where the youth vote will matter the most in 2020

CIRCLE is out with the 2020 YESI (Youth Electoral Significance Index). It identifies the House and Senate races and states where the youth vote will make the most difference to the 2020 election.

For instance, the graphic shows the top-10 House races in the YESI.

The YESI page also explains why these states and districts will matter, which can be useful guidance for analysts, observers, and political actors.

Every young person should vote. Parties, candidates, interest groups, and election officials should encourage youth voting everywhere. Reporters should cover the youth vote as a news story everywhere.

That said, political realism dictates that all these players will concentrate their attention and resources where it matters most to electoral outcomes. Informing them can increase their net investment in youth voting, with benefits for democracy. Hence the YESI, which proved influential in 2018.

science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind

The apparently intentional release of Navy videos showing strange flying objects has prompted discussion of UFOs in respectable places like Vox and Bloomberg. I don’t take the news very seriously, although I do agree that the videos are interesting artifacts and people should be able to explore all intelligible hypotheses about them, including ones that involve visitors from other planets. There should be no UFO taboo.

I’m thinking instead about the moral significance of the hypothesis of alien visitors and how that fits into the history of science. What aliens think about us would be entirely contingent on them. They might admire us, condescend kindly to us, ignore us, or view us as food. From our perspective, their stance would be entirely random. Even if the first group of alien visitors happened to be disarmingly appreciative, the next batch might decide to spray us like a nest of termites. Whatever we happen to think of ourselves as a species would have no relationship to what they think of us. Their attitude would depend entirely on what kind of creatures they were. Arrogant technocrats? Intergalactic manatees, browsing peacefully through space without a hint of aggression? Simply hungry?

Most human beings have believed in gods or a god of some kind. Our theories of the divine have varied; by no means all divinities have been seen as perfect or even as particularly good. But a common thread is their interest in us. Whether they are prone to fall in love with some of us, or give us laws, or sacrifice their only-begotten Son to save us, they seem to care about people. Although one style of religious rhetoric reminds us to be humble, trembling in the sight of a just God, a simultaneous implication is that the divine has turned its face to us and cares what we do. Therefore, most religions–Buddhism perhaps offering an important exception–have emphasized the importance of human beings even as they have compared us to something better.

Many scientists are also religious, yet science can be seen as a break with the elements of religion that tend to build us up. It investigates nature as a domain without purpose, in which each event occurs because of the events before it–not in order to accomplish any independent end. Facts are distinct from values, and only hypotheses about facts are testable. We are part of nature, determined by efficient causes that could be understood without any reference to values. Science presumes that nature exists independent of our intelligence and seeks to purge human subjectivity from our understanding of nature.

In all these ways, science tends to diminish the human. In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote: “To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles.” It therefore undermines the idea “that man [sic] is the highest being we know of.” The idea of superiority is “alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe.”

She had in mind at least several epochal events that were recent when she wrote. Physicists had discovered laws and processes that allowed them to build weapons that could destroy human life on earth. Computers had begun to “supplant and enlarge human brain power.” And human beings had left the earth and taken pictures of it.

She was also concerned that physics had revealed truths about nature that were deeply counterintuitive, thus severing the traditional link between ordinary experience and the refined experiences achieved with scientific instruments and methods. However, the “the lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world” had been restored in the most horrible way, when the insights of theoretical physics had enabled massive terrestrial explosions.

Arendt doesn’t mention the Shoah in this essay. For her teacher, Heidegger, Auschwitz demonstrated the evil of technology and what we might call a scientific view of the world. But that was itself an evil theory, since the cause of the Holocaust was actually Nazism, with which Heidegger was complicit. Arendt carries forward some of his deepest ideas about science and nature but avoids or evades this particular application of his theory.

She considers the idea that our quest for truth dignifies us–that science boosts our stature by making us the great discoverers. However, she says,

man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this ‘carelessness’ is his pride and his glory. The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself. 

For her, space travel does not show that human beings can expand our knowledge and escape our limitations. It rather exemplifies the way we have turned everything we experience into products of our science:

The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man — the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.

It can certainly be argued that the progress of science makes us humble in a good way. We are part of nature, not uniquely valuable but deeply integrated and interdependent. Therefore, we should start treating our natural environment with more respect. The problem, however, is that science demonstrates its success even as it avoids any intrinsic values, including the value of nature or human beings. The “should” in the sentence, “We should start treating …” makes no sense for science.

Arendt thought that space travel would bring the end of our respect for ourselves, because we would be able to view ourselves explicitly and literally as science has always implicitly understood us.  “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men …, then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” Technology will no longer appear “as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process” (quoting Bohr). If our technology is destroying the environment that sustains us, science will explain why that outcome is biologically determined without supplying any reason for us to stop it.

I would suggest that space travel did not reorient us as much as Arendt expected, partly because it has proven rather disappointing. No colonies on Mars 57 years after her essay. But the thought-experiment that aliens are flying around our earth–and the argument that we ought to study them scientifically–this captures the moment when “the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”

See also: notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds; is science republican (with a little r)?nature includes our inner livessome thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; and the laughter of the gods.

