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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Symbolic Politics

Guest Blogger Paul Parker

Last week I wrote about George Lakoff and the importance of framing for purposes of political persuasion. How a choice or policy is presented affects how people respond.

A cousin to framing is the concept of symbolic politics. Murray Edelman articulated this in his 1964 book, The Symbolic Uses of Politics; among the more important follow-ups is his 1988 book Constructing the Political Spectacle . Another great book in this genre – sadly out of print -- is Charles Elder and Roger Cobb’s 1983 work, The Political Uses of Symbols

A core assumption of this literature is that in a representative democracy, political elites use symbols and myths to secure and maintain the support of the (largely disinterested and politically unaware) masses.

  • Symbols: “An object becomes a symbol when people endow it with meaning, value, or significance.” (Elder and Cobb, 1983: 29). Think of the flag, “security,” and “marriage.”.
  • Myths are stories or narratives, “that simply, highlight, and dramatize basic cultural premises and conclusions. They offer socially constructed accounts of exemplary behavior and significant events in the life of the polity.” (54)

The low level of political knowledge of most Americans makes myths and symbols central to governing: symbols and myths connect the polity and the political leaders. Since by definition symbols have no inherent meaning, significant political conflict is over appropriating particular symbols or in establishing the superiority of one symbol over a competing symbol.

Thus, as Lakoff noted in his American Prospect article, Republicans have succeeded in framing taxes as inherently bad, an affliction from which we need “relief.”

“Taxes look very different when framed from a progressive point of view. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, taxes are the price of civilization. They are what you pay to live in America -- your dues -- to have democracy, opportunity and access to all the infrastructure that previous taxpayers have built up and made available to you …”

Among the symbols and myths we will hear more about in the coming election season (and beyond, should Bush be elected) are those associated with lawyers and our civil justice system.

You know the refrain: John Edwards is a trial lawyer.

Sometimes that is the extent of the speaker’s statement; you are left to draw the conclusion. Sometimes the speaker provides a little more context, making sure you draw the correct conclusion. Such was the case last week in Davenport, IA when Mr. Bush argued for the need to stop frivolous lawsuits that allegedly are harming the economy and driving up medial costs: ‘You know what side my opponent is on. He picked a trial lawyer for his running mate.’

Ah, so John Kerry is for needlessly higher medical costs? Or, John Kerry supports special interests (the trial lawyers, who indeed are a main source of funding for the Democratic Party) over you and me and common sense?

What follows is not a defense of the civil justice system as it exists; I would prefer a "no-fault" system of compensation, akin to worker's comp. The present system tends to overcompensate small claims and undercompensate large claims, and again, most people do not file a claim in the first instance.

However, we must take the world as we find it. As Thomas Burke nicely discusses in his recent book Lawyers, Lawsuits and Legal Rights, the US forgoes the greater government regulation and bureacuracy known by other western democracies for a system of private compensation and deterrence through trial lawyers. So the effort to limit lawsuits is an effort to limit compensation and whatever deterrence threat of being sued provides.

In the political battle over our civil justice system, the Republicans have the symbols and myths on their side. We all know the symbol of Stella Liebeck, the McDonald’s Coffee Lady. Ms. Liebeck is commonly used as an symbol of the decline in personal responsibility in American society: spill coffee on yourself, get rich

Last week Kos blogger DHinMi had a reasonably good treatment of some of the distortion of this case. But even the best popular media story about the case, the Wall Street Journal article that Dien relies upon, is incomplete. In addition to the Journal’s treatment, add in the facts that a) Liebeck was a passenger, not driving, b) in a car that was parked at the time. How she became a symbol is the subject of this forthcoming book, Distorting the Law.

The myth or narrative of individual responsibility helps tort feasors and medical malpractitioners by making people reluctant to make a claim when they are harmed.

Consider some evidence of harms and claims.

  • In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that as many as 48,000-96,000 people die prematurely each year due to “adverse medical events.”
  • A November 2003 study stated, “It is evident that the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the United States.”
  • In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation Report , 42% of respondents acknowledged they had “personally been involved in a situation where a preventable medical error was made in their own medical care or in that of a family member” (report 3373).
  • And yet consistently researchers find that Americans are quite unwilling to sue someone: only between two and three percent of subjects of “adverse medical events” bring a malpractice lawsuits in the first instance. Briefs of some studies on this topic are found on this page.

Excellent sociological work has demonstrated the importance of myths about community and harmony that help to construct some plaintiffs as worthy, and others as not. In Law and Community in Three American Towns the three coauthors found personal injury plaintiffs were routinely characterized as outsiders who threatened the community, while elites’ use of law to enforce rental or business contracts was accepted under the personal responsibility narrative noted above.

Maybe people who sue are troublemakers. Certainly those defending the school districts in Brown v. Board thought so (note the use of positive symbol to justify litigation). As Laokff noted during his July 23 2004 appearance on NOW, why do we call them plaintiff attorneys?

That is a frame that has been constructed by conservatives to attack trial lawyers, because trial lawyers, you know, support the Democratic Party in many parts of the country. So they're trying to de-fund the Democrats by attacking trial lawyers.

Now instead of trial lawyers, you should say what folks really are doing. These are public protection attorneys. They're doing public protection law. These are…

BRANCACCIO: Protecting the public.

LAKOFF: Protecting the public from corporations and professionals who are either negligent or unscrupulous. And they're the last line of defense we have.

But it is the doctors who are highly regarded by Americans, so we have the “good vs. evil” / you- and-me (and my personal physician, and affordable medical care), against the greedy trial lawyers. And as he has done in Texas, Bush wants to limit lawsuits in the federal courts.

The facts are not on Mr. Bush’s side: this study by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that lawsuits and malpractice rates are a neglible cost of American medical bills (although insurance rates may affect your individual physician).

Of course in the world of symbolic politics, facts are secondary – it’s the symbols that matter. That’s why Bush uses anecdotes and prop-people. But those can be inconvenient, too: as Bob Herbert noted in a June 18 NewYork Times column (intro para only), the physician Mr. Bush chose to appear with in Youngstown is a serial medical malpractitioner:

To bolster his argument Mr. Bush introduced a local doctor, Compton Girdharry, to an audience at Youngstown State University. Dr. Girdharry, an obstetrician/gynecologist, said he had been driven from a practice of 21 years by the high cost of malpractice insurance.

The president praised Dr. Girdharry and thanked him for his ''compassion.''

If Mr. Bush was looking for an example of a doctor who was victimized by frivolous lawsuits, Dr. Girdharry was not a great choice. Since the early 1990's, he has settled lawsuits and agreed to the payment of damages in a number of malpractice cases in which patients suffered horrible injuries.

Ultimately, this is a political battle: limiting lawsuits will harm some people and help others. The abstract groups include insurance companies,and potentially some physicians (most studies have found little to no relationship between malpractice protection legislation and lower rates). Specific beneficiaries include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose family owns HCA, as well as the second largest malpractice insurer, Health Care Indemnity.

For more on this topic, consider this November 2003 Washington Monthly article, Malpractice makes perfect

The academic paper on which this is blog entry is based should be archived here by the Midwest Political Science Association.

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