Subverting Selectivity: Can music convey political information to the politically averse?

By Jessica Feezell

This article was originally posted on The Crick Centre blog.

“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Hypocrite!”
-Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry” (2015)

Researchers regularly explore the influence of various sources of political information including campaign advertisements, news, social media and entertainment such as late night comedy on people’s beliefs about politics. One source of information that has been largely overlooked, however, is music. In the current media environment, where those who want to avoid political information can do so more easily than ever before, it makes the question of ‘what can be learned from music’ even more pertinent.

Many of us can probably think of examples of music with political messages such as the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” or Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” to name a few. More recently, Kendrick Lamar’s latest chart-topping album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has been called a “conversation” about race and racism in America.

These examples show that music can convey political information. We know much less about the effects of politically-tinged music on the listener. To study whether and how music shapes knowledge about politics, I surveyed a random sample of undergraduate students at a large public university in California in 2006 (n = 900). To measure the presence of political information in music, I ask subjects whether the genre “contains an identifiable political message,” and if they “have ever learned about political issues through [genre] music” including open-ended options for elaboration. Subjects were asked to identify the one genre of music that is their first preference for listening. The three most popular genres of music were Alternative music (n = 217), Rock and Roll (n = 156), and Hip Hop (n = 78).

Among the Alternative music listeners, 63% responded that they feel that this music contains an identifiable political message. When pushed to identify exactly what that political message was, there was broad agreement that it is left leaning, anti-war, and somewhat revolutionary. One respondent wrote that Alternative music is “anti-establishment with a smack of liberalism,” another stated, “It encourages an alternative lifestyle and more liberal beliefs. It encourages tolerance and stresses the importance of remaining true to oneself.” Additionally, 44% of Alternative listeners reported learning about political issues through the music. Among the open-ended responses were such issues as “U.S. foreign policy,” “poor health conditions in Africa,” and “the War on Terror and U.S. involvement in Iraq.”

Kendrick Lamar @ Grosse Freiheit 36, Hamburg (9498442702)
By hds (Kendrick Lamar @ Grosse Freiheit 36, Hamburg) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Seventy-eight percent of the Rock and Roll listeners also said that they felt Rock music has a clear political message. The messages that were identified by listeners in the open-ended responses were similarly anti-government, anti-war, and left leaning. But Rock listeners also felt that it promotes collective action. One subject wrote, “Political activism in some music; generally liberal oriented,” another said, “It really depends on the song. Most Rock and Roll music, I feel, is about going with what’s in your heart and standing up for your beliefs. For this reason I feel that people see rock and roll music as being about rebelling.” When asked whether subjects had ever learned of a political issue through Rock music, 59% said yes. Respondents identified political issues such as, “the Tibetan freedom movement,” “the Kyoto protocol,” “the Vietnam war and draft,” and “the Armenian genocide.”

Finally, 72% of Hip Hop listeners said that they felt this genre was political. The subjects said that Hip Hop music addresses socioeconomic issues, racial tensions, and concern about an unrepresentative government. There were many responses offered for this genre that include, “Fighting for the interests of the poor and minorities,” “Much of the hip-hop I listen too (Immortal Technique, Nas, etc) is very socially and politically oriented, spreading important messages through the music,” and “All about the government and racial discrimination.” Additionally, 67% of Hip Hop listeners said that they have learned about political issues through the music such as, “poverty, inequality, and discrimination,” “racial profiling,” and “Mumia Abu Jamal case, complicity of U.S in cocaine trade, etc.”

My research demonstrates that listeners perceive that music contains political information and that people have learned about specific political issues through listening. One important qualification that runs through many of the comments is that the messages within the genre vary somewhat from artist to artist. Additionally, selection effects, demographic influences, and causal mechanisms are important considerations to include in future research. At a minimum however, music often contains political information and it is seemingly able to subvert selective avoidance of such information, as it is primarily entertainment. This line of inquiry becomes even more imperative as people increasingly select entertainment over news and avoid political information all together. Furthermore, media effects tend to be strongest among those with low levels of political interest who are least likely to tune into more traditional news sources and perhaps more likely to listen to music.

Jessica Feezell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico. Her scholarship is focused on American politics and political communication. Professor Feezell’s current research explores the intersection of digital media and political behavior, with a focus on youth, as well as incidental exposure to political information from non-traditional sources. Her work has been published in several journals including PS: Political Science and Politics, Journal of Information Technology and Politics, New Media and Society, International Journal of Communication, Computers in Human Behavior, and Public Understanding of Science.

The Coming Blue Tide Needs Competition

by Craig Goodman

Last week, Tiffany Cartwright and Tyler Young published an interesting post on the changing demographics of Texas and how that might change the politics of the Lone Star State. Overall, it is a well-done piece and the sheer number of figures gives readers a lot to consider. However, while the demographics may point to change, pundits and many Democrats have been pointing to the so-called sleeping giant of Texas politics for nearly 2 decades and if anything, Texas has become a more Republican state over that period of time. Why has the predicted change failed to materialize? My suggestion is simple: the absence of an effective Democratic Party organization that can energize and mobilize Hispanic voters.

There is ample evidence that partisanship is the most important predictor of voting behavior (Bartels 2000), but parties also play a critical role in mobilizing potential voters. Hispanic voters, on paper, may be more likely to vote Democratic, but the absence of any real competition at the statewide level is likely to serve as a drag on the expected changes. Voting is always a costly activity in terms of time and information (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993) and may be even more costly in Texas with the adoption of photo ID requirements (although the evidence is not yet clear on this point), but party organizations play a vital role in helping voters overcome the tendency to engage in free riding. John Aldrich (1995) has written about the development of political parties and the importance of resources and this is one of the challenges in Texas. Resources are scarce (a point a return to later) and they are often deployed where they will have the greatest return and it would take a substantial investment in Texas to make the state competitive so the status quo persists.

On paper, the 2014 election should have provided opportunities for greater Hispanic influence considering Texas has been affected by a surge of immigrants on our southern border and many Republican candidates, most notably Dan Patrick, the nominee for lieutenant governor, wanted to militarize the border. Even with the nomination of a high profile gubernatorial candidate in State Senator Wendy Davis, the nomination of State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) for lieutenant governor, and the efforts of Battleground Texas Democrats were crushed across the state. One of the challenges Wendy Davis’s campaign faced was the competition between issues that would appeal to activists (abortion or gun rights) versus the issues that would best mobilize voters (education or roads) (see Aldrich 1995 on these challenges for parties).

