[If you read my piece entitled I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy, some of this may be familiar.]
One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice. I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not. So Mitt Romney can, as the nominee of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.
I think this dynamic is a product of two things. First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms. So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful. Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions. We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way. Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced. Similarly, the nonstop efforts to paint people and positions are “extreme” without attending to the merits of the position. Politics is in many ways largely an effort to decide whose positions are considered speakable and whose are not, which is fairly antithetical to both the idea of progress and the ideal of democracy.
I’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.
Talk about inequality is in the air. Everyone seems to agree it’s a problem, although a lot of people seem to offering the same old policy proposals to address it. It’s almost as if they are simply attaching what they already want to do to the rhetoric of today’s demands. But maybe the problem is that we misunderstand what exactly the problem of inequality is as far as elites are concerned.
On the same day that the President spoke eloquently and fervently about the rising income inequality in the United States, the ever-contractor-friendly Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) increased the maximum amount of contractor compensation that can be charged to government contracts from a mere$763,029 per employee per year to what OFPP apparently considers a much more reasonable $952,308 per employee per year. This increase primarily affects the employees of the largest government contractors—most notably defense and information technology firms. So taxpayers are now on the hook for paying up to nearly $1 million for every one of these contractor executives or employees every year.
I don’t remember where it all started, but I’ve been unhappy with the concept of the decision as the central framework for political science for a long time. Very few political scientists, I should note, would say this is the case. They’d probably object to the idea that there is a central framework. Instead, they would likely focus on various different frameworks. But, being heterodox and inclined to see the biggest picture possible, it was clear to me there was a deep similarity among these different approaches. For one thing, there was so much political activity that was left out of this dominant framework, or dismissed or obscured. Of course, we might conclude that something that political actors think is important is not after investigating it, but to do so as a matter of definitions makes little sense.
Since I began developing my idea of ‘politics as a contest of claim making’ as an alternative, I find that idea all over political science, although rarely foregrounded. It seems the sort of banal point that is widely understood but rarely the basis for much explicit theorizing. But it does come up again and again. My task seems to be to call attention to it and explicate its implications.
The Birmingham superintendent puts it this way. “The Detroit schools need more money. The solution is not to take it from Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills.” And, again, one wonders where else one would take it from if not from where it is.
The Ann Arbor superintendent ridicules what he describes as “simple-minded solutions [that attempt] to make things equal.”
But of course, the need is not “to make things equal.” He would be correct to call this “simple-minded.” Funding and resources should be equal to the needs that children face. The children of Detroit have greater needs than those of children in Ann Arbor. They should get more than children in Ann Arbor, more than kids in Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham. Calling ethics “simple-minded” is consistent with the tendency to label obvious solutions, that might cost us something, unsophisticated and to favor more diffuse solutions that will cost us nothing and, in any case, will not be implemented….More spending on public education, said [President George H. W. Bush] isn’t “the best answer.” Mr. Bush went on to caution parents of poor children who see money “as a cure” for education problems. “A society that worships money…” said the president, “is a society in peril.”
Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities
Jodi Jacobson, at RH Reality Check, talks about the disconnect between the public and politicians on abortion, which touches on something I’ve been emphasizing here.
Consistent rejection by actual voters of attempts to give the state control over women’s bodies tells us three things. One, polls that attempt to divide people into neat boxes such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” or to measure support for hypothetical restrictions on abortion in generic terms do not reflect how people really feel about safe abortion care. In fact, when asked specifically about who should make decisions on how and when to bear children and under what circumstances to terminate a pregnancy, voters make clear they do not want to interfere in the deeply personal decisions they believe belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her medical advisers, even in cases of later abortion. In short, voters do not want legislators playing god or doctor.