an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman marty.lederman at comcast.net
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
Back in June and July, when I was posting on the policy options behind health care reform, I naively thought that we were headed for an illuminating public debate about the issue. In my most sanguine moments, I imagined a world where not just experts, but even some plurality of voters grasped concepts like DRG's, risk-adjustment, and parallel public-private systems of health care provision.
The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
How did this happen? Are there any lessons for progressives in the future?
1) Never underestimate the power of having a celebrity on your side willing to say anything. The vitriolic Glenn Beck has characterized himself as a "rodeo clown," and he has many proteges. The moment the media starts treating a claim like Sarah Palin's "death panel" as anything more than lunacy--or, more insidiously, decides to "report the controversy"--the game is over. The Swift Boat cycle has begun: the "damage done by the accusations," whether they are true or not, becomes the story. Denials are likely to reinforce the original untruth:
Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, . . . studies show that the brain uses subconscious “rules of thumb” that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.
The experiments also highlight the difference between asking people whether they still believe a falsehood immediately after giving them the correct information, and asking them a few days later. Long-term memories matter most in public health campaigns or political ones, and they are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false information is true. . . . .[O]nce an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.
2) Emotional appeals trump rational argument. In an interview on Chris Lydon's show Open Source, Cass Sunstein, a rationalist, dismissed the emotional appeals suggested by George Lakoff because they expressed too dim a view of human nature. It should now be clear that Lakoff likely overestimates the sense of responsibility in the mainstream media.
Rather than engage in the hard work of educating viewers about what reform would actually do, it's searching for the exciting, shocking footage of screaming and shouting. Given the death of appointment television, news producers know that they may well be competing for eyeballs against nasty spats on Real Housewives of New Jersey, or babbling beefcake on the Bachelorette. Dress up the same antics as being Something Important or Civic Protest, and you've got yourself a news story. It's so much easier than, say, describing whom a public option would help, or how health insurance exchanges would operate.