Friday, April 16, 2010

Linguistics, Social Research and Tax Protests

One of the running little quarrels in our household is over the use, and misuse, of tools.   In my opinion, kitchen knives are for preparing and consuming food -- not opening packages from UPS.  In my opinion, Phillips-head screwdrivers are for use on Phillips-head screws -- not as awls or paper punches.  Lois, on the other hand, believes that handiness trumps original purpose.  So be it; ne'er these twains shall meet, but thankfully a marriage is made of firmer stuff.

Democratic government, alas, is a more fragile thing.  Its price is not just eternal vigilance, but careful maintenance.  Misusing any of its many tools of maintenance is dangerous.

Take social research -- polls, focus groups, data analysis.  Think of such research as a handy digital camera to be used for capturing, with fair accuracy, what the public is thinking at any given moment about certain questions.  Properly used, that camera takes good pictures, sharp, in focus, capturing even subtle details.  It's a top-of-the line model, with complicated settings for various situations, not a generic point-and-shoot.  Its best pictures emerge when it's used by trained professionals.  Then you can study them and draw some conclusions beyond the obvious, such as that they were taken on a sunny day, or in mountains, a city, whatever.  But if the photographer has used a filter, or run the image through Photoshop before showing it to you, the image you see will be false. Nevertheless, the social research "camera" can be a useful tool in politics and in government.

But there are polls, and there are polls. George Lakoff, an expert in linguistics and social research, has written a paper about two California polls on the same issue whose results differ enormously.  This was the situation: The California constitution requires that certain legislation must have a two-thirds majority in the state legislature in order to pass.  Thus -- as has been the case recently when the state struggled for solutions to a grave financial crisis -- 37% of the legislators have been able to block remedial legislation supported by 63%.  A referendum has been proposed to amend the constitution so that only a simple majority -- one vote more than half -- would be needed.  As is usual these days, people on both sides decided that the issue should be poll-tested.

Depending upon how the questions were phrased -- whether filters were placed on the camera lens, and if so, which filters -- the polls disclosed that 72% of voters favored the idea; that 63% favored it; that 58% favored it, and that  56% opposed it.  Same question; different words; same polling methods, dramatically different results.

How could this be?  An important part of the answer is that the legislation that now requires a two-third majority for passage covers all bills affecting state revenue by taxation. Opponents of the amendment -- essentially the 37% minority in the legislature, and their supporters --  know from experience that tax is a powerfully negative word.  And so their pollster phrased the questions in ways that seemed to ask. would you be willing to pay more taxes  if the legislature were able to impose them with only a simple majority rather than the two-thirds vote required now? 

The proponents' pollster, on the other hand, simply asked if they favored or opposed a constitutional amendment that said: "All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote."

That's the one that got 72% support.

Lakoff's paper provides a key to understanding the phenomenon of yesterday's Tax Day protests.  A TV journalist -- a real journalist, not a performer -- asked a guest expert why these people were protesting when in fact, if they were typically middle class, their income had increased in the last year, the percentage they paid in taxes had decreased, and the dollar total of their tax bill had decreased?

The answer lay not in tax law, but in the Lakoff lesson.  The right wing has learned how to control the vocabulary of the debate, the phrasing of the questions, the filters on the lenses, and used that control to turn on hot-buttons of racial hatred, class envy and self-deceit. That's what took to the streets yesterday.  "Taxes" is just another bad word for what really ticks them off.

With that influence bubbling up from below, and corporate wealth percolating down, elections are wrongly won and lost. American democracy, or what's left of it, declines the more.

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