Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Of Rodeo Clowns and Health Care Despair

Frank Pasquale

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.

August has ended those dreams. What we have instead is completely unhinged talk of "death panels," euthanasia for the elderly, universal coverage as slavery-reparation, and wholesale government takeovers of the health care system. The normally staid Steven Pearlstein despairs at the evolution of the debate:

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.

As OTM reported this week, the right has now perfected the disruptive politics pioneered by Saul Alinsky in the 1960's. It's all very Bob Roberts.

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.

Sadly for Democrats, the poor, sick, and unlucky uninsured are not as avid for a chance to act out as the health care town hall sans-culottes. Many of them saw the smearing of the Frost family in 2007, and are loathe to endure the same fate. But if progressives are serious about change, video game designers may be more important to promote than long lists of experts in favor of the public option. Public opinion, a phantom in Lippmann's time, is even more elusive and fickle in our own. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson observed in the 1990s, deception and distraction are becoming the coin of our political realm.

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