Monday, December 18, 2017

There's no "real" reason that Roy Moore lost

On Tuesday Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore to became the first Democratic Senator from Alabama in a quarter of a century, and political pundits are eager to give their two cents on how he pulled it off.

Some of them claim that Jones’s victory was due to the high turnout of Black voters, and Black women in particular

Others say it was due to those GOP voters who refused to back an accused child molester who had twice been kicked off the state supreme court

While others think that the credit should go to Doug Jones himself

When something momentous happens in politics there’s nothing the media loves more than fighting about what “the real reason” for it was. But these debates are always kind of dumb, because in reality political events never happen for just one reason.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Bitcoin, Blockchains, and Bubbles: Why We Might be Headed for a Crash.

Right now the US economy is doing pretty well. Unemployment is around 4%, and our economy has been growing at around 2% per year. These relatively good numbers are why Trump's approval ratings aren't even lower than they are. But the good times may not last much longer.

Predicting what the economy is going to do is notoriously difficult. But without getting too tricky, we can see that the US goes through some sort of economic crisis/recession thing every 10 years or so.

Here were the last six big ones:

  • 1960 - unemployment at 6.1%, 10 months of recession
  • 1973 - unemployment at 7.8%, 1+ year of recession
  • 1981 - unemployment at 10.8%, 1 year or recession
  • 1990 - unemployment at 7.8%, 8 months of recession
  • 2001 - unemployment at 6.3%, 8 months of recession
  • 2007 - unemployment at 10%, 1+ year of recession

Now it's 2017, about 10 years since the 2007 recession. So we should be at least a little concerned that another recession might be around the corner.

Another reason we should be worried is that the last two of these recessions coincided with the bursting of a “speculative asset bubble,” In the mid to late 1990s this was the dot com bubble, and in the mid to late 2000s it was the housing bubble. When these “bubbles” burst, it didn't just hurt people who bought tech stocks or mortgage bonds, it triggered a recession in the entire economy.

And we're in another one of these bubbles right now.

Monday, November 13, 2017

President Trump's Popularity Depends on the Economy - But it Probably Shouldn't

As of November 13th, somewhere around 38% of American have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump, and around 56% have an unfavorable opinion of him. Right now, Trump is less popular than any past president at this point in their term. The possible exception is Gerald Ford, who had just pardoned Nixon. In fact, it's good to keep in mind that, on the day he resigned in disgrace, Nixon's approval rating was still 24%. Partisanship - as they say  - is a helluva drug.

But given that Trump's presidency has been a long sequence of scandals, FBI  investigations, offensive tweets, bone-headed gaffs, staff turnover, and legislative failures, we might still wonder why he's not even less popular. After all Trump has done (and failed to do!) how can 40% of Americans still approve of what he's doing?

Well, aside from partisanship, a big part of Trump's continued "popularity" is the fact that - as of early November, 2017 - the US economy is doing pretty well. Now, the economy may not feel all that great to all of us, but the US unemployment rate is only 4%, and the stock market is breaking records:

So even though Trump has done a lot of dumb or evil things, many Americans who supported him are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as the economy keeps doing well.

In other words, if the economy were to take a sudden dive - and it very well mightwe'd expect Trump to become even more unpopular than he is.

In US politics we have tended to support the current President when the economy is doing well, and attack him when the economy goes south. This is a really important thing to understand  But it's also important to understand that it's kind of dumb.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Science vs Conspiracy Theories

Pizzagate. Seth Rich and Wikileaks. The evil (reptilian?) “deep state” plotting a coup against Donald Trump.

Never before have baseless conspiracy theories played such a big role in American politics. At the same time, we're seeing more and more evidence that there really was some sort of “conspiracy” by Russia to influence the 2016 election.

How do we tell the difference between an honest-to-goodness conspiracy and a bogus conspiracy theory? It’s easy to say “just look at the evidence,” but if you’ve tried to argue with a conspiracy theorist before, you know that doesn’t usually work.

