Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Difficulty of Explaining Normative Politics

. Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Clifford Bob has a new book, and here's how he's selling it:

Political scientists including myself have focused too much on “agenda setting.” Certainly it can be a major accomplishment to draw media attention to an issue and even more so to put it on a governmental decision agenda. But there is of course no guarantee that this will lead to anything--or at least anything anytime soon. In fact getting one’s issue onto an agenda, invariably mobilizes contrary forces who work hard to get it off the agenda and their own ideas back on.

Political scientists and sociologists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “framing” as key to understanding policy change. Yet there are a huge variety of frames out there, even within a single polity—and many of them are equally compelling (at least if one looks at them objectively). Consider the supposed “master frame” of human rights. It is so broad as to make it possible for all sides in many policy battles to tap it for their own uses. Even more specific frames such as “harm to bodily integrity” often remain available for multiple sides to take up.

Political scientists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “persuasion” as the mechanism by which policy change happens. Unless that term is given a broader meaning than normal, “persuasion” fails to capture the concrete combat that dwarfs most rhetorical efforts, even if it is often harder to see and study. This includes efforts at excluding the other side from key institutions, at silencing opponents, at keeping others' ideas off the agenda, at fighting back even after a policy has been established (see the continuing court battles over California’s Prop 8), and of course at raising money.

Finally, political scientists, in this case not including myself, have put too much faith in the power of deliberation to elevate the decision processes of leaders and citizens. Recent work on deliberative democracy finally seems to be getting this criticism. Many "target" audiences are beyond persuasion, due to self-interest or ideology. And few promoters of ideas, whether new or old, truly want a free and fair debate. Obviously such debate would be optimal--if it were possible to establish agreement on what that would mean, not in the abstract, but in an actual political conflict. In reality, decisions are invariably made in the absence of the kind of deliberation political philosophers would prefer.

Well, now that that's settled...

Seriously, his focus on "network vs. network conflict" sounds promising, and I look forward to the book.


The Difficulty of Explaining Normative Politics
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