Exit polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University Texas showed that Governor Greg Abbott won 44% of the Latino vote while Dan Patrick, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, won a slightly higher percentage of Hispanics while Senator John Cornyn won a plurality of Hispanic voters in his reelection campaign. Looking a statewide map of the results , Democratic support is largely confined to El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, and South Texas (and Austin, of course). Even in many of those border counties, Governor Abbott’s campaign was reasonably competitive as he took 42% of the vote in Cameron County, 29% in Webb County, 35% in Hidalgo County, and 37% in El Paso County.

It is also important to note that 2014 is not an outlier because over the past ten years, election returns illustrate the fact that Hispanics in Texas are not a consistent voting bloc. Starting with disastrous “Dream Team” in 2002 (Tony Sanchez for governor, John Sharp for lieutenant governor, and Ron Kirk for United States senator), Republicans have consistently won nearly 40% of the Hispanic vote in the state. In 2006, nearly 50% of Hispanic voters reported supporting either Governor Rick Perry’s reelection or Carole Keeton Strayhorn and in 2010, 38% of Hispanics voted for Governor Perry again.

While the races at the top of the ticket receive a great deal of attention, there are a lot of down-ballot races as well and the Democratic Party has been falling short on this metric as well. Quality challengers (Jacobson and Kernell 1983) are important because they have experience running campaigns and raising money and the empirical evidence is clear that these candidates often perform better than political amateurs. For example, in 6 state senate districts there was no Democratic candidate on the ballot and the average share of the vote in districts where Democrats were on the ballot was 46.8% (of course that includes the overwhelming reelection victories of Senators Kirk Watson (Austin) and Royce West (Dallas) and excluding those two elections the average Democratic share drops to 37.4%). In the state house, there were 58 districts with no Democratic candidate compared with just 42 with no Republican candidate and this limits the choices of voters and gives them little to get excited about. One of the reasons that this matters is that it deprives the Democratic Party of a bench of candidates who can gain experience and eventually consider running for statewide office. Yes, State Senators Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte stepped up in 2014, but no other prominent Democrats were willing to run for the U.S. Senate seat, Attorney General, or Comptroller of Public Accounts. The few prominent Texas Democrats who could have stepped up chose to remain in safe congressional seats (Representative Joaquin Castro) or state senate seats (State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin).

In order for parties to compete effectively and build resources they need money and manpower and this is one of the challenges Texas Democrats face. Texas is a wealthy state and serves to bankroll many campaigns and there is a great deal of money flowing out of Texas rather than being used to build the infrastructure that could help the Democratic Party compete statewide (I am grateful to Brandon Rottinghaus for pointing this out during a recent presentation at University of Houston-Victoria). This recent piece in the Texas Tribune highlights some of the expectations statewide Democrats have for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, but it is worth pointing out that even in the opening paragraph there is an expectation that volunteers expect to be sent elsewhere to mobilize voters rather than staying in Texas.

The demographics may be right, but the realities of elections reveal that Hispanics in Texas are not likely to fuel the political transformation of Texas without mobilization from political parties. The transition Democrats hope will occur is not likely to happen until Texas Democrats recruit quality candidates with the resources to run competitive campaigns and translate the potential of Hispanic votes into actual election victories. Perhaps the debates over immigration will serve as a tipping point for shifting the loyalty of Hispanic voters, much as civil rights legislation did for African-American voters. The GOP is aware of this and in the post-mortem of the 2012 election defeat, a committee wrote, “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States(i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” It is an important lesson for Republicans to heed if they want to maintain their long-term majority in Texas.

Craig Goodman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria.  He researches and teaches on U.S. politics, especially the U.S. Congress and the American presidency.

Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 14: Person-to-Person

Mad Men cover

by Linda Beail and Lilly J. Goren

This post pays particular attention to the episode itself while drawing some broader conclusions about the arc of the entire Mad Men series as it pertains to Don Draper.

“Person to Person” focuses on the themes Mad Men has spent seven seasons exploring: relationships and missed connections, invisibility, nostalgia and moving forward, creation and creativity, the value and limits of work, appearance versus reality, emotion and commodification. It’s bookended by two important clients who have defined Don’s work and the arc of Sterling Cooper over the past few seasons: we begin with Chevy, the client who saved SCPD when Don won the account and joined forces with Ted Chaough to form a new agency, Sterling Cooper & Partners, as Don is seen racing a Chevy Chevelle SS across the Bonneville Salt Flats as a test driver. And of course, the episode ends with the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” Coke advertisement. Coca-Cola was the enticing account dangled in front of Don to make SC Partners’ being subsumed into McCann-Erickson palatable. Don has been on the road, running westward away from his career, his family, and his life; but he is also still on the carousel, turning back toward the next client and next new idea, and ultimately back east if we imagine what the future likely holds for Draper.

The “person to person” of the title refers to the three important long distance calls in the episode, between Don and the most significant women in his life: his daughter Sally, his dying ex-wife Betty, and his protégé Peggy Olson. In the first, Sally tells him that her mother has lung cancer and isn’t expected to live long. Don immediately insists on coming home to reclaim his children, but Sally stops him. She says she’s thought about this more than he has, and that Bobby and Gene should stay with Henry, for the stability of being in the same home and school. “Sally, grownups make these decisions,” Don protests, but we see that Sally is the grownup now, taking over the adult responsibilities of both her parents. She is the one thinking about where her brothers should live; she gives up her trip to Spain and comes home from boarding school to talk with her brother about her mom’s death; she teaches him how to make dinner without burning it; and she is the one at the sink washing dishes as her sick mother sits at the kitchen table, still smoking. Sally’s maturity and love show in her own choice not to run away, like her father, but to care for her brothers and mother. Our final image of Sally is bittersweet: not off having the adventure (yet) that her mother predicts for her, but of sacrifice for the people she loves, taking on the responsibilities that her parents have, on occasion, shrugged off.

Don and Betty share an emotional call, in which all the feelings they’ve shared over the years are acknowledged, if barely verbalized: “Birdie,” he chokes out, and she whispers crying, “I know.” Once again, Don says he is coming home, only to have Betty yell, “You definitely are not!” She reminds him that he has created a routine in which he rarely sees his children, and she is trying to preserve normalcy for them – including his absence. Just as in the call with Sally, it is the woman who hangs up on Don, ending their conversation and connection.

The call to Peggy – later in the episode, after a drunk and devastated Don lands on the L.A. doorstep of Anna Draper’s hippie niece Stephanie and then goes with her to an Esalen-type retreat in Big Sur – has some significant differences. This time, it is Peggy who repeatedly urges Don to come home, instead of him insisting it is what he should do. Don asks where home is, and tells her, “I’m not the man you think I am.” Once again, we have circled around to the central problematic of the entire show: Who is Don Draper? Where is his home, the place where he can be himself? Peggy, the lapsed Catholic, becomes somewhat of a father confessor; when she asks him what he ever did that was so bad, he catalogues his sins to her. “I broke my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He tells her he only called because he realized he never said goodbye to her, and then in a reversal of the previous two calls, he hangs up on her.

