Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Feelings are stronger than facts"

This is a video from Rachel Maddow's show earlier this week where she talks with Bill Maher about how to fight the organized campaign of misinformation that has been playing out in town halls in America over health care. It's funny the way Maher, a comedian, actually is a worthy interviewee on such a topic. In a way, the demonstrations and ruckus are like intense cultural theatrics, so it's somewhat appropriate that the Mahers of the world be consulted for insights into how to deal with the circuses. We had our own circus here in Canada in December and the echoes of that little episode of misinformation and stirred-up emotions are there when you hear such a discussion.

The first few minutes in particular raise a few good points about politics these days and how to break through these fact-free onslaughts. The very frustrating backdrop to the Maddow/Maher conversation for health care reform supporting Americans was the news that the misinformation was starting to manifest itself in some public opinion polls:
Majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions — all claims that nonpartisan fact-checkers say are untrue about the legislation that has emerged so far from Congress.
Voter databases plus talk radio plus vivid town halls equal an awesome force to be met by fair-minded policy advocates. So the question is what to do in the face of such an onslaught.

Part of the solution they touch on in their discussion is common sense, to "call a liar a liar" and call out factual misrepresentations. That's tough when the two (or more) camps aren't equally organized though. And when one side has "more energy than factual basis" underlying their campaign, that makes it all the harder to overcome the "fact-free emotion." It's even harder to overcome such feelings when they're being stoked by people who are in positions of power who are supposed to know better than to abuse their positions by telling untruths. That's what we're seeing in the U.S. (e.g., see Frank Rich on such leaders today). That's what we saw here. But strong, effective leadership, for starters, has to be willing and able to step up and fight such "fact-free emotion" by clearly calling out the lies. E.g., from Rich:
Coburn’s implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics bearing arms at presidential events — the government makes them do it! — cannot stand. He’s not a radio or Fox News bloviator paid a fortune to be outrageous; he’s a card-carrying member of the United States Senate.
Another part of the solution discussed by Maddow/Maher is the need to have a network ready to meet the challenge of such campaigns. As Maher wonders, where are all the Obama people from the campaign trail who were so mobilized? Given Obama's legendary national organization, so outstanding during his campaign, it's been a little surprising to see it out organized (if you can call it that) by the right wing groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Since the Democrats are indeed the party in power with sizable majorities, they've got a bit of a luxury in falling behind in this debate and may yet get over the hurdle of organized misinformation. They are likely now to go it alone legislatively. Obviously, we don't have a comparable governing circumstance in Canada at the moment with our divided minority government. Maybe we need a situation too where one party can "go it alone." If the right wing party can't work with others, here, or in the U.S., then hopefully voters see that they don't need to be in power at the moment.

It's been fascinating to watch, but not in any smug sense. Canada will be in the midst of some kind of maelstrom soon enough, whether that's an election or a fight on a given issue. The American debate has been a reminder of what can go wrong when the misinformation gets out of control. Hopefully Canadian political observers are learning well from it.

Update(4:35 p.m.): Another tactic on messaging:
Wanted to comment on the problem of misinformation as it relates to the health care battle in the US. The best response is KISS. In this case, the fact that matters is:

People Want to Keep Making Money Off YOUR Sickness. Americans for Prosperity? Yeah, right!