The Democrats’ Irrational Political Behavior on Health Care

SWAY is a fascinating book about irrational human behavior, hence its title: SWAY, The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman (2008, published by Broadway Books).

In particular, the lessons painted by the book are clearly applicable to the health care debate engulfing the United States, the Congress and the White House.  Prior to making the intellectual lash ups between the lessons of SWAY and the health care debate, a look at the key tenets of the book is essential.

            It is impossible to do the book justice in the few words below, or from the excerpts below, but here are six central tenets/causes of irrational human behavior that are documented in SWAY, which are among the base causes of irrational human behavior:

            Loss aversion:  “our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid a possible loss…For no apparent logical reasons, we overreact to perceived losses.”

            Commitment:  Loss aversion is linked closely to another sway called commitment, which is being “committed to continuing down the road they had always walked…it was virtually impossible…to take a different path.”

            Diagnosis bias:  “our blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation.”

Value attribution: “our inclination to imbue a person or thing with certain qualities based on initial perceived value.”

Procedural justice:  “when it comes to fairness, it is the process, not the outcome, that causes us to act irrationally.”  We expect people to be fair, and when we perceive unfairness, we will act irrationally to punish those being unfair.

Dissent: “it is important to note that the presence of a dissenter – any dissenter, no matter how incompetent – still made it possible for a large segment of participants to deviate from the majority and give them the right answer.”

The book is chalk full of examples of why these six SWAYs create an overpowering and irresistible human response that can only be defined as irrational.

            As a veteran of every health care political, legislative and policy battle in Washington, D.C. for the last 19 years as the head of the HSA Coalition, I am an expert practitioner of the art of health care political warfare.  

Prior to reading this book, I believed that the Democratic House and Senate leadership, and the White House, were acting irrationally – that is their actions did not fit their own self-interest. 

I had been racking my brains to try and figure out why the Dems were doing what they were doing.  It made absolutely no sense to me.  

First, let’s establish that they are acting against their own interests and are being irrational, then lets look at how these six SWAYs are causing their irrational actions.

As a rule, politicians can be expected, first and foremost, to act in their own interest first.  For any elected official, their foremost interest is to remain elected (in power).  This means that, as a group, they are highly risk adverse.  They do not want, under almost any circumstances, to offend one block or another block of voters – especially on any of the most passionately felt issues of the day.

The list of these passionate, uniquely American issues, is reasonably well known, and relatively short:

i)                  guns;

ii)               babies (including abortion);

iii)            taxes;

iv)             government take-over;

v)                government spending; and

vi)             war.

The Democrats have managed to take high risk positions on five of the six most passionately felt issues and wrapped each of them into the health care bill – war being the one thing they have avoided.  (The second amendment crowd is concerned about their gun ownership ending up in American government health record databases, ever since physicians and other providers have starting asking: “Is there a gun in the house?” during doctor visits.)

In and of itself, this is highly irrational political behavior for an elected official or for their professional staff.   Their strategic political position is completely wrong.

Now, there are times when a completely upside-down strategic political position can still result in a legislative victory.  Mostly, it can be done when:

i)                                          the American public is not paying attention;

ii)                                       the economy is doing well;

iii)                                    polling numbers are so good, that you can take a hit and keep on keeping on.

However, none of these factors apply here.

Any objective reading of any of the political trends and developments associated with President Obama’s health care reform show an unprecedented negative response from the American voting population:

i)                  U.S. House servers gummed up by the volume of health care email;

ii)               Intensity and passion of those engaged is clearly on the NO vote side;

iii)            U.S. House and Senate switchboards clogged with phone calls;

iv)             Town hall meetings packed with intensity and volumes of regular voters;

v)                Declining poll numbers of the Democrats on the issue of trust on health care (now in negative territory vs. the GOP);

vi)             Declining approval rating of President Obama;

vii)          Declining approval rating of President Obama on the health care issue; and

viii)       Increasing deficit and debt of the U.S. government;

ix)             The media’s use of polling of “adults” as opposed to “likely voters” to deceive and to pump up deflated electoral support;

x)                The continued denials of the White House and by the President that he supports or used to support a single payer system and wants or wanted to end employer provide health benefits, despite his repeated video-tapped and widely viewed statements to the contrary;

xi)             The continued campaign mode of the White House despite the facts that politically, the decline is continuing (i.e., it’s not working) and,

xii)          No sign of an economic recovery which could, in the most highly unlikely of scenarios, pull his health care plan out of the fire.

