A strange thing happened on the way to the series of attempts to repeal and replace the Republican-hated policy known as “Obamacare.” Fundamental attitudes about health care began to change–and in an unanticipated direction.
The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) has been an excellent example of how perceptual screens affect attitudes. Polling indicated that when people were asked about the policy called “Obamacare” it received less support than if it was called the “Affordable Care Act.” But even more, polling reveals that partisanship functions as a perceptual screen when making such judgments—Democrats support Obamacare/the ACA more than do Republicans. This was true when it was first passed and remains somewhat true today—but oddly enough, some attitudes on health care have shifted to bring Democrats and Republicans closer to each other. (Could we have the beginnings of an emerging bipartisan consensus?)
The latest polling indicates that a substantial majority of Americans (over 60%) now believe that health care is a right rather than a privilege. (Substantially less than a majority had this belief as recently as 2014). And while there is still a modest partisan divide, lower income Republicans now agree with Democrats of all income levels that health care is a right. The strongest support for the view that health care is a privilege and government should not play a role is isolated among relatively well-to-do Republicans.
Ironically, the catalyst that has produced this change has been the controversy that has been sparked by the various aborted attempts in Congress to repeal Obamacare. Republicans, hoping to kill the Affordable Care Act have instead helped build support for not just the ACA, but for even greater government involvement in health care.
Specific provisions that arose during the debate also helped to solidify public opinion and narrow the partisan divide on the issue. Now, an over-whelming majority of Americans (over 70%) want health care to be guaranteed to people with pre-existing conditions. Further, even a substantial number of Republicans (66%) want insurance policies to provide a minimum package of benefits and a vast majority of Americans of all political persuasions want coverage to extend to children up to age 26 (on their parents’ plan). These are significant changes in attitudes from just a few years ago.
Sociologist Robert Merton first identified the “law of unintended consequences” in 1936 when examining decisions policy-makers make in complex social systems. While he identified a number of reasons for this phenomenon (including stupidity and relying upon short-term interests over long-term interests) he also noted that it was difficult to effectively adopt policies which went against the grain of fundamental underlying values and beliefs. That may now be the dilemma the Republicans face when they try—yet again as they no doubt will—to repeal and replace Obamacare. If Republicans in Congress continue to pursue health care reform in a partisan fashion they may find that their constituents, both Republicans and Democrats, may rebel.
As a political scientist, I view the controversy over the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as grounded in two related questions:
1) How did football (and just about every other sport) become a forum for displays of patriotism?
2) Why is the kneeling of a player during the playing of the national anthem viewed as an insult to veterans in particular?
So, in answer to #1, there is really no good reason why sports have been aligned with militarism. Some have theorized that joining the two connects nationalism with aggression; or winning with patriotism. “We (meaning the US) are Number 1!” But the history of this conjoining of (male) sports teams with national patriotism has its origins in WWI and this grew stronger during WWII. During the fighting of the world war, it was viewed as unseemly that while other men engaged in international warfare to save the country and indeed the world, professional athletic males in the United States were playing their sports rather than engaging in true warfare. Sporting events were also an opportunity to mobilize much needed public support. Thus, patriotic moments were injected into the games: the playing of the national anthem or patriotic songs, the presence of the American flag, flybys or honor guards by the military, and the recognition of war veterans. But this association continued far beyond the world war years. It is now seen as part and parcel of what it means to be engaged in athletic competition. As a result, displays of patriotism infuses football, baseball, soccer, hockey, and so on.
But think about it…this is a social construct that survived its time. This was a nationalistic practice that originated as a way of defending why able-bodied males should continue to play competitive (and lucrative) games during a time of war. The national symbolism has continued throughout the decades although it is now disconnected from the original purpose it served.
In answer to #2, I can understand that some people may be offended by NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. But why is this form of symbolic speech interpreted as an insult to veterans in particular?
This protest began last football season (2016) by Colin Kaepernick. Because it was a silent form of protest, in later interviews he had to articulate the meaning in words. His explanation was that the physical gesture was a sign of protest about the troubling incidences of black men shot by police officers who were not punished by the legal system. Kneeling was chosen a “respectful,” peaceful, and silent protest about racial inequality in the country.
So how exactly does this implicate veterans?
It doesn’t. The protest is an indictment of the American legal system, law enforcement system, and systemic racism within the culture. But it is not in any way aimed at those who have served in the military.
