Blue is Black and Red is White? Affective Polarization and the Racialized Schemas of U.S. Party Coalitions

By Nicholas A. Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov

 

Affective polarization – the mutual partisan antipathy expressed by both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. – has increased dramatically over the last 30 years. Both real-life political processes and their reflections in social media offer anecdotal evidence for this conjecture, as demonstrated by declining civility in political debates. Systematic evidence for this disturbing trend also comes from the ANES time series, as documented by Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes (2012).

What are the root causes of this process? One of the most influential approaches to affective polarization emphasizes the changing social compositions of the two parties (Mason 2018). Over the last decades, sorting rendered Democrats and Republicans relatively homogeneous and distinct on a number of non-ideological dimensions, from religious affiliation to place of residence. For example, whereas both conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals once identified with the Republican party, now the vast majority are conservative. While Democrats once included highly religious as well as secular adherents, most fundamentalists have now departed for the Republicans.

However, we think another dimension is most important. Race/ethnicity now cleaves the parties more neatly than ever, and not simply because Democrats and Republicans disagree in their attitudes about race itself. In fact, whites are sorting out of the Democratic party at a significant rate while minorities are standing pat. Figure 1 presents evidence in this regard using the American National Election Studies time-series data starting from 1952. The growing racial gap between the two parties is evident. As the share of Whites among self-identified Democrats is rapidly decreasing (outpacing demographic changes in the country as a whole), the Republican Party remains overwhelmingly White. Our conjecture is that it is these changes in race and ethnicity that drive most of the affective polarization we have witnessed over the last 30 years.

ValZhir_Figure1
Figure 1. Changing racial compositions of the U.S. electorate and the two major parties

If we are correct we would expect that American voters have begun to develop much more highly racialized mental images of political parties. Furthermore, these racialized images should be much more politically consequential than partisan schemas linked to religion, class, or other dimensions.

To explore this possibility, we conducted two survey studies based on interviews with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. In the first study, we relied on implicit methods to measure respondents’ associations between the two major parties on the one hand and Blacks and Whites on the other hand. Specifically, we used a timed image sorting task similar in architecture to the well-known implicit association test (IAT). However, unlike the standard IAT our task did not include an affective component – instead, it simply measured the strength of associations between racial and partisan groups via objective reaction times (transformed into the IAT D-scores according to the respective guidelines).

Figure 2 presents the results. On average, respondents’ racialized schemas about partisan coalitions were consequential. White respondents who thought of the Democratic Party as Black reported clear affective preference for the Republican Party. Furthermore, this effect was moderated by racial resentment: racialized schemas about the two parties were consequential for those high in racial resentment but not for the racially liberal respondents.

Figure 2. Implicit racial schemas about the two parties, racial resentment, and affective polarization
Figure 2. Implicit racial schemas about the two parties, racial resentment, and affective polarization

In the second study, we asked explicit questions about supporters of the two parties. Specifically, we wanted our respondents to tell us their best guess about the race/ethnicity of “the typical Democrat/Republican.” We found that even in the MTurk sample, which is known to be more liberal than the U.S. general population, as much as 25% of respondents thought of the modal Democratic voter as Black or African American. This is clearly a misperception: even though the Democratic Party indeed draws a substantial share of its electoral support from minority groups, Whites still comprise the plurality of Democratic supporters.

As with implicit schemas, explicit ones were politically consequential. Even controlling for issue positions and demographics, respondents who perceived themselves to “match” with one of the two parties in terms of race exhibited significantly more polarized partisan feelings than those who did not feel they matched one or both of the parties in terms of race. Moreover, partisan identity matching with other groups, namely religious denomination and social class, had almost no effect on affective polarization. Results are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Perceived identity match with the two parties and affective polarization
Figure 3. Perceived identity match with the two parties and affective polarization

Our findings have important implications for the study of affective polarization and for the subfield of American political behavior more generally. We suspect that Americans now see the partisan coalitions in racial terms and that these racialized images are highly consequential for how people feel toward the parties. In comparative politics, the “ethnicization” of political parties is associated with a host of negative system-level outcomes, such as bad governance and political instability. If the process that we highlight continues, the American political system may experience problems much worse than Twitter brawls between fans of Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity.

About the Authors: Nicholas A. Valentino is a Research Professor at the Center for Political Studies and a Professor in the Departments of Political Science and Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. Kirill Zhirkov is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Valentino and Zhirkov received the Best Paper in Political Behavior award for their study “The Images in Our Heads: Race, Partisanship and Affective Polarization” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.

References
Iyengar, Shanto, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes. 2012. “Affect, not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 405–31.

Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ethnic Networks

The following is part of a series of posts written by MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences and in the American Journal of Political Science. The following AJPS Author Summary was first published on the AJPS website and is shared here with permission.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchIn developing countries, ethnic groups – also known as tribes – play an important role in political life. Prior research shows that people living in areas that are more ethnically homogeneous are more likely to act collectively. For example, in more homogeneous communities, people are more likely to donate to a local public school or support a local armed rebellion. Several existing theories assume that such collective action is easier among people from a single ethnic group in part because group members are better able to share information than people from different groups. This is the case, several scholars believe, because the social networks among people of an ethnic group are denser.

To study the “real world” accuracy of these assumptions, we conducted an experiment in rural Uganda. We seeded identical information in the same way at the same time in two villages that are similar in most ways – except that one village is ethnically homogeneous, and the other is more diverse. The seeded information was that in three days an event would be held at which all adults in attendance would receive a valuable block of soap in exchange for taking a survey. By then surveying villagers who did and did not attend, we learned that, as expected, the information spread much less widely in the diverse village; more than eight-times more individuals from the homogeneous village heard about the event. However, contrary to expectations, we find that the social network in the more diverse village is significantly denser; many more social ties interconnect people there. In other words, news spread much more widely in the homogeneous village despite having a less dense social network.

To understand why network density can in fact impede information spread, we argue that if people hesitate to share information more with out-group members than with in-group members – even if the difference is small – then greater network density can actually impede the spread of information. The intuition is as follows: given a limited number of opportunities to share news with a social contact on a given day, greater density – especially if it is driven in part by more cross-group ties — increases the likelihood that some of those opportunities are with less trusted social contacts. Additional ties to those one trusts less crowd out the chance to interact with more trusted people, to whom information flows more freely. Because of the exponential nature of information spread, when this dynamic recurs throughout a network, it can greatly impede the spread of information overall. In the paper, we show how this process can work by simulating information spread through the village networks about which we collected data.

