Family Feud politics

One reason for the current non-debate over health care reform is that the Republicans and Democrats are playing different games. Democrats, and President Barack Obama especially, are playing Jeopardy. Republicans are playing Family Feud.

For those who haven't wasted as much time as I have watching TV game shows, let me briefly explain how these shows work.

Jeopardy is a fairly straightforward quiz show. It's one twist is that host Alex Trebek supplies "answers" for which contestants must provide the "question." Instead of asking something like "What is the capital of Australia?" Trebek instead says something like, "This city is Australia's capital." And instead of answering "Canberra," contestants are supposed to phrase their responses in the form of a question — "What is Canberra?" Apart from this semantic quirk, the game works just like any other trivia quiz show. Give the correct answers (in the form of the correct "questions") and you win. Jeopardy is a test of general knowledge and arcana. The more you know, the better you'll do. Facts matter in Jeopardy.

Familyfeud Facts do not matter in Family Feud. That game show — which pits teams of five family members against other family teams — isn't about getting the right answer, but about guessing the most popular response. Where Jeopardy's questions and answers come from an almanac or an encyclopedia, Family Feud's responses come from surveys and polls. "One hundred people surveyed," the host says, over and over, "the top five answers are on the board." The questions on Family Feud don't require knowledge or a grasp of information, but rather the ability to guess what answers were most popular with those "hundred people surveyed."

Usually, the Family Feud producers do a good job tailoring their questions to this subjective format. "Name something that might be found in a glove compartment," or "Name a popular animal at the zoo." Such questions don't have right and wrong answers, per se, just common or uncommon answers. But sometimes the producers trespass into more objective realms, offering questions that actually do have right and wrong answers. And on Family Feud, insisting on the right answer can get you into trouble, because those "hundred people surveyed" often seem to be an ill-informed bunch of morons.

When Alex Trebek asks you about the capital of Australia, you'd better say "Canberra" or you're going to lose. When Richard Dawson or his successors ask that question on Family Feud, you'd better be prepared to answer "Sydney" or "Melbourne" or "Vienna," because those hundred people surveyed may have never seen a map.

At the recent health care reform "summit," Republican leaders made it clear that they're not interested in playing Jeopardy. That would be a losing proposition against President Ken Jennings. Obama was eager to show that he really does have the right answers — cost containment, near-universal coverage, lower premiums, better quality care, deficit reduction. All of that is well covered in the plan he's pushing and any attempt to challenge him on the facts would be doomed.

So the GOP has decided to play a different game — to switch from Jeopardy to Family Feud. That way it's not about the facts, or about what works, or about the actual effect of actual policies on actual people. In the subjective guessing-game of Family Feud, none of that matters. Family Feud is all about perceptions — about what those hundred people surveyed think or guess or dimly remember having heard something about.

And the Republican Party — with tons of financial support from their allies in the health insurance lobby — have been working very hard for many years now to make sure that those hundred people surveyed have a distorted, confused and mostly ass-backwards perception of the facts.

This is how you play Family Feud politics:

Step One: Redefine the facts. If a policy works, claim it doesn't. If it will lower premiums, say it will raise them. If it would reduce the deficit, claim it will bankrupt the country. Obfuscate. Distract. Confuse. Lie. Lie some more. Throw random nonsense at the wall — death panels! — and see if any of it sticks. Don't be troubled by contradiction or worried about consistency. It's perfectly fine to simultaneously propose eliminating Medicare while posing as its defender. That's absurd and confusing, but confusion is the whole point here. Confusion is good. If those hundred people surveyed aren't completely confused, then you haven't succeeded in rigging the game.

Step Two: Poll, poll and poll. Hire Frank Luntz. Poll some more. This is all you can afford care about. Family Feud politics isn't about ideology, principle, values, good government, effectiveness, solutions, reality, facts, science or truth. It's about perception and the shaping of that perception by any means necessary. Obsessively polling and recalibrating the message and then re-polling is the only way to be sure that you're shaping perception in a winning way. Keep this up until the polls show that the confusion and disinformation sown in Step One have taken root among the hundred people surveyed.

Step Three: Cite the polling data. Call it that: polling data. The word "data" there makes it sound kind of like you give a damn about facts or reality or truth-telling. You don't — you mustn't if you intend to win this game — but you need to sound like you do. Argue that the polling data proves that the right answer is unpopular and therefore wrong. Argue that the facts are contrary to the will of the people. Argue that it would be undemocratic, tyrannical even, to insist on the right answer when the majority clearly disagrees. If you do this properly, you can congratulate yourself for being a champion of the very people you're screwing over and even get some of them to thank you for robbing them blind.

It isn't pretty. Or moral. But what did you expect from a game in which there's no such thing as the right answer?

