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The Politics of Dillon, Texas

That taxes, the national debt, or health care reform have been central issues in this presidential campaign is hardly surprising.  But the same can’t be said for the slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” the mantra of fictional football coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights fame.  With Governor Romney using the show’s trademark phrase, with an actress from the show likening the Governor to the show’s unethical and overbearing football father Joe McCoy, with the original book’s author endorsing Romney, and with the TV show’s creator asking the Governor to stop using the phrase, it’s time to look a little more deeply into the politics of “Friday Night Lights.”  My ultimate goal: to learn the politics of the inscrutable Eric Taylor.  But in keeping with a good football show, let me not give away the ending.

For those unfamiliar with the show or the backstory, a paragraph won’t cut it, but I’ll try.  In 1990, journalist Buzz Bissinger published a non-fiction book about his year with the Permian Panthers, a high school football team from Odessa, Texas which had been a perpetual contender for state championships.  Peter Berg then created a five-season TV drama using material from the book along with his own creative license.  It aired from 2006 to 2011, and renamed Odessa “Dillon.”  And since Bissinger’s non-fiction narrative makes it clear that truth can be stranger than fiction**—I’m thinking about the involvement of Texas’ top education official in deciding on a high school player’s grade, and hence his playoff eligibility—Berg’s show is able to be fully fictional and yet stay reasonably close to real-world events.  Although about high school football teams, the show centers as much on Coach Taylor and the guidance counselor and high school principal who is also his wife (Tami) as on the players themselves.  There are spoilers below, but I assume the set of people who are still reading this and aren’t familiar with the show is approaching zero anyhow.

First, let’s start by looking at the geographic distribution of Google searches for “Matt Saracen,” under the assumption that there aren’t too many other reasons to Google that particular name.  Saracen is Eric Taylor’s second and most earnest quarterback during the show, a teenager who has been raised primarily by his grandmother and whose father served in Iraq.  The Google searches suggest that Friday Night Lights plays well in places like Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, but also in Obama’s home state of Illinois, in New York, in Texas, and in other places with large, college-educated populations (in absolute terms).

But what really interests me is the source of the back-and-forth between various commentators: who would the various characters in the show be likely to vote for, or who might they have backed in 2008?  So with the help of the 3,309 Texan respondents to the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study, I generated a (logit) model, and did my best to guess at the 2008 vote preferences of some of the show’s key characters.  I’m also drawing on the fact that the real Ector County, Texas has a plurality of Southern Baptists, and that to my memory, we never see a Catholic church in four seasons I have finished.  To wit:

  • Buddy Garrity is an affable car dealer and big-time football booster whose wife leaves him for someone he denounces as a tree-hugging leftist.  That’s a sizable hint about his politics—when he’s off raising money for a Jumbotron for the football stadium, he’s probably not doubling as an Obama fundraiser.  In the model, I call him a business owner, and also identify him as a non-Hispanic white and as a 45-year-old Protestant.  I’m guessing his income to be $80,000, but it looks like the car business is very boom and bust, and the one firm financial fact we know is that he sells his house after his wife moves away for a bit over $200,000.  The survey didn’t ask about having a passion for football (or for employees), but the model gives him an 84% chance of backing McCain nonetheless.
  • From Buddy Garrity, it’s natural to move on to Joe McCoy, the character that actress Jurnee Smollett likened to Governor Romney.  I include a linked picture below so readers can judge for themselves.  Joe McCoy flatters Eric Taylor by explaining that he moved to Dillon, Texas so Eric could coach his son J.D.—and then has Eric fired and replaced with his son’s personal coach.  Fans of the show will hate to hear this, but from a survey research point of view, Joe McCoy looks a lot like Buddy: both are church-going Protestant fathers separated from their wives, and both are on the upper end of the local income spectrum.  Still, for McCoy, the upper end is quite a bit higher—so simply by shifting the “Buddy” model to have an income of $200,000, we get a probability of voting for McCain that is 89%.  That’s a nice illustration of Andrew Gelman’s point about the relationship between income and Republican voting in red states.

