I felt the following article on the BBC website, “Why do people often vote against their own interests?”, based on the first of two radio programmes collectively called Turkeys voting for Christmas, offered an instructive example for the young writer or broadcaster who aspires to produce material for the BBC. I hope that a few selected quotes will provide some useful tips.
Political scientist Dr David Runciman looks at why is there often such deep opposition to reforms that appear to be of obvious benefit to voters.
Focus now, on that “appears to be”, for it is masterful. It – er – appears to be a marker of impartiality. But what it actually does is get that impartiality tick-box done and out the way with a quick, grey, forgettable phrase. The question of whether the appearance of obvious benefit is correct is not subsequently addressed; it is simply assumed.
Last year, in a series of “town-hall meetings” across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms.
What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.
At this point the radio programme has some people shouting. (Note for the style guide: people never shout at left wing demonstrations because of barely suppressed violence; they are just passionate.) The great thing about the phrase “barely suppressed violence” is that it suggests violence but you don’t have to provide any evidence for it. No one accused of being full of “barely suppressed violence” can disprove it.
But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.
The inclusion of the word “godless” here is exquisite. Godliness or the lack of it has not greatly featured as part of advocacy for or against Obama’s plans for healthcare. (In fact my personal impression is that most of those bringing religion into the issue are liberal Christians saying that Obamacare is what Jesus would do. Such rightwingers who have opposed Obamacare on religious grounds have mostly done so in the belief that it would mean more abortions.) The word “godless” functions merely as a probe to twitch the right neurons when mentally picturing those who oppose. Note that the two phrases on either side of “godless”, the two concepts that have indeed featured in the debate to a significant digree, are never analysed.
Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?
Why are they manning the barricades to defend insurance companies that routinely deny claims and cancel policies?
A lesser article might actually try looking at some potential answers to this question. For example, could it be because they suspect that the insurance companies are happy enough to take a bit of public abuse from Obama in exchange for a whole new pool of captive customers? However the author here knows better than to take that path. Note also that this sentence frames opposition to Obamacare as being a defence of insurance companies.
It might be tempting to put the whole thing down to what the historian Richard Hofstadter back in the 1960s called “the paranoid style” of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington.
Admire the ju-jitsu with which the author gives us a pleasing whiff of paranoia by warning about that scary toxic stew of right wing paranoia which has been bubbling poisonously in the background for decades.
All that we have seen so far was merely the appetiser to this superb bit of technique:
If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.
It sounds so good, doesn’t it? It appeals to the disquiet that even the most liberal reader might have felt in reading the patronising BBC coverage of the tea parties. You think you are going to get a bracing defence of the tea partiers as being independent adults. This defence could be along the lines that even right wingers sometimes vote for what they believe is the wider good against their selfish interests, or it could be along the lines that they do not believe that what is claimed to be in their interest really is in their interest, and here’s why.
Of course no such argument is actually put forward. That might involve talking to these ghastly people and even worse, listening to them. Instead we have a portrait of the Republican voter as an overgrown teenager in a sulk against the grown-ups:
They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.
There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.
And then the rest of the article explains that they are idiots.
UPDATE: There are some very good comments to this post. Please take a look in particular at the comment from Martin. You know the anecdote in the article about how Bush responded to Gore’s sober figures with nothing better than a silly little crowd-pleasing quip? It turns out, if you go to the source (as I should have thought of doing myself), that Bush went straight on to give some figures of his own.