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  • indifferent children

    > Huh? How can they change a bill after it’s been signed? That strikes me as unconstitutional.
    As I understand it, this is not changing a bill after it’s signed, but introducing a second bill (limited to budget-related issues), to be passed via reconciliation.
    > what motive does the Senate have to go along with the House’s preferred amendment?
    The House is looking at a “self-executing rule”, so that their bill will only be able to be signed by the President, if the second bill also passes. They don’t seem to trust the Senate. :)

  • Welfare Queen, “Americans are mean” sounds too much like “people are stupid,” an all-purpose nonexplanation for why anything bad happens that is merely the secular version of “God works in mysterious ways.” There’s a lot I don’t like about the culture and mentality of my country, and I keep wondering if we’re the laughinstock of the world because of the demagoguery of the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins. But saying “Americans are mean” is like red meat to those demagogues, who seize on any opportunity to falsely accuse opponents of “hating” America. They would spin that phrase into some nefarious UN/EU plot to invade the country and re-educate the populace.

  • Lori

    [[this is less a serious proposal for fixing a problem with health care than it is a Carl Hiassen plot]]
    More Agatha Christie or Ngo Marsh than Hiassen. The plot has been used in a couple of American mysteries, but the tontine was much more popular in Europe.

    A traditional tontine makes more sense in Christie or Marsh, but I can totally see Hiassen writing about someone trying to make all his age-mates sick so he can cash in on the health care one. As a book it could be weirdly hilarious. IRL, not so much.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    I wonder how many people had to get suckered into tontines before government officials saw the downsides and made them illegal. :O

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Tonio: I keep wondering if we’re the laughinstock of the world because of the demagoguery of the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins.
    No, we’re the laughingstock because of George W. Bush. Beck and Palin just sustain the mockery.
    (And it’s very _nervous_ mockery. We may be a culture of mean dunces, but we’re mean dunces with nuclear weapons and a precedent of starting wars…)

  • MaryKaye

    There’s some medical evidence that tobacco alleviates at least some of the early symptoms of schizophrenia. If I recall correctly, 70-80% of schizophrenics smoke, but it is not apparently causative; one presumes they’re self-medicating.
    An acquaintance of mine developed acute schizophrenia and became homeless. I’ve thought of her a lot during this discussion; she’s relevant in a number of ways. First, I learned from this experience that mental illness doesn’t necessarily create bad behaviors de novo; it can also amplify existing ones extraordinarily. So I find it quite possible that Glen Beck started out as someone with some unpleasant attitudes, but sane, and transformed over time into someone who’s at the mercy of his unpleasantness. It took us longer than it should have to recognize that something was badly wrong with our friend, because at first it just looked like more of the same old. And then it was a horrendous shock to talk to her and realize, no, she’s not just being rude, she can no longer process comparisons or metaphors at ALL, and can no longer distinguish real concerns from paranoid imaginings.
    Second, I got to see what happens when you don’t have a safety net. She was a member in good standing of her (Unitarian) church, but the church didn’t know what to do to help her. They offered counselling, but she was in the without-insight phase where you don’t know you’re ill, and she refused. They couldn’t find her a place to live, or keep her out of jail. Some of my friends got really angry, but personally, I don’t know exactly what we hoped they’d do. Solve the problem: but how?
    I took her in for a couple of weeks, but I couldn’t live with her. That’s harsh, but it was true. I don’t have the training or personality to cope, and I was endangering my own mental health. (I had nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety attacks for a couple of months afterwards.)
    Her family had been taught by their religion that psychiatrists are evil and will hurt you. They were worse than useless to her; they wouldn’t take her in either–nor did she want them to–and they reinforced her aversion to treatment.
    What she needed were community-based mental health services, I think; plus a better upbringing, but we can’t change the past. And, painful though this is to say, she may have needed someone in a position to treat her against her will.
    Instead she ended up in jail, and then back on the streets, and then back in jail. Eventually she seemed to stabilize a little and she’s at a shelter now. Of all the efforts to help her, the governmental safety net was apparently the most effective, despite efforts from religious groups, family and friends.
    Somewhere down the line I realized that the Libertarian ethic basically means “I’m young, healthy, sane, and solvent; I’m always going to be that way; too bad if you’re not.” There are times a person cannot take care of herself. All of us start there; many of us end up there; quite a few of us go through such periods in between.
    And to those who would say “Let the church do it” I ask–what happens to those whose mental illness cuts them off from group membership? A lot of people who fall between the cracks in my city do so because their mental problems interfere with belonging to social groups. They are not attractive targets for charity, but they still have needs. Who is going to take care of them? Even my friend, who was a church member, lost her ability to participate when her illness worsened–not just “I’m too sick to go” but “I’ll come to services and make them intolerable for others.” The church had a lot of trouble dealing with this.
    Well. A long ramble, but this is why I don’t think charity is the answer. Charity tends to help those you care about. Some people make themselves excruciatingly hard to care about. I don’t think my friend’s schizophrenia was self-inflicted, though some of her treatment-phobia may have been. But it made her, in the end, someone who had no friends, who could not belong to the social groups she once belonged to. I was the one who drew the short straw and had to tell her not to come to our pagan community rituals. It hurt like hell. But we were not drawing her up out of the abyss; she was pulling us down. Something like AA might be able to cope, but AA is *about* illness; we weren’t.

