JAMMED onto a spit of land that juts into the azure Atlantic near the centre of Recife, in Brazil’s north-east, Brasília Teimosa was until a couple of decades ago a favela of wooden fishermen’s huts. Now its streets are lined with brick houses, some of three stories and clad in decorative tiles but others jerry-built. It has seafood restaurants, shops and a couple of bank branches, but also piles of uncollected rubbish. Many marketing types and economists would hail its residents as members of Brazil’s burgeoning “new middle class”, who have become avid consumers.
That is not how Francisco Pinheiro, a community leader who was born in Brasília Teimosa, sees it. “Economically, it’s much better off than it was,” he says. “But a middle-class person is someone who lives in Boa Viagem”—a smart beachfront residential suburb close by—“with a car, an apartment and an income of 3,000 reais ($1,500) a month.” In Brasília Teimosa, he adds, the majority earn less than two minimum wages ($613)—often shared among a family of four or more.
As it happens, Mr Pinheiro’s finely-tuned sense of social class fits neatly with the definitions deployed by the World Bank in a ground-breaking new study. Having crunched the numbers from household surveys across the region, it reckons that Latin America’s middle class expanded by 50%, from 103m to 152m, between 2003 and 2009. That represents extraordinarily rapid social progress. But it means that only 30% of the region’s population is middle class (see chart). A larger group has left poverty, but only just, as have many of those in Brasília Teimosa.
What it means to be middle class is a matter of definition and debate. Sociologists and political scientists define the middle class according to education, occupational status and ownership of assets. Economists, by contrast, tend to see income as determining class.
Framing Political Messages With Grammar and Metaphor: How Something Is Said May Be as Important as What Is Said
Millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads and other political messages in an election year, but surprisingly little is known about how language affects voter attitude and influences election outcomes. This article discusses two seemingly subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections. One is grammar. The other is metaphor.
In an election year, voters are inundated with political messages from various sources, including television ads, campaign websites, blogs and social network forums, such as Facebook. Some of these messages focus on candidates’ positions on various issues, including the economy, same-sex marriage, education and war. Some focus on candidates’ personal characteristics. Is the candidate warm and accessible, or cold and distant? An autocrat or a team player? Family oriented? Not family oriented? Some messages focus on candidates’ past actions, and others focus on their apparent abilities to tackle problems ranging from immigration to unemployment. Some messages are factual and objective, and others are exaggerated and sensationalized.
Political scientists, such as James Druckman of Northwestern University and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University, study how political messages affect voting. Their work tells us that voters’ attitudes can be influenced by a number of factors, including which information the media chooses to emphasize and how it is slanted. Framing, how a message is worded to encourage particular interpretations and inferences, can influence the perception of political candidates. Negative framing is often used to make opposing candidates seem weak, immoral and incompetent. It is persuasive because it captures attention and creates anxiety about future consequences. When negative information becomes excessive, however, it can backfire and lead to deleterious outcomes, including low voter turnout. Negative framing can be effective even when subtle or indirect. For instance, people tend to align more closely with their parties when opposition is emphasized, and people may not want to vote for incumbent candidates when there are frequent reports about how bad times are.
Wait, Campaigns Don’t Work? Political scientists are finding, it’s not usually to decide who wins the election.
It was not Mitt Romney’s best moment.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” the former Massachusetts governor said at a private, $50,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner in May, as captured by a hidden video recording released to Mother Jones magazine and published online last week.
What he said next became a political flashpoint, as he went on to characterize the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax as both deadbeats and Obama voters. (In fact, a sizeable chunk of that group is likely to vote for Romney.)
Still, that first simple assertion—he had already lost nearly half the voters in America—was shocking in its own right. Since when does a candidate for national office admit that he has no shot at the support of nearly half the country?
To political scientists, though Romney may have misidentified which 47 percent won’t vote for him, what he said wasn’t far off. As they estimate, somewhere around 43 percent of voters on each side are unbudgeable partisans, immune to even the wiliest charms of the opposing candidates.
And lurking behind this division is a surprising point that is becoming clearer to political scientists with every election: When it comes to choosing a president, campaigns matter far less than we think they do. The better political scientists get at forecasting election results, the more it appears that all this campaigning, these endless months of ads and gaffes and debates—it all accomplishes very little.
