Whether the work of Franz Kafka remains relevant to understanding politics and bureaucracy in the digital age has just receive a boost from a ‘Twitter poll’ I conducted for the fun of it. I asked: “to understand contemporary world developments, should one study: Hobbes, Rousseau, Orwell, or Kafka? The findings, of course, have no scientific basis, and I only had 17 people voting from around the world, but what did we find?
First, Rousseau received no votes at all. As a graduate student, trying to understand how people thought about politics and society, we often quipped: some people believe in Hobbes, while others believe in Rousseau. Then, in the early-1970s, it was still a toss up. Has Rousseau lost credibility in the digital age?
Actually, Hobbes came in third, with 18 percent of the votes, not that much more of a hold on contemporary perspectives on society than was Rousseau.
George Orwell drew more votes, with 24 percent, nearly a quarter of respondents. Clearly, Orwell is far more prominent in contemporary public debate over politics and society in the digital age, particularly around the rise of a surveillance society. The new Orwell play, 1984, is even at the London Playhouse Theatre at this time, and was even in Williamstown, just outside of East Lansing, recently. While he remains one of my favorites, and 1984 my major recommendation for any student of privacy and surveillance in the digital age, he is beaten by …
Franz Kafka, who garnered 58 percent, a clear majority of votes in this Twitter poll. From this poll, it seems that many might well be thinking that we are living in a truly Kafkaesque world. So if you start trying to make sense of the absurdity of many current developments in America and the world, maybe Kafka would be a good start to your summer reading.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.
Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes
The Democratic Party debates have raised questions on whether Hillary Clinton’s positions on policy issues changed as a consequence of speaking fees and donations to her campaigns. Politicians and media pundits alike remind us that they do not read social science research. The key focus of campaign financing and lobbying is access, not more direct and vulgar efforts to buy votes. So, rather than ask whether Secretary Clinton or other candidates changed their policy positions as a consequence of financial support, we should be looking at whom they communicate with. Who has access to them?
Political influence is subtler than vote buying. Perhaps as the old adage says, everyone has their price. So hundreds of thousands of dollars might well influence some people. In the machine days, many voters cared less about whom they voted for, so they would gladly sell their vote for a turkey at Christmas or simply as a favor for a friend. But in most cases, effective lobbying of politicians is done through shaping a communication process, and money and donations tend to buy access to politicians, which in the long term shapes what they know and what they attend to among competing issues on their agenda.
In the 1950s, major interest group theories of political influence hypothesized direct effects of lobbying. Interest groups were perceived as simply giving money to politicians to win their support on key votes. This was sometimes called a billiard ball model of influence. The business or other stakeholder who lobbied most effectively would win the politician’s support. This proved to be naïve.
Empirical research on lobbying by my late graduate school mentor, Lester Milbrath, and others, such as Anthony Dexter, tended to demonstrate that politicians seldom changed their positions as a consequence of lobbying. Instead, the implications and role of sophisticated lobbying efforts tended to focus on shaping the communication networks of the politicians. Support could get meetings, phone calls, dinners, and today, probably email exchanges with politicians. These provide opportunities to influence the politician’s understanding of the issues, and to identify the issues of most importance to their supporters.
So don’t look simply at whether a politician’s voting record demonstrates the receipt of financial support. That is the wrong place to look. Instead, look at the network of those who advise and explain the issues to them. To accomplish this, lobbyists need to develop a personal relationship with politicians, and money helps a great deal.
We’ve known this for decades but must continually remind ourselves that pundits ignore research.
Raymond A. Bauer, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter (1963), American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade, 1st Edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lester W. Milbrath, (1960), ‘Lobbying as a Communication Process, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(1): 32-53.
Lester W. Milbrath (1963), The Washington Lobbyists. Chicago: Rand McNally.
I have been spending the week keeping quite busy and engaged teaching a small seminar at the University of Konstanz, Germany. The seminar is entitled ‘Politics and Policy of the Internet’ and my 12 students are masters students in their faculty of politics and public administration. The first photo is of a subset of the class during one of our breaks.
Preparing for, and giving the course, has been very useful in moving me along in completing a 4 volume set of readings for Routledge, entitled ‘Politics and the Internet’. Also it has been refreshing to hear the discussion of the readings. I’m impressed by the high standards the students have in the methodological rigor and argumentation of the various readings – excellent critics, but also in their ability to see the contributions of the work they review. The discussion of particular contemporary issues and cases has been the most interesting aspect, and I was pleased to be able to introduce the students to some of the ancient history of tele-democracy around interactive cable, videotex, and bulletin board systems. Sometimes it is useful to be older.