Monday, August 31, 2009

Fear: 1, Facts: 0

Fear is a very powerful emotion. In fact, as a primitive biological instinct, fear trumps reasoned reflection and logic. So it’s no wonder opponents of health care reform and climate change legislation have been employing fear as a tool to sway public opinion in their favor. In fact, these very tactics have been used for decades in politics, and it seems that the majority of Americans are incapable of wising up to them, if for no other reason than the fact that fear is potent and compelling.

Scare tactics to defeat health care reform were used in the early 1920s when opponents spread the message that public health insurance was a plot by the Nazis to take over the US. They were used again to defeat Harry Truman’s attempt at health overhaul in the late 40s with the notion that nationalized medicine would lead to nation-wide Communism. And now health care reform opponents are doing exactly what they did in the Clinton years: trying to convince Americans that such reform will harm them, not help them. They are focusing especially on senior citizens, whom they allege will lose their health care in the proposed plan (suddenly conservatives are champions of medicare, apparently), or worse: face a "death panel" that will determine their continued existence.

Unfortunately, it seems to be working. Many Americans are riled up, but many of those who are most ardent about their opposition speak only in vague terms about "socialism," "Communism," and "big government," but seem not to understand any details of the proposed health care legislation. In short, instilling fear into people has not only worked for conservatives; it has created an army of largely uninformed, loud, and well-publicized opponents (thanks for giving it such excellent coverage, media).

The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world know exactly what they are doing. They know they are manipulating people and offering, at best, half-truths about topics on which they are thought by their listeners to be experts. They know a public option has nothing to do with Communism, and that seniors will not lose their insurance under any of the currently proposed bills. But they don't want to see health care reform, because they want to keep taxes and government spending low (regardless of potential benefits and projected savings), and want Democrats to fail. And their strategy is working all too beautifully.

Similarly, the big utilities, gas and oil companies, and manufacturers who would have to change their dirty ways (to some extent) if a climate change bill were passed are winning the messaging fight on that front. They are using all the resources at their disposal to scare Americans with talk of overwhelming hikes in gasoline and energy prices, all the while trying to play down the now well-understood science of anthropogenic climate change:

"The whole question of man-made climate change is really, really iffy," said limited-government activist Kelly Havens, speaking to a cheering, sign-waving crowd of about 200 at the recreational vehicle hall of fame. "I mean, what was man doing when Indiana's glaciers were melting? We weren't even here!"

Lawmakers know better. They know what is in the health bill, and they know the facts about climate change (well, maybe not Jim Inhofe). Those who were against reform from the start are beholden to special interests, and those who are swayed by uninformed and beguiled constituents are simply not concerned enough with the well being of Americans to want to help their constituents to resist fear and understand facts. It boggles my mind that changes that will serve to better Americans are often so hard to come by in this country.

Images: Red Army (Wikimedia), Rush Limbaugh (, James Inhofe (


  1. Hello Nate, long time since I've talked to you. Although I don't necessarily agree with everything you've stated, your blog is very well written and thought provoking. On the topic of climate change, I couldn't agree more with you. However, the major challenge I find with that (specifically cap and trade) is that if we force(i.e. tax) companies to emit fewer greenhouse gases, then the few remaining manufacturing companies will undoubtedly just pack up shop and start manufacturing jobs overseas. The average CEO doesn't care about the American worker, and would just see it as another expense to do business here. Of course, there are solutions to this problem. Perhaps one answer would be to start taxing American companies doing their manufacturing overseas and giving bigger tax breaks to companies that stay at home in order to bring back/keep jobs for the dying American blue collar worker. While that concept seems simple, it is actually the opposite of what Bush did, which isn't surprising. I'm curious what your idea is to solve this potential problem with cap and trade.

    As far as major health care overhaul, any reasonable person would say that we need it, but there are flaws in the bill that I think should be mentioned. Firstly, the republicans aren't the only ones giving half-truths. one of my major problems with the bill is that it doesn't address one major problem in the health care industry, which is tort reform. The reason? Just as republicans are in the pockets of health care industries, democrats are either in the pockets of malpractice lawyers, or were former malpractice lawyers themselves. A major reason why doctors are so expensive is because they need to pay hugely expensive insurance plans to cover themselves from sometimes ridiculous malpractice suits that get way to far in the legal system. Secondly, the idea of forcing insurance companies to take on people with pre-existing conditions is non-nonsensical. A friend of mine, who is management at an insurance company, put it like this, if you got in a car accident, and didn't have any insurance, and then went to an insurance company to try and get insurance for the car and then have them fix it, do you think they would do it? While I know it may sound callous to compare people with pre-existing conditions to banged up cars, the analogy is accurate. After all, insurance companies are not NPOs, they work in order to make a profit, and there is no way to make a profit off pre-existing conditions. In fact, insuring those people would surely lead to many insurance companies going out of business. I believe the correct answer to the health care question would be to have a public option available only to those who cannot get insurance because of pre-existing conditions or because of lack of income. After all, only government could really afford such a cost.

    Anyways, great stuff.

  2. Hey Ronnie, all good points.

    To be honest, I'm not sure what the best solution is for those who don't currently have health care, but if a public option is the answer and not a private insurance company, so be it--as long as people aren't unduly punished for innate medical problems (i.e. by having to pay more than those of us who were born relatively healthy). I think it's a little different than banging up a car because as drivers, it is our responsibility to drive with care and caution. Likewise, it should be our responsibility to keep ourselves healthy, but some people are born with conditions or diseases than cannot be prevented. As you imply, these people are entitled to health insurance too.

    You're absolutely right that Republicans are not the only ones spewing half-truths. And I wish there were much more transparency in government--groups like are doing a good job of keeping both Democrats and Republicans at least a bit more honest than perhaps they would be otherwise. It's also the media's responsibility to report on facts and not on spectacles and juicy controversies, and they seem to have lost their way on that front.

    As for trade-exposed industries and climate change regulations, there is actually a provision in the Waxman-Markey bill (HR 2454) offered by Reps. Inslee and Doyle (Title IV, Subtitle A) that would make it US policy to negotiate equitable greenhouse gas emission reduction agreements with other nations. According to the Alliance to Save Energy:

    "In the instances when no such agreement is reached, the US would establish an 'international reserve allowance' program which would set prices equal to the allowance price in the US, and foreign exporters for goods in that sector would have to submit allowances for their exports, meant to cover the difference in costs of production resulting from the cost of allowances. The number of allowances needed to be submitted per export for each sector would vary depending on the estimated competitive imbalance, considering also subsidies given to industry to ease the pain of GHG reduction schemes in both the US and the exporting country."

    This was a really controversial part of the bill, but ultimately made it in to garner the support of Representatives with energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries in their districts. The Senate is considering a similar provision in their cap-and-trade bill.

    Again, great points. It's nice to have an honest discussion with people I don't necessarily see eye to eye with on everything! Hope you're well.

  3. Actually, the recreational vehicle enthusiast community is well known to be unusually savvy when it comes to the merits of private vs. public bureaucracies in administering vital social services.