the signal in this election versus the noise

Here is a graph of the presidential polls from this election so far. Most people choose narrow ranges for the y-axis in graphs like this, to draw attention to the shifts. I show the full 0%-100% range, to display how the whole American public has split. I also choose the stronger option for “smoothing,” so that each day’s measure is an average of several days on either side. The result is a highly stable advantage for Hillary Clinton all the way along.

It doesn’t really seem to have made that much difference what Trump has said, or what has been reported about Clinton’s emails and her Foundation, or how she has spent her $319 million in TV ads. It looks as if most people had their minds made up as soon as it was clear who the nominees would be.

The trend looked similar in 2012, except that it was always much closer that year.

I’d say that partisan identification outweighs almost everything, except that Trump is underperforming, for a GOP nominee, by a few points.

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the Nordic model

We are just back from a vacation in parts of Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. Although I’ve been in the region before, I am very far from expert on Nordic politics and economics. But it’s worth understanding the Nordic model–even if it looks a little rickety today and may depend on factors that couldn’t transfer to the US–because basic measures of human well-being are extraordinarily high in the five Scandinavian nations. For instance, Norway has the highest human development level in the world. I think the Nordic model represents a fusion of two contrasting impulses, a combination that is perhaps obscured in talk about social democracy or democratic socialism.

The (conservative) Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom makes the point. From Heritage’s perspective, Denmark is an odd mix, although its overall rank is high. Heritage considers Denmark very bad at “limited government,” because one aspect of the Nordic model is high taxation and spending. On the other hand, Heritage ranks Denmark very high on measures like business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights (as well as freedom from corruption, which everyone values).

I think the Nordic model boils down to competitive entrepreneurship in the global marketplace plus strongly egalitarian social policies for everyone in the home country. Scandinavians are out and about, learning foreign languages (95% of Swedes speak English), and studying and working overseas. Goods as well as human beings flow across their borders. Denmark’s international trade is 102% of GDP. I’m not certain how that number can be greater than 100%, but the ratio is obviously much higher there than in the US, where trade is 27% of GDP. You see imports everywhere in Scandinavian stores, as well as export-oriented businesses.

Competitiveness brings material benefits: high-quality goods and services selected from around the world. It provides opportunities for ambitious and talented people to create new things. An index of innovation ranks Sweden first in the world, and Finland and Denmark are also in the top 10. Competition also identifies and rewards excellence. The result is a lively, flexible, future-oriented society. Scandinavians are proud of their nations’ marquee industries and are notably patriotic without being bellicose.

At the same time, competitiveness hurts people–the people who cannot or don’t happen to win, who were doing fine before all the market “disruptions,” who value traditions, or who don’t even want to fight for success in market economies. Competition can also erode civic virtues and responsibilities, including concern for public institutions and shared resources.

That’s why the other side of the Nordic model is so important. At home, everyone has very extensive and unconditional economic rights, which cost a lot of money. The public sector budget is 55% of GDP in Denmark. The state also demands people’s time and attention. Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Denmark all rank in the top seven for voter turnout, they have among the highest rates of associational membership in the world, and their governments are rated as the least corrupt.

All of this is hard to build and maintain, and I have not mentioned the drawbacks and frailties of the model. My point is really an ideological one. There are genuine virtues to systems that we might call “neoliberal,” systems that involve property rights, competition, and globalization. Strongly democratic societies that protect everyone’s welfare also have virtues. And although these goals can trade off in some respects, it’s possible to pick elements from the neoliberal menu and others from the socialist menu without contradiction.

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the different logics of class and race

It’s common to list racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia together. These are all important and bad phenomena, but they have different logics, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to put them in a single category. Here I explore the differences by focusing on racism and classism.

Older meanings of racism were, I think, always attitudinal. To be a racist was to have negative attitudes toward a racial group, even if those attitudes were unconscious. We now speak of structural racism, which can exist even in the absence of racist attitudes. I sort of wish that we just called that problem “racial injustice,” because the “-ism” suffix connotes an attitude or mindset. But I can accept the linguistic evolution, and I certainly believe that both interpersonal racism and structural racial injustice persist and are destructive.

