30 August 2008

A Great Bit of Analysis, and Doomed to be Ignored

This excellent article in the New York Times is about how the rich and poor fare under Republican and Democratic administrations.

But few outside the New York intelligentsia will read it, I suspect, for the article takes a fantastic lead ("New Study Confirms that under Republicans, the Rich get Richer and Poor Left Behind") and buries it under multiple layers of introduction that will drive away any but the most intellectual reader.

  • The headline is a question, implying that the issue is under debate. In fact, Bartels' book (which is what the article is about) is shockingly clear about the historical record that Republican administrations are bad for everyone but the rich.

  • The headline talks about history, which is one of the best ways to get rid of any mainstream readers (for better or for worse, most American audiences don't care about history; those that do, watch The History Channel). If this was an article about history, that would be fine, but it's not: this is actually an article about politics.

  • The first two paragraphs start out with a tour through history and end up at democrats vs. federalists. He doesn't actually get to the lead of the article until his fourth paragraph about the Great Partisan Growth Divide. My friend Bill Polson routinely sends around example of this new style of quasi-reporting from the LA Times. I don't know if it comes from new NY Times style guidelines or merely from the writers wanting to feel like they're prose stylists, but I think it clearly makes the article less accessible as a source of information.

  • I'm very much a math-friendly person and even I found the explanation of how many percentiles get measured, what the measurement intervals were and so forth to be very dry. I realize he's trying to ensure himself against innumeracy in the readership, but the result makes the article even less casually readable.

The reason the above things bothered me so much is that they talk to why, when objective measurement clearly shows Republicans are much worse for most of the people in the country, many if not most people vote Republican on a regular basis. The contents of this article should be a incendiary bomb to the majority of Republican supporters, middle-class voters who may be church-goers but who also want to see their children make it through college. Those Republican you put in office are denying your Children their Future!

But you can't pose that kind of urgent issue in terms of historical trends if you want to affect the people who most need the information. If you look at Bartels' various quantiles of families, the ones at the bottom are not the most likely to read an article that starts out talking about history. You need to frame the discussion in clear ways that affect people now, not by placing it in context as a continuation of a fundamental debate begun at the very founding of the country. It's not that the historical approach is wrong; it's that taking such a highbrow path to explaining the facts, rather than the likely consequences on the reader, means the message is much less likely to get to the people who would suffer the most from a Republican administration.

As a Democrat, I'm continually appalled by the way the Republicans in the last twenty years have been more successful at packaging the issues where they are strong (Democrats want to Deny you the ability to Practice your Faith!) than Democrats are at packaging the issues where they are strong (Study Confirms Republicans are good only for the Rich!). Alan Blinder is a smart guy and a good writer, but his article seems to continue in that bad-packaging tradition that has lost so many elections for Democrats.

No comments: