Arnold Kling  

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I finally got around to reading the book that possibly has been my strongest intellectual influence, and certainly the most long-lasting. I will explain below the fold.

The book is The Symbolic Uses of Politics, by Murray Edelman. As recently as 2005, Critical Review ran some articles about Edelman's work, so he has not been forgotten. But what those articles wrote did not resonate exactly with my understanding. If you are looking to read something online after you read this, then I recommend searching for the book on Google Books and reading chapter 2, "Symbols and Political Quiescence."

If Simon Johnson and James Kwak would only read this chapter and grasp its significance, then they would stop swooning over Elizabeth Warren. She provides what Edelman would call symbolic reassurance, while the bankers continue to get the real resources that government has to offer.

The book (or, more specifically, chapter 2) has a long and deep influence on me because it was perhaps the favorite political theory of my father Merle Kling, a political scientist who earned a mention in the acknowledgments. My father constantly invoked the terms "symbolic reassurance" and "political quiescence" in commenting on political events. He would have immediately understood and appreciated my application of the terms to Elizabeth Warren and her role in the nascent financial consumer protection agency.

Imagine You are a 1950's Intellectual

To put the book in perspective, I think it helps to try to recreate the intellectual atmosphere of the 1950's, the milieu that produced Alfred Hitchcock and J.D. Salinger. In five-factor personality jargon, the Fifties stand out for strong Neuroticism. Symbolic Uses was published in 1964, which was a few years before the phrase "Do Your Own Thing" was coined, marking the true onset of the Sixties and its Openness. The book had been in gestation for a long time--the interaction with my father would have taken place in 1961, when I was seven years old. We spent a semester in Champagne-Urbana, when my father took a sabbatical at the University of Illinois, where Edelman was a colleague.

To an intellectual of the 1950's, the human psyche is dark. Freud's shadow looms large over all discussion pertaining to human nature. You take it as given that terrible demons lurk in both the individual and collective unconscious. All About Eve could be the story of any one of us. The phenomenon of Adolf Hitler is most easily understood as having sprung out of the collective unconscious of the German people. Suspicious that a similar phenomenon could occur anywhere, you scan the American scene for signs of impending fascist tendencies. Edelman will cite Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (1950) as well as Lipset on "The Sources of the Radical Right" (1955) and "working class authoritarianism" (Political Man, 1960).

You see the ordinary social interactions of American life as ritualized, superficial, and inauthentic. People are playing games (although Berne's book will not appear until 1967) and engaging in dramaturgy--I think of Goffman (1959), but Edelman cites Kenneth Burke.

The lack of authenticity is typified by the United States position vis-a-vis China. We insist that one of the five seats on the Security Council is to be occupied by Taiwan, while refusing to recognize Red China. How can this be explained other than as a need to use a charade in order to mollify a public's deep-seated, irrational fears? (If you are inclined to believe that the relationship between the public and the government has matured in the last fifty years, I have two words for you: airport security)

It is in this Fifties context that you should place the terms "symbols" and "quiescence." The term "symbol" is meant to suggest the essential phoniness of politics, just as The Catcher in the Rye was meant to expose the phoniness of middle-class society. And the term "quiescence" suggests a mass populace with a rage that has been quelled, like a formerly vicious dog rendered meek by Pavlov-Skinner conditioning or a Randle McMurphy lobotomized by Nurse Ratched.

The Insider and the Outsider
Edelman posits two classes of political actors: Small, organized interest groups (I call them the Insiders) and the unorganized masses (I call them the Outsiders). On p. 36:

Pattern A: a relatively high degree of organization--rational, cognitive procedures--precise information--an effective interest in specifically identified, tangible resources--a favorably perceived strategic position with respect to reference groups--relatively small numbers.

Pattern B: shared interest in improvement of status through protest activity--an unfavorably perceived strategic position with respect to reference groups--distorted, stereotyped, inexact information and perception--response to symbols connoting suppression of threats--relative ineffectiveness in securing tangible resources through political activity--little organization for purposeful action--quiescence--relatively large numbers.

