Category Archives: Contemporary Politics

Were Baby Boomers the First Demographic Wave of Electoral Malaise?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

When the first wave of baby boomers turned 18, it marked a turning point in American youth voter disaffection. But more on the baby boomers in a moment.

My previous post suggested that those of us who are both eligible to vote and actually vote in the United States … well, we aren’t talking seriously about who’s not voting and why it matters to all of us.

The Pew Center released survey results shortly before the November 4th elections, providing some helpful information about “non-voter demographics.” The Pew Center’s study is available here and I’ve embedded one of the report summary slides at right. The results overwhelmingly show that a large minority of American citizens who are struggling to make it economically, who feel alienated from community or economic institutional structures that the majority of citizens enjoy … well, that experience of everyday alienation translates into effective disenfranchisement. The economically marginalized tend not to vote. Continue reading Were Baby Boomers the First Demographic Wave of Electoral Malaise?

Why Don’t We See the Impact of Voter Registration Drives?

King Corpse, by Sam Francis (1986).
by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Talking about elections is hard.

That doesn’t stop politicians and news media.

But the thing that gets me …

I mean, there’s something that tends to go unacknowledged … About the complexity of democratic election results. From the local to the national. From votes on referenda and constitutional amendments to races for political offices.

Elections are almost always determined by a small minority of swing voters … But we talk about the results as if the electorate really was a coherent “body politic” that had deliberated, reached a decision, and announced it with ritual fanfare.

Of course, human social life is full of tensions and confusions between identifying-with and separating-from the bodies of others. The ambiguity and contradictory emotions involved in experiencing and committing to the similarities or the differences between self and other shape what it means to be human. Being part of, with, or even in others often defines identities through distance and intimacy, tenderness and violence. Bodies link us and keep us apart, very very metaphorically AND very very literally.

But when democracy seems only to enhance the ambiguity between separate, free, and variable versus collective and coherent and constrained bodies … well, that seems to undermine the point of democratic rule and accountability, for citizens and elected rulers alike. It would hardly be the only instance in which ritualized, mass media drama makes it seem like the very performance of elections is enough to make our bodies and their connections to others’ sufficiently safe and orderly. Continue reading Why Don’t We See the Impact of Voter Registration Drives?

A Nobel Prize for Understanding Perverse Incentives

by Aaron Jonas Stutz
The French economist–and newly announced Nobel laureate–Jean Tirole has illuminated the possibilities and limits of financial regulation of very large, powerful firms. (Image links to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences popular publication on Tirole’s work.)

The first and last Nobel prizes to be announced each year–Medicine/Physiology and Economics–are the ones most immediately relevant for biocultural anthropological research. (And to the extent that human behavioral decisions and aggregate behavior patterns are shaped and constrained by human biological life-history patterns, I would argue that the kind of pioneering behavioral and life-history work carried out by anthropologists Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill, Hillard Kaplan and others would merit consideration in either prize category. In any case …) I have already posted about the medicine/physiology award-winning research, which is on a complex but important topic: dynamic proprioceptive embodied feedback with neural mapping of the immediate spatial environment.

Early last week, the Swedish Riksbank’s Economics Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to the French economist Jean Tirole. And Tirole’s work addresses contemporary, large-scale institutional manifestations of a very general problem in human social life: how multiple or enduring conflicts of interests are often aggravated by one powerful party, whose decisions (usually unintentionally) create perverse incentives for other parties, both powerful and weak. As we will see, the issue of perverse incentives–when considered from a biocultural evolutionary perspective–is even deeper than you might expect. Continue reading A Nobel Prize for Understanding Perverse Incentives

Culture and the Democratic Form of Government

How does the process of culture influence democratic participation and social fairness?

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull (1819), oil on canvas. Much of the early public discourse aimed at mobilizing political support for independence and particular aspects of constitutional organization of legislative representation and executive and judicial power was philosophical and legal in form, emphasizing logical deduction from first premises.

We usually take it for granted that concepts of democracy and justice are so overarching–so encompassing over the structure and maintenance of social order–that they have an independent, fixed, objective definition. This is certainly a practical narrative. As long as things are OK for most citizens of those societies institutionally defined and overtly committed to democracy and rule of law, the notion that our access to legislative, executive, and judicial decision-making is fundamentally fair … well, it’s quite convenient to confuse fundamental political fairness with the experience of not being treated unreasonably unfairly in daily life.

In other words, notions of social fairness and justice have a tendency to take an unmarked symbolic form in relation to the markedness of unfairness and injustice. The succinct, iconic narrative that the system is basically–or at least sufficiently–fair … this is easy for us to tell ourselves, easy to think. It diverts our attention from pervasive instances in which local, regional, or national governing institutions–with claims to sovereign powers over their jurisdictions–actually abuse their power and unfairly harm civilian individuals or groups. It diverts our attention from the ways in which governing institutions unfairly ignore or flaunt legal protections and democratic accountability.

Continue reading Culture and the Democratic Form of Government

Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven

But Nobody Wants to Die

This graph shared by political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh on the Washington Post's The Monkey Cage Blog shows how most Democratic Party campaigns overestimate their candidate's standing among voters. Notably, the campaigns studied mainly fall into the upper-right quadrant, which means that most campaigns predicted they would win but actually lost. This graph is from Enos & Hersh 2013: Fig. 2.

First off … I just want to underscore the non-partisan (or para-partisan) nature of my discussions about contemporary politics. So far, I’ve been dealing pretty much with American politics, but hopefully, anthropological consideration of how emotions get folded into political decisions can really help us to think about something more general, albeit in a fresh way: the very political foundations of human sociality. My upcoming posts will be a series on Anthropology and Philosophy, will be a bit more academic, and will aim to bring the focus back to that of biocultural evolution. But recently, I’ve been especially concerned about providing a rarely offered anthropological perspective on the way that marked, dramatic American cultural narratives–which we tell ourselves, selectively listen to, or stage and act in, through the processes of ritualization and mythologization–move likely voters emotionally… so much so that they and the political apparatuses who court their votes can develop quite damaging addictions to the resulting “high,” the sense of stability and control we gain from telling myths and participating in rituals. Yet, if we aren’t careful and critical before we let ourselves get carried away, from the everyday into the emotionally overwhelming realm of myth and ritual, the narratives involved can blind us to how our resulting sense of control or stability actually comes from something else: resolving to build barriers and effectively exclude people from society we consider proper. And this unfortunate moral blindness itself can be strikingly shortsighted, while actually creating further disruption, despite the aim of achieving stability and control.

Continue reading Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven