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)

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

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

COVID-19

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

Beyond the Hat: Will the Trump Coalition Hold in 2020?

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

2020 Election

Will President Trump’s Coalition hold in 2020? Hardly anyone seems to be asking this question, at least in public these days.  It is up to us political scientists to remind voters that some of the conventional wisdom still holds, when analyzing elections.  Trump’s voters are not a monolith but a coalition, and his key to re-election rests upon his ability to hold together that coalition.  Like any motley crew, Trump’s coalition includes a range of supporters, from rock-solid to undecided to those who decided, early on, that they made a mistake.  He must hold his coalition together to win four more years in office, just like a more conventional President seeking a second term.

These insights are not mine—or rather, they are not mine alone.  I found this conclusion to be the emerging sense of the meeting a few months ago, when serving on a roundtable on the 2020 Presidential election, at the Great Plains Political Science Association annual meetings.  Colleagues Kim Casey and Bronson Herrera of Northwest Missouri State, Nicholas Nicholetti of Missouri Southern, and I bounced around numerous ideas, from rigorous and research based to purely impressionistic, during our lively exchange.  Ultimately, one thing we could all agree upon is this:  President Trump’s supporters are not a single, monolithic group.  Many do not wear “MAGA” hats or visit alt-right websites.  They run the gamut from evangelical Christians to hardcore religious skeptics, war hawks to isolationists, traditional Republicans to independents and ex-Democrats.

In popular culture, the focus is generally placed upon the ways in which Trump’s coalition does not appear to be diverse.  They tend to be white and non-Hispanic, middle-aged or older men and married women, heterosexual, and reside in suburban and rural areas.  The vast majority identify as Christian.  Yet even this conceals some diversity.  Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic voters, for example, supported Trump in 2016—about the same percentage that backed Mitt Romney.  The conservative news/editorial media is abuzz with early reports that African American voters support Trump at higher rates than previous Republican candidates—though they still prefer the Democrats by a substantial margin.

Trump’s continuous stream of Tweets, outrageous quotes, and confrontational behavior can easily confound observers into thinking that the old political campaign playbook has to be discarded this term.  Add in the fact that some in academia—and many more in the news media– blew the call for the 2016 election.  Yet we political scientists are notorious debunkers of the conventional wisdom—and that includes the so-called insight that Trump completely rewrote the way we view campaigns.

One group that already knows this, is Trump’s campaign staff.  Trump brought a lot more to the table than MAGA hats and campaign rallies in 2016.  His staff developed a sophisticated microtargeting operation, much more advanced than Hillary Clinton’s.  Expect this to be back for 2020.

Microtargeting—a concept popularized by journalist Sasha Issenberg in his 2012 book The Victory Lab—is a powerful reminder that Trump’s campaign has to do a lot more than hats and rallies.  Just as would a more conventional politician, Trump must hold together key blocs of supporters to stay in office.  Otherwise, his razor-thin margins in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may disappear.

The value placed upon “swing” votes may be overestimated.  A recent Politico article featured a rather overhyped synapsis of Dr. Rachel Bitecofer’s research.  Bitecofer made dead-on predictions of the 2018 midterm elections, which featured a dramatic turnout surge compared to 2014.  Democrats will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on this, particularly among young voters.  Bitecofer argues that elections today are turnout battles with heavy emphasis on negative partisanship—that is, voting against, as opposed to voting for.  Other analysists agree that swing voters are diminishing.

Still, a presidential election is not a midterm, and Democrats will be looking for whatever cracks they can find in the Trump coalition.  These will be more apparent in some constituencies than others.  Again it must be borne in mind that even slight shifts in states such as Wisconsin can shift their electoral votes, since the vote there was incredibly close in 2016.

The Trump coalition includes the following:

1. The alt-right

This group dominates perceptions about Trump, particularly by his opponents.  With their MAGA hats and boisterous rallies, Trump’s so-called “alt-right” supporters cut quite a figure.  Trump’s early decision to appoint Steve Bannon of the alt-right online publication Breitbart.com to a key White House position further energized this group, as do his staunch opposition to illegal immigration, his attempted (and partly successful) “Muslim ban,” and of course his speeches and tweets.

Yet just as most Democrats are not yoga-posing, Prius-driving vegans, the stereotypes of Trump supporters as being exclusively made up of these vocal and visible alt-right voters are highly misleading.  Most voters for Trump—as for nearly all candidates—have never been to a political rally and have no desire to go to one.  This is why turnout tends to be dramatically lower in caucus states than in primary states, for example—most voters don’t want to invest the time, nor publically disclose who they are backing.  While alt-right voters are active on social media, the bombast of their words may cause us to overestimate their numbers.  These voters aren’t going anywhere, but good political analysis requires us to push past this group and look at the rest of the President’s coalition.

