Obama’s civility in a polarised world

We wrote last week about political polarisation, through which we include two different-but-related things: (1) exaggerated debate about public services being the norm; and (2) the role of interest groups in polarising politics.

Then up popped a video comparing Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s ways of dealing with hecklers:

This echoed David Brooks’s piece reflecting on the civility of Obama’s presidency, and the fact we’ll miss it when it’s gone:

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

What I note about Obama is that he always plays the ball and not the player. He engages in the debate and doesn’t resort to name-calling, ad hominem  attacks or the tone someone employs.

As you would hope, he engages at the upper scales of the Hierarchy of Disagreement:

DH0: Name-calling

DH1: Ad Hominem

DH2: Responding to tone

DH3: Contradiction

DH4 Counterargument

DH5: Refutation

DH6: Refuting the central point

Our polarised political debate means Obama’s civility stands out. Perhaps we can restore civility and try to engage in what people are saying and why, rather than who they are and how they say it?


Pace of change in the US

Here is a terrific visualisation of the pace of change in the US on issues such as interracial marriage, prohibition, abortion and same-sex marriage. Pace of social change in US If this is your sort of thing then you’ll definitely be interested in Chris Hatton’s post on the conditions for change in public policy, plus a collection of links I’ve brought together on change across systems and within organisations.

150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

I should have remembered to post this on Tuesday this week, it being 1 January, and so being the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

You can read the rest here: the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863.

Here’s a bit more info and context, and below is a picture of some guy showing a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation he has hanging on the wall of his office:


Man walks into a column, no.45: Obamacare

Yesterday, the 2012 US presidential election, already resting precariously on the sharpest of knife edges, became even more unpredictable, when the Supreme Court decided to review President Obama’s 2010 healthcare law. The ruling will come next March, smack bang in the middle of the election campaign.

But what’s arguably most interesting about this momentous decision is that howevermuch the ruling will change the election, it might have very little impact on healthcare itself, whichever way the judges come down. Just as in England, where a political vacuum is leaving local health services to make up their own minds, so in the US, people across the country are just getting on with implementing legislation that, whilst passed, could quite possibly be ruled unconstitutional.

In agreeing to review the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so typically American: even its title is a political statement) the Supreme Court is responding to the only appeals court to have ruled that the Act is unconstitutional: most have said it isn’t. Even courts featuring conservative jurists have refused to strike it down: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia being the latest example.

This fact – along with the substantive reasons behind the mostly favourable rulings – may give Team Obama hope. The author of the District of Columbia decision, Reagan-appointed Justice Laurence Silberman, said the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty (needless to say the most controversial bit) was necessary ‘because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.’

For Republicans, the Obamacare legislation – in particular its perceived infringement on individual liberty – has acted as an incredibly strong galvanising force. And GOP attacks on the reforms have certainly swayed public mood: the bill has a bad image. Most people like individual elements of the reforms, up to and including the individual mandate, but don’t like the act overall (see the Washington Post for an overview of the polling data).

So which way will the Supreme Court go? Andrew Cohen, legal analyst at CBS News, has a fun guide to the betting odds on the possible decisions of individual judges and the overall outcome, which smuggles in some useful stuff about precedent and ways for the Court to fudge the issue if it so chooses. It’s probably too early to say what impact the decision will have on the election, not least because, for example, it’s plausible that a strike-down ruling could energise the Democratic base, just as a vote in favour could.

Here’s the really fascinating bit, though: all of the above may come too late, because healthcare reform along the lines of the act is already happening. The New York Times has this overview of how, at local level, health providers are already preparing for reform, with many state legislatures implementing their own versions. Hospitals are already hiring clinicians on mass to cope with predicted influx of new patients. State regulators are keeping a closer watch on insurance premiums, saving citizens money in the process.

If the Supreme Court does decide to rule the healthcare act unconstitutional, there could be real problems caused by the ending of federal funding, but as the NYT piece shows, funding problems are acute already. So the Court’s decision is both momentous and a sideshow: the potential for a really significant impact on the election, and very little impact on what happens on the ground.

