Posts Tagged ‘political science’

A Conversation about Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (on WORT’s “A Public Affair”)

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

I had the great pleasure of interviewing my former next door office neighbor from my days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, John Hibbing. We talked about his book (with Kevin Smith and John Alford)Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. My interview with John was the second of my guest hosting appearances on 89.9 WORT in Madison’s “A Public Affair.” I had a ball and was happy to share John and friends’ most interesting research with our listeners. You can listen to the conversation here, scroll down to September 12, 2014 to stream it or download it. I recommend downloading so you can fast forward past the banjo that ends the previous show and Friday’s news that leads off the show.


On Studying Things

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I used to be a reporter. From the ages of 14 to 24, I worked in radio (and occasionally television) newsrooms – first in my hometown of Marshall, MN at KMHL (1400 on your AM dial), then at the University of Nebraska (90.3, KRNU), then at CBS31/1470WMBD in Peoria, IL, and finally KFAB (the 50,000 watt blowtorch on AM radio) in Omaha, NE. I liked being a reporter. My job was to report the verifiable truth to our audience.

In 2000, I started to get interested in thinking about why news coverage looked the way it looked and whether the way we reported the news and the way politicians framed contemporary problems was good for democracy. Quickly, I realized that an answer had to involve some idea of what a good democracy would look like, evidence of what factors made up news coverage, evidence detailing how politicians framed issues, and evidence of whether any or all of that influenced public attitudes, associations, and behaviors. I took the summer and fall of 2000 to work as a press secretary on an ill-fated congressional campaign while I started to prepare for my new life. . . in the academy.

I decided to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in political science at Indiana University.

Now, I am on the faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, where I also hold an affiliation in the Department of Political Science.

I love being a scholar. I love being given the freedom to think of things I would like to know and working on my own or with other smart, curious, hard-working and kind people to try and figure out the answers. I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The classroom is roughly analogous, at least to me, of appearing on air to convey the verifiable truth to an audience—though the give and take with students, the pouring over their papers and exams, the meeting with them outside of class and so forth is much more personally rewarding for me than airing a great story was.

Now that I have sufficiently buried the lede, let me present it. I am mystified by the continued public questioning of why we should want to know things that speak to the health of our democracy.

Two examples of what I mean. The first was the attack from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on political science research funded by the National Science Foundation. Coburn enjoyed some success in the past year limiting what kind of political science research could be funded. The reporter in me immediately wanted to ask Senator Coburn, “Gee, what possible interest could a politician have in seeking to limit what scholars might investigate about politicians?” The researcher in me wondered about what interest the government has in limiting how much we can learn about how democracy works and how we might make it work better.

Thankfully, from my extremely biased point of view, the limitations on NSF-funding of political science research are gone for now—see this excellent recap over at the great Mischiefs of Faction blog.

Relatedly, the New York Times’ columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote a column bemoaning what he felt was a lack of engagement in the real world from scholars. While scholars can certainly do more and do better to bring what they’ve learned to a wider audience of policymakers and folks in the general public, there have been enough responses that have exposed how ridiculous his argument was—in terms of whether it was true, whether he understands what faculty do, and whether he did the requisite amount of work any journalist should want to do before making a claim in print or on the air—that I won’t directly add to the pile of stuff raising great questions about his column.

Instead, I will use his call for professors to engage more to pivot to my second example: the recent kerfuffle over the FCC’s interest in learning about what news organizations cover and whether what they cover help meet the information needs people have to function well in a democracy.

The attacks on the literature review and proposed pilot study of news once again seek to tell scholars what they should not study. Some folks like Cal Thomas think that the study is a potential precursor to government monitoring of conservative news outlets, others like Rush Limbaugh have been far more pejorative. Others still have said that we already know the answers to these questions and so there is no use pursuing them.

One of my colleagues at Wisconsin, Lew Friedland, is an author of the literature review and participant in the design of the proposed pilot study. Read his great response in today’s Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

To be sure, we do know a great deal about how newsrooms operate, just as we know more than a fair amount about what people know about politics. Still, as the ecology of the news environment changes (see Sue Robinson’s great work) and as investigations into what we really know and how our knowledge about current affairs and the machinations of government matters, it is clear there is more work to be done.

As scholars like the excellent Arthur Lupia begin to ask serious questions about what kind of knowledge actually helps people and scholars like Friedland investigate what kind of information is being delivered in print, online, on TV, and on the radio, we have the potential to enter a whole era of scholarship pushing forward the long tradition of research examining how differences in the kind of information presented by news organizations affects public knowledge, preferences, associations, and behaviors. It would be a mistake to say scholars shouldn’t pursue this line of inquiry just as it would be a mistake to say that the government should have no interest in supporting it.

