Dangerous Ideas and Where to Find Them


From the age of thirteen I considered myself to be bisexual, and, although I spent my senior year of high school pissed off at all the boys and thought I was therefore a lesbian, “bisexual” (“pansexual” wasn’t a thing then) was really the best fit. But then when I converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four, I had to come up with a new narrative, and the story I made myself believe was that I had “chosen” to “indulge” feelings that I should have instead worked to contain. The pseudo-progressive Christian line was that the feelings weren’t sinful, just ever-ever-ever acting on them. OK, fine, so that was my story for the first several years of my Catholic phase.

One day, in maybe 2002 or 2003, I was wandering the stacks of my university library, and this book caught my eye:


Standing in the stacks, it took me a while to decide to check out the book and read it. To be a good Catholic, I had put boxes around so many ideas in my mind. The ideas were in the boxes, and the edges didn’t touch, and I didn’t allow other thoughts to get in there and argue with the boxed-up ideas. I knew that if I read this book, it was going to mess up the boxes. Standing there, I recognized that the cost of continued obedience involved closing my mind to ideas that would challenge the Catholic dogma I had adopted. The twenty-four years of freethinking I had enjoyed before putting my mind into those boxes reared up, and I knew I would be ashamed to become a person afraid of other ideas. I checked out the book. I chose freedom of thought. I left the Catholic Church in 2004.

I see this struggle in my students. The students whose relationships became more complicated because of the ideas they encountered in the women’s studies course I taught about work-life balance. The advisee who was worried about taking a history course named “Witchcraft and Witch Hunts,” because she wondered if what she might learn in that class would conflict with what her religion teaches her. The students whose course evaluations criticized my courses on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for mentioning sexual and scatological themes demonstrably present in their work.

Even more so than the classroom, though, art is the home of dangerous ideas . . . and what is even more threatening is how art frames those ideas in ways that foster empathy and imaginative identification.

But people have to make the choice to receive the ideas. Yesterday, I drove to Detroit with my daughter to see Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. I couldn’t get tickets when I was in New York City in June 2015, and I will be teaching the book in the Spring 2017 semester, so I had to make a special pilgrimage to see it.


Who knows when this award-winning play, the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian protagonist, will make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana? There is a market here for touring companies of Broadway shows, but the shows that might challenge the area’s conservative morals either don’t come or arrive years and years later. Both Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch began national tours this fall, and neither will stop in Fort Wayne. One could argue that the city just isn’t big enough to be included in the first year of touring, and that is undoubtedly true, but still . . . the slightly edgy Avenue Q came to Fort Wayne seven years after it opened on Broadway and three years after it began touring. The Book of Mormon began touring  in 2012 and still hasn’t made it to Fort Wayne. It’s smart business in Fort Wayne, I’m sure, not to bring troubling ideas to town about sexuality, gender, and religion.

But I will stand behind the insight I had that day in the library many years ago: ideologies that can be sustained only by adherents’ studiously avoiding competing ideas are brittle, weak, doomed. The artists and teachers of the world keep threatening the status quo—here and in other states where the majority want to either stop time or else turn back the clock to the 1950s—with their dangerous, dangerous ideas.



Blue Teacher, Red State

In 2006, a few months after I began my job as an assistant professor at a regional state university in Indiana, one of my colleagues announced that she was quitting her job in order to move to Washington state. She told me that with the 2004 election she had reached her limit of living in a red state—she couldn’t stand it anymore, and so she left. Another colleague, a native of California, spoke of Indiana as though she were an exile. She returned to California in the summers and was eager to leave forever upon her retirement in 2014, but cancer took her just two months after she taught her last class. Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth that way.

I couldn’t fully understand that drive to live somewhere more politically liberal, because I have always lived in conservative, Republican-dominated states: first Kansas, and now Indiana. You get used to it. To the extent possible, you surround yourself with like-minded people (additionally, if you’re me, you spend eight years in your twenties as a conservative Catholic trying to agree with the Republican party, as you’re told by your priest to do). You don’t expect your side to win in elections at the local and state level, so the national political game takes on outsized importance—a Democratic president is the main way that progressive change happens in red states, so that becomes the thing you hope for. As a white, middle-class person, my privilege has shielded me from the worst there is to suffer in red states. So I was used to it, and after the election, when I read a bunch of headlines with variations on “don’t move to Canada, move to a red state!” I recognized that as, logically speaking, a pretty good idea.

