Two Weeks Later — Being Wrong as Academics

I Was Wrong.


I followed this election even more closely that I usually do. I believed the every-four-years hype of this being “the most important election in our lifetime”. I trusted the polls (even given their margin of error), thought the electoral map was structurally tilted toward Clinton, added in the rise is hispanic voters, paid attention to the Clinton advantage among suburban college educated white women, and held to my naive belief that governing was about policy.

But my wrongness runs deeper than election day.

While I tried to stay clear of fake news sites and was very cautious about clever memes to pass along, I paid a lot of attention to the kinds of media sources that fit my temperament as a sociologist — careful analysis of background factors, reliance on data, a favoring of rational dialogue. That’s why I (along with others) believed that the angry rhetoric of many at Trump rallies and/or on social media would also put off conservative Republican voters (which it did for some but not most).

Which means I’ve been wrong for a long time.

I’ve paid too little attention to those left behind in our social and economic transformations over recent decades. I wrote about most of these trends: changes in religious views, shifting attitudes toward sexuality and marriage, the housing crisis, growing inherited inequality, the shifting of the economy from manufacturing to finance, the increasing polarization of our politics, and the media’s increasingly relying on controversy to drive their economic model.

But I failed to reflect on how those changes affect different segments of the society. My sociological blinders had me looking at cities first and ignoring rural areas. This was made worse because I’ve argued for years that we don’t have red states and blue states; we have predominantly rural states and predominantly urban states.

I was wrong as an educator.

Many of my students come from smaller towns and suburbs of Michigan. While many of them were not supporting Trump, a great many more were and the vast majority of their families were. Granted, many of my students wouldn’t vote for Clinton because of their concerns over abortion. But they were making a significant choice in the first presidential vote they’d ever cast. To be honest, I was so concerned with how they’d respond when Clinton won that I didn’t really try to educate them about their voting decision. That was hubris on my part. Although I have to admit that finding the line between educating on the issues and direct advocacy can be hard to do.

There is a public responsibility to being an academic. We study things as a matter of discipline. We use careful reasoning and explain our thinking to others. We describe and interpret and occasionally make projections.

I wonder if all of the concern about “liberal academics”, “indoctrinating students”, “providing safe spaces”, offering “trigger warnings”, and being “politically correct” hasn’t made us unwilling to play our educational roles. We have maintained a presence in the classroom but have not done enough with public advocacy.

That vacuum is filled by news sites claiming the worst about others (which are easily “liked” by otherwise well-meaning people). It turns the already problematic cable news gabfest into a talking-point marathon featuring two shills for each candidate and a couple of supposedly independent journalists. It turns the election into a sideshow and leaves all of those social issues described above unaddressed for another election cycle.

Yesterday, Nate Silver of posted a story titled “Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.” (This is the kind of data-based analysis I love to read.) Silver looks at the 50 counties with the highest percentage with a college degree and the 50 with the lowest. Even controlling for income, education still remains the more significant factor. Clinton won the first set by 8.5% more than Obama did in 2012. In the second set, she did 11% worse than he did.

I also read this piece today that was originally appeared in AlterNet. The author describes growing up in white rural Fundamentalist regions of the country and offers a pretty harsh critique of the “dark rigidity” of the Fundamentalist thought process. It overgeneralizes a little too much and comes off as if describing some remote and distant tribe. But it speaks to an educational need.

I’ve been wrong in my social advocacy strategies.

These two pieces have me asking what role academics can play in the midst of this educational divergence. Somehow we need to become a voice in our localities more than being a voice on Twitter.

After the election result, I realized that I have to communicate more with my congressman even though I don’t want to. But I need to do more than that. I need to increase my outreach efforts. I need to talk to high school civics classes about critical social problems confronting all areas of our country. I need to engage with civic groups about the needs in their communities and with ministers associations about the joys and concerns of religion in a diverse society. I need to write letters to the editor. I need to do all of this with ears to hear along with good sociological analysis. I need to make sure that I don’t speak with the arrogance of the educated explaining things to the masses.

This past two weeks has shown me that I’ve been wrong for awhile about a number of things. Now I have to figure out how to act on that realization. I hope my fellow academics will join me.


One thought on “Two Weeks Later — Being Wrong as Academics

  1. The worst part for me was to think that polling results are data. Used to data from the hard science I was mislead to believe that polling numbers meant something like pH, mass, or any other significant quantity. I feel your pain because as a social scientist you want and need some kind of data that is reliable. Hard data like family income, number of people without health insurance, and so on have to become the data we use to predict any social event like an election.

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