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Top Five Posts that No One Read: 2012

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I may post the top posts from the past year based on views, but I first thought I might do a list of posts that didn’t get much traffic that I wish had. Here they are, in no particular order. [This post edited slightly]

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Written by David Kaib

December 27, 2012 at 7:25 pm

How the NRA Shifted the Debate: Or One Way Conservatives are Better at Politics

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I’ve harped here on the notion, both popular and academic, that ‘talk’ doesn’t matter – that decisions are the key unit of politics, they are action, driven by some set of fundamental forces, unaffected by interactions among people. This is connected to an idea I’ve called democratic efficiency: that public opinion translates automatically into public policy, like a political market (market here being the imagined one of economic theory rather than anything that exists in the real world). This position renders the vast bulk of political activity nonsensical, but it has the handy consequence of ensuring that any outcome is explainable–some set of actors or policies won out because they were favored (probably by the voters), the proof being that said actors or policies won out. It’s circular, of course, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

I was thinking about this while observing the response to the horrific shooting in Newtown.  Many liberals took the shooting as license to demand gun control, something that has been verboten for quite some time. (There has also been a good deal of discussion of mental health, which on its own is a good thing but somewhat troubling as an anti-violence strategy, but let’s leave that aside).  At the same time, numerous conservatives announced their own support for things like arming teachers.

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Written by David Kaib

December 21, 2012 at 5:33 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

Expanding the Boundaries of the Possible: The Mandate

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Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.  

Jack Balkin has a piece on The Atlantic that didn’t get the attention it deserved.  Called From Off the Wall to On the Wall: How the Mandate Challenge Went Mainstream, the piece focuses on how legal arguments move from the fringe to common sense.

The changing perception of the individual mandate is an example of one of the most important features of American constitutional law — the movement of constitutional claims from “off the wall” to “on the wall.” Off-the-wall arguments are those most well-trained lawyers think are clearly wrong; on-the-wall arguments, by contrast, are arguments that are at least plausible, and therefore may become law, especially if brought before judges likely to be sympathetic to them. The history of American constitutional development, in large part, has been the history of formerly crazy arguments moving from off the wall to on the wall, and then being adopted by courts. In the process, people who remember the days when these arguments were unthinkable gape in amazement; they can’t believe what hit them.

I’d go farther, and suggest that this is an example of the one of the most important features of American politics.  But the sad thing is that both political science and our general political discourse tends to ignore these questions. Instead, they ask: (given the boundaries of what’s possible) how is choice made?  But the question of what is possible is far more important than the choice itself.  As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider reminded us a long time ago, “The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power,” yet we’ve rarely listened.

Balkin has been asking these more important questions for some time.  I’ll just sketch the argument here.

The basic idea is to understand the roles of several key actors.

1) Intellectuals.  The role of intellectuals is to develop ideas that are considered off the wall.  Conservatives have long understood this which is why they built an infrastructure that allows intellectuals to do this and that creates networks among them. These have to be willing to do so without worrying about their acceptability, or they will simply be reinforcing the status quo. (This is why tying think tanks and the like too closely to either politicians or funders is a bad idea.)

2) Social movements.  Movements are one of the most important drivers of change, but they work long-term, through cultural change, that is, “from the bottom up”.  Obviously, conservatives were mobilized against the mandate, but Balkin argues that social movements work on a much longer time line.  There was not enough time to move arguments that the mandate was unconstitutional from the fringes to an acceptable legal claim this quickly.

3) Political parties. When a party gets behind a claim, it moves it quickly to ‘on the wall.’ “[W]hen an entire political party gets behind a constitutional argument,” Balkin says, “almost by definition the position has become mainstream.” Needless to say the unity of the Republican Party makes this a lot easier.

4) Media. The media tends to reflect the political parties.  That is, if one party makes a claim, the media will treat it seriously. This is true for institutions like Fox News, but it’s also true for the media in general.  Journalistic conventions don’t allow the media to challenge these sorts of claims, when they are taken seriously by one (or both) of the parties. This has a tendency to reinforce the role of the parties.  (Balkin here parallels the arguments of media scholars – see for example Jay Rosen’s classic post detailing Daniel Hallin’s arguments, here.)

5) The Courts.  Once a position has become ‘reasonable,’ judges are willing to give them a hearing, and once lower courts, especially circuit courts, are willing to accept an argument, this lends respectability before the Supreme Court (not to mention beyond the judiciary).

Of course, if you were to look only at the choices of courts, or the Court, ideological splits would go a long way towards explaining those choices.  It’s true that the president, Congress, or the public have no formal ability to reverse decisions.  But judges care about what’s reasonable, they take things for granted, and they reconsider things they previously took for granted.

I do have one objection. Balkin’s argument largely avoids confusing democracy as a legitimation with democracy as an explanatory concept. But see here:

When establishment politicians — who, after all, have to stand for election and don’t want to be thought out-of-touch to their constituents — get behind a constitutional argument, they often help move it forward quickly.

The problem here is that there is plenty of reason to think that politicians aren’t driven by such concerns.  There are often large gaps between public opinion and policy, both foreign and domestic.  The Republican Party has demonstrated that marching away from the center doesn’t automatically lead to electoral defeat.  Reasonableness is an elite phenomenon.  The belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes (i.e. ‘democratic efficiency’) is generally false.

Written by David Kaib

June 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

The GOP voted to kill people because they favor people dying

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The recent vote by the Republicans in the House repealing the ACA is part of a pattern.

The right has opposed expanding health insurance since forever. They opposed Truman’s proposal for national health insurance. They opposed Medicare and Medicaid. Ronald Reagan insisted that adopting Medicare would be the end of freedom in America, which helped cement his position as a rising conservative star. They opposed national health insurance (proposed by Ted Kennedy) and a more limited health insurance reform proposal from Jimmy Carter.  They opposed Bill Clinton’s efforts to expand access to health care. They opposed the ACA. They fought against the Medicaid expansion.

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Written by David Kaib

May 5, 2017 at 9:58 pm

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Five Posts You May Have Missed in 2014

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These posts didn’t get as much love. Sadly, none of them is out of date.

1. Criminalization is Pretty Harmful Too

Here is some push back on the idea that decriminalization of things will lead to harms, as if criminalization isn’t a massive source of harm.

Is prison harmful? Is ripping apart families harmful? Is the endemic sexual assault found in prison harmful? What about the risk of violence, or the torture of solitary confinement? Or overcrowding, or lack of medical care? How about the collateral consequences of imprisonment–unemployment, being barred from public housing, food stamps, federal education aid and a whole host of professions or voting? What about the impact on communities where many people are shuffled between prison and the neighborhood? What about the police harassment that comes with hyper-aggressive law enforcement?

[Speaking of which, High incarceration may be more harmful than high crime h/t Gerry Canavan.]

2. Charter Schools’ False Promise

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Written by David Kaib

December 21, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Exploitation, Hard Work and Motivation: Wall Street and the School House Part II

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This is the second of three posts on Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. See also Part I and Part III.

Karen Ho reports that one defining feature of work on Wall Street is exploitation: specifically incredibly long hours and very hard work.  She calls it “a white collar sweatshop.” (84) Recruits experience shock when they realize what their working conditions will be like. But ultimately, this work is seen as justifying the vast differences in rewards they receive and great inequities among them.  “Unlike most workers in the neoliberal economy, elite Wall Streeters still experience a link between hard work and monetary rewards and upward mobility—although that link is importantly enabled by prestigious schooling, networking and a culture of smartness.” (74) Yet they (wrongly) imagine that others in the economy did not work hard—that the rest of corporate America worked nine-to-five. (103) “On Wall Street,” Ho says, “overwork is a normative practice.” (99) Indeed, these two things go together—Wall Street’s denizens believe they are smarter and work harder than everyone else, and that this justifies the power they wield in the country and around the world.

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Written by David Kaib

June 4, 2014 at 8:00 am

Five Economic Reforms Americans are Open To

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Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.

It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.

Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.

The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.

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Written by David Kaib

January 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Targeting the Right To Vote

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bentele_obrienI’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.

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Written by David Kaib

December 18, 2013 at 10:56 am

What is Politics? Easton, Stone and Claim Making

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I don’t remember where it all started, but I’ve been unhappy with the concept of the decision as the central framework for political science for a long time. Very few political scientists, I should note, would say this is the case. They’d probably object to the idea that there is a central framework. Instead, they would likely focus on various different frameworks.  But, being heterodox and inclined to see the biggest picture possible, it was clear to me there was a deep similarity among these different approaches.  For one thing, there was so much political activity that was left out of this dominant framework, or dismissed or obscured.  Of course, we might conclude that something that political actors think is important is not after investigating it, but to do so as a matter of definitions makes little sense.

Since I began developing my idea of ‘politics as a contest of claim making’ as an alternative, I find that idea all over political science, although rarely foregrounded. It seems the sort of banal point that is widely understood but rarely the basis for much explicit theorizing. But it does come up again and again. My task seems to be to call attention to it and explicate its implications.

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Written by David Kaib

December 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

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