Sending a Message - But Who's Listening?

December 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republicans tried to run on symbolic issues – Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers. The Republicans cried “country first” and whined that Obama “pals around with terrorists.” You’d have thought that once elected Obama was going to make Al Qaeda his chief of staff.

It didn’t work. People voted for Democrats mostly because the Republicans had done so disastrously on real issues – the war and the economy.

Now it’s the left’s turn. Obama chooses Rick Warren to give the Inauguration invocation, and people on the left are up in arms, as though a 30-second prayer were the equivalent of a cabinet appointment.

Symbolic gestures like this appeal to our emotions; they make a difference in how we feel. Symbols are easy to respond to, and the response is often binary. Us vs. them, good vs. evil. Rev. Warren opposes gay marriage, therefore he’s a bad guy.

Policy is different. It’s about what actually happens on the ground, and it’s far more complex. It doesn’t lend itself to Manichaeanism (that’s one of the reasons the Bushies messed up so badly). It doesn’t require emotion, it requires thought . . . and data.

Still, the moralists must insist that symbolic issues are real. They must also claim not just that evildoers are evil, but that “if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them here.” Iraq was no threat to the US, but the invasion would “send a message” to the terroists. War as candy-gram.

Similarly, the anti-Warrenists insist that his half-minute as invocator-in-chief, will “send a message” that anti-gay bigotry is all right. As Andrew Perrin over at Scatterplot puts it, “That message will be heard, loud and clear, and it’s quite reasonable to expect that real people’s real lives will really be affected by it.”

Now, I’ve always thought that when someone says, “It is reasonable to expect,” what they really mean is “I have absolutely no evidence to support this.” But Andrew is an honorable man, and presumably he does know of evidence. Still, I’ve been skeptical about send-a-message arguments ever since my days in the crim biz.

Back then, send-a-message was usually a call for harsh sentences in celebrated cases. The death penalty would “send a message” to potential murderers. Long and mandatory sentences would “send a message” to drug dealers, robbers, Enronistas, or whatever evildoer was currently in the headlines. Whatever this week’s crime of the century was, an acquittal or a sentence less than the maximum would send a message that this crime was O.K., a message which would be heard loud and clear, and nobody would be safe.

The trouble was that evidence of actual deterrence was hard to find, and to the extent that punishment does deter, it’s more a matter of increasing the certainty of arrest, not the severity of sentences.

The symbolic messages of celebrated cases make for good TV – the sorts of things Bill O’Reilly types get all riled up about – and they may be morally satisfying. But they have no impact on what people actually do.

If I were concerned about gay marriage, I’d be much more worried about who’s getting out the vote and who’s getting appointed to the judiciary than about who’s praying at the Inauguration.


Anonymous said...

Does it have to be either/or? I am unabashedly up in arms about the inaugural pastor, and I don't think it means Obama is forever personally tainted (or that his policies will be as egregious as Warren). I do agree with your policy/symbolism distinction to a degree.

If I were concerned about gay marriage, I’d be much more worried about who’s getting out the vote and who’s getting appointed to the judiciary than about who’s praying at the Inauguration.

But also seems like 'don't worry about it' is kind of obnoxious as a's the kind of thing I used to say to my older brother when he disagreed with me and I didn't want to argue with him on substance. It's a phrase designed to piss off and put down your critics.

And it does feel disappointing and kind of a kick in the teeth for (some? many? most?) progressives to include Warren in the inaugural and beyond. Because I care about both policy and symbolism.

Jay Livingston said...

Kick in the teeth -- yes. I was surprised and disappointed, and I certainly think that progressives ought to speak out about it. I also wondered if it might be a mistake, but then I figure that Obama's a really smart guy and a smart politician, and he knows what he's doing. I hope. But I think that we're kidding ourselves if we think that it's going to do much to change minds or policies.

newsocprof said...

i'm much more worried about the other things (judiciary, appointments) and don't think sending a message matters much. sending a message is problematic for the reasons you detail but also because of where the message is supposedly sent -- i don't think evangelicals are going to be on Obama's team no matter what he does.

i second peter because this is the crux of why choosing warren makes me feel badly and disappointed in Obama -- it's clearly a political choice but it seems like it is also a stupid political choice. it kicks gays (and their friends) in the teeth for no purpose. i don't know if its worse to get kicked for callous political gain or no gain at all, but its a big disappointment.

this, of course, is beside the larger point that putting equality up for a majority vote is just wrong (if we did that, my parents would still own the decendents of my great-great-great grandparents slaves, obama would not be president, and i couldn't do much about any of this because i wouldn't be allowed to vote) and isn't about big tent politics or charting a new path or inclusiveness. it's rings as hollow as the prop 8 supporters who constantly blathered about how they weren't being discriminatory...

i never find you obnoxious though, jay :)

newsocprof said...

now i'll be obnoxious with a more substantive point...

while you're right that the deterrence lit is pretty clear, the lesson on get tough crime policy is that symbolism and rhetoric trumps evidence most of the time. the public is capable of being manipulated (not always but sometimes) and the politics of criminal sentencing policy is a great example, i don't think it's reasonable to just say the public is ill-informed at this point. the soc of punishment literature would easily support the idea that framing warren as someone with valid points of disagreement (as opposed to say, a bigot) matters a great deal.

warren's position is, of course, much more complex (i believe he favors insurance for domestic partners and other benefits) so the bigot label is also unfair but my point is that symbolism does matter.

Jay Livingston said...

NewSocProf, You couldn't be obnoxious if you tried, and I can't imagine you trying. I agree with you completely that the public is usually swayed more by symbols than by evidence, at least in the short run until so much evidence accumulates as to be unavoidable. But inclusiveness might be a smart tactic. The Republicans, with people like Palin, energized the "base," but alienated a lot of other people with their "we're right, you're wrong" position. It went beyond that: we're right, and if you don't agree with us, you're not a real American.

Obama's approachs seems to be, "Maybe we can talk about this." He's not going to win Warren over completely, but mabye next time there's an issue like this, Warren won't be out there leading the opposition.