Classism can be made analogous to the older meaning of racism. You’re a classist if you hold someone in lower regard because of the status of her job, her working-class accent, her neighborhood of birth, or her parents’ social role. Classism of that kind is evident and harmful.

Structural classism would then mean some kind of advantage enjoyed by people due to their class. But this is where the analogy breaks down. Classes are differences in status, power, and advantage. If a society has classes at all, then it gives people different advantages. Put a different way: if a society differentiates among social roles, then it has classes, and that’s structural classism.

Racism is never justifiable, and it’s possible to envision a society that has racial diversity yet no racism. Indeed, I hope that’s where we are headed. In contrast, it’s impossible to imagine a society with classes that doesn’t have “structural classism,” if that means different levels of status, power, or money for different social roles. In theory, we could pay everyone the same salaries, but I’m not sure that would work in practice, and even if it did, it wouldn’t eliminate differences in the quality of work or the status of professions.

Further, classes may be justifiable or even good. Some argue that a classless society is the ideal. We haven’t seen one, however: communist societies produced powerful, detached social strata–the nomenklatura, etc. John Rawls argued that it’s right to pay heart surgeons more than carpenters if (and only if) that is necessary to serve the interests of cardiac patients–who would want highly skilled doctors. Rawls was not perfectly egalitarian, but he was more egalitarian than many Americans, who would make principled and sincere arguments in favor of different pay and status for jobs of different difficulty and complexity.

To say that structural racism exists is to make a critique. To say that classes exist raises the question of whether they are good or bad, and that is worthy of discussion.

One can see the analogy break down in educational settings. A university, for example, ought to be free of both interpersonal and structural racism. It should strive to be a place where your race doesn’t affect how well anyone else treats you or how you flourish. A university cannot, however, be free of class if it exists to provide the education that people need to enter certain desirable professions. If a university prepares people to be teachers, doctors, accountants, and poets, then it is producing a certain class. They could theoretically be paid the same as domestic workers and laborers; they would nevertheless form an advantaged group. A university can strive to reduce interpersonal classism, in the form of prejudice against first-generation students and its own blue-collar employees. But as long as it has blue-collar employees at all, it has classes; and as long as it promises good jobs for its graduates, it generates the class structure. Again, this may be necessary, justifiable, or even good–but it’s no use pretending that an advanced educational institution could be class-free.

Ending racism is theoretically possible and compatible with everyone’s legitimate best interests. You have no right to any advantage conferred by your race, and the very existence of such differences is caustic for all. In contrast, ending class differences might be just, if it’s possible, but it is not compatible with everyone’s interests. We like to talk about “social mobility,” because then we can focus on happy upward trajectories from poor to rich. But for everyone who moves up, someone else must go down. For instance, if the children of domestic workers have a decent chance of growing up to be doctors, then the children of doctors must have a good chance of cleaning houses for a living. Again, we could reduce the disparities in after-tax income and political power, but there will still be winners and losers as long as some people diagnose patients while others clean homes for a living.

Finally, the causation seems to be different. Presumably, interpersonal racism was an original cause (although maybe not the only original cause) of structural racism. We wouldn’t have had slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining if most white people had held most black people in high regard. But today the causal link may be weakened, for structural racism can persist even in the absence of interpersonal racism. For instance, assume that white college grads come to feel benignly and respectfully toward all other races. Still, if each college grad succeeds in getting his own children into a desirable college, those colleges will enroll mostly white students. As long as the distribution of goods in a society is racially unjust, you don’t need interpersonal racism to replicate the inequality; you just need unequal resources plus self-interest.

Meanwhile, interpersonal classism is mainly a consequence of objective differences in income, status, and power. It’s not that middle-class people are prejudiced against working-class people and give them bad jobs. It’s rather that people with bad jobs get treated worse. That pattern can turn into class prejudice, as when a person who has a working-class accent but plenty of money gets treated rudely at a snooty restaurant. But classism of that sort is not the main problem. The main problem is the real distribution of status, wealth, and power in the society. To change that is not a matter of improving attitudes but of redesigning institutions.

