Recently, I attended a Town Hall style meeting where Rep. Paul Broun was trying to sell his version of healthcare reform and denigrate President Obama’s plan. Though I live in a red state, the community in my little neck of the woods is substantially more liberal and activist than the rest of the state. Throughout much of the presentation, Dr. Broun could hardly be heard above the jeers and shouts of “YOU LIE!” About a quarter of the attendees had signs saying things like, “Jesus was a Socialist.” The small but vocal Republican contingency applauded boisterously when Dr. Broun asked why President Obama would be exempt from his own healthcare plan.
By the end of the presentation, I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt lucky that I could just walk into a meeting where average citizens get to interact directly with elected officials responsible for making the rules. On the other, I felt a sinking feeling of despair. These two sides were not debating. They weren’t even considering each other’s opinions. They were trying to win a shouting match. Each side wanted the other to look bad.
The question and answer period was far more interesting than the presentation. I was predictably amused and slightly offended when the “plants” had their emotional Rush Limbaugh style say. The scripts were easy to spot, and had all the talking points one would expect — appeals to emotion, fear mongering, us-them dichotomies, and a lot of claptrap about working hard for a living. It did not go unnoticed by me or the other liberal attendees that these “friendly faces” managed to chime in right when things were going particularly poorly for Broun. Never let it be said that the Republicans come unprepared. Happily, the orchestrator of the prepared speeches was shouted down when she tried to defend herself for allowing the conservative lackeys to break in line and have their say in front of everyone else.
I don’t want this thread to turn into a healthcare debate. I’ll say up front that I don’t have a strong opinion on how healthcare should be fixed. I can see as well as anyone else that it is broken, but I’m an armchair philosopher and science geek, not an economist. I won’t claim to know the answer. Instead, I want to look at this event in terms of human nature and critical thinking, and take a broader look at both sides and the error they made.
To begin with, there were approximately fifteen questions taken by Dr. Broun. Of those, only two were relevant to the discussion. A lawyer challenged Broun’s assertion that America sits atop many categories of healthcare in comparison to other industrialized nations. He asked for sources, and presented his own source — the World Health Organization — whose statistics disagree completely with Broun’s. A second questioner demanded a specific example of how the Broun plan would reduce costs for the consumer. (No such example was offered.)
Outside of those two questions, nobody had anything relevant to say. Many of the questions and comments were very emotional — So-and-so has been living unemployed with bipolar disorder and epilepsy because he cannot afford healthcare and can’t keep work because of his conditions. Miss So-and-so’s mother had a horrible experience when she needed a cataract operation in England. Ms. Doctor-Lady has suffered horribly while dealing with uninsured patients in her two years as a practicing physician. It was all very moving.
It was also completely irrelevant. To a person, everyone in that room agreed that the healthcare system in America is broken. Everyone also agreed that both England and Canada have systems that are not perfect, and could use some improvement. Everyone in the room probably agreed that there ought to be a way for everyone in the country to have healthcare and not be driven to penury from having it.
This meeting was supposed to be about what we can or should do to fix healthcare, and almost everyone who spoke seemed like they had missed the point completely. They weren’t addressing the question at hand. They were reacting emotionally, and lashing out at the people they believed responsible for their misery.
And so it is with humans. Once again, we failed the critical thinking test, and accomplished nothing. The liberals went home with a sense of pride and purpose — they shouted down the enemy and made him look bad. They feel avenged. The conservatives went home with a new sense of dogged determination to stop those damn hippies from ruining everything.
And not one person came away from that meeting with one piece of new knowledge about how to fix healthcare.
In the end, I came away from this meeting with a stoic calm. Nothing too horrible will come of this. It’s a pressure valve. Each side needs to yell at the other, but neither side has any idea what to do. After much blustering, one side or the other will win this debate, and the resulting bureaucratic nightmare will be so convoluted that it will take decades to figure out what’s wrong, and more decades to figure out how to fix it. Meanwhile, life will proceed as it always has. The poor will be angry at the rich, and the rich will wonder why the poor aren’t smart or industrious enough to live lives of privilege. Most importantly, people will continue to miss the point entirely, and answer questions that were never asked in the first place.