The Return of the Jeremiad: My (Accurate!) Prophecy from 2012

Malaise Forever!A while ago I wrote a seminar/conference paper in Graduate School arguing the presidential “we” rhetoric was, in a time of permanent crisis, on the way out. I used Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech (forever tarnished as the “malaise speech” even though the word never appeared even once) in July 1979 as a template: the speech’s questioning of the doctrine of automatic American progress, which challenged voters intellectually and spiritually, was well-received by ordinary voters (but not editorial elites). History has obscured this fact, probably owing to Carter’s stunning political incompetence in the final months of his presidency that rapidly undid all the good will he had earned. I expected that a presidential candidate would grasp the possibilities of bypassing and overturning the norms of American speech that have been ossifying since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Little did I know that the tragedy of Carter would issue in such a farce. The paper is presented below.

Jimmy Carter and the American Jeremiad

Clifford Vickrey

Presented on 15 Apr. 2013

James Earl Carter’s address to the nation on 15 July, 1979, which spoke of the “crisis of confidence” that struck at “the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” survives in American historical memory as the “malaise” speech. The speech was a prelude to a six-point plan to attack the energy crisis, formally unveiled the next day. Carter did not mention the word “malaise” even once in the course of the half-hour. It was the subsequent unraveling of Carter’s presidency, however, that forever grafted the term onto his actual words. Politicians have learned from the speech to never again question the American consensus around the power of positive thinking, and never again openly subject the public to even the mildest criticism. In the very first presidential debate of his two presidential runs, Governor Mitt Romney responded to the viewer-submitted question of “what do you dislike about America” with the only possible answer: “Gosh. I love America. I’m afraid I’m going to be at a loss for words, because America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills and streams and great cities, it’s the American people. And the American people are the greatest people in the world” (“First Presidential Candidates Debate” 2007). It is unlikely that a mainstream Democratic candidate would have said anything greatly different; to suggest that the United States could likely face the same forces of decline and decay that have bedeviled all empires—that the Sword of Damocles hangs over us, no less than it does over everyone else—is anathema to American exceptionalism, and to a career in American public life. The upbeat and dreamlike populism of Ronald Reagan was the forceful answer to Carter’s speech. So says the oracle of conventional historical wisdom.

We tend to forget that one-hundred million people watched the crisis of confidence speech, which received an overwhelmingly favorable public response. Carter would later say at a symposium about his presidency:

I thought that was the best speech I made when I was president. It was laboriously prepared … We had a means at the White House then—it is much more effective now—to get an instant response from viewers on a speech, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. (Rosenbaum and Ugrinsky 1994, 481).

The speech was notable not only because of the president’s preacher-like inflections, and admonitions such as “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” It is also notable because it was a rare moment when a sitting American president consciously inspected America’s moral-philosophical traditions for policy inspiration. Carter borrowed from Tocqueville, as well as contemporary public intellectuals such as Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, and Robert Bellah, each of whom he received at Camp David in May 1979. The result was an American jeremiad, informed by an explicit Puritanism that is no less a part of American political thought than the Enlightenment, but which our political discourse frequently obscures.

Why does this story bear reexamination? There are several auxiliary reasons, such as addressing whether intellectuals should have as close a connection to power as they did in this instance, but I will focus on two. First, as a matter of historical interest, I think that the crisis of confidence speech is the key to a scholarly understanding of the Carter presidency. According to some literature in the American political development school, Carter’s presidency was doomed by its relationship to historical time. That is, as a Democrat superintending the final days of New Deal hegemony, Carter had no choice but to act as an unideological technocrat, who would not radically expand or contract the welfare state but rather tinker around the margins and make government run more efficiently. Skowronek therefore writes that “Carter’s leadership tracks the age-old pattern among late-regime affiliates … Locating the salvation of the nation in the machinery of the government, Carter was unable to anchor his leadership project in constituency support” (2003, 366). Energy seemed to be an especial site of fissures in the Democratic coalition; one National Review editorial noted that “each of Carter’s energy options can exacerbate those splits” (“Carter on the Titanic” 1979). In the crisis of confidence speech, however, Carter came close to articulating a transformative vision for American politics to supplant the current liberal regime: a call for “post-traumatic confidence or confidence tempered by realism” (Mattson 2009, 202). Historians also give Carter poor marks for his poor relations with “elites,” who revolted and sounded the death knell of his presidency. But revisionists such as Kevin Mattson, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Ohio, tell us that Carter’s go-for-broke public appeal in July 1979 nearly salvaged his presidency.

The crisis of confidence speech is significant for a second reason, which I believe is related to the first. That is, it speaks directly to the question of the enduring role of prophecy in American political life. Shulman (2008) gives us a nuanced account of prophecy, focusing particularly on its role in constituting and reconstituting group narratives. He also brings our attention to prophetic rhetoric’s role in the movement for racial emancipation, on the one hand, and its role in recent counter-mobilization that aims to restrict the democratic space, on the other. I argue that Carter’s speech is doubly important here because it is an outstanding recent example of a prophetic jeremiad, and because the negative examples of jeremiadic exclusion—that is, the use of prophetic language in the telling and retelling of national narratives that identify many groupings as un-American—resurged in the speech’s aftermath. Can a president employ the jeremiad as a way to articulate a new, transformative vision of American politics, as Carter attempted to do? (And even if such an articulation is possible, we also have the possibility that our media age, which reduces all rhetoric to un-substantive spectacle, renders ineffective any such attempt to convey hard truths). Alternatively, does the jeremiadic form, which broaches the terms of an original “covenant” and decries the ills that have arisen from its willful breach, foreclose such innovation, making it merely a creature of the status quo consensus? Indeed, many observers characterized Carter’s style as antipolitical, and some have charged the same of prophecy generally: the jeremiad trades in absolutes, prevents people’s assessment of political alternatives, and denies their participation in such issues as (say) the energy crisis.

With Shulman, however, I do not think that democratic change and the jeremiad are incompatible. I argue that Carter’s speech was deficient not because it was jeremiadic, but rather that he failed to harness the whole potential of the American jeremiad. Though the speech movingly sets up the “fall” from the covenant, it does not imaginatively retell the terms of the national consensus. He expressed a hope for moral regeneration, but just as he said in his inaugural address that he “[had] no new dream to set forth today” (“Inaugural Address” 1977), he offered no discernable public philosophy as a resource with which listeners could regenerate themselves. He called only for a purely individual responsibility, anemic to meet the challenge of crisis and prove the nation once again worthy of the covenant’s blessings.

I divide the paper into three parts. First, I will discuss the historical and intellectual context that produced the jeremiadic turn of Carter’s rhetoric. Second, I provide an overview of the American jeremiad, including competing interpretations of its political consequences. Third, I place the crisis of confidence speech in dialogue with the jeremiad literature, hopefully arriving at a theoretically informed understanding of why the speech did not assume the place in historical memory that Carter desired.

Jeremiah’s roots. Carter’s political identity is a good place to begin our inquiry. Journalists, biographers, and political scientists alike have noted this identity has consisted of two tensional halves. The first half is the detail-oriented technocrat that emphasizes “competence.” This emphasis leads some to characterize the Carter Administration as a “trusteeship presidency” that dispassionately oversaw the efficient management of government and ignored the messy responsibilities of bargaining and electoral politics. One staffer employed the term “common cause monarch,” referring to the transparency-in-government advocacy group founded in 1970 by John Gardner—a member of Carter’s brain trust on energy policy—and stating that Carter saw himself primarily as the unideological crusader against Washington waste and corruption (Jones 1988, 81). Both terms imply that Carter was anti-political in the worst sense of the term, in that he was unwilling, on account of stubbornness, to build a social and political consensus for his program. Carter’s second half is the Christian moralist who identifies national spiritual problems that are by no means amenable to simple policy solutions. Bellah, a sociologist whose mature views closely correspond to the label of “Left Puritan,” observed this split in anticipation of his 1979 visit to Camp David, and lamented that the president’s independent Baptist views were divorced from his policy analyses. This means that president abdicated his moral responsibility for the public realm in favor of purely technocratic responsibility (Horowitz 2005, 59). Were Carter’s private moral views so divorced from his own public philosophy, why would he then assume the political risk of a jeremiad?

The answer, I believe, is that the two sides to Carter are not as tensional as Bellah believes. Carter once summarized the meaning of his 1976 with the word “faith,” and wanted to insert into his inaugural address a verse from the Second Book of Chronicles—“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (7: 14)—before his advisers successfully pleaded for milder language (Morris 1996, 6). (Notably, the verse is frequently the province of American evangelicals). Presidential scholar Erwin Hargrove, after spending time with Carter in Plains, GA in 1982, makes this assessment:

I decided that his religious faith was the key to his personality. And then I went and talked to lot of Southern Baptists—and there are all kinds of Southern Baptists, but he’s a certain kind of Southern Baptist: no not Calvinist; really an early anti-Baptist who believes that with God, all things are possible. Not much conception of original sin in Carter’s worldview, I don’t think. You add that to the engineer; engineers seem to believe that there are correct answers to questions. And then, I think, a deep psychological need for mastery over problems. He must

Here, we see that a religious faith in the improvability of humans is a strong psychological resource for his technocratic, managerial enterprise. While he frequently quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who highlighted the ineluctably tragic and Hobbesian nature of political life, Carter’s political career showed little in the way of a neo-orthodox resignation to the way of the world. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. thus publically questioned Carter’s commitment to Niebuhr and criticized Carter’s “sentimental” and uncompromising political style (Ribuffo 1992, 217), and Hargrove alludes to rumors that Niebuhr’s widow wrote Carter insisting that he did not understand her husband.

