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A Conceptual Framework for Attacking Big Education, By Bruno Behrend
A Conceptual Framework for Attacking Big Education
By Bruno Behrend
This essay builds off of an incredibly insightful post on the Real Clear Politics Blog (August 5, 2004). It covers one of the most important strategic concepts that conservative strategists and organizers need to understand, internalize, and put into practice.
It does so by discussing the research/discovery (by an advertising firm researching teen smoking habits) that indicates that if you can show people that they have been lied to or misled, they become capable of rapidly changing their views of a product. This leads them to rapidly change their behavior regarding itâ¬"s use as well. You can imagine the implications of such research if properly applied to the political realm. If individuals' long standing voting patterns could be broken more rapidly, concepts like a safe district and a secure demographic might become things of the past.
Tom Bevan, the writer of the post, takes the research made by this ad shop, and applies the findings to the Conservative/Republican outreach to the Black Community. In the post, I think Tom effectively lays out a conceptual framework that will allow conservatives to accelerate the transition of segments of the African American community from a leftist mindset (collectivist) to a right mindset (individualist). Should this come to pass, it will inure to the benefit of the Republican Party. (not to mention African Americans)
My interest in sharing these insights with you is twofold. First, I believe that -- all by itself -- Tom's insights regarding communicating with African-American community are important. More importantly though, are the similarities between persuading African-Americans to question their fealty to the Democratic party and persuading American suburbanites to question their fealty to "public education."
I've been looking for a way to break through the collective neurosis (shared by most Americans) that equates spending money on a moribund bureaucracy with "an educated populace." Tom may have found a very effective framework. I hope to put it into practice, as well as persuade others to do so.
[Note: the Black text below is from the original Power of Truth post. My commentary discussing the application to public education will be in blue text. PLEASE note that the post was published in Mid 2004.]
THE POWER OF TRUTH: In August, 1997, Florida followed Mississippi as the second state in America to win a lawsuit against the tobacco industry. As part of the record $11.3 billion settlement, $200 million was earmarked specifically for an anti-tobacco advertising campaign directed in large part at Florida teens. A small Miami-based agency named Crispin Porter & Bogusky (CPB) won the contract to design and produce the ads.
Until that time, there had been numerous anti-smoking public service announcement (PSA) campaigns , none of which ever had any demonstrable impact on reducing teen smoking.
To the contrary, teen smoking remained as popular as ever and companies like Philip Morris, RJR Reynolds and Brown & Williamson continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually cultivating a cool, teen-friendly image with brands like Marlboro, Kool, and Camel.
The parallel to the "numerous anti-smoking public service announcements" would be the various "education choice" campaigns that have been promoted at the state and local level. These campaigns have had about the same effect as anti-smoking campaigns. The analogy isn't perfect, but it is very close. Yeah, we have a few items to point to in Florida, Milwaukee & Ohio. However, those choice programs are under continual legal & political attack. They will eventually be strangled in their cribs unless promoters of choice can succeed in killing the beast that is attacking them.
This is also a good time to point out as the public education establishment spends millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours "cultivating" the cult-like belief that supports today's education industry. Big Education is a virtual carbon copy of Big Tobacco in this regard.
Indeed, over the course of their research CPB learned that tobacco marketers had achieved an incredibly powerful influence over teen behavior. They had done this by shrewdly ingratiating their product and brands with the teen audience by playing on teens' sense of invulnerability/immortality and their innate desire to rebel against authority.
With decades worth of adveristing - coupled with the relentless glamorization of cigarettes in movies, magazines and among teen idols - tobacco companies had crafted a product image that was a near-perfect symbol of "coolness" and anti-authoritarianism.
Because of this, teen smoking had become more or less impervious to traditional PSA's. If anything, the preachy "smoking is bad for you" message of public health ads only reinforced the imagery and the emotions tobacco companies were already leveraging to sell their brands to kids.
The "Education Industry" marketers have had similar success insinuating their "product" into the consciousness of the parental audience. Just like the tobacco industry played on teen's natural urge to rebel, the education industry plays on the parental goals of "providing the best education" for their children.
In a nation that has become so specialized -- and therefore virtually clueless about everything outside of one's specialty -- what other benchmark is there to use other than the spending of money?
There are other similarities. The results of study after study showing that America's spends more -- but gets less -- for its education dollar, has had virtually no negative impact upon the education industry. There simply must be an emotional element to the level of support for public education. It is my view that nothing other than "emotions" could explain it.