It is important to know things. It is important to be able to explain how we know what we claim to know. Journalists do this on deadline every day. Their work is vital to the American experiment. Scholars have a longer time horizon and have the ability to provide more detailed accounts of why things happen the way they do. We need both ways of knowing.

Indeed, it is heartening to see the growth in importance of outlets like the The Monkey Cage, the new venture at the New York Times that will employ scholars like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck, and burgeoning efforts from journalists like Ezra Klein. What isn’t so heartening is the recent cacophonous chorus of complaints claiming that knowing how politics and the media work is a bad idea.

A Response to “Your Genes Influence Your Political Views. So What?”

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

No political science research program has grown faster, across more disciplines, and received more popular attention in the past decade than the biopolitics literature.  Research examining genetic links to political ideology, one’s partisan strength, and one’s likelihood of participating politically (but see here for a critique and here for a slight amendment) is standing alongside other work examining physiological correlates to political ideologythreat perception, and participation,  permeating political science and “hard science” academic journals.

Yesterday, Larry Bartels, an excellent scholar posting on the fantastic blog The Monkey Cage, asked what has become an increasingly pointed question to the biopolitics literature (he focuses only on genopolitics, but I suspect/assume he would stipulate that his argument applies to physiology and politics research as well):

So what?

Who cares if you have a genetic predisposition to be a liberal or if your heightened sensitivity to threat makes you more likely to support strong punishment for lawbreakers? Who cares if liberals tend to look at pleasant things and conservatives tend to look at scary things?

In my view, Bartels’ questions suffer from two major limitations that should give us pause before we dismiss biopolitics research as an accurate, but ultimately meaningless, parlor trick. The first limitation is that there are lots of reasons we might care about whether there are deeply-held individual differences, or perhaps an underlying construct(s), that systematically affect how we approach, encounter, and behave in the political world. The second limitation is that Bartels’ critiques about “genopolitics” could be leveled at most all other areas of research in the social sciences; that is, his complaints are not unique to biopolitics even though he only makes them about biopolitics.

I should note that I am a biased source. I spent five years on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have two papers under review that rely on the biopolitics perspective (one of which is co-authored with biopolitics pioneers John Hibbing and Kevin Smith and their students), and taught a biopolitics undergraduate research course. I’m biased in favor of considering the possibility that this work might be useful. So keep that in mind as you read.

First, Bartels asks,

If we could identify the genetic factors that make some people more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty, we could indeed “explain” why some people are more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty. But would doing so help us understand why that particular combination of views is more prevalent now than it was a generation ago? Or why support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the past 20 years? Or why abortion has been a more salient partisan issue in recent political campaigns? I don’t see how.

One piece of an answer to Bartels questions might be found in research examining assortative mating over time; that might produce more of these kinds of predisposed combinations of people.  I would suspect that this would be a smaller piece of the puzzle than explanations focusing on familial socialization, changing social mores, media coverage, and so forth, but that’s just one possibility. Perhaps combinations of threat sensitivity and disgust sensitivity (measured physiologically) across individuals would explain it as well.  If there are more people today who have a combination of high threat sensitivity (more likely to support the death penalty) but low disgust sensitivity (more likely to support gay rights), combinations like the ones Bartels asks about might be partially explained. More likely, one or more of these explanations interact with environmental factors like familial socialization, the formation of party coalitions, economic growth, or the widening of access to the political world to women and non-whites.

Bartels also notes that,

Pinning down the genetic bases of allegiance to a political ideology as it is defined at any given moment would leave the key creative role of what Hans Noel calls “the coalition merchants” still very much in the dark.

I think it is worthwhile to take this question seriously, especially as a big fan of Hans’ research.  Biological and physiological predispositions might help us understand why some coalitions are durable and others are not. Are coalitions that formed for short-term political expediency reasons not as likely to last when they have to bump up against people’s predispositions over and over again? What is the likelihood of a coalition surviving after one election when a particularly salient issue brought together what should be, biologically and physiologically speaking, an unlikely coalition (if indeed we can figure out what a biologically likely coalition would be)?  Genes play a role in shaping party strength, but not party ID, after all. Are coalitions that link together particular personality traits, physiological traits, or genetic characteristics more likely to last than others? Maybe so, maybe not, but that’s an empirical question I would love to see tackled in the coming years.

Note, this is NOT claiming that there is a liberal gene, a conservative gene, or that humans evolved to become polarized. It is to say that it is possible that different combinations of bedrock predispositions like threat perception, wariness of outsiders, and the like may combine in individuals in a variety of ways that might make some coalitions more likely to be durable than others.  Surely, there are lots of ways to be polarized and some fit people’s responses to threat, for instance, and some don’t. To me, it is worth it to figure out which is which. As Hans Noel points out this morning, we can’t know the genetic makeup of the man who delivered the “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, nor can we learn the biological predispositions of his supporters and opponents, but we might be able to conceive of experiments where we take biological information we learn about people and see whether particular traits, constructs, etc. make cooperation more likely, association with out-groups more likely and so forth, especially under environmental manipulations like dealing with a highly salient issue, a large institutional impediment, and so forth.

Second, it seems as though Bartels is holding biopoltiics research to a higher standard than all other kinds of social science research. Bartels finds Fowler and Dawes’ defense of this kind of research “remarkably uninspiring” with respect to the authors’ suggestions about ways it can contribute to traditional political science.

One such suggestion is using genetic control variables in non-genetic research.  I can’t imagine Bartels being uninspired to include education, ideology, or partisanship as control variables in research. If a variable has a theoretical reason to be in a model and there are previous empirical demonstrations that the variable is (minimally) statistically significant and (even better) substantively significant, I have a hard time imagining the justification to keep that variable out of the model lest all of our other estimates be greatly biased and, plainly, have our model be wrong. Indeed, if a non-biological variable was discovered to explain the amount of variance some biological variables have been shown to explain in some circumstances, it would be very surprising indeed to see a blog post asking “so what?”

Bartels further asks, “But even if genopolitics allowed us to diagnose liberalism more quickly and reliably than an opinion survey, how would we “treat” it? This is not a standard we apply to the lion’s share of survey research. One can imagine non-survey researchers pouring cold water on the idea of creating the American National Election Study (ANES) by claiming that even if partisanship is shown to affect voting behavior, how could we treat partisanship or change it? Going further, we can’t change one’s age, race, or gender, so if those factors affect vote choice, civic engagement, or political knowledge, should we conclude that there’s nothing we can do about it and thus not study it?

Starting a national face-to-face cross-sectional survey (and regular panel studies) of 1,200-2,400 Americans from scratch is a lot of effort, but I wouldn’t argue (and I certainly don’t think Bartels would either) that the ANES “does not look worth the effort.” Most political scientists know little about biology, physiology, and even psychology – but most political scientists knew nothing of survey research in 1948. Now, one of the papers of mine I referenced above states, “Our results do not call into question the validity or future utility of traditional survey techniques but they do indicate that, by routinely excluding physiological information, knowledge of the public’s full response to various stimuli of interest is incomplete.”  In other words, I’m not forecasting that biopolitics research is likely to become as ubiquitous and far-reaching as survey research, but I am arguing that it is far more consequential than Bartels suggests.

Most importantly, it is quite likely that the biggest effects of biopolitics will be uncovered when they are interacted with tried and true variables that are measured in more traditional ways. Biological-environmental interactions have the potential to show us a great deal and I fear that a quick dismissal of biopolitics research because it isn’t immediately obvious how findings in the biopolitics literature might “matter” could prevent us from knowing things we want to know like:

  • Why do some people behave against their “biological type?”
  • What helps those who see the world in deep-seated, fundamentally different ways get along?
  • How can the stress of politics be reduced so that the anxious or ambivalent are more likely to choose to participate?

Though Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes’ seminal research demonstrating the power and durability of partisanship in the classic book The American Voter was similarly dismissed by critics noting that the research was conducted during an abnormal period of partisan stability, I think Bartels is on much firmer ground in his skepticism that the current political alignment in the United States just so happens to match many of the conclusions the early returns on biopolitics research provide. He writes:

But wouldn’t it be a very convenient coincidence if politics and biology just happened to align at exactly the moment when political scientists became interested in genetic explanations? And what of nineteenth-century American politics, which was at least as intense and “polarized” as our own, but organized around quite different “bedrock divisions”?

To me, that is a very astute empirical question well worth the effort to explore.

The State of the Parties: Preview

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

I am taking the long way to the State of the Parties conference at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics on the campus of the University of Akron.  Drove to Milwaukee to fly to Philadelphia to fly to Akron.  Not my most efficient decision, but it was a cheap one and since the Bliss Institute is paying for my ride, I figured I could try to save them a bit of cash.

I have long read and enjoyed the volumes that come from this conference and am excited to be presenting the first paper tomorrow morning (here it is) on a panel that is apparently being recorded for later broadcast on C-SPAN.  The paper, co-authored with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley, examines why American political parties can’t get beyond the left-right divide, highlighting why a centrist third party rising is a non-starter, why the parties have a hard time appealing to potential supporters whose views don’t perfectly match the positions the parties are offering, and why merely focusing on maximizing the turnout of their own core supporters is not enough to sustain a durable majority. We’re excited to present the paper and get some great feedback from a really great slate of scholars who are attending the meeting.

Here are all of the papers that are being presented over the next few days. Once again, John Green and his great team have put together a wonderful set of papers. I will post some highlights in this space on Friday.