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A SCARY YEAR! We must be the dumbest nation on earth. Surely, this past year has proved it: // link // print // previous // next //

Richly rendered: It snowed quite a bit this weekend. Tomorrow, we’re heading to Maine. Snow tires willing, THE HOWLER will return on December 30.

This has been a stunningly ludicrous year. Over the holidays, riddle this:

UNNAMED COLUMNIST (12/20/09): The most lethal example, of course, were the two illusions marketed to us on the way to Iraq—that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and some link to Al Qaeda. That history has since been rewritten by Bush alumni, Democratic politicians who supported the Iraq invasion and some of the news media that purveyed the White House fictions (especially the television press, which rarely owned up to its failure as print journalists have). It was exclusively “bad intelligence,” we’re now told, that pushed us into the fiasco. But contradictions to that “bad intelligence” were in plain sight during the run-up to the war—even sometimes in the press. Yet we wanted to suspend disbelief. Much of the country, regardless of party, didn’t want to question its leaders, no matter how obviously they were hyping any misleading shred of intelligence that could fit their predetermined march to war. It’s the same impulse that kept many from questioning how Mark McGwire’s and Barry Bonds’s outlandishly cartoonish physiques could possibly be steroid-free.

You’re right! Only Frank Rich would pivot from WMD to Barry Bonds’ physique, as a way of pretending to be insightful about our wider culture. (Only he would build a year-end column around the failures of Golf Digest.) But here’s your assignment, if you choose to accept it:

Read through Rich’s columns from the era in question to see if he ever said a word about Saddam and WMD—about the “contradictions” which he says “were in plain sight.” We accepted that challenge yesterday. Once again, we were quite struck when we saw which politician—which of our “leaders”—Rich himself seemed to criticize most during that fateful period.

No, it wasn’t President Bush. But then, this has been a ludicrous decade. Perhaps we all need a short break.

Special report: The culture of scary stories!

PART 4—A SCARY YEAR: Mickey Kaus’s ballyhooed “Feiler Faster Thesis” never seemed quite so on-point.

When David Leonhardt’s “Economic Scene” piece appeared in the Times on December 9, we thought it would make a good framework for reviewing this year’s gruesome health care debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/09). By now, we can barely remember why.

In large part, we liked the way Leonhardt wrote about the way “scary/scare stories” drive our national politics. (Though he didn’t go into much detail about the way these “scare stories” work.) But so much has happened just in the past week, it’s hard to remember why we wanted to write about Leonhardt’s piece at all.

In our view, this year’s discussion has been a disaster in many ways—an education in others. In part, the process has given progressives a large opportunity—a chance to help the public see the way big corporate powers now rule.

Alas! It’s unlikely that we progressives and liberals will seize that opportunity. In fact, we’re no smarter than anyone else—and we’re dumber than the big powers who drive the nation’s narratives from within conservative “think tanks.” Beyond that, we hold many voters in massive contempt. As liberals, it doesn’t even occur to us that we must reason with—persuade—these voters. We prefer to call them names, then screech as their elected reps vote against our bills.

(You’re right! That process would take decades!)

Will we liberals function smartly, in long-term ways? We’ll believe it when we see it! Which brings us around to the world of the press corps. Within the press corps, this year’s health care discussion has been so incoherent, in so many ways, it demands the invention of a new word for what lies beyond “incoherent.” Consider just a few examples, out of dozens:

Bending the curve: On yesterday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory scolded David Axelrod about the proposed health bill’s effect on “health care costs.” Gregory was angry, very angry. And he was very dumb:

GREGORY (12/20/09): I want to press you on one other point that needs to be challenged, it seems to me. The president said this week that this legislation will bend the cost curve. Now, I take that to mean—you bend the cost curve, that health care costs begin to come down. In fact, in this legislation, and not just those familiar with it but other experts I've talked to say it's not the case. It will not actually bring costs down. In fact, over a 10-year period, costs will go up. They may be contained, but they are going to go up. Health care costs do go up. There are only pilot programs in this legislation, only pilot programs that actually bend the cost curve. This is not reform when it comes to bringing down overall health care costs.

