Is the Preference for Chaos a Rational Decision?

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

Is the Preference for Chaos a Rational Decision?

The study of “fake news” and other rumors spread via social media are gaining steam.  Recent work by political scientists fundamentally challenges the conventional wisdom about the fake news phenomenon and the motivations of those who spread it.  The incorporation of political psychology shifts the focus from fact-checking and rumor control, to exploring the deeper motivations of those who spread toxic rumors online.

The standard response to fake news is to combat it with accurate information and fact-checking.  For example, the website is a frequent go-to for social media users seeking to correct mistaken information they see circulating.  Yet most of us who have attempted to correct rumors in this way know what it feels like to crash headlong into the absolute resistance of those spreading the falsehoods, who refuse to acknowledge that they are incorrect or to retract the false information.  Frequently, they lash out instead with attacks against those disseminating the accurate information, including the mainstream news media, professors and other researchers, prominent politicians from one or more political parties that they do not support, and even the website itself.  Why is this?

A recent article by Michael Bang Petersen, Matthias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arcenaux suggests a remarkable, alternative explanation.  Put briefly, Peterson et. al. develop a concept they call the Need for Chaos, which they test with six different surveys in which respondents answer questions such as “I get a kick when natural disasters strike foreign countries,”I think society should be burned to the ground,” and “I need chaos around me—it is boring when nothing is going on.”  Some of their questions were inspired by movies, including The Dark Knight and Fight Club. Their independent variables measure a variety of personality traits including competitiveness, the need for status, feeling displaced, partisanship, and loneliness.  All six of their studies confirmed their hypothesis that a significant number of Americans surveyed expressed a need for chaos.  Remarkably, they even found that those motivated to share fake news online were less likely to believe that it was true than were the others in the study.

This is a big deal.  Peterson et. al.’s research debunks the idea that solving the fake news problem is just a matter of fact-checking, or education in the proper application of the scientific method.  Rather, their research proposes that we need to look at underlying motivation, not misinformation, as the driver behind online informational discord.  Put simply, those with a need for chaos often know that the “news” they share is incorrect.  They do not care.  Their goal is to undermine the existing social order, not to disseminate accurate information.

Why the need for chaos?  Petersen et. al. get a remarkable head start on the answer with their findings that the individuals most likely to have this need feature a combination of traits including a need for status, competitiveness, a feeling of social dislocation, and loneliness.  In their final study they even created social isolation within the study itself, by randomly assigning two groups to play a game called “Cyberball.” One group was excluded when they tried to participate in the game, the other was included.  Sure enough, this experiment produced more people expressing the need for chaos in the first group than the second, and the results were statistically significant.

This tentative research may be just a beginning.  I read about Peterson et. al.’s research earlier this summer and was reminded to find and read their whole study while reading and teaching Sebastian Junger’s recent book Tribe.  A journalist who covered the war in Afghanistan, Junger was inspired to write the book when he discovered that he was experiencing more trauma upon returning home to the U.S. than he did in the war zone.  He then produced this secondary source book of research, which indicated that this was common among combat veterans.  Not only that, but he also discovered that suicide is just as common in non-combat veterans as it is in combat veterans.  Delving deeper, Junger discovered that depression and suicide are far more common in wealthy, developed countries than they are in poorer ones, and these horrors are almost completely non-existent in war zones and following natural disasters.  Briefly, his conclusion is that when people are forced to band together to survive, they experience the human contact and sense of being part of something purposeful that is so often missing in wealthy societies during peacetime.

Junger’s now findings bring to mind another book by a journalist, Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: Why Life Gets Better While We Feel Worse, published in 2004.  While Easterbrook documented the phenomenon, Junger goes deeper, finding that the prosperity of Western society is at the root of our unhappiness.  Humans, Junger argues, have a deep need for social connection and physical touch.  Furthermore, we feel most alive when we are in catastrophic situations, such as rescuing someone in an emergency or banding together for survival.  Today’s first-world wealth renders these ideas obsolete.  We have enough money to live in individual living spaces, separated into nuclear families or even individuals living alone.  Separate rooms for children mean far less physical touch from parents, which in turn explains first-world phenomena ranging from stuffed animals to our boundless (and expensive) obsession with pampering our pets.  Disasters are handled by professional first responders, who are only a 911 call away.  There is no longer a need to get personally involved in helping a stranger.

This contrast between the wealthier and poorer countries begs another insight—the fact that the 2019 Gallup Global Emotions Report ranks Paraguay as the happiest country on Earth.  I have visited Paraguay thanks to a U.S. State Department program called the Partners of the Americas.  The country is an economic and political basket case– a landlocked country that twice lost many of its young males in disastrous wars against its neighbors, one of which also cost it about half of its land. Paraguay now ranks 92nd of 196 countries for GDP.  The political system is a mess characterized by frequent coups.  Yet when visiting Paraguay, I couldn’t help but notice a certain freedom, spontaneity, and zest for life among the people I met that is often lacking here in the U.S.

The combination of Petersen et. al.’s research with Junger’s leads to an important implication—the preference for chaos may be rational.  Junger clearly documents that people in crisis situations and war zones are much less likely to feel lonely, depressed, or suicidal, and more likely to band together for support and survival.  This in turn gives a feeling both of being part of a group, and of being part of something more important than oneself, both of which are frequently shown to be essential to a person’s sense of happiness and well-being.  Such conditions also increase human interactions and physical touch.  It is entirely logical to believe that those feeling lonely or socially displaced would be particularly prone to craving this sort of chaos over a social order that isolates them, offering little joy, interaction, touch, fulfillment, or sense of being part of something that really matters.

This mash-up of two very different studies forces us to face the idea that the preference for chaos not only exists, not only drives much of the spread of “fake news” online, but also that it is a rational, defensible choice made by people feeling socially isolated.  These people may believe that they would be happier, more needed, and more fulfilled in times of chaos then under the existing political, social, and economic order. What’s more—and what’s alarming—is that they just may be correct.