  • KJ

    Well, here in Australia the last government was a right-wing one obviously committed to privatisation, deregulation and doing nothing about global warming because they didn’t believe in it. They used deception to stay popular, but stuck by their principles even once it was clear that it would lose them an election. It seems to me that this was pretty much a right-wing and slightly less honest version of Obama, who for example gave a speech which is pretty much saying that he acheived hardly anything at Copenhagen in such a way as to make it sound as though he acheived a lot at Copenhagen.
    Meanwhile, our new left-wing government fairly clearly put doing what the public wants pretty high, but past doing what polls say, they have advertising campeigns but they don’t seem to be trying to deceive anyone or to hatemonger. In this form, “family feud politics” seems benign; someone I know put it that they are acting like heads of the public sector on behalf of the public rather than like heads of the public for the good of the public.
    Family Feud is an awful show, though.

  • KJ

    Also, I really don’t like the way many on the left seem to assume the Republicans are lying abot Globabal Warming, the way the economy works etc. Even if what they say doesn’t seem plausible to you, many people clearly actually believe these things. Isn’t it good manners to have enough trust to suppose that some of those people are politicians, rather than thinking that politicians who disagree with you are probably dishonest whenever it’s plausible that they are dishonest?

  • Francis D

    I’ve just realised that Fred’s wrong. Yes, the Republicans are playing Family Feud. The Democrats are playing The Weakest Link…

  • Tonio

    No, we’re the laughingstock because of George W. Bush. Beck and Palin just sustain the mockery.

    While I can see your point, I was talking about the right-wing strain of American politics in general.

  • Lee Ratner

    This is only really tangible to this thread but can somebody explain to me why people are so upset about the mandate. I’m in the group that should be most upset about the mandate, young men without siginficant health issues, and I’m not angry at the mandate. Before my boss offered insurance, I purchased my own insurance and it cost me a lot of my salary but I reognized the importance of having health insurance. Its just one of those things I find really weird. Yeah I know that the health insurance companies are for profit vampires but the law requires people to buy auto insurance from for profit insurance companies and that doesn’t bring up so much anger. The fact that a car is a necessity in most of the United States makes the argument but your not required to own a car silly. For the most part, geography and zoning makes car ownership mandatory in the United States.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    @Lee Ratner:
    I tried making the same argument (that Americans generally grudgingly acquiesce to buying mandatory auto insurance and there isn’t a shitstorm over THAT), but it kind of didn’t go anywhere.

  • I know a lot of people who can’t afford to own cars and so they don’t, even though geography is against them. They just plan their lives around bus schedules, even if that does eat up a lot of their free time.
    With car insurance there’s an easily predictable upper limit on the damage that can occur. You don’t even have to insure your own car, taking the risk that if something happens you can replace it. You don’t have those kind of options with health insurance, and you can’t predict the max cost if something goes wrong and you happen to be underinsured.

  • MercuryBlue

    And the odds that you will at some point make a claim on the car insurance are, I’m fairly certain, pretty close to the odds that you will not at any point make a claim on the health insurance.
    KJ: Far’s I can tell, the single most common reason for climate change denial is not knowing that ‘weather’ is what’s going on with the wind patterns and temperature and precipitation at a particular moment and ‘climate’ is the pattern of the wind patterns and temperature and precipitation over the centuries, and therefore it’s quite possible to have both increasing average yearly temperature and the snowpocalypse. Anybody who doesn’t know that is either too stupid or too ill-informed to have any business talking about climate change, in my opinion. Anybody who refuses to get better-informed on a subject and who continues to express their ill-informed opinion as if it’s…surely there’s a way to say this that doesn’t involve the phrases ‘Holy Writ’ or ‘Word of God’…anyway, those people are being dishonest.
    Similarly, it is documented fact that the US spends more per capita on health care than any other developed country. It is also documented fact that the US has more people who died of lack of health insurance or who went bankrupt due to medical expenses than any other developed country. It is also documented fact that the US is the only developed country that deals with health care on a mostly-capitalist basis, rather than a mostly-or-entirely-socialist basis. Any politician in DC who doesn’t know all that by now is deliberately ignoring it, which, again, dishonesty.

  • MercuryBlue

    How about we end those italics at “will not”

    right before “at any point”.

