It’s More Complicated Than That…

A recent controversy reminded me that confirmation bias isn’t confined to the political Right. Those of us who lean Left engage in it too, and–unfortunately– so do serious observers of the political scene who ought to know better.

One reason for the academic process known as “peer review” is to ensure that scholars have accurately interpreted the work of other scholars, and to check that the methodologies they’ve employed have been correctly applied. (Errors in methodology aren’t necessarily intentional–they can be the result of the researcher seeing what she is convinced she’ll see.)

What triggered these reminders was a recent article from The Atlantic, pointing to serious flaws in the arguments and conclusions in White Rural Rage, a recent best-seller by political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman. I was particularly interested in the article and the scholarship it cited, because my own reading has convinced me that urban-rural divisions are indeed a significant part of America’s current polarization. But the critique of this particular book looks to be firmly grounded.

In the weeks since its publication, a trio of reviews by political scientists have accused Schaller and Waldman of committing what amounts to academic malpractice, alleging that the authors used shoddy methodologies, misinterpreted data, and distorted studies to substantiate their allegations about white rural Americans. I spoke with more than 20 scholars in the tight-knit rural-studies community, most of them cited in White Rural Rage or thanked in the acknowledgments, and they left me convinced that the book is poorly researched and intellectually dishonest.

The Atlantic author, Tyler Austin Harper, says he was initially frustrated by the book’s resort to familiar stereotypes, but when he dug deeper, he found significant problems with White Rural Rage that extended “beyond its anti-rural prejudice. As an academic and a writer, I find Schaller and Waldman’s misuse of other scholars’ research indefensible.”

I won’t go through all of the misquoted scholarship that Harper enumerates in the linked analysis, but the largest error he identifies by far is the failure to define their use of the term “rural.”

The most obvious problem with White Rural Rage is its refusal to define rural. In a note in the back of the book, the authors write, “What constitutes ‘rural’ and who qualifies as a rural American … depends on who you ask.” Fair enough. The rural-studies scholars I spoke with agreed that there are a variety of competing definitions. But rather than tell us what definition they used, Schaller and Waldman confess that they settled on no definition at all: “We remained agnostic throughout our research and writing by merely reporting the categories and definitions that each pollster, scholar, or researcher used.” In other words, they relied on studies that used different definitions of rural, a decision that conveniently lets them pick and choose whatever research fits their narrative. This is what the scholars I interviewed objected to—they emphasized that the existence of multiple definitions of rural is not an excuse to decline to pick one. “This book amounts to a poor amalgamation of disparate literatures designed to fit a preordained narrative,” Cameron Wimpy, a political scientist at Arkansas State University, told me. It would be like undertaking a book-length study demonizing Irish people, refusing to define what you mean by Irish, and then drawing on studies of native Irish in Ireland, non-Irish immigrants to Ireland, Irish Americans, people who took a 23andMe DNA test that showed Irish ancestry, and Bostonians who get drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day to build your argument about the singular danger of “the Irish.” It’s preposterous.

Serious scholars confirm the existence of a very real urban/rural divide, and cultural differences between urban dwellers and Americans living in thinly-populated, economically-struggling parts of the country. But careful scholarship has distinguished between residents of non-metropolitan areas who fit the book’s “rural” stereotype and those who do not. In 2019, I cited a fascinating study from the Niskanan Center that focused on attitudinal differences linked to residential density–the lengthy study found that values of small town residents of “rural” America who lived close to others in the hearts of those communities differed from those of their more isolated neighbors.

The bottom line here is twofold: it’s important to avoid stereotyping, and essential to define our terms. As our political battles heat up, too many of us use language to label opponents rather than as vehicles to convey information.

Is there an urban/rural divide? Yes. Is it important to understand its roots and effects? Yes again. But as I used to tell my students–and as someone should have told the authors of this book–it depends upon how you are defining rural, and it’s more complicated than you want to understand.


Politics: The New Time Religion

Fareed Zakaria is one of our most perceptive pundits. I have purchased his most recent book, Age of Revolutions, and am about halfway through it. Thus far, I’ve found it illuminating.

Zakaria’s recent essay in The Washington Post was similarly illuminating, connecting America’s increased secularization to the growing religious zealotry of the GOP and Trump’s supporters. Here’s his lede:

Reporters have been noticing something new about Donald Trump’s campaign events this time around. They often resemble religious revival meetings. The New York Times notes that where his rallies were once “improvised and volatile,” their finales now feel more planned, solemn and infused with religion. The closing 15 minutes “evokes an evangelical altar call” filled with references to God.

