Thursday, July 5, 2012

Small is Beautiful: How Americans View their Institutions

In driving to work the other day, a story on NPR was being talked about within the context of what institutions, we as Americans, have the most confidence in these days.  The host was interviewing a member of the Gallup organization and he referenced this graph.  As reflected in the data, the military is the institution that inspires the most confidence in American’s eyes.  Second is small business.  At the bottom of the confidence spectrum are banks, big business, and HMOs, only to be beaten at the very dredges by Congress.  So small business is next to the top when it comes to confidence levels, and big business is essentially next to the bottom.  A primary difference in these institutions is the word “small” and “big.”  Which brings me to my first point:  American’s seem to have an affinity in their institutions for the underdog.  This viewpoint of the small business speaks to the way very large businesses advertise, for instance Walmart, a company with close to $500 billion in annual revenue and 2.2 million employees, advertises itself as your “neighborhood market” or “neighborhood pharmacy.”  Big business, based upon the preferences of the American public, have an incentive to try and make themselves appear smaller and more localized.  What then, are the lessons for policy given these attitudes?  

One lesson I would argue is the need to localize broad, far-reaching policy in digestible and specialized stories.  The Supreme Court ruled last week that, in general, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is constitutional.  Despite the ruling to let the law largely stand, I think it reasonable to suggest that a public opinion on  health reform is sharply divided.  A Quinnipiac Poll from February notes that voters say “50 - 39 percent, including 51 - 37 percent among independent voters, that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Obama's health care reform law.”  This isn’t exactly a stirring endorsement, despite the fact that many Americans would be aided through this act.  The narrative of Obamacare is the “big government” narrative; the notion that the government is attempting to interject itself in citizens’ lives as Big Brother.  Lots of people remain detached and removed from the scale of the policy, and are not able to see how or where they fit.  Leading many to suggest that the Administration didn’t do a great job of selling this health care achievement.  How could they have done better?  How in general can policymakers craft better messages around the benefits of legislation?  Well, in part, through strategies reflected in the Gallup poll; breaking down the policy into bits and pieces and then, building a narrative that coincides with American’s views about how they want their government served.

How does this “smaller” strategy manifest in state policy?  States have a role to play in thinking about how American’s view their organizations and institutions in crafting cogent messaging through a “small” strategy.  For instance, Ohio, through the organization Ohio Citizen Action just recently shuttered its Money in Politics Project after 18 years. On the face of it, this would seem to be a rather untimely blow, however rather than devoting an entire project space to the money in politics issue they have decided to take a different, and in my opinion, savvier tactic.  As they say,

The organization is now strengthening its focus on pollution -- coal, fracking, and alternatives to the proposed Cleveland incinerator. We’ve just had a string of victories, on Baard Energy, Cincinnati electric aggregation, the Englewood canvassing case and FirstEnergy’s four Lake Erie coal plants. We want to keep the victories coming. The more focused you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

Of course, political corruption is part of most pollution issues. We’ll still be wrestling with money in politics, but on a campaign by campaign basis, not as a separate project.

Indeed, rather than view the money in politics issue as a separate issue, siloed from the day in and day out of policy and politics, Ohio Citizen Action has re-conceptualized the money in politics project as a thread throughout their entire work, weaving it throughout their campaigns.  I would argue, this is a beautifully smart, necessary, and “small” change to make.  Small because, similarly to Americans’ preferences and attitudes as touched on above, Ohio Citizen Action is looking at the relationship between how the pieces of money in politics relate amongst issue areas rather than the large morass of money and politics unto itself.  It’s an integrative strategy rather than an isolated one.  More generally, Ohio Citizen Action is thinking more strategically about the ways money is connected and embedded throughout the political landscape.

The future belongs to those that can forge new and cross-sectional alliances to both imbue confidence and respect amongst shared ideals and re-assert the ways in which we as Americans share much more than that which divides us.  Let’s try and craft policies that reflect this reality.  

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