Category Archives: Race and race relations

Now VSU Is in Trouble

VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

Race, Culture and SOLs

by James A. Bacon

Here we go one more time… Does cultural background influence the likelihood of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning tests, or do disparities in results between racial/ethnic groups reflect only the disparity in resources allocated to different schools?

Over the past week, I have been arguing that cultural background is one critical differentiator, not the dominant differentiator — poverty (or economic disadvantage) accounts for roughly 57% of the variation — but it is nonetheless an important one. I allow for the possibility that some schools are better run than others, some teachers better than others, and that differences in resources may account for some variation. But culture is a significant factor, as can plainly be seen in the superior academic performance of Asians, both economically advantaged and disadvantaged, across the board.

But some readers doggedly refuse to acknowledge that culture plays any meaningful role. Among the most tenacious is our old friend Larry Gross, who asks a valid question that needs to be addressed. Pick the same school division, say Fairfax County. Then pick different schools within that division. The SOL pass rate for black children varies substantially. As he commented in my last post, “The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation,” pass rates for blacks for 3rd grade reading in some of the Fairfax Elementary schools are all over the map:

Annadale Terrace 36%
Bren Mar Park 62%
Bull Run 71%
Brush Hill 47%
Rolling Valley 50%
Saratoga 46%

“How,” he asks, “is this explained by culture?”

Let’s take a closer look. Here are the average SOL pass rates for all subjects at all six schools — hand picked by Larry to illustrate his point — broken down by race/ethnicity and by economic disadvantage, with the same information presented in chart form below. (Note: the DOE data did not include some scores for certain subjects for certain racial/ethnic groups. I have made the necessary adjustments.)

fairfax_elementary_SOLs

fairfax_pass_chartAs expected, economic disadvantage plays a major role. For every ethnic/racial group, economically disadvantaged students showed a lower SOL pass rate than those not disadvantaged.

However, differences remain. Same school division, same schools, same economic classification…. We see the same pattern repeated over and over. Asians score highest, whites not quite as high, Hispanics lower, and blacks lower. As discussed in other blog posts, the difference between whites and Hispanics largely disappears when adjusted for English proficiency. But Asians consistently score higher than other races, and blacks usually, although not always, score lower.

Does that settle the issue? Probably not. Here’s what we don’t know. Are some of the selected six schools better run, do they have more experienced teachers, or do they have more resources, any of which my skew results between schools? Those factors undoubtedly come into play — we just can’t isolate those variables from this data.

Am I saying that culture accounts for all the variation between racial/ethnic performance in those six schools? Of course not. Clearly, even after adjusting for economic disadvantage and ethnic background, some variability remains. Equally clearly, there is a lot of variability within ethnic/racial groups. Some Asian kids just can’t get their act together. Some African-American kids are academic superstars.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that culture explains some of the overall superior academic performance of Asian kids. Such a conclusion is not terribly controversial. We see the high performance of Asians back in the home countries of China, Korea and Japan. We’ve all heard of “Tiger moms.” We observe that Asians are not nearly as prominent on athletic teams but way over-represented when academic awards are handed out. We can admit the obvious because it does not upset deeply held political views on race and race relations. But as soon as we begin talking about the differences between whites and blacks, talk of culture becomes incredibly touchy. Indeed, a lot of people, suspecting racist motives, find it offensive when conservative white people bring the subject up.

But the idea that cultural attitudes affect educational outcomes is not terribly controversial in the black community. Bill Cosby famously highlighted the issue. Just yesterday Michelle Obama stressed the importance of education to an inner-city Atlanta school: Continue reading

The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation

by James A. Bacon

And the debate goes on…Yesterday, in “Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance,” I argued based on the statewide pass rate for the Standards of Learning that disadvantaged Hispanic school children who had proficiency in English actually out-performed disadvantaged white school children (and black as well). I hypothesized that the difference could be attributed to culture, perhaps the work ethic of poor immigrant families.

