The Problem with Student Loan Debt is being Compounded

Note: I originally wrote this piece as an op-ed for the Emory Wheel. You can view the original post here

Student loans affect you — whether you have them or not. Approximately 40 million Americans have student loans, which accounts for $1.2 trillion in outstanding debt. That’s more than the total amount of credit card debt in this country Quick back of the envelope calculations tell me that this is an issue that directly affects around 13 percent of Americans. The Pew Research Center, in an only slightly more official estimation, says nearly 1 in 5 American households are affected.

The effects of student loan debt, however, aren’t just limited to direct effects. Indeed, the indirect effects at play are just as important because student loan debt impacts the entire American economy. According to a recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), student loan obligations inhibit the possibility of home ownership, the likelihood of starting up small businesses and contributions to retirement savings. In short, student loan debt drags down the American economy.

So why has student loan debt become such an issue as of late? That probably has something to do with the fact that more and more people are borrowing more and more money to finance their education. Which, in turn, is most likely related to the fact that the average price of a college education has increased 1120 percent in the last 30 years. That increase beats the pace of inflation by… a lot. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), at a recent event on student loans, said that student loan debt has tripled over the past decade. Simply put, student debt is increasing at a rapid pace.

The fact that student interest rates are ridiculously high (six, 10 and even 14 percent rates aren’t uncommon) only compounds the problem — continuously, you could say.  When interest rates are at historic lows for mortgages, car loans and the like, why have student loans become the exception? Why is the reward for investing in your education higher interest rates and fewer protections than most other kinds of loans allow?

Amidst all the bad news surrounding student debt, there is some good news: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act recently, which would allow students to refinance their student loans to much lower interest rates. The bill was shot down among almost purely partisan lines, as it seems almost all bills these days are. But President Obama announced that he supports the measure, and there’s still hope it will get implemented in the near future.

Refinancing loans is an option many people have wisely used for their home mortgages, car loans and the like. It allows you to take advantage of the current low interest rates to basically re-negotiate the terms of your loan for a lower interest rate. But, for some reason, current law prohibits the refinancing of student loans. Warren’s bill fixes that in addition to allowing student loans to be refinanced down to 3.86 percent.

If you’re wondering why such an arbitrary number was picked, there’s a reason. 3.86 percent is the rate that Congress said last year new student loans should be set at under the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act. New student loans have a 3.86 percent interest rate, and Warren’s bill would simply allow people with older student loans to be able to have the same rate. It makes the system a whole lot more fair. As for concerns about effects on the ever-increasing federal deficit, the Center for American Progress estimates that a reduction to a five percent interest rate would add $21 billion to the economy in the first year alone.

Whether you’re a fresh college graduate with loans or are responsible for a fraction of the half of the total student loan debt that’s owed by people over 30, this issue matters. Even if you don’t have student loan debt, your financial security is still dependent on the American economy, which is adversely affected by staggeringly high levels of student debt.

Student loan refinancing may sound lofty and unimportant, but it’s an issue grounded in the lives of millions of Americans who can’t afford to buy a house or are forced to put their marriage plans on hold because they decided to invest in their education. We, as a society, shouldn’t be punishing students for choosing to further their education.

When Politics is the Family Business

It all started with a Supreme Court justice. That one Supreme Court justice began a familial line of political giants that has shaped much of American politics over the last half-century. From Governors to Presidents, the Bush family has dominated American political culture, dating all the way back to David Davis’ time. In all, the Bushes include two United States senators, two Governors, two Presidents, one Supreme Court justice, and a whole lot of Georges.


The Family Bush

I know what you’re thinking: Firstly, if we were to draw the lineage of the Bush family, we’d have to call it the “Family Bush” instead of the “Family Tree.” And secondly, isn’t it a bit odd just how much influence the Bush family, among other political dynasties, has had on American politics?

That’s what I thought, at least, when surveying some of the local elections happening in Georgia, where I live. Two of our most important national elections are peppered with familiar names. We have a Carter running for Governor, and a Nunn running for Senator. Of course, I’m talking about Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn; the first of whom is Jimmy Carter’s grandson, and the second of whom is former Senator Sam Nunn’s daughter.  

Nationally speaking, it isn’t inconceivable to suggest that we could very well see ourselves with a Bush vs. Clinton race for President in 2016, with Jeb Bush pitted against Hillary Rodham Clinton. And of course, there’s always a Kennedy running for office somewhere.  In this case, it’s Bobby Shriver, nephew of JFK, who’s running for the county Board of Supervisors in LA.

All in all, over the last two hundred years 8.7% of members of Congress were closely related to people who had previously served in Congress (Dal Bó, Dal Bó, and Snyder, 2009). The 110th Congress, which lasted from 2007-2008, saw 44 members of the House of Representatives and 9 members of the Senate with close relations to previous congressmen (Feinstein, 2010). That’s almost 10% of Congress with relatives who were previous members of Congress. Compare that to 1789-1802, when 20% of Congress had other members of Congress in their families, and we’re looking pretty good. But during the 86th congress, from 1959-1960, that figure was only 5% (Clubok, Wilensky, and Berghorn, 1969). Although we’ve decreased the percentage of Congresspeople related to other Congressmen since our nation’s founding, we now have twice as many “familiar names” in Congress as we did in 1959.

Given the increased prevalence of political dynasties in American politics, both anecdotally and statistically, I decided to look into them. The most basic question I wanted to answer was this: Does being part of a political dynasty help candidates get elected, and if so, how?

As it turns out, being part of a political dynasty does in fact increase a candidate’s likelihood of election, but not in the ways I expected.

Brian Feinstein, a graduate student at Harvard University, created a data set covering all open-seat House elections from 1994 through 2006 and drew up some conclusions in an article entitled The Dynasty Advantage. He found that, in all, candidates’ “brand name advantage” helped them at the polls with a 0.72 to 7.9 point advantage (when using a 95% confidence interval). That’s not all too surprising, although it does solidify the intuition that political dynasty heirs receive a significant bump in voters. What was surprising was that the potential advantages that come along with being part of a political dynasty, like greater access to campaign contributions and past political experience, had no statistically significant effect on the candidate’s chances. According to Feinstein, the “observed electoral bump for dynastic candidates is highly suggestive of a brand name advantage;” not, in other words, enhanced campaign contributions or previous political experience.  Although Feinstein cautioned that his results were not definitive, and though he only researched the effect within the House of Representatives, his conclusions certainly paint a broader picture of how Americans vote and suggest that political scientists may have been overlooking the “Kennedy factor” a bit.   