AXELROD: Well, I'd say a few things about that. Every, all of the health care economists look at this bill and say it contains many or most or all of the sort of major devices that have been talked about for lowering care. The bill, the amendment that was added yesterday will quickly expand these pilot projects as they work nationally. And, you know, you can look at what the CBO has said—it's going to reduce deficits by $132 billion in the first year, by $1 trillion in the next year, and it's going to slow the advance of health costs, and it's going to save thousands of dollars in premiums for the average family over the next decade.

GREGORY: That's slightly different than saying that health care costs are actually going to start coming down...and that is the priority initially the president talked about.

AXELROD: No. The president said we have to slow the growth of these premiums, which have doubled in the last 10 years and will double again in the next 10 years or more if we don't act.

Good God. All year long, journalists and politicians have built discussions around a totemic term—“bending the (cost) curve.” But what does it mean when you pledge to do that? What exactly does it mean when you say that you’re going to “bend the curve?” On yesterday’s program, late in December, Gregory finally announced what this totemic term had always meant to him. To him, it meant that “health care costs” (whatever that highly general term means) would be lower in the future than they are in the present.

Axelrod replied that “bending the curve” only means that the growth in these costs will be slowed.

Gregory is an important person. He hosts a very important weekly news program. Within that forum, he has had the whole f*cking year to clarify this central point. But he has been too dumb—too utterly, groaningly dumb—to take a shot at this problem.

Until this week, when he finally lets us know what he thought all year.

Buying insurance across state lines: This morning, Joe Scarborough offered a simple package of health care reforms. His simple package had three simple parts. He proposed getting rid of anti-trust exemptions for insurance companies; enacting tort reform; and allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines.

Consider just that third proposal. This proposal has been endlessly mentioned this year, almost always by Republicans. Anyone who watches cable news has heard it advanced again and again—and then, again and again after that. It gives the impression that there’s a simple solution to the problem of rising insurance costs. This is pleasing to those whose tribal instincts tilt to the right.

Our question: Have you ever seen a major news org attempt to analyze/explain this proposal? For ourselves, we have not. What are the objections to this simple-sounding proposal? For ourselves, we remain quite unclear. But then, so too with an endless range of seminal health reform topics. This year’s discussion has been characterized by a near-absolute “refusal to explain” on the part of the mainstream press.

A few examples:

We never saw our major newspapers try to explain how the process called “reconciliation” would have worked. We liberals continued to plead for its use. But did we have any way of knowing what the possible down-sides might be?

We never saw our major newspapers make any serious attempt to untangle the abortion rights debate, the one involving Capps, Stupak and the latest bizarre proposal.

Most amazingly, we never saw any attempt to explain why our country spends so much on health care, as compared with every other developed nation. This topic was simply wiped from the earth. Most citizens have no idea how badly they are being looted—or who is doing the looting. (We liberals complain about insurance companies. Is that really all it is?)

Why can’t you buy insurance across state lines? We don’t have the slightest idea. But then, very few people have any idea how any part of proposed reform works. Nor do voters have any real way to understand our national health care mess. Within our culture, the very notions of clarity and explanation have virtually ceased to exist.

Down with the filibuster: Within this devolving intellectual culture, almost nothing ever makes sense. This morning, Paul Krugman writes a sane, intelligent piece about the effects of the Senate filibuster. But Krugman has long been the “odd man out” within our upper-end press corps. In the Washington Post, writing on the very same topic, E. J. Dionne continues to promulgate this nonsensical, screeching claim:

DIONNE (12/21/09): In a normal democracy, such [simple] majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.

Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Worse, more influence in this system flows to those willing to kill a bill than to those who most devoutly want to pass one. The paradox in this case is that senators who care most passionately about extending health coverage to 31 million Americans have the least power.

Let’s assume that the 60-vote requirement is in fact a “ludicrous idea”—that “we are no longer a normal democracy” because of this Senate procedure. Equally ludicrous is the idea that this 60-vote requirement somehow hands power “to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.” Under the 60-vote requirement, it takes a minority of forty-one to take power from the majority. No “tiny minority,” no “minority of one,” can seize this power, any more than sometimes happens with bills which require fifty votes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/09).

