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    In fractious debate, GOP candidates find common ground on cause of inflation woes and need for school choice

    It was a night in which even “the great communicator” himself may have struggled to be heard.

    At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Sept. 27, 2023, seven Republican candidates looking to become the leading challenger to the absent GOP frontrunner Donald Trump interrupted, cross-talked and bickered – often to the exasperation of the debate moderators.

    And yet, between the heated exchanges, important economic and business issues were discussed – from national debt and government shutdowns to labor disputes and even school choice. One thing the candidates agreed on: They aren’t fans of Bidenomics.

    Listening in for The Conversation were economists Ryan Herzog of Gonzaga University and University of Tennessee’s Celeste K. Carruthers. Here are their main takeaways from the debate.

    Inflation talk assigns blame, falls flat on solutions

    Ryan Herzog, Gonzaga University

    The most recent Fox News survey showed that 91% of Americans are worried about inflation and 80% about rising housing costs. I tuned into the second GOP debate hoping to hear how the candidates would solve these problems. I was left disappointed.

    Not a single candidate mentioned rising housing costs, and few even acknowledged inflation. Given how much the issue has dominated the news, I assumed the candidates would mention it more than the eight times they did in the prior debate. I was wrong.

    First, let’s check some inflation facts. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley claimed that the average household is spending US$7,000 more per year on groceries and gas due to inflation. I believe she also meant to include housing costs. The latest data show the annual inflation for food at home – as opposed to restaurant meals – is rising less than 3% per year. While that’s up 24% since the start of the pandemic, it’s far below what you’d need for an increase of nearly $600 per month.

    Next, former Vice President Mike Pence said that recent wage gains have not kept up with inflation. But according to the most recent data, average wage growth has actually outpaced inflation. Indeed, workers in lower-wage industries that are seeing labor shortages, such as the leisure and hospitality sector, have seen very substantial pay increases.

    Nearly every candidate blamed inflation on excessive federal spending. Under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the total level of U.S. government debt increased by nearly $8 trillion and $4.5 trillion, respectively. As expected, most candidates proposed cutting government spending and taxes to help struggling families. But it’s unclear if those policies, taken together, would be effective at lowering inflation.

    The candidates also agreed on the need to promote U.S. energy independence – through drilling, fracking and coal – to promote low and stable inflation. But while reducing energy costs would support lower inflation, there was zero discussion of how new technologies like artificial intelligence could be used to fight inflation – for example, by improving productivity. In the end, most candidates resorted to old arguments and avoided debate on 21st-century solutions.

    School choice is common refrain, but evidence on impact is mixed

    Celeste K. Carruthers, University of Tennessee

    Before a commercial break midway through the debate, moderators teased viewers to return for questions on education in the U.S. It’s understandable that voters would want to hear what candidates have to say on the issue. Younger students have a long way to go to recover from COVID-era learning losses, and many families are dissatisfied with public education to the point that they are leaving public schools for home school and private school options. The education portion of the debate ended up being a short exchange, however, with more focus on immigration, inflation, border security, foreign policy and the opioid epidemic.

    One common theme across candidates was at least a brief mention of school choice. School choice describes a variety of different policies that give the parents of pre-K-12 students more options for where they send their kids to school. These options can include charter schools, magnet schools, public schools outside of a student’s school zone or in another district, or even private schools.

    Gov. Haley voiced a commonly held view among school choice supporters that providing students with more schooling options improves education by encouraging competition. Gov. DeSantis referenced “universal school choice” in his home state of Florida, which recently passed legislation that allows any student to apply for several thousand dollars in state funds that can be used toward private school tuition.

    Researchers have found that earlier phases of private school vouchers in Florida led to improvements in public school student test scores, absenteeism and suspensions, which supports the idea that competition from private schools can benefit students who opt not to use vouchers and stay in public schools.

    Private school vouchers are, however, a contentious topic. Opponents of vouchers and school choice policies more generally argue that they put traditional public schools at a financial disadvantage. Critics have also noted that some of the early voucher advocates viewed them as a way to avoid racial integration.

    Additionally, school choice can theoretically lead to sorting, where higher-achieving or higher-income students group together, and this can be detrimental to lower-achieving students who are left behind. There is evidence of sorting like this, particularly in large-scale voucher systems outside the U.S.

