Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Every inch won should lead us to demand more

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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.

Or think of the USA Freedom Act, winding its way through Congress right now. It originated as a challenge to mass surveillance written by some of the strongest congressional critics of the National Security State, who were emboldened by the disclosures by Edward Snowden. Such unauthorized disclosures are one of the only ways to challenge government secrecy designed to ensure people “encounter few qualifying or competing cues from other [non-official] sources.” But along the way it has been modified in ways that either water it down or make things worse, leading some of its original supporters to turn against it. Unsurprisingly, even the original bill didn’t go very far in challenging the spying Leviathan.

The inclination to declare premature victory seems to me a common affliction, as evidenced by the responses to the election of Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio. Another example is the victory laps taken in response to a small number of members of Congress embracing ideas like Social Security expansion or postal banking. Celebrating steps along the way is essential, but too often it seems like the first steps are treated as evidence of a changed game

People love the idea of winning without a fight. You see that in the hope of many Democrats that the Republicans will be so extreme that voters will reject them without Democrats having to take a stand on anything. You see it in their insistence that demographic changes will lead to the demise of the Republican Party, despite the fact that those demographics are malleable and a product of politics. You see it when people offer charts and stats alone as if bare facts ever convinced anyone of anything, or their efforts to argue in favor of (mildly) liberal ends from conservative starting points. You see it in the efforts to avoid taking stances that conservatives will oppose (as if they won’t move to oppose what ever previously reasonable position liberals take.) You see it in the simultaneous claim that the ACA is a great success and a frustration its opponents are still pushing back.

I love the idea of winning a fight. I love it because our opponents are wrong and deserve to be beaten. I love it because winning begets winning. I love it because, as Frederick Douglass taught us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” I love it because we have so, so far to go to begin to approximate our ideals. I love it because I love it.

I’m convinced that part of winning–really winning–means making bold demands. It means not letting what seems immediately possible limit our horizons. Realism is essential, but part of being realistic is understanding that things change and big demands lead to big change. I’m convinced of the importance of what Kathi Weeks calls ‘utopian demands.’

In the current political climate, the demands for basic income and shorter hours could of course be dismissed as “merely utopian.” Rather than waste time on impractical and untimely demands, so the argument goes, feminists and others should conserve their meager energies and set their sights on more politically feasible goals. This familiar logic makes it easy to write such demands off as unrealistic, and therefore as potentially dangerous distractions from the necessarily modest and small-scale parameters of political reform. That is, the supposed utopianism of these demands is often considered a fatal flaw. One could perhaps contest the claim that these demands are aptly designated utopian in this time and place, and certainly I have tried to point out their practicality in relation to current economic trends. But there is another way to respond to the critique. What if the utopianism of these demands is not a liability but an asset? What if we were to respond to the charge of utopianism not with embarrassment or defensive denial but with recognition and affirmation? And what might such a utopianism without apology look like? Rather than deny the applicability of the appellation “utopian” to escape its pejorative connotations,…I want to accept the label, reconsider utopianism as a distinctive mode of thought and practice, and explore what a utopian demand is and what it can do.

Small changes are worth demanding too, of course, but it’s essential to keep our eyes on the larger goals, on the world we wish to create. And Weeks argues this is part of what utopian demands do.

[T]he “utopian demand” – as I use the phrase – is a political demand that takes the form not of a narrowly pragmatic reform but of a more substantial transformation of the present configuration of social relations; it is a demand that raises eyebrows, one for which we would probably not expect immediate success. These are demands that would be difficult – though not impossible – to realize in the present institutional and ideological context; to be considered feasible, a number of shifts in the terrain of political discourse must be effected. In this sense, a utopian demand prefigures – again in fragmentary form – a different world, a world in which the program or policy that the demand promotes would be considered as a matter of course both practical and reasonable. It is not, however, just the status of the program or policy that is at stake; as the proponents of wages for housework recognized, the political practice of demanding is of crucial importance as well.

A world in which millions of people are put in cages, ripped from their families and communities, that targets people on the basis of race and reinforces existing race and class stratification is unacceptable. One where millions exist in poverty, where some work too many hours where others can’t find work, where people need to compete to eat, have a home, or be educated, must be changed. We can’t accept a world where oil and gas billionaires get government subsidies to enrich themselves while destroying the planet. And that change can’t come when we let small steps lead us to act like the battle is over.

Every inch won should lead us to demand more.


Written by David Kaib

May 23, 2014 at 9:09 am

11 Responses

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  1. Another example is the victory laps taken in response to a small number of members of Congress embracing ideas like Social Security expansion or postal banking.

    Or some LBGT groups thanking #OneTermTom Corbett for dropping his appeal of the SSM marriage ruling in PA. It appears that most of these groups either don’t know how to wield power, or are satisfied with scraps because they are insider-y while wanting to appear outsiders.

    Phil Perspective

    May 23, 2014 at 11:15 am

    • I almost added marriage equality. Or think about when people point to polling on it and say “well, we’re going to win this eventually” instead of wielding it like a club.

      David Kaib

      May 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      • That too!! And the reason they don’t is more of the 2nd thing point I listed above. Most groups value their insider status instead of fighting for their constituents.

        Phil Perspective

        May 23, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      • It’s true – I wish more people appreciated how access can be a limit not just a source of power.

        David Kaib

        May 23, 2014 at 1:25 pm

  2. […] The thing is that Medicaid expansion is popular. It’s popular in red states. It gives Democrats looking for a wedge to use in less hospitable places.  But to translate that position into political support takes work. And charts won’t do that. Facts won’t do that. ‘Cost’ arguments won’t do it. Only contestation will. […]

  3. Frederick Douglass i always considered one of my heroes (i learned he was actually like Obama, mixed race, and also he escaped from slavery—‘give me my shoes back’ (old gogo lyric about someone who is in the ‘elite’ but gets ripped off ), and had some disagreements with Abe Lincoln—who actually came from a slightly less elite background, and got shot too). But i grew up in DC so i always wondered how Frederick Douglass got that place in Anacostia (now a museum) when even when i was growing its was like shantytowns—-extreme poverty (though of course AEI, Cato, etc. will say ‘they have TV and food stamps’).


    November 25, 2014 at 5:22 am

  4. […] 5. Every inch won should lead us to demand more […]

  5. […] reality was put into perspective by David Kaib in a piece titled, “Every inch won should lead us to demand more.”  The entire post is well worth a read, but there were a few portions I found to be […]

  6. […] discussed before the unfortunate desire to win without a fight, to assume that a small victory is not a stepping […]

  7. […] certainty with which this question is treated. Indeed, one reason I would argue it’s important to make bold demands is to test the limits of what is possible. Guessing wrong in a conservative direction means not […]

  8. […] what makes a policy “possible” or “realistic” for passage? Your demanding it. Actually proposing one’s ideal policy objectives, or going further, forces opponents to […]

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