As a follow up to the post I wrote last week about the lack of unambiguous political signifiers, this Washington Post article by Ezra Klein draws attention to two recent pieces, one by Jesse A. Myerson and one by Dylan Matthews. The Myerson piece has been kicking around the internet for a little over a week now, generating a lot of chatter for its progressive economic proposals, including work for all and a universal basic income. The Matthews piece represents a conservative response to Myerson’s five economic proposals.
The kicker, though, as Klein points out, is that Matthews largely suggests the same things, just switching out the language codes to ones associated with conservatism For example, the “jaw-droppingly simple idea of a universal basic income, in which the government would just add a sum sufficient for subsistence to everyone’s bank account every month” in the Myerson piece, becomes “basic income would shrink our bloated government, give people more choices, and break the culture of dependency in our poorest areas” in the Matthews piece. Klein goes on to cite point out that conservatives howled about Myerson’s piece, while those on the left had some choice words for Matthews after his piece came out, despite the ideas in the pieces largely being the same. In other words, the “signification,” so to speak, mattered more than the ideas. How an idea is presented drives how we understand it.
This should come as no surprise to sociologists of social movements. After all, our subfield has been at the forefront of generating data and theorizing on concepts such as framing, storytelling, collective identity, and the performance of politics. Our research also finds that activists and social movement groups know this, implicitly or explicitly, often tailoring their rhetoric and performances for specific audiences. For example, Braunstein finds that religious advocacy groups use particular “storytelling strategies” to reach diverse audiences. Nonetheless, Klein’s article underlines the notion that studying how audiences understand movement messages, actions, and symbols could provide us with a wealth of insight into how political signification actually works. Given that the same policies may be accepted or rejected based on how they’re framed, signified, and performed, this seems like a particularly fruitful line of research.