WASHINGTON -- A group of progressive academics is hoping that a bit of wonkiness can help shape the political discourse during the presidential campaign.
The group, which has no formal name, has found an outlet in the Scholars Strategy Network, a platform for researchers to collaborate on and share "briefs highlighting research findings, presenting basic facts on timely topics, and offering policy options about many issues."
With an eye toward bolstering President Barack Obama's re-election hopes, the group is zeroing in on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan, which has been overwhelmingly embraced by Republicans, including presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
With the political discourse degenerating into name-calling squabbles -- such as Obama denouncing "Romney-hood" economics and Romney lambasting "Obamaloney" political attacks -- the scholars hope to use substantive arguments to refocus the debate.
The SSN encourages scholars across universities and disciplines, many of whom typically publish their work in academic journals, to produce work targeted at a more layman audience. This includes an emphasis on op-ed pieces, briefs, and a push to get more involved as mainstream media analysts.
"We don't dumb down anything, but we don't talk in any kind of technical language," co-founder Theda Skocpol told The Huffington Post. "Think about your neighbor or your aunt at Thanksgiving dinner, and that's how you write them."
Skocpol had the idea to create SSN more than three years ago, but it’s only in the last nine months that the group has grown as an entity. It now includes about 150 scholars. And while the Ryan budget is one if several issues the SSN hopes to spotlight, it won't be its exclusive focus.
“We have a commitment to laying out the truth in a way that citizens can access and comprehend, including arcane ideas like taxes, budgets and health care reform,” said Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University. “But it's important for those issues to be clarified and for citizens to understand what's at stake.”
Yale University Professor Jacob Hacker, who serves on the SSN's steering committee, described the current push in support of the Ryan budget as a “big mobilization” that could be held up as an embodiment of conservative priorities. In this case, those priorities that the network of academics will highlight include across-the-board tax cuts, including steep ones for the wealthy, at the expense of investments in education, health care, job training, college loans and other domestic programs.
Hacker, a leading health care theorist known to many as the "godfather" of the public option, is convinced that if most Americans understand these details, it will change the debate in Washington.
“This time around, the Republicans are essentially using the deficit as the central organizing principle for their budget," Hacker said in an interview. "But what they are proposing are plans that every independent analyst says will increase the deficit."
In addition to his work with SSN, Hacker also released a new report with Yale colleague Nate Loewentheil, titled “Prosperity Economics,” designed to counteract the Republicans’ plan, which Ryan dubbed “Path to Prosperity.” In the 61-page report, Hacker and Loewentheil argue that major public investment in areas such as infrastructure and human capital is what drives the economy.
Skocpol knows the group's mission comes with major hurdles. But the SSN is actively hoping to use community settings to make scholars and their ideas more accessible to voters. Examples include speaking engagements at both state and national branches of union groups, the YWCA and the Center for Community Change.
“We don’t expect our briefs to be handed out to 200 million Americans,” Skocpol said. “That's not likely to happen.”
But changing the public debate still remains the overall goal. And as Hacker sees it, if they succeed in elevating the discourse even slightly, it will be worth the effort.
"What's at stake in this debate is whether or not Ryan can maintain that he's going to have a tax reform that's going to lower the rates on high-income people and won't cost the Federal Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars," Hacker said. "To the extent that that fiction is revealed to be a fiction, that changes the debates."