|Number 554||May 19, 2014|
This Week: Plutocracy
This week I talk about mis-reporting—from Yemen—and about non-reporting—on the state of U.S. democracy and on the IRS. These stories help to illustrate a major modern dynamic which I don't think gets enough notice, and that is the degree to which U.S. politics is increasingly an exercise in public relations. That is, a process in which symbols are highlighted or hidden depending on the nature of the response they might be expected to provoke among the public.
Whether it is Republicans attempting to train voters to associate Democrats with dishonesty (as with the IRS "scandal") or Democrats attempting to train voters to associate Republicans with inequality, the problem is the training itself, which is aimed at short-circuiting the thinking process. Thinking isn't that hard, but if you don't practice it gets harder and harder to do.
The goal of Nygaard Notes is not to offer "the truth." It's really just me practicing my anti-public relations work. That is, thinking. I hope you use it the same way. It's fun!
"Quote" of the Week: "A more likely explanation: It's easy."
This is from an April 23rd article in Counterpunch by the Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. His article, entitled "Blowback From Drone Strikes Over Yemen," included these remarks:
"The United States has targeted al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen, claiming it is the most dangerous al-Qa'ida affiliate in the world. A more likely explanation is that a drone campaign there is easy to conduct because the Yemeni government supports the attacks. Al-Qa'ida affiliates and jihadist movements exactly similar to al-Qa'ida, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are much stronger in Iraq and Syria than they are in Yemen."
Read the article for yourself HERE.
Here's the New York Times reporting on something that happened last month. (And I emphasize "something.") The April 22nd headline read, "U.S. Drones and Yemeni Forces Kill Qaeda-Linked Fighters, Officials Say."
Here are the first four paragraphs; notice that the fourth contradicts the first three:
"American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants linked to Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months, officials from both countries said Monday.
"At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement.
"Yemen's Interior Ministry said Monday that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s. The government's statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday."
"Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed in the attacks."
Later on we read that the Central Intelligence Agency "declined to comment," and "The Pentagon declined to discuss the operations."
It's not until the 11th paragraph that we read, "Given that the administration would not even confirm that American drones carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans."
There are only two named sources in the piece. One is a man from from a small village in Yemen who supposedly witnessed the attacks. The other is the President of Yemen. The article notes that "American officials sought to play down the United States' role and to allow Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen's president, to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations." That could be a little tricky. Mr. Hadi was hand-picked to be president by the former president, the notorious autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. And, sure enough, Mr. Hadi was "elected" in 2012 with 99.6 percent of the vote. He was the only candidate.
So here's the question: If U.S. officials won't say anything, and "Yemeni officials" are "working to identify" the dead, and no one knows if any of the victims posed a "threat to Americans," then how in the world do we end up with a headline like "U.S. Drones and Yemeni Forces Kill Qaeda-Linked Fighters"?
Based on the content of the article, here's a Nygaard Notes Alternative Headline: "Latest U.S. Drone Strikes Bolster Terror Recruitment in Yemen."
Next fall the political science journal Perspectives on Politics will publish an academic paper with the rather dull title "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens." Don't let the title fool you. This is an important and fascinating report. So important that the authors—Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University—released a pre-publication copy on April 9th.
The paper is a rigorous, data-driven attempt to look at the political system in the United States, asking the questions, "Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?"
In brief, what they found was that "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." No "of the people, by the people, for the people" here!
The paper was almost completely ignored in the daily media. The newsmagazines and the blogosphere seemed to notice, although they got the story mostly wrong. For example, US News and World Report ran a story headlined: "Oligarchy Nation." The New Yorker's blog asked "Is America an Oligarchy?" The authors do not use the word "oligarchy" in their report. The Huffington Post had a more accurate headline: "U.S. Policies Favor The Wealthy, Interest Groups, Study Shows." That captures the main point (and hints at plutocracy, not oligarchy), but there are other, very interesting, points made by Gilens and Page that deserve notice. I'll summarize a few of them here and one other one I'll talk about in a separate article in the next Nygaard Notes.
