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Blaming the message, the messagers and the messagees

A new Bloomberg poll finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters gave the wrong answer to three basic questions about the nexus between government and the economy. Specifically:

Although the stimulus package signed by Pres. Obama contained significant tax cuts for 95 percent of working Americans ($800 per married couple, more if qualify various targeted tax cuts, such as those paying college tuition, the unemployed, etc) by about two-to-one likely voters said their taxes had gone up under Obama;

Although the economy has grown for four consecutive quarters (that’s almost a whole year), Americans by a wide margin believe that it has shrunk; and

Although most of the TARP money that bailed out Wall Street has already been paid back, and the current expectation is that the government will end up making a $16 billion profit on that part of the program, 60 percent of respondents say they believe the TARP money is lost for good.

A woman from St. Paul is even used as the symbol of those who believe that Obama is “all about raising taxes.”

These results are all among likely voters, so presumably they are even better informed than the 60 percent of American adults who won’t vote. Oy.

“The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats,” said J.Ann Selzer, president of Selzer and Co., a Des Moines-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. “It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”  

Maybe that’s exactly right, but it seems oversimplified. I don’t believe the Dems have done a great job of what we now call “messaging” during this campaign, but getting accurate information into the minds of the general population has always been difficult. I’ve never quite recovered from the Strib Days experience of writing up a 1998 poll in which Minnesotans were simply asked to name their U.S. Senators. Only 20 percent could do it. And these were Minnesotans, gosh darn it.

I always think of that poll result when people blame the media for the low level of public awareness of whatever it is the blamer thinks the public should know. We scribblers collectively have plenty of shortcomings, but we have not been covering up the names of your U.S. Senators. In fact, those names appear on the front page many times a year in headline type.

It used to be (for real) that 50 percent and up could name their senators. Those numbers headed down about the time that television became the dominant medium of communication. (See Neal Postman: “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”) The internet — the next new dominant medium — is undoubtedly changing how our brains work and what we know just as dramatically, but I haven’t read the book that captures the implication of this transition as brilliantly as Postman captured that one.

As one who has misspent his adult life on what we might call the “informed electorate” project, this stuff feels kinda personal.  On the other hand, getting mad at the electorate for not knowing the stuff you think needs to be known is a dangerous game too. It comes across as arrogant and elitist and alienates the very people whom you would like to have listen to your side of the story.

I can think of ten more asides to the problem raised by this poll and the ongoing problem it represents, but I’ll restrain myself. Dems are about to take a midterm butt-whipping, possibly of historic proportions and the temptation to blame the message or the messager or the messagees will be powerful. I leave you with two somewhat contradictory quotes from Winston Churchill:

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute talk with the average voter.”


 “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


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Comments (27)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/29/2010 - 01:38 pm.

    Separating out TARP does a disservice to the actual cost of the government bailout of the banks. The total cost of the bailouts was about $4 trillion, only half of which has been paid back. People might not understand the nuance of Tarp, but they understand it is ludicrous to say the bank bailout money has been paid back.

  2. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 10/29/2010 - 01:49 pm.

    As someone who spent 35 years as a social studies teacher, I’ll accept part of the responsibility for the situation.

    Not because us social studies teachers don’t spend enough time teaching about state capitals, history timelines, or government organization charts, but because we’ve never spent enough time teaching about the basic assumptions upon which democratic-republican government is based.

    But just try to get a school board or a principal or even parents to allow much time for something that can’t be measured on a multiple-choice exam.

    Well, at least that’s what I think.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/29/2010 - 02:16 pm.

    BTW – the unpaid part of the Wall Street Bailout – still about $2 trillion – is about equal to 75 percent of the entire US federal government spending (pre-crash) of $2.7 trillion.

  4. Submitted by Ed Stych on 10/29/2010 - 03:55 pm.

    One of my favorites: Something like 55 percent of people who voted for Obama thought that the GOP controlled Congress in 2008.