Political scientists haven’t been as quick as journalists to jump into the debate over whether Mitt Romney was wise in selecting Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. But a few academics who blog have chimed in.
John Sides of George Washington University is doubtful Romney made a good move, arguing on the Monkey Cage blog that while the Wisconsin congressman may indeed stoke the enthusiasm of hard-core conservatives, that’s not the dynamic Romney needs. He writes:
“Conservative Republicans are more enthusiastic, not less enthusiastic, than other Republicans. If Romney wants to engage in base mobilization, he should be focusing on the 27% of Republicans who self-identify as moderate or liberal.”
Matthew Dickinson of Middlebury College notes that, historically, the vice presidential candidate has very little impact on the outcome of a presidential election. He adds this thought, which runs somewhat counter to much of the press commentary…
After the Muslim Brotherhood gained 40 percent of the vote and the Salafis 25 percent in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Rana Abdelhai, a student, told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that while she would never vote for a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi candidate, “This is democracy now. We have to respect who other people choose, even if they make the wrong choice.” A few days earlier, Dalia Zaida, a young activist, made a similar comment to an NPR reporter, saying, “I’m worried, but you know, as someone who really believes in democracy, I have to respect people’s choice.” Many others seem to share this view. Kristof considered Abdelhai’s observation “wise.”
Such observations represent a very basic but surprisingly common misunderstanding about democracy, namely that it is the rule of the majority. According to this view, if a majority voted that boys can go to school but girls cannot, one must accept this ruling because it was determined in a legitimate way—and to contest it would be to undermine democracy. One may, of course, seek to convince the majority of voters to support equal rights for women or generally respect individual rights—but for now, whatever the majority enacts is to be considered legitimate.
True, even among those who hold this very truncated view of democracy, there are some who recognize that if a party seeks to use its majority to destroy the democratic process, it may be excluded from participating in the elections and from being represented in the legislature. Thus, some political scientists argue that when the Nazis were on the rise in Germany in the 1920s and clearly sought to establish a tyranny, they should not have been allowed to gain legitimacy by winning elections to the Parliament and, ultimately, having their leader named Chancellor of Germany. Indeed, post-WWII Germany outlawed the Nazi Party. And decades later, German interior ministers are attempting to exclude the far-right National Democratic Party from elections. Other countries, like Belgium and Spain, have similarly sought to ban parties that pose threats to national security, resulting in racist and secessionist parties like Vlaams Blok and Batasuna being forbidden from competing in elections. These nations have banned select political parties, citing “the need of democratic states to be vigilant and aggressive in defending themselves against antidemocratic threats from within—particularly the threat posed in the electoral arena by antidemocratic parties using democratic elections to assume power.”
The Hard Truth About Political Compromise: Political Scientists Say We’re Doomed Unless We Give Our Enemies Room to Move
On paper, America looks like a nation of political compromisers. In surveys, the vast majority of us say that we’re tired of gridlock, and that politicians ought to compromise more to get things done.
And yet, in practice, when it comes to any particular compromise—on immigration, on taxes, on health care—we’re often against it, no matter which side we’re on. We consistently vote for politicians who swear to stand by their principles no matter what, and boot compromising politicians out of office. It’s no wonder that some politicians can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge the possibility of comprising. (In 2010, when pushed to say “compromise” by the journalist Leslie Stahl, John Boehner said, “I reject the word.”)
Increasingly, this hardened attitude represents a danger to democracy and the economy. (Think of last summer’s debt-ceiling standoff—likely to be reprised this summer.) And it stems, according to two political scientists, from our failure to understand what compromise really is. In their new book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It,” Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue that Americans have an inaccurate view of compromise. In particular, they say, we vastly underestimate the costs of rejecting it.
Nowadays, they write, we have a simplistic view of compromise. We tend to think of compromise in terms of settling for less: We want two scoops of ice cream, but settle for one. That might describe what happens when you and your spouse compromise over the size of a new television—but it doesn’t work, the authors show, when it comes to politics. Political compromise requires more than settling; it requires actually letting the other side make progress on its agenda, even if you find that agenda repugnant. Even worse, political compromises are often incoherent. A compromise on immigration, for example, might mean combining ideas that seem to work against one another, like amnesty for illegal immigrants and strict rules criminalizing illegal immigration.