Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Legitimation

What is Democratic Efficiency?

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Easton modelAlex Sparrow has been interested in the idea I’ve been discussing called ‘democratic efficiency.’  He encouraged me to talk a bit more about how to achieve it, and then since has written about this.  His post is well worth checking out, and in many ways parallels my own thinking. But his use of the term democratic efficiency and mine are a different, so it seems worth taking the opportunity to explain my own position a bit more clearly. I also noticed as I looked through my posts that I had been defining democratic efficiency differently – by emphasizing different elements of the idea.  This no doubt adds to the confusion.

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How Judicial Politics is Like Area Studies

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courrtPart of the critique of the standard approaches to judicial politics that I’ve been working on involves looking at the justifications offered for why the field chose decision-making as its standard concept of the thing to be explained, and why decision-making generally came to mean formal rulings on the merits by Supreme Court justices. I’ve argued elsewhere that part of this was a mistaken assumption that such decisions were action as opposed to talk and a mistaken assumption that decisions are necessarily efficacious.* (I say mistaken both because these assumptions are not true, but more importantly  because they obscure rather than illuminate). Once we jettison those assumptions, it means that other actors should be brought into better focus and whether rulings are followed is an open question. This means shifting our attention from decision-making to legitimation and authority, with the more important question being not ‘why did this actor do as they did’ but ‘how will others respond.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

December 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm

A Condition is Not a Problem: The Impact of Sandy

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[Update: I follow up on this post here, with a bit more on the political aftermath.]

There is an old saw in political science that difficult conditions become problems only when people come to see them as amenable to human action. Until then, difficulties remain embedded in the realm of nature, accident, and fate—a realm where there is not choice about what happens to us. The conversion of difficulties into problems is said to be the sine qua non of political rebellion, legal disputes, interest group mobilization, and of moving policy problems onto the public agenda.  Deborah Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas” (1989).

What this means is that – despite the way we often talk about policy making both in political and academic discussions – it isn’t the case that facts lead simply to political action.  It’s quite common for some serious condition to fail to crack the agenda.  When it does, it won’t be simply because the condition has gotten worse, or because science gives us a clearer or more certain picture of it. Instead, the translation of a condition to a problem is a political process, a product of intentional action.  It isn’t natural – it doesn’t just happen.

I couldn’t help but think about this as countless people in my twitter feed either insisted that Hurricane Sandy would finally lead us to take climate change seriously, while others asked if we would as if it was simply a matter of how others reacted.  Either way, this is a wrong-headed way to think about it.  But it is also an extremely common one.

Underlying such statements is often a general model, one familiar to political scientists, although we often don’t make it explicit.  In this model, conditions are noticed by the public, which leads to changes in public opinion. This puts new issues onto the agenda, both terms of news coverage and formal government activity (committee hearings, government reports, bill proposed).  Interest groups form to champion the cause, or existing groups adopt the cause as their own, as long as voters are interested. Politicians, being driven largely by concern for re-election (here, meaning pleasing voters, which is not in fact necessarily the same thing) seek to take leadership roles on the issue.  If they don’t, they are punished at the ballot box, since unorganized voters have all the power.  Either way, this leads to a formal decision specifying some policy change. (‘Policy’, meaning a good faith effort to solve some commonly accepted problem through rules, rather than shifting decision-making to some other entity, and only secondary concern with the economic benefits to different corporations or industries that result).

Spelled out, it sounds naive.  And it is, which is why it’s rarely spelled out.  But this model is implicit in a great deal of our political talk.  Many others would take issue with some element of it, yet it still provides the assumed starting point.  And it makes effective action quite difficult, because the picture it paints is actually a formalization of a series of legitimations about separation of powers and democracy rather than a realistic or useful model of how politics works.

OF course, many people realize all this.  Bill McKibben notes the standard approach to these sorts of disasters is using the example of gun violence to introduce his point about climate change.

Crises come with a predictable dynamic in this country: 1) Gunman opens fire in crowded school/theater/shopping mall 2) anguished op-ed columnists say we should talk about gun control 3) we don’t. Now, in fact, we often collapse two and three—the anguished columnists just write about how we should talk about gun control, but of course we won’t.

Rejecting the dynamic for McKibben includes worrying less about the media, formal decision makers and ‘public opinion’ and more about aggressively challenging those with the real power.

So maybe this time, instead of waiting for history to repeat itself fruitlessly, it’s time to go where the action is and tackle the fossil fuel industry. 350.org, the global climate campaign I helped found, is launching a 20-cities-in-20-nights roadshow the night after the election in Seattle. We’re doing it no matter who wins, because we want to target the real players: each night, around the country, we’ll be engaging students from the local campuses, planting organizers in an effort to spark a divestment movement like the one that helped bring down apartheid (during the Reagan administration, with a GOP Congress).

I make no predictions about whether this will be successful. But I do think that changing how these problems are approached is essential. And maybe in doing so, people would come to a more nuanced understanding of how politics works, one that is less rooted in the civics textbook understanding of politics and a purely partisan lens. and more in an understanding of the vast power corporations hold not only over formal decisions, but the formal agenda and even what sorts of solutions can be discussed or held to be out of bounds and unreasonable.

Just because we can’t afford not to do this doesn’t mean we will. It is still a choice.

Written by David Kaib

October 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm

An Electoral Mandate is a Claim, Not a Fact

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From four decades of intensive research on voting behavior, political scientists know a great deal about the determinants of individual voting choices.  We know much less, however, about elections—the institutions in which these individual choices take place.  This is a serious shortcoming, for it is elections that link voters to governance.  The nature and quality of this linkage has long been a primary concern in the study of politics, especially democratic theorists.  To some, the only purpose of elections is the permit voters to choose among political leaders; in short, that voters cannot or should not control the choice among politics in any more direct way.  Many others, finding such limited control insufficient for a democracy, seek to show that elections can and should have policy meaning if subsequent government programs are to be seen as legitimate.  [snip]

The idea of a mandate…plays a major role in the justification of elections as institutions and in the effort to construct explanations for particular election results.  It helps also to reassure citizens that their primary forms of political participation–the vote-had an impact on the policies to which they will be subjected.

These words were written by Marjorie Randon Hershey in 1996.  They are, admittedly, a bit disturbing.  I’d like to believe things have improved since that time, but I’m not so sure.  Since the 1950s (at least) political science has looked to individual formal decisions as the key to understanding politics, and often towards some internal factors, be they interests, attitudes, or ideas, as the causes of those decisions.  Votes, court rulings, roll calls–these are the sorts of things political science has focused on. Things which fit comfortably with this sort of approach were foregrounded, things which did not were obscured.  While plenty of criticisms of this approach have been voiced, the basic model has remained.  A certain idealized view of democratic elections serves the same role for political science does for markets–it is the starting point no matter how much research suggests it is not  a very useful way of making sense of the world.

What’s more, there is a presumption–especially in the field of judicial politics–that elected officials were presumptively legitimate, whereas judges, are not, especially when they challenge the decisions of elected officials (i.e. when they exercise judicial review to strike down a law or executive action) .  That’s not true on either account.  Elected officials may find their legitimacy challenged, and judges often act to strike down laws without controversy.   This notion confuses democracy as a normative idea with democracy as an empirical explanation.

The standard move for a political scientist when confronted with the idea that an idea is an essentially contested concept, one that necessarily blends normative and empirical dimensions, one that, as a result, cannot be settled with facts, is to abandon the idea.  That which cannot be settled should be abandoned for terms that can be operationalized.  But this means avoiding talking about things that political actors take very seriously.  As Hershey says:

No matter how difficult it may be to agree on a definition of mandate or to locate one in practice, it remains a powerful concept in political discourse.  Politicians claim mandates in order to legitimize bold actions, journalists use the term frequently in interpreting elections, and scholarly studies continue to focus on various aspects of the idea of a mandate.  In short, mandates are a central democratic myth–“an unquestioned belief held in common by a group of people that gives events and actions a particular meaning.”  As a myth, the idea of a mandate gives meaning to election results and thus has a potentially important effect on the abilities of administration to govern.

I started to think of this excellent piece as I read various discussions of what the meaning of the upcoming presidential election would be from a few left leaning sources. While they disagreed on the answers, all asked the same questions–would there be a mandate, what would its content be?  Lost here is that a mandate is not a thing that exists, like a chair or an apple, but a claim.  It results from politics, as politics is largely a contest of claims.

So the better question is, what claims will be made in terms of the meaning of the elections, and which ones will be successful?  How would the two main parties interpret it, and how would the media treat those claims?  For what it’s worth, I think the right largely appreciates this. I doubt they would ask these questions.  If Romney were to win, they will claim it’s a mandate for conservative policies.  If Obama wins, no matter how large, they will claim it means little.  How about the other side?  I doubt the Democrats will claim any victory, no matter how large, is a mandate for liberalism.  Those who hold the reins of power in the party have long been neoliberals.

As a result, no amount of polling evidence would lead to voters being seen as demanding some liberal outcome.  Any such claim would not be seen as ‘reasonable’, but rather ‘political,’ in large part because it would be outside the bounds of what either party would accept.

This is why I get frustrated with repeated efforts to show that Americans don’t support this, or American oppose that, by those who seek to challenge far right positions or bipartisan consensus.  It quite simply doesn’t matter.  Either activists mobilize those opinions by engaging people to hold them to act, which has to be something more than voting, or such opinions will have no impact. Citing polls won’t change that (although polls can and should inform efforts to mobilize people).

Scholars and activists would do well to understand that democracy isn’t a particularly useful analytic framework, but that it is a powerful myth, that can be mobilized.

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