Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Beyond Political Crisis, Deliberation?

© Paul Lachelier 2011.  All rights reserved.

The following op-ed was published in Florida’s West Volusia Beacon on Thursday, August 11, 2011.  A shorter version was published in the Orlando Sentinel the next day.

For the past few weeks, more eyes were on the federal government than usual as the debt ceiling crisis intensified.  Many of those eyes were angry.  That anger was largely misplaced.

It’s no secret that most Americans nowadays dislike politicians, though the dislike deepened over the last few weeks as our elected officials in Washington struggled over whether and under what conditions to raise the debt ceiling.  A friend of mine publicly pledged on Facebook to never give another cent to anyone currently in Congress, and urged those who agree to repost her message. One less scrupulous journalist, Jeff Jarvis, made a bigger name for himself Tweeting angrily with the hashtag “f—-youwashington,”
and drawing thousands of supporters in the process.  This was just the tip of the mountain of anger that erupted online and off among Americans.

In most federal budget years, raising the debt ceiling has not precipitated a political crisis, even if every year some in Congress vote against raising it.  Of course, the federal deficit is growing too large and has to be addressed sooner or later.  But the debt ceiling crisis was foremost a political crisis, not an economic one.  The single greatest cause of that political crisis was the 2010 election of 63 Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives – including many Tea Party-backed candidates hell bent on cutting the federal budget now, in a down economy – giving Republicans a sizeable majority in the House, and dividing Congress.  This should turn public scrutiny back on American citizens, not Washington politicians.

My intent, however, is not to curse those who voted for House Republicans.  My purpose is to make a more fundamental argument: in democracies, politicians are only as good as citizens, and citizens are only as good as their institutions.

It is easy to blame voters for their ignorance or idiocy.  Indeed, one striking pattern I find in listening to Americans talk about their fellow citizens is that so many are convinced that most Americans are gullible idiots.  These critics, abundant on the left, right and center, usually see themselves and those who agree with them as immune from the rampant plague of idiocy.  There is indeed plenty of evidence that most Americans – no doubt including many of those convinced that they are smart and most everyone else is an idiot – have a quite limited grasp of political facts.

Some political scientists believe that this general ignorance is natural and functional.  In complex modern societies, the argument goes, people have specialized jobs and limited attention, yet politics is complicated, so politics should be mostly left to professionals, just as we depend on professionals in most realms of life.  The trouble is, even professionals make mistakes and you can’t always trust them to serve the public interest, so citizens still need to be sufficiently engaged to cast informed votes and keep political professionals honest.

Meanwhile though, the evidence shows that politicians and activists are becoming more strident and less open to compromise while ever growing numbers of Americans are eschewing political parties in favor of “independence.”  The combination is toxic.  Many Americans believe that strong partisan voters are more ignorant and gullible, but as political scholars know, the evidence shows the opposite: the growing numbers of independents and tepid partisans tend to be less informed and more susceptible to manipulation than strong partisans.  So we face a public increasingly “independent” – that is, politically disillusioned and disconnected, not so much informed or attentive, except in facile fits of fury – and accordingly, increasingly susceptible to the often hysterical propaganda of partisan politicians and activists who foresee “catastrophe” if they don’t get their way.

There are saner ways of doing politics, but attention-seeking commercial media don’t cover them as much precisely because they don’t shout or shoot.  Not all politicians and activists are zealots.  Indeed, there is a burgeoning movement for “deliberative democracy” led by wiser activists, politicians and scholars that advances a very different kind of politics, one in which citizens listen, read, communicate and compromise.  Most people are capable of such citizenship, but it doesn’t develop merely through exhortation.  Any citizenship lives through institutions such as parties, elections, newspapers, and dialogues.  For better or worse, the laws and norms of our institutions define the kinds of citizens we become and the politicians we elect.  Will we develop more deliberative institutions, or stay on our path to more crises, anger and disillusionment?

Why Americans Hate Politics & Why It Matters

© Paul Lachelier 2011.  All rights reserved.

It’s no secret that most Americans loathe politics.  The more interesting questions are why do Americans loathe politics, and why should we perhaps more than any other people on earth, on the contrary, embrace politics?  The answer to both these questions lies in Americans’ political attachment and detachment.

In trying to understand why most Americans loathe politics, the mistake many observers make is to focus on politics rather than Americans.  Common answers finger the lies, egos, corruption, obsequiousness, partisanship, money, and other more or less unsavory features of politics.  But these features of politics don’t explain why some people are much more engaged with politics than others regardless of the latest political fiascos.