  • Will Wildman

    MercuryBlue: good summation. I bear no ill will against ignorant people, but people who refuse to acknowledge the existence of anything that might alleviate their (quite blameless!) ignorance are just being obstructive.
    The free-market types are especially relevant to me, as I’m an economist. Free-market economics is what gets taught in first year, which I fear is all that most people will ever take. All the courses after that are basically about why first year was a cornucopia of falsehood. Not theoretically, but realistically, practically – it’s a case study in ‘looks good on paper’.
    The reason free-market fanaticism isn’t stamped out is that it really does work, within a certain set of conditions that you will never actually encounter in the real world unless you legislate that every store must carry every brand of any good, including substitutes and complements, and always have experts on hand to answer every technical question about whether GreenWorks laundry detergent really has less negative impact on the environment than Tide ColdWater. You also have to ban all private advertising and implement universal environmental and labour regulations so that every corporation is operating on the same playing field. And that’s before you start to ask about the socioeconomic conditions that might be constricting the flow of new firms or ideas. Oh, and you have to have global free trade and zero transportation costs, so we’d better hire a sorceror.

  • princessjenn

    I find it so funny how people have a great contempt for healthcare companies and their making any kind of profit. These are publicly traded companies that are owned by average Americans in their stock portfolios and retirement plans. These companies are by no means making obscene profits compared to other industries. If the government does take over the healthcare system what is going to happen to all the people who are employed in this industry. It worries me tremendously that this bill will pass.
    I work in fine dining and this will affect not only people who have jobs in insurance sales and in the medical field, but also drug reps who have large programs in my restaurant. It will then affect the restaurant owner, me, the other servers, the cooks, the dishwasher, the cleaning people, the food and wine purveyors; all the people this bill is supposedly trying to help.

  • MercuryBlue

    Because it’s worse in the grand scheme of things for the servers, the cooks, the dishwasher, the cleaning people, etc to be able to afford to get the annual physical that’ll tell them they’re at risk for heart disease and to be free of worry of what happens to their finances if they break a leg while everybody who profits off health care makes slim profit than for the servers etc to cough up hundreds of dollars that they (as minimum- or below-minimum-wage workers with no employer-provided health benefits and probably neither health insurance nor savings) cannot afford for the emergency room visits to deal with the heart attack and broken leg while everybody who profits off health care makes a (metaphorical and, all too often, literal) killing.
    Because there’s no possible way that someone formerly employed to push paper for a health insurance company could have skills suitable for pushing paper for Medicare.
    Yeah. I’ll believe that.
    I have no objection to health insurance companies making a profit. I have great objection to health care companies making a great profit at the expense of a great number of lives.

  • The problem is that ultimately the healthcare system being for-profit is part of the issue. It becomes a question of cutting costs rather than ensuring proper health for everyone. When ‘Battered Wife’ can be considered a pre-existing condition, or when bad luck can strike a poor family by giving them a child who is disabled, there is a problem in the system. Health insurance is a matter of survival and people shouldn’t have to fear sickness because it could doom them. There’s also the fact that widespread epidemics are a danger to our country, national healthcare gives us a better weapon to fight that.

  • Skeptic

    While the two sides on the issue may be playing different games, the concerns are the same. Truly fixing things would only be a (unbelievably unlikely) beneficial side effect that would come out of any of this. It’s really all just about the spectacle. And, like any successful game show, the people running the games are the ones that win, not the contestants.

  • Libertarian Lady

    Even though I believe in limited government and that healthcare should be funded by individuals and charities, rather than tax dollars, I wouldn’t be too upset if this bill passes. Regardless of my political views, there are sick and dying Americans who need care. Nobody should lose their home or life savings over a broken leg, life-saving chemotherapy, or any other necessary healthcare. This isn’t about policy and winning, but about other human beings in need.

  • Ryan

    This is a ridiculous article. Republicans are legitimately attacking the bill. They are pointing out specific parts and saying the negative consequences. Clearly you did not watch the healthcare summit or any of the debate. 7,000,000 to building jungle gyms. Does that help with cost-containment? Lower premiums? Expand coverage? Or anything else you mentioned?
    I also enjoy your lack of support.
    “…cost containment, near-universal coverage, lower premiums, better quality care, deficit reduction.”
    Prove it.
    Cost Containment how? By increasing taxes to pay for it? Well guess what, we are STILL paying for it, just in a different form called taxes.
    Near Universal coverage? By fining people not to exercise their “rights?” Why not just make it cheaper!
    Lower premiums? See Cost Containment.
    Better Quality care? We already have the best care in the world. Better than all systems that we are trying to move towards.
    Deficit reduction? With its awesome plan to pay for 6 years of service (4 of which is a transition), with 10 years of taxes? Logical…

  • Great Analogy! You are so right on with the subjective nature of the Republican point of view but they are really trying to cater to the vote as opposed to what might actually be for America’s best interest. But, in all fairness, if the republicans were in the Oval Office, it might be the Democrats playing Family Feud.