide news interviews, Bona fide news documentaries, and “on the spot coverage of bona fide news events”. However the exemptions made weren’t thought to allow for coverage of presidential debate. Hence, to allow for the presidential debates, Congress suspended the Equal time law for just 1960, and only for candidates running for president, allowing for the 1960 debates to happen.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to debate Barry Goldwater meant that the Democrats in Congress shelved the bill to suspend equal time law for the year. 1968 and 1972 had Nixon running for president, and given his prior experience against Kennedy, it meant a summary no to presidential debates. But the history of televised presidential debates is as much a history of politics as telecommunication law intersecting with politics. So let me make a brief detour to talk a little more about Communication law- In 1971, amendment to the Communications Act required stations make a reasonable amount of time available to federal candidates. Once time is made available under this provision, the equal time requirements of Section 315 did apply. The 1971 amendments also addressed the rates which stations can charge candidates for air time. Before 1971, Congress only required that the rates charged candidates be comparable to those offered to commercial advertisers. Now, Section 315 commands that as the election approaches, stations must offer candidates the rate it offers its most favored advertiser. Thus, if a station gives a discount to a commercial sponsor because it buys a great deal of air time, the station must offer the same discount to any candidate regardless of how much time he or she purchases.

In 1976, debate coverage was allowed under the ‘Aspen decision’, which interpreted presidential debates as following under “on the spot coverage of bona fide news event” exception legislated by Congress in 1959– if the debates were organized someone other than the media, and broadcast live, and in their entirety. This was obviously highly disingenuous but repeated cases in Supreme Court failed to reverse the decision. With the decision in place, people scampered to find an organization willing to organize the debate. League of Women Voters finally accepted the responsibility, and organized the 76 debate. The debates were held under their sponsorship till 84, and after 88 under Commission on Presidential debates. The debates until of recently were focus of extensive lobbying by the candidates – and negotiation on format (town hall/single moderator or panel of journalists/etc.), podium height, temperature in the hall, whether candidates could use notes or not, among other things – was intense and common. Only now, CPD has been able to leverage its power to limit the list of negotiable items. However bigger problems remain – constant questions about the utility of debates, and the rather arbitrary criteria for allowing for a third-party candidate to debate.

Inequality that barks, and dogs that don’t

6 Oct

Jennifer Hochschild, professor of Political Science at Harvard, begins her 1981 book, ‘What’s Fair: American Beliefs about Distributive Justice’, with an excerpt from Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, Silver Blaze, featuring the popular fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. In that excerpt, Holmes remarks on the ‘curious’ fact that the dog didn’t bark even when the ‘evidence suggested that it should have’. Hochschild uses this analogy to remark on the ‘curious’ fact about the American polity that it has steadfastly shied away from socialism (even socialist rhetoric) despite rising inequality and the large pool of likely beneficiaries of socialist policies. Politics has also been largely absent of demands of more income redistribution. I carry Hochschild’s analogy further – to somewhat disastrous extremes – all in service of conveying something simple. After all, all is fair in love, war, and blogging. Even dogs.

Before we investigate, ‘why the dog doesn’t bark’, it is incumbent upon us to identify who the dog is, why it should bark, and when, and how loudly? And does it bite? And we must investigate whether the implicit and naive assumption – that barking will result in anything – is actually correct. Only after we answer these, will we tackle some version of Hochschild’s question.

The Dog

The definition of the ‘dog’ depends heavily on the counter-factual that we want to use. For example, is it the bottom 95% of the income earners, or the lowest two quintiles of the income distribution, or the group below median income, or the minority of the federally defined ‘poor’? All of these ‘groups’ can in sense coalesce together to demand more redistribution of income taxes, certainly a ‘progressive’ income tax with substantially higher marginal tax on incomes above their own. But theoretical counter-factuals base their premise of group formation on automatic group formation on basis of economic interests. Such counter-factuals ignore things like extant cross-cutting social cleavages (for example race – disingenuously captured as ‘South/Non-South Dummy’, the Baptist/Southern Baptist dummy etc. in Political Science literature) that come in way of ‘class consciousness’, atomistic drives of the new labor and consumption regimes, apathy, ‘political culture’, historical narratives, and the near absolute dispersion of legitimizing discourses of inequality offered by the ‘society’. These reasons damn the existence of a dog to only those instances when political entrepreneurship meets economic realities powerfully enough to overcome the centrifugal forces mentioned above. So perhaps then the problem really is that the dog doesn’t bark because mostly there is no dog.