USPopDiversityResearch shows that those most politically engaged – that is, those who participate in, care, know and talk about politics the most – tend to have more education, income, and people around them who are likewise politically engaged.  What education, income, and political associates all have in common is that they tend to attach individuals to politics.  The more education one has, the more likely one is to learn about politics.  The more income one has, the more government takes in taxes.  The more politically engaged one’s friends and family, the more likely one is to hear about and be urged to participate in politics.

Thus, whether one loathes or loves politics may have less to do with what goes on in politics and more to do with one’s social situation.  In life, birds of a feather flock together.  Opposites do not attract.  Hence, people with more education, income and political friends and family tend to flock together, just as people with less of these cluster together.  Most of us accordingly live in politically connected or disconnected ghettos.  (Sadly, political campaigns often reinforce political ghettoization by ignoring those who don’t vote since those without a voting record are least likely to vote.)  So when politics comes knocking in the most conspicuous forms of a politician’s TV ad, or perhaps a high school civics lesson, how one responds depends as much if not more on our social context than the substance of the ad or lesson.

Why should anyone care if a person’s social situation goes farther than the ills of politics in explaining people’s taste for politics?  Because politics matters to everyone more and more, and because that education-income-network nexus makes politicians sing with a distinctly upper-class accent, to paraphrase political scientist E.E. Schattschneider.

While most Americans feel detached from politics, our lives are inescapably attached to politics in more ways than most of us realize.  As I tell my students, Americans cannot work, eat, sleep, walk, drive, or even breathe without politics affecting them.  Our local, state and/or federal governments shape wages and working conditions, food, home, auto and neighborhood safety, street and highway conditions, and air pollution, among many other everyday life conditions.

Of course, conservatives see this as evidence that governments are too powerful, but try leaving these life conditions entirely to business interests and see how long it takes for people to demand government oversight to protect the public interest.  Further, try living in a country where little such government regulation exists, and see how long it takes many Americans to book their return flight.

For better or worse, Americans still have more impact on the world than any other people on earth as workers, consumers and taxpayers.  Yet most Americans have little precise sense of just how much their lives are intertwined with those of countless strangers across the world through their work and leisure connected with multinational companies like Walmart, McDonalds, Disney and Exxon, and through the U.S. government’s far-reaching military, diplomatic and humanitarian engagements.

Whether or not Americans’ detachment from politics makes it harder for us to see our political attachments to the world, politics is inescapable in the modern world, as 9/11 should have made painfully clear.  Moreover, if we want our politicians to sing with an encompassing American accent rather than an upper-class accent, it is high time to think hard about how we can make politics an engaging part of every Americans’ life, regardless of one’s income, education or social networks.

Democracy demands we all embrace the art of government.  Democracy demands politics.

Rethinking How Democrats Engage People

© Paul Lachelier 2011.  All rights reserved.

I delivered the following speech to the Democratic Party of Volusia County, Florida, located in the nationally significant “I-4 Corridor” (see related post titled “Central Florida: Political Epicenter of the World”), in 2011.  The speech discusses how Democrats approach and should approach others.  The following could, arguably, be applied to many liberals and leftists.      

Daytona Beach, Florida


Dr. Wayne Bailey kindly asked me to speak with you for a few minutes about the importance and challenges of civic engagement, and how we might increase turnout for Democratic candidates.

Rather than bore you with abstract platitudes about the importance of democracy and citizenship, I thought I’d offer some challenges for us all.  I should warn you though that what I am about to say goes against what many of us, as Democrats, think and do.

Two days ago, I attended the monthly meeting of my local, the Democratic Club of Northwest Volusia.  At the meeting, I heard two ideas I’ve often heard Democrats speak, two ideas I would like to challenge.

The first was that the reason why Democrats lose elections is because they are too centrist or even conservative, not passionately Democratic enough.

The second idea was that we need to “educate” voters that what they think (if it’s conservative) is wrong.

Now lest you think I’m about to appeal for a Blue Dog Democratic politics…I am not.  To the idea that we lose because we’re too moderate, I think this notion is wrong.  First of all, most candidates probably lose for a variety of reasons, not one reason alone.