  • Tim Riggins is one of the most intriguing figures on the show—he has what an earlier generation would have called “character,’’ and lots of it, although that doesn’t keep him at football practice, in college, or out of trouble with the law.  Based on his high school education, and a rough guess that his annual income is $20,000—hey, if I knew exactly how lucrative running a chop shop was, you’d worry—I get Tim’s probability of backing McCain at 58%.  But let’s not forget research by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman showing that encounters with the criminal justice system are demobilizing in general, or Marc Meredith’s evidence that turnout among former felons is low.  So it wouldn’t be shocking if Riggins passed on voting in 2008 entirely, even though Texas does restore the voting rights of those who have completed their sentence.
  • Politics is everywhere in the show, but explicit discussions of it are rare.  One exception is an awkward “meet the girlfriend” dinner where Landry Clarke’s mother tries to relate to Jess Merriweather by asking about President Obama.  Both Jess and Ms. Clarke tacitly agree that he’s doing a good job so far.  It’s certainly plausible that Ms. Clarke—a white woman married to a Dillion police officer—approved of Obama during the early days of his Presidency.  But according to the model, she nonetheless had a 65% chance of backing his 2008 opponent, John McCain.  The same male profile would back McCain at 71%, showing that the gender gap has its limits.  It’s a gap in the London Tube sense of the word—something you might not see if you aren’t careful.
  • On the other hand, Ms. Clarke’s interlocutor at dinner was a black high school student and aspiring football coach, Jess.  Jess was probably too young to vote in 2008.  But let’s say she makes $10,000 a year working at her father’s restaurant—and that she managed to turn 18 in time.  In that case, she’d vote for McCain about 4.6% of the time.  That number grows to 58% if I hold everything constant save her race.  So if you want to talk about gaps, the black-white gap in voting behavior is a place to start.
  • What about Tami Taylor, guidance counselor, principal, and surrogate mother to many?  In the fourth season, Tami gets embroiled in local abortion politics, but the issue centers on allegations about her advice rather than her actual views, which are less clear.  The Taylors’ financial situation is also a bit confusing—they seem stretched past the limit when Eric writes a $3,000 check to cover new uniforms, but they are a two-earner family in a county where the median home value for owner-occupied housing is $75,500.  I peg their household income at $110,000, and don’t need to worry about who earns what.   And by calling Tami a “professional,” I estimate her probability of having backed McCain to be 66%, or just about 2 out of 3.  That might have changed slightly if I had identified her as a government worker—and more so if she were in a union.
  • On, then, to Eric Taylor.  Linguistic George Lakoff would be likely to infer from Taylor’s “tough love” coaching style that he isn’t a fan of coddling, and thus isn’t very liberal.  But drawing clear connections between parenting or coaching and politics can be a stretch—and in this case, we’ve also got Taylor’s demographics to fall back on.  If we assume he’s got his wife’s demographic profile but for the gender, he’s a McCain supporter 71.7% of the time.  And if you think that misses the mark—well, you can certainly lobby the National Election Study to ask questions about whether you would go for a two-point conversion down by a point at the end of the fourth quarter.


** ADDENDUM: This previously read “strains belief.”  I meant that the events that Bissinger describes with respect to a Dallas high school—and that were reported elsewhere—are so striking that they sent me immediately to my computer to read more about the incidents and issues.  It’s a case where truth is stranger than fiction.  I highly recommend the book, and in no way meant to suggest that it was “truthy” or inaccurate.

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George W. Bush Takes Up Painting

No, really. Politico says so.  Apparently mostly dogs and Texas landscapes.

If you want a presidency studies spin, all I’ve got is that Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed painting too, as you can see below. Some of his finished efforts can be viewed here, along with analysis thereof by the British TV art critic (and nun) Sister Wendy Beckett. No word on whether she’ll be writing up W’s work.

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It’s Teddy Time

Congratulations to the Washington Nationals, who yesterday clinched their first division title since beginning to play in Washington, D.C.

As political scientists, though, there is some unfinished business that should concern us greatly.  I refer, of course, to the Presidents’ Race, a staple of Nationals’ home games in which the four Presidents from Mount Rushmore engage in a foot race from center field to the first base line.  The races are unpredictable, involving everything from motor scooters, sharks, and the Secret Service to the players themselves.  But there is one constant: Teddy Roosevelt has lost each of these 524 races.  A highly helpful primer on this critical issue is in the two-minute video here.

A war hero, conservationist, hawk, hunter, and avid reader, Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most recent Presidents to be claimed by both sides of the aisle. Last night’s game featured a pep talk for Teddy from none other than GOP 2008 Presidential nominee John McCain.  So I confess I am a bit surprised by the silence with which political scientists have responded to what could only be called a systematic campaign of defamation.  A generation of DC-area children are growing up with the wrong impression of our 26th President.  As if to toy with fans of Teddy (not to mention the Nationals), the Nationals have gone so far as to name this three-game homestand “Teddy in 2012.”

As political scientists, one of our responsibilities is to safeguard the teaching of American politics and political history.  Each night, when Teddy takes on the role of the hapless clown, truth suffers.  100 years ago this month, Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee and then finished the speech he was giving. It’s high time that he finished the Presidents’ race—in first place, just like the Nationals.

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Karl Marx, Republican

Via a Tweet from Ned Resnikoff, this letter from Karl Marx, congratulating President Lincoln on his re-election.

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver? … The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

With an official response from the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James:

I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him. So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world. The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world. Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.
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Our Man in London: Scenes from the Olympic Park

Once again, we bring you Alastair Ruffles, with an insider’s view of the 2012 London Olympics:


Aside from the obvious things you find at the Olympic Park venue (sports stadia, merchandise sellers, overpriced beer) the London site at Stratford has incorporated a number of pieces of ‘art’ in to the design.

Foremost amongst these is the ‘Orbit’, a 115 metre structure which resembles an upside down tuba.  In actual fact it is in effect a reverse helter skelter:  you go up quickly by lift in the centre of the structure, before descending by foot round the twisting form at your leisure.

According to the official London 2012 website, after going through the ‘small, intimate entrance’ (or as we call it in Britain ‘a door’) you enter a lift with ‘viewing portholes’ (windows) to ascend to the viewing platform 85 metres above ground level.  Mind you, the same website also claims that the design was chosen because ‘the spiralling red structure successfully represented both London and the UK, and was reflective of the five Olympic rings’ which just goes to prove that you can’t believe everything you read.

Next we have an art installation by Monica Bonvicini, entitled ‘RUN’.  This time the official website suggests that the artist got her inspiration from a number of musical pieces, including ‘Running Dry’ by Neil Young, and ‘Run Run Run’ by the Velvet Underground.  Nothing to do with athletics, then?  However, I think I can see how the conversation went:

London 2012 Organisers:  “Hi Monica.  About your sculpture… we’re looking for something that symbolises London.  You know – proud history but with a modern vitality.  A diverse population focussed on a single goal.  Regeneration of slum areas, the spirit of the Blitz.  Perhaps throw in something about speed and endurance to mark the Olympic motif, that sort of thing?”

Monica Bonvicini – “I thought I’d just stick up the word ‘RUN’ in big ol’ letters.”

London 2012 Organisers:  “Brilliant.  Who do we make the cheque out to?”

Of course these are the new Austerity Games.  There are rumours that the initial project was to have spelled out ‘Rhythmic Gymnastics – All Round Individual” before the budget was cut.

And finally we come to the Beat Box.  When I first saw what appeared to be a collapsing house of cards in the Olympic Park I was confused.  Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s an Olympic record holder for the modern biathlon – corporate expenditure followed by pretentious clap-trap.

Fortunately, it came with an explanation:

The sign nearly has it right. The Coca-Cola Beat Box combines experimental architecture, sport, music and technology to create an unlistenable racket and a building that hurts your eyes if you look at it for too long.  Maybe I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

Of course, the other explanation is that, given the distinctive colouring of the structure and the fact that ‘Coca-Cola’ is mentioned about 14 times in the surrounding area, it might just be a huge advertisement for the product.  Who’s to say?

Still the building does have its good points.  If you stand right next to it, you can’t see the world’s biggest and busiest McDonalds from there at all…

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