Explainer Journalism Needs Better Explanations

Corey Robin got some nice jabs in at the current class of younger non-academic pundits a while back:

A lot of these pundits and reporters are younger, part of the Vox generation of journalism. Unlike the older generation of journalists, whose calling card was that they know how to pick up a phone and track down a lead, the signature of this younger crew is that they know their way around J-STOR.

He went on to diagnose the the current generation as ahistorical positivists who read too much economics and not enough history. I have a different explanation: bad social science journalism, a breed of the general problem of bad science journalism.

Some people–perhaps even some journalists–seem to think of explanation as a fundamentally neutral recounting of facts, not something that can have formal conditions or persuasive interests. But explanations are arguments, too. And sometimes explanations fail because the premises don’t have the right relationship to the conclusions: though no explanatory argument is valid in the logical sense, some are much stronger than others.

Very often our chosen explanations are meant to convince us of something quite apart from a causal account of how an event occurred. We don’t read the newspaper: we get our news from TED talks, op-eds, comedian newscasters, and  “explainer” journalism. And in that space, explanations often follows the form, “Y is a surprising reason for X. But Y also implies that we ought to care more about Z.” In that case, the “explainer” quite often cares much more about Y and Z. X is merely a reason to climb onto their favorite hobby horse.

Much of what gets billed in headlines as an explanation of “hows” and “whys” actually fails some of the basic rules we teach in inductive logic about inference to the best explanation. As a fan of the Vox-ification of media, I need to be reminded of this myself sometimes.

Inference to the best explanation has simple rules: all things being equal, it counts in favor of an explanation that there is some new piece of evidence that could falsify it; all things being equal, it counts in favor an explanation that it can explain more than just the single set of facts we see before us. It’s also better to avoid multiplying metaphysical entities beyond need, and to preserve as many of our pre-existing beliefs as possible. What’s more, explanations should not jump to conclusions or overclaim beyond what the evidence can support.

Regressions are not Explanations

I’m all for data journalism, but I think there is a particularly dangerous version of it that equates a regression with an explanation. One kind of explanation is a causal one, and we can often test causality using concomitant variation. We can ask: if a sick person takes the drug, do they get well? Then we can add some math and ask: are they more likely to get well than a person who didn’t take the drug? That’s statistics in a very small nutshell.

But there’s a big problem in applying these case-control methods to demographic information: we often can’t vary the big social factors while holding all else equal. So we approximate. We try to use the sheer morass of human variation to uncover independent variables that predict changes. This has led to a lot of really cool math to produce real cool studies that show that some variable predicts another variable with high confidence… while only predicting a very small part of the variation. Gee whiz!

Consider a pie that has been carefully segmented into different flavors: shoefly, sweet potato, apple, cherry, blueberry, and many others the bakers have left as a surprise. What a lot of social science regressions do is try to carefully slice out one of the sections of that pie to figure out its specific flavor. As a part of their analysis, they prove that they can say with near-certitude (high confidence interval!) that they’ve gotten nearly every crumb of the Key Lime section. What does that tell us about the rest of the pie?

Well, anyone who likes pie can tell you this: gobbling the piece completely without any crumbs doesn’t mean you’ve eaten the whole pie. I talk a lot more about low R2 R-squared values in the famous study of American oligarchy here, but this is the upshot: if there’s a lot of variability in outcomes, as you would expect in a big population of wonderfully weird, defiantly diverse, and polymorphously-perverse human beings like us Americans, and you have a very strong predictor of a very small part of that variability, you do not have an explanation of the whole thing. You do not understand the whole of America! You have that very accurate predictor of the small piece, you haven’t necessarily gotten any insight into the whole population thereby. The part–which has been carefully defined by its difference from the whole–bears no necessary or predictable relation to whole.

Donald Trump: A Case Study of Stymied Explanation

Take Donald Trump’s nomination: there’s a lot to be said for his extraordinary candidacy. A man without any political experience has been nominated by one of the United States’ two major parties, on a platform that has very little clarity and against at least one dynasty candidate within his party and several other establishment favorites. How could this happen?

