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?
I’ve had a tough time sleeping the last several weeks. And it’s been nothing personal. It’s been something national. It’s health care reform, and how it has been hijacked, and how the smartest politician we’ve seen in years is getting his ears boxed by some people who I simply cannot understand.
I am now watching a group of young people make the fascinating move into adulthood. There are new marriages, new families, infants, toddlers, college — all the experiences that are part of starting out in life. Some of these young people have good jobs; some are struggling; some are trying to live below the radar or off the grid. But they all have dreams, and they all are alive with the freshness of possibility. Their lives spread out before them in rich abundance, and I envy them. But I also fear for them. They are, with few exceptions, dancing on life’s tightwire without a net — they do not have and cannot afford health insurance. It’s not that they don’t want it. They can’t afford it. The simple cost of living — food, rent, college or college loans, daycare, cars and car insurance — are just too much. They scrape, they dream, and they survive. But one broken bone, one pregnancy, one unexpected illness, and those dreams are dashed. It is wrong and it is unfair. And there are, for reasons that are almost impossible to fathom, a great many people who seem to think this is just fine. And this is what has been keeping me awake.
It is not just fine. It is not fine that our young people cannot afford to get sick or have an injury; it is not fine that people in mid-life cannot change jobs or make any move in life because they would lose health coverage; it is not fine that older folks can have the savings they have worked their entire lives to acquire turn into a tiny joke in the face of some catastrophic medical bill. And I think most people of good heart believe this. Yet whenever the issue of health care reform comes up in America, some truly dark forces rise up to twist it, distort it, and kill it.
Who are these folks, and how does this always happen?
Well, we know who the folks are. They are the Wall Street-driven insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and various for-profit entities whose ox would be gored by meaningful health care reform. That they are venal and cold-hearted is unfortunate, but understandable. They are in business to make money, and they are responsible to people and organizations who have invested in them with the intention of making money.
Why they are so powerful is less understandable. But, accept for a minute that this is just the way it is and just the way it is probably going to be. The question then becomes, why do people of good heart get manipulated so easily and readily by these cold forces? And, perhaps more importantly, how?
The answer seems to lie in a core xenophobia that looks upon America as the best place and the best way in everything we say or do. This kind of naive “island mentality” allows those with the tools to do so to manipulate our understanding by creating a dangerous “other” out of everyone or every place that does things differently. We are not part of a dialogue of cultural options; we are “the last best hope” that must stand up against whatever bogeyman is currently pressing its face against our window.
In the case of health care reform, this bogeyman is “socialized medicine” or “government run health care.” Never mind that almost anyone who has ever been sick or injured in a country with universal health care comes home filled with wonderment at how smoothly their treatment went; never mind that most of the people thundering against reform are counting the days until they can get their single-payer government-run Medicare. These are conveniently disregarded in favor of fear stories about lines and rationing and now, absurdity of absurdities, government-designated dates and times of death. It is simply mind boggling how such stories and such narratives gain currency.
But this has been the broad method of the opponents of health care reform since day one back in the Truman administration: scare people rather than inspire people. Make change into something dangerous. Define the unknown as a dark and frightening place.
Now, here is where the disconnect comes. People of intelligence recognize this tactic and they recognize that it is driven by for-profit entities that cannot change the way they operate or think, lest they cease to exist. Such a situation is eminently understandable. But why do the politicians allow this kind of transparent manipulation to color their thinking? You can say it has to do with lobbying dollars; you can say it has to do with constituent pressure. Yet, none of that makes sense. When you look around you and see the young people and the families and the elderly living without coverage and living in legitimate fear of what this means, how can you not rise above your desire for reelection or corporate dollars and, instead, do the right thing?
I have said this before: one to one, Americans are some of the kindest, most giving people on earth. But something happens when we think as a collectivity. We are far too prone to become cruel, suspicious, and vindictive, all under some clumsily constructed guise of “individual freedom” and “choice.” We close our hearts, we close our pocket books, and we close our minds. We become moved by fear, not by compassion and hope. Look at this grotesque war in Iraq: our politicians could raid our children’s bank accounts because we were afraid. Look at our bailout of the banks: we wrote them a blank check because we were afraid. The lesson is clear — make people afraid and you can do anything in their name, whether it is to rob their bank accounts or close their hearts and minds.
I don’t want to make this into a political diatribe, because then I will lose my Republican friends in this monologic discussion. And though I must point out that it is primarily the Republicans and the odd Blue Dog Democrats who have started waving the banner of fear, my real sadness and my real source of sleeplessness is the Democratic response. The Democrats know that this is their chance to do something good for the country and for the children and families and elderly. They know this is their best chance and probably their last chance on health care, probably for a generation. Yet they are letting the opponents define the game.
First of all, and most transparently, they are letting the Republican and Blue Dog opponents define the battle. As with prescription drug reform, they have allowed the opponents to make it an argument over the size of a closet when the issue is how to rebuild the house. If you can convince people that the real issue is not health care reform, but a “public option” within the insurance company-driven game, then even if you lose, you win, because there has been no reform, only a reshuffling of the deck. So you draw the Democrats into this argument, make them deal with it as if it is life or death, then allow them a measure of victory, and everyone goes home thinking that we’ve got reform. No, what we’ve got is a different configuration of shelves in the closet. The structure of the house is still weak and crumbling and unsustainable. But the Democrats are trumpeting their success, though the success is precious little success at all. And the house continues to sink.
This brings us to the biggest failure — President Obama. What happened to the man who could inspire with oratory? Where is the bully pulpit? Why is he allowing idiotic arguments about his birthplace or government-mandated death dates to bring him down to the level of scratch-and-bite? This is a man who sailed above the ordinary with a rhetoric of inspiration. Why is he now not inspiring us with the possibility of good rather than arguing with those who are professional purveyors of fear? How can he have gotten bogged down in tactical battles while the strategic objective is slipping away? This issue, my friends, is his Viet Nam — not Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s become Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson trying to make arguments about the necessity of certain actions, while the whole war is slipping away. And, sadly, the casualties this time are the young people I see trying to make their way in a world that is pretty much stacked against them.
Let me say it clearly before I close. The Bush administration is being revealed as having been little more than a bad man manipulating a hand puppet. The Obama administration rode in on a wave of excitement that was made even greater by the failure of that previous administration. Obama had our hearts and minds. We were ready as a country to follow him anywhere, even though his opponents were vociferous and determined. The Democrats chose him over Hillary because they didn’t want a tactician, and the nation embraced him because he had a vision. Now, in the process of governing, he has found himself fending off an attack of political ferrets, and, as a result, he appears to have taken his eye off the ball. He is talking tactics, not strategy.
Perhaps he has a grander vision; I’d like to think so. But if he doesn’t, he’s losing. And if he loses, those young people struggling to raise families, pay for college, pay rent, and put food on the table, will be the biggest losers.
If I had his ear, here’s what I’d say. “Don’t let health care be your Viet Nam, Mr. President. If you do, no wall we build in Washington will be big enough to hold the names of all the casualties your failure will leave in its wake.”
But I don’t have his ear, and I’m not sleeping well these nights.