The blogger Life On the Fall Line countered by suggesting that the superior statewide performance of disadvantaged, English-proficient Hispanics could be attributed to the fact that nearly three-fifths of Virginia’s Hispanic population resides in Northern Virginia, which spends more money per pupil on schools, while most whites and blacks live downstate. “So,” he concluded, “yes, Virginia, schools with superior financial resources matter.”

That sounded like a potentially valid point, so I decided to drill deeper into the Virginia Department of Education “Virginia SOL Assessment Build-A-Table,” to see if that was the case. The chart below compares disadvantaged, English-proficient whites and Hispanics in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia’s largest school division. And for yucks, I threw in disadvantaged, English-proficient Asians and blacks.

Fairfax_SOLs

It turns out that Life on the Fall Line had a point. While poor, English-proficient Hispanics still out-performed their white counterparts, it was by such a narrow margin — less than one percentage point — that it could well fall into the margin of error.

But another stark finding jumps out from this table. Poor Asian kids kicked every other group’s academic ass by a wide margin. These are poor kids, mind you, not the sons and daughters of Indian software engineers and PhDs, whom you’d expect to excel. And, sadly, poor blacks under-performed by an equally large margin.

The response of the structuralists (those who believe that institutional structures discriminate against blacks) will be to say, “Drill down deeper! Look at the allocation of resources school by school.” That would be a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has the energy to do it. I welcome any contributions. But if differences in performance are mainly structural, not cultural, someone needs to explain the exceptional performance of Asian students. Do poor Asian kids attend the best schools with greater resources? If so, how do they pull it off? If they’re disadvantaged, they have no greater resources than their poor white, Hispanic or black peers to move into the top school districts.

While we’re at it, if school resources were the decisive factor, how do we explain that poor Hispanics outperform poor blacks? Do Hispanics not face as much discrimination and institutional racism as blacks?

From my reading of the data, it looks like once Hispanic students master English, they pass the SOLs at the same rate as white students. As I said before, that’s great news. It suggests that Hispanics are rapidly assimilating into mainstream Virginia culture. However, that still leaves the matter of Asians and blacks. How do we explain the persistent superior performance of one group and the under-performance of the other, if not in part by culture?

Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance

by James A. Bacon

I was planning to give readers a break today from graphs and scatter charts relating to Virginia’s 2014 Standards of Learning tests. Then I read a quote in the Times-Dispatch this morning by Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zajur was lamenting the high Hispanic drop-out rate from schools which, at 11.7%, exceeds the rate for blacks (8.7%), whites (4%) and Asian (3%).

“Zajur and others attribute the high dropout rate to the cultural pressures felt by Hispanic students, the article states. “While other cultures focus on education, Hispanic youths are more often pushed to enter the workforce as early as possible to help support their families.”

Hmmm… Here is a clear example of how culture affects educational achievement, a fact that some readers are determined to deny. Hispanic civic leaders, not right-wing conservatives, believe that their culture pressures young people to drop out of school early, and they’re trying to do something to change it. The article profiles the Passport to Education program in three Richmond-area schools that matches students with mentors and provides a bilingual Website to help families navigate the school system.

So, I began wondering, how are Hispanic students performing in their SOL tests? And could Hispanic culture influence the outcome? While acknowledging the hazards of generalizing about “Hispanic culture” when Virginia Hispanics originate from divers countries across Latin America, I think the answer is a resounding yes — but not in a way that people will expect.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Overall, Hispanics score significantly lower pass rates than whites. But that generality is deceptive. Utilizing the Virginia Department of Education SOL Assessment Build-a-Table tool, I found a huge gulf between Hispanic students who are proficient in English and those who are not. But, as seen in the chart above, when you compare English-proficient students, nine-tenths of the gap between Hispanics and whites disappears .

That would seem to confirm the idea that culture doesn’t matter. But let’s dig a little deeper. We also know that educational achievement is correlated with socio-economic status. What would happen, I wondered, if we compared apples with apples — disadvantaged but English-proficient Hispanics with disadvantaged white and black students? The results, I suspect, will startle many readers.

english_proficient

Disadvantaged Hispanic kids whose families have lived in the U.S. long enough to acquire English proficiency pass SOLs at a higher rate than disadvantaged whites by non-trivial margins, and blow the socks off the pass rates of black students.  To what factor do we attribute this superior performance? Do Hispanic kids attend schools with superior financial resources? Do they get the more experienced teachers? Does institutional racism favor poor Hispanic kids over poor white and black kids? That’s going to be a hard case to make.

