Monday, March 20, 2023


 There have been numerous efforts to define "woke" in the past week or two.  A common problem with the ones I've seen is that they have been too elaborate, treating it as if it were a political ideology rather than general current of opinion.   I would define it as an inclination to think that discrimination is the primary cause of group inequalities (except when a generally favored group is on the bad side, as with men being overrepresented in prison).   

With this definition, we have a question that can be used to measure the growth of "wokeness." The General Social Survey asks:  "On the average (negroes/blacks/African-Americans) have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are mainly due to discrimination?" 

Agreement was generally declining among both whites and blacks until about 2014.   but there have been large increases in 2016, 2018, and 2021.  White agreement is at its highest level ever, and black agreement is almost equal to its highest level.   Of course, opinions are affected by experience and other evidence, but those haven't changed dramatically in the last ten years---that leaves what I called the "inclination."   Ibram X. Kendi's remarks are interesting in this context:  "The racist answer is 'no'—it presumes that racist discrimination no longer exists and that racial inequities are the result of something being wrong with Black people. The anti-racist answer is 'yes'—it presumes that nothing is wrong or right, inferior or superior, about any racial group, so the explanation for racial disparities must be discrimination."  That is, he doesn't appeal to evidence, but to principle:  "presumes" and "must be."

The previous figure showed that the turn towards wokeness occurred among both blacks and whites.  It also occurred among both more and less educated whites, although it was stronger among college graduates:

This is normal--usually changes of opinion are similar among different groups, although there may be subtle differences.  But the pattern by ideology is different:

The GSS asks people to rate their ideology on a seven-point scale:  I divided it into three groups, very and somewhat liberal; slightly liberal, moderate and slightly conservative; and somewhat and very conservative.  Liberals and moderates have both moved substantially towards agreement, but there has been little change among conservatives.  There's a good deal of sampling error in year-to-year changes in subgroups, but agreement rose among conservatives between 2014 and 2016, but then declined in 2018 and 2021.  

So the division over "wokeness" is not just something that has attracted the attention of political elites and people on Twitter:  it is clearly visible in the public.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

'Twas a famous victory

 In September 2015, a Pew survey asked "Thinking about the way things are going in politics today...on the issues that matter to you would you say your side has been winning more often than it's been losing, or losing more often than it's been winning?"  The question has been repeated a number of times since then, most recently in September 2022.  The figure shows the percent who said that their side was generally winning broken down by party--the colors distinguish between supporters of the President's party (Democrats in 2015 and 2016, Republicans 2017-2020, and Democrats in 2021-2).  

Unsurprisingly, supporters of the President's party are more likely to think that they are winning than supporters of the opposition party are.  The unexpected part is that the views of supporters of the president's party are more variable--in the opposition party, "winning" ranged from 14-22%, which is probably not much more than would be expected from sampling variation; in the president's party, it ranges from 31% to 69%.  The highest value occurred in May 2019.  Trump supporters generally say that his greatest accomplishments were the tax bill, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices, and the Abraham accords, and maybe the program to develop Covid vaccines, none of which occurred around that time.  The most plausible explanation for the positive feelings among Republicans is the release of the Mueller report, which was generally regarded as a political victory for Trump because it wasn't as damaging as many had expected.  On this interpretation, Republicans had the greatest sense of success after avoiding a loss rather than after a positive accomplishment, which shows the strength of negative partisanship.    

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, March 10, 2023

Three kinds of polarization

I'll start by answering a question in a comment on my last post:  where can you get these data?  One way is to download the data from the American National Election Studies data center and then analyze them using a statistics program; the other is to analyze them online from the SDA (Survey Documentation and Analysis) site.  I use both, but usually SDA--it's faster for simple analyses.  

The ANES survey has thermometers for the parties, the presidential candidates, and liberals and conservatives.  A few years ago, I showed the correlation between ratings of the Democratic and Republican parties.  Here's the figure updated to include 2020:

There was a substantial drop between 2000 and 2004, and no consistent change since then.  That's kind of surprising, since the general perception is that polarization has increased substantially in the last 10-15 years.  

From 1964 to 1982, the ANES asked about ratings of Democrats and Republicans.  The correlations:

The first time it was asked was after the Johnson-Goldwater race, when there was large ideological gap between the parties.  But even if you leave that aside, polarization declined (since a negative correlation indicates polarization, an upward slope is a decline in polarization) from the 1960s to the 1970s.  

There are also thermometers for the presidential candidates starting in 1972:

In contrast to the questions on the parties, this shows a substantial recent increase in polarization.  The correlation between ratings of Trump and Biden in 2020 was -.787, which is remarkably high for individual-level data (the correlation between ratings of the parties in 2020 was -.48).  

Questions on liberals and conservative in 1964:

There isn't much trend through 2008, then a big increase in polarization in 2012, with smaller increases in 2016 and 2020. 

