Voice in My Throat

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out.

Ezra Klein had a provocative piece in the New Yorker last month about “the powerless presidential bully pulpit.” We think of the President’s main power as that of persuasion. But political scientists have found that having a President speak out on an issue may actually make it less possible for them to get legislation across on that issue, because having a President, associated with one party, take a stand means that the opposition consolidates along party lines – a Republican can’t support Obama’s stated policy preference because that cedes ground to Democrats – even if the individual Republican happens to agree with Obama on that position.

[Political scientist George] Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. [Political scientist Frances] Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.

Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, takes Lee’s thesis even further. “The more high-profile the communication effort, the less likely it is to succeed,” he says. “In education reform, I think Obama has done brilliantly, largely because it’s out of the press. But on higher-profile things, like deficit reduction, he’s had a much tougher time.”

[I reversed the order of these paragraphs from the original article to make them make more sense out of context.]

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out. This is troubling enough on a political level. But what if this finding is more general? What if any use – or even most uses – of the bully pulpit actually makes it harder to persuade people?     

I of course wonder if this applies to philanthropy. There are two worries. One is that foundation attempts to influence public policy may have counter-productive effects, particularly among local or state officials. Does lack of transparency help get things done? The other is that nonprofit attempts to promote greater philathropy actually make people less likely to give. Does more face-to-face outreach make people more likely to give?    

Well, let’s think about the mechanism. This dynamic applies to presidential politics, per Klein’s interpretation of the literature, because a president is also a party leader, and the opposition is from another party. Those are competitive, zero-sum positions – one loses, the other wins.   

Are foundations ever in such a situation? Well, they can be when they start working in support of particular public policy issues. Laws place restrictions on the amount of lobbying nonprofits can do – generally the guideline is, raise awareness of issues, don’t support specific pieces of legislation or candidates. But there are generally policy aims – pass healthcare reform, abolish the death penalty, restrict gay marriage – and in those, someone wins, and someone loses.     

The mechanism in the Klein article seems to hinge on publicity and visibility. This suggests that funders may have a better chance advocating on local and state initiatives than national or federal ones. Sounds like a hypothesis worth checking out….

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One Response to “Voice in My Throat”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Three Times One Minus One Says:

    […] “powerless presidential bully pulpit” and philanthropy’s advocacy […]

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