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