If I'm correct in that assumption, the "rationalist" communication model of the Libertarian/Conservative reformers will fall on deaf ears. An emotional appeal (you've been lied to) is far more effective - especially since it is true.
But CPB made another critical revelation during their research. They found one thing that cut through all the emotion and psychology of teen consumers. One thing that mattered more than being "cool," that wielded more influence than peer pressure, and that teens disliked even more than being preached to by their parents. The thing teens hated above all was the idea that they were being manipulated and lied to.
CPB took this insight and made it the center of their anti-tobacco advertising campaign which they branded, rather appropriately, TRUTH. Thus CPB changed the paradigm of the anti-smoking message from a preachy public service that most teens could care less about (i.e. "smoking is bad for your health") to a personal affront to the teens themselves (i.e "big tobacco companies are lying to you").
There has been a great deal of activity on the leftist blogs discussing George Lakoff's ideas on metaphors and "framing" issues. The advertising shop (CPB) seems to have hit on the mother of all "frames."
In my view, promoters of parental choice in education need to take a good hard look at the results of this study. I think they need to change their strategic focus from "promoting school choice" to persuading the general population that they have been "lied to" by the education industry.
This is not a ploy. It is a cold hard fact. Though I'm sure there may be differences from state to state, the experience of the state that I am most familiar with (Illinois) provides one with plenty of evidence that the education industry has been misrepresenting itself in virtually every aspect.
I propose that promoters of parental choice "re-frame" the entire education debate. They have already demonstrated that they are quite capable of coming up with innovative and positive alternatives to the current system. The sad fact is that none of those alternatives have gained a necessary political support to create a climate of sustained reform.
I believe it is time for promoters of school choice to change the paradigm from simply promoting their nice ideas (i.e. "Look at how nice and effective school choice might be") to an all-out attack on the ineffectiveness, entrenched greed, and mendacity of the education industry (i.e. Big Education has been lying to you, and if you ignore this fact, you are hurting your own children.).
The new CPB ads began undoing decades worth of programming by tobacco companies. When teens eventually bought into the idea that big tobacco was orchestrating a conspiracy to manipulate them into using products that would eventually kill them, their behavior changed rapidly.
The results speak for themselves. So does the reaction of the tobacco companies - all of whom lost a significant amount of control and influence over the single most important demographic capable of ensuring long-term profitability. The campaign was so successful CPB was tapped by The American Legacy Foundation to launch the strategy nationwide.
So what does any of this have to do with politics, you ask? I submit that it has everything to do with politics.
Nothing succeeded like success. I have been to numerous policy conferences and had numerous discussions with policy analysts and politicians. Whenever I brought up the necessity of engaging in a sustained campaign to undermine political support for "public education," I met with a great deal of skepticism. (Though every politician I have talked to has admitted that they can do nothing to promote parental choice without the necessary grassroots support of their constituency.)
It is my hope that those of the reading this essay will take the time to read the links and think about the significance of the results.
First, this strategy is similar to the ones Democrats are currently using against George W. Bush. Our failure to find large stockpiles of weapons has given the Democrats just enough wiggle room to make the case to the public that Bush lied. Through simple discipline and repetition, the Dems have been making the charge stick - even without a single shred of supporting evidence.
According to a Gallup poll taken July 19-21, over the last 13 months the percentage of people who think Bush misled America on the WMD issue has risen to 45% from 31%. It just goes to show the power of the emotional reaction people have when someone tells them they've been lied to.
Second - and this is the real genesis of this post - I think CPB's experience working to understand and unravel big tobacco's influence on teen behavior is a fitting analogy to the decades-long influence of the Democratic party over African-American voters.
Furthermore I submit that if Republicans are smart, they should employ the same strategy CPB used with the TRUTH campaign to break through the four decades' worth of liberal programming that continues to motivate African-American to blindly vote en masse for Democrats.
The reason I mention all this is because President Bush made a pass at this strategy last week in his speech before the Urban League. Here is what he said:
I'm going to ask African American voters to consider some questions.
Does the Democrat party take African American voters for granted? (Applause.) It's a fair question. I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote. But do they earn it and do they deserve it? (Applause.) Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one political party? That's a legitimate question. (Applause.) How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete? (Applause.) Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat party truly served the African American community?
Let's apply that type of question/speech to the education issue.
