Dean’s Message

Well. That happened.

The year 2020 is etched in our memories forever. And we will be living with the consequences for a long time to come. For years, UCLA has built a brand around optimism, and there is no question that we needed some these last few months.

As things improve in 2021 — as I hope and expect they will — we will have a lot of people to thank. Some are visionaries, some are people of action, some do what they have always done but with more urgency and at greater risk, and some do what has never been done before.

Experiences, no matter how bitter, can be instructive. And this one is no exception. I have learned a great deal these last few months …

  1. Science is not the answer to every question. But the rejection of science, opposition to reason and evidence, is deadly.
  2. Pandemics are social scientific problems. Yes, they are public health and medical problems, and (laboratory) scientific problems, but genuine solutions require understanding why people think what they think and why people do what they do.
  3. The American people are, on average, undereducated in science and in civics. Every high school graduate should have a working knowledge of American government and a basic understanding of the scientific method. Without both, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction is severely undermined.
  4. Accurate information is essential to democracy and to prosperity. Misinformation intentionally flooded into the conversation is devastating and deadly. The crises of 2020 were fueled by media actors making statements they knew were false as they said them. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech.
  5. Citizens of a democracy should hold strong commitment to core principles: belief in fundamental equality of all citizens; equality of justice under the law; freedom to speak one’s mind without threat of violence; commitment to the common good; the sanctity and universality of the right to vote, and an embrace of fully fair elections that includes a willingness to recognize the winner as legitimate. Unfortunately, these principles are far from universal.
  6. American political institutions are flawed and can be profoundly weak, but they have survived in part because of adherence to norms. Failing such adherence, our institutions may not be up to the task. We have seen entire clauses of the Constitution be made unenforceable and the “co-equal” nature of the elected branches swept away through judicial fiat. The power of the presidency has grown wildly beyond the intended constraints of the anti-monarchical framers.

So, yes, all that happened. But this happened too:

  1. There is still room for American exceptionalism. An astounding 154 million Americans cast votes in an election whose administration required unprecedented adaptation and courage. The 2020 election proceeded without violence or serious organizational breakdown.
  2. UCLA is an institution of startling capacity. Amid the pandemic, this institution has made critical contributions in health care and public health, crisis management and the relief of human misery, all while the entire campus was re-platformed to ensure continued delivery of a world-class education.
  3. These last 10 months included breathtaking acts of courage and kindness in all corners of society. The dedication to common good and genuine community that permeates our society remains, I believe, the best characteristic of our national character.
  4. The people of UCLA Luskin continue to pursue that common good. We have provided comfort to those in need of support, helped manage public agency responses, litigated to protect the right to vote, studied exhaustively the economic and human crises in the post-pandemic environment, and pushed for equitable treatment during this time of tremendous social stress. Luskin advocates passionately — based on good science — for positive change.

In recent months, our worst and best impulses have been evident simultaneously. At UCLA Luskin, we remain committed to minimizing the former, nurturing the latter, and making progress on the challenges that remain.

To a better year ahead.


Dean’s Town Halls Offer Forum for Questions and Concerns

Dean Gary Segura hosted a trio of virtual town hall-style discussions this month, inviting students to discuss issues of concern. In the past, Segura held one session per year, but he has stepped up the frequency and split into separate sessions for the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs because of the challenges of pursuing higher education amid COVID-19. Segura was joined by department chairs and staff, who fielded a broad range of inquiries about remote learning, university finances, racial reconciliation and support for international students. Segura said the School has set aside additional funds to support students in need and noted that a number of faculty hires are in the works. Plans for graduation are taking place on two tracks, in-person and remote, depending on health restrictions, he said. Students shared their experiences with virtual instruction, weighing in on what works and what does not. They also learned about a national campaign in support of paid internships and discussed departmental efforts to update training and curriculum on issues of equity. Although quarterly town halls are planned, the dean stressed that students can offer input at any time. The coronavirus pandemic has required flexibility and forbearance. “It’s a very difficult time, there’s no question about that. People’s patience is starting to wear a little thin — but don’t let impatience put your health at risk,” Segura cautioned. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but you’ve got to hang on.”


UCLA Alumna Neera Tanden Delivers Post-Election Analysis at Virtual Luskin Lecture CEO of Center for American Progress draws on her deep experience in national politics to discuss what to expect from the Biden administration

By Stan Paul

Pollsters and pundits predicted a blue wave for Joe Biden and Democrats, and President Donald Trump called for an overwhelming red surge at the polls to secure a second term.

Both sides got it right and wrong.

“It’s just that Joe Biden was able to put together a coalition that, at the end of the day, will likely have 5 million more people behind it and, importantly, had strength enough to carry him through victory in what’s likely to be five states that Trump won in 2016,” said Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

Tanden is a 1992 UCLA alumna who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, lending credibility to her discussion of the state of the electoral process and prospects of a polarized nation under the administration of Biden and his vice president-elect, Kamala Harris. She was the featured speaker for a post-election analysis Nov. 10 moderated by UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura. The online session was the second Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture of the 2020-21 academic year.

