From the Mouths of Babes….

Okay, so maybe not babes. Actually, graduate students.

Where I teach, at SPEA-IUPUI, students have the option of enrolling in “Directed Studies,” essentially, tutorials in which a professor supervises student research that culminates in a relatively lengthy and (hopefully) analytical paper on a subject that the student wishes to explore.

I recently worked with a student who wanted to understand why lower-income Americans so often vote against their own economic self-interest.

The paper he turned in gave evidence of considerable research, and it made a number of very good points. He gave me permission to share a couple of his more intriguing conclusions.

For example, he looked closely at Paul Ryan’s 2012 proposed budget, and the analysis of that budget by the Congressional Budget office. As widely reported, the plan proposed massive savings to be generated by “adjusting” Medicaid and turning Medicare into a “voucher” system. It also dramatically reduced corporate and individual tax rates, while purportedly “growing overall revenue…What was not included, however, was the way Mr. Ryan intended to grow this revenue.”

These specifics would seem to be particularly important, since the plan made very clear that tax receipts would plummet and defense spending would increase. As my student recognized, however,  actually identifying specifics–in this case, specifying the programs that would be cut and the extent of those cuts–would spell political doom.

“This is an example of calculated policy ambiguity. When presented to less educated voters or those who do not possess the means or time to fact-check its claims, it appears as a viable way to aid our country in the face of mounting debt. However, when examined closely it reveals a strategy of political gamesmanship and a budget plan that would hurt most those its simplified talking points are aimed to attract.”

A second tactic pinpointed in the paper revolved around the deliberate use of religion to divert focus from bread-and-butter issues–the use of hot-button “wedge issues” to obscure the economic harms likely to flow from other, less emotionally-freighted policies and positions. The paper cited research showing that religiosity is more important than income, sex, age or ethnicity in predicting support for conservative causes.

So. Bright shiny objects (Stop the “homosexual agenda”!! Birth control means sex without consequences!! War on Christmas!!) plus “calculated economic ambiguity.”

Sounds about Right.