Second, I suspect that whether Democrats win or lose depends on their constituency more than their ideas.  At our club meeting, the fact that more Blue Dog Democrats suffered defeat than progressive Democrats in the 2010 election was offered as evidence for the winning strategy of a more progressive, less moderate Democratic politics.  I haven’t looked at the data, but my hunch is that most solidly progressive Democrats have solidly progressive constituencies, so one reason why they stay in office (aside from the advantage of incumbency) is that they don’t face the politically divided constituencies that I suspect many Blue Dog Democrats face.

In other words, candidates win or lose less because of their beliefs per se, than whether their beliefs cohere with their constituency’s beliefs.

This is not a popular message with strong Democrats, or any partisan for that matter, because partisans like us want to believe that if we just speak our convictions frequently and passionately enough, we will win.  But the reality is that it depends on whether voters in any given district are open to our beliefs.

This brings me to the second idea voiced at my club’s meeting on Thursday: that we need to “educate” voters that the conservative beliefs they have are wrong.

One of the things I love about Democrats is that many of us want to know the facts, and uphold the importance of science and hard evidence.  But we sometimes forget that people – not only Republicans and independents, but Democrats too – are social creatures as much if not more than reasoning creatures.  To be sure, some people are more emotional, others more cerebral…and some just prefer to keep their head in the sand.  But most people don’t take too well to being “educated.”  If we think we’re more informed or worse still, more intelligent, than the voter we’re trying to convince – and this becomes apparent through our words, tone of voice, or facial expressions – then we probably won’t win over that voter.

We aren’t going to win over voters by “educating” them, let alone berating them for having opinions we disagree with.  Just because they disagree with us, doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or stupid.    

If we want to win over voters – even some Republicans – my sense, judging from experience as a political sociologist and a political activist, is that we win voters over by (1) listening to them, (2) empathizing with their experiences if not their beliefs, and (3) gently highlighting the things they say that cohere with our own beliefs and experiences.

On Thursday night, before our local’s meeting, I made some calls to Democrats on our membership list to help build our club and prepare us for the 2012 elections.  I spent 24 minutes on the phone (probably too long) with one woman, but her story bears repeating here.  This woman, whom I’ll call Jane, told me she used to be a Democrat but she was tired of both parties, and is now leaning independent.  I asked her to tell me why she was leaning independent nowadays.  You know what Jane told me?  She went to hear some candidates speak last year, and one candidate, who didn’t identify their party affiliation, impressed her.  So Jane emailed some of her friends to share that she was impressed with this candidate.  And guess what?  Two of her friends, both Democrats, “attacked” her (“attack” was Jane’s own word) for being impressed with this candidate, who turned out to be a Republican, and sent the attack to all the friends Jane emailed.  Jane was clearly shocked and hurt, and this social interaction – not Democratic ideas – was what turned her off to the Democratic Party.

That’s a shame.  That’s a loss for us because Jane, a retiree, had not only previously donated money and supplies to our Democratic club, she had repeatedly volunteered. Fortunately, by listening to Jane, empathizing with her hurt, and pointing out that many of the issues she told me she cared about – including global warming, and getting light rail in Central Florida – are Democratic issues, I was able to get Jane to agree to renew her dues to our Democratic club.  She also asked me if I’m married, and when I told her I’m single, she told me she’d “be on the lookout” for me.

So, I’d like to conclude with some ideas for how we might win more elections.  The first two ideas are about political ethics, that is, our personal conduct as Democrats:

1)    Preach less, and listen more.  Most people like good listeners, and dislike preaching, or condescending “education.”  We need to empathize more than criticize.

2)    We need passion, but not intolerance.  We need to stop thinking that people who disagree with us on some things are stupid or ignorant because that only drives voters to the Republicans, who generally do at least one thing right – they don’t condescend.  We will invariably encounter voters who don’t agree with everything we think.  (Lord knows, Democrats don’t agree on everything, and we should be ok with that!)  The challenge is to find common ground, and build a shared passion for common issues.

Beyond these two political ethics, there are some brass tacks:

1)    First and foremost, as the sociologist Herbert Gans once said, bring democracy to people, don’t expect people to come to democracy.  Too often, we hold meetings and rallies and expect people to come.  Usually, the only people who come are the already converted.   Instead, I’d like to suggest less talk, more action, shorter meetings and more calls to voters, more door knocking, and active tabling at fairs and markets – going where people go, rather than expecting them to come to us, as Herbert Gans wisely urges.

2)    To do this, we need to get out of our comfort zones.  As social scientists have learned, people love to be with their own kind.  As the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”  Opposites do not attract.  Practically, this explains why we prefer to attend a long club meeting or political lecture than make calls, table, or knock on the doors of strangers.  It’s safer, easier, more comfortable.  Yet in a diverse democratic society like ours, the only way we can win elections is by connecting with diverse strangers, including people who don’t agree with us on all issues, or even dress, look and talk like us.  That’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if we want to win.

