Monthly Archives: March 2012

Obama’s prospects for re-election are improving

Several months ago I posted that Obama’s shot at re-election was about 50/50. With an ever-so-slowly improving economy, gradually decreasing unemployment, and lack of major international crisis or domestic scandal, I would guesstimate that Obama’s odds of re-election are, as of now, somewhere between 55%-60%. This “guesstimation” is generally supported by most polling data and forecasting models, though (see here, here, and here, e.g.).

Of course, a lot can change between now and November. Assuming all the metrics remain roughly where they are today, though, I would be cautiously optimistic about Obama’s re-election prospects this fall.

Multiculturalism and immigrant incorporation

Generally-speaking, there are two major schools of thought concerning the way in which a government should try to incorporate foreign immigrants into the community. Multiculturalists advocate a more accommodating approach, favoring programs like dual-language educational programs, exemptions from dress codes based on religious identity, affirmation action programs, etc. Critics of multiculturalism argue that such efforts make it more difficult for immigrants to assimilate and incorporate because it allows them to maintain their cultural distinctiveness, decreasing the likelihood that immigrants will make a good faith effort to adopt the prevailing culture, language, and values. These critics ultimately argue that multicultural policies make it impossible to achieve a sense of common identity and purpose that is necessary for “modern society to function smoothly” (see article citation, below).

A new article by Matthew Wright and Irene Bloemraad seeks to empirically test these competing theories. They find that immigrants in countries with strong multicultural policies are “[no] less attached to or less engaged in the political community” than those without these multicultural policies. They also find that immigrants in Canada, where multicultural policies are much more popular than they are in the U.S., are substantially more likely to be economically and culturally integrated into society than immigrants in the U.S.

Ironically, these findings seem to support the argument that policies like Official English laws or bans on “ethnic studies” in public schools (e.g. Arizona’s recent law) might actually make it more difficult for immigrants to successfully integrate and assimilate into society.

Spring break in Washington, D.C.

In the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith is appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. he is starstruck by the grandeur and glory of the national monuments and historical documents. Then the reality of corruption and politics smacks him in the face in a stark contrast to  the values embodied by the national monuments and history of our nation’s capitol.

This week my family and I have been visiting family and vacationing in Washington, D.C. for spring break. Like Mr. Smith, it’s hard for me not to get a little starstruck by the history and grandeur of the capitol. We toured all the national monuments, visited the various Smithsonian museums, and took an afternoon tour of the Capitol Building, even sitting in a few minutes of both the House and Senate proceedings. During our tour, I was on full “political geek” mode, getting excited when I was able to spot senators such as Patrick Leahy, Carl Levin, Arlen Specter, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, and Jim Webb roaming around. As someone who has chosen a career studying American politics, I enjoyed this all very much.

However, it also struck me as an unpleasant contrast whenever I remembered all the things I teach to my students about polarization and partisanship in the halls of Congress as well as the American public. To me, there is certainly a very real disconnect between the ideals embodied in Washington’s history and heritage and what we see our lawmakers say and do in the news every day.

But then, I don’t despair too much. In a lot of ways, our government is working just as the Founders intended it to: making it a long and laborious process to pass any piece of legislation. It was designed to slow things down and make it difficult to reach a consensus. Madison wrote that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”, in other words, that our goals must be set at cross-ways with each other to keep them in check. That way only the best and most necessary laws would be enacted.  

“Hunger Games” discussion questions

To any of my Introduction to Politics students who are 1) doing homework during spring break and 2) checking my blog over the break (both unlikely scenarios I’m sure), here are some questions to ponder for our discussion of The Hunger Games when you return:

How did Panem come to exist? What is the relationship between the Capitol and the districts?

Is Panem a “state”? From where does Panem derive its authority? From where does it derive its legitimacy? Does it even have legitimacy?

What elements of authoritarian governance does Panem exhibit?

Is the arena a metaphor for the Hobbesian State of Nature? How is it similar? How is it different?

What are some the Marxist elements of the storyline?

Why do the citizens of the districts obey the laws and rules of Panem?

Many of the Capitol citizens have Roman names (Caesar, Venia, Octavia, Flavius, etc.). What similarities are there between Panem and the Roman Empire? 

What is the culture of the Capitol? How is it similar/different to modern American culture?

How do the Capitol citizens view the Hunger Games? How is this similar/different to today’s popular forms of entertainment? How about to ancient forms of entertainment (specifically in the Roman Empire)?

On page 141 Peeta says “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.” What would Hobbes say about this? Anarchists? Liberals? Conservatives?

On page 310 Katniss thinks about the possibility of going home: “To fame. To wealth. To my own house in the Victor’s Village. My mother and Prim would live there with me. No more fear of hunger. A new kind of freedom. But then… what? What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.” What is the “new kind of freedom” that she’s talking about? What are the different kids of freedom she discusses here? Are they positive or negative types of freedom?

What might the muttations who appear at the end of the story at the Cornucopia represent?

What do both Peeta and Katniss do at the end when it’s announced that there will be only one winner after all? What does this say about human nature?

On page 348 Katniss looks in a mirror and describes herself shortly after leaving the arena: “Wild eyes, hollow cheeks, my hair in a tangled mat. Rabid. Feral. Mad.” What imagery is invoked here? How does that relate to the rest of the novel and major themes of the story?

At the end of the book Katniss is faced with a choice: to explain her true motivations for the berries or explain it away in something that would be more viewed more favorably by the audience. What did she choose? Do you agree with this choice?

“Memoirs of a Capitol Hill Staffer”

To any of my Centre College students who happen to be reading:

A friend of mine who works in D.C. passed this article along and I thought it might be of some interest for any of you with aspirations to work in Washington after graduation. Enjoy!

A brief excerpt:

Buoyed by idealism, and perhaps a dash of naiveté, I set my sights on the United States Congress, the one working environment hospitable to those quirky few who find their life inspiration in The Federalist Papers. Surely this would be a place where high-minded principles would be welcomed and embraced.

In defense of KONY2012

The following is a guest-post from my colleague Dr. Robert Bosco on the Kony 2012 campaign:

The annoying Leftier-Than-Thou academic machine is chewing up and spitting out the KONY2012 campaign, but the campaign should stay focused and continue on.

Warmongering narcissists line their pockets with gold while innocents pay with their lives. Privileged Westerners send their armies to plunder and loot the Third World. Shameless hucksters manipulate our children through cheap sloganeering and mind control. Paranoid conspiracy theories, you say? Nope. The Tuesday-Thursday rants of a Screw-It-I’m-Tenured-Now professor? Not this time.

No, these insults are real. These are the descriptions, collected here from recent editorials, of the people behind the campaign to bring Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony to justice, known as KONY2012. In fact the insults heaped upon these activists are so condescending you’ve got to hear another: according to one anthropologist at a top American research university, the KONY2012 group “has no shame” about their campaign, which is “based around the idea that Justin Bieber carries more diplomatic weight than Ugandan policy advocates” because after all, most of the hits on the KONY2012 youtube channel are from kids under 17. Pity this “idealistic youth,” the professor goes on, “trying to make a chaotic conflict seem easy to control.”

I can’t resist one more. An Assistant Professor of Political Science who teaches at a U.S. research university but is currently in Uganda has a “few proposals” to sort out the “irresponsible” “narcissistic” “warmongers” behind the KONY2012 campaign. These proposals include such things as “learning,” and asking us all to just cool our no-whip low-carb free-range chai lattes for a moment and consider how we as rich Western consumers contribute to Africa’s long standing conflicts. O.K., there’s truth to that. But something seems repulsive when, after grinding up and spitting out these “young Americans who just want to feel good about themselves,” he then offers us his syllabus. I’m not making this up.

The KONY2012 group is mostly made up of comfortable Americans—mostly young people–who want to do something about some horrible things being done in Africa to other young people. Inspired, perhaps American “emo” kids, be they bi, gay, or straight, will take to the internet to somehow find a way to call attention to the recent murders of about 60 “emo” and/or homosexual kids in Iraq who have had their heads smashed in with concrete blocks. If they do, we now know what to expect from the American academic establishment: those whiney American emo kids with their “online voyeuristic justice,” thinking they can help those poor Iraqi emo kids who can’t help themselves. They probably just feel guilty because we invaded.

I’m a professor, too. I know the games we play with activism and intellectual life in the U.S. These days it’s about a bastardized form of structuralism that would like to inform you that you are always more disempowered than you think: not only are you motivated by privileged guilt whenever you actually want to do something, but you are also guiltier and more complicit in the system than you can ever know. But take note:  if Iran or China or Egypt cracks down on internet activism, you should frenetically tweet postmodern resistance.

As a professor, I never thought I would say this, but kids, on this one, don’t listen to your teachers.

Joseph Kony is a war criminal guilty of grave breaches of the law of armed conflict and human rights. He is literally at the top of the list of the International Criminal Court. Other campaigns, agencies, and organizations focus on other aspects of the wider political problem, but KONY2012 focuses on this one. Some skepticism is probably called for. KONY2012 is perhaps naïve in thinking that increased U.S. military presence in Africa will achieve the objective. After all, America too has recently committed its share of grave breaches of the law of armed conflict and human rights. The idea of U.S. Special Forces working with Museveni’s Ugandan army (which has itself used child soldiers) to “fight terror” in the deep bush of East/Central Africa certainly sounds like a recipe from hell’s test kitchen.  And America doesn’t even support the International Criminal Court, the very place where KONY2012 would most like to see Kony go.  Nonetheless, if we in the academy can’t bring ourselves to be serious or charitable in our approach to KONY2012, we can at least admonish supportively and take things in the spirit in which they are intended instead of condescendingly tearing the campaign to pieces at every turn.

Political incivility hurts trust in government

I came across this article today. Profs. Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves offer empirical evidence to support the well-founded hunch that increasing levels of incivility may be contributing to lower levels of trust in government.

Does incivility in political discourse have adverse effects on public regard for politics? If so, why? In this study we present a theory suggesting that when viewers are exposed to televised political disagreement, it often violates well-established face-to-face social norms for the polite expression of opposing views. As a result, incivility in public discourse adversely affects trust in government. Drawing on three laboratory experiments, we find that televised presentations of political differences of opinion do not, in and of themselves, harm attitudes toward politics and politicians. However, political trust is adversely affected by levels of incivility in these exchanges. Our findings suggest that the format of much political television effectively promotes viewer interest, but at the expense of political trust.

Full article available here (gated).