The Rhetoric of Collective Responsibility

One basic model of democratic politics is that the voting public can be broken down into many sub-groups that vie for power to achieve different ends. Much of what passes as political discourse is in fact an attempt to hide these Machiavellian motives by using narratives that appeal to our moral sensibilities. We try to appear moral by rewarding hard work and fairness, while at the same time signaling our altruism by promoting the common good. In other words, we make a great fuss talking about collective responsibility while still pursuing goals that are beneficial to the sub-group of people that we belong to and care most strongly about. Especially when there are many competing interests at hand, communication (and deception) between sub-groups is an important component of how things are actually accomplished through the political process.

Realizing this, one particularly ingenious trick is to make a policy appeal to the public’s sense of collective responsibility when it is in fact retracting the range of concern to a singular sub-group. Great examples of this come from the powerful agricultural lobby. Consider the mission statement of American Farm Bureau: “AFBF is the unified national voice of agriculture, working through our grassroots organization to enhance and strengthen the lives of rural Americans and to build strong, prosperous agricultural communities.”

The mission statement explicitly touts the value of community building, and tries to cast the organization as an advocate of American interests. While it does say specifically that they are interested in helping rural Americans, this too is wrapped up in narratives of the independent homesteader. By supporting them, we are supporting both the common good and the independence of hardworking Americans. Except, of course, that the opposite is the case – the end result is a transfer of wealth to the agricultural sub-group, through subsidies, tariffs and other government interventions. The voting public pays for this in terms of higher food prices and higher taxes, while foreign producers are also hurt by being unable to operate in the American market on level footing. There are many political reasons why lobbying is effective, but consistently recognizing sub-group rhetoric for what it is would help curtail this enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

-dp

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~ by danplechaty on December 30, 2009.

One Response to “The Rhetoric of Collective Responsibility”

  1. I enjoyed this post. Thanks!

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