Michael A. SmithMichael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter

Govern the Ungoverned: How State Presence Leads to Civil Conflict

By Luwei Ying, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis

Govern the Ungoverned

Political scientists and policy-makers have long argued that state weakness leads to civil conflict while enhancing state power helps prevent violence. Why, then, has increased state capacity worldwide coincided with more civil conflicts? This paper offers one potential explanation by disentangling the relationship between state power projection and civil conflict at the sub-national level. While most previous literature studies state capacity at the country level, state presence — also termed as state penetration or state reach — is in essence a spatial phenomenon. States do not govern each local area equally well at any given time (e.g., Lee, 2018). I argue that the overall increasing state capacity enables and incentivizes the state to govern the previously ungoverned or poorly governed regions. Such enhanced state presence often provokes the local non-state powers and can trigger civil conflict. The effect is particularly likely in peripheral regions where residents are concentrated disadvantaged ethnic groups. This unintended consequence of state presence may account for the higher levels of violence taking place in these regions.

These arguments speak to a larger debate on the global trend of armed conflict and the role that state capacity plays in it (Gohdes and Price, 2013; Lacina and Gleditsch, 2013; Pinker, 2011; Sarkees, Wayman and Singer, 2003; Scott, 2010). Noticing that ungoverned spaces have started to disappear as state capacity grows after World War II, Scott (2010) sends a caveat that clashes may occur between the peasant communities and the intrusive state. While optimist views represented by Pinker (2011) suggest that increasing state capacity decreases violence over time, the current paper indicates that extending state presence has indeed come with a backlash.

I conduct two sets of analyses to demonstrate the proposed effect of state presence. The first analysis is at the first-level administrative units, e.g., provinces. Following Lee and Zhang (2016), I use the accuracy of census data as a proxy for state presence, which covers seventy-four countries across twenty-five years. The periodic nature of census allows me to calculate the change of state presence over time. The civil conflicts concerned here are those that fall within each province in the years subsequent to the census. I find that a large rise in state presence increases civil conflicts in succeeding years. This violence-inducing effect is moderated by two conditions: distance to the capital and the presence of geographically concentrated ethnic minorities. State presence is more likely to trigger violence in distant regions and in those with different disadvantaged ethnic identities. This pattern, as depicted by Figure 1, is consistent with the theory relying on the resistance from non-state actors because the two moderators often favor the formation of a local authority prior to the state’s arrival.

Figure1Caption: Marginal Effects of Enhanced State Presence Using Kernel Estimators

Note: The 95% confidence intervals are shown. They are obtained from a non-parametric bootstrap procedure clustering on countries.

The second analysis is at the ethnic group level. I collect global ground transportation data (road and railroad) and overlay it with the settlement patterns of politically relevant ethnic groups using Geographical Information System (GIS). Figure 2 shows an example with Nigeria. This constitutes a measure of state presence in relation to individual ethnic groups. Multiple data sources identify the conflict incidents for which each ethnic group claims responsibility. Results further show that, among ethnic groups not fully incorporated into the state systems, those reached by the state are more likely to revolt than their isolated counterparts.

Figure2Caption: Measuring State Presence Engaged with the Ethnic Tiv (Nigeria) using Transportation Connection

Note: The connection points counted here are those that connecting the Tiv to the other parts of Nigeria (eventually to the capital, Abuja, through the transportation network) but not to other neighboring countries.

This study provides insights into understanding the puzzling and complex relationships between state capacity and civil conflict. The sub-national level analyses challenge the conventional wisdom that extending statehood reduces violent incidents (Pinker, 2011) and show that it could have the opposite effect. The paper thus deepens our understanding of the state’s role in civil conflicts. It implies that state building practice should put more weight on negotiations with established local non-state authorities to prevent fierce resistance. However, Scott (2010)’s argument that groups in peripheral areas often settled there to escape the state’s reach suggests this will be hard.


Luwei Ying

About the Author: Luwei Ying, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130;



Gohdes, Anita and Megan Price. 2013. “First Things First: Assessing Data Quality before Model Quality.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 57(6):1090-1108.

Lacina, Bethany and Nils Petter Gleditsch. 2013. “The Waning of War Is Real: A Response to Gohdes and Price.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 57(6):1109-1127.

Lee, Melissa M. 2018. “The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State.” International Organization 72(2):283-315.

Lee, Melissa M. and Nan Zhang. 2016. “Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity.” The Journal of Politics 79(1):118-132.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York, NY: Viking.

Sarkees, Meredith Reid, Frank Whelon Wayman and J. David Singer. 2003. “Inter-State, Intra-State, and Extra-State Wars: A Comprehensive Look at Their Distribution over Time, 1816-1997.” International Studies Quarterly 47(1):49-70.

Scott, James C. 2010. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

By Matthew Charles Wilson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of South Carolina 

This blog was originally published by the Incubator for Teaching Innovation at the College of Arts and Sciences/University of South Carolina:

Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

With virtual instruction being the current norm and physical distance separating instructors and students, it is imperative that teachers seek out ways to foster personal connections to students.  There are a variety of ways that instructors might do this—including live-streaming classes and engaging with students through discussion forums on Blackboard—, but class sizes and obligations can limit the extent to which professors can interact with every student.

There are relatively simple ‘hacks’ that can help personalize your communication with students.  This blog post outlines, in just a few steps, how to send mass emails that are unique to each student.  This enables teachers to write and send only one email but tailors it to every student.  Adopting this practice can help to augment students’ learning experience by maintaining personal communication, albeit with the help of Microsoft Office.

As an instructor, I have found that communicating with students in larger classes in this way encourages them to be more engaged. Students often respond to the messages not only to indicate that they have received the information, but sometimes expressing surprise that the professor took the time to send a personal email. Their appreciation for personal attention has also come across in student evaluations of teaching effectiveness.

Beyond helping to cultivate a feeling of personal concern for students, the Mail Merge feature provides a helpful way to distribute links to assignments that may vary by student (such as circulating peer drafts of writing for review). As teachers work to conduct class online in an isolated environment, this simple feature offers one additional way to recognize students individually and to remind them that they matter.

(aka How To Do This For The First Time)

Step 1: Prepare the spreadsheet.

The first thing to do is to create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel that contains, at a minimum, the students’ names, emails, and whatever you want to convey.  Blackboard enables you to download information from the class gradebook, such as names and student IDs, as a spreadsheet (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Basic gradebook information provided by Blackboard.

Create new columns to add in personalized comments (as shown in Figure 2) and use the student IDs to generate their email addresses.