While this is a small study of two villages, it provides a rare, direct look at the process of information transmission in rural societies, and provides clues about why information – and perhaps even disinformation or propaganda – may spread more easily in less diverse areas.

About the Authors: Jennifer M. Larson of Vanderbilt University and Janet I. Lewis of the U.S. Naval Academy have authored the article, “Ethnic Networks”, published in the April 2017 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, which was awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2018 MPSA Conference. (MPSA members: Log in at http://www.MPSAnet.org/AJPS to access.)

How Governments Influence Competition between Militant Groups

By Justin Conrad and William Spaniel

When Algeria descended into violence in the 1990s, two militant groups – the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – competed for supremacy of the rebel movement. The competition between the two groups, in fact, became a major source of violence during the Civil War. Similarly, competition between Irish republican groups appears to have influenced their use of violence during the Troubles. The Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) assassination of Lord Mountbatten, for instance, may have been a response to increasing competition from the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

While both cases involved militant groups using violence in response to competition, there is one notable difference. The Algerian government, despite signing a truce in 1997 with the various militant factions in the conflict, failed to effectively end the groups’ recruitment efforts. As a result, competitive violence among these groups continued to plague the country. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, government enforcement measures – the use of informants, in particular – played a key role in reducing terrorist recruitment levels, and ultimately, the level of violence. Despite competitive violence among militant groups in both conflicts, government enforcement and counter-recruitment policies appear to have influenced the violence in one case, but not the other.

The idea that militant groups might use violence in response to increased political competition is not a new concept. Political scientists have dubbed this behavior as “outbidding”: when groups face greater levels of competition, they may use public displays of violence to differentiate themselves from one another. Potential recruits and supporters constitute the “audience” for such violence. But much of the existing outbidding literature assumes competition among groups occurs in a vacuum, largely ignoring the role of an important strategic actor: the government. Not only is the government the ostensible target of the groups’ political violence, but it also potentially has the power to influence their recruitment processes.  Government efforts to intercept or discourage volunteers should logically undermine the outbidding process. Fewer potential recruits means fewer incentives to use violence to attract those recruits. On the other hand, ineffective government enforcement can create additional opportunities to use violence in an effort to outbid each other.

In our study, “Competition, Government Enforcement and Political Violence,” we explore these strategic dynamics with a model of outbidding that explicitly incorporates the government and its capability to police militant group recruitment efforts. We derive expectations from our model that support the classic outbidding hypothesis: more groups should result in more violence overall (see Figure 1: there is more aggregate violence when there are 4 active groups than when there are 2). However, the additional amount of violence is smaller when the government is better at enforcement.

Government's Marginal Cost of Enforcement
Figure 1

We subsequently test this expectation using data on terrorist violence from the Global Terrorism Database and a variety of measures capturing the relative costs of government enforcement. Figure 2 shows one set of results that captures the basic argument. Each line in the graph represents the predicted number of terrorist attacks a state will experience when there is a specific number of active groups (0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 groups). Again, more groups are associated with higher predicted counts of terrorist attacks. But the effect is clearly influenced by the relative costs of government enforcement (here, measured as the government’s relative political reach). As the number of groups increases and competition becomes particularly intense, we see lower enforcement costs having a pacifying effect on the amount of violence the state experiences. These effects are highly robust to a number of specifications and measures.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The results of the study offer an additional insight: they help refute an alternative to the outbidding hypothesis. The outbidding thesis suggests that more groups lead to more violence because of competitive pressure. But any evidence of this effect would be consistent with an alternative explanation: when there are greater levels of grievances among the population, more people will be willing to both join groups and commit violence. This line of argument, however, does not predict the interactive effect that our study identifies. In other words, we provide evidence that groups do indeed engage in competitive violence while also providing evidence that the government can influence these dynamics.

The lessons for counterterrorism policy are fairly straightforward. Conventional wisdom in academic and policy circles often recommends an “enemy of my enemy” approach where states play factions off one another to undermine their capability to use violence. Our analysis, however, provides additional support for the outbidding thesis that increased competition can lead to more violence. And we identify specific conditions under which this violence is most likely to occur. In a new study presented at the 2018 MPSA conference, one of the authors used original data on intergroup competition to provide additional insight into how group violence is determined by concerns about direct competitors as well as broader concerns about the conflict environment. Ultimately, this line of research suggests that while groups may frequently outbid one another with violence, there is much more to the story than previously imagined.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Justin Conrad is Associate Professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte. His research on intergroup competition is funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation. William Spaniel is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Conrad and Spaniel received the Best Paper in International Relations for their study, “Competition, Government Enforcement, and Political Violence,” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.

All Male Panels Erode Citizens’ Perceptions of Democratic Legitimacy

By Amanda Clayton, Diana Z. O’Brien, and Jennifer M. Piscopo

All-male panels increasingly face public pushback. Though once ubiquitous, male-only groups are encountering greater scrutiny at conferences, in workplaces, and especially in politics. In the United States, for example, a photo showing a male-only meeting of politicians discussing whether health insurance plans should be required to include maternity services provoked outrage. Irish citizens recently expressed indignation at an all-male group of city and county councilors advocating for a “no” vote in the country’s referendum to decriminalize abortion.

That all-male panels confront scorn, especially when their topic addresses matters connected to women’s experiences, suggests that women’s presence can affect how citizens view policy decisions and the institutions and processes that make them. What does women’s presence in political decision-making bodies signal to citizens? Do citizens’ reactions change depending on what decision the group makes? And do women and men respond similarly to women’s presence? Our research explains whether, when, and for whom the makeup of political institutions affects citizens’ perceptions of democratic legitimacy.

Our study is based on a November 2016 survey experiment. We asked a representative sample of Americans to read a hypothetical newspaper article about an eight-member state legislative committee evaluating sexual harassment policies. Our design varied both the gender makeup of the panel (all-male vs. gender-balanced) and the decision reached (increasing or decreasing penalties for those found guilty of harassment).