    Florida’s newly expanded model of school choice is one of the most comprehensive in the country. Several other states have also recently revised their school choice policies, generally extending eligibility for vouchers and education savings accounts beyond needy populations. In time, we can expect the evidence on school choice to grow substantially and perhaps occupy more attention in future debates. More

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    GOP shutdown threat is the wrong way to win a budget war − history shows a better strategy for reducing the deficit

    Congress has just days to keep the federal government from grinding to a halt, and a last-minute deal seems increasingly unlikely. The problem is that lawmakers need to pass a dozen appropriations bills – or a single continuing resolution – by Sept. 30, 2023, in order to keep the government’s lights on. But a key group of House Republicans is refusing to pass anything without steep spending cuts. No bills, no government – at least for a few days or weeks, anyway.

    While fiscal discipline has long been the rallying cry for shutdown supporters, the tactic isn’t necessarily effective at reducing the government’s deficit.

    I’ve been following efforts to shut down the U.S. government for one reason or another for more than 40 years, first from various perches at the Congressional Budget Office, then at the National Governors Association, and now as a professor of public policy. History shows that shutdowns are counterproductive – at least as measured by their own defenders’ goals. Fortunately, the past also provides a proven way to reduce the deficit, which I agree is a laudable goal.

    Deficits are too high

    When House Republicans say America’s finances are in bad shape, they do have a point. The deficit, currently estimated at US$1.5 trillion, and debt held by the public, estimated at $25.8 trillion, are both dangerously high.

    Why is the status quo so risky? For one thing, large deficits are inflationary and put pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. For another, interest on public debt is now estimated to be $663 billion a year, which is slightly over 10% of total spending – a huge fiscal burden.

    Finally, and most importantly, at some point individuals and foreign countries may dump U.S. treasury bills and bonds on the market because of a loss in confidence. That would make interest rates spike and could create a major economic collapse.

    Because of these risks, members of the House Freedom Caucus have threatened to shut down the federal government on Oct. 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, if they aren’t able to get big cuts to domestic discretionary spending.

    Negotiations are further complicated by some House Republicans’ desires to add riders about the border and culture war issues to the must-pass spending bills, as well as the Biden administration’s request for $24 billion for Ukraine, which not all party members support.

    Fighting the wrong battle

    I would argue that now is the wrong time for Republicans to take a stand on reducing the deficit, for two reasons.

    First of all, shutdowns don’t get results. The U.S. has had 21 shutdowns over the past five decades, three of which have been major. These have all caused real harm to the U.S. economy, but they haven’t led to the spending levels Republicans wanted.

    What’s more, in each case, the public blamed Republicans for the shutdowns, polls show. Some historians have even suggested that the fallout from the weekslong 1995-96 shutdown contributed to then-speaker Newt Gingrich having to resign in 1998.

    Second, the cuts Republicans are seeking aren’t all that significant. The bottom line is that they’re ignoring national defense and mandatory spending, which together represent 75% of total spending. The current effort aims only to trim domestic discretionary spending, which makes up a small and shrinking slice of the federal-spending pie – less than 15% in 2023.

    At the same time, mandatory spending, including entitlements, totals nearly $4 trillion annually and is growing rapidly. So, even if Democrats agreed to the domestic discretionary-spending cuts advocated by the House Freedom Caucus, those savings would be overtaken by growth in entitlement spending – primarily Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – within a year.

    What’s more, any serious plan to reduce the federal deficit must consider increasing the $4.8 trillion of federal revenue. The House Freedom Caucus has expressed no interest in raising taxes.

    The bottom line, in my view, is that the shutdown strategy is more about creating drama, publicity and campaign fundraising for certain lawmakers than it is about seriously reducing the deficit.

    How to get results

    While it’s never politically easy to cut entitlements or raise taxes, the reconciliation provision in the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act was enacted specifically for this purpose. It allows entitlement cuts and tax increases to be incorporated into the same bill, which cannot be filibustered in the Senate and only needs a majority for passage.

    Over the past 40 years, there have been six serious budget negotiations that resulted in deficit reductions. One in 2011, negotiated by then-President Barack Obama and House Majority Leader John Boehner, was likely the most successful from a fiscal perspective. When it was finally enacted, it generated $1.95 trillion in deficit reduction over nine years.

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker John Boehner, U.S. President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid discuss the budget and debt limit during negotiations at the White House on July 11, 2011.
    Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images

    A similarly successful negotiation came in 1997 during the Clinton administration. Lawmakers cut national defense spending by $247 billion, nondefense discretionary spending by $273 billion and entitlements by $374 billion, with interest savings of $142 billion. They also reduced taxes by $220 billion, mostly for low-income individuals, which brought the net total to $816 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years.

