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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bad Advice, Good Television

For inspiration tonight, I type this while watching Carrie Bradshaw type her column on Sex and the City reruns. I’m going to try to end with something facile yet pithy, just like her.
OK, a big reason I became involved with the Strategist is because I believe the Party is getting bad advice from various quarters. On a completely unrelated note, I am on record as questioning the analysis of American Environics, a new consulting firm founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, authors of the influential The Death of Environmentalism. Nordhaus has a background in environmental activism and consulting. Schellenberger, a public relations consultant, helped launch the group behind the New Apollo Project. That’s almost enough to make me forgive him for opening his bio with, “Michael Shellenberger specializes in synthesizing ideas from a wide range of fields in ways that create social change breakthroughs.”
Where was I? In February, The American Prospect published a much-discussed article touting American Environics’s research findings. It painted a picture of Cro-Magnon attitudes toward gender roles, tolerance of violence, plummeting civic-mindedness, and an every-man-for-himself ethos. This portrait seemed far too…hellish to me, and some of the statistics seemed implausible. For example, AE found that a majority of Americans believed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” and 40 percent said that “men are naturally superior to women”.
It’s too late to make this long story short, but Ruy Teixeira and I independently checked some of their claims against data from the American National Election Study. To put it simply, we found very few of their claims that we could examine were supported by our data, and their response was pathetic.
Yesterday I found an abbreviated survey on the website of the partner company (Environics) responsible for the data AE uses that promised to place me in one of twelve “tribes” defined by two values dimensions (social vs. individual orientation and modern vs. traditional attitudes). Turns out I’m an Autonomous Post-Materialist, which sounds right (and harks back to my post from yesterday). But their description of the tribe seemed rather off the mark. For instance, it claimed my “icons” were people like Dennis Rodman, “dot-com millionaires”, and “computer hacker Mafiaboy”, none of which describe this rather inhibited, law-abiding grad student. In general, the characterization seemed a collection of exaggerated traits describing multiple groups with little in common other than their location on the two value dimensions.
In the Prospect piece, American Environics described a similar mapping of Americans onto two values dimensions – authority vs. individuality and fulfillment vs. survival. And again, the characterization of their location on these axes was exaggerated and oversimplified. Rather than emphasizing the personal choice aspect of “individuality”, it is “anomie-aimlessness” and an “atomized, rage-filled outlook” that are highlighted. And how does the “survival” end of that dimension encompass fatalism and apathy as well as acceptance of violence and sexism?
Don’t get me wrong, the Prospect article itself – written by the estimable Garance Franke-Ruta – made a number of insightful points about class and the economy and how moral values are prioritized in places where there appears to be a threat of these values being eroded; our criticism was of AE rather than her. Having subsequently read the details of AE’s methodology on their website, I think they are collecting an impressive amount of data and analyzing it creatively. I even think their approach – identifying values that swing voters share with progressives to win them over even when they disagree on some other key value – could be quite valuable.
But their basic data seems to have problems (perhaps a non-representative sample, potentially as a consequence of who does and does not agree to participate in the survey). Some of their value dimensions seem too imprecisely defined (“individuality” as choice and as rage-filled) and poorly labeled (“survival” as encompassing apathy). And Nordhaus and Schellenberger seem to describe traits in the most extreme way possible. Finally, as far as I can tell, Environics doesn’t include questions on policy or political preferences in their survey, since it was and is primarily collected for corporate clients. Their sole politics-oriented paper appears to make a number of contentious claims based on a lit review and…intuition? That means that AE can say which values are the right ones to target, but their data can’t say anything about which policies to promote in order to reflect the right values. At best, they can suggest an effective rhetoric for politicians. But not until they iron out their other problems.
So I beg you, Center for American Progress, DLC, NDN, Third Way, and EPI — please don’t hang your hats on what American Environics is peddling.
In conclusion, being single in Manhattan makes you constantly face the question: can bad data give politicians good advice about good values? And if American Environics doesn’t value good data then how can they provide good value to bad politicians? (I tried…I’m no Carrie Bradshaw.)

One comment on “Bad Advice, Good Television

  1. Ted Nordhaus on

    I asked you some while back, when you asked us to contribute to Democratic Strategist, to check with us and make sure you understand what you are writing about before you write about our data. Apparently that request has gone unheeded. The survey you took was based upon the Canadian data set and the Canadian population. We let Americans take it but it is not valid for the American population. It is based on Michael Adams book Sex and the Snow, published almost ten years ago. Moreover, it uses a very short battery of questions to predict that segment that a visitor to the site is a part of. Indeed, the preface on the web survey stated that it correctly identifies 7 in 10 respondents in the correct segment. Perhaps you were so engrossed at that moment with Sex and the City that you missed that. Had you taken the Fire and Ice Survey, which uses both the US and Canadian data sets and is based on more recent data, it would almost certainly have located you in the lower right Idealism and Autonomy quadrant. Take it and tell me it ain’t so.
    If you are simply out to play gotcha with our data, for whatever reason, then I suppose none of these details matter but if you are indeed serious about understanding different approaches to understanding the values and mindsets of Americans than you ought to correct the record.
    I’ve further attached Michael Adams response to your and Ruy’s earlier attack. It is pasted below:
    The Surprising Resurgence of Patriarchy in America
    By Michael Adams
    “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then, I contradict myself, /(I am large, I contain multitudes).” It is no accident that these lines from Walt Whitman have become some of the most famous in American letters. America is a nation of fascinating contradictions, and has been since its Puritan settlers fled Britain in search of religious freedom, and subsequently demonstrated they meant their own religious freedom—not that of others. More recently, one of my favourite stories of the 2004 presidential election was the story of the Nevada county that voted in 2004 for a born-again, teetotaling, “moral values” president—as well as the continued operation of the county’s booming brothels.
    Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic strategist and Joint Fellow at the Center for American Progress, recently wrote about a contradiction that troubled him. On his Emerging Democratic Majority blog, Mr. Teixeira took issue with some of the survey results I describe in my book American Backlash, particularly in the area of gender equality, noting that my data seemed to conflict with some of the trends other organizations were observing.
    He flagged two of our survey items in particular. In 1992, my firm Environics found that 42 percent of Americans agreed either strongly or somewhat with the statement “The father of the family must be master in his own house.” By 2004, the rate of agreement of had risen to 52 percent. The second item Mr. Teixeira cited asked Americans to agree or disagree that, “Whatever people say, men have a certain natural superiority over women and nothing can change this.” In 1992, 30 percent of Americans agreed with that statement. In 2004, 40 percent thought men were inherently superior to women. Taken together, these items would seem to point to a rising tide of sexism in American society.
    Since these findings appear to contradict the results of other surveys that show a steadily growing embrace of gender equality, Mr. Teixeira finds our numbers suspicious. In particular, he cites results from the National Election Study (NES) which show Americans increasingly likely to agree that “women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry, and government” and increasingly unlikely to agree that “women’s place is in the home.” Mr. Teixeira doubts that the apparent tension between my firm’s data and the NES data can be resolved: “I guess we could reconcile the data from the surveys by positing a trend toward believing women are equal but dumb and subservient. But pardon me if I’m a little skeptical.”
    The seeming contradictions in American opinions and behaviours around matters of gender are phenomena I have been interested in for some time. Mr. Teixeira’s skepticism has inspired me to write about some of Environics’ findings and thinking in this area. Let’s confirm that both datasets merit attention. Naturally, if one dataset of these two is hopelessly flawed, there may be no contradiction at all—just one set of reliable findings and one set of unreliable findings. In this case, both sets of data are just fine.