  5. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/29/2010 - 04:06 pm.

    Mr Levine – The graphics in your link, if accurate, point to another fact: that tending to the needs of the financiers is always bipartisan ($2 trillion ante’d up under Bush, another $1.5 trillion under Obama). The on-line dialogue, on MinnPost as elsewhere, all too often is of the “your side is wrong, so mine must be right” variety, when in fact both houses deserve the pox. And here, of course, is just one of the many ways in which the mainstream media (including MinnPost) ARE deeply culpable … where the reporting is all about the horserace, objectivity means not calling out lies, the public is given the salacious instead of the meaningful, and the leftward edge of the Overton window is strenuously maintained at the center-Right.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/29/2010 - 05:02 pm.

    Amen, to Mr. Wedding and Eric both.

    My own 30 classroom years were in another state, but I retired in ’96, when kids with cell phones were still a rarity and statewide testing of meaningless trivia was just beginning, and I take the ongoing ignorance of the public kinda personally, too.

    It’s been valuable to me to serve as a citizen volunteer in local government. Among the things I discovered – to no one’s surprise but mine – was that local government doesn’t operate ANYTHING like the description in a government textbook. Throw away all the charts and graphs about “How a Bill Becomes a Law” and “Strong Mayor/City Council” government versus “Weak Mayor/City Council” government versus “City Manager/City Council” government.

    Personalities and personal agendas make a LOT of difference, and – also to no one’s surprise but mine – so does what I’ll call “public policy education.” People are often elected without having any realistic idea how their office and political jurisdiction operate. A big part of the job of the professional staff of just about any political entity is to educate the newly-elected whatever s/he is about the real duties of their new position.

    All of which is only tangentially relevant to Eric’s point. That Churchill guy, he could write (and speak) a little bit, and I always nod my head in agreement to both of those contradictory quotes.

    Then I shake my head in dismay at the next announcement of the ignorance of the general public.

    Personally, I partition the blame, if blame is going to be assigned. Some of it should go to the public, many of whom seem willfully ignorant of things that genuinely affect their lives on a daily basis. It’s been said that we get the government we deserve, and I’m afraid that comes uncomfortably close to the truth more often than I’d like.

    Some of it should go directly to the people who write the scripts for political ads during election season. We’ll seldom find more tortured use of the language, more lies by omission, more innuendo and half-truths, than we’ll encounter in a political ad. With the election just a few days away, I don’t need to provide examples – they’re all around us.

    Speaking directly to the specifics of the national issues and programs that Eric raises, a sizable chunk of this part of the blame should fall – this time – on the shoulders of Republican operatives. The “Party of No” has done a superb job of dissembling, half-truths, and outright lies, and has done it so skillfully that the “average voter” referred to by Mr. Churchill above has no idea s/he is making election decisions based on what I’ll politely label as falsehood.

    Those things said, however, a similar chunk of the blame for public ignorance, at least in this election cycle, is squarely on the shoulders of the Democrats, whose response to right-wing demagoguery has been the most timid and inept I’ve seen since I took part in my first election decades ago. The outright wimpiness of the public relations/communications effort from the Democratic side of the election story should embarrass everyone from President Obama down to the lowest partisan officeholder in Minnesota, whatever position that might be. The money would be well-spent if Democrats swallowed their pride and made a point of hiring the same PR firms for 2012 that are currently delivering the Republican message so effectively.

    Finally, some goes to the media. While raking in truckloads of money for political advertising, broadcast television has provided little real information, and outside of a literal handful of programs, the “commercial” stations have failed miserably – as they typically do – to serve the public interest. An exception might be Fox News, which, by feeding the “conservative” viewpoint to its regular audience, has done a better job of “public” service, at least in a limited sense, than other TV stations.