    In addition to those successes, there were four other negotiations in 1993, 1990, 1985 and 1983 that averaged over $400 billion in deficit reduction, albeit over different timelines.

    These examples show that budget negotiations without threatening a shutdown can be effective at enacting major deficit-reduction plans into law. The one during the Clinton administration even led to the budget surpluses in the years from 1998 to 2001, the first surpluses since 1969.

    History indicates that there are three major requirements for a successful budget negotiation. First, lawmakers must be seriously committed to the goal of deficit reduction. Second, everything needs to be on the table, including revenues, entitlements and national defense. Third, there must be trust among the negotiators.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe any of these requirements can be met today. More

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    Donald Trump’s truth: why liars might sometimes be considered honest – new research

    According to fact checkers, Donald Trump made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency. That’s around 20 a day. But, according to several opinion polls during his presidency, around 75% of Republican voters still considered Trump to be honest.

    It seems incredible that a serial liar – whose biggest lie about the 2020 election results led to a violent insurrection and nearly brought American democracy to its knees – is still considered honest by so many people.

    We began to tackle this question in a recent article that examined the political discussions of all members of the US Congress on Twitter between 2011 and 2022. To do this, we analysed nearly 4 million tweets. Our approach was based on the idea that people’s understanding of “honesty” involves two distinct components.

    One component can be referred to as “fact-speaking”. This form of speech relies on evidence and emphasises veracity and seeks to communicate the actual state of the world. Most of us probably consider this an important aspect of honesty. By this criterion, Donald Trump cannot be considered honest.

    The other component can be referred to as “belief-speaking”. This focuses on the communicator’s apparent sincerity, but pays little attention to factual accuracy. So when Trump claimed that the crowds at his inauguration were the largest ever (they were not), his followers may have considered this claim to be honest because Trump seemed to sincerely believe the claim he was making.

    Healthy political debate involves both fact-speaking and belief-speaking. Political ideas often cannot be contested based on facts alone, but also require beliefs and values to be taken into account.

    But democratic debate can be derailed if it is entirely based on the expression of belief irrespective of factual accuracy.

    One of Trump’s senior advisers, then US counsellor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, coined the phrase “alternative facts” in order to back her boss by persisting with the falsehood about the largest inauguration crowd. This allowed viewers to choose whose “facts” to accept.

    Within two years Trump’s senior lawyer and adviser Rudy Giuliani was insisting on national TV that “truth isn’t truth”. He was defending Trump’s feet-dragging over submitting to an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller and the likelihood that Trump’s testimony would conflict with sworn testimony offered by another witness.

    ‘Truth isn’t truth’: Rudy Giuliani beggars belief, August 2018.

    These are examples of an extreme form of belief-speaking that goes beyond the bounds of conventional democratic debate.

    Whose ‘truth’ are we talking about?

    We wanted to know the extent to which either belief-speaking or fact-speaking have become more prevalent in political speech, in this case in Twitter posts by Republican and Democrat members of the US Congress since 2011. To do this we set up and validated two “dictionaries” that captured those two components of honesty. To capture belief-speaking, we used words such as “feel”, “guess”, “seem”. To capture fact-speaking we used words such as “determine”, “evidence”, “examine”.

    Using advanced mathematical analysis, we were able to measure the extent to which each tweet represented belief-speaking and fact-speaking, and how the two trended over time.

    The figure below illustrates the results of our analysis with examples of tweets that involve a lot of belief-speaking (top) and fact-speaking (bottom), separately for members of the two parties, red being Republican and blue Democrat.

    Illustration of belief speaking and fact speaking in tweets by members of the US Congress.
    Stephan Lewandowsky et al, Author provided (no reuse)

    Our analysis first considered the long-term trend of belief-speaking and fact-speaking. We found that for both parties, both belief-speaking and fact-speaking increased considerably after Trump’s election in 2016. This may reflect the fact that topics concerning misinformation and “fake news” became particularly prominent after 2016 and may have resulted in opposing claims and corrections – involving belief-speaking and fact-speaking, respectively.

    When we related the content of tweets to the quality of news sources they linked to, we found a striking asymmetry between the two parties and the honesty components. We used the news ratings agency NewsGuard to ascertain the quality of a domain being shared in a tweet. NewsGuard rates the trustworthiness of news domains on a 100-point scale based on established journalistic criteria, such as differentiating between news and opinion, regularly publishing corrections, and so on, without fact-checking individual items of content.

