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The Perils of Authority Ranking

The folks over at TAPPED seem to think that Karl Rove's comments about liberal wimpiness after September 11 will be the last straw that finally turns the country against the Republicans. This prediction has been made time and time again, with each new GOP wrongdoing, but it has been wrong each time -- and I see no reason to think that Rove's comments will do what the lack of WMDs, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the Downing Street Memo failed to do. In fact, I think Rove's comments show just how screwed the Democrats are.

It's helpful here to refer to Alan Fiske's theory that social interactions are guided by four basic models -- Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. In the wake of September 11, the public felt that it would be appropriate to engage in Communal Sharing between the political camps in the US. The attacks created a sense that there was a huge gulf between Them and a comparatively homogeneous Us -- a perfect recipe for Communal Sharing. We wanted the parties to work together for the common good without a thought of personal or partisan advantage.

And indeed, Communal Sharing rhetoric was all the rage. However, the modern democratic system is not set up to allow for real Communal Sharing. Personal and partisan egos are too well entrenched, and trust is in too short supply, for the kind of merging of the self that is required for Communal Sharing. Equality Matching is also not really feasible. Thus, the left half of the American political scene was left with a choice between Authority Ranking and Market Pricing.

Liberals chose Market Pricing. They pushed an alternative agenda in competition with the Republican one. It is this agenda that Rove was decribing, albeit in hyperbolic and negatively loaded terms.

In contrast, Democrats chose Authority Ranking. Unlike liberals, Democrats had something to lose. They understandably feared the short-term political consequences of a strategy that was so far removed from Communal Sharing. And they knew that they lacked the power to force the Republicans to make a bargain that would incorporate some of their agenda. So instead they decided to submit, to become the lower-ranked party in an Authority Ranking relationship.

Authority Ranking confers many privileges on the higher ranked party. They get to call the shots, and they get to take credit for joint accomplishments. Lower-ranked parties, meanwhile, enter the relationship with the hope of noblesse oblige. They expect to be recognized and thanked for their contribution, and they expect that, while the higher-ranked party may use its status to make gains for itself and reinforce the Authority Ranking relationship, it will not abuse its privilege to destroy the lower-ranked party. Democrats hoped that their acquiescence would encourage Republicans to set terrorism aside as an arena of struggle when the two parties faced off in the Market Pricing competition for votes.

What's crucial to remember, however, is that noblesse oblige is not an enforceable expectation. Reciprocity in Authority Ranking is solely at the discretion of the higher ranked party -- unlike a Market Pricing bargain or contract, in which each party's conduct is contingent on the other upholding their end.

What we're seeing now is Karl Rove (somewhat passive-aggressively) testing the Authority Ranking relationship by withdrawing his noblesse oblige. He's using the common misconception that Democrats are liberal in order to smear the Democrats with liberals' use of Market Pricing after September 11. There is a bit of danger in this strategy, as Rove runs the risk of himself being accused of Market Pricing due to his assertion of a lack of respect for Democrats' submission -- which we see in the accusations that he is politicizing the terrorist attacks. However, this outcome is unlikely to be significant for two reasons. First, the higher-ranked party in an Authority Ranking relationship typically gets the benefit of the doubt when the relationship breaks down, since it's assumed that the lower ranked party has a much larger incentive to defect. Second, the accusation he's making -- an accusation repeated and spread in every attempt to rebut it -- resonates with a longstanding discourse about the wimpiness of the left side of the spectrum. Thus hearers are predisposed to believe Rove's framing.

The main response we've seen is self-righteous groveling. Democrats protest truthfully that they did in fact submit to Republican authority following September 11, and they beg (since they have no power to demand) an empty apology. This is exactly what Rove wants. When Democrats assert their support for the war in Afghanistan, they send the message that the Republicans are right about how to fight terrorism. "Me too" is the cry of the loyal lieutenant.


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