Winning the Healthcare Debate

Gene Lyons has written a column headlined “You won’t win the healthcare debate by calling people stupid racists.”

The piece isn’t worth reading, I’m afraid, after the headline — which Lyons probably didn’t write. But the title is right on. It’s a truism of public debate that you will never persuade those who disagree with you by dismissing them as stupid or venal. Yet that’s become the standard first move on both sides of the aisle.

It’s likely true that, as Barney Frank’s ethnic heritage compelled him to point out, that arguing with some of the specific people who show up to rant and scream at the town hall debates is like arguing with a dining room table.  Some people are simply beyond reasoning with.

But — and this is the point Lyons is getting at — they represent the honest fears of a lot of decent folk who are amenable to persuasion.  And President Obama himself is taking the right tack in treating them as such.  The Democratic leadership in Congress and many liberal commentators, though, are lumping them in with the Birthers and LaRouchites.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    If you’re planning to ram through your preferred solution with 50%+1 votes, you don’t need to persuade anybody. Demeaning those who disagree with you is just an extra plus.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave: True. Unless you don’t have 50%+1 votes, of course!

  3. Pug says:

    If you’re planning to ram through your preferred solution with 50%+1 votes…

    Bush’s tax cuts in 2003 passed with exactly 50 + 1 (Dick Cheney) votes, if I recall. That was “ramming through your preferred solution” or was that “hey, elections have consequences”?

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I opposed those and that, too, Pug. And notice how well that worked out for the Republicans.

  5. Tlaloc says:

    It’s a truism of public debate that you will never persuade those who disagree with you by dismissing them as stupid or venal.

    I think you miss the point. It isn’t about persuading the stupid venal people. It’s about convincing everyone else that those people are stupid and venal.

    Now whether that is okay or not depends on whether you think the charge is accurate. Personally I have no problem using those terms for those who believe idiocy about death panels and nazism. Those people are in fact stupid. And there’s every reason that more intelligent people should know that fact before listening to them.

  6. kth says:

    I think you miss the point. It isn’t about persuading the stupid venal people. It’s about convincing everyone else that those people are stupid and venal.

    It is, but you will probably have better luck with those fence-sitters by patiently refuting the talking points of the protesters (even though reaching the protesters themselves is probably hopeless), than by denouncing them as paranoid and ill-informed (however accurate that may be).

  7. Tlaloc says:

    It is, but you will probably have better luck with those fence-sitters by patiently refuting the talking points of the protesters (even though reaching the protesters themselves is probably hopeless), than by denouncing them as paranoid and ill-informed (however accurate that may be).

    I’d like to believe that. Experience however tells me that the Jerry Springer approach beats out Phil Donahue for most Americans.

    There’s a reason Fox News is popular.

  8. Jim says:

    I remember many liberals complaining that playing whack a mole with terrorists only produces more terrorists. When one party not only ignores the concerns of a substantial portion of its constituents but calls them racist, evilmongers, tea baggers, they really can not expect them to vote for that elected official. I do not understand the logic in insulting those who you are dependent on getting elected with. Everytime Pelosi or Reid insults those who are attending town halls or are using their rights to protest, they are losing a little bit of their overall credibility – if they showed a little respect to the protesters legitimate concerns then they may actually gain support. Calling someone stupid and racist is not a way of gaining their support.

  9. TangoMan says:

    Governor Palin has given President Obama another Brazilian with her piece on Tort Reform being tied to Health Reform.

  10. Tlaloc says:

    remember many liberals complaining that playing whack a mole with terrorists only produces more terrorists. When one party not only ignores the concerns of a substantial portion of its constituents but calls them racist, evilmongers, tea baggers, they really can not expect them to vote for that elected official.

    What does talking about “whack a mole” have to do with calling people “racist, evilmongers, tea baggers,”? Furthermore, even if we allow for some logical connection that isn’t immediately apparent, since the Dems went on to win big in 2006 and 2008 doesn’t that directly refute your position?

    Hint: yes.

    I do not understand the logic in insulting those who you are dependent on getting elected with.

    The tea baggers were never voting dem anyway. It’s no different than the epithets the right throws at the left (traitor, party of death, appeasers, and on and on and on) they don’t lose any votes over it because they are targeting the people who’d never vote for them anyway.

    Everytime Pelosi or Reid insults those who are attending town halls or are using their rights to protest, they are losing a little bit of their overall credibility – if they showed a little respect to the protesters legitimate concerns then they may actually gain support. Calling someone stupid and racist is not a way of gaining their support.

    A lot of people have real intelligent concerns about health care reform. Those people don’t show up to protests with assault rifles or try to shout down congressmen to prevent any possible discussion. The people with real concerns are very welcome to join the discussion, assuming of course the astroturf idiots let them.

    See you aren’t distinguishing between the two groups. The group of idiots isn’t very large but is very noisy.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Governor Palin has given President Obama another Brazilian with her piece on Tort Reform being tied to Health Reform.

    Good to see she’s hitting all the vapid talking points.

  12. Jim says:

    Tlaloc,

    So the Democrats won big in 2008…that gave them a certain amount of political capital that they are rapidly exhausting as shown in the polls. The issue you are ignoring is that most elections (especially national ones) are ultimately decided by the independents. Elected Representatives are ultimately hired by citizens. When those representatives show their contempt of those citizens (or even large subsets) by defaming them, those elected officials will rapidly lose support until only their core groups remains.