But we live in a world where “the center cannot hold,” where intellectual “anarchy” has been “loosed upon the world.” Krugman is perfectly lucid today. But in accord with prevailing press culture, Dionne can’t open his mouth on the same topic without screeching out a strange claim. This practice isn’t good for the world.

You may agree with Dionne’s overall view on this matter. But in a world where (almost) no one can reason at all, The Interests will almost always hold sway. By the way: Just three paragraphs later, Dionne correctly explains an important fact of life—another fact which has rarely been explained in this long, ridiculous year:

DIONNE: What transpired was thus not the product of some magic show in which more conservative senators are endowed with mysteriously ingenious negotiating abilities while liberals are a bunch of bunglers. The whole system is biased to the right because the Senate itself—a body in which Wyoming and Utah have as much representation as New York and California—is tilted in a conservative direction. The 60-vote requirement empowers conservatives even more.

It’s true! At present, small rural states tend to tilt to the right. This means that the Senate system is in fact biased in that direction. Had this been explained a few times this year, we liberals might have understood two basic facts of Senate life:

First, it’s a virtual political miracle that the current Senate includes 58 Democrats, plus the progressive Sanders.

Second, there will likely never come a day when the Senate includes sixty liberals. The current Senate has nothing resembling sixty liberals—never did, all year long.

By the way: Under the rules of our intellectual culture, Dionne is required to make another odd statement. “The 60-vote requirement empowers conservatives even more?” We have no idea why that would be true as a general principle. Indeed, if the whole Senate system is biased to the right, one might think that the filibuster would tend to empower liberals, who would tend to be in the minority. (Of course, the Senate has rarely contained as many as forty-one liberals, which may help explain why the filibuster has been used less often from the left.)

Leonhardt wrote about “scary/scare stories.” For decades, such scare stories have tended to drive our politics. But why do scare stories work?

In large part, scare stories work because we voters know so little. In part, we know very little because of the work of the mainstream press—and because of the failures of us liberals. In the 1990s, we liberals sat and twiddled our thumbs while leaders of the more liberal party were demonized and lied about, often in the most ludicrous ways. But there’s more:

For four or five decades, we have sat around while pseudo-conservatives spread potent controlling narratives—frameworks which tilt our debates to the right. In the case of health care, these story lines have long ruled:

Big government never did anything right.
National health care has failed everywhere it’s been tried.
We have the best health care in the world.

Voters hear these stories, again and again—and often come to believe them. For decades, we liberals have tolerated a world in which career liberals—politicians and journalists alike—have failed to attack these dominant narratives. Have failed to construct the alternatives.

Why do conservative story-lines rule? Why have “liberals” failed to react? Is it possible that people like Dionne were never “liberals” in any real sense? That they were mainly career players? Potemkins?

Conservative voters tend to believe the stories they hear from the right. Over the course of the past fifty years, what have these folks ever heard from us? When they considered health reform this year, which progressive narratives did they hear in their heads?

The answer to that is simple—none. Our side has tended to snooze in the past fifty years. The results can be seen all around us. This problem won’t change overnight.

Final point: We agree with Dionne’s conclusion, at least in principle:

DIONNE: Start organizing for the next health-care fight. Enactment of a single bill will not mark the end of the struggle. It will open a series of new opportunities. It's a lot easier to improve a system premised on the idea that everyone should have health coverage than to create such a system in the first place. Better to take a victory and build on it—to accept this plan as a "starter home," in Sen. Tom Harkin’s apt metaphor—than to label victory as defeat.

Successful political movements prosper on the confidence that they can sustain themselves over time so they can finish tomorrow what they start today. At this moment, rage is understandable, but hope is what's necessary.

Dionne is selling “hope” again! In fact, to continue the health care fight, progressives will have to tell the voters how much they’re being looted—and by whom. At the Post, Dionne has had decades to accomplish this task.

Have you seen him try?

In fact, that framework is massively AWOL from our political culture. During this year, do you think that framework entered even one voter’s head?