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The Limits of Political Spin

Politicians suffer from a particular form of hubris. They often believe that their PR staff can make any problem go away. If the communication director can release a well-worded written statement or say the right thing to a gaggle of reporters, then any poor decision or bad behavior will be managed.

In observing North Carolina Governor McCrory’s problems over the last few months, I have great sympathy for his spokesperson Kim Genardo and the other communication staff members in the administration. These folks have dealt with problems large and small and often forced to manage situations without a clear understanding of the situation. The most recent situation at the Department of Health and Human Services illustrates the challenges of political spin.

On August 15, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker broke the story that two former McCrory campaign workers, Matthew McKillip and Ricky Diaz, has received large salary increases in their respective roles as policy advisor and communication director for DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. Biesecker reported that neither Governor McCrory or Secretary Wos had comments about the hiring of these 24-year olds into important positions or about their salary levels. At a press conference the next day, Governor McCrory defended the hiring and salary decisions by stating that both were hired over other applicants based on their experience. He also said that many people in state government were paid well, referencing college presidents and athletic coaches, so the pay levels for McKillip and Diaz were in line.

Two days later, after increased media and partisan scrutiny over the hires, Genardo was sent out to defend the decisions. In response to the opening questions, she referred specific questions to Secretary Wos, but added that Wos desired to put together the best staff possible. When asked about a statement made by Rick French, CEO of PR firm French West Vaughan about Diaz’ salary being out of line for someone with little experience, Genardo defended the salary by saying that Diaz did more than provide public relations assistance at HHS.

On August 29, Michael Biesecker published an article disputing McCory’s initial claim about both McKillip and Diaz beating out older applicants for the position by stating that neither of the positions was posted and, therefore, the two were not competitively chosen based on their qualifications. Again, Genardo was forced to defend the McCrory administration with her statement: “Every personnel law and policy was adhered to in the hiring of Diaz and McKillip, State government has nearly 90,000 employees and the press has singled out two workers, yet no one has quibbled with their performance, work ethic and dedication to their department and the state of North Carolina.”

In-and-of-itself, political patronage is not a huge scandal. Handing out jobs to former campaign workers is standard fare that political leaders of both parties frequently do. The issue in this case is that the governor made it nearly impossible for Genardo to bury the story. In other situations, such as handing out cookies to the women protesting the governors actions and when the governor was throwing a baseball with staffers instead of meeting with those concerned with his policies, the governor has similarly put his communication staff into very awkward situations.

McCrory’s poll numbers are dropping with the most recent Public Policy Polling results indicating that less than 40 percent of North Carolinians saying that he is doing a good job as governor. The incidents mentioned above are not the major reasons for this drop, but contribute to the perception that the governor is not leading well. As with most politicians, Governor McCrory would be better served treating his communication staff as trusted advisors before taking actions like appointing former campaign workers as highly paid administrative staffers, rather than “gladiators in suits,” as the ABC drama Scandal portrays political spinmeisters, who are able to swoop in and clean up any situation.

North Carolina’s Civic Health

Every semester, I start my political science classes by asking students how interested they are in politics and how engaged they are in various forms of civic engagement. This exercise illustrates an obvious point–some are very engaged with all forms of civic engagement from voting to volunteering and many young people are disengaged.

Disengaged students offer a variety of reasons for not participating in politics. One students said succinctly: “I don’t like choosing between Democrats and Republicans. Why can’t there be another choice?” Another said: “Politicians don’t deal with my problems. Are they listening?” Both questions illustrate how politics can be uninviting to young people–even those engaged in other forms of civic engagement.

The evidence from the most recent North Carolina Civic Health Index, based on U.S. census data, is clear: Young North Carolinians are significantly less engaged than older citizens in almost every aspect of political life. But the data — and my experiences with young people themselves — also suggest that many young people are involved in other ways, and that civic engagement can be nurtured more effectively.

First, let’s look at political participation. Voting is the most obvious type of civic engagement. Young people 18-29 had relatively strong voter turnout in recent presidential elections, in part because of the candidacy of Barack Obama, but also because of voter laws in North Carolina that allowed voter registration for 16 and 17 year-olds, same day voter registration, and early voting.  This is not, however, the case during off-year elections. Only about eight percent of young North Carolinians voted in the most recent municipal elections.

At the same time, the vast majority of young North Carolinians are not completely disengaged. Two in 10 aged 18-29 volunteer for organizations, compared with 26.3 percent of those who are 30 and older. And among the youngest group queried by the census — 16- to 24-year-olds — 18.5 percent have volunteered. Unlike the gaping political participation divide between younger and older North Carolinians, these data suggest a younger generation that is just about as involved in civic life as its elders. And the far less severe age gap in discussing politics is also noteworthy — as is the slight edge young people hold in expressing their opinions on the internet.

None of these rates is as high as we might want for a truly active citizenry. But these differences across forms of political and civic involvement urge us to consider what it is about politics that is not inviting to young people.