    We find that for both parties, the more a tweet expresses fact-speaking, the more likely it is to point to a trustworthy domain.

    By contrast, for belief-speaking we observed little effect on the trustworthiness of sources in tweets by Democratic members of Congress. There was, however, a striking association between belief-speaking and low trustworthiness of sources for Republicans: A 10% increase in belief-speaking was associated with a 12.8-point decrease in the quality of cited sources.

    The findings illustrate that misinformation can be linked to a unique conception of honesty that emphasises sincerity over accuracy, and which appears to be used by Republicans – but not Democrats – as a gateway to sharing low-quality information.

    Why does this happen? Another aspect of our results hints at an answer. We found that belief-speaking is particularly associated with negative emotions. So if Republican politicians want to use negative emotional language to criticise Democrats, this goal might be more readily achieved by sharing low-quality information because high-quality domains tend to be less derogatory of the main parties.

    Finally, we also found that the voting patterns during the 2020 presidential election in their home state were not associated with the quality of news being shared by members of Congress. One interpretation of this result is that politicians do not pay a price at the ballot box for misleading the public. This may be linked to their convincing use of belief-speaking, which large segments of the public consider to be a marker of honesty. More

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    America’s leaders are older than they’ve ever been. Why didn’t the founding fathers foresee this as a problem?

    The US Congress has had no shortage of viral moments in recent months. Senator Dianne Feinstein seemingly became confused over how to vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell experienced two extended “freeze episodes” during press conferences. And several members of Congress mistook TikTok for the name of a breath mint (Tic Tac).

    The world’s oldest democracy currently has its oldest-ever Congress. President Joe Biden (80 years old) is also the oldest US president in history. His leading rival in the 2024 presidential race, former President Donald Trump, is not far behind at 77.

    Biden and Trump are both older than 96% of the US population. Unsurprisingly, they are both facing widespread questions about their ages and cognitive abilities.

    How did we get to this ‘senior moment’?

    America’s increasingly geriatric political leadership is not a surprising phenomenon. As the authors of the book, Youth Without Representation, pointed out earlier this year, the average age of US members of Congress has consistently risen over the past 40 years.

    Some of this shift can be attributed to actuarial realities: much like the ageing US electorate, American politicians are living longer and fuller lives in old age than they did before, particularly compared to the time of America’s “founding fathers” (many of whom were under the age of 40 when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776).

    Some of this may also be attributed to older Americans being far more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. In 2016, for instance, nearly three-quarters of eligible voters over the age of 65 reported they had voted, compared to less than half of those aged under 30. And those older Americans may prefer electing politicians closer to their age range.

    Yet lifespans have increased around the world and the ageing of US politicians still stands out compared to other developed nations. The average age of government leaders in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has actually decreased since 1950 – and today is nearly 25 years younger than Biden.

    Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis said the country’s founding fathers would “probably” implement maximum age limits on elected officials if they “could look at this again”. But this raises the question of why they didn’t do it the first time.

    Read more:
    Yes, Joe Biden is old and has low approval ratings, but this is why he’s still confident of re-election

    What did the founding fathers think about term limits?

    The founding fathers fiercely debated term limits for both presidents and members of Congress and even included them for members of the Continental Congress in the first Articles of Confederation. However, they ended up not being written into the Constitution.

    As much as Americans cherish the idea of the nation being founded on a constitution and laws instead of traditions and monarchy, the founding fathers ultimately did not legislate any term limits. Instead, they largely assumed custom, tradition and democratic elections would dictate the terms of office.

    In fact, the first president, George Washington, helped begin the custom of a president not seeking longer than two terms in office.

    Mirroring Cincinnatus, a Roman leader who became legendary for being given dictatorial control over Rome during a crisis but then voluntarily relinquishing control once the crisis was over, Washington left the presidency after two four-year terms.

    George Washington was 57 when he was inaugurated.
    Wikimedia Commons

    For more than a century after that, US presidents adhered to Washington’s convention (which historians contend that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, in reality ended up setting) and did not serve a third term in office.

    The first to break that tradition was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won four terms in office, including a third just before the second world war. After he died in office at the age of 63, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that limited presidents to two four-year terms.

