Monthly Archives: April 2011

More follow-up on Utah’s immigration debate

I’m originally from Utah and I study American immigration policy attitudes. So that’s why I keep posting updates on this subject. Enjoy!

“Science” and “Political Science”

In 2009 the British Science Council unveiled what they describe as the “official definition of science“:

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

There’s a lot of debate as to whether “political science” really qualifies as a science. This is for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there is such a variety of ways in which political researchers go about trying to answer important political questions. Also, the very definition of “science” itself is often hotly contested.

The UK Guardian asked a historian and a philosopher what they thought of the British Science Council’s definition of “science”. The historian said that the definition “defines science as a pursuit, an activity, related to the creation of new knowledge, rather than established knowledge itself. … The definition would include historical research and indeed some journalism! It does not demarcate something called science from the humanities. This is a good and sensible thing.”

The philosopher said: “Because ‘science’ denotes such a very wide range of activities a definition of it needs to be general; it certainly needs to cover investigation of the social as well as natural worlds; it needs the words “systematic” and “evidence”; and it needs to be simple and short. The definition succeeds in all these respects admirably, and I applaud it therefore.”

When a historian and a philosopher both agree on a definition of “science”, you know you’ve got something fairly comprehensive and useful. By this definition, I would enthusiastically argue that “political science” qualifies as a full-fledged “science”. Political scientists, whether they favor historical, philosophical, or empirical (qualitative and quantitative) approaches, all are engaged in the “pursuit of knowledge … of the social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”


My father-in-law passed his Ph.D. dissertation defense this afternoon. He’s going to graduate this semester from Utah State University (where I finished my B.A. in Political Science in 2006) with a degree in Instructional Technology. (At least, I think that’s the official name…) Either way, we’re all very, very proud of him and we’re excited that he’s finished. Congratulations!!!

The Big Sort and political self-segregation

Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort has an explicit normative message to it: the political self-sorting that he describes is a bad thing, leading to a host of problems in American life including extremism, polarization, and the disappearance of a “national narrative” and a “common path to unanimity”.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with many of the points that Bishop makes in the book, I found myself asking over and over again the same question: is it really so wrong to want to live by people who are similar to you? In other words, if I value having a strong public education system, a racially diverse community where I can get authentic Italian and Mexican food, a robust public recycling program, numerous bookstores, lots of public trails and parks… is it so wrong to seek out a community that offers those things? On the other hand, if I want to live in a place with access to a strong church community, a huge back yard, low property taxes, several hunting/fishing options… is it really such a bad thing to try to live in a community that offers those amenities?

Granted, there is strong evidence that this self-sorting along lifestyle lines produces some undesirable political effects. However, if forced to choose between living in a place where I will feel comfortable, safe, and happy… and doing something to help politicians not fight quite so much, is it so horrible to sacrifice some political unity for the sake of providing my family with the quality of life that we want to have and enjoy?

The Big Sort and community political cues in Danville

This week my Congress class is reading Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort in preparation for the convocation next Monday night where Mr. Bishop will be speaking to interested Centre students. Bishop’s main argument is that Americans have been geographically sorting themselves into like-minded communities over the past 60 years, based primarily on lifestyle preferences (rural vs. urban, educated vs. non-educated, religious vs. secular, etc.). The author also identifies all sorts of negative effects that result from this self-imposed political segregation of the American public, polarization being chief among them.

In the first chapter of the book, Bishop describes how people are able to pick up on environmental cues from the communities that they live in (or are considering living in) that give a pretty good indication of the political/lifestyle leanings of the area. Observant individuals usually don’t have a difficult time figuring out if a community is conservative or liberal, even without resorting to checking out the voter registration rolls. They then use this as a basis for choosing where they want to live.

When I first came to Danville, these were the cues I picked up on from the environment, and this is how I interpreted them, politically-speaking:

  • Lots of Baptist churches (conservative)
  • Walmart is the biggest shopping place in town (lean conservative)
  • Applebee’s is one of the most popular chain restaurants in town (lean conservative)
  • Sufficient clientage to support an urban-like coffee shop downtown (lean liberal)
  • Our first weekend in town, we took our 2-year-old to Millennium Park and there were some young adult males nearby talking about guns and the army while chewing and spitting tobacco… right next to the playground (very conservative)
  • A small liberal arts college with a cultural performance venue (liberal)
  • A new mandatory curb-side recycling program (lean liberal), but vocal howls of protest about the program in the local letters to the editor (conservative)
  • A beautiful new public library with lots of amenities and resources (lean liberal)
  • Poorly-tended sidewalks and walk-ways in the city, no public trails in the city (conservative… that is, few resources to maintain the sidewalks = low tax rates = conservative)

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes… and lots of ‘em

Today, the Immigration Policy Center releases estimates produced by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) of the state and local taxes paid in 2010 by households that are headed by unauthorized immigrants. Collectively, these households paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes. That included $1.2 billion in personal income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes, and $8.4 billion in sales taxes.

These figures should be kept in mind as politicians and commentators continue with the seemingly endless debate over what to do with unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States. In spite of the fact that they lack legal status, these immigrants—and their family members—are adding value to the U.S. economy; not only as taxpayers, but as workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs as well.

The full report is available here: Unauthorized Immigrants Pay Taxes, Too: Estimates of the State and Local Taxes Paid by Unauthorized Immigrant Households

The accuracy of political information on Wikipedia

Turns out that it’s actually a pretty reliable source for political information:

Now a peer-reviewed study by Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Brown validates Wikipedia as a reliable place to get a political education.

The research focused on past and present candidates for governor across the 50 states. Brown fact-checked biographical information and voting statistics and found very few inaccuracies.

I still think it’s a good idea to check the citations and independently verify the source material. But I also think that Wikipedia is certainly a good place to start when researching a topic.

Good Mormon Democrats? Utahns say it’s possible.

89% of Utah voters say that a person can be a good Mormon and a good Democrat:

What I would really like to see is if those numbers would change any if Utah voters were asked about the possibility of being a good Republican / Tea Partier / Socialist / Green / Communist / Anarchist / Libertarian, etc.

On a related note, this is also worth a read. It’s a discussion of the relationship between the LDS’s Church’s recent call for more service/charity and the small-government vs. big-government political debate:

My thoughts on the David Brooks convocation

Last night the Centre community was treated to a visit by David Brooks, a conservative political/societal columnist for The New York Times. For the most part, he articulated some ideas and concepts from his latest book, The Social Animal. All in all, it was a fairly fascinating monologue, which he interspersed with amusing anecdotes from his experiences with various national political figures, including President Clinton and President Obama.

I can personally add my support to his argument about how our sub-conscious thoughts and feelings affect our conscious attitudes and actions. In my dissertation research, I found that our implicit, sub-conscious attitudes regarding the nature of American culture affect our attitudes toward immigration policy preferences. Understanding these implicit attitudes is essential to understanding why we think and act the way we do in the political world.

Second, I would offer an alternative perspective from the one that Mr. Brooks articulated at one point toward the end of the Q&A session. Professor Weston asked a question about political polarization among the American public. Mr. Brooks answered that, in his view, the polarization issue might be slightly overstated because, for the most part, our political attitudes are distributed more along a “bell-curve”, with most of America in the moderate center.

He’s right about that… to a point. When Americans are asked about their ideologies, most of them say that they’re “moderates”. When Americans are asked about their political policy preferences, most stake out for the middle of the road. When it comes to our party preferences, however, only about 5-10% of the American public are true “moderate” Independents. Most have a partisan attachment that they strongly adhere to when it comes time to vote. Also, when asked to give a favorability rating of the parties, or political leaders/candidates, Americans are very polarized along partisan lines. And since most of our political actions in the public sphere is made and interpreted through a partisan lens, they result in a very polarized political environment.

On the whole, though, it was a fascinating convocation and I hope that Centre continues to attract such distinguished guests in the future.

Brain structure and political attitudes

I will be the first to admit that the first time I heard someone argue that there’s a genetic factor to political attitudes I was immediately skeptical and thought it was border-line ridiculous. However, over the past few years there have been more and more research studies independently providing persuasive evidence that there is a biological component of political attitudes and dispositions. I am not quite a “firm believer” just yet, but I will candidly admit that I’m much more persuaded than I was just a few years ago. To be clear: these studies are not arguing that political attitudes are simply inherited and predetermined. The argument is that people are genetically pre-disposed to have certain characteristics (e.g. be generally calm vs. jumpy, organized vs. disorganized, etc.) that tend to be associated with certain political attitudes. These influential characteristics work together with a host of other factors (social class, demographic characteristics, group identities, socialization, etc.) to lead to one’s political attitudes.

The latest, from Science Daily:

Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.