Archive for October 2014
I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.
I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–where people make statements that assume one or the other concepts. Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this is that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.
One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.
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.