The "Theories of American Politics" that Gilens and Page were testing were four: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism.
"Majoritarian Electoral Democracy" is what we were taught in high school civics. This theory "attributes U.S. government policies chiefly to the collective will of average citizens, who are seen as empowered by democratic elections."
A second theory is "Economic Elite Domination," which "argues that U.S. policy making is dominated by individuals who have substantial economic resources, i.e. high levels of income and/or wealth—including, but not limited to, ownership of business firms."
The idea of "pluralism" is the idea that public policy is shaped by "political parties and even popular majorities, as well as what we would today consider organized interest groups, business firms, and industrial sectors." In "Majoritarian Pluralism," the idea is that the "struggles among the diverse factions that would be found in an extensive republic would lead to policies more or less representative of the needs and interests of the citizenry as a whole."
"Biased Pluralism," on the other hand, is the idea that "both the thrust of interest group conflict and the public policies that result tend to tilt toward the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations." In other words, the authors "Distinguish between 'mass-based interest groups' and 'business and professional groups.'"
Asking which of the four theories is most valid in explaining "who rules the United States," the authors "gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change." They broke down the responses by income to look at the differences in desired policy outcomes between "average" USAmericans and "truly wealthy" citizens.
The authors understand that sometimes "average" people want the same things as wealthy people, and that elites don't always agree, and that interest groups only imperfectly represent the interests of their members. They reject simple explanations: "Recognizing the complexity of the political world, we must also acknowledge the possibility that more than one of these theoretical traditions has some truth to it: that several—even all—of our sets of actors may have substantial, positive, independent influence on public policy."
And yet, when all of that is taken into account, and when all the data is analyzed and tested, the authors come up with this: "The estimated impact of average citizens' preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or 'median voter' at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all." [Emphasis in original.]
If you're still in high school, maybe you should ask your civics teacher about this study.
The stacking of the deck revealed by this study "does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence." I think the dynamic can be fairly summed up like this:
"Our evidence indicates that the responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system—federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism—together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants."
So, those of you who are working so hard to enact single-payer health care, or to demilitarize our foreign policy, or to undo the racism in our institutions, or to move us away from a carbon-based energy system, don't be so hard on yourselves! Look at what we're up against! A significant part of the apparent success of the Tea Party and other right-wing populist groups in recent years is due to structural and institutional factors that tilt the playing field in their favor.
Near the end of their study (before they get into the charts and graphs and so forth) Gilens and Page summarize what their study teaches us:
"What do our findings say about democracy in America? ... Our findings indicate [that] the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it."
There's an old saying that I picked up somewhere that says, "To know, and not to do, is not to know at all." And the media earlier this month offered a great illustration of this "Knowing, but Not Knowing" phenomenon.
On May 7th the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois G. Lerner in contempt of Congress and request a special prosecutor to investigate the agency's targeting of advocacy groups during the past two election cycles. In the context of reporting this story, the Washington Post reported that the IRS had "officially acknowledged using inappropriate screening techniques toward conservative groups." The next day, the New York Times reported on the hearing in the context of "election strategy," saying that "the House approved a resolution calling on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the I.R.S. targeted Tea Party groups."
Well, that's all true—the House did do that—but exactly two weeks before a report came out that calls into question the basis for the House action. On April 23rd a liberal blog reported the results of a Freedom of Information Act request which revealed that the IRS targeting was aimed more at progressive groups than "conservative" or "Tea Party" groups. Here's the lead paragraph of the April 23rd story from "Think Progress":
"A series of IRS documents [about their targeting of applicants for tax-exempt status] included more explicit references to progressive groups, ACORN successors, and medical marijuana organizations than to Tea Party entities."
So, there is a story here, a story of government abuse of power. But it's not a story of a "left-wing" government attacking its "right-wing" opponents, as the reporting in the nation's top two agenda-setting newspapers would have us believe. When media workers know something, and it doesn't change their reporting, then it's as if they don't know. And their "not-knowing" affects us all.
Read the Think Progress report HERE.