Can Gerrymandering be Measured? Here Come the Mathematicians

By Brian Hollenbeck and Michael Smith of Emporia State University

Just weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court acted to sharply limit the role of the courts with regards to partisan gerrymandering. In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court majority upheld the Davis v. Bandemer case of 1976, reaffirming that partisan gerrymandering is a “political question” and refusing to intervene. In Rucho, the Court found that “None of the proposed ‘tests’ for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that judicially discernible and manageable.” They also noted that racial gerrymandering may be held to a different standard, because “race-based decision making…is ‘inherently suspect’ [as per] Miller v. Johnson [1995].”

Are they right? In recent years, mathematicians and mathematically-trained political scientists have begun to weigh in on the gerrymandering question. While the struggle to identify and analyze instances of potential partisan gerrymandering is more than 200 years old, new insights and computer models move it into new territory. Was a state’s congressional district map intentionally drawn to favor one political party?

There are four main criteria one can check to determine if a district map should be flagged for potential partisan gerrymandering:

  1. Does a district contain significantly more or fewer voters than another?
  2. Does the shape of a district appear to be unnatural and thus indicate manipulation?
  3. Does the distribution of voters among the districts negatively affect one party more than another in an election?
  4. Does the outcome of a potential election for a particular district map drastically differ from the expected outcome of a non-partisan map?

Measuring Compactness

The first criterion is known as “one-person, one-vote” and is simple to check. This criterion requires each district contain approximately the same number of voters. In a hypothetical community of 100 people, to be divided into 4 equally-populated districts, there are 1.6 x 1057 possible configurations!

The second criterion stems from the original case of gerrymandering, where the bizarre shape of a state senate election district in Massachusetts provoked a now-famous political cartoon mocking its likeness to a salamander. States have tried to combat this by requiring the shapes of districts to be “compact.” Intuitively, this means the district should not zigzag unnecessarily around the state. But extra constraints such as county lines, rivers, mountains, and population centers necessitate the need for exceptions. Thus, deviation from perfection is to be expected for most districts in most states. To quantify the magnitude of this deviation, mathematicians have created several definitions for compactness.

One perimeter-based definition is known as Polsby-Popper, introduced in 1991. The Polsby-Popper score uses the ratio of the district’s area to the square of its perimeter. This method is advantageous because it is simple to understand and penalizes any shape that meanders a lot. However, this means any district with long borders due to rivers or other physical obstacles will also be penalized.

A second definition makes use of the convex hull of a district. The convex hull can be thought of as the shape a rubber band would make if it were wrapped around the boundary of the district. The score is calculated by finding the ratio of the district’s area and the area of its convex hull. This score can sometimes be easier to calculate than a perimeter-based score since the hull “smooths” convoluted edges. However, this feature could minimize the impact of gerrymandering on a district’s score. Convex hull scores often reach similar overall results as perimeter scores, when comparing districts for compactness.

A third definition of compactness, known as Reock, compares the ratio of the district’s area with the area of a circle that circumscribes the district. This is both simple to calculate and understand. However, the Reock score can be misleading since a district with a large distance in one dimension will automatically require a large circle to contain, thus scoring low for compactness. This is true even if there are natural formations such as a coastline, which may offer a nonpartisan explanation for why the boundary meanders.

In short, there is no one, best standard to use in measuring compactness. Real-world geographical boundaries often complicate matters too much to reach a final conclusion.

Measuring Partisan Bias

These attempts to measure gerrymandering via the district’s shape have led us to a muddle. Perhaps it is time for a different approach, one which focuses on the outcome of an election based on voter distribution, rather than the shape of a district. In this case, we are trying to identify maps drawn in which voters from one party have been spread out among several districts (known as cracking), or grouped together in a few districts (known as packing).

The efficiency gap was introduced by Stephanopoulos and McGhee in 2015 and is calculated by finding the number of wasted votes for each party. A wasted vote is any vote that did not contribute to a party winning its district. Any votes above the minimum needed for a party to win the district are considered unnecessary and therefore “wasted.” Likewise, all votes cast by the losing party in a district are also wasted. The efficiency gap is calculated by finding the difference between wasted votes for the two parties and expressing this difference as a percentage of the total number of voters in a state.

One cannot assume that a high compactness score will always correspond to a low efficiency gap. Alexeev and Mixon have concluded in some situations, “a small efficiency gap is only possible with bizarrely-shaped districts.” In fact, they proved that every districting system will be flagged by at least one of our first three criteria.

Furthermore, convoluted attempts to undermine the minority party can have unintended consequences. The Court’s majority opinion in Rucho noted, “Democrats also challenged the Pennsylvania congressional districting plan at issue in Vieth. Two years after that challenge failed, they gained four seats in the delegation, going from a 12-7 minority to an 11-8 majority. At the next election, they flipped another Republican seat.”

Best Outcome among Many Possibilities

Criterion #4 requires simulation to find the most common outcomes for thousands of random maps. A map could be deemed “gerrymandered” if its election outcome does not fall into one of the expected distributions of seats. This is what the dissenting opinion proposed in Rucho: “Suppose now we have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum – the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other … And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum – at or near the median or way out on one of the tails?”

So, that is exactly what we did. Here at Emporia State, we randomly chose 100,000 possible maps for a hypothetical district of 100 people, divided into four districts. In this district, one party has a 52% majority, the other 48% supports a second party. For the sake of simplicity, these maps did not require the districts to be contiguous. While such districts might not be practical in reality, it does guarantee the most non-partisan maps possible since “urban electoral districts are often dominated by one political party-can itself lead to inherently packed districts” (Rucho). This simulation shows that for a state of 100 voters, about 54% of non-partisan maps will lead to the majority party winning two seats. Another 40% will yield three seats to the majority, while 5% will give the majority one seat.

However, results change dramatically when the parameters for a state are tweaked. As the table below shows, the expected distribution of seats quickly changes if the advantage of the majority party increases.

Number of votes out of 100 for Party X (the majority party)

Seats won by X 50 52 55 60 65 70
1 17% 5% 0% 0% 0% 0%
2 66% 54% 24% 2% 0% 0%
3 17% 40% 63% 43% 14% 3%
4 0% 1% 13% 54% 86% 97%

These trends become more pronounced as the population of a state increases. As the next table indicates, even a slim 52% majority will eventually guarantee Party X wins all four seats if the population is large enough. This fact was recognized by the majority opinion in Rucho: “[i]f all or most of the districts are competitive … even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature.”

Distribution of random map outcomes for various populations when Party X has 52% of the vote

Seats won by X 100 voters 1000 voters 10000 voters
1 5% 0% 0%
2 54% 19% 0%
3 40% 64% 5%
4 1% 17% 95%

A more sophisticated simulation will generate different results. The fact that states generally do not have all their districts vote in favor of a single party indicates that contiguousness of districts affects the outcome. In other words, party affiliation is not randomly distributed across a state. Thus, the minority party is likely to have enough votes concentrated in one region of a state to win at least one district. Simulations that take into account contiguousness, county lines, or other state-specific restrictions will be less random and more likely to benefit the minority party.

North Carolina 2016 House Districts Map

Now let’s try a real-world example. Consider the 13 congressional districts of North Carolina. In the 2016 election, 49.8% of voters selected the Republican nominee for President while 46.2% chose the Democratic nominee. Despite this slim difference, ten of 13 districts voted Republican. Using the given percentages from 2016, suppose we assign each of North Carolina’s 2,706 precincts a voter preference – Republican, Democrat, or neither. We next randomly distribute those precincts into 13 districts of approximately the same size. We repeat this experiment 1000 times.

The next table shows the results of this simulation, assuming any tied districts went equally to Republicans and Democrats. Notice about 40% of these maps will result in Republicans winning at least 10 seats. On the other hand, a less random simulation, conducted by an expert witness that takes into account North Carolina districting criteria, had zero maps out of 3000 give Republicans a 10-3 advantage or better (Rucho). In other words, the state’s districting criteria actually lead to a smaller Republican advantage than would be predicted by a random simulation.

Simulation of percentage of North Carolina districts won by Republicans

# of districts won by Republicans 7 or less 8 9 10 11 or more
% of maps 5% 18% 36% 30% 10%

Conclusion

Instead of viewing gerrymandering as a tool to pad the majority, it may make more sense to view it as a tool that may be used to increase minority representation. Furthermore, as political scientists have noted for years, multimember districts with proportional representation—while not required by the Constitution or Court rulings—remains by far the more effective method to ensure fair representation for minorities. However, this method is rarely used in U.S. Congressional or state legislative elections.

About the Authors: Bran Hollenbeck is a Professor of Mathematics at Emporia State University and Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more from Smith on his blog and follow him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

Democrats Want to Get Rid of the Electoral College. It is Not Going to Happen (and Maybe that’s Best).

By Michael A. Smith, Emporia State University

USA Word Map Election

With the 2020 campaign season having already begun (ugh), Democrats are revving up to do away with the Electoral College. For them, the case is a strong one. In the entire history of the United States, only five Presidential elections have seen the popular vote winner fail to become president. Yet two of those were in the 21st Century, and Democrats got the short end both times. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by about half of a million votes, yet George W. Bush became president after the notorious, 6-week Florida recount battle. Hillary Clinton boosted the margin to 3 million votes—but still lost the presidency. History geeks and trivia buffs will love this next part: although the Democratic Party is a very different coalition than it was in the past, it is still worth noting that they were the ones that won the popular vote and lost the presidency in all five of these elections (the others were 1824, 1876, and 1888)!

In general, Democrats have a huge “wasted vote” problem. Starting in 1992, the donkeys have bested the elephants for the popular vote in every presidential election but one (the lone exception was 2004, the first presidential race after the 9/11 attacks). That is no coincidence. In presidential elections, Democrats generally command a slight majority today. Problem is, this majority includes large concentrations of voters in big cities and their closer-in suburbs, many of which are found in noncompetitive, high population states like California and New York. In 2016, Clinton defeated Trump by more than three million votes in California (a nearly two-to-one margin there), meaning that state alone can account for her popular vote victory.

As Philip Bump points out in this Washington Post analysis, the wasted vote problem not only vexes Dems in the Electoral College, it also causes them to overestimate the impact of gerrymandering. It is true that gerrymandering can skew election results. It is also true that while both parties do it, it generally works against Democrats today because many larger “purple” states have Republican majorities in their state legislatures, while California, once ground zero for Democratic gerrymandering, now has citizens redistricting commissions, thanks to a 2008 ballot initiative successfully pumped up by then-Governor Schwarzenegger. Out of office since 2011, Ah-nold is now out to “terminate gerrymandering” (his phrase) in other states (but see here for an interesting side note on how California Democrats kept a hand in redistricting anyway).

At any rate, Democrats tend to exaggerate the harm done to their party by gerrymandering. While it is a problem, the wasted vote problem is larger. Thus, a movement is afoot to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national, popular vote for president. Just last week, the Colorado Legislature sent Governor Jared Polis a new bill to award that state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. Polis announced his intention to sign. The hope is that this will catch on in other states, until they reach enough states to elect a president. Colorado is the 12th state to take this step, but none of these include heavily Republican “red states.” Nor will they—these states have little to gain by doing so.

