The Potentially Revolutionary Political Role of Fried Chicken

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By the time thousands of political scientists departed Chicago on Sunday, there had been ample and at times stultifying talk of parameter stability, balancing datasets, quantifying behavioral outcomes, contextual cues and spatial variants.

Thankfully, there was also mention of Barack Obama, the debatable impact of the Internet on youth voting, a claimed link between James Bond and "Don't ask, don't tell," and, yes, the potentially revolutionary political role of fried chicken.

Current research suggests that the U.S. voters who are the most knowledgeable and most ignorant are Republicans.

In a political universe given to hyperventilating over the electorate's supposed mood and trends, consultants and Washington cable television pundits might note how David Myatt of England's esteemed University of Oxford summarized a most curious experiment by a young American professor from Utah. "'We gave fried chicken to go and vote, and they voted.' I like that!" he said. "Nice and simple."

At the tail end of a panel titled, "Voting Costs and Incentives," Myatt joined Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in an intellectual's counterpart to ESPN post-game analysis; serving as "discussants" and offering generous counsel to three aspiring academics who had just summarized separate research on why we vote, don't vote or just might be lured to vote more often.

Damon M. Cann of Utah State University detailed how he knocked on doors in River Heights, Utah, and to one group made a distinctly rhetorical plea to vote in an upcoming election, for the sake of democracy. To another group, he randomly offered discount coupons for fried chicken, French fries, a Mexican meal and rock climbing if they went to the polls. If later inspection of the rolls confirmed you had indeed voted, you'd got a coupon for, in the case of the fried chicken, two buckets worth at KFC.

Cann's initial numbers crunching determined that oral persuasion hiked turnout by four percent but blatant economic lures jacked it up a further nine percent. As panel moderator Brian Gaines of the University of Illinois suggested to me later, Cann's gambit would probably be illegal if offered as a swap for backing a specific candidate. But the yet-to-be-published work may prove a provocative addition to an explosion of studies on voting, Gaines said, especially given what tend to be dismal U.S turnouts compared to other industrialized nations.

The panel and papers were among hundreds at the annual four-day gathering of the Midwest Political Science Association. With more than 4,500 attendees from around the world, including young Ph.D.'s and doctoral students desperately networking and seeking work, its offerings were largely unsuited for those preferring political wisdom in sound bites and with scant equivocation. They included:

"A Theory of Leadership Selection in Small Groups: With Evidence from Ugandan Farmer Associations," "Friend or Foe: Muslim Immigrants and Left Political Parties in Western Europe," "The Impact of 2008 Presidential Campaign Media on Latinos: A Study of Nevada and Arizona Latino Voters," "Aristotle and Lincoln on the Limits of Law and Political Statesmanship: Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics," "Montesquieu's Athens: Ancient Commercial Republic at War," and "The Balance of Power Theory and a Missing Condition: The Function of Coordination in the Case of the Alliances That Successfully Prevented Hegemony in the Post-1492 European States-System."

I could also now disclose all about a befuddling analysis of a single Turkish newspaper's yearly accounts of a single Turkish holiday, replete with coding 39 variables into the dissection of each story. But the young academic was very earnest, it was late in the day and, well, she seemed quite appreciative of the diplomatically-articulated suggestions from the session's insightful discussant via Vanderbilt University. Most journalists would be lucky to have such high-quality instant editing.

For those more at ease with a Matthewsean, "Hardball" approach to politics -- including me, an occasional cable contributor -- there were accessible dissections of Obama, the Internet and Agent 007. And it generated no shortage of Ivory Tower bashing of Republicans and the Fox News Channel for alleged intellectual dishonesty; surely likely to confirm Republicans' and the Fox News Channel's doubts about academe's ideological thrust if the full extent of the bashing went public.

(Indeed, one prominent political scientist offered this tidbit during a hallway chat, as long as I didn't identify him: his current research tentatively suggests that the slices of U.S. voters who are both the most knowledgeable and most ignorant about the political system are both Republicans; tying it all to their media consumption patterns.)

Obama's first two years were analyzed with aplomb by a panel of five which has just completed a book on the same topic. Reaching for a New Deal is supported by the Russell Sage foundation, a bastion of research in the social sciences and due out in August. It inspects Obama's initial legacy when it comes to health care reform, higher education, financial reform, labor law changes, immigration and environmental policy.

Moderator and co-author Theda Skocpol of Harvard University underscored how post-2008 election punditry declared we might be on the verge of a permanent Democratic majority, in part pointing to a big minority and youth turnout for Obama and a craving for government action amid the recession. "Things have not worked out according to the 'New New Deal' prognostication," she said, alluding to the cover line of the Nov. 24, 2008, Time magazine.

The reasons, the book will argue, include a perhaps unprecedented "pushback to change during these two years," and the de facto shift to the right of the nation's political center of gravity. That's despite Obama accomplishments she deems huge, such as health care reform, provoking experimentation via the "Race to the Top" gambit by the Department of Education, the stimulus and new financial industry regulations. To that extent, what's played out has poked holes in a frequent assumption of social scientists that economic crises promote reform. "Not necessarily," said Skocpol.

The few schools which discuss politics are scared about conflict in the classroom, "even when there is evidence that it will make students more interested."

The "pushback," she and others contended, include a conservative "propaganda network's" ability to set the agenda for public discourse, in part through outright fabrications, like the beliefs that the health care package includes "death panels." But there was also criticism of Obama's administration for not making more visible and understandable to the average American what it was pulling off.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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