Man walks into a column, no.43: Segregated

The typical US neighbourhood is much more ethnically mixed than it was a decade ago. Last week the Washington Post published a two part analysis of the United States 2010 Census, which revealed a sharp decline in the number of residential areas that are ‘highly segregated’ or, to put it rather less technically, almost entirely full of people of the same race or ethnicity (85 per cent or more from one ‘group’ – there’s also an interactive map).

This is unsurprisingly the result of massive growth in the number of Hispanic and Asian residents: Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth in the US population between 2000 and 2010. There’s been a steep rise in the number of what some researchers are calling ‘global neighbo[u]rhoods’. In Washington DC, for example, just one in three neighbourhoods is highly segregated, compared to more than half ten years ago. The biggest drop has been in Northern Virginia, where only one in 20 neighbourhoods is almost exclusively racially similar.

One of the things I find especially interesting about this analysis is how heavily focused on race and ethnicity it is. Despite, or maybe because of, decades and decades of immigration, Americans obsess about race often, it seems, at the expense of the many other ways in which people and communities can be segregated from one another. (Okay, I expect the centuries of oppression have something to do with it too, and indeed the picture is not a universally rosy one of consistent diversification: the analysis also shows that whilst places that were predominantly white are becoming less so, many majority black neighbourhoods are remaining that way.)

I remember many years ago, as a fledgling researcher at OPM, conducting a study on behalf of the then Office for the Deputy Prime Minister (remember that?) looking at future trends in segregation and polarisation. Amazingly, thanks to the benign indifference of web managers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the report from the study is still available online (links to a Word doc).

Now I wouldn’t for a minute want to pretend that this research met the lofty standards of academic studies, but it did at least openly acknowledge that segregation is a complex and contested concept, especially when one expands the meaning of the term to include social as well as residential/spatial overlap.

So for example ‘communities’ can be internally segregated (for example by age) just as much as they can be segregated from one another. As for what causes segregation: well, how long have you got? Structural factors – income, housing, education – mix with (some degree of) personal choice.

With all this said, it would be interesting to know how recent trends in the UK compare to those in the US, wouldn’t it, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait until September next year for the first findings from the 2011 Census. For the moment there’s Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson’s seminal myth-buster ‘Sleepwalking to segregation?’ published in 2009. To my shame I haven’t read the full thing but the freely-available summary (PDF) is packed with facts.

Time to return to my middle class enclave, where we’re blessed with people of every colour and creed, enjoy all the world’s cuisines on our doorstep, and respect every system of belief known to man. And where everyone works in the ‘creative sector’, is inordinately wealthy by national (let alone global) standards, and has free-range children with far too much hair.

Man walks into a column, no.39: Polar

True story: I have been stealing another man’s magazine subscription, for the last five years. The man: Charlie Diggle, the magazine: TIME. Mr Diggle (apparently his real name) was the previous owner of the flat we now call our home – a landlord, specifically – and each week, without fail, a new cellophane-wrapped parcel plops on the doormat.

One can only imagine Charlie was given the subscription as a gift from a friendly but remote aunt or uncle and that as far as they’re concerned their nephew is still very grateful. Or perhaps the $30 annual subscription is simply beneath Mr Diggle’s banking radar. In any case: I am the sole beneficiary of Uncle Diggle’s largesse/Charlie’s louche lifestyle.

TIME is, I feel, rather overlooked on this side of the pond. The first weekly news magazine in the US, and still the most widely read – in the western world at least – the quality of the writing is consistently high, and the coverage of US politics in particular is often just as insightful as anything you’ll find in the Washington Post or the New York Times.

And yet TIME seems to only be cited in the British media (mainstream and social alike) when there’s someone interesting on the cover. Mark Zuckerberg, say (Person of the Year 2010), or Jonathan Franzen (Great American Novelist). Perhaps it’s latent anti-Americanism, or at least anti-populist-Americanism: if 20 million yanks read it, it must be beneath us.

As evidence to counter this glib cultural imperialism, I offer two interesting insights from the latest slim red-rimmed volume to wing its way to me. (As if to emphasise the magnitude of my crime, I’m afraid to say neither of these pieces are openly online – they seem to move into ‘subscriber only’ territory after a week.)