Large populations of Americans being packed into a few states is not just a political challenge, it is also a demographic reality. Half of all Americans live in just the nine largest states. Why would the 41 smaller states—particularly the “red” (Republican-voting) ones–give up their leverage in the Electoral College? Granted, Colorado also ranks among those 41, but it is a former purple state that has been trending blue for years. By contrast, across the border here in deep-red Kansas, the idea has not even been discussed. Several small-population, red states like Kansas would have to be on board for the math to work, and they stand only to lose clout from the proposal. As it stands, Colorado voted for Clinton in 2016. Nothing would have changed, had these laws been in place there. Furthermore, the workaround may be unconstitutional, because it does not assign the state’s electoral votes to the electors pledged to the candidate who got the most votes in said state. Besides, the idea is a non-starter for the same reason the U.S. Constitution is not going to be amended for this—too many states have too much to lose from doing so.  An amendment would not get the required three-quarters of the states to ratify.

Democrats have two better options. The first is to do what I have advocated elsewhere: start winning back voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Realistically, they may have to recapture these states one by one. Wisconsin is already coming back to blue. Speaking of Go Blue, Michigan also looks very promising. Pennsylvania is winnable, too. Just those three states, plus the ones she did win, would have put Hillary Clinton in the White House with 278 electoral votes (270 are required to win). This is good news for Democrats, since things have not turned around as much in Ohio and Iowa. They also need to hang onto Minnesota. It was the only state to vote for its native, Walter Mondale in 1984, but the North Star nearly slipped away from them last time.

Democrats can also work on a second strategy: flipping several electorally-rich red or purple states which are trending their way. These include North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona. Texas is a more-distant prize—but we could see it flip in a decade or two. As these growing Sunbelt states become more diverse, demographics work to Democrats’ advantage. Particularly under Trump, Republicans have become a party of older, white people—particularly men and married women—and not many others. That does not bode well for the GOP’s future, Trump notwithstanding.

Oh, and what about Florida? Neither party should count on that one. Nearly 20 years later, it is still a hot mess.

As for the “College,” its elimination would not be so great. Doing away with it would mean that smaller states would be virtually ignored. They would probably end any kind of face-to-face contact between candidates, or even their volunteers, on one hand, and voters on the other. The race would be on to collect votes in huge metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas-Ft. Worth, forcing candidates to raise even more money than they do now and fight it out over the airwaves by saturating these massively-expensive media markets. This would also give even more play to the “independent expenditures” left unchecked thanks to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. The case for keeping the Electoral College is not unlike that for retaining the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries—sure they are unrepresentative, but at least they force candidates to go somewhere and talk to voters in person, instead of just a full-time schedule of raising money and reading scripts to television cameras.

Like the House and the Senate, the Electoral College was part of a Constitutional compromise between representation by population, and representation by state. There is little doubt that slavery played a large role here—except for Virginia, Southern states tended to be smaller. They feared being overwhelmed by the growing North, then outvoted on the slavery question. Yet like so many things with truly awful pasts, the Electoral College now sticks around, not because of its history but because of the current set of institutions and interests that keep it in place. In other words, it is a classic lesson in political science. As a Democrat myself, I hope my party is paying attention.

Now, let’s all go watch Schoolhouse Rock.

About the Author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

 


The Only Thing We Have to Fear

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Senator and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey‘s nickname was The Happy Warrior. He worked tirelessly on behalf of causes he championed, and usually seemed joyful when doing so, even though he lived through and served during one of the most divisive periods in modern American history, taking his fair share of abuse in the process.

Perhaps political science can teach us all how to be happy warriors. No realistic observer of today’s politics in the United States, or worldwide, can seriously say “don’t worry, be happy,” as in the song from the 1980s. Democracy and diversity are under a great deal of stress at home and abroad. However, political science remains a useful tool to help stay centered.

Political science is an analytical tool that enables readers to sift through this nonsense, identifying what is important and tossing out the rest. - Michael A. Smith

About two years ago, I wrote a blog post here arguing that like meditation, political science could be an important tool for relaxation. In brief, my point was that there is a lot of hue and cry about politics on social media and elsewhere. Political science is an analytical tool that enables readers to sift through this nonsense, identifying what is important and tossing out the rest. Real-world politics is often a great deal less dramatic than all the carrying on that we see on the social media, cable TV, and perhaps even the family reunion.

Since I wrote, circumstances have overtaken me. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, surprising a lot of observers, forcing us to re-examine our assumptions, and leading to a new era in American politics. Or, is it an aberration? Time will tell. At any rate, my message two years ago needs a re-do. Democracy is in danger in the United States and around the world, with the “strong man” style of leadership becoming increasingly popular, while pluralistic democracy is in peril. What to do?

It is important for citizens to be informed, vote, and take thoughtful, conscientious action, both political and non-political. However there are still a lot of things that many of us do which are a waste of time. Even some political scientists do this, and we should know better. What follow are a number of suggestions to use political science, be happier, and use time more effectively. That includes time spent being active in politics.

Lesson #1: Stop Ranting on Social Media

Nothing characterizes the dysfunctional politics of our age better than social media rants. Give yourself a break. Get off social media, or just use it to keep up with old friends. Do not rely on it for news — it is unreliable, fact-checking is time-consuming, and there is nothing you need to know that cannot be found out from a more traditional news outlet. More importantly, social media rants are ineffective, and here’s why. Long before Facebook, research revealed that people tend to group together with the like-minded. All the way back in 1940, the famous Erie County studies revealed this, while also noting that some people like to rant about politics because they gain “psychic rewards” from doing so. This is really the only benefit, and it can quickly turn into negative energy.

Most of your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat friends probably have similar views to yours. When you rant on social media, all you do is give them something to “like.” The few social media friends you still have that disagree with your politics are extremely unlikely to change their minds. They may unfriend you, they may rant back, or they may ignore you, but they will not shift their opinions. Just let it be.

Lesson #2: A Vote is a Vote

On the eve of the ultra-close 2000 Presidential election, my satirical horoscope in The Onion was as follows, “your carefully considered, policy-based vote will be canceled out by a hairdresser who likes the other guy’s ties.”

