Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Archive for October 2012

A Condition is Not a Problem: The Impact of Sandy

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[Update: I follow up on this post here, with a bit more on the political aftermath.]

There is an old saw in political science that difficult conditions become problems only when people come to see them as amenable to human action. Until then, difficulties remain embedded in the realm of nature, accident, and fate—a realm where there is not choice about what happens to us. The conversion of difficulties into problems is said to be the sine qua non of political rebellion, legal disputes, interest group mobilization, and of moving policy problems onto the public agenda.  Deborah Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas” (1989).

What this means is that – despite the way we often talk about policy making both in political and academic discussions – it isn’t the case that facts lead simply to political action.  It’s quite common for some serious condition to fail to crack the agenda.  When it does, it won’t be simply because the condition has gotten worse, or because science gives us a clearer or more certain picture of it. Instead, the translation of a condition to a problem is a political process, a product of intentional action.  It isn’t natural – it doesn’t just happen.

I couldn’t help but think about this as countless people in my twitter feed either insisted that Hurricane Sandy would finally lead us to take climate change seriously, while others asked if we would as if it was simply a matter of how others reacted.  Either way, this is a wrong-headed way to think about it.  But it is also an extremely common one.

Underlying such statements is often a general model, one familiar to political scientists, although we often don’t make it explicit.  In this model, conditions are noticed by the public, which leads to changes in public opinion. This puts new issues onto the agenda, both terms of news coverage and formal government activity (committee hearings, government reports, bill proposed).  Interest groups form to champion the cause, or existing groups adopt the cause as their own, as long as voters are interested. Politicians, being driven largely by concern for re-election (here, meaning pleasing voters, which is not in fact necessarily the same thing) seek to take leadership roles on the issue.  If they don’t, they are punished at the ballot box, since unorganized voters have all the power.  Either way, this leads to a formal decision specifying some policy change. (‘Policy’, meaning a good faith effort to solve some commonly accepted problem through rules, rather than shifting decision-making to some other entity, and only secondary concern with the economic benefits to different corporations or industries that result).

Spelled out, it sounds naive.  And it is, which is why it’s rarely spelled out.  But this model is implicit in a great deal of our political talk.  Many others would take issue with some element of it, yet it still provides the assumed starting point.  And it makes effective action quite difficult, because the picture it paints is actually a formalization of a series of legitimations about separation of powers and democracy rather than a realistic or useful model of how politics works.

OF course, many people realize all this.  Bill McKibben notes the standard approach to these sorts of disasters is using the example of gun violence to introduce his point about climate change.

Crises come with a predictable dynamic in this country: 1) Gunman opens fire in crowded school/theater/shopping mall 2) anguished op-ed columnists say we should talk about gun control 3) we don’t. Now, in fact, we often collapse two and three—the anguished columnists just write about how we should talk about gun control, but of course we won’t.

Rejecting the dynamic for McKibben includes worrying less about the media, formal decision makers and ‘public opinion’ and more about aggressively challenging those with the real power.

So maybe this time, instead of waiting for history to repeat itself fruitlessly, it’s time to go where the action is and tackle the fossil fuel industry. 350.org, the global climate campaign I helped found, is launching a 20-cities-in-20-nights roadshow the night after the election in Seattle. We’re doing it no matter who wins, because we want to target the real players: each night, around the country, we’ll be engaging students from the local campuses, planting organizers in an effort to spark a divestment movement like the one that helped bring down apartheid (during the Reagan administration, with a GOP Congress).

I make no predictions about whether this will be successful. But I do think that changing how these problems are approached is essential. And maybe in doing so, people would come to a more nuanced understanding of how politics works, one that is less rooted in the civics textbook understanding of politics and a purely partisan lens. and more in an understanding of the vast power corporations hold not only over formal decisions, but the formal agenda and even what sorts of solutions can be discussed or held to be out of bounds and unreasonable.

Just because we can’t afford not to do this doesn’t mean we will. It is still a choice.

Written by David Kaib

October 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Change.org, Astroturf, and Small-d Democracy

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Ari Melber owes Marshall Ganz an apology.

