Behind the front-stage soap opera–or is it the Shakespearean tragedy? The Moliere farce? The Marx Brothers stateroom buffoonery?–that is Washington today, much of import is going on backstage.

Legions of conservative activists, former corporate executives, and former lobbyists are working to dismantle the modern American state. Most of this would be happening if we had a President Cruz or Walker, too. (Some of us are old enough to recall an earlier such period, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, only then the deconstruction was done with some finesse and principle.) In such an era, it is worth taking a brief historical glance at how the federal government, stepping in for an ineffective market, has sustained average Americans–even if many of these instances of help are now largely forgotten.

Postal Savings

Boy Scout Making Deposit, 1913

Indeed, forgetting such help from the past–and even overlooking it in the present– seems to be a general American trait.

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A few recent developments have again highlighted a tension in left politics. One is the public shaming of Trump administration officials, calling them out in venues like restaurants, a tactic encouraged by at least one Democratic congresswoman. Another is a never-say-die mobilization against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, a campaign that is supremely unlikely to succeed and would, if it did, simply lead to someone else at least as conservative being appointed. A third are calls to abolish ICE, the agency that has been deporting the undocumented, an event about as likely to happen in the near future as the Congress abolishing Trump golf courses.

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So, what is the point of calling for such bootless initiatives? Mainly, it appears, it is to energize people, to join them together in righteous and exciting solidarity, to declare their indignation and moral purity. And what about actually getting something done? Not so much.

Left activists have done this before, declaiming outrage, while right activists have more quietly but effectively advanced by focusing on what matters: votes. Some on the left have learned this lesson, as new grass-root groups have flipped Republican-held districts, but others are still stuck in the “Occupy” mind set.

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Controversies over “zero tolerance” have exploded recently in two very distinct contexts: the Trump administration’s policy for undocumented border-crossers, dramatized most starkly in its separation of migrant children from their parents, and the #MeToo debate over how firm policies should be toward men who press themselves on women, highlighted by liberals’ torment over the resignation of Senator Al Franken.

traffic stop

Zero tolerance controversies pop up in other places as well, such as over strict drug and alcohol policy (should one lapse lose a worker his or her job?), enforcement of discipline in schools (is it creating a school-to-jail pipeline?), and the “broken windows” policing strategy (is alienating a community a long-term losing strategy for law enforcement?).

Across a wide range of public policies, however, Americans do not support zero tolerance–even when American lives are stake. Indeed, it is not clear that societies could function well with zero tolerance.

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Once upon a time (actually about 50 years ago) when I started doing research on social psychological differences between urban and rural people, many authorities dismissed the whole question as out of date. Sure, city-country cultural differences were once vast and important, but in the modern era of interstate highways, telephones, television, nationwide markets, and the like, such differences were gone or pretty soon would be. country mouse

Now, after a half-century more of those distance-shrinking changes plus the internet, cheap air travel, and so on, a Pew Research Center report has gotten media attention by highlighting notable differences in the cultural views of Americans according to whether they lived–or whether they said that they lived–in a city, a suburb, or a rural place. Add this report to the political polarization between city and country highlighted in the Trump victory–he won rural and small towns by about 25 points and lost cities over 50,000 by about the same–and it looks as if city-country differences are alive and well in the 21st century.

There is, however, a technical issue–an interesting technical issue–in the Pew analysis. Whether people say they live in city, suburb, or country partly reflects obvious demographic facts. (Few residents of New York City would tell a pollster that they live in the country–although a vice-presidential candidate did once claim that her Queens neighborhood was just like a small town.) But where survey respondents say they live is also shaped by their stereotypes of city, suburb, and country.[1] So, for example, a socially conservative person who feels that her neighbors share those views might, in an ambiguous setting like a low-density suburb, say she lives in a rural place, because it feels culturally rural. Such subjective answers to “Where do you live?” would make city-suburb-rural differences look greater than they really are.

So, let’s take another look. I’ll ask whether there really are place-based differences in cultural views today, whether they are diminishing as notions about modern technology suggest, and whether those differences really are about the places.

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Here are a few facts about what surveyed Americans claim to be facts: In a late 2017 poll, one in five survey respondents claimed that Donald Trump received more popular votes than did Hillary Clinton; about two in five said that the unemployment rate had risen during the Obama years; and about one in three told another poll that Obama was born in Kenya. All wrong. Of course, there is a huge political split on such topics. For example, about one-half of Republicans versus one-seventh of Democrats said that we’ve had a Kenyan president.telegram

There are partisan splits on a range of facts. In 2016, 79 percent of liberal democrats versus 15 percent of conservative Republicans said that they agreed that “Earth is warming mostly due to human activities.” Not all the misperceptions are on the Republican side. It is well known that many Americans sharply flip their reports about how the economy is doing or even about how their own finances are doing when the White House changes party control (e.g., here and here). Both political sides have tended to report crime as rising when it was actually falling.

How should we understand the detachment from reality that so many Americans seem to display when asked questions about facts? What does it say about polls and their value? One thing it says is that many people use polls to send a message.

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(Disclosure: I am tired of writing about this topic over and over again, and I suspect that regular readers of this blog are tired of reading about it over and over again – here and here and here and here and…. Yet one keeps getting provoked by media obliviousness. It’s dirty work, but someone has to…..)headbang


The trope that Americans have gotten more isolated and lonely over the last generation or so is irresistible to pundits and editors, no matter what academics say (and there are always one or two of us to provide journalists some cover). The latest, loudest declamation was by David Brooks in The New York Times of April 16, 2018, about the “epidemic of loneliness”–consistent with his recent psychologizing of what ails America. Yes, loneliness is a social problem, but no, there is no “epidemic of loneliness.” (If it’s epidemics of loneliness you want, check out the reports on farm women a century ago [1].)

Fortunately, others have responded to the latest wave. Notably, sociologist David Weakliem tracked down the one data link behind Brooks’s claim that loneliness rates doubled between the 1980s and 2000 and found that “the report of that survey didn’t say anything about changes in loneliness.” (Of course, the Times rarely publishes letters pointing out their mistakes.)

Below, I add a bit more to the fact base.

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In a recent web essay, the eminent historian (and my Berkeley colleague) Martin Jay raised this question: Why has the term “alienation,” which was the all-purpose diagnosis of social and personal ills a generation or so ago, seemed to wane in public discourse? “Why aren’t we ‘alienated’ anymore?,” Jay asks. So does historian David Steigerwald in a 2011 piece cited by Jay.

The question immediately resonated. Circa 1975, inspired in part by my teacher, Melvin Seeman, I had written articles with “alienation” in the titles, taught a seminar on the topic, passed around an alienation reading list, and generally joined that conversation. Now, forty years later, hardly at all. Yes, what did happen to “alienation”?

Alien_Hopper_The Automat_1927

Hopper, The Automat, 1927

Before trying to answer that question, however, we need to make sure that diagnosing “alienation” has in fact ended. If it has, we then need to figure out whether the conditions labeled “alienation” have diminished or just uses of the particular word have.

It turns out that academics have largely dropped  “alienation” as a topic, but high-brow writers are still deploying it, although much less often. That these fluctuations say something about changing life in America is less likely than that they are saying something about changing fashions among the intelligentsia.

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