Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Blame Game

Politifact is one of the best things going in political journalism these days. It is factchecking in its absolute purest form: take what someone said, and figure out whether they were right or wrong or outright lying. Note what a politician said on one day and compare with what they said on some other day. Note exactly what a politician promised, and see whether or not they follow through. If you don't already go, do so.

But there is one key weakness in their model. I've spoken about how they avoid using the word 'lie' in their Truth-o-Meter, instead saying 'false' and 'pants on fire'.

That's not the weakness.

The weakness we're addressing today comes on the other major venture, the promise meter. Once elected, a chief executive's promises made during the election are catalouged, numbered, and tracked during the term. All promises start without a rating, but are eventually assigned one of five labels: In The Works, Stalled, Promise Kept, Compromise, or Promise Broken.

Promise Broken is the weakness.

By Politifact's rules, a promise is considered Broken when action has been completed on a promise, but not in a manner consistent with the promise. Fair enough. But it says nothing about why that is so. Sometimes the executive in fact actively went against or neglected the promise. But sometimes they make an attempt on the promise, only to get stifled by the opposition in some manner. Sure. The promise wasn't kept. There wasn't a compromise. But you can't really call it a BROKEN promise either. However, as per the rules of Politifact, that is how the promise is scored. And due to the wording, what will inevitably end up happening is, no matter the cause, too much of the public won't read enough into why. They'll just see 'Promise Broken' and automatically chalk it up as the chief executive being a lying so-and-so that must pay on Election Day, and will just make the situation worse by improperly assigning blame, giving power to people that will only move further away from the original promise.

Sometimes Politifact instead assigns such scenarios a 'Stalled' rating if action isn't yet 'completed', even though it never will be. I don't think that quite works either. That tosses them in with items that have every intention of being completed, but have gotten placed on the backburner for more pressing matters.

I think the promise meter needs one additional category: Promise Defeated.

Part of uncovering the truth in politics is the act of assigning blame when things go wrong. For all the talk about people 'not wanting to play the blame game', we all eventually have to blame someone when we go into the booth. We either blame the incumbent for not keeping their promises (or keeping ones we disagreed with in the first place), or we blame the opposition for defeating promises that might otherwise be kept (or not doing enough to defeat promises we disagreed with). It's not enough to go 'okay, this didn't happen, this didn't happen, this did, this did, this didn't'. Why the promises that didn't happen, didn't happen, is important.

This is what Promise Defeated would help to determine. When it becomes clear that a stated promise will not be fulfilled, Politifact should begin the process of figuring out who had more to do with the promise's death. If it's determined that the chief executive set the promise aside, or took actions contrary to the promise, or was especially weak-willed, abandoning the promise after putting up virtually no resistance, then it in fact would be a Promise Broken. If, however, the matter died because of a lost vote in the legislature, the opposition stalling it to death somewhere along the line, funding being refused, or something else along those lines, that would be scored Promise Defeated.

As Election Day rolls around, and a voter carries resentment over something being done or not being done, far too often they simply blame 'those politicians'. That doesn't help. Sure. Politicians were to blame.

But for matters to improve, they need to decide who is more to blame. No matter how much one wants to claim 'they're all the same', you can't split a vote in half. By distinguishing between broken promises and defeated promises, that decision would be easier.

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