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on vacation

I’m offline and overseas until 8/24. I’ll resume posting then.

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CIRCLE analysis of Clinton and the youth vote

From today’s CIRCLE release:

Young voters overwhelmingly favored Sanders in Democratic primary, but the general electorate offers more potential upside to Clinton than Trump; young women, black youth more likely to support Clinton

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) – the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life – today released an analysis of young people’s support and views of Secretary Clinton during this primary election cycle, exploring trends and implications for the general election.

How did Hillary Clinton perform among young people who voted in the primaries? And how did her youth support compare to that of previous Democratic nominees?

  • Secretary Clinton won 20 of the 27 state primaries for which exit poll data are available, but won the youth vote (ages 17-29) in just two of those states—Alabama and Mississippi.  
  • In these 27 states, she averaged only 28% of young voters, lagging far behind recent Democratic presidential nominees.
  • Secretary Clinton performed relatively better with young African Americans and she did better with slightly older youth (ages 25-29).
  • Data from Super Tuesday primaries indicate that young women were more likely to support Secretary Clinton than young men; but young women still supported her at lower levels than did older women.

How do young people overall view Hillary Clinton? And which groups of young people are most likely to vote for her?

  • At least half of young people have negative views of Secretary Clinton, and similar numbers do not find her honest and trustworthy.
  • However, more youth report that they intend to vote for Secretary Clinton than for Donald Trump, who has even lower favorability numbers.
  • Secretary Clinton may enjoy higher support from constituencies who have been especially supportive of other recent Democratic presidential nominees, such as young single women, young Black women, and young Latinas.

Is the general youth electorate more or less favorable to Hillary Clinton than the Democratic primary electorate?

  • The youth electorate in recent general elections has been more diverse than this year’s Democratic primary, which may benefit Secretary Clinton given her relative strength over Mr. Trump with young women and youth of color.
  • Together, young people of color and young women comprise roughly 70% of youth eligible to vote, and young women have historically turned out at higher rates than young men.
  • Voter outreach, always important, is especially critical with youth; our research has shown that young people who are contacted about voting are more likely to cast a ballot on Election Day. 



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white working class alienation from government

In aPRRI-2012-White-Working-Class_connection-to-govt-by-social-class recent long post, I argued that one reason white working class Americans are alienated from government is that they lack the productive political power that comes from organizations, such as political parties that rely on ordinary members, and unions. Moreover, because of the weakness of such organizations, white working class people are simply not visible in positions of power. A few leaders can rightly say that they started life in the working class, but almost by definition, they are now all well-paid and highly educated professionals.

As a supportive data point, here is a graph from a 2012 PRRI survey. Respondents are asked: “When you think and talk about government, do you tend to think of it more as ‘the government’ or more as ‘our government?'” The adult population is fairly evenly split, with almost half of Americans opting for “our government.” More than half of white college-educated people see things that way. But six-in-ten working class whites perceive it as “the government.” Among seniors who are working-class whites, a majority still see it as “their” government. That could be because they are invested in certain government policies (such as Social Security and Medicare), but it’s also true that they came of age at a time when working-class people exercised political power. Among young working-class whites, 70% see it as “the government.”

I don’t think they’re wrong. It is “the” government rather than “their” government in a meaningful sense. But as long as they feel this way, and no one offers actual empowerment, they are going to be ripe targets for demagogues who want to blow the whole thing up.

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against root cause analysis

I am skeptical of the idea of “root causes” and the assumption that progress comes from addressing the roots of problems. The following points draw from discussions in our annual Summer Institutes of Civic Studies and are indebted to my co-teacher, Karol Soltan.