The phone call to Peggy happens after he has heard Stephanie confess that she’s abandoned her child, a revelation he obviously can relate to. Don tells Stephanie not to listen to people who judge her for that: “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.” The scene is reminiscent of his advice to Peggy after relinquishing her own baby: “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Yet while this has been Don Draper’s philosophy throughout the show, we know it isn’t working. His westward journey began as his quest to find Diana, another mother who had abandoned her child. The previous episode opened with Don’s nightmare of being stopped on his road trip by a cop who tells him, “We’ve been looking for you. You knew we’d catch up with you.” Now Stephanie, looking him straight in the eye, tells him ruefully, “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” Indeed. The entire series has been about Dick Whitman’s reinvention of himself and the ways in which this successful reinvention haven’t stopped him from being haunted by his past. In some ways, that past has literally caught up with him (such as when Betty discovers the box of Dick Whitman personal effects and demands to know who her husband really is). But for much of the story, the truth of Don Draper’s dual identity is not the most damaging fact. Megan Draper knew the truth, and loved her husband anyway—at least for a time. When Pete blurts out the secret to Bert Cooper, Cooper doesn’t care; the charming and profitable ad man Don has turned himself into has become the reality that matters. The person most haunted by the past is Don himself, as he carries that unloved, unseen little boy from the whorehouse into every room he enters. No matter how much success he achieves, he still feels like that unwanted child who had to literally recreate himself, and hide who he is.

That’s why the scene after the phone call with Peggy, in the Esalen-like seminar group, is so powerful. As a nondescript businessman named Leonard explains his own feelings of being unseen and unmissed. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” Don stares at him, draws a surprised breath of recognition. As Leonard breaks into sobs, Don stands, crosses the circle and embraces him for a long moment, then begins to cry as well. Leonard has explained that he is not a complicated or interesting person. Don recognizes in this ordinary person, in some ways so different from the majestic and mysterious Don Draper persona, the same feelings of isolation, loneliness, and unhappiness. Perhaps he is finally able to understand his own fundamental humanity; not only his need for connection, but also his need to accept that he is worthy of it, that his strange past (or anyone else’s strange past, or lack thereof) does not make him unlovable. “I should be happier, I guess,” Leonard sighs, and it is the sigh of a nation in this decade of peace and prosperity, consumer luxuries and superpower status, but not contentment. Mad Men has always shown both the glamour and the cracks in the façade of 1960s America. In its final moments, it signals that Don has perhaps come to some understanding that his flaws can be accepted instead of run from or hidden. And perhaps there is a message there for us politically as well: not reinvention or kicking over the traces, but facing up to our imperfections without it invalidating our ideals, or our identity.

Don demonstrates a need to be free, but he has rarely discerned what kind of freedom he must have. His repeated moves to flee from his life indicates this desire for mental and physical disengagement, an embrace of freedom, but at the same time, he can rarely maintain this disengagement, and within the context of these last few episodes, even as he has headed west, he has remained tethered, at least via phone, to his children, especially Sally. He has divested himself of all his possessions by the time we end the series, he has a grocery bag with some clothes or a toothbrush, but he has remained weighed down by who he is, what he has done, as he explains his sins to Peggy. He is feeling the pressure of these sins—because that is very much how he has viewed them. We are reminded that he was “brought up on Jesus” as he notes to Stephanie that she was not, so she doesn’t know how and why people believe what they do. Even as we have seen Don pursue many, many sins, often with some abandon, he is also constrained by the morals he acquired in his youth—which, in context, were in conflict even as he was learning them (Jesus and the whorehouse). This is his struggle—he wants to be free of his conscience, which itself is confused and bifurcated by his two identities. We have come to know the Don Draper who had the freedom to recreate himself in a mythical sense—just like Jay Gatsby—but he is also hobbled by his inability to ultimately leave Dick Whitman behind. He wasn’t born fully formed, as Gatsby imagined he himself was, able to transcend his rough and humble beginnings. No matter how many times Don explains to others that one can forget the past, put it behind and move on, he is unable to do so. It comes along and trips him up, repeatedly.

A montage shows us where each of the main characters end up – Pete, Trudy, and Tammy headed to a new life in Wichita, Roger joking and remarried to Marie Calvet, Peggy happy in both work and love with Stan, Joan with her new production business in her dining room, Don standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean as the sun sets. His California dream of endless new frontiers and recreations is over. The morning sun dawns, and the yoga instructor intones, “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. New day, new ideas, a new you.” The next iteration is about to begin, as Don and the others begin to chant “Ohm.” But a smug grin breaks over his face as the chime rings, like a new idea, and suddenly we cut to the actual footage of a 1971 Coca-Cola ad produced by McCann-Erickson, featuring a multicultural cast of young people (including a girl in braids and hair ribbons exactly like the girl at the retreat reception desk) singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke. . . That’s the real thing.”

What are we to make of this ending? Presumably, Don does go “home” to work on Coca-Cola at McCann, and make one of the most successful and recognizable ads of all time. Don, the great ad man who has always insisted that love was a notion made up to sell nylons, has found a way to take counterculture optimism and community and commodify it – a great American narrative. But Don is also the great creative who has always known that selling wasn’t just about selling – it’s about making consumers feel something. It’s about nostalgia, happiness, and yes, about love. So perhaps he takes what he has learned about love and acceptance on a California cliff, and turns it into a memorable jingle on a hillside. It’s both/and: commodification and the unification of Don Draper/Dick Whitman into “perfect harmony,” the ability for them to both keep company. As Joan tells Peggy when she proposes they start their own production company, “You need two names to make it sound real.” Don has always had two names: Don Draper and Dick Whitman. When Peggy turns Joan down as a partner, Joan uses both her own names, “Holloway-Harris,” to start her company. It turns out, she alone is enough. As is Don Draper, at last.

Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015

Projecting Partisan Change Deep in the Heart of Texas

By Tiffany Cartwright Ph.D., and Tyler Young, Ed.D. candidate, Department of Political Science, Collin College

Almost every political pundit in the country has made their bet as to whether Texas will soon become a battleground state. Texas has gone for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1980. If Texas were to become a swing state, with its thirty-eight electoral votes, presidential candidates would want to start dusting off their old hats, breaking in their cowboy boots, and opening up their wallets to cover the twenty television markets in this vast state. In regards to presidential elections, the possible Republican loss of Texas’ 38 electoral votes (or 14% of what one needs to get to 270) would require the GOP to pick up the swing states of Ohio (18), Virginia (13), and Nevada (6) just to mitigate the damage of losing that one state. If Texas’ population continues to grow steadily as it has for decades, its share of the electoral college vote will only grow with it.