Why? Because the flag, the national anthem, the Constitution, and patriotism at large does not belong to veterans exclusively. Yes, the nation should thank veterans for their service and should provide them in turn with respect and concrete resources to integrate them back to civilian lives (e.g., imagine a VA that is efficient and responsive and generous). However, criticisms about the nation, no matter how cutting, are not aimed at veterans. They are directed at society at large. Although symbolic speech, these actions invite reflection and conversation. Are they pointed and sometimes painful critiques? Yes, they are. But does kneeling constitute treason or an attack on veterans in particular; I’d say not. Political protest is and should be a protected right. That is necessary in any society that aspires to be democratic. Dissent should be met with conversation, not misdefined or misaligned as attacks on veterans or unpatriotic expressions in need of punishment.
It is a bit ironic that this sensitivity to the feelings of veterans as the victims of the NFL protests is taking place during a time when conservative commentators have been unforgiving in their criticisms of college and university policies designed to protect student “snowflakes” from upsetting speech, topics, or situations. Veterans, who have been redefined in recent years as heroes, are now being constructed as victims in need of protection from kneeling athletes. And so, in the words of Pres. Trump, a protesting athlete is a “son of bitch” who should be fired.
Some might say that political protests are unwarranted given the time and place consideration that these occur during sports contests, not political events. But, as I wrote earlier, the infusion of symbols of patriotism during athletic competitions is an odd coupling to begin with. If patriotic displays are embraced during games, one can expect, and one is expected to tolerate, differing views in response.
Businesspeople often complain about government interference, arguing that government should stay out of the marketplace and regulate it as little as necessary. Of course you don’t hear many complaints from those same people when the government provides a host of tax deductions and subsidies that benefit them. The latest controversy involving government subsidizing business is playing itself out in Tallahassee where House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to eliminate the government agency Enterprise Florida (actually a public-private hybrid), claiming that it does not do what was intended.
Enterprise Florida is supposed to use its resources to lure business to the Sunshine State using a variety of inducements including tax refunds, tax credits, tax exemptions, and even outright cash grants. While Corcoran wants to eliminate funding for Enterprise Florida Governor Rick Scott who has campaigned on a platform of job creation is a vigorous defender of the program.
The use of government incentives to support business is nothing new in America. Primarily because of the nature of our federal system businesses can play off one governmental unit against others to negotiate the most advantageous package of inducements to locate their business in a particular place.
Our latest local example of this sort of bargaining has recently occurred with the Atlanta Braves who indicated they were willing to relocate from Orlando if “the price was right.” Consequently, they initiated a series of negotiations with Orlando, Sarasota, Collier County and Palm Beach County to see which locale would give them the best deal.
After several months of bargaining, negotiating and playing one county off against the others Sarasota emerged as the “winner” of the Braves sweepstakes and a preliminary deal was struck. A sports complex in the range of $75-$80 million would be built in North Port by 2019. Sarasota county would kick in $22 million, North Port would add $4-5 million, West Villages would contribute 150 acres of land worth $7-9 million, and the state would add about $20 million.
The county’s contribution falls just under the amount that would otherwise have to be approved by voters—hmmmm. Supposedly the Braves would pick up the remaining $22-25 million and they get full operating rights to the baseball complex. The government is trying to negotiate use of the facility for a few days during the year (the latest estimate was 22 days), but profits from the games go to the Braves who will agree to make annual payments for 30 years to cover the stadium debt.
The arguments in favor of such sports stadium deals are common: they will spur economic growth in the local area, help raise incomes and they will create jobs. Sounds good. Sounds like a wise investment. Unfortunately economists who study such deals say there that there is no evidence to indicate that those things actually happen. Two economists, Coates and Humphreys collected all the studies done on the topic and concluded that there was no legitimate economic justification for the deals—they don’t spur economic growth, they don’t create more jobs, and they don’t raise incomes. So why do these deals continue to happen?
For the answer we need to turn to politics, not economics. Politicians often campaign on the argument that they will create jobs. Governor Scott certainly did that, but he is not the only politician to pass himself off as a “jobs-creator.” To justify that they are working to create jobs they must have some sort of highly visible way of showing that they are working on job creation. Enter government incentives! In many instances corporations and sports teams have already decided where they will locate and only as an afterthought do they try to obtain government incentives (hey, why not if they want to give us some freebies).
In fact, studies show that one of the most important factors in determining where businesses locate—in addition to the quality of the labor force, access to relevant transportation, and the cost of energy, (for sports teams a supportive fan base)—is where the CEOs live! (Note that Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholtz owns a home in Naples).
