Why the "death panel" claim is working

In this recent item about the apparent triumph of the McCaughey/Palin/Grassley/ Limbaugh tribe in keeping the false "death panel" idea going, I said I had been wrong to think that the modern blogosphere could act as a truth squad. Here are several reader hypotheses about why things are panning out this way, starting with the one that's most vivid and convincing and ending with a truly constructive suggestion.

Theory #1: Triumph of the 'Sticky' Image

Your last blog post sure was depressing: not that you could be wrong, but that the new media ecosystem still doesn't have the tools to keep lunacies like McCaughey's "death panels" from becoming part of the political debate.

That said, if you're familiar with Chip & Dan Heath's book "Made To Stick" (www.madetostick.com), you can see that the death panel idea is probably too "sticky" to be debunked, defused, and delegitimized.  In their view, the six key principles behind sticky ideas (like the NYC sewer alligators, or the kidney thieves that drug you and leave you in an ice-filled bathtub [or boiled frogs, JF note]) are:

- simplicity
- unexpectedness
- concreteness
- credibility
- emotions
- stories

The death panel story contains virtually all of these elements.  It's a simple, concrete concept that anyone can picture.  It's certainly unexpected, it stirs emotions, and it's easy to tell -- or make up -- stories.  (My grandma has Parkinson's, and I won't have a government bureaucrat telling me she's got to die!") 

It's true that to a rational, dispassionate listener the idea of a death panel does strain the bounds of credibility.  However, the complexity of health care reform, the sheer size of the legislation, and the history of bizarre government policies that have been twisted by special interests, does leave room in the imagination for, well, the incredible.

So, to your point: does the new media ecosystem have a greater ability to stop charlatans?  Clearly yes.  But I wonder if any ecosystem could have stopped such a "sticky" idea.

Other theories after the jump, plus somebody who embraces the whole idea.

Theory 2: Administration Clumsiness

We wouldn't be talking about Elizabeth McCaughey's distortions if the Obama administration hadn't turned out to be strangely inept in the selling of its policy positions (not just health care, something similar happened with TARP, even affirmative action during Sotomayor's confirmation, and it's only a matter of time before the GOP takes aim at other issues).

For the life of me, I can't understand why they can't personalize these issues (the way successful presidents always do).  Who are his opponents?  They're the pigs protecting the trough.  Done.  Who can't understand that?  But no--instead we'll get discussions about a plan which doesn't exist followed by outrage over distortions.

Theory 2A: Different Kind of Ineptness in Story-Telling:

What I can't understand is why the Democrats don't respond in kind with a different kind of fact.  If there is one party in the US that has shown a willingness to usurp personal/family control over end-of-life decisions, it's the Republicans.  Think of Bush actually leaving Crawford at 2 a.m. to sign a bill to keep Terri Schiavo on life support a a few weeks longer.... Think of the extent to which the marriage-is-sacred party insisted that Schiavo's husband should be irrelevant. Think of the extent to which the Bible-is-inerrant party went to ignore the clear Biblical commandment to give primacy to the husband-wife relationship over that between a parent & adult child...The majority of Americans reacted with disgust & some fear to this spectacle....

The US has a much higher amenable death rate than other industrialized countries. Fundamentally, what Republicans are saying is that Americans' lives are not worth as much as French lives or New Zealanders lives or Canadian lives. We are not entitled to the standard of living they enjoy.  Republicans are saying that having the US be last in health care among industrialized nations is fine -- it's all right for us to let people die before their time. Death panels exist now -- entire departments in health insurance companies are devoted to denying Americans care....
These are strong & probably slightly distorted ways of stating the case for health insurance reform, but as best I can tell, this is far more grounded in the facts than anything Palin's written. Why don't the Dems say this?

Theory 3: It Ain't Over Till It's Over

Don't admit error just yet...I think there is the makings of a backlash against the death panel lie comparable to the decline in support for Palin after her nomination. That's because the protests in this case are less about health care than anti-Obama, white fears of losing majority cultural status, and so on. That wasn't true in '93. As that cry is heard, and diminishes, cooler heads may prevail. Grassley's position is most troubling (craven and cynical, my bet) but even if this completely sensible provision is struck from the Senate Finance bill, as it will be, it isn't the end of the world.

Despite current polls I'm holding (clinging?) to the line attributed to Napoleon that you never interfere with your enemies when they are making a mistake. And I think that the GOP is completely overplaying its hand here.... So long as stakeholders don't bolt there will be a deal (resulting in a health reform questionable on many levels but without their acquiescence no deal can happen) which is why the revelations about the White House deals with the drug manufacturers may be more significant than all this sound and fury in the long (e.g. September) run.

3A: Yeah, it is too over.

The truth is having absolutely no effect on the people who've bought this toxic nonsense. I had a very illuminating conversation with a neighbor, whom I like (even though I know her to be quite a government-hater), and she believes all of this stuff.  She even believes Medicare is not a government program.  She believes that if I think otherwise I'm naive and/or being hoodwinked.  It looks to me as though the health-care reform plan/s have been thoroughly swift-boated and are dead in the water, just as you say.  (Taking care not to mix my metaphors, you will please note.)

Theory 99: Bring on the Death Panels!

The Death Panels idea is so laughable that I suggest somebody start a website for people to recommend a choice of Death Panels.  Here are just a few kickstart ideas:
Firing squad manned by NRA members
Being dressed like a dog and thrown into the locker room of Michael Vick
Being left in the median strip of a major interstate highway
Going hunting with Dick Cheney
Being left on an Alaskan glacier to await Sarah Palin's gunning you down from a helicopter
Being forced to ingest the medications that Rush Limbaugh is on
Laughter just might be the cure for this idiocy.

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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.

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