  1. The metaphor of a “root” seems misplaced. Social issues are not like plants that have one root system at the bottom and branches and leaves at the top, so that if you cut or move the root, you kill or move the whole plant with a single action. Very often, social phenomena are connected in systems that incorporate feedback loops and cycles, whether virtuous or vicious. It’s possible for one thing (A) to affect another thing (B) and for B also to affect A. Very often, outcomes are not the result of one ultimate cause but of the interaction of many causes. And causes can be viewed as outcomes, because there’s lots of reciprocal causation.
  2. Often, successful social action occurs even though the activists don’t know the root cause of a problem or they disagree about what it is. An example is the global movement to end slavery. Religious abolitionists argued that the root cause of slavery was sin, going back to the Fall of Man. “Free labor” abolitionists, like Abraham Lincoln, said that slavery was a plot to undermine a competitive market of labor in which the individual worker could profit. In contrast, Karl Marx wrote in 1847 that slavery was a lynchpin of global capitalism: “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry.” Frederick Douglass saw racism (“the wolfish hate and snobbish pride of race”) as a–or perhaps the–root cause of slavery. I suppose that all of them pointed to genuine causal factors, but the main point is that they formed a coalition that targeted the actual problem, not its underlying causes, and they won.
  3. Trying to identify root causes can delay or even block effective action. My friends Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne wrote a very influential and valuable paper in 2004 entitled “Educating the ‘Good’ Citizen: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals.”* They found that civic education programs in the US tended to fall into three categories, defined by their objectives for the students. An example illustrates the differences. In a program that aims to produce “personally responsible citizens,” a student will “contribute food to a food drive.” In a program whose ideal is to develop “participatory citizens,” a student will “help to organize a food drive.” In a program that emphasizes “justice-oriented citizens,” the student will “explore why people are hungry and act to solve root causes.” As Karol notes, the first two begin with an action, but the third begins with “exploring,” which doesn’t actually do any good in the world. Now, to be sure, one can also explore a diagram of a complex, interconnected system for a long time before doing anything, so it’s not only root-cause analysis that can fatally delay action. But I think that root-cause analysis is particularly likely to frustrate action because it sends us in search of the biggest, hardest, deepest aspect of a problem, which is exactly where the odds of success may be lowest. And that’s a mistake if problems do not actually have roots.

*Political Science and Politics, April 2004, pp 241-24.

See also Roberto Unger against root causes and roots of crime.

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

rate of first year college students who performed volunteer service

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 8.11.27 PM

This graph is based on data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) American Freshman survey. I don’t think I have seen the trend presented in one place and continuing until 2015, so I offer the graph for public consumption. The trend is consistent with what we know about high school civics. Service programs became much more popular after the 1980s, as new initiatives, such as the federal Learn & Serve America grants, came online. Rates of volunteering have plateaued since ca. 2010, but at high levels. Service is pretty much expected of today’s prospective college students. However, volunteering is strongly correlated with socioeconomic advantage. People of the same age as these admitted freshman who are not going to college volunteer at much lower rates.

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Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork

This is an unsolicited advertisement for Mischa Berlinksi’s first novel, Fieldwork. It’s a compelling mystery, fluently and charmingly told. Without being at all pretentious, it’s also a challenging novel of ideas. Berlinski juxtaposes an imaginary Southeast Asian hill people who have remarkable religious rites of their own, a three-generation family of American evangelical missionaries who are thoroughly acclimatized and believe in the local gods (albeit as devils), a Dutch-American ethnologist who also happens to be a politically conservative woman, and a contemporary slacker dude. He describes everyone with respect and empathy. I can’t think of a way to discuss the issues Berlinski raises without spoiling the plot, so I will just say: read it.

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structured moral pluralism (a proposal)

(New York) Isaiah Berlin recalled that the Russian novelists he read as boy shared with “the major figures [of philosophy], especially in the field of ethical and political thought,” a common “Platonic ideal.” This ideal implied,

In the first place that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another – that we knew a priori. This kind of omniscience was the solution of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. In the case of morals, we could then conceive what the perfect life must be, founded as it would be on a correct understanding of the rules that governed the universe (2013, p. 4) .

This passage is a simplification of intellectual history (Berlin himself cites Vico, Herder, and others as opponents of the view that he attributes to “the major figures”), but he accurately describes one tendency. For some important thinkers, moral truths–if they exist at all–must form a single whole, like a completed jigsaw puzzle or like a mechanism in which some components support or drive others. Not only should the elements be compatible, but articulable reasons or arguments should connect them together. If you believe A, you should be able to say why in terms of B. If you believe A and B, but the two seem to conflict, then you should be able to resolve the conflict by adjusting the two principles.