We asked respondents their feelings about the legitimacy of the decision itself, a concept we term substantive legitimacy. We also asked about their attitudes towards the decision-making process, willingness to acquiesce to the decision, and trust in the political institutions that made the decision. Together, these concepts capture procedural legitimacy. Our design allows us to see how citizens’ perceptions of governing institutions change based on whether policies advantage or disadvantage women and whether women are involved in the decision-making process.

We find that citizens, both men and women, strongly prefer gender-balanced decision-making bodies. At the same time, we also show important differences related to citizens’ assessments of substantive or procedural legitimacy, the decision the group reaches, and respondent gender.

Regarding substantive legitimacy, we find that aversion towards male-only panels is particularly strong when they make decisions that roll back women’s rights. Said another way, women’s presence adds legitimacy to policy decisions that harm women. Men especially respond positively to women’s presence in these conditions. Women’s inclusion may cue men that the decision is “right” for women (even though the decision objectively removes protections for women). At the same time, changing from an all-male to a gender-balanced panel does not affect the perceived legitimacy of decisions that expand women’s rights, for either men or women respondents.

Moving to procedural legitimacy, we find that citizens view decision-making procedures as more legitimate when women are present. This finding holds for both men and women, both when decisions expand group rights and when they restrict them. Even in cases in which all-male panels advance feminist policies, citizens report lower average levels of procedural fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence as compared to the gender-balanced committee.

Our findings hold across citizens’ party identification, indicating that both Republicans and Democrats prefer gender-balanced panels. And, our results were replicated in June 2017, ensuring that our findings are not driven by the 2016 election, when women’s access to political power and sexual harassment were particularly salient media topics.

Importantly, our results concerning procedural legitimacy also hold when we focus on a policy issue where women’s rights are not at stake. A separate group of respondents saw a news story in which an all-male or gender-balanced panel could raise or lower penalties for the mistreatment of animals on commercial farms. In this experiment, women’s presence does not affect attitudes about the substance of the decision. Yet, respondents report higher average levels of perceived fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence when the decision is made by a gender-balanced panel. Again, citizens prefer inclusion.

Together, our outcomes have mixed implications for politics and policy. On the one hand, women’s presence legitimizes policies that harm women. Actors looking to roll back group rights could thus manipulate public opinion by placing women on decision-making bodies in these instances.

On the other hand, our findings demonstrate the profound importance of inclusion. Women’s presence in elected office is necessary in order for political institutions to be seen as wholly legitimate. This holds across policy areas, and even when decisions expand women’s rights. Politicians should recognize that opprobrium against all-male panels is not just a social media trend, but a genuine citizen grievance. Having male-only policymakers erodes citizens’ beliefs in the democratic legitimacy of their political institutions.

 

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Amanda Clayton is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, Diana Z. O’Brien is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, and Jennifer M. Piscopo is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College. Their research “All Male Panels? Representation and Democratic Legitimacy” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the 2018 Sophonisba Breckinridge Award for the best paper on the topic of women and politics.

The Deliberative Sublime: Edmund Burke on Disruptive Speech and Imaginative Judgment

Edmund Burke Engraving
Edmund Burke Engraving

By Rob Goodman of McGill University

Could it be true that judicious political conduct requires injudicious political language? Is there a case to be made for the value, amidst relatively settled institutions, of unsettling speech—speech characterized by rhetorical excess, exaggeration, impropriety, indecorousness, and even the uncanny?

Given the current state of American political discourse, many of us would be tempted to answer with a firm “no.” In fact, many of us would likely agree with former President Obama’s argument that “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation,” or with the bipartisan group in the House of Representatives, who last year claimed in a draft resolution that “civil discourse and dialogue…have been jeopardized in recent years by growing division in and coarsening of our political culture,” and who called for “civility training in schools.”

And again, many political theorists would seem to sympathize with these arguments. The literature on democratic deliberation (even when rather grudgingly setting aside a place for rhetoric as a prompt or invitation to deliberation) often conceives of the desirable norms of political speech in restrained terms, stressing discussion, conversation, civility, and strict factuality.

These concerns are part of a long tradition. To eighteenth-century ears, for instance, such complaints over immoderate political speech would have sounded familiar. Among theorists in the early era of constitutionalism, it was something of a commonplace that the rule-bound governance of the modern era demanded a complementary style of rule-bound speech: a discourse that was factual, restrained, dispassionate, and even happily mediocre. When the partisans of this discourse denounced classical eloquence as “waste language” (John Trenchard), praised the speech of modern pleaders who aimed only “at convincing and instructing” (Hugh Blair), or decried “the ascendency of passion over reason” (James Madison), they anticipated in important ways the deliberative theorists of the present, as well as the contemporary yearning for “civility” as a cure to political ills.

Even if the discourse of deliberative civility has been more honored in the breach than the observance, it is still a matter of enduring interest for political theory: notions of acceptable and aberrant speech have long been treated as central to a polity’s self-conception. It is one thing to tolerate immoderate speech; it is another thing to actively defend it. How could one make such a defense? Why would one even want to do so?

In a paper presented at the 2016 MPSA conference, which was recently published in APSR as “The Deliberative Sublime: Edmund Burke on Disruptive Speech and Imaginative Judgment,” I tried to answer those questions. In doing so, I drew on an unlikely eighteenth-century source: Edmund Burke’s theory and practice of rhetorical excess or, in his own terms, the rhetorical sublime.

In the Burkean view that I develop, there are considerable costs to thoroughly hiving off from the work of deliberation what Thomas Spragens once called the “darker passions.” Drawing on Burke to defend unruly rhetoric might seem unlikely just because he shared with contemporary critics of rhetorical excess an appreciation for stability, predictability, and gradualism in the institutions and practices of government. But Burke’s historical reputation as the ur-conservative (which recent biographers have challenged as anachronistic), might blind us to the ways in which he rejected his contemporaries’ association of moderate language with moderate governance.