Conversely, could there be a cultural difference? Is it possible that, as first- and second-generation immigrants, Hispanic students have a stronger work ethic than their disadvantaged peers in white and black communities? It is possible that they feel less entitled and more impelled to work hard?

Whatever the answer, it is very encouraging. The SOL data gives us every reason to believe that Hispanic kids in Virginia are assimilating very well once they master the English language.

Update on the Debate over SOL Performance

top_school_divisionsby James A. Bacon

There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of previous blog posts regarding the interpretation of the 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) data. The debate has largely focused on explaining the gap in the average SOL pass rate between white students and black students.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought reflected in the comments. The first school blames the lower black SOL pass rates on unequal access to resources, most notably access to experienced teachers. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “structural” school of thought. The second school attributes black under-performance to cultural factors, such as peer pressure to avoid “acting white” by pursuing academic achievement. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “cultural” school of thought.

I have presented evidence in previous posts suggesting that cultural factors play a big role in explaining the SOL performance gap. But the case is hardly a slam-dunk (at least not as I have presented it.) The Blogger who goes by “Life on the Fall Line” makes an interesting argument. Schools with the smallest gaps between white and black performance happen to be among the smaller school systems in the state. When there’s only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in a jurisdiction, he says, all the white kids and all the black kids in a jurisdiction get thrown in together.

When white parents don’t have a choice but to send their children to schools with black children the racial gap looks like it shrinks. … Broadly speaking, when the chance to discriminate does not present itself as an option, the racial gap closes. Or at least that’s how it appears.

The correlation between small school systems and higher black SOL performance is far from perfect, he concedes, but he thinks the relationship is strong. (It should not be difficult to test his hypothesis. We’ve got data on black SOL performance, and we’ve got data on the number of schools per school district.)

Larry Gross advances a different argument. He points to large variations in the black pass rate from school to school.

There are 45 elementary schools in Henrico with only 10 showing significant percentages of blacks – and the reading scores of the 10 schools vary from 40% pass to 75% pass. Now if “culture” is the cause of the state-level black scores, please explain why “culture” is not being reflecting pretty much the same across different elementary school districts. Why is there a 35% disparity in black pass rates depending on school?

One reason for the variation may be that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” black students is higher in some school districts than others. The data exists to take that variable into account. My hunch is that the variability would shrink but still persist, and Larry’s question still would need to be answered.

Larry and Life on the Fall Line both make interesting points. Anyone who embraces the “cultural” school of thought needs to address their arguments.

There is a third basket of explanations, which I call the “institutional” school of thought, that remains to be explored here. That line of thinking would attribute some of the gap in student performance to varying quality of administration at different schools and school systems. Arguably, some schools and entire school divisions are just better managed or have more inspired teachers.

Along those lines, instead of chastising failing school systems, perhaps we should be rewarding — or at least recognizing — exceptional school systems. Hill City Jim has ranked Virginia’s school divisions by the average SOL pass rate for black students. The top-performing school systems — all divisions with a pass rate of 70% or higher — appear at the top of this post. Are administrators of those school divisions doing something right, or does superior black student performance reflect lower poverty rates or other factors over which schools have no control?

I’m not sure we’ll find any definitive answers, but we’ll keep asking the questions.

Shedding More Light on Black SOL Performance

black_SOL_pass_rate
by James A. Bacon

After a brief hiatus, we’re back to analyzing the 2013-2014 Standards of Learning results… Hill City Jim provided another data set that’s worth looking at — correlating the relationship between the percentage of black students in Virginia school divisions and the percentage of blacks that pass the SOLs. Why would anyone conduct that exercise? Because there is a body of thought, mainly in the liberal-progressive camp, that a significant factor explaining poor black academic performance is the segregation of black kids in under-resourced black-dominated school divisions.