Figure 2Figure 2. Create new columns to add comments for individual assignments or personal notes.

This is the same as their ID, plus ‘’ (Figure 3).

Figure 3Figure 3. To generate emails from student IDs, add ‘’.

This gives you all the input fields that you might want to send a personalized message (illustrated by Figure 4).

Figure 4Figure 4. Input fields necessary to create personalized message.

Step 2: Write the message.

The second thing to do is to open a blank document in Microsoft Word. Selecting the ‘Mail Merge Wizard’ that is available under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’ (Figure 5) will walk you through the process of drafting and sending a message that includes the input fields from the spreadsheet.

Figure 5Figure 5. Select ‘Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard’ under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’.

The Mail Merge Wizard first asks you want kind of document you would like to create.  For email messages, select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step (Figure 6).

Figure 6Figure 6. Select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step.

Then select ‘Use the current document’ and continue (Figure 7).

Figure 7Figure 7. Select ‘Use the current document’.

To connect the spreadsheet to the document, select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the saved spreadsheet on your computer (Figure 8).

Figure 8Figure 8. Select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the spreadsheet.

Click through to select which students to message (Figure 9).

Figure 9Figure 9. Click through to select which students to message.

To personalize the message, draft the email and then select ‘More Items’ to choose input fields that refer to student-specific information, such as their name (Figure 10).

Figure 10Figure 10. Select ‘More Items’ to embed input fields into the message, then continue.

I like to further ‘personalize’ the message by adding a scanned image of my signature (Figure 11).

Figure 11Figure 11. To add a handwritten signature, save your signature as an image and insert.

Clicking through the Mail Merge Wizard allows you to see the individualized messages for each student, as illustrated by Figure 12.

Figure 12Figure 12. Clicking through enables you to view each student’s personalized message.

To send the messages, move to the next step by clicking ‘Complete the merge’ and select ‘Electronic Mail’ on the right-hand side (Figure 13).

Figure 13Figure 13. Indicate the recipient by selecting the appropriate input field from the spreadsheet.

Make sure that the input field containing students’ email addresses is selected to designate the recipient (‘To’).  You can also title the message by adding words to ‘Subject Line’.

Once you are ready to send the message, open the Microsoft Outlook application on your computer and click ‘OK’ to send individualized messages to each student listed in the spreadsheet.  The Microsoft Outlook application must be open on your computer for the messages to be delivered, or it will ‘queue’ them until you open the desktop application.  Figure 14 shows the type of message that each student will receive.

Figure 14Figure 14. Example email that students will receive.


Matthew WilsonMatthew Wilson received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and is a proud faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Wilson is also involved with the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden.  He is interested in the interactions of autocratic leaders and institutions, particularly with regard to regime change and conflict outcomes.  His focus on regimes deals with literature on sources of regime instability and democratic transitions, which are particularly salient issues in the developing world.  Some of the courses he has taught include theoretical approaches to studying dictatorship, Comparative Politics, and governments in Latin America.  As a comparativist scholar, Dr. Wilson has a special interest in the politics of Latin America and historical development.  His profile focuses on comparative political institutions and includes advanced skills in quantitative methods and additional languages. Dr. Wilson also has a passion for international travel and language; he has traveled to nearly fifty countries and hopes to add many more experiences to the list in the near future.

Adjusting/Adapting Assignments for Flexibility and Engagement in Online Instruction

By Diane E. Schmidt, Ph.D., California State University, Chico, Political Science

Adjusting/Adapting Assignments for Flexibility and Engagement in Online Instruction

Online instruction, especially with students who are unfamiliar with online learning, requires balancing teaching across the familiar to the unfamiliar so that assignments are challenging but also support/reinforce what students already know.  Such linkage seems especially important for helping socialize and engage students in the learning process by scaffolding from what they know to how to understand and apply new material.  In addition to having engaging exercises, creating assignments that faculty can easily adapt from face-to-face delivery to online delivery reduces the disruptive impact of sudden shifts in course delivery due to unanticipated interruptions from traumatic events such as devastating fires or pandemics.  The expected learning outcome of this approach is three-fold.

First, and foremost, such assignments provide an opportunity for an informed, yet thoughtful discussion that engages students in using class concepts with applications to events in their community or environment.

Second, depending on the level of engagement expected, the assignments can create opportunities for students to engage in a shared experience to help them develop an interconnectedness with the material, as well as with each other.

Finally, by creating a safe space for interacting with the substantive course material, it can foster or help develop students’ confidence in working collaboratively with other students as well as developing a level of trust between students and faculty.

The following demonstrates the parameters for adapting class discussions to online discussion board interactions.

  • It is recommended, as part of the learning process, that faculty provide students with opportunities for face-to-face discussions with their classmates, but also provide, early in the semester, an opportunity for online discussions through the discussion board. In face-to-fact classes, this would be possibly a pair and share exercise; online it can be managed with breakout “rooms” through programs such as Zoom.
  • The online discussion question needs to incorporate an application of assigned reading concepts as well as a current events or field application.
    • Each question should be provided to students at least a week in advance of the discussion.
    • Student responses should be due on a specified date and time.
    • The student answers should be written and posted to a discussion board or to an assignment tab; students should not be able to see other students’ posts until they have posted an answer themselves.
    • This assignment should be a low point value assignment and graded on compliance with the assignment standards rather than on the quality of the analysis.
  • The questions should be anchored on commonly known information and lead students into relating concepts to hypothetical, field, or community applications.
    • Provide internet links in the question to assist students in connecting what they think they know with a context at the community level.
    • Alternatively, have students link what is known in their field of study with an application of a concept.
  • The question should be structured so that students know the expected context of the question, as well as the expectations for academic discourse. These include expectations for proofed, grammatically correct, full paragraphs, sourced/authoritative descriptive analysis, as well as number of paragraphs, lines, and/or word count.
    • The secondary outcome here is to train students to write based on sourced information and informed opinion.
    • This simplifies grading and keeps it focused on skill building and self-expression as a form of engagement.
  • For class engagement, all students post their answers and all other students must respond/comment on at least two other students answer stating that they either agree or disagree with them and give an authoritative reasoned opinion. The responses should also have parameters including number of words/sentences and expectations for a paragraph development.
    • In class, that could take the form of teams for collaborative work so that they identify where they agree and disagree, and reasons for similar and different perspectives, and write the results collaboratively.
    • Online, that should take place in a discussion board forum.

