Posts Tagged ‘power’


The real “other side”

May 26, 2011

Every now and then, there are rumblings about passing a law that would prohibit unions from using member dues to make political contributions without the written permission of the member.  For those of us who’ve been exposed to the portrayal of unions as corrupt special interests (think The Wire, Season Three), this makes some sense.  I admit to thinking that I could see where the impulse for such legislation might come from when I first heard of it.  For me, the two sides were: constrain political contributions or don’t.

Flying Whale, not surprisingly, was able to put it in context much more quickly, responding, “Are we going to require shareholders to sign something before corporations can make political contributions too?”  For Flying Whale, the two sides were: constrain both opposing powers or neither.

Initially, I was confined to a narrower scope, that of limiting union corruption, when imagining the other side of the argument.  Flying Whale was working from a broader and, I think, more robust understanding–that the other side was really about keeping opposing powers balanced.

The conversation reminded me that I really do think it’s a skill to be able to see the real “other side,” not the one embedded in the frame someone else is using.

Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, of which I’ve admittedly only read a few chapters, really made this point for me.  In her discussion of polling, she explores how poll results are affected by question wording.  Old news, right?  But I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to spot the less egregious slants.  For example, in Chapter Five, Crossen explores the public opinion polling that surrounded the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal/accusation.  Regarding a question from a New York Times/CBS News poll:

“Some people say Anita Hill’s charges should not be taken seriously because she did not make them years ago at the time she said the incidents happened.” (So far, so good.  That, indeed, was a popular argument against Anita Hill’s case.) The question continues: “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously even though they were made for the first time just recently.”  This second sentence is supposed to be the other side of the coin–the reason Anita Hill should be taken seriously.  Instead, it simply restates the negative point–she took a long time to complain.  But what would the results have been if the second part of the question had read, “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously because women sometimes have reasons to delay reporting such behavior?”

Once Crossen points it out, it’s so clear.  But just the “Some people say…other people say” structure had me fooled into taking it as an even-handed question.

Knowing that you’re susceptible to being duped certainly helps, but I’m finding this to be a slow skill to acquire.



Obama mobilizes the troops

September 3, 2009

I’m sure some of you received the same email I just did, the one with the From: field occupied by “President Barack Obama.” It’s a DNC email, of course, asking for monetary support to help pass health care reform. It includes these two sentences:

The pundits told us it was impossible — that the donations working people could afford and the hours volunteers could give would never loosen the vise grip of big money and powerful special interests. We proved them wrong.

Did we really? I’m not seeing it.

But that’s not why I’m moved to write about this. I’m moved to write about this because it is fairly unprecedented – a president using the massive email list that he built during his campaign and attempting to mobilize them to help him pass a key policy initiative. This has never happened before, and my concerns come in two closely related flavors.

First, Obama’s list is very likely an enormous list of people who are not activists. Moreover, it’s an enormous list of people without a defined politics. It’s people who were fed up with George W. Bush, people who were taken in by Obama’s personality, or his (deserved) unique appeal as the first African-American president, or his elegant rhetoric. It’s not a homogeneous group of people dedicated to any particular policy agenda or ideology. This is not necessarily a huge concern, but it does create an interesting dynamic – how will these people respond to a specific policy request? Will they tune out, will they do whatever Obama asks them to do, or will it be something in between?

Secondly, and more significantly, if the result of this is closer to “they’ll do whatever Obama asks them to do,” does this represent a significant expansion of executive power? No president has ever before had a direct line to his supporters like this. If Obama can use his supporters to change the course of legislation in Congress, what does that do to checks and balances?

I’m not sure what the answers are, or if this is actually anything to be worried about. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Flying Whale