For Burke, such governance demanded the exercise of circumstantial judgment—and therefore demanded that deliberators overcome an allegedly ingrained resistance to judging. Burke presumed that most of us would take every opportunity to offload the pain of judgment onto preexisting “methods and forms,” maxims, and abstractions, all of which fail to engage with circumstantial complexities. He consistently urged his audiences to attend to the singular political moment and its particular circumstances, a challenge for which rules, procedures, and nostrums offer little help. In fact, he held that the very political stability he prized might lead deliberators to abdicate judgment. We may sympathize with such concerns if we recall the ways in which the phenomena of group polarization or the power of partisan loyalty over political perceptions and preferences seem to perform similar judgment-avoidance functions in our own time.

For Burke, the spur to sound political judgment was immoderate language: speech that might serve as a provocation of judgment and a corrective against the deliberative weaknesses he saw as endemic to constitutional government. There is thus a necessary place within settled institutions for unsettling and even uncanny speech. Burke proposes, in short, that the “deliberative sublime” is not the contradiction that it would seem to be. If the sublime is a kind of crisis of the senses—a simulation of danger that provokes a “sense of inward greatness” when successfully encompassed by the mind—there is a comparable kind of crisis that does not undermine a constitutional order, but inoculates it. My paper attempts to show how an analogous claim can be brought to bear on the anti-rhetorical strand of contemporary deliberative democracy—and, on the other hand, how even the Burkean defense of sublimity is consistent with a recognition of the harmfulness of certain kinds of uncivil and hateful speech.

While Burke is best known today for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he was also regarded as one of the leading parliamentary orators of his day—one whose language, even by the standards of its time, seemed especially florid, heated, emotive, or superabundant. One contemporary compared him to a howling “wolf” in debate, and another described him as “foaming like Niagara.” Such contemporaries as William Wordsworth and James Boswell were struck by the force of his rhetoric. Others described him in terms of ethnic caricature, as when the populist politician John Wilkes mocked his “wild Irish eloquence” as the product of “potatoes and whiskey.”

My paper engages in a close reading of a number of passages of the kind that inspired these assessments—passages that seem to have been intended to startle, provoke, and disorient. Those passages include an account of a bloody whaling expedition, imagined visitations by supernatural entities, and a vision of the globe “burned to ashes” in the apocalypse. In some strict senses of the term, such passages are not “deliberative” at all. But in Burke’s theory of language and judgment—which was developed in his early work on the aesthetics of the sublime and put into practice in his oratorical career—such passages are integral to deliberation, because they stimulate the imagination and prime audiences for the exercise of judgment. In Burke’s terms, deliberation is so mentally strenuous that most of us take every excuse to avoid it—and so we must be “alarmed into reflection.” In fact, Burke explicitly cast his oratory as an appeal to the imagination:

Do not entertain so weak an imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce… All this, I know well enough, will sound wild and chimerical to the profane herd of those vulgar and mechanical politicians…who, therefore, far from being qualified to be directors of the great movement of empire, are not fit to turn a wheel in the machine.

Burke’s object is not just to criticize the habits of parliamentary government for failing to “stretch and expand our minds”—but also that his own words might begin to affect the needed expansion. Burke leads us to the counterintuitive position that the language best suited to judgment may not itself be judicious.

None of this means that we ought to mistrust the notion of civility itself. Burke, for one, stressed that politics, “as it is a work for social ends, is to be only wrought by social means.” In other words, deliberation is a collaborative activity, and it benefits from the inclusion of marginal perspectives and language, as Burke’s own example illustrates. Because deliberation is collaborative, orators are obliged to carefully balance the need to provoke with the need to preserve the social context that gives provocation its value, steering clear of the kind of incivility that can be described (in the words of J. Cherie Strachan and Michael R. Wolf) as “rhetoric apt to sever relationships.” On the other hand, my paper argues that too demanding a notion of civility can stunt deliberation. We may have good reason to prefer a standard of civility minimal enough to make room for disturbingly provocative speech, agonistic ambition, and even what Teresa M. Bejan called “a commitment to mutual contempt.”

While Burke was engaged with eighteenth-century problems of parliamentary government, his core arguments—that cultivating political judgment can be difficult and even painful, and that disruptive speech can help us overcome that pain—continue to resonate. Consider, for instance, a 2014 speech of Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshall Islands poet, to the United Nations Climate Summit. Jetñil-Kijiner addressed these words to her infant daughter, imagining the lagoon near their home transformed by rising seas: “Men say that one day that lagoon will devour you. They say it will gnaw at the shoreline, chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees, gulp down rows of your seawalls, and crunch your island’s shattered bones.” The echoes of the Burkean sublime, and its aim of alarming into reflection, ought to be evident enough. At the same time, reconceiving deliberation in Burkean terms would lead us to reconsider the varieties of political speech we tend to view as troubling—not only the demagogic appeal, but also what Umberto Eco called the “pernicious vacuousness” that fails to offend and equally fails to engage our judgment.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearch
About the Author:
Rob Goodman will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science at McGill University, beginning in August. His paper “Edmund Burke and the Deliberative Sublime”, presented at the 2016 MPSA conference, received the Review of Politics Award in 2017.

Voting Can Be Hard, Information Helps

By Melody Crowder-Meyer, Shana Kushner Gadarian, and Jessica Trounstine

Vote

When Los Angeles County voters entered their polling booths in November 2016, they were faced with a multitude of decisions. The choice of which presidential candidate to support was likely fairly straightforward. But how about voters’ choice for the U.S. Senate? Both candidates available were Democrats – how did voters determine which candidate would better represent their preferences? Further down the ballot, voters were then presented with local races. The candidates running for Board of Supervisors, Judge of the Superior Court, City Council, and Rent Control Board were all listed as nonpartisan. Making all these decisions – filling out this ballot – asked a lot of citizens. So, how do citizens generally make decisions about casting their votes when they have little information to use?

In this paper, we examine how voters make decisions under varying levels of information. Existing research clearly demonstrates that voters draw on shortcuts – heuristics such as ideology and partisanship – to substitute for full information when making voting decisions. But in non-partisan elections or in elections (like party primaries) in which both candidates share the same party identification, these heuristics can’t help. What then do voters do? We investigate the extent to which voters use candidates’ race, ethnicity, and gender – characteristics that can often be identified even in the lowest information elections – as shortcuts to help them make decisions. Importantly, our exploration is conducted in settings where partisan cues are absent, which is the case in the vast majority of local elections in the United States.

