"I Want to Be a Part of It. . . "

November 9, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston
“Who voted?” I asked in class today. One student. And this was in New Jersey where the race for Senate looked to be close enough that your vote might have made a difference. One. The others were too busy.

I voted. I live in New York, where none of the races was going to be close. I knew my vote didn’t mean a thing. But I voted. I wonder why. Not out of civic duty or a belief that my vote will influence policy or any of those other reasons you learn in school.

Why do I vote, I asked myself. Then I remembered that “why” is the wrong question. Start with the other “reporter’s” questions – who, what, where, when, how. Get good answers to those, and you’ll be much closer to answering why.

What do I do when I vote; where and how do I do it?

I live in New York City. In my precinct, you vote an old building in a drab room with dull lighting and a coffee-stained linoleum floor. Usually, people are waiting in line, most of them people you’ve never seen, but you chat and joke with them. The voting booths and machines are the old kind with a curtain —an old piece of canvas that if you thought about or looked at closely you wouldn’t want to spend too much time touching. Inside the both is the machine. You push the big lever to the right, then you flip down the little levers beside the candidates’ names, then you pull the lever back to the left, and that’s it.

Every time I do it, I think – and sometimes I make this comment to the person next to me in line– that these are probably the same machines people voted on to elect LaGuardia mayor in 1934.

As I was thinking about this now, I realized that I felt good about this whole scene. I liked it. I liked the dirty floors, I liked standing there with these strangers. I liked it because even though we were strangers, even though we might be voting for different people (not really all that likely in my precinct), we were all there together as New Yorkers. I liked thinking that I was connected with New Yorkers and New York elections going back to Fiorello (who, by the way, was dead long before I ever set foot in the city). It’s the sense of being part of something that I want to be part of.

I was talking about this with a friend, and he had the same reaction. He said that when he votes, it always takes him back to the first time he voted. It was the Oregon Democratic primary in 1968. He voted for Bobby Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy didn’t win in Oregon, McCarthy did. But a couple of weeks later, Kennedy went to California, and on the night that he won that primary, he was assassinated. My friend’s point is that his vote then connected him with an event of historical importance. And now when he votes, he still feels he’s connecting to history.

I think that’s why I vote and why my students don’t. Older people feel more of a connection to history. I know I feel that connection much more now than when I was in my twenties.

But the larger point is that voting is not a rational act, or at least not completely and not always. It’s not a logical means towards some specific goal (like putting the people you like in office). It’s more about how you feel. If you don’t feel connected to the dominant institutions and the history of the country, come election day there will be something else
you feel emotionally closer to, and you’ll probably be “too busy” to vote.

The Old Rugged Cross Pressure

November 6, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I don’t know if Paul Lazarsfeld (1901-1976) invented survey research and applied sociology, but he was certainly one of the most important figures in those fields. Everyone who does voter surveys today owes Lazarsfeld, big time. As we go into tomorrow’s election, I keep wondering about the Republican “base,” the Christian conservatives or conservative Christians, the “values voters” who have provided the Republicans not just votes but much of the campaign work force. And I keep remembering Lazarfeld’s concept of “cross pressures,” something he developed back in the 1940s.

Lazarsfeld thought you could make a pretty good prediction about how someone would vote if you knew about certain demographic markers — income, occupation, religion, urban or small town, etc. Often, these characteristics tended to cluster, especially in the 1940s with the dominance of the Roosevelt coalition. But what about the person who belonged to groups that pulled in different ways — the small-town Protestant (Republican pressure) who had a blue-collar union job (Democratic pressure)? Lazarsfeld’s answer was that these voters tend make up their minds later in the campaign, and sometimes they resolve their conflict by just not voting at all.
The conflict for the conservative base today is not so much between group affiliations or demographic categories but between image and reality. They have supported the war in Iraq, but more and more the reality in Iraq makes the war seem to have been a bad idea. They support the President and they support the military. But they may also hear that many generals and the military newspapers want Rumsfeld to resign while Bush wants Rumsfeld to stay. These conservatives are against sex outside of marriage, especially when it involves minors or homosexuals or both. But each week seems to bring some new scandal about homosexuality or infidelity, and the perpetrators and their protectors are Republicans.

