Monday, April 04, 2016

Soda pop and Hillary Clinton

We don't like to be "nudged."

Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.

That's the lesson I draw from the decision by Philadelphia reformers to press for a relatively large tax on sugary sodas to pay for universal prekindergarten. The Upshot explains that local jurisdictions (aside from the People's Republic of Berkeley) have repeatedly failed to pass tiny taxes while arguing for the health benefits of making soda more expensive.

So how about leveling with the voters -- proposing a more substantial tax to pay for something people actually want -- and if it can be passed, winning the health gains, and a visible public benefit, and creating an instance of government doing the job people want? That is, after all, how democracy is supposed to work. Philadelphia's mayor is giving this strategy a shot.

Public policy that derives from "nudge" theory is technocratic. Somebody thinks they know best and can change others' behavior without enlisting the subjects' conscious assent. Sure, lots of nudge interventions do achieve some of their goals. But when leaders choose to nudge, rather than to try to win majority agreement for their policies, they are being profoundly anti-democratic.

This was reinforced for me by an interchange on Facebook about my post here yesterday. A good friend explained one aspect of her discomfort with Hillary Clinton like this:

I think that for me, in addition to the policy issues you raise, especially foreign policy, my biggest visceral response is around her discomfort and lack of connection with (knowledge of?) grassroots activism as the driver of change. This is why I could only shake my head at her AIDS/Nancy Reagan comments -- no one who was conscious in the 80s could have said those things. Or at seeing her defensive and angry responses to the young protesters -- Black Lives Matter, climate change activists -- who penetrate her bubble. She doesn't "get" them.

That's the distancing piece for me, I think. She'd like us all to go away so she can make change, or manage things, or something. She doesn't get on a gut level that [grassroots action] is how change happens, not by presidents (or First Ladies) deciding to move a national conversation. Rather, we push them.

My emphasis in the interest of clarity.

I'm sure my friend would agree that politicians who actually listen willingly to grassroots uproar are few and far between. Most pols have struggled to get where they are, have jumped through extraordinary hoops to win and hold their prominence -- why should they have to put up with noisy outsiders who don't understand how much they've done already and how well they understand what ought to be done? But sorry, that's part of the job in a democracy.

For what it is worth, I should mention that Bernie's not perfect about listening either. Nobody with the grit and ego to campaign for that job is going to be.

In response to my friend I raised a point about Hillary Clinton that she shares in some measure with Barack Obama. Both of them came up in politics out of a background in Alinsky-type community organizing. And this approach to politics can be as anti-democratic as the technocratic prescriptions of nudge theory.

A couple of years ago I tried to explain how this seemed to be playing out in Obama's presidency.

Organizing has a top down structure and methodology that outsiders may not understand. The organizer, almost invariably an outsider, "cuts the issue" -- defines how people might see their self-interest in their circumstances and might win an improvement. This is far easier within the organizing group if the issue doesn't actually inflame submerged passions or disturb internal entrenched interests -- organizers learn to prefer "small, winnable fights" to grand messy struggles. ... Political passions ... are simply foreign to old time organizing.

I think we see the same limitation in Hillary Clinton as I wrote on Facebook:

The top down prescriptions of unreconstructed Alinskyism probably gave HRC a bad start in appreciating grass roots movements. In that ecosystem -- in her day and too often still -- the organizers controlled defining the issues to the detriment of the creativity of the people. That's a danger in all organizing ...

Politicians have to be taught to value democracy. Watching them jump the awful hoops that are an election, one of the questions I ask about them is, if they come out on top, will they listen to community concerns and grassroots distress? None of them listen as much as we might want, but this does seem a right question. In elections, we get a chance to teach them the necessity of listening.

The photo shows Clinton on her book tour interacting with the stuffed squirrel Republicans sent to dog her appearances. I'd say she'd got the upper hand of this interloper.


Hattie said...

Jan, this is so astute! So much to mull over!

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: I'm trying to keep this awful election real.

Brandon said...

janinsanfran said...

According to the article Brandon cites, the RNC was recycling with the squirrel suit! Fun story.

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