They won the battle, but will they win the war?
Dec. 6, 2012 — As we reported yesterday, the supporters of Proposition 30 (Prop 30), the California ballot initiative to raise income tax rates on high earners as well as sales taxes across the board, put together a highly successful campaign. But did the techniques used to sell Prop 30 carry with them the risk of undermining future efforts to bolster government services?
The downside of crisis messaging
Remapping Debate asked Prop 30 supporters whether a crisis was really needed in order to rally support behind a revenue increase for public services. “Not necessarily a crisis, but at least an extraordinary circumstance,” replied Dan Newman, a partner in SCN Strategies, the strategy firm that ran the “Yes on 30” campaign. “When you’re in the campaign business, you need to operate in a reality-based world and acknowledge and accept the inherent inclination of voters to want more services for less money.” The best way to work within the “reality-based world,” Newman said, is to be able to show voters a concrete, immediate need for revenue. This usually involves pointing to some type of crisis, like that which gave rise to Prop 30: Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers built $6 billion of “trigger cuts” into California’s most recent budget that would have gone into effect if Prop 30 failed. The majority of these cuts would have fallen on public education, devastating schools that have already been struggling.
Educational spending: California versus U.S.
Map & Data Resources
Many progressives, however, feel that California’s “reality-based world” is one in which government funding has been chronically insufficient for years, even during those years when California did not face an acute fiscal crisis. (As Remapping Debate’s visualization shows, California’s educational spending per student has chronically lagged behind most of the U.S.) In addition, in the three years before Jerry Brown entered office in 2011, $18 billion was cut from primary and secondary education in California. During that period, 58 percent of school districts in the state cut instructional materials, 35 percent increased class size, 48 percent cut nurses, counselors, and psychologists, and almost half cut employee pay.
These advocates believe that the education crisis is merely one expression of what they call California’s longstanding unwillingness to pay for government services that benefit state residents collectively. “We believe that the underlying problem is systemic, and requires systemic solutions,” said Sabrina Smith, the deputy director of California Calls, a progressive coalition of community-based organizations and a partner in Reclaim California’s Future, the principal grassroots coalition in support of Prop 30.
Smith said that crisis messaging, while effective at getting Prop 30 passed, was counterproductive to the goal of ending the underfunding that has plagued California for a long time. “Pollsters and campaign consultants often develop messaging based on where voters are at — the most direct path to winning,” she said. “Unfortunately, messaging to win often works against our long-term goals.” For example, Dan Newman believed an important element to Prop 30’s success was that Governor Brown had already made all the budget cuts that could be “reasonably done” without devastating the school system and “harming our economy in the long-term.”
Fred Glass, communications director for the California Federation of Teachers, believes that crisis messaging, by emphasizing that action is needed in response to an uncommon crisis, risks convincing some voters that action is only justified in times of crisis. “And worse,” he said, “it makes it harder, then, to have a fully rational discussion that helps people to understand the bigger picture.” He acknowledged that effective crisis messaging, by definition, creates a sense of urgency, but argued, “It’s important for people to know a little bit more deeply how that crisis occurred.”
Moreover, while crisis messaging can motivate voters in a specific instance, Sabrina Smith said, it also “reinforces the deep cynicism that most people have about government. And that cynicism leads to apathy — why vote if the system is flawed and unfixable?” (For another example of this process, see bottom box entitled “Prop 25: Victory at what cost?”)
Prop 25: Victory at what cost?
As an example of how “messaging to win” can undermine long-term progressive goals, Sabrina Smith of California Calls pointed to the way that passage of California’s Proposition 25 was secured in November 2010.
Prop 25 restored the simple majority vote in the legislature for passing a state budget; the law had previously required a two-thirds “supermajority.” Voters passed the measure, but, as Smith explained, “A cornerstone of the campaign’s messaging was about penalizing elected officials each day they are late in passing a budget.”
Doing so, she said, highlighted the extent to which budgets had been late in the past, something that “reinforced anti-government sentiment.”