Ironically, the most easily cited reason that the Democrats do not see what is so glaringly visible, is that they believe the Democratic-boot-licking-national media.  (These are the Democrat’s groveling, limp-backed, sitting-and-panting-and-obedient-dog-pet-media-pals.) 

            But their own friends and allies have been warning them, and they still do not listen, and even if they do listen, they do not change their behavior.   (Think irrational behavior.)

While it is tempting to attribute it to the media, there is something fundamentally more irrational motivating the Democrats.

From SWAY:  The lowly ranked Florida Gators employed a new game winning strategy to counter the loss aversion strategy of its storied opponents.  But the Gator’s opponents’ leadership was so committed to their losing strategy, they did not change it for more than half a decade, despite getting repeatedly beaten on the field, on national television.  To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, Terry Holman, they lost “in front of God and everybody.”  

This week a the Clinton White House lobbyist who fought on the defeated side of the Hillarycare War, told the New York Times: “The expectation was that things have gotten so bad in the last 16 years that there would be consensus on the need to act this time,” said Howard Paster, who was Mr. Clinton’s chief lobbyist in 1993. “That was a mistake, that assumption.”

President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Waxman cannot pivot to change, despite the fact that their own friends and allies are telling them they were wrong about a key assumption their entire game plan is based upon.

As SWAY puts it regarding the Gator’s opponents: “They were so committed, in fact, that it was virtually impossible for them to take a different path.  Trying to avoid potential losses led the coaches to adopt a war-of-attrition model, and commitment to what they’d been doing for years made them unable to react.”

It is well known that President Obama considers his Presidency is at stake on the health care issue – yet for all of the forgoing, we should add another SWAY, diagnosis bias: “blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation” – despite the fact that the Gators kept  winning.

Add another SWAY the Democrats have run afoul of, is dissent.  SWAY points out the extremely high value of dissent in group dynamics, and documents that even when a group of actors is insisting that something that is clearly not true, is true, and there is one single person insisting on the truth, the one person will eventually cave into the untrue-insisting actors, most of the time.

However, if there is one other person among the actors insisting on a different, but also untrue position – even someone clearly incompetent to make the assessment about what is true or untrue – if that other incompetent dissenter takes any other position than that of the actors, then the one person who is both competent and clearly telling the truth, will stick to their guns.  

The fact that there are two dissenters, allows all dissent to blossom.  This SWAY is why it is so childish that the White House asks for dissenting emails to be sent to them, and why painting those at the town hall as incompetent, gun-totting, evil-doing mobs is not only politically counter-productive, it is also irrelevant to stemming the continued expression of dissent.  (This fact has been clearly borne out by events since the Democrats made their ill-informed comments about the town-hallers – dissent has not stopped.)

Thus, disbelief at the repeated statement by President Obama that health care reform will not increase the deficit, is exactly like the actors insisting that the something that is untrue, must be true.

It is also irrelevant that the elite believes the dissenters are incompetent, as the elite clearly does.  This SWAY is called value attribution: “our inclination to imbue a person or thing with certain qualities based on initial perceived value.” 

Thus does the President and the House and Senate leadership discount the public reaction to their health reform plan as “astro-turf” and “insurance industry money,” despite the fact that anyone who has been involved professionally in politics understands that the current public posture on health care reform is a natural expression of real concerns on the part of the public.

 Finally, the Democratic leadership has ingested one other SWAY: a systematic procedural unfairness that has ignited the American people.  SWAY documents that people will act irrationally to punish those they perceive as being unfair.  The Democrats are on the receiving end of this, right now.

One expression of this unfairness outrage is the reaction by the public of Senators and U.S. Representatives passing bills without reading them.  Another fundamentally unfair procedure and related procedure, is summed up by the Democratic party member who attacked the U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at a town hall meeting.  This town-haller said: “why would you guys try and stuff a health care bill down our throat in three of four weeks, when the President took six months to pick what he wanted for a dog for his kids?”

In addition to the glaring strategic political mistakes the Democrats have made on virtually every political issue of passion, they are ignoring the political hole they are digging for themselves by imbuing into their actions, all six SWAYs cited above and detailed in the book, “SWAY, The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.”

And as the book SWAY points out, such irrational human behavior begets multiple fatality plane crashes, massive financial losses, season losses for football teams and generally really bad and embarrassing events – and in the case of health care reform – it will be “in front of God and everybody.”

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