Thursday, September 25, 2008

Skippy's Stumped by Stump Speeches...

I spent the majority of yesterday afternoon at a rally for the Obama/Biden ticket in Jeffersonville, Indiana, mostly because Joe Biden was going to be around (and partly because the rally was a block from where I work and I was parked in anyway). I remain rather enthusiastic about the prospect of an Obama presidency, but attending the rally reminded me of why it's anathema for political scientists to unreservedly support candidates. My years of college, combined with my time as a skeptic, has left me with a profound love of citations. I like to know where quotes and figures come from, if only because I've been mortified more than once to learn that I've quoted as fact something that turned out not to be true because I had heard it, without proper citations, from a source that I trusted. Perhaps that's why I was rather put off by Biden's speech. I wanted some nuance, but all I got was "Them bad! We good!".

Maybe I just don't get the whole political rally thing. I desperately want people who make a claim to then back it up with some sort of verifiable source, while a political rally seems to be more of a call-and-response sort of event. It's not entirely different from a professional wrestler heckling the crowd. For example, Biden made the claim that the McCain tax plan would tax as income the value of an individual's employer-provided health insurance. That's true - it's part of McCain's plan to encourage people to privately buy their health insurance and was discussed extensively back in May. However, it appears to be the case that this plan would only appreciably increase taxes for the handful of workers with extremely swank health insurance through their employers (and, to be fair, people in areas of the country where health coverage is the most expensive.) (Source.)

While the plan would result in higher per-check taxes for most employees, McCain would try to offset this at tax time by offering relatively high refundable tax credits. Unfortunately, that's not how it was sold at the rally - At the rally it was sold as an across-the-board rise in taxes for everyone and no mention was made of the credit program. Keep in mind that I'm not sold on the plan, but I'm troubled by the way it was presented. (There's also a more recent op-ed piece on the plan here by a dude that looks like a zombie.) I suppose stump speeches aren't the place for long discussions of tax policy, but I also know that for most voters attending a stump speech is the most intimately they'll ever follow any part of the campaign. It's disheartening to me to think about how many people will be casting their votes in November based on a sound byte claim that they never bothered to investigate further.

It's also easy to get sucked into the us vs. them mentality of modern American politics, and in all honesty I'm guilty as charged on that count as much as anyone else. That being said, the rally I attended brought all that into focus for me in a troubling way. There's just something fundamentally bothersome to me about standing in the midst of what is nominally a political discussion and hearing the crowd erupt into a chorus of boos at the mere mention of one candidate's name while cheering wildly every time the other candidate is so much as brought to mind. Much to my disappointment, there was no small amount of that going on yesterday. It was doubly embarrassing because I complained loudly to my friends during the RNC because the crowd was catcalling wildly whenever Obama was mentioned at all by the Republican speakers - clearly a liberal audience would be better behaved than that - but there I stood yesterday watching exactly the same obnoxious behavior from my Democratic Hoosier neighbors.

All this has convinced me that the political process is better followed from a distance, so as to lessen the power of emotional responses and help avoid the oft-underestimated influence of crowd synergy that has a way of growing to absolutely leviathan proportions at rallies and similar events. Alas, most people on either side of the political spectrum have neither the interest nor the time to follow the election season properly. Much to my chagrin, it will almost certainly be stump speeches and sound byte politics that decide the outcome of the elections, and regardless of who wins the country will be a little worse off because intelligent discussion will once again have been trumped by sloganeering.

Some readers may find it interesting to check out a website called Politifact that is devoted to examining, in some depth, the claims made by the various candidates in their advertising campaigns.

1 comment:

Jay said...

The dynamics of political rallys are very similar to those of concerts, sporting events, and religious services in that folks just get caught up and swept along in the moment. You're quite correct in that it's all about the emotional response in such a setting - not about fact-checking and critical evaluation.