Here is an assignment example for a Personnel Class using current event applications, low point value:

  • Read the case below and share your response; refer to the identified reading at least once.  Reply to at least two other student posts.
  • Your response must be at least a full paragraph with a topic sentence, at least one reference, and at least 4 to 5 sentences long. This should be about at least between 100 and 150 words, minimum.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  •  Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  In response to California Governor Newsom’s mandate to citizens to stay-at-home and for all nonessential businesses and organizations to shut down, employers in public, private, and nonprofit sectors have shifted nonessential personnel to either telecommuting positions, staggered reduced hours, or furlough either with or without pay.  Even before the mandate, telecommuting presented public managers some wicked HR issues in adapting their performance management systems for measuring performance outcomes of remote work.

  • Explain the disadvantages of a performance management system that is not adapted for employees shifted from full time face-to-face office work to telecommuting or staggered reduced hours for a) employees, b) managers, and c) the organization.
  • Suggest which characteristics of performance management systems should be targeted for adapting existing performance management systems for improved measurement of employees who have been shifted to telecommuting or staggered, reduced hours.
  • Students will need at least three paragraphs or more to answer this question.  Please review the ancillary materials posted on the class website, and review the materials linked to the question in this box (in blue font-just click on the blue, underlined text).

Here is an assignment example based on a field application, with higher expectations and point value:

Instructions:  The following format is required for all answers to the questions for each chapter.

  • The answers to the chapter questions need to be in full paragraphs and have at one paragraph per part of the question. Most questions have at least two parts, and many have three or more.
  • Each paragraph must be at least 3 to 5 sentences long. Do not submit paragraphs that are shorter than 50 words or longer than 250 words.
  • Students must reference where they found information from both the textbook (with page numbers) and from outside the textbook sources IN EACH PARAGRAPH. That means each answer must have at least 2 references and a reference list in full bibliographic citation using a standard author-date format (APA, CMS, etc.).
  • Each assertion made must be fully explained, and backed up by evidence as is necessary to support the assertion.
  • No alternative facts allowed (i.e., undocumented opinion/evidence). All evidence must come from the textbook, academic, government sources, and/or reputable experts.  Please do not use blogs, tweets, Facebook, Snap Chat, or other social media.
  • All keywords provided must be used and underlined in bold so that I can see that students used the prompts. Some concepts and keywords have internet links to assist students.  These links are found in text indicated in blue font.
  • Do not quote directly from the textbook or other source; just summarize or paraphrase. Plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the assignment for the first offense, and a failing grade in the course for repeated problems with plagiarism.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  • Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  Define the term faith-based initiative.  Consider the faith-based initiatives that operate within your field.  Are they more or less effective than public or private services being delivered?  Should they be held to a different standard?  Do these initiatives violate the First Amendment establishment clause, which creates a wall of separation between church and state? (key words: faith based, First Amendment establishment clause, church, state).  Students will need at least four paragraphs to answer this question.


Diane E. SchmidtDiane E. Schmidt is a full professor, has a PhD in Political Science from Washington University, and has taught courses in American institutions, political behavior, public policy analysis/evaluation, public administration, collaborative management, planning, and comparative government for nearly 40 years.  Dr. Schmidt has been teaching online classes for over 10 years and is trained in best practices for online teaching and Universal Design for Learning.  She also works as a professional policy analyst and community consultant and has experience working on federal, state, local, and nonprofit grants and contracts.  Dr. Schmidt has published in peer reviewed journals and presented policy research for forums in policy history, public administration, community development, political science, and labor history.  Dr. Schmidt has recently published the 5th edition of her book, Writing in Political Science (2019).

This blog has been adapted from one originally created for a faculty development workshop on supporting First Generation students, at California State University, Chico, May 2020. 


Do Millennials Exist? Generations, Social Science and the Trouble With De-Bunking

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

The host of TV’s “Adam Ruins Everything,” Adam Conover is easy to identify by his quirky hairsyle and clothes, energetic presentation, and strong intellect.  His signature style is the use of humor and research to de-bunk common beliefs, angering some people while delighting and informing others.   I am tempted to label Conover a Lenny Bruce or George Carlin for the Millennial Generation, except for one problem:  Conover argues that Millennials Don’t Exist.  Nor do the Greatest, Silent, X, or Z generations which create so much buzz in our marketing and pop culture.  If true, this has important consequences for political science and the other social sciences.  But is it?  In fact, even a de-bunker like Conover sometimes needs to be (partially) de-bunked.  Conover makes some great points in his talk, but in the end, generational cohorts do exist, by whatever name.

Invited to give the keynote talk at a marketing conference, Conover was asked to explain what makes his generation tick.  Instead, Conover adopted his signature style, proceeding to de-bunk the entire idea of generations with jokes and facts.  His primary target was this Time magazine article, in which his was labeled the “me me me generation” and accused of having short attention spans, unrealistic expectations and a digital-screen addiction.  Time cited academic research which seemed to indicate that younger Americans are more likely to have narcissistic traits than do their parents or grandparents.  The article featured the predictable complaints about smart phones, social media and texting, college grads moving back in with parents, and of course, participation trophies.

Conover’s take-down was savage.  He correctly pointed out that in Western culture, older generations griping about younger generations dates back at least to Ancient Greece.  While Conover cited Hesiod, my personal favorite is Aristophanes, the playwright who ridiculed Socrates in The Clouds.  This comedy features a father, Strepsiades, ranting that his son, Pheidippades, has no work ethic and spends his time and money at the chariot races, while dad works hard to make ends meet.  Sound familiar?  The Clouds was written in approximately 419 B.C.E.!  Hesiod is even earlier, his work dated sometime between 650 and 750 B.C.E.  Apparently, older generations have been calling younger ones lazy, spoiled, and entitled this entire time.  There is nothing new here.

In addition, Conover made other important rebuttals, including that it is hard (and rather arbitrary) to establish the years which form generational boundaries, and that it is common for people’s interests, politics, and values to shift as they get older—regardless of when they were born.  Political scientists have long known about this issue, which is why our research distinguishes between life-cycle and cohort effects.  However, research indicates that even when life cycle effects are controlled, there are still notable, generational differences in our political views. That research includes the comprehensive study by the Pew Charitable Trusts which supplies most of the hyperlinks for this blog entry. Perhaps most notable is that the generations are shifting in different directions.  The Pew data show that two adjacent generations, both well into adulthood—Baby Boomers and Generation X—are moving in opposite directions from one another.  Boomers are often stereotyped as the generation of hippies, “women’s lib,” Woodstock, and Vietnam war protests.  Yet these images have always been misleading.  For example, over 10 million Boomers—including an estimated 40% of eligible males—served in the military during their youth, including many who saw combat in Vietnam.  Today, the Boomers are shifting toward being more conservative.

My experiences as a college freshman fit the popular image of Generation X.  Known for being snarky and cynical, our generation came of age in the shadow of Vietnam.  A political and news junkie since childhood, my early political memories include inflation, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and hearing my parents discuss Watergate.  The lesson:  you cannot trust government, they are a joke and cannot do anything right.  During my freshman year at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State), a 1988 student newspaper poll found that three-quarters of the school’s students were backing George H. W. Bush over my candidate, Democrat Michael Dukakis.  My peers decorated their dorm rooms with a popular poster featuring an oceanfront mansion, exotic cars and a helicopter.  The tagline was  “Justification for Higher Education.”  The Reagan Generation did not want to “imagine no possessions” like that Boomer icon, John Lennon.  No thanks, we were here for our piece of the pie—a big one, please.  Perhaps it worked:  more-recent data show Gen X being the only generation to recover from the 2008 housing crash.

Today, Generation X is becoming more liberal.  This defies a common understanding that people shift toward being more conservative as they age, typified in a famous quote mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill:  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re are not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”   First, there is no record of Churchill actually saying this.  Second, how on earth would this popular view of life-cycle changes explain why those of us in our 40s and early 50s are becoming more liberal?  Pew data show a cleavage between Millenials and Xers trending liberal, on the one hand, while Boomers and Silents move the opposite direction.  Additional data reinforce the finding that this is more than just life cycling.  As the Pew researchers note, “First-year job approval ratings for Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, differ markedly across generations. By contrast, there were only slight differences in views of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton during their respective first years in office.”

Returning to Millennials, perhaps the best description of them comes from Conover’s own talk.  As he points out, far from being narcissistic and entitled, Americans born in the late 1980s and the 1990s are in fact defined by less job security, including weakened labor unions (particularly in the private sector), low pay, and an expectation that college students and even graduates have to work at unpaid internships in order to get ahead.  He also shows America’s current young adults have more debt than their predecessors did at their age.  Not surprisingly, they have more anxiety about what lies ahead.  So-called Millennial narcissism may just be a tendency to for people to be more inward-looking when they are anxious about the future.  Also, forget those participation trophies:  the real cause of college grads moving back in with parents is skyrocketing housing costs.

Sorry, Adam.  Your talk is mis-titled.  It should have been called, “Millennials Exist, But Everything You Believe About Them Is Wrong.”  Just about everything else in his talk is spot-on, but as the Pew study shows, generational cohorts do exist.  They are an important part of political and sociological analysis.  Of course, one should never commit the ecological fallacy by generalizing the overall traits of a group back to each individual in the group (does any family really have 1.9 children?)  Yet overall, generational cohorts do have distinct identities, and those identities are worth watching for political and other social scientists.  Comedians, too.


Michael A. Smith

Michael A. Smith is a Gen Xer, Professor of Political Science, and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  His newest, co-authored book is Low Taxes and Small Government: Sam Brownback’s Great Experiment in Kansas (Lexington 2019)

NHA’s New Toolkit: Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program

By Cecily Hill, NEH for All Director of Community Initiatives


As of this writing, colleges and universities around the nation have closed their doors; most have shifted to online learning. In-person public programs are on pause, indefinitely. For the majority of us, large components of our work have come to a screeching halt, while we have had to abruptly shift to scores of new personal and professional challenges.

At the National Humanities Alliance, we are continuing our work to document the impact of the humanities in a variety of contexts, but with a particular eye toward how humanities organizations and institutions are serving their communities and constituencies during this challenging time. We are also using this time to support humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations as they plan for the future.

With this in mind, we are launching a new resource for humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations. Our new toolkit, Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program, is aimed at helping the humanities community collect data about the impact of programs such as professional development seminars, public humanities projects, and programs for students that prepare them for college and help them imagine humanities careers. By collecting this data, you can better make the case for the impact of your work and the resources to support it.

With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, since 2018 our NEH for All initiative has been helping National Endowment for the Humanities grantees document their impact through surveys of participants in their programs. In partnership with project directors, we’ve designed and implemented pre- and post-program surveys that take into account the programs’ immediate goals and their broader social impacts, including impacts on trust, empathy, community connection, and appreciation for and pride in local culture and heritage. Our goal has been to help these partners collect information that makes the case for their work to a range of stakeholders, including funders, organizational leadership, and policymakers. The surveys are designed to be broadly useful for humanities faculty and practitioners in highlighting and evaluating their programs.

The toolkit includes:

  • An introduction to impact-driven surveys;
  • Information about why to survey, how to construct a survey, and how to administer a survey; and
  • Advice for interpreting and using your data.

Many programs that we have surveyed to date took place on college campuses, and the toolkit also includes a suite of editable surveys that can be used in programs run by faculty. These include:

  • Pre- and post-program surveys for a humanities summer bridge program offered to first-generation college students. Among other measures, this survey includes questions about college preparedness, interest in internships with humanities organizations, and understanding of and interest in the humanities.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for two faculty professional development seminars, one focused on an oral history program and the other on integrating local culture and authors into humanities classrooms. The surveys focus on access to resources, the benefits of building interdisciplinary communities of practice, and gains in content knowledge and capacities appropriate to the curricula.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for humanities courses designed specifically for veterans, aimed at helping them reflect on their experiences through humanities texts. These surveys assess how these courses respond to some of veterans’ specific needs, such as help dealing with social isolation and building community. They also assess how humanities resources (art, film, literature, etc.) promote self-reflection and understanding.

Additionally, sample survey questions, grouped according to impact, are designed to help you build strong surveys that document your program’s strengths. In addition to using these questions as they are presented, you can adapt many of them for pre- and post-program surveys, making your evaluations even stronger. These questions have been tested—we’ve used them across many programs and found them successful.