First, the ever-excellent Joe Klein – he of Primary Colours fame – currently on a road trip through the states likely to form the chief battleground for the 2012 presidential election. Klein contrasts the vitriol of a typical Tea Party caller to a radio talkshow (‘I would vote for Charles Manson before [Obama]’) with the ‘non-stop civility’ our correspondent has encountered from all points on the political spectrum during the three weeks of his trip to date.

The polarisation of political debate is leaving the moderate middle appalled, Klein suggests. As evidence he quotes a moderate Republican – typical in his views, we’re told – who says:

It seems to me the President is trying to do the right thing on a lot of these issues, but his hands are tied by Congress. And I guess the most disturbing thing is that people like us aren’t speaking up. We’re letting the extremists do the yakking.

Klein thinks the vast majority are ‘sick to death’ of politicians who ‘play to the rant’, but that leaders of both main US parties have no choice because of the need to finance expensive campaigns (the logical extension, one would assume, being that the most giving are likely to be more extreme).

Which brings me onto the second of my TIME morsels: an article by Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The big question, Sachs thinks, is whether the scale of the ongoing financial crisis will have a similar effect as the Great Depression, in jolting the US out of a period of eye-wateringly high inequality. For the first time since 1929 the top one per cent of households in the States take almost a quarter of all household income.

In the twenties this inequality was caused by a combination of the Wall Street financial boom creating wealth at the top, and mass immigration keeping the bottom very low indeed. The more recent slide towards inequality is, in Sachs’ analysis, down to the skills of US workers failing to keep pace with the need to add value (in an industrial sense) to match the wages demanded, meaning companies cannot compete against cheap foreign labour.

What America needs, says Sachs, and it’s hard to argue, is a grown-up conversation about how to fund future competitiveness, rather than the current mud-slinging. The problem is, of course, how such a conversation can be even conceived of when US politics is as polarised as its society.

Man walks into a column, no.37: Schism

In the week since starting arbitrary constant‘s >ahem< ‘coverage’ of the United States 2012 presidential election, I’ve come across three fascinating pieces of evidence confirming how this race is both entirely predictable – in its ideological flavour – and completely unpredictable, when seen in an historical context. How lovely.

And how stressful. As a wannabe Yank (a Wank?) I feel the ups and downs of Obama’s Presidency as keenly as the peaks and troughs of the season my beloved Italian Robins are having (already). After the fleeting boost afforded by the President’s majestic if predictably ignored jobs speech (a boost for me, that is, I don’t think it had any real impact on Swindon Town FC), a sense of deep hopelessness has set in once more.

This mood was captured rather well in this first piece: an article in the Washington Post describing how within a matter of weeks the ‘brief, transcendent commonality of purpose’ post-9/11 had evaporated as the political parties set to arguing afresh. What were they arguing about? In an echo of today: how best to stimulate a fragile economy. By the time five years had passed a ‘deep political schism was evolving’ (can a schism really evolve? Anyway).

What I found really interesting about this review, though, were the comparisons with key moments in history which notably failed to bring about any lasting political unity. Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, for example, FDR’s Democrats almost lost the Senate, and Wilson’s lot did lose it, a week before Armistice Day in 1918. So much for national unity.

What is different though, this time around, is the extent of the division between the Republican and Democrat parties. A study by political scientists concluded that they haven’t been this far apart – ideologically speaking – since the 1890s. Crucially, this means that Washington can’t get anything done – it’s gridlocked – which pisses the electorate right off, and so voters are volatile, chucking politicians out much more easily. Which has, in the words of the Post’s scribe, ‘reinforced the impulse for short-term political gain at the expense of anything that would lead toward co-operation and consensus’. This is why we’re already seeing talk of bipartisanship over jobs evaporating away as quickly as the morning mist over the Potomac River.

It’s hard to imagine a more striking and strikingly gruesome example of the gulf in American political ideology than the Republican audience’s reactions during the second televised debate between the Party’s presidential candidates. When the moderator of the debate noted that during his tenure as Governor of Texas, frontrunner Rick Perry had allowed more than two hundred people to be executed, the audience cheered.