What I find most striking in these figures is that polarization was probably lower, and certainly not higher, in 2016 than in 2012.  The substantial increase between 2000 and 2004 is also noteworthy.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

I'm OK, you're OK

 A recent  Rasmussen poll asking people if they agree or disagree that "it's OK to be white" has gotten a lot of attention.  26% of black respondents disagreed, and 21% said they didn't know.  Scott Adams notoriously interpreted those results as meaning that almost half of black people are hostile to whites.  It's hard to say what they actually mean, since the statement is vague and open to a lot of different interpretations--13% of whites said they didn't know (and 7% disagreed).   But there's another question which measures feelings in a straightforward way:  the American National Election Studies "feeling thermometer" that asks people to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with numbers over 50 indicating that you feel "favorably and warm" toward the group and numbers under 50 indicating that you "don't feel favorably . . . and that you don't care too much for that group."  Feeling thermometers for blacks and whites have been included regularly since 1964.  The figures show the average ratings of whites and blacks by race:

Among both blacks and whites, the rating for their own race declined until around 1990 and has stayed about the same since then.  White ratings of blacks have become steadily more favorable.  Black ratings of whites increased until about 2000, but have declined since then--it's hard to be sure about the timing since the black samples are small in most years, but there has clearly been a change in direction.  Still, even the latest black ratings of whites are mostly favorable (an average of 62), and about the same as the average rating of blacks by whites circa 1990.  Looking more closely at 2020, 4.5% of blacks rate whites at 0, and another 3.2 rate them at 20 or less.  On the other side, 13% of blacks rate whites as 97-100.  

The recent decline in black ratings of whites is interesting, and may be cause for concern, but favorable ratings are more common than unfavorable ones, and definite hostility is rare.

Friday, February 24, 2023

One more on the media

 While doing one of my recent posts, I looked at the Gallup report on their question about "trust and confidence in the mass media ... when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly."  That report showed changes by party identification*:

The obvious feature is the growth of polarization since the late 1990s--the partisan gap has gone from about 10-15 percentage points to 50-60.  I haven't kept a systematic record, but offhand I can't think of any opinion question that's shown a bigger increase in partisan polarization.  There are a couple of other things that are worth noting:  

1.  Like Republicans, independents show a clear downward trend.  As a result, they are now closer to Republicans than they are to Democrats.  In the 1970s and 1990s they were about midway in between Democrats and Republicans--in 2022, they were about three times as far from Democrat as from Republicans.  This may be because people (especially people who aren't that interested in politics) tend to react to controversy by concluding you don't know who you can believe.  As a result, it's easier to make them lose trust than to gain trust.  

2.  There is some tendency for people to be more positive about the media when a president of the opposite party is in power.  The strongest case is with Trump, when Democratic confidence increased substantially and stayed high while he was in office--it also rose under Bush and declined under Obama.  It's harder to tell with Republicans because the trend is so strong, but the decline in trust seemed to slow down or stop under Obama, and there's been a slight increase under Biden.  Probably this occurs because the president gets a lot of attention, and news stories tend to focus on negative things, giving supporters of his party more to object to (and opponents more sense that the media is doing its job).  

The second point leads to a question about short-term changes in opinion:  do the opinions of Democrats and Republicans move together or in opposite directions?  One possibility is that there are changes in the general quality of news coverage, and people of all parties react to them in the same way--for example, confidence might have declined as it became clear that many stories about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq had been inaccurate.  Then the opinions of Democrats and Republicans would move together, even though there would be a persistent difference between them.   This would be similar to assessment of current economic conditions--if unemployment or inflation increases, both Democrats and Republicans will rate the economy as worse.  Another possibility is that people react according to whether the news reflects well or badly on their side--for example, a negative story about Biden will cause Democrats to lose confidence and Republicans to gain confidence.  

To judge this, I computed the change from the previous year.  There was one case with a 21-year gap, which I discarded because change over a long period is dominated by the trend, and a few with a two-year gap, which I kept.  Comparing changes among Democrats and Republicans:

There is no association (the correlation is -.03), but it's not just noise--some of the individual changes make sense in terms of what was happening then.  In 2001 and 2009, supporters of the new president's party lost confidence in the media, and supporters of the other party gained.  In 2016, supporters of both parties lost confidence--presumably because of negative coverage of Trump for Republicans, and stories about Clinton's e-mails for Democrats.  In 2017, confidence in the media increased substantially among Democrats but also increased a little among Republicans, suggesting that some Republicans had qualms about Trump.  The changes among independents had positive correlations with both the changes among Democrats (.50) and Republicans (.21).  This pattern suggests that the changes are a mix of consensus and partisan reactions.  What if we looked at changes among independents to get a sense of the consensus part?  Sampling error has a large impact on those figures, but for what it's worth the biggest positive changes among independents are in 1974, 2017, and 2013; the biggest negative changes are in 2004, 2007, and 2012.

*The question has four possible answers, but the Gallup report collapses that into two, and the recent datasets aren't publicly available.  