So true, although somewhat unfair to hair care professionals, whose votes are presumably no more and no less carefully-considered than those working in other professions. It is important to be a frequent voter, and even consider taking other political action, such as volunteering or giving money to an interest group, candidate, or party that advocates for something about which you are passionate. This time is well-spent, and can help change election outcomes and give a feeling of doing civic duty. However, once you have voted, you have voted. Intense feelings about the election do not increase your vote.

A case in point is the difference between supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, and those backing Secretary Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination. Bernie had the energy — his supporters appeared more passionate than Hillary’s, which gave him an advantage in caucus states. However, Bernie supporters also made the classic mistake of conflating intensity with number of votes. The outcome of the 2016 Democratic primaries and caucuses was not close. Clinton captured 55% of the popular vote, to 43% for Sanders, all before a single superdelegate cast a convention ballot. This is not to dismiss Sanders or his supporters — in another blog post, I challenged them to start a political movement like the conservative Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s and 70s, but on the liberal side this time. Sanders’ supporters have a lot to contribute. My point is not to dismiss them, but to point out while they had passion, Hillary had the numbers. Unfortunately, because her supporters were less enthusiastic and outspoken, many Sanders supporters interpreted that to mean that Clinton only gained the Democratic nomination due to superdelegates, which is incorrect. She won more votes — over 3 and a half million more — from her often low-key supporters than Sanders did from his.

A vote counts the same, no matter the voter’s intensity. It is especially important not to forget those low-turnout elections like local races, party primaries, and the midterm elections happening right now, when your vote really does count for more, because it is one of a smaller number. Get informed, get involved, and vote. Then, get on with life. A vote will still count the same whether the voter obsesses about it or not. You voted. You did your civic duty. Time to get on with life.

Lesson #3: Strategize

It is a truism of effective campaigning, and effective lobbying, to identify those who are undecided and target the message to them. In the case of voters, there are really two groups of undecideds: those who have not yet decided whether or not they are going to vote, and those who have not yet decided for whom they are going to vote. Appeals directed at anyone else are a waste of time. When a candidate is campaigning, she is either getting out the vote, or persuading voters. Period. There is nothing else to do. Patting supporters on the back is smug and self-righteous. Ranting at your opponent is a waste of time, unless doing so motivates your base or persuades undecideds, which it often does not.

Take political action, but take smart political action. That starts with identifying what you want to get done, and then identifying those who are undecided or inactive, and either persuading them, getting them to be active, or both. Neither preaching to the choir nor ranting and raving is time well spent. Take a nap or go for a walk instead.

Lobbying is the same way, as is legislative leadership. It begins by identifying the strong supporters, the strong opponents, and the undecideds. Then comes the time for political action: smart political action. There is no other kind. If it is not precisely targeted, then don’t bother.

Lesson #4: Look at the Big Picture

President Donald Trump won the state of Kansas, where I teach, by a comfortable 20 points. However, this does not mean Kansans endorse the more disturbing aspects of his unusual political campaign, and now his presidency. I consult for a poll called Kansas Speaks, run by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University. Our pre-election, 2016 data was very clear. In this heavily Republican state, Kansans did not like Donald Trump, rating him very low on two particular categories: trustworthiness, and understanding people like me. How did he win here? Simple. Besides not having the Republican label, Hillary Clinton was also rated even lower by the voters on these same categories. Many political scientists, such as me, seriously underestimated Hillary Clinton‘s personal unpopularity with voters. However, this does not mean that the American people gave Donald Trump a sweeping endorsement of his more-disturbing campaign promises. It is important to look at the big picture. The midterm elections going on right now will tell another important part of the story: one which is ever-evolving.

Lesson #5: FDR was Right

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Indeed.

Political and social scientists are quick to point out that much of our time spent in fear is wasted time. Human beings have evolved in such a way as to become particularly concerned with so-called “focusing events” in which a lot of destruction happens in a single space, particularly a one which can be shot on video. The recent massacre at a  Pittsburgh synagogue is a case in point. It was a horrible tragedy, in which 11 people, including a Holocaust survivor, lost their lives to murder. The coming together of the people of Pittsburgh and across the nation has been heartwarming, and it should continue. This coming Saturday has been declared a special day, in which non-Jews are encouraged to attend synagogue to learn about the Jewish faith and show solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. What a great cause!

As a matter of fact, this is exactly the right thing to do; go to service. Religious services, and other public activities, are still relatively safe. The horror in Pittsburgh and other mass shootings are heartbreaking. It is good to honor the victims and call for interfaith understanding and healing. On the other hand, one thing not to do is live in fear.

As social scientists remind us, the probability of an American being killed in a domestic or international terrorist attack is very low. How low? Lower than the probability of being killed by one’s own clothes. It is much lower than the probability of a shorter life due to heart disease, undetected cancer, or untreated diabetes: the real killers. In fact, the situation is so extreme, the one social scientist estimated that more Americans died after the September 11 attacks than during the attacks themselves because, due to fear, they drove instead of flying (auto travel is much more dangerous than flying.) Now, get back on that plane.

FDR nailed it. Do not be afraid. And, get a colonoscopy. Eat healthy, exercise, and get plenty of sleep and outdoor time. Wear safety equipment when operating motor vehicles, including seatbelts, helmets, and life vests, depending on the vehicle. If you have suicidal ideations, get help immediately. On the other hand, the probability is really quite low that you will die in a commercial airline crash (small aircraft are another matter), a terrorist attack, or any other focusing event. But, be careful with those clothes!

Fear is what domestic and foreign terrorists want. Don’t let them win. Take care of yourself, and that includes not spending time on irrational fears or pointless political rants.

