Congress will return this week from their “summer of discontent.” It was a recess punctuated by town hall democracies which were brought to new lows with death threats, fingers bitten off, and shockingly high levels of incivility on display. During the break, real Health Care Reform (HCR) has shifted from a promising probability to a slight possibility requiring life-support intervention at the moment (Labor Day Weekend).
Because HCR is the first major test of the energized “Yes We Can” folks in Washington, a lot is at stake, even beyond that which has always been at stake around this issue for the past 70 years. Opponents of reform, of which there are many, have pulled out all the stops because they well know that once a large scale, comprehensive health program is enacted, it will be virtually impossible to annul.
These opponents have successfully used conventional media outlets and the Internet to try to retain the control that power brokers have enjoyed for more than two centuries, by inciting scared conservative rightwingers who are afraid of losing their grip on the status quo.
This fear is manifested in political perspectives and extremist beliefs which are most astonishing to moderate thinking folks. Visit a few conservative web sites if you want further evidence. For example, a whopping ninety-one percent of 2,600 self-identified conservatives said Obama was either a “socialist,” “Marxist,” “communist,” or “fascist”at ConservativeHQ.com.
Small polls like America’s Watchtower show the Obama- Socialist connection at 68 percent, and a Newsmax.com web poll with about 32,000 respondents characterized Obama as a Socialist at an 84.95 percent rate.
The more sane and scientific AP Poll, which does not allow for stuffing of ballot boxes on the web shows that, as of the end of July, 2009, only 6 percent of the public would describe Obama as “liberal,” with fewer than that, less than 3 percent, labeling him as a Socialist. But, and this is a big “but,” they are an extremely vocal 3 percent.
Approximately 91 percent of weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and just nine percent is progressive. However, “43 percent of regular talk radio listeners identify as conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and 30 percent as moderate.“
Liberals have the far right media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck to contend with. Conservatives rail about Keith Olbermann. And, psychologists even have their own, Dr. Laura, cross to bear.
In the past month, we have witnessed yet another illustration of political ideologies overriding reality. In this case, however, many consider the reality to be crucial modifications desperately needed in the nation’s health care system.
Instead of informed discussions about changing the system, we were fed a constant diet of conservative pablum by opponents of HCR. These ideological attacks have been the trusty standard weapon with which conservatives have battered and often derailed solid public policy reform proposals for more than a decade. Conservative beliefs about the power of free markets to correct all the ills of the health care system, along with the mantra of limiting the role of government have once again dominated the discussion of HCR. And at the end of the day, while HCR prospects weaken, HCR opponents have added absolutely nothing in the way of providing alternative solutions.
Sadly, that strategy has worked for them, time and again: assault issues ideologically, offer no plan to correct the problem. Our fellow Americans who are screaming out with fury at town halls aren’t offering ideas, they’re responding to the taunts of the right-wing small government provocateurs. They have successfully been agitated into speaking out against their own self-interests. Of course, this is nothing new. For years, we have seen low income right wingers consistently vote against their pocketbooks to support emotionladen socially conservative issues.
Could it be that simply the image alone of “big government” really has the power to interfere with Americans’ ability to think rationally, or to make use of average intellectual capacity? Haven’t we moved beyond the kind of Orwellian fears that were prevalent in the 50s and 60s. The answer, of course, is that a small but powerful cohort of Americans remain highly concerned about a dystopian governmental takeover despite the fact that it has been 25 years since 1984 came and went without so much as a hiccup.
I get a real kick out of the way conservatives vilify all programs or agencies in which government is involved. Could we abide a health care system, let’s say, with the efficiency/ quality of the US Postal Service? I happen to think the USPS is a real phenomenon even though it has imperfections For 44 cents, we can send a letter to someone 3,000 miles away and it will be delivered in a matter of days. Sure, FedEx will get it there in less than 24 hours, but at a cost that is 25 times higher than the USPS. I know it’s not the ideal system, but it works pretty darn well.
If you really want to measure inefficiency, recall the last time you went to the mat with your private health insurance company about a claim that had not been paid, or had been inaccurately processed by the company, or had paid an amount far less than they were required to pay. The condition typically arising from these interactions gives new meaning to the term “experimental neurosis.”
But let me return to the discussion of how effectively conservatives have waged political battles with an almost total absence of real ideas, relying only on ideologies for ammunition. What does this say about Americans? Why do so many of our fellow citizens succumb to these arguments that are so fundamentally flawed? I think this question is integrally related to similar actions we have frequently seen in elections.
Psychologist, Drew Westen, an unabashed liberal, focuses his research on the interaction of psychology and politics. He takes the unlikely position that liberals and the Democratic Party should, for the most part, forget about issues, policies, even facts, and instead focus on feelings when articulating their public policy agenda. As discussed in this column last summer, Westen’s book, “The Political Brain”, takes a different tack than another recent popular political tome, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” by Thomas Frank or Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason,” which try to explain voter behavior in terms of self-interest and factual analysis.
