The Barbell Nation

There is growing data suggesting the political parties are stratifying along suburban-urban, white-ethnic, working class-more affluent, and low density population-high density population spectra.

At the Congressional district level, this barbell effect is quite clear.  After the 2014 Congressional elections, the Congress bulged on two ends of the spectra.

Diversity & Education Levels and Party

Figure 1 shows the high correlation between education levels, level of minorities, and party alignment.

Figure 1: Polarizing Representation (Source: The Atlantic Magazine.)

Population Density and Party

Figure 2 compares two time periods’ correlations of population density and party affiliation.  In 1952, population density did not correlate with party preference.  By 2012, population density (i.e., urban vs. suburban or exurban) strongly correlated with party preference.

Figure 2: Population Density and Party Preference, 1952 vs. 2012. (Source: New York Times).

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The greatest racial and ethnic diversity exists on the coasts (see Figure 3) and, for the most part, in urban or high population density areas.

Figure 3.  Diversity rates (Source: Wall Street Journal).

But the rate of change is greatest in heretofore non-diverse areas of the country – upstate New York, and the upper Great Plains (see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Rate of Change in Diversity Levels (Source: Wall Street Journal).

Change is scary.  Populations undergoing multiple changes simultaneously have a lot to be scared about; but they may also misattribute the actual from perceived sources of their fear.  I recommend this New York Times piece on White identity’s role in this election, quoted here in part:

Identity, as academics define it, falls into two broad categories: “achieved” identity derived from personal effort, and “ascribed” identity based on innate characteristics.

Everyone has both, but people tend to be most attached to their “best” identity — the one that offers the most social status or privileges. Successful professionals, for example, often define their identities primarily through their careers.

For generations, working-class whites were doubly blessed: They enjoyed privileged status based on race, as well as the fruits of broad economic growth.

White people’s officially privileged status waned over the latter half of the 20th century with the demise of discriminatory practices in, say, university admissions. But rising wages, an expanding social safety net and new educational opportunities helped offset that. Most white adults were wealthier and more successful than their parents, and confident that their children would do better still.

That feeling of success may have provided a sort of identity in itself.

But as Western manufacturing and industry have declined, taking many working-class towns with them, parents and grandparents have found that the opportunities they once had are unavailable to the next generation.

That creates an identity vacuum to be filled.

“For someone who is lower income or lower class,” Professor Kaufmann explained, “you’re going to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity.”

Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.

While globalization and free trade have widened economic inequality and deeply wounded many working-class communities, data suggests that this year’s political turmoil is not merely a backlash to that real pain.

Gerrymandering Rorschach Tests

Rorschach Ink Blot

This 2013 Times analysis of gerrymandering‘s disproportionate influence on control of the Congress still holds true.  Remember that safe seats (to one party) will promote intra-party competitions to be more ideologically pure.

Thus gerrymandering contributes to polarization in the Congress. Thus, even if your state is not highly gerrymandered, you have an interest in other states not being so.

Compare the seven most aggregious Congressional districts, below, with a sample Rorschack ink blot. “Tell me what you see?” – said the therapist.


Congressional polarization maps.


We’ve Seen This Movie Before…

William Greider, made the same argument that is being made today about the failures of our American democracy, in 1992. It is still relevant.

Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy was either prescient or we as a nation have lived in denial for 15 years.   Compare the below excerpt with the Jonathan Rauch Atlantic piece.

… As American democracy evolved, multiple balance wheels and self-correcting mechanisms were put in place that encouraged this.  They promoted stability, but they also leave space for intervention and new ideas, reform and change.

These self-correcting mechanisms are such familiar features of politics as the running competition for power between the two political parties, the scrutiny by the press and reform critics, the natural tension inherent in the coequal branches of government, the sober monitor imposed by law and the Constitution, the political energies that arise naturally from free people when they organize themselves for collective expression.  People are counting on these corrective mechanisms to assert themselves again, as they usually have in the past.

The most troubling proposition of this book is that the self-correcting mechanisms of politics are no longer working.  Most of them are still in place and functioning but, for the most part, do not produce the expected results. Some of the mechanisms have disappeared entirely. Some are atrophied or blocked by new circumstances.  Some have become so warped and disfigured that they now concretely aggravate the imbalance of power between the many and the few.

That breakdown describes a democratic problem in its bleakest dimensions: instead of a politics that leads the society sooner or later to confront its problems, American politics has developed new ways to hide from them.

The consequences of democratic failure are enormous for the country, not simply because important public matters are neglected, but because America won’t work as a society if the civic faith is lost. …



Perhaps We Need Washington Apparatchiks Afterall

Jonathan Rauch’s July 2016 Atlantic Magazine article argues for the lubricating role of strong political party machines to keep the legislative system working and that the good government reforms of the 1960s and 1970s have had unintended consequences.

This challenged several assumptions I held and is worth a serious read.

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.