Last week the Huffington Post broke a story  about changes at Change.org based on leaked internal documents, because the company apparently was not going to make these changes public.  As Melber notes, the changes include ” accept[ing] ‘corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns’ and conservative political sponsorships.”  He suggests this is framed by critics as a betrayal of the sites founding mission (it’s quite clear it’s a pretty radical shift). In the abstract, I can see the point  (although I disagree) of suggesting that providing access without respect to political orientation has value, although even if I concede that the secrecy cannot be defended. Yet even so, that change is only one part.  But Melber’s not offering a ‘here’s what the two sides said’ story here.

If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that Change.org began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.

But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, Change.org is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.

Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy.

Did you catch that? What on earth does any of that have to do with “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns”? Isn’t that the complete opposite of the “open-source paradigm” or of “small d democracy” or “bottom-up organizing”?  And how does progressive values equate with Democratic Party?

The original HuffPo story argued that this move was in response to the controversy over Michele Rhee and Students First, although Melber doesn’t mention it.

Change.org leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site’s partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. “[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible,” Change.org’s founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by [Campaign for America's Future's Jeff] Bryant.

[snip]

Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of Change.org’s client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that Change.org was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.

What better illustration of the problem.  Rhee’s astroturf group uses progressive rhetoric to attack public schools and teachers’ unions, with massive corporate backing.  Change.org made promises to it users about its relationship with the group, which it failed to make good on, presumably because the relationship was lucrative and was valued above progressive principles.

All this makes a mockery of the sort of organizing the Ganz has championed – and of small-d democracy.

h/t Mike Conrad.

Written by David Kaib

October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm

McGovern, Ending Wars and Democratic Accountability

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Paul Rosenberg has a great piece on George McGovern, which in part makes the case that history gets the failed Democratic presidential candidate wrong.  It was McGovern, not those who supported the Vietnam, that was being pragmatic.

But McGovern’s patience with conventional practice was severely limited: when he saw it wasn’t working, he abandoned it. What set him apart was not so much his idealism (remarkable though it was) as it was the supposed opposite: his pragmatism in seeing what was working or not, and changing his strategy accordingly. This is what Johnson failed to do.

That’s real pragmatism, while most of what is justified as pragmatic in American politics involves continuing to do what’s not working.

He also quotes McGovern’s 1970 speech in the Senate on behalf of a bill he co-sponsored to end the war – a bill that ultimately failed.

Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land – young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.

There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honour or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us. [my emphasis]

So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”

Those are powerful words.  But I want to focus on this as political theory. The Constitution vests the power over war and peace in the Congress.  It did that for a simple reason – that would place the responsibility on those who could be held accountable by the people.  It would mean Congress deliberating over the question, offering reasons, and taking a clear stand so there was no question where responsibility lay.

Political responsibility isn’t about what elites deserve.  It’s about finding ways to ensure the public can use its leverage.  Generally speaking I think it’s easier to pressure members of Congress than a president. But that requires acknowledging what McGovern says above – the president is only able to make war when Congress is complicit, and that means Congress has the means to stop it.

Written by David Kaib

October 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm

“The community is not bound to provide…a subsidy for unconscionable employers”

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I’ve noticed that even when people are sympathetic to the concerns of workers, many people still use the unspoken idea that employers’ right to exploit workers is natural whereas government action to prevent such exploitation is an interference that needs some special justification.  Part of this is a failure to notice what the baseline is, and that any choice of baseline is a political act, not one that can be justified by talk of what is ‘natural.’ That is, it is the same mistake that leads people to imagine that ‘redistribution’ is a coherent concept.  Thankfully, those who came before us equipped us to avoid such mistakes, if we would only listen.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes:

There is an additional and compelling consideration which recent economic experience has brought into a strong light. The exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage is not only detrimental to their health and well being, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages the taxpayers are called upon to pay. The bare cost of living must be met. We may take judicial notice of the unparalleled demands for relief which arose during the recent period of depression and still continue to an alarming extent despite the degree of economic recovery which has been achieved. It is unnecessary to cite official statistics to establish what is of common knowledge through the length and breadth of the land. While in the instant case no factual brief has been presented, there is no reason to doubt that the state of Washington has encountered the same social problem that is present elsewhere. The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers. The community may direct its law-making power to correct the abuse which springs from their selfish disregard of the public interest. [my emphasis]

The cost of doing business should, as a matter of course, include the cost of paying a living wage.  Companies have no right to impose costs on the rest of us to facilitate their ability to make money.

Written by David Kaib

October 14, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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