The Ascendance of Symbolic Politics: An Explanation and Consequence of Gridlock

Politicians in American and world politics are finding themselves in gridlocks over real policy change. Unable to make decisions on fundamental policies shaping the reallocation of resources, whether it be in the US Senate or the UN Security Council. This gridlock in real policy decisions makes symbolic politics the one and only game to play, leading politicians to make symbolic appeals to their bases of support through a variety of gestures that have no likely outcome on policy change. In fact, these symbolic appeals further undermine the potential for real change.

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Source: mtviewmirror.com

Increasingly, this appears to be a vicious cycle that is in part a consequence of policy gridlock, and in part an explanation of this gridlock. How can this vicious cycle be broken? Let me explain and give a couple of current examples.

Murray Edelman (1967, 1986) wrote a seminal book, entitled The Symbolic Uses of Politics, in which he clarified the differences between what he called “symbolic” versus the politics of real, tangible change. As he put it (1986: 4): “… the most cherished forms of popular participation in government are largely symbolic, …”, in that they do not confer any tangible benefits, such as allocating resources.

In contemporary terms, symbolic politics would cover appeals to ‘make America great again’ (Donald Trump). Real politics would entail tangible changes in budgets, law or policy that would accomplish such goals, such as programs to build new infrastructure. From the other side of the aisle, since the 2016 election, symbolic politics is reflected to appeals to ‘resist’ the Trump Administration, while real politics would be more focused on achieving Democratic Party goals. One might think that the symbolic and real are complementary, but not in today’s political context.

Take one recent example: the politics of confirming Neil Gorsuch for the US Supreme Court on April 7, 2017. From the announcement of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination on January 31st to the day of the nomination, Democrats in the Senate opposed his confirmation, in part in response to the earlier opposition to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and in part in response to expectations that Gorsuch would take conservative position on critical cases before the court. Nevertheless, the partisan arithmetic of the Senate made it clear that Gorsuch would be nominated with or without the support of the Democratic Party, given the potential to change the rules in the Senate that required 60 percent of the Senate to confirm a nominee to the court. Rather than compromise, and allow a number of Senators to vote for the nomination, and preserve the rules of the Senate, the party held firm, leading the Republicans to vote the rule change and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The battle had not real impact on the outcome – Gorsuch would have been nominated in any case, but the strategy allowed members of the Democratic Party to tell their constituents that they opposed the confirmation. This was a symbolic appeal.

A more general example is the focus on personalities versus policy. Real politics requires negotiation and horse trading over legislative or executive actions. To accomplish aims in real politics, you need to be able to work with the opposition. The art of negotiation does not lead negotiators to attack individuals personally, only to critique their policies, not their personal character. The degree that politics is all about personal attacks on individuals is another symptom of the move towards symbolic politics. Playing symbolic politics you win support by attacking the right people, but this makes working with these individuals less likely, thereby undermining real political bargaining and negotiation. Again, symbolic politics is becoming the enemy of real political negotiation and compromise.

The Tea Party movement in the Republic Party seemed to be all about symbolic politics as it had little likelihood of effecting real policy change beyond the potential to block any change at all. If you thought the ascendance of the Republican Party might have led to real political compromises among Republicans and Democrats on policy, it was perhaps discouraging to see the “Resist” movement arising among the Democrats, poised to oppose any Presidential initiative of the Trump Administration.

In both cases, when unable to effect real policy change in line with the Tea Party or Resist, the organizers chose to make symbolic appeals to their base of voters, contributors, and other supporters by symbolically opposing the opposition. The question is whether these symbolic stances actually fuel gridlock on real policy choices.

Symbolic appeals do not need a legislative majority. At the end of the day, however, the voters appear willing to support candidates who trade in symbolic politics. They are not throwing the rascals out for not accomplishing legislative or policy agendas. They are punishing – or are seen to punish – candidates who do not stay on message. So symbolic politics and the gridlock it reinforces must be put right at the feet of voters to tolerate this new pattern of do nothing, say anything, politics.

What can be done? Stop supporting those who don’t deliver on real policy agendas. Don’t give contributions to groups making appeals on symbolic initiatives.

References

http://mtviewmirror.com/animal-farm-symbolic-politics/

Murray Edelman (1967, 1985), The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Indiana: University of Illinois Press. 

Watching How the EU Treats the UK

Sovereignty is one of the issues that led some politicians in Britain to vote for leaving. Since the vote for Brexit, the UK has been struggling with how to leave in a way that respects the vote, but also creates as positive of an outcome as possible for the UK and the EU. They are looking for a win-win solution. I know that many believe this is impossible, but I truly believe that is a motivation of many, whether or not it is realistic.

However, as I watch this process unfolding, it appears perfectly clear that the EU is not minded to negotiate at all. It is telling the world that it will determine the terms of the divorce, and will not negotiate related matters, such as trade until the divorce arrangements are settled. The EU wants to make an example of the UK, punish it, and show other nations what is in store for them if they do not tow the line. This is exactly the strategy the EU followed in dealing with Greece on their financial crisis.