We use 3 experiments to test the way that varying the amount of candidate information affects how voters choose candidates. In particular, we are interested in whether information helps or hurts the chance that candidates of color and female candidates win. In the experiments, we asked subjects to act like voters and choose candidates in 3 elections: city council, county board of supervisors, and a parks and recreation board. We randomly assigned candidates of varying races and gender, and randomly assigned levels of information available to voters.

Our lowest information setting included only candidate’s names –like this ballot from Duluth, Minnesota.

MPSAblog-VotingCanBeHard_NameOnly

Our medium level of information setting provided candidates’ occupations as well – just like this ballot from Alameda, California.

MPSAblog-VotingCanBeHard_NameandOccupation

In our highest information setting, we told voters candidates’ name, occupation, age, educational background, and incumbency status.

We find that voters do indeed rely on candidate characteristics when casting their ballots. While racial and ethnic minorities lose in low information settings, women win. However, as shown in the figure below, increasing the amount of information available to voters moderates both of these effects.

More information reduces the effect of candidate race and gender on vote choice

MPSAblog-VotingCanBeHard_Figure1

The figure shows the difference in the probability of voting for candidates with specific racial and gender characteristics – compared to white candidates and male candidates – under conditions of low, moderate, and high information. African-Americans suffer the greatest penalty in our low information experiments, followed by Asians and Latinos. Women are given a slight benefit when voters have the least information. Adding information about the candidates reduces these penalties and benefits.

But who is most likely to rely on candidate race and gender as cues….and why? In a separate experiment, we found that voters assume that black and Latino candidates are more liberal than white candidates, and that female candidates are viewed as more liberal than male candidates. How did this affect vote choice? We find that liberals and Democrats are substantially more likely than conservatives and Republicans to support female candidates and candidates of color in our lowest information settings. In fact, the preference for women in the lowest information setting is wholly driven by liberal and Democratic respondents. Voters seem to be drawing on racial and gender stereotypes to cast their ballots in our experimental elections.

But, does any of this hold outside of the lab? To determine the extent to which our findings apply outside the experimental context, we also evaluated a set of voting choices in a real, but very low information, election – the election for presidential convention delegates. In New York State, voters in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary voted in their Congressional Districts both for the presidential candidate that they preferred, and also directly for the delegates who would support those candidates at the Democratic National Convention. Democratic party rules dictate that half of all delegates to the convention be male and half female, so delegate candidates were equally divided by gender, mimicking our experimental design. In addition, voters had very little information about these delegates except for their names and their gender.

Each delegate on the ballot was pledged to one of the presidential candidates, but some of the ballot designs made that easier to understand than other ballots. We take advantage of this difference in ballots across counties to predict that any advantage given to female delegates should disappear when delegates are clearly linked to candidates (essentially, when we move from a very low information condition to a more moderate information condition). This is exactly what we find. As the figure below highlights, even in real world elections, more information decreases gender of candidate effects on vote choice.

Ballot clarity helps male delegates in NY State presidential primary

MPSAblog-VotingCanBeHard_Figure2.jpg

In sum, using three experiments and one real-world election, we show that when voters are forced to make decisions without any information about the candidates other than their names, they use the names to figure out who to pick. Adding information to voters’ ballots largely eliminates these penalties. Small amounts of virtually costless information decrease voters’ use of demographic traits to make decisions. In our real-world example simply clarifying the delegate’s pledged candidate largely eliminates the effect of gender and adding occupation to our experimental ballots significantly reduces the effects of race. Should a broader set of states adopt ballots with additional contextual information about candidates (as shown in the Alameda, California ballot above), or if media trends changed such that (especially local) political information was more widely accessible and consumed by voters, this could substantially affect the ways that voters make decisions about who governs them – at the local level and beyond.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearch
About the Authors: Melody Crowder-Meyer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, Shana Kushner Gadarian is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, and Jessica Trounstine is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced. Their research “Voting Can Be Hard, Information Helps” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the association’s inaugural Best Paper in American Politics.

Differential Electoral Coordination of House Republican Intraparty Organizations

By Zachary A. McGee of the University of Texas at Austin

Differential Electoral Coordination of House Republican Intraparty Organizations

At the start of the 115th Congress the Republican Party finally achieved unified government for the first time in more than a decade. Unfortunately for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, his conference was not unified, and in fact, they were prepared to organize against him. My project seeks to highlight the power of an understudied set of actors who are important for understanding dynamics in the lower chamber of Congress.

Intraparty organizations, such as the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) or the Republican Study Committee (RSC), play a critical role in rank-and-file members extracting benefits from powerful party leaders. Ruth Bloch Rubin shows the power these members can have when they organize in her recent book Building the Bloc. More specifically, she shows that these groups are able to obtain better committee assignments, legislative concessions, and privileged access to party leaders. My project builds on her work by asking whether the extraction of these benefits might lead to retribution by the party in subsequent electoral cycles and how these groups might insulate themselves from that retribution.

In the modern Congress members, not their parties, generate most of their own financial support. That is, members build their own war chests and most members give some of their money to their fellow members. This practice is especially prominent among party leaders or ambitious members seeking more power but has also gradually grown to be used by almost all rank-and-file members as well. At the 2017 MPSA conference, I presented a paper entitled “Keeping Your Friends Close: A Study of Punishment and Intraparty Insurgency.” In that paper, I argue that, in the same way that party leaders can raise and distribute funds to members in return for loyalty, intraparty organization members can raise and distribute funds to fellow group members for their loyalty and protection after squabbles with party leaders.

To test my claims about intraparty organizations’ electoral cooperation and political party retribution, I examine the House Republican Party in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. My analysis focuses on the well-established Republican Study Committee and the newly established, and already infamous, House Freedom Caucus. I use social network analysis to map the member-to-member contribution networks for all House Republicans. That is, I create a network wherein each member of the House Republican Party is linked to every other member they transferred money to in each given election cycle. The contribution data are from itemized Leadership Political Action Committee (LPAC) disbursement data from the Federal Election Commission.

Figure 1: Member-to-Member Network (2016 Electoral Cycle) Note: Rank-and-file members are red nodes, party leaders and committee chairs are purple nodes, and House Freedom Caucus members are green nodes.
Figure 1: Member-to-Member Network (2016 Electoral Cycle)
 Note: Rank-and-file members are red nodes, party leaders and committee chairs are purple nodes, and House Freedom Caucus members are green nodes.

