Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Rhetoric

The State of the Union is Ambivalent (2013)

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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.

Obama 2010 SOTU

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

January 27, 2014 at 11:13 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

A Rolling Conversation on the State of the Union at Jubilee

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Elias Isquith has put together an interesting group of people to comment on the State of the Union, and surprisingly I’m one of them. I’ll be adding the links on this post at they come up. Check it out and maybe even comment. We are…not of the same mind on this thing.

Here’s my opening: “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.”

Announcement: A Rolling Conversation on the State of the Union

The State of Austerity (Elias Isquith)

Ethan Gach — State of the Union Address Shows Obama’s Priorities: Everything

Robert Greer — Is Obama the Liberal Great Communicator?

David Kaib — The State of the Union Is…Ambivalent

[Update: 2-15-13 a.m.]

Shawn Gude — The Problem with Piecemeal Reform

[Update: 2-20-13 a.m.]

The State of the Union’s Quiet Radicalism  (Elias Isquith)

Shereen Shafi — “Transparency,” Drone Strikes, and the Conditions of Public Support

[Update 2-26-13 p.m.]

The State of the Union’s Crises (Alan Kantz)

Written by David Kaib

February 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Put Out the Fires or Stop Fueling the Flames

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Image

== Summary == * Fuoco. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto, luglio 2003. * Fire. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, july 2003. == Licensing == {{cc-by-sa-2.5}} it:Fuoco

This morning’s Up With Chris had an amazing discussion of Libya and Mali, and the role of the United States and the French in North Africa.  [Update: this segment can be viewed here.] One point that came through strongly was how the decision to enter the Libyan civil war (what is commonly, and I think misleadingly, called ‘intervention’) was never litigated. That is, the US didn’t have a discussion about it in public before the decision happened.

Today’s episode included a great discussion of all this, including voices that rarely get heard on my television, and I learned a great deal as a result.  I wasn’t the only one watching this discussion who praised Up for this.

But this reminded me of another frustration I’ve had for a long time that I haven’t seen many others articulate.   Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

January 27, 2013 at 9:53 am

What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like?

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I just asked this question on Twitter, and realized I wasn’t going to be able to explain it  in 140 characters.  So I thought I’d elaborate here. First, the question:

There has been a lot of talk about how we need to reframe the horribly inaptly named “right to work” laws, which essentially require unions to represent workers who refuse to join or otherwise support the union in any way.  Since no one is ever required to join a union, this whole framing in nonsense, a cover for a policy designed to weaken unions that can’t be defended on the merits.

‘Right to work for less’ is a common one, but it is fairly clunky.  I like the idea of ‘loafer laws’ or even better, ‘freeloader laws’ (that one is from Matt Bruenig) which emphasize the free rider problem here.  I also like ‘no rights at work’ law.  Regardless, the question I’m asking is a different one.

What would a real right to work look like?  Instead of reframing the right-wing policy with a different name, we could attach a different policy to the name (in fact we could and probably should do both).  Rhetorically, we’d respond to the call for a ‘right to work’ by saying, ‘absolutely we need a real right to work, which would mean X’  There are, as I see it, two options.

The first is the one I mentioned in my tweet – just cause employment laws.  These laws, which presently exist only in Montana, require employers to have a legitimate reason before firing an employee.  This is opposed to at will employment, where employers can fire for any reason or even no reason, as long as they don’t run afoul of various anti-discrimination laws. (It’s worth pointing out that because outside of these laws employers can fire at will, enforcing such anti-discrimination laws is more difficult). In essence, such laws ensure a basic level of due process, and reduce the arbitrary authority of employers while leaving intact legitimate authority.

Another way to reframe right to work would be a federal guarantee of a job, along the lines that Sandy Darity has proposed.  “His National Investment Employment Corps does that, he says, by creating real jobs that pay a minimum of $20,000 a year and $10,000 in benefits, including medical coverage and retirement savings,” along the lines of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. This is a quite literal ‘right to work.’

Does that make sense? And if so, what do you think?

[Update] Richard Yeselson was tweeting about the first question, and offered “right to shirk.” I like that.

Written by David Kaib

December 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Reading is Fundamental: The State of the Discipline of Political Science

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From the outgoing editors of the American Political Science Review.  I largely agree, and have since the first time I looked at the journal in the mid-1990s.