My blog post from a few years ago was a bit Pollyanna-ish. Things have, indeed,             deteriorated in the United States and elsewhere, since I posted. There are things to worry about. However, many people who are upset about these developments are still spending their time very unproductively. Venting to kindred spirits or ranting at political opponents will not win hearts and minds. Certain targeted comments and directed political activity, such as being a reasonably well-informed frequent voter are well worth doing. Taking it to the next level with intentional political activity, such as spending Election Day walking door-to-door for a Get Out The Vote campaign, or giving money to a favorite political cause, are also good.

The bottom line is, political science can still find a way to a better life, by showing how much of our psychic energy is being wasted on unproductive political rants and irrational fears. This is no time to say “don’t worry, be happy.” It is a time for thoughtful, carefully-focused political action, focused on where it will do the most good, and casting out those activities which cause a great deal of pain and are highly unproductive. There is still time for relaxation and meditation, and political science can still help you live a better life.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

Save the Swamp

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

The Trump Administration’s recent reversal on immigration policy regarding children has gotten me to thinking. What exactly does it mean to “drain the swamp?”

First, let me share a bit of background about the current situation. In 1997, a court ruling known as The Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores) set forth standards for the conditions in which children must be held, when in detention. The same standards were not set for adults. As a result, the most cost-effective way for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to comply was to release undocumented immigrant parents (or just one parent) with their children, with an order to appear at a specific court date. Some show up for the court dates, others do not. Trump supporters derided this policy as “catch and release” and instead attempted to put in place a new policy that such undocumented immigrants would be detained until their court date. The problem is, few facilities which meet the Flores standards can accommodate whole families, so ICE began separating the children from their parents, producing heartbreaking smartphone videos, and a grassroots movement to overturn the policy. To construct detention facilities for entire families meeting the Flores standards would cost an estimated $300 million and take time, neither of which are immediately available. There are also a lot of questions about the integrity of the contractors that bid to build and operate the facilities—oversight of private prisons and detention facilities is lacking.

Thus, acceding to public pressure to stop separating children from parents effectively means a return to the earlier policy. Currently, the implementation of the undoing is another mess. Some of the children are unaccounted-for, while others had been sent to facilities in different states from their parents. Some were being held in a converted, former department store. There even appeared to be children locked in cages. All this, because the Administration had wanted to hold the undocumented immigrants in detention until their court dates.

There are a lot of moving parts here: court rulings, campaign promises, public budgeting, public pressure, private contracting for facilities (building and management), oversight, smartphone videos and news coverage, and simple human empathy, to name a few. Oh, and it’s an election year, too.

This debacle is an excellent place to begin re-considering Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”

This now-famous phrase deserves more scrutiny—Trump is effectively analogizing his plan to reform government, to the act of destroying an ecosystem. Is that really the metaphor you want, Mr. President?

Draining an actual swamp is a truly terrible idea. Swamps are teeming wetlands that support a wide variety of life. Their destruction can have ripple effects thousands of miles away—for example, by wiping out stopover sites used by migratory birds, and destroying the boundaries between fresh and salt water, just for starters. In fact, the U.S. did try to drain the swamps at least once—in the Florida Everglades, during the early and mid-twentieth century. Swamps were drained to make way for railroads, then housing developments and hotels, and later freeways. Water was diverted, while agricultural chemicals polluted what was left.

The result was unmitigated disaster. Species were driven to extinction, while human beings settled and built homes in natural-disaster prone areas. Some species reproduced out of control when their natural predators were decimated, the overflow spilling into areas populated by humans. Later, many people died and property was destroyed on developments in flood-prone areas, then rebuilt at great cost to us taxpayers- right in the path of still more disaster. Displaced from their homes, alligators and other swamp creatures still frequently appear in populated areas, for example in swimming pools.

Today, efforts are still underway to reverse the damage. An even more expensive project has allocated hundreds of millions of tax dollars to un-do the mess: trying, as best they can, to return the wilderness to this once-thriving area. Nonprofits are helping, too. At least in some places, the swamp is finally being un-drained, but there is still work to do. Florida, along with other states, still encourages and even subsidizes development in ecologically sensitive, disaster-prone areas such as coastline and floodplains, disrupting wildlife, endangering lives, and putting the taxpayers on the hook for major rebuilding expenses.

In short, draining the swamp was nothing less than a human-made disaster, the efforts to restore it cost a fortune—and still, it will still never quite be the same. The same is true of Trump’s metaphor. A key lesson of the immigrant children debacle is that “draining the swamp” of the federal government is a horrible idea.

While the metaphor is novel, Trump’s idea is not. Generations of politicians have sought office by promising to “clean up the mess” in Washington, the state capital, or city hall. The Coen Brothers’ popular movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? features a challenger candidate running for Governor of Mississippi by promising to “Clean Up for the Little Man,” complete with Vaudeville-style theatrics. (Spoiler alert: In the end, the reformer turns out to be more corrupt than the incumbent he is challenging.)

Like a real swamp, a government in a pluralistic democracy is a complicated ecosystem teeming with life. From court rulings to interest groups, election cycles to news cycles, international agreements to Gross Domestic Product, and lobbyists to lawyers, few public policy problems have easy answers. As in the case of the children, changing just one aspect of policy means changing a whole chain of interconnecting parts. Domino effects abound. Simply ending the cruel practice of separating children from parents means ending Trump’s policy initiative altogether, at least for now. There are simply too many things which affect other things which affect other things, and so on. Changing one thing—for example, the separation of children–undoes a whole policy. Public policy, like a swap, is an ecosystem.

It takes a lot of full-time professionals to oversee such a complicated government, but too often, there are not many to be found. This is the point made by John J. DiIulio, Jr. in his 2014 book Bring Back the Bureaucrats. DiIulio, a Democrat who was director of faith-based initiatives in the George W. Bush Administration, shows that federal spending has grown exponentially since the Kennedy Administration, but the federal workforce has not. Instead, the federal government has expanded its scope via entitlement payments to individuals, along with grants to for-profits, nonprofits, and state and local governments. DiIulio thinks there are far too few civil-service federal employees overseeing what is done with all this money and power, and he calls our current system “Leviathan by Proxy.” He ends by calling for an expansion of the civil-service workforce, arguing that more oversight will cost far less than one may think, and the end result of increased accountability will in fact save taxpayers’ money—a lot of it. The lax oversight of for-profit detention facilities is an excellent example, which is currently in the news.