Westen’s message is the exact opposite. Franks and Gore explain why we should be more rational instead of why we should bring more passion into politics. What he calls “the dispassionate view of the mind” which has guided Democratic thinking for 40 years is deeply misguided according to Westen. What decides elections, he maintains, are people’s emotional reactions, even if they don’t know it.
A cursory look at some data does seem to confirm that voters are driven more by emotions than by a rational, logical analysis of a candidate’s record and positions. Could there really be any other explanation for a measurable segment of the electorate responding so positively to Sarah Palin as a serious Vice-presidential candidate? Or take, for instance, the fact that so many anti-immigration Republicans pulled the lever for McCain despite his relatively soft position on illegal immigrants. Or the fact that in last year’s primary race, Hillary’s well constructed, highly engineered ten-point plans didn’t move voters as powerfully as Barack’s inspirational oratory.
And so it may be with the current battle around HCR. Although, I often question the intelligence level of the average American when we focus of public policy issues, it is far too simplistic to conclude that the problem herein lies with the fact that Americans are just plain dumb. H.L. Mencken, the great journalist and essayist often aimed his wit and criticism at the shortcomings of democracy and middle-class American culture. One of my favorite Mencken statements is, “no one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
American intelligence, and here I am more narrowly defining intelligence as “political” intelligence, has been explored. Ilya Somin, George Mason Law Professor, looked at the 2008 presidential election last year to try to determine the extent to which the results were likely to be influenced by, for want of a better term, political ignorance.
In general, it is fair to say that primary voters are likely to be better-informed than the average citizen, and Iowa caucus goers even more so (because attendance at a caucus requires a much higher investment of time and effort and therefore tends to draw more committed voters with a higher level of interest in politics). Nonetheless, a Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus voters suggested that ignorance may well have had a major impact even in the election with perhaps the country’s best-informed voters. The poll asked “likely” participants in the Republican and Democratic Iowa Caucuses whether they believed they needed more information about 19 major issues in the campaign, including health care, the Iraq War, social security, the economy, national security, etc..
It is striking that large numbers of likely voters admitted that they needed “more information” on a variety of major issues. For example, 56 percent of Republican voters and 50% of Democrats admitted that they needed more information about Social Security – despite the fact that this issue had been extensively debated for years. Similarly, 52% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats admitted they need more information on America’s “relationship with other countries” – even though foreign policy has been perhaps the most important issue on the political agenda since 9/11. Over 40% percent of Iowa voters in both parties admitted to lacking information on eight of the other issues surveyed, including health care.
These figures very likely understate the true degree of ignorance among likely Iowa voters for at least two reasons. First, as we all know, surveys show that many respondents are unwilling to admit ignorance. For example, 20-30% will express opinions on nonexistent laws made up by pollsters rather than admit that they haven’t heard of them. Second, the more ignorant you are, the more likely you are to be unaware of the full depth of that ignorance and to underestimate the amount of information you need to be a better voter.
It’s also worth noting that Iowa caucus voters are perhaps the best-informed in the entire country, given the amount of exposure they have to campaign information and the fact that caucus voters are likely to be better-informed than primary voters. If Iowa caucus voters – by their own admission – lack adequate information on numerous major issues, the rest of the electorate is likely to be even worse.
I have no doubt the data reflect an accurate picture of the dearth of knowledge the average voter brings to the voting booth. Candidates and elected officials often seem oblivious or in denial about this phenomenon, however. I marvel at the way in which elected officials respond to one of the most common media questions which is almost routinely asked during the course of a standard interview. The interview typically goes something like this, “Senator Jones, do you think your constituents will support the legislation you are sponsoring?” “You know, Mr. Cronkite, I have come to believe that the American people always know what is right, and they will be able to see through all the confusion thrown up by my opponents to find the truth inherent in my bill”. When I hear politicians respond in this way, I always think to myself, what American people is he or she talking about? The American people I see are regular listeners, if not devotees, of the shrink-impostor of the airwaves, Dr. Laura. If Dr. Laura told them there was gold in their veins, they’d chew off their ankles to get at it. I know that’s harsh, but think about it.
Political groups in this country are incredibly well entrenched in their dogma as never before. Questioning political intelligence is fair, but more plausibly we must recognize that we are a fear-driven culture. There is a large segment of the population that, no matter how well you document it, will not let a good fact get in the way of their fears about almost any issue, including health care reform. As psychologists, we can help the electorate understand and respond differently to their emotions which inevitably collide with reason. Invariably, emotion wins. Who better than psychologists to help the electorate navigate through these murky waters?
I sincerely hope that our elected officials will get their collective act together in the coming weeks. They must demonstrate courage, transcend the obstacles that are lacking in any semblance of substance, and begin to resolve the problems so damaging to our ability to provide high quality, costeffective health and mental health care to all who need it in this country.