These surveys have provided us with compelling insights into how humanities programs—from professional development seminars to reading and discussion programs—have an impact on higher education institutions, their faculty and students, and the communities they serve. They have also provided our partners and us with robust quantitative and qualitative data that speaks to the humanities’ broad-ranging impacts and can be used to engage policymakers, funders, leadership, and the public.

During this crisis, we know that humanities courses and programs are continuing to offer crucial opportunities for people to learn, reflect, and engage in dialogue. And we know that they will provide still more significant opportunities for reflection and connection in the months and years to come. As you plan for the future, we hope that you find this toolkit useful. And we want to hear from you! If you have questions or need advice, please contact Emily McDonald at

Cecily HillCecily Erin Hill leads NEH for All, an initiative that documents the impact of NEH funding and builds the capacity of humanities organizations to communicate that impact. Prior to joining NHA, Cecily served as Marketing and Communications Director for Books@Work, a public humanities nonprofit based in Cleveland, OH. Her writing has appeared in Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 and Women’s Writing.  She holds a B.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Ph.D. in English from the Ohio State University.

Coping with COVID-19: A Graduate Student’s Reflections

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Coping with COVID-19

About one month ago, I wrote a blog post about strategies for networking at the 2020 MPSA Conference. To be frank, given the last few weeks, my post about networking and my own research seem moot. In the last few weeks, rates of COVID-19 continue to rise in the US and continue to drastically impact other countries around the world. Roughly 135 universities across the US have canceled in-person classes and are moving to online classes: amplifying concerns about food security for students. Over 3.3 million people people have filed for unemployment leaving many, especially workers in the restaurant and travel industry, without jobs for the foreseeable future. I find this uncertain, tumultuous state of the world paralyzing: How is my community doing? How is my family doing? How are my friends doing? How am I doing?

The answers to my questions change daily, but I have much to be grateful for amidst the chaos. My job and income are secure; my family, friends, and colleagues are all healthy and safe. Unfortunately, I know that many people are not as lucky as me. And my heart breaks for people who have lost loved ones, face financial insecurity, and the general negative effects of this pandemic.

Within such a short period of time, I find myself living in a scary and different world. Although I don’t have a lot to offer—I wish I had more—I can offer a few strategies I’m implementing in my life to make it through these trying times. Take whatever you find helpful, and leave everything else.

1). Prioritize Your Mental Health
Limit Your Screen Time
Now that I’m home all day on my laptop, I find myself tempted to binge the news and social media everyday. However, many studies highlight how excessive screen time on social media, news outlets, and large amounts of television can have negative impacts on mental health for adults and adolescents. It especially doesn’t help that when most of us feel anxious, we tend to remember the stressful and threatening information surrounding our anxiety. I’ve decided to take a social media cleanse to prioritize my mental health: I’ve deleted all social media apps on my phone, and I’ve gotten a good friend of mine to change my password on Facebook so I can’t login on my desktop. If that sounds too extreme, another strategy I’ve found effective was limiting my screen time on social media to one hour a day.  

Be Kind to Yourself
Before I deleted Twitter off my phone, I saw many people tweet about their productivity with statements like, “I wrote one chapter of my dissertation, and I also moved my entire class onto Zoom in one week! I am so productive!” While I’m happy that some faculty members and graduate students are pushing through and being productive, hearing about their productivity brought up feelings of shame and guilt. I’d ask myself questions like, “What’s wrong with me—am I overreacting to the coronavirus? Shouldn’t I be able to work the full 50 hours this week?” Ultimately, I’ve realized comparing others productivity to my own was unhelpful; the only purpose it served was beating myself up for my lack of productivity. I’m cutting myself more slack by acknowledging the impact COVID-19 has on me by writing a list of what I can and cannot control. In particular, I’m acknowledging that my stress makes it more challenging to continue working the same number of hours: I personally can’t pretend everything is business as usual. If you find you’re being unkind to yourself and feeling shame, I find Brené Brown’s discussion of the Shame Spiral a helpful resource, especially reaching out to someone you trust and sharing your story.

2). Prioritize Your Physical Health
Build Routine
Right now, it’s hard to know when COVID-19 and physical distancing is going to end. As a result, I’ve focused on building a routine that prioritizes my physical health: sleeping eight hours a night, eating healthier foods, and exercising my body. My advice to myself was simple enough, but I found it challenging to actually workout in the morning and stop eating ramen for lunch everyday after the first week. So, I readjusted my expectations by setting small goals I could achieve. If I’m eating ramen almost everyday for lunch, it is an unrealistic expectation that I make healthy salads for all my lunches and start eating them in one day. If I focus on eating one healthy lunch during the week and gradually changing my behavior, I find that I’m more likely to succeed in my goals—and be kinder to myself if I slip up. I’ve also found an accountability buddy that I text to check-in with and workout with over YouTube videos, which has been extremely helpful. (I’ve heard that some people do Zoom workouts together, although I haven’t tried that yet.) By having a buddy, I find that I hold myself and them more accountable to actually workout together. In the end, part of my fear is the unknown for how long we’ll be living with COVID-19. By building routine into my life that prioritizes my physical health, I find myself feeling better. 

3). Prioritize your Social Health
Practice Physical Distancing: Talk with Family & Friends
Social isolation can have negative consequences on our health: when we feel isolated, our immune and endocrine systems don’t work as well. While I’ve practiced physical distancing, I’ve found myself feeling more lonely, so I’ve been reaching out to my friends and loved ones. I find talking with them on Zoom or over the phone gives me energy and helps address my feelings of loneliness. To be frank, talking with them is usually the highlight of my day. However, I initially found it easy to talk about negative topics for long periods of time with them, so I often left these conversations feeling drained. Now, I emphasize we talk about positive topics like good news in their lives, TV shows that make them laugh, and podcast recommendations. I now have a slew of new shows to watch, which I can talk about with them the next time we check-in to distract ourselves from the world. Finally, I’d say it’s worth checking in with your friends who live alone and don’t have pets. Personally, I’ve found quarantine especially challenging because I’m all alone, and it has meant a lot to me when people reach out to check-in on me. 

