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 labor…it 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.”