People who believe in these crazy theories will come at you with an endless parade of “facts” and “data” that they say prove they are correct:

If you try to point out that these “facts” are made up or wrong, they’ll just say the same thing about the “facts” you get from the “mainstream media”

The crazy thing is that they’re not (totally) wrong about this! The “mainstream media” does get things wrong, and sometimes it does have a liberal bias. How can we be sure that we’re not falling victim to the same “brainwashing” as the people we’re arguing with?

The best way to separate the bogus conspiracy theories from the real ones isn’t by trying to get better data, but by using the scientific method.

That may sound lame, but when they taught you about the scientific method in school, they left out the weirdest and most important part - in science you have to start by assuming that you are wrong.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We're All Wrong (About Something)

Political disagreements are nothing new. But in 2017 we don't just disagree with our political opponents, we loathe them.1

We’ve never been shy about telling people they’re wrong about about politics, but these days we often go further. Our opponents are not only wrong, they're evil. They shouldn't just be defeated, they should be punished. We shouldn't just prevent people from believing what they say, we should prevent people from even hearing what they say.  And forget about actually talking to them - that would just make us complicit in their evilness.

I totally understand this. After all people are saying some really crazy, evil things in 2017, and we certainly don’t want the rest of America to forget how evil and crazy those things are.

At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that, if we want to make things in America not suck quite so much we’re going to need to get some Americans to change their minds about politics, and to do that we’re going to need to talk to them.

But how can we have a genuine conversation with people who are so obviously wrong?

Of course, they think the same thing about us. And you know what? They’re right.

But so are we.

The truth is that in 2017, both sides are almost certainly wrong about something.

We know this because 100 years ago both liberals and conservatives believe things that, in 2017, we all believe are not only obviously wrong, but as evil as anything our opponents are talking about today.

So it stands to reason that, 100 years from now, people will be saying the same thing about all of us right now.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip back in time to 1917.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Democracy, Ideological Purity, and Getting Stuff Done: Pick Two

After the 2016 election, Republicans figured that they could have a bill repealing Obamacare on President Trump's desk by inauguration day. Nine months later they still haven't done it.

If you're a Democrat, this is all pretty fun to watch. Schadenfreude is a hell of a drug. But politics is cyclical, and one of these days, Democrats are going to be back in the majority, trying to pass their own big piece of legislation. Maybe it's a single-payer health care plan, or a progressive re-write of the tax code, or something else entirely.

When that happens, we don't want what just happened to the GOP to happen to us. So we should take a look at why exactly the GOP couldn't get their act together, and try and learn from their mistakes instead of just laughing at them.

There are a number of  lessons we could draw from the GOP’s legislative faceplant.

For example:

"Don't make impossible promises to the American people, because someday you'll be asked to keep them."


"Don't try and use parliamentary tricks to railroad through an awful bill in the name of 'getting a win,' because some of your members might actually care about the dignity of the legislative process."

These are good lessons, but I want to focus on what we can learn from the actions of Senator Rand Paul.

Rand Paul teaches us that, in a democracy, you can refuse to compromise and stand for unyielding ideological purity, or you can get stuff done, but you can't do both.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cheering vs Arguing.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Americans suck at arguing about politics.

Most of what the political "arguments" we see on social media aren't  arguments at all, they're what I call "cheering."

Cheering is basically yelling "our team rules!!!"  or "your team sucks!!!" really loudly. It's a great way to get people who are already on your side to get off their butts and pay attention, and maybe even get involved in political activism. That's obviously important. But it's also obvious that just yelling "my side is awesome" isn't going to persuade anyone to join my side.

Actually, cheering can often be the opposite of persuasive. What looks like an awesome cheer from our side usually looks moronic and evil from the other. In fact, members of the other side often use our cheers to make us look bad to people who we might have been able to persuade to join us. Both sides do this, and actually it's one of the only forms of argument that we're any good at.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do we deal with Nazis?

It's crazy that we have to ask this question in 2017, but....what do we do about Nazis in America?

