Is evidence-based lawmaking making a comeback?

One of my resolutions this year was to get more informed about local, state, and national politics. By more informed, I don’t mean reading more NPR and New York Times articles (I don’t need to be convinced to do that). I mean that before reading political commentary, I’m trying to find video or primary sources of events so I can come up with my own takes. What this means for me is watching a lot of TVW and C-SPAN.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: this exercise has done nothing but reaffirm my political leanings. Or perhaps I’m just incapable of applying an objective perspective to current events. That’s okay, though, because no one is truly objective and objectivity is often born out of bringing together different voices and perspectives.

Anyway, I’ve really buried the lede here, but all this is to say that Republicans have messaging down to an art form. Or a science. Or both. Whatever makes it sound like they’ve put a lot of work into it, because they have. However, that’s not to say that their messaging is entirely truthful.

Let’s talk a bit about messaging and facts. As it turns out, political messaging need not be based on facts. We all have known this practically forever, but it bears repeating. Here are some key Republican talking-points surrounding border security:

  • People are pouring into our country through the southern border
  • 90 percent of heroin in the US comes through the southern border
  • Thousands of Americans have been killed by undocumented immigrants

They’ve been repeating these over and over. None of these points are grounded in any facts or evidence. What makes them effective is that they play on fears of safety and security. When our representatives bring up “national security” or “border security” or any kind of “security,” it immediately puts their constituents in a sort of fight-or-flight response. In other words, if you say the right combination of words, you can turn anyone into a “law-and-order” voter (i.e., a voter who wants their electeds to be “tough on crime”).

Here are the key Republican talking points surrounding the government shutdown:

  • Democrats are refusing to negotiate on border security, i.e. the shutdown is their fault
  • Democrats don’t like Republicans or Donald Trump, and that’s why they’re refusing to budge on border security

These talking points have some truth to them, but don’t tell the whole story. What makes them effective is that they’re grounded in Democratic messaging from the past two years: Democrats (to the best of their ability) played the opposition party, doing everything they could to block Republican legislation and not cave to Trump’s wishes. Good job, I guess, but now that perceived animosity can fuel Republican criticism.

But the facts will set you free, or at least knowing the facts will help you cut through some of the messaging here. Democrats have done a decent enough job of cutting through the rhetoric by calling the border crisis “manufactured.” Unfortunately, when Republicans giving floor speeches show pictures of families that have had their lives torn apart, supposedly by undocumented immigrants, this makes Democrats look either out of touch or uncaring. The obvious response might be to reassert that there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s a link between immigrantion (documented or undocumented) and violent or drug-related crime.

This piece about evidence, however, is what’s most important. In a January 17 press conference, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was asked why Democrats aren’t at the negotiating table. In a feat of well-crafted messaging I’d expect only from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi responded “what negotiating table are we not at?” Indeed, it was Trump himself who walked out of the last negotiation. Indeed, it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who can’t be bothered to show up to introduce, debate, or vote on appropriations bills, sparking the playful-yet-depressing hashtag #Wheres Mitch. Why are Democrats taking all the blame for not negotiating, when it’s the Republicans who have drawn a line in the sand at their $5.7 billion vanity project?

I’ve already answered that last question: it’s because the Democrats did such a (surprisingly) good job of staying on their anti-Trump message over the last two years that, now that they’re in a position to actually govern, the media believe them.

To step back for a bit, it’s important to point out that Democratic messaging surrounding the shutdown hasn’t even touched on border security, which is perhaps good and bad. On the one hand, it shows that Democrats are sticking to their “manufactured crisis” story, and consistency is at the heart of good messaging. On the other hand, it means they’ve done just about nothing to counter or debunk Republican claims (though, there’s been enough writing about how fact-checking doesn’t work to convince me that it might not matter), instead focusing again and again on “x” number of workers without pay, “y” number of small businesses without loans, and “z” number of children without healthcare. While those are certainly all facts, if the public believes the shutdown to be Democrats’ fault, those facts only hurt Democrats! Rather, Democrats should be focusing on reframing the debate, pointing out that they have been participating in negotiations, but there’s no point in allocating $5.7 billion for a wall which doesn’t actually address the problems Republicans are bringing up.

It’s again worth it to do a quick aside and point out that a majority of Americans believe the shutdown is the GOP’s and Trump’s fault… according to a Washington Post and ABC News poll. I’d love to get a sense for what portion of the population they’re sampling. Here, you can see a breakdown of the data by demographic markers. Miraculously, moderates and independents also blame the GOP and Trump. So, either the GOP (mis)information campaign isn’t working, or the Democrats’ messaging on workers not getting paid is working. That’s harder to judge.

Back to Pelosi’s press conference. When further asked why Dems aren’t sitting down to talk about providing money for border security concerns with stipulations about its use, Pelosi asserted that Democrats had in fact offered to provide such funding. She went one step further. “90% of the drugs… and many of the asylum seekers come through the ports of entry. And by the way, in the last Congress, we gave the administration exactly what the department asked for… we’re saying use the money to expand the ports of entry. This has to be evidence-based, not notion-mongered.”

Read that last part again.

“This has to be evidence-based, not notion-mongered.”

If no one has said this yet, let me be the first: thank G-d for Nancy Pelosi. With just one question and one follow-up, she pinned the shutdown firmly on the shoulders of Republicans and President Trump, pointing out that this shutdown could have been avoided if the President had signed the appropriations bill that passed both Chambers of the last Congress. She also debunked a major Republican talking point, highlighting that the southern border is inconsequential to questions of immigration policy and drug trafficking. Finally, she used my second-favorite phrase and my new all-time favorite phrase: evidence-based and notion-mongered, respectively. So, what Nancy Pelosi did was debunk, shift the blame, and paint the border wall as the useless ramblings of an ideologue. Now, she needs to get the rest of her party to pick up the ball and play.

This brings me, I hope, to my final point. Nancy Pelosi suggested that US border security policy be evidence-based. This is a call to my fellow scientists, science policy professionals, and science enthusiasts. Border security is a scientific issue. Immigration policy is a scientific issue. Drug use, trafficking, and addiction are scientific issues. The country and the world need people trained in the collection and synthesis of evidence to help make difficult decisions, so don’t ever shy away from an issue or a question because it’s not “science-y” enough. Evidence-based lawmaking is making a comeback, and we’ve got to help it along.

Fun fact: one time I was like, three feet away from Nancy Pelosi and Pramila Jayapal when they were speakers at the March for Science — Seattle in April 2018 (I was also a speaker).

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