Fear-Mongering is Not a Part of Constructive Political Discourse

In the midst of an excellent column about “wicked” problems, Atul Gawande touches on a characteristic of our political system that’s often overlooked.

The rhetoric of intransigence favors extreme predictions, which are seldom borne out. Troubles do arise, but the reforms evolve, as they must. Adjustments are made. And when people are determined to succeed, progress generally happens. The reality of trying to solve a wicked problem is that action of any kind presents risks and uncertainties. Yet so does inaction. All that leaders can do is weigh the possibilities as best they can and find a way forward.

Our political discourse is essentially about the bottom of slippery slopes. It’s an exercise in fear-mongering — you make your case by stating the worst-sounding hypothetical scenario that will arise from your opponent’s agenda (or in the case of “death panels,” the worst-sounding impossible scenario.) The bad news is that overemphasizing unlikely scenarios is generally not a method of argument that leads to policy improvements.

I think we’ve reached this point partly because of the prevalence of lobbying. A lobbyist’s job is basically to come up with the worst possible consequence of a provision their client doesn’t like, and then convince people it will happen. Politicians already do this on their own for the big issues, but now they hear about every tiny provision in every bill. The recent rise of partisan media outlets has helped spread the “worst-case-scenario” talk out of the beltway and into people’s living rooms.

As Gawande points out, it’s ridiculous to talk about these scenarios because if a piece of a bill looks unquestionably troublesome, Congress will change the bill. Extremely bad things do happen, but they’re almost never the things we were worried about. Our political system can still deal with predictable worst-case scenarios. I guarantee Congress would be able to pass a timely bipartisan bill to abolish real death panels. The problem is when there’s a “this will piss of 57% of Americans” scenario. Then we’re still out of luck.

I’m not sure when or how things will change. Political parties are stuck in a nuclear arms race of talking points and campaign ads. If they slow down, they’ll make their opponent look reasonable. Perhaps things could change if the media started calling people out for trumpeting unlikely scenarios, but the fact that they couldn’t manage to kill off “death panels” does not leave me optimistic.


2 Responses to Fear-Mongering is Not a Part of Constructive Political Discourse

  1. Miriam says:

    “Our political discourse is essentially about the bottom of slippery slopes.” Definitely the best summary of it that I’ve heard for a while.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Link Roundup | Brute Reason

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