Democracy Doesn’t Do Nuance: Why the Dems Lost Control of the Debate
Not surprisingly, this poll from Gallup showing that the extremity of the town hall protests may be succeeding in increasing opposition to health care reform – and certainly have not provoked a backlash – is rightly the story of the day and has the Right celebrating, and the Left a bit bruised, with the proud partisan Big Tent Democrat proudly reasserting his long-held belief that Dems need to be more partisan because they’re never going to succeed in convincing anyone. Relatedly, the Obama Administration is taking up the argument that the media are failing to refute blatant falsities alleged by many of these protesters.
I take a different view, as usual. The reason why the health care debate has favored liberals and Democrats in recent years has been their ability to appeal to powerful anecdotes of the uninsured and other actual victims of our current health care system. What the health care protests have done is to put actual people who sincerely (if very, very wrongly) believe they would be victims of Obamacare front and center, providing reform opponents with easily-relatable appeals to emotion that they’ve never had in the past fifteen years.
That these people have acted in extreme and normally unacceptable ways in making their appeals is largely irrelevant to the observing public, who put themselves in the shoes of someone who sincerely believes that she will die if Obamacare becomes reality. Of course, if people recognize that you honestly believe a piece of legislation will kill you, then they’re going to be willing to empathize with any manner of nonviolent but otherwise extreme methods of protest.
I think a lot of proponents of reform recognize this, which is why they point the finger at organizing groups, talk show hosts, and Sarah Palin for spreading misinformation about the proposal, and at the media for failing to rebut that misinformation. This is an understandable complaint, and is I think an accurate one, though not with respect to the media (more on that in a moment).
What reformers don’t seem to realize is how the decision to water down health care reform rather than pushing for something more ambitious (like single-payer, on the one had, or Wyden-Bennett, on the other) has hurt them in this debate, perhaps irreparably.
The other day, I wrote about how it was ridiculous for the Right to be celebrating a poll showing an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed to single-payer health care when single-payer health care is not on the table. This would seem particularly ridiculous when the avenue that is on the table, the public option, polls extremely well (though, it would seem, not if it is going to significantly add to the national deficit). It is doubly ridiculous when you consider how much responses to questions about single-payer health care vary depending on how they are asked.
The trouble is that Democrats and liberals have become so closely associated with single-payer and government-run universal health insurance that people can’t comprehend that they’re now pushing for something substantially less than that, particularly when so many Democrats, the President included, have suggested that this is a step on the road to single-payer. Attempting to explain that the current leading proposals would not, in fact, be a single-payer system or “socialized medicine” is thus either difficult to believe or impossible to do well in a few sentences. Even where it can be done, there’s not really any way of credibly denying the “slippery slope” argument since so many liberals and Dem politicians have made clear that creating a slippery slope towards nationalized health insurance is precisely what this legislation is supposed to do.
Making all this worse is how complicated the legislation has become because of the legislative deal making necessary to get this far combined with the need to insert mandates in order to achieve something approaching near-term universality. These complexities make it possible for opponents of the legislation to cherry-pick all sorts of provisions out of context and misrepresent (perhaps even unintentionally) what they actually mean. And this says nothing about the problem of spending fatigue that has set in thanks to the huge spending projects pushed through in the late Bush and early Obama administrations.
The result of all this is that you have what is really a quite modest reform that has the appearance of being a radical set of reforms wrapped in sheep’s clothing, which makes them appear (rightly or wrongly) to be not only radical but also intentionally deceptive, which in turn makes them appear that they would be far more radical than a basic single-payer system would actually be.
The response to this, I suppose, is that it’s the media’s job to debunk these fears. But that puts too much faith in the power of the media and also ignores that a lot of these allegations are poorly suited to fact-checking. First, even if the media were to clearly state that various of the ridiculous charges were untrue, the complexity of these issues would undermine the power of those statements. Second, all the above factors ensure that the sheer volume of charges being made are going to be too many for any one media outlet to debunk in a convincing fashion. Finally, many of these charges are ill-suited for fact-checking because they are slippery slope arguments or are based on hypotheses about what this legislation would actually do in practice rather than what the legislation says it would do. These kinds of hypotheticals, ridiculous as they may be, are difficult-to-impossible for the media to take a definitive stand on because they are pretty much unfalsifiable claims. The most that can really be done to undermine these claims is to follow them up with a segment featuring an expert or an advocate of reform with a lede of “But experts/advocates say these fears are hogwash…”
Where I think proponents of reform would have a point in their criticism of the media would be in arguing that the claims by these protesters are so ridiculous as to not warrant any media coverage at all. That said, the protest movement is probably too large to have avoided covering altogether.
None of this is to blame the Democrats for the furor of the town hall protests, although their use of phrases like “un-American,” “Astro-turf,” etc. have been unforced errors that have only served to intensify the outrage. Hindsight is, after all, 20/20. Nor is any of this to excuse those who should have known better than to make arguments based primarily on conjectures on top of conjectures.
It is, however, to say that the apparent success of the town hall protests in stoking anti-reform sentiment was perhaps inevitable once the Democrats began to pursue a reform strategy that relied on a byzantine mix of mandates, new regulations, and new government entities. In many ways, other reforms that have been kicking around for longer than those espoused in the current proposals would have been able to avoid many of these problems. Single-payer, for instance, while starting out with a lower initial approval, would not have been subject to slippery slope or ulterior motive claims and would have been easier to understand (it can be explained in a few sentences, although the transitional implementation would have necessarily been complicated) even as it would have been no more or less susceptible to cries of “Socialism!” Wyden-Bennett would have been able to avoid the cries of “Socialism!” and the slippery slope arguments since it’s not viewed as a stepping stone to single-payer but as something of an end unto itself, although it would have been subject to taking provisions out of context since it’s a relatively complicated set of provisions.
Again, though, hindsight is 20/20, so I can’t blame the Dems too much for trying to push for a watered-down incremental step towards their ultimate aim. I just think that, at a minimum, something like single-payer would have had at least an equal chance of being sold to the American people as the current proposals while having the benefit (from a liberal perspective) of being a much more meaningful and sweeping reform. Obviously, I think the same would have been true for Wyden-Bennett, although I recognize that internal Dem politics would have made this highly unlikely to ever be a Dem priority.