On the negative side, we have two main observations. First, although the discipline as a whole is less fragmented than we had feared (noted earlier), some subfields—and you know who you are—continue to be riven by ideological or methodological conflict. Too often, a paper in one of those fields draws recommendations of “reject,” “minor revision,” and “accept” from three equally esteemed referees. When reviewers diverge so greatly, the editorial team’s judgmental burden increases significantly, compelling editors to discount some expert advice (if possible, without antagonizing reviewers) in order to provide coherent advice to authors. We have no answer to this puzzle, but simply note a pattern accurately described by one co-editor: increasing engagement across sub-disciplines, sustained fratricide within some.

Second, we have become painfully aware of how badly (or how little) some of our colleagues read. Articles are too often cited, by authors and by referees, as making the exact opposite of the argument they actually advanced. Long books are noted, with a wave of the rhetorical hand but without the mundane encumbrance of specific page or even chapter references; and highly relevant literatures, even in leading political science journals, are frequently ignored. We may have fallen victim to an occupational disease of editors, but we have often found ourselves moaning, “Doesn’t anybody read anymore?” It is cold comfort that this sloppiness extends well beyond political science. A recent study has shown that, even in “gold standard” medical research, articles that clearly refute earlier findings are frequently ignored, or even cited subsequently as supporting the conclusion they demolished.

So we advise our successors to maintain, and even expand, vigilance against jargon and murkiness; and we advise authors, referees, and readers generally to further and broaden the conversation, not least by reading seriously what has been, and is being, written.

(This reminds me that I was thinking of writing a post that discussed books that seem as though most people only knew their title, and how they were misrepresented as a result.)

I have two additional thoughts  One is that the solution to the problem noted in the first quoted paragraph isn’t very hard.  It is that when someone is clear about what they are doing, the important question is how well they do it.  This is generally expected of those who come from a more heterodox perspective (like me), but the expectation should be that everyone should.  That you prefer a different theoretical or methodological approach is, at times, irrelevant.  Part of the problem is that so much of American political science takes so much for granted that it can’t usefully discuss these issues.  Only foregrounding them, and discussing them, can allow us to move forward.

The other thing is about the lack of reading.  It’s a matter of faith among many orthodox social scientists that the cluster of work that involves case studies, qualitative research, non-positivist methods, etc., does not lead to advances in knowledge because they don’t build on each other.  (There are other objections too, but that’s for another day).  But the whole conceit of hypothesis testing actually fails to make clear the central role of reading what others have already said.  According to Karl Popper, where hypotheses come from is irrelevant.  The rhetoric of hypothesis testing suggests that a single test can lead to the rejection of a theory, when in reality it’s difficult to find any theory (in political science at least) that has been rejected because it failed one or even a series of hypothesis tests.  Of course a case study is partial, but so is any study.  The important question is not whether one study can settle anything on its own (it can’t) but rather what it, along with what is already known, can tell us.  The scientific method does not include reading and writing, even though all research begins and ends with these things, and usually involves it along the way.  Graduate training organized around statistical techniques obscures this.  An approach that more self consciously and explicitly situates our research within the work of others is necessary to solve this problem.

Of course, it’s unlikely the editors would agree with all that.

Unfortunately, I doubt this will have much impact.  For years the APSA presidential addresses have included trenchant criticisms of the discipline.  But individual beliefs and values do not drives social outcomes, despite what orthodox political science would have you believe.

I learned that from reading.

Via Chris Blattman.

Written by David Kaib

September 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Politics isn’t Hard: Robert Reich on Regressives

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Politics isn’t hard. Here Robert Reich, as he often does, boils things down to their essence.

One of the best parts of this is that Reich doesn’t let conservatives define themselves, or attack them for failing to live up to supposed conservative principles. He connects our history, or the better parts of it, with our future. He offers a narrative of American and conservatives that makes sense of where we are and were we need to go.

I only have one objection. Number four is treating corporations as people and money as speech under the First Amendment, “thereby inundating our democracy with campaign money from billionaires and big corporations and Wall Street so the rest of us cannot be heard”. I’ve objected to this formulation before. First, it places all the responsibility on the Supreme Court for a situation also caused by Congress, campaign consultants, the media and candidates. Second, it wrongly suggests the solution is “less speech” not increasing the opportunity for the excluded voices to be heard.* And third it suggests that the only way to address it is a constitutional amendment.

I’d say the issue here is a system that is corrupt.  It forces candidates to spend all their time fundraising while those with the most money are guaranteed to be heard by public officials while the issues the rest of us care about are kept off the agenda. People-powered campaigns are the first step to solving this problem as well as demanding that corporations be transparent about their spending (both campaign and lobbying, which is left out of the money=speech framework) and require shareholders to approve them. We could also work to ensure institutional investors are committed to voting no (and to limiting CEO pay, golden parachutes and bonuses).

*As long as there is no trigger mechanism where candidates get more funding when the other side spends more, this poses no problem as far as the Court is concerned.

Written by David Kaib

July 12, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Why is Framing So Misunderstood?: The Distorting Lens of Democracy

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There has been a lot of attention in progressive circles about framing, but because of the way we tend to think and talk about politics, framing itself is poorly understood. Our standard frame of politics is steeped in a particular view of the US constitutional system – American democracy. This view places two party electoral politics at the center, sees formal decision making (without attending to the boundaries of what’s possible) as the only thing of significance in politics, and includes a sharp distinction between the economy and politics, or markets and government. This view is a hindrance to progressive politics, I believe, because it is confuses a way of justifying a state of affairs (legitimation) with a way of making senses of a state of affairs.

What does this have to do with framing? When you use this politics-as-democracy lens to make sense of politics, you overestimate the role of elections, of formal decisions, and the role of individuals.  (I’ve referred to this idea that individual choice manifests itself in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy as ‘democratic efficiency’.)  As a results, the central (only?) drivers in politics appear to be 1) voting and 2) public opinion.  Given that, framing must be (it is inconceivable to think of it any other way) about changing the minds of voters usually in an unmediated fashion (i.e. presidential speeches producing shifts in public opinion, campaign tactics producing electoral majorities). Framing is about communication, only.

The problem is that this does not fit with the arguments of those who talk about framing.  To take George Lakoff as a prime example–his field  is cognitive linguistics, he has helped found the interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies, his books all reference thinking or the mind (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision).

Framing, then, is first and foremost about being clearer with ourselves about what we stand for. It’s about being clearer about what unites us, and what divides us from our ideological opponents.  This is necessary to build stronger coalitions, form longer term plans, and decide what things we want to push for, and it requires not just talking differently but building a progressive infrastructure to develop better frames and embed them in our institutions.  It’s about recapturing the confidence those on the left had in the post-Great Depression period that our approach is better than then alternative and more appealing. (This sort of confidence is something conservatives have built in the wake of the Civil Rights and it remains a key strength for their movement).  It’s about finding things that unite our side and divide or weaken the other side. It’s about mobilizing your own supporters and demobilizing* resistance.

Even so, some might think these things will involve persuasion. Certainly, any discussion of rhetoric will implicate persuasion, but the important thing to remember here is that people are ambivalent.  We listen to, or participate in, elite discourse, we organize our own thinking around liberal-conservative ideology, talk about opinion polls revealing beliefs.  But most regular people are not engaged with this discourse, don’t organize their thinking on a lib-con spectrum, and have more complex views than can be captured by a single poll question. Lakoff suggests that most people have progressive and conservative frames available to them, that many of us can actively use both frames, but that conservatives have been far more successful at activating conservative frames.  This means that even self-professed liberals / progressives often argue within conservative frames rather than challenging them. The issue is less convincing people to abandon a strongly held consistent position than activating one way of thinking over another.

Most people who study and talk about American politics don’t think like this.  They think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1.  As a result, talk of framing (and for that matter, organizing) sounds like naive gibberish.  Or in some cases, it means people who want to use framing but don’t understand it speak naive gibberish, thinking that if we could only get the right sound bite it would turn the tide, something Lakoff has always rejected.  I suspect part of the reason is that those who focus on framing haven’t really challenged the politics-as-democracy frame or recognized the way it distorts these discussions.

*It doesn’t mean putting barriers in the way of participation. I object to that on principle regardless of the context.

Written by David Kaib

June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

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