Failing to Counter the Big Lie

Gov. Snyder, GOP fail to defend K-12 spending

It is difficult to decide which is the more infuriating – those who persist in advancing a lie or those who stubbornly ignore the possible means of combating it.

The State of Michigan is spending more state tax dollars on K-12 education than the $6,884 per pupil it was spending the final budget year of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration. At the beginning of this year it was spending $7,545 per pupil. Beginning Oct. 1, that amount was increased again by $50 to $175 per pupil, with the lowest funded school districts receiving the largest boosts.

As students of propaganda learned long ago, however, if you tell a big lie long enough and loud enough people will tend to believe it. Polls show that, in spite of what simple math reveals, a majority of Michigan voters believe K-12 spending has been cut under Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Snyder campaign is now running television ads that attempt to refute the big lie about his record on K-12 spending. You can bet it wouldn’t be doing this unless there was evidence that, at least to some degree, the lie is hurting his re-election chances.

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At this stage, in the midst of an election race, the impact of these ads will likely be minimal. It’s just too late to really win the argument, which will now come down to an adolescent exchange with one side saying: “that’s not so” and the other side saying: “oh yes it is so.”

As maddening as it may be to see a big lie perpetrated successfully, Gov. Snyder and the Republicans deserve much of the blame. Their longstanding ineptitude in dealing with the lie has been frustrating — and all the more so because it was rooted a dismissive ambivalence.

At a base level there’s a temptation to say “it serves you right.”

Over the past couple of years, in addition to telling the truth about the increased K-1 2 spending, Gov. Snyder and the Republicans should have also repeatedly cited statistics to put the entire debate in a different context. When it comes to K-12 spending, Michigan has been anything but stingy.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Michigan ranks 8th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending when adjusted for per-capita income. Without the per-capita income adjustment, it ranks somewhere between 22nd and 26th depending on mid-decade measuring variations.

The per-capita income ranking means that only six states and the District of Columbia make a greater spending effort toward K-12 education than Michigan. The overall (or raw number) ranking of 22nd to 26th  puts Michigan in the middle of the pack among the states — an impressive standing considering it only recently emerged from a single-state recession.

Imagine if that information concerning Michigan’s comparative ranking in K-12 spending had appeared on every press release pertaining to education spending issued on behalf of Gov. Snyder and the Republicans for the past two years. Out of shear repetition the result would have been that virtually every journalist who regularly covers the issue would have known the rankings by heart months ago. In addition, perhaps somewhat more than half of the time, the rankings would have made it into their news stories.

Whether political propaganda is true or false, repetition is the key to its success. This is how the big lie about Michigan education spending has been promoted. Repeatedly putting Michigan’s K-12 spending story in its larger perspective could have provided Republicans with the antidote to that poison.

Those who prefer to believe K-12 spending has been cut probably wouldn’t be swayed by anything. But chances are that by providing the bigger context, again and again, the potential impact of the big lie could have been significantly limited. Or at the very least making the effort sure wouldn’t have done any harm.

Some might say that  if those claiming Gov. Snyder cut K-12 funding were willing to perpetuate that lie in the first place, then what would prevent them from disputing the Census Bureau rankings as well? This is true, but that would have involved pushing and repeating a second big lie, something that would have complicated their task and wandered into an area (state K-12 spending rankings) which they prefer to avoid.

Use of the “larger context” would not only have been a sound technique for battling the big lie about K-12 spending, it is the logical, natural and orthodox response to all attacks that are based on partial and manipulated figures.

Let’s say someone wants to promote the idea that the Detroit Tigers are a lousy baseball team. They could cite whatever comparatively weak statistics they could find involving fielding, relief pitching and the absence of a World Series title over the past 30 years.

If your job was to defend the Tigers, wouldn’t it be sensible and obvious to change the perspective by pointing out that they have won their division four straight years and appeared in two of the last eight World Series?

This is exactly what Gov. Snyder and the Republicans failed to do regarding the K-12 spending issue. They made it easier instead of harder for their opponents to sell the big lie. That’s never a good strategy.

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not necessarily represent the views of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)


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