Racial Dynamics in the American Context
: A Second Century of Civil Rights and Protest?

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Dianne Pinderhughes 

Drawing from published work that will be compiled as a new book, Black Politics After the Civil Rights Revolution, Dianne Pinderhughes explored the arc of 20th-century civil rights reform and the growing political incorporation of African Americans into electoral politics when she delivered the 2019 Hanes Walton, Jr. lecture. A recording of the lecture is available below. 

Understanding the history of collective action is essential to tracing the development of 20th-century racial politics in the United States. Pinderhughes began by describing racial injustice in the U.S. starting with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which some consider the nadir of race relations in the U.S. Following this era, Pinderhughes described a period of innovation and institution building beginning in the early and mid 20th century, which saw the development of legal defense funds and an increase of racial diversity in academia.

Social and political scientists recognize the gradual increase in African American political participation and the increasing numbers of elected officials of color. As the political dynamics of the eras changed, Pinderhughes described how African Americans have pushed to enter, to change, and to reframe their status.

Pinderhughes posits that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 posed a direct challenge to that framing of the evolution of successful racial reform. In doing so, she asks whether the U.S. is entering a new nadir. “My own work around these issues of democracy, political participation and efforts to integrate on a stable basis, and to begin to address the economic and political dimensions of citizenship, was challenged by how they might be framed,” Pinderhughes said. “But most of that work began from and was conceptualized within a relatively stable set of policy values and expectations, and that racial and ethnic exclusion was no longer possible, or acceptable.”

In the end, Pinderhughes concludes that the state of politics in the 21st century is far more hopeful than the nadir of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Institutional reforms have substantially recreated the American electoral and political process. Race is central to American life, and it will continue to be a dynamic force in electoral politics.

The Hanes Walton, Jr. lecture series was launched in 2015, in honor of Hanes Walton, Jr. One of the most influential and productive political scientists to emerge from the civil rights era, Walton published numerous journal articles, several book chapters, and authored more than twenty books. Walton is remembered for his in-depth subject knowledge, sense of humor, and ability to connect with his students. He was a caring and supportive mentor to his countless graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in academia and industry. 

Computer simulations reveal partisan gerrymandering 

Post developed by Katherine Pearson 

How much does partisanship explain how legislative districts are drawn? Legislators commonly agree on neutral criteria for drawing district lines, but the extent to which partisan considerations overshadow these neutral criteria is often the subject of intense controversy.

Jowei Chen developed a new way to analyze legislative districts and determine whether they have been unfairly gerrymandered for partisan reasons. Chen, an Associate Professor of Political Science and a Research Associate at the Center for Political Studies, used computer simulations to produce thousands of non-partisan districting plans that follow traditional districting criteria. 

Simulated NC map

These simulated district maps formed the basis of Chen’s recent expert court testimony in Common Cause v. Lewis, a case in which plaintiffs argued that North Carolina state legislative district maps drawn in 2017 were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. By comparing the non-partisan simulated maps to the existing districts, Chen was able to show that the 2017 districts “cannot be explained by North Carolina’s political geography.” 

The simulated maps ignored all partisan and racial considerations. North Carolina’s General Assembly adopted several traditional districting criteria for drawing districts, and Chen’s simulations followed only these neutral criteria, including: equalizing population, maximizing geographic compactness, and preserving political subdivisions such as county, municipal, and precinct boundaries. By holding constant all of these traditional redistricting criteria, Chen determined that the 2017 district maps could not be explained by factors other than the intentional pursuit of partisan advantage. 

Specifically, when compared to the simulated maps, Chen found that the 2017 districts split far more precincts and municipalities than was reasonably necessary, and were significantly less geographically compact than the simulations. 

By disregarding these traditional standards, the 2017 House Plan was able to create 78 Republican-leaning districts out of 120 total; the Senate Plan created 32 Republican-leaning districts out of 50. 

Using data from 10 recent elections in North Carolina, Chen compared the partisan leanings of the simulated districts to the actual ones. Every one of the simulated maps based on traditional criteria created fewer Republican-leaning districts. In fact, the 2017 House and Senate plans were extreme statistical outliers, demonstrating that partisanship predominated over the traditional criteria in those plans. 

The judges agreed with Chen’s analysis that the 2017 maps displayed Republican bias, compared to the maps he generated by computer that left out partisan and racial considerations. On September 3, 2019, the state court struck down the maps as unconstitutional and enjoined their use in future elections. 

