Author Archive

The Return of Local Political Party Organization: Does the 21st Century look like the 19th?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

As the post-election analysis season begins, political scientists, pundits and campaign consultants will offer several explanations for why President Obama won, and Governor Romney lost. One interpretation offered for President Obama’s win in Ohio was that Obama’s campaign had a much more extensive and effective ground operation. Looking at a map of the Obama and Romney field offices in Ohio reveals a possible (but not definitive) explanation of Obama’s relative advantage over Romney. As reports,

Obama campaign officials noted Wednesday that they had years to build up a field operation that was often not visible to the other side. The director of Obama outreach to African-Americans in Ohio oversaw a barber-shop and beauty salon program that helped register new voters and distribute literature. A Congregations Captains Program helped the campaign arm supporters in traditionally African-American congregations with what they needed to mobilize other parishioners.

“Obviously there was still room to grow,” said an Obama campaign official. “We didn’t reach 100 percent capacity in 2008.”

Politico’s post cites Molly Ball’s late October article in The Atlantic Monthly where Ball quotes Obama national field director Jeremy Bird about the ground operation:

“Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible,” Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of “staging locations,” many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand.

“Community organizing is not a turnkey operation,” Bird says. “You can’t throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs — the barber shops, the beauty salons; we’ve got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It’s real, deep community organizing in a way we didn’t have time to do in 2008.”

What is revealing about this analysis (at this point) is how similar Bird’s description of political party organizing is to political party organizing in the late 19th Century. Then, as now, mobilizing voters through decentralized precinct level political party organizations is an effective way of winning elections.  Despite the nationalizing focus of presidential campaigns, the inclusion of global social media, and the extensive use of data mining and micro-targeting of potential voters, electoral politics—in key ways—remains a low-tech, locally based, decentralized activity. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once reported his father telling him, “all politics is local.”

But is all politics still local? What lessons, if any, does the Obama ground game hold for future elections? On the one hand, many of the problems of politics still confront people at the local level: good paying jobs in the communities where people live, the quality of local schools, affordable housing. Yet, the forces that shape local life (and the solutions to local problems) increasingly appear to come from state, national and global levels. Will decentralized, but nationally affiliated political parties re-emerge as the associations best able to give local citizens meaningful control over local, regional, statewide, and national political processes? Did they ever disappear?


Are Men Losing Ground to Women? Is This the Right Question to Ask?

October 17, 2012 13 comments

During last night’s presidential debate, Katherine Fenton asked the candidates the following question: “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”  While the media focused on Romney’s answer where he used the now infamous (and soon to be passé) phrase “binders full of women”, Fenton’s question speaks to a long running debate about the difference in equality of opportunity between men and women in the labor force, specifically the gap in pay equity. Just based on Fenton’s question, we might conclude that the inequality in pay equity is the most important concern for women in the workforce. But, Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, released in early September 2012, tells a slightly different, and more nuanced story about what is happening to women in the American workforce.

Rosin’s book chronicles a relative ascendency of women and corresponding decline of men in the shifting labor market in the United States. For Rosin, “We live in a world that privileges nimbleness and flexibility, the willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape, to be responsive to social cues” (Rosin 270). And, Rosin argues, women have been able to adjust more rapidly than men to this world.

Rosin book has touched off—or reignited—a heated debate over the relative status of women and men in American society. Stephanie Coontz, prefiguring Fenton’s question, challenged Rosin’s claims in a New York Times op-ed by asking, “How is it, then, that men still control the most important industries, especially technology, occupy most of the positions on the lists of the richest Americans, and continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education? And why do women make up only 17 percent of Congress?”

But are the disparities Coontz and Fenton describe the ones that should demand our attention? By focusing on pay equity between men and women at the upper half of the income scale, do we avoid the broader trends Rosin sees taking place? By focusing on pay equity, do we ignore concerns about the distribution of political power in the United States? What I find missing in this debate is any substantive discussion about what it means to be equal as citizens—to share an equal stake in the public life of the republic. At base, arguments to equalize pay are arguments made for more equality between women and men—but only in economic terms. Equality can mean many things, and not all of them glamorous: equally weak, equally poor, or equally overburdened.