Carter’s reconciliation of faith and politics perhaps has more in common with Jonathan Edwards than Niebuhr. Although Edwards, the leading light of the First Great Awakening in New England, is best known for the consummate hellfire sermon of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), historian Perry Miller points out that he was also an early believer in the scientific and transparent administration of government. Departing from the medieval political theory of the very early Puritan synod, “Edwards says that the supreme qualification of a ruler is that he be a man of ‘great ability for the management of public affairs.’ This is his first and basic definition!” (Miller 1956, 164). Miller adds that Edwards saw the inculcation of religious fervor as a way to excitedly invite as many people as possible to participate in the affairs of the community and thereby increase governmental competence. In his populist political style and allusive calls for local participatory government in the crisis of confidence speech, Carter may serve as a modern update of Edwards.

Even a purely technocratic approach to American politics, however, could not but see that seemingly “intangible” and “spiritual” problems fatally threatened any national political program in the late nineteen-seventies. Trust in all public institutions plummeted. Deadly violence broke out at gas queues. While some economic indicators, such as unemployment and the business failure rate, were healthy, inflation was rampant and declining worker productivity suggested to some that the Protestant work ethic had succumbed to rampant hedonism. The consequences for Carter’s presidency were immediate. Georgia Tech Professor of Economics W. Carl Biven’s assessment reads like an autopsy:

The rising prosperity from generation to generation throughout our history is rooted in increases in the efficiency of workers and management. When real wages failed to increase during Carter’s term as they had in the past, frustration among voters, most of whom were not aware of why this was happening, gradually began to set in (Biven 2002, 254).

Carter’s approval rating plummeted to below thirty points by June 1979. Attempting to convince Americans than an “energy crisis”—the costs of imported oil had skyrocketed without leading to any change in consumption habits—was the engine driving “stagflation,” Carter declared the “moral equivalent of war” on the crisis in an early 1977 presidential address. Eighty million viewers watched. Facing the opposition of interest groups in Congress as well as the intransigence of the first Secretary of Energy, Republican James Schlesinger, Carter’s energy agenda stalled. His fourth energy address exactly two years later garnered only thirty million viewers. In Mattson’s words, “The denizens of a declining empire had tuned their leader out” (2009, 21).

Though Americans at least initially sensed that the energy crisis “made up,” few would deny that some kind of crisis was looming. “Impending disaster has become an everyday concern,” wrote Lasch, “so commonplace and familiar that nobody gives much thought as to how disaster might be averted” (1978, 4). But whereas Bellah warned that “public confidence and commitment to the common good are necessary for our very survival” (1979), Americans responded to the crisis atmosphere with merely personal survival strategies, or else the fantasy that the solution lay merely in budget cuts and tax decreases. The “catastrophe” motif of much late seventies popular culture—including disaster movies and best-selling books about the Black Death—and the hedonism of the disco scene were not unrelated (Mattson 2009, 34).

Debate raged in the Carter Administration about whether to tackle the crisis in a public and “sermon-like” manner. Caddell urged him to do so in a fifty-five page memorandum that, with a comprehensive survey data and a sincere attempt to mine American moral traditions for solutions, earned Carter’s praise as a “masterpiece” (Morris 1996, 3). Caddell wrote that the first step was the president’s frank acknowledgement of the problem, which could overcome Americans’ increasingly cynical and conspiratorial attitudes towards institutions. With confidence restored, the energy crisis would then be soluble, as people would be “more willing to sacrifice more and suffer more if they perceive a purpose, an enemy, and an end goal to that pain” (Horowitz 2005, 20). People would agree to adhere to a rejuvenated social covenant if only the choice appeared to them. Domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat, meanwhile, called proposed the turn towards spiritual reflection “bullsh—.” Vice President Walter Mondale used similar language and came to the brink of resignation. Where Caddell saw promise in addressing spirituality, Mondale saw obvious peril. His solution was, of course, a recommitment to a hopeful liberalism: “Instead of scolding the public we should play to their [sic] better instincts, and I think that will be bring forth the best response” (95). The president’s speechwriters strongly advised against “overdrawn appeals for individual conservation efforts. … No more berating the American people for waste and selfishness” (90).

Caddell won over Carter with an appeal to the latter’s Wilsonian instincts, convincing him to cancel yet another address to the nation on energy and carefully prepare a wholly different type of speech, one in which he would attempt to embody the general will of a troubled nation. But the logic of the pollster’s call for bolstering the president’s credibility, though “irrefutable in principle,” did not on its own suffice. Skowronek writes that such credibility is “elusive when the basic question of political identity has been so carefully fudged” (2003, 382). After his “careful” cultivation of the image as an outsider and as an unideological technocrat, Carter risked fracturing the Democratic coalition he inherited through a strong commitment to any conventional policy agenda. The only tack to build credibility, then, was to remake the electoral coalition with a new transformative vision for the Administration. Towards this end, Carter invited religious, scholarly, and community leaders for discussions Camp David’s Laurel Lodge in several waves, beginning in late May. Guests included Lasch, Bell, and Bellah—the stars of the Caddell memorandum—who shared Carter’s skepticism that a recommitment to twentieth century liberalism would salvage his presidency.

The commonality between these three thinkers, indeed, was that liberal ideology had exhausted itself, lacking in its core a public philosophy that could reconcile the incompatible claims of competing interest groups. “In theory, the liberal order should have collapsed a long time ago,” according to Lasch, but “liberal states have been spared the worst consequences of their internal incoherence by repeated, prolonged periods of economic expansion” (1983, 105). They stood at the dawn of the Communitarian revolution in American Political Theory, and for once trends in the Academy were reverberating in politics. Even Mondale appropriated political scientist Theodore Lowi’s arguments against the burgeoning special interest system, and Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan wrote despairingly of “a democracy that is increasingly pluralistic, politically fragmented and dispirited about its future” (Horowitz 2005, 93). The stakes for a unifying revival were high. Without the revival of participatory community, we would continue on the path from a “more to a less democratic polity and from a less to a more authoritarian society,” in the words of communitarian anti-modernist Sheldon Wolin (1981, 3). The question of whether America would maintain itself on its old creed—“a creed that, once victorious, encourages moral fragmentation and social atomization of the very society that expounded it” (Morris 1996, 320)—or whether such a revival would take place, became the question of the Carter Administration. The jeremiad was an attractive method which to break the impasse.

What, more specifically, were the thinkers’ recommendations? Lasch, a disaffected liberal, then Marxist, and finally a populist critic of the doctrine of secular progress, was an unlikely visitor to the seat of national power. In spite of his disdain for the ethos of “enlightened administration,” he held much early enthusiasm for Carter, deemed to be “the most intelligent politician to have risen to national prominence in a long time” (Miller 2010, 240). This enthusiasm soon waned. The book that brought Lasch to national prominence and a feature in the new People magazine, The Culture of Narcissism, spoke of the consequences of the managerial capitalism, and its discrediting of such traditional forms of authority as the family. Social relations—at least among affluent elites, who had not totally succeeded in imposing their values on middle America—became barbaric and manipulative. “Late capitalism” had produced profound conflicts in individuals that led to narcissistic acting out, consummating Lasch’s synthesis of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Intuitively sensing that their culture had no future, Americans attempted to escape such anxious conditions in new age mysticism, therapy, and sex, but without any success. Even aesthetic contemplation offered no psychic release from the war of all against all, as it had for Arthur Schopenhauer. The worst aspect of “the passion to live for today” was not so much self-absorption, but rather the complete disregard for future generations (Lasch 1978, 5; Miller 2010, 161). Carter sped-read the book and could not but have noticed it was short on solutions. Poet Paul Zweig called Narcissism “a Jeremiah without the horizon line of God and hope” (“Human Conditions for a Good Society” 1979). All Lasch could offer was a populist pipedream that the discrediting of Washington elites would reinvigorate participatory democracy, even though he elsewhere spoke of the ordinary citizen’s plight as one of “powerlessness” (Miller 2010, 242).

Bell more explicitly offered religion as a possible solution. A sociologist who eventually settled at Harvard, he was most famous for his association with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization that sponsored anti-communist intellectual advocacy with secret funding from the Central Intelligence Agency. A Cold War liberal and pluralist in the mold of Arthur Schlesinger—part of the “cult of the hard-boiled” that the less pragmatic Lasch ridiculed—his social diagnosis eventually made greater allowances for the role of religion in the nineteen-seventies. His analyses characteristically divided society into three domains: the economic, the political, and the cultural. The cause of the crisis was that the “cultural” domain—once the site of searches for meaning in religion and self-denial, but now afflicted by a “modernist” desire for novelty and material gratification—has gone to war with its economic and political counterparts. Hence, the thesis of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: “The Protestant ethic had served to limit sumptuary (though not capital) accumulation. When the Protestant ethnic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental logic” (1976, 61). Bell thinks that the transcendental logic of capitalism is a necessary guarantor of economic efficiency, and yet consumer capitalism is the very thing emptying the economy of this logic: capitalism is at war with itself, and it was only a matter of time before political consequences made themselves known. Carter scribbled Bell’s ominous forecast into his notes: “Crisis in culture, then politics?” (Horowitz 2005, 67). Bell’s solution, like Bellah’s, called for a reconnection with Puritanism. The “covenant” logic of the Puritans, in spite of the “irrational mystery at the foundations of Puritan theology,” nurtured a “rational” community morality: “One’s own sins imperiled not just oneself but the group; by failing to observe the demands of the covenant, one could bring down God’s wrath on the community” (Bell 1976, 59). While government cannot, to Bell, endorse morality like the Puritan synod, he does imagine a religious revival leading to a greater corporate allegiance to society, which he ideally understands as a “public household” that moderates the play of private interest groups.

