'Facts' and 'Truth' Aren't Enough: Democratic Politics and the Constructions of Inequality

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Common Dreams

'Facts' and 'Truth' Aren't Enough: Democratic Politics and the Constructions of Inequality

During this past summer Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, toured the country promoting his documentary Inequality for All. In the film, which opened in wide release on September 27th, Reich presents the specifics of economic inequality in the United States relying on a surfeit of data to demonstrate that vast income inequality results in economic inefficiency. Reich, and Inequality for All’s director Jacob Kornbluth, are clear that their intention is for the film to function as a component part of a larger political movement. As such, the film’s attempt to aesthetically transmit facts through a dizzying array of graphs and charts emerges from the Democratic quandary of how to compel individuals to perceive (what Democrats consider to be) the reality of their own lives.

Inequality for All represents a Democratic politics which attempts to reveal the objective facts which comprise complex concepts such as “economic inequality.” Republican politics, on the other hand, approaches the economic fact/reality relation as one that can be strategically manipulated. Concepts such as “inequality” and “inefficiency” are not viewed as stable objects derived from, and composed of facts, but, rather, as complex structures of meanings and interpretations. Democrats thus often find themselves in the position of repeatedly reciting facts to counter dominant Republican economic paradigms; paradigms which have already interpreted, and given meaning to, those same facts.

By positioning “facts” as purely objective entities, Democrats have ceded the constructive, meaning-giving processes to Republicans, and have failed to engage and take on the Republicans’ dominant constructions and interpretations. Democratic silence allows Republican politics to reconstruct fundamental concepts such as “individual rights” in order to underpin massive structural economic inequalities. Political and institutional structures bestow wealth upon the few which is then coded as “individual achievement” to the many.

Though the U.S. Constitution contains both aristocratic and democratic elements – the founding fathers were wary of both the king and the masses – Republican politics codes aristocratic interpretations as “original intent.” The value in this construction is that it furthers the Republican paradigm by bestowing upon their interpretations a seeming natural-ness, as though they are merely illuminating what was always already there.

Republicans have been diligent in pursuing a hegemonic interpretive dominance. In the 1980s, economic inequality was coded by Republicans as a procedural effect, remedied by the monies that would “trickle down” to all. This coding was a result of Republican attempts to present their economic program in ways that coincided with what they then viewed as the existing norms of economic distribution. Cognizant of the subsequent lack of trickle, Republicans didn’t alter their policies; instead they reinterpreted the norms by coding inequality as purely an individual effect. Those who are better off are now considered to be merely reaping the rewards of their greater intellect and hard work.

As economic inequality has increased dramatically in the last decades, Democratic politics has not engaged the underlying interpretive mechanisms. For example, in 2011, rallies were held in a number of American cities protesting the Wisconsin state legislature’s limitations on collective bargaining by public unions. Approaching the rally in Los Angeles, one was handed a sheet of paper with designated chants, the first of which was “what do we want?...the American Dream!” None of the speakers attempted to deconstruct the “American Dream” - to consider the ways in which the term has historically been interpreted, utilized, and intertwined with similarly constructed terms such as “individuality” and “opportunity” to underpin, and solidify, economic inequality. Instead, signs printed by the labor unions declared that participation in, not the re-interpretation of, the American Dream is what constitutes “freedom.”

Postmodern Republican politics has succeeded in proffering a universe in which “facts” are devoid of any ground other than the interpretations which give them meaning. Instead of deconstructing these interpretations and offering an alternate paradigm, Democratic politics clings to a conceptual insistence that the illumination of objective reality will alter existing social and economic relations.

Despite his 2008 campaign speeches, in which proclamations of “change” appeared to signal a politics based on a reconceptualization of the Republican paradigm, President Obama has never demonstrated any awareness of, nor inclination to take on, dominant Republican interpretations. In discussing health care, for example, the President has never directly confronted a Republican construction in which placing one’s health and well-being into the hands of vast, for-profit corporations is coded as individual freedom. Nor has he attempted to destabilize the Republican interpretation which constructs the vectors of power such that government is positioned as an overbearing entity constraining individuals’ lives while corporations are viewed as benign entities subject to the whims of the market (i.e., “the people”). As a result, those most susceptible to the power of corporations have often been the most willing to weaken the only force capable of constraining corporations – the government – in the name of individual liberty.

The invocation of economic facts by Democrats does not destabilize these Republican constructions of power and freedom. The conceptions emerge from complex interpretive mechanisms and need to be deconstructed in the same way. The Democratic unwillingness to engage these processes has resulted in a President who continuously recites a litany of facts in a series of earnest speeches and then seems mystified by his own lack of efficacy.

For all their stated disdain of academic theorizing, Republicans have actually been very postmodern in their acceptance of the malleability of “facts” and their strategic focus on the battle over interpretations. They have, in a sense, enacted the writings of postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault who claimed that “we are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.”

Postmodern Republican politics has succeeded in proffering a universe in which “facts” are devoid of any ground other than the interpretations which give them meaning. Instead of deconstructing these interpretations and offering an alternate paradigm, Democratic politics clings to a conceptual insistence that the illumination of objective reality will alter existing social and economic relations. Films such as Inequality for All emerge sporadically as demonstrations of the Democratic facility with facts. These demonstrations are inevitably followed by a collective sigh of disbelief and a bewildered shrug when the facts seem to have so little effect.

Richard Goldin

Richard Goldin, PhD teaches political theory at California State University, Long Beach

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