    While US presidents have faced term limits for most of the past century, members of Congress continue to serve as long as they like. (There are currently 20 members over the age of 80. Feinstein, the oldest at 90, has served six terms as a senator from California.)

    Dianne Feinstein returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more-than-two-month absence as she was being treated for a case of shingles.
    J. Scott Applewhite/AP

    Part of the reason for this omission may be that the founding fathers and early American leaders did not expect members of Congress to stay in office as long as they now do. In the years after the Constitution was ratified, members of Congress simply did not seek re-election as frequently.

    For example, the average length of service for US senators has more than doubled from about 4.8 years back then to 11.2 years today.

    The price of elected office and who can afford it

    Beyond demographics and changing habits of US politicians, one underestimated contributor to America’s increasingly elderly political leadership is that running for political office in America is more expensive than ever.

    The 2020 election was not only contentious, but it was also the most expensive in US history. It cost more than US$14.4 billion (A$22.5 billion) for the presidential and congressional races – more than double what was spent in the 2016 elections.

    The 2022 elections also broke a record for spending in a midterm election at US$8.9 billion (A$13.9 billion).

    On an individual level, the average winner of a House of Representatives race in 1990 spent around US$400,000. By 2022 that had risen to US$2.79 million. The average winner of a Senate race in 1990 spent nearly US$3.9 million, compared to US$26.5 million in 2022.

    Read more:
    Why do voters have to pick a Republican or a Democrat in the US?

    It should come as no surprise that the ten most expensive House and Senate races in US history took place in the past five years.

    Those with the resources necessary to afford such expensive campaigns are more likely to be older than not. Whether it be independently wealthy business owners or well-established politicians with extensive fundraising networks, the high cost of admission for political office undeniably favours the old.

    In an era of extensive polarisation, it can often seem like Americans cannot agree on much. One area of agreement, however, is that their politicians are simply too old.

    Yet while a majority of Americans may tell pollsters that, most still consistently end up voting for a candidate who is considerably older than them. That will very likely be the case again in the 2024 presidential election. At least one of those probable candidates (Trump or Biden), though, will be barred by term limits from being on the ballot again in 2028. More

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    Iran’s Mahsa Revolution One Year On

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    The president loves ice cream, and a senator has a new girlfriend – these personal details may seem trivial, but can help reduce political polarization

    Politicians want to be heard – to land a soundbite on the nightly news, to advertise their legislative accomplishments and to have people know their platform. But when given opportunities to talk to voters, they often share details about their personal lives instead.

    Presidential candidate Tim Scott used a September 2023 appearance on Fox News to talk about his dating life, saying that voters would soon meet his girlfriend. On Twitter, Senator Ted Cruz often posts football clips and selfies at sporting events.

    And in July 2023, President Joe Biden, who has described himself as an “ice cream guy,” tweeted a picture of himself holding an ice cream cone captioned, “In my book, every day is National Ice Cream Day.”

    This trend of politicians sharing personal information isn’t new.

    One study of campaign tweets found that congressional candidates in 2012 were more likely to tweet about their personal lives than their policy platforms.

    Why do politicians share so much from their personal lives on the campaign trail?

    I am a scholar of political science, and my research shows that when people see elected officials as people and not just politicians, it boosts their popularity. It also reduces party polarization in people’s views of politicians.

    Senator Ted Cruz receives a Philadelphia Eagles jersey at a political rally in Philadelphia in 2018.
    Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

    ‘House of Cards’ to hot sauce

    My research was inspired by the weekly column, “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me” published in the celebrity entertainment magazine Us Weekly. While actors, musicians and reality television personalities regularly share facts about themselves or their personal lives in this column, several politicians have been featured over the years.

    In 2016, then-presidential candidate Cruz shared with the magazine that his first video game was Pong and that he has watched every episode of the Netflix drama series “House of Cards.” When she was running for president in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared that she loves mystery novels and puts hot sauce on everything.

    I was interested in whether these kinds of autobiographical and apolitical details changed how people evaluate elected officials.

    As part of my research, I noted five items from the list Cruz provided to Us Weekly in 2016, along with five similar autobiographical details collected from the news that same year about Senator Bernie Sanders.

    Details about Cruz included that his favorite movie is “The Princess Bride” and that he was once suspended in high school for skipping class to play foosball. Sanders, meanwhile, has shared in news interviews that he is a fan of the television show “Modern Family” and that he proposed to his wife in the parking lot of a Friendly’s restaurant.