Could or should intellectual leaders communicate their ideas to a sitting president? Illustrative to anyone who would pose this question is the confusion that arose when Lasch, Bell, and Bellah visited Camp David on 30 May. With Carter present, Caddell read from a memo consisting of thirty-two questions for the guests, the most central of which was, if they agreed that if “the problems are rooted in culture, social structure, and economics … then what is the role of the President, the government, the political system in what is essentially a non-political cultural/societal problem?” (Mattson 2009, 92). The guests seemingly understood that the president was looking to make an address that connected politics with culture, and perhaps also for the blueprint of a new presidential politics. The issue of how academic advice could accomplish such a task is what baffled. Bellah, the most comfortable of the three in his role as public intellectual, advised the president to disregard Mondale’s exhortation against grouchiness. A “teaching president” and “transformational leader” would have to convey hard and unalloyed truths. He wrote in the speech’s aftermath:

I made a fairly impassioned statement asking for almost a Jeremiah [sic]. I said I felt people wanted to be told that it was all OPEC’s fault and that some kind of technology would solve everything—but that they knew it was a lie. We’d like to believe it, but on a deeper level we know it isn’t true. … I urged him to be what I’ve called in my work a “teaching President,” one who points out what it means to maintain our tradition in a given historic period … who gives us something new as well as something that continues what is old. Tell us the hard truths—don’t just tell people what they want to hear. That’s not what a teaching president is (“A Night at Camp David,” 1979).

The teaching president would have to establish continuity in the past, but also use this continuity to introduce novelty into the political space. A taller order, certainly, than the Inaugural Address’s avowed refusal to “offer a new dream.”

For his part, Bell echoed Caddell’s concern that the president had sacrificed, in his attention to the technical minutia of governing, a generalized “framework” of policy with which citizens could identify. (Generalizations come more easily to sociologists than they do to engineers like Carter). He suggested a letter-writing campaign to voters in order to prevent the media from refracting the message. Press Secretary Jody Powell expressed notable puzzlement (Mattson 2009, 93). Lasch was the last to speak. He did not voice an indictment of hedonists, but rather the acerbic and practical concern that calls for civic sacrifice would backfire in the conditions of an energy crisis. “Many people had turned down the heat in their houses” last winter “only to find out that utility companies proceeded to raise their rates,” he observed. When Carter asked what he would do, he replied, “I don’t know” (93-4). The flame-throwing historian never had much use for specific policy analysis.

Though there was consensus that any speech that emerged from the conversation should address the question of apathy—and, indeed, Carter did announce in the speech that “two-thirds of our people do not even vote.” But while the meeting furnished some raw materials for the eventual jeremiad, everyone left with the sense that they had accomplished little. Carter lacked the knack for abstract argumentation necessary to fully synthesize these materials, which is why, perhaps, he delegated so much of this task to Caddell. One historian concludes that “while [the president] invited advice from social critics … he was either unpersuaded by or just uninterested in their larger theoretical schemes. He rejected the language of Bellah’s theory of American ‘civil religion’ and expressed no enthusiasm for Lasch’s synthesis of Freud and Marx” (Morris 1996, 4). The inability to more seriously engage with these “schemes” may have proven fatal to Carter’s jeremiadic project.

The jeremiad: a fractured legacy. Scholarly interpretations of the American jeremiad are, in addition to the cranky social critics of the seventies, helpful resources in assessing the prospects of Carter’s project. These interpretations, though competing, do agree that the jeremiad, named after the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah’s lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem, in its classical and modern forms are never intended as dejected paeans to pessimism. Instead, according to political theorist Andrew Murphy, “The jeremiad was always intended as a call to action, an exhortation to reform the community back into the image of its founders and godly ancestors” (2009, 32). Nor does the jeremiad merely accuse or challenge the audience. The community leader as Jeremiah instead catalogues the “sins” of the community so as to assume collective responsibility for them. More specifically, Shulman sees the jeremiad as triple-voiced, in varying degrees assuming three different tones to convey three different messages; the prophet makes “certain kinds of claims in certain registers of voice: as a messenger bearing truths we deny at great costs, as a witness giving testimony about the meaning and costs of conduct, as a watchman who forewarns of danger to forestall it, as a singer whose lamentations redeem the past for the present” (2008, 323). The prophet succeeds by identifying the space between the prior commitments of the community—the original covenant, which to the Puritan jeremiads was John Winthrop’s sermon onboard the Arbela, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630)—and the community’s present conduct in a mobilizational way: “prophets narrate conduct as a decline from origins, to address a community about its constitutive commitments and current difficulties, to make its future contingent on a ‘decision’ about its conduct” (Shulman 2008, 8).

Scholarly disagreement arises about whether the space between covenant and conduct is emancipatory. Do appeals to this space shock people out of persisting in exclusive social practices, or are they really articulations of an idealized consensus that mask patterns of domination? Can the appeals introduce novelty into the public space, or do they lock us into extant visions of political life? In order for jeremiads to be politically effective in any sense, however, we have to establish their embeddedness in American political discourse, and their intelligibility to the public. Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness (1956) resolves the whole issue by saying that the jeremiad exists only as a historical artifact, to which modern political rhetoric bears only the most superficial relationship. The American jeremiad, to Miller, thrived in the contingent circumstances of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, at a time when the Puritan community was grasping for its raison d’être—its “errand,” in the vocabulary of minister Samuel Danforth. To the first Puritans saw their errand in the diminutive sense, namely as a rear guard action in the service of internationalist Calvinism. When the second- and third-generation settlers felt deserted by their brothers and sisters in the faith, their errand became the construction of a millenarian community—alone. The jeremiads expressed disgust with the abandonment of the original errand, but also forgave the sins they catalogue and thereby facilitated the adoption of the second definition of the errand. This errand, too, became discredited, leaving us with a political culture free of Puritan influence.

More recent interpretations have questioned the Enlightenment’s sole claim to shaping American political thought. These are open to the possibility that the jeremiad has left a profound imprint on our rhetoric. Sacvan Bercovitch, a Canadian who brings an outside perspective to American studies, gives us the classic treatment of The American Jeremiad (1978). “The persistence of rhetoric” over the course of American history, he insists, “attests to an astonishing cultural hegemony” (28); the grand Puritan errand never died. The work’s title is significant in its implication that the American jeremiad is sui generis, and is part and parcel of American exceptionalism. It may be that Old World jeremiads are simple records of outstanding moral failures. American jeremiads, however, trade in “affirmation and exultation” in order to intensify listeners’ commitment to the errand (6). The errand assumes secular and post-millenarian elements—Bercovitch says of the eighteenth-century revivalist ministers that “their errand led not from earth to heaven … but from lesser to greater glories on the American strand” (95)—but never loses its essentially religious orientation; listeners, dreamlike, inhabit an idealized America that exists in both the realm of the absolute (“God’s time”) and the concrete (“our time”). Murphy describes the national myth attendant to the jeremiad as a “chosenness” that holds out the destructive threat of a “militarized global supremacy” (2009, 158-9). An increased commitment to the errand, which synthesizes eschatology and chauvinism, can only heighten the sense of otherness with other peoples and spill into violence.

For Bercovitch, the American jeremiad’s most baleful consequence is the way in which it captures and colonizes dissent against the American project. The jeremiad is a “bipolar” discourse in its alteration between lamentation and exultation. These poles, however, serve a unified purpose: “Its function was to create a climate of anxiety that helped release the restless ‘progressivist’ energies required of the venture. … It made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate” (Bercovitch 1978, 23). Declaring that received institutions are in crisis paradoxically sustains these institutions. Criticism of extant institutions, in the form of decrying the space between promise and fact, becomes a rote ritual in which community leaders engage. Criticism retells and renews but does not question the terms of the order. Rogin puts the Bercovitch view in psychological terms: “American history has proceeded by consciousness of decline from the faith of the founders and efforts at heroic renewal. Made in the name of the fathers to revitalize the sons, these efforts regenerate a world grown dead in sin” (1975, 312). Such soul-searching, owing to its naïveté about the American project’s embeddedness in racism, makes it impossible in Rogin’s view for American leaders to escape the old patterns of domination. The resurgence of the New Right perhaps bolsters the Bercovitch and Rogin thesis. While Carter intended his jeremiad as a bulwark against hubris, the form may have been more efficacious in the hands of those who advanced, in Carter’s words, the substitution of a “flag or a way of life or a government for God” (Ribuffo 1992, 227).

The jaundiced and skeptical view of American prophecy may nonetheless miss something. The celebratory “pole” of the jeremiad is unmistakable, it is true, but we should hesitate before dismissing the force and sincerity of the “deep existential despair” it conveys (Murphy 2009, 167). Shulman sees that prophecy is therefore uniquely suited to “democratic dissent.” Prophecy is not inherently anti-political because it “discloses the power of decision” in the hands of a democratic community (2008, 37). Prophecy need not end inquiry and deliberation by absolute appeals to the grand ends of history. The depiction of a democratic covenant can reconfigure rather than merely re-inscribe the terms of American political life, thus expanding rather than containing pluralism. Schulman concludes with an argument that emancipatory social movements cannot dispense with prophecy, if their claims are to be intelligible in the American context: “An anti-imperial politics, or a challenge to ‘the war on terror,’ if any such is to emerge, depends on narrating a story of nationhood and empire in ways that are politically resonant and therefore energizing” (254). Intelligibility is not enough, however. The speaker must be able link imaginatively the image of the covenant with his or her own public philosophy—the kind of public philosophy for which Carter, in inviting sociologists and moralists to the White House, grasped.

We have reason, I think, to be at once cognizant of the jeremiad’s potential for uncritically celebrating American exceptionalism, but also open to its transformative possibilities. Whether Carter successfully deployed the jeremiad is the question to which we now turn.

