It was a galactic error to name the 2009 healthcare reform law “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” Whoever is responsible for that stupid mistake needs to be tied to a tree, smeared with honey bar-b-q sauce and have Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich sicked on them. And although it may be gratifying to do so, having this staff member devoured alive by two morbidly obese right wing jackals will not solve our problem. In fact, whoever this guy is he was probably applauded, promoted and deified. He is probably still riding his wordsmithing glory to many successful conquests with impressionable young hotties on the D.C. bar scene. That is just how clueless we can be. Progressives fail to observe the basic laws of language in political messaging and undercut our own chances for long-lasting governing success. As of the date of this piece, the PPACA (aka Obamacare) is being bound to a stake in the town square and doused with buckets of lighter-fluid. Meanwhile, the crowd of creeps and ghouls is gathering, eager to watch the public torture and execution commence. And it is our own damned fault.
Now that the G.O.P. controls the entire federal government, every effort will be made to destroy President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. For G.O.P. masters and minions alike the opportunity to destroy this law represents a Jeopardy Daily Double: A chance to service the insurance industry glory hole and at the same time undermine the legacy of the most important Democratic president since LBJ. I believe this would be far more difficult to do had Democrats not bungled the language on yet another crucial policy initiative.
What if some smart staffer had suggested that the law be titled as “The Health Security and Accountable Care Act” instead? Isn’t that what the act is really all about- providing the greatest health security we can for as many people as we can? Isn’t it also about personal accountability to at least help carry one’s own weight? Otherwise we would not have the individual mandate to ensure that any person who may need to lean heavily on this system for his very survival has at least been a contributor and stakeholder in it- not just the dreaded free rider who only shows up in the system when he or she is in desperate need. The simple truth is that the vast majority of people who pay health insurance premiums month-in and month-out, year after year, are not patients, nor will they be a patient for any significant part of their active lives. Then why cast that negative language and energy on the entire act up front? Who even wants to be affiliated with patient-hood? Any of us could be one at any time but who wants to think of themselves in that vulnerable and exposed position? But “health security” is another matter altogether. Everybody- including patients- wants maximum health security. That is called an easy sell. “Health Security” as a stand-alone concept has no natural enemies in the policy world while “Patient Protection” presupposes that somebody somewhere is threatening to do harm to the patient. So if you might be that somebody who might be said to be harming patients, you are going to come out swinging with all you have- including whatever deception or trickeration you might have up your sleeves. If we couldn’t even name our law effectively, it is no surprise that a lot of those dirty tricks worked against us fairly well.
Removing the word “Affordable” from the title is the biggest no-brainer in history because the presence of that term- which is highly subjective and non-descript- is a built in attack line that opponents can pull out anytime there is even the slightest controversy about the cost trajectory of health plans- and there is ALWAYS such a controversy. On the other hand “Accountable” is much clearer and actually speaks to the core identity and functionality of the law itself. Another question: who wants to identify with a group or person who needs the “Protection” of the law? Even though it is an obvious truth, who wants to be the guy who is out there seeking out protection? And protection from who? The whole concept and its framing is thoroughly emasculating for those who need to avail themselves of the act. How else do you explain a bunch of white working stiffs voting to repeal Obamacare and without it their family wouldn’t have insurance at all? The lumpen proletariat always operates under the assumption that nothing bad will ever really happen to them but this time they are actually bringing disaster about just so they can feel good about themselves politically. Messaging is just that important. How could all of these smart people miss such an obvious flaw in the messaging of such an important piece of legislation? Because that is what Democrats do. By the way, how is our big fight against “income inequality” coming along? There is yet another case of an important issue being drowned in a shallow pool of poor messaging.
Progressives have been on the losing end of messaging wars since the 60’s when Conservatives figured out that masking racism and sexism with innocuous sounding phrases like “states rights” and “family values” and “religious liberty” was a winning recipe. They discovered that language, much more than substantive policy, was the way to make reasonable white voters across America feel good about voting with and for people who were routinely on the wrong side of history, public policy, or race relations. Stated plainly, if a white person can express conviction in his belief that he is not a racist or a bigot, yet he has consistently and exclusively supported candidates who have voted against the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, hate crime legislation, the Martin Luther King Holiday, and cravenly takes a pass on acknowledging that Barack Obama was born in the United States, then that white person is using language law to justify his self-delusion. They needed a little help in doing so but they have pulled the wool over their own eyes because they are in fact a bigot, a racist, or both.
Language law is simple: Frame issues in positive terms everybody can relate to and rally around. Accuracy is only a secondary concern. Do not frame issues in negative terms, defeatist terms, or in terms of victim-hood and villain-hood. Again, consider the face value of phrases like “family values,” “states rights,” “pro-life,” and “religious freedom.” These phrases sell and keep selling because they are positive- despite how negative and retrograde the policies behind them happen to be. Conservatives got so good at applying language law that they even learned how to remix the beat so economists could dance to it along with the social engineers. How else do you get struggling, broke-ass white folks from the Appalachian Mountains and the lowland swamps of Louisiana to vote in the interests of rich white folks who never have and never will give a damn about them? Attack “big government” and push the mythology of “self-reliance”. Frame issues as battles between “makers” and “takers.” Set up a language paradigm that promotes worship of so-called “job creators.” That language let’s these poor white folks can focus on their delusional aspirations rather than their dreary reality. If faith in the effectiveness of governing has been thoroughly compromised (and it has) then people are less likely to vote their true interests anyway- instead, they vote for the interests they wish they had.
If Progressives want to get on the winning side of these issues, we had better learn that being right just isn’t good enough and being better is a mere side issue. Were that not the case, Hillary would have won in a walk. But she didn’t because people have to feel good. “Make America Great Again” was a terrific slogan- racist and nationalistic roots be damned. It was several notches better than “Love Trumps Hate,”and “I’m With Her” which both violate every language law set forth in this piece. The PPACA is the first legislation to come out of D.C. in a long time that can absolutely positively be guaranteed to actually save peoples’ lives and rescue peoples’ finances- and now it is on life support and the plug is about to get snatched out of the wall. So rather than being lauded the truth of what it is, it is being lambasted by the phony narrative conjured up by its enemies- almost entirely on the basis that “affordable” is the term right in the middle of the name. And the guy who is responsible for it may be taking home a sexy brunette from a Georgetown bar tonight, but Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich will be gnawing the meat off of his bones and slurping up the sauce whether or not he realizes it.