Figure 1. Percentage of U.S. Population Residing in Texas, source: U.S. Census Bureau Cartwright figure 1

The main contributors to the growth of the Texas population come from foreign-born Latino migrants and a steady stream of in-migration, about 200,000 people every year for the last ten years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s also worth noting that Texas currently has the third highest birth rate in the nation (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Report, 2012). By 2020, it’s estimated that the Hispanic population will be the largest demographic group in Texas. By 2050, the Hispanic population will outnumber the non-Hispanic white population by a margin of over two-to-one. These estimates are fairly conservative, as they are from the 0.5 migration scenario determined by the Texas State Demographer’s Office, which estimates that in the future, Texas will experience only half the migration it experienced from 2000-2010.

Figure 2. Texas Population Projection by Race and Ethnicity, source: Office of the Texas State Demographer Cartwright figure 2

In order to determine the future partisan make-up of Texas, we use population projection data from the Texas State Demographer’s Office and data from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune February 2015 survey, which provides us with a view of the current partisan breakdown of Texans by demographic groups. We then use that partisan breakdown to forecast partisanship trends employing the estimated changes in demographics from the population projections. This, of course, assumes that party identification within each demographic group remains the same over the next several decades, with neither party making significant inroads in attracting new voters. How well that assumption holds up would depend on the parties themselves and their willingness to adjust to future circumstances, as they are surely capable of noticing demographic trends. However, as Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002, p. 83) note, party identification does tend to be stable even over long periods of time. Even if a party were committed to expanding its base, they may not have the capacity to do so (Green, Palmquist, & Schickler, 2002, p. 228). Looking at this data, we can see that, largely because of the growth of the Hispanic population, Democrats are projected to outnumber Republicans as soon as 2020, though only by about 6%, which could make Texas a swing state in the near future. That margin is expected to grow steadily to 10% by 2050, potentially making Texas a solid blue state.

Figure 3. Projection of Partisan Identification for Texas, source: Office of the Texas State Demographer (Potter & Hoque, 2013) and the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas/Texas Tribune, February 6-16, 2015 survey cartwright figure 3

Table 1. Projection of Partisan Identification for Texas by Race and Ethnicity, source: Office of the Texas State Demographer (Potter & Hoque, 2013) and the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, February 6-16, 2015 Cartwright Table1

These trends do not necessarily indicate that we would immediately notice a change in election results. In the last few decades, reported turnout among Hispanic voters is about half that of white or black voters in Texas. It has been well established that those with more education and higher incomes are more likely to vote (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960) (Wolfinger & Rosenstone, 1980).

Figure 4. Reported Vote for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, for Texas and the United States, source: U.S. Census Bureau Cartwright figure 4

When it comes to income and education in Texas, there are still persistent gaps. In 2012, Hispanic families in Texas earned just 52% of what white families did (Jillson, 2015, p. 104), and poverty rates among Hispanic families were over three times that of white families (Jillson, 2015, p. 110). While about 91% of whites in Texas have a high school diploma, that number is only 57% amongst Hispanics (Jillson, 2015, p. 138). SAT and ACT scores in Texas have shown to be consistently higher among white students than among Hispanic students (Jillson, 2015, pp. 140-141). The positive news on the educational front is that these gaps have been closing, though for now, it may suggest that voter turnout rates could struggle to gain momentum. This could only increase the importance of voter registration drives and “get out the vote” efforts on behalf of both parties. That being said, even low turnout rates among a very large population of Hispanic voters in Texas could be felt very soon in presidential elections, which might push the GOP to reconsider its current issue positions, messaging, and voter outreach strategies if it wants to have a chance of winning presidential elections in the future. One point that has been missing from this discussion is the important role that women could play. According to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune February 2015 survey, about 47% of Texas women identify with the Democratic Party, 44% with the Republican Party, and about 9% as independents. Compare this to about 40% of men who identify as Democrats, 47% as Republicans, and 9% as independents. This gender gap in Texas is consistent with the persistent national partisan gender gap (Box-Steffensmeier, De Boef, & Lin, 2004), and it becomes more significant because, since the 1984 presidential election, there has been a growing gap in the reported turnout rates of men and women. While the Democratic Party may not see immediate returns at the ballot box from the growth of the Hispanic population in Texas, the growing gender gap would lean more in their favor since, like everything else, the gender gap is bigger in Texas.

Figure 5. Reported Vote by Gender, for Texas and the United States, source: U.S. Census Bureau Cartwright figure 5

Let’s not forget that Texas Democrats have not won a statewide election in over twenty years. For Texas to turn blue, there would need to be a significant shift rather than just another partisan realignment, and it appears that shift is coming in the form of substantial demographic change.

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen: The Milk and Honey Route

Mad Men cover

by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren

Where and how will Dick Whitman next reinvent himself, with that sly grin on his face, looking out at the horizon, sitting at the bus stop? The “milk and honey route” of this episode’s title is a hobo term for a railroad running through a valley of plenty where hobos were likely to find more food or help, according to 1920s sociologist Nels Anderson. Anderson cautions that what might be a “milk and honey route” for a young kid might be the opposite for another, older hobo, and that is certainly true in this episode. While Pete Campbell is “on a streak,” according to Duck Phillips, and young Andy the Oklahoma grifter ends up with a free Cadillac, other travelers are not so lucky. A bruised and battered Don sits alone at the side of the road, while Betty gets news that her studies and her life are about to be cut short by advanced-stage lung cancer, and Sally weeps over her mother’s parting instructions in her dorm room.

Most of this episode takes place in tertiary locations: at Trudy’s house, at Betty’s house, in doctor’s offices, at the university, at restaurants, and hotels, and motels. Don’s apartment is gone, he has ditched McCann-Erickson, and we learn from Pete that he had to “clean up” after Don left town/left McCann-Erickson. As Pete said to Duck Phillips, upon meeting him on the elevator, “Are you here to hire Don’s replacement” to which Duck responded that he had done it before. Don, apparently, is replaceable. The series is coming to an end and familiar haunts that we know, as an audience, are no longer intact.