EU
Source: TunesOnline.Net

Surely I am not the only person who sees this pattern as support for the position that the EU is over-reaching its authority and that sovereignty is indeed a really genuine issue for all the nations of the EU. Maybe this bullying is part of the EU negotiating strategy, but I’m afraid it is indicative of the bureaucratic machine that has been created, and adds credibility to the choice to exit.

American Political Discourse: The Collapse of Civility and Commonsense Negotiating Strategies

Two aspects of contemporary political discourse in America seem to undermine the aims of all stakeholders. These aspects are apparent on social media, orchestrated campaigns, such as via email platforms, and on most major media with the one extraordinary exception of public broadcasting.

UnknownThe first is civility. Too often, all parties in political debate are increasingly lacking civility. Too often, individuals seem to believe that they need to be remarkably rude, shocking, or exaggerated in their insults and claims about one another in order to be heard. This person is a fascist, liar, bully, and so on. There is quite the opposite of the wisdom embedded in many traditions, such as of the British parliament, for example, to refer to others in Parliament as one’s Honorable Friend, or Right Honorable Friend. Vulgar name-calling and insults are the stock and trade of our politicians and increasingly our highest-paid media pundits. It may be the media equivalent of click-bait, but it is absolutely poisonous to a negotiation.

The second is an absence of minimal commonsense. In politics, a rational political actor wants to achieve some policy objective, such as a vote or other decision. This is not necessarily the art of making a deal, but it does require some art of negotiation. If people thought one minute about politics being a process of negotiation, they should try to avoid putting the party they are negotiating with on the defensive. Calling someone a traitor, liar, or another derogatory name is a good way to start a fight, not a negotiation.

Perhaps the aim is to get attention, rather than achieve any policy objective. But if policy change is a goal, I have long subscribed the sage advice of Roger Fisher, Will Ury, and Bruce Patton’s popular book, entitled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), such as the need to separate people from the problem. For instance, one might focus on how we get out of this box, rather than Bill says we should do x, and Nancy says we should do y. American politics is almost exclusively focused on the Republicans want to do x, and so the Democrats want to do y, or vice versa. Completely the wrong strategy. My work on the role of modeling public policy decisions found that this was the secret ingredient of successful modeling – contestants became focused on the assumptions underpinning the model, rather than the policy preferences of the contestants (Dutton, W., and Kraemer, K. (1985) Modeling as Negotiating. Norwood NJ: Ablex). But one cannot focus on the problem when the lack of civility leads everyone to become mired in the mud fights among the contestants. They need to put their gloves ‘on’ in the political arena.

I don’t know if it is possible to reform the processes underpinning policy gridlock in the United States. It is becoming obvious that a change of political party fortunes has not made a difference. However,  a good start would be to focus on the very basics – how contestants talk to and about one another. Without a more civilized discourse, the art of negotiation and politics will be lost in a growing obsession with getting attention.

 

Are Newspapers Surrendering News Coverage? The Big Impact of Online News

Today’s New York Times provided a clear illustration of an impact of the rise of online news and associated cable and satellite news coverage around the clock. Could it be true that newspapers have given up on trying to report breaking news?

Source: Wikipedia

Maybe this was a bad news day, but the front page of today’s 19 March 2017 Sunday New York Times had virtually no ‘news’ – only essays or stories on conservatives trying to change the judiciary, the risks associated with SWAT teams serving search warrants, the perks of Uber versus taxi services, healthcare, the damages done by Boko Haram, and an obituary for Chuck Berry. All are interesting and valuable stories, but not one story was what I would call hard or breaking news, as I understand news. The closest was Chuck Berry’s obituary. For example, there was no coverage of the US Secretary of State’s visits in East Asia, but an essay on page 10 about the dangerous options available vis-à-vis North Korea.

Most studies of the impact of online news focus on the declining revenues and advertising in the newspaper industry, and the decline of print newspapers as more move only online. However, the greatest impact might well be on what editors believe is fit to print in the newspaper. If they are inevitably scooped by online news, then why publish news that is a day old? So the editors shift increasingly to analysis and opinion pieces on the news, rather than even try to surface new news.

In academia, a similar impact is apparent in book publishing, where I have long argued that while more books are published year by year, it is important to look at the content of books to see the real impact. In my own case, why would I put material in a book that is already available online, or for which more up-to-date information will be online before any book goes into print? So, I think about what would have a longer shelf-life as a book, and focus on key arguments, and the potential to send readers online for more facts on a particular case or event.

Interestingly, while so much angst in the US and worldwide is focused on the rise of fake news, which I have argued as not that new, the real problem might be the more basic demise of hard news reporting. Televisions news coverage is shifting more and more to entertaining debates about the news, and less and less investment in coverage of breaking developments. Now print newspapers seem to be moving away from the reporting of real news to analysis of known developments, perhaps with some investigative reporting, but essentially the discussion of what is already known.

Of course, a valuable role of the reporter is to put facts into a larger and more meaningful context, and this is as aspect of what we see more of in the newspaper. But my worry is that they are moving closer to the role of news magazines, which themselves are challenged by the pace of online news developments.

