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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
We thank editor David Smilde for suggesting Parsons’ terminology for describing this shift.
Of course global warming can be used as part of such narratives, and has been; however the expressive aspect of the debate is not the focus of Smith’s study.
Each of these borderline cases is quoted later in the paper.
p (two-tailed) < 0.001 (Fisher’s exact test) for the difference between Period 1 and Period 2. The difference between Period 2 and Period 3 is not statistically significant.
p (two-tailed) < 0.001 (Fisher’s exact test) for positive/nonpositive statements before and during Period 2.
p (two-tailed) < 0.001 (Fisher’s exact test) for Republican/Democrat statements during the pre-election and post-election parts of Period 2.
p (two-tailed) = 0.0001 (Fisher’s exact test).
Interestingly, however, there has recently been a slight uptick, with five mentions in 2009 and ten in 2010.
p (two-tailed) < 0.00001 (Fisher’s exact test) for the Republican/Democrat difference in Period 3.
For examples of these uses, see CR 1982, 5422–5423, 8687–8688, 22441–22442; 1983, 15984–15985; 1984, 16029–16042; 1985, 6097–6098; 1986, 8150–8151; 1988, 20031–20041; 1990, 16808–16810, 26081, 29873–29874; 1991, 20600–20601; 1993, 15502, 15503–15505, 15681, 19112, 19122.
p (two-tailed) < 0.001 (Fisher’s exact test) for the Period 2/Period 3 difference and < 0.0001 for the Period 1/Period 3 difference.
We thank a reviewer for drawing our attention to this point and suggesting the Collins example.
Abolafia, Mitchel Y. 2010. Narrative construction as sensemaking: How a central bank thinks. Organization Studies 31: 349–367.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2011. Market as narrative and character: For a cultural sociology of economic life. Journal of Cultural Economy 4: 477–488.
Anderson, Martin. 1990. Revolution: The Reagan legacy. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
Atkinson, Caroline. 1980. Key advisors see early push on tax policy. Washington Post, 6 November.
Berman, Elizabeth Popp, and Nicholas Pagnucco. 2010. Economic ideas and the political process: Debating tax cuts in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1962–1981. Politics and Society 38: 347–372.
Bloor, David. 1991. Knowledge and social imagery. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Blumenthal, Sidney. 1986. The rise of the counter-establishment: The conservative ascent to political power. New York: Union Square Press.
Campbell, John L. 1998. Institutional analysis and the role of ideas in political economy. Theory and Society 27: 377–409.
Cannon, Lou. 1979. Reagan announces, urges strength at home, abroad. Washington Post, 13 November.
Collins, Harry. 1992. Changing order: Replication and induction in scientific practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1981. Tax cut bill, 1978 legislative chronology. In Congress and the nation, 1977–1980, vol. 5. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1982. Congress enacts President Reagan’s tax plan. In CQ almanac 1981. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1985a. Reagan tax cuts, 1981 legislative chronology. In Congress and the nation, 1981–1984, vol. 6. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1985b. Tax policy, 1981–1984 legislative overview. In Congress and the nation, 1981–1984, vol. 6. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Tax policy, 1985–1988 legislative overview. In Congress and the nation, 1985–1988, vol. 7. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1993a. Global warming, 1989–1990 legislative chronology. In Congress and the nation, 1989–1992, vol. 8. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1993b. Tax policy, 1989–1992 legislative overview. In Congress and the nation, 1989–1992, vol. 8. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 1997. Tax policy, 1993–1996 legislative overview. In Congress and the nation, 1993–1996, vol. 9. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 2002. Global warming, 1997–1998 legislative chronology. In Congress and the nation, 1997–2001, vol. 10. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 2006. Global environment, 2003–2004 legislative chronology. In Congress and the nation, 2001–2004, vol. 11. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Congressional Quarterly. 2008. Congress and the budget: Struggling for control. In Guide to congress, vol. 1, 6th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
de Santos, Martin. 2009. Fact-totems and the statistical imagination: The public life of a statistic in Argentina 2001. Sociological Theory 27: 466–489.
Dewar, Helen. 1980. Tax cut bill squelched. Washington Post, 13 November.
Durkheim, Emile. 1912/1995. The elementary forms of religious life. New York: The Free Press.
Durkheim, Emile, and Marcel Mauss. 1903/1963. Primitive classification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Epstein, Steven. 1996. Impure science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gauchat, Gordon. 2012. Politicization of science in the public sphere: A study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. The American Journal of Sociology 77: 167–187.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, and Erika Falk. 1999. Civility in the House of Representatives: The 105th Congress. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/Downloads/Political_Communication/105thCongressCivil/REP26.PDF. Accessed 21 October 2012.
Johnson, Robert Wolcott. 1980. The passage of the Investment Incentive Act of 1978: A case study of business influencing public policy. Ph.D. dissertation in Business Administration. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Laffer, Arthur B. 2004. The Laffer curve: Past, present, and future. The Heritage Foundation. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2004/06/the-laffer-curve-past-present-and-future. Accessed 21 October 2012.
Martin, Isaac William. 2008. The permanent tax revolt: How the property tax transformed American politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. 2006. Polarized America: The dance of ideology and unequal riches. Cambridge: MIT Press.
McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap. 2011. The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s view of global warming, 2001–2010. The Sociological Quarterly 52: 155–194.
Mellon, Andrew. 1924. Taxation: The people’s business. New York: Ayer Company Publishers.
Nyhan, Brandon, and Jason Reifler. 2010. When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior 32: 303–330.
Parsons, Talcott. 1953. The theory of symbolism in relation to action. In Working papers in the theory of action, ed. Talcott Parsons, Robert F. Bales, and Edward A. Shils, 31–62. New York: The Free Press.
Parsons, Talcott, and Edward A. Shils. 1951. Values, motives, and systems of action. In Toward a general theory of action, ed. Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils, 47–275. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Pine, Art. 1978. A Tax Break for the Rich in Election Year? The Washington Post, 21 May.
Shogan, Robert. 1980. Bush ends his waiting game, attacks Reagan. Los Angeles Times, 14 April.
Sinclair, Barbara. 2006. Party wars: Polarization and the politics of national policy making. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Smith, Philip. 2012. Narrating global warming. In The Oxford handbook of cultural sociology, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ronald N. Jacobs, and Philip Smith, 745–760. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Philip, and Alexander Riley. 2009. Cultural theory: An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Stockman, David. 1986. The triumph of politics: How the Reagan Revolution failed. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Stone, Deborah A. 1989. Causal stories and the formation of policy agendas. Political Quarterly 104: 281–300.
Strout, Richard L. 1980. Recession prompting drastic switch in U.S. economic policy. Christian Science Monitor, 16 June.
Suttles, Gerald D. 2010. Front page economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tognato, Carlo. 2008. Bringing culture back in: A neo-Durkheimian perspective on central banking. Innovar 18: 93–116.
Uslaner, Eric M. 1993. The decline of comity in Congress. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Wherry, Frederick. 2004. International statistics and social structure: The case of the Human Development Index. International Review of Sociology 14: 151–169.
Zucker, Seymour. 1978. The fallacy of slashing taxes without cutting spending. Business Week, 17 August.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Berman, E.P., Milanes-Reyes, L.M. The Politicization of Knowledge Claims: The “Laffer Curve” in the U.S. Congress. Qual Sociol 36, 53–79 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-012-9242-4