Voters Don’t Really Pay Attention

by Brien Jackson

I liked Krugman’s column from yesterday quite a bit, but this blurb here is a good example of a tendency in political writing that really irks me:

The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.

Don’t hold your breath. As it is, Democrats don’t even seem able to score political points by highlighting their opponents’ obstructionism.

It should be a simple message (and it should have been the central message in Massachusetts): a vote for a Republican, no matter what you think of him as a person, is a vote for paralysis. But by now, we know how the Obama administration deals with those who would destroy it: it goes straight for the capillaries. Sure enough, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, accused Mr. Shelby of “silliness.” Yep, that will really resonate with voters.

First of all let me say that I’m very much unconvinced that Gibbs didn’t have exactly the right approach. As someone who has spent some time writing and talking about procedural issues and problems with the Senate, I can pretty confidently say that it’s very, very, difficult to get people outraged about it. Getting someone to agree that the Senate and its rules are ridiculous is one thing, but generating a legitimate, emotional, response of outrage is basically impossible. People just don’t know/care that much about it, and it’s not a visible, visceral issue.

But beyond that, a larger problem with this argument is that it assumes “voters” are paying attention to this which, of course, they aren’t. How many voters are going to see the WH press briefing at all? How many of them care about Senate procedure? Hell, most political junkies/writers/bloggers can’t accurately explain the mechanism of how a hold works, you really think the White House is going to turn it into a winning issue simply by framing it right?

And the reason this irks me is that it’s symptomatic of a larger trend in progressive commentary, which seems to be to assume that the problem is that we just can’t get the messaging right. That the White House and Congressional leadership just won’t say the right thing, and that we know exactly how they need to frame it. This is a very silly, simplified way of looking at some very difficult problems for progressive politics, and pretending that the problem is that political actors won’t read your script, and that American voters are paying far more attention to the minute turns of language at the WHPB, simply isn’t going to help us figure out a solution to those hurdles.

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