Having more government professionals means that we can study the swamp before we go trying to drain it.

Better staffing, more professionalism, and elected officials who consult with and listen to the civil service workers we do have, can help prevent disasters like the recent one involving the immigrant children. Instead, the policy was thrown together in the same spirit as those campaign promises to “clean up the mess in Washington”—the simplistic idea that the current politicians and civil-service workers are too stupid, corrupt, or lazy to make common sense changes that will simplify and change policy. In reality, they are too smart to do this. Full-time government professionals realize that the enormous interdependence of public policies means that careful review and study of the costs and benefits of policy change are needed before seemingly-simple reforms are put in place. It would not hurt to have a few political science- and economics-trained professionals on staff to analyze the impact of things like unintended consequences, substitution effects, and ripple effects before putting these policy changes into effect. It also wouldn’t hurt to take a look at court rulings and even the Constitution itself before issuing orders.

Of course, when Trump says “drain the swamp,” he means to end a corrupt system of lawyers, lobbyists, and influence peddlers who have too much influence by comparing them to the alligators, snakes, and other reptiles that live in the swamp. No standup comedian could pass up the opportunity to point out the unfairness. Predatory alligators and snakes are just fulfilling their role in the food chain, after all—they hardly deserve to be compared to the likes of Washington lawyers and lobbyists!

Yet on a serious note, this summer’s events are a powerful reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of policy. This is a fine time to revisit the swamp metaphor. Just as destroying an ecosystem in real life is an ecological disaster that disrupts or ends plant, animal, and human life, so draining a swamp is also a terrible way to go about governing. The diversity, complexity, and interconnectedness of governing life is as important as it is in a wetland. With actual swamps, it is time to stop the drainage. Instead, let’s hire some more wildlife biologists and park rangers and implement their recommendations. Likewise, with the metaphor, more professionals trained in political science and related disciplines working in the civil service can help show how even one seemingly small change can have a far greater impact on human lives than we ever imagined—and hopefully, next time the warnings will come sooner.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

 

More Bridging, Less Bonding: New Views of Social Capital

(or, Why I am Going to Watch Roseanne)

by Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

MPSA-Smith-Bond-Bridge
Social capital h
as been a popular concept in political science, at least since the publication of Almond and Verba’s classic book The Civic Culture in 1963.  The idea waned for a while, then came roaring back in the early 2000s with the publication of Robert Putnam’s widely-cited Bowling Alone. Putnam believed that too much TV time ate away the bonds that connect communities, and he was not happy about it, arguing that it weakens ties to parties, interest groups, and other connections that sustain our political system. It also leaves us more lonely.

The basic idea of social capital is that the ties connecting each us to one another are a type of capital. Instead of money or other assets, social capital is something we can use for a variety of purposes, from finding meaning to seeking work, to being active in politics via a party, interest group, or other organization. In general, the thinking goes, the thicker the bonds of social capital, the richer the political culture and the more connected we will all be.

Of course, things never seem to quite work out so simply.

At this year’s MPSA conference, recently concluded, a lot of the buzz surrounded a distinction between bridging and bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is within-group. You build bonding capital when you connect with people that have similar religious beliefs, political views, perceptions of ethnicity—some may even be your relatives. Bonding capital can provide a sense of place and meaning, help one find a home, partner, and job, and reinforce a sense of identity, but at a price. At MPSA, I witnessed several different presentations, at multiple panels, using different datasets, all reaching similar conclusions: “thick” ties of in-group, or bonding social capital make one less trustful of those outside your social group. In diverse societies or even homogenous societies where people feel threatened by those just outside their borders, strong bonding capital can worsen tensions and deepen mistrust not within, but between groups.

The downside of bonding capital reminds me of one of my favorite works in 20th century political theory. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Moral Man and Immoral Society suggested that the deeper the trust and deeper the ties within a social group, the more likely members of that group will support behavior and policies that were cruel, ruthless, possibly even genocidal toward the “other.” Of course, Niebuhr, a German-American whose writings had a major impact on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was alarmed by the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, but his ideas are applicable elsewhere as well. The bottom line here is, in Niebuhr’s time, and in ours, bonding capital can have a dangerous shadow side.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Bridging social capital is built when one makes ties with those in other social groups—other religions, ethnicities, political parties, etc. Bridging capital cuts across groups rather than reinforcing in-group identity. As always, with real-world data from real-world people, the results of many analyses presented at the conference this year were mixed. However, there were enough significant results to offer hope that bridging capital can help to reduce religious, ethnic, and political tensions instead of worsening them, while maintaining that sense of belonging.

The upshot: it turns out that it is not enough to follow the advice of Putnam by seeking to build social capital. Which kind of social capital matters—and for diverse societies, rich bridging capital ties are especially crucial to avoid deepening rivalries among groups.

While it may be a stretch, I cannot resist speculating that this has rich implications for us right here in the U.S. of A. As the norm of objective news media declines and is replaced by something akin to the partisan newspapers that drove opinion in the 18th and 19th centuries, we increasingly find Democrats and Republicans with our own news—not to mention our own neighborhoods, stores, travel destinations, and hobbies. You won’t find too many Democrats at the gun club these days—nor Republicans at the yoga studio. This is a shame. We even have our own entertainment outlets. Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, basically MSNBC with jokes, has no appeal for Republicans save the love-to-hate variety, while liberals are now boycotting new episodes of Trump-supporting Roseanne.