Monday, February 20, 2023

Trust but verify

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about claims that people had lost faith in the media because of the coverage of the Russian collusion story--the basic idea is that the media kept saying that the Mueller report would be a bombshell, so when it turned out  to be inconclusive, people felt like they had been sold a bill of goods.  I looked at two measures of trust in 2016 and the present, and found only small declines in both.  Of course, a lot has happened since the collusion story was big (the Mueller report was issued in the spring of 2019),  so it would be better to consider some intermediate points as well.  I'll do that in this post, using three different measures.   First, from a survey conducted by the Edelman Trust Institute "how much do you trust [the traditional media] for news and information?"

I have to show it as a screenshot (from an article in Axios--I got the reference from Andrew Gelman's blog) because I don't have access to the original data.*  The figures on the x-axis are misleading, because they refer to the year of the annual reports, which involve a survey taken late in the previous year.  That is, the last survey in the figure was taken in late 2020.  As of late 2019 ("20" on the x-axis, trust was about the same level as in 2016--that is, it hadn't suffered during the time that the investigation was a big story.  It did fall a lot between late 2019 and late 2020--there are a lot of candidates for what might have caused that change.  

Second, the Reuters Digital News Report, which has annual surveys conducted early in the year.  I show results for two questions:  whether you can trust "most news most of the time" and whether you can trust "news sources that you use."

Trust in the news sources that you use has declined steadily--general trust in news rose from 2015 to 2017 and then declined steadily.  The 2019-20 decline was just about the same as the declines in 2017-8 and 2018-9.    

Finally, a question on trust in the media to report the news "fully, accurately, and fairly," measured on a four point scale.  Gallup has done this question annually (in September) in recent years, and a few other news organizations have asked it from time to time.

By this measure, confidence increased in the first years of the Trump administration, but then declined from 2018 to 2019.  You could say that was a reaction to the way the collusion story ended, but the declines have continued.  

There are some differences between the paths of the three measures, and since lots of things are happening at any time, it's difficult to identify the impact of any specific event.  But there's nothing here to support the idea that the inconclusive end of the collusion story caused confidence to collapse.  That implies that trust should have been substantially lower in the second half of 2019 than it was in 2016, which wasn't the case.  

*They had another question about whether you can trust the media to "do what is right,"  which I looked in my previous post.   The results for the question on "trust for news and information" are not regularly included on their annual report--that Axios story says the data were "shared exclusively with Axios."  (Edelman seems to be a management consulting firm which charges for access to their data--the reports just give a taste).  

[Some data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research] 

Friday, February 17, 2023

Getting what they deserve?

My last post questioned the claim that trust in the media dropped substantially during the Trump years.  The idea behind that claim is that trust will rise or fall depending on the performance of the media:  if they show bias, as some observers think they did with Trump, people will realize that and turn against them.   Many people treat this as just a matter of common sense.  But a recent essay by Louis Menand* suggests a different possibility.  He observes that during the 1950s, the press had a cooperative relationship with government officials:  where the "national interest" was involved, journalists largely accepted the official accounts, and didn't report information that they thought would be harmful.  This was particularly relevant to foreign affairs, but I think you can also see it in some domestic coverage--e. g., problems in the rollout of the polio vaccine.  On the other side, politicians and government officials were restrained in criticizing the media--they might object to particular stories, but they didn't make general attacks.  In the 1960s, the media started to get more aggressive and critical in its reporting, and government officials started pushing back--as a result, public trust in both sides declined.  That is, better news coverage (as judged by today's standards) led to less trust. 

This connects to a point I noticed when doing my last post:   the nations with the highest trust in the media, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, are not the most democratic.  According to their  latest report, the top four countries for trust in the media are China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Kenya.  I don't have much faith in any opinion data from China, but the pattern is still clear without it.  The specific question they use is whether you trust the institution to "do what is right."  For many people, I think this means being "responsible"--emphasizing the positive, and downplaying or even suppressing information that might cause harm.  The other question I discussed in that post, whether you can "trust most news most of the time," doesn't seem to show the same negative correlation with democratic government--I think that's because in context people interpret "trust" as meaning that the news is accurate.  However, it doesn't seem to show a positive correlation either.  

Returning to the United States, I haven't been able to find any questions on general trust in the media until 1969, when Gallup asked "In presenting the news dealing with political and social issues, do you think that **** deal fairly with all sides or do they tend to favor one side?"  The question wasn't asked again until the mid-1980s, but since then it's been asked pretty often by several different survey organizations.  Originally they asked separate questions about newspapers and TV news--later surveys generally had one question about "news organizations."  The results, with higher values meaning more support for the "dealing fairly" option:

There is a clear downward trend.  However, it seems to have bottomed out in the early 2010s--that is, during the Trump years, people were more likely to say that news organizations dealt fairly with all sides than they had been during the Obama years.  The last time the question was asked was February 2020--a lot has happened since then, so it would be interesting to see what the results would be today.  However, the general point is that trust in the media didn't show a particular decline while Trump was president, and more generally doesn't seem to have many ups and downs--the rise in the late 2010s was the first clear departure from the trend.  

That is, whatever you think about the quality of media coverage of Trump, there's no sign that it led people to lost confidence in the media.  Or to put it another way, good journalism should be valued for its own sake, not because it will be greeted with public approval.

*And previously Michael Schudson's Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]