    I agree that those who attend tea parties likely would never vote for democrats. Those who shout at the town halls would also not vote democrats. However when politicians state that questioning their health care plans as treasonous – then they are including people who likely voted for President Obama in 2008. Those voters will likely think twice about voting for Democrats in 2010 or 2012.

    Bottom Line: It is a bad sales strategy to demonize your customers.

  13. Tlaloc says:

    So the Democrats won big in 2008…that gave them a certain amount of political capital that they are rapidly exhausting as shown in the polls. The issue you are ignoring is that most elections (especially national ones) are ultimately decided by the independents. Elected Representatives are ultimately hired by citizens. When those representatives show their contempt of those citizens (or even large subsets) by defaming them, those elected officials will rapidly lose support until only their core groups remains.

    I don’t hear anyone defaming independents, only “independents” if you catch the difference.

    However when politicians state that questioning their health care plans as treasonous

    One politician said it and yes it was stupid of him but a number on the left called him on it. However he was NOT saying it about independents of simply questioning the health care plan. He said it specifically in response to Sen Grassley’s egregious lying to people about the matter. That still doesn’t make it right but it also doesn’t make it even close to what you are saying.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    Bottom Line: It is a bad sales strategy to demonize your customers.

    Yes, of course…politicians should bow and scrape to people who compare the president to Hitler, or question where he was born, or talk about “death panels”, or demand that government hands be kept off their Medicare, or who simply shout down others…

    Governor Palin has given President Obama another Brazilian with her piece on Tort Reform being tied to Health Reform.

    Oh, I’m sure they are cowering in fear in the halls of the White House, utterly terrified of the Wasilla Barracuda…

  15. Jim says:

    Bottom Line,

    I never stated that these politicians should “bow and scrape” to these people. All I stated is they should not show contempt towards these people who they ultimately represent. One of the tragedies of this era is that each side of the political debate attempts to close debate by demonizing those whom they disagree with.

    We are a split nation and Republicans will eventually take power again – likely in response to the Democrat’s actions. Health Care is not likely to be the cause of the shift but it is weakening the Democrat brand. As that brand is weakened, all that will be needed will be a major error by the Democrats like Katrina was to President Bush.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Pardon me…

    Yes, of course…politicians should bow and scrape not show contempt to people who compare the president to Hitler, or question where he was born, or talk about “death panels”, or demand that government hands be kept off their Medicare, or who simply shout down others…such people are only worthy of respect…

    …all that will be needed will be a major error by the Democrats like Katrina (and Iraq and Social Security privatization and the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the Mark Foley scandal and the Cunningham scandal and Terri Schiavo) was to President Bush (and Republicans).

    Yes, that’s all that will be needed…

  17. Jim says:

    Interested Party,

    Every human being is worthy of a certain amount of respect despite misguided beliefs. I do not remember President Bush, the Speaker of the House or Senate reacting as Nancy Pelosi (Unamerican) or Senator Reid (Evil Mongers) has to those questioning their health care priorities.

    People reguarlly compared President Bush to Hitler and I remember the scene of the code pink protester with paint on her hands intercepting Secretary of State Rice when she was about to testify. None of these actions drew comments from the administration or its spokesman. I do not remember President Bush’s spokesman ever referring to individual Americans in a negative context like Mr. Gibbs has done multiple times.

    I will agree that Hurricane Katrina was the tipping point with the Republicans. The list of scandals the democrats have managed in the last six months almost seems like Republicans on steroids: the selling of a Senate Seat, companies tied to Murtha, Countrywide loans, cap and trade voted on without a copy of the full bill, now health care and the lack of civility now shown during the August recess. Pretty impressive, if I was a democrat I would be worried about when that tipping point occurs since they are usually obvious only after the fact.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    Pelosi did not call anyone “un-American”, she wrote that drowning out opposing views is un-American…It’s interesting what you remember from the Bush years…I remember Bush’s spokesman telling individual Americans to watch what they say…so much for giving every human being a certain amount of respect…oh, and by the way, loons comparing Bush to Hitler does not excuse other loons comparing the president to Hitler…both views are foolish and deserve criticism…

    …if I was a democrat I would be worried about when that tipping point occurs since they are usually obvious only after the fact.

    Oh, I’m sure…if you are opposed to the Democrats, that really is all you have to hope for at this point…by the way, which Senate seat was “sold”? And your concern over the lack of civility is so touching…I’m sure you showed the same concern during the Bush years when those who opposed the Iraq War were compared to traitors or when Max Cleland was shown in ads with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein…

  19. Jim says:

    Interested Party,

    Lets not confuse criticism and respect – our representatives owe use respect but can criticize respectfully those they disagree with. In my mind many of the reps have crossed the line between criticism and disrespect but ultimately their constituents will have the final say.

    President Bush’s spokesman may have asked people to watch what they said did not specify individuals and certainly did not ask people to email the whitehouse to report lies on domestic policies. Sorry – the scale we are seeing is much greater than what went on.

    I was against criticizing protesters during from 2000 – 2008. Having spent a significant portion of that time in uniform, I have the greatest respect for those who question authority. I believe that dissent is patriotic no matter who is in power.

    I am not a Republican but believe that each party’s biases unchecked are bad for the country as a whole. The best policy can only be made with both parties at the table. President Bush made the mistake of leaving out Democrats with the exception of No Child Left Behind. Now Democrats are going down the same road. I would like power split between the parties – it worked very well during President Clinton’s administration. At the very least it would vest both parties in these types of policies.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    The best policy can only be made with both parties at the table.

    That only works if both parties actually are willing to sit at the table and work in good faith…the Republicans have shown that they have no desire to do this…