In politics classes, we often talk about the importance of framing techniques or the use of narrative devices. Almost always, these techniques seek to make some sort of connection at the human level between the message and the target audience. For many, policy only makes sense at the gut level, which implies the importance of emotions. A couple of examples that I came across just today: Legislators will try to add a personal aspect to bills that they propose, like Lily’s Law, a bill that elevates certain fetal injuries to the level of murder. Or this TED Talk that puts a human face on LGBTQ. Why do this? It works.
President Obama delivered the State of the Union last night, and it is a favorite (habitual?) activity of pundits to predict what the President will talk about. As many of us who study policy and politics know (e.g., here and here), this annual event provides the president with the chance to set the decision making agenda.
I asked my class yesterday about what they thought would be the key topics and then asked them to select the top issue out of 5. Here is the poll result:
Gun Control: 22%
Medicare/Social Security: 8%
How did they do? I did a very quick-and-dirty analysis of the president’s text by coding the sections according to policy area covered. I ignored the sections that made general appeals such as at the end of the speech when the president highlighted the exemplary service of individual Americans. Below is a pie chart of the coding results (click on it to get a bigger picture). (Note that I only provide a percentage for topics if they covered at least 5% of the speech.)
It’s been interesting to following the spread of Occupy [fill in a geographic locale], but even more interesting, now that the media discovered the protests, has been the debate over who are the protestors and what they stand for. Democrats are reportedly divided over what to do while Republicans, conservatives, and tea partiers treat the protesters as almost imaginary. Others have fretted over the lack of a clear message.
Some have made parallels to the 1960s antiwar and civil rights protests, but I wonder if there is a better parallel. Another time there was economic distress, widespread dissatisfaction, and political turmoil…the 1930s and the 1890s!
The Great Depression (the current Great Recession’s namesake) produced 25 percent unemployment at its worst in 1930, the failure of thousands of banks such that with no deposit insurance billions of dollars in life savings are wiped out. Families were evicted from homes and apartments. Protests developed in cities against evictions and to press claims for government compensation, such as the ‘bonus army.’ Political figures emerged to articulate their own interpretation of events. Father Coughlin and Huey Long’s ‘Share Our Wealth’ (hear his famous speech!) were just the best-known variants of demagogues who made populist appeals.
Similarly, during the severe depression of the 1890s, groups like Coxey’s Army marched to Washington.
And just like today, these groups ran into government suppression.
It’s tempting to put this into a partisan or ideological box, but I think OWS is part of something larger. The rise of Herman Cain, the Tea Party, and yes, Occupy Wall Street exhibit not just disenchantment with our political and economic system but also illustrate the fragility of our economy, society, and democracy. As the economy continues to struggle, stay tuned.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement 2005
(This quote courtesy of Steve Job’s Best Quotes from the Wall Street Journal).
The Economist recently ran an article (also with video of interviews) that Western countries no longer have the clout to promote human rights around the world. The main reasons cited in the article for this declining influence is a combination of lack of financial and moral resources among Western countries. As a result, human rights appear to be in decline around the world.
This past week, my undergraduates read – I hope – a classic article on transnational advocacy networks by Keck and Sikkink (also in book form). These authors argue that such networks are used by domestic activists to promote causes, including human rights, in their home countries when the domestic governments are at best non-responsive or at worst repressive. Flowing through these networks of local activists, international NGOs, international bodies such as UN agencies, and Western nations, are flows of information, moral suasion, and material resources. These flows are the “boomerang effect” in which local activists leverage external actors in their network to bring pressure on the domestic government.
One might take issue with the Economist’s position. Human rights advocacy was often a hostage in the larger Cold War struggle, and despots have always shown a certain kind of resilience. I am not sure we can say that dictators today are more insulated than yesterday’s dictators. If liberty and human rights are in decline in many countries, perhaps the boomerang effect is more important than ever?
Legistorm, an organization that provides information on the government, just released a study that shows the extent to which former lobbyists make up the staffs that work on Capitol Hill and the even larger number of former staffers that now ply their craft as lobbyists along K Street (or thereabouts).
Hugh Heclo, a political scientist, talked about the rise of issue networks in which clusters of actors who specialize on a policy area move in and out of government. This phenomenon was created by the expansion of the federal government and the related need for expertise, and it showcased the tension between the expert and the citizen in policy issues. Is the rise of the policy expert a good or bad thing for democracy? Many clearly think not. For example, the frequent calls for term limits likely reflect this tension.
I recently was talking in class about Deborah Stone’s ideas on symbolic tools in politics, and a key tool is ambiguity. Ambiguity is useful in politics because it facilitates collective action as different groups can support an idea for different reasons.
This coming week the N.C. Legislature is taking up a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage even though state law already prohibits gay marriages. A number of stories and letters to the editor in today’s Raleigh News & Observer (just one here but look for letters for the Sept. 11th edition) show the range of interpretations, including the State Senate’s cloaking debate on the bill by a term limits proposal. Opponents have made a number of arguments, including a business rationale for rejecting such a ban.
If the bill is approved, citizens will vote on this constitutional change in November 2012, which is also the presidential election. Is the timing a coincidence? After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court approved gay marriage in 2003, about a dozen states held anti-gay marriage referenda around the country the following year, which helped, as some argue, mobilize support for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.
Today, the country appears fairly divided on this issue although support for gay marriages seems to have increased in the past 7 years. In this battleground state, next week and next year will be interesting.
So, I’ve got this Twitter account (@JohnCScottUNC) and actually tweeted. Kudos to Karina in the Public Policy Dept. for introducing me to this.
Not sure what it will do for me or anyone else. But, when I did this class on public opinion, I asked students to name their sources for political/policy news, and more than one indicated Twitter. I’ll give it a try with a focus on policy/political tidbits. I also have to get this website more up to date with stuff that has more depth.
The larger question is whether all this technology actually helps with teaching and research. Thoughts and suggestions welcome!
In my undergraduate class, I use a book called, Policy Paradox, by Deborah Stone. She makes the point that many political fights are about who’s in the community and who’s outside of it, and this conflict is particularly sharp when the issue is about who has decision making power. We saw this conflict this summer over the fight to impose a photo ID for voters in North Carolina. But what about those who are physically present but not recognized at all? The Economist had a great interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on statelessness, political membership and recognition. As the interview shows, Stone’s abstract ideas can have significant repercussions for people.
This is a relatively new website, and the photos above show a little, local political history. If you’re affiliated with UNC, can you identify the photos and explain their significance?
The photo on the left is of the memorial table that honors those persons – free and slave – of African-American descent who built the University. It stands not too far from ‘Silent Sam,’ the statue that honors the sons of UNC who died in the Civil War. Silent Sam has been an occasional source of controversy as folks wrestle with the issues of race and remembrance.
On the right of the banner are a bunch of rocks. Specifically, a close-up of the rock wall that lines McCorkle Plaza on the Franklin Street side (not far from Silent Sam). In 1963, the NC legislature banned Communist speakers from state university campuses. While ultimately thrown out in court, the ban was tested by inviting a Communist speaker who stood on one side of the wall (on the sidewalk) while the audience was on the University side of the wall.
Political history is often around us, but we don’t always notice and/or remember.
UPDATE: The Chapel Hill News (September 4th) covered a meeting of students at Silent Sam to discuss the statue’s significance.