Posts Tagged ‘framing’
A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?
The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).
For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.
But sadly, that’s not how things work.
You may have noticed that I have referred to “popular governments” in Greece, Rome, and Italy. To designate their popular governments, the Greeks, as we saw, invented the term democracy. The Romans drew on their native Latin and called their government a “republic,” and later the Italians gave that name to the popular governments of some of their city-states. You might well wonder whether democracy and republic refer to fundamentally different types of constitutional systems. Or instead do the two words just reflect differences in the languages from which they originally came?
The correct answer was obfuscated by James Madison in 1787 in an influential paper he wrote to win support for the newly proposed American constitution. One of the principal architects of that constitution and a statesman exceptionally well informed in the political science of his time, Madison distinguished between “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person,” and a “republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.”
This distinction had no basis in prior history: neither in Rome nor, for example, in Venice was there “a scheme of representation.” Indeed, the earlier republics all pretty much fit into Madison’s definition of a “democracy.” What is more, the two terms were used interchangeably in the United States during the eighteenth century. Nor is Madison’s distinction found in a work by the well-known French political philosopher Montesquieu, whom Madison greatly admired and frequently praised. Madison himself would have known that his proposed distinction had no firm historical basis, and so we must conclude that he made it to discredit critics who contended that the proposed constitution was not sufficiently “democratic.”
However that may be (the matter is unclear), the plain fact is that the words democracy and republic did not (despite Madison) designate differences in types of popular government. What they reflected, at the cost of later confusion, was a difference between Greek and Latin, the languages from which they came.
Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy
[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 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.
There must be a better way [than luck egalitarianism] to conceive of the point of equality. To do so it is helpful to recall how egalitarian political movements have historically conceived of their aims. What have been the inegalitarian systems that they have opposed? Inegalitarianism asserted the justice or necessity of basing the social order on a hierarchy of human beings, ranked according to intrinsic worth. Inequality referred not so much to the distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons. Those of superior rank were thought entitled to inflict violence on inferiors, to exclude or segregate them from social life, to treat them with contempt, to force them to obey, work without reciprocation, and abandon their own cultures. These are what Iris Young has identified as the faces of oppression: marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism. Such unequal social relations generate, and were thought to justify, inequalities in the distribution of freedoms, resources, and welfare. This is the core of inegalitarian ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, caste, class, and eugenics.
Egalitarian political movements oppose such hierarchies.
Elizabeth S. Anderson, What is the Point of Equality? (pdf)