PolSci 101: A Partial Dissent

by Henry Farrell on September 14, 2010 · 2 comments

in Uncategorized

While I’d like John’s and Ezra’s advice to politicians to be right, I’m not sure that things aren’t a little more complicated. John says:

In fact, Ezra’s point and my quote suggests quite the opposite: political science really does empower politicians. It tells them to ignore a lot of gossip and trivia. It tells them not to sweat every rhetorical turn of phrase. It tells them that as useful as Mike Allen’s Playbook might be in some ways, it captures a conversation that the vast majority of American voters knows nothing about.
Freed from these concerns, politicians can, as Ezra suggests, focus on what they really can and do affect: the policy agenda and the content of legislation. Now that’s a simplification, because certainly members’ power to affect these things will depend on election outcomes — theirs and others’ — as well as their status as a majority or minority party member. So we would not expect members to put campaigning entirely out of their mind. Political science is more implying a reweighting of priorities.

But to say that Politico, cable news etc are (a) trivial and (b) unimportant to the vast majority of voters is not to say that they may not still be important to politicians. This is because the belief in their importance is a collective one rather than an individual one. Even if individual politicians dissent and do not believe that Mike Allen columns are important in any substantive sense, they may plausibly believe that other political actors (with leverage over politically valuable resources) may find them important, and hence may want to pay attention to them, and to get good coverage from them. Don DeLillo’s discussion of the Most Photographed Barn in America in White Noise describes this phenomenon nicely. Everyone comes to photograph the Most Photographed Barn in America because it is the Most Photographed Barn in America – it is a self sustaining equilibrium.

To put it more theoretically – Mike Allen’s briefing is a focal point for political conversations in Washington DC. People coordinate on reading it, because they want to know what other people think is important that is happening in DC - so that, if ‘everybody’ is reading it, it becomes important by definition. Even if the content is silly, trivial and vacuous, and everybody knows as an individual that it is silly, trivial and vacuous, people will still care if they think that other people care. Each individual knows what she thinks – but she does not know what other people think (and in a situation of strategic coordination, this latter kind of information is valuable). Thus, Mike Allen can become the Most Read Pundit Inside the Beltway and remain so, solely because being the Most Read Pundit Inside the Beltway is a self-sustaining phenomenon. Well OK: I exaggerate a bit. There is no doubt that Allen works extremely hard at what he does. Furthermore, people love to read gossip – and horserace punditry, when you look at it, is a specialized variant of the gossip column. If politics is Hollywood for ugly people, Mike Allen is a latterday Louella Parsons of the jowly, wattled and wenned.

The political science and economics of how focal points are generated and die is extremely weak. Shifting them can be very hard. Perhaps one could move some readers to a more interesting equilibrium (I take it that Ezra’s daily policy briefing is at least in part an effort to do this). And there is (hence this blog) at least some interesting debate among journalists with an intellectual interest in the deeper currents of politics that run beneath the froth and foam of the everyday news cycle. But shifting politicians’ perceptions is not simply a matter of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. It’s of convincing people not only that the emperor has no clothes, but that everybody knows that the emperor has no clothes. And that’s a much tougher challenge.


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