    Not only do I not dispute the findings of the NES study, but Environics data confirms that Americans express very broad—almost universal—acceptance of the idea that men and women should play equal roles in society. For example, in 2004 our own survey found 89 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement “Taking care of the home and kids is as much a man’s work as woman’s work.” In addition, we found nearly as many Americans (87%) agreeing that “If they are equally qualified for a job, men and women must always be paid the same salary.” So it is certainly not the case that our data suggest a one-dimensional (and sexist) picture of American attitudes about gender.
    Environics’ surveys have been undertaken quadrenially in the United States since 1992. They are in-home paper surveys conducted among a random sample of about 2,000 Americans aged 15 and over, drawn from across the continental United States. Paper surveys completed by the respondent him- or herself are generally viewed as more reliable than phone surveys or in-person interviews as they eliminate any bias the interviewer might introduce, and also curb some of the “social desirability” skews that would prevent people from expressing candid but unpopular opinions. The fieldwork for this research was carried out by the venerable American firm Roper Public Affairs.
    The gender-equality items Mr. Teixeira has flagged are, on their own, straightforward polling items. Mr. Teixeira expresses concern that in our analysis of our data we “cluster- and factor-analyze [our] data to death” but there is no fancy footwork here: these are simple percentages of the American population who have stated that they agree or disagree with the two statements I record in full above.
    If we can agree, then, that neither the Environics data nor the NES data should be thrown out altogether, we can embark on the more interesting project of thinking about the questions these surveys raise about what’s going on in American attitudes about gender equality. The first thing to note is that the statements at issue here, while all dealing broadly with gender, approach ideas about male and female traits, capabilities, and entitlements from different angles—or, in the current parlance, through different frames.
    The statement “The father of the family must be master in his own house,” addresses only the private sphere. It implies a vision of the family as a hierarchical social system, distinct from the public sphere, in which Dad is the king of the family castle. Women are notably absent from this statement; it is implied that Mom and the kids reside in Dad’s house, but the thrust of the statement is that the domestic unit essentially belongs to the father, who presides over (and ideally protects and provides for) his subordinates. This model is the one that gave rise to the appelation “Mrs. John Smith.” Nancy Smith (nee Baker) may be the particular woman in question, but it is not her Nancy-ness that counts in this instance: it is her position as the wife of John Smith—an attachee of John’s household—that is relevant.
    While the father-must-be-master item addresses the private sphere, the NES statements deal with the public sphere. The item asks respondents whether women should “have an equal role with men in running business, industry, and government,” or whether “women’s place is in the home.” Although the “home” pole of this question appears to address the private sphere, the question really asks people to think about society as a whole and state where women belong in the system at large. (Just as the father-must-be-master item makes no claims about whether men and women should be equal outside the home, the place-of-women question does not stipulate anything about household organization.)
    The third item, “Whatever people say, men are naturally superior to women and nothing can change this,” deals with men’s and women’s inherent and immutable properties. It doesn’t make normative claims about how men and women should behave or be treated, or what their relative status should be either in the home or in society at large. It simply argues that men are naturally better.
    We live in a world of shorthand, in which we are encouraged to assume, for example, religious means conservative means Republican means rural. This shorthand means that we sometimes imagine we can infer from the kind of coffee someone drinks what their views might be on everything from same-sex marriage to the war in Iraq. But what, really, is a NASCAR dad? A soccer mom? While such shorthand can be helpful—sometimes indispensible—it can also lead to sloppy thinking. It seems logical to imagine that someone who believes women should be able to work outside the home also believes that men and women should be equal in the domestic arena. But changes in Americans’ responses to the questions at hand invite a closer look.
    One of these things is not like the other
    When two contradictory trends are simultaneously on the rise there are a couple of possible explanations. One is bifurcation, a phenomenon that has, of course, gotten a great deal of play amid America’s “culture wars.” This explanation would suggest that two conflicting ideas are both gaining supporters, and that the proportion of people who are neutral on the issue is declining. If American opinion on gender equality were bifurcating, some Americans would be growing in their commitment to gender equality, while others would be becoming more entrenched in their opposition to it.
    Bifurcation is at best a partial explanation in this case, since two of the the opposing ideas—that father must be master at home, and that women and men should be equal in business, industry, and government—are each espoused by majorities. Growth in the two opinions can’t be the result of a mere hollowing out of the middle position, since that would allow at most 50 percent support for each extreme position. At least some people have to be agreeing both that the father of the family must be master in his own house, and that women and men should play equal roles in business, industry, and government.
    It may be, then, that instead of measuring two sides of a single attitudinal coin, these two items are measuring adherence to two different ideals. Is it plausible to imagine gender equality in the public sphere combined with inequality in the private sphere? As a matter of fact, recent American political history offers rather a striking embodiment of this very idea.
    Of Congress and Cookies: The Phyllis Schlafly Model
    The social conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly has had a 55-year political career, throughout which she has remained an ostentatiously devoted homemaker. She has argued for women’s inherent differences from men—the girls aren’t so hot in the abstract reasoning department, Schlafly claims—and famously opposed the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that equality would be a step down for women, who under the conventions of chivalry enjoy special privileges not accorded to men. What most second-wave feminists saw as oppression, Schlafly saw as gracious living. She saw little tension, however, between her subordinate status in the home and her pursuit of power and influence in the public sphere. Indeed, as Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker, the morning after Schlafly won a Republican congressional primary, upsetting a well-connected Republican incumbent, she invited the press into her kitchen to photograph her cooking eggs for her hungry brood.
    The defeat of the ERA, which owed much to Schlafly’s efforts, was one of the more monumental political achievements of any American woman in the 20th century. (It happened only shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan, the first great icon of the dawning conservative backlash against New Deal progressivism. Not coincidentally, a famously adoring wife accompanied Reagan, and assumed that most public of private positions: First Lady, a political status unique among the world’s democracies.) It is not clear that Schlafly herself has reconciled the apparent contradiction between public power rooted in private subordination—she just isn’t wired for that darn abstract reasoning—but she should not be asked to defend it alone, as she is certainly not its only manifestation.
    Of the 33 women who have ever served in the U.S. Senate, 13 have been appointed due to the death of a husband or father. It was only in 2001 that it finally could be said that more women had been personally elected than had come to occupy their seats in the upper chamber when they were inserted as surrogates for their elected menfolk. Without making any claims about either the politics or the abilities of these appointed female senators, it strikes me that the fact of this convention suggests that two seemingly contradictory attitudes are at work: in the family model, women are seen as sufficiently subordinate to be viewed as adjucts to their husbands and fathers. In the public sphere, they are acknowledged as sufficiently competent to sit as United States Senators. (That’s Senator Mrs. John Smith to you.)
    It’s not that Phyllis Schlafly or the appointments of a handful of senators prove or disprove anything about American public opinion. But they do confirm that there exists a mindset—a set of values—that can permit equality in one sphere and inequality in the other. (The idea that true equality would insist on asserting itself both in public and in private was expressed in that famous dictum of the 1970s, “The personal is political.” Although this became a rallying cry for many a Baby Boomer with many a cause, it is believed to have been coined feminist Carol Hanisch, who published an eponymous essay in 1969.)
    Of course, because gender categories have so many entangled implications, it is not surprising that gender inequality should be manifested differently in different areas of personal and social life. As society evolves, it makes sense that some manifestations of inequality should be more palatable than others. Inequality in the public sphere was massively eroded over the course of the 20th century, from the constitutional stride of women gaining the vote in all states in 1920 to the more quotidian, but deeply telling, adoption of gender-blind want ads in the 1960s and 70s. Although women are still underrepresented in America’s top jobs, it’s not for want of education: for every 100 American men who enroll in higher education, 140 women now crack the books.
