Archive for October 2012
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Instead of thinking of judicially asserted rights as accomplished social facts or moral imperatives, they must be thought of, on the one hand, as authoritatively articulated goals of public policy, and on the other, as political resources of unknown value in the hands of those who want to alter the course of public policy. Stuart Scheingold, The Politics of Rights
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.
Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint — Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most problems… that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of “passionate movements” which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.
John F. Kennedy, quoted in John R. MacArthur, The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA and the Subversion of American Democracy.
From four decades of intensive research on voting behavior, political scientists know a great deal about the determinants of individual voting choices. We know much less, however, about elections—the institutions in which these individual choices take place. This is a serious shortcoming, for it is elections that link voters to governance. The nature and quality of this linkage has long been a primary concern in the study of politics, especially democratic theorists. To some, the only purpose of elections is the permit voters to choose among political leaders; in short, that voters cannot or should not control the choice among politics in any more direct way. Many others, finding such limited control insufficient for a democracy, seek to show that elections can and should have policy meaning if subsequent government programs are to be seen as legitimate. [snip]
The idea of a mandate…plays a major role in the justification of elections as institutions and in the effort to construct explanations for particular election results. It helps also to reassure citizens that their primary forms of political participation–the vote-had an impact on the policies to which they will be subjected.
These words were written by Marjorie Randon Hershey in 1996. They are, admittedly, a bit disturbing. I’d like to believe things have improved since that time, but I’m not so sure. Since the 1950s (at least) political science has looked to individual formal decisions as the key to understanding politics, and often towards some internal factors, be they interests, attitudes, or ideas, as the causes of those decisions. Votes, court rulings, roll calls–these are the sorts of things political science has focused on. Things which fit comfortably with this sort of approach were foregrounded, things which did not were obscured. While plenty of criticisms of this approach have been voiced, the basic model has remained. A certain idealized view of democratic elections serves the same role for political science does for markets–it is the starting point no matter how much research suggests it is not a very useful way of making sense of the world.
What’s more, there is a presumption–especially in the field of judicial politics–that elected officials were presumptively legitimate, whereas judges, are not, especially when they challenge the decisions of elected officials (i.e. when they exercise judicial review to strike down a law or executive action) . That’s not true on either account. Elected officials may find their legitimacy challenged, and judges often act to strike down laws without controversy. This notion confuses democracy as a normative idea with democracy as an empirical explanation.
The standard move for a political scientist when confronted with the idea that an idea is an essentially contested concept, one that necessarily blends normative and empirical dimensions, one that, as a result, cannot be settled with facts, is to abandon the idea. That which cannot be settled should be abandoned for terms that can be operationalized. But this means avoiding talking about things that political actors take very seriously. As Hershey says:
No matter how difficult it may be to agree on a definition of mandate or to locate one in practice, it remains a powerful concept in political discourse. Politicians claim mandates in order to legitimize bold actions, journalists use the term frequently in interpreting elections, and scholarly studies continue to focus on various aspects of the idea of a mandate. In short, mandates are a central democratic myth–”an unquestioned belief held in common by a group of people that gives events and actions a particular meaning.” As a myth, the idea of a mandate gives meaning to election results and thus has a potentially important effect on the abilities of administration to govern.
I started to think of this excellent piece as I read various discussions of what the meaning of the upcoming presidential election would be from a few left leaning sources. While they disagreed on the answers, all asked the same questions–would there be a mandate, what would its content be? Lost here is that a mandate is not a thing that exists, like a chair or an apple, but a claim. It results from politics, as politics is largely a contest of claims.
So the better question is, what claims will be made in terms of the meaning of the elections, and which ones will be successful? How would the two main parties interpret it, and how would the media treat those claims? For what it’s worth, I think the right largely appreciates this. I doubt they would ask these questions. If Romney were to win, they will claim it’s a mandate for conservative policies. If Obama wins, no matter how large, they will claim it means little. How about the other side? I doubt the Democrats will claim any victory, no matter how large, is a mandate for liberalism. Those who hold the reins of power in the party have long been neoliberals.
As a result, no amount of polling evidence would lead to voters being seen as demanding some liberal outcome. Any such claim would not be seen as ‘reasonable’, but rather ‘political,’ in large part because it would be outside the bounds of what either party would accept.
This is why I get frustrated with repeated efforts to show that Americans don’t support this, or American oppose that, by those who seek to challenge far right positions or bipartisan consensus. It quite simply doesn’t matter. Either activists mobilize those opinions by engaging people to hold them to act, which has to be something more than voting, or such opinions will have no impact. Citing polls won’t change that (although polls can and should inform efforts to mobilize people).
Scholars and activists would do well to understand that democracy isn’t a particularly useful analytic framework, but that it is a powerful myth, that can be mobilized.
Ernesto Cortes, Jr., organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation network in Texas and the San Antonio-based Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), has plainly described activists’ necessary relationship to public officials. “It’s unfortunate that fear is the only way to get some politicians to respect your power. They refuse to give you respect. They don’t recognize your dignity. So we have to act in ways to get their attention. In some areas, what we have going is the amount of fear we can generate. We got where we are because people fear and loathe us.”
Randy Shaw, The Activists’ Handbook: A Primer