    Outside the Governor’s race, the ‘Strib and other media have provided pitifully inadequate coverage of the campaigns for other statewide offices, as well as those local and regional races that affect me personally. As a newbie to Minnesota, I’d like as much information as I can get about both issues and personalities in those races, but stories about the race for Attorney-General or State Auditor, County Commissioner or School Board, or even what the Lieutenant Governor candidates are like, have been short, obscure, or totally lacking altogether, and I’ve been LOOKING for them. Putting the “Voter’s Guide” in the Wednesday paper, nearly a week before the election, is a huge mistake. It should be part of the Sunday edition, reaching more people and in more timely fashion.

  7. Submitted by jeff pemper on 10/29/2010 - 05:51 pm.

    Ed at #4, Repulicans may not have had a majority in Bush’s last two years, But your point was to blame the Dem’s for the downturn? I wasn’t sure.
    As you know, the Dem’s passed NO Legislation with Bush in office. None. So let’s start there.

    You do know that many on your side think that tax’s have gone up under Obama. That was the topic of this post.
    Would you as a rational poster consider those on your side to be Low Information Voters?

    I just want to see where you stand.
    I welcome the debate.

  8. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/29/2010 - 06:36 pm.

    The messaging from local Dems really has been terrible this cycle. Especially Clark’s strange focus on Bachmann’s congressional salary and travel around the country. Probably the biggest case of talking past the electorate that I’ve ever seen.
    I think that the tax argument is a little bit more complicated though. There have been specific tax raises, like on cigarettes, that certainly hit low wage earners. And there are parts of the health care bill that will also raise taxes on everyone. We’re close to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the current power structure hasn’t ended that. If you use a fairly narrow definition and time period then you can make the ‘no taxes’ argument. But it isn’t all that cut and dried.
    I share the general worry about civic knowledge. It pains me to think that so many of otherwise very educated citizens still believe that Bush lied us into war. Or that wanting to limit government is somehow a clouded racist opinion. But what can you do?

  9. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 10/29/2010 - 08:28 pm.

    Another aspect to this is the number of people who can’t name their own senators from Minnesota, but know the names of Senate candidates in other states (such as Deleware and Nevada) where they don’t have a vote. In other words, people are choosing to receive over and over again the sensational news (if it can be called that after the first iteration) from elsewhere, rather than genuinely relevant, but perhaps less sensational, news from near home.

  10. Submitted by David Willard on 10/29/2010 - 10:08 pm.

    Isn’t that why Obama got elected? Because voters thought empty “hope and change” promises would transform their lives? As Dems funnel money to potential voters, protect the special unions and ignore real job-creating businesses, we expect the voters to continue to stupidly vote Democrat? Why? Republican politicians won’t make your dreams come true either. They may dismay workers from choosing government jobs or union jobs to give them money for life. Seiu, afscme, etc, etc have one goal, to break America for their goals.

  11. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 10/30/2010 - 12:48 am.

    “Seiu, afscme, etc, etc have one goal, to break America for their goals.”

    So their goal is to “break America” for their goals… which include “breaking America.” At least you can say one thing for the unions: they double-check their work!

    Seriously though, do you really think that labor unions – let alone any economic interest of any size – have “one goal, to break America?” Is there a country on the planet that has been “broken” by labor unions?

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/30/2010 - 12:51 am.

    Eric’s comment is one of the reasons I return to MinnPost. Comments are provocative and good too.

    Unquestionably, the messaging from the Dems (who are not in my opinion fairly equated with progressives or liberals) has been terrible. It’s been defensive and unfocused. I blame the President (and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel) who promised much more than he was prepared to deliver or did deliver in his time in office. The whole health care issue and debate was handled atrociously. It should have been obvious that Obama’s goal of trying to end the divisive gridlock in DC would go nowhere once Bachmann and the other Tea Partiers came out within 2-3 months of his swearing in to announce that they would oppose everything he was for. Where did Obama ever come to any idea he could reason with these people? Apparently, Obama thought he could end the divisiveness and poisoned atmosphere in DC with his charm and presence. It has evidently not occurred to him even yet that the Republican right’s strategy is to simply oppose everything he tries to do. The public complains but gives him absolutely NO credit for trying to be conciliatory. I was prepared to accept the feeble compromise that was achieved on health care but all Obama did is squander his mandate, casting pearls before the swine of the Right who had absolutely no reason or motive to engage in dialogue with someone they view as an alien, an interloper or a traitor.