But it’s dispiriting to be a liberal in a red state, and not simply the bummer of being the fan of a team that always loses, but something that makes you wonder about humanity and compassion and love and hope, because the stakes are so often life and death. For me in recent years, more and more, my red-state suffering comes from my identity as an educator. Sure, Republican politicians regularly demonstrate their contempt for women, poor people, minorities, but in addition, their contempt for teachers is just breathtaking. They hate us. For years, people in Indiana have been saying that the Republican legislators’ work to hurt public K-12 education was just the first step, and they would turn their attention to public postsecondary education soon enough. That moment has now come, and it sucks.

To try to boil down the current Republican ideology about public education:

  • Your kid is not my problem. I shouldn’t have to pay for her education. Education should focus on job training. Education that doesn’t lead to higher lifetime wages for the learner and higher productivity for his or her employer is a waste of time and money. (Rich people can study medieval French literature or anthropology or whatever. We don’t know why any of them would want to, but it’s OK if they do.)
  • The only things worth considering in decision making are things that can be measured and counted. Bonus points if the things being measured and counted are dollars, but test scores are good, too.
  • Uniformity of instruction will lead to uniformity of outcomes, and uniformity is good. Happy corollary: in a world where uniformity of instruction is the goal, we can stop thinking of teachers as professionals with expertise and instead treat them as expendable and unimportant (because another Republican axiom is that workers are not as important or worthy of respect as bosses are).

In Indiana, the Republican assault on K-12 education has attacked both school districts and teachers themselves:

  1. Decrease public school funding by (1) bleeding money out of school districts through a generous voucher program, initiated in 2011 under then-Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded in 2013 under Governor Mike Pence, and (2) creating strict property tax caps in 2008 that guarantee that school districts in areas with lower property values will have lower funding for schools.
  2. Deprofessionalize teachers: (1) make it easier to get certified to teach, and (2) make it clear that teachers’ experience and education don’t matter by ending the practice of giving teachers pay raises for earning a master’s degree. Teachers with master’s degrees don’t produce students with higher standardized test scores than teachers with bachelor’s degrees do, and therefore it’s a waste of state money to pay them more for a worthless credential (remember, the only things that matter are things that can be measured).

I could go on and on. Really, I could, and I could include a bunch of hyperlinks to stories about everything the Republicans have done to fuck over public K-12 education in Indiana in the past decade, but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point is that I finally understand what drove my colleague to want to leave this red state, because all of that contempt for educators is now making its way to my world of postsecondary public education in Indiana, and it’s maddening. When a politician’s ideology trumps my experience and expertise, it’s insulting. When I can shout as loud as I want to and carry signs and write letters and actually have my opinion be considered less important than those of the average taxpayer, because I’m a liberal college professor and therefore my ideas about education and teaching are wrong-headed, it makes me wish to be part of a different system, one where my ideas about education were not so completely at odds with those of the people with the power to decide.

The two states I know best, Kansas and Indiana, are both experiencing teacher shortages at the K-12 level. I’m not surprised—it’s demoralizing to work, and to work hard and to work well, and nevertheless to be treated with contempt at every turn. It’s dispiriting to have ideals about education as a public good, about the right of every citizen to a good education and the benefits that will flow to everyone from providing that education, and not to have those ideals inform education policy at any level in the entire state. It’s a shame, but the small daily battles we educators in red states face, the fighting and fighting and fighting to have our expertise in any small way affect policy, will continue until these folks are voted out, and if November 8 was any indication, that’s going to be a long time coming to Indiana.



An Open Letter to Speaker Paul Ryan

You know, man, you know. And you know that you know. And you know that you choose not to act on what you know: that Donald Trump is a menace to the country you love and that you are one of the few people in the world who could persuade Republican electors not to cast their votes for him. I don’t have to rehearse for you the reasons why he is dangerously unfit for the power he will receive unless you act. You already know the reasons so well that I don’t even have to tell you all the ways that I know that you know, all the things you have said and not said that mean we all know that you know.

