Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Decisions

Politics, Claims and Scope Conditions

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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.

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Written by David Kaib

October 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

What is Politics? Easton, Stone and Claim Making

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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.

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Written by David Kaib

December 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

Blaming Voters or Consumers is a Cop Out

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I’ve argued here before that blaming voters for bad policy or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out.  (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated individual choice.  Institutions matter, power matters.  Elites shape the ideas (or people) that can get a serious hearing, and the structure of the choices people get. They work to suppress information and to coopt efforts to challenge them. They make symbolic moves to demobilize those challenges. They act to influence the preferences people hold.  Those who hold positions of power and authority are supposed to do things like follow the law, act morally, represent us, etc.  When they fail to, it’s their fault – ‘why did you let me?’ is a ridiculous response to a charge of dereliction of duty.

There are often two response to this claim that raise an important point, and addressing them helps me clarify my argument.  First is the idea that I’m saying that people have no responsibility to act at all–that I’m essentially leaving them out of the conversation entirely. Second is the idea that saying they aren’t to blame is saying they have no role. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

Joseph Tanenhaus on Judicial Decisions and Political Science

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In my investigation of how scholars of judicial politics adopted the decision as the core concept of the thing to be explained, part of my argument has been that this wasn’t unique to the behavioralists, but was true of ‘traditionalists’ as well.  Joseph Tanenhaus, a participant in this conflict, agrees, in his Journal of Politics article “Supreme Court Attitudes Toward Federal Administrative Agencies” (1960). It’s easy to get distracted by the dispute between quantitative and qualitative approaches, but there is more here than that.

In the current controversy over the suitability of quantitative methods for the study of appellate-court behavior, there is a tendency to overlook a rather important similarity among the majority of contenders on both sides. Most contemporary analysts of appellate-court decisions, whether they be lower-court judges, practicing lawyers, journalists, professors of law, or political scientists, tend to comb discrete decisions in a search for uniformities and inconsistencies [my emphasis]. However much their motives may vary, analysts of both schools strive to generalize about phenomena which are, in some ways, unique. Utilizing the techniques it considers most apposite, each group collects and classifies data which it hopes to cast into formularies characterizing the behavior of a court and its individual members. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

May 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm

There was No Legislative Decision : The Temporary Sort of Resolution to the Fiscal Grift

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Red Cliff along US287 between Lander and Dubois in Wyoming
By Wing-Chi Poon [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

[Update: Turns out the House may not be interested in rubber stamping these deal. Also, see Matt Stoller's Eight Corporate Subsidies in the Fiscal Cliff Bill, From Goldman Sachs to Disney to NASCAR.]

The deal to avoid the misnamed ‘fiscal cliff’ the self-imposed crisis (i.e. shock doctrine) designed to impose austerity on a public that is overwhelmingly opposed to it justified by fake concern over deficits and debt sheds important light on the state of our political system. I’ll have more to say later, but to start, I wanted to mention the sham that has become of the legislative process. The deal was negotiated between Vice President (and former Senator) Joe Biden and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a process that excluded the other 99 members of the lame duck Senate and the entire House of Representatives. As the Washington Post reported:

“There are two people in a [metaphorical] room deciding incredibly consequential issues for this country, while 99 other United States senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives — elected by their constituencies to come to Washington — are on the sidelines,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)said on the Senate floor in the afternoon.


…Thune was right that legislators had, essentially, been cut out of the legislative process. By the time a deal was announced, about 8:45 p.m. Monday night, there was little time for anything but a vote.“At least we would have had an opportunity to debate this, instead of waiting now until the eleventh hour,” Thune said.


Monday marked the third time in two years that a congressional cliffhanger had ended with a bargain struck by McConnell and Biden. The first time came in late 2010, during a year-end showdown over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The second was in August 2011, during the fight over the debt ceiling.

It should go without saying that when all those high level federal officials are cut out of the process, the people are too. But for the moment, I want to point out how our models for understanding politics are often inadequate. Members of Congress aren’t deciding anything here – they are ratifying a decision made elsewhere. Now it’s true that Biden and McConnell were not free of political constrains, but then again, no one ever is.  It’s generally a bad idea to assume that those who hold the power according to civics textbooks are those who actually hold the power.  The Constitution was supposed to make the House the main driver of fiscal policy, secondarily the Senate, and lastly the President.  (The Supreme Court was intended to have little to no role, yet that didn’t stop Chief Justice Roberts, a ‘neutral umpire,’ from making it the main theme of his report [pdf] on the state of the judiciary.)

I’m not sure what this is, but it’s not representative democracy. And it’s not legislative decision-making.

Written by David Kaib

January 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm


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