Arnold Kling just got around to reading the book that has been his strongest intellectual influence, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, by Murray Edelman:
The book (or, more specifically, chapter 2) has a long and deep influence on me because it was perhaps the favorite political theory of my father Merle Kling, a political scientist who earned a mention in the acknowledgments. My father constantly invoked the terms “symbolic reassurance” and “political quiescence” in commenting on political events. He would have immediately understood and appreciated my application of the terms to Elizabeth Warren and her role in the nascent financial consumer protection agency.
Imagine you are a 1950′s intellectual, Kling suggests:
To put the book in perspective, I think it helps to try to recreate the intellectual atmosphere of the 1950′s, the milieu that produced Alfred Hitchcock and J.D. Salinger. In five-factor personality jargon, the Fifties stand out for strong Neuroticism. Symbolic Uses was published in 1964, which was a few years before the phrase “Do Your Own Thing” was coined, marking the true onset of the Sixties and its Openness. The book had been in gestation for a long time — the interaction with my father would have taken place in 1961, when I was seven years old. We spent a semester in Champagne-Urbana, when my father took a sabbatical at the University of Illinois, where Edelman was a colleague.
To an intellectual of the 1950′s, the human psyche is dark. Freud’s shadow looms large over all discussion pertaining to human nature. You take it as given that terrible demons lurk in both the individual and collective unconscious. All About Eve could be the story of any one of us. The phenomenon of Adolf Hitler is most easily understood as having sprung out of the collective unconscious of the German people. Suspicious that a similar phenomenon could occur anywhere, you scan the American scene for signs of impending fascist tendencies. Edelman will cite Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (1950) as well as Lipset on “The Sources of the Radical Right” (1955) and “working class authoritarianism” (Political Man, 1960).
You see the ordinary social interactions of American life as ritualized, superficial, and inauthentic. People are playing games (although Berne’s book will not appear until 1967) and engaging in dramaturgy — I think of Goffman (1959), but Edelman cites Kenneth Burke.
The lack of authenticity is typified by the United States position vis-a-vis China. We insist that one of the five seats on the Security Council is to be occupied by Taiwan, while refusing to recognize Red China. How can this be explained other than as a need to use a charade in order to mollify a public’s deep-seated, irrational fears? (If you are inclined to believe that the relationship between the public and the government has matured in the last fifty years, I have two words for you: airport security)
It is in this Fifties context that you should place the terms “symbols” and “quiescence.” The term “symbol” is meant to suggest the essential phoniness of politics, just as The Catcher in the Rye was meant to expose the phoniness of middle-class society. And the term “quiescence” suggests a mass populace with a rage that has been quelled, like a formerly vicious dog rendered meek by Pavlov-Skinner conditioning or a Randle McMurphy lobotomized by Nurse Ratched.
Kling summarizes Edelman’s view by saying that the political world is divided into Insiders and Outsiders:
Given these differences, the Insiders use overt political dramas as symbols that placate the masses while using covert political activity to plunder them. What we would now call rent-seeking succeeds because Outsiders are dazzled by the symbols while Insiders grab the substance.
In other words, expect the banks to be able to do a more efficient job of rent extraction with Elizabeth Warren in place than before.
Edelman thought of insiders as exploiting outsiders, in almost a Marxist sense. For Edelman, symbolic reassurance and political quiescence were somewhat troubling phenomena. The masses were being lulled by symbolic gestures into accepting adverse political outcomes.