The subliminal effects of policy messages on the democratic exercise
All public policies, be they penal justice, education,
health, social security, housing, taxes and many more,
transmit subtle messages that teach the citizenry
who is served by these policies and who is not.
They tell people whether participating in the
democratic process is worth it or not,
and if the demeaning encounters
with government are the norm
or the exception.
Democracy is in trouble, and an important cause of many of its contemporary ailments is the messages policies send to citizens about participation and engagement. In the degenerative policy contexts in which most modern democracies function, the subtle messages of many policies strongly motivate some people to participate in politics while repelling and marginalizing others. For the latter, the democratic motivation to mobilize and demand more respect for their rights does not occur.
When democracy exists more on paper…
Like the US symbols of “the flag, motherhood, and apple pie,” democracy is too often invoked to make people feel good but not think deeply. Democracy is a system of government in which the members of a community by and large participate, directly or indirectly, in making decisions that affect them. Unfortunately, this system exists more on paper than in actual, effective practice when policies consistently discriminate against and marginalize certain kinds of citizens. While all citizens’ vantage points on public policy should get a fair hearing, it is a sad fact that many of the very citizens who have the greatest stake in policy engage in the democratic exercise the least, in part because of negative messages they receive from their experience.
Many countries classified as democratic are at best thin democracies where only the voices of the privileged and well-regarded are loud and influential, while ordinary citizens barely speak above a whisper and are ignored by policymakers. The argument here is that all kinds of policies, including criminal justice, education, welfare, health care, security, housing, taxation and many more send subtle imbedded messages. These messages have a powerful role in teaching citizens who is served by the policy and who is not, who benefits and who is left out, whether participation in the democratic process is worth it or not, and whether demeaning encounters and disappointments with government are the norm or the exception.
The kinds of policies that are the usual focus of attempts to improve the prospects for the democratic exercise are related to franchise, electoral mechanisms and administrative procedures that enable citizen participation. Less than 56% of the US voting-age population has turned out for presidential elections on average since 1960 and, given the winner-take-all mechanics of the electoral college in all but two states, it is possible for a President to win with the support of less than a quarter of the eligible voters. But this problem of low participation is much deeper than electoral mechanisms and procedures can resolve. Unless the messages other policies send to citizens are positive about participation, changing the rules of voting and engagement are not likely to get to the root of the problem.
of policy to citizens
It is common to think that citizens influence policy in a democracy, but the influence of policy on citizens is equally important. This two-way relationship is most obvious where policies affect voting rights, but it is also true of the subtle and sometimes subliminal messages about welfare, criminal justice, taxation and other policies. As government regulations and laws directly affect the lives of workers, consumers and communities, these subtle signals about who gets regulated and how really matter.
Citizens’ influence on agendas and policy formulation may be enhanced with promising alternatives for representation such as forums, panels and other outreach mechanisms to increase meaningful participation. And because messages are two-way, the absence of such mechanisms of engagement sends one of the first messages that broader citizen input is not really wanted. Further, policy agendas and formulation are just the beginning. Other relationships in the policy cycle must also be considered. All work both ways, with policy feedback communicating important signals.
At each stage in the policy cycle, the discourse on its formulation, its allocation of material benefits and burdens, the provisions in legislation and rules, the ways those laws are implemented and the policy’s impact all carry powerful messages. These messages teach citizens whether their problems are related to the public welfare or are their own to solve, whether they are to be treated with respect, ignored or punished, and whether the time and resources involved in participating will have positive results or be fruitless.
Policies can impose excessive costs or intrusive rules that demean their recipients in ways we are often unconscious of, but undemocratic messages also flow from policies that are too generous, too stingy or hide benefits. Such unequal and unfair treatment, without justifiable policy rationales connected to legitimate policy goals, exists in many countries throughout the world.
The messages of policies
that are too generous…
Excessive and irrational benefits to some are unfair, wasteful and damaging. By way of example, mortgage and tax benefits to homeowners in the US were once justified as building stable communities but serve that purpose no longer. Most homeowners today treat their houses as an investment, and do not hesitate to buy and sell them to build wealth. The five-year costs of tax benefits to homeowners total well over $1 trillion. To put this amount in perspective, just one year of such benefits for owner-occupied housing is equivalent to more than the discretionary budgets of the departments of Education, Homeland Security, Energy, and Agriculture combined. Further, these subsidies do not even increase the rate of home ownership, and are highly skewed in favor of wealthier people in suburbs. Not only is this unfair, but it teaches advantaged homeowners that they are more deserving than renters and should make housing decisions based on the tax code provisions.
Benefits that are too miserly to the disadvantaged send messages that their needs are relatively unimportant to government. Populations arguably just as deserving as homeowners, but without political power, receive benefits that are too small to really be helpful. More than 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in the US, the programs, policies and financial aid aimed at addressing poverty are still insufficient to get to the root of the problems. Poverty emerged as an issue after Johnson’s predecessor, John Kennedy, visited Appalachia in the 1960 presidential primaries and was shocked into consciousness by the poverty in a region that, absent its role in presidential politics, was relatively powerless. Last year, after half a century of federal antipoverty efforts, the poverty rate of families with children living in Appalachia is now 43% while it is 22% nation-wide. The median annual family income in the US is nearly $60,000 but in Appalachia it is only $22,000.
Poverty and stingy benefits are a considerable challenge in other developed democracies as well. In Britain, where its well-known social benefits, particularly but not only its state-funded health care policy, have already been sharply reduced and are under further attack from conservatives, at least a sixth of households are considered poor and a fifth of people find it difficult to cope with the recent economic crisis. In many countries the social contract to receive health care, financial support in case of injury, illness and job loss, as well as free public education, once considered rights, are now discretionary benefits that are being lost in the rollback of the welfare State.
Being a poor immigrant greatly increases the likelihood of too few policy benefits. In Denmark, for example, immigrants who came as temporary guest workers in the 1960s then settled there have come under increasing criticism for receiving more generous social benefits than they would were they to return to their home countries. They are widely regarded as less worthy than native Danes.
…or with hidden benefits
Influential lobbies are able to protect complicated tax breaks and regulatory lapses benefitting the wealthy while ordinary citizens are left in the dark. Hidden benefits, including regulatory relief to powerful clientele with negative reputations, teach them that influence peddling and lobbying in obscure arenas pay off better than more aboveboard processes everyone can see.
Without knowledge of who is winning tax benefits, ordinary citizens are unable to mobilize against unfair policies. Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or none. Attempts to curb shady practices of the powerful people who abuse their positions often fail. As the Oscar-nominated film “Big Short” portrayed so powerfully, US banks are widely recognized as culpable for the 2008-9 financial meltdown, with excessive bonuses and other perverse financial incentives encouraging banks to take risks lending to unqualified borrowers. Yet, today corrective action is weak. No limit on executive pay has occurred, and regulatory reform is being undercut in implementation.
The interaction of
power and deservedness
Policy-makers select and treat target groups based on several criteria, including the extent to which they are connected to policy purposes. Power strongly shapes such choices, as those who have it can attract policy benefits and avoid costs.
Power in the classic sense includes authority, skill and economic and other resources, and the ability to deliver electoral support to politicians. Increasingly, however, the social construction of target populations as deserving or undeserving also influences how targets are chosen and treated. Social construction is a process through which values and meanings become attached to persons and groups that provide rationales for how they are treated. The combination of power and such social construction frequently shapes policies in ways that send damaging messages because those with certain power characteristics and positive images always get benefits while others almost never do. That in turn encourages or discourages the fight for people’s own interests and beliefs.
Labels, stereotypes and stigma
This often emotionally-based branding of particular groups based on labels, stereotypes and stigma plays a prominent role in determining who is deserving or undeserving. In Romania, for instance, only one of the 314 members of the lower house of parliament is a Roma, the country’s second largest ethnic minority, and he occupies a guaranteed seat. Worse still, in order to maintain his nearly monopoly control of the Roma voice in public affairs, this official himself has discouraged the mobilization of Roma voters to elect others. Democracies are also threatened in Latin America and other parts of the world, at least in part by the biases built into policies. Mexico, for instance, suffers from a failure to implement laws that protect the most vulnerable.
In the United States, stereotypes and stigma are especially strongly directed against racial minorities, and particularly young African-Americans, who are subjected to remarkably punitive policies. Approximately 25% of young black men between 16 and 24 who did not finish high school are incarcerated in juvenile detention, jail or prison as compared with only 6% of whites. Encounters with the police feature derogatory remarks, bodily contact, and police use of weapons. For instance, for more than three years the City of Chicago refused to release a police video showing an unarmed black teen being shot as he was running away from police. Attorneys for the victim’s mother, Linda Chatman, filed a wrongful death suit against the officers and urged the videos’ public release as part of that case. The police and city officials strongly opposed release of the video and it was made public only after a court order.
Such contact with the criminal justice system in the US has quite a negative impact on political participation, including turning out to vote, involvement in civic groups and trusting the government. This is true not just for the young African-American men who are incarcerated in such large numbers, but also the general young adult population. Of course, criminals are not allowed to vote while in prison, and many former felons are permanently barred from franchise.
Once stigmatized citizens are sidelined and repelled from politics, it becomes easier and easier to ignore them or treat them negatively, The next round of policy-making reproduces the same or more extreme pathologies that become even more entrenched in the policy processes and institutions of the given society.
Openly negative policies
are often biased
Costs including fines, incarceration and negative regulations are even more biased in allocation to politically powerless and disliked groups. Constrained by tight budgets today, public officials are less able to build electoral support by allocating good things to powerful and positively constructed people. Instead, many have turned to doing bad things for those who are negatively constructed, often visiting negative policies upon hated minorities. Czech Republic authorities were found to be violating the human rights of Romani children in schools across the country, segregating them from mainstream education into Roma-only classes, buildings and schools and even placing them in schools for pupils with mild mental disabilities.
From the 1970s to the mid-1990s the ‘war on crime’ in the US entailed mandatory sentences and long incarceration for many offenses. As the costs of jails and prisons climbed, legislatures responded by backing away somewhat from more long-term sentencing. But they have not relented much from arrests and fines, the barring of access to benefits, and the breach and suspension of civil rights. Police actions and criminal justice policies send consistent messages that prisoners are unworthy of equal citizenship, and these policies create an enduring demarcation between law-abiding citizens and those branded as deviants. The same increasingly holds true for immigrants, particularly those from Central America.
While intrusive and excessive rules imposed on the powerless alienate them from government, many policies that allow invasions of privacy and limitations on liberty are framed as supposedly promoting democracy and good, responsible citizenship. Discrimination against Muslims and others is widespread in Europe and elsewhere. In France, in the wake of the killings at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical and irreverent weekly magazine attacked last year for publishing material offensive to Muslims, students and parents must now sign a charter of Laicite, France’s constitutional principle of secularism in public affairs, banning such public exercise of religion as the wearing of headscarves or long skirts. To the larger French population, such laws and regulations are essential to democracy, while Muslims feel victimized by them. Muslims are especially offended since the wearing of crosses and Yarmulke is acceptable to authorities.
Suspected terrorists are the quintessential example of a target group subject to an over-allocation of costs. Reactions against suspected terrorists, or as in the case above, people of merely the same ethnic or religious identity, are increasingly excessive in many countries. Globally, many Muslims report not feeling respected by those in the West. Specifically, 52% of American Muslims and 48% of Canadian Muslims say their societies are not respected. According to one Muslim-American scholar, thousands of Muslims are sick and tired of being collectively held responsible for terrorists’ acts. She remarked, “When I see an act of terrorism on the news, I don’t identify with the person… using Islam as a rationale or justification. And I think that that’s the way with people from other minority groups or other groups in general - you know, when crimes are committed by members of their group… What, do white Christian Americans feel any sense of responsibility or any need to speak out if an act of violence was perpetrated in the name of Christianity? No.”
Welfare: A system ripe for demeaning
Conditions placed on welfare recipients before they can get their benefits are another example of excessive and intrusive rules. Welfare reform in the US was supposed to get people off welfare and into productive work, and the numbers on welfare have indeed been reduced. But reform in many states has gone beyond requiring work and limiting the length of time a poor person can receive payments. Many state legislatures are requiring drug testing of recipients before they can receive many kinds of social benefits. In some states, up to 20% of the reduction in welfare rolls is due to drug testing, even though research has found that other problems such as mental illness, poor academic skills and poor physical health are more influential causes of poverty than addiction. Drug testing all of the poor without cause or even suspicion of drug use is demeaning and alienating. Further, such a policy portrays recipients as largely responsible for their own problems. The whole group gravitates from being powerless but worthy of help toward the label of deviants deserving little if anything. There is a widespread and false public perception that most mothers on welfare are alcoholics and drug addicts.
The powerful can employ shameless tactics to curtail freedom of assembly and speech, rights essential to democracy, if it is practiced by people they consider both defenseless and beneath their contempt. In one state, a legislator suggested that families whose children participated in the protests against the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American, at police hands, should not be allowed to receive food stamps anymore. On a Baltimore, Maryland, radio program, a caller asked the legislator if it would be possible to “take away benefits from families such as the parents who are collecting welfare.” The legislator responded by agreeing: “That could be legislation. I think that you could make the case that there is a failure to do proper parenting and allowing this stuff to happen.” He suggested a scientific study to understand the mindset of protesters, whom he labeled as a “thug nation”: “These young people, they’re violent, they’re brutal, their mindset is dysfunctional to a point of being dangerous. We have got to study, investigate, and really look at what this is all about.”
One welfare recipient in the US summarized, “I think the whole essence of welfare can be summed up in one word, and that’s stigma. It’s stigma from the minute you walk in the door at the welfare building, to when you go and buy your food with Food Stamps at the grocery, to when you turn on your television ….and it’s even in commercials now! Every politician running for office is running like welfare is the only fricking issue on the planet.”
A majority of welfare clients in the US reports feeling humiliated and vulnerable in their encounters with the welfare agencies, which they have come to see as pervasive threats in their lives. And, not surprisingly, welfare recipients have considerably lower levels of political efficacy than the rest of the population. One woman on welfare explained, “I don’t know if people in government will be responsive to me.… For me, AFDC [welfare], the Department of Social Services, Department of Child Protection, Juvenile Court, those are all the same system. And I haven’t had luck with those systems… I would expect the same sort of treatment from Congress or wherever.” In his book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam reports on the reaction of a teenager in a ghetto when asked about civic engagement. “Our questions about those topics elicited a puzzled stare and a brief response, as though we had asked about Mozart or foxhunting. Question: Do you ever vote? Answer: Never voted. Question: Do you know if your parents are involved in politics…? Answer: I don’t talk to them about it.”
Moreover, welfare clients are deeply estranged from one another because they tend to buy into the negative stereotypes directed toward their group, making it less likely for them to perceive the collective injustice. Instead, they adopt the notion that the problems of their fellow welfare recipients are of their own making. One remarked, “They are really lazy, and they’re just sitting there getting that money year after year. Yeah, they cruise through their money and learn to work around their rent and learn how to have other people help them. All that money goes toward drugs and alcohol.” Such alienation from their peers makes them extremely difficult to mobilize.
Nicaragua itself offered an example of both subliminal and outright negative messages on the welfare front three years ago when retired workers who had not paid in enough to attain full retirement benefits upped the volume on their ignored demands for the “reduced” benefits to which they were entitled by law. The government first responded by issuing a “solidarity bonus,” lower than the amount they were entitled to and withdrawable at any time. Instead of buying the message that they should be grateful for paternalism, hundreds of the retirees occupied the Social Security Institute building as more demonstrated outside. Over the ensuing days, as police repression mounted, many young people joined in active solidarity, bringing food, water and care for the sick. At a peak moment one government spokesperson called the protest a “rightwing conspiracy” and mobs allegedly sent by the government attacked the protesters as police looked on impassively. Ultimately the government capitulated, but not without leaving a longer-term mark on them and the population that watched it unfold.
Engaging the politically
alienated isn’t easy
Deciding whether or not to vote and otherwise engage is not just a self-interested act but also an expression of identity. Policies are influential in constructing citizenship identities for better or for worse. Since multiple policies send the same kinds of messages to those with similar power and social image, positive identification with government and participation will not increase among those who have a lot at stake but feel marginalized unless all such policies change.
Politicians around the world and over time have a tendency to reach out to the otherwise alienated and ignored by either enacting or promising clientelist allocations, i.e. exchanging favors for votes. But that message does not go unheard either, and does little to enhance democracy’s reputation. Cynicism and alienation often run deep in populations systematically sidelined and politically ignored for any or all of the reasons mentioned above. Policy designs, including tools, rules and rationales, must make sense by serving justifiable policy goals, not by dispensing paternalistic messages or handouts.
This year’s election campaign spectacle in the United States is providing plenty of raw material for an in-depth study on this. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won the vast majority of the contests held in the states with the highest income inequality levels. The bombastic multimillionaire Donald Trump has paradoxically lit a fire under angry, white, middle-age male working-class voters with what some have dubbed “paleoconservative” messages. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders, who promised a “political revolution” with free higher education, health care for all and other progressive policy proposals, gave as the reason for why he did not leading the primary race that “poor people don’t vote…. and that’s what we have to transform.” Several election analysts suggested he had simply failed to reach them, but the problem didn’t start this year. US Census Bureau data show that 50% of families with income under $10,000 a year are registered to vote but only 25% turn out, figures that increase by less than 10% in the brackets up to $30,000. Furthermore some 30% of eligible voters aren’t even registered or aren’t accessible in the voter databases campaigns use, and they are more likely to be poor and to support policies such as Sanders is promoting. Post-election analyses will very likely blame Sanders’ campaign for failing to attract that substantial mass of non-registered or non-voting citizens, but unless a good hard look is taken at the deeper reasons why “poor people don’t vote” even when messages are largely directed to them, reflecting on how they experience policy over time, the country will make no adjustments to its troubled democracy, its fractured society and the increasingly unfettered power of its elite.
Of course, changing policies to better serve public needs, thus encouraging greater engagement and participation, will not resolve all the troubles of democracy. In a world where power is already so concentrated in individuals and international corporations that are not held accountable, the voices of some will continue to be much more influential than others.
In this world, as the Sandinista revolution of the eighties preached in its first years, those who don’t enjoy this influence through individual power can compensate with the power of their numbers, organizing in favor of their own interests. But within these nuclei of collective power, the same rules of democratic participation always exist, and send the same subtle messages, also for better or for worse.
Helen Ingram is a Professor Emerita, University of California at Irvine. This article draws heavily on her Keynote address to the International Conference on Public Policy in Milan, July 2015, and a forthcoming chapter in Contemporary Policy Approaches, Guy Peters and Philippe Zittoun, eds.