Of course politicians don’t have to play this game and, to their credit, the politicians in Collier County ultimately decided to drop out of the bidding war for the Braves stadium. Perhaps they are smarter than our own politicians. They can now spend their money on more deserving projects and still enjoy the benefit of seeing the Braves. After all, it’s only a short drive from Naples to North Port. That drive won’t cost anywhere near $26 million.
Although we registered online to attend Rep. Vern Buchanan’s March 18th town hall meeting, and therefore believed that we had reserved two seats, every seat in the hall was taken, and we were left standing outside the 1700 seat performing arts hall with 100s and 100s of others. But an outdoor speaker system broadcast the questions and answers from inside and so we stayed with the crowd, listened, and reacted.
Today’s Herald Tribune featured an article with the title “Buchanan wary of health plan.” Whether his office had salted the news or not, this article foreshadowed the issue that would dominate the questions: health care, and more specifically, the ramifications of overturning the Affordable Health Care Act (better known as Obamacare.) Buchanan suggested it was too early in the game, “just the third inning,” to know what the final health care product would be.
On the one hand, Buchanan seemed to know his constituents, vowing support for Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans Affairs, but on the other hand, we believe he has underestimated the anger among constituents that has energized them to become politically active and vocal as never before.
A telling theme was present in the questions asked by at least three people: how can Buchanan, who is generally acknowledged by voters from both parties to be a person of integrity and decency, live with the contradiction of offering support to a president who lacks both attributes?
His response was that people needed to give Trump a chance and it was too early to judge him. A majority of the outside crowd booed loudly in response; and the speaker system picked up on the same response from inside the hall.
So how does one explain this contradiction? Does loyalty to party “trump” all other considerations? Is Buchanan really taking a wait and see strategy? Does he feel his seat is safe in 2018 and he need not engage in intra-party opposition?
Jack suggests another explanation: that Buchanan and other Republican members of Congress see an advantage in letting Trump be Trump. When the President draws attention to pseudo-issues, like the accusation that Obama had Trump’s phones “tapped” or that the media is the “enemy of the people,” attention is deflected away from an agenda with items that many Republicans actually do believe in and are actively pressing. There is the moral agenda that supports attacks on reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood, and the LGBT community. There is the national security agenda that is anti-immigrant and pro-military industrial complex. There is the economic agenda of protecting corporate interests, cutting programs that serve the poor, and undermining regulations (e.g., environmental protections) viewed as a hardship to business interests. And there is the conservative political agenda that big government must be dismantled to ensure “liberty.” With Trump and Bannon taking the heat, representatives can choose which of their pet issues to press forward.
So Buchanan’s “wait and see” approach sounds fair and cautious, even as the issues he does in fact support (like defunding Planned Parenthood and restricting immigration) move forward.
However, the majority of the crowd, ourselves included, would have none of it. Basically, what we were telling Buchanan is that his “wait and see” approach makes him complicit–and therefore vulnerable in 2018.
Do elected officials say one thing when they run for office and, once in office, do another? Although studies by political scientists consistently show that politicians generally attempt to implement the policies they campaign on, many cynics do not believe that is the case. I venture to say that most Trump supporters believe that “career politicians” say one thing to get elected and then do something else once in office.
Over the years the media has been more vigilant in attempting to document when politicians break their promises (although they have been less rigorous about highlighting when they keep them). How did Obama do? According to Politifact over his eight years in office Obama made 533 campaign promises. Of those, he kept 48.2% of them and “compromised” to get at least part of what he wanted on another 27.6%. On only 24.2% of the promises he made did he fail to keep them. Note that Politifact doesn’t explain exactly why the promises were not kept.
Politifact has already identified 102 campaign promises that Trump has made and they will be keeping a scorecard of how well he does. I would just like to highlight some of the more interesting ones and project how they will be fulfilled by our new president.
“Draining the Swamp.” This, of course, is a great line for campaign rallies as it conjures up images of a murky Washington D. C. environment filled with slimy snakes and gators feasting on the body politic. But, how will we know if and when the swamp has been drained? First of all, it has never been made entirely clear exactly who the predators in the swamp actually are. Are they career politicians? Lobbyists? Bureaucrats? Campaign donors? All of the above?