The North Carolina General Assembly rushed to adopt new district maps by the court’s deadline of September 19, 2019. To simplify the process, legislators agreed to use Chen’s computer-simulated maps as a starting point for the new districts. The legislature even selected randomly from among Chen’s simulated maps in an effort to avoid possible accusations of political bias in its new redistricting process.

Determining whether legislative maps are fair will be an ongoing process involving courts and voters across different states. But in recent years, the simulation techniques developed by Chen have been repeatedly cited and relied upon by state and federal courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and elsewhere as a more scientific method for measuring how much districting maps are gerrymandered for partisan gain. 

Using Text and Images to Examine 2016 Election Tweets

Post developed by Dory Knight-Ingram 

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “Using Neural Networks to Classify Based on Combined  Text and Image Content: An Application to Election Incident Observation” was a part of the session “Deep Learning in Political Science” on Friday, August 30, 2019.

A new election forensics process developed by Walter Mebane and Alejandro Pineda uses machine-learning to examine not just text, but images, too, for Twitter posts that are considered reports of “incidents” from the 2016 US Presidential Election. 

Mebane and Pineda show how to combine text and images into a single supervised learner for prediction in US politics using a multi-layer perceptron. The paper notes that in election forensics, polls are useful, but social media data may offer more extensive and granular coverage. 

The research team gathered individual observation data from Twitter in the months leading up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. Between Oct. 1-Nov. 8, 2016, the team used Twitter APIs to collect millions of tweets, arriving at more than 315,180 tweets that apparently reported one or more election “incidents” – an individual’s report of their personal experience with some aspect of the election process. 

At first, the research team used only text associated with tweets. But the researchers note that sometimes, images in a tweet are informative, while the text is not. It’s possible for the text alone to not make a tweet a report of an election incident, while the image may indeed show an incident. 

To solve this problem, the research team implemented some “deep neural network classifier methods that use both text and images associated with tweets. The network is constructed such that its text-focused parts learn from the image inputs, and its image-focused parts learn from the text inputs. Using such a dual-mode classifier ought to improve performance. In principle our architecture should improve performance classifying tweets that do not include images as well as tweets that do,” they wrote.

“Automating analysis for digital content proves difficult because the form of data takes so many different shapes. This paper offers a solution: a method for the automated classification of multi-modal content.” The research team’s model “takes image and text as input and outputs a single classification decision for each tweet – two inputs, one output.” 

The paper describes in detail how the research team processed and analyzed tweet-images, which included loading image files in batches, restricting image types to .jpeg or .png., and using small image sizes for better data processing results. 

The results were mixed.

The researchers trained two models using a sample of 1,278 tweets. One model combined text and images, the other focused only on text. In the text-only model, accuracy steadily increases until it achieves top accuracy at 99%. “Such high performance is testimony to the power of transfer learning,” the authors wrote. 

However, the team was surprised that including the images substantially worsened performance. “Our proof-of-concept combined classifier works. But the model structure and hyperparameter details need to be adjusted to enhance performance. And it’s time to mobilize hardware superior to what we’ve used for this paper. New issues will arise as we do that.” 

Presidents and/or Prime Ministers  

Post developed by Allen Hicken and Katherine Pearson 

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “Presidents and/or Prime Ministers: A Historical Dataset” was a part of the session “Legislatures and Leaders: New Perspectives on Political Institutions” on Thursday, August 29, 2019. 

Classifying systems of government is a challenge for political scientists comparing regimes over time and across countries. A new historical dataset developed by Fabricio Vasselai, Samuel Baltz, and Allen Hicken addresses this challenge with a simplified classification scheme that presents data on four broad variables: whether there is an elected prime minister, whether there is an elected president, whether there is a non-elected prime minister, and whether there is a non-elected president. The dataset includes a yearly assessment for almost all sovereign countries since 1789, which amounts to 16,910 country-years. 

The simplicity of this classification system allows researchers to examine other characteristics separately, including the level of democracy or the powers of elected leaders. While the majority of country-years fit a neat definition, this dataset allows a clearer analysis of complex cases. 

The authors present France as an interesting test case. In the years included in this dataset, France had (1) only an unelected prime minister, (2) no elected or unelected prime minister or president, (3) only an elected prime minister, (4) an elected prime minister and an elected president, or (5) an elected prime minister and unelected president, with several of these states repeating multiple times throughout France’s history. The dataset presents this complicated historical narrative in the simplified manner below. 

This classification system also allows researchers to explore the evolution of different systems of government over longer periods of time. The authors show that an explosion of elections took place in the 19th century. Beginning in the 20th century, the share of countries electing only a prime minister takes a slight lead; by 1945 almost twice as many countries elected only a prime minister compared to those electing only a president. The share of countries electing either leader climbs through the second half of the 20th century, with only about 10 percent of country-years lacking an elected leader by 2017. 

Evolution of types of system

By developing a simple, comprehensive dataset, Vasselai, Baltz, and Hicken have given researchers a resource that allows them to analyze regimes consistently and layer on additional information as needed. 

New Book Examines Ghana’s Political Trap

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

As a country grows and develops economically, most experts expect political behavior to develop as well, becoming more policy-oriented and programmatic and moving away from clientelism that characterizes less developed countries. However, this has not been the case in Ghana. In his new book, Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition, Noah Nathan traces the unexpected political patterns that are emerging in urban Ghana. Despite a growing middle class and increasing ethnic diversity, clientelism and ethnic voting persist in many urban neighborhoods.

Nathan focuses his research on Accra, Ghana, a diverse and growing metropolis of four million people. Not only is the population of the city growing, but it is becoming wealthier and better educated: data show that the middle class in Accra has tripled in size since Ghana democratized in 1992. The trend toward urbanization has also led to more diversity and contact between members of different ethnic groups in the city. Experts usually expect that higher incomes and levels of education will shift voter preferences away from politicians offering patronage and toward more policy-oriented candidates.

Political practices in Ghana have not transitioned as rapidly as the demographics have. Instead, Nathan shows, Ghanaian politics have become stuck in a trap. The trap is a cycle wherein voters expect goods and favors, which politicians deliver in the form of patronage. As a result,  the government performs poorly and elected officials are seen as less credible. Policy-oriented citizens are left without programmatic candidates, and become more likely to decide to opt out of voting entirely. With those voters increasingly out of play, politicians face strong incentives to continue engaging in clientelism, sometimes creating ethnic competition.

political trap

Nathan, Noah L. Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

The key to understanding the political trap of clientelism is the neighborhood-level variations within cities. Voters with similar levels of wealth and education do not all vote alike across the city; voting behaviors differ greatly by neighborhood. Voters in poorer neighborhoods still expect favors from politicians, who respond accordingly. Taking this into account, many middle-class voters, those who are most likely to support a programmatic transition, opt out of voting because they view politicians engaging in patronage as lacking credibility.

Certain features of developing cities give further context to explain politicians’ and voters’ incentives. Developing countries have lower capacity to provide services and infrastructure to their citizens as a whole. The rapid pace of growth creates a scarcity of resources to go around. Without the credibility to promise broad improvements, politicians rely instead on promises to select groups. Cities tend to be comprised of neighborhoods that differ widely in their wealth and diversity, often within the same electoral district. Understanding these realities help explain why clientelism prevails, even as the electorate becomes wealthier, better-educated, and more diverse.

Nathan concludes his analysis of the political patterns in Ghana by drawing parallels with political systems seen in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as in Latin American cities. In these cases the shift to more programmatic politics occurred politicians could no longer distribute government resources selectively. The rise of civil service reforms and broad social welfare programs supported the shift to policy-oriented systems. These parallels to similar transitions over time and in other developing countries may point the way to more policy-oriented political systems in the future. 

Most Popular CPS Blog Posts in 2018

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Since its establishment in 2013, a total of 146 posts have appeared on the Center for Political Studies (CPS) Blog. As we approach the new year, we look back at 2018’s most-viewed recent posts. Listed below are the recent posts that you found most interesting on the blog this year.


Farris and Eck

Crime in Sweden: What the Data Tell Us 

By Christopher Fariss and Kristine Eck (2017)

Debate persists inside and outside of Sweden regarding the relationship between immigrants and crime in Sweden. But what can the data actually tell us? Shouldn’t it be able to identify the pattern between the number of crimes committed in Sweden and the proportion of those crimes committed by immigrants? The answer is complicated by the manner in which the information about crime is collected and catalogued. This is not just an issue for Sweden but any country interested in providing security to its citizens. Ultimately though, there is no information that supports the claim that Sweden is experiencing an “epidemic.”