I watched a video of you yesterday, in which you were giddy with excitement about the opportunity your party now has to run the country. I can understand the appeal of the power coming your way. You believe in your ideas. You believe they are better than my ideas, and now you have the ability to make those ideas reality for the whole country, even in some cases the whole world. While the media, American citizens, and the world watch Trump’s tweets, gaffes, and head-scratchers with rapt attention, you quietly prepare to run the country, fully and reasonably expecting that the majority of our attention and activism will focus for the next four years on preventing an outright fascist dictatorship; at the end of it, if we survive, people will open their eyes and find that while they were fighting fascism, you and your friends were creating the conservative paradise that you actually want. We all hope that Trump will lose his reelection bid in 2020, and then you will be ready to run for president in 2024—I’m sure you can see it all now, laid out before you in your imagination. But whether or not your life follows this triumphant trajectory, history will remember you for what you do now.

This moment is an unbelievable opportunity for your party, a chance to make the world match your ideas, and it will weaken the party if you ask the Republican electors to vote for someone else. I get that. But there are other ideas at stake, the ideas and values we actually all agree about, the ones we learned about in grade school: democracy, decency, kindness, fairness, honesty. The other ideas can wait—your side and my side can continue to do battle over them for the next several decades, and we likely will—but now is the moment to fight for democracy, decency, kindness, fairness, and honesty.

You are now at the most important moment of your life, and you have to choose between your political party and your nation. Someday, you will look back on your life, and you will remember that there was a time when you had an opportunity that few people ever have, the opportunity to make the world a decisively better place in a single day, in a single speech, in a single moment. How will you use this moment?


Everything Is Not OK

Shortly after 9 am on the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother called to tell me to turn on the TV, because two planes had flown into the towers of the World Trade Center. I was at home with my toddler son, getting ready to take him with me to campus so I could talk to a couple of my professors about the comprehensive exams for my PhD program, which I had recently restarted after a three-year hiatus.

Instead, I watched the television. I watched the smoke. I cried and worried and prayed (I was a Christian then) and hoped that people would get out. The first tower fell. It was horrifying to watch it collapse. I cried some more. I prayed some more. I hoped that the second tower wouldn’t fall. It fell. Horrifying.

And then . . . well, and then I wiped my tears, changed my son’s diaper, and trundled us off to campus, where, as in the rest of the world, no one was doing any work. I found at least one of my professors, who seemed to think it was kind of weird that I wanted to talk about my exam on that day and suggested that we reschedule.

NO WALLOWING has been Rule #1 in my life for so long that I rarely think about it. I spent four of the seven years between twelve and nineteen mired in deep, deep depression. Only at the end of high school, on a day when my mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom crying while I lay in bed immobile, did my parents overrule my desire to not get treatment—they were going to make me see a therapist.

I saw that therapist for four years, and I owe pretty much everything I have achieved in my life since then to her. The most important thing she said to me was “When you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is anything . . . but the best thing to do is anything.” I was too deeply depressed when she said that for it to be a curing kind of statement, but over time, and especially after I made a firm decision to get better, it became a strategy. It’s a cliché, because it’s true, that being depressed feels like being wrapped in lead, and all motion becomes more difficult than it should be. I know that the longer I wait, the thicker the lead gets, and the harder it becomes to push through it, and therefore: NO WALLOWING.

I used to sometimes feel guilty about my response to 9/11, allowing myself so little time to feel sad about it, trying to get back to work an hour after the towers fell. Did that mean I was heartless? A kinder interpretation, more compassionate to myself, is that whereas other people knew that they could afford to feel a lot, and that it wouldn’t endanger them for the next six months, I had no such assurance, and so I was protecting myself by tamping down my emotional response.


The parallels with November 9, 2016, are instructive. I went to bed at around 2:30 am and woke again at 5:08 am. Learning that Donald Trump was president-elect of my nation felt as physically horrifying as seeing the Twin Towers fall. My chest hurt, and my mind was overwhelmed: Where do I live, what country? Who are my fellow Americans? Why have this man’s rage and pettiness and incompetence not disqualified him in their minds? What will happen? I felt all this terror and anger and sadness for an hour, but then . . . well, I had to wake my daughter up and get ready to take her to school. And when I returned from driving her, the “no wallowing” rule went into effect, and I tried to shut down the sadness and replace it with optimism and the idea that I could make a plan to make things better. Thus this blog, yes, but also an unwillingness to feel again what I had felt for an hour between 5:08 and 6:10 am on November 9.

But it hasn’t been so easy. In the long continuum between wallowing and emotional numbness, I’m not sure that there is a right answer, only a series of choices that people make based on what they want, what they need, what they value. One of the funniest and most true things my ex-husband ever said to me was “I don’t know why you’re always wanting me to have more emotions. Yours don’t seem to make you very happy.”

And that’s important, isn’t it? I have a sad work situation at my university that derives from red-state education ideology and a terrifying national situation that derives from the twin dangers of an unhinged, incompetent megalomaniac setting the tone for interpersonal discourse and a Republican majority that will use the distraction of Trump’s theatrics to push through an agenda to make life in this nation worse for people who are different or who are poor. In both situations, to look is to feel; the only way for me not to feel things about these troubles would be to avoid seeing: to close my office door and ignore university politics, to stop reading the news, and in both cases to hope for the best and decide not to fight.

With 9/11, there was no requirement that I, personally, fight anything. I made a choice to tamp down my response of sadness, but whether or not I felt angry enough to fight was immaterial to the outcome. But both at my job and in the nation now, the situations call for disempowered people to fight. Fighting  requires anger as fuel, and anger is anathema to me. Where sadness and depression are so comfortable to me that I have to fight against them to avoid losing myself, anger is deeply, deeply upsetting to me, provoking a strong physical anxiety response. I want to flee my job because the anger I feel there is so uncomfortable, and so of course I have avoided as much as possible feeling anger about the election.

“Yours don’t seem to make you very happy.” No, they don’t, not always. And yet my emotions are an asset to me, not just in my personal life but in my work life as well: as a teacher, when I was a supervisor, and as someone whose emotions drive me to speak the truth. This blog has up to now been an intellectualizing effort for me to channel my emotions about the election into something less emotional and more practical. But it’s not working—I have too many feelings right now to sublimate them all, and although I still believe that I need to control my emotions so as to avoid depression, it’s probably time for me to give more thought to the emotional strategies I have followed for the past twenty years. If my big messy heart is both my greatest liability and my greatest strength, how can I keep it open for the next four years?

My Imaginary Perfect Electoral College Reform

Like many of you, I have never before given so much thought to the Electoral College . . . like never. Before November 9, the Electoral College was for me an unquestioned reality. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that we have the system we do—with 48 states giving all electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in the state and with Nebraska and Maine as unexplained anomalies—because of something in the Constitution that I had forgotten (there is a lot in the Constitution that I either never knew or forgot in the years since high school, so this was a somewhat plausible hypothesis). But no. As we all now know, the Constitution leaves it to the states to determine how to allocate their electoral votes, and the Twelfth Amendment (ratified 1804), while essentially enshrining the two-party system in American politics, continued to leave it to the states to decide how to allocate the electoral votes.

My friend Jeff, who has forgotten more about the Twelfth Amendment than I have ever known, lent me one of his college history textbooks, The Electoral College Primer, published in 1996, and in the coming weeks, I’ll be summarizing and responding to chapters from that book for a historical view and to some current proposals about the Electoral College for a contemporary view, but for today, I want to spend some time thinking not about the historical decisions that made the Electoral College what it is today and not about politically possible solutions to the problem, but about ideas and ideals that should inform any possible reforms.

  1. Every state should matter. This is why we have the Electoral College in the first place. Bitter divisions between more and less populous states about representation in Congress were salved by the Connecticut Compromise, which allocated seats to one house of Congress based on population and to the other house based on equal representation for each state. Near the end of their work on the Constitution, the framers decided to use this basic idea to inform the creation of what would come to be called the Electoral College. If the United States were to move to a strictly popular-vote-based presidential election, then small and rural states would cease to matter in the election, and this would go against the still-important principles that informed the work of the framers of the Constitution in creating a workable federation of states.
  2. Every voter should matter. At the moment, my ideal for a new way of allocating electors is a constitutional amendment that would require all states to allocate electoral votes as a proportion of the popular vote in the state. If this amendment were passed, then suddenly my Democratic votes in Indiana, where I live now, or in Kansas, where I lived previously, would become relevant in a way they never have been. Republican voters in California and New York would potentially play a role in electing a Republican president. This would entirely alter the way presidential candidates approach their campaigns, because suddenly more voters would be important. The implications would be far reaching. The two major political parties have learned how to work the system we have now, and they would resist a new system that would upend their current methods and require radical revisions of strategy. But the fact that neither party is likely to support this idea doesn’t make it a bad idea.