Think this couldn’t be sicker? Well: know that the latest man to be executed was thus sentenced on the basis that he was more likely to commit further violent acts because he was black. If it wasn’t so horrendous it would be comical. (Since then the Supreme Court has asked for the sentence to be reconsidered, not that it will necessarily be overturned.)

So the prospect of a Republican presidency – a Leader of the Free World who has never been troubled by loss of sleep over the thought of so many dead men – is both inevitable and terrifying. Unemployment has not been this stubbornly high in the run-up to an election since the 1940s. It’s all over bar the shouting, isn’t it?

But, as so often, history can give us hope as well. This piece in the Economist offers a glimmer:

There is no clear correlation between unemployment rates and election results, for example. Franklin Roosevelt got himself re-elected under even grimmer circumstances; Richard Nixon won a second term despite a sharp rise in unemployment, and so on.

The counter examples continue. North Dakota has the strongest job market in the country, yet has seen the biggest fall in the President’s approval rating. The first of the Bush presidents failed to secure a second term despite surfing a wave of prosperity. Truman won during an even bigger economic slump than the one Obama finds himself in.

Because elections are complex, after all, and ultimately unpredictable. Remember how the wind fell out of the sails of the McCain campaign after his misjudged handling of the financial crisis? Latest polls show that whilst a generic ‘Republican candidate’ would beat Obama, it’s too close to call against either of the current frontrunners. So I’m hoping that Perry gets the nod and that more voters get to see more of a man steeped in a certain brand of Texan justice.

Man walks into a column, no.36: Jobs

No, not a(nother) paean to the iPhone or iPad in memory of Apple’s departing chief exec, but the latest instalment in At Times Like This I Wish I Was American, as President Bartlett – sorry, Obama – gives a state of the nation speech to a nation in a pretty terrible state.

With Labor Day behind us (them) and the campaigning for 2012 entering the phase when (some) Americans actually pay (some) attention, consider this a starting pistol post, in the hope that we can maintain a healthy amount of gazing across the Atlantic on arbitrary constant as the election itself draws nearer.

If you haven’t already and have a half hour to spare you really could do worse than spending it watching the full thing. Not as soaring as others in the Obama Canon, maybe, but impressively direct and well-crafted and, it almost goes without saying, delivered with style. The tone and content can be well summed up with this excerpt:

The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

Throughout Obama expertly married the local and the global, the everyday and the political. Held together by the ringing refrain, repeated time and again, of ‘pass this jobs bill’. The most profound passage though, for me, was when the President addressed head-on the inherent and to many the fascinating duality at the heart of the American psyche. In response to the GOP creed that government should just ‘get out of the way’, Obama said:

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

Because when Americans say they want to be left alone to get on with it, they don’t mean really left alone, they mean ‘left to do the kind of things I want to do with my kind of people‘. I was reminded of the studies quoted in David Brooks’ The Social Animal which appear to show that in the States (especially) people choose party affiliation based on views handed down by their parents, or early in adulthood based on stereotypes of what ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ are like, and then stick with whichever camp they think is most similar to them. Policy choices barely figure.

Then, party affiliation becomes the independent variable, shaping views on key issues (survey data suggests that, for example, people become Republicans first and then place increasing value on limited government, rather than the other way around) and – crucially in the current context – shaping perceptions of reality. Whether, for instance, in the case of one study, inflation had risen or fallen.

And that’s the point: however good this speech was, its substantive effect on the minds of voters is likely to be limited, making Democrats happier and Republicans angrier. Independents will continue to wait and see whether the economy picks up. The chances of a fillip within the next twelve months or so are limited when so many households and businesses are still continuing to pay down pre-crisis debt.

Anyway, with GOP members of congress in deeply intransigent mood, Obama’s Administration has little chance of getting his proposals through, so whether they’ll work or not is largely academic. What the President achieved, though, in using any president’s most potent weapon – the bully pulpit – to good effect, was to lay down the gauntlet, allowing him to credibly place the blame at the door of Congress when things don’t get better. Risky strategy, but the only one realistically open to him at this time of US decline.