"I am going to ask people who say they are concerned about education to consider some questions. I know most of you think that spending on 'education' is important, but where is the money really going? What if we can educate children for less money and smaller bureacracy?
Does America's educational establishment deserve continued financial support when we already spend more per pupil than any other nation and yet suffer dramatically inferior results when compared to those same nations?
Is it good for America to continuously increase funding to a politically powerful industry that is sheltered from competition? This is a legitimate question.
How is it possible to improve education when the industry in charge of producing education is insulated from innovation, change, and new ideas? Does the ideology of increased spending without accountability serve the needs of your state or town? Does spending with out any accountability for results serve YOUR CHILDREN?"
Ask those questions in a forthright and powerful manner, and even the most Oprahfied among you will start to think twice about approving that tax increase or voting for more "Education President" and "Education Governor" pabulum.
And just like a big tobacco CEO recognizing the potentially devastating effect of questions that - if respectfully asked and honestly answered - could lead to the disintegration of behavior patterns he's spent decades crafting, Al Sharpton took to the stage at the DNC days later to deliver a blistering response.
Sharpton didn't want Bush's questions to go unanswered, nor did he want to run the risk of having African-Americans answer those questions honestly for themselves. So Sharpton did it, in his own divisive way, and claimed it was on behalf of the entire African-American community.
Never to be outdone by Al Sharpton, the propagandists of the education establishment are merciless in their defense of their monopoly. Parents who question curriculum choices for teaching practices are first dealt with in a practiced condescending fashion. If they are knowledgeable, and persist in questioning the system, the establishment marks them as a "malcontent," and engages in a campaign to isolate them in the minds of other parents.
If one questions the absurd level of spending (and not the counterproductive curriculum and/or practices), the education establishment is even more reactive. Unwilling (or possibly unable) to even discuss the possibility of spending reductions, the entire industry will act in unison to paint every single person who questions the level of education spending as if they "hate the children."
Here is the truth: from tax cuts to small business incentives to social security reform to school choice down through social issues like gay marriage and the belief in faith-based charitable organizations, the values and ideology of the Republican party have a lot to offer African-Americans.
I will add that parental choice in education has much more to offer parents (and the nation) than the current featherbedded and bloated bureaucracy that is spending some states into bankruptcy while doing a poor job of "educating the populace."
But if Republican outreach to African-Americans is going to be limited to the President asking a few direct questions before black audiences, nothing will change. Against the likes of Kweisi Mfume, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, that's the equivalent of bringing a pocketknife to a gun fight.
I will add that the polite promotion of tiny pilot projects and tepid charter schools amount to virtually nothing against the millions of lobbying dollars spent by the rich and connected entities that make up the education establishment.
The TRUTH is that the average voter will not support REAL education reform until they are persuaded that there is something seriously wrong with the current system.
(I further submit that the general malaise people feel toward "education" does not suffice. The voter needs to be told specifically that the blame for the failure to properly educate our children lies squarely on the shoulders of the system that has been managing the industry and the process.)
Republicans need to pound this message home - not once every two or four years in the 90 days before an election but every day and everywhere. They should establish a 527 to start communicating to African-Americans and explaining how Republican ideas and policies match their personal interest.
Once again, Tom Bevan hits the nail on the head. If you aren't attacking them at every opportunity (given the headlines on Waste, Fraud, and Abuse, there are ample targets), you aren't going to make much head way.
The message that promoters of school choice need to "pound home" is that the current system has been given every opportunity -- and every possible dollar of support -- and failed. Another message they need to "pound home" is that there has been research demonstrating which type of education curricula is effective; and that the education establishment has intentionally ignored such research in favor of curricula and fads that are proven less effective.
But again, that won't be enough. A thousand positive ads can be nullified by a single Mfume slur appealing to black insecurity and distrust. Republicans need to hit people like Mfume in the mouth - figuratively speaking, of course - and expose them for what they are: divisive hate mongers who serve themselves before the interests of the African-American community.
Similarly, promoters of school choice need to hit the education establishment "in the mouth" by exposing every little trick they use to extract funds from taxpayers. Again, though I'm unfamiliar with every state, I know that Illinois provides a numerous examples.
