Monday, August 10, 2009

Town Hall 3

Here's the deal: organized groups are disrupting Congressional Town Hall meetings; organized groups and individual politicians and activists are spreading extraordinary misinformation about health care reform; and it appears, as Brendan Nyhan tells us, that bad information tends to drive out the good.

Consequently, a lot of people are upset. I quoted Publius from Obsidian Wings already. James Fallows is more measured, but still:
I have to say that it is striking to come back -- from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate "official truth" in China -- and see the world's most mature democracy, informed by the world's dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can't think this is a sign of health for the Republic.
Fallows and everyone else are quoting Steven Pearlstein from the WaPo:
Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society.
So, is it true? Is there something gravely wrong with our democracy if faux-angry astroturfers can shut down Congressional Town Hall meetings, and if clever liars can poison the public debate?

Well, no, it's not true (and, yes, I'm sure experience blog readers saw that one sauntering down 5th avenue quite some time ago).

I think there are four issues at play here:

Is manipulating the public debate with Big Lie techniques apt to sink health care reform?

Is shutting down town halls bad for representation and democracy?

Regardless of what happens to health care, is a factually compromised public discussion of issues a threat to democracy?

And, are false claims of "death panels" and the rest of it a good partisan political tactic beyond the current debate, so that parties have an incentive to engage in that sort of thing. In particular, is the current debate good for the GOP?

I'm going to come down on the negative side of each of these. The first one, about sinking the health care reform bill, I've already covered; basically, while Members of Congress are highly risk-averse, I think that they are unlikely at this point to believe that the Town Hall confrontations are evidence of a broader unrest within their districts. They still may conclude that voting for whatever bill winds up on the floor is too dangerous of a vote -- and in fact it may be that the eventual bill is unpopular -- but I don't think the Town Halls are going to carry much weight with anyone who isn't looking for excuses. I also think it's relatively unlikely that gross misinformation (death panels, euthanasia, etc.) will sway public opinion. More likely, that sort of thing will fill in the reasoning of those disposed to oppose the president and Democrats in the first place; those disposed to support them will ignore such information. (The same would happen with factual information cutting against reform; in that case, Democrats and supporters of the president would tend to ignore it).

This will, eventually, be an empirical question, subject to real investigation; whatever happens to the bill, we'll get some research into what was going on with the marginal votes in the House and Senate.

OK, that leaves three questions, and they touch more on theories of representation and democracy than they do on empirical research.

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