As best we can tell by looking at Trump’s actions so far apparently the predators in the swamp do not include campaign donors. His Education Department secretary- designate Betsy DeVos’ family donated over $200 million to Republicans over the years, his nominee to run the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, donated $7.5 million to back his run, the Deputy Commerce Secretary designate Todd Ricketts had his family donate $1.3 million, Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder chipped in $320,000, and on and on. But maybe Trump really meant that the predators in the swamp were the career politicians and here he supports a constitutional amendment to place term limits on members of Congress. Of course, that proposal must actually go through Congress itself. It’s toast. Hey, but at least he can claim that he tried.
That leaves us with the easiest target, the bureaucrats. Expect some sort of nasty presidential order directed at those poor slobs, the most vulnerable swamp creatures. After it is signed expect Trump to declare that “the swamp has been drained” and we will never hear the phrase again.
“Defeat ISIS.” Trump either has a plan to defeat ISIS or he doesn’t have a plan. It’s not clear. One time he said he knew more than the generals and had a plan, but he also said that once elected he would tell the generals to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS. Seems a little confusing.
The key to understanding ISIS is realizing that it is an amorphous amoebic-like organization that operates in strange ways and has much different goals than most organizations. Trying to defeat it is like playing whack-a-mole. Every time you smash it in one place it pops up in another. ISIS is not committed to taking any particular land, it merely need staging areas and access to the Internet.
Because so few people really understand much about this group and because it operates primarily in places most Americans have never heard of it lends itself to image manipulation. We should expect the Trump administration to deal with ISIS as a PR problem. They can defeat ISIS by coming up with “alternative facts” to demonstrate that Trump has actually defeated the terrorist organization. Sure there will be terrorist attacks in Europe and maybe even in the US, but these can be attributed to fake terrorist groups which mimic ISIS whose creation can eventually be blamed on Obama.
“Oreos.” A lot of people may have missed Trump’s promise about Oreos as it was not widely reported by the liberal media. In August of 2015 someone told Trump that Nabisco was shutting down its plant in Chicago and moving it to Mexico. In response he said he would not eat another Oreo until it moved its Oreo production back to the US.
Now obviously this would be a difficult promise to hold Trump to as, in the middle of the night, he could sneak down into the White House kitchen and surreptitiously munch on a few of those delicious cookies. Who would know? But, as luck has it, Trump won’t have to go those lengths to eat an Oreo. In fact, although some jobs at the Nabisco plant will be lost they are not being lost to transfer them to Mexico; Nabisco is merely re-organizing their production lines. Better yet for Trump, Oreos are, and will continue to be made in the good old U. S. A. Expect an East Room spectacle with Trump in front of a heaping tray of Oreos declaring victory and passing them out to reporters as a peace offering. Great photo op.
“Make America Great Again.” This, of course, was Trump’s signature campaign theme and while some cynics criticized it because they thought America was already great, it struck a cord with a lot of rust-belt voters. Still, it’s one of those phrases that is difficult to pinpoint about what exactly it means. How will we know when Trump has made America great again?
Fortunately Trump has already provided us with the answer about when we will know when American is great again—he will tell us!
In his first week in office Trump, through his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway, seemed to indicate that they were perfectly within their rights to challenge the media with what she called “alternative facts.” In other words, the Trump administration feels free to create its own reality, divorced from, of course, reality. So, regardless of what actually happens during the Trump term expect President Trump to fulfill this promise and, at some point during his term in office, declare that America is great again!
Expect a new kind of presidency—one which will be able to easily fulfill all Trump’s campaign promises because it will create its own reality. In Trump’s words we will get really, really tired of winning so much.
Or, perhaps Chico Marx’s words are more prescient:
“Who are you going to believe—me or your own eyes?”
Back in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas conducted seven debates throughout seven of the nine congressional districts in Illinois as they campaigned for the United States Senate. Each debate was scheduled to last three hours. What they said was recorded by stenographers, reprinted and distributed throughout the United States. People discussed and argued the issues that the two candidates raised. No one listened to them on the radio, saw them on television, or live streamed them; instead they read the debates in newspapers. This was democracy at its finest—candidates identified and framed the issues and citizens discussed and debated with each other.
Contrast that with the image of Donald J. Trump in Mexico City standing side-by-side with Mexican president Peña Nieto calling him a friend and referring to the Mexican people as “amazing people.” A few hours later in Phoenix Trump, standing in front of American flags, talked about creating a “deportation task force” to round up Mexicans (rapists and murderers?) who had illegally entered the country and send them back to stand at the end of the line to re-enter the land of milk and honey. Trump’s visit to Mexico provided him with a great visual—standing at a podium next to a grim-faced Mexican president. Then, hours later, creating another image as he blasted away at illegal Mexican immigrants. Whatever he said in either venue was irrelevant; it was the image that was significant.
