“Dirty” Words to Watch for in Campaign Ads

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Here's some advice: when you see or hear an ad for or against a California ballot initiative this year, listen closely for two "dirty" words: "the politicians."

Those words will invariably be said derisively and dismissively.

As in: "The politicians" should not get to decide... school funding or... taxes... or penalties on human trafficking... or how the food is labeled in your store... or how to balance the budget.

Just this week, I saw a web ad for Prop 38, the temporary income tax increase to produce money for school districts, that advertised the measure as taking power away from politicians. Schools and communities should decide how such money is spent, not politicians, was the argument.

Sometimes, "the politicians" argument is mostly bunk, as in the case of Prop 38. ("The politicians" don't decide school funding in California; formulas imposed by ballot initiative and court precedent).

Other times, it's true that the measure limits the discretion of "the politicians." On this November's ballot, that's true of most of the measures.

But it's a powerful political argument. People don't trust politicians. But there's something left unsaid when "the politicians" are dumped upon. And that unsaid thing is: What's the alternative?

When it comes to the initiative process, the answer to that question is: the alternative is to cut politicians out of the process and let the rich and powerful people who paid for the initiative, or the campaign against the initiative, to make the decisions for you.

Indeed, given California's initiative process, the alternative to letting politicians decide is to let the rich and powerful sponsors of an initaitive lock in their preferences forever -- or until other rich and powerful people come along with another ballot measure and convince voters to do something different.

So when you hear the words "the politicians" in an ad, immediately insert the phrase: "The people behind this ad feel you should just let us decide this thing for you."

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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