Posted by: captainfalcon | June 7, 2010

On MM on the superstructure

I agree with MM’s post, Obama’s decision to hang around the derricks has more to do with elections and political capital than good governance. That it is the politically advisable move, in turn, is due to political journalists’ preference for agent-centered explanations over structural explanations. Their preference for agent-centered explanations is due to the fact that agent-centered explanations sell better.

Here are a few plausible candidates for why they sell better: (1) they are fun to read, (2) they are widely distributed by political movements and (related) (3) by obscuring (or downplaying) structural shortcomings – shortcomings that (ergo) cannot be solved by any political actors (or their attendants from the fourth estate)  – they help entrench the political powers that be (i.e., those powers on whom comparative success versus comparative obscurity in journalism depend). [(3) is a further explanation why agent-centered explanations are distributed by (mainstream) political movements.]

I find (1) least likely – people do not seem to naturally prefer agent-centered explanations (people like learning about e.g. how cars work); it’s just that they <i>also</i> enjoy agent-based explanations. (2) and (3), complementing each other, serve as the best explanation, but there is a residual puzzle: If there’s a latent market for structural explanations of political phenomena, why don’t members of the powers that be defect? I think part of the answer is that defection is punished by more and less indirect economic and social pressure (either ouster, in e.g. David Frum’s case, or derision and then exclusion).

I should add that none of this is orchestrated, it just sort of happens.

A final comment, which I will not motivate, is that I doubt Drezner precisely where he indulges in an agent-centered narrative of his own: “Obama’s comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world.”



  1. […] agents)* as if it were a revelation.  Since we all are aware of these things and have moved on to delving deeper, it probably is not worth reading, though it does do a good job poking holes through the mysticisms […]

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