Given these differences, the Insiders use overt political dramas as symbols that placate the masses while using covert political activity to plunder them. What we would now call rent-seeking succeeds because Outsiders are dazzled by the symbols while Insiders grab the substance. As Edelman puts it, p. 37-38:

antitrust policy, public utility regulation, banking controls, and curbs on management and is largely as symbols...that these statutes have utility to most of the voters. If they function as reassurances that threats in the economic environment are under control, their indirect effect is to permit greater claims upon tangible resources by the organized groups concerned than would be possible if the legal symbols were absent.

In other words, expect the banks to be able to do a more efficient job of rent extraction with Elizabeth Warren in place than before. p.39:

Nowhere does the FCC wax so emphatic in emphasizing public service responsibility, for example, as in decisions permitting greater concentration of control in an area, condoning license transfers at inflated prices

Edelman thought of insiders as exploiting outsiders, in almost a Marxist sense. For Edelman, symbolic reassurance and political quiescence were somewhat troubling phenomena. The masses were being lulled by symbolic gestures into accepting adverse political outcomes.

My father took a different stance. His view, never quite articulated, was that if insiders get the goods, then it's good to be an insider! He loved playing the game of politics as a university administrator, and he cherished the connection that it gave him with members of the Missouri political elite. I always joked that in his eyes my career was a series of downhill moves, first from the Fed (which was always in the newspaper) to Freddie Mac (which at that time was not) and then as an entrepreneur on the Internet (which in 1994 was even more obscure than Freddie Mac).

I never learned to share my father's pleasure at playing the insider game (arguably, I never learned to play it well enough to enjoy it). This issue of enjoyment of politics is an interesting dimension along which to compare Franklin Roosevelt with President Obama. Obama does not seem to enjoy it that much. Roosevelt is often described as enjoying engaging in political machinations from the White House, almost to the point of unseemliness, like an adult who enjoys winning board games so much that he trounces six-year-olds with relish.

According to Edelman, here is how the insider-outsider interaction plays out (p. 23-28; as you read this, keep in mind something like Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, or the year-end tax bill):

Tangible resources and benefits are frequently not distributed to unorganized political group interests as promised in regulatory statutes and the propaganda attending their enactment...

the deprived groups often display little tendency to protest or to assert their awareness of the deprivation...

The most intensive dissemination of symbols commonly attends the enactment of legislation which is most meaningless in its effects upon resource allocation. In the legislative history of particular regulatory statutes the provisions least significant for resource allocation are most widely publicized and the most significant provisions are least widely publicized...

Policies severely denying resources to large numbers of people can be pursued indefinitely without serious controversy.

If Edelman were still alive, given his near-Marxist political leanings, he probably would look at the public's quiescence regarding a tax bill that is generous toward high earners and wealthy estates as reflecting the ability of symbols like "family business" or "help the economy in a recession" to deflect the majority from their better interest.

My view on the tax bill is that I do not have a dog in this race. Do I want more income to be retained by high earners and children of wealthy lineage, or more of it to go to the capital of the empire, which is already the richest region in the nation?

Moreover, according to Edelman's thesis, the provisions that really redistribute resources are hidden elsewhere in the bill. The tax rates on high-earners and on estates are symbolic issues. They allow each political party to energize its constituents and solidify its base. They present a theater of conflict, when in fact the legislators of both parties are conspiring, along with other insiders, to once again fleece the outsiders.

If Edelman resents the ruthlessness of the insiders, his view of outsiders is not very charitable, either. p. 31-34:

It is characteristic of large numbers of people in our society that they see and think in terms of stereotypes, personalization, and oversimplifications, that they cannot recognize or tolerate ambiguous and complex situations...

Emotional commitment to a symbol is associated with contentment and quiescence regarding problems that would otherwise arouse concern...

An active demand for increased economic resources or fewer political restrictions on action is not always operative. It is, rather, a function of comparison and contrast with reference groups, usually those not far removed in socioeconomic status [emphasis added]

Chapter 8, "Persistence and Change in Political Goals," has some insights that are intriguing, but it does not tie too closely to chapter 2. Other chapters I found very unfamiliar, and for the most part difficult to absorb. They are like the filler on an old record album where one song really stands out. The song that still moves me is "Symbols and Political Quiescence."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
DW writes:

Grim stuff.

You competing with Tyler for least uplifting message of the Christmas season?