Tanden was asked to analyze the campaign, comment on voter turnout and assess an ongoing tumultuous transition amid vote recounts demanded by an incumbent president refusing to acknowledge the outcome of the 2020 vote. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached its highest levels across the country.

“I can’t think of a better person to talk to about this than Neera Tanden,” said Segura, who described the first week after the election as “an anxiety-filled time.” Citing her work with previous presidential campaigns and noting her law degree from Yale, Segura added that Tanden “has perhaps the best grasp of what we’re likely to see in a Biden administration in the coming years.”

Noting that the White House win was the “most pivotal outcome, for sure,” Segura asked Tanden to address the fact that Democrats did more poorly in House and Senate races than they had hoped.

“I think we do have to grapple with the fact that it seems that Biden’s brand is stronger than the brand of the Democratic Party,” Tanden said. “There’s a lot of work for the party to evaluate how Biden has a brand that the party needs to move to, rather than the other way around.”

Tanden prefaced her analysis by starting from a global perspective, noting a worldwide rise of right-wing authoritarian populism over the past decade and the “politics of division” some politicians are stoking. She called out countries that include India, Turkey and Hungary, as well as current “politics roiling in Britain.”

“What we’ve seen around the world is that once an authoritarian populist takes power, through democratic means, it’s very, very difficult to dislodge that person,” Tanden said.

She suggested that Trump shares a trait with many authoritarian leaders — an ability to dominate a news cycle and negatively brand their opponents, calling it one of “Trump’s greatest superpowers.” The GOP’s effort to associate Democrats with socialism, she noted, was important in some races but generally turned out to be a less successful strategy against Biden.

Still, she acknowledged that Trump was able to mobilize his base of support across the country and bring out conservative voters at unprecedented levels, far exceeding his 2016 tally despite falling short of Biden’s total.

Segura asked Tanden about Trump’s legal strategy in challenging the election and the possible detrimental effect on democracy given that many Republican voters believe the election was stolen.

“I think we are witnessing a profound damage to democracy in the sense that Republican leaders are willing to basically do anything to appease Trump’s fantasy that he can win,” Tanden said. “You see that in the two Georgia run-off candidates who attacked the Republican secretary of state. Basically, it’s been reported that Trump demanded that they do so or he would attack them.”

The outgoing president has a “stronger hold on the base of the Republican Party and Republican voters than any other Republican in my lifetime, so he has an ability to basically scare any single one of these Republicans,” she said.

Even so, Tanden said she did not think the electoral process is in jeopardy “unless something goes really haywire,” given that Trump’s legal challenges are being rejected by judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican administrations. U.S. courts do not have a history of overturning votes after the fact, she said.

The coming years won’t be easy for either party, Tanden said, and both sides face unique challenges.

Republicans will find it hard to do anything independently “because they will just be in fear of Trump running again or campaigning against them. … The one thing he’s demonstrated over the last four years is he is perfectly happy to attack Republicans if they don’t do his bidding, and with deep, deep consequences.”

Democrats seem likely to face an obstructive Republican Senate majority and thus will have to seek compromise to govern.

“It’s an open question; there’s four Republican senators, maybe five, at this point who congratulated Biden, so maybe they form a basis of trying to negotiate some compromises,” Tanden said.

She has observed structural challenges within the Democratic Party that she believes create a healthy debate about tactics.

“With gerrymandering, Democrats have to run in conservative-leaning districts,” Tanden told the online audience of about 200 people. She noted that such practical considerations “allow more ideological fluidity in the party, as we sometimes have seen.”

Segura also asked whether what was “good for the goose is good for the gander? Do we run amok as a party — are Democrats thinking that to themselves?”

“I think this is a balance … a range of arenas where the Democrats need to be assertive. They need to undo Donald Trump’s really lawless immigration policies. We need to reenter the Paris [climate accords],” Tanden countered.

Going forward, the most pressing and important thing for the new president is to handle the coronavirus crisis effectively. She noted that Biden “can do a lot on the virus with executive action.”

If Republicans show a willingness to bend, Tanden said she believes much can be accomplished. “But if Republicans choose to ignore everything, then we are going to be in a position where, hopefully, we address the virus,” she said, “and argue at the midterms.”

Tanden recalled her thinking after the 2018 midterm elections. “I told my staff that 2020 was going to be a huge turnout election in both directions, and that the job was going to require mobilizing more voters … and the truth is that happened and it’s a historic victory.”

But Biden’s job is just beginning.

“When you have power, you can build on power,” Tanden said. “Joe Biden is going to have to spend more time thinking about how he builds a majority in the country. But I think he navigated this extremely well, and he and his team have good instincts about how to move forward.”


Segura Digs Deeper Into Black and Brown Voter Turnout

Dean Gary Segura spoke to PBS NewsHour about the policy priorities of Black and brown voters who helped secure President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Segura co-founded the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, which helped produce the American Election Eve Poll 2020. In that survey, Black voters named discrimination and racial justice as the second most important issue candidates should address, after the coronavirus pandemic. While Latinos voted in higher numbers for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Segura noted that seven out of 10 voted for Biden this year, which is still above the historical average. “The Latino margin will exceed the victory margin in Nevada and Arizona and New Mexico and Colorado. We think Latinos gave over a 120,000-vote margin to Vice President Biden in Philadelphia, which means without Latino votes, you would not have had the vice president carry Pennsylvania,” Segura said. “This is also true for African Americans, of course. So like all victories, there are many owners.”


Segura and Diaz Weigh In on Influence of Latino Vote

UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura spoke to El Diario about the impact of Latino voters on the outcome of the presidential election. Segura noted that Latino participation was “very strong” in Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Colorado states that were crucial in Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. According to Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm co-founded by Segura, Biden had particularly strong support among Mexican and Puerto Rican voters. The pandemic, which disproportionately affects Latinos, and the economy were important factors in mobilizing the Latino vote. “Work has become the most important thing for the community, and not the political parties,” Segura said. El Diario also cited Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, which is researching Latino engagement in the election. “In counties with high Latino density, many of them key in this count, Latino voters opted for Vice President Biden,” Diaz said.

Segura on Rise in Latino Support for Trump

UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura spoke to KQED’s California Report about Latino support for President Trump, which increased both nationally and in California compared to 2016, according to the American Election Eve Poll. While the overwhelming majority of Latinos backed the Democratic ticket, support for Trump increased from 18% to 27% nationally and from 16% to 22% in California, according to the poll. Segura, a lead pollster for the survey, said one reason for the shift was that Democrat Joe Biden was not as well known among Latino households as the Clinton family was. More significantly, he said, Democrats didn’t do enough to engage these voters in California and other non-battleground states. “There’s an important lesson here. I think the one place where President Trump did invest in Latinos is in South Florida, and he was rewarded for that,” Segura said. “So investment matters, being on the ground matters.” 

Fall Quarter Town Halls With Dean Segura

Dean Gary Segura will host three town halls for UCLA Luskin students. The dean will share updates and answer questions at these virtual gatherings.

FOR UNDERGRADUATES: Thursday, Nov. 12, 12:30 – 2 p.m.

FOR DOCTORAL STUDENTS: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 6 – 7:30 p.m.

FOR MASTER’S STUDENTS: Thursday, Nov. 19, 12:30 – 2 p.m.

Click here to register and submit questions to Dean Segura. A Zoom link will be shared before the gatherings.


‘We Set Our Destiny,’ Becerra Says of Fellow Californians

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra weighed in on the Golden State’s place in a deeply divided nation during a conversation with UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura just hours after polls closed in the 2020 election. As they awaited final results in the presidential race, Becerra told viewers that California’s unique role as an engine of innovation and economic growth transcends any election or individual politician. “Regardless of what happens around us, we set our destiny,” he said. Hosted by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and Town Hall in partnership with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Nov. 4 dialogue touched on Becerra’s role battling the Trump administration on health care, immigration, climate change and scores of other issues. To date, the state has sued the federal government 104 times, Becerra said. “We go to court against Donald Trump not because it’s easy or it’s fun,” he said. “We go to court because we must protect our people, our values and our resources.” Of urgent concern is safeguarding the environment, he said, noting, “We have lost four years in addressing the climate crisis, and Mother Nature is not going to give us those years back.” As the state’s top law enforcement officer, Becerra called for more police training, accountability and transparency but noted, “Let’s not make it look like it’s a simple thing like ‘defunding police.’ ” He added, “I respect the work that’s done every day by men and women in uniform. I will go after those who have engaged in improper conduct in that uniform.” 


Ideas and Expertise Exchanged at Post-Debate Forum

The UCLA Luskin Public Policy community came together after the final presidential debate of 2020 to hear insights from an array of experts on the U.S. political landscape: Dean Gary Segura, an authority on polls and other measures of political opinion; Chair Martin Gilens, whose research focuses on political inequality; Professor Mark Peterson, who specializes in health-care policy; Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative; and Chad Dunn, director of litigation for the UCLA Voting Rights Project. During the 90-minute Zoom gathering, the speakers assessed the exchange between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which was deemed a step up from previous matchups, then fielded questions from students and alumni. The conversation touched on the accuracy of polling, the threat of voter intimidation, the electoral pathway to victory for each candidate, and even the risk that the country might veer toward fascism. Unless the vote count is tied up amid irregularities in a single, decisive state — as it was in Bush v. Gore in the 2000 race —Segura said the chance that the election’s outcome will be seriously challenged is small. “Try not to let the demons in your head and the demons from 2016 keep you awake at night,” he advised. The conversation was part of a series of forums designed to bring policy students, alumni, faculty and staff together to share concerns, perspectives and experiences within an informed and supportive community. At the next Policy Forum, on Nov. 5, faculty experts will parse the results of the election.