As I sit watching the dream of health care reform disappear in the smoke of insane allegations, fear mongering, and flat out lying by the (mostly) Republican opponents, I shake my head in astonishment at the apparent political naivete of the Democrats. How can a party that was so forward-looking in its methods during the campaign, using the internet in ways that the Republicans couldn’t begin to fathom, find itself getting bludgeoned into political pulp by the very tactics that the Republicans have used for years?
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, here is the drill: establish a false position — it doesn’t matter whether there is even a shred of truth or rationality to it — then manipulate the Democrats into arguing about the false position. It’s a political variation of the “Have you stopped beating your wife, yet?” fallacy. It can also be called “throwing a bone in the woods,” where you send someone off chasing something that is irrelevant so they will remain occupied or preoccupied while you deal with the issue at hand.
In this instance, the Republicans have thrown a number of bones into the woods, and they have done so with a manipulative brilliance. They started with the debatable proposition that our health care would get worse if we went to a single-payer system. We would become like Europe or Canada, where, by false anecdotal evidence, we are led to believe that people are denied appropriate care or forced to wait for months for treatment. Now, such a proposition is susceptible to analysis and is grounds for legitimate debate: would our health care be worse if we went to such a system? I would love to see this analyzed and parsed by good political minds, even though I already have my biases. It would be an educational experience and would either change my mind or firm up my convictions.
But that’s not how the Republicans are playing it. Once they got this doubt, and the fear that it fosters, on the table, they trotted out the old bugaboo of “government bureaucrats in charge of your health care.” Anyone with a shred of political awareness realizes that Medicare is a government program, and that insurance companies, with their need to cull the herd of high risks, are already in charge of your health care, and are far more Draconian than any governmental system would ever be. But the mysterious “government bureaucrats” were dredged up and put out like terrifying scarecrows to keep us out of the fields of rational discourse. And the Democrats bit. Instead of going back to the heart of the issue, which is how a single payer system, or even Obama’s seriously neutered “public option” approach would benefit us all, they went to the margins of rationality to fight out the “government bureaucrats” argument.
This gave the Republicans the edge they needed. They saw that the Democrats had once again proven willing to engage in a false argument, so now all that was needed was to make that argument more personal and absurd, and to drag the Democrats along. In an act of evil genius, they bypassed the standard “Obama will force you to have abortions” argument and went to an astonishingly novel argument: “Obama will tell you when you have to die.” It is so prima facie absurd that the Democrats thought they could knock it down with a feather. But there’s where the evil genius aspect comes: by engaging in it, they gave it currency, and the media, which has long since given itself over to an “on the one hand, on the other hand,” approach to reporting rather than intelligent analysis, went panting along behind the argument, accepting its framing, and discussing its merits.
The Republicans could have just as easily made the argument that by funding health care we are putting our troops in harm’s way, or curtailing our space program, or taking food out of our school children’s mouths. But they didn’t. They went to the single most frightened group available, and their only real, viable base — old white people. “Obama will tell you when you have to die,” they said. And then they used the absolutely brilliant technique of inciting these folks to go to Town Hall meetings and shout out. It was brilliant because Town Hall meetings are small venues. Had they said, “get out on the streets,” or “stand with signs on street corners,” like the Democrats do, it would have failed, because the tiny nature of the protests would have been revealed by scale. It’s always better to have a small theater completely full than a big theater half empty, and by flooding the Town Hall meetings with people who are incited to behave in an uncharacteristically uncivil manner, they make it look like both the scale and the intensity of the opposition is greater than it is.
It’s a perfect technique for a party with small numbers. It is contained demagoguery, spurred on by a small handful of angry white male radio folks like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck, who can increase their influence exponentially through the use of radio and television, and make the mainstream media run toward the argument because the media, as it is currently configured, always goes toward the loudest noise.
Ergo, we have a false premise, and a very threatening one at that, being promoted from behind the scenes by vast amounts of money, amplified exponentially by select media operatives, and carried forward by a small group of people who are being manipulated into action because they are very frightened by what that false premise portends.
The media, unable to resist going toward loud noises, reports the noise as if it’s a seismic rumble, and the Democrats do their part by continuing to think that rationality will win the day. Did they forget that this same Republican machine was able to paint John Kerry as anti-American and George Bush as a war patriot?
Thus, the Democrats have fallen for one of the oldest demagogic tricks in the book: Establish a false premise and force your opponents to debunk it, because if you argue a wrong premise, you lose. Witness “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
Sadly, the Democrats would be better served by establishing a counter premise that they have found hidden documents proving that Al Qaeda is behind the opposition to health care reform because without it our children will not get the medical care necessary to grow up strong enough to fend off the Islamic terrorists when they storm the gates. The Republicans would have to stand up against it, and a lapdog media would cover it like it was a real issue.
This, sadly, is what we’ve come to. What is frightening is that it borders on the techniques the Nazis used to promote their agenda prior to their takeover of the German political system, though I do not wish to carry the analogy beyond one of method.
What has happened to us when we lose the capacity for intelligent discourse? I’m not even asking for CIVIL discourse, because sometimes anger is hard to overcome. I was as guilty of it against George Bush’s war as any of the frightened old white folks are as they thunder and rail at the Town Hall meetings. When anger shows up, you merely need to extract it from the arguments, keep the focus on the issues, and shake things down to fundamental premises. It’s what good mediators and facilitators do all the time.
But when false arguments are allowed to be promulgated and are promoted as simply “smart politics,” everything begins to fall apart. Discourse becomes demagoguery, and the anger that should be extracted has nowhere to go, because it is based on false premises. This is what leads to violence.
It is up to the Republicans to bring this discussion back to dead center. If they don’t, the blood is on their hands. But the Democrats have an obligation, too. They need to reframe this discussion to appeal to our highest and best ideals. Instead, they’re off in a corner trying to sweet talk someone who’s carrying a knife while the cameras roll.
I don’t like it, and I don’t understand it. Obama, Obama, wherefore art thou?