Thursday, March 27, 2014

Narratives

Karl Rove must be smiling to himself somewhere. Rove, remember, is the guy quoted as criticizing a reporter from what he called the "reality-based community." Rove explained to this reporter, who was old-fashioned enough to believe that answers should be based on empirical evidence, that "that's not the way the world really works anymore." It appears that journalists have really taken this message to heart, judging from a Washington Post column yesterday by Chris Cillizza. Cillizza mentioned two seemingly random events--one, that some Secret Service agents were sent home from Amsterdam (hey, it was Amsterdam!) for misbehavior, and two, that the Obama administration was loosening the March 31 deadline for signing up for Obamacare--which he said would be taken as evidence of President Obama's incompetence.

It's not that either of these events actually demonstrates the administration's incompetence. It's that they can be read to feed into a developing "narrative" or "storyline" of incompetence. Well, who creates these narratives anyway? Journalists must bear some responsibility for playing up stories that seem to confirm the narrative arc of conventional wisdom. Right now, that narrative portrays the administration's rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a botched effort, based on initial glitches in the healthcare.gov website. So even though the glitches have been fixed, and even though enrollment in Obamacare now exceeds 6 million sign-ups, which is in line with the administration's earlier projections, we are still hearing stories about the failure of Obamacare. Even though many thousands of people are saving substantial amounts of money on their new insurance policies, and even though the new healthcare law is already saving lives by offering coverage to people who previously could not obtain it, we are still hearing stories, which have to be debunked one by one, from people claiming to have been harmed by the new law.

From a reality-based point of view, this kind of coverage makes no sense. If critics of the law last fall were mocking the slow rate of sign-ups as proof that the law was a failure, then the flood of sign-ups currently taking place must be taken as proof of the law's success. Those critics should be eating their words right now.


I'm not holding my breath waiting for these retractions, however. Once narratives take hold, they are hard to change. People do not want to listen to evidence that challenges the initial narrative. They would rather cling to any tiny shreds of stories that confirm the conventional wisdom. If Cillizza is right, and people would rather conclude that the administration is incompetent based on a meaningless story about a couple of Secret Service agents who partied a little too hard in Amsterdam, than pay attention to the overwhelming evidence (SIX MILLION SIGN-UPS) of the administration's competence, then the reality-based community really has its work cut out for it. If Republican politicians want to feign outrage that the administration is allowing those who get in line by March 31 to obtain coverage even if they can't complete their paperwork on time, people should understand that they are only doing that to play into the prevailing narrative, and to distract from the overwhelming evidence in front of them, that by the critics' own criteria, is proving the success of the new healthcare law. The media might be fighting the tide at times, but they have a responsibility to point out the flaws in the failure narrative. They should not be helping that flawed narrative along.


Critics of Obamacare will never let go of their failure narrative. It's all they've got. And someday, when the Republicans eventually get back in power, they will tinker with the healthcare law a bit, and try to claim all the credit for fixing the botched law that that incompetent President Obama put into place. But at least my readers will know the truth.

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