Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 53–79 | Cite as

The Politicization of Knowledge Claims: The “Laffer Curve” in the U.S. Congress

  • Elizabeth Popp BermanEmail author
  • Laura M. Milanes-Reyes


Political debates over knowledge claims often become emotionally charged, with two sides not only disputing what is true but seeing those on the other side as deluded or worse. By looking at use of the term “Laffer curve” in the U.S. Congress from 1977 to 2010, we draw attention to two ways such debates over knowledge claims can evolve. The Laffer curve is a simple schematic representation of the relationship between tax rates and government revenue that was influential in U.S. tax policy in the late 1970s. Early on, Republicans and Democrats faced off over the Laffer curve as a cognitive symbol to be debated with argument, evidence, and reference to experts. Over time, Republicans continued to treat the Laffer curve as a cognitive symbol, but for Democrats it became a polluted expressive symbol that could be dismissed without debate. Democrats also articulated the Laffer curve as part of an ironic narrative about the failure of the Reagan administration, which ended the possibility of serious deliberation. We suggest that the dynamics seen here may also be present around other politicized knowledge claims, such as the claim that human activity is causing climate change.


Politics Knowledge Science Symbols Culture Taxes 



We would like to thank Ron Jacobs, Richard Lachmann, Aaron Major, Isaac Martin, Nicholas Pagnucco, the Culture Group at the University at Albany, Qualitative Sociology editor David Smilde, and four anonymous reviewers for their useful feedback. Earlier versions of this paper were presented to audiences at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science and the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Popp Berman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Laura M. Milanes-Reyes
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.University at Albany, SUNYAlbanyUSA
  2. 2.University of the AndesBogotáColombia

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