However, political coalitions around class do form, and if evidence presented by scholars is anything to go by – they are most salient and most persistent among the rich end of the spectrum. Larry Bartels has recently shown that policy choices reflect elite opinion much more so than mass opinion. “In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes. Disparities in representation are especially pronounced for Republican senators, who were more than twice as responsive as Democratic senators to the ideological views of affluent constituents.” (Bartels, 2005 – Economic Inequality and Political Representation).

Hochschild, relying on census data from 1929 to 1977, puts forth the fact that while the shares received by poorest two quintiles has changed little between these years, the largest change has been transfer of money from the richest quintile to the third and fourth quintile. Hoschschild’s story is about the ‘Director’s law’ (after economist Aaron Director), which goes something like this –‘Government has coercive power, which allows it to engage in acts (above all, the taking of resources) which could not be performed by voluntary agreement of the members of a society. Any portion of the society which can secure control of the state’s machinery will employ the machinery to improve its own position. Under a set of conditions to be discussed below, this dominant group will be the middle income classes.’ (George Stigler’s summary).

So perhaps there is a dog – a rich and a middle class dog, just not a ‘poor dog’. And that is in itself a ‘mystery’.

To bark or not to bark? And when to bark?

Should it on ‘perceiving’ the narrowing of the opportunities to move to the next class bracket? Or should it be on coming in contact with ‘increased’ inequality between ‘class peers’, as is so nicely documented in a recent series of articles in New York Times –the chronicler of the anxieties of the rich – that show that inequality is the greatest (and gallingly so) in the top 1% with top .001% earning far more than the .01%, which in turn earns substantially less than the next .1%. Or should it be the expansion of difference between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile? Or having dramatically lower income than say our parents? A lot depends on how we define the dog, and what the dog sees. Both the dog and dog’s vision, if it wasn’t clear from the discussion above, is as much politically constructed as socially (if the two can be pried apart). Perhaps the answer is best approached via historical examples – times when we can be reasonably sure the dog did something or it looked like the dog did something.

If we go back to 1870s, the era of ‘Robber Barons’ and the original ‘gilded age’, the post-reconstruction era of lavish wealth, and even more gratuitous displays, we are at a point of history with indisputable and egregious inequalities. This era with its early stages of thuggish capitalists bought not only the rise of labor but also the trust busting presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Perhaps there the dog did whimper. Similarly, there is a period again starting 1933 when there is a precipitous climb in the marginal income tax rate, partly brought upon by the war, and by FDR. The top marginal rates as recently as Eisenhower era were over 90%, and now top off at a miserly 35%. It is relatively unclear –except perhaps for rise of communist parties in US and a response to the depression, why we saw such a rise in redistribution of income. But it seems that that was the last time the dog whimpered.

Data from Piketty and Saez, among others, suggests the oncoming of a new gilded age. For example, according to census data, in 1967, households at 95th percentile had six times more income than ones at 25th percentile, the ratio in 2005 had grown to 8.6. It may yet be that the dog rises again, albeit slowly and feebly. And it may gnaw at immigrants, when it rises, before it gnaws at ‘greedy’ Wall Street guys. Oh, it’s already happening.

The Curious Incident: Why the dog doesn’t bark sooner, or bite?

Sven Steinmo, the clear eyed analyst attributes it to the ‘Political culture’ – the pull yourself up the bootstraps entrepreneurial anti-statist immigrant culture, constitution – the deliberately ‘anti-democratic’ (in words of American historian Gordon Wood) fragmentary government structure, weak parties, weak labor, weak government, and the fact that elites play a critical role in shaping people’s preferences. For Hochschild it is the lack of feudal history, the rapid rise of petit bourgeoisie, people being better off than their parents – at least much of the 19th and 20th century as the vast natural resources of US were exploited to carve out wealth, the fact that people have ‘chosen’ Capitalism (gain) over distributive ideas, deliberate fragmented structure of the government, the fact that poor limit their dreams, the fact that poor don’t demand absence of difference but just end of ‘unjust’ differences, and that the fact that people just want an ‘equal opportunity to be unequal’. For Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish political scientist and economist and Nobel Prize Laureate and most significantly author of the Carnegie (who wanted someone from outside US for objectivity) funded ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy’, it is the ‘American creed’. And perhaps because things haven’t been that bad, mostly. We never ask if things can be better for democracy isn’t about that. It is just mostly avoiding famines. (Amartya Sen)