In Health Care Debate, Fear Trumps Logic

A screen grab from a health care commercial featuring Harry and Louise i i

In this 1993 television commercial, a couple named Harry and Louise helped sow seeds of doubt in the public about how changes to health care would affect them. The ad was funded by the health insurance lobby to defeat President Clinton's proposed health care plan. Courtesy of Goddard Claussen hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Goddard Claussen
A screen grab from a health care commercial featuring Harry and Louise

In this 1993 television commercial, a couple named Harry and Louise helped sow seeds of doubt in the public about how changes to health care would affect them. The ad was funded by the health insurance lobby to defeat President Clinton's proposed health care plan.

Courtesy of Goddard Claussen

Past efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system had different proponents, different opponents and different plans that were under consideration. But they have two things in common: They all ended in failure, and in every case, opponents used fear as a key weapon in their arsenal.

So Jonathan Oberlander, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says he's not at all surprised to see recent claims — all thoroughly debunked — that suggest, for example, that bills under consideration would encourage senior citizens to commit suicide when they become ill or infirm.

"It's really a case of deja vu," he says. "You hear in today's debate echoes of the past that extend all the way to the early part of the 20th century. And I think the reason that people use fear again and again is that it's effective. It's worked to stop health reform in the past. And so they're going to try and use it in the present."

History Of Scare Tactics

Oberlander says opponents used scare tactics the very first time the idea of national health insurance was broached — around 1915 — by tying would-be reformers to the nation's then-greatest international threat.

"They said that national health insurance was a plot by the German emperor to take over the United States," he says.

The next effort to remake the health system came during the late 1940s. This time the opposition, led by the American Medical Association, exploited the newest fears. "They said if we adopted national health insurance, the Red army would be marching through the streets of the U.S.; they said this was the first step toward communism," Oberlander says.

By the time the Clinton administration took on the health effort, the power of the American Medical Association was fading. But now a new opponent took its place — the health insurance industry. It ran ads using an ordinary looking couple, named Harry and Louise, to raise doubts among middle-class Americans about how the Clinton plan might hurt rather than help them.

Says Oberlander, "The opponents have changed over time; the tactic of relying on fear and scaring Americans has not."

The Science Of Fear

But exactly why is fear such an effective tactic? Simple biology, says Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University.

It turns out that fear is a very primitive response, and "once fear is aroused in your brain, it tends to take over and dominate," LeDoux says. A brain paralyzed by fear is unable to think other things through.

It actually makes sense on a survival level, he says. "If there's a chance that you'll be harmed, then you better attend to it. In other words, you better be afraid of it and be careful about what's going on."

There's another thing that makes fear effective in political debates — it's contagious.

"Rats have ways of sending out ultrasonic calls to other rats to warn them that, say, a cat is nearby," LeDoux says. "And these sounds are a secret code, because they're outside the cat's hearing ability. So it's pretty primitive in nature that we have these kinds of mechanisms for detecting danger, for experiencing danger within the individual, and for sharing that information across individuals."

Biology Wins

Republicans insist that fear is not part of their strategy in trying to defeat the current health overhaul effort. "No one's trying to scare people with sound bites. I mean, you know, I've not done that, and I don't know any of the leaders in the House and Senate that have done that," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said on NPR earlier this week.

But that's not convincing to many political scientists like Oberlander, who say they're hearing a lot of what they consider to be deliberate scare tactics.

"Fear is crowding out the truth. And the truth ought to count for something in health care reform and American politics. And right now it doesn't," he says.

The current debate isn't yet over, but so far at least, biology has defeated logic every time.

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