Trump is a shrewd reader of his supporters and has clearly seen what the data show. White evangelicals, who make up about 14 percent of the population, made up about one-quarter of voters in the 2020 election. And about three-quarters of them voted for Donald Trump. Even more striking, of those White voters who attend religious services once a month or more, 71 percent voted for Trump in the 2020 election. (Even similarly religious Black Americans, by contrast, voted for Joe Biden by a 9 to 1 ratio.) The key to understanding Trump’s coalition is the intensity of his support among White people who are and who claim to be devout Christians.
The decline in the nation’s religiosity is one of the many cultural changes that have upset so many Americans. For a number of years, America was an outlier among modern Western nations, most of which had secularized far earlier. (Ironically, scholars mostly attribute this country’s greater religiosity to the Separation of Church and State so despised by Christian Nationalists.) In the 1990s, that began to change, and it has plunged since 2007.
As the scholar Ronald Inglehart has shown, since that year, religious decline in America has been the greatest of any country of the 49 surveyed. By one measure, the United States today is the 12th-least-religious country on Earth. In 1990, according to the General Social Survey, less than 10 percent of Americans had no religious affiliation. Today it’s around 30 percent.
Zakaria considers some of the reasons for the decline, and then turns his attention to what has taken the place of fundamentalist religious dogma: politics. He quotes Walter Lippmann for the observation that modern life has deprived men of the “sense of certainty as to why they were born, why they must work, whom they must love, what they must honor, where they may turn in sorrow and defeat” and notes that Americans who are trying to cope with the loss of that “sense of certainty” have increasingly replaced religious dogma with political extremism.
Over the past few years, this process has been extended even further with those who consider themselves devout Christians defining their faith almost entirely in political terms — by opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights. This in turn has led to a great Democratic dechurching: According to Gallup, Democratic church membership was 46 percent in 2020, down from 71 percent two decades prior. The scholar David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame told the Associated Press, “Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion.” This phenomenon — of the right using, even weaponizing religion — is not unique to America or Christianity. You can see it in Brazil, El Salvador, Italy, Israel, Turkey and India, among other places….
This is the great political challenge of our time. Liberal democracy gives people greater liberty than ever before, breaking down repression and control everywhere — in politics, religion and society. But as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Modern society gives us all wealth, technology and autonomy. But for many, these things cannot fill the hole in the heart that God and faith once occupied. To fill it with politics is dangerous. But that seems to be the shape of things to come.
Those of us who embrace life in secular America, who find the wide diversity of opinions, philosophical commitments and religious beliefs stimulating and thought-provoking, confront a political movement powered by people who find the loss of certainty terrifying, and who have compensated for the loss of religious fundamentalism by turning politics into a (similarly fundamentalist) religion.
The problem is, the essence of productive political engagement and governance is negotiation and compromise. Political engagement doesn’t work when one party sees policy disagreements, but the other sees those same disagreements as a battle between good and evil.
MAGA is a religion, and in religion, battles between good and evil are non-negotiable.

Early Voting In Indiana..

Yesterday, in Indiana, early voting for the primary election started. My husband and I walked over to Indianapolis’ City-County building and cast our votes–including our votes for Marc Carmichael for U.S. Senate. In case you haven’t read my previous posts about why Marc deserves support--and why Jim Banks is a MAGA nightmare–I’m pasting in a video from Marc, and his own written perspective on the race.

Now, from MARC:

