Tag Archives: ideology

A center-right country?

Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.
Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.

I’ve long mounted a soapbox in defense of two related ideas. The first is that average Americans care less about policy specifics than we give ourselves credit for, and that public perception is defined more by soundbites, rhetoric, and presentation than by substance.

The second idea, which follows from the first, is that liberal politicians could — and should — mount a stronger defense of their policies without fear of reprisals from the conservative end of the spectrum. This is not because such reprisals won’t come — unless you’ve been in hiding since 2009, this has been the position of Congressional Republicans since Day 1 — but because holding to one’s principles in the face of political opposition is quite often perceived as indicative of having a better, more sensible policy.

To my endless blathering, you may now add the following academic paper:

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

The authors conclude:

For those interested in strengthening democratic responsiveness, one tempting conclusion from this analysis is that alternative means of informing legislators about their constituents’ views need to be devised – democratic campaigns and elections appear to do little to update politicians’ perceptions of their constituents. However, on reflection, the fact that candidates and legislators know so little about their constituents and learn so little about them from campaigns and elections is perhaps indicative of a deeper and more basic problem of elite motivation. When Miller and Stokes (1963) conducted their authoritative study of information flows between representatives and their constituencies it was less clear how representatives might ascertain their constituencies’ views with a great deal of precision even if they so desired – reliable district-level opinion surveys were still relatively rare. However, if today’s elites viewed congruence with majority opinion as a primary goal we would expect considerably more knowledge of this opinion in our sample than we observe; such knowledge is quite inexpensive to obtain relative to the cost of modern campaigns. As with voters’ typically low level of motivation to learn about their representatives (Downs 1957, ch. 13), it thus appears that our respondents must have found little desire to accurately ascertain public opinion on political issues of the very highest salience. Politicians clearly do respond to cues about the political consequences of their actions when taking political positions (e.g. Kollman 1998; Bergan 2009), but accurately ascertaining the state of constituency opinion does not appear to rank fairly highly on their priorities necessary for gaining and maintaining access to political authority.

It’s simply too bad that there’s no institution designed to elucidate the opinions held by both the electorate and their chosen political representatives. An institution that could widely disseminate publicly relevant information on the vital policy issues of the day. An institution that would strip away the gratuitous sideshows, celebrity gossip, and tabloid fare, and focus instead on investigative reporting to enlighten its readers both within and without the halls of power.

We should build such an institution. And I propose we call it The Media.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for flagging this one.)

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batman

The politics of The Dark Knight Rises, or How Liberals Rule Hollywood

Prolific writer-philosopher Slavoj Žižek pontificates on what The Dark Knight Rises means to say about “radical” movements such as Occupy Wall Street:

…It is all too simple to claim that there is no violent potential in [Occupy Wall Street] and similar movements – there IS a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process: the problem with the film is that it wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror…

Is, then, this all? Should the film just be flatly rejected by those who are engaged in radical emancipatory struggles? Things are more ambiguous, and one has to read the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem: absences and surprising presences count.  Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her: it takes some time till the surprised friend gets the point – in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her… It is like the Freudian unconscious which knows no negation: what matters is not a negative judgment on something, but the mere fact that this something is mentioned – in The Dark Knight Rises,people’s power IS HERE, staged as an Event, in a key step forward from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).

Here we get the first clue – the prospect of the OWS movement taking power and establishing people’s democracy on Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly non-realist, that one cannot but raise the question: WHY DOES THEN A MAJOR HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER DREAM ABOUT IT, WHY DOES IT EVOKE THIS SPECTER? Why even dream about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer (to smudge OWS with accusations that it harbors a terrorist-totalitarian potential) is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by prospect of “people’s power.” No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent: no details are given about how this people’s power functions, what the mobilized people are doing (remember that Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing on them his own order).

This is why external critique of the film (“its depiction of the OWS reign is a ridiculous caricature”) is not enough – the critique has to be immanent, it has to locate within the film itself a multitude signs which point towards the authentic Event. (Recall, for example, that Bane is not just a brutal terrorist, but a person of deep love and sacrifice.) In short, pure ideology isn’t possible, Bane’s authenticity HAS to leave trace in the film’s texture. This is why the film deserves a close reading: the Event – the “people’s republic of Gotham City”, dictatorship of the proletariat on Manhattan – is immanent to the film, it is its absent center.

Meanwhile, over at New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait zooms out on how the film industry’s leftist politics translates itself into cultural clout as well:

By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified. What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive. In the course of a generation we have come from a world in which the gentle liberalism of Murphy Brown incited furious right-wing denunciations to one in which the only visible political controversy surrounding Girls—a show that’s basically a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm—was its lack of racial diversity…

This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.