This episode was an interesting choice for Mother’s Day. Now we also know why Betty and Henry remained so woven into the narrative of Mad Men, in part because Betty remained the mother of Don’s children, but also because we now know what will happen to Betty, she is going to die, just like her mother did. Leaving Henry bereft, as he weeps in Sally’s dorm room, with three children, none of whom are his biological relatives. In an ironic twist, Don’s children end up much like Don did, living with caretaker parents who are not their blood relatives.

We learn of Betty’s fate after she falls on the staircase going to her class, and turns out to have metastasized lung cancer. As has happened so many times before, she is a bystander even at this crucial moment of her life: the emergency room doctor refuses to tell her what’s wrong until she calls her husband, and a second opinion doctor outlines the prognosis speaking directly to Henry while Betty sits apart from them in the shadows, passively listening to these men debate her fate. However, Betty then claims some agency. When she refuses treatment, Henry claims that it is because she is “stubborn” or “vain,” and Sally thinks it’s because Betty loves the tragedy. But Betty has a different rationale, proving herself a more complicated character than the narcissistic doll they think she is. She tells Sally that she watched her own mother die, and won’t do that to her: “I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.” The next morning, Henry wonders why in the world Betty is planning to go off to class as usual. “Why was I ever doing it?,” Betty responds with a smile and a kiss. Perhaps this is a nod to her decision to live her life as fully on her own terms as possible, for as long as possible. But perhaps it is also the show’s nod to how we all live our lives, full of our daily routines and plans, while time ticks away and we are all dying, whether aware of it or not. It may also be a nod to the audience, as Betty is following Don’s cynical comments from the pilot episode, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, when he tells Rachel Menken that “you’re born alone and you die alone and there are a bunch of rules that get dropped on your head. I am living like there is no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” Would we change how we live if we knew our days were so finitely numbered as Betty? And if so – are we truly living them now?

Back as boarding school, Sally opens the letter from her mother and reads the practical instructions for the dress and lipstick Betty wants to be buried in – so very centered on appearances to the end. But Betty also leaves her daughter a parting word of acceptance and affirmation: “I always worried about you because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you.” Their epic mother-daughter struggles are both truncated and healed, as Betty acknowledges and bridges the chasm between them, a gap due both to their idiosyncratic personalities, but also to this decade of changing feminine norms and possibilities. But Betty won’t leave Sally as unmoored as Betty felt when her mother passed away, Sally is on firmer ground even as her home life has become, over the years, far less traditional than was Betty’s.

Through a series of encounters with the headhunting Duck Phillips, Pete Campbell is tricked into what turns out to be a job interview with Learjet. Though Pete is honest in his protests that he isn’t looking for another job, his demurral becomes leverage for negotiating an amazing deal, to rival his package at McCann. Ultimately, Pete takes the position with Learjet, where he will be working with the Connie Hiltons and other members of the country’s actual power elite who remained so elusive to him during much of his time at Sterling Cooper. Learjet is looking for the kind of person who is comfortable among these titans of industry—Pete’s pedigree and quiet charm this time works to his advantage, given that just weeks ago Pete’s family and pedigree were distinct detriments to getting Tammy into the elite Connecticut kindergarten. Pete is also seen being a more involved father to Tammy, soothing a bee sting with toothpaste and promising to take her to Friendly’s for dinner. He reproaches his brother Bud for cheating on his wife, a behavior both brothers learned from their father but now realize they may want to change: “I think it feels good, and then it doesn’t.”

One of the themes of this episode is remembering and forgetting. Pete goes to Trudy’s house at four a.m., begging her to come with him to his new job in Wichita at Learjet so they can be a family again. Early on in the episode, Trudy told a friend that she has been trying to forget things (from her marriage with Pete) so as not to poison their daughter against him, and she revisits this when Pete asks her to come to a client dinner with him for old times’ sake. “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental over the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were,” she tartly replies. Yet when he makes his pre-dawn plea to start over, claiming he has always loved her and that he isn’t dumb enough to take her love for granted anymore, her protest that some things can’t be undone dissolves into passionate kisses and agreement.

Pete seems genuine in his claim that he’s learned to stop always looking for something better or different. But is this truly a happy ending for these two, riding off in the sunrise to Wichita? He promises Trudy that part of the allure of the move is that they’ll have a plane at their disposal, to pick up and go anywhere, anytime they want – so the wanderlust so endemic to the characters in this show is still very present in Pete, as he says in trying to sell Trudy on their reunion, “I want to go everywhere with you.” And when Trudy asks how they will explain their reunion to their daughter, Pete whispers, “Tell her her birthday wish came true.” Is this new beginning simply childish wish fulfillment, the stuff of fairytales and dreams, more than the reality that Trudy knows can’t be fully forgotten or undone? Pete tells Trudy “we are entitled to something new. I want to start over and I know I can.” After all, as he paints the picture of their future, he tells her that “Wichita is beautiful. And wholesome.” Pete finally understood how much he cared for and loved Trudy. And, unlike Don, there is only one version of Pete—he just wants to start over as the better version of himself, and he is persuaded that Wichita, and Trudy and Tammy can help him sustain this recreated, better version of himself.

Yet the other arc of this episode, the Don Draper road trip that has stalled quite near Wichita, in a small Oklahoma-Kansas border town, tugs at the threads of Dick Whitman’s story. And the deceptive, violent locals there disabuse Don – and us – of any sentimental notion of America’s heartland as uniformly beautiful or wholesome. Here Don is straddling the divide between Whitman and Draper, and the deception comes back again in Don’s interactions with these strangers who initially give him “comfort”. Don Draper stands out in Alva, Oklahoma, but Dick Whitman would have fit in much more comfortably. The tension behind Don’s mask comes through when he pointedly keeps his face obscured from the fellow Korean vet at the American Legion dinner, afraid that his deception might be found out. Don, “lighting out for the territories” once again, is toggling between his two identities, not always conscious that the image that he projects is of a wealthy city slicker, even as he may think that he is in familiar terrain among rural, Midwestern Americans.

One after another, the people of Alva, Oklahoma reveal themselves to be untrustworthy. At the motel, young Andy cons Don out of $20 to bring him some whiskey. The motel owner’s wife tells Don his car will get fixed all right, but he will be overcharged. The motel owner admits, “I know we seem like fine people, but I’ve been a little dishonest” after inviting Don to an American Legion event that turns out to be a fundraiser. He wheedles Don into contributing, then pulling out an additional bill. Don is wary throughout the evening, trying to avoid talking about his own service in Korea, but after the vets comment several times about how he hasn’t said anything, they tell him that he’s not allowed to say he doesn’t want to talk about it with them – he is among friends, other soldiers who have seen and done terrible things. After one WWII veteran tells a harrowing story about killing four Germans who were trying to surrender (and presumably eating them, as he and his two fellow soldiers were starving), Don blurts out his own darkest secret: that he killed his commanding officer in Korea.   That gives all the drunken vets a moment’s pause, but after explaining how the explosion blew up the real Donald Draper, Don concludes, “And I got to go home.” “That is the name of the game,” one responds, clapping him on the shoulder, and they call for more booze while singing a rousing, drunken rendition of “Over There.” So much is being examined in this scene – patriotism, cowardice, what brave Americans actually fight for in desperate moments of actual warfare, whether this “band of brothers” can be trusted or whether they will cannibalize one another. When these same men break into his motel room later that night, accusing him of stealing the funds raised, beating him in the head and taking his car keys, those bonds of camaraderie seem flimsy and false.

