Food safety looms large on the political landscape nowadays. Various well-known individuals and organizations are crying for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to be moved out of the budget committee and on to a vote. Meanwhile the 2012 Farm Bill has yet to be passed with the September deadline fast approaching. Then there’s the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that is stalled in the legislature as well. What do these bills have in common, besides their delayed passage?
I may have a unique perspective on this question since I was a classroom teacher prior to NCLB becoming law in 2002. I am now the person responsible for the paperwork that FSMA will likely require of farmers. What I find interesting about the politics of these bills is the similarity in language used by those who support or oppose these various policies. For example, those upset over the delay of FSMA claim that either the Obama Administration or the Republicans are responsible. Fingers are also wagged at the food industry. Blame and finger-pointing often accompany dissatisfaction with the lethargic pace of the political process, especially for bills that will affect the lives of a large proportion of society’s population. Others see the delays as being deliberative or showing sensitivity to those who will be most impacted by the proposed legislation.
Another commonality of political language is exaggerated claims of the potential dire consequences if the bill should pass or not pass. In the case of NCLB, the claim of an undereducated class of students, those left behind. The punitive measures to be taken against schools and districts that didn’t meet their annual goals was assumed to be an incentive, but created anxiety for students, teachers, and administrators. Claims that passage of FSMA is needed to prevent further food-borne illnesses play on the anxieties and fears of the general public regarding food safety. These exaggerated claims may or may not prove to be true. They primarily serve to elicit support for or opposition to the bill.
Last, but not least, is the use of stories to garner support for a particular stance. Of course, the stories differ depending upon the position of the speakers. Stories are important because they tend to elicit emotional responses in the audience. Stories may be as short as a headline or as long as a book. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. What makes stories so powerful are not so much what they tell, but how the audience perceives or interprets them. Perceptions are based on the values one holds dear. The recent Stanford study on organic and conventional foods is a prime example. This is research, supposedly an objective endeavor, whose results were based on a study of other research. Yet, the responses it elicited ranged from celebratory to hyper-critical. The title of the study alone tells a story that has elicited a plethora of responses.
Whoever reads this post may shake her/his head and think, “I knew this already. That’s just politics as usual.” That’s what’s so amazing. That people know this about politics, but fall for it anyway. To test my theory, go to the following link and watch the video from the CBS This Morning show then respond by posting a comment. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.