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Stuart Birks

Let’s not kid ourselves – politics and reasoned debate

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It would be nice to believe that the current election campaign would consist of well-informed debate on important issues. Ideally, there would be a good airing of the best alternative policies. Politicians, armed with the facts, would debate openly without being tied to agendas, hidden or otherwise. Let’s be honest, though. That is not what is happening. Nevertheless, according to some theories, the world is rational, everyone is logical, and there is no false information!

If we were to go back two hundred years or so, we would find that logic, aiming to prove, and rhetoric, aiming to persuade, were given equal emphasis in education. Persuasion is central to the operation of politics and is actively pursued through the media.

There are large numbers of PR people employed in the public sector. Political parties do their own polling to monitor public opinion, and ‘push polling’ is used in some countries to sway respondents. ‘Social marketing’ is growing as a specialist area, with numerous taxpayer-funded social marketing campaigns in New Zealand , especially in the area of health and violence (as with “It’s not OK”, http://www.areyouok.org.nz/).

Numerous theories have developed to describe this activity and to explain its effects. Some writers see politics as competition between groups which are aiming to set the policy agenda, promoting their issues and denying alternatives. Others consider ways in which agenda setting is done, ‘framing’ issues so that people see them from their preferred perspective. Here are three examples of prominent perspectives. Global warming is happening, and we must reduce carbon emissions. Maori social problems are a result of colonisation. Family violence is men’s use of force to control women and children. The use of language can be important, promoting key words and phrases that trigger desired responses, such as Labour’s use of ‘hollow men’, ‘flip-flops’, ‘slippery’, and ‘trust’. All parties do this, but the Labour Party has drawn attention to the approach through a paper by Curran (details below).

There is a good reason why views can be influenced in these ways. Most policy issues relate to things about which people have little direct experience. Therefore they have to rely on others for their information. In addition, the issues are not ones that they can do something about individually. Owing to their complexity, the number of people affected, or the costs of intervention, co-ordinated action is needed. So people begin by being poorly informed, and they generally have little incentive to put in much effort to become well informed.

Consequently, they rely on readily available information, such as that provided through the media and by politicians in election campaigns. They are in no position to accurately assess the quality of the information, and are likely to accept the commonly accepted views that they hear, including the views of the people around them. This is what Hardin has called ‘street-level epistemology’. People’s understanding is simply what has been passed on by others, generally with little attempt at verification. This is natural enough. After all, even so-called experts begin by learning what others tell them. However, it does mean that we can be misled.

We can speculate by considering the current election in terms of actions by people who subscribe to these theories about framing, use of language, and setting agendas. What if political strategies were chosen as if it were a game of that nature? Anthony Downs, in his book, An Economic Theory of Democracy, specified a set of propositions based on rational individuals and only accurate information.

We could present alternative propositions based on agendas and shaping views. I summarise some possible propositions here. They are discussed in more detail in my paper at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1257860. There is a key term, ‘traction’, that you will hear in political debate. An issue or idea has traction when sufficient people consider it deserving of attention. It gets media coverage and others respond. There may be enough support to result in a policy response.

So what are the implications? Only so many issues can be on the agenda. There is a limit to the attention people can give, and news bulletins include only a few stories. Politicians can only consider so much new legislation, and the more they consider, the more superficial the assessment. So there a limited number of issues have traction at any one time. Parties aim to achieve traction on their issues and prevent traction on others, and they are more likely to invest in an issue with traction than to generate traction for a new issue. Perspectives can be narrow, with ‘quick fix’ simple solutions.

If traction is so important, we should be concerned about how it is determined. The media play an important role. They are more suited to some kinds of coverage than others. Image tends to dominate over substance, and there is effective imagery that can ‘push buttons’. It is easier to generate traction through celebrity support than through detailed, informed presentation of information. In general, the media are not aiming to change views. Rather, they tend to reinforce the prevailing pattern of issues with traction.

If propositions such as these describe the political scene, there is unlikely to be detailed policy analysis or monitoring, and many problems will only be recognised and addressed when they are too serious to ignore. While it is often said that we get the government that we deserve, there are institutional biases that work against good, reasoned government. These limit the quality of government that can be expected. It may be possible to moderate their effect, but nevertheless, there is a strong likelihood that politics will be dominated by crises. This might help to explain the sub-prime mortgage crisis that is affecting the whole world.

Birks, S. (2008) An Economic Theory of Democracy Revisited – Downs with Traction Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1257860

Curran, C. (2006). Language matters; Setting agendas – taking charge of the language Paper presented at the Otago/Southland Labour Party regional conference. from http://www.whaleoil.co.nz/Files/Language_Matters.pdf.pdf.

Stuart Birks is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, Palmerston North. He is an economist with a focus on policy formulation and implementation.