Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘framing

I am outraged at David Brooks’ continuing execution of the War on Drugs

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[Updated below]

[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.]

Someone who doesn't have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

Someone who doesn’t have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

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.

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Written by David Kaib

January 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Against “The War Against X”

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I’ve been complaining about the framing of the various “War(s) Against X.” So I thought it worth talking a bit about why.

Listening to political discussions, there seem to be wars everywhere. There’s a war on women, a war on voting, a war on the poor. (The right has their wars too, like the war on Christmas, but I assume ones actually related to policy are meant to be taken more seriously.)

To begin with “War on X” rhetoric seems purely defensive.  That is, it is only useful for critiquing Republicans, not for advancing any sort of positive agenda.  In addition, it implies status quo was acceptable .  It suggests the goal is, for example, to stop SNAP cuts, not to ensure food security, or stop new abortion restrictions, not ensure access.  The War Against Voting is about new voting restrictions, but does that mean that only old voting restrictions are acceptable? There’s some implication, maybe, that we are for autonomy, or freedom and equality, or democracy. Implication enough for those who want to find it to hear it, not enough for anyone else to. In reality, I saw innumerable commercials for Terry McAuliffe, and the only thing conveyed was that Ken Cuccinelli was extreme and McAuliffe was in favor of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.

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Written by David Kaib

November 7, 2013 at 9:50 pm

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Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

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I recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which come in the form of referring to these programs as “entitlements” which must be “reformed.” The standard response, as I said then, is  ”Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement.  It’s an earned benefit.” I argued that this is troubling because it is weak to simply deny the claim and that it is factually wrong, because these programs are entitlements (i.e. rights).  By making the rights frame explicit, we can put opponents on the defensive by using their own term against them and better mobilize our side. That’s how you build power.

I didn’t point out, but I should have, that this phrasing also suffers from the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” problem. As George Lakoff has says, when someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you will in fact think of an elephant. Using the word evokes the image, even if you do so as a denial. That’s just how our brains work.

But I also said that  ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  It’s that claim I want to defend here.

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Written by David Kaib

October 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Entitlement Means Right

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By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats* have gotten at least part of the message–language matters. They know the GOP has long been using language to advance their agenda, and they know they want to as well.  Unfortunately, often this means simply denying Republicans’ framing and offering bloodless alternatives.

A good example involves talk about Social Security and Medicare, lumped together under the term ‘entitlements.’ Political elites (not, it should be noted, limited to Republicans) talk incessantly about the need to ‘reform entitlements’ because, they say, entitlement spending is out of control. To listen to this talk, our greatest threat as a nation is ballooning entitlement spending (not climate change, or inequality, or mass unemployment, or mass incarceration or anything the rest of us actually care about).

Now, this is utter nonsense. I’ve written about this before.  But for now I want to talk about the politics, not the substance.

The standard liberal rhetorical move when faced with this is denial.  Even more than the facts, the typical response denies the label.  “Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement”, they insist.  “It’s an earned benefit.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Patriot Act, ‘support’ for public policies and the construction of democratic control

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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.

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Written by David Kaib

July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Independence Day

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My hope for Independence Day is that we can start with the small step of calling this day Independence Day, not Fourth of July. It strikes me how odd it is to refer to the day by its date. I suspect it’s partly because of its political content – like so much political language, this seems to be an example of “blunt[ing] the too sharply pointed.”

From there, I hope that we can reconnect with the meaning of today and other holidays – like Martin Luther King Day and Labor Day. Perhaps we might also use this day as a chance to think about the ways we have yet to root out royalism / aristocracy in our culture – whether that is the way we treat presidents, senators, celebrities, or the rich.  If we get past the fireworks and barbecue, we often just lionize the people at the top of the American Revolution (who did not make the Revolution, they were only a part of it.)  It’s also worth remembering that those who made the Revolution were putting principle over their loyalty to the country—those who chose the opposite path were not called patriots, they were called loyalists.

It’s also not just about our country, it’s about each one of us and about people around the globe – who have every right to self-determination that our political ancestors had.  Merely using the name Independence Day rather than 4th of July is a small step – thinking and talking about what independence is about today, for all of us, is the key. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

Gender, Class and Economic Fairness: Blaming Voters is a Cop Out

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Laura Bassett and Dave Jamieson have a piece on Democratic strategy, Minimum Wage, Sick Leave Rebranded As Women’s Issues To Pressure GOP that I find troubling (the strategy, not the piece).

Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) met with House freshmen two weeks ago to brief them on the new “women’s economic agenda,” which includes raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing workers the opportunity to earn paid sick leave, expanding affordable child care programs and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Democrats have long supported such worker-friendly reforms. What’s changing this year are their political tactics. Rather than frame these issues in the traditional terms of economic fairness, they’ll be repackaging them as a matter of gender equality and family stability. As they push specific pieces of legislation, Democrats plan to roll out an aggressive communications effort to pressure Republicans who’ve declared the workplace measures job killers.

The strategy takes a cue from last November: If Democrats have managed to trounce Republicans with women voters, then why not turn labor issues into gender issues in pursuit of progressive reforms?

I’d love for Democrats to push harder on these issues.  And I’m definitely for connecting issue of economic fairness to gender equality is a good one. I want to see more of that.  The various issues that make up left politics are not a series of disconnected issue positions, as they are often framed, but are rather connected.  At the core of both of these things is the question of who counts as a full and equal person. The answer should be everyone. But if we don’t draw the connections across these different areas, we’re operating at a serious political disadvantage. Certainly the right appreciates these connections.  When we make the connections, people are more likely to see the issues that affect them personally as related to those that affect others. It helps them see these as a similar struggle. It helps produces solidarity.

But that isn’t what this story is about. Rather, it’s about replacing the economic framing with the gender framing (see my emphasis above). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

June 18, 2013 at 8:01 am

How the Media Convinces Us ‘The People Support It’ – Mass Surveillance and Polls

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[Updated Below]

[Update II: 6-13-13]

On Sunday, I noticed (and tweeted) that Steve Kornacki kept saying that Americans strongly supported all manner of spying on Americans in the name of terror, moving quickly from blanket statements to anecdotes about what he was hearing from people. Of course, to make such a claim requires more than anecdote. Absent polling you are just guessing (or projecting your own onto the public).  That said, presuming there is public ‘support’ for policies that enjoy strong elite support is a standard element of democratic efficiency. Nor was Kornacki alone. Such claims had been ubiquitous.

It is true that a Democratic Administration, despite challenging many Bush-era practices when it came to these issues, had embraced much of the same. While jettisoning the term War of Terror, it has continued to engage in scare tactics which vastly over inflate the dangers of terrorism (pdf). Given what we know about the dynamics of public opinion, it should have been obvious that more Democratic voters were going to move towards the pro-surveillance position since the Bush-era. Elite discourse influences poll results. (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the so-called war on terror). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

June 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

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