First I want to say that I think I understand, but nevertheless I am still struck by the overwhelming focus of attention being paid to the role of political communication in the sphere of electoral politics. It’s almost as though some mad scientist, or perhaps a wizard behind a screen had developed a mass illusion, or a strategic misdirection, that led you all to believe that all the really important action was taking place during those months in the fall before the polls opened.
If Danna will forgive me, I want to try on my Jackie Mom’s Mabley persona [Mabley was a Richard Pryor contemporary that most of you young, and apparently white folks might not be familiar with]. In any event she would come on, and like Bill Cosby have a special message for the parents in the room. She’s say “You know, y’all always telling the kids, that when they’re going downtown to the movies, to make sure that they watch the lights before they cross the streets. Well damn the lights, it’s the cars that’s killing these chillen…
So, while you’re expending so much time, energy and intelligence paying attention to the mobilization of voters, at least some of you ought to be paying attention to what’s going on in our legislatures, in our agencies, and in our courts, because that’s where the threats to our sustainable futures are being put into place.
To the extent that the production of influence over the institutions of governance is not determined entirely by the exchange of money, favors, and promises of more, but may actually be influenced by the provision of information, argument, and evidence, then we really ought to be paying more attention to the accessible paths through which this information gets to its targets.
I ask you all to consider the powerful arguments made by Amitai Etzioni back in 1988 in The Moral Dimension, where he introduced his version of socioeconomics. He suggested that corporations, because they were managed by rational actors, [again, perhaps only because they had not been fully elevated to the status of artificial persons by our Supreme Court], would invest heavily in efforts to produce influence over the legislative process because it was a more efficient and effective way to establish and maintain market power and profits than by investing in research and development.
Etzioni was referring to all laws, rules and regulations that would provide these firms with short-, and occasionally long-term competitive advantage by reducing the costs they would face if they had to pay taxes, or were subject to a host of liabilities for products and services that might cause harm to clients and consumers, or might damage the environment through pollution of the air and water around their ancient factories.
Among the most important examples he set forth were the benefits that might be derived by those firms if they could bar, or at least retard the competitive entry of other firms that might have an unfair advantage because they had developed, or acquired some new technology that would allow them the reduce costs of production or distribution in a more socially productive way.
Of course, not even Etzioni fully understood how the fundamental nature of the US economy was already being transformed. There were plenty of signs that the manufacturing of material goods was being replaced by the production of informational goods and services. But still, we really had no way of imagining that the rise of the finance, insurance and real estate sectors of the economy would be so dramatic, and so important in terms of the kinds of systemic risk that their expansion would invite, and we would experience at a particularly historic moment in the history of the United States.
I want to suggest that it is really important for us to begin to gather the kinds of data that would allow us to map and assess the nature of the influence, and the means by which it was produced that helped to shape the environment within which the current state of affairs was seeded, cultivated, nurtured, and then allowed to blossom into the kind of multidimensional catastrophe that continues to unfold and spread around the globe.
What I am talking about here is a long term institutional process analysis that would allow us to go back, perhaps as far as the 1960’s to identify the legislative, regulatory and judicial decisions that established the conditions for the rise of the FIRE sector at the core of our economy.
Although I think we should include them all, I am particularly interested in the rise of the insurance industry and its truly amazing capture and transformation of the meaning of the traditional moral and ethical core of our understanding of “fairness” within our discourse about the management of risk. This notion of “actuarial fairness,” is one that is based on theoretically argued and statistically based projections of what the long term costs of insuring an individual would be, on the basis of the assignment of that individual to a algorithmically determined category or group.
I am also interested in the dramatic rise in legislative and judicial protections for what we refer to as “intellectual property.” I ask you to just consider how the rise in the cost of health care delivery has come to be associated with the treatment of genetic information as the property of investors in the development of diagnostic and treatment protocols derived from human, animal, or plant biology.
Such a project might mean an expansion and redesign of part of the really quite important work done by Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues in order to take advantage of some of the arguments and insights provided by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, in their discussion of their notion of “winner take all politics.” What they refer to, and I quote, are the “politics as organized combat” that emphasize the role of organized interests in shaping large-scale public policies that mediate distributional outcomes.” Their primary focus is on economic inequality, but the framework they have developed can surely apply to other outcomes of the policy process.
The challenge is one of bringing back to the table a focus on the coordination function of communication: that is, the use of communication to shape, support, oppose, and direct behavior at a system wide level. The coordination of a conservative, neoliberal political movement to reshape, and reposition the role of markets, relative to the role of the state, or the reassessment of the importance of regulatory oversight, and government initiative in the guiding the movement of local, national, and international frameworks for understanding the role of government in society are all part of this research agenda. It is the role of what I once referred to as information subsidies in the shaping of the normal, the standard, that which becomes a “taken for granted” aspect of modern political culture.
Of course, there is my continuing concern about the use of segmentation and targeting, now even more meaningful in the context of new media, to deliver specialized PR in support of, or, more realistically, in opposition to policies that would constrain the further rise of finance [rather than industrial] capital.
I am inviting the field of political communication to pursue the production of influence in all the institutional arenas in which public policies are developed and brought to bear on the social systems that influence the quality of life.
While it’s not all there, I believe there is more than enough in the public record to allow us to piece together an accurate and meaningful impression of how we managed to drift into our current state of disarray.