Why passing health care reform in a post-fact society is not much to crow about

22Mar10

So… We Did It, I guess, or something. Yes We Can. Yay?

I’m not really feeling elated. Here’s why:

James Surowiecki thinks that the “facts on the ground” of health care reform will counter this kind of thinking. When opponents see that their daily lives are not completely upended by this legislation, and when it becomes clear what they’ve gained, they’ll calm down. And then Republicans won’t have anything substantive to appeal to when they campaign on a “repeal it” platform in the fall.

Um, is he kidding?

This entire battle has never been about facts or appeals to substance. It’s been about branding. In a choose-your-own-reality, post-fact society like ours, that is what all politics is reducing down to.

So what is branding? Simply put, it’s stirring up emotions about how you see yourself — the more fuzzy and inchoate the emotions, the better — and then associating those emotions with a strong symbol. That’s it.

Think about your favorite brands, like Coke or Apple. Your loyalty to them is not built upon a considered analysis of pro/con arguments. It’s built upon strong emotions tightly coupled to how you feel about yourself. In my case, I associate the symbol “Apple” (and its products) with clarity, beauty, and purposefulness. Not coincidentally, I also prefer to think of myself as a clear thinker, an appreciator of beauty (as opposed to a philistine or vulgarian), and a go-getter who requires the best tool for the job at hand. And so… for better or worse, “Apple” becomes a symbol for my own ideal self-image.

How could I not be loyal to that?

I can conceivably change my mind about specific features, facts and products. But once I’ve identified emotionally with Apple, I’m very unlikely to realign with a competing brand, like Windows. It’s just not “who I am.”

Now, swap out Apple and Windows with Democrat and Republican, and notice how it all works exactly the same way. At this point in our nation’s history, “Democrat” and “Republican” are not really parties with platforms representing different arguments and positions on a shared reality. For all practical purposes, they’re just brands. They’re competing symbols standing in for the ideal self-images of their partisans.

To me and most of my friends, “Democrat”/”liberal” means forward-looking, open-minded, honest, HOPE-ful (natch), and inclusive of the less fortunate; “Republican”/”conservative” means myopic, fearful, cynical, easily duped, stuck-in-the-past, and insensitive to the less fortunate.

Meanwhile, to my other good friend (who wrote that Facebook update at the top), “Democrat” means naive, lily-livered, nosy, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt; “Republican” means prudent, strong-willed, self-sufficient, and vigilant.

Because none of these emotional equivalences are undergirded by facts, that means they are not arguable or reconcilable. Really: is anyone going to successfully “debate” you into seeing yourself as naive, nosy, and immoral (or fearful, easily duped, and stuck-in-the-past)? Of course not. That’s not how brands work.

And this is why it simply Does Not Matter to argue that it’s, say, hypocritical for conservatives to freak out about Democrats using reconciliation to pass health care reform when Republicans have used the same tactic dozens of times themselves. Here’s why It Doesn’t Matter: because when I do it, it’s forward-looking and open-minded. And when you do it, it’s myopic and cynical. And that’s the end of it.

Even worse, it also Doesn’t Matter that the reform bill may actually give a lot of people, Democrat and/or Republican, what they actually want out of the health care system. Why? Because it’s still branded as “Democrat.” And conservatives will reject it for that reason, the same way I’m likely to reject a Windows PC that does everything “on paper” that my beloved Mac does. Windows is just “not who I am.” Effective branding, for better or worse, is fundamentally not rational.

So, my overall point is this: Yay, health care reform got passed. But not because it was successfully argued into existence. No, we (and I mean all of us, liberals and conservatives) bareknuckled it out in the realm of branding. And in the process, the two brands — Democrat and Republican — are now more entrenched and even more associated with mutually exclusive emotional values that by definition cannot ever be reconciled with each other.

Forget winning over hearts and minds. In politics-as-branding, minds are not even part of the equation. And you can’t change what’s in someone’s heart, as evidenced by my friend’s Facebook posting.

So, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much today. Health care reform is certainly historic and symbolic, but not of anything that speaks to the health of our democracy.

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2 Responses to “Why passing health care reform in a post-fact society is not much to crow about”

  1. 1 The Schwazz

    Is it possible to take out an insurance policy against a declaration of civil war? (and have it pay out in gold bullion?)

  2. 2 Me

    I think there is such a policy, and it is “be Warren Buffett.”



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