Courtesy of Anthony Crider. Shared under Creative Commons 

It's become clear, especially since Charlottesville, that there are a disturbing number of Americans who explicitly support white supremacy, antisemitism, and actual, honest-to-goodness fascism.

How do we deal with these people?

Now, this is a blog about politics, and I’m a political scientist, so the question I’m asking here is how we deal with Nazis politically. 

I'm not going to talk about what to do if a Neo-Nazi or White supremacist or  KKK member is coming at you with a club, or a car, or an armored division. Those are certainly problems, but they're different from the problems that I'm most worried about right now.

What I'm worried about is how we can keep these sorts of people from hijacking our political process. They can vote after all - they're American citizens - and we've already seen that they can convince other Americans to join their cause, or to vote for someone like Donald Trump. It already worked once, how can we stop them from doing it again?

We have two options. First, we can persuade Nazis to stop being Nazis. As preposterous as that sounds, it's possible, and we already know how to do it. But even if that doesn’t work, we can convince the rest of the country to join our fight against them.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Political Persuasion 201: Stop Trying to Win.

We suck at arguing about politics. This is partly because we always have this dream of how we want the argument to end. We’re going to make some amazing point and all of a sudden our opponent is going to see the light and realize...

Edited from original at

The idea that we can really “win” a political argument, and force our opponents to wallow in their own wrongness is seductive. But it’s something we need to give up, because it’s NEVER going to happen.

Think about it – have you have you ever seen someone arguing about politics suddenly change their mind and admit they were wrong? It’s pretty rare.

This doesn’t mean political arguments are worthless though. Arguments can change minds. But only if we stop trying to win them.

Monday, July 10, 2017

How to Learn About Science Like a Scientist

Politics these days can feel like a war between those who believe in science and those that don’t. Many conservatives are ignoring the scientific consensus on climate change, while President Trump lives in a word of "alternative facts," yelling "fake news!" at any scientific results he doesn't like. But conservatives aren't the only ones who have trouble with science. No matter what side they're coming from, media reports about science almost never the whole story, and sometimes they get it totally wrong.

 As a scientist, this has been a pet peeve of mine for a while, so I was thrilled to find1 this excellent piece on Last Week Tonight, where John Oliver breaks down this issue:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Breaking News: 0.00003% of Trump supporters said something dumb on Twitter

Did you see this? NPR Tweeted Declaration Of Independence, And Trump Supporters Flipped Out.

 I have to admit, I got a rush of Shadenfreude when I heard about this – it confirms everything thing I believe about how dumb Trump supporters really are.

But then I took a step back, and remembered that I hate stories that treat the internet comments of a few dozen people as “news,” and then use it to make claims about how millions of Americans think and act.

I know it's just meant to be fun, but I think that these sorts of articles are actually harming our ability to be talk intelligently and persuasively about politics, by feeding our most powerful biases and making us worse at constructing good arguments.

Friday, May 26, 2017


What do you think about this?

 I can only imagine what's going through your head. What kind of short-sighted idiot would say such a thing?

This is America after allThe freedom to "defy" and oppose the President is at the very core of who we are as a country.  Heck, it's practically out duty as citizens to oppose our leaders when they do something evil or stupid.

After all, this isn't a dictatorship....yet.

The fact that people actually believe this sort of thing about Trump just shows how dangerous he is.


Well, maybe not.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

Effective activism in the Trump era is largely about deciding where to funnel your energy. You can’t have a march or rally or an internet campaign about every crazy tweet Trump fires off. You need to pick your battles and focus on the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

This is harder than it sounds.

The Terrible Budget that Doesn’t Matter

On March 18th President Trump released his budget proposal and liberals on the internet went bananas. They had a good reason to be concerned. The budget proposed slashing funding for a number of critical departments and programs, like the National Institute of Health:
…and even the program that funds “Meals on Wheels”

These memes make it sound that we need to ensure that Trump’s budget isn’t passed, in order to protect our health, and our seniors. 

But what these memes don’t tell you (and what their authors might not even know) is that even in the unlikely event that Trump's budget passes, it wouldn’t have any impact on the funding of any of these programs.