Rosin describes the attempt by women to secure, and retain, a kind of equal dignity amidst a changing economy—something ever so slightly different from equal pay. Rosin’s book effectively points out the way American women adapt by “taking over professions that allow them to be decent parents and that are likely to last in the new economy. They are acting with an eye to their own ambition and to the well-being of their children and mates, and their own sanity.” Rosin shows her readers that democratic political society may need forms of equality (other than pay equity at the top end of the income scale) so that citizens see their differences of income as subordinate to common purposes and conditions (such as capacity of all citizens of varying income levels to be decent parents). If we ask what policies and practices help citizens adjust to a rapidly changing economy equal pay may not be at the top of the list if that equal pay cannot pay for a life of civic dignity, a life where one’s contribution to public life matters.

Pat Robertson and the duty to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s

September 19, 2011 17 comments

In a recent article from the on-line magazine William Saletan asks whether Pat Robertson’s statement that Alzheimer’s can justify divorce because your spouse is “gone” is right. I encourage you to read the article before continuing reading this post.

On the surface, Political Science appears ill-equipped for answering the question of whether you should leave your spouse if they have Alzheimer’s. After all, what do you care if x% of Americans would leave a spouse with Alzheimer’s for someone else, or if a spouse who watched x number of hours of “The Jersey Shore” had an x% increase in the likelihood of leaving his or her spouse?

Alternatively, for a more definitive empirical measurement of the problem, the following cartoon provides a clear answer to the question posed by one of Robertson’s callers: should you leave someone based on an objective measure of how much happiness that person provides you?

To many people (at least the one’s who can correctly read a line graph) the above cartoon will provide a simple solution to the dilemma of whether you should leave your spouse because your spouse has Alzheimer’s and has no idea who you are. As your happiness goes down, you should “find someone else.”

What I find intriguing about Saletan’s article is that it invites people to rethink their previously held opinions about Pat Robertson, conservatism, liberalism, their marriage bonds, adultery, and their own ethical and moral values. And it is in this capacity that Political Theory, as a subfield within political science, can provide ways of moral reasoning that might help sort through the complexity of Robertson’s response.

Consent as the Foundation of the Social (and Marital) Contract

In 2011 we take it as axiomatic that people consent to the relationships that define their lives. The social contract tradition of political theory, which includes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and The Declaration of Independence, values the ability of people to freely choose their obligations and commitments. Commitments that people choose are legitimate. However, each of the thinkers (and document) listed above has a slightly different understanding of what consent requires of the person doing the consenting. And this is at the heart of Saletan’s article about Robertson’s comment. Consent, like the subtleties of an enduring marriage, is complicated.

On one level a marriage vow is an oath and a pledge binding two people together: a union of two separate entities into one. Marriage vows appear as a variation of the following:

Groom/Bride: I,____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Wife/Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

Bride/Groom: I,_____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Husband/Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.

While egalitarian sensibilities often lead couples to delete the “to obey” from the second passage, few couples delete the passage “in sickness and in health.” If you consent to marriage, then you have pledged to “hold from this day forward . . . in sickness and in health” to love and cherish the person you married.

So what does “in sickness and in health” mean to different people? And how might two people come to a common understanding of what “in sickness and in health” means? When is a spouse no longer a spouse? Or, alternatively, when have the obligations of matrimony been violated to the point where one spouse is justified in leaving another? And here is the larger political question: when do the obligations to others outweigh the claims to one’s own happiness? Political theory tries to answer such questions through discussion of justice, virtue, and whether there is a duty to care between people who are spouses, friends, and even strangers.

Questions for you to think about:

  1. As you read the Saletan’s article ask yourself what you would do?
  2. What kind of information or knowledge would help you make the decision Robertson’s caller is trying to make?
    1. How does your education, particularly in political science, help you morally reason through this question?
  3. Or, if your college education has no business in trying to educate someone about how to handle the situation Robertson’s caller describes, who—if anyone—should educate people about their duties and obligations?
    1. Should we even bother with such questions in a political science class?
  4. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse with Alzheimer’s from financial abuse by the other spouse?
    1. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse without Alzheimer’s from financial, or physical abuse from the spouse with Alzheimer’s?
  5. Finally, since you have been asked to comment on this blog post by Professor Klunk, I would ask that you read some of the commentsposed on about Saletan’s article, and then think about the following questions:
    1. How would your comments differ if your posts about this article were 1) anonymous,  2) if your name, picture and home address were attached to your comments, 3) you had to read your comments face to face to your classmates?
%d bloggers like this: