Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for the ‘Media and Politics’ Category

Eclipse Passes Through The Page 99 Test

In Guest Blogger, Media and Politics, Reviews on May 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

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Today’s post will be a bit different. I was contacted by the author of the official blog of the Campaign for the American Reader, who asked me to put The Eclipse of Equality through the Page 99 test. The idea is that if you take a random page from the book from a section that is not overworked and through through, you can judge the quality of the whole for yourself. I had a lot of fun playing this game, and I think the test basically works. You can read for yourself over at Marshal Zeringue’s blog.

Paradigms of Injustice: Bureaucrats, Bigwigs, Bigots and the Lessons of Google Books

In Class and Social Stratification, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm

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I’ve noticed that there is something tricky about my eclipse of equality thesis. It is tricky to explain to my conservative friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-government imagery, ideas and symbols. It is tricky to explain to my liberal friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-supremacist imagery, ideas, and symbols.

Both of these sets of colleagues might be right, but I hope that both are, in fact, wrong. What I think the eclipse of equality lens allows to begin to see is how a coherent plan for a just society requires us to balance our concern with the full spectrum of abusive powers that are arrayed against us and to plan institutions that have the balancing power to make those forces more useful than (ab)useful. The insight is that while planning authorities, wealthy entrepreneurs and ethical codifiers are all good things in one sense—they provide us with order, growth and morality respectively—they also invariably overreach, becoming villainous bureaucrats, bigwigs and bigots in the narratives that constitute our perspective on the just society.  My conservative friends fear the bureaucrat. My liberal friends fear the bigot. Both of them fear the vilification of the bigwig, which they associate with either Marxist Socialism on the conservative and reactionary populism on the liberal side. This helps to lock us into a pattern that makes it very difficult to articulate compelling popular ideas that challenge the concentration of economic power in precipitously few hands.

For the moment, I will postpone the argument about the objective data of class polarization and focus instead on how our value system and narrative ecology has evolved in this period of spiraling inequality. One has to be very careful in making attributions of causal direction when analyzing time series, or historical, data of the kind I will present here, but I think the drift in certain word choices in books printed in American English as represented in Google books might give us a supporting body of data to complement the deeply qualitative case I make in Eclipse about what is going on and why.

Consider Figure 1. You see here the result of a Google search using the incredibly seductive NGRAM Viewer application. I am deeply suspicious of many uses of this application for natural language or quantitative content analysis; in my own experience with it, the older dates are riddled with errors and there are odd patterns of what Google considered to be books. I am not clear about exactly what qualifies as a book for Google, but Life magazine seems to make the cut, as does a bound set of journals and other unorthodox sources. Taking these caveats in mind, Google books NGRAM is a mind-blowing application for purposes of mapping culture as the authors well advertised and it may help to put my arguments in context.

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Analyzing Discourse: A Methodological Note

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Eclipse of Equality

As part of the celebration of the release of my new book The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I thought it might be helpful to share in broad outline how I put together the analysis there, something the space requirements of the manuscript did not allow in the book itself. I won’t go into great detail, but I hope this will be helpful to any of my students who have an interest in cobbling together some similar an analysis in their own work.

Step 1: The Puzzle Trap

The first priority in a journey of this kind is to find a coherent stream of discourse that you would like to analyze—some discursive arena on which to set your attention. For me, this came easily. In all of my political work on the United States, and throughout my academic career, I have found it necessary to keep myself grounded by watching the Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, Face the Nation etc. At first, I didn’t think much about why these shows were so important in grounding my perspectives on survey work or for my teaching, but it was always true.

I remember in one of my early job interviews talking about how I anchored the codes for my dissertation work (a massive content analysis on the association of open-ended themes and Presidential party vote in the National Election Studies (NES)) in the Sunday morning debates. The literature in the top journals was essential to getting a bead on what mattered in American politics, but what that kind of immersion provided me was what I would now call a set of puzzles that were relevant from the point of view of the scholars rather than a set of problems that real people were confronting in their lives as practical politicians.

This contrast between the puzzles we spin and the problems our subjects manage is the first methodological insight. If you want actionable results in your social science, you can’t rely on the way you and your colleagues frame the problems (in terms of puzzles in the literature), but rather an immediate sense of how the participants frame them as problems they themselves confront, and they frame them in their own rhetorical forms. When you take these forms seriously, you find that the boundary between pure and applied research begins to dissolve and the relevance of your work increases immensely, this at the expense of veering close to the social science/journalism boundary.

This puzzle/problem distinction is a fine point, but it is easiest to see if you have had any experience in framing a survey question. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Racial Reductionism: Let’s talk about race.

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

Remember back in 2008 when Colin Powell went on Meet the Press and made huge news in endorsing the first African American Presidential nominee from a major American political party? It was a much bigger deal than when he did it again the other day. His comments in 2008 were powerful. Among them were the following:

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” he said. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

In other words he was outraged that the Republican Party was demonizing the guy with coded language that not only was incorrect, but also toxic for civil peace and economic prosperity. Part of why General Powell supported the president was that he was different from other people and it was important to stand with when that basis of difference was attacked in coded or direct language.

Fast forward to last Thursday and we have John Sununu attacking Powell’s 2012 endorsement because he said it could be explained, in part, by his reflexive support for a race comrade. As Charles Blow put it in the New York Times this Saturday, this has all the hallmarks of race coded language and smacks of what he calls racial reductionism. I totally get what Blow is trying to do with this piece and I am sympathetic to it. With his unique position at the Times, he is in a better position than anyone else to denounce race baiting attacks in the public sphere and to match these comments with clarifying data that provide the educated reader with statistical support of an unorthodox kind for the argument. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s the Congress, Stupid: How Obama Won and why Romney’s Winning

In Class and Social Stratification, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 17, 2012 at 8:57 am

Like everyone else, I’m trying to decide what I think about the Presidential debate last night. Having just processed the revised draft of media interpretations this morning, I think one thing is now clear: Obama won the debate last night. He won it in several ways: He fought back and looked like he cared; he tripped up Romney on substantive points of partisan division; he deftly branded Romney a prevaricator; he stared him down on foreign policy in Libya; and he ended the show with a compelling dig about the 47%.

Even so, Obama is losing the fight. I still consider Obama the favorite to win the November contest, but even if he does win, he rather limps over the finish line unless he can mobilize a compelling narrative about how the economy works and what progressives would do with it to improve American and global standards of living.

You know what I mean. Many of you are dedicated Obama supporters and went into this debate breathless and perspiring in dread of a repeat performance of the first debate. When Obama fought back, you were excited and even more relieved, but when the topic came to the economy and what the candidates would do with it, you thought, “Obama’s not as good on this as he should be.”

Switch to the other side for a moment. For those who went into this debate skeptical or even critical of the President, Obama looked awful on the economy. His holster appears empty. He comes armed only with arguments about what kind of tax cut he would pursue and what measures he would take to shrink the deficit. It’s like he’s searching for the best rock ballad to sing in the Sunday choir. The form doesn’t fit the context.

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Joe Says it a’int so: Biden’s debate performance stops the bleeding

In Class and Social Stratification, Development, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

Nothing serves to pull a writer into the public conversation like a campaign cage match. This is precisely what brings me back to the blogosphere, because that is what we saw last night when Joe Biden won the sole Vice Presidential debate the way  Mitt Romney did, by simply being himself and not the caricature of himself that he plays on our TVs.

Biden was last night what he always has been, the elder statesman with a heart, not the bufoon his critics make him out to be. What you learn in watching Joe Biden perform is that some people come off better in long sittings than in soundbites. Biden is a high mean, high variance performer and it simply isn’t helpful to pillory him for verbal slips. It is the central tendency of the sentiment that carries with him and this was on display in this debate in a way that has been missing to this point in the campaign and perhaps in the President’s whole term. Last night, Joe showed up to say it a’int so and if you had the ears to hear, you heard something that will matter for your life for quite some time.

Here is the key moment:

And I’ve never met two guys who’re more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs. We need more, but 5.2 million – if they’d get out of the way, if they’d get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class, make it permanent, if they get out of the way and pass the – pass the jobs bill, if they get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down, but they never missed a mortgage payment, just get out of the way. Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility…And now, all of a sudden, these guys are so seized with the concern about the debt that they created.

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Not the Crime but the Cover-up: How Obama fell into the Gulf

In Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on June 15, 2010 at 6:15 am

As you prepare to watch the President’s speech from the Oval Office tonight (unless other matters demand your time and attention), you might ask yourself why it is that this President is being blamed for this disaster. After all he did win the election against his opponent John “drill baby drill” McCain. Sure, the president did announce support for more offshore drilling just weeks before the disaster, and he did not clean house in the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is a poster child for fox in the henhouse regulatory capture. But what caught Obama up in this imbroglio was not the crime of allowing BP to play Russian roulette with the Gulf of Mexico, but rather the cover-up afterward in which BP tried to assure the American people that the extent of the damage was going to be far less than it actually turned out to be.

When the President took office, he did have a lot going on: two wars, a run on the banks, the fall of the auto industry, depression era stagnation, health care, student loans, etc. When it came to energy policy he must have thought that  splitting the middle with the Republican Party made sense. Obama was pushing for Cap and Trade, a climate approach that relied on market forces that could be used to cut a deal across party lines on energy reform. How bad could it be to rely on some mix of deep sea drilling given that the world’s nearly 7 million people need energy and must get it somehow. The gulf rigs did make it through Katrina after all.  Here was a chance to be a uniter and not a divider.

This thinking actually made political sense to me at the time. I did not come out and say this then, but I thought that Obama was being quite savvy in his move to allow the Governors with a taste for more risk to take on more drilling off their own state’s shores. Remember how vicious the attacks on his lack of bi-partisanship were at the time as the health care vote loomed. Obama will face similar problems with nuclear power as we simultaneously confront increasing needs and global competition.

But this reasonable move to cross party cooperation was not what sunk Obama, instead the day that will live in infamy was May 14th 2010, when NPR commissioned an analysis of the flow rate from a scientist at Purdue university with expertise in estimating flow rates from video. If you recall this story, it was a shocker and could have been a pivotal moment for the President, but Obama did not take the bait. Because BP was engaged in an active spin campaign to play down the panic that would attend the validation of such estimates, Obama’s lack of attention to these findings, (which were confirmed by other experts at the time as well), placed him symbolically on the side of the cover-up. Up to that point most people seemed to have the reasonable sense that Obama was far less associated with careless drilling operations than the next best alternative: Sarah palin. After that, the slow transfer of ownership was underway. Today, the spill is widely blamed on Obama’s lack of oversight at MMS. Read the rest of this entry »

Correctness is in the Eye of the Beholder: What we really can and can’t say

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on April 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I had a fascinating experience tonight in which I did a radio show that was based on a paper I had written two years ago about professors and politics. The title of the paper was “Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution, and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy” and despite the seemingly reactionary title, this is probably my favorite piece among those I have written. The argument is ironic and the methods are complicated, but I put a lot into the article that still sits well with me.

The story behind the article is fairly complicated and I will not rehearse it here, but the gist is that I wrote this in anticipation of a volume that was to come out of the American Enterprise Institute called Reforming the Politically Correct University, based on a conference that was held there.

After having attended the conference (well perhaps really long before), I became suspicious about the use of this concept, Political Correctness. It seemed that panelists were using it willy-nilly to suit whatever attack on academic liberals they pleased. What appeared to unite the critics was a sense that a politics of difference or multiculturalism was driving university worldviews and corrupting scholarship, and this left them cold. Their arguments would blend appeals to the first amendment in which a scholar or activist might condemn university speech codes or discriminatory practices with the core theme of contempt for identity politics.  In response, I decided to use data from a survey I had produced on faculty attitudes and was able to show that PC was basically what I had surmised from my position in the audience and that its effects seemed much less pernicious than pessimistic views would attest.

In some way that I did not explore, a radio station in Minnesota became familiar with my paper and wanted to have me on to discuss political correctness in America more generally. The host was a very nice and competent woman Read the rest of this entry »

Inclusive Ethnocentrism: The political logic of the Tea Party

In Class and Social Stratification, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on April 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

It has been hard for most of us not to pay attention to the Tea Party movement. This fascinating right of center and middle American rejection of the activist politics of economic crisis is just colorful and controversial enough to have become the talk of the town in a mid-term election cycle. In 2009 the group, which broke onto the national scene with shouts of (T)axed (E)nough (A)lready in a national mall protest on tax day, managed to garner even more attention in their 2010 rally. The semiological savvy of the group is profound and there is more to expect from it, but this weekend witnessed a sea change in group’s narrative that will stick until the November elections. As Peter Beinart argued, in the wake of a New York Times/CBS News poll on the group, the Tea Partiers are widely regarded as phony populists,  and that is what they will stay until we have a real test of their electoral power. With the demonstration of power, everything can change, but for now, the conversation has turned.

I assume that most people have read accounts from the poll I mention above. There are plenty of discussions about it to choose from. Just today, E.J. Dionne weighed in with a gloss that he has spoken much of already on air: the populism of the privileged. Charles Blow had a devastating piece over the weekend as well. The arguments are not appearing by chance. The New York Times poll was surgically targeted to expose the true face of the movement at a crucial moment in the current political opportunity structure.

The findings were devastating for the group on two counts. First, the movement has been shown to draw on relatively well off citizens and not the lower classes. This is important because the greatest fear the democrats face is that false consciousness will drive their “natural constituency” of voters with an interest in activist government on economic matters toward the Right. If the class structure is working as traditional class voting hypothesis would predict, then there is little reason for the Democrats to worry and Read the rest of this entry »

Farm (R)aid: The collective memory of the Boer

In Africa, Media and Politics on March 31, 2010 at 9:51 am

You take my pride and throw it up against the wall…You take my name and you scandalize it on the street. Oh anything you want to do, I say its alright by me.

John Cougar Mellencamp

There are few better examples of conflict resolution than South Africa. When I was young this was the last remaining symbol of old school racist colonization, and the struggle for freedom, symbolized by Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration, was among the most celebrated of progressive causes. I remember watching Mandela’s release from prison as many from earlier generations remember Kennedy’s assassination. I was sick in bed with the flu and stuck watching TV all day. The euphoria attending the event was well justified because Mandela seems to have been one of those incomparable leaders who can forgive in pursuit of their vision. That is the transformative potential of conflict resolution. The inspiring part of this story is that it happened and could happen again. The worrying part is that it may depend integrally on the quality and character of the leadership of particular individuals. There is a fear that Nixon was right: politics is not a science.

Here we are, just over twenty years from Mandela’s release and the signs from South Africa are positive with clear signs of strain. You see, the core of the claims in recognition struggles, like those against racism, is usually not recognition itself but something more foundational to liberalism like formal liberty or the equalization of life chances–i.e. class. What is troubling about most successful resolutions is that they move forward in baby steps by moving toward equalization of life chances, but not by achieving it outright. As Read the rest of this entry »

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