Don’t Let the Precise be the Enemy of the Good
Ed Walz (Former Staff)
Monday’s POLITICO has a great Jeremy Herb story about the messaging tension between precision and emotion. Though the story is about defense funding, the same questions apply to education, child abuse and neglect, or any other children’s issue.
At issue is the tendency of defense hawks in and around Congress to use the term “sequester,” when describing the Pentagon’s budget caps. The fact is that sequestration is no longer in effect, so using what the author terms “the S-word” is at least hyperbolic and at most flat-out wrong. But Herb also touches on what is, for me, a more interesting question: does that matter?
Critics say it does. They suggest using “sequestration” amounts to fearmongering – an assessment Herb (his article’s titled “The sequestration monster myth,” after all), likely shares. And, as Herb observes, using the term suggests there is no programmatic difference between targeted cuts negotiated between the Pentagon and congressional appropriations committees and the blunt-instrument cuts imposed by true sequestration.
But the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen says it’s a distinction without a difference. “There’s consensus on what it means, and therefore it doesn’t matter,” she tells Herb. More importantly, Eaglen says any lost technical precision that might come from calling lower budget caps “sequestration” is offset by the term’s increased emotional impact and attention-getting potential.
“If you have to talk like that, then you’re going to lose your case,” she said of her more technically-minded colleagues. “People who want to talk about higher defense funding levels can’t win if their case starts to be a green-eyeshade conversation.”
This is related to the broader debate over whether advocates (or politicians) should design messages to deliver intellectual or emotional impact. In The Political Brain, Emory University psychologist and Democratic messaging consultant Drew Westen says the science is clear: when it comes to politics, we think with our hearts.
We might want to believe political actions, at least our own, are motivated by a dispassionate assessment of the pros and cons. But Westen’s brain research suggests that emotions are more fundamental, serving as a lens through which we selectively arrange and weigh the facts.
Westen’s view is hardly unchallenged. For a concise and effective (if ironically emotional) critique, just read New York Times columnist David Brooks’ review of The Political Brain.
I would never urge advocates to say something that’s flat-out wrong – nor does Westen. But precision – especially precision without difference – can often be the enemy of a good, emotionally-relevant message. And I agree with Mackenzie Eaglen that a budget advocacy effort constrained to messages about numbers is doomed to fail.
Judge for yourself, of course. But as you do, consider this undisputed fact: both the House and Senate budgets passed last month include increased funding for the Pentagon, while further cutting investments in children.
Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Learn more about our work.