These days it seems little falls outside partisan bickering. According to Andrew Lakoff and Eric Klinenberg (Theory & Society, 2010) even “objective” systems of risk measurement, designed to protect us from future terrorist attacks, fail to escape the clutches of the much-maligned “politics as usual.”
Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was created to bolster America’s national security. The new agency was to determine the level of risk cities face and allocate funds accordingly. However, as its systems of risk diagnosis were unveiled, skepticism remained. Critics were quick to highlight inconsistencies like a drop in funding for New York City, but a boost for Oklahoma, which needed to protect “national treasures” like the Frontier Fun Park. Homeland Security’s response? Make the system more complex and advertise its lack of politics.
Lakoff and Klinenberg argue this case is in line with larger policy trends. Statistics and bureaucratic rationality are seen as the cure-all when agencies are confronted with public scrutiny. Rather than politics disappearing, they are simply pushed backstage, and decisions that seem rational, measurable, and free from partisan fighting are often the most political. So, next time you see complex statistics in the news, it’s worth looking for the politicians behind the numbers.