Don realizes that the real thief is the small-time con artist Andy, who works at the motel, and attacks him when he shows up the next day. He tells him to return the money: “If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is.” Again, echoing the reality that we have learned about Don/Dick throughout the series. Once the money is returned to the surly motel owner, Don heads out of town, but agrees to give his fellow grifter/hobo Andy a ride to the bus stop. When they pull up, Don kills the engine and flips the keys to a stunned Andy with the admonition: “Don’t waste this.” The Cadillac speeds away and the episode ends with Don sitting alone at the bus stop, grinning, as Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays. Don passes along a chance at escape and reinvention, and ends up with only his paper bag of possessions, stripped of marriage, family, job, apartment and now even that most American of necessities, a car.   Betty told Sally that knowing when to move on is a gift, and Pete’s attempt to move on with Trudy is like a birthday wish coming true. Don is moving on as well – but will his route yield milk and honey?

Stray observations:

*The Learjet CEO, Mike Sherman, made mention of Pete’s capacity to rap his ring on the table and essentially announce the arrival of the company. The ring rapping on the table was an interesting reference—since the most proximate ring rapper in our current cultural landscape is Francis Underwood on House of Cards. Perhaps there is a connection to the likes of Pete Campbells of the early 1970s corporate arena with the Frank Underwoods who would dominate in fiction (and perhaps in some form of fact) the political landscape forty years hence.

*In this episode, Pete’s secretary Sarah is played by Matthew Weiner’s wife, Linda Brettler.

*The narrative arc that we have yet to see sewn together at all over the past six episodes is the friendship between Don and Peggy. Peggy arrives at McCann-Erickson, hung-over, at the end of Lost Horizon. But we don’t hear anything from Pete about her work, her accounts, or how she is doing—while we learn about others from Pete in his conversations with Duck. While Peggy’s swaggering arrival at McCann last week might be the last we see of her, the relationship and friendship that she and Don have shared over the course of the decade has been distinctly absent in these final six episodes. There has been much that was unexpected throughout these final episodes (Diana, Betty’s cancer, Diana, the million dollar check, Diana…), the narrative that provided those poignant moments between Don and Peggy—from the interaction between the two of them as they first meet and when we first meet them in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, to the “all-nighter” in The Suitcase, to “don’t be a stranger” with Peggy’s departure from SCDP, to their dance to Sinatra’s “My Way”—has not really had Don and Peggy share much of a conversation over the course of these final episodes. They have had nominal interactions, and Peggy’s irritation with Don when she wants a real performance review, but little more. Perhaps they won’t have more than that dance as the series draws to a close—where they might reconnect remains amorphous, as the places where they usually encounter each other are changed or gone.

Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.

What Can We Learn from 10.1 Million Facebook Users? “It’s Complicated.”

by Thomas Leeper

Earlier this week, Science published an article (ungated) by researchers at Facebook and the University of Michigan School of Information that was apparently sufficiently newsworthy enough to have merited immediate press attention in The New York Times. It’s also apparently sufficiently controversial to have earned a simultaneously published commentary in Science by David Lazer, a detailed rebuttal from Zeynep Tufekci, a line-by-line breakdown by Christian Sandvig, and a brief, but well-circulated critique by Eszter Hargittai.

The Science article that started it all notes in its abstract its major punchline: “Compared to algorithmic ranking, individuals’ choices about what to consume had a stronger effect limiting exposure to cross-cutting content.” In short, human behavior does more to create ideological echo chambers than the News Feed algorithm Facebook uses to display things it thinks you – as the user – might like to see.

What’s at-stake in this debate and why do we care?

The study, in brief, examined the behavior of 10.1 million Facebook users who publicly disclosed their ideological affiliation in their Facebook profile. Specifically, it looked at links shared by these users during a six-month period between July 2014 and January 2015. Some filtering was applied to reduce the number of links being analyzed to only those shared by several users, and the resulting data were classified as “hard” or “soft” news using pretty standard machine learning techniques, and links were scored ideologically based on the affiliations of the users who shared them (e.g., links shared disproportionately by liberals were scored as liberal, etc.). There are probably two main findings. First, conservatives and especially liberals are less likely to be exposed to cross-cutting news articles than would be expected by a random social network (i.e., liberals tend to have friends that don’t share conservative content). Second, while News Feed ranking reduces opportunities cross-cutting exposure, the authors estimate that conditional on News Feed position, liberals and conservatives both still engage in ideologically congruent selective exposure (and they argue this effect of individual choice is larger than the effect of the algorithm).

To put this in some broader perspective, the study speaks to an enormous literature on the notion of selective exposure and the concern that there are echo chambers, especially in American society, especially in the post-broadcast period, and especially online. Cass Sunstein has written a widely circulated book about it. Eli Pariser has a book about algorithmic personalization. Natalie Jomini Stroud has a book on it related to television selective exposure. Diana Mutz has written about it in the broader context of political deliberation. There are 3 million articles on the topic on Google Scholar. It’s a big debate that, in short, relates to the relatively widely held belief that cross-cutting political exposure is good for democracy or, at least, living in a political echo chamber might be democratically problematic.

So, if this study contributes just one additional piece of information to such a large, well-established scientific literature, why is it so controversial? Arguably, The New York Times picked it up because it involves two things that are “hot”: Facebook studying its users, and “big data” – 10.1 million individuals observed over 3.8 billion potential opportunities for media exposure to 226,000 different news stories. The study is unrelated to but gets to earn the public profile inherited from a Facebook experiment from 2014 that I’ve written about previously.

But beyond it being high profile, why is it controversial?

Tufekci’s critique, which is representative of critiques I’ve seen, has two major points. One relates to the apparent effect of individual selectivity, and the other relates to the sample under examination. First, Tufekci focuses on results in the paper’s appendix. Specifically, a finding that a new story positioned first in one’s News Feed is clicked about 20% of the time, but the likelihood of clicking drops exponentially and consistently for liberals and conservatives, and for congruent and cross-cutting exposure. Cross-cutting items are clicked less, regardless of position, but the rate of decline determined by News Feed position is consistent across news types. The paper does note that its reported findings are conditional – i.e., conditional on News Feed position, cross-cutting items are clicked less.

