THE BLOG

Winning!

02/09/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015

"Political language...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
George Orwell
Politics and the English Language
1946

Orwell had a particularly dark view of political rhetoric. And if you reflect on the language in news coverage of important public issues these days, you'd probably agree. The words and phrases used by politicians, political parties and other interest groups are more often meant to persuade or even obfuscate than to clarify.

We're about to see and hear a lot more button pushing in the debate over the 2016 federal budget proposal outlined by President Obama. It includes $478 billion in spending for highways, bridges and public transit, tax breaks for low and middle income families, a $60 billion initiative to provide community college tuition for qualified students and a child care tax credit of up to $3000 per child.

To generate revenue, the budget calls for a 14% tax on the estimated $2 trillion in profits held overseas by U.S. companies, higher capital gains taxes on couples who make more than $500,000 a year and a fee on financial liabilities for the nation's 100 largest financial institutions to discourage the kind of risky ventures that helped bring us the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

The partisan spinning has already begun. Democrats are talking about rebuilding the middle class and middle class tax fairness. Republicans brand such approaches "class warfare," and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan called the idea "envy economics."

Nobody's arguing that the U.S. economy has distributed the nation's wealth equally across income levels. Even Senator Ted Cruz had to admit that the nation's top 1% have the highest share of the nation's wealth since 1928. The fight is over what, if anything, to do about it. But when politicians start talking about envy economics and middle class tax fairness, no-one is trying to explain or clarify. They're trying to frame the issue so people see the problem from a particular perspective.

Example: "Democrats are willing to kill hundreds of thousands of jobs to stop the XL Pipeline."

Fact: Actual pipeline construction would create about 1,950 jobs a year for two-years and 35 to 50 permanent jobs.

Example: "Republicans are trying to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy."

Fact: No they're not. Even if they wanted to, they wouldn't dare. But they are trying to hold down spending on domestic programs so taxes won't have to be raised.

Political partisans are constantly drawing lines in the dirt. You're either on one side or the other. You're for raising taxes on job creators and stifling economic growth or you're for tax giveaways to the rich at the expense of working families. You're for a government take-over of healthcare or you're for allowing millions of low and moderate income Americans to continue without proper healthcare because they can't afford it. You either for a bloated, intrusive federal government that makes it tougher for American businesses to succeed or you're for uncontrolled crony capitalism in which giant corporations can do whatever they want.

University of Texas communications Professor John Daly writes in his book, Advocacy; Championing Ideas and Influencing Others, "Wise proponents seek agreement on the problem before discussing possible solutions."

Why?

1. If people accept your definition of the problem, they're more open to your solutions; and

2. The discussion is limited to solutions that fit your definition.

Daly sums up the ultimate goal: "Whoever defines the problem wins." And that is really the problem. It's all about winning. The problem with these continuing rhetorical battles is that the public loses. We seldom, if ever, get any genuine information about the cost and effect of public policies.

And worse, when the debate over public issues is always a matter of winning and losing, there's absolutely no thought of compromise or cooperation. There's no consideration of solutions to public problems that are more than just victories for one side or the other.

But the worst part is the battle is never over. Issues are never resolved. There will always be another fight; another day. The political tide will always turn. If everything has been one-sided, the first item of business for the new winners will be to undo all the previous victories. And the battles continue. It's great for the NFL and Major League Baseball. But not so good for our government or our country.