A paper on a survey attempting to identify formal preferences of the political left, and to evaluate the use of survey methodology in an area typically restricted to traditional rhetorical analysis. Click the link below for the .pdf of the paper.
In this last blog post I’d like to telegraph the conclusions of my paper. (And by the way, don’t we need a more up-to-date linguistic metaphor than “telegraph”? I’m going to text my conclusions? Doesn’t sound right. Oh well.)
My paper is centered on two key questions:
- How might we theoretically understand highly partisan and/or ideological media, both in relation to their audiences, and in their operation within the public sphere?
- How can this theoretical understanding (developed in answer to question 1) help us to determine the structural breakdown between and within such media? That is, political affiliation is traditionally seen as a simple left/right, or possibly left/right/center. However, in addition to the disagreement between groups, there is often disagreement within groups. So are the media of the far left and right truly distinct, and does disagreement within a group indicate the group is really composed of several distinct but allied groups?
I’ll spend a bit of time in the presentation going over my answer to #1. But in this post I’ll get to the juicer bits. My approach involved studying partisan/ideological media reactions the NSA spying as these reactions didn’t fall neatly along party lines. In particular, I want to know if those on the right and left who opposed the spying exhibit some underlying similarities, or if there are underlying differences between those on the right who support the spying and who oppose the spying. (This last question is particularly timely, as there’s a strong libertarian-seeming component to the right, lately, and there is a real question of how much or little this group aligns with the more traditional right.)
The key approach was, per Rei and Cintron, to look not so much at what the groups opposed, but how they construct that opposition. (All of the articles were opposed to something; in fact opposition was so key that I think both left and right, no matter how much power they actually have, function as counterpublics.) So here is a “quick” summary of the findings:
The Right: Both groups (pro and anti-spying) build from existing partisan/ideological schema, drawing in particular on the recent news of local IRS offices targeting conservative groups (though the targeting of liberal groups is ignored, as is the lack of connection to any federal official). Those opposed to spying build their argument from the basis of virtue, arguing government is innately wicked and thus cannot be trusted. This view also defines “private” as “unknown to the government,” and suggests essentially everything should be private. As a result, it functionally eliminates the public sphere as a means of influencing government, as virtue is seen as innate rather than a response to social pressure. No social pressure can make a bad person (or institution) good, so the only acceptable approach is to disempower or eliminate the non-virtuous. Supporters of spying rely on specific definitions of government and private, seeking to differentiate between good/bad branches of government, and private vs. public. However, these authors still operate from a largely virtue-driven perspective, which tends to minimize the role of a public sphere. Thus there are some differences between the groups, but also a core similarity that undermines the public sphere for both groups. Thus I would argue that despite their differences, they function as a single public insofar as the way in which they construct their relationship to government, both in support (military, etc) and opposition (IRS, everything else), is essentially the same.
The Left: There are no pro-spying positions evident in the left-wing articles, and a great deal of time is spent attacking Democrats who supported the spying (and some time attacking Republicans who supported it as well). The key problem identified by the left is not even the spying itself, but the secret nature of the spying. This suggests a fundamental belief in the public sphere—a belief that public discourse is a key means of keeping government in check. Related to this position are several attacks on the notion of a good/evil dichotomy, which might be seen as attacks on the virtue-based view of government supported by the right.
Preliminary Conclusions: Despite the strong internal policy disputes on the right and the talk of the Tea Party as something new, I don’t believe this is the case. The Tea Party and the “traditional” right both construct opposition in the same way, and with the result that they see the public sphere as powerless. There is a certain irony here, of course, insofar as the right-wing media are participating in the public sphere, and, I would argue, are having a profound effect. In any case, such a view may explain why the goals of the right tend to be to eliminate government or its power rather, and perhaps even the right’s opposition to regulation (if personal virtue cannot be impacted by rules, as they suggest, then why regulate? Just trust the “good” people, and eliminate the “bad” people).
The left, on the other hand, operates from a very traditional Habermas-ian perspective, and sees public debate as a reasonably powerful and absolutely essential influence on the state. Again, this explains the left’s focus on regulation, and even on government itself. If people’s actions are not mere binary reflections of some innate morality, then rules really matter, and it’s vital that we discuss those rules.
Finally, I think this all offers a rather hopeless picture for those interested in “bipartisan cooperation.” Basically, I’m not sure such a thing is possible because the publics’ disagreements about policy and even ideology (small government, etc) are likely just symptoms of a far more fundamental disagreement about the nature of human morality and the effectiveness of public discourse that operates as sort of partisan schema through which we filter information and which leads us to fundamentally different policy views.