My read of Tufekci’s critiques is that she confounds the interaction between users’ interactions with the News Feed stream itself, and the algorithm that displays posts on the feed. This is an important distinction. The News Feed is a stream (like Twitter, or many other social media services). She points to a figure in the paper’s Appendix (Figure S5) that shows the likelihood of clicking on a story depending on its position on the feed. Here’s the figure:

fb1

It shows a precipitous decline in click rates as News Feed position increases. Many critics interpret this as meaning that the News Feed algorithm has an enormous effect on selective exposure. That is an incorrect interpretation, however. The paper defines the effect of the algorithm as whether a story is displayed on the News Feed at all. If one were to simply sit with Facebook open, refreshing the page periodically, posts would move down the webpage. That pattern shows that the inevitable progress of time has an enormous effect on what is clicked by users, but that is not the same as the effect of filtering by the algorithm. These users avoided content that is “old” but that is not the effect of the News Feed’s algorithm. The paper is concerned with whether the agorithm prevents posts from being shown on the News Feed at all, not what the effect of time-dependent streaming is. And rightly so. Th effect of the time is rather boring and unsurprising – users don’t click on old stories “below the fold.” No surprise there.This is such an important point that I would have been inclined to include an additional figure (S7) from the Appendix in the body of the paper:

fb2

This figure shows that among individuals in the sample who had at least one cross-cutting article shared by a friend, over 95% of those articles were shown in the News Feed but less than 60% of those articles were clicked on. This is really a key figure for their results. Filtering performed by the algorithm removes almost no aligned content and removes a tiny percentage of cross-cutting content. Users’ choices among the displayed content determines most of what is actually clicked on. This is the paper’s core claim and the above graph shows that incredibly clearly.Related to all of this, Tufekci says that trying to compare the effect of the News Feed algorithm and the effect of individual choice is an apples and oranges comparison: “I cannot remember a worse apples to oranges comparison I’ve seen recently, especially since these two dynamics, algorithmic suppression and individual choice, have cumulative effects.” Given that the paper reports effects of users’ choice, conditional on exposure in the News Feed, I do not see how pointing out the cumulative nature of the effects is a relevant criticism.It’s not a representative sample!

Tufekci’s second major point (and one also made by others, especially Sandvig) criticizes the study’s sample: namely, the sample consists of self-identified ideologues who regularly use Facebook, thus consistuting about 4% of the total Facebook population ratehr than a randomly selected sample. This is the same issue taken up in Hargittai’s critique. She says “Sampling is crucial to social science questions since biased samples can have serious implications for a study’s findings. In particular, it is extremely important that the sampling methodology be decoupled from the substantive questions of interest in the study. In this case, if you are examining engagement with political content, it is important that sampling not be based on anything related to users’ engagement with politics. However, that is precisely how sampling was done here.”

An aside: via Twitter, Deen Freelon describes this as sampling on the dependent variable, which is a cardinal sin in the social sciences. Sampling on the dependent variable means only studying cases where the outcome phenomenon of interest occurs. In this study, that would mean only studying those who looked at cross-cutting stories or only those who didn’t. That’s not what happened, so that critique is incorrect. The study may have sampled people that may be more or less likely to engage in selective exposure than some other group(s) of individuals, but no sin has been committed.

The actual concern expressed by Tufekci and Hargittai is that the results of the study hinge on the sample (i.e., a different sample would have produced different results). This is, of course, true: different samples often produce distinct results and a sample that is not representative of the population should not be assumed (a priori and without an explicit model of generalization) to produce results that are unbiased estimates of population quantities of interest. The issue with this line of criticism is that it doesn’t change anything. The authors of the study are explicit about who is in the study and in all likelihood a random sample would not have been feasible because their measure of ideology (which is the crucial variable in the analysis) is unobserved for the vast majority of users. While this means that their sample may be different from the Facebook user population as a whole, that isn’t important for their research findings as they relate to this sample, it is only important for attempts to generalize their results to particular other groups. In this case, it is not obvious that the authors intend to generalize to other groups – maybe they do, maybe they don’t, they’re not really clear on the question. Thus the critics are holding the study to a different standard than the authors intend. (There is some problematic language in the conclusion that I discuss below.)

Hargittai offers a stronger series of rhetorical questions: “And why does Science publish papers that make such claims without the necessary empirical evidence to back up the claims? Can publications and researchers please stop being mesmerized by large numbers and go back to taking the fundamentals of social science seriously?” I think that she and I must read scientific literature in very different ways. She seems to be concerned that the rhetoric of the paper is important to the accumulation of scientific knowledge. I read the paper in terms of its data and analysis only. How the paper is written is largely irrelevant to our cumulative understanding of selective exposure. What matters is how large the effect of individual choice seems to be and the paper suggests that effect is modestly large and larger than the automated selection of content performed by the News Feed algorithm. While I would hesitate to give authors broad license to claim whatever they want, as a scientist I also know not to interpret anything anyone writes anywhere as definitive truth (be it in on Twitter, on a blog, or in a peer-reviewed journal article). We cannot accumulate knowledge about political and social processes by just talking about them, we need actual data and while this study has very clear limitations, it also offers a lot of data on a very specific question that will be helpful for future research moving forward.

But don’t we know all this already?

One of Tufekci’s smaller criticisms is that these “Researchers then replicate and confirm a well-known, uncontested and long-established finding which is that people have a tendency to avoid content that challenges their beliefs.” I would argue that we don’t know that very well. While there is an enormous literature on selective exposure, studies find a range of different effect sizes (and directions) related to selective exposure, in part because the concept of exposure is extremely difficult to measure. Most of this research is based on self-reported survey data that must be read with incredible caution; another body of literature is based on laboratory experiments that have to be read with caution, as well. This study involves direct observation of real-world behavior on a massive scale. That’s very informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily tell us about the typical Facebook user or behavior outside of Facebook.

So, this is a great study then?

