Let's mark this moment in the health debate as it happens

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Nearly fifteen years ago, after the collapse of the Clinton health-reform effort, I spent a lot of time working on an Atlantic article (and subsequent book chapter) about how, exactly, the discussion of the bill had become so unmoored from reality and finally determined by slogans, stereotypes, and flat-out lies.

It's better to do that after the fact than not to do it at all. And, if I do say so, I think the article remains useful background reading for what's going on now -- including the return-guest-star role of the voluble but consistently misinformed Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey.

But if there's a chance, it would obviously be better still to keep the current debate from ending up in the same intellectual/political swamp in which the previous one drowned. That is why I was so impressed by this Steven Pearlstein column two days ago in the Washington Post. (Yes, despite changes noted recently in the WaPo, there are good people doing good work there.) Pearlstein, a longtime business and financial columnist and reporter (and last year's Pulitzer winner for commentary), is no one's idea of a predictable leftie. Thus when he says things like the following, they have weight:

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems....

He goes through the most familiar talk show / Republican Caucus / Sarah Palin / protest group complaints -- "death committees," socialized medicine, end of innovation, "keep the government out of my Medicare," etc -- and shows how, as with all of McCaughey's complaints over the years, they're just not true. The current legislation has defects, but they're not the ones most often yelled about. Then he makes the point that, to me, matters even more than the legislation itself.

Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.

Pretty soon I will lay off the "As a Rip van Winkle returnee to your country, what I notice is...." approach. But I have to say that it is striking to come back -- from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate "official truth" in China -- and see the world's most mature democracy, informed by the world's dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can't think this is a sign of health for the Republic.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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