Read the full post here.


Negativity in Debate Speeches, By Political Party, 1976-2016Exploring the Tone of the 2016 Campaign

By undergraduate students Megan Bayagich, Laura Cohen, Lauren Farfel, Andrew Krowitz, Emily Kuchman, Sarah Lindenberg, Natalie Sochacki, and Hannah Suh, and their professor Stuart Soroka, all from the University of Michigan. (2017)

The 2016 election campaign seems to many to have been one of the most negative campaigns in recent history. The authors explore negativity in the campaign – focused on debate transcripts and Facebook-distributed news content – and share their observations.

Read the full post here.


Parental LeaveAttitudes Toward Gender Roles Shape Support for Family Leave Policies

By Solmaz Spence (2017)

In almost half of two-parent households in the United States, both parents work full-time. Yet when a baby is born, it is still new moms who take the most time off work. On average, new mothers take 11 weeks off work while new dads take just one week, according to a 2016 survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. In part, that is because many new fathers in the U.S. don’t have access to paid paternity leave. Paid maternity leave is rare, too: in fact, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not provide a national paid family leave program to new parents.

Read the full post here.


The Spread of Mass SurveillanceThe Spread of Mass Surveillance, 1995 to Present 

By Nadiya Kostyuk and Muzammil M. Hussain (2017)

By closely investigating all known cases of state-backed cross-sector surveillance collaborations, the authors’ findings demonstrate that the deployment of mass surveillance systems by states has been globally increasing throughout the last twenty years. More importantly, from 2006-2010 to present, states have uniformly doubled their surveillance investments compared with the previous decade.

Read the full post here.


gerrymanderingRedrawing the Map: How Jowei Chen is Measuring Partisan Gerrymandering 

By Solmaz Spence (2018)

“Gerrymandering”— when legislative maps are drawn to the advantage of one party over the other during redistricting—received its name in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a misshapen district that was said to resemble a salamander, which a newspaper dubbed a “gerrymander.”

But although the idea of gerrymandering has been around for a while, proving that a state’s legislature has deliberately skewed district lines to benefit one political party remains challenging.

Read the full post here.


American ElectorateInside the American Electorate: The 2016 ANES Time Series Study 

By Catherine Allen-West, Megan Bayagich, and Ted Brader (2017)

Since 1948, the ANES- a collaborative project between the University of Michigan and Stanford University- has conducted benchmark election surveys on voting, public opinion, and political participation. To learn more about the study, we asked Ted Brader (University of Michigan professor of political science and one of the project’s principal investigators) a few questions about the anticipated release.

Read the full post here.


Party IDUnderstanding the Changing American Electorate 

By Catherine Allen-West (2018)

The American National Election Studies (ANES) has surveyed American citizens before and after every presidential election since 1948.  The survey provides the public with a rigorous, non-partisan scientific basis for studying change over time in American politics.

The interactive graphs in this post illustrate the changing American electorate and some of the factors that may motivate voters’ choices at the ballot box.

Read the full post here.


TwitterUsing Twitter to Observe Election Incidents in the United States 

By Catherine Allen-West (2017)

Election forensics is the field devoted to using statistical methods to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors. Problems in elections that are not due to fraud may stem from legal or administrative decisions. Some examples of concerns that may distort turnout or vote choice data are long wait times, crowded polling place conditions, bad ballot design and location of polling stations relative to population.

Read the full post here.


InequalityInequality is Always in the Room: Language and Power in Deliberative Democracy 

By Catherine Allen-West (2017)

In a paper presented at the 2017 APSA meeting, Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan, and Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania, explore the effectiveness of deliberative democracy by examining the  foundational communicative acts that take place during deliberation.

Read the full post here.


ElliottMaking Education Work for the Poor: The Potential of Children’s Savings Accounts 

By Katherine Pearson (2018)

Dr. William Elliott contends that we need a revolution in the way we finance college education. His new book Making Education Work for the Poor, written with Melinda Lewis, takes a hard look at the inequalities in access to education, and how these inequalities are threatening the American dream. Elliott and Lewis present data and analyses outlining problems plaguing the system of student loans, while also proposing children’s savings accounts as a robust solution to rising college costs, skyrocketing debt burdens, and growing wealth inequality. In a presentation at the University of Michigan on October 3, 2018, Elliott presented new research supporting the case for children’s savings accounts and rewards card programs.

Read the full post here.