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Politics of Health Reform: Selling Anger or Catharsis

Posted Mar 22 2010 4:28am

With the health reform legislation process winding up, it is clear that going forward politics are - and will be - front and center, with the divide between the Democrats and Republicans as wide as the orbit of Pluto…… the planetoid, not the Disney character. This divide is depicted in black, white, and red in the National Journal’s March 13th Insiders Poll question, “If Congress enacts something close to President Obama’s latest health care reform plan, how would that affect your party in the midterm elections?”  87% of Democrats thought it would “help a lot” or “help a little,” and 100% of Republicans thought it would help them.

They can’t both be right.

Each party is banking on their ability to sell health reform their way:  Democrats will present it as a significant step towards fixing many of our healthcare system’s and country’s problems.  Conversely, the Republicans will characterize it as fundamentally evil and something that will end individual freedom and civilized progress because of “government takeover of healthcare” being run by a “healthcare czar.”

These sentiments and strategies are clear in the quotes accompanying the National Journal’s poll:

Republicans:
“The tax increases, the wild spending, and the backroom deals and threats will shock voters of all parties, producing a GOP revolt.”

“Passing the bill will help the GOP by fueling voter (especially senior) anger at an arrogant majority that knowingly ignored popular opinion.”

Democrats:
“It will help a lot of people, show that Democrats can act, and get the ’sausage making’ off the news.”

“If it passes, people [will] see it’s not the end of the world and learn more about its benefits. The more they know about it, the more supportive they are.  Best of all, we can begin talking about something else.”

However, one Democrat in the 9% who thought enacting the law would “hurt a lot” said, “The Right hates it, the Left is not satisfied, and the middle is scared.”

Majority v. Minority - Catharsis v. Anger
Without dissecting the merits of their positions, these divergent perspectives are due to the parties’ different roles in our two-party democracy:  The majority needs to present their actions in a way that fosters catharsis in people, (particularly in voters), by actually improving some problem. Their goal is to turn that catharsis into positive feelings about the majority party, leading to votes in future elections. Conversely, the minority party needs to create anger about what the majority party is doing or proposing, with the goal of turning that anger into….. (no surprise here)…… votes in future elections.

Thus the key for the party leadership, individual elected officials, and their communications and campaign staffs, is how to best create catharsis or anger - depending upon which side of the fence they are on.

An old friend, Dan Wasserman, the political cartoonist for the Boston Globe, in his March 2nd cartoon depicted this very nicely:

Dan Wasserman Political Cartoon - 03-02-2010 Romeny Anger
[This cartoon was also reprinted in the March, 6th issue of National Journal]

Challenges of Political and Policy Communications
How people, (i.e. voters), perceive the issues and problems - and potential solutions - is strongly influenced by how they are presented and described.  It is this communications process that builds or derails political and policy initiatives and campaigns.  No matter the long-term success or failure of the health reform law, the road from now until the November elections will be filled with messaging to instill voters with either catharsis or anger - particularly swing voters in key states and CDs. For the Democrats, creating cathartic feelings will be much, much easier as specific provisions of the law become effective.

For Republicans, creating anger will be possible from the outset. In the near term having a new law will give them a focal point for anger, with proposed regulations and rules being easy and rich targets.  In the longer term, as the new law actually improves many people’s lives, it will be harder to accomplish that goal.  However, by that time, if they can use the near term anger they’ve created to take control of one or both houses of Congress, or the White House, as the majority party they will be the ones trying to create catharsis - so some successes via implementation will be to their benefit.  In addition, if that happens, for political reasons Republicans will not want to repeal or significantly unravel the new law since continued implementation of health reform - without dramatic alterations - will deny Democrats one of their main campaign issues that they have historically used to generate anger among their base and swing voters.

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Post Script: Turning Anger Into Productive or Destructive Action
[Omitted for space considerations.]

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