11 April 2012
First Published in The Frederick News Post
As Daniel Kahneman writes in his intriguing 2011 book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," people like easy answers. We also think more favorably about items and ideas based on the number of times they are repeated, with more mentions translating to a higher opinion. Facts, in other words, often play a minor supporting role in our decision-making process.Because of those natural tendencies, rhetoric -- and the ability to get the media to pick up a particular phrase and repeat it -- plays a huge role in why certain ideas and policies win and others fail.
Democrats in Maryland implicitly understand this and are great at delivering phrases that reverberate for weeks and sometimes months and years. Think Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's use of "doomsday" to describe a state budget balanced without tax increases. Google "Mike Miller 'doomsday' Maryland" and 677,000 responses pop up. (Remember, he introduced that description only about a month ago.) And think of Gov. Martin O'Malley's use of the word "balance" in almost every speech to describe his approach to taxes, the environment and other issues. A Google search of "O'Malley 'balance' Maryland" retrieves 1.75 million responses.
Can you think of a significant state Republican catchphrase? They often say, "It's a spending problem, not a revenue problem." Google "'spending problem, not a revenue problem' Maryland" and it garners 26,800 responses. This makes sense. A sentence is harder to quote than a word or a short phrase. Combined with the fact that Republicans often repeat Democrats' descriptions, the net effect is that they unwittingly validate their opponents' arguments.
Facts are on Republicans' side. According to newly released census data, tax collections in Maryland in the fourth quarter of 2011 are up 53 percent since the same time period in 2000. Nationally, tax collections are up 43 percent in the same time period. So, both here in Maryland and throughout the U.S., state governments are raking in money despite a massive recession. The problem is that in Maryland and many other states legislators repeatedly choose to spend more than the taxes collected.
Republicans love to dismiss the "liberal media" as the reason this message does not get out. Ironically, however, everyone seems to believe that description of journalists -- in part because numerous reports show reporters lean left. But I wonder if it doesn't have to do more with the fact that the phrase is easy to repeat and has been used millions of times in the press and in everyday conversations -- and as a result, has become true in people's minds irrespective of the studies behind it and whether it makes sense in a particular situation.
If the minority party -- and conservatives in general -- ever hope to change hearts and minds in this state, they need to stop blaming outside forces and rethink how to package their ideas as much as about the ideas themselves. Only then will a fiscally prudent world view have a chance of being heard.