That sounds too bizarre to be true, but to understand why it is you have to spend a few minutes wading through…

The American Federal Budget Process!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This is Your Brain on Bias

These days it seems like Trump and his supporters are living in their own alternate universe. If you've ever tried to talk to a Trump voter about politics, you know how frustrating it can be. It's like they refuse to accept basic facts about reality, even when the proof is right in front of their eyes, but they're willing to believe whatever "fake news" they read online, or whatever crazy thing Trump says, even if there's no evidence at all.

What do we do about this?

Clearly conservatives just need to stop being dumb and admit that we’re correct, right? Our views are supported by science and data; theirs are not.

But it's not that simple.

Remember This?

To me, this is obviously a white dress with gold trim. Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you're one of those people who sees it as a blue dress with black trim. While the internet was losing its collective mind arguing about this in 2015 someone found out that the dress really is blue and black. But even after learning that, I still can't help but see is as white and gold, no matter how hard I try. If you're part of team "blue and black" I probably sound crazy.

How can different people disagree so profoundly about something so simple as the color of a dress? 

"The Dress" highlights a quirk on how all of our minds work. When we perceive things in the world, like a picture of a dress, we don't just "see it," we construct it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Political Persuasion 101

If your social media feed is anything like mine, you probably see a lot of political memes like these:

Memes are funny, and they can be insightful. But sometimes we get fooled into thinking they’re persuasive. They're not.

Take that “Obamacare” meme. For many conservatives it felt like an “epic burn” to liberal supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

But if you’re a liberal like me, it doesn’t even make sense. Obamacare isn’t a “thing” you can “have.” It’s an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a Medicaid expansion, a bunch of regulations, and tons of other stuff. But aside from that, it’s not even clear what point this meme is making. Why wouldn’t Democrats want to be “first in line” to “have” Obamacare?

The meme only makes sense when you realize that the author just can’t wrap his or her mind around the fact that some people actually like Obamacare. In the world this author lives in, that's not something that's even conceivable.

We can laugh, but the liberal “Willy Wonka” meme is no better.

This meme is making the argument that Obama obviously couldn’t have been the worst President ever because George W. Bush was clearly so much worse. Maybe that sounds reasonable to you and me, but to a conservative it would make no sense at all. After all, the reason a conservative would want to say that Obama was the worst President ever was because they thought he was so much worse than the guy who was President right before him.

Sure, lots of bad stuff happened in the Bush years, like 9/11, the financial crisis, and the Iraq war, but most conservatives don’t think all of that stuff was Bush’s fault, just like liberals don’t think that the rise of ISIS was Obama’s fault. Maybe conservatives are wrong - maybe all that bad stuff really was Bush’s fault, but this meme doesn’t make that argument. It assumes that you already think that Bush’s presidency was terrible. But anyone who believes that probably doesn't also think Obama was the worst President ever. 

In both of these cases we have “arguments” that appear persuasive to the people who already agree with them, but which are unpersuasive (or incomprehensible) to the very people they are supposedly trying to persuade. If you look through your social media feed you'll see that most political memes are like this.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Obama made America more conservative (but Trump is probably making it more liberal)

In America, there are about as many conservatives as there are liberals. That means that, if you are a liberal, you are going to need to convince some conservatives to become liberal in order to get anything done - because of the whole "democracy" thing.

But maybe not. I sometimes hear liberal activists say that that if only conservative Americans could get a taste of how awesome liberal policy actually is, they would "come to their senses" and become liberals, without us ever having to talk to them.

By this logic, all we need to do is just use whatever tricks we can come up with (even potentially "undemocratic" ones - like a coup or revolution) to impose  more liberal policy. Even if most Americans say they don't want these sorts of policies, they'll change their minds once they see how well things are going. Right?

Unfortunately, history tells us that's probably not going to happen.

The Public is a Thermostat.

There's this weird thing that happens in American politics. Believe it or not, the following are both true:

  • Americans tend to become more liberal when a Republican is President
  • Americans tend to become more conservative when a Democrat is President. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What happens when America gets concerned about inequality?

