Posts Tagged ‘Claims’
I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.
I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–were people make statements that assume one or the other concepts. Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.
One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.
I was watching MSNBC earlier this evening, where Ari Melber, sitting in for Chris Hayes, was covering the beginnings of what is being called a “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq in response to ISIS which allegedly* is at this point only about delivering food and water. I’ve argued before that the word ‘intervention’ ought to be avoided, for two reasons. First, it implies that one is getting involved in an area of the world, when typically, the actor doing the ‘intervening’ has long been heavily involved. Second, it covers both war making and non-war making activities, and that means obscuring a very important difference. The legal, moral and political questions between say, offering asylum or providing medicine are not at all connected to those related to mass aerial bombing or a ground invasion. But helping people tends to more popular than war, despite what people claim about the public, so elites that prefer more war tend to avoid talking about it explicitly.
Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear. Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward. We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents. But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target. First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react. We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands. Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders. The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.
Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power. Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.
So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.
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.
In an interview with Jennifer Senior, Antonin Scalia valiantly dispatched a straw man. A lot of people have noted this, but I wanted to quote it, and suggest that much of the criticism, while correct, misses the main problem.
Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy?
I don’t know when I came to that view. I’ve always had it, as far as I know. Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change. I mean, the notion that the Constitution should simply, by decree of the Court, mean something that it didn’t mean when the people voted for it—frankly, you should ask the other side the question! How did they ever get there?
What I do wish is that we were in agreement on the basic question of what we think we’re doing when we interpret the Constitution. I mean, that’s sort of rudimentary. It’s sort of an embarrassment, really, that we’re not. But some people think our job is to keep it up to date, give new meaning to whatever phrases it has. And others think it’s to give it the meaning the people ratified when they adopted it. Those are quite different views.
So first off, what Scalia is saying here is factually–incontrovertibly– incorrect. Words do change in their meaning. Some have taken this as evidence that Scalia doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And I suppose that’s possible. But it’s also possible that Scalia takes this position because it helps him advance his legal agenda. That is, it helps him justify the substantive positions he takes, the role for the Court he prefers, and so on. By making this about ignorance, we are missing the politics, which makes it difficult to push back effectively. ‘Originalism is wrong’ is a fine thing to say, but what originalism is doing and how it is doing it are far more important thing to think about.
Not long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, worked to reinforce the status quo, specifically on the issue of mass surveillance.
I’ve since ran across an article (h/t Chris Bowers) that addresses this issue and sheds some important light on my point: Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott, Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act (pdf). They investigate whether pollsters are manufacturing opinions on subjects where they don’t exist, in response to the pressure to add public opinion to political debates. In essence, they argue that respondents do not know what the Patriot Act (a complex piece of legislation) does, but use clues from the wording of questions to make up for that ignorance. So what appears to be actual opinions about the law (which for the record, shows very different levels of support depending on the question wording) is simply an artifact.