Tag Archives: salience

How Much Do You Care?

In politics, it all comes down to salience. 

We often hear about survey research confirming that most Americans believe X or Y (usually, a relatively liberal policy), and then wonder why we can’t get lawmakers to pass X or Y. The usual cynical answer is money–the folks bankrolling the lawmakers–and there is certainly truth to that.

But the most accurate explanation is salience–or more accurately, the lack thereof. How much do the people expressing their approval of policy X or Y actually care about the issue?

I first realized the importance of the answer to that question several years ago, when a commission co-chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Shepard and former Indiana Governor Kernan concluded that Indiana needed to dispense with the 1008 township offices that had once had multiple duties, but for many years had mainly dispensed poor relief and maintained pauper cemeteries. (California, to the best of my recollection, had 59 townships at the time, reinforcing the argument that Indiana’s 1008 were excessive.) The commission noted that, to the extent that township duties still needed to be performed, the counties could easily take over those responsibilities.

Indiana’s townships were created when the ride to the county seat took half a day by horseback. The townships’ poor relief function preceded creation of federal welfare programs; not only was the need for local relief far less, several research projects showed that it cost taxpayers 1.50+ for every dollar of poor relief the townships were dispensing.

In addition, the Commission’s report noted that every one of those townships was paying a salary to the township trustee and a stipend to the five members of a township board. The League of Women Voters published a study showing that a number of Trustees paid rent on offices that were located in their own garages or other accessory buildings, and a number hired and paid family members as office personnel.

It all added up to a big waste of tax dollars, and the Indiana Chamber fielded a survey that found some 80% of Hoosier voters in favor of the change. The problem was, those voters really didn’t care very much. Reforming political subdivisions was way down on their list of pressing concerns. 

I bet you can guess who did care–the township trustees, and members of those township boards. They cared a lot, and they descended on the legislature in droves. Indiana still has 1008 townships.

So we come to the moral of my story. 

 A clear majority of American voters tell survey researchers that they want to protect abortion rights– at least to some extent. An even larger majority wants meaningful gun control and are unlikely to consider the current possible  “bipartisan agreement” sufficiently meaningful. Although we don’t have research on the number of voters appalled by what we are learning from the hearings being held by the January 6th Committee, it is likely to be a large number–even larger than the millions of votes cast for Joe Biden in 2020–and we can assume that those voters care about preserving American democracy and punishing the bad guys who tried to overturn it.

However, the critical question is: how much do they care? 

The midterms are coming up. Will the millions of Americans who don’t usually bother to cast a ballot go to the polls and send a clear and convincing message to lawmakers? Are these issues salient enough to enough Americans  to get them off their couches? Because if the GOP takes over the House or Senate or both, we can kiss goodby to both American democracy and accountability under the rule of law, let alone any glimmer of hope for imposing ethical standards on the Supreme Court, or curtailing the sale of weapons of war to teenagers.

If history is any guide, I’m not optimistic…..

 

Salience

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?