Scott Brown’s Massachusetts Win Revisited

An example of how political frames blind us to obvious explanations.

Ever since the Massachusetts upset, the excuses have poured in fast and furious.  It was Coakley’s fault for not trying hard enough.  She phoned it in.  It’s just not as liberal a state as everybody thought.  Or maybe the voters are okay with Scott Brown because he’s not THAT conservative.  Nate Silver thinks it was because voters thought health care was moving forward too fast, although he uncharacteristically bases this opinion on anecdote.  Or it was a protest vote – the peasants are revolting against their new masters!  The small-minded proles insist that their Senator be well-versed in baseball!

None of these explanations seem quite correct to me.  Yes, as a campaigner, Coakley was no Obama, but neither was Brown.  Brown is moderate, but not more so than your standard New England Republican.  And Massachusetts as a whole?  More liberal than Martha Coakley I reckon.  Health care moving too fast?  Could it possibly move any slower!  Protest votes go to third parties and Santa Claus – people mostly don’t vote for the Republican unless they really truly prefer the Republican to the Democrat.

So I was mystified until one Sunday morning in the middle TBTP, Alex/Capitalocracy puts it on the table.  Possibly, probably, some voters were voting for Brown to kill the bill – the Senate version of the health care bill.  And not just conservative voters, but moderates and progressives too – ones who were presumed to be safely in Coakley’s pocket.  It’s obvious.  Massachusetts already has a health care system on par with if not better than what is likely to pass out of Congress, so the Massachusetts voting public reaps no benefit if the Senate’s lame excuse for comprehensive health care reform passes, and they have first-hand experience to tell them that the mandate/subsidy combo of coverage expansion won’t exactly be the holy grail of health care for the nation at large.  And presumably, many of them are aware that without a public option, collective negotiating power, and meaningful competition in pharma and insurance industries, the long-term problem of skyrocketing costs crippling our economy remains.  Add to that the political fall-out that will occur when the American public discovers just how they’ve been forced to shell out thousands to insurers without even being guaranteed a reasonable standard of coverage, and a sensible progressive might conclude that the best course of action is to vote for the candidate who will kill the bill, or just stay home altogether.

So why hasn’t the kill-the-bill been put forth as a possible explanation for Scott Brown’s win?  Especially when there is polling data of Obama voters who in the Senate election either stayed home or voted for Scott Brown that shows overwhelming support for a strong public option, along with a significant amount of sentiment that the Senate bill “doesn’t go far enough’?

Easy.  The right wing wants you to think that everybody who voted for Scott Brown is on their side, and the establishment left wants you to believe that they are the loyal standard-bearers for the progressive agenda.  A kill-the-bill explanation undermines both of those narratives, and the purveyors of those narratives are the ones who control the messages the media puts out.  They set the terms of debate.  They craft the frame.  Explanations such as the one put forth in this post can’t be expressed in the frame’s terms.

A broader example of a political frame blinding people to obvious possibilities is the Democratic Party’s general failure to pursue its platform, let alone halt or reverse regressive policies and law implemented over the past decade, despite controlling the legislative and executive branches of the US government.  The typical progressive Democrat will struggle to explain the general lack of change since 2008, overlooking the obvious answer which is blocked by the assumptions of his or her political frame of reference.  The assumption is that, in general, people who espouse a left-leaning platform must be well-intentioned, since anybody smart enough to articulate a progressive line of reasoning will necessarily take it to heart, while those who espouse a conservative platform are likely to be crooks and liars, since conservatism is so irrational that any thinking person spouting that drivel must be doing it just to get votes.  However, the most likely explanation for the Democrat’s lack of action contradicts this, because the most likely explanation is that Democratic politicians’ actions are largely dictated by moneyed interests.  Lobbyists ask for compromise, and they get it.  Lobbyists ask for delay, and they get it.  Lobbyists ask for Democrats to stick to “bipartisan” tactics to ensure that progressive legislation is derailed and gutted, and then blame Republicans so they can maintain power in the face of a progressive majority.  And they get it.

Want to do something about it?  Identify the assumptions inherent in your worldview.  Question them.  Ask others to do the same.  The future of your country relies on it.


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