Archive for the ‘political science’ Category

rural voters do actually vote in their self interest

It is often said in the media and academia that rural voters do not vote in their interest when they vote for Republican or conservative candidates. For example, there is a famous book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? which takes point of view. I think this is incorrect. I think rural voters are rational voters in the sense that they vote for parties that give them concrete social and material benefits.

Traditionally, the idea that rural voters do not vote in their self-interest – let’s call it the misguided rural voter hypothesis – hinges on a crucial assumption. Namely, that the only, or main, way that states benefit their populations is through welfare state spending. Thus, when conservative politicians appeal to voters through demagoguery (e.g., don’t support poverty alleviation because of “welfare queens”) they persuade voters to oppose policies that might actually help them in a very concrete way.

The flaw with this argument is that is overlooks the many different ways that states can transfer and redistribute wealth. Schools, poverty relief, healthcare subsidies and unemployment insurance are only part of the story. There is also tax relief, infrastructure spending, and spending on national defense and police. These are all tools the states can use to transfer tax funds to specific groups.


To see how this applies to rural communities, consider the following. First, rural communities rely on a vast system of roads for their survival. These roads are infrequently traveled compared to urban roads and they rarely have tolls. Thus, tolls and gas taxes are rarely enough to cover road costs. This great map from City Lab shows that the most rural areas of the country do not cover their road costs from tolls and taxes alone. My state, Indiana, only covers 43% of road costs this way. More rural areas, like the deep South and the Dakotas, only cover about 20% to 30% of their road costs. Thus, the building of maintenance of roads, and related infrastructure, represents a direct transfer of funds form wealthier urbanized areas to more poor rural areas – a spending stream that is rarely criticized by either party.

Another form of wealth transfer involves the criminal justice system. The expansion of incarceration benefits a lot of people – mainly in rural areas. In a recent book called Big House on the Prairie, John M. Eason talks about the massive construction boom required by mass incarceration and how most of the new construction is to be found in rural areas. Once again, this represents an enormous transfer of wealth from urban centers to rural communities and it is staunchly defended by conservative politicians.

A third form of income transfer involves defense spending. One might expect any nation to have some level of defense spending, but the United States towers above the rest of the globe in terms of quantity and quality of spending. And much of this spending affects rural areas. For example, this blog reports on well known data about how rural recruits are over represented in the armed services. There are also many military installations in rural areas. The spending on defense is a important transfer of wealth to rural areas.

Cultural politics are certainly important. I am not a materialist and I don’t think all politics boils down to financial incentives. But in the case of rural voters, their material interests and voting do align very well.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 26, 2018 at 4:01 am

the democratic party sucks hard, part 2

The Democratic Party sucks hard, part 1.

One of the most elementary strategies in electoral politics is protecting your base. Give them stuff, be nice to them, make sure they stay in the party. A recent study suggests that the Democratic party failed even in this task. A recent article from The Nation by Sean McElwee suggests that right to work laws had an appreciable effect on decimating Democratic vote totals. From the article:

In this new NBER paper, the researchers compared counties in states that became right-to-work with counties in neighboring states that did not become right-to-work, or that were previously right-to-work, and how they voted from 1980 to 2016. (This method that has also been used to study the minimum wage on employment and Medicaid expansion on political participation.) A simple state-by-state comparison might not be as useful here: Obviously, Republican-controlled states likely to pass right-to-work laws tend to have different voting patterns and outcomes than blue states. But by looking at bordering counties that are very similar politically, demographically, and economically, the effect of right-to-work laws can be more easily measured.

The chart below shows the dramatic effect—for 12 years before right-to-work the counties are quite similar, while in the 12 years after there are deep gaps in Democratic vote share.

The key chart:


This trend has many parents, but McElwee notes how active choices within the Democratic party made it possible: “This all has tremendous importance for the future of the Democratic Party, which mainly has taken unions for granted for years. The legislative priorities of unions have taken a back seat when Democrats are in power, despite the fact that unions are a central organizing institution for the Democratic Party. Pressured by centrist operatives in the mode of the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council, who were looking to win over suburban professionals, Democrats sat on the sidelines as Republicans waged an assault on the ability of unions to act on behalf of working-class people. But while Democrats looked away, the corporate assault on unions increased dramatically in intensity.”

There is an interesting story to be written about how the Demcoratic party changes, not just in terms of embracing Civil Rights, but slowly allowing urban elites to shift the part’s priorities away its traditional base.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 7, 2018 at 5:15 am

levy book forum 3: is civil society that bad?

In the last two installments of the Levy book forum, I reviewed the basic ideas of the book and some of his discussion of states. In this last installment, I will discuss Part III of the book, which goes into how associations can be pretty nasty.

Part III starts with a parade of the horrible things groups can do to members and their types of dysfunctions. Factionalism, interest groups who hijack the state, angry majorities who hunt minorities. The discussion makes me afraid to walk home at night!

I think most sociologists would be comfortable with this overall view. There are many groups that are illiberal in nature and we should be concerned. And this is a permanent feature of the human condition. We ally with others of similar mind to oppose those we find distasteful or dangerous.

A few questions came to mind as I read that section. First, empirically, have civil associations been fairly depicted? I think my answer is no. I think that non-states can be repressive and violent, but since they like access to state violence, the magnitude of the problem is much less. Levy is not an empirical social scientists, so it may be a smidgen unfair to raise this issue. But we can ask – what are the worst atrocities committed by non-states vs. those committed by states? In some order: the European genocide of non-European peoples; the mass murder of people by socialist states like China in the Cultural Revolution or in the Leninist-Stalinist phases of the USSR; genocide and war making by imperialist and fascist states in the mid 20th century.

