Confuse and conquer

John Weber Contributor
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“I think I should understand that better if I had it written down. But I can’t quite follow it as you say it.”―Alice, from Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland”

The three greatest legislative issues under debate in America today have one thing in common: no one understands them. Healthcare reform (okay, that debate is mostly over), financial reform, and global warming each are incredibly complex problems sporting mind-numbing solutions that even the most dedicated policy wonks struggle to explain.

One estimate has the recently passed healthcare reform bill weighing in at 19 pounds and 1,990 pages—longer (and heavier) than War and Peace.  My guess is 99% of the U.S. population couldn’t begin to tell you what’s in it. Meanwhile, congressional hearings designed to eviscerate sneaky Wall Street executives end up looking less like the Nuremberg Trials (i.e., the wicked are condemned) than a Chinese-language Kung Fu movie, where you see the combatants hitting each other but you have no idea what they’re saying. (“Synthetic collateralized-debt obligations,” anyone?)

Of course, the real complexity champs are the techno-elite of the environment movement. Peter Huber, in his excellent book Hard Green, calls them “the priesthood of scientists, regulators and lawyers” who rule over “the realm of huge populations (molecules, particles) paired with very weak (low-probability) or slow (long time frame) effects.” In his classic 1972 essay, nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg coined the term “trans-science” to describe the study of phenomena too large, diffuse, rare or long-term to be resolved by scientific means. They are epistemologically “scientific,” and yet—for strictly practical reasons—unanswerable by science. Today, the chant of “Save the Whale!” has given away to “Parts per Billion!” The perverse brilliance of the techno-elite is how can you challenge their assertions when they can’t be proven in the first place?

Until recently, all of this complexity would have been considered a huge liability to those advocating sweeping legislative change. For years, communicators were guided by Ronald Reagan’s axiom, “Wrap every argument in a principle.” This eventually led to James Carville’s famous directive to Clinton campaign workers, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Simplicity, clarity, emotive power, and a direct connection to people’s everyday lives—these were once the drivers of modern political communications. Today, the cry seems to be, “Wrap every argument in an enigma.” Complexity has become both the sword and shield of contemporary political combat.

Looking ahead, the reemerging issue that everyone can get their head around is illegal immigration and border control. Just like healthcare became a proxy for everything certain sectors of the American populace dislike about Washington and the federal government today, so, too, will this newly ignited controversy pouring out from Arizona. Perhaps we’ll have a fight on principles after all.

John Weber is president of Dezenhall Resources, Ltd. and author of “Damage Control,” a crisis management book for business executives.