The field of cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason, but political debate evidently lags far behind the science. Some observers of health care politics, particularly on the left, tend to accuse their opponents of trying to trigger emotional panic points rather than argue dispassionately about the facts. The implication is that the Right doesn't have any facts, so it looks to exploit voters' fears. There is something to be said for this argument, but it's not what proponents would have you believe. In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that's proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that's against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact. Democrats and Republicans both use emotion, but they use it differently, and use it to achieve different goals.
The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too -- albeit a wholly different emotion -- the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate. This is called a solidary incentive. It's a powerful -- and often completely ignored -- sentiment, one that the Obama presidential campaign found, capitalized on, and won the election by exploiting.
The Democrats and Obama assume that, inside every voter who isn't an instinctive partisan, there is a competition of sorts -- a calculus, subject to outside influences: If the voter succombs to the fear-emotion, he or she will retreat into a comfortable partisan shell. If the voter is convinced that the partisan games are wrong, the voter will seek refuse in a side that more closely aligns with different values.
For the right to win the health care fight, they'll want to speed up the voters' decision-making. The more quickly the voter accesses certain emotions, the harder it is to slow down, reassess, and access different ones. Democrats are asking voters, in essence, to simmer down. Use reason; be conscious about the process of thinking through health care. If you hear something check it out. Within the pro-reform and anti-reform camps, there is plenty of variety when it comes to strategies, although the general pattern seems to stick.
My trendy, journalistic equivocation kicks in now: the right is obviously appealing to anger and fear, and the Democrats are mostly appealing to solidary cohesion. In some debates, the left has fear-mongered and the right hasn't -- like Social Security. To be sure, there's always pollination -- the right, in arguing for Social Security, tried to stoke fears of the program's allegedly imminent bankruptcy. And Democrats do have an advantage when defending government programs -- they're the party that doesn't reflexively oppose them.
Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right. In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any perscribed way. When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made -- the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more -- they focus on the link that I won't then make -- the link that I have no expertise to make -- the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy -- the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be.
It's a media cop-out when a journalist refuses to use their expertise to inform a debate even when it might influence the debate to go in a certain direction. Every intervention will influence the debate. It is foolish to think otherwise. In some debates, the interventions will accumulate and give ammunition to one side. That's the price of doing good journalism. But influencing the debate by relating considered judgments is different than presupposing how the debate will end, or how it ought to end.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.