Ultimately, as we embrace living a new “normal,” I hope we can treat each other with kindness and help each other during these challenging times. If you’re able, donate to a relief effort; take physical distancing seriously; and reach out to a loved one who may be lonely and struggling during these challenging times. If we all work together, I firmly believe we can make it through these challenges times.


James SteurAbout the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter @JamesSteur

Understanding and Reducing Biases in Elite Beliefs About the Electorate 

by Miguel M. Pereira, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.


A central question in the process of representation is how elected officials gauge and respond to voter signals. As office-seekers, politicians have strong incentives to be informed. However, there is a growing recognition that gauging constituent preferences is more demanding than originally suggested (Butler and Nickerson 2011). Representatives often have a distorted image of their constituents (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Converse and Pierce 1986) Hence, a key ingredient for responsiveness is often missing. In this study, I explore two questions related to this puzzle: (1) why do politicians misperceive voter preferences; and (2) how can misperceptions be mitigated.

I argue that elite misperceptions result from a combination of differential exposure and personal biases of legislators. First, representatives do not interact with all segments of the electorate in the same way. More affluent and organized groups are more likely to make their voices heard in the policymaking process (Giger et al. 2012; Schlozman et al. 2012). If legislators rely on availability heuristics to gauge public preferences, imbalances in political engagement may lead elected officials to overestimate the support for policies endorsed by these subconstituencies. Second, personal biases of elected officials may also hinder the development of accurate beliefs. Representatives may be inclined to engage in social projection: projecting their own policy preferences on voters (Krueger and Clement 1994). This cognitive bias may lead representatives to overestimate support for policies they endorse.

I tested these expectations in two complementary surveys with elected officials. The first study is based on a panel of Swedish MPs covering two decades. This dataset was combined with mass surveys fielded concurrently to create measures of perceptual accuracy. The analyses reveal that elite beliefs disproportionately reflect the preferences of high-status voters: white collar voters, or college-educated, or in the top 15th income percentile, or urban voters. Figure 1 summarizes the main findings. The probability of an MP correctly perceiving the majority opinion on a given policy issue decreases, on average, 12 percentage points when white-collar voters disagree with the median voter. The analyses also show evidence of social projection: elected officials systematically overestimate public support for policies they personally endorse.

Figure 1. The role of high-status voters and MP personal preferences on perceptual accuracy.

Figure 1

Note: Points are estimates from linear probability models with perceptual accuracy as the outcome variable (1 if respondent correctly identifies the majority position on a given issue; 0 otherwise). The key predictors are listed on the y-axis. Each color represents a distinct model based on the operationalization of high-status voters. All models account for preference imbalance and include fixed effects by party, year, and issue.

The second study was designed to provide causal evidence for the key predictions derived from the theory and to assess the degree to which misperceptions can be mitigated. In an original survey that leveraged real political events, 2,918 Swiss local representatives were asked to estimate support for two upcoming referendums in their municipalities. Together with the disaggregated results from the popular votes, these data allowed me to produce precise measures of perceptual accuracy at the local level. Officials were randomly assigned to informational cues designed to (1) overcome inequalities in exposure and (2) social projection. The results reveal that representatives were significantly more accurate in their predictions when encouraged to avoid availability heuristics and to consider the electorate more broadly. Figure 2 presents the main results of the experiment.

Figure 2. The effects of exposure and self-awareness to social projection on perceptual accuracy

Figure 2

Note: Points are estimates of the difference in the probability of Swiss local officials correctly perceiving the expressed preferences of the majority of voters in their constituency by treatment condition (control = baseline).

The findings have several implications for the study of political representation and responsiveness. First, the patterns uncovered provide a rather pessimistic view of the ability for constituents to control public policy. The study joins recent scholarship in the United States uncovering relevant distortions in elite perceptions of public opinion (Broockman and Skovron 2018; Hertel-Fernandez et al. 2019). However, Sweden and Switzerland are two of the most socially inclusive societies in the world. The fact that in both countries inequalities in political voice seem to have meaningful effects on perceptions of public opinion is concerning. The results shed light on the path yet to cover until societies are able to sustain fully inclusive political institutions.

The results also suggest that inequalities in responsiveness may have deeper roots than prior work suggests. Even when legislators are not trying to favor any particular subconstituency, differential exposure can reproduce inequalities in representation by systematically distorting elite beliefs about the preferences of voters.

At the same time, the Swiss study suggests that misperceptions are not inevitable. The informational nudges designed to help legislators avoid availability heuristics induced more accurate beliefs about the electorate. These results suggest that improving perceptions of public opinion is possible even with low impact interventions.


Broockman, David E. and Christopher Skovron. 2018. “Bias in perceptions of public opinion among political elites.’’ American Political Science Review 112(3): 542-563.

Butler, Daniel M. and David W. Nickerson. 2011. “Can learning constituency opinion affect how legislators vote? Results from a field experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6: 55-83.

Converse, Philip E., and Roy Pierce. 1986. Political Representation in France. Harvard University Press.

Giger, Nathalie, Jan Rosset, and Julian Bernauer. 2012. “The poor political representation of the poor in a comparative perspective.” Representation 48(1): 47-61.

Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander, Matto Mildenberger, and Leah C. Stokes. 2019. “Legislative staff and representation in Congress.” American Political Science Review 113(1): 1-18.

Krueger, Joachim, and Russell W. Clement. 1994. “The truly false consensus effect: an ineradicable and egocentric bias in social perception.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67(4): 596-610.

Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Miguel PereiraMiguel Pereira is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focus on political representation and the behavior of political elites in established democracies. For more information about Miguel Pereira, please visit or follow him on Twitter @miguelmaria 

How the Pandemic Became Partisan: A Story of Parties, Science and Professionals

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 


How did the Coronavirus pandemic become partisan?

The partisan divide on responses to the pandemic is only the latest iteration of a story that has been steeping for more than a decade.  Put briefly:  the political parties have realigned, with the Democratic Party now firmly entrenched as the party of the professional class.  Since this includes many epidemiologists currently estimating the impact of COVID 19, this makes their claims inherently suspect to Republicans.  This distrusted professional class also includes mainstream media reporters who are disseminating the news about the pandemic.

