The Potentially Revolutionary Political Role of Fried Chicken

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.

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 "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.

To that extent, one would have difficulty arguing with panelist Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, who studied the first two years' impact on higher education. She zeroed in on the seismic change in the student loan program, ending stratospheric subsidies to private industry via the traditional bank-based system of loans.

Mettler quoted one unidentified congressional staffer as conceding: "We have taken money from a vested interest and given it to low-income Americans. We don't do that often." But Mettler's point was clear, namely that few Americans realize the shift in what the Congressional Budget Office once estimated to be as much as $87 billion. The students themselves who are benefiting don't get that it is often-maligned government which is making their educations affordable, she said.

There was a smidgen more dispute in a session on "The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts?" which largely turned on a 2010 book of the same title by moderator Henry Milner of the University of Montreal.

Milner sees the Internet in a mix of factors contributing to an ongoing decline in participation, and is particularly passionate about the woeful absence of civics education in American schools. Yes, yes, it's fine to herald the Obama campaign's supposedly path-setting use of the net and social media. But where were those supposedly galvanized new voters in the midterm elections of last year, he wondered as he raised doubts as to whether the net contributes to political participation.

The University of Notre Dame's David Campbell demurred slightly but only by contending that our students are not so much lacking "lessons in civics than in barbarics," by which he means the recognition that people disagree. "It sounds obvious, duh," he declared, self-mockingly. But the few elementary and secondary schools which discuss politics are scared about introducing conflict into the classroom, "even when there is evidence that it will make students more interested in politics."

Nobody was as dubious of the new technology as Robert Luskin of the University of Texas, who went so far as to contend that in accentuating the trend to more specialized and ideologically-driven media, the Internet "may have decreased the aggregate of political knowledge." His doubts are twinned with what he deems a significant "pathology" via a proliferation of misinformation and decline in respect for opposing opinions.

"The Republican Party has become disrespectful in tolerating opposing views" and in promulgating untruths, he contended. He cited himself as an opponent of Obama's health care legislation "but not because of death panels," knowing that the claim is gibberish. "What's missing from the Republican Party is Dick Lugar," said Luskin, alluding to the thoughtful, decidedly civil longtime U.S. Senator from Indiana. He did not note some recent Lugar tacking to the right in the face of assured Tea Party opposition in his 2012 reelection campaign.

The question and answer period brought one spectator's skepticism toward some of what had just passed. Helen Margetts, a professor of society and the Internet at Oxford's Internet Institute, might as well have declared, "Rubbish!" as she noted the role of the Internet and social networking in the United Kingdom's recent student demonstrations over steep government hikes in college tuition.

"I appreciate the work of civic education programs but this generation in the U.K. hasn't been exposed to that but you can't call them political dropouts. It may not be a cuddly form of engagement but it is engagement." She later asserted to me that, "It's (the Internet) politicizing an entire generation."

And, finally, there was the U.K.'s own Bond, James Bond.

"Fiction and Its Political Effects" included Ohio University's Susan Burgess' analysis of how portrayal of the debonair spy has changed over 22 movies, tying it to the culture's altered attitudes toward homosexuality over more than 50 years. It's culminated, she said, in the Pentagon's move to lift the ban on openly gay soldiers.

She chronicled how gays have gone from being deemed threats to the state, including in movies, to being seen as victims, even heroes fighting on behalf of government. In the film series, she contends that the biggest shift occurred with the casting of a female "M," or head of the British Secret Service, played by Judi Dench. Thus, Bond has morphed from Sean Connery's blatantly sexist womanizer, who sometimes slept with women before killing them, into to Daniel Craig's Bond, who is castigated in Casino Royale (2006) by Dench, his new boss, as a "sexist, sexual dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War."

A few minutes into the 8:30 a.m. session, Burgess was even showing a video clip of Craig's Bond being tortured in a very vivid scene in Casino Royale. Fortunately, I wasn't watching on an empty stomach, having consumed a quick espresso and English muffin before leaving home 45 minutes earlier.

After I'd stopped wincing and my concentration returned, I believe she said that Craig's Bond prefers violence to sex and "has passionate sex only when in love, which compromises him as less useful to the state. Violence is now safer than sex, as far as the new national security state is concerned."

If only prospective voters had as great a craving for fried chicken.