This site offers an interactive way of seeing how the electoral votes would have changed for the 2012 election based on different proposals that have been made for reform of the Electoral College. (They report that it will take several months to provide the same options for the 2016 election.)

Unfortunately, not ideals but expediency and selfishness often inform politics. (I know, I know, shocking!) So Republicans, with their ongoing efforts to restrict voting in numerous states, have demonstrated a lack of valuing every voter. States that are firmly, consistently either blue or red are unlikely to support a constitutional amendment that would lose them some of the electoral votes they have counted on. The same site allows you to run the exercise for “Optimal Republican” and “Optimal Democrat,” and this is instructive for thinking about why a constitutional amendment would be a good idea. Here are the ways that states should allocate electoral votes in order to optimally favor Republicans:


In 2012, that would have led to these changes in the election:


And here is how states should allocate the votes for optimal results for the Democratic Party:


This “optimal Democrat” set of statewide elector practices would have yielded these votes in 2012:


Above maps and vote totals all from www.270towin.com.

It may be asking too much to wish that our elected officials would behave as statesmen and stateswomen instead of politicians, but the variance in those two maps from 270towin.com suggests that a consistent national system that preserves certain core principles of our federation and of democracy would be better for both the federation and the democracy than allowing whatever party is in power in each particular state to stack the deck in a way that favors their party. Certainly, however, our politicians will continue to behave as politicians as long as the people expect no better.


#AnywhereButTARGET? What about #AnywhereButWALMART?

Many of my super-liberal friends were posting last week about their plans to increase their shopping at Target because of an ad campaign, #AnywhereButTARGET, aimed at dissuading politically conservative shoppers from giving money to a liberal company.

Being a highly suspicious person, I had to wonder if this was a brilliant idea cooked up by the folks at Target to increase liberal commerce, so I started clicking to find out more about the organization behind the ad campaign, 2ndVote.com.


It turns out that 2ndVote.com is real . . . so real, in fact, that I was a bit chuffed to think of how their research could pay off for a liberal like me, who, like the conservatives, has to spend money and would prefer to spend money in alignment with my values. 2ndVote.com rates many, many, many companies on a scale of 1 to 5 for their support (or lack thereof) of the hot-button issues “Life, Marriage, 2nd Amendment, Environment, Education, Immigration.” A liberal shopper can simply flip 2ndVote’s “1 = bad, 5 = good” into “1 = good, 5 = bad,” in which case Chick-fil-A’s bright-green for “go-go-go there, conservative customer” becomes for me “you’ll be green with nausea if you give your money to this company that opposes everything you hold dear.”


Of course I wanted to know how Target scored . . . 1.4.


Definitely liberal, according to the 2ndVote criteria, and color-coded red for “don’t go here, conservative shopper!” But then things got interesting. The next logical step was looking up Target’s prime competitor in the stores-that-sell-everything category, Walmart.


What?! Walmart scores 1.3, lower than Target on the liberal-o-meter. Why, then, is 2ndVote not rolling out an #AnywhereButWALMART ad campaign? Why indeed? Presumably because Walmart has convinced rural and conservative Americans that Walmart is a store for them, that Walmart cares for them and is on their side, even though it’s not actually true, and not just because they support some of the same causes that Target does.

The reason I shop at Target instead of Walmart is not because I’m one of those awful “liberal elites.” I don’t shop at Walmart because they have followed a truly immoral business plan that has destroyed the economies of small towns across America. I don’t shop at Walmart because they pay their workers poorly and fight workers’ attempts to unionize. I don’t shop at Walmart because their monopsony power harms their suppliers as much as their labor practices harm their workers.

I assume that 2ndVote isn’t calling for a boycott of the more-liberal-than-Target Walmart because their core constituency prefers Walmart to Target and believes that Walmart shares their values. Walmart waves around the American flag while selling billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, and they sell guns, too. The strategy seems to be working: decades after Walmart began its assault on the rural American economy, it has become part of the rural culture in the same way that fry bread, that deliciously artery-clogging way Native Americans invented to use government-issued staples, is now a part of Native American culture. Walmart may be, according to the 2ndVote criteria, a smidge more liberal than Target, but I’m not going to start giving my liberal dollars to Walmart, because in addition to valuing reproductive freedom, marriage equality, gun regulation, environmental protections, vibrant public education, and an immigration policy that embraces diversity, I also value sustainable and ethical business practices, and I can’t reward Walmart for what they have done and continue to do to the economy of rural America.