I would like to learn of more systematic research on any changes in the content of the news, but with increasing worry about trust in the authenticity of the news, it strikes me as worrisome that newspapers might well be retreating from their traditional role in sourcing original and putting it into a broader context for their readers. Hopefully, my fears are not warranted. Instead of threats of fake news, we may be facing the threat of less if not no news from the sources we have relied on for decades.

 

Talk on the politics of the Fifth Estate at University Institute of Lisbon, March 2017

I had a quick but engaging trip to Portugal to speak with students and faculty at CIES at the University Institute of Lisbon. I have given a number of talks on my concept of the Fifth Estate, but there are always new issues emerging that enable me to help students see the transformations around the Internet in light of current developments. In this case, they were most interested in the election of Donald Trump and the implications for Europe of his Presidency. I will post a link to the slides for my talk.

It was so rewarding to speak with the students, who were most appreciative. I don’t think students realize how much people like myself value hearing from students who have read their work. So, many thanks to my colleagues and the students of the University Institute of Lisbon for their feedback. You made my long trip even more worthwhile.

I also had the opportunity to meet with my wonderful colleague, Gustavo Cardosoa, a Professor of Media, Technology and Society at ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute. I met Gustavo when he was the adviser of information society policies for the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic from 1996-2006, and continued to work with him through the World Internet Project and more, such as his contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (OUP 2014).

Professor Gustavo Cardoso and Bill
Gustavo Cardoso, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back

I was on the brink of applauding the White House for challenging some traditions of the daily press briefings in opening to more news organizations and adding the Skype seats, only to then learn of some mainstream news organizations not being welcomed in the room. So instead of diversifying access, this seems to be a blatant political reconfiguration of access to the briefings.

Two Steps Forward

The White House Press Briefings have been slow to change, and seem antiquated in the face of new media. For this reason, I was pleased to learn of two developments.

First, there were changes in the seating. Since 1981, 49 seats were assigned to reporters to be present at the briefings by the White House Correspondent’s Association. The Association is arms length from the White House, so less open to charges of any partisan or other political bias. However, the mainstream press dominates the Association, which are assigned the prime seats in the front and are, by tradition, normally called on first. The new press Secretary, Sean Spicer, has admitted more reporters to the briefings albeit without assigned seats. He and the President have also made clear moves to not call on the mainstream media first, and in fact, they have made an effort to by pass mainstream correspondents for new arrivals to the briefing. This is a good step toward diversifying access to the news, diminishing privileged access by the elite press, and empowering more media outlets. However, ignoring the mainstream press in answering questions is of course a worrisome bias if continued. th

Secondly, the White House enabled two so-called Skype channels for virtual and interactive participation by remote journalists. I have never been present in any White House briefing, but it appears that the set up permits about eight or more remote journalists to participate. This seems like a long overdue reform enabled by the Internet and the new media environment. Again, this diversifies and builds on the number of journalists with more direct access to the briefings. It also helps incrementally to escape from the locational bias of the press by enabling participation by correspondents anywhere in the world, not just physically in Washington D.C.

So far, some promising reforms. But then …

One Giant Leap Back

On Friday, February 24th, Sean Spicer ‘barred journalists from the New York Time and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing’ (Davis and Grynbaum 2017: A1). In addition to the Times, other press stopped from attending included the BBC, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. According to reports, other correspondents, from the Time magazine, and the Associated Press – which traditional had the first question – decided not to attend as a protest against this action (Davis and Grynbaum 2017).

In my view, it is okay to expand access to the briefings, even if this might dilute the role of those who have assigned seats, particularly in the front rows. It is great to broaden access to those who are remote from Washington DC. But once the White House restricts access by strong press organizations, and correspondents, it taints the entire process. Even if you believe the press is increasingly biased by partisan coverage, the remedy is not to punish the opposition, but to ensure that there is a more diverse and pluralistic range of sources with access to the briefings. Create a more diverse range of news sources, rather than a more politically tailored set of news sources. These restrictions will undermine the coverage by the press excluded, but also the coverage by those who are included, but become less trusted as objective sources.

References

Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.

Wright, Bruce. (2017), “White House Stops Press from Attending Media Briefing’, International Business Times, Yahoo! News, 24 February: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-stops-press-attending-201309162.html

Simplify and Then Exaggerate, Big League

I was taken back years ago when the editor of a major news magazine told me that she told her editors to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. That was the secret formula for writing a good news story.

th-1To me it is increasingly clear that all the news media have moved in this direction, and to keep in line with political rhetoric, they have also added a huge level of hyperbole to the formula. Fox and CNN are driving this trend, particularly with their panels. We have almost become the nation of hyperbole.

The bad news is that more and more news is so exaggerated that it is simply wrong, misinformation. The worse news is that, in due course, no one will take political rhetoric or news media seriously. It will just be viewed as entertainment.

The best journalists and politicians work harder to avoid this formula, and clarify the complexities surrounding so many issues. Call out over simplistic hyperbole for what it is. Hyperbole is part of President Trump’s style, but it is not simply the President’s rhetoric as this level of exaggeration came before him (the Tea Party) and goes beyond the President today, such as with the media and resistance to Trump, with its followers being proud to be compared to the Tea Party of yesteryear.