I don’t think I can definitively answer that question, but I think there are two major candidate explanation types:

  1. One kind of explanation comes from the wellspring resentments, of which we have an increasing supply. Whites are angry at their loss of prestige. Workers are angry at the support both parties give to millionaires and bankers. As we saw with the Brexit vote, these voters seem to be willing to spite themselves and destroy their own prospects if it’ll frustrate elites. And rage over growing inequality and bank bailouts might need to find some outlet, even a destructive one.
  2. Another kind of explanation is that as we grow wealthier, we can afford more irrationality. It’s the rich who forgo vaccines. Safe and moderate and establishment-vetted candidates are sort of like vaccinations against bad outcomes. So as we grow richer, we become more tempted to forgo them.

I believe that most of the efforts to explain Trump fall into these categories: we’re sometimes told that we can blame Trump on the current president’s competence, for instance. Or perhaps we can blame elites who failed to respond to the financial crisis with sufficient punitiveness, as Andrew Sullivan alleged.

In journalism, though, it is more common to emphasize and sub-divide the first sort of explanation: Trump is either explained by racial resentment or by economic anxiety. (Note that both are Vox links!)

White Supremacy

If your first explanation of the Trump phenomenon is “white racism,” then it’s quite likely that we’d get along well. That’s the standard answer in most of my social network. But it basically can’t be a complete explanation: the United States has been a white supremacist country since its founding. Racism is literally written into our Constitution, and certainly structures all of our major institutions. Yet Trump’s nomination represents an unprecedented event in the US, unheralded by our history. The best precedents seem to be European nationalist parties like the UK Independence Party and the French National Front, where parliamentary politics makes such a minority view easier to advance at the national level. So we need to give an account of what has changed here to make his success possible.

A story that makes a bit more sense is to call this revanchist white supremacy. Some people really are enraged that we have a Black man as president. What’s more, some people are better able to articulate their other grievances when the President is a Black man, just as when one of the candidates is a woman the sheer efficacy of misogynistic tropes in our culture makes it difficult to avoid them. (I think in particular the trust gap with Hillary Clinton is alarming; she is one of the most honest candidates ever, and seems to have a lot of difficulty dissembling even when an easy lie would benefit her. Yet out culture’s misogynistic mistrust of women pins her to some mythical deceitfulness while her husband–a perjurer!–gets a pass.)

Possibly it makes sense to say that Trump’s candidacy is better understood not as anti-Black racism, the sort that structures our country, but as anti-immigrant racism and also of Islamophobia. But it was only a decade ago that George W. Bush was insisting that we not blame Islam for terrorism. And the hatred that Trump and his supporters show for Latino immigrants is particularly notable because it’s the one thing in which establishment Republican politicians struggled to join him: they know they can’t afford to alienate Latinos. It’s the one policy plank which he has held clearly and unambiguously from the start, and it’s the most obvious contrast with his rivals.

But could it be that anti-immigrant nationalism–a kind of racism–explains Trump’s ascendancy? That, too, seems unlikely. Immigration has been on the decline for more than a decade.

PH_2015-09-28_immigration-through-2065-09If immigration peaked in 2005, then any explanation of current discomforts would require us to believe that it has taken people more than a decade to realize it was a problem. And let me be clear: there’s almost no evidence that it has been a problem in aggregate.

But it has been a problem for the segment of the population who are also voting for Trump. The anti-imigration story is usually associated with the effect that low-skill immigrants have on the labor market participation of low-skill American workers. So anti-immigrant attitudes can understood as partly an economic concern, and these could partly motivate Trump’s supporters.

The Trumpenproletariat

Since I’ve been writing about superfluousness lately, you will not be surprised to hear that I worry that there is a superfluousness explanation available here. Low-skill immigrants put particular pressure on the low skill workers who are only marginally attached to the workforce. So it is reasonable for them to fear that they will be undercut by undocumented workers who can undercut their wage requirements. But there’s an inconvenient fact that this explanation must negotiate: Trump’s supporters have a much higher average household income than most Americans, and certainly higher than any of the Democratic candidates. The median Republican primary voter who picked Trump reported a household income of $72,000 per year. (The median American household income is $56,000.)

With such a high income, it seems unlikely that his support is primarily drawn from within the lumpen proletariat, that counter-revolutionary group that Marx described in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

That’s not Trump’s supporters. If income is any guide to one’s role in the economy, then his voters are significantly less “superfluous” than either Clinton’s or Sanders’ supporters. But this is comparing apples and oranges. How can we understand this income gap?

  1. Trump’s supporters are, first, voters. Poor people don’t vote in the same numbers as the middle-class and rich, so we should expect (and find) that voters have higher median household incomes than non-voters.
  2. Trump’s supporters are Republicans. And Republican voters just are richer than Democratic voters. Trump’s supporters are still the poorest of the bunch: Cruz’s voters were about the same, while both Kasich and Rubio had median household incomes more than $10,000 higher. (Kasich’s supporters had a median of $91k; Rubio’s supporters had a median of $88k.) But we have to be careful here: Republicans are richer because they are whiter and older than Democrats.
  3. Trump’s supporters tend not to have college degrees. Thus even if they are currently employed, they’re experiencing a decline in their prospects under our new credential economy.
  4. Trump’s supporters come from poor places where the lifespan is decreasing. I still think this is the single best explanation of this pie-slicing sort: lifespans decreased for a certain population in the first time in modern history, and at roughly the same time, those groups chose a surprising candidate.

That’s why I associate Trump with the superfluous ones. Yet it’s important to recognize that his supporters are experiencing relative and not absolute impoverishment: they are worse off than they were, but not worse of than the Muslims, immigrants, and African-Americans they seem to despise. That loss of status may be a better indicator of how surpluses turn into superfluousness than any other; immigrants aren’t at all useless, they’re too busy being exploited! Thus racism still is a very relevant part of the story.

Against Epistocracy

It’s notable how uniform the establishment reaction to Trump has been: ordinarily measured newspapers and even conservative magazines have lined up against him in large numbers. Pundits and wonks see him as a threat to democracy and the rule of law, which is highly inflated rhetoric infrequently applied to major party presidential candidates. So how could he have won his party’s nomination, and seem to have such a good chance of winning the presidency? (Though perhaps not SO good a chance?)

It may seem that Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric has forced the chattering class to respond in kind. But in fact, elites have been speaking in apocalyptic terms for a while now. My readers are mostly academics, so they will be able to immediately recall the long list of threats to democracy: wealth inequality, the failure of campaign finance reform, the growth of long-term unemployment, the coming entitlements crisis, mass incarceration, police brutality, de-industrialization, racism, multiculturalism, presidential overreach, climate change, epistocracy, automation, etc. Perhaps one or a few of these threats did fundamentally break democracy?

Or perhaps it’s the establishment itself that has become too uniform, that has begun to substitute both its factual and moral judgment for an honest consultation of the will of the people. As a member of that credentialied elite, I’m generally sympathetic to this. But the major problem with the rule of credentialed elites is three-fold:

  1. Even those who tend to get the right answer may still be wrong, but overconfident errors tend to be more costly.
  2. Experts have a tendency to speak beyond their legitimate expertise.
  3. Experts can self-deal in ways that are difficult for non-experts to detect, and indeed they have managed to claw back most of the shared gains from their expertise.

An additional problem might be that the rule of expertise is only considered legitimate insofar as it doesn’t lead to undemocratic control of policy. By creating invidious comparisons among citizens, elite rule creates a class of superfluous men and women who must live with the constant reference to our democratic culture while recognizing that they are excluded from it. They are thus living their lives at the point of conflict between principle and practice, the contradiction between rhetoric and lived experience, much like African-Americans in the US, who must constantly hear our lip service about racial equality in its practical absence.

We live in a time of self-government limited by many forces, but the most relevant force most Americans experience is the way that their projects and desires are hamstrung by wonks and nerds. It’s not usually the very wealthy who tell us what to do. It’s usually an upper-middle-class professional: a lawyer, a doctor, perhaps an engineer or a psychologist.

In almost every case, it was ultimately a college-certified teacher or professor who put and end to a person’s dreams and alienated them from credentialed elites; if that didn’t happen–as it is unlikely to have permanently done for any of my readers–then you’re more likely to find yourself within the top thirty or forty percent of incomes and influence. Teachers put up walls to success in our economy.

The White Working Class

My friend Peter Levine argues that the data supports the supposition that low social class explains Trump support. One odd thing about this finding is that it requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I have ample evidence that Peter is smarter than me. But I just don’t see how he has come to this conclusion. It seems to me that he is saying that white supremacy cannot be an explanation, because poor white people support Trump and poor Black people don’t. Yet Peter is well-aware that one of the key components of white supremacy is the weaponization of the poor, the idea that preserving the social privileges of whiteness can allow elites to prevent working class consolidation.

So I have to ask: in this conception of social class, is it the “social” or the “class” doing the work? I understand the strategic point Levine is making, that the best response to superfluousness is organization, and this even applies to poor whites tempted by white supremacy. I am sympathetic to that point even though I’ve argued that:

we should not hope for 100% political participation, at least insofar as that requires that white supremacists and chauvinists find viable politicians who will court them openly.

Probably we can and will come to rapprochement on the strategic issue, since there are alternate, non-supremacist ways for those groups to organize. But it seems to me that his enthusiasm for participation has led him into an analytic error. Give that he is much smarter than me, I’m sure I’ll turn out to be wrong about this… but I must wait to hear the correction before I’m convinced.

The Null Hypothesis: Incompetence and Fear

In explanations, it’s important to give the null hypothesis its due. Sometimes no particular thing had a strong effect on an outcome: sometimes the best explanation is chance, bad luck, or incompetence. And I think all three play a role in Trump’s rise. In particular, the Republican Party failed to seize on a “better” candidate during the crucial early states because too many of them were pledged to Jeb Bush. Long after Bush ceased to be viable, they couldn’t coordinate around an alternative for fear of offending his family. And with so many candidates, and no room for backroom deals, elections become chaotic; they fail to choose the person that most people would prefer (the Condorcet winner).

Yet I have come to believe that the best guide to his rapid ascendance is not some statistic but what he says. To me he looks overwrought, bombastic, and silly. Yet he regularly draws larger crowds than my lectures, so maybe he’s on to something. Why is this rhetoric so effective?

One thing that unifies much of the the US is the sense that there are major threats left unaddressed. We see constant reports of terrorist attacks, police shootings, and mass shootings that target both civilians and law enforcement. We live in a time of unprecedentedly low crime, and yet the news seems to be full of criminal atrocities. No institution feels legitimate any longer; we have one of the most upstanding presidents in modern history, and yet he is regularly de-legitimized in the rhetoric of both the left and the right. (And I too can think of dozens of reasons but the criticisms have grown faster than the reasons.)

So my suspicion is that the best explanation of Trump is simply that he is able to mobilize our fears–well “our” fears–not mine, but the ones that trouble our culture. It remains to be seen whether “our” fears are truly irrational; I think that they are. But we should think of Trump as running to be the Commander-in-Chief for the ongoing Global War on Terror.

If this is right, describing Trump as racist is irrelevant. His primary appeal is as a strongman, a defender against terror; racism is irrelevant except insofar as it helps to identify the source of the threats against which he’ll defend us. His strongman appeal is bolstered by its disconnection to any actual strength. It almost seems to be helped by its association with with his remarkably fragile ego.

Now, here’s the thing: citing terrorism as the main explanation for such a complicated rise is indeed a “surprising explanation” of the sort I warned against above. I am coming very close to reiterating a debunked theory of Trump, that his supporters are more “authoritarian” than other voters. The counter-narrative is that Trump’s supporters are… nationalist populists, proud to be American and cynical about elites. But in this excellent recent piece, James Kwak captured part of the problem with this sort of analysis:

Racism isn’t a virus that falls out of the sky. It’s the product of historical contexts. I can’t prove that today’s heightened racism results from the Great Recession, although it seems perfectly plausible to me. But by the same token, saying “It’s racism!” doesn’t preclude the role of economic factors in making that racism attractive.

Similarly, mistaken feelings of poverty and vulnerability (among a relatively stable and wealthy group) isn’t a virus that falls out of the sky: it doesn’t preclude the possibility that nationalism and the hatred of the currently non-white and likely forthcoming non-male President-as-elite-representative cause those feelings of nationalism–racism by another name–and and misogyny–which is what hatred of elites looks like when it’s at home.

So I suspect that it helps to spell out a useful understanding of Trump’s appeal, not at the margins but for the mass: they are actually quite safe, and yet they don’t feel safe: they feel vulnerable, fragile, and in need of protection. This makes him a great candidate to run against a hawkish Secretary of State–because she is a woman and cannot so easily play “strong man” in our subconscious.

Utah Citizen Summit: Bridging Divides After the Election

For those eager to continue the conversation we began at NCDD 2016 about how to bridge our nation’s divides after the election, we encourage you to attend or tune in to the Utah Citizen Summit on Nov. 12th in Salt Lake City. The day-long event has been organized with the help of many NCDD members, and the centerpiece of the event, a conversation across partisan divides about the common good, will be livestreamed. You can learn more about the Summit in the announcement below from NCDD Sustaining Member John Steiner, or by clicking here.

An Invitation to Participate in a National Conversation

The national heart of the Utah Citizen Summit – to be held on Saturday, November 12th in Salt Lake City – is an afternoon, 90-minute dialogue, which will be facilitated by Mark Gerzon, with a leading Democrat, Republican, an Independent, and a major civic leader. The animating question will be: Now What? After this election how can we, as Americans, come together across our many divides to address challenging issues and to work for the common good?

We’ll be asking the following or similar questions of our participants:

  1. Now that the election is over, what are your hopes and dreams for Americans coming together?
  2. How might we learn to better live with our differences – with greater mutual respect and honor, with civility and compassion – in order to address challenging issues and to make progress for the common good?
  3. What first step might you (and your organization) be willing to take to help make this possible?

This conversation will be live streamed and recorded.

With the intention of recreating our public square – as Hannah Arendt once said, “Democracy needs a place to sit down” – we would like to catalyze similar conversations around our country after the election and before the inauguration. We’re reaching out to national organizations and networks with which we’ve been involved to see who might want to host similar dialogues in their communities, whether in living rooms, public libraries, at universities, etc.

The questions we’ll be asking can serve as a template or model. While we encourage local facilitators or Living Room Conversation hosts to follow this format, anyone can certainly create their own questions within the spirit of our session in Salt Lake City.

We have a website – www.utahcitizensummit.org – which is being enhanced so that dialogues can be registered and results reported, harvested, and shared with those involved.

Many thanks for considering participating,

John Steiner & the Utah Citizen Summit team

P.S.: Online collaboration resource

Our wonderful Salt Lake City colleague, John Kessler, who is largely responsible for the Utah Citizen Summit, is also offering the following as part of our national outreach process, for those communities who would like to participate in a more ongoing way:

One of the deeper purposes of the Utah Citizen Summit is for communities to be creative and emergent in becoming more civil, compassionate, inclusive, and collaborative in conversation, policy making, and action. In addition to connecting around the Utah Citizen Summit, we have an interactive web tool, which, on an ongoing basis, can provide a convening space for communities in an interactive, collaborative, online learning and practice environment. There exists the capacity to do this locally, nationally, and/or globally in an online environment, where communities and community based groups meet, connect, co-learn, and collaborate.

We have developed developed this resource in partnership with uBegin, a web based platform. Our civil network can now do this in a partnering way and invite other communities into this space. We’d like to make this available more broadly. Please let me know if you’re interested in exploring this option.

You can find more information on the Utah Citizen Summit at www.saltlakecivilnetwork.org/utah-citizen-summit.

A Lesson from the West Area Computers

I really want to read Hidden Figures, the new book by Margot Lee Shetterly which chronicles “the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race.” If you aren’t as excited about this book as I am, it highlights the work and experiences of the West Area Computers – a group of black, female mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley from 1943 through 1958.

I haven’t gotten a chance to yet, but I was particularly struck by one incident I heard on the podcast Science Friday and which I found recounted in the Smithsonian Magazine:

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

I love this story.

Not because it has a hopeful message about how determination always wins – but because it serves as a reminder of the effort and risk people of color face every day just in interacting with their environment.

The West Computers were tremendously good at their jobs and were respected by their white, male, colleagues. I imagine many of these colleagues considered themselves open-minded, even radical for the day, for valuing the talent of their black colleagues.

When I hear the story about how Mann removed the “Colored Computers” sign every day, I don’t just hear a story of the valiant strength of one woman.

I hear a story of white silence.

I hear a story about how other people didn’t complain about the sign. I imagine they barely even noticed the sign. It didn’t effect them and never weighed upon their world.

John Glenn reportedly refused to fly unless West Area Computer Katherine Johnson verified the calculations first – such respect he had for her work.

And yet it never crossed anyone’s mind that a “Colored Computers” sign might not be appropriate.

That’s just the way the world was then.

And that makes me wonder – what don’t I see?

To me, this story is a reminder that people of color experience the world differently than I do – because people like me constructed the world I experience. There must be so many things every day that just slip passed my notice, no matter how open minded or progressive I’d like to be.

It’s easy too look back at the 1940’s and see that a “Colored” sign is racist. What’s hard is to look at the world today and to see that sign’s modern day equivalent.



the floating “that”: a linguistic innovation?

(Orlando) “You’ve got to eat those vegetables and do that exercise every day.” “We’re concentrating on those metrics, that whole assessment piece.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m noticing this speech pattern lately. People use “that” to intensify a noun. I think they’re mimicking a situation in which you have already talked about an important topic–and perhaps achieved agreement on it–and now you use “that” to refer back to the previous discussion. But in this new linguistic phenomenon, there’s no previous discussion to refer back to. “That” simply stresses the following noun.

No value-judgment implied. People are endlessly inventive; language constantly changes. I just find this new speech pattern interesting. (I wouldn’t use it in written text, however.)

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Election Modeling

I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on a class assignment in which we are asked to model the U.S. presidential election. The model is by necessity fairly rudimentary – I’m afraid I won’t be giving Nate Silver a run for his money any time soon – but it’s nonetheless been very interesting to think through the various steps and factors which influence how election results play out.

The basic approach is borrowed from the compartmental models of epidemiology. Essentially, you treat all people as statically equivalent and allow for transitions between discrete compartments of behavior.

Consider a simple model with the flu: you start with a large pool of susceptible people and a few infectious people. With some probability, a susceptible person will come in contact with an infectious person and become infected. At some average rate, and infectious person will recover. Thus, you can separate people into compartments, Susceptible, Infectious, Recovered, and with average transition rates can estimate the number of people in each compartment at each time step.

Of course, sophisticated epidemic models can be much more complicated then this, and trying to interpret the complexity of an electoral system through such a simple model has proven to be challenging.

First there’s the question of how to transfer this metaphor to electoral politics – what does it mean to be ‘susceptible’, ‘infectious’, or ‘recovered’ in this context?

But perhaps the piece I have found most interesting is trying to understand the system’s “initial conditions.” I am not an epidemiologist, but a simplified model of disease spreading where some people start susceptible and a few people start infected makes intuitive sense to me. We even worked out mathematically how moving people from “susceptible” to “recovered” via vaccination helps prevent a serious outbreak of a disease. (PSA: get your flu shot.)

But I’ve had a much harder time wrapping my head around what initial compartment a voter might belong in.

There’s an idealized version of politics in which all eligible voters start with a completely open mind – a clean slate ready to be filled with thoughtful judgements and reflections on the merits of each candidate’s policies.

But that’s not really how electoral politics works.

I, for example, have always been a staunch partisan, and while it perhaps would be better if I entered an election season as a clean slate – I always enter with a whole host of biases and preconceptions. The debates and TV ads were never going to change my mind.

So what has been most striking in the process is how little movement actually takes place – especially considering just how long this election has gone on.

When you take the partisan leaning of Independents into account, Pew estimates the current population of registered voters as 44% Republican/lean Republican, 48% Democrat/lean Democrat, and 8% no leaning/other party.

FiveThiryEight‘s weighted average of national polls shows some fluctuations over the last six months, but currently puts Clinton at 45.8%, Trump at 39.4%, and Johnson at 5.8%. That’s not a direct correlation to the raw partisan leaning, but it’s close enough to show that – in the epistemological framework – relatively few transitions are happening.

In fact, the earliest FiveThiryEight numbers, from June 8 of this year put Clinton at 42%, Trump at 38%, and Johnson just shy of 8%. So I guess this makes me wonder:

…Couldn’t we have held this election back in June and saved ourselves the trouble?


social class does predict Trump support

Some say that Trump has captured the support of working-class Whites who are economically stressed or anxious. Others reply that Trump voters are relatively upscale but motivated by racial resentment alone. The former premise suggests that Democrats must do more to empower the working class, including Whites. The latter suggests that White nationalism is our fundamental problem today. Although I see truth in both positions, I’ve argued for addressing the economic and political vulnerability of the White working class. I present that as a strategy for countering Trumpism, but it’s a misguided strategy for that purpose if Trump voters are relatively affluent.

The raw story is that White people with lower incomes are Trump’s strongest backers.

Presidential Candidate Preference for Whites with Family Income <75K (Reuters)

Presidential Candidate Preference for Whites with Family Income <$75K (Reuters)

But it’s not just about income and race. Education levels, age, and gender are also strongly related to voters’ preferences in this election, as I illustrate with data from YouGov:


The question is what to make of those middle-aged White men without college degrees, who are preferring Trump over Clinton by more than two-to-one in the YouGov polls (and by 59%-25% in Reuters). Is it economic anxiety, racial identity, or what?

One of the most widely cited pieces of evidence against the economic-anxiety explanation is Jonathan Rothwell’s paper, “Explaining nationalist political views: The case of Donald Trump.” Rothwell, who works for Gallup, conducted a regression analysis of almost 100,000 Gallup survey responses collected over the year that ended in July (i.e., mostly during the primary season). I have no quarrel with the paper, but I would note that it does not debunk a class analysis of the Trump vote.

Rothwell finds that holding a favorable view of Trump correlates with higher, not lower, income. Nate Silver is also widely cited for his finding that Trump voters during the primary season had higher median incomes than Clinton and Sanders voters (but the same as Cruz voters and lower than Kasich voters).

However, Rothwell also looks at whether household income remains a significant predictor of Trump support once you consider the fact that Trump voters are disproportionately White, male, and older. Using one measure of income, it remains a significant predictor; with a different measure, it ceases to predict Trump support.

At the same time, Rothwell’s model shows that you are more likely, to a statistically significant degree, to favor Trump if you: (1) hold a blue-collar job; (2) did not attend college; and (3) live in a community with high White mortality rates. Those relationships appear in the whole sample but are especially strong when the model is restricted to non-Hispanic Whites. Further, “more subtle measures at the commuting zone level provide evidence that social well-being, measured by longevity and intergenerational mobility, is significantly lower among in the communities of Trump supporters.”

If social class means income, then class is not a strong predictor of Trump support in Rothwell’s model. At least during the primary season, Trump voters were actually wealthier than the mean American voter. But if class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Rothwell’s paper uses a binary outcome of Trump support versus non-Trump support. The non-supporters include Republicans who were still favoring Cruz, Rubio, and others, plus Democrats for Sanders. That makes the analysis a bit dated now that we’re down to Clinton v. Trump. Reuters data suggests that Trump widened his lead among working class White men once he won the nomination.

Presidential Candidate Preference, White Men Without College Degrees (Reuters)

Presidential Candidate Preference, White Men Without College Degrees (Reuters)

Meanwhile, Clinton is now doing very well among the top 1 percent of the income distribution.

In sum, the relationship between working class status (measured by education) and Trump support seems strikingly strong for the White population. This doesn’t mean that class is the only issue. Race/ethnicity and gender are obviously very significant. But it means that there is some truth to the class analysis.

See also why the white working class must organize and it’s hard to talk about tough issues if no organization represents you.

Even MORE Upcoming FCSS Sessions!

So this weekend is the start of the Florida Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. Have you registered yet? Are you coming? We hope you are coming, because we have some awesome sessions lined up. You can learn more about the keynote speaker here, and you can go here and here to get get an overview of some of the sessions we have planned. So with that out of the way, let’s take another look at some of the quality sessions we have lined up for you this weekend.

Saturday Morning, Concurrent Session 1

Factors Relating to U.S. History End of Course Exam for African American Students Irenea Walker, University of Central Florida

If social studies teachers properly alter their pedagogical approaches, African American students can learn to appreciate learning about historical facts. This paper focuses upon creative lessons that focus on interactive activities to peak interest.


Engaging the 21st Century Learner Amanda Mudlock and Rich Sayers, Pearson

Build academic skills for 21st century students through inquiry-based learning by facilitating easy projects, civic discussions, and document-based questions. Teach students to take ownership of their ideas, work together, and communicate clearly. 


Curating Your Collection: Promoting Content Area Literacy by Giving Student Tools
to Explore Social Studies Texts  Heather Cerra, Northwest Elementary School, Hillsborough County Public Schools

How can teachers spark student interest in informational and historical fiction texts related to social studies content? Using a unique framework, teachers can build student engagement and realize student growth in the areas of vocabulary and comprehension. (Elementary Session!)


Saturday Afternoon, Concurrent Session 2

The Great Travel Fair: A Cross-Curricular Unit of Study Amy Trujillo, Orange / Orlando Science Elementary School

Now in it’s fourth year, The Great Travel Fair combines ELA, Science, Social Studies, and Math in order for students to understand the regions of the United States through a balance of 21st century skills. 

Public History, Memory, and Survival: Producing History Through Student
Centered Technology  Joshua Stern, St. Johns Country Day School

Attendees will learn how to use iMovie to allow students to bring stories of Holocaust survival to life. Students become active public historians and create meaningful results by preserving and transmitting these vital personal histories.


Saturday Afternoon, Concurrent Session 3

St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement: Seamless Integration into your Classroom Blake Pridgen & Benjamin Rome, Flagler College

Utilizing the primary sources in Flagler College’s Civil Rights Library of St. Augustine (CRLSA: http://civilrights.flagler.edu), teachers will learn to effectively teach Florida’s involvement in the civil rights movement, grades 4-12.


Sunday Morning, Concurrent Session 7

The State of the Assessment: Civics End-of-Course Assessment Stacy Skinner, Ed. D., Social Studies Coordinator, Test Development Center; Elise Beachy, Annette Boyd Pitts, Robert Brazofsky, Maureen Carter, Erin Conklin, Christy Disinger, George Masek, Stephen Masyada, Ph.D., Peggy Renihan, Chris Spinale, Jackie Viana

This annual conference message about the middle school Civics EOCA will provide an overview of implementation, a review of student performance data, and a discussion about test development with Florida educators involved in the process. (Note: A similiar session around the US History EOCA will be offered earlier in the morning.)

Demographic Breakdown

Achievement Level by Demographic Background

Context and Comparison: At the heart of AP World History Robert Strayer and Patrick Whelan, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishers

This session provides resources—both content and pedagogical—for effectively teaching contextualization and its companion skill of comparison. It addresses the much increased role of contextual thinking in the new exam format. 



This has been just taste of the possibilities. Please be sure to check out additional session descriptions at 2016-fcss-session-descriptions, and earlier posts on what is shaping up to be a great conference session here, here, here, and here on why you should attend! Hey, it will be worth it for the trick or treating alone!

You can register for FCSS online. It’s a great and affordable conference, and a chance to meet folks you can work with and learn from. Hope to see you here in Orlando. The hashtag for the conference, by the way, will be #FLCSS16. Join us!

Free Webinar on Making Participation Accessible, Oct. 27

As you may have seen recently on our NCDD discussion listserv, NCDD members are invited to attend a free webinar this Thursday, Oct. 27 on how to make our processes more accessible. The webinar is being offered by MH Mediate, and will be a good opportunity for practitioners to continue to learn new tools for going beyond “the usual suspects” for participation in our events. You can learn more in MH Mediate’s announcement below or register here.

Become Accessible to a Wider Audience

Thursday, October 27th, 1-2pm Eastern / 10-11am Pacific

Accessible processes are equally appealing to people with diverse abilities and needs, including people with disabilities. After we explore a universal design framework for creating accessible dialogue processes, we’ll apply key accessibility principles to some examples. Finally we’ll discuss how to communicate your accessible practices to constituents and organizational partners.

Register free by clicking here or visiting https://goo.gl/sfv5Xy

E-mail dan@mhmediate.com if you have any questions or examples you’d like to cover during the presentation. You can also submit them when you register for the webinar.

About the Presenter
Dan Berstein is a mediator living with bipolar disorder and the founder of MH Mediate. He has hosted a variety of dialogue events, including the first New York City National Dialogue on Mental Health event which became a model for inclusive discussions around the country. Dan is an expert in accessibility, having trained practitioners across a dozen states. Dan’s workshops stress designing processes that work better for everyone while ensuring they work with people living with disabilities and other needs.