When the Duke men’s basketball team played Maryland in 1984, Duke students shouted profanities and threw contraceptives at a Maryland player accused of sexual assault. The next day a Washington Post op-ed decried the fans’ behavior, describing the scene as “close to the ultimate in filth.”
As the university president, how do you respond? This was one of the scenarios analyzed during a recent workshop and panel, “Policy vs. Politics: From Policy Analysis to Political Speeches,” on Monday, April 4 at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Dean Storelli, event moderator and writing and communications instructor at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), put forth a number of potential solutions to the Duke basketball problem: threatening penalties for misconduct, screening fans before letting them into games, and offering prizes to the best-behaved students.
Terry Sanford, president of the university at the time, did none of these. Instead, he penned a letter to all Duke undergraduates encouraging them to uphold Duke’s reputation.
“Resorting to the use of obscenities in cheers and chants at ball games indicates a lack of vocabulary, a lack of cleverness, a lack of ideas, a lack of class, and a lack of respect for other people,” Sanford wrote. “It should not be up to me to enforce proper behavior that signifies the intelligence of Duke students. You should do it.”
Sanford’s solution, Storelli said, was a resounding success. At the next game with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students wore halos fashioned out of coat hangers. When they disagreed with a call, they shouted, “We beg to differ.” They held up signs behind the free throw line that read, “Please miss.”
The move, Storelli said, was a perfect blend of policy and politics. The history books do not record the actual alternatives Sanford may have considered, but in the end, his political skills allowed him to arrive at a solution that resonated with his audience.
“He was empowering the students to figure it out,” one attendee said. “He’s giving a vision of how Duke should be.”
Facts versus Feelings
In addition to Sanford’s letter, attendees analyzed a number of political speeches, including President Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech and Hillary Clinton’s address to Congress after she was appointed to lead the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in 1993.
While Reagan trumpets the progress made over the previous eight years and predicts a bright future, Clinton rattles off facts and figures.
“Can you hear the paper that’s in her head?” Storelli asked. “This is evidence-based.”
Attendees argued that the speeches were appropriate to their particular situations and audiences.
“Context really matters,” said Roy Kelly, professor of the practice at DCID. “When you’re in a congressional hearing, you expect policy, you don’t expect platitudes.”
Learning the Language
A panel of Sanford master’s students, all with experience in political campaigns or administrations, weighed in on their personal experiences. Kevin Fulton (MPP’17) worked for a congressman in a working-class district who had his speechwriters nix any word with more than three syllables. While Fulton said this could be seen as manipulative, it was the most effective way to connect with constituents. Phyllis Pomerantz, professor of the practice at DCID, agreed.
“One of the problems academics have is no one understands a thing they say,” she said. “It’s learning a language just like any other language.”
Betty Tushabe (MIDP’16) was policy adviser for President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. An avid reader, Kagame often asked her to rewrite policy briefs because he already knew everything in the first draft. Her challenge was to provide him with the newest information and ensure he would captivate the crowd.
“We had to make sure we didn’t give him the same stuff to say,” she said. “He had to be fresh. He had to be different.”
Political communication has much in common with film production, said Spencer White (MPP’16), former associate producer for a film studio. “You’re selling an idea that doesn’t yet exist, you’re working with a bunch of unstable people to make that idea come to life, and … in the end you might or might not see positive change.”
In addition to knowing how to communicate, knowing the nuts and bolts of policy is also important for politicians. Policy analysis, therefore, is more important than studying political science, argued Elohim Monard (MIDP’16), who ran for Peru’s Congress in 2011.
“It happens a lot in developing countries, when you have a politician that just does not understand what the technocrats are talking about,” he said.
Overall, the panelists agreed that the most effective politicians are those who understand the policy to the point where they can explain it simply and convey its importance.
“The how and why of policy is where politics comes in,” White said.