Political Parties Suffer When They Don’t Listen, and So Does the Country

When voters are suffering, they will reject politicians who tell them their pain isn’t real and follow anyone who seems to listen

Ed Kilgore argues that my account of why many liberal politicians supported mandatory minimum sentences and other “tough on crime” policies left out one important motivation:

I remember graphically (because I worked for him at the time) when Zell Miller, who (lest we forget) had an early reputation as a reasonably progressive “populist”, came out for a “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law during the run-up to his difficult 1994 re-election campaign as Georgia governor. True, the provision only applied to offenders convicted of violent crimes, but the gambit was typical of the tendency of many Democrats to adopt mandatory minimum schemes to avoid being outflanked on the right on the crime issue.

Ed is a seasoned political observer and his observation rings true. I would like to take it one step further: WHY was it frightening for liberal politicians to be viewed as soft on crime? The correct answer is not “because conservatives had fooled the public into worrying about crime” but that crime had been increasing for decades and the public were desperate for politicians to respond.

As Mark Kleiman has noted, the American left lost on the crime issue starting in the 1960s and 1970s because it stopped listening to the public (not unlike how the left later lost the public education issue). The extraordinary surge of crime that began in the 1960s caused enormous suffering. And when Americans are suffering, they get very angry when politicians tell them their suffering is no big deal (“Many neighborhoods are as safe as ever!”), or is really due to something else (“We don’t have a crime problem, we have a poverty problem!”), or that the public should apologize for being upset (“Complaining about crime is just coded racism”). Americans who feel unheard often express their anger by voting for some politician — any politician — who seems to be listening. And when it came to crime, for many years most of those politicians were conservative.

Liberals were in shock on crime policy for a long time afterwards. They had been talking amongst themselves when they should have been listening to people outside the bubble. California Republicans made the same mistake when they decided to go anti-immigrant in the 1980s. The Tea Party is committing the same blunder right now as they plan out where they will store all the roses the public will supposedly buy them if the federal government is shut down on October 1. Failure to listen isn’t a left or right thing. Rather, it’s a thoroughly human weakness about which political parties should be constantly vigilant.

Perhaps the dynamic of political parties not listening until the suffering public rebels is an unavoidable part of politics in a democratic republic. It’s healthy insofar as it puts power in the hands of the citizenry, but it’s malign in that it can led to the adoption of some destructive public policies. Given a choice between submitting meekly to a political party that tells them to STFU and a bad policy proposed by someone who seems to be listening, suffering voters will go for the bad policy most of the time. Perhaps the lesson for the political class is that if you want good public policy, respond to unhappy voters by taking the cotton out of your ears and putting it in your mouth. If you don’t, they will find someone else who will.

What Do You Hope to Accomplish, Policy Bloggers?

Public policy blogging has purposes other than moving mass opinion

Bill Gardner cites research showing that even people with big megaphones (e.g., U.S. Senators) have not apparently influenced public opinions regarding the Affordable Care Act. He reasons therefore that health policy bloggers, with their smaller audiences, haven’t a prayer of shifting public debate:

If you view yourself as a writer in service to a political movement, a soldier in the skirmishes over the daily meme, then give up. You are throwing pebbles, hoping to breach a castle wall.

Gardner’s comments were focused on health policy bloggers (e.g., Austin Frakt), but could be made more general. Why should Mark Kleiman bother to blog about drug policy? What does Harold Pollack think he is accomplishing by writing about criminal justice policy? Or to take it to a more personal level, who am I to delude myself that the hours I spend blogging about public policy affect public opinion one whit?

I will let my friends Austin, Mark and Harold answer Gardner’s challenge for themselves if they wish, but for me at least the response is simple: I have no expectations that my blog posts will sway mass opinion so it doesn’t bother me that they don’t. The main places at which I blog about public policy have a far larger audience than most…but since most blogs are read by hardly anyone, that’s just a nice way of saying that from the viewpoint of the mass public, I labor in obscurity.

A memory of a Roger Mudd story during his time on Macneil/Lehrer News Hour makes this okay in my mind. His segment examining who watched their show revealed that it had an extremely small audience, indeed laughably so by national network standards. But it was an unusually policy-connected, policy-saavy audience, and that’s what made the show important.

Years ago I got a telephone call from a journalist at the Economist who wanted to talk about drug policy. I asked how he found me, i.e., was it through some newspaper that quoted me or the medical school press office or what? To my surprise and delight, he said that he and his colleagues had long followed Mark Kleiman’s and my blog posts on drug policy.

I discovered over time that our readers also include other journalists, elected officials, Congressional and White House staffers, police officers, health care system managers, teachers, judges, economists, social workers, physicians, university administrators, business leaders, civil servants, policy analysts and many other people who regularly face up to the challenge of designing, analyzing and implementing public policy. We also have many readers — and this is reflected in the quality of our comments section — who are not public policy professionals but are public policy buffs: They have studied up on water conservation or solar power or Middle East politics and they take the trouble to share what they have learned with the rest of us.

Add up all the people who implement public policy, study it, or just know a lot about it, and you get a sadly small number, way too small to ever kid myself that my blogging could move mass opinion in a country of over 300 million people. But what it clearly can do is put good information and ideas into the hands of people who matter in and care about the public policy world. It can also provide me with an opportunity to learn from my readers and thereby come to a better understanding of the policy issues I care about. The public at large will likely never know (or care) about this ongoing exchange of wonky material within a small community. But I do, and that’s enough to keep me going.

Undercover photo rocks RBC

kleiman_undercover20130516The following photo was left for me at a dead drop during my trip this week to Bogota, Columbia, at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy. The photographer was apparently spotted sitting at the very back of the lecture hall, trying and failing to take a sharp picture in automatic mode without flash or tripod using his 300mm lens.

As you might imagine we’re all in a little bit of shock at this revelation. I don’t know what else to say, except that a University of Chicago tee-shirt will be made available to the funniest comment.

 

Postscript: We have a winner, Jeff Spross, video editor and blogger for ThinkProgress.org. He suggests over email:

“Rob Reiner is coming for your stash.”

Alternatively: “The U.S. prison industrial complex goes to eleven!”

His prize will be shipped Monday. Thanks for many worthy entries.