It doesn’t seem to matter how thoughtful, well prepared or well-crafted a policy is. Or whether—after bouts of arm-twisting, waves of lobbying and compromises made and re-made in back rooms—it can finally be passed by elected democratic representatives and signed into law. What matters is the sales plan. For without that, the public can be swayed against the best laid plans of mice and men…even earnest, honest efforts marshalled on its collective behalf.
It is possible, for example, to convene a diverse group of national experts, who have experience designing policies, and groups of leaders who have successfully implemented such policies, and to test their experiences against the work of analysts and academics and practitioners in the field in question. Yet in the end, it is the sales plan that matters. Otherwise, all this groundwork, conducted in good faith, may fail to garner public support.
I hate to say this, because it sounds so cynical. But I feel as though I’ve been watching such a Kafkaesque scene unfold before my eyes for the last two years. So much work, so many people, so much experience, so much creative energy amassed in efforts to solve authentic problems (whether those problems are the economic downturn, the paucity of jobs, the unregulated financial structures, the West’s self-destructive addiction to oil, global warming, growing poverty or the exorbitant costs of U.S. health care) eventually gets placed on one side of the scale. Detractors and critics stand on the other side. I’m not sure where the media stand, at least those not standing with the detractors and critics.
Yet the critics don’t even have to read the bill or the policy at issue, or even know the actual claims and arguments involved. They need no experience of their own and no ideas of their own in order to weigh in effectively. All they have to do is plant doubts. Like weeds, these seem to have a regenerative life of their own and do a lot of their destructive work for them.
The critics doubt that this new idea, bill, or law will even solve the problem. (It won’t work.) Or more specifically, they doubt it will solve the problem at a cost they find agreeable. (It costs too much.) Or they doubt it will help without causing a host of other problems, perhaps far worse than the one in question. (It’s worse than doing nothing.) The critics need no proof for any of these claims, mind you. For it is in the leaden nature of doubt to weigh in substantially without the bother of verification. Doubt undermines; it doesn’t attack.
The critics express doubts about the process too: doubt that the method of coming up with the idea or law was appropriate, applicable to their particular region, was comprehensive, complies with the constitution, or at least with what the framers thought. (Doubters never doubt that they know what the framers thought.) Critics doubt the method was fair, transparent or conducted in a way once promised.
Meanwhile, the problem waiting to be solved will not merely persist, but will worsen, while the doubters ply their trade. Doubt is a power game in which the stakes can be great but, for the doubter, the costs can be virtually nothing: no energy, no facts, no preparation. Doubters are masters of the anecdote. One or two is usually enough to plant a doubt: “I know a guy who…” “One of my neighbors tried something like that and….” Mounds of facts and multi-year studies can be toppled by such anecdotes if they fall on willing ears.
Doubt can undermine the efforts of others, as effectively as lying or yarn spinning (Remember the supposed “death panels” in the health care law? It doesn’t matter now that there never were such things). Doubt can be as effective as an accusation: When did you stop beating your wife? Both send one’s opponent scrambling to marshall the evidence, while the doubter smiles and tells stories or shakes his head.
Two things especially trouble me about the politics of doubt. First that it is such a formidable weapon. Like a cheap shot well aimed and well timed, it proves effective time and time again, like a daily car bomb in an unexpected place that keeps a town in line. Second, I’m troubled that so much good is obliterated by the politics of doubt. Why do people fall for such tactics? Why don’t they trust the facts and the work and testimony of lifelong practitioners over the doubts and anecdotes of politicos? Why don’t the leaders who convene the experts—whose ideas and experience lead to sound policy—also line up the nation’s best communicators as a sales force to combat the doubters and liars and naysayers?
There’s a saying, “Build it and they will come.” In this case the builders are those who would solve national problems by coming up with practical solutions. And when they do, the doubters will come.
Karen Sue Smith