An article of mine on the political implications of American concerns about economic inequality was just published in the scientific journal Political Behavior. The actual article is really long and technical, with lots of math and academic jargon, but here it is in a nutshell.1

What happens when Americans get concerned about economic inequality?

Economic inequality has been getting worse for the last few decades. You can see how the percentage of total income earned by the top 1% has been increasing since at least the 1980s, and the Occupy protests have apparently done nothing to slow it down.

A number of researchers have been trying to figure out why we as a country don't seem to be doing much to respond to increasing inequality.

For many of us, there seems to be a pretty obvious explanation: The "1%" have been using their power and influence to keep the government from stepping in and doing something about inequality.

This is precisely what many social science researchers think is going on. These researchers argue that many Americans are really concerned about inequality, and want the government to step in and do something about it, but the government isn't listening. These researches think that influence of the rich and powerful is preventing government policy from reflecting the “will of the people.”

A key part of this argument is the claim that, when Americans are concerned about inequality, that means they want the government to do something about it. Some researchers who have tried to test this assertion even think they've confirmed it.

But my research shows that they're probably wrong. Americans can get more concerned about inequality without getting any more supportive of government action. In fact, they might actually become less supportive!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Activism in the country of Smallonia

When you're trying to understand something complicated, like American politics, it can help to start by imagining a simplified "model" that strips away some of that complexity. So, without further ado...

Welcome to Smallonia

Imagine that you are a Leftist activist in the country of Smallonia.  Smallonia only has 100 citizens. Like America it is a capitalist society, but the government taxes some of the rich people and uses the money to help some of the poor people. Smallonia has only two political parties – the Left and the Right, and each party has a “moderate” and “radical” wing.

  • Those on the Radical Right want Smallonia to become a purely libertarian society – no taxes, no welfare, just the “free market” doing everything. 
  • Those on the Moderate Right think the basic system is fine, but want lower taxes and less generous welfare programs for the poor
  • Those on the Moderate Left also think the basic system is fine, but want higher taxes and more generous welfare programs for the poor. 
  • Those on the Radical Left (including you) want Smallonia to become a purely socialist society – where the government distributes wealth equitably, and there are no more for-profit corporations. 

Smallonia is run by a democratically elected President. Each party chooses its nominee by majority vote, and then whole country votes on which of the candidates should become President. In the case of a tie, the winner is decided by a coin flip.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Halftime in American Politics - What’s the Score?

After the election, I heard a lot of people say things like “Man, this country is really different from how I thought it was.”  I kind of felt like this myself. After all, when I look around at my friends, my family, my co-workers, and my social media circles, I see mainstream Democrats, radical liberal activists who think the Democratic party doesn’t go far enough, “left leaning” moderates, and a few moderate conservatives who just are as horrified by Trump as I am.

It’s easy for someone like me to fall into the trap of thinking that this is basically what America looks like. To many of us the idea that there could be over sixty million Americans who would vote for someone like Trump just seemed preposterous. But that’s exactly what happened.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Let’s not screw this up

OK, so things are bad. News reports these days seem like excerpts from a dystopian novel - a really tacky and lame one. But a lot of us are fighting back. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with stories of outrage and posts calling for action, and I’m thrilled to see so much passion and energy devoted to resistance and dissent. On the other hand, we need to take a step back.

I study this stuff for a living. I have a Ph.D. in Social Policy, where my research is focused on understanding how you actually get progressive policies to happen in America. For the last decade I’ve researched American public opinion about race, religion, and politics; and I’ve taught statistics and polling methods to graduate students in public policy. I've studied economics, statistics, politics, psychology. and philosophy. And I’m worried.

I’m worried that all this passionate resistance we’re seeing might end up like that other campaign of passionate activism...


Remember Occupy? It sure seemed like a big deal at the time. Back in 2011, Occupy protesters had a camp in almost every major city in America. Everyone was talking about how finally things were finally going to change.

