Political Opinions Come Down To Different Interpretations Of ‘Facts’

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, long-time serving U.S. Senator from New York

Michael Bitzer

As if things aren’t strained enough in North Carolina politics nowadays, there’s a growing tiff between the governor and conservative advocates about the “true” budgetary impact on North Carolina’s public education system.

This week, Gov. Bev Perdue, freed from the hamstrings of running for re-election, launched her own campaign calling for more school funds in the upcoming budget. She points to the NC Department of Public Instruction’s “Table 16: State Summary of Public School Full-Time Personnel” for the past two years to reinforce her claim that teaching positions were cut by the GOP-led General Assembly. 

In those tables, NC DPI reports that the total funding sources for elementary, secondary, and other teacher positions go from 94,879 in 2010-11 to 93,964 in 2011-12. 

But two conservative advocacy groups, Americans for Prosperity and the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, have joined forces to institute their own campaign, entitled “N.C. Real Solutions.” In their campaign, they point to the exact same spreadsheets that the Governor does, but arrives at a different interpretation. 

In their support of the Republican budget for K-12 education, AFP and Civitas point to state-funding sources that show an increase from 78,963 in 2010-11 to 81,020 positions for elementary, secondary, and other teachers. 

So whose opinion is based on the facts? Well, both — and it is all based on how each side “frames” the issue.

In today’s political environment, part of the key to winning an argument is presenting your interpretation of the “facts.” Republicans would point to a difficult year of budgeting (no one would dispute that fact) and say “we increased state-funded positions for K-12 teachers.”  Democrats would point to the overall funding numbers for positions and say “they cut K-12 teachers.” 

And therein lies the inherent conflict, which is the essence of a political campaign.

For most political scientists, this isn’t anything new; those in office seek to define and construct frames by which the average voter — even ones who don’t necessarily follow the intricacies of day-to-day political combat — can easily relate and see a definitive choice, based on the frame that the issue is presented in.

How political leaders frame an issue — whether it’s state-only funding or the total amount of funding from all sources — can be a powerful communication tool for voters and citizens to evaluate not just the candidates, but to reinforce voters’ perceptions and energize them for a bitter election.

Harold Cogdell

This plays into the growing polarization of our politics — at the nation, state, and yes, even local level. Just look at what Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Harold Cogdell credited with his departure — the fact that political brinksmanship ensures “the political party’s role of getting people elected. But it doesn’t ensure good policy decisions are made.”

Let’s face it, both political sides want to win, and they will use whatever techniques and tools to achieve their desired results at the ballot box, even if their opinions are based on the same facts.  Let’s just hope that in the coming year, the facts aren’t collateral damage on the electoral battlefield.

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