How Not To Mobilize People

Book reviews

ameican insecurity

American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction (2015)

It may be a jarring question to ask amidst Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Presidency, but why haven’t people been more politically active on issues of economic insecurity? After all, the public’s sense of economic insecurity has been growing at least since the 1980s, yet has rarely provoked mass political action like this. (I’ll return to Sanders in a moment.)

Adam Seth Levine, a professor at Cornell University, has published a solid work of political science addressing this question in “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.” His thesis is one of those ideas that is so compelling that as soon as you read it, you start to believe you already must have known this. But you didn’t.

Levine first demonstrates that people are less likely to donate money or time to causes related to economic insecurity issues (unemployment, retirement security, health care costs, rising college tuitions) than to other issues (such as gun control, abortion, or the federal deficit).

That’s the gist of the mystery, although it’s a little more complex than that. For one thing, and counter-intuitively, those whose personal lives are affected by the issue are less likely to act on it than those whose personal lives are not affected. For another, those who are part of the labor force (working or seeking work) are less likely to act than those who are outside of it (the retired, the disabled, students).

At first blush you’d say, “Of course, those whose lives are touched by economic insecurity don’t have much money to give, and those who are in the labor force don’t have much time to give.” But this facile answer misses two points. First, that people touched by economic insecurity do give time and money to other causes, so it’s not a matter of objective resources. Second, that the unemployed have time on their hands yet are more likely to give time to other issues than to economic insecurity issues.

Why is that? Levine proposes a novel answer: because thinking about the issue of economic insecurity makes them more conscious of their own insecurity than they are when considering donating time or money to other issues. Thus if they have been personally affected they become more cautious about giving money away, and if they are unemployed they become more conscious of the need to spend their time looking for a job.

This makes perfect sense, yet has not been part of the political science answer book on the barriers to political participation. They’ve looked at citizens’ objective resources, awareness of an issue, concern over an issue, involvement in organizations, opportunities to give time or money, and other considerations that can affect political participation, but not how the type of issue affects a person’s own sense of ability to give.

Levine calls this “self-undermining rhetoric” on the part of organizations and political campaigns that try to enlist people in working to address these issues. Simply reminding people about such issues makes them less likely to want to contribute time or money to the cause.

This concept is well within the area of political science known as issue “framing” (an area that I worked in when I was in the polisci business), that is, how we talk about and thus conceptualize issues affects our actions in regard to them.

So what about the Sanders campaign? Why has he succeeded in mobilizing so many people to donate money and time to his campaign when he is making these issues the centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric?

I put this question to Dr. Levine via email, and he pointed me to an illuminating piece in the Washington Post. (You can read it here.) He points out that Sanders’ ability to get his supporters to turn out for the Iowa caucuses was disappointing, despite the media spin on it, and that his success in raising money was due to a shift in his rhetoric in online appeals.

(Levine addresses self-undermining rhetoric about climate change in another article you can find here.)

Levine has hit upon an insight that is both practically and theoretically important, which is likely why his book was picked up by Princeton University Press—a prestigious outfit in the academic world, I’m sure you know. His argument rests on several well-designed experiments, and the book is clearly written and well organized.

Those are the virtues of a good academic work. Such work is less known for lively, colorful writing, which this book could use a little more of. Laypeople may find it a bit dry, and padded with reviews of previous research (or maybe it just felt that way to me because I was already familiar with the field), but as Levine wisely relegates much of the statistical detail to appendices, interested laypeople will have no trouble following the central argument.

It’s an argument well worth reading for anyone who wants our government to address the most important issues of our time. It won’t happen until people get mobilized, and that won’t happen unless Levine’s insights are understood.

Recommended.

–Alan F. Zundel

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