Except it’s not just the “Kennedy factor” that’s been overlooked: it’s name brand advantage overall. Feinstein suggests that celebrities, too, enjoy name brand recognition that allows them to do better at the polls than non-recognizable opponents. And while there’s potential for selection bias to be at play with political dynasties (relatives of politicians are more likely to know when the conditions are good for them to run, and therefore heirs of political dynasties are more likely to win whenever they choose to run), the same cannot be said for celebrities.

In reality, Feinstein’s conclusions aren’t just about the influence of political dynasties on election rates for members of the House from 1994 through 2006. Rather, his conclusions speak to the broader tendency of American voters to vote for the familiar, whether it be yet another Kennedy, or a famous actor, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.


When he said “I’ll be back,” what he really meant was: “I’ll be back…for Governor”

This is in line with the elite cue theory, which suggests that Americans look toward trusted politicians to show them which policies and ideas to support. When deciding whether or not to go to war, the theory suggests, Americans don’t actually evaluate the policy behind the war, but instead turn to the views of a trusted politician for guidance (see Berinsky). In the case of political dynasties, we’re doing something similar: turning to trusted politicians for guidance. Except in this case, we’re looking for guidance in who to cast our votes for.

If Feinstein’s correct about the “dynasty bump,” as he puts it, I wonder how the characteristic influences voters of opposing parties. Whereas, for the reasons laid out above, a Republican can be assumed to be more likely to vote for a Bush candidate–say, George Prescott Herbert Jeb Walker Bush– than a no-name Republican candidate, is a Democrat that much less likely to vote for the Bush candidate? That is, how does the “dynasty bump” actually play out across partisan lines? Does it play only an affirmative role, increasing the number of voters within the same party, or does it also play a negative role, actively dissuading members of the opposite party from voting for a particular candidate?

And what happens when, gasp, the heirs of political dynasties have much different views from their politically famous relatives? Do they still enjoy the brand name advantage, or are they hindered by the association?

Finally, and most fundamentally, should American voters be continually voting in members of the same families to Congress? If politics are the “family business,” are heirs of politician dynasties better politicians? Or is Barbara Bush right when she says: “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for higher office, that’s silly. Because there are great governors and great eligible people to run”?

Clearly, I still have a lot of questions about political dynasties, which I think is one point Feinstein tries to get at in his article: political dynasties’ influence on American politics is vastly under-researched. If, as Feinstein claims, the “dynasty bump” is about half as influential as the incumbent advantage, then the effect of political dynasties in American politics deserves at least half as much research and scholarship. Based on my attempts to find information, we’re not even close to that figure.

As we turn to the 2014 elections and 2016 Presidential election, it will be interesting to watch how the remaining political dynasties battle for office. Will Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, win her Senate race in Wyoming? Will she do so while accidentally shooting a colleague while on a hunting trip? Will George P. Bush win the election for Texas land commissioner without having a shoe thrown at him? And what will happen if two political families, the Bushes and the Clintons, go head-to-head in the 2016 Presidential election? I suppose only time, and more research on political dynasties, will tell. Until then, I’m calling it: Underwood ’16.

Underwood ’16

Beyond Kony2012

kony2012We only like to talk about Kony2012 once a year. Okay, okay, maybe twice. Or three times. The point is, discussions about Kony2012’s lessons for the atrocity prevention movement don’t happen often, and when they do, they’re usually in private conversations. That’s what I’ve noticed, at least, in the two years since the release of Kony2012 in March, 2012. By “we,” I mean the genocide and mass atrocity prevention community. We may be a small community, but we sure like to talk: from folks like Jay Ufelder to Laura Seay to Daniel Solomon and beyond, there are more blogs out there than I can count (or want to count). Still, I see Kony2012 posts almost precisely once a year- on the anniversary of the massive viral video campaign that was Kony2012.

As the National Student Director of STAND*, a student-led organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities, I find this both strange and disconcerting.  Since the “heyday” of genocide prevention activism in the mid-2000s, participation has declined. And that’s not because the conflicts that deserve our attention have been de-escalating. From CAR to Sudan and South Sudan, from the DRC to Syria, there is still much work to be done. But there’s been a noticeable decline in engagement.  Why are we willfully ignoring the one campaign in the last two years that’s brought our cause significant attention?

Because Kony2012 raises hard questions. If we only talk about it once a year, we can restrain ourselves to only considering the easy questions.  We can analyze Kony2012 and stop there. It’s pretty easy to criticize another organization.  Once a year, we can say that Kony2012 attracted a lot of people, but was problematic. We can reference the white savior complex, and feel one grade smarter than them.

Looking at other organizations is important. But we never get to the other question of the implications of Kony2012 on the broader mass atrocity prevention movement. We never ask ourselves: “What does this mean for our organization?”  We need to start asking those questions– and not just behind closed doors. We need more open, honest discussion about the movement and sooner rather than later. I have a few questions and thoughts on each, but I think this conversation warrants input from the genprev community and hope that this is only the beginning of a larger, more transparent discussion.

1. One of the “easy” criticisms of Kony2012 was centered around how Invisible Children spent its money—primarily on advocacy efforts rather than on the ground efforts. Is that a valid criticism?

I say nay.  I’ve always seen this as a fairly reductionist criticism, one created to fit the mold of “let’s find something to criticize about Kony2012 without really thinking about it.”  Firstly, Invisible Children does do on the ground work, though it’s true more money is spent on their advocacy work in the United States than on the ground in Uganda (though that’s changed this year).  But I wish I didn’t have to justify the money they spend on advocacy in the United States by noting how much they spend on the ground. Just because money is spent on genocide prevention advocacy doesn’t mean it’s not money well-spent. No one can deny that people in refugee camps in Uganda need money. You should send money there if you can. But advocacy work in the United States is, I think, working toward the same goal.

