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Hidden agendas behind policy talk

Trojan horse policies and ideas

Politicians are experts at spinning ideas to improve appeal, after all, selling ideas is part of their job. No doubt you are familiar with political marketing from elections. It can take some digging to get to the real policy behind the rhetoric. This post will talk about how policies and ideas can be packaged to encourage broad appeal. I have previously written about what goes unsaid behind politician's words. This post is sort of a follow up to that.

Selling ideas by appealing to social values

Politicians may connect policy to social values with broad appeal to win voter interest. Think of freedom. Honesty. Community. These are examples of social values. People's values are different but there are many commonly held beliefs. Linking social values to policy is a classic spin tactic. The connection simplifies the sell job to voters and improves appeal. Also, by making the connection to social values, disagreeing with the policy implies challenging widely-held beliefs.

This is a bit tricky so let's walk through a common example. Reduction in taxes is often associated with giving people freedom over their own finances, supporting business and jobs, and encouraging a less intrusive government. There is even a Tax Freedom Day. So tax cuts can be packaged as a way of giving people freedom. Voters who support freedom then understand tax cuts as being a tool to improve their freedom. Trump's 2017 tax cuts are a recent example of where this logic was applied. Challenging tax cuts implies challenging freedom, which is a bold stance to take.

Gift from one person to another, watch out for what's inside

Social values can act as a front for hiding the real policy agenda

By connecting tax cuts with freedom, the reality that they may just be a tool to enrich high-income earners is more likely to go unnoticed. It's a diversion technique. If the idea was assessed based on the change in paycheque vs change in public services, the debate would be more impartial and quantifiable. The diversion allows politicians to debate on a more subjective platform around the idea of freedom. That's critical to win over voters who don't benefit much from the tax cut itself but lose from a cut in public services.

The argument that smaller taxes are pro-freedom is appealing but comes with a catch. While people might have more control over their personal finances, the cut to services may mean that people lose in other areas. Inequality driven by inadequate redistribution can compromise freedom. Also, we have no idea what freedom we are actually talking about. What if the cut in taxes meant a reduction in health services so someone missed out on a hip replacement? That implies a loss of freedom due to the loss of mobility. Be wary of people who think about these things in dogmatic terms rather than exploring further.

Connecting smaller taxes with freedom is not necessarily wrong. Nor is it always deployed maliciously. The people using these statements probably believe them. But the discussion is broader than tax cuts = freedom. An easy way to spot a hidden agenda is to ask yourself, who benefits? Look for self-interest.

Watch out for overly simple reasoning

Let's walk through some common examples to watch out for. These aren't necessarily all related to directly politics, but they illustrate how you can sell an idea using social values.

"It's my body" as a front for cigarettes

This argument says that we have the right to do what we want with our own body. I broadly agree with this, but it doesn't extend to doing whatever you like wherever you like to whoever you like. Smoking is a great counter-example because second-hand smoke can be deadly to others.

Protecting local jobs as a front for anti-immigration

The argument that we need to protect jobs for locals appeals to nationalist sentiment. However, it's often used as a front for being anti-immigration. This argument doesn't consider that immigration is often needed to fill jobs domestic employees don't do and supports growth.

Trickle-down theory as a front for supporting the 1%

This one's easy. Trickle-down theory suggests that wealth which accrues at the top will eventually trickle down to others. We know this is nonsense and have done for some time. Wealth is more likely to flow from bottom to top, than top to bottom. Unfortunately trickle-down is one of those ghost ideas that still haunts us.

Encouraging investment in a public good as a front for government purchase of a company's products or services

Companies can suggest investment in public goods (eg education or health) to support spending on their own products. Health spending is a good example. Health technology companies can suggest funding their new scanning technology to diagnose correctly and improve population health. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But what if the product is too expensive? It's worth being aware of the potential motives. I don't buy the argument that "oh you're just a lobbyist" and therefore should be ignored. That's just a way to ignore something you don't want to hear. Investments should be evaluated on the balance of costs and benefits.

The clear downside of spin is that it can encourage people to vote against their own interests if they buy into rhetoric rather than reality. It also makes policies less transparent, undermines democracy and contributes to disillusionment in political systems. Being aware of spin tactics can help to understand diversionary tactics and ensure policies and ideas are thoroughly investigated.


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