Clinton v. Obama: Do Words Matter?

Sunday, January 06, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

When friends and family ask me what I think about the pending Presidential election, I’ve often said that it won’t much matter which Democrat or Republican wins for policy outcomes over the next four years. That is, it may matter which party wins – but not so much which candidate. This seems particularly true on the Democratic side since the policy differences are minor between candidates and Congress will have an important say on priorities and in any major policy changes.

What matters more is how the President uses his moments on stage to set the tone for the policy debates of the future and to begin the hard work of rebuilding the image of government for our own residents, and of the United States for citizens of the world.

With this in mind, I am able to watch debates with relative ease, ignoring squabbles over minor differences in policy proposals, reading or doing other work with the debate playing in the background.

No wonder then that this exchange between Clinton and Obama toward the end of the New Hampshire debate caught my attention.

Do words matter?

Clinton: So, you know, words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action.

You know, what we’ve got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the over-due influence that they have in our government.


OBAMA: Look, I think it’s easy to be cynical and just say, You know what? It can’t be done, because Washington is designed to resist change.

But in fact, there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better.

And I think we’re in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes; not incremental changes, not small changes.

And, you know, so, the truth is, actually, words do inspire, words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy.

Don’t discount that power.

Because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can’t be done, then it doesn’t.

I’m running for president because I want to tell them, Yes, we can, and that’s why I think they’re responding in such large numbers.

I understand the point that Clinton makes here. No one wants a President who utters empty promises followed by deeds in the opposite direction. (Compassionate conservatism anyone?) But, neither do I want a President who undervalues the ability of words and message to inspire. Nor do I want a president who fails to understand the damage that can be done by using words that divide us.

Even those who share values and goals will choose different words to express those goals – and some words ARE better than others.

Consider one of President Clinton’s essential themes: If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn’t be poor. Who can disagree with this? We can understand the problem with this choice of words after living through the debate over welfare policy and reauthorization of the landmark bill Clinton signed. His choice of words to frame both welfare reform and employment benefits evoked and reinforced a dominant perception of our society – that people are poor precisely because they DO NOT work hard. Consequently, the welfare debate has been over whether or not people are working hard enough, not whether the labor market has jobs that make it possible for workers to escape poverty.

I don’t question whether President Clinton had the right goals. The original Clinton proposal for welfare reform is one I would (and did) support. But, because the legislative debate was conducted in the dominant and problematic frame, there was no way for his multi-faceted and nuanced proposal to prevail over one that focused on behavior and “personal responsibility”.

We’ve learned this lesson the hard way. And now we know to want a President who is thinking about the long-term impact of his (or her!) choice of words…a President who considers not only whether particular words can win the legislative debate of the moment, but who is always considering whether those words will also support a progressive policy agenda with broad appeal in the future.

In the New Hampshire debate, Clinton appeared to dismiss this concept, while Obama wasn’t afraid to defend the importance of words. He might have responded (as he did at other times in the debate) with a laundry list of policies that reflect his ability to “translate talk into action and feeling into reality”. Instead, eloquently and persuasively, he asked us not to discount the power of words.

Too Many Pundits (for the Poor) are from Mars, Most Readers are from Venus

Wednesday, January 02, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Washington Monthly’s T.A. Frank has written a provocative commentary on how hard it is to write about “our stuff” in a way that generates readers, interest, and policy progress. He’s writing about one columnist in particular, but the point applies to a broad set of writers – especially DC think tank professionals writing for policymakers and print media. The article’s title is pointed: “Why Is Bob Herbert Boring? The perils of punditry for the powerless”.

Frank makes note of the fact that Herbert is often right – and he’s on our “team”. Yet, being right is clearly not enough. Using Frank’s measures, no one pays much attention to what Herbert writes, even though he is on the New York Times op-ed page and there’s hardly a better platform anywhere. Why not more readers and impact? Frank concludes, in part, that Herbert adds too many stats to his stories about real people. Because Frank notes, it is hard, though not impossible, to interest readers in “the lives of those less fortunate”.

Sadly, history and science make a compelling case that most of us are, indeed, hard-pressed to give a damn.

In the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling performed research demonstrating that people are more likely to be moved by single victims than by statistics. In 2005, the psychologists Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic found the limits of human compassion to be even more irrational and constrained. In their study, students at a university in Pennsylvania were paid five dollars to complete questionnaires on technology. Enclosed with the questionnaire was a seemingly unrelated letter soliciting donations to a hunger relief organization in Africa.

The study’s first conclusion was what the researchers had expected: people are more compassionate when they are told about a specific victim. When respondents were asked to donate money to help feed a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia, they contributed more than twice what they did when just confronted with general statistics on hunger.

But then things got surprising. When Rokia was presented with the statistics, the donations fell by nearly half. Worse still, when the authors asked one set of subjects to perform mathematical calculations and the other set of subjects to describe their feelings when they heard the word “baby,” the subjects who’d done math gave only about half as much to Rokia as the ones who’d thought about babies. Apparently, just thinking analytically makes us stingier. The authors of the study concluded that “calculative thought lessens the appeal of an identifiable victim.”

That’s bad news for Herbert, who’s fond of specific tales paired with statistics. Penetrating the sympathy barrier of readers is possible, but it generally requires a lot of words and time, and a columnist is restricted to 700 words twice a week. Even worse, op-ed pages are by nature tilted toward argument. Surrounded by analysis, a column that seeks our compassion is already in unfriendly soil.

Frank doesn’t quite make it to my next point – one that complicates Herbert’s (and our) dilemma still further: Sympathy isn’t what policy entrepreneurs should aim for anyway. (For much more on this point – see our recent report by Matt Nisbet and Meg Bostrom’s research.)

So, if you cannot use data easily, and using real people’s stories inelegantly leaves writers stuck in the ineffective sympathy zone – what should we do?

This is the question we try to answer daily at The Mobility Agenda.

Every time we talk to media, write a report, give a speech, talk to an advocate or community organizer or academic (basically whenever we communicate!), we’re thinking about our audience and how to share information in a style that changes the outcome. Because we’re tired of spending time writing stuff that’s published and then ignored.

We know how to write in ways that reach an audience that already agrees with us. Frank gives well-deserved plugs to Jason DeParle and Katherine Boo. Reading these two has always inspired me to write more and try harder. Yet, it’s not clear that even the very best writing about real people moves readers to support progressive policy change – especially when it’s about poverty (or welfare!). It apparently does serve to energize the already persuaded (like me) to do better and more. But, in fact, it’s increasingly apparent that focusing media stories on the poor hasn’t resulted in enough support for the policy we, or Herbert, or presumably Frank, think would work to address poverty.

Part of our answer: talk about ALL OF US, not just some of us. A fundamental problem for so many advocates for the powerless is their focus on the powerless as a distinct, and somehow different demographic.

This approach isn’t working. Taking one of Frank’s specific examples - it shouldn’t be that hard to write (or talk) about a federally supported initiative to expand access to health care. It should be obvious to everyone after the recent health care debate: describing programs as “for” the poor leads to arguments about who is poor enough. That’s not the debate we want and it doesn’t lead to the policy result we believe in (affordable, reliable, quality health care for everyone) anyway!

It’s definitely time for pundits (and the rest of us) to try something new. Instead of using our precious energy, time, funding, and media real estate to talk to the already persuaded, let’s get the persuadable to join us. Now we just have to figure out how to talk their language.