My analysis reveals that members who chose to join the House Freedom Caucus altered their electoral disbursements to disproportionately support fellow group members. In fact, I find not only an increase in HFC members’ activity but also that they cluster together in the 2016 network. This cluster, defined by HFC-centric disbursements, reveals three potential HFC members that do not formally affiliate with the group: Pete Sessions (TX-32), Daniel Webster (FL-11), and Thomas Massie (KY-4). This finding is particularly interesting since the formal HFC roster is not public knowledge.

The pattern of support identified within the House Freedom Caucus does not exist among members of the larger and older Republican Study Committee. In other words, there is no clear financial relationship between members of this well-established intraparty organization. This finding illustrates that electoral coordination is not uniform across all intraparty organizations, which is interesting because we know almost nothing about what attributes of these groups leads to more or less cohesive electoral strategies. Clearly, more work to parse out across-group variation is necessary.

Finally, I find that non-HFC House Republicans opted to support HFC members less after the group formally organized (i.e. in the 2016 electoral cycle). While I provide evidence that co-partisans treat intraparty organization members differently before and after their formation, one can only speculate about the extent to which this coordination was ordered by party leaders. Whether or not party leaders are able to execute micro-level management of their members’ contributions to one another is an interesting question. Unfortunately, evidence to answer this question remains elusive. Nevertheless, the management of intraparty organizations by party leaders remains an area ripe for scholarly inquiry.

The analysis presented in my paper provides an important first step in understanding how intraparty organizations persist to consistently extract benefits from party leaders (e.g. the House Freedom Caucus) or become bloated and ineffective (e.g. the Republican Study Committee). Moreover, the collective partisan responses to intraparty organization coordination suggest that these groups are likely perceived to have some impact on the legislative process causing members to withhold support from their colleagues who opt-in to these groups. It remains unclear how successful these groups actually are in impacting the policy process though.

For scholars, this project also demonstrates that member-to-member contribution networks are a useful tool for studying intraparty organizations. I presented an empirical evaluation of the electoral coordination of these groups, but I also showed that networks can be used to identify potential group members for groups with secret membership rolls (like the HFC). This method can certainly be applied to other groups like the Tuesday Group or the Blue Dog Democrats.

Outside of its academic contributions, my paper suggests that pundits and the public alike should not underestimate the power and longevity of well-organized groups of rank-and-file members. These groups can successfully and consistently challenge powerful party leaders and coordinate for their own survival. The successes of the HFC since the start of the 115th Congress alone should cement this point. But, the HFC is not the first, nor will it be the last, group to form and extract benefits from party leaders. The takeaway for any given citizen then is this, if your member of Congress is a member of any intraparty organization then you should research that organization’s mission and take it into consideration when casting your next ballot.

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About the Author: Zachary A. McGee is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on multiple aspects of intraparty organizations and their role in the U.S. Congress. More information can be found on his website
www.zacharymcgee.net and he can be reached at zmcgee@utexas.edu.

McGee’s research “Keeping Your Friends Close: A Study of Punishment and Intraparty Insurgency“, presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the award for Best Paper Delivered by a Graduate Student.

What 18,000 Declassified Documents (and a Computer) Reveal About the Credibility of Signals During Crises

By Eric Min of Stanford University

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Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. [AP/Wide World Photo/US Department of State]
For the last couple decades, international relations scholars have fervently debated the credibility of signals during crises. Thomas Schelling’s work, followed by James Fearon’s audience cost theory and its offshoots, has popularized the belief that public signals are more credible because they implicate higher costs to take back. More specifically, costs from hand-tying through public words are greater than those from cost-sinking through public deeds. Private words are cheap. Some recent research has countered these claims by arguing that private signals can be just as costly in reputation as their public counterparts.

Two forms of path dependency have shaped and limited the contours of this discussion. First, likely due to Schelling’s enormous influence, most studies have focused on costs as the main and potentially only source of credibility. Second, without systematic data on diplomatic signals or how elites interpret them, scholars have used formal models and historical case studies to bolster their points. These methods have been valuable but also allow for different forms of cherry-picking.

At the 2017 MPSA conference, my co-author Azusa Katagiri and I presented a paper entitled “The Credibility of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach,” which offers two corresponding innovations to this debate. First, we present a novel rationale for why words exchanged behind closed doors may be more informative, and thus credible, than words exchanged in public. Second, we use text analysis and machine learning methods to create a comprehensive set of data on private statements, public statements, public actions, and White House evaluations of the Soviet Union during the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1963. These data permit the first quantitative study of diplomatic signaling and its effects.

The core of our theoretical argument is based on information processing/perception and relies on a more realistic understanding of the diplomatic environment, where policymakers are overloaded with tasks to perform and information to process. It is also intuitive. (Our argument’s framing has changed since we presented in 2017, so please check the revised paper.) So many statements are made in public that governmental actors—whether low-ranking desk officers or Cabinet members—cannot reliably keep up with or process them. Moreover, even though public statements are designed for and directed toward specific audiences, nobody can prevent other actors from noticing and (mis)interpreting those words. Public diplomatic statements are very noisy. In contrast, private diplomatic statements are infrequent, precise, and directed at one audience, all of which decreases their likelihood of being ignored or misperceived. This gives them important informational value and credibility.

We test these claims using over 18,000 de-classified documents from the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1963, which we photographed at the National Archives and the Eisenhower and Kennedy Presidential Libraries. This is a full collection of cables and memos during one of the most serious crises in American history. The documents come from three sources, which align with our concepts of interest: the Department of State (private statements from the Soviet Union), the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (public statements from the Soviet Union), and the White House (American elites’ assessments of Soviet intentions).

To convert these documents into quantitative data, we use a series of text analysis and supervised learning methods to make weekly-level measures of private statements of Soviet resolve (ostensibly costless), public statements of Soviet resolve (hand-tying), and White House perceptions of Soviet resolve. We also use The New York Times to manually create a measure of costly public actions by the Soviet Union (cost-sinking).

