Critical Paper

  • June 2020
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Brendyn O’Dell-Alexander – Critical Paper Week 6 1 When Congress enacts legislation, it does so after considering a multitude of inputs. One consideration is “what actions attentive and inattentive citizens will allow.” (Arnold p. 122) And what citizens allow depends greatly on what they know. To give consent, a citizen must first know about the potential implications and effects of a policy. But legislators are keen to keep anticipated effects, especially costs, out of the public’s sight. The Bush administration’s 2001 tax cut exemplifies this desire and demonstrates the manipulative ways in which politicians can mask the true impact of a piece of legislation to forestall citizen activity. Indeed, regarding the 2001 tax bill, “the suppression of accurate government analyses and the relentlessly misleading presentation probably did lessen the immediacy of voters’ concern.” (Hacker and Pierson p. 44) What options do citizens have in a situation where “voters have many ways to compensate for their…informational limitations, but elites have at least as many strategies to prey on those limitations?” (Hacker and Pierson, p. 37) In the past, options may have been scarce. But today, with pervasive modern technology, information systems, namely the Internet, provide new channels for citizens to harness their collective knowledge and power to more fully realize the effects of proposed policies and to take action on them. Arnold states that awareness of an effect depends upon “its magnitude, its timing, the proximity of other people who are similarly affected, and the availability of an instigator,” and concludes that “all four factors are known or knowable…when a policy is first adopted.” (Arnold p. 35) The Internet as an information tool can primarily decrease proximity barriers and enhance awareness of the magnitude and timing of policy provisions. To a lesser extent, I believe it can also increase the

Brendyn O’Dell-Alexander – Critical Paper Week 6 2 probability that an instigator will come upon an issue and, via technological channels, incite the relevant citizenry. The Internet has unquestionably demolished geographical barriers. Constituents in a West coast district affected by a particular policy issue can, unimpeded, organize with those in an East coast district through e-mail, social networks, instant messenger, or cell phones. This ability to instantly connect to one another and share information is a valuable political asset. As Hacker and Pierson put it, “processes of social aggregation have strong rationalizing qualities that enhance the electorate’s power.” (p. 35) Virtual communities like and enable exactly this type of social aggregation. Users submit topics and the community discusses them, voting communally for particularly salient contributions and suppressing inaccurate or inappropriate ones. Participation in this community then provides users with information that has undergone the aforementioned collective rationalization process. In this way, previous barriers to collaboration and mass organization, such as geographical proximity and population size, are removed. Of additional value, the Internet is inherently democratic and control over it decentralized—no single, central power regulates the flow of information to and from those who connect to it. This level of openness addresses “a fundamental weakness of optimistic claims about…aggregation—namely, the assumption that "good" information will be relatively equally distributed among voters.” (Hacker and Pierson p. 36) From Converse as quoted by Hacker and Pierson, “with information as with wealth, 'them that has gets'.” (p. 37) The Internet can enable citizens to obtain knowledge about the effects of proposed policies more freely and to

Brendyn O’Dell-Alexander – Critical Paper Week 6 3 subsequently use that knowledge to get what is best for them from their government. In a similar vein, for many people, increased access to information provided by the Internet can help them and others become aware of magnitude and timing issues within legislation. I will build upon the previous social community example to elaborate this point. First, though, it is necessary to outline two anecdotal assumptions about why the typical citizen now avoids reading congressional documents: 1) the documents are too long; and 2) perhaps more importantly, there are too many of them for one person to feasibly read. For example, the 110th Congress authored 7,441 bills and joint resolutions averaging 16.7 pages each1. That amounts to nearly 125,000 pages, a daunting number even to those accustomed to reading a lot. It is thusly understandable how political elites would expect magnitude and timing issues to remain safely hidden in such a massive amount of legislation. With that in mind, suppose these proposed policies are posted to a social community on the Internet whose users are self-tasked with reading the documents and commenting on what they find. While 125,000 pages may deter one person, one thousand people, a number on the lower end of typical virtual community sizes to be sure, now have only 125 pages each to read. As the size of the community grows, which is likelier as it has no geographical or population boundaries, the amount the community is capable of processing increases, too. To take this further, imagine that even a small fraction of the U.S. population, say 1/25th, became involved in this effort as a form of compulsory citizen participation. The collective 1

Brendyn O’Dell-Alexander – Critical Paper Week 6 4 group could process many times the amount of legislation currently produced by Congress. There are, of course, realistic issues with this. Who, after all, wants to spend their free time reading legislation, or has the expertise to both parse what they read and recognize issues when they occur? The point, however, is that this type of aggregate participation is technologically feasible and could increase the likelihood of discovering secretive policies as well as the constituency’s ability to hold their representatives accountable. Finally, to touch on the last of the four factors of effect visibility, the probability of a present instigator increases substantially when the Internet is involved. One need only look to recent instantaneous uproars caused by Twitter tweets to see the instigative potential of accessible mass communication. With one click, an individual can send a message to an incredible number of people, mobilizing them rapidly. Then-Senator Obama used these tools to his advantage during the presidential election, amassing e-mail lists hundreds of thousands of addresses long. If the government can use these tools to galvanize constituents, constituents can and should do the same. As a last theoretical conception, imagine the power of combining the above benefits into a single scenario: a person submits a piece of legislation to a social community site, the members comb through the pages and uncover embedded sunset clauses and phase-in provisions, then quickly broadcast the findings out to the whole community via e-mail or Twitter. The resulting political pressure this could impose on legislators, causing them to rethink similar provisions in future legislation, would be substantial. This vision, of course, bumps up against the issue of inattentive publics, which Arnold describes as “those who have neither firm policy preferences about an issue nor knowledge of what Congress is considering.” (p. 65)

Brendyn O’Dell-Alexander – Critical Paper Week 6 5 Perhaps, though, these citizens are inattentive because they are daunted by the issues highlighted in this paper, and would be attentive given the right tools and motivation. By employing the Internet to help overcome proximity barriers and uncover legislative legerdemain, citizens could hold their government to a higher level of accountability and ensure that their demands have top priority in legislative decision making. References Arnold, R. D. (1990). Logic of Congressional Action. New Haven: Yale University Press. Hacker, J. S., & Pierson, P. (2005). Abandoning the Middle. Perspectives on Politics, 3 , 33-53.

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