    I then shared these details with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans in a survey conducted just before the 2020 election. Half were asked to just rate the senator, while the other half were given one of these lists of autobiographical details before rating their favorability toward the senator.

    I found that those who read autobiographical details gave warmer evaluations of the politicians than those who did not learn these facts.

    Even though both Cruz and Sanders are well known and arguably polarizing politicians, members of the public nonetheless shifted their opinions of the senators when they found out a little more about them as people.

    I also found that these autobiographical details led to candidate ratings that were less polarized along party lines.

    People’s party loyalties typically determine their views of elected officials. People offer positive ratings of politicians who share their partisan loyalties and very negative ratings of those from the opposing party.

    But in my research, I found that minor details like Cruz’s penchant for canned soup were especially likely to boost his ratings among Democrats. And Sanders’ love of the musical group ABBA was especially likely to improve his favorability ratings among Republicans.

    We know that people tend to evaluate new information through the lens of their partisan biases. People generally accept new information that reinforces their views, and are skeptical of information that is inconsistent with their prior beliefs.

    But when politicians share autobiographical details, people see them as humans – and not just through the lens of their usual partisan biases. When politicians talk about their personal lives, it not only appeals to their supporters, but dampens the negativity people feel toward politicians from the opposing party.

    Senator Bernie Sanders has shared personal details about his relationship with his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, pictured together in 2020.
    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    What this means for politics

    Even in a time where partisanship drives elections, there is still value in being likable.

    For elected officials who want to boost their support among supporters of rival partisans, shifting the focus to personality rather than partisan politics can be a useful strategy.

    I think that this approach could also help depolarize politics.

    If political campaigns focused more on the candidates rather than replaying familiar partisan divides, views of elected officials would be less polarized along party lines.

    It can be tempting to dismiss the political content in late night talk shows or celebrity entertainment magazines as mere fluff and a distraction from serious policy debates. But we also know that policy issues rarely matter for the votes people cast. Instead, party loyalties determine much of people’s decision-making. In a time of deeply partisan politics, it is useful to find ways to interrupt partisan biases and decrease polarization. More

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    Not religious, not voting? The ‘nones’ are a powerful force in politics – but not yet a coalition

    Nearly 30% of Americans say they have no religious affiliation. Today the so-called “nones” represent about 30% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans – and they are making their voices heard. Organizations lobby on behalf of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other nonreligious people.

    As more people leave religious institutions, or never join them in the first place, it’s easy to assume this demographic will command more influence. But as a sociologist who studies politics and religion, I wanted to know whether there was evidence that this religious change could actually make a strong political impact.

    There are reasons to be skeptical of unaffiliated Americans’ power at the ballot box. Religious institutions have long been key for mobilizing voters, both on the left and the right. Religiously unaffiliated people tend to be younger, and younger people tend to vote less often. What’s more, exit polls from recent elections show the religiously unaffiliated may be a smaller percentage of voters than of the general population.

    Most importantly, it’s hard to put the “unaffiliated” in a box. Only a third of them identify as atheists or agnostics. While there is a smaller core of secular activists, they tend to hold different views from the larger group of people who are religiously unaffiliated, such as being more concerned about the separation of church and state.

    By combining all unaffiliated people as “the nones,” researchers and political analysts risk missing key details about this large and diverse constituency.

    Crunching the numbers

    In order to learn more about which parts of religious unaffiliated populations turn out to vote, I used data from the Cooperative Election Study, or CES, for presidential elections in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. The CES collects large surveys and then matches individual respondents in those surveys to validated voter turnout records.

    These surveys were different from exit polls in some key ways. For example, according to these survey samples, overall validated voter turnout looked higher in many groups, not just the unaffiliated, than exit polls suggested. But because each survey sample had over 100,000 respondents and detailed questions about religious affiliation, they allowed me to find some important differences between smaller groups within the unaffiliated.

    My findings, published in June 2023 in the journal Sociology of Religion, were that the unaffiliated are divided in their voter turnout: Some unaffiliated groups are more likely to vote than religiously affiliated respondents, and some are less likely.

    People who identified as atheists and agnostics were more likely to vote than religiously affiliated respondents, especially in more recent elections. For example, after controlling for key demographic predictors of voting – like age, education and income – I found that atheists and agnostics were each about 30% more likely to have a validated record of voting in the 2020 election than religiously affiliated respondents.

    With those same controls, people who identified their religion as simply “nothing in particular,” who are about two-thirds of the unaffiliated, were actually less likely to turn out in all four elections. In the 2020 election sample, for example, I found that around 7 in 10 agnostics and atheists had a validated voter turnout record, versus only about half of the “nothing in particulars.”

    Together, these groups’ voting behaviors tend to cancel each other out. Once I controlled for other predictors of voting like age and education, “the nones” as a whole were equally likely to have a turnout record as religiously affiliated respondents.

    Religious and nonreligious voting patterns may not be so different after all.
    Hill Street Studios/DigitalVision via Getty Images

    2024 and beyond

    Concern about growing Christian nationalism, which advocates for fusing national identity and political power with Christian beliefs, has put a spotlight on religion’s role in right-wing advocacy.

    Yet religion does not line up neatly with one party. The political left also boasts a diverse coalition of religious groups, and there are many Republican voters for whom religion is not important.

    If the percentage of people without a religious affiliation continues to rise, both Republicans and Democrats will have to think more creatively and intentionally about how to appeal to these voters. My research shows that neither party can take the unaffiliated for granted nor treat them as a single, unified group. Instead, politicians and analysts will need to think more specifically about what motivates people to vote, and particularly what policies encourage voting among young adults.

    For example, some activist groups talk about “the secular values voter:” someone who is increasingly motivated to vote by concern about separation of church and state. I did find evidence that the average atheist or agnostic is about 30% more likely to turn out than the average religiously affiliated voter, lending some support to the secular values voter story. At the same time, that description does not fit all the “nones.”

    Instead of focusing on America’s declining religious affiliation, it may be more helpful to focus on the country’s increasing religious diversity, especially because many unaffiliated people still report having religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. Faith communities have historically been important sites for political organizing. Today, though, motivating and empowering voters might mean looking across a broader set of community institutions to find them.

    Rethinking assumptions

    There is good news in these findings for everyone, regardless of their political leanings. Social science theories from the 1990s and 2000s argued that leaving religion was part of a larger trend in declining civic engagement, like voting and volunteering, but that may not be the case.

    According to my research, it was actually unaffiliated respondents who reported still attending religious services who were least likely to vote. Their turnout rates were lower than both frequently attending religious affiliates and unaffiliated people who never attended.

    This finding matches up with previous research on religion, spirituality and other kinds of civic engagement. Sociologists Jacqui Frost and Penny Edgell, for example, found a similar pattern in volunteering among religiously unaffiliated respondents. In a previous study, sociologist Jaime Kucinskas and I found that spiritual practices like meditation and yoga were just as strongly associated with political behavior as religious practices like church attendance. Across these studies, it looks like disengagement from formal religion is not necessarily linked to political disengagement.

    As the religious landscape changes, new potential voters may be ready to engage – if political leadership can enact policies that help them turn out, and inspire them to turn out, too. More

  • in

    Who’s Vivek Ramaswamy? He’s the Trump 2.0 candidate who’s making waves in the Republican primaries

    The New York Times described him as promising “to exert breathtaking power in ways that Donald Trump never did”. An article for Time magazine called him a “rockstar for those who think cancel culture is threatening every corner of American life”.

    Well-spoken, polemical and supremely self-assured, it’s no surprise that the Trump-loving Vivek Ramaswamy has emerged as the new darling of the Republican presidential primary field.

    Coming out of the first GOP debate in late August, where he oratorically dazzled (and also drew sharp criticism) after a combination of pre-scripted lines and impromptu take-downs, Ramaswamy is gaining ground in the polls — and is reportedly seeing a “surge of Iowans flock to his campaign stops,” ahead of the state’s important caucus, due on January 15 2024.

    Nationally, Ramaswamy has now cruised into third place in the Republican race, at 10%, according to FiveThirtyEight polling averages, and is hoping to overtake Florida governor Ron DeSantis (14%), once seen as the prohibitive choice to rival Donald Trump. While still some 40 points out of first place, it’s a sudden uptick for a candidate who was, until recently, a virtual unknown.

    But at just 38 years old, can this billionaire rookie politician of Indian descent, who — according to his own admission — is a “skinny guy with a funny last name,” crack Trump’s insurmountable lead, much less foil his coronation?

    Ramaswamy is a self-styled “clear outsider” who’s never served in government. A graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School, he cut his teeth at a Wall Street hedge fund, before founding a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical firm. As “one of the richest thirty-somethings” in the nation, according to Forbes, Ramaswamy has lived, in his words, “the American dream”.

