Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Outrage over the Outrage

People are grousing about this "lipstick on a pig" scandal, how it seems a new low for American politics. Rick Shenkman, a history professor at George Mason University, recently came out with a book with the transparent title Just how Stupid Are We? He has the typically littany of statistics on how little people know about the basic working of government or elemental facts about ideas. This research has been confirmed again, and again, and again. He claims that the increased sophistication of public opinion polling and the increased control over political institutions given to the masses gives the people too much power.

Shenkman and others may be right. But It seems beside to point to say that the public is interested in the visceral over the rational. His prescription is that we should "put the people in their place" so to speak and change institutions so that the people do not have as much direct control over their elected officials. But in reality, there seems to be little prospect of either of those recommendations coming to pass.

There's enough research on the brain that suggests that power of emotional appeals over rational ones. It strikes me that we should take this as fact and move forward from there. A more important question seems to be "is there anything of value in the current way voters make decisions about politics." If people are basing their support for a candidate based on their affinity for him/her, then we need to engage the problems of civic engagement on those terms.

It is logical that people vote based on affinity. A recent ABC News poll found that Sarah Palin has 80% support among White women with children. Why? Because of propinquity. Propinquity, or the degree of likeness between people, is a heursitic device used to make a choice in the absence of other information. Herbert Simon used the term satisficing to describe roughly the same thing. People take short cuts in making decisions that are time bound and require large amounts of data. One easy way to make the "safest" choice is to say " If she's like me, then she's likely to understand what I am going through and is likely to advocate for me in the White House. And if she's not advocating for me, then at least it's cool for my daughter to see a Vice President who looks like their mom." Of course there are many among that 80% who are conservative evangelicals and are voting their policy preferences, but for the rest, it is a pretty logical heuristic cue to use when the intricacies of policy seem so remote.

We as social scientists might wish it were different, but let's put the different systems of choice in perspective. On one hand, you vote for someone who supports the policies you support. Given the dense system of checks and balances in the American system, it is unlikely that those policies will be passed. Even if they are, they are not likely to produce immediate results or may very well produce unintended consequences (shout out to Thomas Merton!)

The same goes for what many view as simplistic and disingenouous appleals about "keeping us safe" and "country first." This morning I watched the very moving 9-11 ceremonies and the speech that President Bush gave at the event in NYC. In his speech, he made the observation that we Americans had not been attacked in over 1,500 days. From an emotional brain perspective, that's a powerful argument. It is understandable that a voter might take that portion of the speech and satisfice and say "that's good enough for me." Protection for external threats is a visceral concern. it seems foolish to have an esoteric argument about how people should use more rational decision rules when selecting a president. Until the Democrats can frame their issues in ways that create a visceral concern among the American public, they aren't going to get anywhere. And in one sense, they probably shouldn't.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thickculture is Moving to Contexts Blogs

Dear Army of readers:

I am very excited to announce that this blog has moved to the family of blogs associated with Contexts magazine. For those of you not familiar with Contexts, it is a publication of the American Sociological Association. The magazine does a wonderful job of making sociological research accessible to a wide audience and my hope is that the blog can contribute to broadening their mission of public sociology to the social sciences in general.

I will also be announcing new contributors to the blog soon!

The new location for Thick Culture is:


Jose Marichal

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why is this blog called "Thick Culture"

Avid readers of this blog, which I'm sure numbers in the tens of thousands, might wonder where the term "thickculture" comes from. Orignially the term was used by political theorist Michael Walzer in a book called Thick and Thin, Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. I'm sure I won't do his argument justice, but in it, he distinguishes between an abstract, baseline common morality which we all purportedly share (basic human rights, self-determination) that he calls "thin" morality and a more contextual, particularistic morality that he calls "thick" morality. What's so valuable about Walzer is his view that "thin" principles must be realized within "thick" cultural contexts and not externally imposed. One quote from Walzer that has always stuck with me is this:

"the left has never understood the tribes."

As Walzer explained here:

Tribalism... is the commitment of individuals and groups to their own history, culture, and identity, and this commitment (though not any particular version of it) is a permanent feature of human social life.

This passage has reverberated with me as I've observed the newfound Republican success in the presidential election. The right has been effective and exploiting this blind-spot in the thinking of progressives. For example, the rapid-response to the Palin VP selection denigrating her for being a "mayor of a town of 9,000" people was a perfect indication of the bias on the left towards "thinness." The implication of the critique is that a town of 9,000 is too provincial, too disconnected from the universal to be of any real consequence to the development of a world leader.

Barack Obama's unfortunate "bitter" comment followed this same track of opposition to the particular, the provincial, as an impediment to realizing universal moral principles. Walzer's great insight is that the abstract and universal has to be realized through the particular and the provincial. It could be that what Obama meant to say is that people "cling" to thickness in the face of global change. But he hasn't really done an effective job of articulating that if it's what he meant.

Today's Gallup tracking poll has a 3 point McCain lead, a lead which will probably grow tomorrow..the first set of polls during which all three days of interviewing were conducted after McCain's Thursday acceptance speech. I think the reason that the Republican convention was so successful is because it tapped into the existing meme on the part of the Democrats that they simply "don't get tribes."

The problem is that "thin" principles matter. While Republicans understand that culture and identity matter as much, if not more, than material gain, they haven't necessarily put in place policies that lead to universal principles of individual self determination and autonomy. They subscribe to a "thin" version of freedom that ignores the role of government in providing individuals with the tools to help people realize their full selves. If people were ok with being allowed to practice their cultural norms undisturbed, we wouldn't have 80% of Americans saying we're headed on the "wrong track."

If Obama is truly to be the transcendent political figure he aspires to be, he needs to realize that the abstract (thin) principles he aspires to needs to be connected to the norms, values, and experiences (thickness) of everyday existence. This is his big mission for the next 60 days, to convince people in small town and suburban America that the "thin" abstract principles he espouses are rooted in "thick" small town norms and values.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Community Organizing Code for Angry Left

The Republican convention had a series of strange attacks on Barack Obama's work as a community organizer. Kevin Harris points to an article in the Nation by Peter Drier and John Atlas taking the RNC to task for their attacks on local civic engagement:

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his own snickering hit job. 'He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the resumé,' mocked Giuliani.

A few minutes later, in her acceptance speech for the GOP vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin declared, 'I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.'

The Daily Show (god bless em') had a hilarious take on the comments and crystalizes what seems to be an out of sync contradiction between the campaign's own theme of service and the Republican party's professed belief in local community-based problem solving.

What gives? Me thinks this is suppose to be code for "angry left radical activist." It's meant to be another salvo at the Democrats for being a party full of Marxists trying to "stick it to the man." But anyone who has worked with or studied community organizations know that they have become very mainstream. Many of them have been focused on building low income housing and providing job training. "Community organizing" has moved from an emphasis on political activism to one of asset building and community empowerment...things Republicans are supposed to stand for.

According to his Wikipedia's page, this is what Obama did as a community organizer:

After four years in New York City, Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer for three years from June 1985 to May 1988 as director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a church-based community organization originally comprising eight Catholic parishes in Greater Roseland (Roseland, West Pullman, and Riverdale) on Chicago's far South Side.[12][14] During his three years as the DCP's director, its staff grew from 1 to 13 and its annual budget grew from $70,000 to $400,000, with accomplishments including helping set up a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization in Altgeld Gardens.[15] Obama also worked as a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing institute.[16]

This might work the way the Republicans intend. But if it does, I have developed quite a tin ear for political framing, which is pretty scary for a political scientist. A backlash has started against the community development snaps Micah Sifry identifies a facebook group called We Are All Community Organizers was launched immediately after the speeches. As of 4pm Pacific time on Friday, September 5, the list had 5,359 members. Of course, it's unlikely many of the people on that list were McCain supporters.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

open source lecture: philosophy of science

In the interest of submitting my work to the wisdom of the crowd, I'm trying out a new way to teach the philosophy of science, using visual cues to articulate concepts. I'd love feedback on how this will go over. I picked:

"Nature Boy" Ric Flair for Popper's Falisifability
The movie "Clueless" for Kuhn's Paradigms
A hive of worker bees for Lakatos' research programmes
Seinfeld's "The Opposite" episode for Feyerabend's counterinduction

Here it is: let me know what you think.