America's Empathy Failure on Obamacare

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I am suffering from an incorrigible urge to quote myself at great length. Here I am on the Republicans' push in August 2011 to shut down the government in order to get their way:

A lot of conservatives describe a potential shutdown or default as if it were ripped straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged. Their explanation of why we need to precipitate a crisis is that it's going to happen eventually, and so better now than later.

The logic of this is dubious -- we're all going to die eventually, but that doesn't mean I'm eager to hasten the day. As Dave Ramsey says, you don't declare bankruptcy until the bailiffs are at the door. As long as you haven't defaulted, you preserve the important option not to default.

But leave that aside. The problem is really with the larger narrative, in which there is no option but to slash spending and readjust to a newer, much smaller government. But, of course, we will not have a friendly author writing the script here. The villains do not have to meekly submit to the comeuppance delivered by our steely-willed heroes. When the government shuts down, the voters will not immediately turn to figuring out how to make a living without their Social Security and disability checks. They will mob their representatives. In the face of this, the steely will of the GOP freshmen may turn out to be artfully folded tinfoil. Or the besieged old guard may cross the floor to cut a deal with Democrats. At last resort, the voters will remove the guys who took away their goodies with no notice. Once the tea partiers have had their asses handed to them at the polls, borrowing and spending resume, albeit at a higher price. But because the Democrats will be firmly in charge, there's a good chance that the higher price is paid with taxes, not less spending.

The problem with the narrative is that it simply writes the people on the other side out as independent actors. They're characters in a drama -- a drama that we know the hero wins, because, after all, he's the hero. So it only remains to figure out exactly how we get the hero to victory. If you assume that there must be some way for the hero to win and slash spending to 1920 levels, then of course, I'm just an obstructionist sellout. But if you acknowledge the possibility that this might not actually be possible in a representative democracy filled with motivated voters who are more numerous than the neo-Coolidge faction, then a whole universe of caveats opens up.

The same thing seems to have happened this time around. Against all evidence, the more ardent Republicans think that they are writing the script, and Democrats have no choice but to go along. Too many people seem never to have pondered the possibility that Democrats care just as much about Obamacare as Republicans do, and are therefore willing to be just as completely intransigent.

This is, of course, a bipartisan vice. Democrats seem equally bewildered to find that no, Republicans actually care enough about Obamacare to make a hard stand against it. That's not how the script works. In the script, President Martin Sheen ... pardon me, President Barack Obama ... gives a stirring speech, and shamed moderates cross the floor to get started on the hard work of making the Affordable Care Act even more awesome than it already is, while the rest of the Republican legislators have to join the witness protection program to protect themselves from an angry mob of voters.

The ability to understand that the other side is people, with regular people feelings and their very own thoughts and motivations, seems to have been almost completely erased over the last decade or two. My Facebook feed is filled with liberals saying how they just can't understand why Republicans are so determined to take health insurance away from poor people ... as if that could be the only possible motivation to oppose Obamacare. It's a galloping case of the tendency to believe that if someone disagrees with you, it's because they reject whatever value you are trying to further.

So if you're pro-life because you want to protect unborn children, then people who are pro-choice must hate babies. And if you're pro-choice because you want women to have as much personal freedom as possible, then pro-lifers must hate women, and especially liberated women who have left the kitchen.

It is entirely reasonable to believe that Obamacare is terrible policy that will hurt more people than it helps. Your inability to grasp that anyone has this belief does not mean that everyone who disagrees with you is a venal, amoral wretch; it means that you have been blinded by confirmation bias and your own lack of empathy. I am not saying that you have to believe that Obamacare's opponents are correct. But it wouldn't take that many things going wrong -- beyond Republican opposition I mean -- for the law to turn into a disaster on many fronts. If you think that it is literally impossible that they could be correct -- or so unlikely as to make them the next best thing to evil, or crazy -- then you haven't been paying attention.

Similarly, it is entirely reasonable to believe that Obamacare is good policy that will help more people than it hurts. The fact that you think otherwise does not mean that the law's supporters are too stupid to be allowed near sharp objects. It means that they are valuing different things -- expanded coverage over innovation, for instance -- or else that their assessment of the probability that various things will go wrong is different from yours. Unless you can tell the future (and I want to see a string of winning lottery tickets before I'll accept this claim), you should accept that however mistaken they may be, they are proceeding in good faith.

But it doesn't seem like anyone can accept that, of anyone, anymore. Maybe we live too far apart, too neatly separated into conservative and liberal even to be able to imagine that the people we disagree with are also people ... baby-loving, woman-loving, doing-the-best-they-can people who do not get together on an evening to discuss how much better their lives would be if they could only manage to immiserate vast numbers of their fellow citizens. Instead, we think they're movie villains. So we're eternally surprised when they don't get neatly disposed of in the third act.

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