Sunday, April 18, 2010

The New High School Project

The debate over the wisdom of the new high school project looks very familiar in two fundamental respects. First, the leaders of both sides in this debate are the “usual suspects.” Supporters are led by the town’s elected leaders, who have approached the issue with committees, studies, hearings, and sundry other systematic and careful processes. The opponents are led by the very same people who oppose every proposal that would, or even could, increase local taxes. Second, the opponents’ argument is heavily reliant on questioning the motives, integrity, and even the intelligence of the proponents, while proponents have relied “mostly” on verifiable evidence and careful rational planning. It’s a classic “analysis versus attack” or “policy versus politics” battle in which one side has a decided advantage when the debate focuses on facts, data, and relevant evidence; while the other side’s only viable strategy at this point is to frame the question in motivational and personal terms; to make it an “us versus them” affair.

Those of us who understand and agree with the evidentiary case of proponents, despite the very real and not inconsiderable financial costs, must proceed soberly and wisely in the run up to the election that will help decide the matter. It is very easy to slip into the same mode as the loudest opponents of school improvements. Avoiding personal recriminations in the face of constant, repetitive, personal attacks, misinterpretations, and baseless claims requires the patience of Job. However, when we fail to resist the impulse to “fight fire with fire” we unintentionally help opponents burn down the house. When supporters of good government attack anti-tax, anti-government ARGUMENTS, they must try to be clear about the targets of their rhetorical arrows – the ARGUMENTS, not the arguers.

When supporters of sound policy proposals carelessly neglect the difference between anti-school motives and anti-school arguments, they unintentionally strengthen the otherwise baseless claims of their opponents by giving them grounds to “be offended.” Every voter compelled to include any personal slights in their calculations (i.e. all of us) is a voter that might be unduly swayed by attacks over analysis. Even trying to turn the “umbrage” tables on opponents who traffic in attacks over analysis unintentionally validates this counter-productive frame of reference. Like it or not, every one of us responds to emotional appeals. Every one of us, no matter how schooled or how disciplined, is incapable of totally excluding non-rational factors from our analysis. We are all susceptible to being manipulated by non-rational arguments.

In the argument over the new high school, every reasonable question asked about the project has been answered, along with several unreasonable questions. The real costs of the new high school have been well chronicled, particularly here on LongmeadowBuzz. Reasonable arguments for and against the project are in place and will likely produce a victory for the project at the polls. The only viable strategy left for opponents is to deflect attention from sound analysis onto their personal political narrative in which brave, honest, hard working taxpayers are standing up to the “political elites” in town, who want to drive the elderly residents “on fixed incomes” out of town so that more elitists can move in and further drive out middle income residents. While this looks silly on paper and is immune to credible verification, it can move voters whose attention to local politics is neither focused nor frequent. It also works quite well as a rallying cry for those whose attention is quite focused and frequent, but whose inclination is to oppose the project.

You need look no further than the latest mass movement in American politics, the so-called Tea Party movement, for a clear example of this phenomenon. Whenever specific policy arguments are engaged, the Tea Party perspective looks ridiculous, but when the “us versus them,” or “average Joes versus elites” narrative is combined with classic American ideological rhetoric (i.e. “don’t tread on me,” etc…) the movement preserves its appeal.

When push comes to shove in our debate over the new high school, proponents simply must “turn the other cheek” and be just as repetitive and persistent in citing the facts and evidence as opponents are in trying to goad supporters into validating their “us versus them” narrative. Political success requires us to stick to the issues and to confine any and all personal or emotional claims to “positive” ones. At this point, negativity and neglect of the relevant information are the only things standing in the way of this important project.