No. It’s worth highlighting that I did not love this paper. It said a lot in the 4500 words allowed by Science, but Tufekci is right to point out that a lot of important material is in the Appendix. Here are some things the authors could have done differently:

– The conclusion could have reiterated the sample restrictions that they described in the paper’s second paragraph. In 4500 words, I’m not sure that’s necessary but it would have probably helped assuage concerns about intended generalizations.
– Figure 3A is confusing. It tries to show the size of different contributions to exposure, but it’s not immediately obvious what is going on so it fails as an effective visualization.
– The paper (or its Appendix) should have included some descriptive statistics on how the sample compared to the overall Facebook population and the U.S. adult population (or U.S. internet population) as a whole. Relevant measures here would have been frequency of site use, frequency of sharing, liking, and clicking on news stories, as well as demographics. These data would have likely assuaged some concerns about sample representativeness.
– I worry about two aspects of measurement validity. One relates to people misrepresenting their ideology. If I am a very politically liberal (or very politically conservative), I may find it – if I have a particular sense of humor – amusing to characterize myself as something other than my true political identity. I would want to be cautious that this phenomenon isn’t too prevalent. The other relates to the measure of “content alignment” used to infer selectivity. The paper could be clearer (perhaps through text analysis of comments attached to shares) whether users are sharing posts that they agree or disagree with, and the relative prevalence of each type of behavior.
– The figure that Tufekci cites (Figure S5) from the paper’s appendix is nice and I would have tried to fit it in the body of the paper (but I also would have extended the y-axis to range from 0% to 100% to show how unlikely anyone is to click on anything they see on Facebook).
– The paper’s final paragraph says “we conclusively establish.” I hate the word “conclusively” because nothing in science is conclusive, so I would have left that out.
– The paper’s final sentence says “Regardless, our work suggests that the power to expose oneself to perspectives from the other side in social media lies first and foremost with individuals.” I’m assuming the authors mean to attribute this “power” to both the mechanism of selective exposure *and* the mechanism of constructing a homophilous social network. They probably should have been clearer about their meaning there.

Another final point – the research was funded and produced by Facebook, so it could be argued that it written in service to Facebook’s PR strategy. That may be true. The authors say that it was not. I think we have to take them at their word unless any evidence suggests otherwise. Is it problematic for organizations to research themselves? No. I would much rather have an organization so central to American (and global) life as Facebook at least publish some of their research through mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific channels. If your view is that Facebook will only publish research that casts itself in a particular light, then update your priors accordingly in light of new data. If your view is that Facebook is unbiased in allowing its researchers to conduct and publish research, then update your priors otherwise. Most importantly, do not assume that others share your priors or interpret evidence the same way. Such are the complications of the scientific process.

This was an interesting study. I liked reading about it. The critics raise some important points, but most of those relate to how the authors think the results should be intepreted and are not criticisms that run to the core of the research itself. I am glad this study was published. Thus, I think it’s fundamentally problematic to insinuate – as Nathan Jurgenson has on Twitter – that the paper’s publication was not subject to a standard review process, without evidence to that effect, and to criticize Science for publishing the research and Facebook for allowing it to be disseminated. Simply because you do not like the conclusion or interpretation of a piece of research, does not mean that it wasn’t subjected to peer review or that it wasn’t worth publishing. The concerns raised by critics are largely editorial and stylistic, not scientific.

But, Jurgenson also has a good point: journalists ran with this story. That’s unfortunate to some extent. I’ve always wished that journalists would only report the results of systematic reviews, so as to avoid the perpetual coffee/wine/chocolate/running/soda/etc. kills you/saves you back-and-forth. Of course, we can’t prevent journalists from reporting what they want to report, but we – as educators – can try to more to suggest they critically interpret and report on scientific research. And that should be the takeaway here.

* In the interest of complete transparency about potential conflicts of interest, here are some disclosures. I know the study’s second author Solomon Messing, having met him several times at political science conferences. Eszter Hargittai is a professor at my PhD alma mater and we met several times due to her current and my past affiliation with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. I don’t know the other authors or other scholars I reference. I have written previously about research by Facebook data scientists. I have never received funding from Facebook nor have I ever had any formal or informal relationship with the company, though I have an account on the site.

Thomas Leeper earned his PhD from Northwestern University. He is currently a Postdoc in the Institut for Statskundskab at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. In September 2015, he will join the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science as an Assistant Professor in Political Behaviour. 

Meeting Jim Wright

by Matthew Green

Twelve years ago I wrote a letter to former Speaker Jim Wright, asking for an interview. I was a graduate student working on my dissertation about the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Barbara Sinclair had suggested that I talk to Wright.

Sinclair, a fearless interviewer, had plenty of experience talking with lawmakers. By contrast, I had done few interviews with political elites and none with a speaker, past or present. However, since I was planning on going to Texas to do archival research, I figured it was worth a try. So I sent the letter.

About a week later, my phone rang. “Hello,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “This is Jim Wright calling.”

I was taken aback. On the off chance I’d actually get a response, I assumed an assistant would contact me. Instead, Wright had called me himself.

We scheduled a date for me to visit him at Texas Christian University, where he taught and where his personal papers were stored. And, on the appointed day, I found myself nervously facing him in his TCU office, asking about his time as speaker and how he perceived the leadership role of the speakership.

Wright had aged considerably since he was in Congress, and his speech was somewhat slurred due to cancer surgery. But he was engaging and insightful and his memory was sharp. Wright’s humility and candor, which I had first glimpsed in his unexpected phone call, gradually put me at ease.

During the interview Wright provided some of the best quotes in my dissertation and subsequent book. He insisted that then-speaker Tip O’Neill had fought hard to defeat President Reagan’s 1981 budget bill, and that if O’Neill had covertly let it pass (as some believed) then O’Neill “left me out on a damn limb.” And Wright noted that a central duty of the speaker is to defend Congress, because “if he doesn’t do it, who’s going to?”

My interactions with the former speaker did not end with the interview. Wright invited me to lunch with Jim Riddlesperger and some other TCU colleagues. Later that day, as I was combing through Wright’s papers, he popped in to see if I had found what I was looking for. He even gave me a ride back to my hotel, pointing out features of the neighborhood along the way.

The cynical side of me wondered if he was being kind in the hopes I would write positive things about his speakership. But Wright was honest with me and spoke frankly about his mistakes as well as his successes. And I couldn’t help but be charmed by him. I started to understand how this charismatic man had managed to move up the House leadership ladder to become one of the country’s most powerful constitutional officers.

There have been a number of obituaries of Wright, the best in my opinion being David Hawkings’ piece in Roll Call. Many of them emphasize Wright’s missteps as speaker and how Newt Gingrich helped topple him from office. But that was only part of the man’s life and career, and few mention the personal qualities I observed: forthrightness, generosity, and intellectual curiosity.

Regardless, I’ll always be grateful to Jim Wright for sharing his time with me, teaching me about the speakership, and showing me how to live one’s twilight years with grace and purpose.

Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership (2010) and, most recently, Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives (2015).