While the Democrats also retain others in their coalition, their alignment as the party of university-educated professionals also makes the Republican Party free to align itself as the party of backlash against these professionals.  It has done so, particularly under the leadership of President Trump.  Of course, there has also been a backlash to the backlash among science professionals themselves, some of whom have sought public office despite never having planned to do so before now.

In one of my last face-to-face classes before online migration, we discussed public acceptance or rejection of scientific research.  One of my students suggested that if someone does not trust science, there is not much can be done in the way of persuasion by those of us who do trust that process.  This is incomplete.  In the case of Republican skepticism, not only toward the Coronavirus outbreak but also toward global warming and a host of other problems raised through scientific research, the problem is not that they distrust science.  The problem is, they are less likely to trust scientists, whose views they view as being self-serving, at least in part.

Today’s Trump-supporting Republicans have projected onto the Democratic Party and the word “liberal,” an identification with a professional class that they do not trust, and that they do not believe shares their values.  According to them, professionals—including those engaged in scientific research—are part of an elite, self-serving group of people that know less than they tell us they know.  Frequently utilizing the Internet, and often relying on conservative publications and Fox News, these critics often “clap back” at researchers with data they have gathered on their own.

In this pandemic, the most-frequent tactic of these doubters is to juxtapose their own findings regarding how many people have currently tested positive, and how many have died from the virus, with the much-higher estimates of how many will contract it (including those who already have it but have not been tested), and how many will die.  The difference is vast.  As I write, the number of Americans known to have died of COVID 19 is about 6600, well short of the number who die each year of Influenza strains. Yet one panel of epidemiologists projections holds that even with actions we have already taken, approximately 195,000 Americans will die directly from the virus even with the precautions currently in place.  Others may be lost after being turned away from overflowing hospitals which have no beds or staff available to treat other life-threatening conditions, particularly in “hot spots” such as New York City.  Still other estimates hold that far more people have Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed, due to a shortage of test kits and the fact that the virus can manifest itself with mild symptoms or even none at all, yet these carriers can still spread it.

The latter numbers are all estimates, computed with computer models by experts.  They are only valid if one trusts the data-gathering, the computer models, and most of all, the experts themselves.  Democrats overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they do trust these experts.  Republicans are not so sure.  A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Democrats and independents leaning Democratic saw the pandemic as a major threat.  For Republicans and Republican leaners, the number drops to 33%.  Republicans generally do not deny the existence of a new strain of Coronavirus, nor that it is spreading around the world.  Rather, they distrust the experts regarding the danger it poses, and what to do about it.

This map shows the notable divide between Democratic governors and Republican ones, regarding stay-at-home policies.  As this blog entry goes to press, twenty two states with Democratic governors now have such policies, versus nine with Republican governors.  Interestingly, these nine Republican governors include three which are currently serving in heavily Democratic “blue” states—Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont.  How did they get elected?  Voters are more willing to cross party lines to elect governors than they are for virtually any other office these days.  This leads to an interesting takeaway for those coping with the pandemic:  Americans have more faith in state and local governments than in the federal government, to handle the problem.

Outside of the current pandemic, no contemporary issue more starkly illustrates this partisan divide than global warming, or climate change.  The term climate change itself was coined by a Republican pollster, apparently because it was less foreboding than global warming.  This pollster has since changed his position.

Lexicon does not deter Democrats and Democratic leaners, 78% of whom agree that addressing climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress.  For Republicans and Republican leaners, the number drops to 31%.  Those skeptics that delve more deeply into the issue often offer their own evidence, similar to the current comparisons of Coronavirus deaths to date and those from the flu.  Climate change skeptics argue that the problem is exaggerated.  Experts, or “so-called experts,” as the deniers would say, counter that the full scope of the problem is quite serious and it captured by better, more accurate measures than those used by the skeptics.  Yet in order to make this leap of faith, one must trust the data, the models, and most of all, the experts themselves.  For most Republicans, this is nothing doing.  As with the epidemiologists mentioned above, Trump supporters often dismiss these climatologists as a self-serving political class out for their own interests.  Even the relatively-mainstream Wall Street Journal has editorialized that climatologists are exaggerating the threat.

This distrust of “so-called experts” runs so deep that a few years ago, a sitting speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives suggested that the state should stop using the longstanding practice of budgeting based on consensus revenue estimates compiled by economists.  The then-Speaker proposed that only the amount of money the state currently had on hand should be used for budgeting.  His critics were quick to counter that revenues vary throughout the year—for example, at tax filing time and during Christmas shopping season—and that the consensus estimates had been used for years and had generally proven accurate.  But for Speaker Merrick, the so-called experts espousing estimates instead of counting the actual money on hand were just spouting more government hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo to keep their positions.  If you want to know how much money you have, just count it.

Of course, the doubters’ favorite example of a blown call by experts concerns Trump’s victory itself.  As I detail in this blog entry, the assumption that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag was widespread among reports and pollsters, and it seemed to fit the data from public opinion polls.  However, many political scientists did, in fact, predict that Trump at least had a credible chance to win.  As noted expert Nate Silver put it, the data did show that “Donald Trump has a path to the presidency.”  The problem came when we second-guessed Silver’s and other research findings. Incidentally, the related argument that a poll is not valid unless you or someone you know, personally, has been polled is another classic example of this disagreement.  From a social-scientific standpoint, this objection is absurd.  Polling is based on randomized sampling.  But for Trump supporters, this argument is just another way to counter the so-called experts with some good old common sense.

In the 1950s, professionals often aligned with the Republican Party.  In fact, in the landmark study The American Voter by Converse, Campbell, Miller, and Stokes (1960), the group interest voters were was found to be the largest bloc, and the most commonly-used statements by these voters (using the gendered language of the day) was, “Democrats are for the working man, Republicans are for the businessman.” Today, the political system has realigned, with professionals trending heavily toward Democrats.  While they have long led among voters with postgraduate degrees, Democrats have now overtaken Republicans in support from voters with Bachelor’s degrees as well.  College-educated women are a major reason why the Democrats where able to retake the House majority in 2018, running particularly strongly in suburban districts.

In short, America’s divided response to Coronavirus reflects a partisan realignment, with most of the professional class identifying as Democratic or Democratic leaning, while most of their critics favor Republicans.  It is distrust of these experts—or so-called experts—that drives our partisan response to the current pandemic.


Michael A. SmithMichael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter