Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fact-Based Politics

     "What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that--" 
     "Yeah," I said. "I heard the speech. But they don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-Almighty....Tell 'em anything. But for Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds." 

         Robert Penn Warren
            "All the King's Men" 

That's what you might call the Jack Burden theory of politics, and a few pages later it becomes the Willy Stark theory of politics. Warren stacks the deck, of course; any speech that contains the words "ratio" and "index" is bound to be a stinker, let alone both in the same sentence. 

But a version of this theory, a sort of Jack Burden Lite, is commonly applied even to voters who are not uneducated, poor, or living in the 1930s. That theory says that speeches should appeal primarily to emotions and not bore voters with a lot of facts. Basically, you should emulate Reagan and have touching or heart-wrenching stories to drive home your points.

I don't know that this theory is wrong. But I keep noticing how the political debate in this country is shaped by voters' ignorance of simple facts. For example:

1. The U.S. does not have the longest life expectancy in the world, nor the second longest. It has the 41st longest. It does not have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, nor the second-lowest. It has the 41st lowest. (The exact rankings vary a bit depending on the source, but in any case, we're behind Cuba.)

2. If the U.S. spent as much on health care as the second-most-expensive country in the world, we would spend around $8,000 per household less than we're spending now. That other country has universal health care and better statistics on life expectancy and infant mortality than we do.

3. Less than one-fifth of third-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles are fluent in Spanish, and 96% prefer to speak English at home.

4. If your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. before the twentieth century, they came at a time when there were no restrictions on immigration by country of origin (only racial restrictions on Chinese). Even if they came in the twentieth century, they probably had refugee status if they came from a Communist country. If your ancestors faced the restrictions of immigrants today, you probably wouldn't be here.

5. The ten years from 2000 to 2009 had the slowest economic growth of any decade since the Great Depression.

6. The top marginal tax rate in the 1950s was over 90%.

Obviously, any of these bald facts needs a little elaboration to help the audience see the policy implications. But any competent speechwriter can do that, and even tug at the heartstrings a little once the basic facts are established.

It is a mystery to me why people who have the facts on their side are so reticent about using them. The biggest offender is of course President Obama, and from the outside it's hard to figure out why.

One factor may be the apparent allergy in American politics to talking about other countries, except as adoring supporters. But why not get that old competitive spirit going? If we care about being number one at the Olympics, why not in health? Education? Infrastructure? Or if not number one, how about number five or six? If pride won't work, how about shame?

Another factor may be the strange reluctance of this Administration to talk to the public at all. Who dreamed that a president famous for being articulate would hold so few press conferences or Oval Office addresses? I don't have my finger on the pulse of the American electorate. But it certainly appears that part of the anger we are seeing today ("elites," "taking back our country," etc.) is about feeling cut out of the loop. You can't listen to each of hundreds of millions of people individually, but you can reduce their alienation a lot by talking to them.

For democracy to work, people need to know the facts. Those who don't have the facts on their side may have to resort to peddling myths. Those who do have the facts on their side, however, have a patriotic obligation to put them before the public. The country needs more than comforting or infuriating fantasies.

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