    Inequality in the private sphere is more difficult to measure. Power in domestic partnerships is arguably a subject better addressed through opera than sociology. What quantitative tools offer us on the home front are time-use studies, which suggest that women perform more domestic labour than men, and continue to assume the bulk of childrearing responsibilities. A recent article by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times outlined the debate among sociologists and economists about whether a recent decline in labour force participation among women might signal the end of the four-decade flow of women into the paid labour force. In addition to higher rates of joblessness overall in the United States since 2000, the main reason cited for women’s diminished labour force participation was the demands of the domestic sphere.
    Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist, was quoted as saying that the decline in women’s labour force participation had “led many to wonder if a ‘natural rate’ of labor force participation has been reached.” One might add that if the current plateau indeed signals such a “natural rate,” it is a natural rate for America under existing policies. Countries with greater institutional supports for working women, particularly in the form of subsidized child care, have more working women. But in matters of gender equality, the question of family organization is the rub. The Times article concludes with the words of a stay-at-home mother considering the factors that have kept her from returning to the paid work she loves: “We got equality at work. We didn’t really get equality at home.” (Incidentally, in our surveys the proportion of Americans agreeing with the statement, “In a household where both partners are working, it is not right for the wife to earn more than the husband,” rose from 12 percent to 19 percent between 1992 and 2004.)
    It may be that equality in the public sphere is a more palatable goal than equality in the home for most Americans. Embracing formal equality for women, telling little girls they can be lawyers and engineers, is one thing. Accepting profound changes in domestic life—especially changes facilitated by costly government programs—seems a much deeper challenge. In view of all this, the finding that Americans seem simultaneously to be agreeing that women should be equal in “business, industry, and government” and that at home “father must be master” merits examination—not dismissal.
    No feminists in a foxhole? Equality on hold in a dangerous world
    Formal equality may be all well and good, but social realities place constraints on how people feel they can actually, practically, behave in the world. The climate in the United States since 9/11, referred to in some quarters as the “culture of fear,” has been preoccupied with the compromise of principle in the name of the greater good of safety and security. For example, although past administrations and lawmakers condemned wiretapping American citizens without a warrant, President Bush has indicated that he views this brand of surveillance as an unpleasant necessity in the war on terror. It’s not that civil protections are not admirable ideals—it’s just that they may have to give a little when it comes to matters of life and death. Hillary Clinton was quoted in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election as saying that she believed security trumped the economy as an issue in voters’ minds. In exit polls, similar proportions of voters cited security and the economy as their top ballot issue—but for security to even contend with the almighty American economy, especially in a period of high unemployment, speaks to its tremendous importance in the minds of average citizens.
    Although most Americans might believe that ideally women should play an equal role in business, industry and government, in frightening times, a particularly masculine projection of power and authority may strike some as desirable—even if the expression of that desire is politically incorrect. The rising proportion of Americans agreeing that “Whatever people say, men have a certain natural superiority over women and nothing can change this” suggests that the broad commitment to women’s equality in the public sphere is up against a deep sense that equality may be an ideal—but not necessarily one rooted in the “natural” equality of men and women. And in a dangerous world—whether the danger comes from terrorists abroad or criminals (and sometimes terrorists) at home—egalitarian ideals must sometimes make way for the police chief, the fire chief, the president and commander-in-chief.
    If an election had been held in November 2001, how many Americans—even those who espouse egalitarian views in a survey—would have voted for a female candidate for commander-in-chief? And if they had, would she have been spotted thereafter in a flight suit on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln?
    After having been challenged by Mr. Teixeira to look more closely at our findings on Americans’ growing acceptance of male dominance in the home, we examined some of the values in our own data that correlate most strongly with the idea that “The father of the family must be master in his own house.” Most closely linked to the belief that dad should be boss was the idea that men are naturally superior to women, a value we label Sexism.
