The Dance of Policy Argumentation: Recasting the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
Fisher, Shauna Foley
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This project is motivated by a desire to examine the patterns that evolve as activists and their opponents struggle to control how the public and policymakers understand a particular issue at the center of contention. Competing activist groups fight in a context shaped by two important dynamics. As advocacy groups pursue change, or attempt to block change, they must confront the mobilizing activities of their opponents. The first question addressed by this project comes out of this dynamic. <italic>Do activists engage, anticipate, or ignore their opponents' messages?</italic> The second dynamic is the characteristics of particular institutional venues. Activist groups encounter different sets of institutional processes while fighting for their side through litigation than through ballot measure campaigns, for example. This raises a second question. <italic>Do activists change their messages for different institutional arenas and venues?</italic> Finally, the media are central to contentious politics, but are not directly responsible for policymaking. They are, however, partially responsible for making the public and policymakers aware of the messages and activities of activists on either side. Thus the third and final question motivating this project is: <italic>what is the role of the media in contentious politics?</italic> I address these questions through an analysis of press release, newspaper, and campaign materials from same-sex marriage activists and their opponents in California. My findings challenge common assumptions about the dance of contentious politics and have implications for concerns about deliberative democracy. I find that groups talk past each other more than they respond, engaging in largely separate rhetorical dances. Competing groups also pay more attention to those policy venues that appeal to their favored arguments, leading competing groups to devote attention to different institutions. Furthermore, these largely separate framing activities are done consistently regardless of policymaking venue. However, scholars and general audiences may be ignorant to this reality because the media construct, or ``choreograph,'' dialogue. While activists engage in an agenda setting game, talking about what they want, rather than engaging their opponents, newspapers construct a debate out of the largely separate framing strategies. In other words, the media choreograph a dance out of what are primarily separate routines.
- Political science