The chart above shows the distribution of school divisions with a measurable black student population (leaving out 14 school divisions in Western and Southwestern Virginia). The vertical axis shows the SOL pass rate, the horizontal axis the percentage of blacks in the school system. An illustration: The red diamond, representing our old friend West Point, has a 9% black student body and a black pass rate of nearly 94% (the highest pass rate for blacks of any school system in Virginia, incidentally).

The black line shows an R² of o.o704, which (according to my primitive understanding of statistics) suggests that only 7% of the variation in black SOL performance can be attributed to the relative concentration of blacks in the school division.

Bacon’s bottom line: The school division data gives some credence to the liberal-progressive idea that putting black children in a school division with more white children will boost their academic performance. But the correlation is a weak one. And as a practical matter, what can Virginia state and local governments do with this information anyway? Implement school busing across school divisions? The resulting expense and furor would be hugely counter productive.

Of course, there is a deeper level of analysis that we have not performed. One could argue that the percentage of black kids in a school division is less relevant than the percentage of blacks kids in a particular school, on the assumption either (a) that predominantly black schools receive less adequate resources than their predominantly white counterparts, even within the same school division, or (b) that the proximity to white students has a beneficial effect. Unfortunately, analysis of the first proposition is exceedingly difficult to perform — at least it is in Henrico County, which I have delved into in the past. Amazingly, Virginia school districts do not break down spending by individual schools. As for the second proposition, that proximity to white children has some magical effect on blacks, that strikes me as borderline racist. It amazes me that any liberal or progressive would ever advance such an argument.

In the final analysis, this chart, while interesting, does not settle anything. Hill City Jim has some more suggestions for SOL analysis, so, we may be back soon.

Download spreadsheet, “Black students percentage of division.”

When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap

gender_gapby James A. Bacon

When remarking upon disparities in educational outcomes, most pundits focus on the racial/ethnic gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. That’s no surprise, given the distressing size of the gap and the dismal implications of that gap for the prospects for forging a society in which every child has an equal shot at succeeding in life. But there’s another gap, not quite as large, but equally pervasive — the gender gap. Girls out-perform boys academically across the board. Combine the gender gap with the ethnic/racial gap, and that spells very bad news for the upcoming generation of black males.

To examine the dimensions of this gap, I used Virginia’s awesome “SOL Assessment Build a Table” tool that allows users to take a deep dive into the data. I compared male vs female pass and fail rates on reading, writing, history, math and science SOLs across all schools and grades, then broke down the gender disparities by racial/ethnic group to see if the disparities were worse for some groups than others. The chart above shows the male-female gap — the difference between the percentage of females who passed the the percentage of males who passed. Here’s the detailed data.

The most striking pattern is that boys fail SOLs at a higher rate than girls in every subject area. The gap is greatest for writing and reading and smallest for history/social science and science. Some sub-groups of boys marginally out-perform girls in science but the difference is small. Generally speaking, the performance gap for “advanced,” as opposed to simple “proficiency” accentuates girls’ academic superiority, with science and history/social sciences the main exceptions.

Another broad conclusion is that the gender gap is narrowest among whites and Asians, and the most glaring among blacks and American-Indians. Statewide, more than 45% of all black males fail the writing SOLs; nearly 43% fail the math SOLs. Without question, the fact that so many blacks are economically disadvantaged plays a role here. But the under-performance of black males is so strong that other factors undoubtedly come into play.

The difference cannot be explained by the distribution of blacks in “bad” schools and other races in “good” schools. Larry Gross has compared the SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged whites and blacks (not distinguishing between gender) in Henrico County elementary schools and the pattern remains depressingly the same in school after school. (See his data run here.)

I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. In a technology-driven knowledge economy in which education is more critical than ever to attaining a middle-class lifestyle, it is frightening to think that half the black males going through school today are fated to live at the economic margins.