By the way, you can hold this model of moral thought even if you doubt, given our cognitive and moral limits, that we will ever see the whole puzzle correctly. The truth may still be a coherent structure even if what we know is always partial and confused.

Another view is very different from this one. It is the theory that human beings have instinctive, affective reactions to situations. After we form those reactions, we may rationalize them with arguments, but our arguments are always insufficient to determine our reactions, and we are good at gerrymandering our general principles to fit what we want to conclude about specific cases. Thus our arguments do not explain our judgments. However, empirical psychologists can detect patterns in our various reactions, which suggest the existence of unconscious latent factors that do explain what we feel about cases. Those factors may not be mutually compatible, which is why we are often ambivalent or inconsistent. They may also vary from person to person. But they exist, and what we say about moral issues is inconsequential compared to this structure of latent factors (see, e.g., Haigt and Graham et al.).

This view could be correct, although I suspect it is partly an artifact of the research methods. To the extent that it is true, it denies the value of moral deliberation, which is a fundamental obligation in the tradition that Berlin calls “Platonic.” Moral positions, Haidt writes, are “nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders.” That implies an answer to the question that opens the Federalist Papers–“whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” If latent factors determine responses, then we are destined to depend on accident. I hope that is not the case.

Berlin famously dissented from the “Platonic” view of morality and developed a version of pluralism. There are the main elements of his position:

  1. “There is a world of objective values” (p. 11). In other words, some things really are valuable. It is wrong to deny an actual value, such as freedom or equality, or to add something to the list of values that doesn’t merit inclusion. In short, there can be a right or a wrong answer to the question whether something (e.g., love, war, desire, loyalty) is a good. This is different from Moral Foundations theory, which presumes that we must value whatever we value.
  2. But the genuine “values can clash – that is why civilisations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me” (p. 12).
  3. Because of the nature of morality and/or human nature, there is no possible world inhabited by human beings in which all the goods are perfectly compatible. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are. … The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable – that is a truism – but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together” (pp. 13-14).
  4. The misguided effort to harmonize all worthy values into one structure is a dangerous illusion (p. 15), or even “the road to inhumanity” (pp. 19-20), because it justifies the imposition of moral beliefs on others without compromises.

I am basically pluralist, but I would alter Berlin’s view in one important respect. He seems to assume a list of fully distinct and potentially incompatible goods. I observe that people make connections among some of their own ideas. They say that one value implies, or supports, or resembles another value in various respects.

These structures seem to me to have merit. Connecting two ideas means giving a reason for each of them, because now they hang together. We ought to reason in order to live an examined life and to deliberate with other people. We are prone to very grave limitations and biases if we merely rely on our instinctive reactions to moral situations, taken one at a time, or if we allow latent factors to determine our reactions. We should struggle to put our ideas together into explicit structures and should present portions of those structures to other human beings for inspection and critique. That is just an idiosyncratic way of saying that we must reason together about values. Reasoning does not mean endorsing various Great Goods, one at a time, but rather connecting each idea to another idea.

This view is still compatible with Berlin’s pluralism, for two important reasons. First, the structure of moral ideas that each of us gradually builds and amends may contain incompatible values. Each of us can be a pluralist, even as we attempt to connect many of our own ideas into networks. Our networks can contain gaps and loose links and can reflect tradeoffs. Second, is it likely that even human beings who strive to develop the best possible structures of moral ideas will never produce the same structures. That is because moral reflection is deeply dependent on local experience and on conversations with concrete other people, each of whom is affected by her own conditions. So we will forever disagree. In contrast to the image of a “cosmic jigsaw puzzle” that we are all working together to complete, I’d propose a great web of loosely connected ideas that we are all perpetually creating and linking together.

See also: 10 theses about ethics, in network termsJonathan Haidt’s six foundations of moralityan alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; and everyone unique, all connected.


Berlin, Isaiah. The crooked timber of humanity: Chapters in the history of ideas. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012)

Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Peter H.Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(2), Aug 2011, 366-385.

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