What Carter said. After cancelling his fifth fireside chat on energy and retreating, Moses-like, to Camp David for over a week, Carter finally addressed the nation amidst a frenzy of media speculation, which extended so far as to question the president’s psychiatric health.[1] The original representative of the American covenant literature, Winthrop, begins by laying out the terms of membership into American identity (the “community of perils” and “city upon a hill”), which include its extraordinary devotion to God and its good-natured liberality. Carter’s crisis of confidence speech, with more rhetorical flourish and higher production values than all of his previous speeches, begins with the self-deprecating reading of feedback that repudiates his theretofore technocratic approach to policy—“you are not leading this nation, you’re just managing the government,” in the words of one Southern governor—but soon, too, addresses the contours of American identity. “Confidence” and participation loom large in this identity. Confidence in the future “is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people,” and is the precondition for the efficacious sense that we Americans are “the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.” It is a religious confidence in the ultimate ends of the American project. The sound of Bercovitch sharpening his critical knives and attacking the jeremiad’s rhetorical exclusiveness and violence is audible.

Moving from the celebratory to the denunciatory pole of the American jeremiad, the speech teaches about our fallen state: “The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Because he inextricably links confidence in the future with the founding covenant, Carter tells us that by deserting the future we also sever our link to the past—an obvious nod to The Culture of Narcissism. The crisis of confidence is something for which we are collectively responsible, as the speech contains few passages that mention the price-gouging tendencies of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the American energy companies. (As noted above, Bellah thought that such blameful demagoguery was what people wanted to hear but should not hear). We have at least momentarily become unworthy of the American covenant’s blessings. The loss of our willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of public institutions has justly left us miserable:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Again returning to Bercovitch’s critique, we find that Carter is here aiming to inculcate moral anxiety to motivate policy change. The cultivation appears all the more deliberate when we consider the speech’s history of revisions. One draft characterized American sinfulness and rootlessness in the language of “leisure, mobility, and consumption,” which Carter changed to the more condemnatory “self-indulgence and consumption” (Mattson 2009, 152-3). Elsewhere, he suggested that disengagement and hedonism were at least intelligible if unsavory responses to the national traumas of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a plague of assassinations.

Carter in this speech severed his last moorings with the New Deal coalition. He rejected the tried and true strategies of other late-regime presidents, who either spoke of redoubling commitments to the regime—much as Carter’s antagonist, Ted Kennedy, did as the time—or temporarily departing from these commitments in order to preserve the regime. Instead, Skowronek writes, Carter “was speaking bluntly on the bankruptcy of the entire system” (2003 398-9). But a “presidential declaration of independence” was not enough to restore confidence without the offer of an alternative. This led the president to alternate the jeremiad back to its hopeful pole:

We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world.

After the rhetorical “turn” of the jeremiad, the speaker must announce a spiritual “challenge,” the successful discharge of which makes us worthy of redemption. Carter saw the turn as a way to combine “crisis with opportunity,” synthesizing the Protestant rigor of Niebuhr with the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale (Mattson 2009, 154).

The challenge was “the solution of our energy crisis.” “It can rekindle our sense of unity” and “our confidence in the future,” he assured: a confidence attuned to the precariousness of our country’s position and bleached of the sin of pride. To the dismay of Bellah, however, Carter reached the threshold of calling for civic transformation—Carter had even alluded to New Left themes of participatory democracy, an odd thing for an American president to do—only to pull back. Carter welded the second part of the speech onto the first at the insistence of Mondale and Eizenstat. He here reverted to the detail-oriented managerialism of which he had earlier accused himself. There were import quotas and an energy conservation board and a windfall profits tax—but no local entry points in which citizens could have their say, re-engage political life, and restore a sense of efficacy in themselves and the country’s future. At the time of the Gulf War, which highlighted the geopolitical consequences of long-term energy dependence, Carter reminisced:

It was later characterized as a “malaise” speech. I never used that phrase; I did not think of it in that way. But the basic point I made in the speech was that we had been trough an ordeal in the country … but that the nation was inherently resilient; that with democracy, with freedom, we could withstand those crises and we could face the future even stronger, having come through them successfully. … It was partially the result of that speech and the follow-up efforts that we passed the final stages of a very comprehensive national energy policy (Rosenbaum and Ugrinsky 1994, 481-2).

In his mind, then, he delivered a hopeful policy speech that relied on the conventional presidential tropes of democracy and freedom.

Whatever its ambitions, the speech garnered an enormously positive public response. Eighty-four percent of calls and eighty-five percent of letters to the White House were supportive (Mattson 2009, 59). Presidential approval jumped eleven points. Citizens were not nearly as interested in the policy component as they were in its “emphasis on rebuilding the American spirit,” to quote an internal memo from Hugh Carter, the president’s cousin (Horowitz 2005, 150). A Catholic newspaper cheered that “this is the Mr. Carter—not the engineer and technocrat—that the American people elected” (“Energy Sermon” 1979). Much mainstream media, too, “proclaimed the address the beginning of Carter’s ‘rebirth’ … [and] a rekindling of that spirit of ‘76” (Rozell 1989, 131).

Carter miscalculated, though. A problem that plagued his administration, according to disgruntled speechwriter James Fallows, was that its forays in “going public” never excited the interest of editorial leaders (Rozell 1989, 206). The Reverend Jesse Jackson, present at the Camp David summit, advised the president to avoid the media that would surely trivialize whatever message he gave; this proved impossible. With no clear analytical framework connecting the crisis of confidence and the new national energy policy, the speech had a void at its center that media elites filled with their own interpretations. The words “sermon” and “sermonizing,” understood as a terms of dismissal and abuse, permeated commentary. There was the odd spectacle of William F. Buckley, Jr. criticizing any attempt to assert the role of faith in politics: “The U.S. Government has nothing to do with spiritual crises or the meaning of our lives, and had best leave that sort of thing to Dante, T.S. Eliot, and individual reflection. The last time we looked, God was not a member of the Carter cabinet” (“Gantry on Energy” 1979). Lasch’s follow-up letter to Caddell noted with amusement that:

Perhaps only the sophisticated and overeducated (that is, half-educated and semiliterate) members of society who confuse sermons with empty moralizing and platitudinous exhortation, and who don’t see (having lost touch with the counter’s Calvinist heritage) that a sermon can have great analytical depth and political force (Horowitz 2005, 158-9).

Any attempt to link cultural trends with politico-economic analysis met guffaws—unless, of course, such an attempt wholly absolves Americans of any responsibility for a national crisis. Opinion leaders then blamed Carter himself for blaming the American people for his own lack of leadership. One Los Angeles Times reporter, who ill-advisedly conflated Carter’s populist “demonization” of the beltway establishment with Jim Crow racism, later remembered:

The real culprits, he made clear, were Congress and, to some extent, the people. As a matter of fact, because Americans tend to rally around the president in times of crisis, even if he has sort of invented the crisis himself, the speech by itself created a little positive blip, as things were measured, on Carter’s image (Rosenbaum and Ugrinsky 1994, 394).

The opaqueness of Carter’s constructive vision obscured the fact that Carter was not seeking to “blame” as much as assume responsibility for the crisis of confidence. Mirroring the critique of the whole Carter presidency, and the jeremiadic form itself, was the idea that authoritatively proclaiming a “crisis” violates democratic politics. Interpreters made the motif of “violation” as literal as possible: the speech “violated the spirit of America,” according to Ted Kennedy (Mattson 2009, 172). Carter’s absolutistic claims allegedly brooked no possibility for discussion.

The very conditions of the crisis of confidence, indeed, blunted the jeremiad’s force. Lasch’s critique of politics after the triumph of narcissus—wherein the electronically-mediated appearances of things supplant things-in-themselves, leading to a gossipy approach to politics that demands the spectacle of an imperial president—would have predicted that both positive and negative coverage focused exclusively on “how will this play?” As one Washington Post editorial put it, “The politics of it were devilishly clever, if not angelically attractive” (Rozell 1989, 134). Perhaps the transformative jeremiad can only fall on deaf ears given the conditions of the mainstream media.

A jeremiadic misfire. None of the above should imply that Carter’s speech was an alloyed rhetorical success, or the media is wholly responsible for halting the momentum that his address impelled. For one thing, Carter apparently saw his own role in tackling the crisis of confidence as forcing his entire cabinet to submit letters of resignation—the speech quoted a supporter’s advice to crack down on “disloyalty”—which he later came to regret. Also, the limitations with the speech were deeper, I think, than Mattson’s revisionist defense suggests. Placing Carter’s speech in closer dialogue with scholarly conceptions of the jeremiad highlights some of them.

Lasch, conversant with the requirements of the jeremiad, noted some of these limitations in rambling letters to members of Carter’s staff. Appeals to national unity and against the selfishness “will only reinforce the prevailing cynicism,” he wrote Caddell. Most Americans worked hard and would resent the implication that they were living “high on the hog.” There instead needed to be a fairer apportionment of blame for the crisis of confidence: a more targeted attack on the elites superintending the country’s destruction, which would appeal to “poor people, working-class people” who “have a real stake in change” (Horowitz 2005, 159). To Powell, he wrote that such “bold executive leadership” would be “divisive rather than unifying in its initial impact,” but would lead to a “new consensus … [only] after a period of upheaval and conflict” (Miller 2010, 242-3). Because the prophetic speaker is addressing motivated blindness, he must pick the scab before healing the wound, and not mistake the hope of consensus for consensus itself. To Carter, confronting the deep-seated social divisions in the United States head-on may have seemed too redolent of Southern demagoguery, which he reviled.