It’s a much harder sell to convince people to give advocacy-based organizations in the United States money when they can instead donate directly to people in need. Donating to groups like STAND doesn’t give you that immediate feeling of satisfaction, it doesn’t scream “I’m a good person” in your face the same way donating to an on-the-ground cause does. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile investment. I like to think the work advocacy-based organizations do here in the US will, in the long-term, help the situation in Uganda and elsewhere. Do I want you to stop donating to on the ground organizations and only donate to advocacy organizations like STAND? Of course not (what I really want is for you to donate to all of them, silly). But I do want to make the claim that criticizing or refusing to donate to organizations because they only focus on domestic advocacy instead of international on the ground work is misplaced.

2. One of the most problematic aspects of Kony2012 was that it relied on a simplistic narrative to tell a complex story. The simplistic narrative, some say, was misleading and irresponsible. Is it wrong to use reductionist narratives to get people engaged?

Ultimately, I think it comes down to your personal preference between process and outcome. I would have preferred to see more background information, more details, and less simplicity. But I think Kony2012 was supposed to be the start of a conversation, not the end. It’s impossible to say everything you need to say in a 30 minute video. But it’s also impossible to get people engaged with a four hour video that just starts to really scratch the surface of the conflict. So it’s easy to say that Kony2012 was simplistic, but it’s hard to ask what balance you would strike between informed activism and engaging activism if you were the one designing such a campaign.

Luckily, I have designed campaigns for STAND. Our campaigns tend to fall on the more informed/responsible side of the spectrum. My thoughts on this question still aren’t settled, though. Sometimes I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by making our campaigns too wonky, falling too much on the informed side and not enough on the engaged side. What’s the point of informed activism if no one’s doing it? Then I realize I’ve unintentionally created a zero-sum relationship between informed and engaging activism wherein activism cannot be engaging if it is informed and cannot be informed if it is engaging. I think that’s wrong. The question, then, is what does informed, engaging activism look like? STAND hasn’t even begun to find the answer to that question, but I think our #syriasly campaign was the closest we’ve come. We, along with the rest of the genprev and maprev community have a lot of work to do.

3. In contrast to most descriptions of Kony2012, the wider genprev and maprev community is pretty wonky. How does this impact our efforts to make a difference in genocide and mass atrocity prevention?

The frequency of the awkward phrase “genocide and mass atrocity prevention” is evidence of the high prevalence of wonkiness in this field. I’ve written about using genocide vs. mass atrocities once, and never want to again, because it’s a conversation that’s been hashed out one too many times. I think it ultimately comes down to the balance between process and outcome I referred to previously. The switch over to “mass atrocities” is fairly indicative of a move toward wonkishness in the field, though. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this. Having academics focus on mass atrocities can enhance our understanding of the conflicts and their drivers, thereby bringing us one step closer to finding solutions. But that only works when there’s interaction between academics and the rest of the genocide prevention community.

I think that interaction is lacking. There’s a huge gulf between atrocity prevention academics/professionals and activists.  It’s no wonder there’s some uninformed activism going on. We’re stronger when we work together. We need to create engaging and responsible pathways for people to get involved, and not just if they want to join a think tank or write papers.  Why are we limiting our potential impact to scholars and think tanks?  We always talk about norm diffusion and say that if we could just diffuse this norm of atrocity prevention we’d be set. Why, then, are we focusing all of our efforts on one tiny subset of the population when we could be distilling this norm to a much broader one? I want there to be people who value and prioritize genocide prevention in every field, not just one.

We need to grow and adapt to a new landscape: one that requires us to actively seek out participants and get creative, like past social justice movements before us. We’re comfortable criticizing other organizations, like Invisible Children and their Kony2012 campaign. That’s a good thing. It’s time to start the next phase in our chapter. We need to match our criticism of Kony2012 with open and honest criticism of ourselves.  These conversations need to happen publicly, and with more urgency. Only then will we really start making progress.


*Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of any particular organization.


Dear Aura

*Trigger warning for sexual assault and sexual harassment

Ever since high school, I’ve read two advice columns per day, every day. I don’t quite remember how the practice came about, or when exactly it began, but it’s become the closest thing to a constant I have in my life. Though many people find the habit odd, I’ve always found it fascinating to read about the problems and questions everyday people are terrified to ask in real life.  And usually, I’m satisfied with the advice doled out by my two favorites: “Abby” and “Amy” (of Dear Abby and Ask Amy, respectively). Even when the advice isn’t perfectly to my liking, I usually appreciate and respect the rationale behind it.

This morning, I woke up to advice from Abby that instantly and simultaneously angered and terrified me. I was and continue to be angry, because the advice trivializes and misinforms the general public about sexual harassment. Advice columns do not simply advise the seeker of advice- if that were the case, the advice would not be published publicly. The advice is meant for a wide audience and can wield widespread influence, which makes me all the more dismayed and angered at the misinformation that pervades Abby’s response. Furthermore, I am terrified for the author of the letter, “Aura,” and the situation she finds herself in after having reached out for help and having had her emotions and feelings diminished and rejected. I am terrified for the countless other women who have encountered similar experiences and have had them rejected and trivialized.

Here is the text of the original letter:

DEAR ABBY: Can you be sexually harassed/abused by your spouse? My husband talks dirty to me and grabs at my breasts. I have repeatedly asked him to stop, but he doesn’t listen and continues to do it. We have two small kids at home, and by the time they go to bed, I could care less about being intimate.

His behavior disgusts me, and to be honest, I don’t want to have sex with him. I have female problems and have told him it hurts, but it makes no difference to him. He touches me in front of the kids, and I have to slap his hand away.

I can’t leave him because I don’t have a car or income for myself, nor do I have family or friends close by. I can’t go to his family because they see him in a different light. What would you suggest, and is it harassment — and could I press charges? — LEAVE MY AURA ALONE

And here is Abby’s response:

DEAR AURA: You have mentioned so many problems in your short letter that it’s hard to know where to begin. While your husband’s attempts at foreplay are beyond clumsy and ineffective, I can’t help but feel some sympathy for him because it appears you have him on a starvation diet.

How long this can continue for either of you is uncertain. Rather than try to charge harassment, why not schedule an appointment with your gynecologist and find out why having sex is painful for you. It is not supposed to be, and your doctor may be able to help you resolve the problem. Marriage counseling might also help, because it’s clear you and your husband aren’t communicating on any meaningful level.

If these problems are not resolvable, you can’t continue living like this and neither can he. Because your family isn’t nearby and you have no transportation, call or write them and let them know you may need their help to return. If they are unable to help you, contact a domestic abuse hotline. Unwanted sexual advances could be considered harassment, and sex without consent is rape.

Abby’s response is so riddled with problems it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s start with the most obvious: Nowhere in her response does Abby state what Aura is experiencing is, in fact, sexual harassment.

The closest she comes is at the very end, when she says: “Unwanted sexual advances could be considered sexual harassment” (emphasis added). First off, “could” be considered sexual harassment? This is sexual harassment. Aura repeatedly states in her letter that she is being touched by her husband despite having “repeatedly asked him to stop.” Furthermore, Aura is forced to resort to “slap[ping] his hand away” in order to get him to stop. Because Abby so spectacularly failed to state this, I am going to say it very explicitly: Aura is being sexually harassed by her husband.

The fact that Abby does not acknowledge this fact is beyond troubling. But she goes a step further by trivializing and diminishing the experiences of Aura.

At one point, Abby has the gall to describe Aura’s husband’s harassment as “attempts at foreplay” that are “beyond clumsy and ineffective.”  The situation as described by Aura does not include “attempts at foreplay,” but does include sexual harassment. The actions of Aura’s husband are not “beyond clumsy and ineffective,” but are non-consensual acts that constitute sexual harassment. Using the word “ineffective” to describe the husband’s actions is especially demeaning, as it implies that his goal, non-consensual sex, is somehow acceptable, but that it’s not worthwhile simply because it’s not producing the desired effect (that is, sexual harassment).

Abby’s next move involves copious amounts of victim-blaming, as she describes how she “can’t help but feel some sympathy for him because it appears you [Aura] have him on a starvation diet.” 

Is sexual harassment acceptable because Aura is not satisfying her husband sexually? Are Aura’s husbands actions Aura’s fault? Is sexual harassment acceptable, ever?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. Aura is not at fault for the actions of her husband.  She cannot be blamed for the actions of someone else. She cannot be blamed for being sexually harassed.

Finally, it’s important to note one of Abby’s more subtle missteps, if only for the fact that many readers may have missed it.  When Abby advises Aura to seek medical attention from her gynecologist for her lack of desire to engage in any sort of sexual intimacy with her husband, she is once again trivializing the feelings expressed by Aura. She is implying that there must be something biologically wrong with Aura for not wanting to have sex with her husband, instead of recognizing that the husband’s actions are what is causing Aura’s actions. For what seems like the millionth time, Abby is blaming Aura for the actions of her husband instead of the husband himself.

By this point, I’ve spent a good deal of time airing my frustrations with Abby’s more than inadequate response to Aura, and I feel that was warranted. I’d like to move on and focus on Aura- because too often, I think, we get so mad at the perpetrator of sexual assault or sexual harassment, that we forget to spend time focusing on how we can help the survivor of sexual assault. So, if I were Abby, here’s what I would have said:

Dear Aura,

I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, and I am so thankful that you have taken the courageous step to reach out. What you have just described to me is sexual harassment, and if you would like to leave, I wholeheartedly support your decision. You can try contacting a friend or family member for help, or calling this hotline for more information: 1.800.656.HOPE.         .

This is sexual harassment because you have not consented to your husband’s action. Consent requires an active “yes,” not simply an absence of a “no.” In your case, you have explicitly expressed that your husband’s actions are unwanted, and as such, what he is doing is non-consensual and constitutes sexual harassment. The fact that he is your husband does not diminish or excuse his actions.

Please do not be afraid to reach out to me, a trusted friend or family member, or the number I listed above.  You do not deserve to be treated the way you are being treated, and I am so sorry that you have had to experience everything you described to me.


I hope somehow Aura receives my message, or receives the support and love she needs right now. I hope that one day, we can be a society that refuses to place blame on the survivor, and recognizes Aura’s story for what it is: sexual harassment.




The White Primary: Blurring the Lines Among Neuman’s Dimensions of Power

Note: Because it’s been longer than usual since my last post, and because I don’t see myself writing a new post in the near future (here’s to you, internship applications), I’ve decided to post a paper I wrote for a class last semester that used the white primary system to analzye Neuman’s dimensions of power. If you’re interested in systems of power, or the creative lengths to which racist southerners attempted to bar blacks from voting, feel free to take a look. Either way, no prior knowledge of white primaries nor of Neuman’s dimensions of power is necessary for understanding the paper. You can also view the essay here.



            According to W. Lawrence Neuman, there exist three distinct dimensions of power, each classified by its level of visibility.  These three dimensions represent a spectrum of visibility, ranging from the highly visible power of the first dimension, to the nearly invisible power found in the third. This paper will attempt to provide an overview of each dimension of power as crafted by Neuman, and then seeks to use the example of the white primary, a once-prominent mechanism of suppressing the black vote in the South, as a lens to explore overlap among the dimensions.  The white primary, as will be discussed in-depth, provides a historical example in which the lines between the different dimensions were blurred, and which may suggest that a less rigid distinction between the three is needed to more accurately describe various exercises of power.

The Three Dimensions of Power

            Power, according to Neuman, is a “relationship between two or more people (or groups)” which encompasses “a capacity or ability to influence others” (Neuman 12).  Although power is a widely applicable concept, Neuman confines his analysis primarily to political power.  Despite describing the three dimensions as a “continuum,” Neuman proscribes fairly rigid terms for each and compares them using various characteristics.  These characteristics include: the visibility of power relations, the main source of power, the awareness of people regarding their grievances, the outcomes of various policy decisions, the location of “real politics,” the connotations of the absence of power, and who is represented among participants in formal decision-making.

First Dimension of Power

Fundamentally, the first dimension of power is power that is highly visible.  Typically, this signifies that the power is exercised in formal settings, which often provide more visibility than informal, behind-the-scenes exercises of power.  Neuman defines the first dimension of power as follows: “The first dimension of power involves observable conflict among competing interests” (Neuman 12). This dimension is also known as decision-making or behavioral power, according to Neuman.

In terms of the aforementioned characteristics, the first dimension represents highly visible power relations in which the main source of power is “activated political resources” (Neuman 16). Furthermore, almost everyone under the first dimension of power is both aware and able to respond to his or her grievances. Participants in formal decision-making represent a large proportion of society’s interests and populations. If there is a lack of protest, this signifies that the people are either satisfied or are not interested enough to mount opposition. 

One common example of first dimensional power is a vote on a bill, which is extremely visible, as everyone has the right to know particular votes on a bill.  Other frequently cited examples include legislative sessions and public hearings.  These exercises of power are all considered examples of first dimensional power because they are highly visible and are typically representative of many groups and interests.

Importantly, Neuman indicates that the first dimension can be “pushed to its limits,” in his words (Neuman 13).  This stretching of the limits of the first dimension occurs when “decision-making rules are altered to influence an outcome” (Neuman 13).  Here, Neuman acknowledges somewhat of a deviation from the rigidity of each dimension of power, but still considers this scenario as falling under the umbrella of first dimensional power.  This version of the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits” poses significant questions about the limitations of the rigid dimensions themselves, as will be explored further later in the context of the white primary.

Second Dimension of Power

            The second dimension, unlike the first, centers on power that is only barely visible.  This power often influences the first dimension by controlling the range of issues that are considered under the first dimension.  As such, second dimensional power often occurs before first dimensional power, or, in terms of visibility, before decisions and power regarding a specific issue become visible to the public at large. However, it is also possible to use second dimensional power after first dimensional power, as Neuman indicates, by quietly nullifying or invalidating decisions made in the first dimension.

            With regard to the previously described characteristics of the three dimensions of power, the second dimension of power involves power that is only partly visible, wherein “the powerless have only limited expression and ability to act” (Neuman 16).  In addition, the powerless are often described as aware of their grievances, but frequently unable to respond.  Furthermore, policy decisions are more heavily representational of the interests of the powerful rather than of a diverse set of groups and interests.  Finally, when there is an absence of pushback and protest, this signifies that the powerless are unable to respond, not that they are unwilling.

            The second dimension of power takes on two major forms: agenda-setting and nondecision-making.  Agenda-setting, according to Neuman, occurs when “alternative options or issues exist but are prevented from entering the formal decision-making process or assigned a very low priority” (Neuman 14).  The historic version of political party primaries are one example of agenda-setting.  Before candidates were selected by voters in open or partially open primaries and caucuses as they are now, candidates were chosen by the leaders of each political party.  Non-elite party members had no formal say in the decision-making.   This is an example of agenda-setting because, while voters eventually voted for the candidate of their choosing, they had no say in which candidates were on the ballot.  As such, this also exemplifies second dimensional power influencing first dimensional power, a typical characteristic of the second dimension of power.

            Nondecision-making, the second form of second dimensional power, consists of “situations that occur when a policy alternative is not formulated, people do not mobilize, or candidates do not advance because of the overwhelming odds of failure” (Neuman 14). Neuman notes that nondecision-making and agenda-setting often overlap. One example that Neuman relies on is a case study of air pollution in one particular city.  This city faced abysmal air pollution levels, but, strangely enough, never encountered strong public opposition.  As it turned out, the reason for the lack of protest was that the city’s primary polluter was also the main pillar on which the local economy relied for support.  This is a classic example of the second dimension of power because the decision was never made to stop the pollution; instead, it was a non-decision because of the vast importance of the major polluter in the local economy. There was no visible, formal decision.  The decision was instead informal, and a non-decision. Furthermore, the public’s acquiescence with the status quo was not for lack of want to change the situation, but because it was powerless to enact the desired change.

            Despite the difficulty in challenging only partially visible power, Neuman proposes a few tactics to overcome second dimensional power. “Opposing or resisting second dimensional power,” he says, “requires an unmasking or debunking tactic that raises awareness, redefines a situation, and calls attention to an issue” (Neuman 14).

Third Dimension of Power

On one end of the spectrum of visibility of power lies the third dimension of power, which includes “invisible influence and domination that is built into patterns of thoughts, terms and categories of language, and the very way that activities are organized” (Neuman 14). This form of power is so subtly ingrained into our thinking that people are largely unable to recognize its influence at all. Indeed, the third dimension of power is so insidious that it may not be perpetuated or used consciously; rather, it is often employed subconsciously and not as a result of an individual’s conscious decision.

Relying once more upon Neuman’s characteristics of power, the third dimension of power is defined by nearly invisible power relations that often create “only limited and indirect evidence” (Neuman 16).  Furthermore, people are often completely unaware of their grievances, and as such, policy decisions largely reflect the desires of a small group of people and exclude the vast majority of the population.  In addition, because of the camouflaged nature of this dimension of power, the decisions that are made often appear fair and representative of many interests despite their actual lack of fairness and representation.

The third dimension of power’s near invisibility poses particular difficulty in providing well-evidenced examples.  However, feminist theory provides one oft-cited example, as feminist theorists suggest that women are subconsciously treated as inferior in the course of everyday events, rather than conscious attempts to subordinate women. 

The White Primary

As such, Neuman’s conception of the three dimensions of power provides distinct categories for each dimension of power rather than a “continuum,” as he initially claims.   However, Neuman’s brief mention of the first dimension “pushed to its limits” suggests there is room for consideration of the dimensions of power as a spectrum of visibility rather than disparate categories.  Indeed, the white primary system provides further credence to this claim by demonstrating the extent to which the first and second dimensions of power can overlap. An overview of the history of the white primary followed by an analysis of the dimensions of power at play will illuminate the need for a continuum in evaluating dimensions of power.

History of the White Primary

            The white primary was at one point so effective that one Southern legislator used its success to argue against the need of another mechanism to prevent blacks from voting.  Indeed, in a letter written by the legislator and published in the Atlanta Constitution, precursor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the legislator wrote: “We already had the Negro eliminated form politics by the white primary,” and then went on to argue that any further disenfranchisement mechanisms were unnecessary (Marshall 250).

Thurgood Marshall, the chief legal strategist behind the de-segregation efforts of the Civil Rights movement turned Supreme Court justice, articulately sketched out the history of the white primary in an article entitled The Rise and Collapse of the “White Democratic Party.”  The white primary, according to Marshall, originated sometime after the end of Reconstruction.  These primaries were by no means formal or regulated by law.  Instead, they operated on so-called gentlemen’s agreements and informalities to determine the candidates for office.  In the 1921 Supreme Court case of Newberry v. United States, the court ruled that primaries were not considered elections.  This decision isolated the primary system from legal challenges on the basis of discrimination because the constitution only outlaws discrimination by the state and federal government, not private individuals.  As such, because primaries were not elections and consequently were not considered under the state or federal government’s domain, there was no way to charge them with discrimination. In general, Newberry aided and protected the white primary system of excluding blacks.

The next significant Supreme Court case involving the white primary occurred in 1927, in the case of Nixon v. Herndon.  This case involved a Texas law, partially inspired by the decision in Newberry, to outlaw blacks from voting in Democratic primaries.  It is important to note the domination of the Democratic party in the south, which essentially created a one-party region.  This made the white primary system particularly effective at excluding blacks from selecting candidates. In Nixon v. Herndon, the Texas law was struck down as a violation of the Fourteenth amendment.  Justice Holmes, in a unanimous majority opinion, wrote: “It seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Nixon v. Herndon, 1927).

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the white primary system.  Southern legislators found clever ways of evading the spirit of the decision handed down in Nixon v. Herndon and continued devising methods to exclude blacks from voting in primaries.  One such mechanism in Texas was the passage of a law in 1928, just one year after the Nixon v. Herndon decision, to give the state executive committees of political parties the power to decide the eligibility of voters in primaries.  This law was rather transparently passed with the intention to shift the responsibility to excluding blacks from voting in primaries to the Democratic party, which was immune from the anti-discrimination laws of the constitution, unlike the state government. Immediately after the passage of this law, the Democratic party unsurprisingly barred blacks from voting in Democratic primaries.

On and on, the Democratic party and black would-be voters fought, back and forth, with the Democratic party creating crafty measures to avoid the law and perpetuate the use of the white primary and the African-American community continually relying on the courts for support. The lengthy nature of the judicial process ensured that proponents of the white primary could always find a way to continue the discrimination until the next case would be funneled through the system. 

However, in the 1935 Grovey v. Townsend Supreme Court decision, it seemed as though the white primary supporters had finally found a way to avoid judicial scrutiny.  In response to being barred from primaries by the Democratic Party in Texas, R.R. Grover, a black citizen from Texas, filed suit, claiming discrimination.  The Supreme Court, however, ruled that because the Democratic primary was a private affair and not any sort of state action, the fourteen and fifteenth amendments had not been violated.  Although there was obviously private discrimination at hand, private discrimination was not outlawed by the constitution. Consequently, the discrimination was legal and white primaries could continue to legally exclude blacks from voting.

Eventually, in United States v. Classic, the Supreme Court changed course, as Marshall writes: “The Court… unanimously agreed that Congress had the right to regulate primary elections and that the criminal sections of the Civil Rights law could be invoked to penalize infractions thereof in the course of primary elections involving nominations for Federal office” (Marshall 252). This case provided the state action component necessary to supporting claims of discrimination.  Soon after, in Smith v. Allwright, the court applied this precedent to the white primary, stating: “The party takes its character as a state agency from the duties imposed upon it by state statute; the duties do not become matters of private law because they were performed by a political party” (Smith v. Allwright, 1944).  These two decisions essentially ended the immunity originally given to the Democratic party as a private organization by declaring that because primaries were primarily a state function, parties were acting as a state agency when running the primaries. As such, the Democratic party was obliged to follow the same laws as the government, including the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.  

Of course, those attempting to exclude blacks from primaries mounted another attempt to maintain the white primary.  The Jaybird Party (also known as the Jaybird Democratic Party) was a private, all-white organization that was created to hold its own primary before the Democratic Party’s primary.  The winner of the Jaybird election would move on to the Democratic party and run unopposed, and then move on to the general election, which, because of the one-party nature of the South, guaranteed victory in the general election to the winner of the Jaybird election.  Because the Jaybirds were all white and private, this system guaranteed that blacks would have no say in selecting the candidates and that the Jaybirds could discriminate without impunity, as a private organization.  Eventually, in 1952, the Supreme Court dismantled the system once and for all in Terry v. Adams, when it ruled that such practices were unconstitutional. Though there was still much progress to be made, the white primary was finally defeated, and one significant barrier to black influence in elections was dismantled.

The White Primary and the First Dimension of Power

The white primary can be conceived of as an example of the first dimension of power for numerous reasons.  First, and perhaps most importantly, the power of the white primary was quite visible.  Although the white primary was essentially ruled constitutional in Grovey v. Townsend, this was not because the justices were unaware of the power in the white primary system but rather because of laws they felt obligated to adhere to. Indeed, as is evidenced by the Southern legislator’s open letter to the Atlanta Constitution, the power and purpose of the white primary was no secret to any party involved.  The visibility of the white primary was partly what allowed the black community to fight against it.  Thus, there was no lack of protest and the people were in fact able to act on their grievances, which correlates more with the first dimension of power than any other. 

However, there are also characteristics of the white primary that plainly do not align with the first dimension of power.  First, “real politics” did not occur in formal-decision making arenas, as the first dimension requires.  Instead, they were made in the context of private groups, like the Jaybirds. Second, policy decisions and outcomes were clearly not “the result of open and fair votes, compromises, and negotiations among participants,” as Neuman describes for the first dimension.  Nor were the participants of the formal decision-making representative of most of society’s “diverse social interests and groups” (Neuman 16). Furthermore, to some extent, the black population was unable to act on their grievances because the Democratic party was able to constantly remain one step ahead, while the court system struggled to keep up.  Thus, while many aspects of the first dimension fit the historical example found in the white primary (primarily in terms of visibility), numerous others do not, mainly regarding the fairness and representation of the decisions made.

The White Primary and the Second Dimension of Power

            Similarly, the white primary fits some but not all of the characteristics of the second dimension of power.  As was mentioned earlier, primaries are often considered a classic example of agenda-setting, one form of second dimensional power.  In this case, all-white groups, whether they be the leaders of the Democratic party or the Jaybirds, were able to select the pool of candidates from which black voters then had to choose to vote.  This is a rather explicit form of agenda-setting, and consequently, a form of second dimensional power.  However, as was discussed earlier, there are also characteristics of the white primary that fall more squarely under the category of first dimensional power. 

The White Primary and The First Dimension “Pushed to its Limits”

            Despite the strict divisions Neuman drew between the three dimensions of power, he did allow for one category of overlap: the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits,” as he puts it.  Under this category, decision-making rules “are altered to influence an outcome” (Neuman 13).  In the case of the white primary, laws were skirted with and creatively rendered useless by the Democratic party.  The lengthy back and forth between the Democratic party and the decisions handed down by the Supreme court in response to cases filed by black southerners demonstrates the extent to which the Democratic party attempted to evade the law.  First by shifting the power to determine eligibility of voters in primaries to the Democratic party, then by shifting power once more to the Jaybirds, and in countless other ways, white Democratic party leaders were able to ensure that only they would have the power to select candidates running for office.  In doing so, they maintained a firm grip on power through agenda-setting; that is, maintaining a monopoly on determining which candidates could eventually be voted into office. Consequently, the white primary appears to fall under the category of the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits” more so than the first or second dimension alone, though it presents a mixture of all three.


            As the white primary example demonstrates, many exercises of power cannot easily be classified under one dimension of power.  For various reasons that this paper does not attempt to delve into, elements of each dimension appear to meld together in actual instances of exercises of power.  Thus, while the three dimensions provide a useful introduction to the concept of the visibility of power, when historical case studies are explored, their rigidity proves limiting toward the goal of achieving a fuller understanding of the dimensions of power. As such, rather than a strict hierarchy of visibility predicated on distinct classifications of power, a graduated spectrum of visibility may prove more helpful, and indeed, more accurate, when evaluating power on the basis of visibility.









Works Cited


Grovey v. Townsend. U.S. Supreme Court. 1935. Print.

Newberry v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. 1921. Print.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. Power, State and Society: An Introduction to Political

Sociology. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2004. Print.

Nixon v. Herndon. U.S. Supreme Court. 1927. Print.

Marshall, Thurgood. The Journal of the Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 3. The Negro

Voter in the South (Summer, 1957), pp. 249-254.

Smith v. Allwright. U.S. Supreme Court. 1944. Print.

Terry v. Adams. U.S. Supreme Court. 1952. Print.

United States v. Classic. U.S. Supreme Court. 1953. Print.







Strategy & Atrocity Prevention: Using “Genocide” versus “Mass Atrocity”

Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of any particular organization.  For anyone interested in genocide and mass atrocity prevention, Daniel Solomon’s Four Dilemmas of Mass Atrocities provides a comprehensive overlook of the field.    

The goals of rights-based movements are often lofty, but in order to be successful, the strategy behind them must be rooted firmly in reality.  Indeed, it can be argued that one primary determinant of a movement’s success is the degree of practicality with which the movement’s strategy is created.  The atrocities prevention movement, I fear, has lost sight of the importance of creating and adhering to practical, long-term strategies. Specifically, in the terminology debate between “genocide” and “mass atrocity,” the strategic and more helpful move would be to continue using “genocide” in place of “mass atrocity,” in spite of its narrower definition.  This would preserve the high level of name recognition, and consequently, power,  associated with the word genocide. When Americans hear the word genocide, they perceive a situation of great moral weight, which thereby prompts them to support action.  Thus, the name recognition of “genocide” and the moral significance it connotes is worth preserving to a very high degree. This choice to continue using “genocide,” though not without its flaws, would better serve the atrocity prevention movement than switching to “mass atrocity” in its stead.

The Civil Rights movement offers an illuminating example of the need to commit to and sustain a long-term strategy.  Despite the far-reaching assertions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech, the Civil Rights movement spent long years gradually laying the groundwork for a successful movement.  Indeed, Thurgood Marshall led the movement cautiously at first, gradually strengthening its support until it accrued a critical mass of popular opinion.  At the start, with no hope at the ballot box, the movement turned toward the courts.  For decades, Marshall’s expert legal team devoutly refrained from tackling the separate but equal doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Instead, in all of the cases leading up to Brown v. BOE (1954), Marshall’s team argued that facilities were unequal because of the disparate funding and resources they received, not because to be separate meant to be inherently unequal (see Sweatt v. Painter (1950) for one such example).

The 1950s were a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.  Chief Justice Fred Vinson died in 1953 and a new chief Justice, Earl Warren, was appointed.  The new Chief Justice, Marshall and his colleagues knew, provided much more hope for the movement because of his pro-civil rights attitudes, in stark contrast to those of former Chief Justice Vinson.  It was at this point that Marshall and others decided that they could finally attack the Separate but Equal doctrine laid out in Plessy by arguing that segregated schools were unequal simply because they were segregated, and for no other reason.  Indeed, this is why the schools of Topeka, Kansas were chosen.  Although the schools in Kansas were segregated, schools for black children and white children were surprisingly equal in terms of the funding and resources each received.  No longer could the court avoid the question of the inherent inequality of segregation by claiming that the schools were unequal because of asymmetric funding or resource levels. Because the schools in Kansas were, in fact, relatively equal, the Supreme Court was forced to tackle the premise of the inequality of segregation in and of itself.  Marshall and his team at the Legal Defense Fund had effectively forced the court’s hand.

As we all know, Marshall proved successful and Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine was overturned, though Linda Brown never did attend the all-white school she was initially barred from.  By the time the Court handed down its decision, she had entered the local middle school, which was integrated from the start. Though the back story of the strategy the Civil Rights movement crafted is lesser-told, it is arguably more deserving of the limelight because of the significance and lessons it holds for other rights-based movements today.

Indeed, I believe that in order to be successful, the current genocide and mass atrocities prevention movement must look deeper at the strategies behind the successes of its predecessors, like the Civil Rights movement, rather than the successes themselves, when analyzing options and making decisions.  It was within this frame of thinking that I read a recent, thought-provoking piece by STAND’s Policy Coordinator, Danny Hirschel-Burns, on why the atrocities prevention movement should now shift toward using the term “mass atrocities” in place of “genocide.”  There are some rather obvious reasons in favor of this change, primarily that the term “mass atrocities” provides a broader definition and is thus more inclusive of instances of mass killing than the rather narrow definition of genocide. And as Danny rightfully questions, why are “certain types of mass killing… any worse than others”?

Despite these valid criticisms, I believe his analysis fails to contextualize his claim within the broader strategy of the atrocities prevention movement.  Simply put, shifting to using the term “mass atrocities” instead of “genocide” would do more harm than good for the movement because of the powerful name recognition associated with “genocide.”  Anecdotally, telling people you work for an organization dedicated to mass atrocities prevention elicits confused stares and polite nods.  If you slip the word “genocide” into that sentence, the reaction changes to one of understanding (followed by the inevitable “that must be so depressing” line).  To give a more founded example, during the conflict in Bosnia, one poll “showed that while 54 percent of Americans favored military intervention in Bosnia, that figure rose to 80 percent when those surveyed were told than an independent commission had found genocide under way” (Power, 289).  In essence, when Americans believe genocide is occurring, they are much more likely to support some sort of action than when they are not aware or do not believe word genocide is happening. Furthermore, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton adamantly refrained from referring to Bosnia as “genocide” because of the word’s connotations, opting for “ethnic cleansing” and acts “tantamount to genocide” instead.  These examples demonstrate just how well the norm of genocide prevention has been diffused (For an overview of the power of norm diffusion, see Sean Langberg’s post here).

However, the fact that genocide prevention as a norm has been rather successfully diffused is a necessary, but not sufficient reason to move onto the next norm in need of diffusing (presumably, that of mass atrocities- though, as Danny points out, there are some definitional issues at play).  Rather, the main purpose of this norm diffusion is the hope that we can transform it into actually stopping genocide.  There is no reason to diffuse norms simply for the sake of diffusing norms.  The purpose of norm diffusion lies in the critical next step of transforming the diffusion into action.  As recent conflicts in Sudan and elsewhere have shown, while we have achieved a vast diffusion of the norm that genocide is not acceptable, we have not yet translated that into a mechanism for stopping and preventing genocide.  Who’s to say that if we moved on and successfully instilled the norm that mass atrocities are unacceptable, we would then be able to stop and prevent mass atrocities?

On the simplest level, much of the success of the atrocity prevention movement has been hinged on the idea of norm diffusion, that once we diffuse the norm that genocide is unacceptable, we will then be able to stop genocide.  To that end, after the norm against genocide has been successfully diffused, it would be wholly illogical to move on to attempting to diffuse a new, broader norm of “mass atrocity prevention” before evaluating whether or not the first norm diffusion was successful in preventing genocide. It would be as if a scientist created a hypothesis, and before looking at the results of his experiments designed to test the hypothesis, decided that his hypothesis was correct and moved on to creating new hypotheses based on his imaginary results from the first hypothesis.

The groundwork for the next, broader norm diffusion of “mass atrocity” prevention has yet to be achieved.  The prevention movement has not tested its theory of norm diffusion, and to abandon the power the built into the word “genocide” would, in my opinion, prove a reckless and costly mistake, and would require years of rebuilding.  As such, my advice for the atrocities prevention movement is not to be patient, but rather: be strategic.

McCutcheon v. FEC: Why Money Isn’t Speech

Note: This is a post I wrote for PolicyMic, which originally appeared here

“The best test of truth,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. U.S. (1919), “is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Speech, he thought, should counter speech. If the speech has merit, it will be heard. But what if that “speech” comes in the form of $3.6 million, the approximate maximum aggregate amount any individual can spend on an election cycle? Without an incredibly large megaphone or wallet, most Americans simply aren’t able to compete and have their voices heard.

As of earlier this month in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Supreme Court is considering abolishing this aggregate maximum as a violation of the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. Because, as we all know from the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, money is considered speech in America. Money, however, isnot speech, and if McCutcheon builds upon the foundation built by Citizens United in 2010, our campaign finance system will face irreparable consequences.

Large donations are detrimental to our campaign finance system, and, consequently, to our democracy. As the government (representing the FEC) argued, large donations to candidates create a sense of indebtedness between the candidate and the donor. This is a dangerous precedent to set before the candidate is even voted into office. Furthermore, if a candidate can raise all the money she needs from a select few people, she will inevitably and invariably attempt to serve their interests over those of the community at large.

Solicitor General Verrilli, who is representing the government, said as much in his oral argument. “Less than 500 people can fund the whole shooting match,” he said, and if the aggregate limits are removed, there is a very real risk that “The government will be run of, by, and for those 500 people and that the public will perceive that the government is being run of, by, and for those 500 people.”  

While the court’s four liberal justices seemed to unilaterally accept the government’s argument on behalf of the FEC, the five-justice conservative wing proved less cohesive. Justices Scalia and Thomas will almost surely vote in favor of McCutcheon, thereby abolishing aggregate individual donation limits. Chief Justice Roberts, on the other hand, appeared less assured from his line of questioning in oral argument, and seemed to toy with the idea of maintaining the current aggregate limits while abolishing the smaller limits on various categories of donations. Generally, the argument concentrated on whether or not non-independent expenditures create a quid-pro-quo sense of indebtedness and therefore lend themselves to corruption.

But there’s a more fundamental argument to be made here: Money isn’t speech.  The “competition of the marketplace,” as Holmes put it, ensures that only speech with merit will be heard. Although the First Amendment protects your freedom to speak, it does not guarantee that anyone will listen. Enough money, on the other hand, forces candidates to listen because they rely on large donations to win elections. Speech and money, therefore, are two fundamentally different things. Our government should represent each and every citizen, not just those who can afford to be heard.