Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Effective politics: Automatic for the propositions

There's a proposition on the upcoming California ballot that is drawing more attention than even the gubernatorial race (I can't believe I spelled "gubernatorial" correctly on the first try—trust me, I did): Prop. 87. It apparently involves taxing oil companies for drilling in the state, and using the money for researching alternative energies, but apparently creating a new under-regulated bureaucracy for this research. The proponents and opponents are trying to pick apart the other's argument in their ads, as one would expect, and I admit up front that's the only thing I have to comment on: their ads.

What is most interesting to me is the skill of their marketing, especially on the pro side. This morning, as I put on my shoes, I watched a few minutes of TV, stopping on one of the local station's morning "news" program. And during a single commercial break—that is, during one set of commercials interrupting the program—I saw an ad by the opposing side (where they use an actor in a firefighter's jacket to explain what a bad idea the tax is), then another ad (I don't recall for what), and then an ad from the pro side that specifically refuted the claims made two commercials previous (even showing a close-up of the end of the prior ad, zooming in on the fine print that notes those who paid for the ad and showing the name of one of the major oil companies).

I thought to myself, Egad, how much do they pay to schedule their commercial so that the other side's message doesn't even get to linger longer than 30 seconds?

I am not suggesting it's the most clever argument on the pro side; of course the oil companies are behind the ads trying to convince the voters the proposition is bad, because from their perspective it is. When it comes to trying to convince the voters it's good, the pro side seems to rely heavily on implicitly punishing the oil companies because they made a $78 billion profit last year. The use of the money raised by the tax seems something of an afterthought; my impression of their argument for the proposition (as opposed to their argument against the opposition), based on seeing their other ad many times, was more or less: Hey, the oil companies can afford to be taxed so let's do it; they've been sticking it to you at the pump, so here's your chance to extract revenge. Oh, and eventually it may actually have some benefit for the environment.

That's probably effective enough to get it to pass. Whatever pangs of guilt many might feel over just taxing them for being profitable should be assuaged by the suggestion of what might come. There's no effort at trying to convince the people it's necessarily fair—they made that profit because the voters purchased their product, after all—but rather at appealing to their emotions, both base and altruistic.

I seems like those same people who tried to organize the don't-buy-gas-on-this-day events (that were probably fake) finally realized that wasn't going to happen and devoted their efforts to getting this on the ballot. Which is smart. Because this doesn't require them to make any sacrifice for the greater good, other than bother to actually go to their polling place.

That, of course, is more than those interested in either punishing the oil companies or in allowing them to keep their lucre have reason to expect from the average television viewer, but since it's not a matter of one side or the other getting a majority of the actual populace to vote for their side but to get a majority of those who bother to vote to cast ballots in their favor, so it's still worth their respective whiles to spend the money on such advertising. They certainly need not worry too much about the average viewer who will likely vote to bother reading the particulars of the proposition (and even if that average viewer tried to read said particulars, it's not likely even a college-educated individual could make heads or tails of what it would really entail, if passed, or what consequences may emerge from it failing to pass).

That is a hideously glib statement about the nature of the process. Still, I think it more or less valid. I don't think the point of politics is for the average person to understand it, and I think the average person is probably far happier not understanding it. I am, it should be obvious, not one with much of an optimistic belief about the process of governing. The role of those in power is not to do what's best for those being governed but to do what allows those in power to remain so, thus ostensible benefits for the governed is as effective as actual benefits for the governed (and the latter are probably more coincidental than intentional). I don't expect my elected officials to be working in my favor, and hence I am not disappointed when they don't do so.

But the people working for both sides of the Prop. 87 are doing one hell of a bang-up job. If they work this hard after the election, something might actually get done.

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