U.S. politics dealing in fear, not facts

July 1, 2012


“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” — Sarah Palin, Aug. 7, 2009

The death panels are back.

Sarah Palin’s vision of a dystopian society in which the elderly and infirm would be required to justify their continued existence before a jury of federal functionaries has been widely ridiculed since she first posted it on Facebook three years ago. It was designated “Lie of the Year” by Politifact, the non-partisan fact-checking website, something that would have mortified and humiliated anyone who was capable of those feelings.

Last week, Palin doubled down. “Though I was called a liar for calling it like it is,” she posted, “many of these accusers finally saw that Obamacare did in fact create a panel of faceless bureaucrats who have the power to make life-and-death decisions about health-care funding.” Note that that’s not actually the claim she made in 2009. Of course, “Obamacare,” a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act, was upheld by the Supreme Court on Thursday, which must gratify Team Obama.

But we are not here to discuss that. Neither are we here to litigate Palin’s claim about “death panels.” That you could fertilize the Great Lawn of Central Park with that lie has been well established. No, we are only here to ask whether that matters, given the increasingly obvious impotence of fact.

Not long ago, if you told a whopper like Palin’s and it was as thoroughly debunked as hers was, that would have ended the discussion. These days, it is barely even part of the discussion. These days, facts seem overmatched by falsehood, too slow to catch them, too weak to stop them.

Indeed, falsehoods are harder to kill than a Hollywood zombie. Run them through with fact, and still they shamble forward, fueled by echo chamber media, ideological tribalism, cognitive dissonance, a certain imperviousness to shame, and an understanding that a lie repeated long enough, loudly enough, becomes, in the minds of those who need to believe it, truth.

That is the lesson of the birthers and truthers, of Sen. Jon Kyl’s “not intended to be a factual statement” about Planned Parenthood, of Glenn Beck’s claim that conservatives founded the Civil Rights Movement, and of pretty much every word Michele Bachmann says. It seems that not only are facts no longer important, but they are not even the point.

Rather, the point is the construction and maintenance of an alternate narrative designed to enhance and exploit the receiver’s fears, his or her sense of prerogatives, entitlement, propriety and morality under siege from outside forces.

This is the state of American political discourse, particularly on the political right, where a sense of dislocation, disaffection and general been-done-wrongness has become sine qua non, coin of the realm, lingua franca of the true believers — and of their true belief in the desperate need to turn back the unrighteous Other and his unwelcome change.

To score Palin for being unfactual, then, is to bring boxing gloves to a knife fight. The death panels are not about fact. They are about fear and the shameless manipulation thereof for political gain.

The result of which is that Americans increasingly occupy two realities, one based on the conviction that facts matter, the other on the notion that facts are only what you need them to be in a given moment. That ought to give all of us pause because it leads somewhere we should not want to go. When two realities divide one people, the outcome seems obvious.

They cannot remain one people.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on


Liberty_One 2 years, 7 months ago

Sigh. Yet another writer mythologizing the good ol' days not realizing there is nothing new under the sun. People believing easily debunked lies is not something new.

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

What? You? Quoting the Bible?

Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, verse 9: What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.

ugottabekiddin 2 years, 7 months ago

This article isn't about "good ol' days...nothing new under the sun." Mr. Pitts is calling it correctly.

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

This is a huge problem, and you can see it on these boards - people will continue to repeat things even when they've been demonstrated as false.

We need to start with facts, and then decide what needs to be done.

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth." - Vladimir Lenin


“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” - Joseph Goebbels

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

I disagree just a bit. Leonard Pitts Jr.'s job is to get people to read his column, which is the job of most reporters and commentators. He appears to be very successful at it.

Whether or not his commentary is truthful and accurate is beside the point.

It's been said that "Bad publicity is better than no publicity." The origins of that quote appear to be obscure. But, a lot of people have heard it anyway, and a lot of them believe it.