    Ramaswamy, however, isn’t your typical socially liberal Ivy League graduate. He can rap like Eminem. And he’s called former US president Richard Nixon “the most underappreciated president of our modern history in this country, probably in all of American history”.

    More importantly, he’s a chest-thumping, Maga-type who, despite praising Trump as “the best president of the 21st century,” is running to beat the ex-president so he can take the Trumpist agenda “much further”.

    The anti-wokester

    The author of Woke, Inc. and Nation of Victims, Ramaswamy brags that he’s the original anti-woke candidate. A self-branded “non-white nationalist” he speaks stridently against the modern progressive movement.

    Ramaswamy declares that he would appeal to voters of all colours and is fond of paraphrasing John Roberts, US supreme court chief justice, who has said: “The right answer to stop discrimination on the basis of race … is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

    Ramaswamy says that he’s running for president to unite the country under a new “American Revolution” based on “1776 ideals”. Many of his policies, like the revolution he seeks to provoke, are decidedly counter-establishment.

    For instance, Ramaswamy waxes poetically about laying off 75% of the federal workforce, taking a sledgehammer to US government agencies like the FBI and the Department of Education, and defeating the “managerial class” that’s “spreading like a plague” across society.

    Ramaswamy’s agenda also includes a number of political non-starters — for example, requiring every US citizen to pass the same civics exam that immigrants do in order to vote, before age 25.

    Unlike most millennials, Ramaswamy has pilloried the climate change agenda as a “hoax”. “Drill, frack, burn coal, and embrace nuclear” is his unapologetic solution for America’s energy challenges.

    On immigration, Ramaswamy favours ending America’s “green card” lottery system, which annually makes available 50,000 visas to migrants, and replacing it with “meritocratic admission”. He advocates hardening the US-Mexico border “where criminals are coming in every day” through the deployment of military resources.

    Slash aid to Ukraine

    Although not an isolationist, Ramaswamy is sceptical about an activist US foreign policy. He wants to slash aid to Ukraine, implying that what’s in America’s best interest isn’t necessarily what’s in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worst interest.

    To end the war, Ramaswamy proposes granting Russia “major concessions”, while “freezing … current lines of control in a Korean War-style armistice agreement”. In exchange, “Russia has to leave its treaty” and its joint military agreement with China.

    In Asia, Ramaswamy champions a full-scale economic “decoupling” of the US from China. He also favours Washington more aggressively “driving a wedge” between Beijing and Moscow, which he calls “the single greatest military threat that we’re going to face”.

    Ramaswamy’s response on Taiwan is short-term “strategic clarity,” insisting that he would defend the island “vigorously until the US achieves semiconductor independence,” then return to a policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

    A Donald Trump supporter walks past a bus promoting Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy.
    Tannen Maury/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy

    Creating Trump 2.0

    Ramaswamy’s biggest potential strength, and liability, in the primaries is fusing himself to Trump’s hip. As “Trump 2.0,” his challenge is a delicate one: to please the right-wing base, while still separating himself enough from Trump to win over converts.

    So far, Ramaswamy has leaned toward the former.

    When pressed, he’s said that he would have certified the 2020 election results. Yet he’s also claimed that former vice president Mike Pence missed a “historic opportunity” to reform the electoral structure on January 6.

    Ramaswamy has attacked criminal prosecutions of Trump as “politically motivated and setting an awful precedent. He’s pledged to pardon Trump if elected. He’s even hinted at hiring Trump as an “adviser” or “mentor” in his White House.

    What’s next?

    Political statistician Nate Silver has predicted that Ramaswamy will almost certainly make more headway in the polls, especially as his name recognition grows. Yet that publicity will also make him a target.

    Already, he’s feeling the heat. Washington Post columnist George F. Will has derided him as “comparatively, a child”.

    Trump holds a commanding lead and looks poised to dominate Iowa and New Hampshire, before running the table in the remaining primaries.

    If that happens, Ramaswamy might be auditioning for a cabinet post or a 2028 replay. The odds of Trump choosing him as his vice-presidential running mate seem remote. Ramaswamy is too charismatic and Trump resists sharing the spotlight.

    For now, the silver-tongued, dynamic newcomer to the Maga party will enjoy his 15 minutes. Whether there’s substance behind his candidacy — and whether he has independent staying power — are the big questions for #Vivek2024 to answer. More