So I’ll end with two challenging questions.  Ask yourself:

1)    How much time exactly do you spend per month going to Democratic club meetings and political lectures, and compare that to how much time you spend making calls, door knocking, or otherwise connecting with voters to systematically build our party?

2)    How much money do you spend on restaurant meals and drinks per month, and how much money do you invest in our party, in making our world a better place?

I’m not innocent.  These questions are challenging for me too.  So as our governor likes to say, “Let’s get to work.”

Central Florida: Political Epicenter of the World

© Paul Lachelier 2010.  All rights reserved.

The following op-ed was published in the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday, September 14, 2010, and was picked up two days later by the Chicago Tribune.  In December 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau announced how U.S. House seats would be redistributed in accord with state population changes from the 2000 to the 2010 Census.  In the 2012 election, Florida will elect two new U.S. House Representatives, bringing its total Electoral College (EC) vote to 29, while the next largest battleground state, Ohio, will elect two fewer Representatives, bringing its total EC vote to 18.  This news further increases central Florida’s political significance.  

Central Florida is the political epicenter of the world.   Sound like the gross exaggeration of an overzealous resident?  Everyone knows that Washington D.C. is the nation’s (and maybe the world’s) political epicenter, right?  Well, not exactly.

A nation’s capital is typically its political center, that is, the place where national political leaders meet to make decisions, where advocacy groups and lobbyists converge to influence government decisions, where the news media routinely point their cameras and questions when they cover national politics, and where people who consume political news naturally look when they think of politics.  For these reasons, Washington D.C. is indeed the political center of the United States.

CentralFloridaBut the political center is not always the political epicenter.  In earthquakes, the epicenter is the earthquake’s origin, the point from which the shocks reverberate outward and are felt miles and miles away.  In politics, as in other domains, there are earthquake epicenters, places where things happen that ripple outward, affecting life far beyond.  A nation’s capital is often, but not always, its epicenter because political earthquakes can happen in many places.  This is perhaps truest in democracies, where political power is more diffused.  And in democracies, it is probably truest during elections, when the eyes of political leaders, activists, and attentive citizens are turned at least for a moment away from the political center, and on the evolving series of earthquakes happening wherever highly consequential elections are occurring.

Among democratic elections throughout the world, there is no earthquake more powerful than the American presidential election.  Ever since the end of World War II, when the United States emerged relatively intact to become arguably the strongest nation in the world, economically, culturally and politically, more eyes turn to American presidential elections than to any other elections in the world.  This is all the more so after 9/11, when the U.S. government became all the more involved globally in order to fight terrorism and secure its interests.

As the scholars Peter Schuck and James Q. Wilson put it colorfully in their recent book, Understanding America, “for better or worse, America is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in the world.  When it has an itch, the world scratches.  When it gets a cold, the world sneezes.”  Nowhere is this truer than in Central Florida.

Florida may not be the most populous state in the nation, but it is the most populous “battleground state” in presidential elections.  California, Texas and New York are all more populous than Florida, but they are also “safe states,” where either the Republican or Democratic candidate usually wins in presidential elections.  Battleground states like Ohio, Missouri, and Florida matter most in American presidential elections because they are where the Democratic and Republican candidates both stand a chance of winning, where neither candidate’s success is a foregone conclusion.  As Americans learned dramatically in the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, the President is actually elected by the Electoral College, not voters.  Each state’s number of electors is equal to its total number of U.S. Senators and Representatives.  As the nation’s most populous battleground state, Florida has the most electors (27) of any battleground state in the nation.  Moreover, since the early 1950s, when Florida was first considered a battleground state, it has only once voted for the losing presidential candidate.

Central Florida – or more exactly, the “I-4 Corridor” stretching from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach – is the battleground of our battleground state.  Whereas northern Florida tends to vote Republican and southern Florida tends to vote Democratic, central Florida is where the fate of presidential candidates is most uncertain.

Thus, if it is reasonable to say that American presidential elections are the most portentous political events in the world – the World Cup of global politics – and that Central Florida is the most important region in the world given its critical role in the biggest battleground state in the nation, then every four years, Central Florida is the political epicenter of the world.  Whether or not the world knows Central Florida, the world feels the reverberations of its presidential election decisions.