The absence of social analysis threatened the jeremiad’s coherence. While we have seen that the American jeremiad contains denunciatory and celebratory poles, we should add that it must synthesize them: that is, provide some kind of explanation for why a sacred community consisting of “good people” has fallen into depravity. To Bellah, this is precisely what Carter failed to do: “How come all these wonderful people have all these bad characteristics? No analysis! No putting things together. Flattery and criticism” (“A Night at Camp David” 1979). When it came time to announce a “test” of Americans’ recommitment to the covenant, the president left viewers confused. Why had the nation’s confidence in its future lapsed in the seventies when, in Carter’s reading, previous generations faced “threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now?” What were citizens to do in the moral equivalent of war against energy dependence?

Alabama journalist H. Brandt Ayers personally found the speech moving, but doubted its transformative potential when he gauged the reaction of ordinary citizens in his hometown, who were “still … vague about the essential meaning of the mission” (Mattson 2009, 165). As suggested above, Carter’s test to meet a seemingly intangible spiritual crisis was the passive acceptance of a top-down energy program, a blunt instrument for restoring Americans’ sense of mastery over their own lives. Leftwing critics eagerly seized this point. The Progressive saw that the so-called Energy Mobilization Board “would effectively deprive citizens of the opportunity to participate in energy decisions” (“Carter’s Crisis—and Ours” 1979). The jeremiad failed to introduce novelty, reneging on its ambition to fundamentally reorient Americans towards their government. It did not raise “social consciousness” akin to the Civil Rights Movement and the democratic dissenters of Shulman’s typology; rather, to Bellah, it taught the audience little and reinforced its existing expectations: “You can have everything. You can have it all. Oh, you may have to turn off the lights a bit, but basically there’s nothing to be scared of” (“A Night at Camp David” 1979).

Why did Carter, having taken the risk of criticizing the American public and severing his affiliation with New Deal liberalism, fail to press his speech into the service of a constructive reimaging of American politics intelligible to citizens—citizens who had elected the president, and were obviously receptive to a message of spiritual decline and uplift? Carter’s post-presidential remarks about the state of American morality furnish clues:

We are good people, we are decent people, we are honest people. But we are basically self-centered, and our nature has never yet reached a level of generosity and sharing and compassion and love that we try to reach as human beings. I think we have a long way to go, even in the greatest country in the world (Rosenbaum and Ugrinsky 1994, 489).

What leaps from this passage is that Carter does not question the basic assumptions of American exceptionalism, and holds a perfectly individuated approach to public morality that some label “Baptist.” Rejuvenating civic trust is here a matter of people being kinder to one another, not adhering to any new terms of public life. His trust in the improvability of souls and faith that love in interpersonal relations can directly salvage political life takes him quite a distance from Niebuhr.

Emancipatory and reactionary forms of prophecy alike must “draw on a deep symbolic structure and prevailing narrative form to name the circumstances, confront the vicissitudes, address the meaning, and authorize the reconstruction of collective life” (Shulman 2008, 8). Carter’s jeremiad, however, failed to offer subtlety and complexity and therefore “not the moral leadership America really yearned for” (Morris 1996, 212-13). Bell anticipated this limitation. Conventional admonishments against hedonism are ineffective because the social basis of “the Protestant ethic and the Puritan temper” has “eroded long ago” (1976, 55). Unless informed by an updated vision of the public household that gives Americans clear indicators of how they can contribute to it—a “substantive definition of the public good,” in Bellah’s words (1985, 187)—a leader cannot rhetorically translate morality into politics.

The common cause monarchy saw value-laden phenomena like “corruption” and “confidence” as the sum total of individual preferences and failings, which was perhaps its biggest indictment. Carter was not up to the ideological and rhetorical requirements of the American presidency. As one speechwriter put it, “[we] never got any communication from Carter in terms of philosophy” or to stick to broad themes of message (Rozell 1989, 207). A call for national unity except “in terms of philosophy” cannot achieve what Shulman sees as the ultimate end of democratic philosophy: to elaborate how the covenantal past constitutes our political identity and democratic potential in the present, and to aspire to “achieve freedom and make suffering meaningful” (2008, 245). It is true that post hoc commentators like Mattson see in Carter’s speech the rich vision of a “post-traumatic confidence,” but the difficulty for the president is that it took a historian—rather than listeners—to discern it. The crisis of confidence failed to fully interface with the rhetorical potential of American prophecy, whose very purpose is to make democratic decisions intelligible, that is, consistent with the eschatological hopes of the American covenant. This is why Lasch was not overly nostalgic in saying that Puritanism, despite everything, remains America’s “strongest reservoir of moral idealism” (Murchland 1991).

Epilogue. Carter’s speech met with an initially positive response. The response was not sustained, I have argued, because it failed on the jeremiad’s own terms—but not, necessarily, because the president attempted such an exhortation in the first place. The tragedy of the crisis of confidence speech was not only its distorted status in historical memory as about “malaise”—the term that Ted Kennedy first used to attack it; it stuck—but also because it discredited the jeremiad as a mode of robust social criticism. The visional vacuum instead vindicated the negation of Carter’s project: the American jeremiad in Bercovitch’s sense, with its wooden insistence in the unalloyed greatness of inherited political traditions. While we might see Reagan’s first inaugural address as the most representative example of jeremiadical “counter-mobilization,” to use Shulman’s term, we cannot ignore examples from the left. Arthur Schlesinger may have attacked Carter’s “sentimentalism,” but he indulged in much the same thing in a speech before the Americans for Democratic Action endorsing Kennedy. There was nothing wrong with the received Democratic Party strictures of governance, except for Carter’s momentary desertion of the Rooseveltian covenant, and the rebirth of the New Deal in the nineteen-eighties was a matter of historical inevitability: “There will be a breakthrough into a new political epoch, a new conviction of social possibility, a new demand for innovation and reform, new efforts to redeem the promise of American life” (Mattson 2009, 105). Unlike Carter, who suggested if a bit awkwardly that Americans would have to make an effort and overcome a challenge in order to “redeem the promise,” Schlesinger’s speech cast such redemption as automatic.

Reagan was still better at binding the denunciatory and celebratory poles of traditional American rhetoric. The “glue” here was the explanation that a fuzzily defined new class of government managers had deserted the Founding Fathers by enacting economic regulation and hesitating before unilaterally projecting American power abroad. The Fathers were nonetheless eager to once again bestow their blessings on their children, who had done more than enough to deserve them. As Reagan said in his election eve address, “A Vision for America,” “I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything they are sturdy and robust as they have always been” (Horowitz 2005, 169). A creed of denial took hold that dismissed the questions of declining political trust and energy dependence. America was a “shining city on a hill,” only without the obligations of Christian charity that Winthrop had set for it. Lasch, who barely stomached voting for Carter in 1980, nonetheless reserved his harshest words for Reagan’s dreamlike pseudo-populism: “Moral regeneration, it appeared, could be achieved painlessly through the power of positive thinking” (1991, 516). The unchallenged supremacy of uncritical “we” rhetoric in presidential politics persists to this day.

For a brief moment, the leader of the modern American community attempted to use the national covenant—the covenant that “marks” all speakers as American (Shulman 2008, 24)—to reconstitute the very terms of the national covenant, and to renew but chasten citizens’ commitment to their traditions. It failed, but is no less notable for being an attempt. The resurgent trope of American decline in public discourse and popular culture means that it will not be the last.



Works Cited


Bell, Daniel. 1976. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.


Bellah, Robert. 1979. “Human Conditions for a Good Society.” St Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 Mar.: 8-11.


—. 1979. “A Night at Camp David.” Easy Bay Express, 27 Jul.: 1-4.


—. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California.


Bercovitch, Sacvan. 1978. The American Jeremiad. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.


Biven, W. Carl. 2002. Jimmy Carter’s Economy: Policy in an Age of Limits. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.


Carter, Jimmy. 1979. “Crisis of Confidence.” American Experience. <>.


“Carter on the Titanic: Editorial.” 1979. National Review, 27 Jul.: B105.


“Carter’s Crisis—and Ours,” 1979. Progressive (Sep.): 6-8.


“Energy Sermon.” 1979. America, 28 Jul: 26.


“Gantry on Energy: Editorial.” 1979. National Review, 3 Aug: 963-56.


Horowitz, Daniel. 2005. Jimmy Carter and the Energy Crisis of the 1970s: The Crisis of Confidence Speech of July 15, 1979. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s.


“Jimmy Carter: Inaugural Address.” 1977. The American Presidency Project. <>.


Jones, Charles O. 1988. The Trusteeship Presidency: Jimmy Carter and the United States Congress. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.


Lasch, Christopher. 1978. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W.W. Norton.


—. 1983. “Liberalism in Retreat.” In Liberalism Reconsidered, ed Douglas MacLean and Claudia Mills. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld.


—. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York: W.W. Norton.


Mattson, Kevin. 2009. “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. New York: Bloomsbury.


Miller, Eric. 2010. Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


Miller, Perry. 1956. Errand into the Wilderness. New York: Harper & Row.


Morris, Kenneth E. 1996. Jimmy Carter: American Moralist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.


Murchland, Bernard. 1991. “On the Moral Vision of Democracy: A Conversation with Christopher Lasch.” Civic Arts Review 4: 4-9.


Murphy, Andrew R. 2009. Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11. Oxford: Oxford University.


“The Republicans’ First Presidential Candidates Debate.” 2007. New York Times, 3 May. <>.


Ribuffo, Leo P. 1992. Right Center Left: Essays n American History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers.


Rogin, Michael. 1975. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


Rosenbaum, Herbert D. and Alexej Ugrinsky. 1994. Jimmy Carter: Foreign Policy and Post-Presidential Years. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Rozell, Mark J. 1989. The Press and the Carter Presidency. Boulder, CO: Westview.


Shulman, George. 2008. American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.


Skowronek, Stephen. 2003. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.


Wolin, Sheldon S. 1981. “Why democracy?” democracy 1 (1): 3-5.


Zweig, Paul. 1979. “Collective Dread.” Harpers Magazine (July).

[1] All quotes from the crisis of confidence speech I pull from <>.

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Clinton’s ads were content free

I found this study featured in Vox to be fascinating. It’s symptomatic of the Democrats’ strategy since 2009 or so of not building popular enthusiasm for their ideas between elections, instead gambling that wonks and connected wheelers-and-dealers can craft and negotiate optimal policy solutions when insulated from public opinion. All the public has to know is that “we’re the adults with the solutions; we won’t worry your pretty little heads with the details.” The claim to seriousness evaporates, though, when the public decides you’re not offering them anything and votes for someone who does–even if that someone is a bizarre game show host.

The ultimate irony is that a wooden devotion to “fact-checking” and “civility” can issue in a political campaign that’s issue-free and purely negative. The idea that politics is primarily about dispassionate solutions arrived at through reflective deliberation–a conception that goes back to Plato–also misses what politics is essentially about: balancing interests and power. We cannot restore any sense to our political institutions or frayed social relations until campaigners of good will realize this.

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Historical Congressional District Mapper

Tom DelayOf several to choose from, the most annoying feature of our Constitution is apportionment in the House. As far back as 17th century colonial elections, gerrymandering has afflicted single-member districts in the U.S. While the Warren Court’s “one person, one vote” rule was supposed to create fairer boundaries (especially for urban population centers), technology has caught up: a 12-year-old using ArcGIS and a population layer can now easily create a nearly all-Republican House of Representatives. While the Supreme Court (which has produced a mess of weird case law on the subject: Shaw v. Reno held that the creation of majority-minority districts violated the Equal Protection Clause, but later decisions hold that racial redistricting criteria is acceptable if the purpose is to dilute Democratic representation in Congress…), as well as new “independent” commissions empowered by state statutes to draw the district lines, aspire to objective redistricting criteria (“compactness,” “contiguity,” etc.), this is a fiction. The rules are never neutral.

Redistricting is especially annoying to Political Scientists, since it makes studying Congress harder. It can be hard to find demographic characteristics for these districts before the 2000s, since districts are short-lived in their incarnations. Intercensal redistricting (which did not originate in Texas back in 2003; it happens all the time) means that even the best historical measures of district attributes are imprecise. Moreover, redistricting makes studying elections a pain. Redistricting is a major factor in members of Congress’ [MC] election fortunes and decisions to retire, and so figures as a control variable; but aren’t some cases of redistricting more dramatic than others? How does one quantify this? More technically speaking, statistical models where the unit of analysis is the MC suffer from serial correlation, which inflates the effect sizes of predictors and is fixable by clustering the standard errors on each MC’s district; these districts, however, change over time, making this diagnostic an incomplete solution.

To help visualize all the changes districts have undergone in the “one person, one vote” era, I have written a web application that displays every incarnation of all 435 Congressional districts (plus some defunct ones) since the 1960s. It is available at Have fun!

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MRP, simplified

Demonstrating my STEM expertise

Demonstrating my STEM expertise

The irony of my life is that I failed high school math, went to Graduate school to study Political Theory…and left with a dissertation about something called “multi-level regression, imputation, and post-stratification” (MRP, though it should be called “MRIP”). Was this God’s joke? My newfound passion? My brilliant adaptation to the vagaries of the post-industrial job market, where the “STEM” shibboleth strikes fear and awe in the hearts of men? No one knows…

Regardless, MRP is a topic that interests many in social science, if only because it has been triggered a tidal wave of published papers since approximately 2009. MRP is a statistical technique that models the desired attitudinal propensities (party, ideology, presidential approval, and everything in between) of different groups (separated by geography [region, state, congressional district, county, and every combination thereof] and demographics), then weights the propensities by their demographic composition per jurisdiction. You can thus feed a national poll or concatenation of polls into MRP (different weighting and coverage frames between the polls? doesn’t matter) and arrive at a point estimate of (say) the proportion of liberals in Aroostook County, Maine. MRP can produce this estimate even if not a single Aroostook resident was polled.

The technique’s raison-d’être is that comprehensive public opinion data at levels below that of state (and even at the state level, catastrophic non-response error means that Trump can win Wisconsin even as not one of the dozens of polls between the primaries and general election showed him in the lead) does not exist. Polls are expensive commercial products that do not spontaneously appear to meet social-scientific demand. It is unlikely that newspapers would pay for polls of every U.S. Congressional district when almost all House races are virtually uncontested. It’s even less likely that the National Science Foundation would sponsor such a poll, as it would mean House members spending taxpayer money to investigate (say) whether–in this new Gilded Age of unequal democracy–they are responsive, effective legislators.

MRP is a solid replacement for the older way of doing things. It’s superior to raw disaggregation, which involves taking national polls and operationalizing (say) state public opinion as the raw joint sample means of survey responses by jurisdiction. This raw disaggregation problematic since the samples are not geographically comprehensive by state; in a national poll, all the respondents in Delaware are probably going to be in Wilmington. It’s also superior to using various proxies for public opinion, for instance presidential vote for a Congressional district’s liberalism. The issue here is simple validity: factors other than ideology usually affect the outcome of the presidential race.

The two things to know about MRP are:

  1. It’s still very flawed. Assessing the validity and reliability of MRP is a fraught endeavor. MRP, like all simulations of public opinion, produces none of the standard errors of (say) commercial polls. In most cases, no population parameter against which to compares the measure exists (in other words, the true ideological composition of Aroostook county is unobserved–otherwise, MRP wouldn’t be necessary in the first place). Exactly how it produces estimates is redolent of mystery meat. For instance, you often get identical results after making substantial changes to your individual-level model, especially in jurisdictions well-represented in the poll you’re disaggregating. All we really know is that within-jurisdiction attitude heterogeneity is bad for MRP (imputation is harder if attitudes are polarized within counties or House districts, etc.), and that incorporating aggregate effects in the model (for instance, a county’s demographic composition) are good. In all likelihood, a cranky senior American behavioralist will publish a debunking thinkpiece and end the MRP golden age. If you’re in this line of work: publish now!
  2. It’s still better than any known alternative.

I’ve been working on two MRP-related things lately, and was tired of having to write the same R script over and over again. (For a basic overview of how to estimate MRP in R, see Kastellec et al.’s primer). I’ve decided to write my own MRP library with the following simple features:

  • An MRP class to wrap the various methods needed to impute estimates and run diagnostics.
  • Ease of use. Just define the paths for the source data files, important variables, and settings, run the MRP, and you’re done.
  • Descriptive output. Output includes observations in the sample, the unadjusted sample mean, the MRP point estimate, and the weighted variance of the point estimate by jurisdiction. (The latter is important in House/Senate responsiveness scholarship, which deems the heterogeneity of public opinion a crucial factor in the style and extent of representation).
  • A robustness check. Includes a method whereby you see for yourself if the MRP is outperforming raw disaggregation as an estimation of public opinion.

The source code is here:


As I’m pressed for time, the proceeding is very terse, elliptical, and incomplete; I will be updating this post and library as my schedule permits

Setting it up is very simple.

  1. Install the packages ARM (Andrew Gelman’s multilevel/HLM package) and Hmisc (for weighted variance).
  2. Download my MRP library.
  3. Include it using the “source” command.

General usage

Create the MRP class:

mrp<-new Mrp()

Using R's S4 class slot selector ("@"), set the following properties:


model: String containing binomial logit model used in the multilevel step. MRP invariably uses mixed-effects estimation. For example, "Y ~ X + (1|Z)" indicates "model Y as a function of fixed effect X and random effect Y." Fixed effects are the familiar predictors of ordinary least squares (OLS) regressions. Random effects are a little trickier to grasp, and their disambiguation from fixed effects in statistical manuals is fraught with semantic complications (it's unclear if "fixed" or "random" effects are even the right terms to use), so I here assume you have some familiarity with them. The ARM estimator fits a different intercept for each category of a random predictor (for instance, one for Alabama, one for Alaska, etc.). It's theoretical good practice not to model predictors with few than 7 or so categories as random effects, but in practice this doesn't really matter. The library assigns "0" for categories missing in the survey data.

state.var: Column name indicating an ordered list (1,2,...51) of states/Washington D.C. Must be the same across all the files you use. Defaults to "state."

weight.var: Column name indicating weight in the post-stratification dataset. Defaults to "weight."

convert.underscore: Boolean for whether or not you wish to convert Stata-like underscores ("_") to R-like decimals (".") in the column names of imported scripts. Defaults to TRUE.

geographies.path: Location ('/path/to/file.csv') of a CSV containing columns of geographic information (e.g. names of counties and county IDs; see example). The MRP estimates, as well as sample sizes and weighted variance of MRP, will be appended to this file horizontally. Defaults to 'geographies.csv'

state.fe.path: Location of a CSV containing aggregate fixed effects by state. These are merged into the poll and post-stratification dataframes.

poll.path: Location of a CSV containing the poll you wish to disaggregate.

post.strat.path: Location of the post-stratification data (in other words, the observed demographic characteristics of the districts for which you wish to produce estimates) for MRP's probability adjustment. Must contain every variable in the multilevel model. Usually, the model is post-stratified with either tables from the American Community Survey's Summary File (SF), or with the ACS's Public-Use Microdata Sample (PUMS).

output.path: Path to a CSV file where the MRP estimates and simulations will be saved. Defaults to "mrp.csv."

bin.path: Path to a directory ("/path/to") where the script will store compressed, binary versions of the dataframes in the MRP for future reference. The script will try to load its dataframes from this path first, before loading the CSVs.


substate.var: If you're estimating below the level of state (county, Congressional district, etc.), this is the identifier (again, should be an ordered list) for the desired geography.

year.var: If your poll is collapsed over several year, and fixed effects are merged into your poll and post-stratification dataframes by year, define a year variable (consistent across all files) here.

substate.fe.path: Path to a CSV containing aggregate variables for your substate jurisdiction.

Once you're done, use the following method to run the MRP:


For robustness checks, you can use Lax and Phillips' (2009) procedure of split-level simulations. This procedure treads the sample mean of one random half of your data as a pseudo-population parameter, runs MRP on a random sample of the other half (say, 5%), and checks to make sure the MRP is doing a better job of predicting the parameter than the 5% sample mean.

# Run 10 simulations of the MRP
for(i in c(1:10))

Sample output:

MRP split-level validation procedure using 1.00% sample of the survey...

Sampling error: 0.42
MRP error: 0.34
Win %: 0.74%

If your MRP is not beating the sample mean at a rate of well over 50%, either your model is terribly misspecified, or you made a coding mistake in one or more of your source data files.


This Zip offers a quick example of how to use the library. The script uses the 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, an opt-in Internet survey that is the gold standard of American behavioralism, to model partisanship (1 = Democrat; 0 = not a Democrat). It then post-stratifies the predicted responses using the 2009 American Community Survey 5-year-averages (tables C15002B through C15002I), and averages the re-adjusted responses by county. The R script included in the Zip is below.

# MRP EXAMPLE                                              #
# Impute party ID at the county level using the 2009 CCES  #
#                                                          #
# Clifford Vickrey                                         #

# include library

# new MRP object

# variable names

# path slots

# MRP model
# model Democrat (Y) as a function of:
# region (ICPSR region)
# state (1:51)
# state-level labor union rates
# whether states have right-to-work laws (as of 2007)
# county-level Republican presidential vote in 2004
# county population density
# sex (0 = male; 1 = female)
# race (1 = non-Latino white; 2 = African-American; 3 = Latino; 4 = Asian or
# Pacific Islander; 5 = Native American/Alaskan; 6 = more than one race; 7 =
# other)
# interaction term of sex and race
# education (1 = less than high school; 2 = highschool/GED; 3 = some college
# or Associate degree; 4 = Bachelor's degree or higher)

# run!

# sim
Posted in I ate the bones, political science | Leave a comment

Mapping Congressional Districts in R with the ggplot2 package

114th House Election ResultsI’m often asked how I’m able to produce maps of Congressional districts in R.

R, for the blissfully uninitiated, is a statistical programming environment that’s about as fun to use as undergoing a colonoscopy. Its bizarre syntax, unhelpful errors and warnings, unpredictable behavior, terrible regex support, slowness (perhaps because it was never intended as a fully-featured development tool), and polluted namespace are bad enough. Even worse is that the support community sometimes has the social graces of Unix-bearded cheese graters (imagine the world’s crankiest professors), as this example illustrates. Python takes days to comfortably grasp; R can take years.

Nonetheless, for flexibility and cost (you get what you pay for: it’s free), R surpasses Stata (easier to learn, but single-threaded and limited) and other closed-source packages for econometric statistical programming.

The best illustrations of R’s power are the beautiful and infinitely customizable ways you can present data and models with third-party libraries. ggplot2 is one of the most comprehensive of these, as well as one of the easiest to use (a low bar, granted). Here, I’ll quickly show you how to map discrete values (in this case, election results) on extant (114th) Congressional districts. The polygons for Alaska and Hawaii are moved into the viewing range of the map.


1. Use the install.packages command to install the following: maptools, ggplot2, rgdal, rgeos, mapproj

2. Create a directory on your hard-drive (e.g. “map”) to store the R script. Included in the directory should be the following subdirectories: bin, maps, plots, and shp. “bin” will store binaries of the map dataframe for later use, just in case you want to make changes to the output but don’t want to tortuously wait for R to import and convert the shapefile. “maps” will store the output. “plots” will store the values with which we wish to fill. “shp” will store the GIS files.

3. Save the plot data (the 2014 House election returns) into the “plots” folder.

5. Download the 114th Congressional district shapefile from Lewis et al. at Extract to the folder “shp/114.”

5. Save the following code into the main directory as “map.R.”

#                                             #
# Map Congressional district election results #
#                                             #
# By Clifford Vickrey                         #
# Ph.D., Phil Collins Studies                 #
#                                             #

# NOTE: tested in R 3.0.1 and later


# stack tracing: on

# Congress number

# move non-contiguous states into viewport?

# load binary map datafame if it exists?

# get working directory
# this appears needlessly complicated, but is necessary if you want to run the
# script from either R's IDE *or* from the command line using RScript

# paths for the files




# elide a state polygon
# parameters:
# 1 = rotation
# 2 = resize
# 3 = shift coordinates to (lat, long)


cat('\nMaking maps for Congress #',cong,' ...\n\n',sep='')

    # first, see if the map data frame has already been saved as a binary
    # otherwise load the shapefile; convert it into a data frame
        # hide annoying warnings about NULL geographies
        # move non-contiguous states, or otherwise delete them
            # move Alaska
            # move Hawaii
            # rebuild United States
                usa[!usa$STATENAME %in% c('Alaska','Hawaii'),],
            usa<-usa[!usa$STATENAME %in% c('Alaska','Hawaii'),]
        # convert map object to dataframe, merge in district identifiers
        # drop all other jurisdictional data because R is a RAM hog<-fortify(usa)<-data.frame(,usa@data[$id,c('ID')])
        # make map geo data consistent with plot
        # = alphabetical list of state/CD combos (Alabama 01, Alabama 02,
        # etc.), excluding Washington, D.C. (1:435)$<-match(
        # save the map!

# merge in the plot data

# edit viewport<[$long<0,]<[$long>-135,]<[$lat<50,]<[$lat>22,]


# plot theme object

# fill palette
# 1 = Democratic hold (pale blue)
# 2 = Democratic gain (blue)
# 3 = Republican hold (pink)
# 4 = Republican gain (red)
# 5 = Independent hold (light green)
# 6 = Independent gain (green)


# NOTE: here, I fill with factors of the variable; otherwise,
# scale_fill_manual won't work

# save!
cat('\nI ate the bones!\n')

6. Execute the script in R with the command


where /path/to/etc. is the location of the script on your hard drive.

7. The basic map should appear as maps/ For customization options, a good primer is available at

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This Website Is Terrible

As you can probably see, this website is no longer (and never was) cutting edge. Its WordPress theme was written in about 1 hour in 2010 or so (note the IE 6 conditional template tags, as well as the manic use of tabs in the page’s source). The site had two purposes: one, to incorporate coprophilic monkeys; and, two, to dissuade any friends from asking me “hey, can you build my website for me?” Dimpled Chad, a web project that took over my life in 2012, too, was based on kludgy procedural-only PHP scripts.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to keep my knowledge of programming up-to-date. My newest website (in production) is designed in Bootsrap (which, when combined with WordPress, is bloated and slow, but hey–cutting edge!) and adheres to the best object-oriented practices. Most of what I do programming-wise now is in R (which is replacing alternatives because new versions of IBM SPSS cost ungodly sums of money). I also made a New Year’s resolution to replace the language I use in my personal programming projects from C++/Perl/PHP (each close to my heart) with Python owing to the demands of the job market. Python is sleek, efficient (it requires no interpretation layer when properly deployed on servers)–but ugly and charmless. I will mourn PHP’s idiotic but lovable string functions.

I wrote my first useful Python script (which stripped photographs of every Congressperson from the House website) last night and ran it via old-fashioned CGI. My second New Year’s resolution, however, is that all my scripts must always output the last line seen here:


# includes
import csv
import os
import urllib.request

# header
print('Content-Type: text/plain\n')

# directory
except OSError:
    if not os.path.isdir(out_dir):

# candidate object
class Candidate:
    def __init__(self,vickrey_id,congress_bio_id):
    def download(self):
            with urllib.request.urlopen(self.download_file) as response,open(self.upload_file,'wb') as out_file:
            print('Could not download',self.download_file)        

# load candidates
with open('bios.csv','r') as csv_file:
    for i in csv_handle:

# download images
for i in candidates:

# done!
print('I ATE THE BONES!');

Tomorrow I write my first script for an academic project. Rest assured, the bones will be eaten.

Posted in I ate the bones | Leave a comment

Official 2016 Election Returns + Finance Data

Hi everyone,

pat-paulsenI’ve compiled the official election returns from official Secretaries of State reports and merged in voting-age population and campaign finance data in Excel. It is with a heavy heart that I announce that neither Harold Stassen nor Pat Paulsen received any recorded votes for president.

Download the data: 2016_election_returns_official2.xlsx

(One mistake I noticed: I mis-characterized a couple of the “Independent write-in” votes for presidential candidates as “scattered” in the ballot party column. Oh well, not a huge deal to fix when I get the chance). Continue reading

Posted in political science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Unofficial 2016 election returns + voter turnout + campaign finance info

I, for one, welcome our new Alt-Right Grimace overlords.

I, for one, welcome our new Alt-Right Grimace overlords.

Hi everyone,

The torturous 2016 elections are two weeks behind us, and all but two federal Congressional races have been decided.

Because of one of the quainter provisions of Article I (stipulating that states regulate elections and compile the returns themselves), it will be many more months until we know exactly how many people voted for every candidate in every election, and still many more before the Federal Election Commission compiles these compilations into one usable spreadsheet. In light of this, I’ve decided to make available the unofficial election results for presidential (both national and state-wide), Senate, House, and gubernatorial races.

DOWNLOAD THE DATA (Excel 2007 format). See the appendix below for a codebook describing what’s in the file.

Some notices:

  • The conventional wisdom for about 10 years is that Democrats will enjoy an increasing advantage in presidential elections as the white share of the voting population declines. Indeed, this is borne out by the fact that Democrats have won pluralities of every presidential election since 1992, with the exception of 2004 (an odd duck because of its immediately post-9/11, Iraq War setting; had the election been held even a few months later, Bush would’ve lost). There is no reason to doubt this, but note the anti-majoritarian structure of the Electoral College and Congress (where minorities are packed into relatively small numbers of densely-populated districts, allowing elections like 2012 where Democrats win a majority of House votes but a small minority of seats) negates this advantage almost completely. The conscious efforts of high-profile Democrats like Chuck Schumer to appeal to high-income professionals at the expense of traditional Democratic constituencies backfired, since the latter are disproportionately concentrated in swing states and the former are disproportionately concentrated in the uncompetitive coasts. Hillary Clinton thus won 1.5 million more votes than Trump but lost states that have been solidly Democratic since 1988.
  • Almost everything that pundits said about this election and previous elections is false. They said that Trump’s massive deficit in fundraising (in the summer, his campaign had only $1 million on hand–enough to maybe win a House seat!) and horrible campaign messaging would bury him. They failed to remember the 2012 election, when Karl Rove’s PAC spent perhaps half a billion dollars of rich people’s money to retake Congress and the presidency, to absolutely zero effect. The pundits also missed another insight that sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld shared back in 1948: media coverage of campaigns doesn’t matter. Perhaps to their credit, most voters do not pay attention to the political news cycle or watch Mark Halperin bumble about “who won the week.” Hillary lost because she though that Trump’s gaffes would do all the work for her; her campaign foolishly made huge ad buys to raise the message that Gulf War era Republican geriatrics supported her, and that Trump has a virulent case of verbal diarrhea, all at the expense of get-out-the-vote drives. In so doing, she primed voters to think in terms of Trump’s sources of appeal: his scorn for the mainstream Republican party and the Beltway, and de-emphasis of traditional GOP tropes like Constitutional fetishism. The feared “ground game” on the part of the Clinton campaign was ultimately underfunded, mismanaged, and in some cases actually turned out Trump supporters to the polls.
  • Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in every demographic (including minorities, by a substantial margin) except college-educated whites. Hence, “white working class” has replaced “Reagan Democrats” (1980; 1984), “NASCAR dads” (2004) and “soccer moms” (1996; 2000) as the nauseating shibboleth of punditspeak in 2016. However, the focus on the “white working class” ignores that A) Trump’s appeal over Hillary was general, and not exclusive to supposed Archie Bunker types; B) over 40% of Trump voters are college-educated (to make a historical parallel: Christopher Lasch noted that Reagan’s core constituency was not hard-hat reactionaries as the media likes to portray, but rather suburban professionals); and C) the majority of the working class of every ethnicity did not vote. Trump won about as many votes as Romney did. The takeaway is that the Clinton campaign simply did not offer compelling reasons for members of Obama’s electoral coalition to show up to vote. A message of “I’m competent, and competent people in think tanks like me” is hardly inspiring to young people, and was calculated to fail when (say) Clinton so ineptly handled the email server scandal.
  • The Democratic party is in trouble. Its share of Congressional seats, state executives, and state legislatures is as low as it was in the 1920s. Perhaps worse, the party lacks any young, up-and-coming stars with the national appeal necessary to win elections. The Democratic National Committee has been wholly discredited except as a source of jobs for newly-minted JDs with family connections. An incalculable number of historical tendencies (the destruction of the union voting bloc; the miserable performance of the economy that created divisions in the New Deal coalition since the early 1970s; the erosion of distributional politics [e.g. earmarks] that guaranteed 40 years of Democratic majorities in Congress) brought us to this point, such that no individual or group of individuals is responsible for the party’s predicament. The Clintons still deserve blame for alienating voters and ineptly engineering the Republican realignments of 1994 and 2016, and as memories of the modest economic bubble of the 1990s recede so too will their historical standing.
  • Polls are becoming increasingly untenable as ways to measure public opinion owing to abysmal response rates. This made it possible for Hillary Clinton to lose Wisconsin when not a single poll at any point in the election cycle showed that Trump was in the lead there. In the coming years, we’ll likely see their replacement with Internet data mining.
  • Bernie Sanders would almost certainly have won. Valence (candidate pluses and minuses), not demography, decide the outcome, and where Clinton has for 25 years been one of the most hated politicians in America, Sanders overwhelming polls as likable. That being said, it’s not the case that he in any way cost the election for Hillary, as many journalistic postmortems have held. (He somehow “primed” voters to dislike Hillary, pundits claimed, when his no campaign chivalrously avoided mentioning the baggage that proved fatal in so many parts of the country: the emails, the Clinton Foundation’s influence trading, the general perception of corruption, etc.). Outside of Twitter (which only few people use regularly) and people with media jobs, no one was talking about Sanders in the context of the election after May. The only certainty in American politics is that what op ed writers think is important is irrelevant.

Appendix: Codebook

Variable Name Variable Description
Election ID Unique identifier for the race. Jurisdiction + office + election type
Election Type G = regularly-scheduled election for a term of office that has expired; S = special election for unexpired term
Election Date Date of election
State Name Name of the state (or, if national presidential returns, country)
State Postal Code State postal code
State ICPSR Code Two-digit Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) code for the state. Left digit = region (0 = New England, 1 = Mid-Atlantic; etc.)
Congressional District # Congressional district number. At large districts (e.g. Alaska, Vermont, Wyoming, etc.) are coded “1”
Jurisdiction Population Population of the jurisdiction per the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) in my files
Jurisdiction Voting-Age Population Voting age (18+) population (VAP) of the jurisdiction per the most recent ACS in my files
Office P = President; H = House; S = Senate; G = gubernatorial. In 2016 all Senate races were for Class 3 seats
Open Seat O = no incumbent running in the election
Voter Turnout Non-blank, unspoiled ballots cast for a candidate in the election
VAP Rate Number of ballots cast divided by VAP
Effective Numer of Candidates Commonly-used measure of election competitiveness.  ENC = Σ(ci2)-1, where c is the vote share of the votes of ith candidate
Party Party of the candidate as it appeared on the ballot
Write-In W = write-in candidate
Incumbent I = incumbent
Place Place in which the candidate finished (1 = popular vote winner; 2 = runner-up; etc.)
Vickrey Candidate ID Candidate ID in my database of candidates going back to the 1960s. Has no external significance
FEC Candidate ID 9-digit Federal Election Commission ID for the candidate in the 2016 election cycle. Omitted for most write-ins, e.g. Bernie Sanders
FEC Principal Campaign Committee ID 9-digit FEC campaign committee ID. Useful for merging in filing-level campaign finance information
Candidate ICPSR Code Candidate ICPSR code, where applicable. Taken from Keith Poole’s files on VOTEVIEW. Useful for merging in DW-NOMINATE scores
Voted Received (Fused) Votes received by the candidate for all parties, for instance in states that allow fusion voting (commonly practiced in CT, NY, and SC)
Vote Share (Fused) Fused votes divided by turnout
Votes Received (By Ballot Party) Votes received by the candidate by party (e.g., how many New Yorkers voted for Hillary Clinton running as a Working Families candidate)
Vote Share (By Ballot Party) Ballot party votes divided by turnout
Campaign Receipts Money raised by principal campaign committee up to 10/19/2016
Campaign Disbursements Money spent by principal campaign committee up to 10/19/2016
Posted in political science, politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cliff’s Political Science Data Repository

The author of the Wikipedia page for "ad hominem"Hi all,

I’m beginning to assemble tons of historical data for Congressional districts, and thought I’d make some of it available on my website. I’m going to build the data repository here:


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Dimpled Chad, downsized

Well, the [very nice people] who took such umbrage to a website that lets you look at static, longitudinal graphs of historical polling data won after over a year of [kind-hearted] and [magnanimous] legal pressure. I am forced to shut up about the terms of the settlement.

On the bright side, it was not a total loss. Dimpled Chad did net me this championship piece of hardware from the American Political Science Association:

(I covered up the website name because they got the URL wrong, ha).

The tool I wrote can work with any dataset. Towards that end, I converted the Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration supplement from 1972 to the present into MySQL, and uploaded it to the site. The CPS is a monthly survey, geared towards tracking employment status, that gathers the socioeconomic characteristics of 50,000 American households. Every November of an federal election year, however, they do social scientists the service of asking whether household members registered to vote, voted, and in recent years where they registered, when and how they voted, and so forth. Merging the 21 years was a bear, as much of the data existed as old public-use magnetic tapes that had been hastily digitized and needed to be imported into modern statistical software. Further, changes in question wording meant that it was either difficult or impossible to create recodes that were comparable across years. Household income was challenging; the Census doesn’t ask how much your household pulls in directly (as this would mean that billionaires, the poor babies, would be identifiable in the datasets resulting in liability and privacy concerns). The Census instead groups you into 11-to-16 income brackets, and these change periodically over the forty years. Getting quintiles or even quartiles of household income from 16 possible categories is impossible. The solution we settled on was creating a consistent recode for income from 1982 to 2012, and leaving the previous years off of the website.

Dimpled Chad now let’s you graph turnout, registration, and (for recent years) finer-grained voting behavior from 1972-2012 for both the national populations and state populations, but no longer party voted for. Minors and non-citizens have been dropped from the dataset, leaving over two million individual cases in the whole dataset. (In order to speed up the queries so the server, whose internal settings I cannot change even through SSH [thanks, GoDaddy!], doesn’t time out, I had to split up the merged CPS into 21 individual tables). You can create tabulations, cross-tabulations, layered cross-tabulations, and simple graphs.

Some cool sample graphs:

Breakdown of voter turnout by race in the South

Voter registration of naturalized Latino citizens in California

Union membership among voting-age citizens in the Current Population Survey by region

Play around with it, and let me know what you think!


Posted in Dimpled Chad, political science | Leave a comment