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Asymmetrical Policy Warfare and the Prophets of Deceit

Why is President Obama struggling to win the argument over national health care reform? The president and the White House almost certainly underestimated public resistance, and were slow to get their own Organizing for America-led efforts up and running. And let’s face it: Health care is complex, and it’s just hard to disentangle that which is pretty well tangled in the first place.

Piggybacking on Nate’s post immediately below, allow me to suggest that what we are also witnessing here is an asymmetrical battle in which conservatives, Republicans, trade associations and other assorted opponents are adapting campaign strategies–and smear tactics in particular–to a policy debate. And, if you think about it, it’s a pretty shrewd strategy to muddy the waters, provide disinformation, and in general try to scare people away from an idea–just as one might try to deter them from voting for a candidate in an election campaign.

Indeed, consider the following:

1. It is almost always more difficult to get somebody to support a candidate or policy proposal idea than oppose it, because supporting usually requires agreeing with all or nearly all of who/what they are, whereas the threshold for opposition is lower. In short, it’s easier to disqualify than qualify. A corollary to this is that the larger and/or more complex a policy is, the greater the disqualify-qualify asymmetry tends to be.

2. Because it is not always clear which particular objection(s) will move any given voter toward disqualifying an idea, the best approach is a shotgun one: raise every possible objection imaginable in order to maximize the number of people who can find at least one argument as the key, dispositive reason for their opposition.

3. Because voters are (often rationally) low-information consumers of policy, the use of exaggeration, misrepresentation and outright fabrication is often met with little to no impunity. And so it makes sense to not only raise legitimate, provable objections but also false, misleading ones as well. Compounding this effect is the fact that when those trying to speak truthfully inevitably get frustrated by all the deception and misinformation, it creates the unfortunate impression that the defenders are being defensive for other reasons, as Matt Yglesias argues in response to Barney Frank’s exchange with some woman complaining that Obama is a Nazi.

In short, the same sort of “throw as much mud against the wall and see what sticks” philosophy used with great success over the years against, say, Democratic presidential nominees, is basically being applied to policy battles. Is it really all that puzzling that we are hearing claims like, Health care reform will kill your grandma! Bureaucrats will decide what tests you can take! There won’t be enough doctors! Illegal immigrants will get covered for free! Are we really all surprised that this strategy is not only happening, but is working?

Oh, and just to be clear: the opposition’s strategy is working. Here is a partial write-up by MSNBC’s Mark Murray of new NBC News poll numbers released last night:

Americans still skeptical about Obama’s plans
By Mark Murray, Deputy political director, NBC News
updated 6:30 p.m. ET, Tues., Aug 18, 2009

WASHINGTON – Two weeks since raucous congressional town-hall meetings on health care became a national story — and days after President Barack Obama began holding his own town halls — Americans remain skeptical about White House plans to overhaul the nation’s health system, according to a new NBC News poll…

Damaging misperceptions
One of the reasons why it has become tougher is due to misperceptions about the president’s plans for reform.

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. (Emphasis added)

Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.

That also is untrue: The provision in the House legislation that critics have seized on — raising the specter of “death panels” or euthanasia — would simply allow Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, if the patient wishes.

That’s asymmetrical warfare at work–and at its worst.

In a compelling essay published in Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee compares what we are witnessing now to behaviors described more than a half-century ago by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman in Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator:

In analyzing speeches and writings by the Depression agitators, Lowenthal showed a particular interest in how they operated as rhetoric – how the imagery, figures of speech, and recurrent themes worked together, appealing to the half-articulated desires and frustrations of the demagogue’s followers…

The insights and blindspots of this large-scale effort to analyze “the authoritarian personality” generated controversy that continues all these decades later. But I wasn’t thinking of any of that when Prophets of Deceit came back to mind not long ago.

The catalyst, rather, was my first exposure to the cable talk-show host Glenn Beck. His program, on the de facto Republican party network Fox, has been a locus for much of the pseudopopulist craziness about how the Presidency has been taken over by a totalitarian illegal alien. You will find most of the themes of this form of political thinking cataloged by Lowenthal and associates…

But the striking thing about Beck’s program was not its ideological message but something else: its mode of performance, which was so close to that described in Prophets of Deceit that I had to track down a copy to make sure my memory was not playing tricks…

In case you have not seen him in action, Beck “weeps for his country.” Quite literally so: the display of waterworks is the most readily parodied aspect of his performance. He confesses to being terrified for the future, and quakes accordingly. He acts out aggressive scenarios, such as one in which he pretended to be Obama throwing gasoline on an Average American and threatening to set him on fire.

So there you have it: Glenn Beck, Master Agitator in the asymmetrical war over health care.