Dear Fellow Concerned (Scared) American,

To be blunt, on Tuesday, November 5, Indiana’s new United States Senator will either be me or MAGA Trumper and bomb thrower out of the US House Chaos Caucus, Jim Banks.
We get just this one chance to beat Jim Banks or he will be an Indiana incumbent Republican senator and we will never get rid of him or the constant shame he will bring on our state and the United States, not to mention the forced march he will lead back into the Dark Ages.
Fortunately we have a good chance to win this race.  First, it is an open seat with no incumbent.  Second, Banks is not known outside his 3rd Congressional District and intensely disliked within it.  Third, thanks to Republicans inability to govern in DC and the Dobbs decision striking down Roe V Wade, this is shaping up to be a good year for Democrats, even in Indiana.
Trump’s MAGA (Make America White Again) base continues to shrink from a high of 42% to 35% and Jim Banks only appeals to that base.  His Indiana Senate seat was gerrymandered for a Republican and so was his Congressional seat.  He knows nothing about campaigning except pandering to the Trump MAGA base.  He is boxed in between Trump and the NRA.
If elected to the US Senate I pledge: to work with President Biden to restore Roe V Wade; to ban the sale of assault weapons; to battle climate change; to enact Medicare for all including our LGBTQ kids who are being denied critical medical care by narrow minded, mean spirited Republican legislators;  to confirm fair and impartial judges to counter the unqualified partisan judges foisted on us by Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party; to work for an immigration law that protects our borders and is fair and enforceable; to work on answers to our shortage of affordable housing; to help create good union jobs that help restore the middle class; to never vote for a tax cut for the rich; to address the inequity of pay for women; and many more things left undone by a do nothing Republican Party.
I (we) can do this.  In 1986 I first ran for the Indiana House from Delaware County and my opponent was the Republican Speaker of the Indiana House, J. Roberts (Bob) Dailey.  He was in a 60% Republican district, had been Speaker for 6 years, and was considered the most powerful person in the Indiana Legislature.  No one thought I could beat him, but I didn’t know any better so I made up a cheap brochure and started walking door-to-door in July.  It was hot and there were dogs, but when people found out I was running against Bob Dailey they were very glad to see me.  That reception continued as I walked through August, September, October and November, and on Election Day I won by 18%, 59-41.
With your help I can win this race too.  I can’t walk all of Indiana door to door, but I can go to every fair and festival and take my 1971 VW bus to every parade I can fit on my schedule between now and November.  I can advertise on social media to reach various groups, I can send text messages, emails, and direct mail too, but in the end I will need to be on TV and that’s expensive.
Will you help me?  We get just this one shot.  I can do it if you will support me financially, otherwise we might as well just give up and accept Jim Banks as our US Senator.  I refuse to give up.  Please look me up at and see what I stand for.  Provide a donation at  Please help me help you not suffer the fate of Senator Jim Banks.  
Marc Carmichael

There Aren’t Two Sides To Facts

A few weeks ago, I read that a newspaper editor in Cleveland responded to complaints from readers that accused the paper of being “unfair” to Donald Trump by defending actual journalism. He noted that there aren’t “two sides” to facts, and that the paper would continue to report factually and accurately. If the facts reflect poorly on Trump, so be it.

If only all the news media followed that philosophy! But they don’t. There are a number of reasons–including concern about turning off subscribers at a time when newspapers are struggling, paying too much attention to the “horse-race” and too little to the issues, and/or a profound misunderstanding of the essential mission of journalism (hint: it’s “accurate and defensible,” not “fair and balanced”).

Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently attended a Trump rally in Wisconsin. His whole column is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by his report on Trump’s multiple falsehoods, aka bald-faced lies:

He announced that he had won his fraud case in New York: “The appellate division said, ‘You won the case, that’s it.’” (The court has not yet heard his appeal of the fraud judgment against him.)

He also announced that “it came out that we won this state” in 2020. (Trump lost Wisconsin by 20,682 votes.)
Trump launched into a mantra that should be familiar to Hoosiers currently suffering from an assault of GOP primary advertisements, namely that “Crooked Joe and his migrant armies of dangerous criminals” are producing a “bloodbath” among innocent, native-born Americans. (Local Republicans have adopted those falsehoods.)

It’s not the least bit true. Homicide and violent crime, after rising during the pandemic, have dropped for two straight years and are lower than during Trump’s final year in office. There is scant evidence that immigrants — legal or undocumented — commit more than their share of crime, and a lot of evidence that migrants are more law-abiding, as The Post’s Glenn Kessler has detailed.

But that doesn’t stop Trump from talking about the “massive crime” brought by “[President] Biden’s flood of illegal aliens” — the theme of his Green Bay rally and an earlier event in Grand Rapids, Mich. “They’re not humans. They’re not humans. They’re animals,” Trump said. “I’ll use the word ‘animal’ because that’s what they are.”

A friend involved with the recently launched “Hoosiers for Democracy” recently bemoaned the media’s normalization of such rhetoric, and its tendency to shrug off both Trump’s constant, preposterous and easily debunked lies, and his use of fascist terminology to dehumanize those he and his supporters consider “other”–mostly people of color. She’s absolutely right–and it’s dangerous. (Hoosiers for Democracy“ is a Hoosier movement working to ensure that Hoosiers,  “across race, place and party” vote to protect democracy in 2024.)

What far too many in what the late Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes” fail to understand is that we Americans are not engaged in a political battle. It’s all well and good to counsel respectful disagreement when partisans are arguing about the merits of a proposed bill, or the proper approach to crime and punishment, or the most effective way to approach a social problem. Those sorts of disagreements are–as the late Dick Lugar used to say– “things about which people of good will can differ.” Those sorts of disputes call for civility, negotiation, mutual respect.

Our current divide is not political–it is moral. MAGA is a fascist movement, based upon hatred of a variety of “others.” it is profoundly reactionary, steeped in conspiracy theories, powered by deep-seated fears of displacement, dismissive of democratic norms, and most definitely not coming from a place of “good faith.”