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

What Price Happiness?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn't be happy living here... if you could afford it?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn’t be happy living here… if you could afford it?

by James A. Bacon

After learning that Virginia cities report some of the highest levels of personal satisfaction in the country (see “Happy“), I have been thinking a lot about what creates happy communities. In the hope of gaining a better understanding, I recently finished reading Dan Buettner’s 2010 book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” that plumbed the social, economic and political wellsprings of happiness around the world.

The premise was intriguing: Buettner visited four “blue zones,” locations where research indicated inhabitants were world leaders in happiness. Visiting these zones — Denmark; Singapore; Monterey, Mexico; and San Luis Obispo, California — he interviewed politicians, academics, civic leaders and everyday people about why they thought their country/city measured off the charts.

The book is an easy and thought-provoking read. Buettner asks intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are all across the board. While there are some universal constants — people are happier when they aren’t starving, dying from pestilence and in continual fear of their physical safety; people value family and friendships; people with a sense of purpose are happier than those without — different cultures define happiness in different ways. The things that make Danes happy often are very different from the things that make Mexicans happy. Transplant a Mexican family from Monterey to Copenhagen and the result will not be joy and contentment.

While the United States doesn’t set the standard for worldwide happiness, its inhabitants are happier than most. And of all the places in the country, it turns out that the residents of San Luis Obispo are, on average, the happiest in the United States. The picture that Buettner paints of San Luis Obispo, a city of 45,000 amid a county of 270,000, is an attractive one. Set in central California, the region has a great climate. There are lots of bike trails. The town is highly walkable. Local ordinances ban gaudy commercial signage. People are healthy and physically active. As home to California Polytechnic, the town has a lively cultural scene. People are tolerant of cultural minorities. Much wine is consumed. In sum, San Luis Obispo is the Charlottesville of California. Not coincidentally, Charlottesville was ranked happiest among all of America’s small metros in a 2010 Center for Disease Control survey cited in a July National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Unhappy Cities.” (I do not know if the CDC used the same methodology for ascertaining happiness as the researchers cited by Buettner.)

There may be more to San Luis Obispo’s secret sauce than meets the eye, however. Outside the university, there are limited economic opportunities, Buettner writes. And the quality of life is so desirable that people drive up the price of the limited supply of housing to levels that are unaffordable to many.

In other words, San Luis Obispo has used strict zoning and growth controls to create a delightful environment… for those who can afford it. Judging by happiness surveys, the people who live there are extremely satisfied with the results. But think about what that means. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of less affluent Californians who would like to share in that happiness but have been effectively priced out of the market. Who are those Californians? For the most part they are poor and minorities. San Luis Obispo is 85% white. Hispanics, some of whom are classified as white, constitute only 14.7% of the population. The number of Asians and native Indians is small, and the number of African-Americans is insignificant.

So, while San Luis Obispo celebrates diversity, it does not practice it. People — liberals and conservatives alike — like living around other people like them. The shared values stemming from such cultural homogeneity builds trust, and trust is a critical ingredient for happiness. The wider the radius of trust and cooperation in a community, the happier the people living there.

San Luis Obispo is hardly the only community to engage in exclusionary zoning. The practice is widespread around the country. But zoning out poor people, who tend to be less happy, is not in accord with America’s ideas of social justice. There is a rising tide of thought that nations should measure themselves not just by the size of their economies but by their Gross National Happiness. That sounds like a wonderful idea — until you ask whose happiness and how it is achieved.

Is the End of America’s Culture Wars in Sight?

Lind

Michael Lind

by James A. Bacon

Have the Culture Wars peaked? Is the national debate over God, Gays and Guns on the downward slide? Michael Lind, a conservative thinker and cofounder of The New America Foundation, thinks the end is foreseeable. Just as the Civil War didn’t end after Gettysburg — the Confederate states still had a lot of fight left in them — the controversy over abortion, gay rights and gun rights will generate headlines for years to come. But there isn’t much doubt who will win the war.

Look at the views of the Millennial Generation and you can see which way popular sentiment is heading. Millennials are far less likely than their elders to say religion plays an important role in their lives, and they are more likely to define themselves as social liberals. They are less likely to own guns and more likely to support gun control. They are the only demographic cohort in which a majority — 70% — support gay marriage.