The big news this week on the NSA spying is a House bill that was just defeated, albeit narrowly, and would have limited surveillance to targets of specific investigations.
I would note that this is still an awfully low bar as it does not require any actually evidence, but merely that the person be party to an ongoing investigation. However, it’s essential to recall that the NSA is not actually listening to the content of calls (purportedly), but is rather amassing “metadata,” recording call times and locations in an attempt to establish patterns which in turn would reveal potentially significant deviations from the pattern. As such, limiting the program to those included in an active investigation would functionally destroy the program.
For my purposes, though, the really fascinating thing about this bill was the way it broke down traditional partisan voting blocs. As Weisman writes, “The amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill, written by Representatives Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican from Western Michigan, and John Conyers Jr., a veteran liberal Democrat from Detroit, turned Democrat against Democrat and Republican against Republican.” An NPR report on the bill had a clip from Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, saying the bill was nicknamed the “wingnut bill” because it was supported by the far left and right wings of the parties (also cited in the NYT article). NPR went on to quote someone who cited the old aphorism that the political extremes converge (the spectrum as circular rather than linear). However, I think this is silly in this case. First, that saying was intended to suggest fascism and Stalinist communism had profound similarities that more centrist philosophies lacked. To use congressional Republicans and Democrats as examples of similar “extremes” is rather ridiculous in this context. More importantly, though, I think some of the agreement on the bill was not founded in ideological alignment, but was a simple product of this being one of those moments when an issue provokes a challenge to the traditionally aligned partisan and ideological identities of the left and right. As I’ve discussed earlier (I think), similar revelation during the last Bush administration weren’t disruptive to partisan/ideological identity at all; the left was opposed to Bush’s spying, and the right supported it, and no one thought much about it. With Obama in office, though, the right cannot easily support the spying but still oppose everything the president does, and the left cannot easily support the president while opposing the spying. So the split in congress is, in part at least, a coalition between liberals who place ideology over partisanship, and conservatives who place partisanship over ideology. In other words, they may agree on this issue, but I would suggest they are actually in essential disagreement about the nature of their political public. The NYT article suggests something similar, saying “conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed up with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs.” Is this the NYT simply being lefty? Maybe. Of course, the left has long been views as less orderly and obedient to party authority than the right (though that’s changed a bit recently), so there is some tradition behind this perception. In any case, the bill was defeated so the surveillance continues, at least until 2014 when the Patriot Act is up for reauthorization.
More on the NSA leaks
The NSA debate has, rather interestingly, moved on from being Obama-centric, and oddly enough even from being about the domestic surveillance itself, and seems to have moved to a focus on Snowden, the source of the initial leaks.
The UPI (http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/07/12/NSA-leaker-Edward-Snowden-rights-groups-set-meet-at-Moscow-airport/UPI-21391373610600/%20%20target=) reports a group of human rights activists meeting with Snowden in Russia. The human-rights connection is a bit unexpected, but it’s an interesting transformation of the debate—one that personalizes the situation in some sense, offering a narrative centered on a relatable individual rather than an argument about abstract issues. At the same time, though, it also removes the center of the debate from individual readers. No longer are people thinking about the NSA listening to their phone calls (not quite an accurate characterization of what was happening, but it was the public perception), but rather about if Snowden is a villain or hero.
Jimmy Carter also recently weighed in as well, also siding with Snowden, and linking it to a more general argument about government.
“America no longer is a functioning democracy. The invasion of the private sphere has gone too far. The claims of secrecy have clearly been excessive. Snowden has done a great service in informing the public of this,” – former president Jimmy Carter, re-translated back from the German (and so paraphrased) because no US news outlet covered the actual remarks.
The Atlantic (http://news.yahoo.com/snowden-wants-keep-nsa-blueprint-private-023559733.html;_ylt=A2KJ2Ugl_elRdkoAlifQtDMD%20%20target=), meanwhile, points to an interesting focus of recent Snowden-oriented debates, namely the distinction between leaking the fact that the spying took place, leaking classified intel, and, most importantly, leaking the method by which the spying was accomplished. This last point has been seen by most everyone as unforgivable, and treasonous in some quarters. I suspect Snowden’s threat to release this info if he’s harmed or jailed has undermined his image a bit, turning him in some quarters from a hero resisting governmental overreach into a potential traitor willing to sell out his nation.