But Occupy refused to give a list of how exactly it wanted things to change. It wanted to bring the issues of inequality to national attention, to give a voice to the “99%,” but it refused to make any specific demands, or to endorse any specific political figures or party. In the words of Occupy activists and authors Amy Schrager Lang and Daniel Lang/Levitsk,

’demands’ cannot be made... they are not meaningful in a time when an apparently seamless social and economic order is able to absorb and sell back to us anything that can be contained and marketed.

That’s a cool quote, but I’m not really sure what it means.

Did Occupy Succeed?

Flash forward to 2017. Let’s look at economic inequality. Occupy's lasting rhetorical legacy was its attack on the power of "the 1%." Here’s a chart showing the percent of all income in  America that was earned by the “top 1%” over the past 30 years.1

Income inequality hasn't gotten any better. Actually, it's gotten worse. In 2011, when Occupy was in full swing, the top 1% were earning around 19% of all income in the US. In 2014, the most recent year we have data for, they were earning around 20%. If Occupy wanted to reduce income inequality, it hasn't had any success so far.

What about our political system? Occupy talked about reducing the influence of money in politics. How's that going?  Well...

  • The President is a billionaire CEO
  • The Secretary Education is a billionaire CEO
  • The Secretary of Commerce is a billionare Wall Street investor
  • The Secretary of State is the former CEO of ExxonMobil
  • The Secretary of the Treasury is a former investment banker and hedge fund manager

If Occupy wanted to reduce the influence of billionaires, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers in politics, it hasn't had much success.

What about Bernie Sanders? Even though Occupy avoided talking about changing the system through “traditional” political channels, Bernie Sanders led a “political revolution” that seemed to epitomize everything that Occupy was about.

 And then he lost the Democratic primary by almost 4 million votes.

Now, maybe you believe that some faction of the “1%” (say, members of the DNC) used their power and influence to unfairly deny Bernie the nomination and victory he deserved. Maybe you're right. But if the 1% was able to (fairly or otherwise) deny Bernie Sanders the nomination, then that would imply Occupy must not have been very successful in reducing the power of the 1%.

It’s hard to evaluate the success of a movement that avoided making any actual demands, but even Micha White, who helped found the Occupy movement, has called it a “constructive failure.” And that was before the 2016 election.

How can we make sure we don’t fail again?

The lesson of Occupy is that passionate protests and activism don’t always lead to things actually getting better. The stakes are so much higher today than they were in 2009. Democracy itself could be on the line. We can’t afford to screw this one up.

Even though I was skeptical of Occupy while it was going on, it had an impact on me. I believed in the movement's message about inequality, but instead of joining the the protests, I got a Ph.D. in Social Policy and wrote my dissertation on the political implications of American beliefs about economic inequality.

Now I want to help us avoid making the same mistakes again.

One of the big problems with Occupy was the assumption that as long as we’re doing “what feels right” then everything will somehow work out. If we want to get things done in politics for real, we need specific goals and specific plans for how to achieve them. We need to be willing to wade through some boring data. We need to dig into complex issues and ask ourselves tough questions about what we really know, and what we don’t. We need to admit that we could be wrong.

Activism is important. We need passion and hope. We need catchy slogans like “we are the 99%!” We need sit-ins and protests. We need complex ideas boiled down to a few sentences that can go viral when we can slap them on a Game of Thrones meme. That’s the only way we can get Americans to sit up and do something.

But activism isn't everything. We also need to have a slower, more deliberate discussion, where we bring in data, research, and rational arguments to try and understand what’s going on and what we can do about it.

That’s the sort of discussion I’ll be leading here. In these posts I’ll be presenting data and arguments from a number of different fields that I think can help us engage in effective resistance and produce real, positive results. Because this time, I want us to actually accomplish something.


 1 This data comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can check it out here:


Lang, A. S., & Lang/Levitsky, D. (2012). The Politics of the Impossible. In A. S. Lang & D. Lang/Levitsky (Eds.), Dreaming In Public: Building the Occupy Movement. Oxford, UK: New International Publications

Vasil, A. (2016). What Micah White learned from the failure of Occupy Wall Street.   Retrieved from