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