Statistical analysis points to three results:

  • First, costly actions have far greater impacts on perceptions of resolve than either public or private statements.
  • Second, private statements are indeed less frequent and more focused compared to public statements.
  • Third, and consequently, private statements of resolve are more credible and affect White House perceptions of Soviet resolve than public statements.

These findings completely rearrange the hierarchy of signal credibility. Most research on costly signals would put them in this order of credibility:

Public statements > Public actions > Private statements

However, according to the information processing perspective, as well as our data, we get this:

Public actions > Private statements > Public statements

Our research has implications that are relevant to the current diplomatic situation with North Korea. President Trump’s bellicose tweets throughout 2017 and early 2018 were indeed unprecedented and increased the risk of grave unintended consequences, but fears about being committed to conflict were overblown. Not only have President Trump’s erratic and inconsistent statements already undermined his credibility, but his tweets were only one of multiple streams of public statements from his administration that were more measured or sought to engage in diplomacy. (For example, consider positions taken by Secretary Mattis or former Secretary of State Tillerson.) Conversely, claims that President Trump’s tweets recently intimidated North Korea into coming back to the table are also debatable. U.S. troop deployments and joint military exercises with South Korea have arguably been more important to American credibility.

Private diplomacy is a vital conduit through which to make clear and direct statements to one’s adversary, stripped away of incentives to perform for an outside audience. Unlike what President Trump has said about diplomacy with North Korea in the past, it is not “a waste of time.” Mike Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea, while clearly unorthodox since he was then director of the CIA, underscores this point. But it is also for this reason that direct talks between Trump and Kim may be unwise. The higher up the ladder talks start (before lower-level officials already work out issues behind closed doors), the less likely they are to be truly private, and the more likely it becomes for both individuals to engage in public posturing instead of substantive discussions.

Our paper injects a new theoretical and empirical perspective to the study of signaling. Not only do we highlight the importance of private diplomatic activity, but we demonstrate how contemporary computational methods can be harnessed to explore the dynamics of crisis diplomacy. We look forward to extending this line of research in the future.

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About the Authors: Azusa Katagiri is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His other research focuses on the micro-foundations of state behavior, and bureaucratic decision-making in conflict, and US-Japan relations. He can be reached at
azusak@ntu.edu.sg.

Eric Min is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and will be an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles starting in the fall of 2018. His broader research applies new data and methods to analyze the strategic interaction of fighting and negotiating during war. He can be reached at ericmin@stanford.edu and is also on Twitter.

Their research “The Effectiveness of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach, presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the Robert H. Durr Award which recognizes the best paper applying quantitative methods to a substantive problem.

Foster Care Privatization: How an Increasingly Popular Public Policy Leads to Increased Levels of Abuse and Neglect

MPSA blog - Eatough - Foster Care Privatization

Foster care in the United States is dramatically influenced by federal and state legislation. Since the late 1990s policies establishing privatized foster care have become increasingly popular throughout the country. The privatization of foster care, much like the privatization of other government services, has been favored because of perceived increases in efficiency and economic effectiveness by private providers. However, opponents of foster care privatization suggest that by prioritizing efficiency and cost-effectiveness over the quality of placements children in the system receive there is an increased potential for abuse and neglect in the system.

My project, Foster Care Privatization: How an Increasingly Popular Public Policy Leads to Increased Levels of Abuse and Neglect, evaluates how differentiation in foster care privatization policies may influence the quality of care received by children in the system – specifically focusing on the incidence of abuse and neglect – by measuring potential effects of privatization through three analyses:

  • Whether changes in foster care policies have an immediate effect on the privatization level or incidence of abuse or neglect in a state.
  • Whether there are differences in placement goals by privatized and non-privatized agencies that reflect the hypothesized cost-effectiveness of privatization.
  • Whether children in privatized placements are more likely to experience abuse or neglect than children in non-privatized placements.

To measure each of these effects I used a dataset of each foster care placement and removal in the United States from 2000 to 2014 (from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System or AFCARS). This dataset is the most comprehensive set of information about children in foster care in the United States and includes demographic and placement/removal information for each child.

The first analysis, a set of 86 time-series models, showed that changes in foster care legislation have the potential to cause an immediate effect on the privatization level and quality of placements received by children in the foster care system. While privatization legislation did not indicate an immediate change in the privatization level or incidence of abuse in every state, the immediate changes seen in half the states with major privatization policies passed indicates that privatization policies may have a direct and immediate influence on the lives of children in the foster care system.

The second analysis, a substantive comparison of placement goals for foster children based on placement privatization, showed that privatized placement agencies favor case goals that make placements efficient and less expensive. Most notably, a significant decrease is seen in the probability of a child being adopted from a privatized foster care placement when compared to placements by non-privatized agencies.

The third analysis, a set of proportional hazard models, showed that increased levels of privatization lead to an increase of unfit placements in the form of an increased risk of abuse and neglect of children. Figure 1 below shows the variation in the risk of physical abuse over time based on system privatization level (similar results were seen in models determining the risk of sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment). Significant differences are seen between the risks of abuse and neglect the longer children have been in the foster care system, with the greatest differences seen when children remain in the system for eighteen years.

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Figure 1. Risk of Physical Abuse Over Time

Each of these outcomes indicates that as privatization in foster care increases, the quality of placements for foster care children has the potential to decrease. These results show that foster care privatization, an increasingly popular public policy, increases the risk of abuse and neglect for children in foster care. The political debates surrounding the privatization of foster care have relied heavily on anecdotal evidence that makes it nearly impossible to identify actual policy outcomes.

This project uses data that has been widely underused to address this highly politicized debate. I think that as social scientists it’s incredibly important to consider what data may be available in other disciplines (in the case of this project using a dataset predominantly used by social workers and child abuse experts) to address questions that we have. Looking for political data from the outset as a means of addressing political issues limits our ability to address important political issues. The AFCARS dataset isn’t framed as political, but it can be used to address important questions about privatization policies.

While this project focuses primarily on the anti-privatization arguments, I’m continuing work on this project to identify whether there are differences in cost-effectiveness and efficiency between privatized and non-privatized foster care placements. My hope is that this project encourages further research on the effect of public policies on those who they impact most, particularly the impact of the privatization of social services on the lives of those who rely on them. Policies that change the way individuals access or are provided services from the government are particularly important to evaluate because of the potential for immediate and detrimental outcomes for those who rely on the service.

This project has critical implications for the policy debate about the privatization of foster care both in terms of the outcome of implemented policies and the way privatization should be evaluated going forward. The identification of increased levels of abuse and neglect in privatized foster care placements suggests that if privatization is to remain the goal of American foster care, it must be improved upon. Foster care is a system that is meant to keep children from being in unsafe and unhealthy environments, it is up to the policies implemented by legislators about how the system is run to ensure that children are not being moved from one abusive situation to another.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Mandi Eatough recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in Political Science and will soon begin working toward earning a Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Michigan. Eatough received the Best Undergraduate Paper Presented in a Poster Format for her research, “Foster Care Privatization: How an Increasingly Popular Public Policy Leads to Increased Levels of Abuse and Neglect “, presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.

Politics and Ontology in Thucydides’ story of Alcmaeon

By Borden Flanagan of American University

Flanagan-PullQuoteThe story of Alcmaeon, in an emphatically unnecessary digression, frames Periclean imperialism in terms of the cosmological themes of motion and rest, thereby suggesting how ontological questions are disclosed in fundamental political problems.

Thucydides’ Archaeology and war narrative are cast in terms of motion and rest. (Human community begins in constant motion, settles into a cycle of motion and rest; Athens the city of motion/empire, Sparta of rest/devotion to law, etc.) The Alcmaeon story begins with a description of motion and rest as expressed in the interplay of earth and water in the river Achelous, before turning to Alcmaeon himself. Condemned by Apollo to ceaseless motion for having murdered his mother, Alcmaeon settles finally on the Achelous river delta, land created by the motion of the river. It is unclear whether Alcmaeon circumvented Apollo’s curse by finding land that did not exist when Apollo declared all ground polluted for him, or settled there by Apollo’s direction. The former possibility suggests that divine commands are less powerful than natural processes, much as the Athenians argue that natural compulsion renders their empire blameless before gods and men. The latter suggests divine patience/forgiveness for human weakness and longing. Both possibilities undermine hope for justice, and call into question whether justice has a natural ground, yet without debunking it. Apollo recedes from the story.

Alcmaeon’s crime, matricide, suggests hubris by denying or forgetting one’s subordination to the order of generation, an order protected by divine and human law. It is to treat oneself as sui-generis and self-sufficient, free of the cycle of growth and decay, as if immortal. His punishment is to be homeless, without origin or end. This makes him miserable, suggesting that happiness requires accepting one’s rootedness in generation and mortality. Alcmaeon finds a home only by acknowledging his need to ground himself on the interplay of motion and rest, on the land created by water, and on this acceptance of his subordination to flux is thereby able to generate his own line and patrimony.

Several textual clues suggest a connection to Pericles. Thematically, Pericles’ imperial project resembles Alcmaeon’s hubris. Demoting the ancestors in his funeral speech, Pericles promises immortal glory for civic devotion, sums up Athenian virtue in the word autarkes or self-sufficiency, and treats Athens as subject to no principle above her own excellence. He never mentions the gods, and promises, through Athenian motion, a rest that is beyond all motion, abstracted from motion. The demotion of the ancestors suggests that ambition seeks self-sufficiency lest one’s glory be reduced to a reflection of another’s. One must deny one’s beginning as well as one’s end, because the former implies the latter; one must deny that one has been caused, that one is implicated in the process of motion and rest. Otherwise, glory would fail to assert one’s selfhood against the flux. The demotion of the ancestors is part and parcel of Pericles’ denial of the salience of the gods, for the apotheosis that is the promise of the empire requires subordination to neither. (In the last speech, where Pericles declares the irrelevance of the divine, imperial glory is cast as an escape from nature.)

The illusion of ontological self-sufficiency is the heart of matricidal hubris and love of glory. This is reflected in Pericles’ description of Athenian virtue, whose central theme is freedom and self-sufficiency. Easy courage, daring and deliberation, and autarkes or self-sufficiency all characterize Athens as a calm axis at the center of whirling motion, a rest from which motion flows but which is herself unmoved. Pericles presents Athens as cause par excellence, both as force compelling enemies and as school of Hellas.

Thucydides thus suggests that a core political passion, the eros for glory, has a transpolitical goal; politics seeks apotheosis. To understand politics one must understand the transpolitical character of its longings. Framing this longing in terms of motion/rest likewise reframes the soul. Eros is akin to motion, a seeking of what is beyond or absent, of a rest that is apontos. In eros for glory the soul seeks to be a self that is flash-frozen in the moment of maximal virtue, static but without an inside, beyond time and causality. The soul however is both motion and rest, is caused and is a locus of causes. It therefore cannot be thought of apart from its mortality; our longing to transcend our limits teaches us our limits. This prepares us for Alcmaeon’s acceptance of his rootedness in flux, the basis of his recovered happiness and sanity. But this education of eros requires its transformation, from a longing for immortality to a consideration of what that means to a reflection on its own character, and on what it has in common with the cosmic order whose permanence it wishes to assimilate.

Following out this hierarchy of questions raises, finally, the question of Being, in two ways. First, the dyad of motion and rest appears as a paradox; each is neither separable from nor reducible to the other, they cannot be understood separately, and so their being remains mysterious. Dialectic points beyond itself, must be resolved on a higher plane than the dialectic itself. If nature is motion and rest, by virtue of what? Second, toying with the problem of whether justice is precluded by natural necessity (the claim made by the Athenians about their empire) and whether motion/rest precludes divine authority and law (the same problem as captured in the Alcmaeon story) raises questions of ultimate grounds. Thucydides neither endorses nor debunks the Athenian Thesis on Justice. He successfully casts the question of justice in terms of nature but without offering an answer to that question.  Human nature needs and destroys justice, supports and undermines it. The questionable character of justice thereby suggests the questionable character of nature. By virtue of what is nature the way it is? If the problem inherent in the surface of Alcmaeon’s story is Apollo’s strange withdrawal from that story, the heart of it is the question of Being.


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About the Author: Borden Flanagan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at American University. His research “Alcmaeon’s Islands: Motion and Rest in Thucydides was recently honored with the Review of Politics Award for the best paper in normative political theory.