As liberal Millennials replace conservatives from the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, will political power swing decisively to the Democratic Party? Not necessarily, writes Lind in “The Coming Realignment,” an essay in The Breakthrough. But there will be a massive shift in the fissures dividing the nation. How that will play out in terms of partisan politics is difficult to predict but rest assured that the Republican Party, a coalition of disparate and often fractious groups, will reinvent itself.

Lind analyzes contemporary U.S. politics along two great dividing lines: economics (free markets, regulation, inequality of wealth) and culture (guns, God and gays). Democrats represent the economic and cultural liberals; Republicans represent the economic and cultural conservatives. But there are many economic liberals/social conservatives (often called populists) and economic conservatives/social liberals (often labeled Libertarians) who don’t fall easily in either camp. As the social conservatives are slowly eased out of the picture, Lind argues, political coalitions will reorganize around two new poles: Liberaltarians and Populiberals.

Liberaltarian, a term already in use, describes “a broad camp including neoliberal Democrats skeptical of government in the economic sphere along with libertarian Republicans and independents who recognize the need for more government than libertarian ideologues believe to be legitimate.”

Populiberal, Lind’s coinage, describes “social liberals who share the liberal social values of liberaltarians, but who tend to be more egalitarian and to favor a greater role for the government in matters like social insurance, business-labor relations, and redistribution of income.”

Lind then boldly suggests that these two new coalitions will align themselves geographically between “Densitarian” and “Posturbia.” By Densitaria, he refers to the higher-density urban precincts, both downtowns and suburban villages, where higher-income Americans increasingly prefer to reside along with the service class that caters to their needs. Posturbia is comprised of lower-density suburbs and rural areas where the working and middle classes live. Residents of Densitaria and Posturbia will tend to disagree about the nature of the social safety net (should it be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable, or should it structured more like universal social insurance?), the tax structure (soak the rich?) and the nanny state (using government power to combat obesity).

Though fascinating, Lind’s argument is not entirely convincing. He is entirely correct that the national sentiment is becoming more liberal on some Culture War issues, most notably gay rights. But I don’t believe the needle has moved much on abortion. And, as medical science advances, I think we will see entirely new ethical dilemmas arise. It won’t be long before genetic engineering allows people to create “designer kids” or before the use of manufactured limbs, hearts and organs on the one hand and the rise of robots imbued with Artificial Intelligence raises questions of what it means to be human. It is not hard to predict a growing revulsion against what some deem to be progress. Some of that revulsion may be religion-based, but much of it could be secular.

One additional point: Millennials are culturally liberal now. But will they stay liberal when they get married, settle down and have kids? Look what happened to the Baby Boomers. Who would have thought in 1968 that a majority of the generation would wind up voting Republican in 2012?

Still, I think Lind is right about some things. The shift toward equal rights for gays is likely to be permanent and, within a decade, no longer will be controversial. I also think Lind is right that the last remnants of racial prejudice are dying out with the passing of the older generations. As young “people of color” see race as less and less of a factor affecting their lives, they will be less attached to the Democratic Party and more open to appeals by Republicans.

In my spare time, I am working on a novel set in 2075. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what the United States will look like in 60 years. I’ve concluded that the world is so complex and the interactions of technology, economics, politics and culture so impossible to predict that the future is unknowable. With that caveat, I postulate the break-up of the Republican Party into two entities — the Enterprise Party (which is economically conservative and culturally liberal) and the Faith Nation (which is first and foremost culturally conservative). In my scenario, the Enterprise Party hives off some people who call themselves Democrats today, and the Democratic Party shifts so far to the populist-redistributionist left that it rebrands itself as the Social Democratic Party. (In my novel, the Social Democrats predominate. I guess you could call it a dystopia!)

Such idle speculation aside, America has seen dramatic political realignments before, and it will see them again. Lind makes a provocative case and he identifies key dynamics that will influence the outcome. Popular dissatisfaction with Americans political institutions is so intense today that it’s hard to believe that the current two-party duopoly can long continue in its current form. Lind’s essay is as good a place as any to start thinking about what comes next.