Posts Tagged ‘framing’
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)
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.
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 »
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 »