Monthly Archives: August 2010

what happened to the new Obama voters?

Project Vote is pushing an important line of argument. They say that our policy debate is distorted because the media is fascinated with the Tea Partiers (“Who are they? What do they want? Will they affect elections?”) and is ignoring the huge number of new voters who turned out in 2008. Those new voters tended to be younger, less wealthy, more racially diverse, and more politically progressive than the typical US electorate, and they won a national election. If the press today would constantly ask, “Who are they and what do they want?” the whole policy debate might be quite different.

Lorraine C. Minnite writes, “heading into the 2010 congressional midterm elections the views of traditionally under-represented groups who were mobilized in record proportions in 2008 have been drowned in tea.” See her “What Happened to Hope and Change? How Fascination with the ‘Tea Party’ Obscures the Significance of the 2008 Electorate” (PDF) and a soon-to-be released Project Vote survey.

Reporters focus relentlessly on predicting the next national election. (I’ve quoted the former CNN political director, Tom Hannon, saying, “the most basic question about [an] election … is who’s going to win.”) From that perspective, it’s somewhat rational to focus on the Tea Partiers and not the recent Obama voters. Current polls that screen for likelihood of voting in 2010 suggest that the electorate will shift rightward again in 2010 because of who turns out. Thus, if you want to predict the next election, it makes sense to focus on the new conservative voters. Two important caveats, however, will probably be missed. First, the Tea Party will not represent the median voter, who will be moderate; and second, the electorate will probably swing back leftward in 2012.

Assuming that the media (and the blogosphere) continue to focus on predicting the 2010 election, the only way to shift the discussion is for progressive constituencies to threaten to vote. They need to tell pollsters that they are excited to vote, and they need to take public steps–like marches and protests–that indicate mobilization. That’s how the game is played right now, and they’re not playing well.

But the game isn’t satisfactory. “The most basic question” about politics is not “who’s going to win.” The most basic question is: What should we do? Although the press can’t answer that for us, they could provide information relevant to our decisions.

From that perspective, “Who will win the next election?” shouldn’t matter much. At most, it should have a modest impact on our strategic plans, but it should not cause us to change our own goals. (Thus the relentless focus on the horse race is problematic.) Who voted in the last election is perhaps a bit more relevant, because the winners presumably have some democratic legitimacy as the current governing coalition. Who might vote if we changed our politics is more interesting, because it invites us to consider a wider range of strategies. I’ll be looking forward to the Project Vote survey for that final reason–it will suggest ideas about how we might be able to mobilize new progressive voters with new progressive policies.

Where Harvard Meets the Homeless

Scott Seider has published a new book entitled Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless. It’s about a homeless shelter that is entirely managed and staffed by Harvard students.

Most of our work at CIRCLE concerns the civic engagement of people far different from those young leaders. We focus on the half of the population that does not attend college at all, let alone highly selective, private, four-year universities. But Seider’s topic is an important one because the kinds of people who gravitate to ambitious civic or political organizations at institutions like Harvard will soon run strategically important parts of our civil society and politics.

This generation is certainly different than their predecessors who would have flocked to Students for a Democratic Society and tried to block Robert McNamara from leaving campus. Today’s Ivy League undergraduates are more entrepreneurial, probably better organized, possibly more thoughtful, but lacking a comprehensive theory of how to change society.

As I wrote in my blurb, “Scott Seider’s rich and insightful study of Harvard students who run a homeless shelter provides an informative portrait of today’s young leaders and their struggle to understand and confront injustice.”

what is corruption?

I’m about to write a chapter that hinges on the thesis that American politics is corrupt. Most Americans would agree, although their reasons and solutions vary (and, as shown by Transparency International’s map, people feel worse about corruption in most other parts of the world). But what does “corruption” mean?

It cannot mean that the political system generates results you abhor, because that’s the nature of politics (collective-decision making) on a large scale. Other people are going to choose to do things that you consider wasteful, murderous, immoral, treasonous. That doesn’t mean the system is corrupt.

It cannot mean that the political system favors the wealthy. I am an economic populist, but I agree with Charles Lindblom‘s theory of the “privileged position of business.” Prosperity is a popular public good. In order to promote prosperity, we have to make discretionary investors happy. Discretionary investors are rich. So governments try to make rich people and governments happy. That by itself is not corrupt.

It cannot mean that political institutions do not live up to their express or original principles, because sometimes those principles are abhorrent and we welcome their abrogation. And sometimes institutions try to honor good principles but simply fail.

It cannot mean that leaders act on bad motives. Yes, there are good and bad motives, and we can recognize them in others–or else the whole idea of proving intent in a law court is a farce. But the intent of political leaders is a problematic issue. It’s hard to discern their true motives because we observe them at a distance, mediated by various untrustworthy sources. Besides, politicians can do great things for selfish motives (such as their own re-election) and horrible things with good motives.

It cannot mean simply the exchange of official decisions for illegal payments, because people have used the concept of corruption more broadly for at least 25 centuries. Bribes are corrupt because they are examples of something more general.

So I don’t think corruption is any of these things at once, but it might be some combination of them. Unfortunately, a combination is what we observe every day.

the best colleges for service-learning

US News & World Report has a list of the 30 best colleges for service learning. (It explains that “volunteering in the community is an instructional strategy [in which] service relates to what happens in class and vice versa.”) US News also provides lists of seven other approaches to enriching the traditional academic format of college, from “undergraduate research projects” to “study abroad.”

I am glad that service-learning is treated as a technique that is “believed to lead to student success.” It does help at least some students academically when it’s well implemented. I am also pleased that both my current and previous universities–Tufts and University of Maryland–make the top-30 list. These choices were made by an expert panel who reviewed formal nominations. They do not have the final word or ultimate wisdom; their list may be biased in various ways. But if you take it as a valid list, it supports a few generalizations about the field:

  • Fully one third of the “winners” are small, private, liberal arts colleges, even though only a tiny proportion of American students attend such universities.
  • The big state universities are not very well represented, notwithstanding their historic mission. There are just seven such campuses on the list: IUPUI, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Portland State, and Wisconsin. That’s either because of an unintentional bias in the selection process or because the big state schools aren’t focused on community engagement.
  • Among trend-setting, highly competitive Research I universities, the leaders in service-learning seem to include Brown, Duke, Michigan, Stanford, Tufts (if I may say so), Tulane, University of Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
  • If I had a vote, I’d recuse myself on Tufts and Maryland but would strongly consider voting for Bates, IUPUI, Portland State, University of Pennsylvania (all selected by the US News panel), plus Pitzer, Georgetown, Minnesota, and Providence College, among others.