Political Identities and Deviancy

I’m currently enrolled in a deviant behavior course, and last night I was reading the initial introduction that introduces all the various theoretical persepectives. One such approach is described as the social power perspective, which focuses on the influence that powerful groups/classes have in the creation and application of laws that govern deviancy. I thought I would share some of the highlighted points:

“All laws reflect power relations, and their existence as well as their enforcement illustrates which groups have the power to control, and which groups are controlled.”

“According to the social power viewpoint, society is characterized by conflict and struggle between groups whose interests conflict with eace other, with the powerful classes dominating the subordinate groups.”

“The conflicting interests of the dominant and subordinate groups can fall into the economic realm, as we see some political parties promoting the rights of big business to pay fewer taxes, less overtime compensation, and lower health care benefits, while other parties fight for the rights of workers to unionize, to gain job security, and to earn a decent living wage.”

“Those who have the power to make and apply rules onto others control the normative order. The politically, socially, and economically dominant groups enforce their definitions onto the downtrodden and powerless. Deviance is thus a representation of unequal power.”

While I was reading these passages I kept thinking how easily applicable these sentiments would be for various, and possibly conflicting, political ideologies. Right or left, such narratives can be powerfully true or powerfully absolving. This idea conveniently corresponds with a recent Drum post that touched on the functional effects of political identity in this country:

[…] You all remember the old saw that Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal? It means that lots of Americans say they’re conservative and like to believe they’re conservative, but when it comes to specific government programs they turn out to be pretty liberal. They like Medicare and Social Security and federal highways and disaster relief and unemployment insurance and all that. Try to cut these things and you learn very quickly just how operationally liberal most Americans are.

One of the aspects I specifically remember reading about in the beginning of the Tea Party movement was this concept that their particular social group was being victimized by moneyed interests using “the system” to gain an unfair advantage in society. In their worldview, those companies benefiting from the toxic “bailouts” were essentially trying to redefine white-collar deviance to exclude their own behavior.

I would argue that we’re seeing this kind of ideological disconnect in Newt Gingrich’s anti-Romney Bain Capital attacks. Such behavior doesn’t qualify Newt as a functional liberal – instead it qualifies him as a barely functional nuclear political warhead. However, it does dovetail nicely with initial Tea Party inclinations towards describing behavior that had previously occupied accepted conservative wisdom as “fair game” free-market actions as crony capitalism. Of course such ascription was short lived as they all discovered “the truth” that is otherwise known as The Big Lie, but the phenomena of is still noteworthy.

Now this type of thinking is something I’ve always associated with leftward ideology – numerical minority and majority status groups being “exploited” by dominant and wealthy social classes. Furthermore the social power perspective is a part of the broader analytical tool of conflict theory – a theory that is rooted in Karl Marx’s observation and criticism of capitalism. How easily the tables can turn, then, when people’s conservative ideologies conflict with their functionally liberal responses.


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