Obviously, the Republican leadership is worried about these pressures and about the response that Lazarsfeld would predict
— staying home on election day. From the top of party on down, GOP professionals are trying to make sure that their traditional voters come out. It’s not about converting Democrats or persuading the Independents and undecided. It’s about making sure that the hard core keep the faith, that they do not give in to cross pressures and just avoid the voting booth.
The election is no longer about issues; it’s about turnout. And that’s what a lot of people — the politicos, the network analysts, me — are going to be looking at tomorrow.

Cheating the Executioner

November 5, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston

Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death today. No doubt, he will be under close watch to make sure that he does not kill himself.

It’s called “cheating the executioner.” It's a phrase you hear when a murderer shoots himself just as the cops are closing in on him. Or when a prisoner on death row dies of some disease while his case is still pending. It cropped up in the news two weeks ago wnen a death-row prisoner in Texas, Michael Johnson, committed suicide the day before he was to be executed. He cut his own throat and used the blood to write “I didn’t do it” on his cell wall.

The headline in the Washington Times (the online version at least) was “Death Row Inmate Cheats Executioner,” and some other papers had similar wording. That headline, along with the reported detail that death-row inmates are checked on every fifteen minutes, tells us a lot about the real reasons for the death penalty, and they are not the ones usually given.

One rationale for the death penalty is that it saves innocent lives. It deters other potential murderers, and it “incapacitates” the executed murderer so that he can’t kill again. In reality, there’s not a lot of convincing data to support the idea that executions have any impact on murder rates. But most death-penalty supporters base their opinions not on the practical effects of executins but on principles of justice and morality: a person who commits a horrible crime does not “deserve” to live. It’s a matter of right and wrong, and regardless of the impact on future murders, it would be wrong to let him live.

If the criminal’s death were the central issue, as it is in these three rationales, it wouldn’t matter how he died; he would still have been removed from society. So we are not looking at a simple rational process. The irrationality is clear in the standard death-row procedure of the 15-minute suicide watch. If the guards had caught Mr. Johnson in time, the best medical help would have been called and no effort spared to save his life. Then, weeks or months later, when he had recovered, the state would kill him.

Why does the state go to such extraordinary lengths —checking every fifteen minutes— to make sure that some condemned man doesn’t pull a fast one and kill himself. Why, when death comes by suicide or cancer rather than execution, do some people feel “cheated”? What were they cheated of?

The answer is clear. The death-row suicide deprives them of only one thing: the chance to inflict the punishment themselves via their representative the executioner. The importance of the execution is not the effect it has on the criminal — that effect is the same regardless of the cause of death — but its effect on society, on those who carry out the execution. It allows them to dramatize that they and their morality are in control. It draws a clear line, with “us” on the good side and the criminal on the other.

This is the logic behind President Bush’s characterizing the 9/11 bombers as “cowards.” It was not only that they killed unsuspecting civilians. They also cheated us of the privilege of trying and executing them, of showing them who was boss and who was right. The trial, sentence, and execution would have drawn that line between us and them, between good and evil, a line which the president and many other Americans desperately wanted to draw. No doubt, many Iraqis— and Americans— will feel the same way about Saddam.
By executing the criminal, the “good” people confirm their own virtue. Any other form of death cheats them of this occasion to feel good about themselves and secure in their morality.

Can We Talk?

November 1, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston


The news today is that North Korea has agreed to sit down in talks about their nuclear bomb. North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved, probably because China was threatening to cut off his oil.

North Korea isn’t the only country we won’t talk to directly. Syria, Iran, maybe others. As with North Korea, if we’re going to communicate with them at all, we need other countries as intermediaries to relay the messages.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine our ambassador turning to the Chinese representative and saying, “You tell North Korea that we aren’t going to give it any food unless they stop making bombs.” China turns to North Korea, just as my mother turned to my brother, and repeats the same message. North Korea says to China, “Yeah, well you tell the US . . . .” and so on. That’s pretty much what these countries have been doing anyway, though without actually sitting down in the same room.

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.

(Full disclosure: I think I may be borrowing — i.e., stealing— this observation from something I heard Philip Slater say many years ago.)