2. Evangelical Christians

Trump does not speak for all Christians, as many passionate dissenters have made clear.  Critics of faith object to Trump’s treatment of immigrants, hawkish stance on Iran, environmental policies, cuts to social programs, and non-cooperation with Congressional investigations into his own behavior—including the impeachment trial.  Yet among the rank and file, most evangelicals remain fiercely loyal to the President.  Supreme Court appointments and the possibility of overturning the Roe v Wade court decision are of course front and center, but there is more. Trump’s recent authorization to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is widely supported by evangelicals, and it reinforces a narrative that Islamic extremists are a danger to the western world, and to Christianity in particular.  Trump’s hawkish stand on Israel is also much more popular with evangelicals than it is with most Jewish Americans, the latter of whom still overwhelmingly back Democrats, and play a key role in battleground Florida.  Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis cite anecdotal evidence that Trump’s evangelical supporters are having doubts, but it is unlikely that Democrats can peel away more than a small number of them, particularly when they are re-energized by actions such as Soleimani’s assassination.

3. Regular Republicans

I was one of the analysts who blew the call in 2016.  My prediction of a Clinton victory was based largely on my assumption that many traditional Republicans—of the sort who backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—would defect from the party over Trump’s nomination.  Not only were Trump’s comments often shocking, he also defected from longstanding Republican precedent by advocating for tariffs—which had not been discussed openly in American politics for about a century—in place of the party’s longtime support for free markets and free trade.  I thought many Romney supporters would switch to Clinton this time.

What happened, was that I forgot about the fundamentals that my mentors taught me in grad school.  As documented in John Sides and Henry Farrell’s excellent ebook The Science of Trump, these fundamentals apply just as much to Trump, as to more conventional candidates. Most voters simply are not ideological—not liberal, not conservative, not even moderate.  Their attachment to parties and candidates comes from other sources like family, race, and religion.  Trump shifted the Republican Party on some key policy issues, but many of their voters did not care.  If these voters did not leave the party in 2016, it is highly unlikely they will do so in 2020.

And as for my own mistake in predicting the 2016 election:  fool me once…

4. Obama-Trump voters in general

Yes, they are a thing.  Estimated at about six million nationwide, they are particularly concentrated in the Great Lakes “firewall” states that flipped in 2016 and put Trump in the White House.  These voters have policy views remarkably similar to other Democrats on issues like abortion rights, health care, and the DACA program for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.  Yet, these voters are notably more conservative on other immigration issues, including Trump’s border wall, and are more likely than other Democrats to believe that people of color and feminists are making too many demands of white men.  These issues will be tricky for the Democrats to negotiate and have received a lot of coverage in the press, but in the end showing some empathy for their belief that working-class whites are being left behind may prove to be pivotal for Democrats seeking to win back some of this group.

5. Auto industry voters

The data presented in last article hyperlinked above also shows something not discussed by the article’s own authors—a huge gap between Obama-Trump voters and other Democrats on the Paris Climate Agreement.  The former group is much less supportive, and I have a pet hypothesis as to why.  These voters are heavily concentrated in states where the auto industry has a large presence:  Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent, Iowa.  Two more auto industry states, Missouri and Indiana, shifted over just 8 years from a near-tie between Obama and McCain back in 2008—Obama actually won Indiana the first time—to double-digit Trump victories in 2020.  Why?

The American auto industry today includes many factories run by overseas-based companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen.  Most of these are non-unionized, and many are in the South.  Yet the traditional “Big Three,” UAW-organized auto industry remains a strong presence in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley states, and two of these three companies—and an estimated 1.5 million jobs– were rescued from bankruptcy by Obama Administration policies.  Obama’s advertising from 2012 highlighted Mitt Romney’s notorious “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial headline, while another commercial featured a cartoon Romney putting company logos into a wood chipper.

If Democrats seek to renew their support for the workers and retirees of U.S. auto industry, they are going to have to confront a big problem:  fuel economy.  Environmental advocates, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats, want more of it, for example hailing California’s strict new gas mileage standards and support for electric cars.  Yet the traditional U.S. auto industry does not excel in the market for these cars.  Instead, they dominate the market in larger SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to be gas guzzlers.

Many of these auto industry voters are members of the United Auto Workers, which traditionally supports Democrats, and they agree with their old party on issues like health care.  Yet in order to win them back, the Democrats will have to convince them—as did Obama—that their jobs, and their pensions, are not at stake, without losing the staunch pro-environmentalism supporters to nonvoting or to third-party candidates.

Donald Trump’s behavior as candidate and President is anything but conventional.  For one thing, he just became the first President in U.S. history to seek re-election while being impeached.  Yet it is incumbent on us political scientists to cool the hype—in this case, the overblown case that traditional approaches to political analysis are no longer relevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and operatives working quietly but effectively in the campaign organizations of both parties already know this.  Now it is time for the rest of us to realize it, too.  In order to get re-elected, the President must hold together his coalition.  In order to defeat him, Democrats will have to simultaneously turn out new voters, and cut into Trump’s coalition, targeting those who are most cross-pressured.  Neither job will be easy, and it would be very premature for either side to throw out all those old campaign playbooks.

Michael Smith

Michael 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

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.