Treating “both sides” as morally equivalent is bad journalism. Distorting news in an effort to give “both sides” the benefit of the doubt requires ignoring or eliding observable facts. Whatever the underlying cause of Trump’s incredible dishonesty (my own opinion is that he is profoundly mentally ill and incapable of telling the difference between fact and whatever falsehood he prefers), ignoring it is journalistic malpractice. Pretending that his MAGA supporters are not different in kind from past political partisans ignores the existential threat posed by far-Right populist/neo-Nazi movements.

You’d think the insurrection of January 6th would have driven that lesson home.

I am certainly not suggesting that media outlets all become clones of MSNBC, or that they see themselves as anti-Fox outlets. The proper response to propaganda isn’t more propaganda–it’s fact. I just want an end to the deeply-harmful and factually unsupportable portrayals that gloss over or even ignore profoundly anti-American rhetoric and behavior in a “both sides” effort to find “balance” and equivalence where it most definitely doesn’t exist.

What “fair and balanced” gets wrong is that balance is frequently unfair.


What’s WRONG With These People?

Whatever your opinion of him–positive or negative– today’s Republican Party is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. Today’s GOP is the party of Marjorie Taylor Green (MTG), the party of “Jewish space lasers,” “pizzagate,” and QAnon, a party that accommodates Senator Tommy Tuberville’s belief that Democrats are an actual “satanic cult.”  The takeover isn’t confined to Congress, where preoccupation with looney-tune theories and efforts to return the country to 1950 (or earlier) have brought governance to a standstill–it has permeated Red state legislative bodies as well.

I just read about yet another example of Republican legislators standing firm against the 21st Century: the new war against—wait for it–lab-grown meat.

The only way you’re allowed to eat a burger is if a live animal first had to burp and die for it. That, apparently, is the battle cry of red-state Republicans, who are working to ban the fledgling “lab-grown meat” industry.

Scientists and entrepreneurs are developing new technologies to create meat from animal tissue cultivated in labs. This is different from Beyond Meat, tofu or any other meat substitute made from vegetarian ingredients. These are cells harvested from actual animals and then grown into edible flesh with the help of nutrients such as amino acids. The idea is to replicate the texture, taste and nutritional content of the delicious meats consumers already know and love.
This process would address a number of longstanding problems, including the need for more humane treatment of animals, less use of antibiotics, and reduction in huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. (Livestock agrifood systems are estimated to account for 12 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.)
It sounds like a great idea–but it doesn’t exist yet.
As the linked article points out, the process faces  serious financial and technological challenges that must be overcome before these products can become commercially viable. But the fact that this technology is still largely theoretical hasn’t deterred the GOP’s culture warriors.
Republican politicians in AlabamaArizonaTennessee and Florida are considering legislation that would ban the sale, distribution or import of any “cell-cultured food product” intended for human consumption. Depending on the state, penalties could include everything from a million-dollar fine to prison time.
In Florida, both legislative chambers have already passed a bill criminalizing the sale of lab-cultivated meat, and Ron DeSantis has indicated that he’ll sign it, declaring that lab meat is part of an “ideological agenda.” (Evidently, lab-grown meat is “woke.”)

To be clear, this is not about a left-wing nanny state forcing the sale or consumption of lab-grown meats. It’s about a conservative nanny state prohibiting the voluntary consumption and sale of these products (which again, mostly don’t yet exist).

What happened to the Republicans who wanted the free market to choose winners and losers? Where is the party of limited government?

Granted, there’s a “follow the money” aspect to this; GOP lawmakers who are sane and merely corrupt want to protect the interest groups threatened by the prospect of lab-grown meat. But the effort to forestall any change in the way meat is produced is coming largely from the culture warriors who have turned the party of Dick Lugar into the party of MTG.

Today’s Republicans evidently believe that Donald Trump reads the bible. They openly admire Putin’s war on Russia’s LGBTQ+ community. They embrace the anti-sex prudery of the Comstock Act. They are clearly spooked by the very existence of trans people, and enraged by the notion that women and Black people might be entitled to equality, let alone personal autonomy. They believe Jews are working to “replace” them (when we aren’t starting forest fires with our space lasers), and that there really are “Satanic cults.”

They are basically terrified of any and all change, and frantic to reverse it.

We’ve seen this fear play out in Indiana’s General Assembly, where our lawmakers (like those in Congress) routinely ignore actual issues facing actual citizens (housing? gun violence?) in favor of banning abortion, attacking higher education (they just know those sneaky professors are turning out liberals!), and sending millions of our tax dollars to religious schools via vouchers.

I titled this post “What’s WRONG With These People?” My conclusion isn’t particularly kind, but it’s inescapable.

They’re nuts. And if we keep electing them, so are we.