New Report: Massachusetts elections in the shadow of COVID-19

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLEMass. (May 6, 2020)—To bolster participation and keep voters safe in 2020, Massachusetts needs to quickly redesign its voting system, according to a new policy report from the Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The report, titled “Preparing for elections in the shadow of COVID-19,” details the essential decisions and difficult choices facing the Commonwealth as it responds to the challenge of holding elections during a pandemic.

Key findings:

  • Demand for absentee voting and vote-by-mail will likely be enormous, requiring dramatic upgrades to state and municipal capacity. Centralizing parts of this process could help alleviate the burden on cities and towns and reduce the risk of local bottlenecks.
  • There is no definitive answer to the question of whether Massachusetts should automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters, only a complex balance between expanded opportunity and election security.
  • Keeping the voter registration period open longer—or allowing election day registration—would help offset the disruptions COVID-19 will have on field operations and traditional registration drives.
  • Polling places need to remain open as an option for all voters, including those with unstable housing, individuals with serious disabilities, and black and Hispanic voters, who have historically shown a preference for in-person voting. Allowing early voting for the September primary could also improve access.
  • The cost of necessary changes could be substantial, particularly for cities and towns. However, Massachusetts has access to significant federal funding for voting access, including a large amount of unused money from the 2002 Help America Vote Act.
  • Keeping voters informed of these changes will require a concerted communications campaign.  Young voters, including college students, may benefit from robust partnerships connecting election officials with universities, educators and youth-serving organizations.
  • The COVID-19 crisis makes Massachusetts susceptible to other risks, and contingency planning needs to account for the threats of voter suppression, disinformation and more.

Read the full report here.

“We have four months until the September primary,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of cSPA. “These kinds of system-wide changes take time—whether it’s recruiting poll workers from less vulnerable populations or reorganizing operations to accommodate the projected spike in absentee voting.”

”Now is the time to closely consider and enact changes to the Commonwealth’s election procedures to ensure that all voters, including young people voting for the first time, can safely and securely participate in the 2020 primary and general elections,” said Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. “While there are many legislative, regulatory and financial considerations, we also must be ready to deploy innovative partnerships—between state and local officials, universities, schools, non-profit organizations, and the media—to ensure that Massachusetts’ voters have access to clear and reliable information about voting.”

In developing this report, cSPA was aided by a number of election experts, including Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tisch College, and Brian Schaffner, Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts.

In the coming months, cSPA plans to release:

  • An analysis of the Transportation Climate Initiative, which would establish a regional cap-and-trade system covering emissions from cars and trucks; and,
  • Research on the projected impact of the fall 2020 ballot questions, potentially including right to repair, nursing home reimbursement rates, expanded sales of beer and wine in food stores and ranked-choice voting.

A Civic Green New Deal

In a new paper from Tisch College entitled “The Civics of a Green New Deal,” Carmen Sirianni proposes civic strategies to address the climate crisis. A “civic” approach means engaging citizens and a wide range of organizations in planning, negotiation, and coordinated action.

Below is a preface that I wrote. The whole document is on the Tisch College site.

Command-and-control regulation and taxing-and-spending will not suffice [to address the climate crisis]. To see why, consider the example of public transportation. If more people made more use of trains, we would burn less carbon and could mitigate local effects of climate change by shifting commuting and development patterns to better locations. Public spending is necessary for this purpose, but it is insufficient. To help the climate, large numbers of people must actually use new public transportation options. If many residents oppose construction, they will block or delay public works projects in their own backyards. On the other hand, if people have a say in where and how the money is spent, their input will help to ensure that new transportation is genuinely popular and heavily used. People who are involved in the public effort are also more likely to adjust their purchases, business decisions, and volunteering to benefit the environment.

Addressing the climate crisis is all the reason we need to make a Green New Deal civic. Sirianni offers much advice, based on decades of experience and research, about how to incorporate public involvement in such large-scale efforts. For readers who are primarily concerned about the environment, his paper speaks for itself.

I will, however, add another reason to support a civic version of the Green New Deal. Like the environment, democracy faces deep challenges globally, arguably amounting to a second crisis. Freedom House has “recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018. The global average score has declined each year, and countries with net score declines have consistently outnumbered those with net improvements.”[1] Many powerful and influential countries are authoritarian (e.g., China) or have moved from democracy toward authoritarianism (e.g., Brazil and India). Public opinion data from many countries, including the United States, reveals disaffection with liberal and democratic values and growing support for authoritarianism.[2]

Two responses are widely considered and promoted. One is to reform the processes or systems of democracy in a given country: how elections are financed, how electoral districts are drawn, how rights are defined and enforced, how corruption is investigated and punished, and related topics. The other response is to support political movements, parties, and candidates who honor democratic principles while they also effectively address concrete problems that matter to large constituencies, such as recessions, inequality, violence—or, indeed, climate change.

Both responses are appropriate and worthy, although the details vary in each country (and each US state). But there is also another way to strengthen democracies. Citizens need opportunities to address crucial problems together. They need the skills, encouragement, and support to be part of improving their own communities. They must work together across demographic and partisan divides and with various kinds of institutions and professions. Such opportunities generate support for democratic political systems. In their absence, we can expect alienation and polarization that weaken democracy.