In Mexico he created an image of a world leader capable of standing up to leaders of hostile nations (for Trump Mexico is a hostile nation). Back in the friendly confines of Arizona he reverted to the image of a “non-PC” candidate “telling it like it is.” Forget what Trump is saying (he often says things that are not true), image is what the Trump campaign is about.
It has been argued that Trump thrives upon, and even encourages, misinformation; that uneducated angry white men are flocking to him; that he is followed by “deplorable” people (the latest by Hillary). I think that is too simplistic. His appeal is broader. Trump is an extension of a presidential campaign phenomenon that began with the advent of television, was realized by Ronald Reagan, and became an art form with George W. Bush. These presidents (really their advisors) understood that reality had become “contested,” and they attempted to define it for their own political purposes through images, not words. Politics today is not a battle of ideas (ala the Lincoln-Douglas debates) but a battle of images. “Dubya” even went so far as to hire an image team composed of professionals drawn from the major networks to stage “message of the day” backdrops for pseudo-events to convey a simple yet coordinated message.
So Trump is not unique in his use of images. What is somewhat different about Trump is that he lacks virtually any substance at all. While candidates such as George W. Bush were taken to task for not being as informed about issues as presidential candidates should be, Trump’s ignorance about basic political issues and his lack of policy proposals is stunning. Still, it may not matter. Image becomes its own reality.
The difficulty with images is that they disempower the American citizenry. At their best images are effective at raising questions, but they do not provide people with information and perspectives that can provide the basis of democratic dialogue among citizens. How do you argue with an image? Images merely “are.” They can be pleasant, attractive, ugly, and disturbing. But they don’t provide the kind of information citizens need to engage in democratic discussions. Substantive arguments (which the Lincoln-Douglas debates provided) possess the possibility of engaging citizens in dialogue about important issues.
But images are effective on the campaign trail because they tap into people’s feelings, and those feelings often override rational thought. Unfortunately image creation and manipulation represents our present-day approach to presidential campaigns. As three-time Grammy Award winning guitarist Adam Jones once said: “It doesn’t matter what [the image] is about, all that matters is how it makes you feel.” Trump is creating an image that taps into people’s emotions and those emotions may very well overwhelm rational discourse.
Jack: The Poly Sci wisdom is that debates tend to reinforce the support among strong supporters; so it is the “undecided” voter, usually a moderate, that is the target of the candidates. Undecideds are still a large segment of the population, so this debate was important.
Jack: Clinton needed to reach out to where her favorability ratings were shaky or falling: young people who are interested in economic inequality and suburban white women who are concerned about whether Trump is “presidential.” Trump needed to present a presidential demeanor to reassure voters who would like to vote for him mainly because he is not Clinton. He didn’t accomplish that tonight.
Sasha: Given that, she succeeded. She presented as presidential while Trump interrupted her repeatedly, had several (albeit minor) implosions, and ended by saying she didn’t “look” presidential. He quickly changed the phrasing to a lack of “stamina;” or how he put it the second time he said it with emphasis: “stam-men-a” (code for testosterone?) Undecided women won’t like how he treated her; her base will solidify. She missed an opportunity, however, to remind voters that there are many female leaders of foreign countries and Trump will need a respectful demeanor to work with them.
Sasha: Trump avoided questions; he repeated himself; he sounded unschooled. However, his base likes that off-the-cuff, ready to rumble demeanor. But will this win him undecided voters? I don’t think so.
Final throw-in thoughts:
Clinton managed to act natural although she was obviously well-rehearsed, had control over her body language, and was very aware of how the camera was on her (and him) at all times.
Could Trump have been a bit ill? We thought he sniffled throughout the first half of the debate and his eyes looked almost closed, then he started to come around. But given that he has criticized Clinton’s health, he couldn’t very well claim illness, could he.
Finally, calling these performances “debates” is of course a misnomer. They are at best side-by-side press conferences. A serious debate consists of having a proposition (e.g., decreasing taxes on large businesses in order to create jobs), allowing each side time to argue for or against the proposition, questioning and challenging each other’s facts and analysis, and then giving closing statements. That presidential debates are in fact “debates” is debatable.