Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Second Republican Lesson: Beliefs Are Stronger Than Facts

Politics is Belief

Politics is not about facts, it is about opinions. We hold specific political beliefs because we believe they are correct, not because they actually are. Most importantly, our political ideas are not true because we believe in them, however fervently we may embrace those beliefs.

There is nothing new about these statements. I'm sure every one of us have said these very things when criticizing someone else's political views. (Much rarer are those who remind themselves of these truths.)

This is also not to say that all political opinions are equal. Political beliefs can be objectively measured by observing the changes in social conditions after they have been implemented and then determining whether those changes were advantageous to a majority within that society.

Still, the reasons why people cling to certain political doctrines has very little to do with whether those things are, in fact, helpful or hurtful to a majority of a society's population. In spite of this, there are many who continue to believe that "getting the facts out there" is effective in bolstering or undermining a political belief.

Many of these "political rationalists" are leaders and trendsetters within the Democratic Party. Very few of them seem to be Republicans. This disparity is to the great disadvantage of the Democrats because, in terms of how people behave in political situations, the Republicans have got it right.

Why "Death Panels" Won't Die

We all recall the accusation that the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" (better known as "Health Care Reform") would create "Death Panels". In spite of countless denials by Reform supporters, that particular rumor "still has legs" to this day. The problem for the deniers is that the complete absence of any reference to "Death Panels" in the law's voluminous pages is irrelevant to their power as a political "code word". That phrase is a potent symbol encapsulating and crystallizing the basic fears we all share of any health care system in which the welfare of the patient is not its first and only priority.

The largely Republican critics of the new law don't care that "Death Panels" are not the literal truth as long as the term invokes the negative emotions associated with the rationing of health care in the name of cost-containment (or other social goals). If there is any potential for this outcome in the statute, however remote, the Republicans will argue that its use is justified. Republican strategists understand that a fear of losing one's autonomy and independence is a very real one for many Americans since they have been experiencing exactly that for decades. The fact that the health care law was not designed to do that, nor can it be reasonably expected to have that impact in practice, is insufficient reassurance to a skeptical public.

Many Democrats view this Republican strategy negatively because it appears to be exploiting people's fears; in effect indulging those fears instead of dispelling them. Rather than seeing this fear as a defect that should not be exploited for political reasons, Democrats should be wondering why the fear exists in spite of the facts and how to ease those fears without acting as if the fear is purely the result of ignorance. How can we expect to persuade people if it appears to them as if we are questioning their intelligence?

Acknowledge Fear to Fight Fear

Fear cannot be fought only with facts. Appeals to reason often seem to the fearful to belittle their fears and thus are generally ignored. Factually baseless fears must be directly acknowledged and ratified as a legitimate (though incorrect) reaction to change if they are to be successfully overcome.

Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership doesn't seem to understand this. Rather than endlessly repeating the mantra that "Death Panels" are a figment of the imagination, they should be pointing out that "Death Panels" really do exist and the health insurance companies are currently using them. In fact, the rationing of health care that the opponents of reform fear so much has existed for decades. The 50 million Americans currently without health insurance are a "market driven" method for such rationing. And most of those with health insurance are not immune from this scourge as the insurance companies make decisions on whether to pay for a medical procedure on the basis of their bottom line instead of the medical needs of the insured.

In fact, one of the principal purposes of the law is to stop health-care rationing by the insurance companies and by the market place. Rather than create "Death Panels" the new law aims to end them.

The appropriation of the potent symbol of "Death Panels" by supporters of health care reform would show empathy for a fear that many Americans have good reasons to have. It would also be an act of political "Jujutsu": turning a powerful weapon used by the opponents of reform against them. All it requires is giving up the completely irrational idea that politics is a rational activity. The Republicans figured this out a long time ago. When will the Democrats?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Learning from the Republicans

The Real Lesson of the 2010 Elections

Well, it seems that the Democrats have learned their lesson: sticking to your principles at any cost; never compromising; saying "no" as often as it takes gets you nowhere in politics except the scrap heap.

But, wait a minute... isn't that precisely what the Republicans have done for the last 2 years and didn't they just win the biggest Midterm election victory since WW II? Of course they did: any one who just lived through this period knows that unless you happen to be The Media or The President.

And didn't Obama, Reid and Pelosi bend over backwards so often in attempts to "reach across the aisle" that they looked like circus contortionists? And didn't they just get a "shellacking" at the polls? Of course they did though neither of that hapless threesome seems to have been paying attention.

The real lesson of this week's election is that compromise in the name of statesmanship, in the interests of governing or for any other reason is a losing strategy. THAT is the lesson that Democrats need to learn IMMEDIATELY.

It's not that there weren't plenty of opportunities to learn it in the last two years. Almost from the start of Obama's administration, many smart people tried to tell him that the stimulus plan wasn't too big, as the Republicans were claiming, but was actually way too small. But he and his advisers felt that proposing an even larger stimulus bill would doom the entire plan to oblivion on the Senate floor and so they created the first and most politically devastating of the compromises he would undertake in order to get something done. The woefully inadequate stimulus, as predicted, left the nation mired in a 9.5% unemployment rate almost 2 years after its enactment and left thousands of angry voters expressing their outrage at the polls.

Time after time, Obama surrendered Democratic principles to obtain his Health Care, Wall Street and Credit Card reforms. And as a direct result of that compromise, the impacts of these laws were stunted enough that Republicans could claim, with some justification, that those efforts were a failure and, by extension, that all government economic activity is useless or worse.

If any other evidence of the unimportance of compromise is needed, let us remember the previous "watershed" election of 2006 in which the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and Senate. What was the main response of President Bush to that turn of events? Did he compromise? You betcha not!! He quickly began planning the Iraqi "surge" involving the dispatch of even more troops although the Congressional election results were widely seen as a repudiation of Bush's entire Iraq policy.

Following the Republican Example

I have to hand it to the Republicans. In their darkest hour in decades, the first months following the election of Obama, they must have been under enormous pressure to sacrifice some of their basic principles in order to "stay relevant" or "have a seat at the table". They resisted what their leaders rightly saw as a false temptation, realizing that the fastest way to oblivion was to let the Democrats accomplish anything of significance. If they were to have any chance to implement their principles, they needed to win in 2010 and 2012 and to do so required them to prove the ineffectiveness of the Democrats. The simplest and only way to do that was stay true to themselves. Not only would this weaken their political opposition it would also motivate their base and provide a beacon for dissatisfied independents. I may not like what the Republicans stand for but I clearly understand it since they are remarkably consistent in adhering to them.

Let all Democrats acknowledge the political skill of the Republicans even while vehemently disagreeing with their policies. Let us reject compromise as a political tool. Democratic Senators should be prepared to filibuster all Republican proposals that violate Democratic principles even if that means exceeding the Republicans unprecedented use of that tactic in the current Congress. And they should take as a compliment any and all accusations of being "obstructionists". The President should be prepared to veto any bill that somehow escapes the fate of the filibuster and reaches his desk containing anti-Democratic policies. And he should say "thank you" when anyone calls him a "divider not a uniter".

The Democratic Principles

Above all, the Democrats should state their core principles daily to each other and to the world and be proud of what those principles represent. And they must never, EVER betray them, even if it means watching as Republicans try to shut down the government or even shutting it down themselves, if necessary.

So let's repeat the Democratic Principles together:

- The little guy and gal matter, not just on election day and not just as exploited fodder to make others rich, famous and powerful, but ALL the time.

- Unbridled corporate power is the greatest threat to individual rights in this country. Left uncontrolled, corporations will destroy our privacy, our earning power and, ultimately, our nation's sovereignty.

- Government is the only effective means by which the Average Joe and Jane can resist corporate power. On our own, even when we band together in private groups with millions of members, we are no match for the financial, strategic and logistical prowess of Big Business. Without government as a counter-force, all but a few in the pay of these corporations will soon find themselves enslaved.

- The American economy is capable of behaving like a fusion reactor: part of its output is more fuel for input. The right investments (investing in new technologies for instance) will create more total wealth for everyone, not just concentrating existing wealth in a few greedy hands. Only the government is willing to take on these risky investments (and make sure the resulting contracts and jobs go to Americans). Private corporations would much rather sell products made overseas at slave wages because it is a safe and proven method of making gobs of money.

Since old habits die hard, what should we Democrats do if our party leadership winds up actually trying to fulfill their pledge of working with the Republicans? Simple: we true Democrats will vote Obama, Reid and Pelosi out in the primaries and replace them with individuals who have some.... cajones.