Walmart is not your friend, rural America. For what it’s worth, neither is Donald Trump. Trump cares about rural America as much as Walmart does – he cares enough to say that he cares, especially if saying he cares makes people believe he is on their side. He’s not.

The Fear of Being on the Wrong Side of History

Hindsight is great. But when you don’t have it, you have to make decisions based on imperfect knowledge and insufficient evidence. It’s so hard, and I’m afraid of getting it wrong. There’s been a lot on the interwebs recently suggesting that the time to stop a coming Holocaust is now, as for example in “How fascism accumulates power by testing people”. The melting-eyeballs dog in “This Is Fine” and “This Is Not Fine” currently haunts me, because I don’t know whether our democracy can survive a Trump presidency.

I know that confirmation bias is real, and I know that slippery slopes are not. So how does one decide? I read an article last year that analyzed Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale through the lens of the philosophy of ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas that made me realize how much a firmer grounding in ethical philosophy would help me. The author, Jeffrey Knapp, wrote about how the play provides multiple “reflection[s] on what we do when confronted with the unknown . . . : we determine, judge, conclude. Whatever path we choose, the choice is a matter of ethics” (259). The most important idea I took from the article is that if I insist on waiting for full knowledge, full information, before I will act, that is of itself a decision. If I wait until I am 100% sure about any decision, I will have missed the chance to act in many instances.

But how does this apply here? I do feel 100% sure that the Trump presidency will be a disaster for the nation and the world, but he also won by the rules of our system, and I want to maintain the system. I believe that the American democracy is stronger than the hatred and incompetence of Donald Trump, but I may be wrong (and I may be fooling myself because of how much I don’t want to block traffic and otherwise be a revolutionary). My getting up each day and going to work and thinking about how the Democrats can win and reverse the Trump damage in two years and four years may someday make me look back at myself at this time and see this nice, nice German family in in 1930s:



What about Compulsory Voting?

The Allen County Democratic Party is having a group discussion on the Electoral College in late January, and Jack Morris said, “Don’t just bring opinions; do some research.” So I will have some posts about the Electoral College as I continue to learn more about that, but my not-very-informed opinion at this point is that we would do better to increase the number of voters in our current system than to throw out our current system for an election based strictly on the popular vote. Voting rates are, not surprisingly, much higher in countries where voting is compulsory compared to where it is voluntary:


Nicholas Stephanopoulos / Data: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

But voting rates are also higher in most other developed nations where voting is voluntary, so there is a cultural element as well—my Finnish friend told me that voting is compulsory in Finland, but as I was researching this, I found that this is not actually correct. The fact that she believes it to be compulsory suggests a culture of voting so strong that it is socially and morally compulsory, even if not legally so. A Pew Center study found that the United States ranks thirty-first of the thirty-five developed, democratic countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for voter turnout, and only five of those thirty-five nations have compulsory voting laws (see the list of OECD nations here and the list of nations with compulsory voting laws here.

Looking at a map of the nations with compulsory voting laws suggests that the well-developed democracies in Europe do not need them:


Compulsory voting laws might be most effective, and most needed, in nations with low rates of voting, where the government wishes to create a culture of voting and democratic participation.

The United States, where only 53.6% of the voting-age population voted in the 2012 election, is clearly a nation that needs to do better, but there is ample evidence that the Republican Party does not want higher voter participation, so that would provide a roadblock to making these laws. Nicholas Stephanopoulos, however, in an Atlantic story from 2015, offers an ingenious idea for a Democratic-led process of making compulsory voting laws. He recommends that cities should start by obliging their residents to vote in municipal elections, which will coincide with state and national elections, thus boosting turnout for those races, too. Statewide political parties will then react by making it compulsory to vote in state elections, because otherwise the blue-leaning cities will skew voting results for the whole state. It looks not only like a good idea (as nationwide compulsory voting laws would be), but like a practical idea, and that’s even better.


Our Political Engagement Is a Bigly Disaster. Sad!

In 2000, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone explored the decline in “social capital” in America from 1950 to 2000. In all areas of life, from the mundane—fewer Americans joining bowling leagues, instead choosing to bowl alone—to the potentially culture changing—fewer Americans participating in groups such as labor unions, religious organizations, and political parties—people’s group and community involvement had declined. He noted the high point for voting in 1960, when 62.8% of voting-age Americans voted in the presidential election between  John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and the low point of 1996, when only 48.9% of voting-age Americans participated in the choice among Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot.