I cannot help but think that these separate forms of news (or “news”), entertainment, working, living, and leisure are leading to the formation of more bonding capital among Democrats and Republicans, respectively, while tearing away at what is left of our bridging capital. Why else would there be semi-serious talk of impeaching every President since Clinton—who actually was impeached—not to mention widely-varying views on just about every wedge issue imaginable, including which bathrooms people use.

Maybe we need more bridging capital here in the USA. I know that for me, as a liberal, I particularly enjoy reading serious, thoughtful conservatives such as Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, William F. Buckley, Jr., and George F. Will. F.A. Hayek brings a thoughtful libertarian perspective, too. I rarely read liberal editorials or watch Colbert or MSNBC, because I leave with my anger aroused, having learned nothing, because the ideological assumptions involved just reinforce what I already believe. Also, and I am sorry to have to be the one to say it, but Colbert’s new show just isn’t as funny as his old one was.

Between now and the 2019 conference, I propose that we all take a vow to read and discuss the most thoughtful ideas we can find, offered up by those with different views from our own. I want to better understand the views of those who disagree with me, and I’m tired of just reinforcing my own group identity. I already know what I believe, the question is what is going to challenge me and push my thinking to the next level. Like a good workout, political theory is not much good unless it has some resistance built into it.

Let’s all build some bridging capital this year.

I think I may start by watching a couple episodes of Roseanne.

See you at #MPSA19!

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

The New Political Scientists—We’re Live, We’re Nationwide, and We’re Online

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

Senior man with tattoo smiling and looking at camera

On the first day of the Midwest Political Science Conference (#MPSA18 on Twitter), I spotted both a roundtable and a vendor booth on the same topic: using Wikipedia in the classroom.

That’s right—Wikipedia may be moving from the bane of every professor to a classroom tool. The Wiki Education booth featured review copies of a new book, one professors can use to teach students the right way, and the wrong way to edit Wikipedia entries. The topic is timely. Creating or editing a Wikipedia entry is an increasingly-popular assignment in political science and other college classes. Why not? Wikipedia is here to stay, and if students are going to use the ubiquitous open-source, free encyclopedia, as they seem bound and determined to do, we may as well teach them to do it right.

Wikipedia is not the only online resource moving from “oh no, never, not in my classroom,” to useful and productive tool. For example, more and more online apps utilize smartphones as learning tools rather than classroom nuisances. Students can now use their phones to reply to flash polls or pop quizzes, with the results displayed on overhead screens in real time. I tried this teaching method a few years ago and found it kept the course fast-paced and the students involved. In the recent past, professors would warn students “if I see a phone, it’s mine.” This practice may be drawing to a close.

Professor-ing is changing in other ways, too. When I was in graduate school, there was a hierarchy of political scientists, with R1 (Carnegie Research 1) university heavy-hitters treated like pocket-protector-wearing rock stars, their panels packed at conferences while other speakers struggled to draw even a small audience. This still happens, but change is afoot. I attended a panel yesterday on the Trump election which packed the house despite featuring no big-name, “high impact factor” faculty from R1 schools. The topic itself was the draw.

Today, professors and students can make a name for ourselves almost as easily on social media as in traditional journals. George Washington University Professor John Sides has several books on the market, but he is best-known for co-founding the Monkey Cage blog, in which political scientists offer real-time analysis of current events. Once independent, the Monkey Cage has been a part of the Washington Post website for several years now. Twenty years ago, a professor making a reputation by founding a blog would have been unheard-of. Today it is increasingly common.

Twitter—the President’s Social Media of choice—is also showing strong growth among political scientists. Twitter’s algorithms make it easier to get messages to anyone with similar interests in the general public, rather than just a computer-selected group of your friends, so it makes a great resource to disseminate preliminary research findings. My colleague Patrick Miller from the University of Kansas uses Twitter particularly effectively. On tenure track at a research school, Patrick has published his share of peer-reviewed articles in traditional journals, but he also won a “Why We Love Kansas City” award from the KC area’s alternative newspaper, the Pitch. Pitch editors liked Dr. Miller’s Tweets featuring real-time political analysis, ethnic cooking, tips on making mixed drinks, and general observations about college-town life. My own grad school mentors were, and are, delightful people and fine scholars, but I cannot imagine any of them winning an award from an alternative newspaper that also features movie reviews, personal ads, and notes about the local club scene.

Finally, there is online teaching. The buzz at MPSA includes questions like, “which LMS (Learning Management System) are you using?” An online course or two per semester is now just part of a regular course rotation, and new strategies are emerging all the time to embed material and keep students engaged. Technologies like Zoom and Bluejeans (both similar to Skype) make it possible to teach “real time” online courses in which students meet face to face—almost—and hold class discussions, just like on-campus classes. These discussions are often held in evenings to accommodate nontraditional students’ work and family schedules. The earlier online era of video recording one’s own long lectures, or just having students upload work and then grading it, are giving way to a host of new approaches. Another online app offers professors the formatting tools to make every online lecture look like a TED talk– those popular, 20-minute lessons on Youtube. In fact, some political scientists have done TED talks of their own.

Professors today are trying much harder than a generation ago to make their work readable and relevant to the general public. Blogging, tweeting, and hosting a Zoom discussion are now as much a part of a professor’s day as peer review, impact factors, and literature reviews.  In the classroom, more and more faculty are coming to see Google, Wikipedia, and smartphones as resources that can be used for good or ill, rather than the bane of all good teaching.

At this point, an article like this has usually made some snarky comment about how professors no longer wear those tweed jackets with the elbow patches. In truth, many professors never wore these, while others still wear them because, well, they’re relatively comfortable, as dress clothes go. Plus, they make you look like a professor. But tweed or no tweed, it is clear that the professor’s job has shifted. Political scientists today are online, real time, and when we need to, we can say it in 280 or fewer characters– and those full-color data plots make great pictures, too. Political scientists today are live, we’re nationwide, and we’re online.