  13. Submitted by Fred Haeusler on 10/30/2010 - 10:16 am.

    Partial blame goes to a lazy media, a media who will blankly report without challenging or questioning what’s being said. They are no longer doing their job — oddly enough, only the Daily Show will across the board call our political entities on their lies.

  14. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/30/2010 - 10:21 am.

    Jon Erik K: I believe President Obama read a good (or so I’m told) book at the wrong time – right before the 2008 election. The book was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of how Abraham Lincoln filled his cabinet with “enemies” who did not agree with him or his policies as a way to broaden his perspective on the very serious issues of his time.

    Lincoln just did a better job than Obama of making his own decisions on what he knows is better rather than letting right-wing pro-war cabinet members and advisors influence him too much. It might have been better if Obama had read, for instance, Andrew Basevich and Robert Reich and Paul Krugman.

  15. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/30/2010 - 02:44 pm.

    Most of the comments here seem to me to be perfect illustrations of the point voters are trying to make:

    If you want me to turn hostile, disparage my intelligence and suggest I just don’t know what I am talking about, regardless of my personal experiences.

    If you want me to dismiss your thinking out of hand, lard your statements with half-truths, insulting language, and disdainful claims.

    If you want me to give no attention to your words at all, betray a very lopsided (and to me, very ignorant) view of every event and person who thinks as you do, and an equally lopsided and dismissive view of anyone who disagrees with you. I will likely dismiss anything you say as water from a contaminated well. When the saints are all on one side, someone is preaching to the choir.

    If I don’t know the name of my senator, ask me if I believe it would make a single bit of difference in my life if I did, and if I believe s/he would care one whit about what I thought. I probably can’t name the planets, either, and for the same reason. Ask me to remember the last time ANY politician even at the city level actually listened to ME.

    If the media spiel about candidates and office holders, but always with an obvious slant, why blame me if I tune them out? I may not KNOW the truth, but I don’t expect to get it from them: they are only out for a “story” or a “narrative” and could care less about providing the whole truth. That’s how they were taught in the ivory tower schools of advocate journalism.

    EB, though much more slanted since coming to MinnPost, still does a better job than most, which is why I come to this site.

  16. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2010 - 07:10 pm.

    Since no votes have been counted yet, neither you nor I have any idea what MOST voters (as opposed to talk show tongues) really want.
    We’ll know Tuesday night.

  17. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 10/31/2010 - 02:04 am.

    Bernice Vetsch (#15) – I think you’re right.

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/31/2010 - 08:31 pm.

    This is one of the keys to America’s apparent inability to do much of anything about anything, lately: the dominant, “mainstream” conversations in media and politics are frequently discussing a parallel reality whose shape is based on cherished/convenient myths rather than facts.

  19. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/01/2010 - 07:25 am.

    I’m afraid it’s become too late for rational discourse in this country. As Richard says, there are “parallel” realities – conservatives and liberals can’t agree on anything. I know this will anger some on this site, but the problem is almost all with authoritarian conservatives. As but one example, Peder DeFor says it pains him that so many people believe Bush lied us into war. But Peder – he did! The notion that people like Peder lament our divisions yet are so wrong about something so basic I think makes Eric’s point.

  20. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/01/2010 - 07:59 am.

    Richard, you’re right about some of that. But take another look at the recession question. Most people probably think of ‘recession’ as an overall term for an economy that’s in a funk though it isn’t as bad as a ‘depression’. The technical definition doesn’t mean as much when people are focused on terrible unemployment numbers, continued problems with the housing market and a huge explosion of debt that will have to be repaid eventually. In the face of the really big bad things, they aren’t interested in tiny increments of growth that keep us out of the technical range of ‘recession’. It’s easy to see why people responded as they did. They gave the more important answer.

