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The Values They Are A-Changin' (Except When They're Not)

By Scott Winship

Ruy’s previous posts on the American Environics data in Garance Franke-Ruta’s article, “Remapping the Culture Debate” have made a strong case that Democratic leaders ought to be wary of basing strategy on the firm’s research. Ruy noted a large discrepancy between the firm’s data indicating a turn toward traditional gender roles and authoritarian gender relations on the one hand and the trend in the National Election Study (NES) showing increasing gender egalitarianism on the other.

Could this be a fluke of some sort and not reflective of a problem with Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s data? It could be, but it is also possible to compare NES figures to the other American Environics figures cited in the Franke-Ruta piece. And the results do not inspire confidence in the latter.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus claim that between 1992 and 2004 the share of people who discuss "local problems" with people they know dropped from 66 percent to 39 percent. That's a huge decline and indicates a worrisomely low level of civic participation. But the NES shows that in 1992 81 percent of adults discussed politics with family or friends that year. By 2004 this figure had plummeted to....80 percent. That small a change is indistinguishable from random bouncing around. On the other hand, in 1984, only 67 percent of adults discussed politics with family or friends. So we are actually becoming more civically engaged.

I am not familiar with American Environics or their work, but from the article, it seems like they want to generalize to the American population as a whole. For whatever reason, it looks like that’s not appropriate.