Check this blog and the Twitter hashtag #MPSA18 for more developments through the conference.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

What George Washington Really Meant About Political Parties — and Why It Matters

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

Politicians Having a Beer

Did George Washington really hate political parties? For our first president’s 286th birthday, it is time for historians to set the record straight. For political scientists, a nuanced view of Washington’s stand helps us understand the modern-day Americans who also despise partisanship (or say they do).

Critics of the party system often rely on Washington’s comments to buttress their views. For example:  according to the Washington Post, Neil Simon, independent candidate for U.S. Senate from Maryland, actually pointed to a picture of Washington before paraphrasing him on the evils of parties, adding, “There are no political parties in the Constitution.”

On the surface, the case seems clear. In his 1796 farewell address, Washington talked at length about the “danger of parties in the state.” A sample quote follows:

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true… [but] there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame…

 

There is plenty more, and readers are invited to click the hyperlink above to read the entire speech. Case closed, then?

Not so fast. First of all, Washington seems say we should reign in partisanship, not eliminate parties altogether. Furthermore, context matters, and the story—and the presidential term—that preceded Washington’s anti-party comments casts them in a remarkably different light.

From the Continental Army days onward, Washington worked closely with Alexander Hamilton, who would become a founding figure of the Federalist Party. Though Washington and Hamilton had their disagreements, Washington ultimately supported most of Hamilton’s agenda, including a strong Treasury Department, promotion of commerce, and neutrality between England and France. Thomas Jefferson, later a founder of the Democratic-Republican Party, was also in Washington’s nonpartisan cabinet, serving as Secretary of State. However, Jefferson quit in frustration as he saw the President increasingly siding with Hamilton. Later, divisions deepened over the controversial Jay Treaty, in which the U.S. sought to re-establish commercial relations with England, even making certain concessions, while staying neutral in England’s war with France. Jefferson favored an alliance with France. All of this and more is detailed in Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, the recent biography that inspired the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. Not only that, but according to historians Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, the hyper-partisan Hamilton actually helped draft Washington’s famous farewell. Spirit of party, indeed!

So, why the anti-party remarks? With Hamilton at his side, Washington denounced parties and “factions” because he saw Jefferson and Madison’s emerging, breakaway Democratic-Republican Party as a threat to national unity—especially, national unity behind the Federalist agenda. In other words, Washington and Hamilton denounced parties because if everybody would just agree with them, then there would be no need for parties. This is exactly why most Americans hate political parties today. In their 2003 book Stealth Democracy, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse present the results of many focus groups conducted with nonparticipating and reluctant voters. Sure enough, most of the citizens they queried hated not only political parties, but politics itself. Yet without parties, how did these grumpy would-be voters propose to manage political conflict? Aye, there’s the rub! Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s disengaged respondents did not propose a mechanism for managing political conflict, because they did not think there should be political conflict. If the country was simply ruled by consensus, then there would be no need for parties.

Washington, Hamilton, and the surly voters (and non-voters) studied in Stealth Democracy were skeptical of the whole idea that voters would—and should—have differing views. Instead of supporting parties as a means of managing competing ideas and interests in a pluralistic democracy, these critics proposed that all voters should simply agree with them, thus averting the need for any organized way of managing conflict. No conflict, no need to manage it: now everyone line up behind me!

This also explains another dilemma of today’s party critics. As John Sides points out, these “independent” voters overwhelmingly behave as partisans. In fact, the country is more politically polarized than it has been in a long time, with many of us even stating we would not want our children to marry someone who affiliates with the other party—and so-called “independents” are very much a part of this trend. Nor are self-identified independents necessarily more moderate: in 2016, supporters of liberal Bernie Sanders were more likely to call themselves independent. Hillary Clinton, who took more centrist positions, won most of the primary voters who self-identified as Democrats.

Today’s partisan-voting haters of political parties are not so different from their hero, Washington. Like the man from Mt. Vernon, today’s “independents” seek, not new ways of managing the tumult of political conflict, but the elimination of political conflict they imagine would occur if everyone just took the same stand on the issues—their stand. Then and now, the denunciation of parties is really an attack on people that have the audacity to have different opinions: those troublemaking factions who have the nerve to disagree with me!

As for me—like many political scientists, I like the parties. In the diverse tumult we become, we are bound to have passionate disagreements on the issues of the day. We do not all have the same values, but we can all value a system that allows us to fight, haggle, electioneer, and logroll our way toward some type of compromise instead of withdrawing or resorting to violence. The process can be messy, and parties allow for these differing opinions to coalesce into organized blocs and compete for votes. If I were king for a day, I would nudge the U.S. toward proportional representation, opening up the possibility of more than two competitive parties.  However, I harbor a deep distrust toward those that would dispense with parties altogether. As for the others, instead of denouncing the evils of “party” and “faction,” it might just be easier—and more honest—to denounce the evils of “anyone who dares to disagree with me.” It was true in 1796, and it is true today. No, thanks: I’ll stick with the parties.

Then again, perhaps Washington did have the answer. In the quote above, he suggested, not that we quench political parties, but rather that we prevent partisanship from becoming an open flame. Today, in our hyper-partisan climate, too many of us may join the cynical voters studied in Stealth Democracy, seeking only to end conflict with a win for our side, and placing no value on the system itself. We want only for our party to win, we do not nurture and celebrate the values that allow us to have political parties—all political parties, not just the one we support—to organize and negotiate our differences in the first place: country first, party second, and both are important. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse suggest that we begin by teaching children and adults alike to manage conflict productively, instead of offering only feel-good civics lessons and me-too groups of likeminded people that avoid any discussion of dissenting views. Indeed!

We owe our first president a deeper reading of his famous remarks and their context, and we owe our nation’s political parties their due. Happy Birthday, George!

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.