So much social capital in this 1950s photo!

Along with the decline in voting rates, he found a concomitant decline in numerous types of political and civic engagement, as illustrated in the table below:

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, Chapter 2, Table 1, p. 45

Importantly for his thesis, Putnam noted a connection between the rate of declining participation and the extent to which particular activities required connection and cooperation with other people. For the activities in the top half of the table, “each of these activities can be undertaken only if others in the community are also active. Conversely, the activities (in the bottom half of the table) that have declined most slowly are, for the most part, actions that one can undertake as an individual. . . . In other words, the more that my activities depend on the actions of others, the greater the drop-off in my participation. . . . it is precisely those forms of civic engagement most vulnerable to coordination problems and free riding—those activities that brought citizens together, those activities that most clearly embody social capital—that have declined most rapidly” (pp. 44-45).

In the conclusion to his book, “Toward an Agenda for Social Capitalists,” Putnam noted that “reweav[ing] the fabric of our communities” would not be an easy task. “It would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis” (p. 402). Then came 9/11. In “Still Bowling Alone: The Post-9/11 Split” (2010), Putnam and his colleague Thomas H. Sander offered a follow-up to the original study. They discovered that Americans who were of college age or younger at the time of the attacks had a greater commitment to volunteerism and more interest in and engagement with political affairs than older generations.  In the nation as a whole, voting rates increased from the low point of 1996, as illustrated in this figure:

Figure from FairVote: http://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101

But their 2010 research uncovered a distressing split between levels of political and civic commitment for higher-income and lower-income young people: “Over the last thirty years . . . white high-school seniors from upper middle-class families have steadily deepened the degree to which they are engaged in their communities, while white high-school seniors from working or lower-class backgrounds have shown a propensity to withdraw from (or never undertake) such engagement.  . . . If the United States is to avoid becoming two nations, it must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement beyond the ranks of affluent young white people” (pp. 13-14).

In the week since our presidential election, many would agree that it has felt like the United States has become “two nations,” and surely we can draw a straight line from Putnam and Sander’s concern about the political disengagement of working-class white youths in 2010 to some of the Trump votes in the Rust Belt states this year.  Putnam’s prescient comment in 2000 about the ability of disaster to renew people’s commitment to building community and social capital may apply at the present moment. The Trump presidency promises to be a disaster for many, including some of those who voted for him. I and many others have committed ourselves to becoming part of a stronger Democratic Party, but Putnam’s work reminds me how much work we have to do to strengthen the social connectedness of the nation as a whole, not just our political party.



Why This Blog?

My thirteen-year-old daughter, for the hundredth time showing her colors as the child of two English professors, asked, “So Mom, who’s your audience for this blog?” I, showing my colors as the compulsive-A-student-always, replied, “I’m glad you asked. I’m writing this blog for people like me—people who have been reliable Democratic voters but who haven’t been very involved in the party.”

But that’s only part of the reason. Other people may not need to read my blog, and other people may not in fact end up reading my blog. But I need to write it, because I know what a lazy-ass I can be. I know how much I would prefer to spend my Saturday morning reading the news in my jammies to going across town to the Democratic Party meeting. I know how much of a tightwad I am. I know how much I hate knocking on strangers’ doors—I canvassed for Greenpeace the summer I was 18. The worst moment wasn’t when someone berated me for ten minutes about how stupid I was to support Greenpeace. The worst moment was when I knocked on the door after that and dissolved into tears as soon as the homeowner opened the door.

This is me on Saturday mornings, reading the news. Donut and coffee not pictured.

I have a full-time job and two kids, and I’d rather spend my spare time on things I like than things that are hard, but I know that my laziness, multiplied by a few million people, means that now friends, family members, and my fellow human beings are in danger from our racist, xenophobic, misogynistic bully-elect. So I’m writing this blog because I’m afraid that without it, my good intentions will dissipate until about June 2020, and that’s too late. I’m not a religious person, but I have been at times in the past, and I know that “having a practice” is good for making progress, even if one doesn’t know the plan for how or where one is going to progress. I am writing my good intentions publicly—I will contribute somehow to Democratic Party victories in 2018 and in 2020—because then I’ll feel ashamed if I go back to my complacent ways.