The original New Deal was designed to address an economic crisis. The unemployment rate reached 24.9% in 1933. That was the main—and perhaps a sufficient—rationale to launch massive public works programs, just as the climate crisis is the main reason for environmental programs today. But the original New Deal also helped to save democracy at a time when most of the world was governed by dictators or foreign empires. Americans gained a sense of agency, optimism, confidence, loyalty to democratic institutions, appreciation for differences, and public purpose by serving in or cooperating with New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Many WPA projects explicitly extolled democracy in innovative and compelling ways that still resonate today.[3] The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) not only gave productive employment to the same demographic group that was a bulwark of fascism in Europe—unemployed young men without college educations—but also offered a nonpartisan curriculum in support of democracy.[4]

The New Deal did not adequately confront racial injustice. It largely preserved gender hierarchies. For these reasons and others, it left the project of building democracy badly incomplete. But it arguably did more to preserve and improve democratic institutions than any of the political reforms that occurred in the same era. The change was cultural and proved lasting. The New Deal shifted behaviors, values, and expectations—including expectations for racial justice, which bore fruit in the next generation.[5]

If the United States and other advanced economies attempt to address the climate crisis through substantial public spending (which is the heart of the Green New Deal), they must again take the opportunity to preserve and strengthen democracy. That means applying the detailed advice in Carmen Sirianni’s paper.


[1] Freedom House, Freedom in the World, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019.

[2] Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy, no. 1 (2017): 5-16.

[3] Jane De Hart Mathews, “Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy,” The Journal of American History (1975): 316-339.

[4] Melissa Bass, The Politics and Civics of National Service: Lessons from the Civilian Conservation Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2013).

[5] Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

ideologies and complex systems

A recent paper entitled “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology”* presents a theory much like the one I have begun to develop in a series of posts on this blog and other work.

The authors write,

If we construe ideologies as complex systems, we have (at least) two levels of systems embedded in each other. At the individual level, the elements are ideas, beliefs, and values, whose interactions give rise to a person’s understanding of society, which in turn guides individual political behavior. At the group level, the elements are individual minds whose interactions give rise to discourses and power dynamics, which in turn guide collective action and societal change. We thus conceive of an ideological system as a network of minds, where minds are networks of concepts.

Fig 1 illustrates their model. Compare a diagram of the ideas held by my undergraduate class some years ago (with each student’s ideas in a different color):

The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” also diagram the ideology of the Tea Party Movement, using the qualitative analysis in a well-known article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin as their material.

Their diagram of the Tea Party is not heavily documented, but it demonstrates a payoff of their method. A paradox about the Tea Party is that they were powerful opponents of Obamacare yet passionate defenders of Medicare. The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” explain this pattern by arguing that “representations of social programs are connected on one hand with representations of the self as a hard worker contributing to society and, hence, deserving of the government check …, but on other hand with the highly negative representations of government, spending, and taxation common to conservative ideologies.”

Each idea and link in the Tea Party ideology is consistent enough in its own way, and the overall system generates a combination of policy positions that only seem inconsistent if you try to place the whole ideology on one linear spectrum from pro- to anti-welfare. As a network of ideas, the ideology is as well structured as many others are. This is not an endorsement, since some of the specific nodes in the Tea Party’s network are objectionable by my lights. But a complex systems model offers a more refined analysis.

The word “complex” is used loosely and in various ways, but the authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” mean systems that exhibit “emergence, nonlinearity (disproportionality of cause and effect), path dependency, and multiple equilibria.” In the Tea Party ideology, for example, resentment of groups perceived as undeserving (which, in turn, is a racialized perception) has a powerful effect because of its location in the whole network. The Tea Party can land in several places (libertarian or #MAGA) that reflect multiple equilibria.

I find it intuitive that our ideas are structured and that the structures matter apart from the lists of individual ideas we hold. I acknowledge that we are not necessarily conscious of the whole structures of our own thought. Self-consciousness requires critical introspection and/or interaction with other people, and it is always partial.

However, I do believe we are conscious of portions of the network at any given time–not just the individual ideas, but the connections among them. Much of our discourse is about mini-structures of ideas, e.g., “I think this because of that.” Methods that reveal structures of ideas and links are alternatives to the family of methodologies that use latent variables to “explain” lists of specific beliefs, as in Moral Foundations Theory. I believe that such methods assume rather than demonstrate that human beings are driven by a few unconscious psychological traits. Although such explanations offer some insight, they should be combined with methods that allow us to see how people and groups build more complex structures. This is why I am excited to see this new paper and the work that underlies it.

* Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Jonathan Leader Maynard, Matto Mildenberger, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Stephen Quilley, Tobias Schröder, & Paul Thagard. “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology: Cognitive-Affective Structures and the Dynamics of Belief Systems.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 1.1 (2013): 337-363. Web. 4 May. 2020. I had been previously influenced by Thagard’s work although I have not made the detailed study of it that it deserves.

See also: judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; etc. `