Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Nothing but the truth

Political speech is an exercise in framing. Though the world is full of facts, language affords us nearly limitless flexibility in describing a given state of affairs: we can say that a house is located “in Abbottabad” or “within a mile of the Pakistani military academy”; that Detroit is “the most populous city in Michigan” or “roughly one-third of its size in 1950”; and so on. While facts themselves are independent of language and thus politically inert, our capacity to state them is not.

Which brings me to PolitiFact Wisconsin, home of the Truth-O-Meter. PolitiFact investigates the truthfulness of claims made by political figures, providing what is in principle a useful public service. An unwavering focus on a claim’s truth, however, often distracts our attention from—and thereby unwittingly, through repetition, reinforces—its point of view, that is, the rhetorical frame it seeks to impose on the facts in question. So it is with PolitiFact’s latest investigation, of Scott Walker’s claim that Milwaukee County spent over $170,000 in 2010 on union-related work done by county employees.

As detailed in PolitiFact’s report, Walker’s claim is true; in fact, it slightly understates the amount spent (and significantly understates it when associated benefits are taken into account, bringing the total to around $260,000). PolitiFact sees its role as “not weighing in on the merits of the practice,” but rather “checking the accuracy of Walker’s claim on the cost to Milwaukee County.” By adopting Walker’s framing of the facts, however, PolitiFact inevitably echoes his negative assessment of the practice.

Framing is especially important in talking about money: the underlying mathematics allows for an infinite variety of truth-conditionally equivalent statements of a given financial fact. To wit, the amount in question is equal to roughly $4,375, on average, for each of the roughly 60 county employees PolitiFact reports were paid for union work in 2010; it is equal to $48.12 per county employee in 2010 (based on the county’s report of 5,457 full-time employee equivalents in 2010); and it is a bit under two one-hundredths of one percent of the county’s total expenditures in 2010, which were approximately $1.46 billion, according to the same report. All of the statements above are equally true. Stating the amount as a per-employee average or as a percentage of the county budget is intended to make the expenditure look small. Stating the amount as a lump sum, as Walker and PolitiFact do, is intended to make it look large; among other things, this invites the politically contentious inference that the county’s overriding priority should be to spend as little money as possible. While the total amount spent is a politically neutral matter of fact, stating it as such is a rhetorical choice that reflects a particular political point of view, PolitiFact’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Indeed, there is a steady undercurrent of anti-union sentiment in the PolitiFact report. Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators are described as having decided to “hotfoot it to Illinois” in February. The report asks whether county employees were paid “not to do work for the county, but for their unions,” a construction that presumes, without argument, an antagonism between the interests of the county and those of its collectively represented employees. While comparisons with city and state practice are made in an attempt to provide some context for the discussion of the county figures, no comparison is made with the cost structure of public contracts issued to private entities, where public payments are used, directly or indirectly, to fund administrative, advertising, and other costs not associated with work done for the public (to say nothing of the amount the private entity collects as profit).

By focusing entirely on the truth of Walker’s claim and ignoring its framing of the facts, PolitiFact tacitly endorses Walker’s point of view. While PolitiFact’s mission is admirable, its execution leaves much to be desired. Like PolitiFact, my intention here is not to assess the wisdom of paying county employees for time spent on union activities. Rather, I hope to have shown that PolitiFact grossly overestimates its ability to stay above the political fray while talking about such matters. Lost in the cheerful green glow of the Truth-O-Meter is the fact that the truth always comes in a specifically chosen and politically interested linguistic package.

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