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?