ThePilgrim 2 years, 7 months ago

Actually, the only way for true healthcare reform to work is for there to be rationing and panels, most likely of doctors and healthcare administrators, who decide whether people get care and when. It would most likely be elderly people affected. Some of that is not necessarily a bad idea, with 95%+ year old people getting heart surgery and new knees.

Note that I'm not saying Obamacare. Obamacare is the Republican idea of mandating that everyone buy insurance, with the progressive idea to expand Medicaid (and bankrupt the states in the process), and taxing the heck out of employers ($2K to 3K per employee, according to link on Kansas Department of health and Environment website - see link below). And they do call the penalty for no insurance a tax: "Impose a tax on individuals without qualifying coverage of the greater of $695 per year up to a maximum of three times that amount or 2.5% of household income to be phased-in beginning in 2014." And the legislation raises the medical expenses deduction on tax returns from 7.5% to 10% of salary.

See Summary of Legislation at:

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

Rationing without panels is what we had experienced with insurance companies before Obamacare. Obamacare covers the cost of end of life decisions. The decisions are made by the patient and/or next of kin.

Insurance premiums increased more than 30% in one year before Obamacare was passed. There was every indication that premiums would continue to rise. Because of the "tax", the cost of health care has a broader distribution. Note that insurance companies have realized record profits since the onset of Obamacare.

Call it a tax or whatever. The mandate just works kinda like an uninsured motorist "tax" that many states require. People with no coverage tend to use emergency rooms costing taxpayers a lot of money. Besides, this tax is an expectation that people will pay their own way. Isn't that what we want?

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

Many of the provisions of this Act haven't been put in place yet, and won't be until 2014, so we don't really know what the effects of the whole thing will be once that happens.

For example, once the "exchanges" are created, we'll see what happens to insurance profits.

"Call it a tax or whatever" - this shows the loose thinking of those who support this bill. It makes a big difference whether or not this is a tax, and whether or not that's a good way to look at it.

States have wider latitude by design than the federal government, so the fact that they can regulate automobile insurance isn't an argument that the feds can do the same thing, constitutionally.

Paying our own way would actually mean eliminating insurance, since it works as a pooling of premiums and coverage isn't directly related to your own payments into the pool.

Once this door has been opened, and the federal government can mandate a purchase of a product from a private company or impose a "tax", what stops them from extending that to other products?

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

"Many of the provisions of this Act haven't been put in place yet, and won't be until 2014, so we don't really know what the effects of the whole thing will be once that happens."

Very true. Congress should make adjustments as needed. They should also follow up with issues not addressed like tort reform.

"For example, once the "exchanges" are created, we'll see what happens to insurance profits."

This should be interesting. An open market.

""Call it a tax or whatever" - this shows the loose thinking of those who support this bill. It makes a big difference whether or not this is a tax, and whether or not that's a good way to look at it."

I am at a loss for a good explanation. My loose thinking allows me to think we can move forward with Obamacare adjusting as needed. Sometimes, I think too much emphasis is placed on a single word. You're right though. How would you phrase this?

"States have wider latitude by design than the federal government, so the fact that they can regulate automobile insurance isn't an argument that the feds can do the same thing, constitutionally."

Don't disagree. I did not intend this to be a constitutional argument. Just an explanation of how the premiums work. Chuckle. Could we call the payments "uninsured premiums."?

"Paying our own way would actually mean eliminating insurance, since it works as a pooling of premiums and coverage isn't directly related to your own payments into the pool."

Your word choices are meticulous. Help me out here. I think I picked up this expression somewhere.

"Once this door has been opened, and the federal government can mandate a purchase of a product from a private company or impose a "tax", what stops them from extending that to other products?"

Fedgov has three branches. Checks and balances exist.

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

The question is whether or not this should be viewed as a tax - I tend to think not, it's more of a "fine", and a strange one either way, in that it penalizes non-activity.

We could call them that, but the money involved is too low to be effective.

Once the SC has ruled this constitutional, there's nothing that stops the reasoning from being extended to other forms of non-activity by Congress, except perhaps presidential veto power.

So, if the federal government wants to "encourage" people to do something, they can now institute a tax/fine for not doing it, which seems somehow problematic to me.

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

Haven't we already done this with Medicare? If you do not apply within a certain window of time, the premium is higher.

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago


But, we don't tax people if they simply choose not to participate in Medicare, do we?

What would you think of that idea?

I don't know the reasoning behind higher premiums in that situation, but I would guess it's because later applications are harder for the federal government to process in time.

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

It depends on how the cost of healthcare comes together. Let's see. What people would not participate in Medicare? Those who are wealthy enough to pay their own healthcare costs, those who prefer alternative medicine, those who did not contribute to Medicare, . . .

I suspect that at least those who did not contribute to Medicare would be covered under ACA. Would anyone not participating in Medicare cost the system?

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

Also, of course, Medicare is a government program. I don't think many people would argue that the government doesn't have the right to structure those programs.

But, that's a bit different from requiring people to buy a product in the private sector or pay a fine for not doing so, isn't it?

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

Again, i dont disagree. There are so many variables that it's difficult to compare to what we know. My loose thinking suggests that we have to wait for the legislation to take affect, and be ready to modify or supplement it.

Repealing ACA would be disastrous. Some of it is already implemented, and there is nothing to replace it.

Kathy Getto 2 years, 7 months ago

Right on cue, FHNC and BAA! Way to bring in the truth! And shame on Leonard fpr mentioning Palin's (the GOP's MS America) name.

As I pointed out to L1 - Lie Rinse Repeat It's the republican way!

“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.” H.L. Menchen

Kathy Getto 2 years, 7 months ago

Obamacare Doomed! Here's the Loophole that Anyone Can Exploit!

pizzapete 2 years, 7 months ago

Born and False, please stop posting. You guys are giving true Republicans a bad name. It's bad enough that Romney is our nominee, we don't need you all to dumb down the party or the message any further. Please, for the love of country, stop.

pizzapete 2 years, 7 months ago

Ok, keeping digging then, but be sure to let us know when you get to China.

paulveer 2 years, 7 months ago

piz, You're right, you know, but it's also very much your fault. You guys swept Brownback and the TeaParty into office, and now FHNC and BAA are your spokespeople. Wake up, clean your house, and try to return sanity to public discourse.

yourworstnightmare 2 years, 7 months ago

"Fear not facts" has been a political strategy since politics began. Facts are the enemies of the craven, and many politicians are craven.

While not confined to either political party, the commonality is that populists, on the left and right, promote fear over facts.

The populists once resided with the democrats, and they used fear of corporate fat cats, elitists, and intellectuals to promote their political agenda.

About 25-30 years ago, the populists fully switched to the GOP, and they have been running strong since.

Right wing populism is now in full throat, encapsulated in the tea party. These folks were once or would have been democrats.

Populism is characterized by selfishness, childishness, xenophobia, fear, and an allergic recoil from facts.

Mike Ford 2 years, 7 months ago

best H.L Mencken quote...."Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people"... in the 1920's there was prohibition and the scopes monkey trials over evolution and three terms of do nothing and sometimes very crooked republicans.... harding, coolidge, and hoover. most of the decaying population and business bleeding parts of Kansas and the rest of the midwest never made it beyond this era. their religiousity makes them vulnerable to fear which is what the gop counts on. gop rallies in these areas aren't too far beyond evangelical tent rallies from the 1920's. Also in the 1920's the decade began with xenophobia and the fear of communists.....blaming dirty foreigners when workers fought for work place rights......not much has changed has it....thanks unevolving gop for causing intellectual decay amongst easy targets.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 7 months ago

"but writer pretty much goes on full rant against just Republicans."

You have to admit they are an easy and deserving target, though.

beatrice 2 years, 7 months ago

Not Pitts's best. If running a story to demean those who tell blatant lies, don't include the line "and of pretty much every word Michele Bachmann says." While perhaps trying to be funny, he ends up just alligning with the same group of people he is criticizing. I am no Bachmann fan, but that does mean she is a constant liar.

Beyond that, the way elected officials throw false statements around anymore, knowing that only in rare occassions will anyone really care, is rather alarming.

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

That is the alarming part.

Even with fact checking capabilities, people will believe what they want to believe, even if it's blatantly incorrect.

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

The media thrives on misinformation and sensationalism. Most articles would more appropriately be called opinion pieces. It's very difficult to find facts, let alone interpret them from your own perspective.

Satirical 2 years, 7 months ago

Hey bea,

What do you mean not Pitt's best? This article's basic structure is exactly like almost every other article he writes.

(1) Find an example(s) of an extreme statement/position/action by a political opponent.

(2) Generalize this statement/position/action to everyone with which you oppose (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly)

(3) Blame racists motives if there is even the slightest evidence of such.

(4) Rinse and Repeat

yourworstnightmare 2 years, 7 months ago

The biggest coup of the modern GOP, and a quite remarkable political feat, has been to turn corporate leaders and the uber-wealthy into populist heroes.

"Job creators" is the ultimate expression of this populism of the elite.

Darrell Lea 2 years, 7 months ago

Excellent piece by Mr. Pitts. I agree wholeheartedly.

Mike Ford 2 years, 7 months ago

you forgot to mention coolidge or harding in the typical gop ignore other parts to make you arguement valid move which the gop uses frequently. many of their campaign platforms make sense to them if they ignore what doesn't and their clueless constituents fall right in line. much of the gop twenties political philosophy reminds of romney now and everyone remembers what followed the 1920's gop economic philosophy......the great depression. don't learn much from history do you liberty????

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

It is my opinion that the whole health care debate is being done in the wrong fashion. What should be done first is a very careful study of how other nations manage their health care systems.

Compared with other nations, our health care system wins no awards, according to the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America. In fact, the CIA ranks the USA at #48 out of 222 nations that were studied.

A clip from the above: "Country Comparison :: Infant mortality rate
This entry gives the number of deaths of infants under one year old in a given year per 1,000 live births in the same year; included is the total death rate, and deaths by sex, male and female. This rate is often used as an indicator of the level of health in a country."

I am sure that some nations are doing a few things right. So, the best thing for our government to do is determine exactly what type of health care and payment system works well for other nations, and then incorporate all of the best portions of each system used by other nations, instead of dreaming up a whole new system.

Why is our government trying to reinvent the wheel, when 222 other nations have their efforts, and results, for us to study?

Carol Bowen 2 years, 7 months ago

As you pointed out, some comparisons were made. There is no common denominator among countries, and the U.S. is complicated by the dynamics of various groups - some ideological, some business, some academic, . . . From what I have heard from foreign visitors, we could do better, but priorities would have to change. There would have to be more give and less take.

I do know that organizations like the Mayo Clinic operate from a different mindset. (I hear there are others,) Would their system work nationally? Probably not. It would require a different paradigm. One can only hope that candidates and voters will move forward constructively.

Richard Payton 2 years, 7 months ago

Those States that refuse the new federal Medicare rules lose the federal dollars. Does that mean those individuals on Medicare lose the present coverage they have offered by the State they reside in now? Might be something to those death panels if this is the case.

jafs 2 years, 7 months ago

I believe it's actually Medicaid that you're referring to, and one change made to the bill is that states that don't co-operate with the expansion won't in fact lose existing federal dollars.

So, nobody will lose that coverage if the states refuse to expand Medicaid.

jayhawklawrence 2 years, 7 months ago

You elect a bunch of lawyers and the results are predictable. They love to argue but they don't produce anything.

10 years from now we will look back at this health care debate and realize that none of the nightmare scenarios ever had a chance to take place other than the one where we wasted 4 years of our nations time doing almost nothing to actually fix the economy.

It is the American people's will to survive that is moving us forward, not a bunch of lawyers and con artists.

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