In contrast, it is hard to find atrocities of this level committed by private groups without the assistance of states. When we look at private atrocities, like Belgian companies killing millions in the Congo in the early 20th century, they are supported and endorsed by the Belgian state. People often look at example like United Fruit massacre, where a private company killed many, many people. The casualty there is much lower (about 2,000 in the worst estimate) and even then, many historians think it had the blessing of the US state.

A second issue is how we can think to limit or mitigate the illiberal tendencies of civic associations. One answer I wish Levy had delved into is to have states strictly enforce the right of exit from any contract or agreement. A hardcore libertarian might say that we have the right to waive that right. But pragmatic concerns point in a different direction. If courts consistently make it possible to exit communities with low or reasonable penalties, then associations would have an incentive to act in ways that treat members well. It doesn’t address all the pathologies that Levy talks about, but an Al Hirshman perspective might help a lot here.

To summarize: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a good long read in political theory. I think it raises great questions for sociologists and political scientists alike. Recommended!!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

legislators are less likely to vote for the draft if they have draft age kids

From a new working paper, “No Kin in the Game: Moral Hazard and War in theU.S. Congress,” which can be read at NBER. Eoin McGuirk, Nathaniel and Hilger Nicholas Miller use Congressional voting data to show that there is a negative correlation of draft votes and voting for the draft:

Why do wars occur? We exploit a natural experiment to test the longstanding hypothesis that leaders declare war because they fail to internalize the associated costs. We test this moral hazard theory of conflict by compiling data on the family composition of 3,693 US legislators who served in the U.S. Congress during the four conscription-era wars of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. We test for agency problems by comparing the voting behavior of congressmen with draft-age sons versus draft-age daughters. We estimate that having a draft-age son reduces legislator support for pro-conscription bills by 10-17%. Legislators with draft-age sons are also more likely to win reelection, suggesting that support for conscription is punished by voters. Our results provide new evidence that agency problems contribute to political violence, and that elected officials can be influenced by changing private incentives.

Recommended. H/T: Peter “The Entrepreneur” Klein.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 18, 2017 at 4:01 am

i declare complete victory in the more tweets, more votes debate

In 2013, my collaborators and I published a paper claiming that there is an empirical correlation between relative social media activity and relative vote counts in Congressional races. In other words, if people are talking about the Democrat more than the Republican on Twitter, then the Democrat tends to get more votes. Here’s the regression line from the original “More Tweets, More Votes” paper:


People grumbled and complained. But little by little, evidence came out showing that the More Tweets/More Votes model was correct. For example, an article in Social Science Quarterly showed the same results for relative Google searches and senate races:


Latest evidence? It works for wikipedia as well. Public Opinion Quarterly published a piece called “Using Wikipedia to Predict Election Outcomes: Online Behavior as a Predictor of Voting” by Benjamin Smith and Abel Gustafason. From the abstract:

We advance the literature by using data from Wikipedia pageviews along with polling data in a synthesized model based on the results of the 2008, 2010, and 2012 US Senate general elections. Results show that Wikipedia pageviews data significantly add to the ability of poll- and fundamentals-based projections to predict election results up to 28 weeks prior to Election Day, and benefit predictions most at those early points, when poll-based predictions are weakest.

Social media DOES signal American election outcomes! I spike the football. I won. Period.

It’s pretty rare that you propose a hypothesis, your prove it’s right and then it is proved right a bunch of times by later research.


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Written by fabiorojas

September 19, 2017 at 4:01 am

racism and the liberal democratic society

Most people who think about democratic societies don’t mean “direct democracy.” They don’t want a world where every whim of the majority is translated into policy. Rather, most think about representative democracy and systems of checks and balances because, frankly, the voters often demand unwise things. Furthermore, when we think about democracies, we often think of a goal that might be called the liberal democratic society – a society where the state takes the input of voters seriously while allowing people to set the course of their own lives.

However, there is still a problem in democratic societies. Even with elected representatives and checks and balances, minorities can still push through illiberal policies that directly harm other minorities. I think American racism is a great example of that. Roughly speaking, there is a chunk of the electorate that has a terrible view of immigrants and ethnic minorities. This article from The Root briefly describes recent polling data from the National Opinion Research Center. About a quarter of Republicans and about 15% of Democrats hold highly negative views of Blacks, describing them as less intelligent and lazy.

Now, in historical terms, this is a huge improvement. Fifty years ago, most whites held very negative opinions of Blacks. So why should you be worried? The reason is that there is a strong correlation between partisan identification and nativist/racist sentiment. For example, in the GSS data reported by The Root, the  partisan gap is about 10%-15% points. And once you get a strong faction within a party, they can occasionally win elections – even national elections.

So what do we do when virulent minorities gain power? As we saw in the 2016 presidential system, parties don’t have the power to stop them in a primary system. But we are seeing signs of life. The business community is slowly abandoning Trump. The military has decided to drag its feet on Trump’s transgender soldier ban. In a few cases, the courts have blocked a few of Trump’s more repressive policies, such as the ban on migration from Muslim countries.

This points to an important feature of liberal democracy. It’s liberal character is not in the policy, but the wider culture. Our institutions have had a mixed record in preventing folks like Trump and the virulent “deplorable” 20% that brought him to power. The Republican party collapsed in 2016 and mainstream “establishment” Republicans were helpless to stop Trump. Congress has stopped some of Trump’s worst excesses, but only because the Senate is in relative disarray, not because of active resistance. The strongest resistance has been from outside the political system. Now that Trump has announced the end of DACA, we’ll see how the culture of liberal democracy expresses itself. Will it collapse and agree to a new immigration system that limits movement even more? Or will it assert itself and promote a system that is consistent with freedomo of movement?

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Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2017 at 4:54 am