One of the most important concepts for understanding politics is quiescence. The great political scientist Murray Edelman placed the production of quiescence and arousal at the center of his approach to politics.
Government affects behavior chiefly by shaping the cognitions of large numbers of people in ambiguous situations. It helps create their beliefs about what is proper; their perceptions about what is fact; and their expectations of what is to come. In the shaping of expectations of the future the cues from government often encounter few qualifying or competing cues from other sources; and this function of political activity is therefore an especially potent influence upon behavior.
To make this point is to deny or seriously qualify what may be the most widely held assumption about political interactions: that political arousal and quiescence depend upon how much of that they want from government people get. Political actions chiefly arouse of satisfy people not by granting or withholding their stable demands, but rather by changing the demands and the expectations. (Emphasis in the original. Politics as Symbolic Action.)
For Edelman, the key to understanding politics is the ways the demands made by the public are managed, not how they are fulfilled. Often this is done through the use of symbols.For example, think about how in response to the Fight for 15 protests, Democrats have embraced a $10.10 minimum wage, including voting on it in the Senate, even though it has zero chance of making it even through that body. This has included the president imposing it on federal contractors, with the caveat that it would only apply to new contracts (making his earlier feet dragging consequential). Similarly we see states like Maryland enact $10.10 but limit its scope and extend the timeline for when the full new minimum should be imposed. The long timeline will make pushing for additional raises more difficult, although not impossible. In Seattle, where activists have successfully pushed the 15 dollar number onto the agenda, the mayor’s proposal has all sorts of loop holes, even as he claims to be leading the 15 dollar cause. The top number is the symbol, while the details are used to limit its impact.
This is the third post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.
Having established what is important, and then what is changeable, we still aren’t in a position to move forward politically until we ask a final question: what do we have leverage over? Much political talk feels a bit like a bunch of people sitting in their living room watching football having heated arguments about what the coaches on their favored team should do. No matter how well one analyzes the problem, no matter how persuasive the argument, the person on the field who is calling the plays and making player substitutions is completely unaware. Worse still, if you somehow got on the field and offered your expertise, you would likely be hauled off before they heard a word.
This is the second post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.
In my last post I argued that the first dimension we need to assess when thinking about political action is What is Important? The next essential dimension is What is changeable?
No matter its importance, political action toward a thing that is not changeable is futile. Of course, this too is not a binary. It’s probable better to talk about the relative difficulty of change rather than a simple yes/no. It is important to see the difference between low hanging fruit and high hanging fruit, between things that will require tremendous resources and those that won’t, between things that can be accomplished relatively quickly and those that will take years to achieve. It’s also important not to conflate difficult to do with impossible to do.
This is the first post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.
Often in political arguments, we rely on binaries. But life is rarely so simple that things can fit comfortably into binary categories without a tremendous loss of clarity. In particular, I want to talk about a series of dimensions along which we have to take positions on when we talk about politics. We have to take positions, but it that doesn’t mean we have to be explicit about it. But we ought to be. Being explicit about it will improve the likelihood that those we are talking with will understand us. Asking others to be explicit about it will increase the chances we’ll understand where they are coming from. If we are to argue, better we argue about our actual disagreements. Better still to argue about our most fundamental disagreements. Besides that, it’s good to be explicit so that our own thinking is clearer, and we are less likely to make mistakes because we haven’t fully thought things through.
The first dimension we should think about when talking about political action is what is important. “Important: yes or no” is a terrible way to do that. The question is always a relative one.
I keep having the same thoughts pop up as I participate in or watch various conversations about politics. I also think that trying to offer frameworks for understanding things differently in the middle of arguments is generally worthless. So I thought instead I could try to spell them out here. They will end up being somewhat abstract, precisely because I do not want to tie them to the controversies of the day, or of last week, etc. I hope they will be read in the spirit in which they are written–not proclamations, but provocations. I may be wrong. And surely nothing I am saying here hasn’t been said before or better by someone else. But hopefully some people will find them useful, which is about the best you can hope for in most conversations. I will plan on linking to them all here. They won’t add up to a theory or anything like that, although I hope writing them will bring me closer to one. I always like reading comments from readers, but I’m especially curious what you think about this, even if your thoughts, like mine, are fluid and difficult to articulate.
What’s the most important thing you should understand if you want to make sense of American politics? Ask most well-informed people, and then answer will be Polarization. The parties–both party-in-government and party-in-the-electorate–have gotten more ideological, less willing to compromise, leading to gridlock. Some will rightly note that this has been largely asymmetrical, a product of changes in the Republican Party not the Democrats. But the rest of the story remains the same. Less often it is noted that polarization isn’t really an issue among the public, only among the elites–especially members of Congress.
The polarization story often treats this as some sort of natural phenomena, or a tendency that was always there with fragile efforts to stop it failing to do so. Or it is chalked up to the power of money, or even of the Koch brothers themselves. Rarely is it treated as something about which something can be done.
Hypocrisy arguments are bad and you should stop making them. I want to distinguish here between an hypocrisy argument–one where hypocrisy is pointed out to delegitimate a person or position without more–and a hypocrisy claim. By a hypocrisy claim, I mean an accusation of hypocrisy embedded within a larger argument. My argument here applies to the former, not the latter.
Hypocrisy arguments are overrated. In life in general, and in politics in particular, consistency is the exception not the rule. I am favor of striving for consistency, but skeptical of anyone who claims their own group in uniformly consistent while their opponents are not. If hypocrisy were rare, it might pack more of a punch. But it not and it doesn’t. I’m unconvinced they have ever convinced anyone of anything.