“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville is credited with having said, summarizing one of his talking points prior to the Clinton victory in 1992. Despite its overly simplistic explanatory value, it’s become a household phrase. Another piece of popular political wisdom holds that when you have the power to circulate and repeat such a slogan to the point of media saturation, many come to believe it, however true or false the reality to which the slogan refers. Indeed, if it doesn’t immediately refer to reality, it supposedly can sometimes create that reality in its crystallization as belief.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we find politicians and their pundits struggling to present the economy in a way that will benefit their interests. Of course, when one has no flexibility in perception but becomes an ideological robot that chants the same position on the economy, any economy, anywhere, any time, then it is not even an attempt to misrepresent; it’s just what one believes when his or her team is winning.
This deliberate rhetorical straitjacketing of reality to suit one’s ideological goals or the robotic ideological script deprive serious and concerned citizens of the careful debate they deserve.
In the spirit of such exchange and debate, I want to take a look at some of the claims that have been circulating on the net and in the mainstream press about the economy as an issue in this fast-approaching election.
Why not begin with the very idea that people vote with their pocket books ("it's the economy stupid")? First, do Americans really always vote based on their perception of the economy? Not according to this Pew study of the last election:
Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3%....
The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms "moral values," "morals," or "values." Specific social issues including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates' morals.
Nevertheless, political talk maintains the common wisdom about the influence of economic perception on election outcomes, which can possibly have a bandwagon opinion effect. Recently, a column in Blogcritics spotlighted Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to contradict President Bush's portrayal of a strong economy and a prosperous America. About Pelosi, the columnist writes:
Rather than many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, savings and investing rates are rising for the first sustained period since 1982, suggesting that more Americans than ever before have excess income…. Her numbers are also fishy on median family income. HUD estimates that median family income has increased by $7100 during the tenure of the Bush administration. Her number for the increase in household costs is not far off, so perhaps she 'accidentally' transposed the 7 and the 1 in the income figure.
The article makes similar claims about recent descriptions of the economy by Howard Dean. Contrary to Dean, Pelosi, and others, income and wages are supposedly up. How can there be such a gross misunderstanding (or diabolically deliberate distortion)? A thing called “inflation-adjusted income” may have something to do with it, more about which in a moment.
Politicians like Pelosi and Dean are accused of dumbing down political discourse by parroting talking points, like the ideological robots I maintain are dangerous for democratic political practices generally. Even more strongly, though, such talking points have been attacked as “half-truths, gibberish and straight-out deceptions,” which people supposedly believe because the news media simply put such claims on a conveyor belt to their audiences.