Banks will always fleece us and the politicians dish out the Prozac to smooth things over.

Jaap writes:

very interesting article!
I am a bit puzzled by your statement though:

My view on the tax bill is that I do not have a dog in this race. Do I want more income to be retained by high earners and children of wealthy lineage, or more of it to go to the capital of the empire, which is already the richest region in the nation?

maybe the average inhabitant of the empire is rich, but the state is (especially currently) very poor, with a high deficit and debt.

David writes:

That book chapter might have been taken from this earlier piece with the same title:

"Symbols and Political Quiescence." The American Political Science Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sep., 1960), pp. 695-704

Here's the JSTOR link:

Philo writes:

You're kidding about not having a dog in this race. "Do I want more income to be retained by high earners and children of wealthy lineage, or more of it to go to the capital of the empire, which is already the richest region in the nation?" Obviously, you want the former!

But you are probably correct that "the provisions that really redistribute resources are hidden elsewhere in the bill." Would you please specify which are the most important such provisions?

Arnold Kling writes:

If I were king, I would not put high taxes on estates and high earners. But given the politicians we have, and given our deficits, those taxes might be better than the alternative. I don't know, mostly because I don't know what the alternative is going to turn out to be.

As to other provisions, am I correct that the ethanol subsidy is preserved in the bill? If so, 'nuff said.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

What would I learn from Edelman that I don't already know from Tulloch and Buchanan?

Paul Sas writes:

I have heard the phrase "cooling the mark out" (a slang expression among con men) which was apparently described by Goffman. "After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions." Charles Murray has sarcastically described affirmative action programs with this epithet. I get the sense that Edelman viewed most symbolic gestures of government as similarly intentioned.

Michael Strong writes:

Brilliant, Arnold, brilliant. One of your best posts ever.

Because I share almost all of their values and concerns, the biggest difference between my left liberal friends and I is that they believe in the charade of government and I don't. The simplistic version of public choice theory, that people are selfish rational agents in political life just as in economic life, is not convincing to most people insofar as they perceive much public-spiritedness and sincere concern. They personally know people who do not act in the manner described by simplistic public choice.

Bootleggers and Baptists helps; the notion that, yes, there is a public-spirited (or at least moralistic) veneer in front of every legislative act, but behind the veneer are special interests. It acknowledges the experiential reality of public-spiritedness and sincere concern, while pointing behind the scenes to venality.

But emphasizing the symbolic nature of much of what is done, and citing Edelman's apparent sensitivity to the power of symbolism (which most economists lack, at least when they write on policy issues), adds considerable depth to the story.

This is, as well, the one aspect of Marxist analysis which is credible and needs to be revived. As you mentioned in your Dec. 5th post, Roy Childs' re-interpretation of the work of the Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko, showing how big business was responsible for much of the regulation in the "progressive" era is along the same lines,

Do keep developing this theme; there are many smart left-liberals who are ready to see the light if we keep explaining why government is a charade more effectively than is done in the formal modeling of public choice theory. I have great respect for the achievements of public choice theory, but now we have to make the story more humanistically richer and more plausible, and Edelman, and your post on Edelman, make progress in that direction.

Ivan writes:

Such a long post....
And now you are a conspiracy theorist. All that is not what you happen to believe in is just a symbol, how convenient.

hhoran writes:

Arnold's Elizabeth Warren comments seem inappropriate given Edelman's actual arguments. People like Simon Johnson would readily agree that in the grand scheme of things the rent-seeking bankers are laughing all the way to the bank while the public/media discussion of financial reform fixates on empty symbols. But the Johnson argument is that the CFPB would be en empty, symbolic gesture without someone like Warren running it. If a Warren-led CFPB would be a meaningless, purely symbolic victory for reformers, then why are financial interests fighting Warren? Either Warren represents something of substance in this context, or you have to equally criticize the pro- and anti-Warren people for fighting over meaningless symbols.

In the previous post Arnold cited Edelman's observation that FDR only generated the political backing for the New Deal by demonizing Big Finance, and made the interesting Obama/Hoover comparison--even though Hoover's underlying views about the social/economic order weren't terribly different from FDR's (just as Obama's aren't terribly different from Bush) Hoover and Obama are doomed to be judged as political failures since they couldn't galvanize the masses against a symbolic enemy. Per Edelman, "symbols" aren't enough (Hoover's/Obama's "bipartisan consensus" is surely symbolic). This logic suggests that Arnold and others objecting to rent-extracting corporate interests capturing the political process have no hope of addressing these problems without a large scale political movement that demonizes these groups. On big picture issues like this, you either organize against an enemy or surrender (because you're gonna lose). Agree or disagree? Republicans seem to fully agree--that's the basis for fanatically fighting any hint any factions might coalesce around any "class war" themes and their desperate attempts to coopt "tea party" type anti-plutocracy. Has any major 20th Century American political shift occurred without prominent symbolic enemies to mobilize the masses?

Komori writes:


Yup, the ethanol subsidy was extended:

Mish's description of compromise is sadly apt:

I have yet to find a good analysis of all the other things that got snuck in at the last minute (I'd be surprised if this was all), or a national news story that covered this.

Uncle Billy Cunctator writes:
If a Warren-led CFPB would be a meaningless, purely symbolic victory for reformers, then why are financial interests fighting Warren?

Fighting Warren, or making a show of fighting Warren? If it's theater, it's theater.

Lexington Green writes:

This sounds like the psychological companion piece to Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action. THAT book was probably the biggest single influence on my thinking.

I will also say that my direct experience with government and with lobbyists suggests that this is an accurate anaylsis.

The point that masses of voters cannot be moved by rational cost-benefit analysis is also something too well-established by anecdotes to be disputed.

Big changes require people to be mobilized by arguments and images that go to their identity, their sense of who they are and how they see themselves.

"This logic suggests that Arnold and others objecting to rent-extracting corporate interests capturing the political process have no hope of addressing these problems without a large scale political movement that demonizes these groups."

This sounds right. Whether it is a net positive when the smoke clears is another question.

Grammarian writes:

"To an intellectual of the 1950's, the human psyche is dark..."
Please relearn how to use the past tense!

MichaelSFB writes:

After a while the insider/outsider paradigm becomes superficial. You have to ground your social science concepts in reality and more granular concepts, otherwise they become hobby horses which are then ridden to death.

In general, staying with the insider/outsider paradigm produces only more quiescence, as the outsiders are condemned to perpetual exploitation...there is no dynamic here, whether one that is amenable to ethically-grounded change or one that is mechanical and amoral. It is a static world of continuous exploitation of a monotonic character.

Furthermore, Arnold, your contrast between Obama and FDR's political styles strikes me as almost completely off-base. FDR, while he might have been a formidable infighter, used and sometimes provoked popular sentiment to get done what he felt needed to get done. Obama has almost completely failed to connect with people after his election...leading to the monumental defeat of 2010. He "got lost in the weeds" of Washington insider politics, forgetting to communicate with the electorate. Whether he relishes that insider status or not, he has committed himself to it.

Your evocation of the world of the 1950's and early 60's is interesting but somehow your view of the present is not as textured and realistic as it might be.

markets.aurelius writes:

I followed a link from James Kwak's post on -- Symbols and Substance -- to this page.

Brilliant dissection of the issues. As a descriptive and predictive model this works very well.

Frederik Marain writes:

Very illuminating indeed, and there is also an interesting sub-theme here of the role the media play.
What puzzles me is how Kling, or Edelman, or readers of and commenters on this blog, would describe themselves. Kling writes that "I never learned to share my father's pleasure at playing the insider game". So does he consider himself an outsider, "dazzled by the symbols"? Is he (are we) quiescent?
If this would lead us to add a third class of political actors ("outsiders who don't let themselves be dazzled (completely) by the symbols"), how should this class be called? How many of those are there? How do you know you are one of them? And what exactly is their role in politics and society?

Okay, where does one go with this info?

Politics is theater, where are the 'reality controls'? This is a rhetorical question, the answer is in the futures/spot markets for inputs. Regardless of Elizabeth Warren and William Black the system is bankrupt.

Fault? Do you own a car? I do, I am also at fault.

Making politics into something other than a stage for an endless parade of pointless spam would be a good first step. But, relevance must acknowledge that the behind- the- scenes activity is equally pointless as is what is taking place out front.

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