    Another intuitive correlate is a value we label Propriety. The items that compose Propriety revolve around appropriate dress and behaviour, and the importance of not offending others. For example, respondents strong on Propriety agree that “It is very important to dress appropriately to show respect for others.” With its connotations of order, etiquette, and respectfulness, one can see how Propriety would fit into the worldview of someone who believed in a home organized around a hierarchy with a single clear leader: Dad. (In this home, appropriate and respectful dress is gender-specific: men should wear pants and women skirts, approximating as best they can the icons on bathroom doors. Incidentally, among the values that correlates most negatively with Patriarchy is one we label Flexible Gender Identity.) A strong belief in codes of etiquette also tends to coexist with traditional values; the oldest people in our sample tend to score highest on both Patriarchy and Propriety.
    Two other trends that correlate with patriarchy are somewhat more surprising than Sexism and Propriety, but also interesting. One is a trend we label Acceptance of Violence. People who score high on Acceptance of Violence are more likely than average to agree, for example, that, “Violence is a part of life. It’s no big deal,” and that, “It’s acceptable to use physical force to get something you really want. The important thing is to get what you want.” This value tends to be held most strongly by people who espouse a hard-edged individualism, and a sense that at bottom society is a war of all against all. While it may not indicate a propensity for actual violence, it suggests at least a conceptual openness to the idea that the world is a violent, dangerous place, in which one must sometimes use unpleasant means to advance one’s interests.
    The other value we find correlates notably with Patriarchy is Personal Challenge. People who score high on the value Personal Challenge tend to agree with statements like “I often do something just to prove to myself that I’m able to do it,” and, “Once I start something, I stick with it until I am satisfied with the results.” These statements clearly speak more to personal discipline and striving than do the statements associated with Acceptance of Violence. But both values evoke to a steely determination that seeks to confront and overcome obstacles. Taken together, they suggest a worldview in which individuals must act with toughness and resolve in order to get things done in a world that is sometimes downright uncooperative.
    What does it mean that Americans who agree that “The father of the family must be master in his own house” are more likely than average to score high on Personal Challenge and Acceptance of Violence? Taken together, these trends may point to the idea that Americans who believe most strongly in Patriarchy are the most likely to view the world through grit-coloured glasses. In a dangerous world, having a strong man to lead the house—earn money in a turbulent marketplace, protect weaker souls from crime, impose rules and order on youth we are told can easily spin out of control—can be a very helpful thing. (On the matter of danger: in our 2004 survey, fully three-quarters (76%) of Americans agreed with the statement, “I feel that violence is all around us and that we must constantly be on the lookout.”) If one feels one is living in a world where vigilance, toughness, and sometimes even ruthlessness are important and morally justifiable tools, then being part of a tight ship with a strong captain can’t hurt. This may be true even if one believes in theory that women and men should be able to occupy similar positions in business, industry, and government.
    In periods of crisis and intensity, ideals are tested. Ideals are especially vulnerable when they seem to conflict with the interests of basic security, be it economic or physical. Many Americans confront considerable insecurity in their daily lives. The loss of a job, in a country famously averse to social-welfare, can be especially terrifying. A catastrophic illness or injury may result in financial ruin. Crime looms, in long decline but overreported on the nightly news and fetishized in popular culture: COPS, Court TV, Law & Order, CSI, and so on. Since 9/11, terrorism has been added to the litany of more quotidian domestic concerns.
    Americans, from the composition of their famous founding document, have always expressed a passionate belief in equality. But even in a society that believes in the ideal of equality—that men and women should be paid the same, that men and women should have similar opportunities and responsibilites both at home and in the public sphere—the facts on the ground, as the generals say, may militate against true equality. It is not hard to see how at the end of a long day in a competitive world, many Americans might long to come home to a social unit characterized by a stable hierarchy—not further jockeying for power. Then if anything goes bump in the night, mom and the kids can roll over happily, knowing that Dad will investigate. Unless he’s fallen asleep watching The Simpsons.


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