National data show several reasons why young people don’t vote. Interestingly, about 30 percent of young people nationally said they didn’t vote in 2010 because they were “too busy” — roughly the same percentage of North Carolinians of all ages who said the same. Other reasons also stand out. For those in college, almost one-fourth said they were out of town or away from home — a significant hurdle for young people who have to figure out how to vote long distance when they don’t attend college in their hometowns or states. For those not attending college, the second-most frequently stated reason for not voting was that they “weren’t interested” or that they felt their vote “wouldn’t matter.”

How can these obstacles and attitudes be reversed?

Several particularly important approaches stand out for nurturing engagement among young people.

One is strengthening civics education in our schools. Research shows that students who receive high-quality civics education in school are more likely to vote and to discuss politics at home, more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and are more confident in their ability to speak publicly and to communicate with their elected officials.

North Carolina is one of almost a dozen states that require both course completion and student assessment in civics. But while testing and assessment are important, the most effective approaches go further. Civics education needs to involve students in active learning that builds useful civic skills and creates a sense of civic attachment. Many high school teachers take advantage of the resources available through organizations like the North Carolina Civics Education Consortium, but many of the avenues to active learning offered through NC Closeup, Governor’s School, and page and intern programs have or will lose funding and are being eliminated or changed through legislative action. It is critical to have enrichment opportunities available to as many North Carolina high school students as possible.

Another step is improving access to higher education. Better-educated North Carolinians are more likely to vote; more likely to express their views to family, friends and elected officials; more likely to volunteer and join civic organizations; and more likely to work with others to address problems in their communities.

In part this is because education is associated with higher income, greater leisure time and greater self-esteem. Earning a college degree produces people with greater resources for civic participation. But even limited exposure to the college classroom is correlated with levels of engagement, suggesting that the college experience itself plays an important role in creating actively engaged citizens. This is no small concern for a state in which 15 percent of residents lack even a high school diploma, and another 32 percent have only that.

Another approach is building more opportunities for online participation — in which young people already have a slight edge. According to a recent national survey, online social networks are most heavily used by young people, and approximately 66 percent of social media users use these platforms to “post their thoughts about civic and political issues, react to others’ postings, press friends to act on issues and vote, [and] follow candidates.” Accordingly, one path to building more engaged citizenship runs through digital and social media.

Investments in civics education and enrichment, the number of North Carolinians, and increased online civic participation will definitely help young people become more fully engaged citizens. There are, unfortunately, many policy changes being implemented after the last legislative session that will hurt civic engagement, particularly voting. For example, same-day voter registration is correlated with higher voter turnout overall, and among young voters in particular. In 2008, according to CIRCLE, 59 percent of Americans aged 18-29 whose home states offered Election Day Registration voted — nine percentage points higher than those who did not live in EDR states.

Even with voting law changes in North Carolina that hurt the political participation of young people, it is the attitude of many elected and political party officials that most turns off young people and may be creating a generation of citizens less civically engaged than possible. Tt is crucial that political officials and institutions do not treat the currently under-engaged as if they will always be so. As the recent Millennials Civic Health Index noted, “When political parties, civic associations, news organizations, and other institutions assume that young people do not engage, these institutions may avoid trying to recruit youth, which can lead to a cycle of disengagement.” The same can be said for other groups — Hispanics, African-Americans, immigrants and others — who could be assertively invited into the civic life of our state.

Civic engagement, as my own students will attest, is a multi-faceted issue. North Carolina, if it hopes to create a generation of truly engaged citizens and future leaders must make investments in those young people now in high school and college. It is not as simple as repealing a law or revising (or eliminating) the Core Core. It must begin with the attitude that young people will not only inherit the problems being left to them by the current generation of people in charge, but that they will need to fix them. It also means that investing in citizenship be treated on par with other investments, like public safety, that seem to be prioritized as more important.

Voter Law Changes in NC and Integrity

Lost amidst the hyperbole about Voter ID in the new election law signed August 12 by NC Governor Pat McCrory is a seeming contradiction between several provisions in the bill. Republicans have long claimed that requiring that voters produce a state-issued voter idea was critical to improving integrity in the electoral process. At the same time, the law changes the requirements for identifying contributors to outside groups that produce campaign communications and eliminates the requirement that candidates “stand by their ads” or claim ownership int he claims made in their electronic messages.

Anonymity has long been a part of American political discourse. The Founding Fathers anonymously published their views on what became the Constitution in the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers. They did so in many cases because of the mortal dangers they faced if their identities were known.

Today the issue is not life-or-death, but trust. Public opinion polls consistently state that citizens lack trust in politicians and our political process. One reason why Americans don’t trust the political process is that it lacks transparency. Voter ID laws create the perception that the process is more transparent, even if there are other intended or unintended consequences.

At the same time, reducing or eliminating the disclosure requirements for donors’ names creates the perception of election mischief, even if this is constitutionally protected by the 1st Amendment. Likewise, the “Stand by your ad” law, on the books since 1999, may not have reduced the number and nastiness of negative ads, but it at least allowed voters to clearly see who produced the message.

Trust in the electoral process is critical for a functioning republic. The new election law passed in North Carolina may do little to improve this trust as lawmakers have both improved and hurt transparency in their recent legislative efforts.