A couple things this week. First, I want to bring up an article that came up in my exploration of news on the topic:
Here Lynch suggests modern conceptions of privacy are rooted in Cartesian conceptions of the mind—conceptions that he, as a philosopher, believes are rightfully outdated, but still apply in this case. Most notably he suggests that privacy concerns fall into two broad categories. First there is the political concern that a total absence of privacy would allow others to control us, perhaps a bit indirectly, but control nonetheless. More essentially, though, he suggests that privacy—privileged access to one’s own mind—is essential for personhood, pointing out that the elimination of privacy is a common dehumanizing tactic, which I suppose hearkens back to Foucault’s panopticon.
Next, I want to talk about some preliminary conclusions from my review of partisan commentary written in the immediate aftermath of the NSA spying revelation (or at least the latest NSA spying revelation). The first thing I noticed was that the writers from the right are strongly divided on the issue, with some of them suggesting this is essentially the end of personal liberty. Generally these arguments are linked to recent topics that gained a lot of traction with the right (the Ohio IRS issue, and occasionally Benghazi). Other right wing writers, while being careful to state that Obama is a would-be dictator and generally underhanded person, take an equally strong stance in support of the spying. However, I think there are some interesting parallels hidden under this disagreement. First, both are essentially dismissive of the notion of a public sphere capable of having an impact on the state in the way Habermas imagines. Second, and perhaps causing the first point, both offer, perhaps in place of the regulatory power of the public sphere, a reliance on virtue. That is, one simply trusts “good” people, and “bad” people (or institutions) can never be trusted nor limited by any conversation. Thus those who oppose the spying base their position on assertions that the government (sometimes Obama, sometimes government in general) is simply wicked, and the only way to contain it is to cut off all its access to information. Defenders of the program, on the other hand, rely on two arguments. First, they attempt to define public and private in such a way as to suggest the spying only affects public information (a focus on meta-data). Alternately, they try to distinguish between “good”—and therefore trustworthy—elements of government (basically those associated with intelligence and the military) and “bad”—untrustworthy—elements (everything else). The irony, of course, is that what we have in all these articles is an element of a public sphere seeking to influence government in a very Habermasian sense, primarily through an argument that the government is too fundamentally wicked and corrupt to be influenced by any public sphere arguments.
On to the left next week.
I’m wandering slightly off track this week, but reading Simons has pushed me to revisit a foundational question. As a bit of shorthand I have frequently talked about studying liberal or conservative communities via analysis of media targeted to subsets of these communities. Of course I recognize the issue is more complex than that, and Simons’ discussion of public participation makes me feel the need to explore this in greater detail.
The first level of this exploration is built around the argument that political identity is ultimately an individual element, and so any study of media is looking at something else, perhaps something related, but perhaps not. Inevitably it will be pointed out that media have an agenda quite apart from accurately representing any given political identity. This is certainly true to some degree, and I’ll come back to it in a bit, but let me turn the tables a bit and consider the nature of that agenda, which, I would argue, is quite simply profit. Leaving the whole of Marx aside, this actually turns out to be quite convenient for me, as the profit motive demands media appeal to their audiences, and for Burkean’s like myself that means the media needs to construct an image of political identity with which audience members will identity. I should clarify here that my focus on highly partisan/ideological publications is again rather helpful here, as such publications don’t need (or want) to appeal to a general audience, focusing instead on the core believers. In fact, the fragmentation of modern media, where we can all hear only those voices supporting our position if we so choose (and so many of us do), helps make the whole project much more tenable.
There is another aspect that has to be considered, though, which is that publics are often not organic. In Simons’ text, she discusses the various publics involved in the disposal process, but what struck me is that the whole notion of mandated public input seems like an attempt to manufacture a public. Simons argues that the result is not a single public, but rather a series of existing publics actively participating, but the notion of a manufactured public remained with me. Clearly, I’m wondering how much the media are constructing the political identity, and how much they are merely reflecting what exists. Certainly the process of identity formation is not solely driven by media, and as Foucault points out, instead involves the interaction of multiple nodes of power as individuals adopt, reject, alter, and remix these constructed identities, but the question remains. However, I would suggest that this sort of chicken/egg question doesn’t really need to be answered, and in fact that the claim that an answer is possible may indicate some modernist leanings insofar as it asserts there is a “correct” (and likely fixed) identity, rather than just the moderately fluid rhetorical construction that we must call the truth. This quite the rabbit hole, obviously, but let me just suggest that if one wants to qualify my project as studying media constructions of political identity at a particular moment and nothing more, I’d be okay with that. But I still think the notion of manufactured publics is an interesting angle and worthy of greater exploration. I suspect that, despite Simons argument that it didn’t happen in her study, it can be done, and more importantly, is being done all the time.