Wednesday, Emmis Communication’s chief Jeff Smulyan came in to address my class in “Media and Public Affairs.” It was a wide-ranging discussion, focusing primarily upon current business challenges posed by changing technologies, consolidation of ownership and the like, as well as the contemporary policy environment. When a student asked why it was so difficult to pass laws even when those measures were favored by significant majorities of the electorate, Jeff’s response pointed to the importance of salience.
Salience simply means the importance we attach to a particular issue. We have an excellent example of its importance here in Indiana; when Governor Daniels convened the Kernan-Shepard Commission to study government reorganization, one of its recommendations was elimination/consolodation of Indiana’s 1008 townships. Townships are an artifact of the days when travel to the county seat (by horseback) took half a day. Their responsibilities have steadily shrunk, and today they do little but run (some) fire departments and administer (with documented inefficiency) poor relief. Poll after poll confirmed that most Indiana voters agreed with the Commission. Abolishing townships should have been a no-brainer–except we still haven’t managed to do so.
Why? Salience, that’s why.
Although a large majority of voters agreed that townships should go–that they wasted money better used elsewhere–it was a rare individual for whom this was a burning issue. For the Township Trustees and members of their Advisory Boards, however, it was issue #1. Eliminating townships would eliminate the livliehoods of the Trustees (and the relatives many of them employ). It would eliminate the inflated fees paid to many Advisory Board members for attending three or four meetings a year. They focused like lasers on lawmakers, marshalling their forces, bringing in people to testify, hiring lobbyists and calling in political favors. For them, the issue was salient. And we still have townships.
In Washington, this same scenario plays over and over. Most of us disapprove of the special tax breaks that benefit Big Oil, but how many of us have written or called our Senators or Representatives about it? Spent money lobbying for repeal? Very few. But Big Oil (and Big Pharma and Big Banking, etc.) certainly have. It’s not unexpected that people will rally to defend their financial interests, but when those with lots of resources focus those resources on derailing a proposed bill, the likely result is that the bill will be derailed.
On those rare occasions when one of these issues becomes salient to a sizable number of voters, it’s possible to win these contests. The issue is: how do you make “good government” salient?