Here, we have had virtually every school district in the Chicago metropolitan area misrepresent and misapply a "property tax cap" law for the specific purpose of extracting more money than the law allowed. Every article on test scores, every reform initiative, and every campaign launched by concerned citizens, has been co-opted by the education establishment. They have used every decent motive on the part of the population to rake in ever greater tax dollars to grow their ever-increasing payroll, expand their bureaucracy, and fund their unsustainable pension schemes.
All the while, school choice promoters have been politely talking about "choices" while the average voter has been swallowing the "spending equals quality" dogma -- which has gone mostly unchallenged.
More importantly - getting back to the Crispin Porter & Bogusky example - Republicans need to shift the political paradigm under which African-Americans operate. They can do this by pointing out, backed by a substantial body of evidence, that the Democratic party has been lying to African-Americans for years.
However well-intentioned the the Democratic party's policies may have been over the last 40 years, as a practical matter the results of those policies have been, for the most part, disastrous for black culture and black families.
Engaging in a similar campaign against the public education establishment will accomplish a similar "paradigm shift." There is an ample body of evidence that the education establishment has been lying to Americans for a longer period of time to the Democratic party has been lying to African-Americans.
It should also be obvious to the politically astute that the integration of the "Democrats have been lying to you" message AND the "Big Education has been lying to you" may provide a one-two punch, when applied to the African-American community. No group of people in America suffer more from the decrepit malfeasance of Big Education than Blacks. Big Education is the largest patron of the Democratic Party. Break their power base and their voting base, and they won't be politically viable until they return to their once decent roots.
I will add that supporting the education establishment has been disastrous for American culture. Knowledge of the nation's founding (and the founding fathers) is either nonexistent or hopelessly skewed. A trip to any checkout counter will tell you that the average entry-level worker requires the cash register to make change because they can no longer do the calculation in their head.
While America still has a pre-eminent economic and military position in the world, it cannot remain in that position when competitors like China and India are turning out well-educated scientists and engineers. The stakes are high and the threat is real. It is time to "raise the consciousness" of the somnambulist suburbanite.
And however much good-will the Democratic party may have earned with African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement, the party now uses fear and distrust over racial issues as a primary motivator and a tool to obscure the fact that they're largely a party of failed ideas with nothing new to offer the black community.
With a smart, creative, and no-holds barred communication strategy, Republicans can make a very persuasive argument that many of the Democrats' policies over the last 20-40 years haven't empowered African-Americans but enslaved them a again. And not only do Democrats today take African-Americans for granted, but party leaders meet any dissent from liberal orthodoxy with the ruthlessness of fascist dictators and- or even, one might go so far as to say, of slave masters.
I believe the time is right (ripe even, for if we delay, we may lose a great opportunity) for executing a "no-holds barred communication campaign" against the education establishment. The level of skepticism of their claims is starting to increase -- even among the "faithful." Here in Illinois you can barely open a local newspaper without reading about some "school district mismanagement of funds."
These stories, coupled with the dramatic rise in property taxes (caused by the even more dramatic rise in salaries, pension schemes, and questionable building projects) seem to be awakening the public to the idea that there might be something wrong.
Here at Extreme Wisdom (through the blog and radio show) I've already decided to wage this battle on my own in the hope that it will empower others to start openly talking about the corruption in the education establishment. Many of us have been too quiet for too long. The education establishment in America has spent some states into near bankruptcy. It has done this while studiously ignoring both the public will and available research that indicates that there are better and cheaper ways to educate the populace.
In conclusion, I'd like to thank Tom Bevan for discovering and writing about the application of the "Tobacco Campaign" research to the African-American community. I'd also like to challenge any of you readers to poke holes in his analysis -- or mine.
However, please spare me the defeatist attitude exemplified by the ridiculous idea that "the education establishment is too powerful to attack head-on." If we fail to attack it head-on we will never succeed in reducing its power.
To illustrate, let me end by treating you to my favorite two quotes from Wolfgang Goethe.
The first is as follows:
There is one elemental truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans---that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves all. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would come his or her way.
Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
Ok, sure. Many bold plans have ended in disaster. Just look at the 1964 Goldwater campaign. But, commenting on the Goldwater campaign 132 years before it happened Goethe said "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game."
The strategy of simply promoting good ideas isn't enough. In effect, it is a "prevent defense" in that it plays "not to lose." It is time for the promoters of parental choice to start playing to win. It is time to start attacking the structures that stand between today's expensive yet ineffective education bureaucracy and the "educated populace" we are paying so dearly for.
Posted August 24, 2005 11:03 PM
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