    Bernice, I have to admit that I always enjoy your posts. If only Obama had gotten rid of the overwhelming conservative lean to his cabinet it’d be smooth sailing right now. That’s wonderful! (Is it too much to hope that you’re a consultant for some high powered Dems?)

  21. Submitted by steven gray on 11/01/2010 - 09:05 am.


  22. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/01/2010 - 10:15 am.

    @ John #16:
    Let’s not forget that the right wing similarly disparages all liberal thought in much the same way.

    Do you recall a conservative commentator who wrote a book calling all liberals traitors (yes, it was in the title).

    Do you recall the GOP candidate for Governor here in Minnesota say that one could not be a freedom-loving American AND a Democrat?

    I could go on and on…

  23. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/01/2010 - 12:00 pm.

    John (#16): Truth well stated.

    I come to MinnPost and contribute to the conversation not as a choir member, but as a pagan in the back row. It must get boring waiting for a conservative viewpoint to pounce on. As Greg so eloquently stated (#13), “But these people are not functional.” That’s me; I’m not functional. Were I a politician, wouldn’t that be a great sound bite?

    With regards to the uninformed state of the electorate, I blame the people. Many are unengaged to the point that their voting decisions are based on a sound bite, or a negative ad that aired during a reality TV episode. The popularity of negative ads is due to their effectiveness. If they failed to work, they would go away. The electorate rewards this form of marketing.

    We in Minnesota, with 7% unemployment, are somewhat insulated from the heavy job losses that are fact in states like California (12%), Nevada (14%), Michigan (13%), Florida (12%). Folks in those state are hoping for some change.

  24. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/01/2010 - 12:33 pm.

    Peder (#21) asks, “Is it too much to hope that you’re a consultant for some high-powered Dems?”

    Thanks for such a complimentary question, Peder. Would that it were so for many of us.

    I have found, though, that Betty McCollum, my Rep. in Congress, and her staff actually do read my e-mails, proving that it doesn’t hurt to try!

  25. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/01/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    (#11)Jesse Mortenson says:
    Is there a country on the planet that has been “broken” by labor unions?”

    Well, I could mention France, where they are currently trying. And then Greece, where they are still attempting to keep nation crashing benefits in place.

    Labor unions don’t really try to break a country, but by their single minded focus on preserving and amplifying any benefit they have ever won, the cost to the citizens or country be darned, when they are powerful enough they in fact work for that goal.

    It must be agreed that most unions, smaller usually, have enough on their hands to keep from being broken by the more powerful government and corporate interests. And even relatively powerful unions like the flight controllers have found they are not invulnerable in the face of determined opposition.

    Powerful or not, however, it is a rare union that will consider anything but its (not its members) interests, like the auto makers with Ford.

  26. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 11/01/2010 - 02:05 pm.

    I respectfully suggest that the media bears part of the blame for public—shall I say “misunderstanding” rather than “ignorance”? The media decides what to stress and what to relegate to the inside page. False charges get endless play, the more “out there” the better. It’s much more interesting to read outrageous claims than the dull truth and thus the former get extensive coverage while the latter gets short shrift. Thus misinformation is planted in the public mind, takes root and becomes very difficult to dislodge. Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment is the prototype of this phenomenon. After endless repetition of the charge, people no longer hear “Sarah Palin says there are death panels”; they hear “there are death panels.”

  27. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/01/2010 - 02:59 pm.

    I think the media is a willing accomplice, as they provide what is popular to the people. There is a fine line between news and reality TV. As the media must compete for ratings to earn the advertisers’ dollars, they provide the most popular product possible.

    The shrinking electorate that is interested in forming informed opinions, ferrets out sources of real information.

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